Only the Dead Live Forever (15 page)

BOOK: Only the Dead Live Forever
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27.

 

 

 

Winslow had
quickly rushed them back down the passageway and into the compartment. He said
he would be back and promised to explain what was going on later before
slamming the door behind him as he left. The horn had stopped blaring but they
could hear the commotion in the passageway; men running back and forth, boots
on stairs, hatches opening and closing.

“This your first
time on a Navy vessel, Brad?” Brooks asked.

“Yes it is. So
is this kind of thing normal?” Brad answered.

“Maybe, if that
was a drill, but it sure didn’t sound like it; that boom sounded for real.”

Brooks walked
across the room and took a seat across from Brad. He reached out his hand and
tossed a pack of cigarettes on Brad’s lap.

“Ahh, thanks
Brooks, but I don’t smoke,” Brad said, picking up the cigarette package.

“Yeah I get
that, just open it up.”

Brad lifted the
lid on the cigarette package and saw it was nearly half full. He looked back at
Brooks and shrugged his shoulders.

“Come on man,
look a bit harder,” Brooks protested.

Brad pulled back
the cellophane and foil wrapper and saw a thin slip of paper wrapped around the
pack. He looked up and saw Brooks was now smiling in approval. Brad removed the
slip of thin paper and quickly unfolded it. It revealed a small, carefully
hand-drawn map. Below the map a time was written.

“So what is
this? Where did you get it?” Brad asked.

“Chief dropped
it in my pocket during our brief meet and greet in the galley line,” Brooks
explained. “Looks like a map to the aft smoke deck; I’m thinking Chief wants to
join us later.”

“Why?” Nelson
asked, suddenly interested in the conversation.

Brooks looked
back at him. “So he can tell us what the fuck is going on. Smoking is still one
of the rare acceptable things to do in private on a vessel. And one of the
times you can bullshit with a chief without anyone thinking anything of it.”

Brad gave Brooks
a puzzled look. “You’re on his team, Brooks, why haven’t you been pulled out of
here? I thought all of you guys stick together.”

“It has
definitely crossed my mind. Maybe we are intentionally being kept apart. We’ll
find out soon enough.”

They waited
quietly in their racks. Winslow had been by twice to check on them and he had
blamed the loud explosion on a steam pipe bursting below decks. The expression
on Brooks’ face clearly showed what the SEAL’s opinions were of the story.
Winslow had finally left them alone at just after eight in the evening. Before
he left, he said he would see them again at six a.m. to lead them to chow.
Winslow also told them to stay in the compartment and try to limit their
movements to the head across the hall. The guards often got jumpy at night and
nobody wanted to get hurt. The men intentionally kept their plans for an
evening smoke from Winslow. They wanted to leave doubts of innocence in
anyone’s mind in case they got caught.

Just after dark,
they snuck out of the compartment and into the passageway. They left Nelson
behind to play decoy and to stall any visitors that might choose to peek their
heads in. If the hatch opened while they were out on their ‘smoke’ break,
Nelson would intercept them in the compartment. His job was to distract them
with random conversation to delay the discovery of the missing men.

Brad and Brooks
quietly moved down the passageway following the map. Brooks had memorized the
path so they wouldn’t look like lost tourists. They crossed paths with a few
sailors in the hall, but they walked as if they were on a mission and no one
questioned them. Finally they found the exit to the aft smoke deck. Brooks
stepped out first, with Brad close behind him.

The deck was
large and located directly on the back of the ship. It wasn’t what Brad had
expected to see: no rushing water wake trailing behind them or gusts of wind –
the ship rested silently in the water. Brad searched the horizon and could just
make out other vessels around them. The drone of equipment and blowers made for
ambient noise. The sky was filled with bright stars.

There were a
couple other clusters of men, quietly chatting. It was dark and hard to make
out anyone’s face. Brad followed Brooks to an empty section of the rail. Brooks
fished out a couple of the cigarettes. Brad used a pack of matches they had
acquired and he lit up. They leaned against the rail, making casual
conversation about the weather and how bad the food was. No one seemed to
notice them, or even care that they were on the deck. The other sailors were
preoccupied with their own group’s conversations.

Brad was halfway
through his cigarette and was becoming impatient. He had never been a fan of
smoking, and was hoping he wouldn’t have to light another one. He sensed
movement at the rail next to him. Sean had finally arrived. He was alone and
still wearing the tan uniform from earlier. He calmly stood against the rail
and asked if he could bum a smoke.

