Content Warning: Mild swearing, some violence and war themes
Season: This is set after Red Flag, starting from November 2001 ... so, about season 6 of SG1, roughly.
Summary: World events propel Captain Evan Lorne to a place and a war far removed from home, creating the cornerstone of his future career. Again, pure Lorne, AU background series.
Classifications: Family, friendship, adventure
Spoilers for: None
Acknowledgements: The UK production Fighter Pilot: Afghanistan, a six part documentary program I watched to get a feel for a day in the life of a fighter pilot during the conflict. That was set at Kandahar airfield a few years too late and they fly harriers not F-16s but it's close enough! It was certainly useful for the parts of this I set in Kandahar and its surrounds. Wikipedia for most of the other information, in particular about fighter wings and squadrons of the U.S. air force involved in Operation Enduring Freedom - I searched high and low to come up with the details of a wing that went to the conflict early AND flew F-16's and eventually found some good details there and at globalsecurity.org; kdab.afcent.af.mil; and dutchaviationsupport.eu. I have also relied on Wikipedia as well as the michigandaily online archives for snippets of actual events that occur in Afghanistan when this story takes place.
Disclaimer: The Stargate characters, storylines, etc aren't mine. I am unfortunately not associated in any way with the creators, owners, or producers of Stargate or any of its media franchises – if I was Lorne would have been in A LOT more episodes. All publicly recognizable characters, settings, equipment, etc are the property of whoever owns them. The original characters and plot and anything else I made up are the property of me, the author. No copyright infringement is intended.
Copyright (c) 2010 ShaViva
In filling in some of the remaining blanks of Lorne's background in this story I've touched on actual world events – not unexpected but I just wanted to say up front that I have the highest respect for the military and their efforts as well as real compassion for those who've suffered loss due to those world events. No trivialisation, disrespect or offense is intended.
Also, you'll see when you start reading this that the setting is totally unfamiliar to anything I could personally know about. Research can only get you so far and then it's up to me as the writer to fill in the gaps ... translation, make things up! If there are inaccuracies in those gaps then we'll all just have to live with them because I've done the best I can to make this realistic. This is all written too - just the usual editing required as I post each chapter.
And now, on with the story ... I hope you enjoy!
Chapter 1: And the world changes
Early November 2001
He'd been there a month and was already at the point where he felt like he'd never been anywhere else.
Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. The Persian Gulf, an hour's flight at high speed from the heart of Afghanistan.
It was as sharp a contrast to familiar conditions as you could imagine. Hot days heading upwards to 100 degrees even so late in the year. Days that felt much hotter because of the lack of humidity followed by nights where the temperatures dropped sharply enough to have you shivering. And dust ... so bad that it hindered the use of anything electronic and increased tenfold the maintenance load on the ground crews.
The air quality on the base was terrible, because it was so dry and dusty and every movement kicked up a fresh wave of tiny particles – sand and dirt that got into everything. The base was active – something was going on 24/7 – so things never got a chance to settle.
The contrast was there in the landscape too ... once you headed towards the war zones near the Helmand Province and Kandahar City it was just so damn flat it felt unnatural, like God had taken a large plank to the area and smoothed out all the peaks and troughs. But surrounding that were mountain ranges large enough to be present in your line of sight no matter where you were heading.
How Lorne had gotten from his almost cushy posting at Nellis AFB to where he was now was as interesting as it was disheartening to a soul that believed in peace enough to pick up arms in defence of it.
It was an inescapable fact that the world was a different place to what it had been prior to September 11. He'd been at Nellis that day, 2500 miles away from the site of the worst terrorist attacks on civilians in American History. Too far away to do anything but look on, immobile and useless despite the power his squadron of F-16 fighting falcons represented. There had been no fighting for the air force that day - they'd been taken by surprise, forces already engaged elsewhere in the world, spread too thin and too removed to do anything until it was already too late. That grated, as it was meant to he thought - that the U.S. military had so little impact, that civilians had suffered while they'd been safe at their bases around the world.
Evan had only finished his Masters degree the month before. Since his first Red Flag, his first disastrous foray into romantic love, he'd focussed on study and work to the exclusion of everything else. It had been awkward at first but Nellis was big enough that if you really didn't want to see someone you didn't have to. Tanya had made it easy for him by avoiding him just as much as he avoided her. And eventually he'd gotten over it - that rush of pain and disappointment he got whenever he thought about the 'could have been's. Maybe he wasn't entirely over her but he'd put it behind him and reminded himself of what was really important. The air force; serving his country; work that meant something ... and flying, his first and enduring love. The plan had been to stay at Nellis, get done with his degree as quickly as he could and then move on again – playing at war had lost its appeal even before the events on September 11.
He'd stuck to that, putting in for a transfer as soon as his confirmation of completion had come through. The only thing he'd changed post the attacks was where he'd requested to go. Lorne didn't want to sit back and let someone else fight ... he wanted to be there, do what he could to take away any chance that it could happen again. To do that he needed to be on a fighting wing likely to get shipped out to assist in Operation Enduring Freedom.
He'd chosen the 366th fighter wing out of Mountain Home AFB in Idaho and luckily they'd accepted his request for a posting without apparent comment. There'd been a couple of days in the middle after he'd packed his stuff and shipped some non essentials back to his Mom, where he'd jumped on a plane for his new posting, via Cold Lake.
"You're going to Afghanistan?" Elaine was as serious as Evan had ever seen her – she knew what September 11 meant for the men she loved. Drew wasn't even scheduled to ship out to the conflict but Evan could see the worry in her eyes – the battle between wanting to keep her husband safe and close to home and the pride of knowing he wouldn't sit back, that something in him needed to defend those who couldn't defend themselves, that needed to make the world a better place that it felt right then.
"Soon," he admitted, settling back on the couch in her living room. Drew was still at work and Lorne welcomed the chance to speak to his sister alone.
It wasn't a question but Evan answered it anyway. "Yeah," he said unapologetically. 'I had to."
"Did you?" Elaine asked blandly.
"It's no different being posted anywhere," Evan felt almost defensive. Not that he thought he had any reason to be, but his sister's disapproval wasn't something he liked experiencing under any circumstances.
"We both know that's not true," Elaine returned, pinning him with a pointed look.
"Anywhere during a conflict," Evan corrected himself. He paused, leaning forward earnestly. "I'll be fine Lainee ... and you know I'm always careful."
"I know," Elaine forced a smile as she put a hand over his. "I'm glad you got to visit before you ship out."
"Me too." Evan grinned. "I still can't believe sometimes that you've grown up and have your own house to run. Are you sure you should be this mature?"
"What, you mean more mature than you?" Elaine retorted, slipping easily back into that sibling ribbing they'd mastered over years of growing up together.
"I'm mature ... enough," Evan laughed when she almost stamped her foot in frustration.
"You'll be mature enough when you settle down," she said, her face falling as soon as she realised that wasn't as sensitive as it could have been. "I'm sorry Evan," she said apologetically.
"What for?" he shot back. "Because of Tanya? I got over that a long time ago Sis ... all water under the bridge now."
Elaine didn't look like she believed him fully but she let the matter drop, the two settling in to talk about daily life in Cold Lake and what she'd been doing to fill her time. Evan smiled to hear her enthusiasm about volunteering through some of the projects run from Cold Lake, in between pursuing more art studies via correspondence.
It was just what he needed ... Evan would have done just about anything required to get those days with Elaine and Drew. All he'd wanted was to enjoy being with his family, to relax and soak up enough of that feeling of belonging to something bigger than himself while he could. To remind himself on a personal level what it was they were fighting for. Leaving was always a wrench, this time more than before because he really didn't know how long he'd be away, how long it would be before he saw his family again.
Repeating the same process with his Mom the next day didn't help but he couldn't have left without see her. They'd come a long way since Elaine's wedding in understanding the role the military played in their past, present and future. Grace Lorne had welcomed the time he got to spend with her and sent him off with a hug and an order that he at least write to her when he could. Thinking back to that time now Evan still smiled, although it was edged with regret that the war in Afghanistan was necessary at all.
That had only been the beginning of his journey to where he was now. Once at Mountain Home AFB they'd assigned Lorne to the 389th Fighter Squadron, already slated for deployment to Qatar six weeks from his arrival.
All Evan had to do was complete a refresher course in survival training and he'd be cleared to go. That sounded easy – it wasn't anything he hadn't already done before – but in practice, knowing they were teaching you things to cover situations that might actually occur only weeks and a whole world away made it a lot harder. He'd breezed through weapons handling, marksmanship, and combat first aid as well as all the tests of physical fitness and capability. It was all the extra things – nuclear, biological and chemical knowledge - they thought he might need that had Evan cringing, internally anyway.
The worst of all had been the chemical warfare suit test. They'd had to gear up in the full kit, protective suit and gas mask and then voluntarily head into a gas chamber that was going to be full of CS gas. 2-chlorobenzalmalononitrile, also known as tear gas was non lethal but exposure could still make you pretty sick and miserable. During the fifteen minutes he'd been in there Evan had to do a series of tasks – decontaminating his suit and changing the air filter on his mask had been easy but drinking some water when he'd been wearing a sealed and air tight mask turned out to be more than a little difficult. The last part, decontaminating his face, had capped off the unpleasant experience. For that you had to deliberately expose your entire head, all without breathing or opening your eyes, and then put the mask back on and purge your aspirator before you could take a few breaths and open your eyes again. No matter how careful you were the gas had touched your face – coupled with the natural moisture of skin the effects were unavoidable. A minuscule portion of gas got into his eyes and had them stinging and streaming with tears. Thankfully the burning sensation hadn't lasted and he'd come away thinking it really hadn't been that bad – not that he'd be lining up to repeat the performance.
