Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Serial Part II: Now What?

"I don't have any kit with me!" Ryan yelled to Mike. His shin was throbbing, but there happened to be a former Army medic on board, so at least it wasn't bleeding everywhere.

"That's fine." Mike yelled back. "We really need you just to stay in the helo and give cover if we need it. I don't think we'll need it, but we're short a man and you're the only one I could think of with experience in this type of thing!"

That was stretching the truth just a bit. It was true that Ryan had worked with Mike before, and they had played in the Sandbox together for a year or two, providing security to foreign dignitaries who probably didn't need it, and who really didn't care. But that was the life of a security contractor: you were ignored and trampled underfoot, considered a nuisance until things got down and dirty, and then were expected to work superhuman feats of courage and protect your charges. At least, that was Ryan's experience. He had heard that many American diplomats accepted, even acknowledged as part of the entourage the security detail. Sadly, it was not the case for everyone. Ryan sighed. God and soldier, both adored, in times of trouble, never more.

But Ryan's experience stopped short of flying around a combat zone, hanging out of the open door of a military surplus helicopter, with nothing more than a flight helmet and a machine gun to hide behind. At least the weapon wasn't completely foreign to him. He hadn't used one extensively, but the M-60 machine gun had been in service since the late 50's, and Ryan had been able to put a few rounds through in the service, and later working with Mike. He felt confident that he could clear a jam easily enough, and with tracer rounds going out two every second, it shouldn't be that hard to walk the rounds in to anything that needed hitting. Ryan didn't trust that Mike said they wouldn't need air support. The fact they stopped to pick him up told Ryan that the need was real. "Where are we going?" Ryan yelled to Mike.

Mike's famous "no worries" grin cracked across his round, weather beaten face. "Up north!" he yelled back. Ryan shook his head. Mike wouldn't tell him, and deep down, Ryan knew that, but he still asked. The conversation stopped as the others in the helicopter prepared for what unknowns lay ahead. Mike was watching out the sliding door as the last vestiges of daylight retreated to the west, seated on the floor with his feet resting on the helicopter's landing skids. His chin rested on the butt stock of his M-4, the business end of which was planted safely on his left boot. Ryan sat next to him, the same posture, except without the assault rifle. Someone had found an extra jumpsuit in some pack or other aboard the helicopter, and Ryan had pulled it on over his work uniform. At least he now looked the part, if he didn't yet feel the part. Most of him was still trying to process the last half hour, still in shock that he was where he was. Not to mention the fact that he didn't know exactly where "was" was. Mike was being no help, and Ryan, though it tore at him, accepted that it was probably a "need to know" type thing. And technically, Ryan didn't need to know.

Ryan's sigh was lost in the slipstream as he watched the world pass by beneath him. There really wasn't much to see in the fading light anymore, just streetlights and shadows of trees and houses. Ryan looked behind him into the helicopter, where eight other men stood or sat on the small benches inside. Three of them were seated in the opposite doorway, feet dangling like Ryan and Mike out the side of the aircraft. They were all dressed more or less the same, combat fatigues, assault vests loaded out with ammunition and some grenades. Each one carried an M-4 assault rifle, except for two of the men, who carried Remington 700 12 gauge shotguns. Some of the men had the soft style "Boonie" caps on, but most of the team was wearing Protec skating helmets, favored for not for their ballistic protection, but for their protection against sharp corners while exiting vehicles and entering rooms at a fast pace. All of them wore body armor underneath their assault vests. To Ryan, it seemed like a pretty standard load out for Mike's security team.

Some of the team were applying dark face paint to the higher points on their face, nose, cheekbones, and jawlines, in order to subdue the features of the face, and make it less distinguishable in low light situations. Others of the team pulled over black balaclava masks over their head, covering their whole face except for their eyes. These masks would accomplish the same basic concealment as the face paint, with the added bonus of being fireproof.