Sean took a
cigarette from Brooks and shielded the breeze as Brad used a match to light it.
Sean inhaled deeply and exhaled a cloud of smoke. He casually changed his
position so that he was standing just behind the other two men. To an unknowing
observer, they would appear to be strangers who happen to be sharing the same
space.

Sean stepped a
bit closer so he was just behind their shoulders. He placed his hands in his
pockets and spoke in a low voice. “Looks like you have gotten all settled in,”
he said.

Brad turned to
speak, but Sean interrupted him. “Don’t turn around … I’m sure we’re clear out
here, but let’s keep this very bland. If anyone notices, this was a chance
encounter like in the galley line. I was told specifically not to meet with any
of you until we reached the island,” Sean said.

Brooks leaned
out and spit over the rail. “So what’s the story then? Some odd shit is
definitely going on here.”

“Yeah, what’s
with that explosion?” Brad asked.

Sean blew
another puff of smoke out over the rail. “There is a lot of shit going on here.
I don’t have a lot of time to break everything down. What I can say is there
appears to be a large portion of the crew that isn’t happy with this ‘new
start’ idea that the admiral has conjured up.”

“New start?
First I’ve heard of that,” Brad said.

“Well, that is
the official code name for this flotilla at sea and the island base. The
admiral seems to think that the fleet is better off out here in the middle of
nowhere. He plans to make a home of the island and the nuke boats; at least
until the good ol’ US of A gets its act together. I don’t know how deep things
go. I heard some rumbling that he outright refused recall orders from the Chief
of Naval Ops.”

Sean paused to
take another drag on the cigarette before continuing.

“I’m not ready
to judge the man just yet. I heard that he was warned from someone in
Washington that returning would be a suicide mission. He declined the orders
for the sake of the fleet. I don’t know, and at this point I really don’t
care.”

“So what does
this mean for us?” Brooks asked.

“Just keep
playing along, okay? Transportation has been arranged to the island tomorrow. 
We’ll be placed on different work assignments. All of the fighter types are on
salvage and recon teams. Yes Brad, I got you assigned to my group. But the rest
of our people have been put on different things. Don’t sweat it right now.
There’s already planning going on without us. There’s a plan to get back
stateside in the works. Brooks and I have friends here on the recon teams.”

Brad nodded
before speaking. “What do we do now?”

“Like I said,
play along. Don’t cause any problems to prevent you from going to the island
and being assigned to my group.”

“And the
explosion?” Brooks asked.

“Some dumbass
tried to steal a boat, thought he could escape to the coast. A jumpy guard
dropped a grenade. A lot of stupid shit is going on. Get back to your racks and
get some sleep. Act surprised when they tell you we’re leaving,” Sean said
before he flicked the cigarette out over the rail.

After they
returned to their quarters, they had a short wait before the compartment door
slammed open and the bright lights were turned on. Two new faces entered the
compartment, shouting about short notice for an island flight. Winslow dragged
in just behind them, apologizing for the short notice while he helped them fold
up their bedding and pack their limited belongings in the sea bags. Quickly,
they dressed and assembled in the passageway. The two strange men had them
standing against the wall, holding their bags to the side, and then they sent
Winslow away. He quickly wished them good luck and disappeared down the
passage.

More men started
moving towards them. For the first time since they had arrived on board, Brad
saw Chelsea and Tony, carrying identical sea bags and being rushed along by
their own group of escorts. As the group passed them, Brad saw Sean walking in
stride with another chief. Brad’s group fell in behind Sean and they were
rushed up to the deck. They followed a walkway around and ended up at a large
helipad.

It was still
dark and the morning air was cold. Brad searched the skies and saw nothing. He
asked when the helicopter would be there, but was quickly asked to be quiet by
his escorts. Then he noticed a pile of gear near the corner of the deck. Brad
recognized the large locker that they had placed their weapons in days earlier.
He saw his large rucksack and a good portion of his body armor in another pile.
Brad tried to move close so that he could inspect his gear, but again he was
grabbed and asked to just wait in place.

They heard the
helicopter coming in; Brad recognized it as a Sea Stallion, larger than the
Army’s Black Hawk. It moved slowly over the water and lined up with the ship.
Quickly it was on the deck, its rotor wash making communication difficult.
Again they were being rushed to action. Brad felt the escort’s hand grip his
collar as he was somewhat shoved and guided towards the helicopter and into the
open bay doors. If Sean hadn’t warned him to play nice, he might have been
tempted to turn and knock the pushy man on his ass.

