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Chapter Six

In the first couple of minutes after he'd secreted himself on the truck, Mike knew it was a bad idea. In five minutes he knew it was a really bad idea. After the first hour, he wasn't sure he was going to survive the really bad idea.

The truck with the girls in it was led and followed by open trucks mounting a heavy machine gun in the back. He had made it to the top of the slope just before the convoy of vehicles reached it. No time to call in, no time to do anything but pick a good hide position and wait. The road switchbacked right at the top of the hill and for just a moment the left side of the truck was out of sight of the trailing gun-truck. And it was going slow, no more than five miles per hour, as he darted out of the darkness by the side of the road and crouched under the bed of the truck.

Container trucks, like this one, had a solid metal support running the length of the container bed. In two places there were narrow gaps, and Mike grabbed one and swung his body up into it as the truck changed gears to negotiate the turn and descent.

He started with his arms and legs wrapped around the metal support but as soon as the truck hit the first pothole his chin slammed into the steel. Then he tried just perching on top but the second time he nearly fell off he rearranged. His stomach was being hammered, his chest was being hammered and given the nature of third world roads it just went on and on. Then the truck got into the flats again and really picked up speed, hurrying down the highway as if there was no tomorrow and slamming over potholes the size of small cars.

The best position Mike could find was with his right hand clutched under the support, his left hand on top, pressing downwards, both legs wrapped around the support and his body flat on it. His balls were being slammed up and down like drumsticks, he was pretty sure he had a crack in his pelvis bone, his chest was being battered, his stomach was being battered but he managed to hold on. He wasn't sure how long he could hold on, but he was going to stay there till he passed out or the truck did something really stupid. At which point he'd either get run over by the truck or the following gun-vehicle.

Fortunately, before either event occurred, the truck slowed for another guarded gate. It didn't stop, it was clearly expected, but simply slowed to negotiate the gate, then turned into a large complex. Mike could see what looked like barracks and a large building of unknown purpose. The truck pulled up to a loading dock at the building and Mike heard the door opening. Then he saw feet move along the side of the truck, not just the driver but guards as well.

He desperately wanted to get out of this metal hell, but with guards all around that wasn't likely to occur. Instead he pulled his legs and right arm up and perched on top of the metal like a leopard in a tree. It wasn't exactly comfortable, but it was one hell of a lot better than being there in a moving vehicle. And he was at least mostly out of sight. He could see guard feet and legs and that was about all.

After a few minutes, the guards dispersed and he took a chance and lowered his head, looking to both sides. The loading area was about forty meters long and a guard had been stationed at both ends. The right-hand one was back by the loading dock, leaning against the concrete wall and smoking a cigarette. The left-hand one, however, had moved out about ten meters and was standing in what he apparently thought was a military manner. He was carefully watching the darkness beyond the loading dock. Mike briefly considered trying to sneak past him, but if anyone looked down from the loading dock, likely, or if the guard turned around, also likely, he'd be spotted.

Instead he just hung on in his perch and tried to fight going to sleep. Not counting unconsciousness, he was on a solid thirty-six hours so far and sleep beckoned. He'd done longer times both in BUDS and in training, not to mention on operations, but he was still tired. And sore. And hungry. And thirsty. And cold, the thin air meant that it was damned cold. But he'd put up with all of it before and he slowly put all of it out of his mind and concentrated on maintaining vigilance and waiting for an opportunity to egress his current, lousy, condition and find a better position. With his jump bag and weapon on his back, he couldn't even call in.

The unloading seemed interminable but finally they were done. He expected the truck to pull out as soon as the doors closed but it didn't. Instead, the doors behind him, presumably to some sort of warehouse, closed and the two guards were recalled. He found himself more or less alone in an ill-lit loading dock.

He dropped down to the ground, trying not to groan at all the aches and pains he'd acquired, and looked around. Away from the loading dock was an open area, then a chain-link fence about a hundred meters away. There were guard towers along the fence, spaced about three hundred meters apart. To his left was another open area that had the vague look of a helipad. To his right was an open area but he could see the ends of buildings that paralleled the loading area. There was a faint scent of chemicals in the air, harsh with sulfur. He guessed that it was some sort of petroleum processing plant.

He moved left, ducking into the shadow of the concrete wall, until he got to the end of the building, then looked around the edge. The building was about a hundred meters long, maybe a bit more, with concrete walls. No windows that he could see. There was another large entrance, as if for cargo, down the wall about halfway and what might have been a personnel entrance at the far end. There was another building, purpose indeterminate, that started about halfway down the main building and was separated from it by a ten meter or so gap.

