Authors: Mr. Steven F. Freeman
Steven F. Freeman
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2013 Steven F. Freeman
All rights reserved.
To my family, with love
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Alton awoke with a start, his heart pounding almost as loudly as the battering ram crashing into the front door. How had they found him so quickly? Why hadn’t the diversion worked? Attempting to balance silence with speed, he rose from the couch, glided through the connecting door into the neighboring apartment, and approached the side window.
Thank God Mallory’s place is on the ground floor.
He climbed through the window, closed it with a quiet
, and—thankful for the cover provided by a dusk rapidly turning into night—limped across the lot to his vehicle, a late-model Explorer stashed behind a couple of low-rider pickups. As he slid into the seat, he could see dark jackets and flashlights huddled around the front door, which was beginning to buckle. Two more agents guarded the apartment’s rear exit.
Alton waited for the agents to break through the door and storm the apartment. Only then did he drive away with headlights off.
Upon clearing the parking lot, he called Mallory. “Don’t go home.”
Two and a Half Years Earlier
Captain Alton Blackwell had nearly reached the end of his twelve-hour shift in the mobile communications—“mobcom”—vehicle, a command-center van mounted along the length of a chassis roughly the size of a commercial bus. The mobcom housed arrays of cutting-edge communication equipment packed along shelves. Along each side of the van, long, mounted tables with chairs provided just enough space for sixteen soldiers to operate the equipment. Alton’s Army unit, the 76th Brigade Combat Team, was stationed in the desert near Gazib, about two hundred miles north of Kandahar. Aton, commander of the soldiers operating the mobcom van, was responsible for establishing and securing the brigade’s communications network.
Alton leaned back in his chair and stretched his arms straight up.
“Long shift, huh, Captain?” asked Lieutenant Anders, his second-in-command.
“Yeah, but at least we’re inside. I guess being in the Signal Corps has its advantages. We’re in here with the A/C, not outside in that oven.”
“Ain’t that the truth.”
“Lieutenant,” said Alton, “have you finished the conversion of the signal scramblers to NORAD’s new encryption protocols?”
“No, sir. We have to replace the motherboards, and the space behind the wall panels is pretty tight. I thought changing the oil in my F150 back home was hard,” he said, grinning. “That was spacious compared to installing this new equipment.”
“Okay—let me give it a shot,” said Alton. He moved to the front of the mobcom and inched his way into the tiny crawlspace until only his legs were showing. Thanks to the Army and an ongoing love of rec soccer, he had maintained the lean, compact fitness first achieved playing linebacker in high school. Nevertheless, despite his size and a height that ran only slightly above average, he filled virtually all of the confined space. In frustration, he tried to run his fingers though his closely-cropped chestnut hair but couldn’t. He considered his options glumly. If a person couldn’t even move, how was he supposed to switch out sensitive electronic equipment buried even deeper in the claustrophobic space?
As he struggled to move forward, Alton heard Sergeant Dawson shout from the mobcom’s entrance. “Hey, Caleb, you forgot your lunch bag!” The statement struck Alton as a little odd since he had never known Caleb—a local policeman hired to reinforce perimeter security—to bring a meal. As an epiphany shot through Alton’s mind, he felt the hair on his neck begin to rise.
He began to shout, “Clear the van! Clear—” but was interrupted by a deafening explosion. A fireball raced out of the door where Sergeant Dawson had been standing. Glass and debris shot through the mobcom and into the air outside, and the atmosphere inside filled with noxious smoke. Alton’s left leg felt strangely numb, but he couldn’t extricate himself from the crawlspace to examine it. The roar of noise gave way to silence and the acrid smell of burning equipment and flesh.
In a few moments, the smoke began to clear, and soldiers rushed onto the scene. Alton heard two of them speaking as they began to extract him carefully from the service space that had, in all probability, saved his life.
“Damn, look at his leg. Think they’ll be able to save that?”
“Probably. The docs can do some pretty amazing things these days. Careful, now.”
They gently carried him out of the remains of the mobcom van and laid him on the ground.
“Medic!” one of them shouted.
“How are my soldiers?” asked Alton, sick at heart as he contemplated the fate of those under his command. “Dawson, Anders, the rest…are they all right?”
The soldiers standing above Alton exchanged grim expressions but said nothing. Within seconds, Alton’s thoughts became too confused to think about the others or his leg, and he slipped into darkness.
Appalachian Trail, Western North Carolina
“What’s that you have there, Sean?” asked Jeffrey Finch. His nine-year-old son had stopped to pick up some type of insect.
“It’s a caterpillar, Dad,” he said. “There’s tons of ‘em out here.”
