Shift Tense – Illustrated Excerpt
Another chapter while I tweak, shave, and wait. (on an agency response) Illustrations by wOlly at Rebelstar Studio. Enjoy.
CHAPTER SIXTEEN – The Dogs First
Bowna Town – near Ceel Baxay, Somaliland.
They shot the dogs first.
Canines always defend their masters. Worse, they go crazy once the screaming starts, barking and growling to raise the dead. It’s a distraction. Soldiers get bit. Villagers escape. So in an episode of ethnic cleansing, even before the women and children are raped and shoved in trucks, before the men are herded to the edge of the village and machine-gunned down, before the elderly are crammed into the largest building and it gets set on fire, dogs are actually the first causalities.
After nearly five years of systematic genocide, Duub Cas commanders had discovered things went smoother that way. Like a recipe.
Bowna had stood on the Boorama Road south-east of Ceel Baxay for over three centuries. Originally settled by Isaaq clan families, it was the small country bumpkin to its more modern, almost-city cousin. Bowna seemed content to lag behind the times, even in the twenty-first century. Wireless access was still considered almost miraculous, and when Ahmed Korro’s market had automatic sliding doors installed, most people stayed away for a week until Korro had his own granddaughter walk through them a dozen times to show they wouldn’t snap closed and cut you in half.
It was a town of farmers, day laborers, cattle herders, bus drivers, and mechanics. Home to little more than one thousand people, it was proud of its large school and even had a Red Crescent medical clinic.
At 9:47 a.m., the President- General Dhul-Fiqaar’s government shut off every cell tower within fifty kilometers. At 10:31, Duub Cas troops surrounded the village, then sent trucks and armored personnel carriers on the highway from both the north and the south twelve minutes later.
It was just after eleven when the first dog died.
Our recon team met outside the SPLM camp just as dawn was smoldering in the eastern hills. The morning was pale, with a sullen flush to the clouds. The air held the promise of dry heat. The world lay new and quiet around me, but I packed gear onto my ATV felling a touch uneasy.
Both our Falco UAVs were down in JiJigga for maintenance. If knowledge was power, I felt downright impotent without our God-view. I objected to Tam, but there was really nothing to be done about it. The Falcos had to be refueled and serviced on a regular schedule, and given our real mission, and the upcoming offensive, we all preferred them grounded now rather than later when things heated up.
Besides, I told myself, today was a simple sneak and peek over the border. Eshu was going out with two other crews. What could go wrong?
Our charges for the day, Colonel Deer Voort’s “Slav’s”, turned out to be two, twelve-man teams of Ukrainian mercenaries out of Kiev. The Legion, or some such macho historical reference. Their twenty-something officers were decked out in designer Gucci-flage and Carrera sunglasses, while the soldiers made do with third-generation battle-rattle and surplus AK-108s that were older than they were. Wasn’t rocket surgery to know their officers were skimming the cream off their salaries. At least the kids held their weapons correctly and didn’t clump up in “grenade-blast” formations.
“That means they survived Basic Training,” I noted hopefully.
“So long as they shoot the right direction when I tell them to, we should get back in one piece,” Tam replied.
Mindful of Deer Voort’s opinion and the Ukrainians’ wet-behind-the-ears attitude, Tam sent the Triplets on their ATV’s five hundred meters out on our eastern flank. “No need to scare the children,” he said. “Or get the rumor-mill churning.” Out of sight but not far away, Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail would be able to act fast if we encountered any real trouble.
Tam allowed Curro to tag along. Poet9 had spent a chunk of the night poking around in the Dawson Hull and UN Relief database, and confirmed his parents were definitely still in Somaliland. In fact, it looked like they were the only remaining medical personnel at Dhubbato, the huge IDP camp smack dab in the middle of the country. Tam offered to speak to the Colonel’s staff and get Curro a ride up there. There was no way he expected him to stay with us.
I could tell the boy was tempted. The Garcias were a tight family with lots of genuine love for each other, but he declined. Curro said he didn’t want to give his parents another thing to worry about. Fair enough.
Tam accepted his decision then gave him a direct order to stay behind the two of us. Tam and I were on point. His job would be to stick with Poet9 as security and technical assistance. That was it. Unless he was in immediate danger, Tam wanted him to stay the hell away from the shooting. Curro agreed
Nevertheless, before we left, Curro had scrounged up a helmet, an extra Oakley V-COS visor and squeezed himself into a old Interceptor vest. With his Kriss SMG strapped across his chest and his vest pouches bulging with every spare mag he owned, he didn’t look like any tech support I’d ever heard of.
I pulled Tam aside.”You sure this is a good idea? I sure as hell don’t want to break any bad news to Alejo and Carmen.”
“I’m not certain of anything. There’s a war going on.” He watched Curro and Poet9 dig a green metal suitcase out of one of our oversize Pelican crates. “Besides, this is a simple recon. We’ll ghost in and out. Fast as we can.”
He paused. “Curro’s a smart kid. He could be anything he wanted. Maybe this will get him to think twice about signing on with us permanently.”
