Lietuva, so remote, so untouched, had been a sleeping giant for millennia just waiting to evolve. None of this happened overnight. Ten thousand years before the first precursor to man, the anthropoids, not even close to the emergence of the first sign of human life. It took another seven thousand years for that, and they came in the form of the classic Indo-European.
The Indo-Europeans would battle with various local tribes until sanity prevailed. Their weaponry was rather less sophisticated than you would expect from even the most ancient empires or kingdoms. Clubs. Axes. Crude swords formed from stone. The end results. The emergence of the early Baltic tribes. The emergence of Lietuva, from out of the murky, foggy, yet intrinsically beautiful land that had been, from time immemorial, a mythical conundrum. Only through the eyes of its predecessor empires and how they had striven to conquer this alluring land could we ever begin to understand how to decrypt its code.
The history of Europe began with its seas. The only way for the early empires and civilisations to explore and expand its European footprint was by ships. The Ancient Greek colonists, led by Pythaes of Massalia, would sail the calm Aegean from Island to Island four hundred years before the birth of Christ.
These ancient ships needed many oarsmen and at least the same number in supervision. The Greeks were mostly deterred from long-distance exploration. A combination of the overpowering storms of the more distant open seas and the need to use heavier vessels commanding more manpower saw Lietuva remain undiscovered for centuries.
It was in the first century A.D., that Tacitus, the great Roman historian, had spoken of the tribal presence of the Aestii to which the Greeks had referred from afar. Heavy fighting and assimilation over the previous millennium manifested into a strong tribal presence on the South Baltic shores of Lietuva. Tacitus’ formidable intelligence network remained the only information source of how the tribes came into being.
Legends traced back the foundations of the Lietuvan state to the first century A.D., when Palemon, a senior courtier in the service of Emperor Nero, fled the strict boundaries of the Roman Empire, with Tacitus and his legion of men and families, and settled at the confluence of two great rivers in central Lietuva. There the legends kept flowing. They would have Palemon founding the first of the dynasties, becoming what many believe, the inaugural ruler of Lietuva. Over time, this nebulous story had been elaborated upon by pagan chiefs, again and again.
The Aestii worshipped the Mother of the gods whose identity was buried in the historic maelstrom that was Lietuvan legend. Tacitus had gathered much intelligence about the Aestii through his network of advisors in surrounding lands. But his interest was piqued mostly by the priceless mineral, to all intents and purposes a precious gem, known today as amber.
The key to its evolution and longevity of supply were the pine forests, producing the resin crucial to amber’s existence. Over sixty million years ago these giant pines thrived in the then subtropical climate of the amber forest.
The coordinated roles that all children of mother nature played in the production of the large quantities of amber were remarkable. The pine forests were collectively producing an astonishing amount of resin. The key to this dates back millions of years, where the forests were ravaged by storms, lightning, pests and disease-bearing fungi. The production of amber from the trees was nature’s way of healing the savagery of the elements. As it healed, any oversupply of amber would seep from the lofty heights of the forests like water from a breached dam and embed itself into the local sediments, waiting to be compressed again and again. Over the next million years or so, fossilisation would gradually, steadily take place.
There was an endless abundance. A rare fossil resin formed by centuries of natural action. The substance that would bring untold wealth back to the Roman Empire. Tacitus had documented his conclusions about the translucent golden pieces passed from hand to hand, their worth increasing with distance from their source. Yes, this was the medium that would restore Palemon, and indeed Tacitus himself, to a much more esteemed status back home.
The beauty of this gemstone had no bounds. Its use over the centuries had been manifold. Ornaments for men, women, horses and weapons. For cult symbols. During Pagan worship and tribal rituals, amber was seen as a way to embellish those who would seek immortality with the gods. Tacitus found quickly that the overarching benefit could also be translated into economic terms. Following Tacitus’ extensive research and painstaking information gathering from distant shores, he requested a meeting with Palemon in Rome. The beginning of a halcyon period in Lietuva that would leave its mark for centuries to come.
