Steve Grayling was crouched in a hidden position, the ink-black desert night deathly quiet all around him. Or at least it had been until the last few minutes of his sentry duty, which was scheduled to last from 0400 hours until first light. But then the first of the animals had appeared.
In the open, empty quiet of the Iraqi desert his senses had been heightened, his hearing tuned in to the utter absence of life. The slightest noise would signify movement, which meant something living was out there, which in turn might signal danger. But the bone-dry rock and sand had offered little to remind him that he was still on earth and not on some barren, lifeless moonscape.
That was how it had been for the first ninety minutes of his watch – until, from out of nowhere, the herd of goats had appeared. The hollow tinkling of the animal’s bell sounded alien and alarming as it beat out an eerie rhythm across the bare stillness. It seemed impossible that any four-legged creature could survive in a place so empty of water and vegetation – yet here the goats were. And with the scraggly creatures had come the inevitable two-legged escort.
Everything about the desert night was black. The moon was hanging low on the horizon, and above it the stars formed a skein of brightness that stretched across the heavens, but still the light intensity at ground level had to be no more than 10 millilux. Under such illumination the terrain all around him was so devoid of features as to form a flat, uniform void.
It was only the goats that stood out, their erect forms casting long, leggy moon-shadows. The white splotches on their coats glowed silvery bright, like patches of polished chain mail set into a suit of dark armour. As for the goat-herder, he appeared giantlike, casting mighty distorted shadows as he walked, using a long stick to steer the herd to wherever it was he was heading.
Steve Grayling hunched over the hulking great form of a .50-calibre heavy machine-gun, its barrel tracing the herd’s every move. He’d long lost the feeling in his hands. Come nightfall, the temperature plummeted in the desert, and he was stiff from the cold. Ice had seeped into his every joint and limb, yet still his frozen fingers gripped resolutely the twin handles of his weapon. He was minutely adjusting his aim, and poised to unleash a barrage of rounds onto the target – that’s if the goat-herder made the fatal mistake of stumbling onto their position.
He hoped to hell that moment never came, for then he’d have to decide whether or not to open fire. Steve faced a horrible dilemma; if he were to open fire it would be against all the rules of engagement and he might well face the full force of law for doing so – for the goat-herder was no more than an adolescent kid.
Killing kids: that wasn’t what he had imagined doing when he’d gone for selection into Special Forces. Back then he’d fancied joining the elite, the few who dare, so he could take the fight to the bad guys, Britain’s foremost terrorist enemies. Steve was one of the veterans of the Squadron, one of the ‘old and the bold’. Back when he’d joined, Britain’s chief enemy had been the IRA, and he’d never for one moment imagined himself preparing to unleash a barrage of armour-piercing rounds against a kid.
But if that goat-herder did blunder into their position and Steve didn’t open fire, then he had few doubts about the consequences. They’d have to consider their mission well and truly blown, and to expect the enemy to come after them relentlessly and in massive and deadly strength. After all, one of their units had already got shot up and hunted by Iraqi forces across miles of trackless desert – prompting a series of battles from which its men had been very lucky to escape with their lives.
The Squadron was a good 150 kilometres into Iraq by now. Although their route northwards lay through the empty wastes of the Ninawa Desert, due east lay the heavily populated area of Bayji, one of Saddam Hussein’s key strongholds. During the pre-mission briefings they’d been warned that the population of Bayji – both the military based there and the militias – were fanatically loyal to the ‘Great Leader’ Saddam. No doubt about it – if Goat Boy saw them and raised the alarm, the Squadron was going to be in a whole world of trouble.
The nearest animals had to be a good hundred yards away, but with every second they seemed to be drawing closer. With Grayling’s open-topped vehicle shrouded in camouflage netting, and his face caked in several days’ worth of camouflage cream mixed with dried sweat and dirt, he figured the goat-herder would have to be right on top of their position before he noticed anything. He’d likely have to peer long and hard into the bed of the wadi before the indistinct blobs might resolve themselves into the recognizable shapes of more than twenty four-wheel-drive vehicles and quad bikes. By that time Goat Boy would be just yards away from the gaping muzzle of Steve’s weapon. He’d be opening fire at point-blank range.
