In the hills, South of Carth Village
Gwen Moore’s world was shades of blue pigeon holed between two cathode tubes. The stars illuminated brightly in the night sky, casting a dark silhouette of the treeline all around her. The waning crescent moon lent little natural light to the ground below. Perfect, she thought. Carth village was a collection of light and dark blobs at the base of the hill that Moore, Morrison and Petrov sat atop.
Moore flipped up her NVGs and peered down a pair of binoculars. Petrov looked down the scope of his M14. It was a crusty old thing, a relic from the conflict in Huronga over 50 years ago. But it and Petrov were inseparable. Morrison knelt facing the opposite direction on security with a suppressed SCAR H sighted up with a CompM4, a similar setup to Gwen’s own.
Carth was eerily quiet. At close to midnight, it was highly improbable for villagers to be walking around. But street lights for a whole street corner were out. Birds were silent. Gwen looked closer at the street corner with its lights out. Amid the glare of those that functioned, it appeared as if a large house on that corner had sustained significant damage on its western side.
“Hey boss, check 017, looks like a burned-out car.” Petrov whispered.
Gwen shifted her viewfinder to Petrov’s bearing. “Seen.” A husk of a car wrapped around a tree had been burned completely hollow. The road nearby had been completely destroyed by several large craters. “Seeing any movement?” Gwen asked him.
“Check 342, building’s sustained damage.”
There was a pause. “Got it.” They both scanned around their targets, and around the perimeter of Carth. No signs of life. “Not sure if it’s just weird patterning on that southern wall or potentially small arms damage. Either way, something’s off with this picture.”
“Alright, I say we should move in, take a closer look. How ‘bout you guys?” Both Morrison and Petrov sounded off their agreement. She packed her binoculars away and flipped her NVGs down again. “Watch as you go out here. Place could be rigged up.”
They carefully stepped down the hill, Moore on point, followed closely by Petrov, then Morrison at the rear. The silence only grew the closer to the village they got. Not even the rustle of the leaves harmonised with their footsteps on the streets. They bounded across the way, cover to cover, making for the damaged house. On closer inspection, the irregularities on the southern wall were not mere decoration.
The door was wide open, half off of its hinges. The team entered one by one, alternating directions as they passed the doorway. Moore and Morrison had gone left, Petrov had gone right. They watched their footing through the hall, as they moved, the moon caught small flecks of disturbed debris and dust in the air. No booby traps at the very least.
Moore and Morrison entered the kitchen. “Short room” she whispered. Petrov stopped and turned to face away from the door. Moore’s gun quickly shifted to sight a pair of rats as they scurried from the dirty dishes in the worktop. Morrison scanned to the rear of her. “Clear.” Moore called out. Morrison responded alike. Moore nudged him. “On you.” Morrison nudged back and began moving toward the door.
“Two coming out.” Morrison called as he reached the door. Petrov took point into the lounge.
“Somebody’s not getting their damage deposit back…” Gwen remarked looking up at the hole in the ceiling. Other than a dusty couch occupied predominantly by rubble from the ceiling above, little of interest remained. They made their way out and up the stairs methodically. Blood droplets were dotted around, gaining more frequency the further up they went. The steps had been disturbed by boot prints, headed down. A faint, yet pungent smell began to fill their noses. Moore looked back at Morrison with a frown. He shifted and nodded up to her. They kept moving up and into a room facing the south side. The only window in the room had been smashed. In the corner next to it, a body of a man in military gear laid.
His body contorted uncomfortably from the lower back up, where he rested face first against the wall. A large pool of blood had dried underneath him. There was no question of where the smell was coming from. Moore stepped closer and pulled him back. A darkened, bloodied void had been punched into his face. Maggots had already attempted to make it their home. Gwen attempted to keep her evening MRE down as she inspected his body further. His uniform was a green digital camo pattern. His rifle, an M4A1 with an Aimpoint CompM4 and an AN/PEQ-15. She took the rifle and slung it over her back. Every little helps, she thought. On his shoulder, the Cormandian flag patch was upside down. She rummaged through his pockets, nothing concrete. A folded letter, a pen and some cash.