What remains unexplained to this very day, as if a time warp had created a vortex, Lietuva had gone into hibernation, no recorded history for a thousand years.
It would not be until the penultimate decade of the twentieth century, when the birth of a baby boy, Jack Carpenter, would change the course of Lithuanian history. His destiny to solve a puzzle that had remained unresolved from the time historians had archived what they could about Lietuva, and Lithuanian origins.
A puzzle that, once answered, would see vast wealth and ancient culture returned to its rightful place in the annals of a land that time forgot.
Chapter 1 - 13th October 2011– Kabul, Afghanistan
Jack’s Quarters – Nearing Lights Out
The room was spinning.
There was an old ride at Luna Park. The Rotor. It was a human centrifuge. Spinning ever-faster until it reached its terminal velocity. Jack remembered this now as one of the few family things they did before those many international postings. He would laugh as girls’ dresses flew up above their heads. Shoes were held safe in the centre of the huge bottomless cylinder as it spun. He wanted it to go on forever.
Unlike this moment in time.
The spinning tonight was random. Left to right. Top to bottom. His room spun without pattern on its axis. Lieutenant Jack Carpenter’s mind was racing, unusually confused; after five long years, which had taken its toll both physically and mentally, he was hemmed in by a room. A physical location that may as well have been a prison cell. At best a custodial chamber for his mind. At worst a catalyst for reliving what had been twenty-eight years of a not-so-wonderful life.
The walls, like the old Melbourne Gaol, metres-thick bluestone – the edges of his mind. The barred windows, a parallel to his eyes - allowing him to see what he needed to see – without periphery. Those cells, in turn, within a prison complex protected by sentries with weapons, and an unscaleable wall with barbed wire that cut.
But Jack would only bleed bad memories, not just from the recent past in Afghanistan, but from those times that were as far back as he could recall as a child. His room was one of many hubs where he lay in the here and now, all with myriad virtual cul de sacs that radiated from their centres. A place for these private moments. Jack’s rank as a leader of men into conflict had afforded him this privilege. By contrast, those who would be led could only share their memories with others in the public forum of the barracks huts. They couldn’t yield silently to what were personal milestones in their lives.
Jack found solace in the half-dark of his quarters, well knowing that this night would be dominated by thought patterns and imagination. With only the basics needed for a combat leader – bathroom, a bureau, chair, bed, locker and a tiny area of wall space, a perfect environment for loners. Not much space at all. But big enough for the remnants of Jack’s memories. Things he clutched at to support his sanity. His mother Eva – not seen for fifteen years. She needed time away after what she had endured, but fifteen years, and still counting! His father, Joseph – still wandering around aimlessly from godforsaken country to godforsaken country – obsessed with his own self-importance, inconsiderate to those who thought he loved them. His first and only brief love, Mahlia - brutally taken from him prematurely.
It was little wonder Jack had no more space on his diary wall devoted to significant life players other than these. There were none – his life was a cocoon before joining the Army. Bad memories inflicted by circumstances out of his control. The rest of his wall testament to his selfless actions in battle.
Of all his surroundings, the wall space would be the focal point for the anguish to follow that evening and long into the night. An inanimate yet, fuelled by Jack’s subconscious, interactive chronicle, which would haunt Jack tonight and move him closer to his destiny.
With eyes wide open, Jack took the opportunity to play the what-ifs around in his mind, as he had done in so many other quiet moments in his cell in the past. But this time there was a gnawing in the gut that wasn’t evident before. An intense sensation that propelled him to look more closely at his fondest and darkest memories. Memories that oscillated in his mind between the intense experiences of his childhood and youth and the battle ridden journey he had just completed.