They'd spent a lot of time on roadside bombs and IED's too – improvised explosive devices the Taliban were notorious for making use of – and on learning tactics to deal with an ambush. One of the biggest hazards of Afghanistan was its land mines – it was one of the most heavily mined countries in the world. The mines were well hidden, small but still capable of causing considerable damage. Various offenders over the history of the country had dropped them from the air and they just sat on the ground until someone stepped on them. The ones most commonly used were made out of plastic so they were hard to detect with a metal detector and worst yet, lasted for a very long time. Luckily Lorne didn't need to know as much as the bomb disposal guys, just enough to know what to do if he had to walk through one of them.
Training had flown by and all too soon Evan's squad was shipping out. The journey to Qatar was a long one and the preparations were rigorous. Getting together the things it was mandatory you take and the things the powers that be thought you should take distracting enough to almost take your mind off where you were going. There were the usual things - ten copies of his orders plus the ones he'd mailed Elaine and his Mom, although why he needed ten was a mystery only administration could answer; a whole bunch of other paper work for medical, immunisation records, weapons qualifications, security clearance and his airman's manual; as well as uniforms and linens and all the other personal stuff you needed to be so far away from home and any kind of convenience store. Each place also had its extra requirements. For the Middle East they stood out like a sore thumb, or an advert that said 'this is a harsh place to live'. Dust goggles, Malaria pills year round, desert boots, extra pairs of sunglasses and a Gortex cold weather jacket. Hot and dusty, cold too and with the threat of illness just around the corner - Lorne was pretty sure they didn't put that in the travel brochures.
The things you weren't allowed to bring were just as interesting. No civilian PT gear at all - when you weren't in UOD - uniform of the day, ABU's or desert flight dress uniform you wore the standard USAF physical training uniforms. No alcoholic beverages or non prescription drugs either. You could bring electronics but it was discouraged because chances were the dust would get into them and render them useless not long after you arrived, and for sure the military wouldn't be replacing them.
The U.S. had taken over the domestic airport in Qatar when they'd arrived a couple of months before. Although they didn't have a formal agreement with the country's government there hadn't been an official protest either. Afghanistan wasn't that far away ... having the U.S. air force living on your doorstep was probably seen as a good thing. They had the use of the main buildings and had erected a series of tents for housing troops. There were concrete barriers that had been brought in to protect them from attacks on foot, along with cameras and observation towers manned at all times. The 389th squardron was the only fighter squadron stationed there but not the only aircraft - they had the full range required to drop supplies into Afghanistan, conduct surveillance, provide defensive support - and all the troops needed to maintain them. Lorne hadn't done a head count but he'd guess there were about a thousand personnel on the ground, a number that seemed to be growing every day.
Evan turned from where he'd been watching the ground crew doing maintenance on one of the planes to see one of his squad mates heading towards him. It was funny how the world worked ... he'd got himself on the 389th squadron with the grim purpose of doing his bit for the War on Terrorism and the first person he'd seen when he got to Mountain Home AFB had been Captain Piper Jones. It happened that way sometimes - some people you met at training and then never saw again, others turned up as though it had been planned all along. Seeing Piper again was like that. Turns out she'd felt the same way he had about actively getting involved in the U.S.'s efforts in Afghanistan. Mountain Home had a contingent of marine pilots stationed there and the continuing spirit of cooperation between the services had made it almost a formality for her to get a seat on Lorne's wing before it shipped out.
"Hey," he smiled as she stopped, standing in the thin patch of shade he was making.
"The new guy's here," Piper announced.
"Okay," Lorne got up and the two fell into step together. He'd agreed to brief their newest arrival because he'd be serving with their wing since the previous holder of that place had been sent home early with of all things appendicitis.
"Lieutenant, this is our wing leader, Captain Evan Lorne," Piper made the introductions before nodding and leaving Evan to it.
"Sir," a young man, tall and thin, stood to attention as soon as Lorne entered the orientation room.
"At ease Lieutenant," Evan said easily, looking at him curiously.
"First Lieutenant Scott Castles reporting for duty Sir," the new arrival said, relaxing only slightly.
"Welcome to Al Udeid Lieutenant," Lorne said, internally amused at the seriousness displayed. How long had this guy been out of flight school? His manner along with the strictly regulation cut of his dark hair and the starched perfection of his uniform had Evan placing him at the low end of the scale on real world experience. That was the thing about war – it graduated men and women into the action much younger than they otherwise would have, gave them the chance to fly missions they might never see during peace time.
"Thank you Sir," Lieutenant Castle replied.
"I'll give you a tour of the base in a minute, show you where everything is," Lorne began. "But before we do that there are a few things to say. You'll get a comprehensive briefing from the base Commander on the operational and support facets of our mission. This is more of an 'in the know' briefing, okay."
"Yes Sir," Castle nodded, brown eyes intent and earnest.
"Right ... well first up, keep your sleeves down at all times," Lorne said. "Wouldn't want to give those mosquitoes a bare skin invitation to come and dine on you. Malaria is a year round threat here." He watched impassively as the younger man hastily rolled his sleeves back down and buttoned them up. "The temperature drops rapidly after dark so make sure you keep your cold weather gear up to scratch. General Order Number 1 is enforced here, so no alcoholic beverages, no non prescription drugs and no entering the sleeping quarters of the opposite gender."
"No Sir," Castle looked faintly embarrassed at that last part and Lorne had to repress the urge to grin. Had he ever been that young and eager to impress?
"It might seem like we're a long way from the battle zone," Lorne continued, "but make no mistake, this is a live combat base. Vigilance and discipline at all times Lieutenant."
Castle nodded, doing his best not to look nervous. It was understandable – a first posting to somewhere with the stakes so high should be nerve wracking, otherwise you weren't taking it seriously enough.
"Okay, let's take that tour," Lorne motioned for the younger man to precede him outside. As they walked he pointed out the key points of interest ... "Admin – finances, supply requests, stuff like that. They'll take your letters home and get them out with the supply plane. Getting something to the States takes I don't know how long," Evan added. "I haven't gotten anything back from home yet."
"How long have you been here Sir?" Castle asked, adding quickly before Lorne could answer "if it's okay to ask Sir."
"A month," Lorne said easily. "We've had the run of Al Udeid since October – the facilities are a bit primitive right now but slowly over time the air expeditionary wing is creating some infrastructure and making everything a little more permanent." Continuing with his tour he pointed to his right. "That's the Mess building – used to be the airport cafeteria. Food is pretty much rations and MREs right now with a little fresh stuff when we can get it in. Laundry's next door – it's do it yourself for the time being until we get a few more base support staff posted here. And over there are all the accommodation tents."
They walked the main areas and then returned back to the orientation building. "Any questions?" Lorne asked.
"When can I get out there and flying Sir?" Castles predictably returned.
"All in good time Lieutenant," Lorne replied. "Since there're only the four F-16 pilots so far we run missions in pairs. Two in the air and two to cover things here just in case we get an emergency request for ground support. Captain Jones and I have the next scheduled mission tonight. You and Lieutenant Pearce will be flying tomorrow's mission, if there is one. After that I'll be switching the two man teams around to suit the missions." Castles nodded, his expression still that awkward mix of enthusiasm and nerves.
"Go find your bunk," Lorne concluded. "The base commander will talk to you this afternoon."
"Thanks for the briefing Sir," Castles said.
"No problem," Evan grinned, "and welcome to the three eight nine."
Chapter 2: A day in the life
Late November 2001
"You're early," Lorne commented when Piper came to find him half an hour before their next mission briefing was due to start. For this one he'd decided he and Piper would fly together, leaving his less experienced pilots on base to hopefully spend an uneventful night. The other two planes would still be held in readiness, just in case further close air support was called for while Lorne and Piper were away from the base.
"I know," Piper shrugged. "I thought we might as well start now - it's not like there's much else to do around here."
"True," Lorne agreed. Nodding towards the building where the pilot's briefing room was located he smiled. "Come on then ... since you're so keen."
Evan admitted to himself that he was actually looking forward to their mission as well. Al Udeid was far enough from the combat zone, and on the other side of the gulf, so they didn't see a lot of action. Forward Operating Base Rhino, known as Camp Rhino, on the other hand was right in the thick of it, located in the Registan Desert 100 nautical miles southwest of Kandahar. That was particularly important because Kandahar Airport was where the Taliban had taken refuge and still held a strong position.
"Once we land at Camp Rhino we'll refuel," Lorne began the briefing, "talk to our forward air controllers at the base and on the ground." The forward air controllers were the guys who went out with the soldiers right into the thick of the battle zone so they'd be on site, ready to call in air support when it was needed.
Calling up a map of the region around Kandahar Evan pointed to a spot about 50 miles away, at the base of mountain ranges that extended over a large portion of the country. "Our ground troops are holed up here ... they're not under attack right now but there are signs the Taliban are moving units to intercept them. We need to discourage that, hence tonight's show of force."