Gwen turned back to the doorway, Petrov and Morrison had already cleared the second room across the stairs. She made a cursory check for dogtags on the dead body, took one of them and the letter from his pocket.
Petrov was keeping watch out of the wide-open western walls, while Morrison searched a set of drawers.
“Anything in here?”
“Just that jacket so far.” Morrison pointed with his head toward a chair in front of a desk. Like on the dead body, the jacket was a green digital camo pattern with the Cormandian flag patch upside down. It was torn up and dusty from the blast but it looked barely faded underneath. On the other shoulder, unit insignia were still sewn on. She searched through the pockets. An ID card, relatively new looking, a USB stick and a protein bar.
“Anyone want a snack?” Gwen smiled holding up the protein bar. Morrison stood up and looked over her shoulder at the ID card under a flashlight. The picture was blurred, but her dark brown hair and copper skin were readily visible. She appeared young, mid-twenties at most, with a small smile that Gwen had seen far too many times before. Gwen frowned, something about the woman in the photo filled her stomach with dread.
Her rumination was interrupted with a nudge “She’s got nothin’ on you, boss.” Morrison plucked the protein bar from her hand. Gwen rolled her eyes with a small smirk.
“Who’s on the ID?” Petrov asked.
“Sergeant Savannah Docherty, Cormandian Federal Army.” She stowed the card in her admin pouch with the USB drive and took the jacket into her backpack. She held up the jacket’s sleeve to him “Any idea what unit this could be?”
Petrov looked closer at it. It was a trident with two lightning bolts either side of it. “The trident’s usually an intel thing. Lightning bolts are usually Signals or Electronic Warfare. I’ve not seen that specific patch before though. I didn’t work much with the nerds.”
“So, we’re working with a techie?”
“Looks like it. Her ID card give a unit?” Gwen looked at the ID card again.
“No, just name, date of birth and expiry.” She said, Petrov nodded. “Guess if she was a techie there’s a chance, she had some tech with her.” She started to look around at the desk for any equipment. She spotted a lowly cable among the dust and rubble and gently tugged on it. It a charging block revealed itself, still plugged into the wall. Gwen smiled and pulled it all the way. “Bingo.” She looked at the charging block. It was for a Jonova rugged laptop. She had stolen a few of those from CFA outposts a few months ago, standard issue. She stowed the charger in her backpack and turned back to Morrison “Found anything?”
“Got this cable.”
Gwen inspected it under a flashlight, a shielded cable coated in a translucent orange jacket. The markings were faint, but she could just make out the inscription of ‘RG400’. The cable was short, less than a meter long with two silver adapters each side. Despite the damage, it certainly didn’t look like it came from the house. “Good find. Alright, let’s not spend too much time here. We’ll go check out the car then link back with intel.”
Petrov and Morrison followed her lead out of the building and toward the road heading northwest. They kept to the undergrowth along the roads, carefully stepping along in a bid to not arouse attention. The car grew closer and closer in the views of their NVGs. It was not empty. The driver and two passengers slumped in their seats. Their whole bodies were blackened and burned to the last morsels of flesh. One door was open, the rear left door. The seat was unoccupied.
Petrov crouched down next to the open door, a small patch of blood had dried on the asphalt, at least two separate pairs of boot prints on either side of it. The small rocks and grounds had been significantly disturbed in one direction. “Someone was dragged out.” He called out.
“I guess the circumstances don’t exactly favour the theory that it was a rescue…” Gwen responded back. Petrov shook his head. Gwen checked the bodies. Only badly charred dog tags remained around their necks. She inspected all three; Kaden Tunstall, Patrick O’Brien and Laila Roberts. Gwen took the spare from each and stowed them. She looked to her team with a frown. “Well, none of them are the owner of that jacket.”
“Which means she could be the one they dragged out.” Morrison chimed in. Moore and Petrov nodded.