There was no moon and this side of the building was unlit. But the starlight was bright and anyone coming out of the second building with adjusted night vision would see him.

Nonetheless, he started down the side of the building, crouched, keeping an eye out for hostiles. When he got about fifteen meters down the wall of the building he noticed a grate in the wall of the building. The floor of the building was, obviously, based on the loading dock, elevated. The grate, however, was at ground level. Mike stopped by it and leaned in when he heard faint mechanical sounds. There was air coming out, tinged even more strongly with sulfur, and various sounds, all indeterminate. Suddenly, he heard Arabic from the tunnel, quickly fading. Air shaft.

But it was below the level of the building. Which was . . . really odd. Unless there was an underground facility.

Some sort of facility on top as a cover, underground facility underneath. Chemical smell. It was a covert WMD facility, either research or production. And, now, a place to hold the girls.

The grate was fixed in place with large bolts. There was no way he could figure out to pull it off and he was in view of God and everybody here. For that matter, there was a faint tinge of dawn. He had to find someplace to hide, soon. Like a vampire, he needed to be out of sight by dawn.

He moved down the wall of the building, keeping an eye on the grates. Sooner or later, somebody would have to pull a grate for maintenance. And Arab mechanics were notoriously sloppy; they'd be just as likely to prop the grate back up as carefully bolt it back in place. Sure enough, as he reached the shadows of the smaller building, purpose unknown, he found a grate that only had two bolts on it. And they were only hand tight. He quickly unscrewed them and then pulled the grate out, quietly. His hand would fit through the bars so he slid into the narrow tunnel, lifted the grate back into place with only one faint ting of metal and put the screws back on hand tight. Now as long as nobody came along and tightened them down, he was golden.

The tunnel was large enough for him to twist around and point inward and he did so, then crawled deeper into the blackness. This tunnel was more or less silent, not even a sound of fans. He got well into it, then dropped his jump bag and weapon. He extracted the sat phone and crawled back to the opening, keeping an ear out for movement.

He slid the sat phone forward until the antenna was sticking out of the bars and checked the readout. He had barely any signal but it would have to do. Carefully, he dialed the numbers that were still faintly visible on his forearm and hit send.

"Pierson. That you, Ghost?"

"Yes," Mike said. "Who's this?"

"My name's Bob Pierson. I'm an Army SF colonel in SOCOM. I'm going to be your control for the rest of the mission. You call the number you have; if it's you it automatically transfers to me. What's your status? Where are you?"

"I'm not sure," Mike admitted. "I'm in a base in a middle eastern country. Arabic spoken, not Farsi. There's some sort of large building but it's got facilities underneath it. Big air vents along the walls, down at the bottom of the building, and some chemical smell. I think it's a covert weapons lab. The girls were taken in the top facility. I don't know their current position. I'm in one of the air vents. East side. There's a smaller building on that side and an open area to the south. Fence and guard towers around the whole thing. Maybe three other buildings to the west but I didn't get a good look."

"Wait one," Pierson said. Then: "Right, NSA has a lock on your signal. You're in a facility called Aleppo Four. Suspected WMD site, supposed to be a military logistics base. You've got about a battalion of Syrian Army 'elite' on site, so don't get compromised. One point I want to cover: FBI pulled your prints so we can drop the Ghost between us two. Your ID is being closely held, though. And don't worry about charges: The President personally said he doesn't care about dead ragheads. I was in the briefing when he said it. You are clear of that."

"Tell the President 'thank you,'" Mike said, feeling an immense wave of relief.

"That's the good news. The bad news is that we really need to know the exact location of the girls. Guard force, the whole works. You need to find them for us and report back. Can do?"

"That's why they call me 'Ghost,'" Mike said, quietly.

"Hoowah. You know the mission. Watch your back. From now on, we'll be eyeballing from the sky but until we know where the girls are, more or less exactly, we can't do a blessed thing. Find out."

"Roger," Mike said.

"How's your physical condition?" Pierson said.

"Got a tad bent on the last flight," Mike admitted. "Joints are in bad shape. Dehydrated as hell, which doesn't help. Hungry. Tired. The usual. I'll survive."

