We were lucky. Wal-Mart had plenty of tarps and bungee cords. Lauren and I spent about 10 minutes or so covering up the large generator on the trailer and another tarp over the two small generators in the cargo area of the truck. We did a drive-through for dinner at KFC then checked in at the motel. When we got up to the room, Lauren excused herself and went into the bathroom to freshen up and I called back to the house.
“Hey, it’s James,” I said. “We’re in Buffalo – there’s no way we would have made St. Cloud in time, so we pulled off and came here to get out of the traffic.”
“That’s good. We were starting to worry. Fred wants to talk to you.” I heard her call him, then hand the phone over.
“Yeah, what’s going on?” I said.
“A squadron of Warthogs landed at Ripley about 4 hours ago, followed in short order by a couple of squadrons of Apaches and Kiowas. From the sounds we are hearing overhead, it sounds like they are making airdrops as well, but I can’t get a good feed from any of the cameras to know for sure. Almost every two minutes a Herc is passing overhead.”
“Yep, and that isn’t the end of it. Three trains pulled in, starting about an hour after you left.”
“Three? We passed one as we headed down Highway 10 this morning.”
“From what I can tell, an armored brigade combat team has just taken up residence at Ripley. I’m guessing two armored battalions, plus a mechanized infantry battalion and a heavy field artillery battalion.”
“We saw 6 MLRS and 3 Paladins, so that would be about right for the arty. The helos would be part of an ACR, with the Warts flying CAP. I’m guessing you didn’t see the usual engineering battalion?”
“Naw. I had enough just trying to count the individual units, but it’s probably there somewhere. Took ‘em close to 10 hours to unload. We can hear them all the way over here inside the main house moving around. Sounds like they are setting up to stay awhile.”
“Any road equipment?”
“No. I can’t be sure, mind you, but I didn’t see any haulers on the trains or being unloaded.”
I heard him chuckle. “Yeah. My sentiments exactly. The markings on the Warthogs and helos are NG. From Idaho.”
“Really? That’s interesting. Get on-line and check, but I’m guessing this was one of the brigades whose deployment to the sandbox was cancelled after the election. I seem to remember reading that a BCT was all packed and ready to load up on the Ready Reserve RO-RO’s, but they were told to stand down, and were then told they were heading back home. They were staging somewhere in Louisiana, I think. Well, that’s good news at least. Any idea what’s going on with the RA that pulled in yesterday?”
“No idea, but judging by the numbers of NG pulling in today, I’m guessing that the RA boys are feeling a mite out of place and out-numbered.” I could almost see the grin on his face.
“What’s your take?”
“Well…” he paused and I could sense some reluctance to speak.
“Ah. Yeah. I think I understand. We’ll talk tomorrow when I get in. Keep on collecting information. Maybe set up a rotation so we’ve got eyes on the camp around the clock.”
“Will do.” I could hear the relief in his voice. He didn’t want to talk on the phone, and I didn’t blame him. Chances are good that they hadn’t set up any intercepts as yet, but cell phones are notoriously easy to hack, if it hadn’t been done already, it would be very soon. “We’ll lock everything down here. See you tomorrow. Good night!”
“Night, Fred.” I hung up.
While I had been talking, Lauren had come back into the room and snuggled under my arm, her ear near mine to listen to Fred. As I rolled back towards the center of the bed after putting the cell phone on the side table, she wrapped her arms around me. “Hold me,” she said.
“Your wish is my command, my love,” and I held her tight. Her head was on my shoulder and pretty soon her breathing slowed and I felt her body relax into mine as she fell asleep.
* * *
I didn’t get much sleep that night. Why a BCT? I think that was the part that bothered me the most. It certainly wasn’t a fear of invasion from Canada, of all places. A good chunk of the Canadian military was in Afghanistan, Serbia, Croatia and a couple of the hotspots around the world. What they had in CONCAN was probably on the order of two or three battalions of military police plus a small number of fighters and ships tasked to patrol the Bering Straits, keeping an eye on Russia, China and North Korea for us.