“It’s looking that way.” Moore said. Gentle beats of distant helicopters got their eyes up. Immediately to their front two UH-60 Blackhawk aircraft approached, slightly offset to their right. “Down!” Gwen hissed. The team hid in the undergrowth near the car with baited breath as the two birds passed by over the village. Gwen kept her eyes locked on them, praying they didn’t turn back around.
The two helicopters began to bank over to their left and disappeared into the mountains. The trio collectively breathed a sigh.
“They know we’re here?” Morrison asked to no one in particular
“Not likely, probably patrols out of Novaton.” Petrov answered.
“Either way, let’s not stick around, could be ground patrols not far off.” They slinked through the woods and back to their car. Morrison drove, keeping the speed low to minimise the amount of dust kicked up in their wake.
The intel support team had made a small base of operations in an old barn house about 15 kilometers to their south. As they approached, it looked as if a light wind would blow it down to the ground. Some wooden panels were missing, some were rotten and falling away. Gwen’s team slowly inched the car in past the barn doors and parked it among the old hay bales.
Lieutenant Baker was at the intel support team’s helm. He stepped toward Moore as she got out of the car. Three soldiers worked away on laptops at collapsible desks nearby. Moore hadn’t worked with Baker much. Like her, he was a Special Tactics Team leader, but his team were predominantly focused on remote intelligence and ground co-ordination. She handed over what she had to him. “Slim pickings. But hopefully this should get you a start. Savannah Docherty was the only one unaccounted for on site. All others were dead. Thinking she’s likely a person of interest.” Gwen held up the ID card for Baker to see and passed over Docherty’s jacket and USB stick.
“I’ll see what we can do.”
“How are things looking at Clancy? Any movement?”
Baker shook his head. “Still pretty quiet, they’re bolstering defences and have called in reinforcements from camps nearby just in case.” Gwen furrowed her brow and nodded. What are they waiting for?
She stepped away and left Baker’s team to do some preliminary analysis. Morrison was already busying himself checking over the weapons an ammunition. Petrov had stepped outside, Moore followed behind him.
“What’s the plan?” he asked her.
“For now? We wait. Gonna give intel some time to get us a lead on this Docherty kid. What do you make of it?”
He took a cigarette out of his admin pouch and gestured it up to her. Moore responded with firm shake of her head. He put the cigarette in his mouth and lit it. “Looked like a special operations raid. Supported by CAS. Whoever those guys were, the CFA wanted them gone.”
“So, it could be Mattias?”
“I mean, that or just defectors who were being a big pain in their ass.” Petrov gently breathed the smoke away from his face. “And if that Docherty kid was intel they’d wanna shut her up fast. Interesting they seem to have taken her in though. We’d normally just kill them all and fuck off back in the day.” His matter-of fact tone took himself aback. He looked at Moore, she folded her arms with a furrowed brow. He looked away quickly and put his focus back onto his cigarette “Could’ve been a false defector, someone feeding intel back to the CFA on the others, maybe that included Mattias.” He shrugged. “One of many possibilities.”
“Thing I don’t get is a whole side of the house was blown off. They struck the place with something, right?” Gwen asked, Petrov nodded. “Normally an indication they didn’t wanna take anyone alive. So, why did they end up taking one?”
“Who knows… I guess the opportunity arose.”
“Yeah, but why just them? Why not the other three in the car?”
Petrov shrugged once more. “It’s strange I’ll give you that…” He toked his cigarette. “Lends more credence to the false defector theory, I guess. She could’ve been communicating with them throughout so they didn’t kill her. But in the past, we didn’t much give a fuck about those guys, if they got killed, they got killed. They just got made a fuckin’ martyr and that was that.”
A deep frown etched into Gwen’s face. She sighed. She opened her mouth to say something but she remembered who her audience was. She stopped short. Petrov looked her in the eye. “Well, let’s hope that’s not the case.” She rubbed the bridge of her nose. “We might be out a while, get some rest, I’ll let you know once the intel guys have something.”