"Okay," Pierson said. "Do what you can. Last item. If you don't report in for twenty-four hours, you will be considered compromised and any mission compromised. If there is a major alert at the base, you will be considered compromised. Don't get compromised."

"I won't," Mike said.

"Call us back when you've got a fix on the girls," Pierson said. "Good luck."

"Will do, out here," Mike replied, killing the call. He crawled back to his jump bag and stowed the phone, then considered his position. He really needed water. And he didn't want to go to sleep in this tunnel, where any sound he made might get carried who knew where.

The tunnel continued for about another five meters, then curved ninety degrees downward. Leaving his jump bag and weapon, he scooted forward and looked down. The tunnel continued, with the same width, beyond sight in the faint but growing light from the opening. He fished out his Surefire and checked it again. About ten meters down there was an unmoving fan. From the dust on it, it was nonfunctional and probably hadn't been worked on in some time. There were only two blades and more than enough room to work past. Furthermore, the width of the tunnel meant that he could "chimney" up and down, pressing his hands and feet against the walls to lower and raise himself. He still didn't hear anything from below, no mechanical sounds, no voices.

He went back and got his jump bag and weapon, then lowered himself down the chimney, his running shoes squeaking faintly on the smooth concrete walls. The construction was too good to be local and when he got to the fan and examined it he found German names on it. Good old Germans, makers of fine underground lairs for dictators everywhere. It made you nostalgic for the good old days when they were just Nazis and they only made them for their own dictators.

He left his bag and weapon on the fan and shimmied past the stuck blades, then lowered himself further into the gloom. He cut his light as he descended in case it got spotted. But there still wasn't any sound from below. Finally, he hit another ninety-degree turn and crawled forward in stygian blackness until his questing hand hit another grate. This one was lighter than the top-side ones and slid out at pressure from his hands. He caught it before it could drop and slid out of the airshaft onto a concrete floor.

He turned on his light and flashed it around. Plain concrete corridor with some doors. Nobody in sight. No lights. Ran about thirty meters to a large metal door on the south end. Concrete wall on the north end.

He put the grate back on and went to the door at the south. There was faint light coming from under it and he could hear sounds, machinery in the distance, more of a rumble through his feet than anything, and a sudden blat of a PA system announcing something. Going out the door was clearly not an option.

He moved down the corridor, to one of the side doors on the left and tried it. It was unlocked and he cautiously opened it. Broom closet. With a sink. He considered that for a moment and then tried the tap. The water ran brown at first but then cleared up and he drank deeply, then washed his hands and face. The water was probably lousy with pests and he knew he was courting Montezuma's Revenge, but he had to have water and he had drugs to counteract the trots. When he was done, he drank some more then left. The door opposite on the right led to an empty room, maybe some sort of unused office. The next one down on the left was locked with a padlock and hasp. The opposite door was another empty office. The last one on the left was unlocked and had a variety of crates and cardboard boxes stacked in it as well as a couple of toolboxes. He opened one of the toolboxes and was happy as hell to find a big damned adjusting wrench. Getting in the other grates just got easier. There was also a crowbar and he started putting that to work on the crates.

Military uniforms, some of them gaudily ornate. Why in the world would anyone have a purple camouflage field uniform? One of the bottom crates turned out to be full of old Russian chemical uniforms, the horrible rubber kind. There was also a box of old gas masks. Both were an ominous sight, but the gas mask filters, at least, were sealed and might still be useable. There were some boxes of just junk from offices, pens that didn't work anymore, paper covered in Arabic writing. Forms. There was a box of railroad flares, though. His penlight was going to run out of light sooner or later; the flares might come in handy.

He gathered a few things he thought might be useful, including the whole box of railroad flares, and put them in a corner, then went out to the airshaft and retrieved his bag and weapon. He pulled stuff out of his bag, thoughtfully. He didn't need the laptop, that's for sure. It was just extra weight. He put that in one of the cardboard boxes. Most of the rest of the stuff he kept and he added some of the railroad flares.

When he was done sorting he took the crowbar and went to the locked room. What he wanted to do was open the lock, or pull the hasp, in such a way as it could be made to look as if it was still functional. He inserted the crowbar in the lock and pulled down, hard. The lock was apparently pretty flimsy and it popped open at the first pull without much sound.

When he opened the door, though, he had to whistle.

"Oh, baby," he muttered, looking around the room: it was an ammo bunker.

