Small Wars Journal

Among the Apple Trees

Wed, 05/03/2017 - 1:30am

Among the Apple Trees

Ethan Skarstedt

U.S. Army TRADOC Science Fiction Writing Contest

Cade rose to his feet in the back of the copter, gripping a cargo strut in the ceiling to keep his feet as the copter swooped and dipped through the dark night along the nap of the earth. In the darkness, his recon package readied themselves around him. Birds 1 and 2, a robin and a crow, fluttered to his shoulders, hunkered down, and gripped his shoulder pads as though they were going to ride out a storm on a high branch. Cats 1, 2, 3, and 4 leaped to the seat he had just vacated and stared, ears twitching, from Cade to the troop door on the front starboard side of the cargo pod. Dog, a Kuchi, heeled at Cade’s left, barely able to contain his excitement, taut as a bowstring, a faintly sensed pressure through the armored panels on Cade’s left thigh. Rats 1 and 2 braced themselves in their hardened nests in the bottom of Cade’s backpack.

Just forward in the cargo compartment the men of ODA 9126 stood up at the same time. They tightened straps and tested buckles, starlight from the portholes revealing only hulking forms in the dark, bulky with equipment and armor. Cade could hear their clothing and gear rubbing and clicking and wondered if it was his own hearing or an overlay from the cat’s naturally more sensitive feed, piped in through the ear buds he wore. He muted all four cat’s audio feeds and the character of the sound around him changed. The sound of the four big muffled electrical rotors outside became a smoother less harsh buzz, the rushing wind dropped an octave and he could no longer hear the sound of the green beret’s fiddling with their equipment.

Captain Legan murmured into the comm system, his sibilant southern drawl quiet but clear in Cade’s ear.

“Sound off, gentlemen.” There were only six members of 9126 on this operation. Captain Legan had decided during the planning phase that a lighter footprint was better than six more guns.

“Curly, up.” That was Frank, the bravo, a thick squat black man who would grin snarkily while he insisted that his handle was actually inspired by his ability to curl so much weight.

“Brooks, up.” that was Garth, the charlie. He’d been tasked as a sniper on this op, with no explosive work anticipated on a surveillance and reconnaissance mission. He still had some sort of explosives on him though, Cade could smell the C5 and det cord. That, he knew, was because of the Dog and not his own nose. Cade reached up and touched the band holding the scent emitters under his nostrils, adjusting how it lay along his cheekbones. Small tubes followed the bands back to the scent production tank, about the size of a whiskey flask, on the top of his back plate.

“Mango, up.” Christoph, the medic, or delta, had a southern accent and a style of speech that matched his personality and mannerisms, quick and clipped.

“Jake, up.” The echo or communications sergeant, Howard Platt, always sounded annoyed. Cade had asked him once why his handle was Jake and Howard had replied, “Because Jake was an asshole,” and refused to discuss it further.

“Ponzy, up.” Finally the team’s sergeant, the zulu, piped up. He was a small man. The rest of the team treated him with a deference bordering on fear. Cade had not yet figured out why.

Cade spoke quietly, “Recon, up.” The wraparound glasses he wore held several lasers in the frame that beamed his heads-up display directly onto his retina. No light leak, high-res, and no problem with fading even in full daylight. And if he closed his eyes, thank all that was holy, the display went away. All nine animals of his recon team had their own rectangle of tightly packed data arranged in a ring around the middle periphery of his vision. They were all excited, heart rates elevated, but well fed, well watered, and ready to exit the smelly, noisy interior of the copter. And none of them had an urgent need to defecate, thank heavens. He didn’t need any more problems with the pilots or the maintenance crew.

Captain Legan, as planned, put the copter down canted sideways on the military crest of a ridgeline and the team burst out of both sides of the copter taking up security in a tight perimeter immediately outside its fuselage, flat on the dirt among the grass and low bushes.

