Camp Liberty, Iraq, 2005
Lieutenant Osborne waved Johnny over to him as Johnny hopped out of his Humvee. Johnny waved back. He hustled over to his commanding officer, who was just finishing up a conversation with a civilian in a shirt and tie.
"Looks like I'm gonna have to send you right back out again. Sorry about that -- you were probably due for some rack time."
"I'm good to go, sir."
"Good, because I need my best guy on this. There's a convoy leaving for FOB Danger in an hour. You're in it. I need you to run protection for a couple of contractors -- they have a meeting with 1st ID brass in the morning."
"On it, sir."
Johnny didn't like night convoys, but he understood why they were generally safer -- harder to shoot at speeding targets one couldn't see. He'd been on a few already this tour, though, and had been shot at on all but one of them. Thankfully, he'd escaped injury so far.
He had his Humvee fueled and ready to go in fifteen minutes, and had loaded up on gear and ammo. The contractors showed up ten minutes later.
"Right, then. Sergeant Teal? You're our ride, yeah?" the shorter of the two said. He was British, and dressed in khakis and a polo.
"That's me, sir," Johnny said.
"Paul Stevens. My compatriot here's Aaron Kendel," the short Brit said, nodding at his tall partner. Johnny shook each of their hands.
"Are you armed, gentlemen?" he asked.
"MP5's and Glocks," Kendel replied. He was also British.
"Good. I'd suggest you carry extra ammo, as we will most likely get shot at," Johnny told them.
"Already handled, mate," Stevens said. If his accent hadn't confirmed him as British, his smile did.
"Then it looks like we're good to go. Hop in, gents. Long drive ahead."
As the sun started to dip below the horizon, Johnny pulled his Humvee into position near the end of the waiting vehicle column. There were two other Humvees and three Chevy Suburbans in front of him.
Johnny checked the time -- 20 minutes until the column rolled. He put the Humvee in park and hopped out to have a cigarette. Stevens jumped out and stood next to him.
"Get one of those off you, mate?"
"Sure thing," Johnny said, tipping the pack toward him. As Stevens lit up, another black Suburban pulled into the column behind them.
All four of the SUV's doors opened, and four men in civilian clothing with Haji scarves around their necks hopped out. The driver smirked.
"Cheese it, boys! It's the fuzz!" the driver laughed.
"How ya doin', Sergeant Cohane?" Johnny sighed.
Riley lit a smoke and grinned.
"How long you been back in the Suck, Sergeant?" he asked
"November of last year."
Alex Kelley waved from the passenger door.
"Looks like we're rolling to Danger with you. Keep your foot on the gas, Sarge. Don't wanna get clipped," Kelley said, smirking.
"Not my first convoy, Specialist."
Kelley shook his head.
"Sergeant, now. Same as you."
"Congratulations," Johnny said flatly.
"He's right, though, Sergeant. We're behind you, so keep it floored, yeah?" Riley said.
"Good man. See you at Danger."
Johnny and Stevens finished off their cigarettes and climbed back into the Humvee.
"So I take it you know those guys," Stevens said.
"Yep. They're assholes," Johnny sighed, starting the huge vehicle's engine.
* * *
Stevens, it turned out, was quite a guy. He wasn't a contractor in the sense Johnny had initially thought -- a hired soldier. He and Kendel were both engineers, both math geeks. Kendel slept through most of the ride, but Johnny and Stevens got a chance to talk. It turned out both were fans of Texas Death Machine.
"Saw them at their third show ever back in '97," Stevens told him.
"Manchester? Where they got their recording contract?"
"Fuck yes. Last of their hometown shows that year. Great gig."
Johnny was about to ask him what the gig was like when bullets bounced off the Humvee. "Shit, do we fire back?" Stevens asked, bringing up his MP5 and shaking Kendel awake.
"Nah. We're five minutes from FOB Danger. We should be able to outrun --"
Johnny never got a chance to finish his sentence. Behind them, he saw a flash of light and heard a crash. He looked in the rearview just in time to see the black Suburban behind them roll over several times and land at the side of the road. Its undercarriage was on fire.
Johnny stood on the brakes and threw his vehicle into reverse.
"Stay low!" he shouted at his passengers.
He made it to the overturned SUV in seconds and threw the Humvee back into gear.
"Paul! Take the wheel!" he yelled over the gunfire. He opened his door and hopped out onto the road as Paul slid into the driver's seat.
"Straight down that road, and keep it floored! Danger's only a few minutes out!" Johnny yelled.
"What about you, mate?" Stevens shouted back as bullets peppered the side of the Humvee.
"I gotta check on my guys! Report our position and send help!"
Paul nodded and closed the door.
"Good luck, mate. Stay alive."
An RPG exploded just behind the Humvee.
"Go, go, go!" Johnny yelled. As the Humvee took off, he brought up his M4 and slid off the road. Johnny stayed low, crawling on his stomach over to the wrecked Suburban. He could smell gasoline.
"Shit. It's gonna blow," he muttered. He scuttled over to the driver's window and saw Kelley hanging upside-down, out cold.
"That you, Teal?" he heard from inside the SUV.
"Sergeant Cohane? You all right?"
"Legs are wedged under the dash. Don't think they're broken, though. Truck on fire?"
"And then some."
"Get my boys out first. I'll try to loosen myself up."
"Shit! Afraid I'm gonna have to ask you to wait one, Sergeant!" Johnny yelled. He'd just slipped on his night-vision goggles and seen several hostiles, AK-47s in hand, running to the truck.
Johnny went into a crouch. He thumbed off his M4's safety and opened fire, dropping six men before emptying his magazine. As he reloaded the M4, he fired his Beretta. He brought up the now-reloaded M4 and shot more hostiles as bullets bounced off the truck behind him. He'd killed 12, but they kept coming.