Someone tapped Ryan on the shoulder. Ryan turned to face Mike, who was extending his hand out to Ryan. In it was a flight helmet, the same as those used by the pilot and copilot up front. There was a microphone and headset built right in to the helmet as well, so that Ryan could be in communication with the flight crew. Mike's ground team would be on the same frequency, so that everyone would be kept up to speed with what was happening. Ryan put it on, but needed some help adjusting the knobs so it would fit correctly. It felt heavier than he thought it would, but at least his head wasn't throbbing to the beat of the rotor blades anymore. It was amazing how quickly he had forgotten about how noisy it was riding in helicopters. Mike grinned and slapped Ryan's helmet before turning to confer with the pilots.

After a few minutes, Mike withdrew his head and shoulders from between the pilots and turned to the men in the helicopter. "We're ten minutes out." he yelled, cupping his left hand around his mouth. His right hand was trying to signal what he was saying. It was useless to say anything more than that, as the noise inside the helicopter drowned out everything. The men took that cue to make their last-minute gear checks. Vests were secured again and double-checked. The radio frequency buzzed with microphone checks. Weapons were brought off safe and rounds were chambered. It was by now pitch black out, and the scarcity of lights away from any towns of reasonable size told Ryan that wherever they were, it was in the middle of nowhere. The team had planned ahead, and all the men were now donning their night vision equipment, AN-PVS-7s. The PVS-7s had an optional mount that could clip onto a helmet, or could be used on a harness that strapped around the user's head. They weren't quite top of the line anymore, but they did the job. Mike was pushing for the new PVS-14s, but at nearly quadruple the price, he wasn't having much luck. Ryan was not so lucky, as there were no extra sets for him. He didn't mind anyway, the green vision almost always made him sick when he wore them in the Army. He had tried to avoid wearing them whenever possible.

Ryan felt the helicopter slow, noticed the change in pitch from the rotor blades, and felt the aircraft descend. The descent quickened, and Ryan felt the familiar roller-coaster sensation in his stomach. Just as quickly, it went away, replaced by a heavy feeling in Ryan's body as the helicopter leveled off. Ryan saw what he thought were tree branches zip by the door, and looked down to find that the helicopter was only a few feet off the ground, still moving rather fast. He instinctively tightened his grip on the M-60 in front of him as he felt the helicopter slow even further.

Then, suddenly, the nose pitched up, and the floor dropped out from beneath him once again. A rough jolt told Ryan that the helicopter's landing skids had touched the ground. Behind him, Mike yelled something unintelligible, and suddenly, Ryan found himself alone in the back of the helicopter.

Then he felt the added G-forces as the helicopter lifted off again and quickly departed the area.

"Hey Rubberlegs! You back there?" Ryan jumped a bit, forgetting that he was on the frequency with the pilots.

"Yeah, I'm here!" He replied. He felt the adrenaline begin to kick in again, much the same way it did back on his ramp, when he realized what was going on.

"Great! We'll be orbiting away from the target area for now. Mike's callsign is Snake-One, and we're Phoenix-One. If' he calls, we're going in hot. We don't know much about these guys, other than there's been an incident in Lansing, and this group was responsible."

So that's it, Ryan thought. We're chasing terrorists? Wasn't that the FBI's job? Or the CIA? Why would Matthews Security be involved? No wonder Mike didn't want to tell him anything. Ryan's mind raced to a million different conclusions before he realized that Mike would have to tell him at least some of the details. For now, Ryan had to content himself with the thought that he had a job to do, and the lives of his friend and new teammates depended on it.

As the sound of the rotor blades faded into the night, Mike took stock of the situation on the ground. His team was all present and accounted for. It may not seem like much since they were all in the same helicopter, but Mike had seen stranger things happen. Even little things, like a twisted ankle from jumping out wrong, could seriously affect the outcome of the mission.

"Okay boys, this is what's up. We're gonna move to the perimeter. When we get there, we'll split into two fire teams. Dan, you're Snake-Two, and you've got Tommy, Skinny, and Hunter with you. I'll take Scotty, Jimmy, and Roughstuff with me. We hit hard from both sides. Flashbang grenades and smoke are the name of the game. We want captures, not corpses. It shouldn't be a problem, because we're gonna take them by surprise. Got it?" A softly whispered chorus of "hoo-ahs" answered in the affirmative.