And how did they get here so fast? There was no way that a BCT, in less than 24, hell, less than 12 hours, could have loaded and shipped three full military trains. I counted backwards the number of days that transit alone would have needed from the closest depot. Even assuming that this was the brigade that stood down, to turn it and get it rolling up here would take the better part of 36 hours, and probably closer to 48.
That the men had arrived at the same time spoke of an even longer lead time.
Something was starting to stink.
I eased myself out from under Lauren and stepped outside onto the balcony with the cell phone. I looked at my watch. 11 PM in Virginia, yeah, he’d still be up. I dialed the number from memory.
“General Bronson’s residence. This is an unsecured line. May I help you please?” The slow Texas drawl was exactly the same as I had remembered.
“Dan? You jumped-up Texas jack-rabbit, are you still working for that cranky old bastard?”
“Jim? Good lord. What has it been? 10 years?”
“11 years, 4 months, 3 days and an odd number of hours, minutes and seconds plus one ex-wife.”
He laughed. Dan, actually Colonel Daniel Lockhart, had been the fair-haired wunderkind for as long as I could remember. Tall, lean and lanky, he was a Texan cowboy of the old school through and through. We had met in Basic, gone through Armor at Fort Knox, and ended up in the ass-end of the world in Oklahoma (and a few other classified places). For a Texan, there was nothing worse than being stranded in the OK state. We had spent many an evening either staring out at the sagebrush or sitting in a bar getting sloshed. Then Dan was tapped to become an aide to then-Colonel Bronson, and I was left to fend for myself. We kept in touch regularly with e-mails and Christmas cards, occasionally commenting on the latest activities of our old unit.
“Is the General around?” I asked.
“Is this about the briefing package?” he replied.
“What briefing package.”
“Ah. Well, I am restricted on this line. If you haven’t received the package yet, you will receive it tomorrow AM. I strongly suggest you read the entire package.”
“What is in the package?” I was starting to get angry. First Ripley, now this runaround nonsense.
“Jim, you know I cannot discuss privileged material over an unsecured line.”
Goddammit. “What’s going on?” I let my temper show a bit.
“Look, Jim, I know what you are feeling right now and I’ve got a good idea what you’ve actually seen. But with everything that’s been going on in D.C., the General has been putting in long hours at Command HQ. They are trying to come up with a plan to bring as many brigades home as we can. It sounds like the new President wants to pull in every last man despite what he said on TV. The JCS is reluctant, but the President is insistent. In fact, the he’s already relieved two 4 stars for telling him what he didn’t want to hear.”
I rolled my eyes. Just what we needed on top of everything else, a President second guessing his advisers. “Well, maybe you can help me out, I’ve got a question for you.”
There was a long pause. Dan’s gift for gab only went so far, he wouldn’t tell his mother the time of day if it had been classified as ‘Eyes Only’.
“Tell me, and I’ll see if I can talk about it. There has been a lot of ‘need-to-know’ stuff going on lately.”
That statement told me a lot already. I said, “We’ve got some new residents at Ripley. Looks like a full BCT, plus the makings of an ACR. Is North Dakota planning an invasion of Minnesota?” I said that last bit as a joke.
Dan laughed, but it was a harsh, forced laugh. “No, nothing like that. That is one of the brigades that was re-tasked after the election in November. We sent them up to Ripley there to work some kinks out. Remember when we were sent to Germany and did nothing but haul howitzers up one mountain and down the next? These guys have exactly the same problem.”
Crap. My gut clenched. That wasn’t what we did and we both knew it. It was a story told to cover up our real deployment orders and a very nasty bit of business back in the 90’s.
“Ok, Dan. I was just wondering if they’d been sent up here for the fishing.”
He laughed again, and this time it was a real laugh. “Oh hell no. It’s the middle of winter. This is a fitting punishment of the best kind for being a bunch of screw ups.”
I laughed too. “Thanks, Dan. Maybe I’ll have Betsy send over one of her famous apple pies for the CO. Sounds like he’s about to have a very bad month.”
I could almost hear Danny’s mouth tighten and his eyes harden. “Yes, he is. And from what I’ve heard, blueberry pie is his favorite.”
Well, shit. I took a deep breath. “My best to Sylvia and the kids. Goodnight!”