"Two F-16's flying low should get the message across," Piper agreed. "Don't mess with us."
"Let's hope so. From what I can gather this is leading up to us making a push to take Kandahar," Evan told her intently. "We do that, drive them away from their spiritual home, and it'll seriously weaken them, both internally and with the locals."
Continuing the briefing, Lorne covered the basics - where he and Piper needed to be, fuel management, weather, angle of approach and payload in case things got ugly. Every mission was a life and death undertaking, even though they might not actually be within sight of the enemy until those few moments when they dropped their planes inside the battle zone. Every eventuality had to be considered and planned for because they were a prime target for the Taliban's anti aircraft surface to air weapons. That's why they were doing the mission at night – it was too risky to fly out from Camp Rhino during the day. War wasn't a nine to five occupation in any case – often after dark was when things really kicked into action.
"Okay," Evan concluded the briefing, leading the way out to where they kept the logs.
Paperwork didn't disappear just because they were in a warzone. They still had to sign out their jets before each mission – still had to check the maintenance records, the software installed, note any limitations listed, and confirm that the weapons codes were right. Each plane had its own folder, filled with the pages that detailed its mission history. You couldn't get attached to any one jet because it could be replaced at a moments notice with another, but secretly Lorne did think each plane had a 'personality'. The one he was taking out that night was his preferred ride, for no real reason other than that it felt like they belonged, like he had a special affinity for it. He wasn't superstitious but if something gave you an edge, even if it was just a mental one, then you might as well go with it.
"Ready," Evan finished his checks and signed his name on the night's mission sheet before turning to see that Piper was almost done too.
"I'm good to go," she said, replacing her folder in its slot.
The planes were kept some distance from the pilots briefing room so they had to get transport to take them out there. Four wheel drive jeeps were the vehicles of choice for the base ... Lorne and Piper settled in the back for the drive down the dusty runway towards their planes. The journey took a while, more than long enough for you to reflect on what you were about to do. It was serious business sure, but Evan enjoyed it, enjoyed the chance to do what he'd trained for. That was the interesting thing all the new guys learned – that you could miss home while still looking forward to the kind of flying you got to do in the Middle East.
Snipers, roadside bombs and fanatical insurgents weren't the only threats they faced on the ground. There were others – scorpions, sunburn, and heat stroke – the elements themselves making everything just that little bit harder. It was hot in the front seat of an F-16 too – temperatures could get in excess of a hundred and twenty degrees Fahrenheit – and you had to sweat it out in a heavy flight suit and anti-G pants. Of course all of that was forgotten when you were hugging the ground at 300 feet - it was the journey back to base when you noticed those discomforts.
Once at the hangar, Evan and Piper both greeted their ground crews with familiarity – when you relied on the same team of people to keep you in the air you made sure you got to know them pretty well.
"Good luck almost Major Lorne," Piper said teasingly before they separated to move towards their individual F-16's.
"You too," Evan shook his head, not rising to her teasing. Ever since he'd made the mistake of admitting he'd finished the degree she'd known he'd started Piper had taken to calling him an 'almost' Major, telling him he just had to do something to distinguish himself and he was as good as promoted. He'd stopped correcting her and resorted to pointing out that unless she signed up for some study of her own she'd face the prospect of him outranking her for real, rather than just from experience.
Landing at Camp Rhino a couple of hours later Lorne and Piper left their planes to be refuelled while they checked in with the commanding officer keeping tabs on input from their forward air controllers, getting an update on the relative positions of all the players. It only took a few minutes, hardly enough time for them to get even an impression of Rhino, and then they were back up in the air again.
"Go to 20,000 feet," Lorne instructed, taking the lead position as Piper dropped her aircraft into formation beside him.
"20,000 feet," Piper confirmed.
"Wait for my mark and then descend to 5,000." They'd already discussed what they would do but Lorne still needed to give the order for each step. "We'll do the final drop below the flight deck when we're only a few miles out."
Even in a full wing of planes, flying could be a lonely occupation if you let it. You had your radio but couldn't create unnecessary chatter by using it for anything other than essential communications until the mission was complete. It was just you and the sky and the mission ... and if you didn't think that was about as good as it got then you were in the wrong business.
"Drop to 5,000," Lorne said purposefully when they were close enough, adding moments later "and dive."
The planes soared through the sky, diving steeply until they pulled up sharply, levelling at around 300 feet above the ground. It was a heart in your throat, sitting on a knife's edge adrenalin rush – the ground flashing past below as you battled to ignore the feeling that any second the earth itself was going to reach up and grab you out of the sky.
The mission went flawlessly; their jets making the earth shake as they flew over the supplied coordinates.
"Pull up," Lorne ordered once they'd done a pass. "Let's give them another buzz – raise a little dust."
"I am totally for that," Piper quipped, keeping her flight line tight as she followed Evan in a wide loop and back towards and then over their 'target' with an ear jarring roar.
"That should do it," Evan grinned suddenly as he led the way back up to the open sky. "Was that as good for you as it was for me?"
"Oh hell yes," Piper shot back. "Tease."
"What, me or the mission?"
"Not you Mr Nice Guy," Piper was the one teasing now. "I meant the bad guys – I bet it burns to see us so close and not be able to take us out, knowing we could get rid of them before they went five yards."
"That's why they call it a show of force," Evan pointed out, amused at her summary of their mission result.
"Well, let's hope it did the trick today."
"We'll find out once we land back at Rhino," Lorne replied.
Even though they couldn't see the troops on the ground the pilots knew their presence was appreciated. A show of force wasn't the only trick in their bag, although it was more important than someone inexperienced with warfare might have expected. Lorne's wing could be called in at a moment's notice to support ground troops pinned down, ambushed or under heavy enemy fire. Already they'd provided the fire power, attacking and bombing insurgent installations and military compounds - all part of combined efforts to drive the Taliban somewhere they could finish them off.
It wasn't for glory or victory ... it wasn't to be the country in control of the most land. It was to take away the ability to the Taliban to engineer another September 11 and to seek justice from those responsible for the attacks. Beyond that it was for the people in outlying villages – to give them a chance to go about their business, rebuild their regional governments and their economy ... to bring peace to a country at war for 200 years.
Landing back at Camp Rhino an hour later, leaving his jet for the ground crews to check and refuel again, Lorne joined Piper and the mission commander for a debrief before they broke to refuel themselves. That's when they got the chance to take in the set up there. The base was surrounded by desert terrain Evan was sure would be more at home on the moon or in a science fiction flick. The outpost didn't belong out there in the middle of nowhere – as far as the brass had been able to tell it had been built for use as a drug distribution hub and then abandoned before it began operation. That intended purpose made it ideal from a defensive point of view. It was surrounded by a high wall with four guard towers. Inside those walls were warehouses and offices. Capping it off were actual sealed roads running throughout the camp and a three foot deep cement moat that bisected the base.
It was perfect for their needs but at the same time the facilities were minimalistic at best – in comparison, Al Udeid was luxury accommodation. Rhino had no showers or wash facilities and no messing facilities which meant literally pulling up a piece of ground and a ration pack for every meal. Water was a scarce resource, every drop having to be flown in. Where Lorne shared a semi permanent looking tent with 7 others, the guys at Rhino were being accommodated in a large open warehouse building – sleeping either on the cold cement or outside in the cold dirt. They were close to the front line, tactically significant, so after dark it was lights out for everyone, only those going out or assisting with night missions allowed to remain active.
Evan and Piper found their way to where a group of marines also returned from a night mission were sitting - one of the smaller warehouses used to store food supplies.
"How do you guys put up with this?" Piper asked, sitting on the ground next to Evan and opening her ration pack with a faint grimace.
"It's not forever," one replied with a shrug. "Another couple of weeks and we'll have taken Kandahar airport, moved everything there. Besides," the young man grinned across at Piper, "I kind of like rations."
"I bet you like airline food too," Piper shot back.
"What's wrong with airline food?" the marine retorted, making a play at being genuinely puzzled.
"If you don't know that there's no point telling you," Piper returned, shaking her head sadly and getting a laugh from everyone.
Lorne chuckled too, amused to see Piper holding her own in a group of testosterone charged marines still coming down from the high of a successful mission. But then, she was a marine herself so she was probably feeling right at home. Evan was the odd man out in that game.
"Once we take Kandahar you guys will probably end up stationed there too," another marine commented. "You can come and put a few craters in the ground for us." That sparked a conversation about military tactics and the war effort that lasted until their planes had been cleared by the ground crew and it was time for Lorne and Piper to return to Al Udeid.
It had been a long day and an even longer night but still Evan found it hard to settle once he was in his bunk back on base. The sounds of others sleeping wasn't distracting as much as it was frustrating - he'd been up for 20 hours, he should be tireder than any of them. It was his own mind that was keeping him awake - thoughts that he couldn't shut off. The world had changed too much in recent times and he sensed it was about to change again ...hopefully this time it would be a step in the right direction.
Turning onto his stomach, Lorne buried his head in his pillow. "Think about something good," he told himself. Trouble was, these days life was all too serious and he couldn't help but think about why. One thing was for sure though - Evan was where he was meant to be – it had been a long time since he'd questioned the choices he'd made or the role he'd chosen for himself.
