He awoke to a slight tickling sensation on his right leg and throwing back the top of his sleeping bag found that he had been joined by a nasty looking millipede. He brushed it off quickly and sharply. He was sure that some of these things were poisonous. Not fatal, but he didn’t want the pain of a poisoned leg to slow him up.
Most of the men were already awake, and eating from various cans they’d opened, and the sergeant major and sergeant were busy rousing those that weren’t. After he had breakfasted himself, this time on corned beef which wasn’t particularly tasty but was nonetheless filling at least, he performed his morning’s ablutions while the company buried the empty tins from the previous night and that morning. As before, he wanted to leave as little evidence of their passing as possible, though he thought it would be a very long time, if ever, before someone else came this way.
There was nothing to report from the night before. It had passed by very peacefully and he radioed in a report to this effect before his company headed on to look for trails.
It wasn’t very long before they found one. It was narrower and seemed less used than the one they had first come up, but was still obvious compared to the jungle they had been cutting through. He realised they hadn’t heard any choppers the day before. He’d need to report that when he radioed in again. Probably Hitu’s crew had heard them and they’d turned around before Andrew and his own team had picked them up, but he hadn’t reported in that they were at the border. Hopefully Hitu had. He was quite conscientious about that kind of thing – probably one of the things Andrew liked most about him – and wouldn’t have forgotten to do so.
He told the sergeant major to pick a couple of troops to send down the trail, under the lead of one of the corporals and instructed Sgt Flynn to get one of the comms guys to find a suitable site to set up the monitoring equipment. ‘Comms’ guys was a misnomer really. They’d had detailed training on the radios of course, not just how to use them. Everyone had got that, even Andrew himself as part of his time at the Academy. Using them was easy. The comms guys had learned more about how to fix them if they went wrong, but also had training in all of the other electronic equipment that had become part of the modern army’s essential tools – GPS equipment, night vision goggles and, of course, the monitoring equipment they’d be using. They were more ‘electronics’ than ‘comms’ really, but comms was easier to say and more traditional, so that term had stuck.
It took quite a long time for the comms guy assigned to the task – a Private Schinkel, originally from Poland but then an émigré to Israel – to find a suitable spot to put the equipment. It needed to be high up, so as not to be seen, but to have a clear view of the trail, one which was unlikely to get blocked by vines or other trees growing into its path.
Andrew understood the principles of course – it had been explained at the Academy. A movement sensor would watch the trail below and if it detected anything would start a camera for a view of what had triggered it. This signal would be beamed to a communications satellite then from there to the monitoring station, pretty much as a satellite phone would work. Once the signal was received the monitoring station could decide whether it was something that needed a reaction to. The equipment couldn’t of course interpret between one of the local wildlife moving about and a caravan of traffickers using the trail to bring drugs down. The movement sensor didn’t use much power, and not much more was needed to transmit the image when necessary, but Andrew had to be sure to map its location correctly. No direct sunlight made it this far down to the jungle floor so the unit would rely on its battery alone, and this wouldn’t last for ever. It was important therefore to be able to find it again, to change the battery when necessary. Besides, these units were quite expensive, so they’d want to recover it eventually. Not as expensive as leaving a small team of men here to do the same job, of course. That’s why the unit had been developed in the first place.
Andrew watched as Private Schinkel struggled to climb the tree he’d selected as being most suitable, a job made harder by his instructions to leave no sign that he had been there to give away the location of the equipment he was placing in it. Once he had reached where he had been aiming for, it didn’t take very long to set the equipment up, and he dropped the cable that would connect the unit to its supporting battery to a colleague below. Once connected to its power source, Private Schinkel positioned the movement detector to give the best coverage of the trail below, using another of the men to trigger it. Once he was satisfied with the result, he carefully climbed back down again, securing the power lead as he went. It was certainly very difficult to spot, even if you knew exactly what you were looking for and where it was, and Andrew doubted a casual observer would notice it, even if looking straight at it!
“All done, sir, and ready for testing,” Private Schinkel reported.
Andrew signalled for Private Mendez, his radio operator, to join him and was soon speaking to base.
“Yes, we’re picking up the signal fine, sir,” came the reply from the other end of the radio set. “I can see some of the men very clearly. By the way, Captain Kergoat told me to tell you that the choppers can get about two hours march from the border before they’re heard. Three, if you allow for them getting to base, picking a team up, then dropping them off, over.”
