First Lieutenant Kelsey Barrett shifted her position on the hard ground. The stone grinding into the flesh of her left hip was starting to feel like a boulder. She peered through the darkness at her companion, Captain Jason Wilder. He seemed oblivious to the cold, rocky ground where they had taken position. The only thing that broke the stillness was the sound of his breath moving in and out, in and out, in a soft rhythm. He lay motionless—propped up on his elbows—stone-like. He had hardly moved the whole time they had been lying here on the plateau. Unlike me, she thought as she wiggled again to further dislodge the stone.
The night was black, with visibility down to just a few feet. Captain Wilder’s profile was barely visible in the darkness. From his stillness, one might assume he was asleep. He wasn’t asleep, though; he was on full alert. Kelsey sensed this by the way he cocked his head a little to one side, as he often did when listening for unusual sounds in the night. His head moved ever so slightly as his eyes swept back and forth, scanning the darkened landscape for signs of danger.
Captain Jason Wilder, team leader, and First Lieutenant Kelsey Barrett, his second-in-command, waited in the tall grasses above their target: a shack in the shallow valley below. They watched for any movement around it, but their interest was centered on one man in particular. They were prepared and ready to carry out the mission their commander had sent them on. Their actions and reactions tonight could mean the difference between life and death for the team.
He isn’t made of stone after all, Kelsey thought as she felt Captain Wilder shift his body. He flexed his forearm and moved his elbows into a different position. His thigh gently bumped against Kelsey’s. Tension ran along the muscled length, and an answering tension ran through hers. Kelsey was caught off guard by the contact. She muffled a gasp as unexpected warmth tingled through her body. She didn’t move away. Her desire to nestle closer was strong.
The accidental touch and the warmth from Captain Wilder’s nearness awakened thoughts Kelsey hadn’t allowed herself to have since she deployed to the war zone in Afghanistan—thoughts of male companionship, and thoughts of how much she missed her loved ones back home.
What was this? Was First Lieutenant Kelsey Barrett of the US Army homesick? She was usually successful in fighting off her loneliness or thoughts of home and was always the first to prop up other soldiers when they felt the pressures of deployments. Was she now caving under those same pressures?
Kelsey normally refused to allow her current circumstances to matter, even for a second. She had toughened her mind against loneliness. And yet, while watching her back was a daily requirement in her job, the conditions and dangers they faced tonight were unsettling. Being plopped down in the middle of enemy territory can give a person a new perspective. Thoughts of happier times were inescapable.
Kelsey exhaled quietly and momentarily gave in as thoughts of love and home washed over her. She shifted slightly to her side and gazed at Captain Wilder through the darkness. Human contact was what she missed the most. She longed to reach out, to touch him, to guide his arms around her, to lay her head on his shoulder. Tonight, she just wanted to be hugged, and to feel safe and protected by someone who cared just for her.
A simple act of comfort and the connection to another human being would drive away the odd feeling that had fallen over her, the feeling that she was floating alone—an insignificant speck in a vast and dangerous universe—unconnected to anyone. The desire to belong and to be connected to someone was strong in her heart, but her head told her she couldn’t act upon the impulse.
Kelsey squashed her sudden urge to reach out to the captain and turned back to face the surveillance target below.
A sigh, barely audible, escaped Captain Wilder’s lips. Was he also tired of his solitary existence? Kelsey’s father, a retired army colonel, had warned her prior to her first deployment that one of the greatest enemies in a war zone was loneliness. Was Captain Wilder also struggling with this silent enemy tonight?
Maybe the captain was like her, missing his home and the people he loved and those who loved him. Most of the time, Kelsey looked at her situation practically—she had voluntarily joined the army, after all—and she accepted that being unhappy or lonely in her current assignment was a waste of time. As an officer and squad leader, she needed to set an example for the soldiers she led, which included keeping her thoughts and emotions under control and to always stay focused on the job.
But there was something different about tonight. A strange, eerie vibe was in the air, and that strangeness made Kelsey long for the comforts and the normalcy of home. The silence, the darkness, and the dangers they faced from an enemy intent on killing them cast a dark gloom over her. Crazy thoughts were finding space in her head.