Brad was shoved
through and almost fell to the deck of the Sea Stallion. He caught himself and
was guided into a seat by one of the crew. A crew chief assisted with the
loading of all of their gear and slid the door shut. He gave the pilots a
thumbs up, and the bird climbed up and away from the tail of the ship. Now that
they were in the air, Brad could look out of the small porthole window and see
the enormity of the fleet. He counted over forty large ships in the water. This
was more than what he imagined a carrier strike group would normally be
assigned.

Brad saw Chelsea
sitting a few seats down from him. He extended out of his seat so that he could
smile at her. Chelsea acknowledged him with a short wave. The helicopter was
loud and they hadn’t been given head phones, so verbal communication was
impossible. He sat back and watched the ships fade into the distance. The
helicopter leveled out and sped towards the island.

From the Sea
Stallion’s view, the island appeared desolate. On the approach, they flew over
a teal-colored shallow lagoon before the helicopter increased elevation and
covered a range of red rock formations. Brad could see the shapes of a small
village in the distance, but nothing resembling an airbase.

The pilots
pitched the helicopter forward and sharp to the right as it flew parallel to a
dusty dirt road. The road eventually ran into and was blocked at a
hastily-strewn fence. Finally the camp slowly came into view; a virtual tent
city. Fixed-wing aircraft had been positioned along the sides of the dirt road,
and vehicles of every type were neatly parked in a large gravel lot. The camp
reminded Brad of images he had seen of the Sudan rather than a U.S. military
installation.

 

28.

 

 

 

When the crew
chief slid the door open, the heat hit them straight on like a blast furnace.
It felt like it had to be a hundred and twenty degrees, but could have very
well been hotter. Brad looked at his watch. It was barely six a.m. and the heat
was already unbearable. The pilots calmly began powering down the helicopter.
The hurried and rushed tempo of earlier seemed to have been left on the ship.

The crew chief
removed his head gear and goggles and stepped onto the dusty road. He moved to
the back of the helicopter, and Brad watched as the ramp was lowered. More men
approached from out of Brad’s view. They calmly walked up and started casual
conversations with the helicopter’s crew before one of the men walked to the
open ramp and introduced himself.

“Good morning, I
am Tech Sergeant Robertson of the U.S. Air Force. Please exit the helicopter
from the ramp. Please grab a bag on your way out. Don’t waste my time searching
for your own bag; just grab something and exit. We’re all headed to the same
place,” the man shouted.

Brad got to his
feet and lined up behind the other passengers. He saw a pile of backpacks and
rucksacks, along with the green sea bags. Brad spotted his large MultiCam
rucksack in the pile near the large foot locker filled with weapons. He moved
near the pile and grabbed the two closest bags as he followed the line out onto
the gravel road. 

A group of
sailors had formed a work party and were taking the carried bags from the
passengers before stacking them in a cart. Brad and the rest of the passengers
continued walking. As Brad passed by the cart, he could see that it was
harnessed to a pair of donkeys. “Where the hell have we landed?” Brad mumbled
to himself.

The tech
sergeant walked them across the road and to a clearing. He instructed them to
line up in a formation facing west. Brad watched as their formation was joined
by other passengers from helicopters that had just landed. A sailor next to
Brad said they were intakes from the other ships. Brad counted close to thirty
people. The donkey carts were full, and were slowly led away towards the tent
city.

They were
instructed to listen for their names and move to the left or the right. The
tech sergeant read names from a clipboard and gave out directions. Brad heard
them call Nelson, Tony, and Chelsea to the left. Soon there were only a few of
them remaining in the formation. Brad finally heard his name called and was
instructed to move to the right. He fell out of the formation and found a group
of men gathered around a stocky Marine.

Brooks and Sean
were also in the newly-formed group. The Marine introduced himself and they
followed him down the dusty road. There were only six of them out of the
original thirty or so that had landed. The Marine explained that they had been
separated from the camp support folks and that they would be assigned to
security and recon groups.  First, all of them would be reunited with their
weapons and gear; next, they would be assigned a housing tent.

Brad walked
alongside Brooks as they stepped onto a small wooden deck positioned in front
of a green tent. They were quickly briefed and split up into groups. The rest
of the men were led away by escorts, while Brad found himself standing with
just Brooks and Sean.

