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Combat Ready

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Combat Ready

 

Betaed by Jake and Jordre

.

Tony looked at his pod and sighed. They’d run through this entry a dozen times and something wasn’t going right. He wasn’t sure why or how the first two through the door were tripping over themselves. And he wasn’t happy.

“Alright! Again! And for God’s sake, fuckin’ figure it out.”

The again was just as bad as the 12th time. Remy knocked the door in, Dean and Cosmo did the entry, then, when AJ and Jet entered, someone tripped over someone else and they were all stumbling around like drunks.

Jet yanked off his helmet and threw it against the wall. “Son of a fucking bitch. What the hell?”

AJ rubbed his face wearily. “No fuckin’ idea. This whole op is CATFU. I wish Digimon was here, he’d figure this Charlie foxtrot out.”

Remy sighed. “I hate this. I feel like half the damn team is UA.”

Cosmo nodded. “And I feel really creeped out without Gremlin. No one gets hurt on this fucked up mess. Seriously.”

“Right. So …” Jet frowned. “How did Digimon figure out this sort of mess the last time?”

Dean bit his lip for a moment then said. “Some Petty Officer from mess figured it out.”

Jet thought then said, “AJ, something about time and motion studies?”

“Yeah, yeah. The mess is always doing stuff like that to make sure that they get meals on the table quick-smart, as Ducky says.” He shrugged, then sat down with his back against a wall. He ran his hands through the sand for a moment, then offered, “We could do that ourselves? Or at least try.”

Remy’s doubtful, “Yeah … sure,” got him a glare.

Dean announced, “I’m hungry, it’s 1200, an’ mess is only serving until 1300. Let’s give it a rest and go eat.”

“Okay. Everyone get t’ humpin’.” AJ took off, knowing that everyone else would follow, even Jet. He still wasn’t exactly sure why the Navy had co-opted a Marine Scout Sniper into this op. He smelled something rotten; he just couldn’t locate the fish.

As they trotted down the dirt road, AJ thought about everything he knew about this op. Something was screwy here, and he was determined to find out what. One, they were training a settled Pod of four to work with an extra person. A person who’d been brought out of the Reserves to serve in a theater that ate young men like Skittles. Two, he got the feeling that they were training for the wrong thing. His team was rarely involved in a B&E, they were more long distance sniper-type ops. And three, the back of his neck was doing the crawly-tingly thing that was the equal of Jet’s gut. Something wasn’t kosher. But what?

Jet paced AJ and side-eyed him. He knew AJ had the same feeling he did, but what did they do about it? He decided. “AJ, we need to have a pod campfire ASAP.”

“Yeah, we do. We surely do. After chow?”

“Yeah. I’ll spread the word.” Jet trotted up the line telling everyone they’d meet after they ate. No one asked where; they’d eat together, then decide on someplace.

.

Jet eyed his tray with a scowl; the food at Quantico was usually a lot better than this. This was shit on a shingle at its worst. He shrugged and went to find a place to sit.

He was soon joined by AJ, who was just as disgusted. “What the actual fuck? Even Marines have better.”

“I don’t know. And I know why you’re not eating in Officers’. So suck it up, squid.”

Cos and Dean joined them, with Remy not far behind. No one said anything about the food; they just ate quickly, then took their trays to the drop window and left.

“Okay. Chow was … less than adequate, so…” Dean shrugged. “We gonna meet in quarters or what?”

AJ pointed out, “No privacy in quarters; the walls are so thin I can hear the guy on the other side of the wall breathing. We need to find someplace with a lot more privacy.”

Remy thought for a moment. “Back at the mockup? No one would expect us to be there now, but no one would wonder too much if we are.”

“Good. Let’s go. Slow walk. No need to run on a full stomach … might puke.”

Cos offered, “No loss if I did. What the actual fuck, anyway?”

As they walked back to the mockup, Remy reminisced about crepes, of all things. “Man, my mout’ wata I wish ma Mere was here t’ make crepes. You know? The one’s wit’ peaches and that cheese stuff? All rolled up together then sprinkled with candy pecans an’ powered sugar? Or the ones that are piled with cherry jam and whip cream?”

Dean finally moaned, “OH, man, shut the fuck up. That SOS is repeating on me, and you’re makin’ it worse.”

They were still bitching and moaning when they reached the mockup they’d been using to practice entries. It was a partially framed house with plywood walls and doors. The rooms were mostly bare; with only the furniture required to make a few obstacles. There was, however, a fairly comfortable couch and a recliner. Jet flopped into the recliner while AJ and Remy claimed the couch.

“Hey! No fair!” Cos bitched. “Where are Dean and I supposed to sit?”

“On the floor. We out-rank you. So … sit!”

Dean just flopped down, barking like a dog.

Cos swatted his shoulder. “Don’t encourage them.”

Jet sighed, rubbed his face then barked, “Shut the fuck up, damnit!” He waited for a minute then continued, “I smell a big, fat, rotten fish. I want to know why I was fuckin’ threatened with reactivation if I didn’t take this damn op. And why the hell are we practicing fuckin’ door-knockin’, despite the fact that we can’t get it right. If I was to stand the fuck down, it’d run like clockwork. So why are the PTB insisting that I be in the damn stack?”

AJ nodded, “Enquiring people want to know. So … campfire time.”

There was some scuffling as Dean moved to lean against the couch between AJ and Remy’s feet and Cos perched on the arm of Jet’s chair.

Remy was first. “‘K. I know an homme I tink can gi’me some info on Jet. I make a call.” He dug his phone out of his pocket and dialed. “Gimme sec.”

While Remy was waiting for his friend to answer, Dean offered, “Some dumbass bean counter who has no idea how door-knocking works doesn’t want Jet to feel left out? We deal by just ignoring that REMF and doin’ what works. Jet can stand back for eyes behind, if anyone actually asks.”

Cos agreed. “Yeah, Dean’s right. And we’re all a bit uncomfortable doing a fuckin’ op without Gremlin. So … We need to make sure we carry a full kit, just like he showed us. We’ll have to divide it between all of us, it’s too much to carry along with our usual kit. And between us, we have the training of one medic. Thanks to him. Still rather have him along.”

“Well, suck it up, Gremlin can’t come with. Much as I’d like him to.” Jet frowned. “Wonder how they’re doin’ at that conference.”

AJ shrugged, making his harness squeak. “No idea, bet they’re havin’ more damn fun than we are.” Little did they know.

They processed, sharing ideas and info. Remy got his callback from his friend. It turned out that the man who shanghaied Gibbs had no idea how old he was, nor that he was retired, all he’d done was find the man with the best scores on the last qualification, didn’t matter that it was for NCIS, and cut orders. Remy was happy to inform his friend that Master Gunnery Sergeant Leroy Jethro Gibbs was in the reserves because he was about to age out altogether. Needless to say, the friend was not happy.

AJ nodded. “Okay. That’s one off the list. Next, why the fuckin’ hell are we practicin’ door-knockin’ when we’ve got it down to a fine art? Whose jacked-up idea is it to include an odd man in the stack? Again, it don’t make fuckin’ damn sense.”

Jet asked the most, to him, pertinent question. “And why are we figurin’ this mess out ourselves instead of just askin’ Belt, or Captain McKinley?”

AJ frowned, “Tall peg gets knocked down. I don’t bring anything to either one of them unless it’s life or death.”

Remy nodded. “They busy. Ya need sometin’ ver’ important t’ get ‘em t’ pay attention. Then it like bein’ in a spotlight. If dis go sideways, we get ‘em involved. Not befo’.”

Dean sighed, “Remy, ya gone all Cajun on us.”

“Well, fuck you.”

“No thanks. Your legs are too hairy.”

Remy threw a small rock at Dean who snatched it out of the air and tossed it back. Remy jumped on Dean and they began to wrestle, kicking up dust which made AJ and Cos cough.

Jet called them to order easily, ”Okay, you two lugnuts, knock it off.”

AJ just stood up and grabbed them both by the scruff of their necks and gave them a shake. “Sort yourselves.” He dropped them back on the ground then sat back down. “I’ve got a really bad feeling about this. We still haven’t gotten any damn intel on this op, other than that Jet is needed. But why? We don’t need two fuckin’ snipers, do we? If we do, what’s the target that takes two of us to take out? And if we only need one sniper, why not me … or Remy … Dean and Cos are good but not our level of good. So … too many why’s and not enough answers.”

Jet nodded. “I’ll ask the questions. If we don’t get satisfactory answers?”

“I’ll call the op a bust and take the heat. Not riskin’ all our lives because some bean counter got a hard-on to look like he’s tough.”

Remy offered, “Might me-bee drop a heavy hint t’ Belt?”