Hoping to quell her uneasiness, she let her mind dwell for a moment on her family thousands of miles away. She could almost smell the aromas of her family’s holiday dinners drift through the dark Afghan night. When the Barrett family got together, there was always good food and laughter—laughter that filled her grandparents’ old, large, wood-framed house in Atlanta. For a brief moment, the scents of home replaced the odor of sweat, sand, and grime that clung to her clothes and body after an overnight march to this spot overlooking the shallow valley below.
Thinking about her loved ones back in the US made her feel better, but memories were a poor substitute for being with them.
Stop! This is a useless exercise, Kelsey silently chastised herself. She quickly blocked all thoughts of home. You’re here because you chose to be. End of story! She gave herself a mental shake and refocused her wandering thoughts.
This was neither the time nor the place to wish for things that would not be possible any time soon. She couldn’t allow herself to be distracted by memories of home… or thoughts of anything else. Plus, the hard metal ring on her left hand reminded her that it would be a mistake to give in to her loneliness. Even if all she wanted was a hug from her handsome fellow soldier, she’d be entering a dangerous minefield, possibly starting something that she might not get out of unscathed.
She didn’t know Captain Wilder well in a personal way, which made her urge to snuggle closer to him seem even crazier. He was simply a fellow officer assigned to Major Burton’s platoon. They attended meetings together, and she saw him at gathering spots around the post. He was never paired up with another female soldier, so he probably had someone waiting for him back home. He was always friendly when they met, but Kelsey generally kept herself aloof so as to avoid any personal entanglements. She flashed her engagement ring, and he, like all the other men, never moved beyond normal chitchat or army business.
Captain Wilder would be shocked if he knew about her reaction to his touch and the longing it set off. Accidental touch, she reminded herself.
Kelsey shrugged. Her earlier runaway thoughts concerning Captain Wilder just proved that underneath the mannish camouflaged uniform and heavy helmet she was a female after all—and one who could appreciate the attributes of an attractive male. And attractive he was. Captain Wilder was tall, trim but muscular, with dark-brown hair and probing dark eyes—the kind of male vision that filled most women’s dreams.
Kelsey admitted to herself that in another place and time, she would have been attracted to Captain Wilder. But not here, and not now. A person had to protect their heart as well as their life in a war zone. Kelsey needed to get back to her loved ones in the States with both intact.
Above all else, they were soldiers first, both dedicated to the army and the oath they had taken. Personal relationships were a luxury neither had time to explore, even if they both were willing and ready for a romance. Their normal assignments—leading community-engagement teams—dealt with different segments of the local population. Kelsey’s team worked with the women and children, while Captain Wilder worked with the males and tribal leaders. When they were not on patrol, they spent most of their time in debriefings or resting so that they could do it all over again the next day.
The community engagement teams made frequent trips to local villages to meet and talk with locals to gather information, shore up support for the fledging Afghan government, and blunt any propaganda spread by insurgent organizations such as the Taliban and ISIS. It took patience and long hours of work to earn the trust of the Afghan citizens.
This was the first time Kelsey had served directly under Captain Wilder’s command, but she had heard of his reputation. He was bold and smart, but never let heroics get ahead of his brain. He never asked his team to do anything he wouldn’t do himself. When a team member asked a question, Captain Wilder didn’t need extra time to think and study, nor did he fumble around for an answer like some team leaders did. He had already done his thinking; had assessed, accepted, or discarded different scenarios and had his answers ready.
“He’ll do whatever it takes to protect this team and get the job done in the process,” one young soldier told Kelsey when she joined their special mission. She hadn’t seen anything that would make her doubt those words.
“I’m going in closer. I can’t see anything from here.” Captain Wilder’s voice pulled Kelsey out of her thoughts. His breath tickled her ear as he leaned close and whispered, “You stay here. Lie low and stay sharp.” He rose up on his forearms.
Kelsey shook her head and started to rise. “I’m going, too. Four eyes are better than two,” she protested.
