It was a typical night in Afghanistan and by Afghanistan's standards, typical meant hotter than two rats fucking inside a wool sock and drier than an Arab's bath-mat.
It was also eerily quiet. The silence was broken only by the faint crunch of booted feet on sun-baked ground as a company of Royal Marine Commandos consisting of three twelve-man teams picked their way cautiously towards their target which, in this case, was a small village on the outskirts of Helmand Province.
Truthfully, "village" was something of a generous overstatement. It was really little more than a collection of mud huts, surrounded by a low stone wall with occasional patches of shrubbery dotted sparsely about.
A few weeks ago it had housed several dozen small families; then the insurgents had come. They'd rousted the villagers out of their homes in the middle of the night at gunpoint, shooting anyone who resisted - and a couple who didn't, just to make an example of them - kidnapped the eldest boys of each family and press-ganged them into working in the rather modest fields outlying the village, which had since been re-purposed to grow opium.
It was things like that, reflected one of the approaching Marines as their Afghan interpreter explained the situation, that made this job feel just that little bit more worthwhile. Knowing that they were going to kill the bastards who'd caused so much pain and misery gave her a righteous thrill of satisfaction which was strangely offset by the cocktail of fear and excitement, compounded by adrenaline that was spiking through her veins. For once, the sweat on her brow had nothing to do with the blistering heat of the Afghan sun.
Her name was Elizabeth Hankard, but everybody in her section (squad) just called her by her nickname - Dice. She was the only woman in the platoon, although given the fact that she didn't exactly cut the most feminine figure even when she wasn't carrying a rifle and lugging a couple of hundred pounds' worth of equipment you might be forgiven for not knowing this at first glance. She was short, of stocky build, and flat-chested; the last part didn't bother her even with all the piss-taking she'd got for it. Who wanted two useless bags of muscle tissue and fat bouncing around in front of their chest when they were in the middle of a combat situation?
Her hair was a fiery orange, short, and tied back in a ponytail, concealed mostly by her helmet although a few tell-tale strands protruded from the front and sides. Her face was dotted with freckles, her pale eyes nearly matching the colour of the thin green T-shirt she wore underneath her battle-dress uniform (BDU) jacket to wick the moisture away from her skin. There were more freckles on her forearms, but although her sleeves were rolled up past her shoulders it was difficult to make them out in the darkness. She wore the same body armour, and the same helmet, the same pattern camouflage as her BDUs and everyone else. To an outsider, exactly the same as any of the others.
Except for one, of course.
Today, there was an anomaly amongst their ranks.
No-one knew his name.
His real name, at least.
They'd first seen him during the briefing back at Camp Bastion, which was being given by a man from military intelligence who had introduced himself as Jimmy first name only (if that was even his real name), peculiar even for a spook. They didn't ask which outfit he was from, but ever since the briefing rumours had been flying like shrapnel in a mortar attack she'd heard claims that he was from everything from Box to The Firm, and privately she had a few ideas about where he might even have come from herself.
Jimmy wore a pair of sand-coloured cargo trousers and civilian hiking boots, and had a pistol tucked snugly into a holster on his right thigh. The holster itself was suspended by a black leather belt rather than a military webbing belt, and under his body armour he wore a thin, dark-blue shirt with the sleeves rolled up and an Arab shemagh scarf tied around his neck. His clothing bore no rank, no insignia, no identification of any kind. With his swarthy complexion, civilian-length haircut and thick black beard he could easily have passed for an Arab if not for his crisp London accent. He even held himself like a civilian, unarmed save for his pistol and casually chatting away to a tent full of curious squaddies as though giving a speech at a dinner party.
"Now, I'm sure you know that even these days the intel we get on the streets is piss-poor at the best of times, but this has been confirmed by three HUMINT sources as recently as 0400 hours and a rudimentary sweep of the area by an RAF Nimrod spy plane has revealed a hotbed of what we can safely assume is insurgent activity. The ROE stand you are not to fire unless fired upon, but to be honest I don't think you'll have to wait that long for that to happen."