“Might.” AJ considered that for a moment then pulled his phone out of his pocket. “Might.” He pressed a speed dial then waited. “Belt? Yeah. Question. Why the fuck did some bean counter toss Jet into the mix? And why is he in our damn stack and fuckin’ things up? Not that he’s not good, he is. But we got habits, and he doesn’t fit.”

There was an indignant squawk from the other end as Belt objected to that in no uncertain terms. “Well, fuck me. I’ll find out exactly what’s going on and get back to you, ASAP. No one in SEAL command authorized that.” He cut the connection without further comment.

AJ glowered at his phone for a moment then shoved it back in his pocket. “I fuckin’ hate politics. This stinks of some sort of dick wavin’ contest on the part of some damn POG GOMAR recipient. Belt will sort their shit.”

Jet shook his head. “If I have to, I’ll call Vance. I’m not dealin’ with some fuckin’ political power play in the upper echelons puttin’ our asses in a fuckin’ fire.”

“Don’t think we need to go that far, but I’ll take it under advisement.” AJ stretched. “We’re takin’ the rest of the day off.”

Dean announced, “I wanna swim. In a pool, without drown-proofing training.”

Cos agreed. “Yeah. Just once in a damn while it’d be nice t’ just swim.”

AJ eyed the pod; they all looked stressed. “Okay. Just swim time. And after we’ll find someplace really nice to eat.”

Remy sighed, “Good food. What the fuckin’ hell is up wit’ de mess anyway? Food’s been common as dirt for … since we got here.”

Jet frowned in thought. “Last time food got that fuckin’ bad … that I can remember anyway … some damn self-entitled cost-cutter was tryin’ t’ impress Accounting by cuttin’ corners. What they don’t get is … excess is cut out of next quarter’s fuckin’ budget. If you didn’t spend it this quarter, it’s obvious you don’t need it, so it gets cut. Some Master Chiefs are not gonna be pleased. I hope they find out who it is an’ poison ‘em.”

Cos eyed Dean, who eyed him right back. “Um … now who would be the perp?”

Jet leaned back. “We’ll ask around, right AJ?”

AJ nodded. “That we will.”

Remy eyed AJ and Jet then moaned, “Superglue is in dat fucker’s future.”

AJ nodded, “It is. It surely is. An’ lots of it.”

Dean just announced, “Swim! Now!”

.

It didn’t take them long to get back to quarters and get their suits.

Jet had been glad to see that they were housed in an old Quonset hut instead of in one of the newer housing barracks. That was because the hut was divided up into two small rooms, one large barrack room, and facilities. He had one small room on one side of the main door and AJ had the other. You had to walk between them to get into the hut. The facilities were at the back.

The fact that the barracks was intended to hold 20 men was a major advantage. AJ had allowed Remy, Dean and Cos to put their racks right up front, on the other side of the wall of his room. The rest of the barracks was dedicated to equipment storage and games. There was some grumbling from other barracks about the big screen TV and game consoles which was quickly squashed by the CO’s in question. They informed the grumblers that; one, SEALs did pretty much what they wanted, two, it was private property, and three, if they really wanted to complain they could talk to the SEALs themselves. That pretty much shut the whole bunch up.

It didn’t take the Pod long to get their swimsuits, fins and other gear. They stuffed it all into small rucks and headed out to the pools.

The first pool was full of Marines drown-proofing so they went to the next. This one was the one that they all hated. Jet remembered it without fondness as the pool he’d completed his swim training in. It wasn’t heated, so it was freezing even in the hottest weather. They moved on again, bitching and complaining.

The last pool on this side of the road was set back a bit and clear. They dumped gear and checked with a nearby Staff Sergeant who told them that the pool was clear for the next two hours. AJ signed them in for that time.

“Okay. We want to do any races, play water polo, or just enjoy a nice leisurely swim?”

They all voted for a round of retrieve and then slow laps.

Retrieve was fun, if you weren’t tied hand and foot, all they had to do was figure out something to retrieve. Cos finally said, “Quarters. I’ve got … um … six. Anyone?”

Between the bunch of them they had fifteen quarters. AJ said, “Tim … um … damnit. Jet, keep track of who had what, okay?”

Jet nodded. “Got it.” He tossed the quarters into the water, as soon as they were on the bottom they all jumped in and began to try to get the most coins. This resulted in a lot of splashing and swearing; and laughing.

It turned out that Jet won, by cheating, just a bit. He picked up four quarters then snatched two from AJ and three from Remy. He didn’t get any from Cos or Dean, they’d seen him and managed to keep him from robbing them, Dean by putting his coins in his mouth and Cos actually had a pocket in his shorts.

AJ laughed as he said, “Jet, you asshole, you won. Just remember; cheaters never prosper, and payback’s a bitch.”

“You’re just jealous that you never thought of that trick.” Jet smirked at the group.

“When you’re right, you’re fuckin’ right.” AJ smirked back then picked Jet up and threw him into the pool.

He came to the surface and splashed the whole group, not that it was much of a bother as they were all still wet from their retrieve.

A nearby lifeguard called them to order, yelling, “Hey! Take it easy. You slip, you’ll crack your damn head open.”

They all acknowledged the guard, gave all their quarters to Jet, then went back to their swim.

AJ pointed to lanes and called names. “Okay. Swim.”

They all took their lane and started doing leisurely laps. They’d only been swimming for about fifteen minutes when one of the senior life guards blew a whistle and called them in.

“Sorry, guys, some SID leader wants the pool.” He grimaced in sympathy, when it wasn’t training, they had to give up the pool on request.

AJ sighed, “It’s alright, Sergeant, duty must.” They clambered out of the pool and dried off.

Remy grumbled, “If dis op go anyting like t’ prep, we all dead.”

Jet offered hopefully, “Bad beginning, good end?”

Dean made a disbelieving sound, “Tch! Right!”

The DI of the SID squad called the group to attention. The Pod all saluted then AJ, as senior officer, said, “As you were.” The DI barked his squad into the pool for laps then stood to watch.

AJ approached him, “Bad group?”

“No, sir. Could be a good group. They just think they’re tougher than they are. I’m hoping to scrape off some of that cockiness. Maybe keep them from fuckin’ themselves up, sir.”

“Good luck.” AJ accepted another salute then wandered off, grumbling about idjit boots.

They clumped up in the middle of the path to the pools, never mind that people wanted by, they out-ranked most of them, and the ones they didn’t out-rank didn’t want to piss off an already pissed-off group of combat-ready SEALs.

“Well, damn. We’ve got most of a damn evenin’ t’ kill and we can’t shoot it. What do we do?”

Dean gave Cos an ‘are you an idiot’ look. “Well, we can’t leave base. I’m not playin’ cards, chess, checkers or throwin’ darts with AJ … fuckin’ weird-ass rules … we could watch a movie?”

The general consensus was that, if they could find something that they hadn’t seen twenty times, that was a good idea.

Jet looked at his watch. “Well, we’ve killed most of the damn afternoon. It’s almost suppertime. Wonder if they’ll have any-damn-thing worth eating.”

AJ sighed, “If we all ranked, we could eat in officers’ mess. But … I don’t like pullin’ rank for a damn plate a’ … whatever.” He waved a hand.

Remy got serious for a moment. “An’ do believe that we ‘preciate it, homme. Seriously.”

AJ shrugged. “I fuckin’ hate eatin’ alone, an’ you know it.”

Jet nodded. “We’re supposed to eat in a rank-appropriate mess, but fuck that shit. I’ll eat where I damn well want. Anyone who wants to argue had better be at least four ranks my senior.” He sighed. “I’m too damn old for this fuckin’ shit. Let’s go.”

He trotted off for their barracks, announcing, “I want a shower, clean UA’s and a sit-down before supper. Come on.”

The Pod followed Jet back to barracks with AJ chivvying the line, as usual.

They thundered into the building, dumping gear by their racks and stripping to the skin. They knew that, if they didn’t wash the chlorine off, they’d itch.

Dean tossed his wet suit into a basket to be hung to dry later; everyone else followed suit.

AJ turned the showers on and adjusted the temp to something they all could tolerate.

They piled in, horsing around until Jet called them to order. “Damnit. Settle! Someone’s gonna fuckin’ fall. Act your age, not your I.Q.”

But he was just a bit too late; just as he yelled, Cos tossed a bar of soap at AJ. AJ batted it out of the air and it landed just by Remy’s feet. He was trying to avoid Dean’s attempt to snap him with a towel and stepped right on it.

He slipped and fell on his ass with a yelp. Dean flailed, trying to keep his balance which had been thrown off by the miss; he slipped on the wet tile and did a belly flop. The resultant flailing and cursing had AJ whistling shrilly.

“Okay. The bunch of you. Settle down. Remy? You hurt? Dean?”

Non, homme. Fine, me.” Remy got to his feet rubbing his butt. “No’tin ‘urt but ma’ dignity.”