Using his input stone, a flat rounded oval the size of his wallet, Cade slid and tapped his hands and fingers over its surface, menus opening and closing in  his HUD. He held his entire recon package close except for Cat 4. With a promise of interesting smells he urged Cat 4 thirty meters straight up through the underbrush to the top of the ridge, to take up overwatch.  The copter’s rotors whuffled to a higher pitch and it lifted straight out of the middle of them before sliding down the hill at an altitude of about 10 feet. Cade filled his vision with the feed from Cat 4 and did a slow scan as the whuffling sound of the copter slid away into the cool night. No light anywhere, and no sound except what little the team was making. Watching Cat 4’s biometrics closely Cade saw no signs of danger response. He couldn’t interpret the smells from Cat 4 with anywhere near the sophistication that Cat 4 could but he could interpret the animal’s physiological reaction to the input. Cat 4 felt fine, and safe enough to begin licking her crotch.

The ridgeline ran north-south, one of hundreds in this area. The ground lay like a rumpled blanket of dirt and blocky stone embroidered with long stands of wild apple trees and brush. The target lay out of sight and sound one ridgeline away to the east, a cluster of building at the bottom of a small valley in a clearing.

Cade launched both birds with the sense that there were seeds around here somewhere. Their bios read of quiet satisfaction laced with sheer joy. Birds were always like that. They really liked the air. These two were natives of the lands just a little further south. Cade had received them from an asset of some sort in the area and infected them with the nano package that let him control them as well as pull down a full feed of what they saw, heard, and smelled.

Captain Legan said, “Jake. How’s the link?”

“It’s up and strong. Doesn’t seem like anybody’s seen any of the aerostats yet.” Jake had his own heads up display giving him a full maintenance and control feed from the long string of aerostat swarms that stretched over five hundred miles back to the team’s staging area. They went undetected by the radio sniffers everybody put out to prevent operations exactly like this one by using collimated laser links to communicate with each other as well as a good stealth package.

“Recon, report.”

“Nobody in the area, Captain. Route alpha is clear for at least a klick and Bird 1 is in good shape.”


“Roger, Captain.” Curly stood up to take point and began making his way diagonally up and across the slope of the ridgeline. He was making for a stand of head high brush that would allow the team to cross the ridge without skylining themselves. The rest of the team spread out in a diamond with Brooks and Jake on the flanks, Mango at the rear, and Cade and the Captain in the center.

Cade used Bird 1’s natural magnetometer to get it moving as fast as it could toward the target five klicks away. With the same mechanism he had Bird 2 flying lazy circles up high, examining the route ahead of them and dead spots around them. Cats 1-4 mirrored the diamond formation the team was using but spread out by over a hundred meters, guided by moving spots of curiosity the AI generated in their minds. Cade couldn’t look at all the feeds simultaneously while he was walking but he’d programmed his own variations on the “AI” that helped him filter, sort, and interpret the data that was coming from the animals to alert him if they became aware of people or man-made items of any type. Suspicion and heightened alert were pretty easy patterns to identify in animals.

About a klick later the team was moving through the low ground of a small valley when Cat 2, on the left flank, went into panic mode. Cade held his flat hand up and the team sank to the ground, disappearing into the grass and bushes.

Captain Legan muttered into the link. “What’s up?”

“Wait one.” Physically, Cat 2 was still fine, though agitated. Looking at his feed, Cade could see that Cat 2 was deeply focused on a small dog like animal that reminded him of a coyote. It was hunting Cat 2 and had her scent. Cade said, “Predator.” It happened.

Captain Legan snorted and rose to his feet along with the rest of the team. “Run it off?”

“Yeah, Dog’ll have no problem.” The predator was less than half Dog’s size.

As the team started moving again Cade let Cat 2 have her head. He put a geo into Dog’s mind and let him go with the command to hunt and bite anything that wasn’t a cat. Dog raced silently off into the brush. Cade minimized the visual feed from Cat 2 into the bottom left corner of his vision. Dog lanced into view like a furry torpedo and the predator bolted. Cat 2 immediately began to relax and went back to trotting on the perimeter.

Dog chased the predator with his typical straining and eager intensity but Cade pulled him back, giving him a sudden powerful urge to defecate to get him to stop and then the idea of food with Cade. A few minutes later, after giving Cat 2 a sniff and a lick, Dog trotted up and heeled Cade again. Cade gave him a treat.