Battle weary and psychologically drained, unsurprisingly, Jack slipped into the unconscious isolation that was slumber. Even his anaesthetised mind couldn’t escape the visions of sacrifice experienced in his brief lifetime. All the memories came flooding back while he slept as Jack undertook a subconscious journey through the increasingly complex and increasingly heart-rending landscape of his time in Afghanistan, and before that, one by one, the tragedies that befell him on the way through. A journey that, once at the terminus, would inevitably lead him to the crossroads of his future.
Camp Stevenson –June 2005
It was Jack’s first posting. He had left Perth with a two hundred-man strong Special Forces Training Group (SFTG) heading for Afghanistan where they would conduct special operations in support of the United States-led Coalition security and reconstruction efforts.
They arrived at the camp at dusk in a military vehicle that looked like it had been hit by a lightning strike just before the earthquake arrived. Camp Stevenson was a perfect soulmate for the vehicle. It had four walls, but each set of walls looked like they had only been partially finished. Metal protrusions. Leaky roofs. Access Points about as secure as a child’s playpen. Everywhere they turned felt like they got there about a month too early. The home base was a shambles. Strategically, the layout was like a warm falafel to the enemy and a cold stale fish stew for the newly arrived group. The enemy would be licking their lips.
Well. Jack’s thoughts were pragmatic as he set eyes on their destination for the first time. This is our new Forward Operating Base and we have to get over our first impressions and make it work.
Camp Stevenson was the SFTG’s and Jack’s new home named in honour of Sergeant Paul Stevenson who was killed in action during 2003 within the Operation Slipper deployment to Afghanistan and posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for Australia. These were not conferred lightly. At first sight, naming this place after him did little to honour his achievements.
Plans were in place to upgrade it to a much more secure and tactical base. But plans are nebulous and tend not to faze the enemy. Bricks and mortar were needed to fight the Jihadists. Time was of the essence with this mission. Its establishment had been compromised. The Taliban and al-Qaeda couldn’t ask for a better welcome.
Jack had dreamt of this day. His first deployment, as his thoughts almost took over, threatening to take his mind off the job. Time to put to work all those years of training and toughening up. But It’s not the same until you are facing someone who wants to kill you. Would he freeze; forget all his hard training, with his focus on what he’d been through to get to this point? Not a chance. He was ready.
Then their first mission came through. Danny Millard was the chief radio operator for 7th Squadron Group, SASR, among other things, and was as incensed as Jack when he relayed it to all his team.
“Jeez, Captain. This isn’t what I signed up for. I didn’t leave Melissa to come over and babysit some wet behind the ears politicians. This country’s fucked no matter who's running the show,” Danny muttered, sharing with Jack one of his better-articulated comments.
“Settle down Sergeant, a chain of command is a chain of command,” Jack ordered, putting him back in his place as leader of the battalion, but fully understood his frustration. Jack wanted to get straight into making that difference for which they all strived. Politics had won out in consuming their initial mission and it was ironic that this whole war was balanced, tottering on the brink of falling into the politically driven war that was Afghanistan.
Jack continued trying to settle Danny down. They had to leave a good impression with the locals on their initial posting. “Danny, we’ve known each other too long to argue. Sometimes what appear to be mundane jobs can have a far deeper impact on this war-torn country. I’ll buy you a beer at the officers’ mess tonight. Just focus on the task at hand”
“You’re on, Sir. Nothing like a cold beer to take your mind of this blistering climate.” Danny cheerily replied, albeit not convincing Jack he was any less fractious about the detail.
It was the time of a crucial election in Afghanistan. Accordingly, Jack’s group hit the ground running with two Special Forces patrols venturing out immediately after arrival to provide oversight on several remote voting booths that would facilitate a fair and democratic process. It was also a critical time for the fledgling democratic Afghan government as it faced huge challenges of extending its authority throughout the country.
