In the smoldering ash of the village Tu Pia, a small girl clutched her prized toy. The brown monkey with amber gems for eyes had seen better days.
“Wait here,” her mother had said.
She was hidden behind a ramshackle fence that ran along the dirt road. Gunfire could be heard in the distance. The girl pulled the monkey tight. The crackling embers of unchecked fire floated in the air. Corpses littered the road. Once upon a time, they were real people who had names. They were people from her village. Friends, family, all gone.
“Momma, where are you,” the little girl sobbed.
A gloved hand covered her mouth and pulled her backwards. The girl struggled against her captor, but they were too strong. In her struggle a shadow fell across her. Then another, and another. She turned to face the shade.
“Sssh, little girl.” A bearded man put his finger to his lip. Other men knelt beside her. One took out a scope and surveyed the carnage. He put the optic away and pointed at a burning hut. The man wiggled two fingers like he was walking, formed the number two with his fingers and nodded.
Two men moved as one toward the burning hut. Each man took a corner and watched. One turned and looked back at those behind the fence. The man at the hut nodded. Two more men moved to the hut. They were almost to the hut, when the man raised a solid fist into the air. Both men that were moving to the hut hit the dirt.
A roving patrol of men, none older than 20, walked by the hut. There were three of them. They laughed and joked among themselves. Every few feet they would stop and shoot several corpses. Then, they continued on their way.
Once they’d disappeared, the two men moved to the hut. The man behind the fence moved behind a burning car and hunkered down.
Down the road gunfire rang out.
Talia Mushin, mother of Tali, was placed on her knees in the center of the village. A boy, aged 9, stood in front of her holding an AK-47. Next to him stood Talik Mufasa. Warlords were nothing new in this part of the world, but Talik Mufasa was something unseen of, until now.
He cared nothing for territory, of possessions, of freedom or slavery. He enjoyed killing. His ‘army’ comprised of children no older than thirteen. No army was complete without officers. The officers were men hand selected by Talik. Men who lived to spill blood.
“You are the favored one,” Talik said to Talia. ‘Favored one’ the soldiers chanted. “You are the only survivor of this village.”
Talia sobbed and bowed her head. She’d heard the stories of the carnage left in the wake of Talik and his bloodthirsty horde. Talia knew she would not survive much longer.
“Today is a good day,” Talik said as he gripped Talia’s face with one hand. He peered deeply into her eyes. He leaned his head back and looked at the sky. “You are ou-“
A shot rang out and the bullet tore through his open mouth. Talia gasped and collapsed to the ground. The nine-year-old boy turned to the sound of gunfire and lifted his rifle. Bullets impacted against his small body. Within seconds the firefight was over.
Talia stayed still and continued to sob. All was quiet now, deathly quiet. Minutes passed and Talia still refused to move. A shadow fell over her. The muscles in her body tensed.
“Are you okay,” a soft voice whispered. Talia’s breath caught in her throat.
“Ma’am. I asked if you were okay,” the voice said.
Talia rolled over and stared at the shadow. The brown uniform looked like the desert. There was no name tag, or service affiliation tag sewn on his blouse. The man had a red beard, and dark shades covered his eyes. He put out his brown gloved hand and reached for her.
“You are okay. You’re safe now.”
The other men moved up to where the shadow knelt beside Talia. One of them handed her Tali. Talia hugged Tali and pulled her close.
“Thank you,” she cried. “Thank you for saving us.”
One of the men conversed into a microphone. He met the shadow’s eye and nodded. He held up four fingers and made the motion of walking. The shadow nodded. He repeated the signal and made a forward motion with his right hand.
One by one, the men dropped into a column formation and followed. Four klicks later they took a knee. Shadow pulled a smoke grenade and tossed it on top of a plateau. The man with the radio pressed the transmit button and conversed into the microphone.
Soon after, a helicopter arrived and hovered in the smoke. The group moved toward the chopper. Once aboard, they lifted off and headed to Camp Haven.
Camp Haven, a multi-national base, served as a launching pad for numerous nations. It served as the temporary home of Scout Team Blue Dragon. Talia looked around at the five men who had stopped Talik from eradicating all life in her village.
“Who are you,” she asked the Shadow. He pointed at the man with the radio. “That’s DJ.” He pointed at another man. “That’s Menace.” He pointed at the two men that were nearly discovered while moving to the hut. “That’s Reaper and Mischief.”
Talia nodded at the men and mouthed, “thank you.”
“And you are?”
Mischief leaned close to Talia and said, “he’s Big Country.”
The pilot’s voice came over the intercom. The men looked up when the speaker squelched.
“Gentlemen, General Chase would like to see you when we land. Move to HQ posthaste.”
“We’re in trouble again,” Reaper said. The other men nodded and grinned.
“Ain’t nothin’ new since Big Country took over,” Menace said. Big Country locked eyes with him.
“Stand down, Menace. Big Country made the right call, “Mischief said.
“We’re a scout team, not a heavy platoon. We get cut off out there, we’re on our own.”