Captain Legan halted the team in a thick copse of trees smelling powerfully of rotten apple at the base of the last ridge between them and the target compound. Cats 1, 2, and 4 swept the ridge above them. Cade pulled Cat 3 to him and fed him a real morsel instead of the phantom pleasure morsels he’d given the others. They were all a little footsore. Four and a half klicks was not a distance that cats normally traveled in one long go. Cat 3 was a big brindle tom though and in a fine mood. He pushed his head up under Cade’s hand, rubbing, before he ate the morsel. Ponzy reached over and gave Cat 3 scratches while Cade unshipped the rats and the harness.

Birds 1 and 2 circled the compound while Captain Legan examined their feeds in his HUD. “There are a lot more vehicles than we expected. I count five.”

Ponzy muttered over the link. “Yup. We got ID on any of them?”

“Get me a closer look, Recon.”

The vehicles were clustered in the larger of two yards bracketing the buildings. The compound sat in the middle of a long open space at the bottom of its valley. As the ground rose on either side of the valley trees appeared and thickened into a heavy blanket along the top three quarters of the ridges. The road servicing the compound came in a straight line from the north and continued in a long curve to the south along the bottom of the valley after widening out at the compound.

Bird 2 glided in and landed with a soft flutter of wings on top of the wall surrounding the yard with the cars. Cade directed its attention with the promise of grubs at the license plates, moving until it had seen them all.

Captain Legan said, “You getting this Jake?”

Jake grunted an affirmative.

As Cade went back to securing the harness with its two rats on Cat 3 Jake said, “Holy shit. There’s a hit on one of the big black SUVs. It’s associated with the security forces of Abusaid Yandarbin.”

Legan said quietly. “Is it his vehicle?’

“Can’t tell. The other two aren’t in the database but they’re pretty obviously a set.”

Cade recognized the name. Yandarbin wasn’t an Osama but his name came up regularly in the INTSUMs as a major facilitator. He often traveled with 3 or 4 young girls which he joked were his “shield.”  He was on the list, near the top.

“Ok, we proceed as planned. Doesn’t matter if we’ve got an HVT here, first priority is still Surveillance and Reconnaissance. Higher wants to know what they’re moving through here. Recon, you ready to launch yet?”

“Yeah. Launching now.” He urged Cat 3 away, carrying both rats in the harness. Cat 3 would carry the rats close enough to the compound for them to get in and be useful. With the view from Bird 1 Cade chose a low finger of bushes that stretched from the tree line to pretty near the compound and gave it to Cat 3 as a geo. The software could handle guiding him into that vicinity.

Cade reviewed the data from the other three cats. “Ridgeline is clear. No security, no cigarette smell, no trash.” As he spoke he launched Bird 2 back into the air in a quiet glide from the top of the wall and up into a tree on the far ridgeline that suddenly looked like a good place to sleep.

Captain Legan said, “Curly, let’s go.” Curly rose to his feet and led the team up slope to the military crest on the back side. They weren’t directly above the compound but half a klick to the south along the gently curving ridgeline. Brooks, Mango, and Ponzy shed their packs and began clipping brush for a screen while Dog and Curly pulled security.

Cade kept the two birds and three of the cats focused on the compound. Captain Legan had him move them around here and there trying to complete the picture.

Once Cat 3 reached the bushes stretching from the treeline, Cade had him stop and hide. Once he went still Cade put him to sleep. With Cat 3 thus immobilized  he sent the command that would release the harness to fall off of Cat 3 and free both rats to scurry into the compound itself. Cat 3 slept until they were out of sight.

Lights blossomed in the compound as a door opened on the biggest building, which Legan had labeled “A” on the Ground Reference Guide he was building. Music floated out into the night along with the smell of hashish and cooked meat. All the cats reflexively froze in the trees above the compound, staring at the light.

Jake muttered, “shit” over the link. “Boss, higher wants to talk to you.” Cade’s attention snapped off of the feed from Cat 3, back to where he was actually sitting on the ridgeline.

Captain Legan flipped over to the proper channel, his low voice quiet in the night. Cade could hear him through Dog. Likely nobody else but Jake could. “Yes, sir, six of us and a recon enabler. … Yes, sir. … understood, sir.” He came back on the link. “We’re gonna hit Yandarbin. R.O.E. 2.”