There were so many factions opposed to democracy and the not so lucrative legal outcomes that logically followed. They were heavies in the true sense of the word. The Al-Qaeda militants, former Taliban warlords and drug barons all with shifting ethnic allegiances, complicated by local long-standing feuds. They were all willing to compromise these elections using any amount of force and creating any amount of havoc they deemed necessary. After all, this had been a war within a war.
What should have been a simple babysitting detail, was severely morphed by the punishing Kandahar climate. Jack’s team arrived in mid-June, the worst possible time. The sun was like an acetylene torch on the arid Kandahar landscape, annealing metals united in strengthening their finished product. It would suck your breath away only to replace it with a scorching sensation devoid of oxygen.
Although the task was straightforward, concentration was compromised and towards the end of a long and tedious polling day, although hydrating throughout, their muscles were like rusty tractor wheels. If needed, their response times would have been less than optimal.
Not on this mission, but on others, the deployment would be exposed to the heartless cold of the Afghan winter. Temperatures well below zero. Wind chill factors dragging these into double negatives. Everything unusable. Weapons, kitchen equipment, all human body parts would be as if they were battery operated and had run out of juice. The extreme summer temperatures made it almost unbearable but in winter the Taliban were ready for the fledgling efforts of the 7th Squadron Group, SASR in such frozen playgrounds. The closest these guys would get to freezing back home was at the summit of Mt Buller on a ski break.
It was into this environment of extremes that the SFTG was thrust to face an adversary who was tough, resolute, agile and more dangerous than anything Australian Special Forces had encountered in the last 50 years.
The successful deployment of the patrol reflected the utility of Australian Special Forces in being able to move quickly to meet a prescribed mission no matter what the hurdles encountered.
Camp Stevenson was centred on the small village of Kondeh Lan, just South of the provincial capital, about one hundred and fifty kilometres from the major southern centre of Kandahar, which would, under normal circumstances, provide the SFTG with an excellent base for the months to come.
Jack, grabbed his kit from the deployment vehicle alongside Mitch and Danny, his two best mates during SAS training, when his keen hearing picked something up and he wondered. What the hell was that? A loud thunder-like sound boomed in the distance. Jack, hadn’t realised that the missile was about to hit. When it did, all hell broke loose.
“Mitch, Danny, grab your bags and get the hell out of here.” Jack shouted at them over the deafening thunderclap that was tearing the place apart. Jack hadn’t expected such an immediate call to action. His battalion hadn’t even got their feet on the ground or gear set up in their bunkhouses, and yet, there they were, engaged in a life and death battle.
Well known for his initiative, Danny jumped in. “Jack, I’m going to set up the satellite radio and see if we can get some intel on what’s likely to come downstream.”
It wasn’t unheard of to have an infantry of Taliban follow up missile attacks and this scenario was no different. There was significant ground cover west of the base and this would be the logical point of attack. Before they even had the opportunity to settle in they were assembling their AK47s in readiness for ground combat. There was, however, enough time to hunker down at various points around the deployment vehicles before the engagement began.
The Taliban were about four hundred strong and 7th Battalion were closer to two hundred. They also had the element of surprise and not only did they attack from the west but were flanking north and south.
“Guys,” Jack yelled out “we’re surrounded. We need to spread out as best we can to dilute their effectiveness. Danny can you jump on the radio and pass the message down the line.”
Jack was sure that they were going to take on casualties, but not certain how many and to what extent.
The essence of Jihad has been perverted by the Taliban, al Qaeda and, more recently, the Islamic State of the Levant – ISIL, in the war in Iraq. Had he been alive today the Prophet Muhammed would have wrought tyranny on those that twisted his teachings. An interpretation that would satisfy their greed, their hatred, their need to perpetuate terror throughout what they saw was their cause. Their reason for living and breathing. Their convoluted, sick version of Allah. The only thing that was certain was, no one, much less themselves, could rationally explain what their cause was.