Dean sucked in enough air to speak. “I’m okay. Just knocked the wind out a’ me.”

AJ eyed Cos, who was wide-eyed at the chaos he’d inadvertently caused. “Yeah. Cos … you … me … mats.”

Cos whimpered quietly then asked, “Before or after chow?”

“After. I’m gonna have fuckin’ decent food if I have to go to officers’ to have it. Jet?”

“I’m still a non-com.” Jet frowned at AJ; it was obvious that he was trying to keep his temper and just barely succeeding. “But you could bring me as a guest?”

“I will. Remy, keep this bunch of lugnuts under control. I’m done for the day.”

Jet followed AJ out of the showers with a scowl for the rest of the Pod. “Numbnuts.”

Remy sighed and shook his head. “Get clean.”

Dean and Cos hurried to finish their showers. No one pulled anymore stunts, in fact, they were amazingly quiet.

Remy snarled Dean and Cos into a hard trot, headed for the mess. Neither man argued or complained; they knew that all three of them were in trouble and headed for the mats with a very pissed AJ. If they managed to put him down, they still had Jet to deal with. They kept their mouths shut through the run, the trip through the unappealing mess line, and the meal.

.

AJ checked them into the officers’ mess, then found a table. This mess was run like a restaurant, with culinary experts taking orders, then delivering the food. AJ was so pissed than he just snarled, “Special of the Day is fine.”

The specialist eyed him for a moment, then turned to Jet. “And you, sir?”

Jet glanced at the menu. “Special is fine with me, too. And coffee… lots and lots of coffee.”

“Cream … sugar?”

Jet shook his head, saying, “Defile good coffee with that? No, thank you. AJ?”

AJ was glaring out a window.

“AJ! Cream? Sugar?”

“Oh, no, thanks. Sorry.”

The specialist put his tablet away, saluted then left. Technically he was supposed to wait for a return salute but the whole mess ignored that as hungry officers usually got annoyed.

Jet kicked AJ under the table. “Damn it, AJ, calm the fuck down. I know exactly why you’re flamin’ pissed and you’re right. But don’t spoil your supper with that shit, you’ll only upset your stomach. Take a fuckin’ pill.”

AJ nodded. “You’re right. Sorry. Um … what the hell is the special?”

Jet snorted softly then said, “Pork chop, pan fried. Greens an’ bacon an’ … somethin’ called Potatoes Anna?”

AJ explained. “Potatoes Anna is a sort of pancake made of sliced potatoes, butter, salt and pepper. You layer the potatoes in a pan, brushing each layer with butter then salt and pepper. You bake it in the oven until it’s crisp. Really good, if it’s done right. Or pretty awful if it’s not.”

“Well, hopefully they’ll do a good job. You’re in too bad a mood to eat shitty food.”

AJ nodded. “I hope the coffee comes soon.”

He didn’t have long to wait as the specialist showed up just then with two cups and saucers and a vacuum pot of coffee. He dispensed two cups, put them at each place setting, saluted again then left quickly.

They both took a sip of their coffee, Jet flashed AJ a worried glance. “Mmm. Great. And stop lookin’ at me like that, I’m already on high alert. This whole Charlie Foxtrot has me on edge. I won’t feel right until we finish this and get back home.”

Jet nodded. “Me too. As bad as this fuckin’ mess has started, I don’t want to contemplate the end.”

By mutual agreement they moved the conversation on to other, more pleasant topics.

When the food came they were in much better moods and ready to enjoy their meal.

The specialist returned with their plates and set them down carefully, checked the coffee pot, saluted, and walked away.

“Well, looks good.” AJ poked his chop. It was juicy and nicely cooked, with a good sear. He checked the greens and tasted them. They had been cooked in bacon grease until they were just limp, then dressed with crumbled bacon, balsamic vinegar, and fresh chopped onion. The wedge of Potatoes Anna was perfect, crisp top and bottom and mealy-tender inside.

Jet checked his food, then declared, “Almost as good as you could do. Really nice.”

“Yeah. Really nice. Wonder if there’s any dessert.” AJ firmly turned the subject, master of deflection that he was.

“No changin’ the subject. You’re good at a lot more things than bein’ a squid. Take a compliment.” Jet smiled at AJ.

“Yeah, just like you do.” AJ smiled back.

“Yeah … we’re a rare pair, ain’t we?”

They returned to their food and quickly finished.

The specialist returned with more coffee and the information that, “We’ve got peach and pear crumble, apple pie, cherry pie, and …” he consulted a note on his tablet. “something called trifle?”

Jet made a face. “Don’t care for trifle much, but the peach and pear crumble sounds good.”

AJ thought for a moment. “Apple pie, please.”

The specialist left to be replaced by someone they didn’t know.

“I’m sorry to disturb you at your meal.” They started to stand to attention but he stopped them, saying, “As you were. Sit. I’d rather keep this as private as we can.” AJ and Jet settled back in their chairs.

“Sir?” AJ wasn’t about to let this drag out. It didn’t look good so they might as well bite the bullet and get it over with.

“No good way to say this. I’m CIA, you can call me Mr. Jones.” Jet snorted. “Yeah, so damn original. We need a job done, and you’re the poor souls that get it. It’s not hard. We’ve got a man in country, we need him out. Your original mission is a wash, intel was bad. And we didn’t monkey with things, I swear.”

AJ gave Mr. Jones a look but his level look convinced him. “Okay. You didn’t jigger the intel, it was just baked in the first place. So what needs doin’? How soon do you need it done?”

They all quieted as the specialist returned with a fresh cup, a slice of apple pie, a slice of cherry pie, and a bowl of crumble; all with whipped cream on top.

The trio addressed their food for a few minutes; AJ finally said, “Well? What the actual fuck.”

“We need this job done within the next four days. After that, I’m afraid our man won’t be … rescuable. And he has information that we need, not to mention the fact that we’d really like him back alive … just because.” Mr. Jones poked at his pie, put down his fork and picked up his coffee cup. After a sip he sighed then said, “I’ll send you all the intel … that’s if you take the job.”

Jet frowned, “So … you don’t need me.”

Mr. Jones cut him off. “You’re very much needed. This job will take two snipers to manage. All the experts say you’re the only group for the job. We’re just lucky some jackass fucked up … or we’d be behind time and probably lose our man.” He ate a bite of pie. “I can’t give you much time to decide … frankly, I need your answer now.”

AJ eyed Jet who eyed him right back. “Take it?”

AJ nodded. “Okay. We’re in. I expect full disclosure ASAP and no shit.”

“You got it.” and with that Mr. Jones got up and walked out. They never saw him again.

.

Remy paced in front of the barracks, he was as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs and showed it. He knew AJ was really pissed at them all. Too much horseplay and someone could get really hurt; he expected them to know where the line was and not to cross it. They’d not only crossed it, they’d tap danced all over it and right into Shitsville.

So he was worried. He knew that AJ wouldn’t actually hurt them, but he wasn’t averse to embarrassing the hell out of them. He wondered if they would be the laughing stock of Quantico, or just the street.

Dean groaned, said, “‘scuse me.” and trotted into the barracks. He returned in a couple of minutes, wiping his mouth. Cos gave him a sympathetic look; tension sometimes turned Dean’s stomach. Seemed he was really tense just now.

Meanwhile, two men watched from an alley across the street. “You gonna take ‘em out a’ their misery, or make ‘em suffer some more?”

AJ snickered, “I ought t’ make ‘em wait a bit more but I’m gettin’ bored. Come on.”

Jet just sighed and followed AJ’s long strides as he crossed the street.

“Okay, you lugnuts, here’s the lowdown. The mission is FUBAR. Some reject fucked up, the intel is bogus, and the mission is scrubbed. But … we’ve got another. Seems some CIA operative got himself caught and that’s all I know just now. We’re goin’ t’ rescue the dumb fuck. Full briefing tomorrow … sometime.” He clapped his hands together then rubbed them. “Now! Who’s first?”

The initial cries of joy turned into groans of dismay. Dean offered, “Would it do any good to grovel?”

“Nope.” AJ popped the P with a grin.

Cos muttered, “Sadist.”

“Yup, I am. An’ you jackasses don’t learn. How many times have we been in this same place? If one of you damages the other … we’re off the mission … someone else takes it … maybe fucks it up. People die. Damnit, learn.”

Remy rubbed his face with both hands then announced, “Shut up. We know. We fucked up. It’ll happen again. We’re only human. SEALs, but human. I’m first.”

AJ eyed the sad-sack group. “Okay. I know you’re only human but … Aw, hell. We’ve had this conversation before and we’ll have it again. This op has me in a lather, gut does not like it. So … no disciplinary beat down … this time. Someone wanna just match me? I’m all … restless.”

Remy shrugged, “Homme, I still t’ best match fo’ ya. Bring it.” He made ‘come here’ motions with both hands.