Glances were exchanged amongst the Marines, but there were smiles on nearly every face as Jimmy continued, "You'll be pleased to know that a general from the US Central Command has agreed to loan you an AC-130 Spectre gunship to provide close air support for this operation."
Bloody hell, thought Dice, unable to stop herself from grinning. A Nimrod gives this place a once-over to check the intel's solid and and now the Yanks are giving us an AC-130 to play with?
It seemed a lot of trouble to go to over a bunch of poppy-dealers, but no-one was complaining, least of all her. She'd never worked with an AC-130 before, but she'd heard the stories. To say that she was excited was the understatement of the century.
The AC-130 gunship shares the basic propeller-driven frame of its predecessor, the C-130 Hercules transport aircraft, but unlike its little brother the Spectre comes with a devastating array of on-board weaponry including twin 20mm Vulcan miniguns which fire at 7,200 rounds a minute each, a 40mm Bofors cannon that can fire up to 100 rounds a minute, and the piece de résistance the 105mm Howitzer, which fires a 44lb shell at a rate of up to ten rounds a minute. To compliment this, the Spectre comes equipped with a sophisticated array of sensors and equipment operated by a crew of thirteen, including two pilots. The poor manoeuvrability of the gunship means that it is highly vulnerable to rockets and anti-aircraft fire, so they can only come out to play at night, but flying under cover of darkness they are essentially flying tanks, capable of engaging three different targets at once. Dice remembered hearing once that the Vulcans dump so much brass on the floor of the aircraft that the crews have to use shovels to clean them out at the end of the night.
"You'll also have one extra man accompanying on this operation," Jimmy told them, nodding towards the second man, who had been silently observing the proceedings with his arms folded across his chest. "This is Jackal. He's a sniper from the..." Jimmy hesitated for a second, as though considering his options, then continued "err...the Parachute Regiment."
It took everyone present less than five seconds to work out that the other guy wasn't in the Paras. He might have been once, but not any more.
He stood at about six feet tall, his face covered by a balaclava so that only his piercingly blue eyes and the bridge of his nose were visible. The only other place his skin showed was where the sleeves of his jacket didn't quite touch his gloves, and from what little could be seen of it he'd picked up a nice tan, indicating that he'd been in Afghanistan for quite some time.
Instead of the standard-issue Multi-Terrain Pattern (MTP) camouflage the Marines wore he was clad entirely in digital desert camouflage, with his BDU's featuring integrated knee and elbow protection but no rank or insignia besides a subdued, sand-coloured Union Jack flag patch on his right arm. Like Jimmy he wore civilian hiking boots, with his blood type secured to the side of his right foot by a strip of tape ("That's bad luck," someone had darkly informed her later) and unlike the more bulky helmets the Marines wore, his lightweight, sand-coloured ballistic helmet was cut away around the ears and had a pair of sophisticated night-optic devices (NODs) mounted on the front. His pistol was held in a quick-release holster on his chest rig, and slung over one shoulder he carried a bloody great valise that was almost as tall as him.
Christ, Dice found herself thinking. What the fuck's he got in that?
After the briefing was over, Jimmy vanished in typical spook fashion. Dice didn't see where he went, and honestly didn't much care she was still focusing on Jackal, who had motioned for Dice's platoon leader and was apparently having a quiet exchange of words with him. She caught the words "capable" and "applied" from the Lieutenant, who then called her over with a strange expression on his face.
"Sir?" she said, standing not-quite-to attention with what she hoped was an expression of innocent curiosity on her face.
"Corporal - you're a qualified marksman, aren't you?"
"And you are aware that sniper teams work in pairs?"
Dice bit down on a sarcastic remark very much like one of the many that had got her in trouble with officers before. "Yes sir, I am aware."
"Well...Jackal needs a spotter," the Lieutenant said, putting a strange inflection on the second word as though unfamiliar with its meaning. "So you're it until he finds someone better."