“Okay, all understood Control, over and out.” Andrew glanced at his watch. It had been about an hour now since the small team he had sent to map the trial had set off. He gave orders to Sgt Flynn to contact them to tell them to start looking out for suitable ambush sites in two hours from now.
“Tell them we want to be able to shoot from both sides of the trail, but not be shooting toward our own men if we can possibly avoid it. Once they’ve found a suitable site, we also need a landing point for the helicopters, as close as possible so the team don’t have too far to march to get to the site, okay?”
Sgt Flynn replied that he understood, and headed off to find another radio operator. Private Mendez wasn’t the exclusive ‘property’ of the lieutenant but the sergeant wanted to leave him ready to make or receive any calls the lieutenant might need. The private seemed to have grown into the lieutenant’s preferred choice for this task.
Once the sergeant had radioed down his instructions to the crew that was mapping trial, it was time to move on to find the next one. The assignment became almost monotonous. They found a trail every few miles, and repeated the steps they’d followed at the first, each small crew he sent down to map it out making his own force smaller.
Mapping the trails was a remarkably simple task. Each team carried a GPS transmitter, so that their route could be recorded by satellite and plotted on a computerised map. Finding suitable sites for an ambush and clearings that could form the basis of the helicopter landing zones would be much harder of course. Once you got off of the trail the density of the surrounding jungle made viewing the trail quite difficult.
Andrew was surprised at how many trails there actually were. He had expected far fewer. On the other hand these trails had probably been used for many years and it was just as easy, or difficult, to cut a trail down to the highway as it was to cut one across to another trail. The time saved in the long run by not having to cut across country was probably also a factor, he supposed.
When it was due to get dark he ordered the men to stop for the night, and the same routine as the first night was followed again. He wondered if he should take a turn at the watch, or at least in ensuring that the men assigned to one of the later shifts were up and ready in time, but decided against it. Another of the perks of being an officer. He also made sure that he fell asleep with his sleeping bag more tightly secured around his neck than the night before. He didn’t want a repeat of his millipede adventure.
They had nearly run out of equipment, and men to map trails when his GPS told him they’d covered the area they were assigned to and it was time to head back to base camp. He decided to push on a little further anyway – finding one last trail would be easier than forcing their way through the undergrowth. They could head back to the last one that they’d found, of course, and might still do so if they didn’t find another quite soon, but that one was several miles march back.
They were rewarded by finding another trail very soon afterwards. He couldn’t see any monitors that would tell him another team had already found the trail – mind you that was the whole idea wasn’t it? He ordered another unit placed and waited while it was.
He also supervised the siting of the signposts they’d left at each of these unofficial border crossings. They basically said that any passer-by was now entering Venezuela, that carrying guns was illegal, and that anyone who was could and would be shot. The signs said this in the local language and in picture format, in case the viewer couldn’t read.
‘So,’ Andrew thought, ‘no excuse really.’
He radioed base for one last test and told them that he and the remaining men would be heading back down this trail. It hadn’t been mapped already, but he knew the team assigned to it would find it eventually. Better to map it twice than miss one, or no doubt that would prove to be the one that was used most.
After three hours marching, he started looking for a suitable ambush site, and was soon rewarded with a likely looking spot. He instructed his sergeant major and sergeant to leave the trail and find suitable positions to attack from, and then to have the troops to any preparatory work that might be necessary – digging trenches, camouflaging good positions, that kind of thing. By the time they’d finished this task it was nearly dark again, so they stopped for the night.
They set up camp several hundred yards away from the trail. He didn’t think anyone would be travelling down the track at night but didn’t want to risk being seen, especially in the early morning when there might be travellers moving along the route before they’d left.
The next morning he made sure the evidence of their stay had been cleared away again before moving out, and radioed that they were on the move and would find a suitable landing point as soon as they could.
“We may be able to do a bit better than that, sir,” came a cheerful voice at the other end. We’ve got a chopper over that way – maybe he can spot something from the air, over.”
Andrew said that this was definitely a good suggestion and signed off. It would be far easier to spot a suitable landing site from the air, or at least the start of one, than from the ground.