“Roger that,” the team replied, satisfied anticipation thick in their voices.

“Brooks, I want you in that rock pile.” The rockpile was on the same ridge but closer to the compound.

“Recon, I need to know which of those building’s Yandarbin is in.”

“Working on it.” Cade dove back into the feeds. He was pretty sure building C was actually a garage/toolshed. He sent Rat 1 skittering toward it with instructions to get inside and find food. Rat 2 he sent toward the building where the music and light had come from. Cat 3, awake again, he pushed toward the cars to determine if someone was in any of them. Cats 2 and 4 he drew toward the buildings. There didn’t appear to be any guards posted but if that changed he wanted to know about it.

Impossible to get a bird inside a buildings without a stir so he flew them with promises of a warm updraft to where they could cover the avenues of approach, up and down the road.

“Jake, I need a picture of Yandarbin.” A picture of a thick balding man with a heavy beard popped up into Cade’s HUD. He pushed it to the very edge of his vision where he could reference it.

Bird 2, on the southern road, saw a light out of sight around the bend. Headlights, three pairs, moving toward the compound. Cade called the Captain’s attention to it.

The Captain said, “You in place yet Brooks?”

“No. Two minutes.”

“Hurry up. Vehicles approaching.”

Jake hissed into the link, “Sir, Higher says Yandarbin is due to meet another HVT tonight. They didn’t know where but now …”

“Who’s he supposed to meet?”

Jake snarled, “They won’t say yet.”

Cade raised his eyebrows in the dark. Bird 2 buzzed the high-end electric vehicles, black or dark blue and another matched set.

Captain Legan said, “Not local. Wait one.” He flipped over to higher’s channel. “Is Gulnaz approaching my position?... I don’t care  whether you’re authorized or not, confirm or deny. … Ok.” The tone of his voice changed. “Hello, sir. … Yes, sir, we can take him. … Understood, sir.”

Cade huffed. Gulnaz was #1 on the list. The vehicle’s lights started flashing through the trees to the south.

“Gentlemen, that’s Gulnaz approaching our position. We’re going to let them link up then hit them all at once. Fit your grenade launchers. Recon, where is Yandarbin?”

Rat 1 had confirmed that building C was an unoccupied toolshed. Rat 2 was in the walls of building A peering through cracks in the crude planks.

“There are three girls and four men in Alpha. None are Yandarbin. I’m seeing A.K.s, nothing heavy.”

“Is he in Bravo?”

“Likely. Let me confirm.” Cade drew Rat 1 into a sprint toward building B.

Jake swore. “Link’s out Captain.”

“Are these guys jamming us?”

“No, it’s not local. Wait looks like the Tajiks have their laser working again. They’ve targeted swarm four.” Swarm four was one of eight that spanned the distance back to the staging area two countries away. “I hate those damned lasers. They’re too easy to repair.”

“Yeah, well, at least our ride’s still in good shape.” The copter was loitering a few miles away in a radar dead zone.

The three vehicles swooshed up to the compound and men climbed out. Two men entered building A. Two others strolled in opposite directions around the outside of the compound. From the third vehicle two more men appeared. The passenger, a pale portly man in a light gray suit, fit the description of Gulnaz. He stood and stretched his back outside his vehicle for a moment.

Rat 1 huddled outside building B. Cade looked around and saw a couple of pipes emerging from the wall of the building. In seconds Rat 1 had squeezed itself through the gap and into the dark room beyond.

Cat 3, crouched under one of the cars in the yard, was looking straight at the door to building B when Yandarbin emerged and shouted something happy to Gulnaz. Without the link to the rear there was no translation. Gulnaz crunched over the dirt and weeds toward Yandarbin. They embraced. It was not a hesitant or cool embrace..

As they re-entered building B, the lights came on and Rat 1 froze. Rat 1 was in the open at the base of the wall. Glancing around, Cade saw he was under a bare bones sink.

Captain Legan put his hand on Cade’s shoulder. “Hey, no rush now. We’ll give them all a few minutes to chill before we go in.”

