The dying Virginian summer held on to its intensity in the idiosyncratic fashion of a Southern drawl, languidly carrying on towards fall. The heat hung in the air along with the thick moisture August provides. As the seconds dragged closer to midnight, the temperature still dawdled in the low-nineties. It had been this way for some weeks now, at least ten days. It was hard to keep track of time when each moment was just as oppressively hot as the next, and no degree of vegetation could shield one from the immeasurable radiation pouring down, trapped by the vapors in the air. Day transitioned into night and back again. The weather stayed the same. It became another obstacle for Agent Robins’s re-initiation.
The “field trips” ran some twelve to sixteen hours long for however many days until the mission was completed. The team might have to cover anywhere from eight to twelve miles a day through the heavy terrain. It had been almost fifteen years since she first stepped foot on the Farm to begin her training. Though she still maintained good physical conditioning on her own, returning to the field was a different matter all together. It required not only a special degree of corporeal attention, but cognitive as well.
Her training returned within the first few hours of her inaugural day, though: how to spot markers of roaming enemies and avoid tripwires or makeshift landmines, the best field techniques for keeping the body temperature low and feet dry, how to stay agile and silent with fifty-pound equipment (most of it unnecessary in the real field, but added in training to antagonize trainees) and sift through the forest’s white noise to tune in on footsteps, and mostly, she remembered the importance of battlefield equanimity.
It was a simple mission: track a group of ELN fighters, maybe six to ten strong, and eliminate them. But the days were cruel. One of the recruits suffered a bad sunburn on his arms and neck, he never slept well as a result. Most were exhausted by the continuous deluge of thick heat and traveling up steep hills and back down into valleys. They never complained, to their credit, but they were too slow. They would never catch the target at their current pace, and they risked being spotted if they moved too slowly—there were always more. Agent Robins knew by the trail size (which also gave away the formation), and few bits of trash left behind, the enemy’s numbers were fluctuating wildly anywhere from ten to twenty or more. The new recruits did not notice. Outnumbered, they would have to use the environment to their advantage.
That night, she encouraged the team leader to press on. Brady Copeland, graduated from Stanford with degrees in International Politics and Botany, former wrestler, admirable IQ, considers himself a gentleman, the typical red-meat All-American attributes that get selected for the agency. “Genetically-Modified Boy Scouts,” her mentor used to say.
“But how?” he looked up at her. He was laying down, seconds from sleep.
“We’ll track by moonlight, and perform night raids.”
He thought about it. He looked over to the other team members, some already sleeping. It had been an especially long day, and even though the index was still pushing into the high-eighties, most fell asleep from pure exhaustion. He shook his head. “It’s against the mission guidelines.”’
“There are no guidelines. We need to move. Now. We’re too slow. The rebels heavily outnumber us. If they’re smart, they are routinely splitting up and sending out scouts to ensure they aren’t walking into something or being followed. Based off the trails, they are smart. So, the longer it takes for us to find them is more time we are in the dark, and that increases our vulnerability and likelihood of mission failure.”
That struck a chord. It usually did with types like Brady. She watched his eyes as his brain tried to process the hypothetical scenario of failing, then cross examine the ramifications with breaking protocol and heading out in the middle of the night with a team already depleted of rest and stamina, but his eyelids kept fluttering. He could not focus. He let out a sigh. “I disagree, Agent Robins. Get some sleep.”
The following day, over thirty ELN insurgents ambushed the team of five at dusk. She and another recruit, Kerr, were able to stay alive long enough and use the cover of darkness to slip away through a hole in the attack. For the next six days, she pursued the ELN squad. There was a main core of fifteen that would swell upwards to forty and then disband. She kept track of the main group with Kerr until the sixth night when they shrunk to only eight. She had Kerr stationed just on the outskirts of the camp with explicit instructions: “Don’t move.”
Slithering through the ground, she came upon the scout who was keeping watch. His name was Church, but for the purposes of the drill he smeared dark green paint on his face and was a firm believer in focalism. His black ski mask was pulled up on his head and he wore a boonie atop. He was comfortable. It was his mistake.
She snuck up on him and drew her knife. The blade made the lightest breath as it released from its sheath, the killing spirant. He was on his feet taking slow steps around the bivouac. He did not notice his boot almost kissed her knee. She rose behind him and in one muted glimmer had her hand on his mouth and knife on his throat. She whispered: “You’re dead.”
She then woke up the remaining seven in a similar fashion. The last was the team leader, Gibson. She tapped his boots for him. When he woke, he saw the other members of his team sitting around the fire. His combatant stood above.
“Evening, Robins,” he stretched out of his waterproof blanket.
He rolled his eyes as he sat up. He looked at his men. “I assume I’m dead?”
“That would be correct.”
“You all, too?” he asked aloud. The team nodded. He shook his head. “Goddamnit, Church.”
Church said nothing.
Gibson looked at Robins. “Knife?”
He nodded. “Good work. What about Kerr?”
“He’s securing the perimeter.”
“How is he?”
“Smart enough to stick with me.”
“You cocky bitch.”
“Easy, sir,” Church said. “That’s a real knife she’s wielding.”
The men laughed.
“All right,” Gibson said. “This op is over. I want to thank you, Myra. I was beginning to miss my bed.”
The next mission used a mixture of al Qaeda techniques and various tactics from sub-Saharan guerrilla outfits. She was the team leader. The initial testing was over. Now she was being prepared for what was to come.