I closed the cell phone and closed my eyes and thought. A brigade combat team, about half of of an ACR, and a squadron of close air-support fighters. The only thing missing was a Patriot missile battery, but I wouldn’t put it past anyone to have overlooked that. And a cover story that brought back some very bad memories…
* * *
Dan and I had been in Germany for about 3 months doing routine training exercises as a cover for watching the old East-West German border area to prevent exfiltration of military equipment during the collapse of the Soviet Union. I was battalion commander of the 4th Armored Calvary Regiment and Dan was my XO. We had just finished a set of extensive field maneuvers, and had returned to our base ops to rest up until our next exercise. I was doing after-exercise paperwork and Dan was catching up on his field manual updates when the communications private knocked and entered with an envelope sealed with red ‘Secret – Eyes Only’ tape. I signed off on the receipt and cleared my throat to get Dan attention. “No rest for the wicked,” I said.
Turning, he started to say, “Watch who you call…” and stopped dead, seeing the red-sealed envelope. “Awww, shit.” He spat on the floor and uttered a few more precise expletives.
I flipped out my knife, slit the seal and opened the envelope. There was a single piece of paper inside. My eyes opened wider with each passing second. “Goddamnit to hell. Hit the alarm, Dan. We’ve got us a situation. Activate 4th Squadron.” I gave him a brief outline as he hit the red button on the wall marked “4th RON” with his fist.
The 4th was our ready reserve unit. It was a mixed squadron of heavies, fast movers and Apache helos. The heavies were always kept on transporters for fast deployment for situations just like this one.
Our deployment orders were brief and to the point. We were to proceed to a certain position, dig in and await further orders. Our go-code was ‘blueberry pie’, and our stand-down code was ‘apple pie’. As the alarm blasted out, I could hear running feet outside and trucks starting up. Over the base loudspeakers came the call: “4th RON Saddle up, this is not a drill,” repeated over and over again.
Dan had started the stopwatch he always carried with him as soon as he’d hit the all-call button. “One minute,” he called out as he pushed out from his desk and reached for his belt. I nodded and stood, putting my gear belt on as well. I fished my keys out of my desk drawer and unlocked the bottom drawer and removed my service pistol, holstering it and pocketing the 5 spare magazines. We reached the door at about the same time. Dan hit the lights, darkening the room, and we walked rapidly down the hall to the door.
* * *
One hour later, we were rolling towards what had been, in the previous decade, dug-in positions to repel an invasion from East Germany, near what had been the East German border. I looked at the map, noted the positions that we were headed for and the rallying point nearby where we could unass, and get the M1A1’s unloaded. Bradley’s and Humvees were already rolling towards our designated positions. I got on the radio. “Listen up, everyone. This could be a readiness exercise designed to see if we were sleeping, or it could be the real thing. It doesn’t matter. We’ve got a full load, and I expect this to be done by the numbers. I want the scout troop out in front as soon as we hit the rally point and moving as soon as they are off the road gear. You all have your maps and dig in positions as marked and I want this done exactly right. We’ve got 10 minutes before we hit the rally, so make sure that you’ve got your destination marked. Any unit out of position will have the XO to answer to. Let’s be about it, people.” I clicked off and Dan got on giving out the deployment details that we’d put together over the last 45 minutes.
* * *
What we did not know until later was that a rogue Stasi colonel had subverted an infantry company that was guarding a nuclear weapons bunker. Intelligence reports indicated that he was going to move the weapons further west and attempt to sell them to Palestinian terrorists. His planned route was right through our designated operations area. And that meant, unfortunately, as the forward-most unit, we were the point of the sword.
* * *
“Killer reports ready.”
“Longbow reports ready.”
“Minotaur reports ready.”
Dan looked over at me and nodded. “All troops report in position and ready.”
“OK, be sure that Longbow stays below line of sight horizon. I don’t want them getting spotted from a distance.”
At that moment, the door to the mobile HQ opened and a general entered, followed by a man in sunglasses and a dark blue suit. I stood and saluted, “Colonel James Peters. My XO, Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Lockhart. Our units are in position and report ready and operational.”