“Sir, Rat 1 is in a bit of a spot.” Even as he said it he heard Yandarbin curse and saw a flash of movement from Rat 1’s feed. Yandarbin had kicked at the rat and Rat 1 had bolted. Both men shouted and laughed as they chased the rat around the room trying to stomp on it. Cade’s feed was a jumble of quick motion. Rat 1’s data feed showed full panic and distress.

The motion stopped suddenly and the visual feed skewed. Gulnaz’s face loomed down toward Rat 1, hand reaching out.  Rat 1 struggled but was caught, probably under Yandarbin’s foot. Gulnaz clutched and lifted. Rat 1 struggled madly, and Gulnaz cursed and grabbed, reflexively pinning the nearly escaped rat to his torso with his arm. Cheap cologne and body odor filled Cade’s nostrils. “They caught Rat 1, Captain.”

“Well, shit. Is it dead?” There was real regret in the Captain’s voice.

“Not yet but he will be soon.”

“Have him bite that bastard before he goes.”

Cade nodded and sent the command. Rat 1 twisted and bit viciously. Gulnaz shrieked and flung the rat across the room. The impact was sickening to watch from the inside. As the signal degraded, Cade could see Yandarbin’s face. It was worried, and not really looking at Rat 1. Yandarbin said something to Gulnaz and Gulnaz looked sharply up from his bleeding hand.

Cat 3 saw them both emerge and look out, up into the sky above the compound and around at the ridgelines. “Something’s up, sir.”

Gulnaz shouted at the two men circling the compound even as he ducked back inside building B. The two men ran to their vehicle and one opened the back hatch while the other started it.

Moments later Cade’s feeds went out, all except Dog’s, and that one was glitchy.

Jake said, “They just started jamming your frequencies man.”

“Just my frequencies?”

“No, the whole band. It’s going to affect the internal link too. Break. Brooks, can you hear me buddy? You in place yet?” No response. Down in the compound six men rushed out of building A with rifles in hand. Cade couldn’t see where they all went. He felt blind without his bird’s eye view.

Ponzy said, “Sir, even if they don’t know that we’re here they’re on the alert. No more surprise.”

Legan said, “So? That’s Gulnaz down there. We only really have to get him. It’s worth it even if we have to go in and do them all. If he decides to bolt and drives out of here we don’t have the means to reliably stop his vehicle or track it.”

Ponzy only hesitated a moment. “Roger that, sir.”

“One minute.”

Cade shrugged into his pack, mind racing. Six of them against at least ten fighters with no real surprise. Dog would be a big help. Dog! Cade said, “Captain, I have an idea.”

“What is it?”

“We can use Dog. We can send him after Gulnaz.”

“Not sure enough. He’s a good dog, we’ll use him in the assault, but he’s not a bullet to the brain just by himself.”

“You don’t understand, hold on.” Cade knelt by Dog and felt his belly and sides. Under the fur they were slightly firmer and bulkier than they should have been.

“He’s got a full load of C5 in there. It’s part of the package.”

Curly asked, “How much?”

“Two, three pounds? I forget exactly. I never intended to use it.”

Captain Legan said, “Not enough. We can’t just have him blow up in the compound and expect to kill Gulnaz.”

“Right, but I can get him to go after Gulnaz specifically and not blow up unless he’s right on top of him.”

“How do you expect to do that? Your feed’s dead.”

“ Not completely. The range is severely limited but I can still punch through to Dog while he’s here next to me. I can give him the scent. I got it from Rat 1 before it died.” Even as he was speaking, Cade was pulling his scent emitters off his face. With the input stone he rolled back the scent feed to the proper moment and then put the emitter to Dog’s nose. He spoke the code word verbally at the same time he sent the commands over the degraded link. Dog whuffed and strained at his collar. “He’s got it. Should I launch?”

Captain Legan thought for a moment, looking from Dog to the compound he could now only see through a gap in the trees. “Don’t launch him yet. Let’s get to Brooks first. Let’s go Curly.”

Back at the rock pile they all hunkered down, pulling security around the base of it. Brooks was up in a gap on top of it. Legan crawled up and spoke to him then back down.

“We’ll initiate with the grenade launchers. Brooks will clear the way for Dog. Ready?” Cade nodded. Everybody crawled to where they could see past the rock pile. Their grenades were launched from the end of their rifles and would use inertial guidance and fin adjustments to impact at the distance specified by the user.