He'd made a difference that day ... helped their guys on the ground remain clear of the enemy. And with any luck he'd continue to make a difference until eventually it'd be somebody else's turn and he'd get to go home again.
Chapter 3: Change of Address
In early December that change Lorne had sensed was on the way took place ... the U.S. Marines landed at Kandahar at the end of November and over the space of days took over control of the airport. The battle was intensive, the Taliban forces fighting fiercely until they made their last stand and were routed with the aid of explosive firepower directly on their position.
For Evan's part it was about backing up the troops from the air – they'd dropped bombs, destroyed enemy vehicles travelling towards the airport with reinforcements, as well as displaying the military power of the United States armed forces. What he did was a risk, but not in the same calibre in his mind to what those ground troops faced every day. And sometimes the risks came from unexpected sources. Reading the communication he'd just been given by the base commander, Lorne sighed sadly, nodding to the suggestion that he'd want to let his team know as soon as possible.
It was midday, which meant none of them were due to leave on a mission for some hours, although Lieutenant Pearce and Piper were on call. They couldn't stray too far from where their planes were parked or engage in any of the other things they usually used to distract themselves just in case they were needed. Knowing their new guys, Lorne was pretty sure he'd find Lieutenant Castles keeping time with the rest of the team even though he was free to be anywhere he wanted on base.
Walking into the pilots waiting area, located in a small room just off the main maintenance hangar, Evan was relieved to see he'd been right.
"Guys," he greeted the other three members of his squadron.
"Sir, Captain," the replies came back promptly.
"News from Kandahar," Evan began, motioning for them all to be at ease. Propping a hip on the nearest desk, Lorne paused, taking a moment before he began. "They had a friendly fire incident last night," he said. "A bomb carrying two thousand pounds of explosives missed the mark; landed too close to our troops."
"And?" Piper was experienced enough to know there was more.
"Three special forces soldiers were killed," Lorne gave the report in a tone that was sympathetic and heavy with the seriousness of the situation. "Nineteen others wounded. Plus another five Afghan fighters were killed, and more injured."
"How ...," Scott trailed off, not sure what he should ask.
"How did it happen?" Lorne asked, getting a nod in return. "They don't know yet. There'll be an investigation but at the end of the day we might never know unless an obvious pilot error occurred." He paused, considering what he'd say next. "It's a hazardous military tactic to use, calling in an air strike so close to your own troops. Not that it excuses what happened last night ... we're relying on the intel from the ground being up to the minute and they're relying on us being one hundred percent accurate. It doesn't take going off the mark much to end up with a disastrous result."
"How's the pilot doing?" Piper asked softly.
"I don't know but I'd say probably pretty badly," Evan replied, unable to give her more. They were suppressing the names of those involved for everyone's protection but in all likelihood it would be someone they at least knew of if not had flown with in the two months they'd been there. "Even if they acted precisely on the information and dropped that bomb exactly where requested, blue on blue causalities aren't something you can just accept lightly."
"No," Ryan Pearce spoke up, having taken the news with an unnatural quiet solemness.
"Lieutenant?" Lorne frowned, wondering at the other mans reaction. He'd read nothing of anything similar occurring in the young pilots record.
"I had a friend who served in Iraq Sir," Pearce replied. "Pilot – involved in a similar incident, through no fault of his own. He couldn't accept it, ended up leaving the force."
"It's difficult to know how anyone would react under those circumstances," Evan returned. "The best thing is to make sure they don't occur in the first place. We'll continue to plan every mission with the utmost care, confirm our intel before we make any drops, and live up to the accuracy I know we're all trained for. We'll do our best to make sure something like this doesn't happen on our watch." That last part sounded as much like an order as it did a pep talk.
"Yes Sir," even Piper gave him the Sir as they all straightened instinctively.
"Okay, back to business then," Evan stood straighter, nodding to Castles. "We've got a request to look over some terrain satellite imagery north of Kandahar. Came in via AWACS." Scott nodded, falling into step beside his CO as they left the room.
And with that it was back to business as usual, although none of them would forget ... they'd been careful before of course, but the deadly reminder of just what could go wrong sharpened the focus of all of them.
Two weeks later it was all over ... the Marines completed their takeover of Kandahar airport, beginning to set up a base of operations there. Troops began arriving almost immediately to continue the war effort.
The Taliban government had been overthrown but the work was still to be done. As the powers that be described it, they were shifting into the most difficult and dangerous phase of their military campaign – rooting out Taliban and al-Qaida terrorist leaders hiding in caves, tunnels, and any kind of fortified structure they could find.
Lorne and his squadron would still be showing the might of the U.S. air force but would now be acting as a rapid reaction force to protect U.S. interests in the region. To do that they needed to be closer to the action, and so, as predicted when Lorne and Piper had flown their last mission with the guys at Camp Rhino, the 389 were transferred to Kandahar.
APO AE 09355
CFB Cold Lake
Cold Lake, AB T9M 1AO
11th December, 2001
I hope you and Mom are getting all my letters ... I'm only now realising how spoilt I'd become with video calling and emails and their associated instant response. Anyway, stop worrying about me because I'm still okay. This place is hell on my complexion though - too hot and dry and windy even for winter - and believe me when I say the sand gets in everywhere. I know what you're thinking Sis - Evan should really be taking this much more seriously! I am ... but it's day to day life too and you have to lighten up or else drive yourself crazy.
The big news is that we've relocated from Qatar to Afghanistan ... you've seen the news reports so you know the marines took Kandahar. I'm only telling you that so you can direct your 'please be careful' letters to the right place. The base is slightly less permanent feeling but otherwise is pretty much the same as al Udeid. We're bringing in crews and equipment every day - it'll be like a little city within a few months – yeah, pretty sure we're here for the long haul.
It's an interesting country Sis. The base is so flat and bland you almost can't see it from the air but then there's the mountains all around, lots of places to hide just about anything. We do a lot of night flying which is just as well because you'd never spot the runway without all the lights. I haven't seen much else ... the locals are making themselves scarce for obvious reasons and time off outside of the base is a concept that just doesn't fly here. We're not the only FW here now but the number of missions we're flying is still keeping us pretty busy. Getting up in the air is a daily occurrence ... I don't need to tell you why. Listen Sis, I know the media is reporting on what's going on over here but don't take it too much to heart okay? It's tough sure, but anything they say will be completely out of context and probably inaccurate until they get the official word from Central Command. I'd say don't watch the news at all but I know you won't be able to resist so just don't take it too seriously, okay.
So, obviously I won't be home for Christmas. It's still early December but by the time you get this it'll be close enough so I'll say Merry Christmas now. I've included my extensive wish list with this letter ... joking! Just ... stay happy. That'll be gift enough for me.
Tell Drew I said Hi ... and would it kill him to write me a letter of his own instead of hijacking yours?!
Take care Lainee ...
P.S. Read as much of the touchy feely stuff as you need between the lines ... you know I'm no good at saying it, let alone writing it, but whatever you come up with, I mean every word.
P.P.S. They're setting up a communal machine for emails and stuff like that. So hopefully I'll be able to hear more about what's going on at home soon. But keep writing until you hear from me ... there's plenty of down time to read as many letters as you feel like sending."
Sitting back, Lorne reread the letter before deciding that it was good enough. Elaine had received enough letters from him over the years to understand what he'd shared and what he couldn't share. It was a fine line to walk but after so many years of service one he'd perfected.
It was still two weeks until Christmas ... usually the silly season wasn't one Evan got into that much. He'd happily pass the occasion without a mention but he knew Elaine still got excited and now more than ever it seemed important that he not ruin that by being a scrooge.
Catching a glimpse of his watch, Lorne quickly packed away his things, stuffing the completed letter in an addressed envelope. He'd be passing the admin building on his way to the daily pilots briefing so he could drop the letter off straight away. With any luck Elaine really would get the letter before the post shut down over Christmas.
Chapter 4: Thirty minutes redness
Every day all the pilots on base gathered for the meteorological report – current conditions plus the forward forecast for the entire region were covered to ensure that everyone was aware of what they might encounter. It had to be done that way because if called up for a rapid response mission you needed to be able to get in your plane and into the sky inside of half an hour. Anything you could prepare in advance you did because the pressure you felt knowing you'd been called in to help troops on the ground, that they were holding on, counting on you arriving to assist, was intense.
Once the met briefing was done, Lorne moved to get himself ready for his shift. He was at 30 minutes redness on call – which basically meant staying close to your plane just in case there was a call for assistance. Getting himself fully kitted up in his flight suit and making sure he had everything else, Evan was just checking his survival pack when Lieutenant Castles arrived, out of breath and with a look of dismay to see his CO already there and ready.
"Sorry Sir," Scott met Evan's eyes, his expression still that mix of earnestness and innocence Lorne knew he'd lose before too long.
"You've still got five minutes until shift starts Lieutenant," Lorne pointed out, a faint smile playing across his face as Scott reacted by hurrying into action. Evan had ended up formally changing the flying teams to keep the inexperienced pilot with him, letting Piper do the same for Lieutenant Pearce who did have some experience. He was getting to know the younger man who reminded him in some ways of himself, back when he was just starting out. And wasn't that a depressing thought - next he'd be thinking that maybe he was getting too old for this stuff.