A round unleashed from the .50-cal would leave the muzzle at a velocity of 2,910 feet per second. It would rip a cigar-sized hole where it hit, but exit leaving a gaping wound the size of a giant frying-pan. It was bad enough thinking of it doing that to a fully grown man, let alone to the body of an Iraqi kid, and Steve wanted nothing more than for those goats to piss right off out of there.
Momentarily, he flicked his eyes away from the approaching threat, to do a visual check on their position. As the sentry for Six Troop of M Squadron, he had the northwestern segment of their position to keep watch over. His arc of responsibility ran from 12 o’clock around to 4 o’clock, 12 o’clock being due north.
To either side and humped along the jagged rim of the wadi he could just make out the silhouettes of two of the other sentries, the blokes from Four and Five Troop. Like him, they were hunched motionless over their vehicle-mounted weapons, the body of each of their wagons hidden in the cover of the dry riverbed.
He had to assume the other sentries had heard, if not seen, the goats from where they were positioned. But it was towards his arc of fire that the foremost animals were heading, wandering across the flat desert and taking the occasional nibble at God only knew what. Over the three days that the Squadron had been pushing through the Iraqi wilderness, Steve had started to think that nothing could grow in this sun-blasted wasteland.
Clearly, the goats knew otherwise.
Steve shifted his gaze further east, towards the centre of the sheer-sided wadi. There sat the vehicles of their Headquarters Troop, the distinctive whippy antennae marking out the signals wagon. The HQ Troop was surrounded by the protective firepower of the sixty-odd men of the Squadron – though all apart from the handful on sentry were sleeping the sleep of the dead right now.
Steve had to assume that Reggie, their Squadron OC, was oblivious to the threat, but there was little point in alerting him to the goat-herder’s presence, for the decision to pull the trigger would be Steve’s and Steve’s alone. If the herd kept its distance, the shepherd would live. If the animals came too close and the goat-herder got wise to M Squadron’s presence, Steve would have to decide in that split second whether to open fire and kill him.
There was no chance of trying to capture the little blighter. By the time Steve had made it out of the wagon – fighting his way through the camo-netting as he went – and clambered up the steep, rocky side of the wadi, the kid would be long gone.
Regular soldiers in the British Army tended to be told when to eat, sleep or take a piss. Often, only the senior ranks carried a map, and the riflemen knew little about where they were going or what the bigger picture might be. Special Forces soldiering was a whole different ball game. Operators like Grayling were given the entire sketch of the mission, and they were sent out to find their own way and achieve the objective using their own drive and initiative.
Decisions were based on intuition and past operational experience, and Steve had plenty of that to draw on. He’d done several missions serving in joint SAS–SBS units, and on many of those they’d been outnumbered and outgunned. Those ops had given men like Grayling a baptism of fire at the hard and brutal end of soldiering.
But the trouble was, Grayling had no experience to draw on whatsoever when it came to killing kids.
He had no idea exactly how long he’d spent on stag. He couldn’t risk a glance at his watch. The slightest movement might draw the goat-herder’s eye, plus the faintly luminous dial would shine out like a beacon in the dark. All he knew was that the horizon to the east was brightening slightly, which had to mean that first light – 0600 – couldn’t be that far away.
Steve noticed a figure moving silently through the shadows of the dry riverbed. It was the Six Troop Sergeant Major. He paused to wake one of Steve’s fellow Six Troop operatives. Dave Saddler was scheduled to take over from him on watch. He was lying comatose on the dirt next to one of the ‘Pinkies’, as they called their open-topped desert-adapted Land Rovers.
You always woke the next guy a good fifteen minutes early, so he had time to get some food and liquid on board before taking over sentry. He could hardly set his watch to wake himself at the right time – for even the faintest bleep-bleep-bleep or the brrrr of an alarm’s vibrations could travel a great distance on the still desert air. So one bloke had to stay alert and organize the sentry rotation, waking the others at their allotted times.
With Dave being wakened, Grayling figured it had to be around 0545, which meant that he had fifteen minutes in which to make the call. He didn’t want to leave that decision to Dave, one of the youngest and least experienced operators in the Squadron. Steve had got him on his team in part so he could mentor him through the coming mission.
Killing kids definitely wasn’t the way to get him started.
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