The struggle for survival, the true meaning of the word Jihad had been distorted like bodies passing through a house of mirrors. Perverted shapes, enhanced forms, any metamorphosis that the terrorist cells and their leaders’ imagination saw in their journey to meet Allah and vindicate their actions. Actions that the specious interpretation of the hallowed word and concepts of Islam had brought to the free world.
Muhammed espoused that war was a last resort. Only to be invoked to protect their religion from those that seek to destroy it. Not since mediaeval times in the days of the Crusaders, who would have every world religion cut down but Christendom, and before that in defending the faith against the Persians, had the Muslim clerics ever sanctioned war against peace. Modern times had been cruel to those devoted to the faith. The great Prophet Muhammed would have been the first to recognise these factions. Violence fed cells of so-called Muslims, willing to harm their own to achieve their ends.
The trouble with these false Jihadists is they strived to sacrifice themselves for their cause. No fear, no holding back. In fact, they didn’t even try to avoid the fact that they saw themselves as sacrificial lambs to the slaughter, reaching for immortality to one day be alongside Allah. Like the Holy Bible and the Torah, not everything was described literally in the Quran. These minority cells, viruses that breed contagions, interpreted their religion as they saw fit. A translation - The free world and all it strives towards, infidels to their sick cause.
From where Jack was positioned he could see their formations as he pondered on his first engagement on foreign soil. They’re charging at us from everywhere but from what I can see we’re holding them off. What Jack couldn’t see as the cries of anguish and pain trailed off in the distance, was that some of his team had been hit. Jack just sat in his hide thinking, what a way to start a new job.
The result? Jack’s battalion of two hundred was able to spread out as the conflict continued so as to reduce the effect of the wagon train attack, but it was Jack’s group within the battalion who were compromised the most. Captain Steve Evans who had served in the war in Afghanistan since the outset, was their leader and he and twenty of Jack’s group were isolated to the east of the base.
“Captain Evans, we’re being isolated as the enemy’s first point of attack. Since we are a relatively small group they’ll pick us off as we break off into smaller groups,” Jack attempted to yell over the incessant gunfire and mortar landings. “Orders, Sir?” he repeated.
Jack waiting patiently. He heard nothing coming from his CO’s direction. Mitch was on Jack’s left, so he turned to assess progress and quiz him on how the Captain was doing. “Mitch, what’s up your side? Can you see the CO?”
“Jack, I think Steve’s been hit but It’s too hard to see through the smoke coming from the exploded mortar and too risky to get close enough. I’ll see if I can…” Mitch cried, as his voice trailed off to an unexpectedly deadly silence.
What Jack saw next when he turned and looked towards Mitch from a distance was something he hadn’t been prepared for. A gaping hole in his stomach and Mitch writhing in agony. Jack rushed to his side, weaving and dodging some heavy fire. As he got closer his gaze made its way down Mitch’s body and dwelt mid-torso. The massive red stain oozing through his military issues. Like spilt wine on a tablecloth. Only worse. The red patch seemed to have no end. It kept on coming – nothing halting its flow. Jack’s focus had been taken off the battle as he stared at Mitch, frozen as his thoughts spun around and around. Get used to it Jack. But he never would. He knew it.
Holding his hand and talking so he could assess the wound, Jack could tell this was a life-ender. Snapping out of his stupor, but uncharacteristically still in shock, Jack attempted to do some basic first aid, almost by rote. Out of battlefield habit. Talking to Mitch continually as much for himself as Mitch, now realising these desperate efforts were token and futile. He was as cold as ice and could hardly speak. Before he could get his first sentence out his eyes glazed over. They had lost him.
Both Mitch and Danny, being a bit older than Jack, had left young families back home. Mitch had just become a father prior to this deployment.
Jack’s thoughts twisted this way and that, as he came back down to Earth and remembered where he was. Here we are fighting thousands of klicks from home, in a war that just might liberate the world, but does nothing for the families left behind.