Returning to his final checks, Evan opened his survival pack, also called a goat pack, and checked to make sure it was in order. For something that wasn't much bigger than his outstretched hand, the pack contained a lot of useful implements. A folded foil blanket because the nights got very cold and a matchless fire set that contained flint, steel, and cotton wool should he need to light a fire quickly. There were also condoms for carrying water and water purification tablets, a sewing kit, fishing kit, snare wire, candle, wire saw, cord and tensioners for making a shelter out of his own parachute. Everything a pilot would need if they had to eject and ended up too far away from immediate help – everything they needed and hoped they'd never have to use.
Refolding the pack Lorne put it in the lower leg pocket of his anti G trousers, checking his other pockets for the small packet of local money they signed for every day and returned when they got back to base, along with some standard phrases in the local dialect that might help in getting assistance. They also all carried a chip as well, basically telling anyone who came across a downed soldier that they'd be well paid if they assisted in getting that soldier back to the nearest base.
"Ready Lieutenant?" he asked, waiting the extra few moments until Castles joined him at the door, juggling his flight bag and helmet awkwardly.
"Yes Sir," Scott replied, regrouping and getting himself sorted quickly.
"Good flying conditions today," Evan commented as they walked to the transport area and their ride out to the hangar where they'd been spending the next six hours.
"Yes Sir," the young Lieutenant agreed, smiling as he added "it's almost cold."
"Winter, such as it is here," Lorne agreed. "Up in the mountains it's pretty much what you'd expect but down here in the plains this is the best we can hope for ... and it'll be bloody hot long before we get to go home again."
"Is it what you expected Sir, before you came out here?" Scott asked curiously.
"I'm not sure I expected anything in particular," Lorne admitted. "If you're smart you do your research before you get posted anywhere but the reality always carries its own surprises." He glanced over at Castles with interest. "What about you Lieutenant? This is your first major international posting right?"
"Yes Sir," Castles said it almost proudly.
"One of the ones who couldn't wait to get out there," Lorne thought. He'd been like that too – far too many years ago to admit to now.
"I didn't do enough research Sir," Scott continued. "And ... it's harder than I realised to be away from family for so long and not really have a reliable way of keeping in touch."
As they bounced down the dusty road, pulling into one of the hangars – nothing more than a really big high domed tent, open at each end while in operation – Lorne nodded, his own thoughts lining up with what Castles was feeling too.
"It'll get easier once we have a few more permanent facilities set up," Evan reassured the younger man as they both jumped out of the jeep. "But being away from home shouldn't be easy ... it's what we're fighting to defend so if you don't miss it then what's the point?"
"I never looked at it like that Sir," Scott admitted, his expression thoughtful as he considered Lorne's point of view.
"You do what you can to manage it," Evan smiled suddenly, "but don't be spending your whole time here thinking about when you can go back. I remember reading somewhere 'don't count the days, make the days count' ... that's true everywhere but particularly somewhere like this."
Heading for the pilot's waiting room first, the two dropped their flight bags and helmets off and then returned to talk to their maintenance crew.
That was something else different about their current posting – Lorne always made a habit of getting to know his ground crew, especially since his first Red Flag, but here it was even more important. You knew your plane from the cockpit view but the ground guys knew it from the nuts and bolts up. Maintaining it under the tough conditions of abrupt temperature changes, sand that seemed to float in the air, and the threat of sandstorms and attacks from the Taliban was a high stress job. Evan had the upmost respect and admiration for the men and women who could do that, keeping their focus for long shifts and under high demand conditions.
They'd only been sitting in the waiting lounge for an hour when the call came in. It wasn't unusual, with the taking of Kandahar still so fresh, the Taliban were less than inclined to go quietly or at all.
"We have troops pinned down outside of Kajaki Captain," the Command Central operator advised once they'd radioed in for details. "They requested close air support ASAP ... a second group of Taliban fighters are closing in to flank them from the south. You will eliminate that secondary threat and then fly low over their position."
"Acknowledged," Lorne motioned for Castles to join him at the maps pinned to the wall. Kajaki was north west of their position, about a hundred miles from the air base. They'd be flying over the mountains to get there, plenty of places for the Taliban to threaten along the way.
With specific and precise coordinates for where exactly they'd be concentrating their efforts, they quickly agreed on the specifics of their degree and angle of approach, grabbed their gear and moved swiftly towards their planes. As soon as the call had come in the engineers had gotten to work, completing the final preparations for air readiness. The planes had been towed to the runway access point ready for Evan and Scott.
Lorne walked around his jet, swiftly conducting the hundred plus external checks. Strapped into the cockpit, all the rest of his pre-flight work done, Evan powered up the F-16 and taxied out towards the runway proper, the young Lieutenant not far behind. They took off in formation, two powerful machines on a mission that was both routine and unique.
"Command, Alpha one one. We are at 20,000 feet, twenty miles out from target coordinates," Lorne reported ten minutes later after a routine flight into central Afghanistan.
"Target coordinates confirmed Alpha one one," the operator replied. Using the bird's eye view gained from the use of unmanned UAV's flying over the battle zone Command had confirmed that the area was clear of civilians and far enough from friendly troops for Evan and Scott to act.
So close to the point where action would be required Lorne felt the usual sharpening of focus, aided by adrenalin, experience and all the hours of training he'd done over the years. He was in the zone where he could take in information from all sources, draw together the slightest details and act immediately, between one breath and the next.
"Drop to 7000 feet, arm rockets," Lorne gave the order to Lieutenant Castles, doing the same inside his own jet.
"Alpha one one, Command. Forward air controllers have sighted the second enemy group south of their original position," the operator advised, giving Lorne updated coordinates. He made the corrections to their weapons calculations rapidly, double checking them to make sure they were right. Every instruction had to be precise to avoid collateral damage and blue on blue casualties. They didn't need the reminder of what had happened just weeks before to take the care required.
Eyes divided between the information on the HUD and what he could see of the terrain below, Lorne adjusted his approach slightly. Rechecking his calculations quickly, he flicked the cover off the rocket fire button ... only moments away from firing.
"Alpha one one, Command. Possible enemy ground to air missiles on your heading."
"Great," Lorne muttered under his breath. "Acknowledged," he reported back. "Maintaining course and speed."
Now it was a matter of nerve ... a fighter pilots version of playing chicken. He had to maintain his approach and complete his mission, while at the same time looking out for those anti aircraft missiles. Rotating the plane 180 degrees on its own axis Lorne took stock of the ground conditions, hoping to spot the glint of something man made where none should be. He didn't see the source but the missiles, trailing their tails of smoke as they sped upwards, were all too easy to spot.
"Missiles in the air!" He gave the heads up simultaneous with setting off a series of flares to hopefully lure the missile away.
Craning his neck backwards as much as possible Lorne tried to keep sight of the missiles ... annoyed but not surprised the flares hadn't been effective. He fired off one chaff countermeasure – a cloud of small, thin pieces of aluminium that would appear as a secondary target to radar guided weapons.
That didn't work either and the missiles were now closing rapidly.
"Alpha one two, break off and increase speed and altitude," Lorne made the decision quickly. He had a lock on where his rockets were going and within seconds would be able to fire them. If Lieutenant Castles could lure the missiles to follow him it would give Evan the small reprieve he needed to complete their primary mission before more missiles could be fired from the ground.
"Breaking off," Castles confirmed. Lorne sparred the battle zone a quick glance, noting that the ploy had worked. Focussing back on his HUD he regained some altitude and at precisely the right moment fired his weapons – two Hydra 70 rockets – in quick succession. The decision on whether to use rockets or bombs depended on the circumstances. Bombs were usually reserved for the destruction of enemy bunkers and strongholds, with the rockets being used to take out smaller enemy pockets of resistance. The rocket was a proportionate response for the day's mission, rather than putting a big bomb with a big blast on the ground.
"Rockets away," he reported, breaking sharply away. "Alpha one two, status report," he called as he headed back the way they'd come.
"Missiles are still on my six, evading," Castles replied, his voice just a little on the nervy side in Evan's estimation.
"I'm coming up behind you Lieutenant, hang tight," Evan returned. The display on the HUD told the story ... Castles was flying low and throwing his plane around as much as possible to keep the missiles from getting a lock. Lorne dropped down behind him and locked on to the first missile, firing forward guns in a short burst that blew the weapon out of the sky. "One down, one to go," he said, locking on to the second missile. In a matter of seconds it was all over and they were alone in the sky again.
"Command, Alpha one one. Enemy missiles destroyed," Lorne reported.
"Alpha one one, Command. Confirm direct rocket hit on enemy position. All targets neutralised. Proceed to second coordinates for low level fly by."
"Acknowledged," Lorne and Castles regrouped into a wing to wing close formation and dropped altitude as they flew over the requested coordinates. On the ground they would have been an almost blur of motion accompanied by the roar of engines capable of Mach 2 at altitude. It was an impressive display and hopefully for today that, along with the destruction of their reinforcements, would be enough to turn back the insurgents, freeing their own troops to return to base.
"Fly by complete," Lorne reported once they'd completed their pass and returned back to 20,000 feet.
"Good job Alpha one. Return to base."
Giving the return acknowledgement, Lorne led the way back towards Kandahar. "Nice flying Lieutenant," he complimented.