Mischief leaned into the face of Menace and whispered, “I said to stand down. This ain’t the time nor the place for this chat.”
“Whatever,” Menace growled. “You know I’m right.”
The helicopter landed. Big Country was the last one to disembark. His men gathered their gear.
“Menace and Reaper take Talia to X-ray and get them debriefed. They can sort out what to do with them there. I am off to meet with General Chase.”
“I’m going with you,” Mischief said. Big Country shook his head no.
“I appreciate it, Mischief. I’ll take the heat for this.”
“Ain’t no heat, boss. Were we supposed to let them kill innocent people?”
“I don’t know. You wouldn’t think so, but it’s a whole new ballgame out here.”
“Yeah. More reason for me to go with you.”
Big Country wouldn’t say anything, but he was glad to have Mischief alongside him for this debrief. A newly minted team captain, this was his third mission. The first two had been scouting missions at abandoned insurgent strongholds.
This one had gone pear-shaped.
General Chase was a career soldier. He’d fought in every war since Korea. There was not one hostile fire conflict or war that he’d not been part of since Korea. He sat behind his desk and waited for Big Country to arrive for his debrief. While he waited, he pulled out a stogie from the box on his desk and placed it in his mouth. He never lit it, he kept them for the image they portrayed.
Five minutes after touchdown, Big Country and Mischief walked into Headquarters. A runner sat at a desk catty-cornered on the right side of the room. Big Country walked over to it.
“Afternoon,” he said in way of greeting. The runner looked up and nodded.
“Can I help you,” she said.
“I’m here to see General Chase for a debriefing.”
She led both men to another desk. A tall, thin, man sat behind a desk in front of large wooden doors.
“These men are here to see General Chase, Warren. They have a debriefing.”
Warren pressed a button on his phone and conversed quietly. He looked at Big Country and Mischief and nodded.
Warren pushed the heavy oak doors open and led them into the room. Mischief glanced around the room and whispered, ‘nice.’ Big Country walked to the desk and came to attention.
“Lieutenant Michel Florins reporting as ordered, sir.”
“Have a seat, Lieutenant.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Mischief came and had a seat next to Big Country. General Chase locked eyes with Mischief until Mischief looked away.
“What were your orders, Lieutenant?”
“We were tasked with scouting the village next to Devil’s Cry.”
“Were you told to engage with the enemy?”
“No, sir. We were sent in to get the lay of the land and to report back.”
“So, you understood your orders.”
“Yes, sir. I did.
“Yet, you chose to disregard them and attacked an insurgent force.”
Mischief cleared his throat.
“Sir, the insurgents were killing the locals. I believe the LT made the right call.”
“Oh. Do you believe that Sergeant? Because as of right now, you and your LT have created an international cluster. Here let me show you.”
General Chase turned to the television that hung from his wall and turned it on. Several pictures flooded the screen. All of them was a mixture of news reports calling for the withdrawal of American forces from the Sudan.
“You were given specific orders for a reason. You’re not a bunch of ragtag cowboys. You’re professional soldiers for God’s sake.”
Big Country sighed. “It’s always the same. We can’t win a war for the politicians getting in the way. Jesus. I no longer what to be here or do this job any longer.”
“Sir, I made the call. My men carried out my orders. If anyone is to be punished, punish me.”
“I don’t need your permission, Lieutenant. You’re going to be punished. Do you have anything else to say before I read you, my judgement?”
“Yes, sir.” Big Country stood to his feet and went to attention. “I ask that the civilians we saved today, Talia and Tali, be given asylum in the United States. I will bear whatever punishment you see fit to give me.”
“Then I have nothing else to say, sir.”
“Lieutenant Michel Florins, you have been found guilty of disobeying a direct order. The punishment for this is separation from the United States Military. “Big Country saluted General Chase. “Do you understand the charges against you, Lieutenant?”
“Okay. Now that the formal crap is out of the way, have a seat.”
General Chase stuck his cigar in his mouth and bit down. He picked up a box of matches and then put them down.
“You did the right thing, Lieutenant. You made the right call. Don’t ever doubt that.”
Mischief threw his hands up in disgust. “If he did the right thing, why is he being discharged?”
“Because the military operates on the principle of following orders, Sergeant. That’s why. If every Tom, Dick and Harry decided to do what they wanted, all would be chaos. You saved the lives of the last two people in the village. That is no small feat, son. You will be given a general discharge. It’ll hurt some, but you will land on your feet.”
General Chase stood to his feet and saluted Big Country. “It’s been an honor. You have nothing to hang your head about.”
“Thank you, sir.”
General Chase handed Big Country a file and patted him on the shoulder.
“Your flight leaves at 2100. Turn your gear into the arms room. Safe travels. Ah, the civilians you saved will be on your flight. Look after them, okay?”
“Roger, sir. Will do.”
Big Country and Mischief walked out of Headquarters. It was the last time that Lieutenant Michel Florins would oversee men in combat. It was the last time he would serve proudly in the Armed Forces of his country, but his war was not over.