“No!” He pushed her back to the ground. “And two bodies are easier to spot than one. Stay here, Lieutenant! Give me the ‘owl signal’ if you see anything. Can you manage that?” Most of his face was covered by his night-vision googles and camouflage paint, but Kelsey could see his white teeth as he grinned at the inside joke.
The “owl signal” was what the team had decided on when Kelsey admitted that she had never been able to whistle. She could not mimic any of the whistling calls of the birds that were indigenous to the region. The best she could do was the low, moaning, dove-like call of the pallid scops owl. Kelsey’s whistling deficiency had made her the butt of many friendly jokes during team meetings, but it was agreed that she and Captain Wilder would make two dove-like calls if the enemy was spotted nearby and three if it was time for the ops squad to move toward the target.
Kelsey acknowledged the captain’s command to stay on the plateau, and with that, he was gone, crawling on his stomach as he moved at an angle down the hill. Only a slight swaying of the grass gave any indication that someone was moving closer to the hut in the clearing below. At the moment, he didn’t look like Captain Jason “Wildman” Wilder. His team had dubbed him “Wildman” due to his toughness on missions and his willingness to put himself in harm’s way for the team. Now, he looked more like “snake man” as he silently slithered down the hill.
Kelsey smiled. She’d have to give him a new nickname when this was over. Back at the post, they would all raise a glass in celebration of a successful operation, and she’d make a toast to his new designation: Captain Jason “Snakeman” Wilder. Perfect! Plus, it would be payback for his teasing reminder about the owl call.
The team had marched through the night to reach the spot on the small plateau where Kelsey now lay. There was a shorter route, one that Major Burton preferred, but Captain Wilder had argued successfully that the shorter route across flat terrain left them exposed and subject to sniper fire. The mountainous route was longer and more difficult, but safer. They had successfully navigated the rough mountain terrain to reach their destination. The rest of the team—the ops squad—was now in position, hidden in the trees and bushes on the western side of the hut, awaiting Captain Wilder’s signal to move in.
Kelsey rose higher on her elbows to see if she could spot Captain Wilder. Nothing moved in the direction he had crawled. “Snakeman” had disappeared. She swept her night-vision binoculars across the landscape near the hut. There was nothing but trees, rocks, and bushes. No thermal image came into view through her infrared scope.
Captain Wilder was right: they needed a better angle to identify their quarry than the rise where they had set up surveillance. His point about two people moving down the slope would increase the potential of being spotted was right, too. A lot of work and planning had gone into the operation. They might not get another chance to capture such a high-value target any time soon.
Word from an informant had reached Major Burton that there would be a meeting between one of the tribal leaders, Abdul Khalid, and an ISIS leader, Syed Khan, that night. Khalid was on the verge of cooperating with the US Army and thereby rebuffing the dangerous ideology of the terrorists led by Khan. So why had Khalid agreed to this meeting with Khan? This was a question the army hoped to have an answer to after they captured Khan tonight. They needed to keep the mercurial Khalid moving in the army’s directions and prevent him from making a one-eighty turn and pledging his allegiance to Khan. After many years in Afghanistan, the army had learned that allegiances were fluid and could often be bought by the highest bidder. Plus, if they pulled this off, the amount of information they would gain from the ISIS fighter would be enormous.
Major Burton had selected twelve soldiers whom he considered the best for this special mission: two officers, First Lieutenant Barrett and Captain Wilder, and ten sergeants, of which two were also trained as combat medics. Captain Wilder, as the senior ranking member, was the leader of the team. Lieutenant Barrett and Captain Wilder’s task was to identify Khan when he arrived at the hut for the meeting and signal for the ops squad to move in.
Kelsey shifted slightly. She was becoming stiff from lying in one position on her stomach. She and Captain Wilder had been on the rise for almost three hours. They were positioned about one hundred yards south of the hut, directly in front of the door, and close enough to hear the voices of the visitors as they approached the hut.