Jet just shook his head. “Dean … Cos. Match. I’ll ref. Go.”

That was all that was needed, and cries of, “Fight! SEAL fight!” rang out up and down the street. Twenty men came running to watch.

Dean grabbed Cos, who was distracted by the yelling, and dumped him flat on his back. “Gotcha! Pay attention, Dude!”

Cos kipped to his feet and poked Dean in the stomach before he could react. “Yeah? Got this.”

They fought back and forth across the yard in front of the barracks. Neither one could get the advantage. AJ finally yelled, “Stop waltzing around and fight!”

That combined with the yelling from the observers caused Dean to make a mistake. He grabbed for Cos but got nothing but shirt. Cos eeled out of the shirt and turned, a quick punch to the solar plexus put Dean on the ground, breath knocked out of him. “Asshole.”

“You know you love me.”

“Jerk.”

“Bitch.” Cos offered Dean a hand up, which he took.

AJ eyed them for a moment then nodded. “Loser matches loser.”

Jet smirked, “And winner matches me.”

“Oh. My. God.” Remy sighed. “ ‘m a lose fo’ sho’ now.”

Someone on the sidelines asked, “An’ why’s that?”

AJ answered, “Loser matches loser. Winner matches him.” He jerked a thumb at Jet. “An’ he cheats.”

Jet smirked as he said, “If you’re not cheatin’, you’re not doin’ it right.”

Remy nodded, “See? I doan wan’ fight that ‘un. He cheats, an’ he bites.”

“I do.” Jet nodded genially then leaned against a nearby lamp post and crossed his arms.

The man smirked, “But that leaves one odd man.”

Remy shrugged that off, saying, “Winner matches loser a’ dem.” he pointed to Jet.

The corporal winced, “Ouch.”

Remy just cracked his neck and jumped AJ. He wasn’t about to fight fair, AJ was too good.

It wasn’t much help as AJ was well aware that Remy cheated so he was ready. This led to Remy being flipped over AJ’s shoulder. He landed flat on his back with a grunt of air leaving his lungs. “Ow!” He lay on his back long enough to suck air back into his lungs. “AJ. Fuck you, you fucker.”

AJ just snorted, then drawled, “You snooze, you lose.” He offered his hand which Remy took. “Up. Who’s the next vic … er … combatant?”

Cos grimaced wryly. “That’d be me.” He set himself then waited. He’d found the only way he could beat AJ was to wait him out, force him to make the first move. It put him on the defensive but it worked.

AJ also waited. They circled each other warily, making tentative feints. Finally Jet yelled, “Okay, you two, stop dancin’ around and do somethin’. I’m gettin’ tired a’ waitin’.”

Jet’s yell spurred AJ into action. He moved as if to grab Cos’ legs, but when Cos tried to counter, AJ wasn’t where he expected him to be. Instead, he dropped to the ground, rolled to one side then swung his leg into the back of Cos’ knees, making them buckle. Cos staggered, then fell, right on top of AJ. AJ took advantage and flipped Cos onto his stomach and made the pin. Cos swore, slapped out by patting the ground, then relaxed.

AJ got off him then nodded to Jet. “Okay. Remy and Dean.”

Dean just groaned and set himself, matches between the two of them usually ended in some sort of injury. Usually a bloody nose, due to the difference in height.

Dean backpedaled when Remy rushed him, but it was no use. Remy was tired and wanted to take a shower, so he pulled a change on Dean. Instead of using his skills, he just used pure, brute power and slammed into him, knocking him off balance and into one of the lampposts that stood around the yard. He bounced off and right into a fake shot to the throat. A real one would have probably killed him by breaking something in his throat.

“Asshole.”

Remy shrugged. “‘M tired. Wanna get this shit over wit’.”

Jet shoved himself off his lean and said, “Okay, AJ, I’ll hand you your ass an’ we can all take a shower.”

AJ just snorted then grumbled, “You wish.”

They set themselves and waited for Remy to call, “Start.” Then everything went to hell.

AJ ducked an open-handed swing only to duck right into a back-handed slap that sounded like a whip-crack. He replied with a short punch to Jet’s ribs that made him step back, holding the hurt.

They fought back and forth over the yard; sometimes Jet was winning, others AJ was.

Remy finally called it, yelling, “Okay! Break! Tie! Y’all gonna kill yo’sel’. Stubborn jackasses.”

Jet groaned, cradling his ribs. “Damn, AJ. Asshat.”

AJ replied, “Asshat yourself, stubborn jerk.” He was also cradling his ribs.

Remy dismissed the yelling crowd by announcing, “Okay, y’all head out. Done here. Nothin’ more t’ see. Beat it.”

They decided that, as AJ and Jet had tied, the exercise was over. Dean demanded that they all take another shower as he wasn’t about to sleep in their stink so they headed into the barracks, poking and pushing each other and laughing.

.

The next morning saw them fed and watered by 0630 and seated at a conference table. They were impatiently waiting for their control officer to show up with their mission statement and specifics. They didn’t have long to wait.

They were just getting impatient when a man in a suit showed up, put a briefcase on the table then announced, “Well, I’m late. Sorry. There’s a binder for each of you.” He handed them around. “All the intel you need is there. If there are any questions … I’ll know the answer or I can get it for you.” He looked around. “I’ll wait.” He sat down then said, “I forgot. You can call me Mr. Jones.” This got him side-oogles from everyone.

It took about ten minutes for them all to finish reading, taking notes, and thinking.

“Okay. CIA asset gets his stupid ass caught. We’re up to go in and get him. So, here’s the kicker … you don’t know exactly where he is but we’re supposed to head in-country anyway.” AJ frowned at the man. “Yeah … pull the other one. What the actual fuck?”

“I know. I think it’s a bad idea, but the higher-ups think we need him back ASAP.”

I think this whole mission is CATFU from the get-go. Strictly a BOHICA situation. Not happy.” AJ made a face.

Jet eyed the CIA REMF for a second then announced, “I’m half a mind to tell you to fuck off. Tell me why I shouldn’t.”

“Because this man is probably being tortured as we speak. You have no idea what it’s like to be …” He trailed off at the furious expressions around the table.

Remy growled, “Homme, we do. We all do. We got sympathy fo’ de man. But … if he dead, why give ‘em mo’ prisoners? Eh? Tell me dat.”

Mr. Jones cleared his throat, looking ashamed. “Sorry. I got no jackets on you. I don’t need ‘em. So … if I put my foot in it again…” He just shrugged. “What do you think?”

AJ said, “We’ll give it a look on-site. I’m not promising a damn thing .. and if this CATFU Charlie Foxtrot turns out to be a WOMBAT I will find out who decided it was a good idea to send us in and kick their ass.”

Jet nodded, “And I get the left-overs. So. Maps? Equipment?”

Mr. Jones answered, “Anything you want. I understand that you all have some sort of tracker in your watches?”

AJ gave him a glare and demanded, “How do you know that? And that is definitely NTK and the CIA doesn’t.”

Mr. Jones nodded, “I know. I was told that it was classified at the highest level. The only reason I know is so I can request the frequencies so we can track you.”

AJ sighed, “They’re not trackers as such. They’re beepers. They only last so long … not long enough for this mission at any rate. We’ve all got one, they’re all on the same frequency, and we only activate them if we’re in trouble. They’re more for a kidnapping situation than anything else.”

Mr. Jones frowned his disappointment, but nodded, “I see. That’s a bit of a let-down, but what is, is. I’ll send a message up the line that our plan to track you is a no-go.”

AJ shrugged. “Keep an eye on the frequency; if something blips, that means we’re in trouble and need a pickup.”

“Okay. That’ll work.” Mr. Jones made a note, then returned to his briefing.

All the intel could be boiled down into, the CIA operative was in a certain compound; the compound was isolated even for that area; no one was sure if the man was still alive. They needed to get in, find him, get him out. If he was dead, they needed to sanitize the compound. They probably should sanitize it no matter what. One piece of luck: there was no way for the compound to contact the outside other than sending a messenger. The mountains blocked all signals other than sat-phone, and they had proof that this bunch didn’t have one. And no messengers were getting through, in or out.

Finally Mr. Jones started gathering his notes and other papers. “Okay, that’s all I’ve got. Wheels up …” he looked at all the frowns. “Never mind. You know where you’re supposed to be and when you need to be there. You need anything, call this number.” He wrote a number on a piece of paper and gave it to AJ. AJ looked at it then handed it to Jet. “You should keep that so you’ll have it.”

AJ gave him a flat look and rattled the number off. “I’ll remember it. We all will. Anything else?”

“No. I believe that covers it. I’ll be leaving now. Make your arrangements or have one of your superiors do it. If there’s any question, call that number.” With that he finished gathering up his things and walked out.

.