“Alejo might be disappointed with that, but Carmen would be pleased.”
“Yeah well, Alejo I can handle. Carmen… I definitely want to stay on her good side.”
“Amen to that, “I said. We both laughed.
The Garcias’ faith was a point of debate among us. For decades, Alejo and Carmen had been running a small but very lucrative high-risk shipping company that went places and moved cargo few other outfits dared. Over the years, they’d pulled Eshu International out of several ugly situations. To this day, the sound of MerCruiser 350 hp engines relaxes me. Then, four years ago, out of the blue, they sold their boats, walked away from it all, and started talking about God.
Now it wasn’t like Tam, Poet9 and I hadn’t heard plenty of “come-to-Jesus” stories. Sordid tales of a former contractor’s Damascus-road conversion would make the rounds in the private security Nets every now and then, and the Scandal Sheets salivated whenever some holo-porn queen or aging action star “found God”. All of it was mind-candy for the celebrity voyeurs. But until the Garcias, we’d never personally known anyone who got religion.
For several months, Tam, Poet9 and I were sure they had gone crazy. What made it worse was they wouldn’t tell us why. All we got out of them was that something had happened one night on a dirt road in Eritrea. Something strange. When pressed, Carmen insisted we wouldn’t believe them if they told us. Alejo said he barely believed himself. Whatever the hell it was, it must been huge.
After a year of no let-up, Tam and I realized this was way beyond some mid-life crisis. The Garcias’ devotion wasn’t simply sincere, it was tangible. Somehow the two of them were waltzing through the minefield of ignorance and fanaticism to actually live out their beliefs. They tried to help people around them, make a difference, rather than claim God for their cornerman. In the days of suicide bombers, inbred fundamentalist enclaves and multi-millionaire eVangelists, that was downright extraordinary.
I said point of debate because the Garcias were the most solid people Tam, Poet9 or I had ever met. In fact, they had hidden us in their Barcelona home when a snatch job went sour last year, risking their family’s safety as we were hunted by agents from both the Asian-Pacific and Dawson-Hull Corporations. Poet9 had been seriously wounded, and most likely would be dead if not for them. The entire situation turned into a real dog-fight, and by the time it was over, the Garcias were forced to flee Spain.
Going that extra mile had put them where they were today, not to mention opened the door for Curro to join Eshu. All that made my default aversion to anything religious even trickier.
I eyed Curro as he strapped that green case to the back of his Polaris. Poet9 was lashing half a dozen three-meter aerials to the top of the roof cage. Any other time, I’d have sworn he was going fishing.
I pointed at the antennas. “What’s all the hubbub, bub?”
“New toy,” the Mexican purred.”A Lockheed BLADE, Mark V prototype.”
“Great. It do tricks, or just tear up the house and leave little messes everywhere?”
“It’s a multi-band Tac-Net jammer. Snows anything: radio, WiFi, even encrypted squirts if you’re close enough. Even better, I scripted up some decrypt code. Right now, it’s only got a ten kilometer range, and the keys for bog-standard commercial and military traffic, but I was hoping I’d get to play with it. The more I sample, the easier it is for the program to rake and break new algos.”
“Won’t do us much good if it’s jamming our frequencies though.”
Poet9 scoffed. “Esse… think who you’re talking to? I wrote the program. We’ll be five by five.”
I bowed. “Sorry for ever doubting you, oh mighty cyberspace deva.”
Poet9 snugged Grace into his black leather shoulder rig. “That’s more like it. You may see to your other duties now, mortal.”
The Legionnaires had piled into four old Israeli “golf carts;” military- surplus Desert Raider 6 x 6s. Dented and patched, they had seen better days decades ago. Still, the little jeeps were bristling with machine guns and started up without a fuss. Guess over a century of constant warfare would give any country a pragmatic attitude toward the utensils of battle.
The red-shirt boy Abdi stayed at our camp. I hoped he’d do a better job of watching our gear than he did of keeping lookout, but Curro and Poet9 both trusted the kid. And for some reason, the Triplets liked him. They said he made them remember Gibson.
I wasn’t sure how that made me feel, but I didn’t object.
It was six o’clock when our little ten-vehicle convoy started north-east towards Somaliland. We stayed together, keeping the sun to our right. The county was jagged, full of steep folds and hills that wanted to grow up to be cliffs. We rode in a staggered line formation as best we could, hugging shadows and every patch of sickly trees we could find. The only life was the big black scorpions that scuttled between stubborn patches of weeds and ankle-breaking holes.
More like a reconnaissance-in-force, all thirty-one of us were determined to keep a low profile. From Hester’s briefing back in Belfast, Tam, Poet9 and I knew Dawson Hull had every square inch of Dhul-Fiqaar’s Magic Kingdom covered by spies in the skies. Especially the border. Any movement would get reported to Somaliland government forces.
Everyone in the Eshu crew had pinned small IFF tags to our vests, as well as on top of our ATVs. Hester assured us they would keep the government drones from targeting us, but Tam and I kept two Balor anti-air tubes handy. Death by computer glitch is a dismal way to go.