As Johnny ran behind the overturned truck for cover, he felt four rounds slam into his chest as several more whizzed by his head. The armor plate stopped them, but they hurt like a bitch. Johnny ended up crouched next to Cohane's window as he reloaded.
"How many?" Cohane asked.
"Many many, sir. More than 20 left."
"How are you on ammo?"
"Last mag," Johnny answered, slamming the clip into the M4.
"I'm almost loose. Take this," Cohane grunted. He pushed a compact FN P90 through the open window at Johnny's feet.
Johnny popped up and fired his M4 again until the ammo ran out, then quickly dropped the weapon to his chest and snatched up the P90. He fired that weapon until it was empty, too, then dropped back into a crouch. The gunfire around the truck had calmed down significantly.
"Got 'em?" Cohane asked, squirming around inside the truck.
"Here you go," Cohane said, tossing an HK-417 out the window. Johnny grabbed the rifle, popped up, and dropped the last hostile just as Cohane crawled out of the SUV. He was bleeding from his forehead.
"I'll start pulling my guys out. Keep me covered?" Cohane said.
"Roger that, Sergeant."
Cohane clapped Johnny on the shoulder. He disappeared back into the Suburban, and a couple seconds later, Kelley crawled out the driver's side window and hustled over to Johnny.
"Sergeant," Kelley greeted. His voice was calm. "I'll trade you some 5.56 for my 417."
Johnny smirked and handed the weapon to Kelley. Kelley reached into his cargo pants and pulled out two M4 magazines, one of which Johnny immediately loaded.
"Need another set of hands!" Cohane yelled from inside the Suburban.
"You're stronger than me," Kelley said.
Johnny dropped to his stomach and looked into the SUV. He could see that Cohane was trying to push one of his men to the front of the cabin -- he reached in and grabbed the man's arms. He pulled. The man limply slid into the front seat, and Johnny pulled him clear of the truck. He checked the man's pulse.
"He OK?" Kelley asked.
"Alive, anyway," Johnny answered.
"One more coming up!" Cohane said.
Johnny pulled that man from the truck, as well. His pulse was weak.
"That all of you?" Johnny asked.
"Yeah. M4s and med kit coming up," Cohane said, pushing the rifles and small bag ahead of him. Johnny pulled the weapons and bag out, then grabbed Cohane's arm and dragged him from the vehicle.
"We gotta move, Riley," Kelley said. "I'm shocked as hell this fucking thing hasn't blown already."
Cohane picked up the P90 and reloaded it.
"Alex, weapons and gear. Teal, grab Holt there. I'll carry Edison. We're running for that wall," Cohane said, nodding at a crumbled pile of brick 20 feet away.
Johnny picked up the larger man -- the one with the thready pulse -- and threw him over his shoulder. He could feel blood run down his back. Cohane lifted the other man on his shoulders while Kelley slung the rifles and bag.
"Go!" Cohane spat, and the three of them were off. As they ran, bullets flew at them from across the road. They made it to the wall in seconds and dove behind it as bullets chipped the brick.
Cohane set Edison on the ground, then popped up to return fire. Kelley unslung the medical bag as Johnny laid Holt on the sand.
"Medic?" Johnny asked.
"Holt," Kelley said, grinning.
Johnny looked at Holt -- blood was gushing from the side of his neck. He grabbed the med kit from Kelley, found some Curlex, and started pressing it into Holt's neck wound. Kelley joined Cohane in firing.
"How's he doing?" Cohane yelled as he dropped behind the wall to reload.
"Needs a doctor!"
"'Least he doesn't need a priest yet!"
Johnny's back was to them as he worked on Holt's wound. As he glanced up from his work, he caught movement in the distance -- more hostiles.
"Hajis on our six!" Johnny yelled, bringing up his M4 and firing. He saw two men drop and another go into a crouch and raise a weapon. He fired a few rounds, but saw the man fire anyway.
"RPG!" Johnny yelled, throwing himself over the two injured men on the ground.
The grenade exploded just to Johnny's right, showering all five men with sand and debris. Still covering the two men, Johnny raised his M4. He pumped four rounds into the man with the grenade launcher, and the night suddenly went quiet.
"Everyone OK?" he said after a moment.
"Yeah," Cohane answered. "We got inbound vehicles -- Humvees. Looks like our ride finally showed up."
Johnny saw the headlights. He counted six vehicles coming from FOB Danger.
"Teal. Stand up and wave 'em in, will ya? We're in Haji gear," Cohane said.
As Johnny stood, he noticed Edison was moving. He waved his M4 in the air, and the Humvees rumbled towards him. They stopped inches away. A colonel stepped out of the lead Humvee and shined a flashlight down on them.
"Sergeant Cohane! You all right?"
"Yes, sir, Colonel."
"All alive, sir. Thanks to Sergeant Teal, here," Cohane said.
The colonel nodded and turned back to the Humvees.
"Load 'em up. We roll in 90 seconds, people."
Soldiers swarmed over Johnny's position, lifting Edison and Holt into a Humvee with a medic.
Johnny and Cohane ended up in the backseat of the same Humvee.
"What's your first name, Sergeant?" Cohane asked.
"Well, you know what, Johnny? You're all right. I owe you one."
"Just doing my job, Sergeant."
"Fuck the ranks. I'm Riley. And I owe you my life. You ever need anything from me, you just ask, dig?"
The Humvees started back towards FOB Danger. As the vehicle column picked up speed, the wrecked Suburban finally exploded next to the road.
"Oh. There it goes," Cohane laughed.