AJ made a call to Belt, who already knew all about everything, of course. They talked for a bit, then AJ handed his phone to Jet, who also had a short conversation with Belt.

An hour later they were in barracks packing their rucks. They had orders to fly to an unnamed coordinate in a country, then they were more or less on their own. They’d get some sort of transport to get them into the mountains, and that was it.

Twenty minutes later they were on a C-130 troop transport. This was better than usual, as the plane was full of seating modules instead of cargo. It meant that there were no screaming kids, the seats were moderately comfortable, and there was just about enough leg room. This plane even had a restroom, of sorts; just a tarp hung from the overhead with a port-a-potty, but it provided some privacy and eliminated the need to hold it for several hours. The normal flight, point-to-point, took about fourteen hours. That’s if they weren’t diverted to pick up or drop off men.

AJ sighed and shifted. It wasn’t even takeoff, and he was already restless. He knew it would get worse as time progressed, and there wasn’t much to do about it.

Remy poked him in the side. “Homme, be still. We not even takin’ off yet. Yo’ as restless as a long-tailed cat in a room full a’ rockin’ chairs.”

“Can’t help it. I don’t like this mission from the get-go. First, our original mission is a Charlie Foxtrot of massive proportions, and now some CIA dipshit got himself captured, but they’re not sure if he’s where the intel says he is … and the turd cherry on top of this shit sundae is, he might be dead.” AJ wriggled again. “Sorry. And this seat is … weird.”

“Get up then.” Remy waited until AJ stood up then ran his hand over the seat. “Som’tin’ here.” He poked around a bit then came up with an iPod from under the cushion, if you could call that thin foam pad a cushion. “Some ‘un be real unhappy. Here.” He handed the thing to AJ. “You deal.”

AJ took the iPod and checked to make sure he hadn’t damaged it by sitting on it. “Well, it’s not broken, so there’s that. And … Ha! … smart guy. He took a picture of his name and address and put it on the screen saver thing.”

Jet leaned over Remy. “You could give it to a crewman.”

“No, I’ll mail it direct. No sense in involving someone else.” AJ tucked the device into his ruck for safekeeping, then settled in again.

It wasn’t long before the engines began their whine up to speed, then they taxied into position and took off. The stomach-churning lift faded, and they were in the air. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief. These planes were reliable in the extreme, but there was always that one in who knew how many; this one wasn’t the one.

They leveled off at altitude to cruise toward their destination. AJ settled more comfortably in his seat, now that he could take his seatbelt off. “Man, what’s our ETA?”

Jet replied over his shoulder, “About o’dark thirty. We’re scheduled for somewhere around fourteen hours flight time.”

They all groaned. They knew that getting in that late was a real problem for them, and for the people who had to find them a rack for the night and transport to their final destination.

AJ snarled, “I know, I know. Suck it up and deal. I’m not any happier than you are.”

Surprisingly enough, the flight was mostly uneventful. Jet woke abruptly when some clumsy Corporal tripped over his feet, but that was about it.

Landing woke them all up, so they took time to check their area to make sure that they hadn’t dropped anything important. AJ made the man seated behind them pick up a half dozen candy bar wrappers and a chip bag, barking, “Damn it! Crew has enough shit to deal with without having to police your crap. Pick it all up before I make you eat it.”

The man grumbled, “Bitchy.”

“You want bitchy, hang around. I’ll put your ass on report. Now pick it up.”

The Lance Corporal did as he was told without another word; a good look at AJ’s collar shut him up quickly.

A Corporal met them at the hanger with a truck and a sealed brown cardboard file. “Maps, directions, new intel, and some pictures of men to look for. One’s an informant and the other is a target. There’s a pic of your CIA rescue as well. You’ve got about an hour of daylight left so I’d advise settling in for the night. If you want to do that, I’ll find you a rack.”

AJ’s quick look around had him saying, “Find us some rack space and a mess. We’ll leave in the morning.”

“Okay. I’ve got you space. I figured it was better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it. This way, please.” He led the way to the truck, got in the driver’s seat, and started the engine. He waited until everyone except AJ had clambered into the bed then started off.

It wasn’t long before he pulled up in front of a pre-fab. “Here we are. Mess is that way … you can see it from here. Your IDs are in the system as consultants and good for three days of meals.” He got out, slammed the door then saluted. AJ and Jet returned the salute, and he turned and trotted off into the gathering dusk.

“Well, shit. I’m hungry. Remy? You stow the gear?”

“Yeah. Jes’ dumped everyone’s shit on a rack. Food?”

Jet pointed. “I see the mess. Come on.”

They walked to the mess and joined the line at the door. It wasn’t long before they were at the head of the line. They presented credentials and were nodded through.

Unlike the last mess, this one was very good. They offered pork chops, gravy, mashed potatoes, smothered steak, peas, succotash, French fries, biscuits, light bread, meat balls in sauce, spaghetti, apple pie, and burnt-sugar cake.

They went through the line and found a table. Dean and Cos had gone with the pork chops, gravy, mashed potatoes, peas, and cake. Remy and AJ had smothered steak, fries, and pie. Jet went with the odd combination of meatballs, succotash, and both pie and cake.

Dean chewed a bite of chop then said, “Not bad, not overcooked, and the breading is nice.”

Cos agreed, adding, “Potatoes are real, and the peas aren’t mushy. Not that mushy peas are a bad thing, just not when you don’t intend them to be.”

This comment got a round of chuckles from the rest.

Remy chewed his smothered steak, made a face, then announced, “Doan know what cut a’ meat this is, but it’s tough as shoe leather. No taste t’ speak a’, and the smother is canned. It’ll do.”

AJ frowned but agreed, “Damned with faint praise. It’s edible.” He nibbled at a fry. “Blah! Baked, and soggy.”

Remy mumbled around a mouthful of fry. “Not baked long enough.”

Jet gave his opinion next. “Meatballs are really good. They’re mostly meat with just enough filler to keep them from crumbling. Spaghetti is a bit over-cooked but that’s to be expected, being kept in a steam table an’ all. The succotash is … just what it looks like. Could use some salt an’ pepper.” He added some of both, then took another bit. “Okay, that’s not awful.”

AJ shook his head. “That’s not a good recommendation. ‘That’s not awful’ … is … just sad.” He poked his food. “And this food is exactly that … sad.” He grumbled wordlessly and started eating as fast as he could chew and swallow; the rest of the Pod followed his example. Best to get it over with quickly.

When they were finished, they took their trays to the window, turned them in, and headed back for their barracks. It wasn’t long before they were all asleep.

.

Morning came early; as AJ put it, “O-fuckin’-dark-thirty is too fuckin’ early. Up and at ‘em. Jet! Cos! Remy! Dean! Hit it runnin’!”

They all stumbled out of their racks, gathered their things, and grumbled their way out to the truck. AJ got behind the wheel, fending Jet off in the process. He shook his head, “No. Just no. It’s too damn early for your driving. Later.”

Jet just smirked. “Okay. We hit an IED … I’m a’ say I told you so.”

“You do that.” AJ smiled at his friend. “You’re the king of I told you so.”

“So sue me. We goin’ or jawin’?”

Since the pickup had a bench seat and the rest of the seating was on a 2 x 4 plank flatbed, the rest of the pod just tossed their stuff onto the bed and climbed on. When they got settled, Remy knocked on the window, and they were off, everyone on the flatbed clinging to something to keep from being jolted off.

AJ drove circumspectly while they were on base, but once they were on public roads, all bets were off, and he drove as fast as the surface allowed. Jet kept an eye on the road as well. His few pithy remarks about the conditions were summed up by, “Juliette Foxtrot Charlie! I’ve seen better roads in the outback of nowhere.”

AJ swerved around a pothole that looked suspiciously like an IED crater, then replied, “Not much chance of repairs when someone keeps shootin’ the workmen.”

Jet nodded. “True … true.”

AJ drove for three hours, then turned the wheel over to Jet. Everyone on the back groaned, Jet was known for driving like a drunken Turkish taxi driver. He claimed that he took lessons from Ziva, who was known for driving like a maniac on crack.

Jet managed to not wreck them and got them to their destination over an hour before rendezvous. They hid the truck and themselves and waited.

Dean eyed his watch then signaled Cos, who was across the room from him. Cos signed, /What?/

Dean signed back, /They’re late./

/I know. Don’t like this./

/AJ?/

Cos caught AJ’s attention. /Contact late./

AJ nodded, then poked Jet, who signed, /Contact late? Orders?/

AJ shrugged. /Wait thirty more minutes, then O.M./

They all settled back to wait another thirty minutes; if their contact didn’t show by then, they’d have to contact their CO to see what to do next. AJ thought they’d be told to continue the mission, although he wasn’t fond of that idea.