Finch chuckled. “Why don’t you count them? You can tell Mom how many you saw.”
“Naw—too much work,” replied Sean, giggling and running to pick up another. Moments later, he dropped the insects and improvised a walking stick from a large branch lying near the trail. Before long, the walking stick morphed into an axe, which Sean used to smack each tree as he passed down the trail.
Sean had been pestering his father for months for the two of them to take a one-on-one camping trip. Finch had not been convinced he would relish four days without a bath or A/C, and it had been nearly impossible to carve the time out of his work schedule. Now that he was here, though, he found himself enjoying it as much as his son seemed to be.
The two worked their way down the Appalachian Trial. As they crested a rise, they discovered a break in the dense forest bordering their section of the trail. Miles of verdant peaks appeared in the distance.
“Cool! Look at those mountains over there!” exclaimed Sean, pointing.
“That’s pretty amazing, son,” said Finch. He paused to take a few photos and returned the phone to his vest pocket.
The father and son were concluding the second day of a four-day looping excursion on the trail. Finch had picked out a route containing a variety of scenery while avoiding excessive distances, the perfect itinerary for his rambunctious son.
They hiked along in silence for another thirty minutes.
“When are we gonna make camp, Dad? My feet hurt.”
Jeffery peered at the GPS app on his phone and consulted a small paper route map he pulled from a cargo pocket. “We’re almost there. I’d say about another fifteen minutes, depending on how fast we walk.”
“Let’s go, then. I’m hungry.”
After another ten minutes of hiking, Finch announced, “I think that’s our site over there. Nice, huh? I chose it because it’s designed for overnight campers. See over on the left? That’s the clearing where we can pitch our tent.”
Finch noticed scraps of trash other campers had not carried out with them as they had vacated the area. As he and his son approached the site, Finch realized he wasn’t the only creature who had spotted the garbage. A raccoon rummaged through the discarded items.
“Dad, look—a raccoon!” shouted Sean.
Finch expected the boy’s noise to frighten the animal away, but it merely raised its head in apparent curiosity. Finch realized the animal must be acclimated to humans, living in such close proximity to the popular trail.
Sean approached the animal with an outstretched hand. “C ’mere, boy. That’s a good boy.”
“Sean, stay away from him,” called Finch.
The boy’s fascination was too great, and he jogged towards the forest-dweller.
“Sean,” called Finch, louder. “I told you to leave him alone. If you scare him, he might bite you.”
“Dad, he’s not gonna—” The boy’s words were cut short by an unearthly growl erupting from the raccoon, which raised itself on its hind legs.
Sean’s eyes grew wide, and he took a step backwards. “Dad…?”
“Just walk quietly back towards me, son,” instructed Finch, trying to keep his voice steady. “Be calm, and don’t run.” Finch unsnapped the leather strip securing the T/C Contender single-shot pistol he wore for protection on the trail. With Sean directly between him and the raccoon, Finch didn’t have a clear shot. He began to slowly maneuver to the left of his son, mindful to avoid sudden movements lest he startle the animal himself.
Sean began walking backwards. The raccoon emitted another howl and sprang with lightening reflexes toward the child. Sean scarcely had time to move before the animal lunged for his hand, sinking its teeth into his palm and shaking its head.
“Ahh!” cried Sean in pain and terror. Finch raced towards his son and unholstered his pistol.
The creature released Sean’s hand and raised itself on its hind legs again. Sean grasped his injured hand and stumbled backwards. The raccoon charged for the lad again, but Finch stepped in front of his son and fired a single shot into the animal, killing it instantly. Blood dripped down Sean’s palm and off his fingertips.
As Sean wailed, Finch poured iodine solution from the backpack’s first aid kit into the wound, followed by antibiotic gel and several layers of bandages. Throughout the procedure, he assured Sean that all would end well.
“Let’s get you back to Mom, okay?” said Finch.
And to a clinic.
“Do you want to eat a snack first before we head back to the car?”
“Yeah,” sniffed Sean. “Then I wanna go home.” He sat on a log and wiped the tears from his face.
“Here,” said Finch, removing a granola bar and bottle of water from his backpack. “You can eat this before we leave. It will make you feel better. I’m gonna go use the bathroom on that tree over there. I’ll be right back, okay?”
While Sean munched on the snack, Finch walked back down the trail. After ensuring Sean wasn’t looking in his direction, he quickly removed a plastic trash bag from his pack and stuffed the carcass of the dead raccoon into it. He wrapped the bag tightly and hid it at the bottom of his pack. As Research & Development director for an international pharmaceutical firm, he knew all too well that the animal would have to be tested for diseases. He also knew which disease the raccoon’s behavior suggested, hoping the tests would refute the multitude of evidence pointing to rabies.
