Operation Storm Garden
Chapter One: Triple Threat
By: Andrew Dunn
Sand. It gets into everything. Boots. Trousers. T-shirts. We’re lying there, crouched in weeds growing up through the sand, with a picture-perfect ocean behind us and a forest of tall trees ahead. Intel said there could be snipers in those trees, but all I wanted was to move forward so the itchy-gritty feeling of wet sand drying on my skin would leave me alone.
We’re waiting on 2nd Lieutenant Russ to give the order.
Russ is waiting the way he never did when the ship pulled into Singapore, Phuket, or Perth. He was quick to hurry off the ship with the other junior O’s then. Now, as we’re laying there and dawn is breaking hot behind us, the guy’s overthinking our next move.
It reminds me of chess. Weird, right?
It wouldn’t have, except two nights before we received our “go” for the mission, I watched a pro chess match on the ship’s TV. My first choice would have been boxing, but Petty Officer 2nd Class Rebecca Lopez, an Electrician’s Mate, was watching it, and I’d been trailing after her like a puppy all deployment, trying to get her attention. So, I sat there on the mess decks a few seats from her, pretending I was into chess the way she was into chess. It took forever for the players to decide their next move. Russ would’ve fit right in.
He’s dragging it out, eyes darting back and forth over the same dark woods ahead of us as if whoever is in there is going to wave and invite us in. I’m remembering what I heard other Marines say about Russ on base—too cautious, gun-shy, quick to pull rank. He’d gotten into it with Gunny Collins during a field exercise after Gunny told him in no uncertain terms to move his ass. The Colonel wasn’t about to take a chevron from Gunny Collins, but he wouldn’t sign off on Gunny deploying with us either or on another Gunny from the regiment as a replacement. Tag, I was it, the next senior Sergeant in our unit, baking under a sun that was only getting hotter and daylight that was exposing us in the weeds.
What in the hell is he waiting for? I’m thinking, and it doesn’t help that as the sand dries, it’s chaffing my stomach, junk, and thighs. I’m scanning the forest ahead through my rifle’s sights. If there’s anything good about the moment, it’s that our rifles were retooled to fire laser bursts instead of bullets—they’re just as deadly, but a laser rifle lacks mechanical parts and loves to get into and foul right before a firefight.
When I’m not looking down my weapon’s sights, I’m looking left and right to make damn sure I can’t see a hint of Alfa and Bravo Squads. It makes me smile. They were laying in the stink and suck of wet uniforms, sand, and sweat, but none have broken cover.
“LT,” I whisper, “we’re gonna need to move soon before there’s too much daylight.”
Truth be told, there already was too much daylight on the beach.
“Call me sir.” Russ hisses back.
I try again, this time with the formalities because we need to be moving. We’re laying there like plastic ducks; kids shoot water guns at booths at county fairs. We need the forest to conceal us so we can put some serious distance behind us. It’s my duty to keep Alfa, Bravo, and what we’re calling Tango Squad—short for technical squad—alive. Tango consists of me, Lieutenant, a Sailor from the ship who drew the short stick because he knew the local language, and a Space Force Guardian flown out to the ship I doubt has handled a weapon since boot camp. Waiting for Russ to give the order makes me wonder whether I drew a short stick somewhere in my life and didn’t know it.
I’ve also got to keep all sixteen of us on mission. We made it from the ship through choppy seas to land on the beach. We’ve got five miles ahead of us, all of it a no man’s land run by warlords, insurgents, and who knows what else. The idea is for us to move fast, quiet, and unnoticed so we get in and out of Rouvenman territory with no one ever knowing we were there.
For all we know, a dozen eyes had already spotted us lying there in the weeds.
“Signal Sergeant Nguyen.” Lieutenant Russ finally decides. “Diamond formation. On my pace.”
I click my mic on and off a few times to get everyone’s attention, raise my hand, motion, and then we’re moving toward the wall of dark green and shadows that waits ahead of us. A lot of things raced through my mind as we advanced—the first girl I slept with, family in Iowa, Lopez on the ship, how good my last beer in port tasted. All of it numbed the second we stepped into woods, barely a shade better than twilight in daybreak filtering in through thick green overhead.
Imagine this shit at night.
Russ is nervous. I can hear it in his voice when his voice crackles in my earbuds. “Give me a count.”
I listen as Alfa and Bravo count off one through twelve. I can look behind me and see the Sailor and Guardian to confirm. “Sixteen.”
“One lens.” Russ rasps.
It’s a bad idea. “Sir.” I start to argue.
Russ sports me an ugly look. “One lens Sergeant.”
I pass the order through my mic, knowing two squads of Marines and their Corpsmen were as pissed off about it as I was—our eyes needed time to adapt to low light before we flipped a thick-lensed monocle down from our helmets over one eye. An order is an order though, so we dropped our lenses into place. As we did, our positions appeared as soft amber dots on a faint grid to give us an idea of how spread out we were. If a drone had been overhead, we could’ve seen its bird’s eye view too, but there was no overwatch. We were on our own.
Sounds around us promised we weren’t alone. Monkeys were peering at us then hurrying away. Birds were cawing songs we’d never heard before they took flight.
“What do you think, Sergeant?” Lieutenant whispered.
“It tells me other people aren’t here, or the monkeys and birds wouldn’t have beat feet when we moved in. Tricky thing is, if somebody’s further ahead and they notice the wildlife moving, it might clue them in that we’re here.”
He smirked back. “Don’t knock it.”
It was hard to tell whether Russ was hoping for a firefight we didn’t need or thought he knew better than a Sergeant with more deployments under his belt than he had years in the Corps. Either way, I was sure things felt too calm.
A crackle and boom from Alfa’s sector ended that. Lieutenant was muttering about calling in a medevac. I was watching pale smoke curl in shafts of light beaming down through the trees, and hoping to hear Alfa’s Squad Leader in my earbuds.
“Alfa’s good.” Sergeant Heilig—we called him Fargo—came through crisp and clear. “Fireworks.”
Intel on the ship told us the woods could be full of anything: fireworks, old landmines, bombs, trip-wired shotguns.
“Heads on a swivel.” Lieutenant Russ decided. “Advance on my pace.”
(More to Follow)
About the Author: Andrew “Drew” Dunn grew up in Tennessee and North Carolina and then served twenty-four years in the Navy, completing nine deployments on board aircraft carriers, destroyers, and with a variety of special operations forces. Andrew now writes fiction of all sorts, has received multiple awards for it, and has been published on several online sites. He loves feedback, and readers may contact Andrew directly at [email protected].