"Okay. Let's move." Mike turned and disappeared into the low scrub bushes that bordered the clearing where the helicopter had landed. The rest of the team followed noiselessly into the inky blackness.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The Serial part I: The Noise

It was a beautiful Michigan summer night, perfect for hot air balloon rides or sunset flights along Lake Michigan. It was perfect for even sitting on one's back porch, perhaps sipping a beer or enjoying a cigar.

It was even perfect weather for working outside, but Ryan didn't see it that way. He was stuck at work instead of going for a hot air balloon ride, or flying along the lake shore. The sun was setting behind him, a brilliant display of the deepest reds and oranges one could see, melting the clouds into a buttery mass that slid into the purple twilight to the east. But he had a fuel nozzle in his hand, not a beer.

As he pulled up to his eighth aircraft of the night, Ryan's mind was instead filled with the work to be finished before he could once again see his bed. There were two more aircraft to be fueled, then all ten had to be put in the hangar for the night, his empty fuel truck had to be refilled at the fuel farm, and his daily paperwork had to be processed and filed. Ryan guessed that all this would take him the next two hours, and was angry that his shift was supposed to end in half an hour. The overtime meant that his girlfriend would most likely be asleep when he finally did get home, offering little balm for the wound of Ryan's not-so-good day.

It was not that Ryan hated his job. Ryan had grown up around airplanes, so working at the airport was as natural as breathing. It was more his lack of options at present that grated on his mind. The Gerald R. Ford International Airport was the largest airport within reasonable driving distance, and Grand Rapids Air Service was the only large employer on the airport, except for the airlines. Ryan had tried the airlines and they were not to his liking, and with the current state of the airline industry anyway, they would not be a very healthy career option.

The brilliant reds in the clouds were fading into the most royal of purples as Ryan finished up and began reeling the fuel hose back in. The truck's diesel engine was rumbling loudly, and the fuel pump was adding to the noise, so much so that Ryan had put his hearing protection in earlier. It was uncomfortable in his ear, and sometimes gave him a headache, but was worth it to reduce the truck's noise into a vibrating rumble felt only in Ryan's chest. Ryan felt isolated when he had his hearing protection in, and that offered another small solace to him. Alone with his thoughts, he could free himself from the hectic schedule he had been given, and allow himself time to think about his options. Perhaps school, or maybe an inside office job, away from the summer's heat and humidity and the winter's bitter cold. Ryan tried to convince himself he would be fine away from the airport, but knew deep in his bones that working away from aviation would drive him nuts. So he put on his hearing protection and settled in to his own thoughts, filling out his fueling log without much thinking about it.

He was so lost in his thoughts that at first, he didn't notice the noise. It's a funny thing about hearing protection: the foam and plastic cones that are placed into the ear do deaden sound, enough that one can stand to be outside while a jet is running it's engines, for instance. But it is odd the sort of muffled, even faint sounds that can be detected even with the devices in your ear. One can hear another person talking while wearing them, can hear radios squawking in the background, can even sometimes hear coins dropped into a vending machine or a dropped tool in the hangar. It was as such with this particular noise. At first, it was lost in the rumble of Ryan's fuel truck. It then separated itself from the truck's rumble, so subtly at first that Ryan wondered how long he had been listening to it without realizing it. It steadily grew louder, until Ryan could definitely distinguish it from all other noises. It was felt as a slower, thumping vibration, different from a passing airplane or jet, yet familiar in a far off, distant way. Ryan recognized the noise. It was a noise he had not heard in a long time, yet it seemed as though he had heard it yesterday. It was not a daily noise from the airport.

The noise had lodged itself deep in Ryan's mind and had gone dormant for some time now. It would surface at airshows, or sometimes in his daydreams about far-off places, but for the most part lay gathering dust in a corner in the attic of Ryan's thoughts. But now it was here, in the present, growing louder by the second. The dust had been shaken off, and it was threatening to burst out through the roof, so large and loud it was. Ryan shut off his fuel truck and took out his hearing protectors. He leaned closer to the open window to hear better.