Camp Eggers, Kabul, Afghanistan
When Alton awoke, his first thought centered on his left leg. Was it still intact? He slowly pulled back the sheet. To his relief, he saw a heavily bandaged—but still attached—leg. His next thought was for the soldiers he commanded. Had they survived the blast? As commander, he was part father and part mentor, both caretaker and disciplinarian. He felt a profound sense of responsibility for their safety, particularly in the dangerous southern regions of Afghanistan.
Alton’s leg throbbed painfully. After the nurse brought OxyContin for the pain, an orthopedic surgeon arrived to discuss his injury. With effort, he would regain the use of his leg, she said, but it would never be quite the same. He would probably have a limp for life.
“What about my soldiers? The ones working with me in the mobcom van?” asked Alton.
The doctor looked at him square in the face. “Sergeant Sam Dawkins survived with second degree burns and puncture wounds to his back. Sergeant Zach Lambert was off-shift and therefore absent when the blast occurred. No one else made it. I’m sorry.”
Alton felt numb. Anders, Greer, all the rest; he couldn’t wrap his mind around the fact that they were gone. After serving with most of them for over a year, he knew every soldier under his command intimately. He had formed friendships he had expected to last a lifetime. For those killed in the blast, though, those lifetimes had proved to be shorter than any of them could have imagined.
As a teenager, Alton had been proud of his ability to help support his family through their hardscrabble existence, a life made even more difficult after his parents had divorced. Alton had seen himself as a caretaker and provider to his mother and sisters. Until the explosion, he had viewed his Army role in a similar light, but now this self-image—like his leg—was shattered. The plan he had constructed for his life was changed in an instant, and he felt despondent for the youths whose lives were cut short and for the blank future into which he had no choice but to travel.
Alton buried his face in his hands, the magnitude of his loss rendering further conversation impossible. The doctor discretely exited the room, leaving him to his emotions.
The next morning, a crusty, full-bird colonel approached Alton’s bedside. “You’ve had a tough loss, son.” He spoke with a raspy yet kind voice.
Alton kept his eyes trained on the end of his bed. “Yes, sir,” he replied in a voice devoid of emotion.
“I’m Colonel Parks. I’m responsible for reassigning troops after combat injuries. I’ll be deciding what the Army will do with you, a decision which will be based on the extent of your eventual recovery.”
The colonel sat on the end of Alton’s bed. “Captain Blackwell, I grieve for your loss. At the same time, I owe it to you to be very frank—to avoid painting a picture of false hope.”
Alton finally looked the colonel in the face. “Thank you, sir. I prefer that.”
The colonel nodded, his eyes glimmering in approval. “You’ll have to pass a physical exam before you’ll be allowed to return to the field. I’ve read your doctor’s notes. Her prognosis suggests you may not pass that physical—ever.”
Alton pinched his lips together and nodded, his heart too full of sorrow to speak. The doctor had already discussed this topic with Alton and had all but ruled out the possibility of his returning to field work. Colonel Parks was simply trying to soften the blow.
“For now,” continued the colonel, “you’ll be assigned to a Warrior Transition Unit while we evaluate your fitness to return to duty. Frankly, Captain Blackwell, the Army doesn’t want to lose a man of your unique talents. We’ll definitely have a use for your cryptographic skills. We just need to determine whether those talents will be employed in the field or in here in Camp Eggers’s C
Alton grimaced. Not C
! Not permanently, at least. The camp’s C
—Command and Control—division offered the type of desk-bound assignment Alton had always striven to avoid. He couldn’t imagine being buried away in a building. The leadership opportunities and dynamic environment of the field represented the career which was—in Alton’s opinion—perfectly married to his talents and interests. The key, life-saving tactical decisions were made in the field, not behind a desk.
“I’ve read your dossier,” said the colonel. “I know C
isn’t your first choice, or even your second. Keep your head up, and stick with your physical therapy. You might make it back to the field. If not, you might like C
more than you think. Let’s just make the best of it, shall we?”
Alton nodded again without speaking. The colonel stood and began to leave but turned back, peering at Alton over his shoulder. “I know this is a tough time for you, Captain. I’ve made an appointment for you to see Major Laughton, one of our counselors, the day after tomorrow. Report to her office at fourteen-hundred hours. The nurses can wheel you over there when it’s time.”
Colonel Parks departed, and Alton was left alone to brood over the dismal prospects for his future.