He decided to sit tight and wait for the chopper to arrive. No point in backtracking if it wasn’t necessary and a site was found very close to the ambush site. He conveyed this to the team via the sergeant major, and those that had already put on their packs in readiness for the journey set them down again gratefully.
It was only a few minutes later that they heard the distinctive thud of a helicopter in the distance, becoming louder as it moved towards them. Not long after that, Private Mendez was offering him the mike and telling him he had a Lieutenant Forbes, the chopper pilot, wanting to speak to him.
He was surprised at first to hear a lady’s voice at the other end of the radio. There were no restrictions on women serving in the Werlder Force, but no special favours either. Boot camp, and officer training, was exactly the same for women as it was for men, so many of those that applied were cut out long before they made the grade, simply because the men were better designed and equipped for the physical challenges they had to face. Of course, Officer Training was a bit less physical, and more about mental powers, and the Flight School still more so. Even so, women in the Werlder Force were a rare breed, and probably had to be far tougher than the men they served with to maintain their positions.
“Lieutenant Hoch,” came the voice, “there seems to be somewhere suitable very near to where you are now. A couple of hundred yards further south. It isn’t exactly ‘clear’ but there’s a natural break in the tree line. It shouldn’t take too much work to make a clearing large enough for a chopper to land, over.”
“Thanks Lieutenant,” he replied, “we’d probably have missed it if you hadn’t told us, over.”
“No problem. Our task for the next couple of days is to check out the places you and your men are suggesting as landing sites, and make sure there isn’t somewhere better suited nearby. It’s easy to miss these spots when you can only see them from the ground, over.”
“Sure thing,” he agreed, “still I probably owe you a drink when we meet face to face, over.”
“I don’t, but you can always buy me a coffee, over and out.” Andrew could tell this last was said with a smile on Lieutenant Forbes’s face. He handed the mike back to P. Mendez, who had heard all of this exchange and had a smile on his face too.
“Sounds like you’ve got a date, sir,” he said, somewhat cheekily.
It didn’t take long to find the spot Lieutenant Forbes had suggested. It was, indeed, easy to clear. Easier still for Andrew himself. He gave instructions to the sergeant major and the sergeant then relaxed a bit as the men in the company started to cut back the trees and shrubs that were growing in the space, making an LZ big enough to land a couple of choppers in.
Even though the area was already quite clear naturally, the work was hard and it was getting dark again before they’d finished. Andrew decided it would be prudent to spend another night out here, rather than try to push on through the darkness. Besides, the men were probably pretty tired after their labours and taking them on a night march down a trail they didn’t yet know seemed a bit unfair. He gave the necessary instructions and radioed his decision to base, before casting around for a suitable spot to lay out his sleeping bag.
His dinner, consisting of ham again, this time with a kind of coleslaw-ish affair, was very welcome. He’d not eaten much at lunchtime, preferring to nibble on the chocolate and sweets he had found still in his pack, so was quite hungry by the time he got to take this meal. He found that he was already longing was something hot, even though it had only been a few days since his last warm meal. He also made a mental note that he needed to be a bit more selective when restocking his kit from the kitchen. The ham was very nice, but eating it for so many meals was starting to be a bit boring.
He wasn’t as tired as he had been for the last couple of days. He had, after all, spent most of that day not doing much, physically at least. So he spent the twilight hours moving amongst the men and chatting to them. After a while he realised that they were tired themselves and talking mainly to be polite. Most of those he’d already chatted to were now asleep. He left them to it, talking instead to Sergeant Major Smith and Sgt Flynn. They’d had quite a hard day too, but like him hadn’t actually taken much part in the physical work that had needed to be completed.
The two men seemed strange with each other, not exactly at odds but certainly not friendly. He tried to steer the conversation round to their time in Afghanistan – he thought that at least would give them common ground to talk about. Each time he did though, one or other of them seemed to go off at a tangent and drew the topic on to something different. There was obviously something going on here that he wasn’t getting, but raising it with both men at once seemed unnecessarily controversial. He made a mental note to bring it up with each of them individually, as soon as the chance arose. Meanwhile, he said his goodnights and left them to crawl into his sleeping bag. It took quite a long time him to finally get to sleep that night. Wondering about his sergeants didn’t help, nor did a nagging doubt that he may have forgotten something.