"He won't, sir," Dice replied through clenched teeth, her hands balling into fists at her sides. She didn't know whether the LT was deliberately taking the piss out of her in an attempt to show off, but in any case she didn't like being spoken down to. She didn't give a shit what this 'Jackal' was - Paras or not, if the uptight bastard thought he could get away with talking to her like she was some kind of invalid who was lower on the food chain than him then she'd punch his lights out.
However, any doubts she had were assuaged when the masked man extended a hand for her to shake. She took it, and pumped it several times, matching his grip pound for pound as subtle way of warning him that messing her about would be a very bad idea.
"Hi. Corporal Hankard, 40 Commando. The lads call me Dice."
"Nice to meet you," he replied. "Just call me Jackal."
She blinked, slightly taken aback by his politeness. It was hard to place his accent because his voice was slightly muffled by the mask, but she thought she could detect the trace of an East London accent in there somewhere. She was a Cockney herself, so she had an ear for that sort of dialect.
Introductions over, they'd sat outside the tent for a while whilst waiting for the go order. They were to be dropped a half-mile out from the target by a CH-47 Chinook helicopter and make up the rest of the distance as quietly as possible on foot they couldn't rule out the possibility of anti-air defenses and a possible shootdown. Contrary to popular myth, not all Arabs were the nomadic ragheads of Hollywood lore; they were ruthless, cunning, and a lot better-equipped than the Western media liked to make out they were.
The plan was that the chopper would touch down for just a few seconds, just long enough for the men to exfiltrate as a flight of two US Air Force F-16 fighters flew overhead. The boom of fast air was hardly an infrequent occurrence over the Helmand desert even in the dead of night; it wouldn't arouse suspicion, and it would mask the noise of the insertion.
Even so, the pilots didn't fancy hanging around. Dice didn't blame them. Take-off and landing were always the most dangerous parts of any pilot's job, and even more so at night where poor visibility meant that the crew were forced to use night vision goggles the bloody things gave you no depth perception, and the fact that they weren't landing in an established LZ only heightened the danger. The rotor-wash of the chopper also kicked up dust and sand from the desert floor which had a tendency to spark when it hit the rotor blades, potentially illuminating their position to watching bad guys for miles around. The entire mission was a ballsy but potentially catastrophic assignment, the kind that had given the Royal Marines their well-deserved reputation; it would take meticulous planning to get them into the kill zone, but at least they could take comfort in the fact that once the shooting started it essentially came down to a combination of luck and firepower to ensure victory and they had at least one of those in spades.
They both talked, but neither of them were really saying anything. To his credit, Jackal refrained from making any smart remarks about her being the only woman in the unit - or any of the other numerous things he could have taken the piss out of her for for - and he didn't talk to her as though she was an idiot or in some way inferior to him.
In fact, he treated her just like he'd treat any other soldier under his command.
He explained that he was a sergeant back in his unit, but obviously there wasn't a lot else he was at a liberty to tell her and although he was too polite to say so Dice privately suspected he was bored off his tits.
This must feel like babysitting compared with what you buggers usually get up to, she thought.
Eventually, however, curiosity got the better of Dice and she was unable to stop herself from blurting out the question that had been nagging at the back of her mind for so long. "Not being funny or anything, but what exactly are you doing here?"
Jackal shrugged. "Someone around here must have good connections, because I've essentially been drafted in as a BCR. Word is that you were short a couple of snipers, and since there were no other volunteers it looks like you're my number two."
Dice winced, noting, "no other volunteers." BCR meant Battle Casualty Replacement to put it bluntly he was filling a dead man's boots, but years of practised cynicism meant she wasn't surprised. They'd lost three men already this week to roadside bombs.
Perhaps he noticed the change in her expression, because he added, "The reason no-one else wanted to come is because the word is that there's jack shit going on around here. From the looks of it though, they're dead wrong."
Dice nodded. This isn't just your standard bit of door-kicking so that the brass can tell the suits at Whitehall yeah, we're making progress. Why all the secrecy for a run-of-the-mill sweep? It's no secret that people grow poppies in this place, and there's no way in hell that we'd have all this outside support if we weren't on to something bigger.
"Yeah, mate. Personally, I reckon we're in for one hell of a night."