"Thank you Sir," Castles replied. "Thanks for the assist. It got a little tight there and I couldn't shake them enough to get into an attack position."
"You did well to evade them," Evan pointed out. "And we completed our mission."
"Yes Sir," Lorne could hear the faint smile in the younger man's voice.
Settling in for the return journey, still riding the high of adrenalin and success, Lorne would be the first to admit that it was almost euphoric. To someone who'd never been in battle, never engaged an enemy, that would probably be hard to understand ... because he'd taken a number of lives that day, a number he might never know, people he'd never even laid eyes on.
But Evan didn't see it that way. It wasn't about taking lives, it was about saving lives, and he had no doubt they'd saved the lives of U.S. soldiers that day. You had to keep it to that simple equation because it really was 'us or them' ... and Lorne knew were he to catch up with their ground troops later, they'd all be thanking him. The fighter pilots didn't get called unless they were needed. They didn't get to see the ground troops under attack from way up in the cockpit but ultimately that's what they were there to prevent. And today they had.
Chapter 5: Ground conditions
Afghanistan was an interesting place – with unique flying conditions, no matter how many hours of cockpit time you had under your belt. It was an intriguing country to fly over too – huge hills and vast deserts, terrain at fifteen to twenty thousand feet above sea level, plus areas at sea level itself – it took a little getting used to.
The pace and flow of life at Kandahar airbase took a little getting used to as well ... letting yourself sink into the monotonous daily routine of working, eating and sleeping. They'd set up an area for sports – football mostly – but the base was still on such a heightened state of readiness for attack that rarely did a game actually get completed. Running was a popular pass time, as was sparring, loosely labelled as physical fitness 'training'. Lorne enjoyed the running more than he enjoyed getting his butt kicked by the younger, stronger marines. When it came to taking on the other pilots though he still had an edge and was even increasing that a little with everything he learned from the guys who specialised in hand to hand combat - the up side of getting his butt kicked.
Evan had also taken to sketching again to alleviate the hours of inactivity, particularly when he was on call for emergency missions. The sketch book he'd brought with him was now a quarter full ... head and shoulder sketches of his team mates plus anything else that took his fancy. Piper's compassion the day a local boy had made it to the main gate crying over the disappearance of his parents. Scott running a hand over his jet almost lovingly. Ryan grinning in delight after being knocked down by the special forces guys again during training. Random shots of maintenance crews, marines ... people he didn't know the names of that had struck him as interesting when he'd looked for subjects.
The base and the countryside featured in there as well ... the stark contrast of the plains around Kandahar and the mountains looming in the distance surrounding them. Rows and rows of semi permanent tents housing the troops, hidden behind blast walls. The surveillance tower, manned every minute of the day, solitary and somehow purposeful as well. He'd even drawn what the guys had begun referring to as the TLS – Taliban Last Stand – the squat yellow administration building the ousted regime had retreated to and then been expelled from with explosive force. That spot represented something meaningful – the overthrow of the Taliban government and the beginning of the long haul – the military's efforts to do what it had promised. Flush out and once and for all put to rest the continual threat faced by the Afghans for too many years.
The AEW - air expeditionary wing - had been busy over January and into February setting up facilities for the troops and had finally provided them with an email station available for everyone to use. General use telephone services were there too, limited and not often reliable.
Evan emailed home every couple of weeks, eagerly looking for replies from both his Mom and Elaine and Drew. He wouldn't say that they'd gotten used to him being so far away but the tone of their messages had relaxed as the weeks went by. No one could maintain the heightened level of anxiety experienced when a loved one first left for a war zone. Lorne was sure that every time there was a news report from Afghanistan that anxiety would re-emerge, despite his instructions that they not believe everything they heard, especially in the context it was reported in.
"You up for a spot of sparring Sir?" Lieutenant Castles approached Lorne at the sidelines where he'd been watching the die hards going at it. Evan felt tired just watching them sweat it out against each other.
"You think you can take me Lieutenant?" Lorne challenged, amused.
"I'll give it my best shot Sir," Scott replied blandly. He'd already come a long way since his arrival, lost a little of that puppy dog enthusiasm and innocence. He still acted like he was on duty every minute he was awake, still spent time in the hangar with the jets and the crew on call even when he wasn't, but was maturing almost too rapidly. War did that to young men and women.
"Okay," Evan got up, dusting off his pants and making his way to one of the empty mats. Taking off his boots but leaving his socks on and his sleeves down, Lorne grabbed a water bottle and took a quick drink before signalling that he was ready.
Scott came at him, forceful and confident, his style mostly boxing with fists raised and feet continually moving. Lorne shifted back to avoid the hit, spinning and snapping out a quick sideways hit to the small of the younger man's back before resetting to the ready pose.
"That's one," he said lightly, watching for the next approach.
Scott set himself determinedly, dancing from foot to foot as he circled Lorne. This time he did a quick succession of jabs that Evan mostly blocked. Grabbing for the Lieutenant's wrist Lorne spun quickly, twisting the captured arm around and behind Scott's back. He held it there for a moment to make the point before letting go.
"Two to you Sir," Scott was undeterred as he regrouped, his expression intent and focussed.
Lorne could practically see the wheels turning as the other man considered his next move. He'd let Scott take the offensive, lulled him into a state of expecting defensive actions only. Now, while the young Lieutenant was still thinking, he moved rapidly for a classic shoulder throw. Scott was on the ground looking up at Evan before he could even blink.
"That's three," Lorne announced, holding out a hand to help Castles up. Usually matches ended when one of the players had scored three hits but immediate rematches were commonplace. "Go again?"
"Of course Sir," Scott looked for all the world as though being thrown to the ground by his CO was the best fun, aside from flying of course. Smiling, Lorne reset himself again, waiting to see what the younger man would try next.
The sound of the G-CAS bell cut through the noise of similar matches going on around them like a knife. G-CAS meaning Ground Alert Close Air Support bell ... the system that let them know the base was under attack. The siren was an eerie sound that continued to echo as everyone moved to action.
Lorne and Scott ran with those close by to the nearest concrete walls, grabbing helmets and whatever body armour they could find along the way. Evan pulled on a helmet as they dropped to the dusty ground, his heartbeat sounding loudly in his ears.
The al Qaida locals made it a regular practice to fire rockets at the base. Secretary of State Colin Powell had visited Afghanistan in January and promised that the United States would help rebuild the country and wipe out the "contamination" of terrorism. Clearly al-Qaida hadn't taken kindly to that, stepping up their attacks on U.S. held positions, in particular their base in Kandahar.
It was a random thing in the sense that they didn't aim at anything specific inside the airfield – their rockets got fired into the area to land somewhere, usually doing damage along the way. It was pretty much a weekly occurrence, to cause disruption as much as it was to destroy.
"I wonder how long they'll keep us down this time," one of the marines muttered.
"Too long," another retorted impatiently.
Evan shifted, crouching with his back to the wall, listening intently for that unmistakable sound of approaching rockets. "Okay Lieutenant?" he asked, noting that Scott was having the same difficulty getting comfortable. Bomb shelters were probably on the to do list for the AEW but so far all they'd managed was the squat concrete walls interspersed throughout the occupied parts of the base.
"Yes Sir," Scott replied, settling and looking around alertly.
For men of action, waiting around for an attack without being able to stop it or do anything in return was a particular kind of frustration. You could feel the adrenalin – that hook to the fight or flight response kicking in but you couldn't use it for anything. To Evan's mind it was like having ants crawling under your skin ... or worse ... and not being able to brush them away.
The sound of the rockets approach mixed with the still wailing siren warning had them all getting as low to the ground as they could.
It sounded close ... too close.
Evan was looking directly at the football field – sparring rings to one side – so he saw the ground erupt in a wall of sand, the dust cloud blooming up and obscuring his view of the resulting damage. The wave of sound that hit straight after along with the splinters of rock showering their position let them know just how close the hit had come.
Waiting to see if more followed, Evan raised a hand to one of a number of spots on his face that stung, pulling away and grimacing slightly at the smear of blood left behind. As the sirens kept up their repetitive call, Lorne ran quick eyes over those closest to him, noting that many sported small wounds probably similar to his own but were otherwise in good shape.
The abrupt halt of the G-CAS bell, the silence that reigned for a few moments before people began to move again was stark. Lorne rose to his feet, moving slowly along with most of those nearby back towards the sparring area. The dust had settled, leaving behind a small crater piled around all sides with sand where once the practice mats had been. Without the warning they'd have still been standing there, probably twenty plus men and women would have been killed.
It was a close call, the closest Lorne had ever had, and it left him feeling unsettled ... vulnerable in a way he'd never been before. Being surrounded by your jet, with at the very least the illusion of being in control, of having your fate in your own hands delivered a kind of confidence Evan suspected the ground troops never enjoyed. Seeing a rocket hit the ground only a few feet away – on your own turf, in the place you expected to feel some measure of protection – was hell and away removed from that same confidence. It was something that had to put up with but nothing he'd ever get used to.
Subject: Happy Birthday
I know you don't like to acknowledge it but Happy Birthday anyway. Being here has reminded me to make the most of every moment, clichéd as that sounds. That includes, and I'm carefully refraining from mentioning an actual age here, special birthdays! So go out and get up to some mischief okay – and then come back and tell me all about it.