He could see boxes he recognized as holding 7.62x39, the common "AK" round. Lots of those. He hunted around and quickly found a case of a thousand rounds of 9mm. Standard 9mm was not as quiet as the subsonic rounds in the MP-5, but it was ammo. He took four hundred rounds out and stuffed them in his bag then kept hunting. There were cases of frag grenades and he took one. One was usually more than enough with frags. But towards the back he hit real pay dirt: cases of Czech Semtek plastic explosive and, in a clear safety violation that made his skin crawl, a case of Skoda detonators stacked on top.

Skoda weren't as good as NONEL, but beggars couldn't be choosers. He pulled open a case of Semtek and stuffed his bag with about ten kilos of one of the best and most stable high explosives on earth, then carefully pulled out a handful of detonators in protective sleeves and, in another safety violation that made his skin, not to mention balls, crawl, put them in his pocket.

He knew that the mission was just to find the girls. But . . . having the capability to really blow the shit out of the place, not to mention plenty of ammo, finally, just made him happy-happy. At the last minute, he grabbed a few more blocks of Semtek, just to be sure. There was never such a thing as "too much demo" in his opinion.

He carefully covered up his pilfering and reset the lock so it looked as if it was locked, then moved back to his hide. Once there he thought about what he could do next. He hadn't gotten much of a look at the local workers, but his stubble was getting to proper Mideastern lengths and if he could just find some material he could tie a keffieh to cover his hair. Pants were still wrong.

One of the crates of uniforms, however, had been filled with khaki uniforms and he pulled that one back open and sorted through them until he found a pair of pants that were too big. That was better than too small so he pulled it out and rubbed it around on the dust of the floor. A little crawling would get it properly dirty so he'd look like a local. He put that on, using some string from one of the boxes of office supplies as a belt. He needed some cheap plastic shoes so he could stuff his feet in them and push the heel down like slippers. And a ratty polo shirt. Then he'd look like a local, he was pretty sure.

He was wearing a black T-shirt, unadorned, and that was sort of good and bad. Black was pretty common among muj but not among the workers, at least in T-shirts, and it showed his build. But. One of the khaki blouses worked to cover his build. He cut the bottom of the pants while he was at it and frayed the ends then worked some holes into it and frayed those. Now he looked like either a nineties teenager or an oppressed local worker. He hoped. All except his shoes, which were just too good. And his hair, which was too short and cut wrong.

He knew he had to leave the hide, but not yet. It would be daylight up top and no way to move around. Getting out the door to the corridor was problematic as well. So he had to wait and he might as well use the time wisely. Sleep beckoned, but there were more things he could do. He lit one of the railroad flares, turned off his penlight and got to work.

He took out the Semtek and rolled it out on the ground into sheets about an half an inch thick using one of the railroad flares. Then he pulled out some more uniforms and cut them up for the cloth. Using the sewing kit from his bag, he sewed a sort of harness that would go over his shoulders and around his middle and then stuffed the rolled-out Semtek, with paper separating the sheets, into a sort of bag in the harness. This gave him about ten kilos of high explosive strapped to his stomach. It made him look fat but with some prodding and pressing to get it in place, it didn't really show otherwise. The detonators were then broken up and strapped to his calves with rigger tape. He always carried a small, half used, roll in his bag. Rigger tape had thousands of uses. Now all he needed was an appropriate target and some electrical current.

He refilled his empty magazines with regular 9mm and secured all of them, and the MP-5, under the khaki jacket along with a few of the flares. He had to break the 5 down for it not to really show, but he could work with that given the situation.

He went to the broom closet again and filled his bottle with water, then drank and drank and drank. Before he filled himself up totally he took some more Pepcid and ibuprofen along with three Imodium AD. Three Imodium would stop up an elephant, but he figured he was going to have worse problems than constipation and the opposite would be a nightmare.

No food but you could go a lot longer with no food than with no water. He needed to carry more with him, but there weren't any really good containers.

He took one more drink, then went back to his hide and gathered up all his gear. He was as set as he could imagine, given the situation. He carried the railroad flare back to the air shaft, opened the grate, crawled in, closed the grate and moved back to the vertical bend. Once there he set all his stuff in place, set the alarm on his watch for nine hours, put out the flare and lay back to consider the situation. He was reasonably secure, watered up, ammoed up and couldn't do anything until after dark. And only maybe then. Tonight he'd find the girls and hope like hell that wasn't too late.

He'd had a busy two days and sleep hit him before he realized it was sneaking up.



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