Thirty minutes later their contact was a definite no-show, so they eased into a small back room, leaving Cos as lookout. Jet sighed and rubbed his face. “We need to decide … do we continue this CATFU, call in, or just call it quits?”

AJ frowned for a moment, then eyed Remy; if Remy said to abandon this mission, they’d head to home. Remy advised, “We bedda call in. Belt lose his shit we jes’ take off. Dean?”

Dean, who was in charge of the sat phone, nodded. He got the phone out and called in. It took a few minutes to get through, but when they did Belt was less than pleased. He snarled, then swore, “Well, shit. I’ll be back to you in five. Just hold on.”

Five minutes later, he was on the phone with orders directly from Captain Rafe McKinley, the East Coast Commander. He was not pleased and had already started an investigation into the whole op, which he referred to as a fucked-up mess. Their orders were to reconnoiter their target with all due caution, then, if things looked good, pick up their target or his body.

Jet let his displeasure be known. “Well, fuck me and call me Nancy. Damnit. My gut’s not happy with this SNAFU. It’s gone well past TARFUN and into FUBAR territory. BOHICA, man.”

AJ nodded his agreement but said, “Well, we have sat coordinates for our target; we have a vehicle. Oscar Mike.”

They gathered up what little equipment they’d deployed, got on the truck, and pulled out. AJ drove while Remy navigated. Jet checked their path against a map. Dean and Cos indulged in the ancient military pastime of bitching.

Dean shook his head, then said, “I don’t believe this shit. Swear, if they’ve sent us on a wild goose chase, this is my last rotation. Seriously. I’m up in six months.”

Cos agreed. “We’re too old for this damn shit. I’ll apply to NCIS.”

“Me too.”

Jet, overhearing this, announced, “You don’t need to apply; you’re already agents. All you need to do is apply for full-time. Vance will be thrilled. Now shut up.”

.

AJ pulled over in a small ravine to trade with Remy. “We’ll hang here for a bit. Food, water, cold camp. Anyone?”

No one wanted to argue with AJ; they were all hot, tired, and hungry. It didn’t take them long to settle in the shade of the truck and dig out MREs.

Dean finished his MRE, stashed the remaining bits and pieces in his pocket, then stood up. “Anyone want water?”

Remy, Cos, and AJ nodded while Jet just waggled his bottle. Dean handed around bottles then settled back with his. They idled around for about an hour then hit the road again.

Remy drove just as fast at AJ and just as carefully. They were on some sort of goat track when he swerved wildly while flooring the accelerator. They just missed an IED. It went off with a sharp ‘whap,’ throwing dirt, gravel, and small rocks in every direction. Remy didn’t bother to stop, or even slow down; no one was hurt, proven by the lack of a sharp rap on the back widow.

They finally made their camp; dusk was falling, and it wasn’t safe to drive anymore. Remy pulled off the dirt track into another ravine and parked. Dean got out with a metal detector and carefully scoured the whole area for bombs. He didn’t find anything, so they all took a break in the bushes, then settled to eat again.

AJ took the opportunity to use his sat phone to call Belt. He really wanted to know what the hell was going on. He didn’t like this mission and wasn’t ashamed to bitch as high as he could manage.

The intel made him swear. Their rescue had been ‘executed;’ in other words, murdered. The video had been uploaded to YouTube, who’d immediately taken it down and sent the footage to the CIA. Belt told AJ that he’d been about to call when AJ had called him. Their new mission was to get to the compound and waste it. There were no women or children there, and while an air strike was the safest option, they couldn’t call one in, because the compound was under an overhanging cliff, like an Anasazi cliff dwelling. So they were being sent in to establish the fact that murdering an American wasn’t a good idea.

AJ frowned at the orders, then demanded that they be in writing; an email to the sat phone or a text to his personal phone would do.

Jet sighed. “I hate retaliatory strikes, something usually goes wrong.”

Dean shrugged, “What could possibly go wrong?” The only thing that saved him from personal damage was the heavy sarcasm that laced his tone of voice.

Remy snarled, “Doan know. Lemme count t’ ways.” He poked at his MRE. “Dis all we got? Almost-meat loaf an’ …” He poked again. “Slime pretend t’ be taters.”

Cos grumbled, “Can’t be as bad as mush pretendin’ t’ be spaghetti and … pseudo-meatballs. An’ the sauce is sweet. Whoever heard a’ puttin’ sugar in tomato sauce? Can’t call it spaghetti sauce as there’s not a leaf a’ herb in the whole batch.”

AJ agreed. “Sugar? You just need a tablespoon for the whole batch … just to kill the acidity.” he opened his MRE. “Oh … yum.” his flat tone made Jet snicker. “Yeah, asshole, yuck it up. I got tuna noodle … with peas?” His doubtful tone told its own tale. “I liked the last batch we got much better. That stew was practically good.”

Jet added his own complaint. “I got chili … sort a’. Smells like taco meat … I think I saw a bean, but … maybe not.” He ate another bite. “No, doomed t’ disappointment. I think it’s just a larger piece a’ meat.”

They continued to eat and bitch until everyone was done. Then Jet got out their mission pack and found the large topographical map of the area. “Okay. We’re here.” He pointed to a spot on the map. “Where we need to be is here. We’re about six klicks out, but I’m not travelin’ after dark … good way t’ get your ass blown off. So we set a cold camp here an’ move out in the morning as soon as we can see.”

Remy and Cos both grumbled that they’d already agreed on this, so what was the deal. Jet replied, “We discussed the possibility. We’re now confirming that this is what we’re doing. Got a problem? Take it to the mats.”

Both men held up their hands in surrender; Remy babbled, “Non, non. No necessary, homme; Bon Dieu, you touchy.”

Jet eyed them for a second, then allowed, “My gut’s not happy. And I think we’re all a bit touchy. None of us like this changin’ horses in midstream.”

Everyone agreed that they didn’t like it; there was something bad coming, and they all knew it, so they were jumpy.

That settled to everyone’s satisfaction, they made camp, which consisted of throwing sleeping bags under the truck or on the ground in whatever position suited the owner, then flopping down on it. No one even took his boots off.

AJ ordered, “Cos, first watch. Remy, second. Jet?”

“Yeah. I’ll take third. You drive first?”

“Fine.”

And with that everyone except Cos went to sleep.

.

 

Wake-up was at grey dawn. Jet kicked Remy’s feet, Remy kicked AJ’s, and so on down the line until everyone was awake.

Jet made one last circuit of the clearing while the others packed up all the gear. He still had a bad feeling about this whole thing, but it wouldn’t gel into anything specific, which left him feeling vaguely uneasy. He rubbed the back of his neck, then trotted back to the truck when AJ called him in.

“Okay. We Oscar Mike?”

AJ nodded. “We are. Remy’s drivin’, I’m navigatin’. Unless you want to.”

Jet shook his head. “You’re fine. I … guts givin’ me fits. I’d rather be look-out.”

Dean nodded. “Me too. This Charlie Foxtrot has disaster tattooed on its ass.”

“Don’t I know it.” Cos tossed the last of the gear up to Dean, who tucked it into the gear box mounted behind the cab. “They could have padded this bitch, you know?”

“Yeah. But … it’s better than hoofin’ it.” Cos clambered onto the truck bed and settled in. “Bang the roof, we’re all set.”

AJ obliged and they were off again.

They drove until late afternoon, then stopped to do a position check. AJ checked their coordinates against the map and sighed. “We’re about an hour out. We’ll wait until full dark, then move in. Remy and I’ll hit the main building. Cos, Dean, you’ll hit the fuel dump at the back. Be careful. If there’s a lot of fuel, don’t plant explosives; just open the petcock and let it drain. We don’t want to bring that overhang down on our heads. Jet, you’ll position yourself at a good vantage point and snipe any runners; go pick your spot.”

“On it.” Jet picked up his cases and slipped away to set his nest. One of the reasons he’d been called for this mission was his ability to shoot without a spotter.

AJ settled in his own observation nest on the roof of a house outside the compound and set his scope on a sandbag that he took out of a pocket and filled on the spot. He knew that they were skating the edge of disaster, but what else was new?

Dean and Cos joined Remy in checking all their equipment over, making sure all the magazines were loaded and returned to their pouches. They also made sure that everyone had water, refilling the hydration bladders from a tank on the truck, emptying it in the process. One final check of MREs and medic kits, and they were done.

“Ready to rock.”

AJ just clicked his radio once to let them know he’d heard; another click came from Jet

Cos, Dean, and Remy settled in the shade of the truck to wait until dusk, when they would move.

AJ watched the compound carefully, but didn’t see any movement at all. It was hot, so they didn’t expect to see a lot of people out in the open. The sun would bake your brains in no time. But he thought there would be some movement, someone going from house to house or to the well. But he didn’t see anyone.

He frowned; something else was wrong. “Viper. Something is wrong. What?”