Everything is fine here ... I'd rather hear about what's happening back home. Did you ever get that kid – the jock – to sign up for your drawing class? Man, doesn't that bring back memories, huh?
"Captain Lorne, call for you," Evan looked up from the computer, seeing one of the admin guys holding the satellite phone aloft.
"Hang on," he said, turning back to the screen and quickly finishing his message.
I have to go Mom. Enjoy your special day ... wish I was there to help you blow out all those candles.
Clicking Send he waited for the message to clear the outbox and then quickly signed off. Getting phone calls was a rarity and he tried not to worry about why he was getting one, instead pushing back from the computer and taking the phone with a grateful nod.
"Evan Lorne," he said briskly.
"Evan!" Elaine's voice came to him, slightly muffled and sounding thick. Was she crying?
"Elaine?" he replied, taking a few steps away from the others in the room for as much privacy as he could achieve. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing ... I just ...," she sniffed, swallowing audibly. "I wanted to hear your voice."
"What happened?" Evan asked in a gentle tone.
"Oh Evan," Elaine burst into speech, punctuated with short sobs. "Drew got new orders today. He's being sent to Afghanistan next month!"
"You knew it was a possibility," Evan kept his tone reasonable; trying not to create the impression that he thought her reaction was too extreme.
"I know but ...," she trailed off, sniffing again.
"It's different when it's reality," he concluded for her. Pausing, listening to her trying to collect herself, Evan sighed. "Listen, Lainee ... it's not as bad here as you're imagining. I don't know what you've seen on television but we're got a strong position. It isn't attacks every day or anything like that. If you didn't stray from the base you'd hardly know this is a war zone."
"Don't try to down play it Evan," he smiled as some of her usual stubbornness and strength returned to her voice.
"I'm not ... Drew's my friend too Elaine and frankly if he were a part of the ground troops then I'd be a lot more concerned."
"You'll ...," again she hesitated, letting him fill in the blanks.
"Watch out for him?" Evan suggested with a smile. "Do you really think he'd going to go for that?"
"No," Elaine admitted ruefully. "Maybe I should be telling him to look after you instead."
"I'll fill him in on all the need to knows," Evan promised. "He'll be okay Elaine."
"You promise?" she asked wistfully.
"You know I can't do that," he replied gently. "But he's a good pilot ... almost as good as me."
"Hah – you wish!" Elaine laughed when Evan protested that.
"Better now?" he asked once she was silent again.
"A little ... I guess," Elaine replied. She sighed and then continued. "I miss you big brother."
"Miss you too," he returned, swallowing the sudden lump in his throat. "Keep those emails and letters coming okay?"
"I will ... I love you."
"You too," Evan said, waiting a moment and then slowing closing off the call.
He wasn't sure what to think – part of him felt for his sister, and worried about how she'd handle being by herself for what would likely be months. Another part though was almost excited to have his best friend stationed at the same base for the first time since he'd left Cold Lake. Did that make him a bad friend? A bad brother? Or just human? They weren't questions he had answers to ... so he'd just look forward to Drew's arrival and continue to reassure his sister that everything would be okay.
Chapter 6: The company of friends
The rest of February and half of March passed in a blur of what was normal life at Kandahar - almost daily missions and weekly attacks on the base interspersed with making the rest of the time as interesting as you could. The only thing that broke it up for Lorne was the contacts he had with home. The roster for the one email station was long so even with it running pretty much 24/7 he only got a ten minute slot every couple of weeks - that was just enough to read the emails from his Mom and Elaine and send his replies. He'd sent Drew an email early in the month too, knowing the other man was engaged in four weeks of intensive training preparing for his tour in Afghanistan.
Subject: Useful information
Elaine told me you're coming over here (where's my email from you buddy?) and I promised when I spoke to her that I'd fill you in on all the need to knows. So here they are, in no particular order. I know you're training right now so some of these might come in handy before you leave.
1. when they put you in the big room and tell you to take your gas mask off, don't breathe in;
2. the bullets go in so the pointy bit comes out first - I know it's been a while since you handled a weapon so you might not remember that;
3. bring lots and lots of sunscreen ... and moisturiser (yes, I DO think you're that vain!). Seriously, this place has pretty much zero humidity most of the time;
4. bring your Gortex jacket too - you might be tempted to leave it out to make room for your hair dryer but it's bloody cold here after dark and we're still running more missions at night than we are during the day;
5. actually, don't bother bringing anything electrical - the sand gets into everything and renders it pretty much worthless junk after a few weeks;
6. the Afghans are on our side ... al Qaida are the bad guys. Now all we need is a reliable way to tell the difference.
I could go on, entertaining as it is, but my time on the computer's nearly up. Seriously man, since you're coming here anyway I've decided its okay for me to be looking forward to the company. I don't have to tell you how worried Elaine is ... not sure there's anything much either of us can do about that.
Give her a hug from me before you go ... I'll see you in a couple of weeks Bro.
Subject: Re: Useful information
Thanks for the email buddy - you're a funny guy ... not! I'll take note of the useful information you buried in there though - suppose I should say thanks for that. I did the toxic gas test already - held my breath until I felt blue in the face - but that stuff still stung my eyes like a son of a bitch. Not pleasant ... they're not really using it over there, are they?
Yeah, Elaine's upset I'm going. She admitted that she called you crying about it - part of me wanted to say sorry I didn't stop her from bothering you over there but the rest of me was just a little proud of her resourcefulness. Not too many wives here who could get a personal call into Afghanistan right now. Although I think she's regretting using up a favour in the heat of the moment. Anyway, she's going to go spend a couple of weeks with your Mom after I leave - get her over the initial transition.
I'm catching up with the boys before I head out ... Marcus called the other day to ask how you're doing. I told him what I know but you should probably email everyone when you get the chance. I know you don't like admitting it but people care about you which means they worry - and in the absence of real information they'll use their imaginations.
Okay, so I'll be there somewhere around the 20th ... see you then.
Evan grinned as he read Drew's reply ... typical of his friend to both express his concern for a friend while at the same time telling Evan off for not keeping everyone in the loop. Lorne hadn't managed to get another turn on the computer since he'd sent his original message so the email was already almost two weeks old - Drew's unit was due to arrive within a couple of days.
It took longer than that to get to Afghanistan so Elaine would already be at his Mom's which probably explained why he hadn't gotten a reply from her. Being quiet like that, even in email land, wasn't like his sister so Evan knew she was taking Drew's leaving hard. The two had been spoiled since they'd gotten married because Drew stayed at Cold Lake. In fact this was the first time since they'd met that he'd gone somewhere for an extended period where she couldn't follow. Evan didn't like thinking of his sister having such a hard time of it; this situation was exactly the reason he'd initially been against her getting involved with someone in the military. What made it more frustrating was that he wasn't there to help - not that the presence of a brother, no matter how much she loved him, would compensate for her husband not being around. But if he'd been there he could have distracted her - some petty sibling rivalry and bickering would probably have done the trick.
Opening a new message, Lorne thought for a minute and then fired off a quick message to Elaine ... in it he deliberately avoided any comments about Drew and instead asked her for a favour. Outside of work day to day life at Kandahar was light on entertainment - could she chase up some military approved art supplies, paints and canvas and stuff, and ship it over to him? It wasn't much of a distraction but he knew Elaine would take it as a mission and from personal experience Evan was already aware that getting approval to send over paints and in particular the necessary thinners and cleaners would be a challenge. The next message to his Mom was a little more detailed ... there wasn't much he could do but he still asked her to let him know if she was unusually worried about Elaine. Maybe he could pull some strings and get her another personal call since she'd used up her own strings calling him.
Glancing at the timer, Evan shook his head at himself for actually taking what Drew had written to heart even as he opened another new message and began typing a quick update to Marcus. If he was fast enough he could get in one to Cade, Paul and Neil as well. He didn't want to do a group email - each was important enough a friend to deserve their own message from him - and made a note to himself to also email Dom and Riley as soon as he could. He'd maintained contact with the two Australian pilots since their shared Red Flag, enough to know that their country was also already talking about sending over troops in support of U.S. efforts to help the people of Afghanistan. There were other friends, from Nellis, from other postings but there was only so much he could do with the limited resources available.
Finishing just in time, Lorne signed off and made way for the next soldier eager for contact with home.
"Lo -," Evan got to Drew before he could complete that greeting, slapping a hand to the taller man's back.
"Drew," he returned, raising an eyebrow pointedly when the other man grinned innocently. Lorne had arranged to switch shifts with one of the other fighter wings so that he'd have the off time to see his friend settled in. Piper, Scott and Ryan had all welcomed the bigger slab of free time even though they'd all be pulling double shifts to make it up later in the week.
"What? I was just going to say Lorne," Drew insisted.
"Sure you were," Lorne replied. "I've finally managed to get away from serving with anyone who knows about that call sign and you're not gonna ruin it for me."
"What call sign you going by these days then?" Drew was curious, it wasn't a subject that had come up and, knowing Evan, wasn't one he'd volunteer.
"Does it matter?" Evan said evasively. He had earned a new call sign after his efforts during Deliberate Forge and it was actually pretty cool, especially in comparison to 'Love'. They'd dubbed him Peregrine – after the Falcon species of the same name – because the bird was blue-grey like a fighter jet and because when it swooped down on its prey it could go as fast as 200 miles per hour, making it the fastest animal on the planet. At Nellis Lorne had been known for both his accuracy and the speed with which he hit his opponents in the sky so the new call sign made sense ... even if it felt a little like bragging to admit to it.