The general returned the salute. “At ease. My name is Bronson. This gentleman,” he waved his hand at the suit, “is Abramoff, one of our intelligence analysts.” My eyes flicked over Mr. Abramoff. He’d taken off his sunglasses and the hazel eyes underneath were looking at our deployment map. At the mention of his name, he looked at Dan and myself and we got a short fast nod.
General Bronson went on, “There has been…an incident,” I could see Dan wince. “A German infantry company has not reported in for about 12 hours. They were the main guard at a former East Germany ammunition depot. The only items left in the depot were ‘special’ munitions that belonged to the former Soviet Union.” Dan’s face was now white. ‘Special’ munitions were WMD’s, usually either chemical, biological, or, worst case, nuclear. The so-called NBC trio.
“I see”, I said. It was all I could say.
Abramoff took over. His words were clipped and he spoke fast. “We have been monitoring the site with satellites and eyes-on-the-ground. About 20 minutes ago, a convoy moved out from the depot heading west along the main road.” He indicated the road running right down the middle of my deployment area. “The convoy consists of heavy trucks and troop carriers, all German equipment. There was a minimal guard left at the depot and we should have a penetration team reporting momentarily.” Abramoff nodded at General Bronson.
Bronson finished up. “Your orders are to halt the convoy, remove any foreign nationals from control of the convoy, and escort the convoy back to its depot, where your regiment will provide security until a suitable unit can be moved into place to relieve you. You are authorized to use lethal force against the foreign nationals, but use restraint to prevent destruction of the ‘special’ munitions. Do you understand these orders?”
I nodded. “Yes, sir I do.”
“Yes sir. When do we get the go-code?”
Abramoff spoke first. “As soon as we get the report from the penetration team.”
I nodded. Bronson turned and walked out, followed by Abramoff. I walked over to the deployment map and studied it for a moment, then turned to Dan. “Dan, I want Killer Troop to adjust their positions straddling the main road. Ideally, I’d like one unit dead square on the roadway and four units advanced flanking the single unit. Be sure that they are hull-down on the approach, so they don’t give their positions away as the convoy approaches. Pass the word to all units that I want HE rounds used – no one is to use DU penetrators without my express approval.” Danny nodded. “Have the remaining troop units flank the others. I want a full cross-fire situation, but be absolutely sure everyone is dialed in on this. It is going to be like shooting fish in a barrel and I don’t want any blue-on-blue incidents. As soon as we engage, I want Longbow Troop to provide close-air support. When that’s done, get the rest of the regiment loading and rolling for escort and security.”
The door opened and General Bronson re-entered the command post and his face was grim. “The ‘Special’ munitions are all nuclear. They left the chemical weapons behind, booby-trapped. The entry team lost three men.” With a hard face, he laid out the details of the convoy, including which vehicles were capable of carrying the nukes. “Blueberry Pie. Take them out hard and fast.” He turned and left.
* * *
We did as we were ordered to do. As soon as the lead elements of the convoy were in range, I gave the command to open fire, and five M1A1 Abrams Main Battle Tanks fired High Explosive Anti-Tank shells into the five lead vehicles of the convoy. As the rest of the convoy screeched to a halt, the balance of Killer Troop followed in short order by Minotaur Troop rolled into position. Longbow Troop hovered overhead. Soldiers poured out of the remaining vehicles, tossing rifles and pistols on the ground. The only casualties were the people on the five convoy units who were blown into paste by the explosions that destroyed their vehicles.
* * *
So, the men at Ripley were going to be the point of the sword. However, who was the sword going to be used against? Canada? Russia? My mind played back the opening scenes from the movie “Red Dawn” and I snorted in disgust. No, that scenario wasn’t even on the books any more. I couldn’t come up with any logical answers, so I went back inside. Lauren had curled up with a couple of pillows, so I covered her with the spare blanket and sat on the couch. I wasn’t going to disturb her sleep until I was sufficiently warmed up. I turned on the TV and watched the news programs, mostly just rebroadcasts of the earlier news programs, although FOX had gotten smart and had evidently set up a dormitory somewhere in their studios. Their anchors looked well rested and were reporting on the news of the day. I fell asleep very quickly.