That was the problem with noises like that: One could never quite tell what direction it was coming from. It would bounce off far away buildings, and bounce off close in buildings, so that the direction one hears the noise coming from would actually be opposite the direction of the source of the noise. Even at the airport, with its relatively sparse buildings, the sound could bounce, rebound, and echo enough to confuse even the most sensitive auditory nerves.

It was a helicopter, no doubt. Ryan was sure it was a helicopter. It was a different sound than most helicopters that Ryan heard coming in to the airport, though. It was slower, louder, and perhaps a lower pitch than those helicopters. Ryan knew exactly what kind of helicopter it was, and knew exactly what was happening, but his mind still battled his present reality. It was, but it couldn't be, could it? Questions stormed Ryan's thoughts, assaulted his memories, and carried him back to a hot, dusty life thousands of miles from Michigan. Why here? Why now? What could possibly have happened that this particular noise was approaching?

This particularly distinctive whump-whump-whump of the rotor blades had been, a generation ago, the sound of freedom and safety for thousands of the nation's finest brave young men, and it was not much different in Ryan's case. Instead of a steaming, rotting jungle, though, it was a scorching, lifeless desert. And instead of the Army, Ryan had chosen the high-risk, high adventure life of a security contractor. Things got crazy from time to time, but Ryan's experience was nothing like what was being reported in the news out of The Sandbox.

The noise now was rattling everything in sight, overpowering all other sounds with it's volume. Ryan knew that it would be only seconds before the mystery was solved, and also knew that the solving of this mystery would lead to many more before the night was through.

It was an old military surplus UH-1 Iroquois, better known to everyone as a Huey. It suddenly appeared just over Ryan's hangar, perhaps forty feet off the ground. It was slowly drifting over Ryan's ramp, the pilot looking for a spot to set it down. Ryan, as he shielded his eyes from the sudden maelstrom of the downdraft, could see two men sitting in back, their legs hanging out of the open doors. Behind them, shadows of more men were standing, one hand raised grasping at the handles on the helicopter's ceiling.

The noise was deafening now, even with the hearing protectors back in Ryan's ears. He knew what was going to happen even before the fatigue-clad man jumped out of the Huey and ran toward him, though he still could not believe it was happening. In addition to military fatigues, the man had a full assault vest, and was carrying an M-4 slung across his chest. His skater helmet was slung just above the rifle, for easy access when needed. His wraparound mirrored shooting glasses obscured his eyes, but his bald head gave Ryan all the identification he needed.

The helicopter had not yet touched down, and the man had covered the thirty or so yards to where Ryan was standing, hands holding his hat. The man stood in front of Ryan and offered his hand.

"Long time, no see, you land-loving, rubber-legged, crazy son of a bitch!" He said. In shock, Ryan said nothing, but slowly extended his hand for the man to shake. He did so, in a familiar iron grip.

Ryan blinked hard, and his shock subsided instantly.

He was back.

"You scum-sucking swabbie bastard! What the hell are you doing on my ramp?" They were face to face, noses inches from one another, yelling to be heard above the roar of the helicopter.

The man's face broke into a huge smile. "We're going on an adventure, and we thought you might like to come along!"

"You always did understate things." Ryan yelled back. "The excrement's hit the ventilator?".

"I'll explain on the way. Let's go, Rubberlegs!" The man was off, running back towards the helicopter, which had not yet touched the ramp.

Rubberlegs hesitated just long enough to leave his job behind. He wasn't sure when he'd be back, but his old friend Mike apparently needed his help. He ran to the helicopter, where three outstretched hands grabbed him and pulled him in. He swore as his shin broke open on the lip of the sliding door, and the others laughed at their new companion. As the pilot swung the aircraft to the north and nosed over, gaining speed and altitude, Ryan wondered when he would get back home to see his girlfriend. And when his boss would find out he'd gone missing.