"Not really," Drew grinned, "because you know you'll always be 'Love' to me!"
"Yeah, very amusing ... Easy," Lorne retorted. "They shown you around yet?" he asked, changing the subject.
"Yeah, just the essentials," Drew fell into step beside his friend and brother-in-law as they walked from where the Canadian's had set up their admin services out towards the centre of Kandahar airfield.
"Let me show you where everything else is, introduce you to a couple of people," Evan offered, heading for the square where they usually played football. "There's not much to do when you're not working - some sports, sparring training if you're feeling energetic." Lorne grinned. "Don't spar with the marines unless you're in the mood to have your ass slammed into the dirt."
"Good advice," Drew returned, his eyes moving from left to right as he took everything in. He'd arrived on the base that morning - after days of travel and stopovers - and had been briefed by the head of the Canadian contingent. So far they were a small presence - one fighting wing, a couple of supply and support aircraft and two units of ground troops. Although the Canadian's would be running their own units their efforts were in conjunction with the command decisions of the U.S. Military. They had their own hangar at Kandahar but everything else formed part of the shared facilities created and managed by their U.S. allies. It was the start of allied countries joining the U.S. given that the campaign in Afghanistan looked to be heading into long term territory.
"Mess facilities," Evan continued walking. "If it says meatloaf take the alterative."
"Bad?" Drew grimaced.
"You have no idea," Evan returned with a shudder. "Still, better than ration packs which is what the first guys here survived on for a while - and it's getting better every week the more people we have stationed here."
"So, five star restaurant by the time we head home then," Drew concluded with a faint smile.
"They tell you how long you'll be here?" Lorne asked curiously, leading Drew to an area where they could sit and watch the newest of the activities available on base - volleyball. Someone had rigged up a net and they'd begun a four a side game.
"Four months minimum," Drew replied. "Probably more this time because they're still working out how they'll train and rotate squads through Afghanistan and other postings. You?"
"Open ended," Evan shrugged. "Depends on demand and right now that's at the high end. I can't see getting back to the States inside of six months."
"That's a long tour," Drew commented.
"It is but some of the special forces guys have been here since the start - a month longer than us." Evan watched a particularly hard fought point on the court before turning back to Drew. "And better me that someone with a family and kids back home."
"Your Mom and sister would disagree with that," his friend said pointedly.
"I know they would but it's different seeing someone every few weekends and them being gone to living with them every day," Lorne tried to explain. "That kind of leaving changes lives on a daily basis." He shrugged, trying to dismiss the subject. "Not that I think it's wrong that you're here - I just think posting the guys without families first makes a lot of sense."
"Maybe," Drew allowed for the possibility. "Maybe not - families back home are great incentives to stay focussed and give it everything while you're here."
"Something worth fighting for?" Evan suggested.
"Exactly," Drew watched the volleyballers, wincing when one slammed into the dirt diving for the ball. "You play?" he nodded towards the game.
"Not so far" Evan replied. "The net's a new addition so someone in the last batch of new guys must have brought it with them."
"Shall we?" Drew asked when the first group vacated the court, leaving it open for new players.
"Really? You want to play right now?" Evan asked, surprised.
"It was a long trip here," Drew shrugged. "I could do with a work out – stretch out some of the kinks."
"Fine," Evan got up, leading the way over. Looking down at himself, decked out in the standard issue training uniform and footwear everyone wore when not flying, he decided it was as good as anything else he had available. No one stepped up for a match initially so he called out "anyone up for a game ... two a side?"
"We'll take you on Sir," Lieutenants Castles and Pearce appeared as if out of nowhere, both smiling in anticipation.
"Of course you will," Evan muttered under his breath. In a normal voice he made the introductions. "Drew, this is Lieutenant Scott Castles and Lieutenant Ryan Pearce - two of the three members of the 389 – my wing. Guys, this is Captain Andrew Rider. He'd Canadian but don't hold it against him."
"Sir," the two replied, standing straighter until Drew motioned for them to be at ease. "First day here Sir?" Scott asked curiously.
"Yeah," Drew picked up the discarded volleyball and tossed it into the air, catching it lightly. "Long trip ... I need to clear out the cobwebs."
"Then let's play," Evan said, pulling Drew into a position on their side of the court. "Three shots, call it when you're taking the first," he instructed. Moving to the baseline marked with white rope Lorne set himself, tossed the ball high in the air and then leapt, hitting it at the high point of his swing and sending it shooting straight at Scott's feet. The speed and precision of the serve surprised the other side and the ball slammed into the dirt untouched, raising a cloud of dust.
"I think the Captain's done this before," Scott murmured to Ryan.
"I'd say so," Ryan smirked, switching places with his teammate so that he was in the receiving position.
Evan served again but this time Ryan was able to get his arms into position, digging the ball high into the air. Scott scrambled to get under it, digging the ball back to Ryan for the third hit. Ryan leapt, spiking it over the net. Drew had been anticipating, shifting as he followed the balls progress on the other side. When Ryan leapt, he did too, hands raised to block. The ball went back to their opponent's side too quickly for Ryan to get another hand to it and the second point was theirs.
Similar play went on for the next four points, Evan serving consistently and competently, resulting either in an immediate point or a short rally that ended in their favour.
"You never mentioned your volleyball prowess," Drew said in an aside as they changed ends.
"Neither did you," Evan returned. "It was big at the academy ... smacking the crap out of the ball was always more beneficial than anything else I could have hit, punching bag aside."
"Yeah, I can see that," Drew grinned. "Shall we give them an opening?"
"Nah, let's wipe the sand with their pride," Evan said it loudly enough that Scott and Ryan could hear, laughing when they protested.
It was one of those rare moments that occurred in such circumstances – a time when you forgot where you were and what was at stake and just enjoyed the moment and the people who were with you creating it. The kind you thought back on fondly and even smiled over in the midst of destruction and fear.
Drew and Evan did as they'd jokingly bragged, 'wiping the floor' with their younger opponents through a combination of skill, determination and that special connection they shared as both friends and family.
"Welcome to Afghanistan," Evan said as he high fived Drew when their victory was declared.
"Thanks," Drew returned, already feeling comfortable and silently thanking the big guy upstairs for putting him somewhere Evan had already paved the way.
"Command, Alpha one one, fox 2," Evan pushed the button and felt the release of two heat seeking missiles targeting a line of Taliban supply trucks on the ground below. For 'supply' substitute weapons – the latest intel had confirmed they were carrying automatic and semi automatic rifles as well as small scale anti aircraft missiles and launchers.
Veering left Lorne sent his jet in a wide sweeping turn, keeping his sights on the ground. Not that he was worried he'd miss the target – the weapons calculations they did in the aircraft were very accurate so even without a guided missile they usually hit on or near the intended target. But no day was a good day to make a mistake.
Dropping altitude Lorne was close enough to the action to see the ball of fire that erupted as the missiles struck – his and Lieutenant Castles' landing in quick succession on every vehicle in the convoy. It was too big an explosion for simple supply trucks, confirming once again that their intel was correct.
"Command, target has been neutralised," Evan reported in.
"Well done alpha one, return to base."
"Acknowledged," Lorne took the lead position, leading his wingman away from the scene. "Nice work Lieutenant," he said.
"Thank you Sir," Scott replied, the pleasure he felt at the praise just coming through in his tone.
Settling in for the flight back, Evan scanned the ground, not really looking for anything as such. It was habitual – teaching himself the lay of the land so that even in a place like Afghanistan with its terrain that varied from flat desert to soaring mountains but looked remarkably similar when you were in the midst of either he recognised where he was.
He almost missed what looked like a flare of white light and a burst of something off the ground ... just a hint of motion on the edge of his vision that had him turning to look closer. He thought he could just make out an impression of dust settling but was too far away to tell for sure.
"Dropping altitude," he told Scott before taking his plane rapidly down to 700 feet.
"Problem Sir?" Scott asked, following him down.
"Probably not," Lorne admitted. "Thought I saw a flare a couple of miles south east of us ... likely it's nothing more than sun glinting off scrap down on the ground but it's worth checking out."
"Yes Sir," Castles agreed, taking up his formation position hanging just off the back of Lorne's right wing.
Evan took his plane directly over the ridge where he'd seen ... something and then looped back for another pass.
"I can't see anything out of the ordinary," he finally admitted. "You?"
"Nothing jumped out at me Sir," Scott replied.
"Sunlight and a gust of wind," Evan concluded. "Not unusual but we had to confirm it." Looking down at the ground one final time and seeing nothing more than mountain scrub and rocks, Lorne continued. "Okay, back to the scheduled programming."
It had been a good day – they'd hampered the enemy's efforts to renew their arms without causing any collateral damage to the locals or their property.
It'd be nice if that could be enough to dissuade their bad guys but it seemed there were always more trucks with more weapons acquired from people who didn't seem to care who they armed or for what purpose. So in all likelihood they'd be back to do the same or similar in the not too distant future. Still, it was progress of a sort and you quickly learned to take success where you could find it, so Lorne chalked up the day as one for the good guys.