Captain Evans was down also, but alive – and badly wounded as Jack asked Danny to assist what was a team that was growing less physically capable of helping each other. “Danny put the radio down and help me get Steve to the Medics.”
“On my way, Jack,” Danny said as he slalomed in and out of puffs of smoke coming from the incessant frequent mortar charges being sent their way.
Jack and Danny were able to get the CO back to the ambulance, but he was in no fit condition to lead the brigade from here. Whilst Jack was one of the least experienced officers now, with Danny looking after the radio and Captain Evans, and Mitch gone, having thought it through, Jack decided to take the lead. He knew there was no option. Someone had to be there to take charge and see this through.
Manoeuvring their way back into one larger group, some of them were able to get back to the weapons vehicle to increase their firepower. The enemy’s numbers were now reduced by half and Jack had at least one hundred and ninety back in action. With the additional weaponry and a more equitable headcount, the enemy was quick to retreat as 7th Battalion had been able to take out one hundred and fifty of their contingent and wound nearly as many again.
Jack was surprised how protracted this engagement became and how persistent the Taliban were. Mortar fire. Small arms fire. Grenades. Jack reflected on his time in training. It was never like this. The smell of spent munition in battle, completely foreign to him. It was different to Duntroon, to the SASR in WA. I guess back then that part of the psyche responsible for adrenalin hadn’t kicked in.
Jack inherently knew that each night following training that they would all survive. Would all head back to the mess for their third square of the day followed by another restful sleep in their warm bunks. It was some future day, way, way ahead, that they saw as a surreal form locked away somewhere in their mind that they would ever have to put their lives on the line. That day had come!
The entire battalion’s senses were interpreting the death that was in the air. The enemy was real and tangible, and Jack knew that some of them would not make it back to base that night. As Jack gazed up at the dense, foggy smoke clouds he pondered. Are we on another planet? Would this strange atmosphere be deprived of oxygen? Almost on cue Jack’s breathing became laboured, not from lack of air, but from this newfound hell, the source of his present state of anguish.
When the smoke and dust settled, Jack’s team scrambled back to the hospital based at Camp Stevenson where the injured were taken. That night Jack was summoned by Captain Evans to a private briefing alongside his hospital bed to catch him up on the final outcomes of the conflict. He wanted a debrief after he was taken from the battlefront to the hospital. Jack knew that this was unusual, something normally done with the second-in-command if the CO is out of action.
Jack had come out with mixed feelings. He had lost one of his best mates and seen a number of other soldiers injured, some very seriously. On the other hand, Jack had soon realised he had become a leader of men that day and knew that in the coming years he would have to transcend feelings of despondency and indignation losing mates and seeing them debilitated. Along with other personal sacrifices, he would have to be there to motivate, guide and direct his men through difficult and critical milestones on the battlefield. But wasn’t that what Jack yearned for? His destiny, as he saw as a youth, on the threshold of realisation.
On his way back from the debriefing at the hospital to the living quarters, Jack’s thoughts turned to operational self-doubt. Sure, our deployment furthered the struggle for independence in Afghanistan, another building block to freedom, but it still didn’t satisfy me that these were justifiable casualties.
After an intense six months of engagement and protection of the new Afghani Government the 7th Squadron Group, SASR returned home for a well-earned, albeit brief, rest and recreation period.
Jack tossed and turned, sleeping far longer than he was accustomed. The demons kept coming as he subconsciously relived his transition from boy to man, from trainee to soldier, and then, leader. The undertones of his dreams – his thoughts from the abyss. From the dark canyon – the place where he was trapped into fighting his way out and upward back to consciousness. A fight that would last all night and bring him closer, as the night progressed, to his desires. His pathway. His rendezvous with fate that would change the future of a country. A country as foreign to Jack as those faraway places he spent little time in with his father. At least he had a kind of empathy with those. Memories – most of which delivered untold pain. Memories – most of which he will have exorcised before waking up to the new day.