Jet had also noticed something. “There’s no vehicles. Not a car, truck, motor … nothing.”

AJ made a decision. “That something that isn’t right. Cobra … Scorpion … recon. I want eyes on that compound close up.”

Remy eeled into AJ’s nest. He wasn’t about to show a silhouette so he stayed on his belly. “If dat compound empty … what?”

“We level it and leave. Then I’m findin’ out exactly who’s responsible for this Charlie Foxtrot and givin’ that ASVAB waiver recipient a GOMAR.” AJ never took his eye off his scope.

“Okay. Done an’ done.”

Remy settled by the radio to wait for Cos and Dean to report. It didn’t take them long to report in. Dean was first and only said that there was no movement that he could see and the few looks into windows he’d managed made him think the place was deserted. Cos’s report was nearly the same. It seemed that their tangos had abandoned the place soon after they murdered the CIA asset.

AJ kept looking through the scope while they reconned; he wasn’t about to leave them without ‘eyes’. As Remy said, “My definition of help from above is a sniper on the roof.”

AJ called them all in. When they got back he gave them a quick rundown. “The compound is empty. Dean and Cos confirmed that. Jet didn’t see shit and neither did I, so … we’ll follow orders and blow the whole place … bring the overhang down and clear out. It’s two days by truck to pickup.”

Jet eyed the sky then offered, “Full dark in an hour. You want to wait that long? We could blow this now and be on our way.”

“You don’t think we’ll attract attention from someone?”

Remy shook his head. “Really? Like blowin’ shit up isn’t gonna attract a Foxtrot Tango of attention. If this compound is abandoned, which it is, there’s no one in about 10 klicks in any direction, so it’ll take a bit of time for anyone to get here, if they even bother. I say we blow it now and drive all night.

AJ thought for a moment then agreed. “Okay. Everyone knows their job … go do it.”

After a quick check of their night vision gear, Dean and Cos grabbed their bags and slipped off into the deepening twilight. AJ and Remy followed quickly, while Jet settled in the nest to keep an overwatch on everyone.

Dean and Cos slipped into the back of the overhang where the gas and diesel tanks were. They were locked, but that didn’t mean anything to them. Cos made the charges while Dean placed them. They checked the detonators, then made their way back to Jet.

AJ and Remy dropped a charge down the central well, then put additional charges here and there. One house, the main one, was obviously the prison. This house they searched for any papers, books, or computers. They didn’t find any computers or other electronics, but they found a couple of USB drives and a DS chip. There were also some papers. They gathered them all up to send to the CIA. They also made their silent way back to Jet.

AJ took time to get out his night vision binoculars and look around. After a few moments he whispered, “Good. Clear. Blow it.”

Remy, who had been standing by with the detonator remote in his hand, clicked the button. The resulting explosions brought the overhang down with a loud crump. The rattling of random rocks and bits only lasted about a minute.

Remy tucked the remote into a pocket, remarking softly, “Well, dat be dat. We go.”

AJ agreed, “Oscar Mike.”

The truck was still parked in the clearing, as expected, so they dumped their rucks on the bed and sorted seating. Jet was to drive while Remy navigated. AJ would stand behind the cab as lookout while Dean and Cos rested. Dean would take driver at dawn with Cos as navigator. Jet and AJ would rest and Remy would take over as lookout.

At least that was the plan. As the old saying goes, “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” They were only two hours out when fate turned her back on them.

The truck coasted to a stop, engine sputtering weakly.

AJ snarled, “Well, Jesus on a mop stick. Cos!”

Cos was already scrambling off the bed. “Okay, got it.” He threw up the hood and started poking around. “Fuel … okay. Filters … Air is clear.” He pulled the fuel filter. “Nope … clean. AJ … we got a full tank?”

AJ used a found stick to stick the tank. “Yeah. Nearly full.” They’d all learned not to trust fuel gauges around here; they sometimes stuck.

Cos fiddled with the guts of the truck for a few more minutes then threw his hands up. “No deal. We’ll have to hoof it.”

AJ nodded. “Fate’s a bitch. Get your gear.”

This was a bit of a problem, as both Jet and AJ had long gun cases, which they were not leaving behind. No sense in handing the enemy more firepower, and they didn’t have the resources to destroy them; blowing them up would defeat the purpose of silent running.

They decided to break them down and share the load. It took a bit of cussing and fussing, but they finally had the rifles broken down and stowed in rucks. Dean, Cos, and Remy each took a couple of parts, which left AJ and Jet with the ammo and critical bits.

They trotted along in silence, careful of their footing in the dark. The moon was at half phase, so it didn’t provide as much light as it could have. But, as the old saying goes, ‘Wish in one hand, shit in the other; see which one fills up first.’

They traveled for four hours; then AJ called a halt. “We’ll stop here for a bit. Get a drink, check your water. If you’re low, we’ll look for a sippy spring or a well. Remy … anything on the map?”

Remy used a carefully shielded light to consult the map for a source of water. “There’s an old caravan well about a klick that way. It’s not out of our way that far, so we should stop. Just hope it’s not poisoned or booby-trapped. We should do a good recon before we approach.”

AJ eyed the sky for a moment. “It’s going to be false dawn in about an hour. We’ll stay hidden until then. After we recon we’ll get water, then find a place to rest for a bit. I’m not sure I want to be trekking this damn desert in daylight. Good way to get heat stroke.”

“It is too hot during the day.” Jet agreed but added the caveat, “But the chances of tripping and fuckin’ yourself up are higher at night.”

The well was in a deep depression surrounded by a ridge to the east and another to the south. They made it to the well just as the sun rose completely over the ridge.

AJ eyed the well through his spotter scope. “No sign of any traps. We got a way to test for poison?”

“Don’t need one. If it was poisoned, there’d be dead animals around it.” Jet eyed the ground around the well for a second time. “I don’t see so much as a mouse.”

“Okay. Dean …” AJ waved, indicating the direction he wanted Dean to go. “That way. Remy … Up on the ridge. Cos … that way.” He waved in the opposite direction to Dean. “Jet, eyes on Dean. I’ll keep eyes on Cos.”

They took their time, checking the whole area for signs of recent use and any kind of trap.

Finally, Cos returned to AJ followed shortly by Dean. Remy slid down the ridge to join the group. The reports were nearly identical, no one had been to the well in some time; there were no traps that they could see, and there were no dead animals.

“Ok, we’ll go down and open the well, get water and hole up for a bit.”

AJ and Jet removed the sand that had blown over the well cover— no sense in letting it drop into the well and contaminate it; they didn’t have time to let it settle, and drinking sandy water, even through a Purstraw, wasn’t fun.

It didn’t take them long to sweep the sand away and move the cover. That was when they found out why no one had been there: the well was half collapsed.

“Well, shit.” Remy eyed the slanted slab of rock. “Dis no good.”

Cos joined him. “Well, it’s an old-fashioned well … wide as a whore’s ass. We could just fix it.”

AJ nodded. “And all it’ll take is a couple of minutes … wish we had some Quickcrete. That’d fix it for good. Okay … let’s get started.”

Remy produced some rope and tied it off on a tree. “There. Dean?”

“I know, I know. I’m the smallest of us.”

Jet shook his head. “No … I am. And if anyone rubs my nose in it, I’ll kick your ass.”

No one said anything, they just prepared to belay Jet as he climbed down into the well to fix the blockage.

Jet walked down the wall of the well and examined the loose slab of stone. It was plastered into place, but some of the plaster had crumbled and fallen off; the slab was now tilted into the well, pivoting on its bottom. Jet pushed it back into place and grumbled, “Now, how to hold it?” He yelled up, “How do I keep this fucker in place?” The reply was just a collapsable bucket full of mud. “Okay, that’ll do.” He used the mud to replace the old plaster, pushing some behind the slab then using the rest to seal around the top edge.

AJ called, “We’ll pull you up then wait for that plaster to dry.”

AJ and Remy pulled Jet up and helped him over the edge. Jet never noticed when his knee hit a projecting bit of stone, he was too busy trying to get upright.

An hour later they checked and found that the improvised mortar was dry. They used the same bucket that had held the mortar to draw up enough water to fill all their hydration bladders and a couple of other containers. They were soon done drawing the water and recovering the well, but the purification setup could only process so much at a time so they spent the rest of the morning and most of the afternoon sitting in the shade, resting, eating and bitching. Not that unusual for the military. As AJ said, “Hurry up and wait, military standard procedure.”

As soon as all the water was processed and distributed, they headed out. They’d all eaten again so there wouldn’t be a stop; they’d travel all night, eating as they went. Dawn would be another rest stop, then they should be at their pick-up at noon.

AJ set a slow trotting pace that covered ground quickly, but didn’t put them in danger of heat stroke, dehydration, or tripping. They moved silently through the deepening twilight and into the night. The moon was a bit brighter this night, but it still didn’t provide enough light for safe hard running.