A fourth man
walked out of the tent and embraced Sean in a hug, then did the same with
Brooks. The man was blonde and leathered, which gave him the appearance of an
old surfer dude. He looked much older than the rest of them, but he carried
himself like a warrior. The man turned, looking Brad up and down.

“So who is
this?” the stranger asked, pointing to Brad.

“This is
Sergeant Brad Thompson. We picked him up back in the Stan, he’s okay,” Sean
said, smiling. “Brad, this is Gunner, a prior military type, retired and gone
independent contractor, but currently recalled.”

“Good, well glad
to have you onboard, Brad,” the man said to Brad, extending his hand.

“Likewise,” Brad
answered, returning the handshake. “So what kind of contractor were you?”

“Mostly security
stuff, embassy escorts, some transportation shit. Got stuck in Qatar on my last
job. Made my way down here,” Gunner said.

“And what
exactly is this here?” Brad asked.

Gunner stopped
and looked back at Sean. Sean just grinned and shrugged his shoulders. “You
know what? You guys make your way to the carts and grab up your gear before it
disappears on you. We are in tent six at the end of this row. Charlie Group is
our designation. Charlie works and sleeps out of tent six. Go get settled in
and then I’ll show you around. We’re off the rotation for a day or two so we
have some time to settle in.”

Brad followed
Sean and Brooks toward the now nearly empty cart. He found his rucksack on the
ground along with the issued sea bag from the ship. His bag had obviously been
gone through, but it was hard to tell what was missing. Sean lowered the locker
from the cart and opened the lock. Their weapons and ammunition were still
there. For now, they reclaimed only their sidearms, and left the rest in the
locker.

Brad grabbed
Brooks’ rucksack along with his own, while Brooks hoisted the heavy locker onto
his shoulder. Together they followed Sean towards tent six. The tents’ openings
were lined up with the road and were stacked west towards the fence. Each tent
had a small deck in front and a wooden stake giving it a designation. Tent six
was as nondescript as the rest of them. Sean stepped forward and pulled back
the flap covering the entrance.

The sides of the
tent had been rolled up to allow for air flow. Normally, in the best of times,
air conditioning units would be set up to make the tents livable. In this camp,
air conditioners were not an option. The tents were old; the floors were made up
of scrap planks and lumber material. Instead of the bunks, there were rows of
issue cots lined up along one wall. No lockers or even foot lockers were
present. This was Spartan living at its finest.

Sean headed
toward a section of empty cots. Most of them had gear piled on top, and a few
contained sleeping men. Brad dropped his heavy rucksack on an empty cot and
tossed Brooks’ rucksack on another. Sean selected an empty cot across from
them. They opened their rucksacks and took inventory of their gear before
Brooks opened the locker and distributed their weapons. They made note to try
and get the remaining rifles to the Marines.

Gunner walked
through the tent’s opening and jokingly complimented them on their cot
selection. Sean talked to him about the Marines’ weapons and Gunner said he
would make sure they got sent to the support side. After getting more
instructions on the rules of the tent, as well as the location of the latrines
and mess tents, Gunner asked them to finish what they were doing and follow him
back outside.

Brad put on his
holster and checked the magazines for his M4. Quickly he closed the straps on
his rucksack and left it on top of his cot, then got to his feet and joined the
rest of them on the deck. Gunner asked them to follow him down a narrow,
roughly-built boardwalk as he talked to them. While they walked, Brad could see
that the camp was awake and a bustle of activity was going on near the
airfield.

“Place doesn’t
look like much,” Gunner said as he walked. “But trust me, this is a fully
functioning camp. We are trying to become self-sufficient. We’ve captured some
large fuel tankers from the Gulf, but most of the fuel goes to the fleet and
the few aircraft we still have operational.”

They approached
a fork in the boardwalk at the end of the row of tents. The path branched off
with one leg moving toward the gate and the other off toward the makeshift
airfield. Gunner stepped off the trail here and they followed him up an incline
of rocks. Finally they were on a small outcrop that overlooked the camp. Brad
could see that the main fence still continued around the rocks, although in
some places it was no more than strands of barbed wire. But they were still
entirely contained.

Sean looked down
at the tent city., “How many boots on ground?”

“Close to five
grand, not counting those in the fleet. Maybe another five or so in the
village. Not sure about those numbers, we haven’t taken time to do a good
count.” Gunner answered.

