Countdown: The Liberators

PROLOGUE

When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains

And the women come out to cut up what remains . . .

-Kipling, "The Young British Soldier"

D-815, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan

No one had intended it as a joint op, let alone a combined one, but the nearest support to the beleaguered SEAL team had been a team of Army Special Forces, under a captain named Welch. Because of that, once they were committed, the next echelon in had been the green beanie's boss, one Colonel Wes Stauer. And Stauer had come with a company of Afghan commandos, trained by his own people and paid for directly by the United States.

The valley was high and the air thin. The passengers on the Blackhawks could feel the rotors straining to keep the things in the air. They could look up and still see mountains. But they could also look down and still see clouds.

It was a relief, then, to almost all concerned, when the choppers, nine of them, touched down in staggered trail formation along either side of a dirt trail running between two ridges. It was a relief even though the air around the landing zone went from still and clear to a thick, choking cloud of dust in half a second.

First off was Stauer, though the ninety-odd Afghans accompanying him weren't far behind. The latter bolted for the ridges, to relieve the American Special Forces currently providing a thin guard.

He was a big man, Stauer, six-two, graying but still with all his hair. Framed by deep crow's feet, his eyes were a pale blue that both saw too much and had seen too much. He was widely considered to be a son of a bitch. Most of those he worked for were of that opinion; though only a smaller percentage of those who worked for him shared it. And even they were more often than not of the "but he's our son of a bitch" persuasion.

This was his straight third year in Afghanistan, this time. He'd had four year-long tours previously, unusual in special operations. But why not? No wife, no kids; Stauer was married to the Army and had been since graduating Notre Dame ROTC thirty plus years before.

Stauer didn't think they were going to win the war. He hadn't thought so in a long time. Oh, the troops did well. Washington's influence he found baleful. Sometimes he wished it were over. But what else do I know how to do?

He stepped off the chopper into the dust and ran, bent over, to a point outside the sweep of the rotors. Though he had a pistol in a shoulder harness, he also carried a rifle in one hand. He didn't wear any armor. Up this high, in air this thin, the protection the armor gave just came at too high a cost, protecting the enemy as much as the wearer, or perhaps even more so.

Stauer's beanie was stuffed into a pocket against the chance of it being sucked into one of the Blackhawks' engines. He wouldn't put it on until either the helicopters left or he was well out of range.

A SEAL with a recruiting poster jaw met Stauer about fifty meters past the rotors. If Stauer was big, the SEAL was effing huge. "They've got my lieutenant and one of my SEALs," the SEAL told him. Stauer read the swabbie's nametag, "Thornton," and thought, So this is Biggus Dickus, himself. Gotta help a man with that kind of rep.

Thornton pointed at the adobe and scrap rock village down below and added, "And none of these people will tell me shit. I want my