They ran all night, only stopping once to hydrate and powder their feet. Remy, Jet, and Cos changed socks.

Jet realized he was in trouble around 0300. His knee was beginning to swell and the pain was beginning to interfere with his stride. He couldn’t figure out what he’d done to it. It had been damaged the first time he’d been blown up, then again later on. It gave him problems from time to time, but now he was in serious pain.

“AJ. I’ve got to stop for a minute. My knee is givin’ me fits.”

AJ called the halt in a narrow, easily defended ravine. “Okay. What happened?”

Jet dropped his pack and his pants, as that was the easiest way to see his knee. He’d have to take off his boot, then try to pull his pants up otherwise.

Cos turned on his helmet light and knelt to take a look. “Fuck me. Jet, your knee is really bruised. Did you knock it on something?”

Jet frowned for a moment. “Maybe did when I climbed out of the well. Didn’t really notice.”

“Well, I bet you’re noticing now. This is not good. Bend it for me.”

Jet bent his knee, hissing in discomfort. “Ah! Not good is right. It’s fucked up.”

AJ just picked up Jet’s pack and opened it. “Okay. Only thing you’re carryin’ from now on is water, food, and some ammo. Divide this shit up an’ let’s get back on the road.”

It didn’t take long to divide up the contents of Jet’s pack. They each took some of the contents, which only added about ten to fifteen pounds to their load. Since this op was only supposed to be an in-and-out, no one had brought much in the way of toiletries or clothing, only socks and underwear, toothpaste, and foot powder.

“Okay. Oscar Mike.”

.

AJ kept a careful eye on Jet; he was really concerned that the other man might not make it on his own. He knew the humiliation of having to be carried home.

Jet called another halt at dawn. “Sorry, guys, gotta stop again.”

They stopped, and Cos took another look at Jet’s knee. “He’s not gonna make it. Some un’s gotta carry ‘im.”

Jet started to say something, then shut up. He knew he had already wrecked his knee, and he wasn’t going to make it many more steps before he just collapsed. “Okay. I give.”

“You better. I’m not carryin’ some squirmin’ grunt. Upsy daisy.” AJ put Jet over his back in a military rescue carry and jounced him a couple of times to get settled. “Someone take my pack?”

Dean quickly stuffed Jet’s pack into AJ’s then strapped that to his own and trotted off. “Got it. Let’s go.”

Jet tried apologizing once and got a chorus of, “Hold hard, dude,” and “Shut the fuck up,” as well as various versions of “take it like a Marine.”

AJ slowed their rate to half the usual. It was still dark enough that travel was dangerous, and he was carrying a heavy-ass Marine. He called a short halt at about 1000 to change things around. Remy took Jet, Cos took his pack, and they moved on.

They traveled faster now that the sun was up, but they were going to have to travel longer to make up for their slower pace. They all hated traveling in the heat of the day, especially during the two hours on either side of sun noon.

Remy groaned, “Homme, I need break. It too hot now.”

Jet, draped across his shoulders like a foundered calf, added his own complaint, “I need a break too. This is killin’ me.”

AJ pointed. “There. Shade, maybe water too.”

They did a quick recon on the derelict building. It was probably an abandoned family compound; two sides were some sort of building, the other two were thick walls. The well in the middle of the courtyard was good, so they settled in to wait out the heat of the day.

Cos took the opportunity to check Jet’s knee again. “Man, that looks really fuckin’ bad.” Jet grumbled wordlessly. “I know, I said that already. Idiot. What the hell were you thinkin’, runnin’ on that knee?”

“I was thinkin’ that I could make it. Obviously not. It’s really hot and sore. I’ll be glad when we get to the chopper.” Jet leaned back against the wall, face twisted in a grimace of pain. “Fuck!”

Cos fished in his ruck. “I’ve got some candy … Here.” He looked up as someone handed him a cup over his shoulder. “Thanks.” He handed it to Jet. “Drink. I know you gave all your water to AJ and Remy.”

“Well, they’re carryin’ my heavy damn ass.” He crunched the packet of pills, drank all the water then shuddered a bit. “Damn that’s cold.”

Dean took the cup back, saying, “It is?” He felt the chill from the cup. “Man, it really is. I’ma make a cold pack. As soon as I get a drink myself.” He stood up and ambled to the well.

It didn’t take him long to get his cold drink and make a pack. This consisted of Jet’s shemagh, AJ’s clean t-shirt, and Remy’s shemagh, all soaked in the cold water. “Here. Hold that on your knee. And eat this.” Cos handed over the pack and an MRE.

Jet put the pack on his throbbing knee. He knew he was in deep shit as it throbbed like an abscessed tooth. He leaned against the wall and opened his meal. It was chicken and rice, not bad as MREs went.

AJ wandered around the small courtyard gathering up the leftovers from the MREs as he went. They’d all learned from Abby’s habit of keeping sugar packets, creamers, and other condiments from take-out and the MREs she ate when she was working over.

Remy eyed the sky for a moment then offered, “Might move out … me’be. Sun’s started down.”

Cos and Dean just got up and started adjusting their packs. Dean pulled out the rifle parts he was carrying. “We could drop the barrels and stocks down the well. Can’t do much without the receivers. Keep the ammo and mags?”

AJ shook his head. “Don’t want to do that … foul the well. But … this place hasn’t seen people in several years. Search around. There’s got to be a good cache place around.”

Remy nodded. “I’ll check.” It wasn’t long before he’d found what they were looking for. There was an old oven at the back in the angle formed by one of the buildings and the outer wall. It wasn’t much, but the oven was a lot deeper than it looked, and the door was covered with an iron plate. He gathered up the stocks, barrels, and tripods, wrapped them in a couple of t-shirts, and pushed them as far back as they’d go. He tossed some sand in, then closed the door. After that he gathered some of the bricks that had fallen from the wall and bricked over the door. It now looked like someone had just not bothered to finish the wall in that area. He took a GPS reading in hopes that they could send someone back for the parts.

“Okay. I’m done. How much farther is it?”

AJ was already consulting his GPS and maps. “About ten klicks. Remy, you carry Jet first.”

Jet frowned, started to say something, flexed his knee, then decided to keep his mouth shut. AJ eyed him for a moment then said sadly, “I thought not.”

Jet stood up and allowed Remy to drape him over his shoulders. Dean, Cos, and AJ shouldered packs, AJ taking two and Cos taking two.

AJ ordered, “We’ll switch around every hour, keep hydrated. Oscar Mike.”

With fresh water and a good rest, they managed to make it to the pickup point by full dark. AJ phoned in and was told that the chopper would be there as soon as it was safe to fly. That meant that they would be spending the night right there. Not that that was a bad thing. They’d made better time than expected and were about six hours ahead.

AJ turned to Jet to see that he was shivering. “Cold? It’s colder than a whore’s heart out here at night.”

Jet tried to keep his shivering down but it wasn’t working. “I know. Desert Storm, remember? An’ I’m freezin’ my damn ass off.”

“Remy?” AJ turned to his bud. “We’ll share with Jet. Okay?”

“You know it. Here … blanket. Put ‘er down.”

AJ took the blanket and spread it out. Jet lay down in the middle of it but started to roll to one side. AJ stopped him. “Nope. You’re the grouchy Marine center to the yummy SEAL sandwich.”

This was greeted with soft groans. “Shut up. You’re all just jealous of my dazzling wit.”

No one said much to that as they were well aware that their voices would carry badly if they got too rowdy. AJ nodded to Dean. “First watch. Cos, second. I’ll take third.” Remy started to say something but AJ pointed to him over Jet. “Sleep now.”

It wasn’t long before Remy, Cos, AJ and Jet were sound asleep. Dean paced the perimeter, keeping an eye out for anything threatening; three hours later he kicked Cos’s feet. “Your turn.”

Cos got up and looked around while Dean tried to arrange the blanket over him, Cos absently pulled it into place for him then walked off.

The night went without incident, for which they were all glad. They were eating a cold breakfast when the faint thump of rotors alerted them that their ride was approaching.

AJ tossed his half-eaten MRE down and announced, “Well, they’re here. Come on.” He scooped Jet up and headed for the landing at as fast a trot as he could manage. The rest of the group pounded after him.

They entered the landing area just as the chopper began to hover. AJ signaled the all clear and the chopper landed. The big side door opened and a medic hopped out. “Okay, where’s he shot?”

AJ replied, “Not shot. FUBARed his knee. Let’s go.”

They all climbed into the chopper and settled in. Take off was smooth, and they all relaxed, finally; they were in the clear.
.
SOS - Shit On a Shingle (creamed chipped beef on toast)
BOHICA - bend over; here it comes again.
WOMBAT: Waste Of Money, Brains, And Time