One reason Major Burton had selected Kelsey for this mission was because she understood the language. She had minored in Middle Eastern customs and languages in college and was familiar with Farsi, one of the two official languages of the country. However, there were many local dialects among the Afghan tribes across the country. Kelsey had a working knowledge of the local language through her contact with the tribes and the interpreter assigned to her engagement team. It would be her job to communicate with Khan until he was turned over to the intelligence officer who would do the official interrogation.
Dark clouds covered the moon and blotted out most of the stars. The forecast for the cloudy night was probably why Khalid and Khan had chosen this night for their meeting. The hunter and the hunted needed much the same conditions. But the dark night that permitted the team to move silently into position also limited what they could see, even with night-vision googles.
Several visitors had come and gone from the hut below, but thus far, Kelsey and Captain Wilder had not spotted the insurgent leader among them. Each time the door was opened, all they saw was the small, dim glow of a lantern on a table on one side of the room. The men wore scarves wrapped around the bottom half of their faces, making it virtually impossible to identify them from the plateau.
Captain Wilder’s decision to move down the slope would take him closer to the vicinity of the hut and the trail leading to the meeting place. This was a dangerous move, though not outside the “Wildman’s” reputation for doing whatever it took to ensure a mission’s success. Without the capture of Khan, their mission would be a failure.
A black shadow moved along the path toward the hut. Kelsey sharpened her focus through her binoculars. She strained to hear the voices. A guard greeted the man as he approached. There was a different inflection in the guard’s voice as he welcomed this visitor. Respect? Admiration? The guard practically bowed to the visitor.
This had to be Khan. Kelsey felt the certainty in her gut. The new arrival was a tall man, and unlike the earlier arrivals, he moved with purpose and authority. His profile fit the description of Khan. As the door partially closed behind the newcomer, Kelsey raised her head, hoping she could spot Captain Wilder. He would give the signal to the special ops squad. Where was he? Did he also recognize that this was their target?
Kelsey peered through the darkness. Her ears strained to hear the signal. Through the dirt-stained window of the hut, she saw men moving back and forth as they helped themselves to drinks. The sharing of drinks was a welcoming ritual and a good sign that the meeting was now in progress.
A low, moaning, dove-like sound—three calls—came through the darkness from near the front of the hut, where Captain Wilder had gone. This was the signal. Kelsey’s heart rate sped up.
It was “go time”! Kelsey rose up onto her knees to get a better view.
At first, there was just a pop and a flash coming from the hill to the northeast of the hut. The sound built quickly, though, and soon roared into a loud boom. A projectile flew through the air and landed on the roof. The roof’s dry boards splintered into pieces, adding more kindling to the fire. It spread quickly, and the hut burst into flames.
More explosions followed, much louder than the first. Pieces of debris flew into the air, lost momentum, and then made a fiery descent toward the earth. As the burning fragments of the hut landed on the ground, they set the grass on fire. The flames soon engulfed a wide swath of dried grasses, trees and bushes that surrounded the hut. The dry conditions enabled the fire to race through a large portion of the countryside.
The force of the blasts traveled up the hill and threw Kelsey backward. She landed with a thud several feet away from her lookout post. As her body slammed into the ground, she heard a sharp crack in her right leg, followed by searing pain through her left thigh. Waves of agony burned through her body as the blood poured from the gash on her thigh. A large object came out of nowhere and slammed into her helmet, knocking it to one side of her head. A smaller piece of shrapnel followed and smashed into her temple. The last thing she saw was the silhouette of a body blown high in the air in the midst of the inferno. It was suspended for a moment, outlined by an orange glow from the fire. Then it disintegrated and fell to the ground in pieces.
Kelsey opened her mouth to scream, “Wilder!” but no sound came out. The muffled cries of pain and surprise from the victims filtered through the night, then quickly faded as the sound was overtaken by the roar of the fire. Within minutes, it had destroyed the building, its occupants, and much of the surrounding countryside.
Oh God! No! Not Wilder! Not the team!
As the faces of her mother and father floated before her, blackness descended over Kelsey and blotted out any further sounds of the carnage. Her shocked and injured body slowly slipped into peaceful unconsciousness.