All five grenades were aimed at the building with Gulnaz in it. The bark of the propellant round was harsh in the quiet night. As the grenades arced silently up over and down men began shouting in the compound, reacting to the gunshots.

Cade released the clasp on Dog’s collar and it fell away. Dog streaked out into the night toward the compound, disappearing into the trees just as the grenades impacted on the building.

When Dog emerged from the trees on the flat area surrounding the compound, Brooks opened up. At the first crack of his rifle a man pitched backward from the gate and Dog leapt the falling body on his way inside.

Ponzy muttered, “Look at him go!”

Gulnaz staggered alone from building B, which was still standing but listing seriously to one side and gently smoking. Three men leaped on him and moved him quickly into cover of the thick mud wall. Brooks fired and one of the three pitched backward even as the others disappeared.

Dog cast about inside the compound. He caught Gulnaz’s scent, turned, and raced behind the wall. A quick string of shots rang out and Dog did not emerge. Seven or eight men started firing up at the rock pile. Rounds cracked around the team. Brooks continued firing. Three girls broke from building A and ran into the woods across the valley.

Captain Legan whispered, “Blow it now, Recon!”

“I can’t. He’s out of range.”

The Captain swore. “We have to get down there.” He yelled up to Brooks, “Brooks, shift right! Wait until you hear us firing to start shooting again. The rest of you, we’re going to swing left. Hopefully they lose us in the trees. We’ll bound from the treeline into that left gate. Once we start shooting Brooks’ll cover us.”

Brooks slithered down off the rockpile and started into the trees to the right.

Ponzy said, “They’re moving.”

Gulnaz and two of his men dashed from the compound wall to one of their vehicles. It started up and the wheels churned up clouds of dust as it reversed.

As it started to pull away, Dog emerged from behind the wall, limping toward the moving vehicle. The entire team gasped and Captain Legan said, “Cover him!” They all began firing their personal weapons at the compound, trying to keep the other fighters from noticing and shooting Dog.

Captain Legan shouted at Cade, “What did you set as the trigger?”

“Bite on target.”

“Does Dog know Gulnaz is in that vehicle?”

“Yeah, I think he does.”

Dog was picking up speed even as the vehicle did. He stopped limping entirely and stretched into a flat out sprint after the vehicle. The vehicle had to slow just a touch, brake lights flaring as it crossed the streambed.

Dog was a torpedo. He caught up with the vehicle, mouth open, and disappeared in a flash of light and fire. The SUV surged into the air, breaking into pieces and engulfed in roaring flame. It came to rest a shattered and hollow shell, in pieces and on fire. One by one its batteries started cooking off, blowing it into smaller and smaller chunks.

The firelight lit up the valley, dancing on the trees and the building. The shooting from the compound had stopped for the moment.

Ponzy spoke into the silence. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

Captain Legan said, “We’ve got two hours before the copter hits the exfil site on automatic. We can make that if we hustle. Curly, let’s go.” Curly led the way down the back side of the ridge through the trees.

As they walked, with the jammer a fiery wreck along with the vehicle, Cade put Bird 1 and 2 on station overhead. He simply released Rat 2. Cats 1, and 2, who had been on this side of the valley, he pushed out a couple of hundred meters, one in front and one behind. Cat 4, on the far side of the valley, he just told to try and catch up. If she caught up he’d figure out what to do with her then, probably carry her. If she didn’t he’d release her as well. Cat 3 had been next to the building when the grenades landed.

The team moved through the apple trees at a good clip. There was no pursuit.

About the Author(s)

SFC Ethan Skarstedt is MID NCOIC for 1/19th SFG(A) of the Utah National Guard as well as NCOIC of the SIGINT training activity at the Draper, UT foundry platform.  He has three combat deployments with the 1/19th as a SOT-A team member and SOT-A team leader, OIFx1 and OEFx2, serving with 19th, 3rd, and 5th Group ODAs.  He has participated in training and foreign internal defense operations in Korea, Senegal, and Germany.  He has been married for 21 years and has 5 children.  He has previously published two short stories, one as a co-author with Brandon Sanderson in the anthology ARMORED from Baen publishing.