“The village?”
Brooks asked.

“Yeah, there’s a
small village on the shore. Farm people and fisherman. Good folks, a lot of
them are already employed by us. They provide a lot of food to the camp.”

Gunner stepped
off and climbed farther up the hill until he found a spot with large flat
rocks. He leaned back against one and fished a cigarette from his pocket. He
offered one to the rest of them but they declined.

“So what’s the
outlook here, Gunner?” Sean asked.

“Not good,
Brother. I don’t see how things here can end well. The admiral is pushing for a
new start. He sent us out on raids to the main land, salvaging goods and
supplies. We have had some luck raiding major ports, but the planes are too
small to bring back anything substantial.”

“You finding any
survivors out there?” Sean asked.

“Some, but not
many. The ones we do see run or hide from us. There are a lot of bandits on the
mainland. Lately we’ve been looking for ghost ships. The fleet will grab them
on radar and we’ll take them down. If they have goods worth taking, we bring
them back and we take in the crews if they’re healthy. We’ve only had a couple
of radar contacts in the last few weeks though.”

Brad tossed a
rock and finally spoke up. “Eventually supplies will run out and this is a
desert island. How do they plan to feed everyone when the fuel dries up?”

“Exactly. This
has become a heated discussion. At first the admiral said this was just a rest
stop while we waited to see how things played out at home. Now he’s making long
term plans. Yes this place is secure, I give him that. But people don’t like it
here and the ones that try to escape are dealt with harshly.”

“What happens to
them?” Brad asked.

“Let me just say
we don’t have a prison here. They say they take them back to the fleet. But I
have heard rumors they are ditched at sea. No room for troublemakers out here.”

“Alright, so
let’s get down to it. What is our exit strategy, Gunner? I’ve known you long
enough to know this isn’t your home,” Sean said, giving Gunner a serious stare.

“I already know
you spoke to Master Chief Swan on board the Barry. He’s the one who called
ahead and made sure you got assigned to Charlie Group. Not like that was a lot
of trouble,” Gunner smiled. “He also told me your sergeant here can be trusted,
so I hope that pans out for us.”

“Brad is one of
us, don’t worry about him. So what’s the plan?” Sean asked again.

“Charlie Group
is mainly responsible for heavy inland recons. In two days, we’re supposed to
be hitting Yemen main. A city on the coast. They usually bring us in and drop
us off by CH-53. We set up security and gather salvaged supplies in large cargo
nets. If we locate any large holds we tag and mark them with a GPS for later
recovery. A few hours later, the 53s come back, we sling-load the cargo, and
get out of Dodge.”

“Sounds like a
lot of work, but continue,” Sean said.

“Well, day after
tomorrow we’re going to change things up. As soon as we’re dropped, we’re going
to beeline for the airport. One of the kids in Bravo Group fought his way
through there before being plucked from the embassy. He thinks they still have
some heavy lift fixed-wings on the ground.”

“Not a lot to go
on, is it?” Brooks said.

“No, it’s not.
Pilots have flown over the airport in the past few weeks. They have confirmed
aircraft on the ground, but who knows if we can get them in the air.”

“What’s the city
look like?” Brooks asked.

 “One hundred
percent fucking infested. But hey! Only the dead live forever …” Gunner
laughed. “Are we all on board with this or what?”

Brad stood and
took a step towards Gunner. “Gunner, I can fully commit to your plan, but we
came with other people. We need to get them out also. Or at least offer them
the opportunity.”

“Yeah, I know.
Master Chief told me you all came with more troops.” Gunner sighed before
continuing. “Here’s the thing. I’ve done a bit of ground work and requested some
mechanics for our next raid. Said we might be looking for operational
generators and shit like that. It’s going to be tough to explain why I need the
three greenest techs on the camp, but that gets me your Marines. The pilots and
two civilians are another problem; I don’t see how I can pull them in without
raising red flags.”

“Just see what
you can do, I understand we can’t save everyone,” Sean said.

“Save everyone?
Are you shitting me, Sean? Do you know what’s waiting for us back home? This
place is a paradise compared to what’s back there. If anything, we’re all
headed to a quick death,” Gunner said.

He looked Sean
in the eyes. “I was stateside when this shit started. I got stuck doing State
Department escorts. Running high level-types home from the embassies. Most of
the big stuff was busy, we took private jets.”

BOOK: Only the Dead Live Forever
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