We crossed the border into Somaliland without incident sometime around eight a.m.. By sheer chance – hard to call it luck- we decided to check out Bowna first. A dot by a wavy line on a map, there was some loose notion that a small town would be easier to recon than a small city like Ceel Baxay.
And besides, the Ukrainian NCOs said, if there was no sign of government forces around Bowna, perhaps we wouldn’t even need to ride all the way to the big city. They could send a single golf cart to do a drive-by, while the “commanders” stayed back and wrote up the report. Nice to see the old Soviet thug ‘lead-from-the-rear’ command style coming through.
It was almost noon when we came on Bowna.
From a distance, it looked like a jumble of dusty bricks trimmed with scraps of vivid cloth. Almost primitive. A thin grey line of roadway ran right to left, southeast to north-west, straight into one end and out the other. I could see the white dome of a mosque peeking between tan and yellow low-rises, and the stuttered arcs of stepped bleachers hedging the sad green of a soccer field just outside of town. No one was playing.
Smoke daubed the denim-blue sky: a number of buildings were on fire. The wind brought the crackle and pop of gunshots. The smell of burning meat. Tam and I watched from a clump of acacia trees, our insides clenched like fists. The Ukrainian officers shuffled their feet and looked elsewhere.
Two kilometers away to the south-east, a knot of military trucks was blocking the Boorama Road. No doubt another bunch waited to the north-west. Out in the rocky flatland directly ahead of us a dozen men were clustered around two dark green Otokar Arma APCs . They were a security detail positioned to catch any civilians who fled their way. I saw orange and black tiger emblems on the sides of the Otokars: Duub Cas. I heard a scream. They were busy with some women.
The Ukrainians were all for walking away. Squirt some quick video and guess-timate enemy strengths, Colonel Deer Voort gets his report. Their officers shook their heads and sipped their canteens. “Very sad, yes. But two hundred soldiers, maybe three. Bad bet.”
From the number of vehicles, two hundred was probably the max, but as much as I hated myself for even thinking it, I told Tam the devushkas from Kiev might be right; it was bad odds. “And without our Falcos, we’ve got no idea where the hostiles are,” I finished.
Tam pointed. “They’re right there.”
“That’s evil, no question – but us pulling a Leeroy Jenkins isn’t going to help. Dead heroes don’t finish jobs.”
“So we leave. This?” He pointed again.
“If it makes you happy, I feel like shit, but it’s us and a couple dozen militsiya drop-outs. No air, no armor. Just plateful of ugly choices. What can we really do here?”
“Make noise,” Curro said. He and Poet9 had come up behind us. “All we need to do is make enough noise, bloody their nose, and they’ll run.”
I glanced back at him. “You willing to bet your life on that?”
Curro looked at me.
“How can you be sure that will work?” Tam asked him.
The boy stared at Bowna, eyes wet and burning. “It’s the way bullies are. They’re not used to people fighting back.”
“I can have the BLADE up in ten minutes,” Poet9 added. “They won’t be able to talk to each other. Sure as hell won’t be able to call for help. That contains them.”
Tam stared down at Bowna, eyes scanning the buildings, the land, the narrow streets. I’d seen that look before.
“Bush beaters,” he said slowly.
Curro cocked his head.
“Making noise to flush your prey,” Tam explained. “Curro’s right. Those evil fuckers are in a frenzy right now, raping and killing anything that moves. They think they’re on top. The Legion will go north, take out the trucks and set up an L-shaped ambush on the highway. All the MG’s on those Raiders, they can handle that much. Jace, you, me and the Triplets will assault from the south-east, shooting the shit out of everyone in a uniform. The noise will drive them north to the Ukrainians.” He turned to Poet9 and Curro. “You two stay the hell back and work that jammer-thing you brought. ”
“And if those Red Beret bastards don’t cooperate?” I asked.
“We disengage and pull back. Anything is better than standing here with our thumbs up our asses. Maybe we’ll buy some poor bastard enough time to get away.”
Shit on a shingle, but there it was. The decision had been made. I nodded. “I’ll tell the Triplets to get ready.”
Poet9 and Curro went to their Polaris without another word.
The Ukrainians weren’t happy, but Tam convinced them Deer Voort was offering bounties for confirmed kills. Guess the prospect of bonuses was decent incentive for the Ukrainian officers to put their men’s lives on the line.
We gave the Legion twenty-five minutes to work their way north. That let Flopsy, Mospy, and Cottontail get near the trucks on the southern highway while Tam and I took care of the first step of the plan.
It took us almost ten minutes, but Tam and I slunk down to a dense line of scrub brush about thousand meters from the Otokar APCs. I could hear sobbing, distant laughter.
I nestled the Vychlop to my shoulder and lased the distance to the closest sentry. A raggedy man-shape in my scope. Tam lay ten yards to my right, unfolding the bipod on a Polish Tor 12.7mm anti-material rifle. The security detail stood between us and the town.
We had to put down the dogs first.