Lightning Days

Overview

There's a mystery in the caves of Afghanistan ... British Special Agent Josh Cassidy knows there is no such thing as a routine mission when he is sent to accompany an ill-prepared band of reservists on a hastily prepared mission into the heart of Afghanistan. The mysterious heat source that showed up on the military satellites could be just about anything, but nobody is prepared to find a group of refugees from an alternate universe: a group of intelligent, NEANDERTHAL refugees. Sophia and her people have shifted...
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Overview

There's a mystery in the caves of Afghanistan ... British Special Agent Josh Cassidy knows there is no such thing as a routine mission when he is sent to accompany an ill-prepared band of reservists on a hastily prepared mission into the heart of Afghanistan. The mysterious heat source that showed up on the military satellites could be just about anything, but nobody is prepared to find a group of refugees from an alternate universe: a group of intelligent, NEANDERTHAL refugees. Sophia and her people have shifted universes for years, trying to keep ahead of the vicious race of Sauroids that is intent on exterminating the Thals. Now the long-running battle has come to our universe, and Josh Cassidy is the only man who stands between the Sauroids and the total annihilation of everyone on the planet Earth.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781934041109
  • Publisher: Swimming Kangaroo Books
  • Publication date: 7/28/2006
  • Pages: 331
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.74 (d)

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Lightning Days


By Colin Harvey

Swimming Kangaroo Books

Copyright © 2006 Colin Harvey
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-934041-10-6


Chapter One

Present Day

Cassidy stiffened as the shots rang out across the still Afghan morning. After several hours of nerve-shredding tension, the soldiers' discipline was momentarily fractured, and four of them scattered like quail.

Graves looked furious, but said nothing. He held up his hand until his men's training kicked in and they grew still. He murmured, "I thought the shots were in the next valley, Major."

Cassidy said equally quietly, "They were. Trust your judgment, Lieutenant." Graves' red face flushed at the implied reprimand. Cassidy continued, "You want me to stand sentry while you talk to them?"

"They're good men," Graves insisted. "Just raw. They're weekend soldiers. No one prepared them to be sent deep into bandit country with no bloody back-up, and no idea why." He glared at Cassidy.

"I know," Cassidy murmured, seeking to defuse the tension. "It's okay, Digger." He used the nickname by which Graves had introduced himself at Kandahar. He added, "At least no one fired and drew attention to us." He stretched to clap Graves on the shoulder. Cassidy was six feet tall, and few men towered over him as Graves did.

Graves nodded, his jaw still tight, and beckoned to his now immobile men. Cassidy surveyed their surroundings, turning slowly in a circle as all fourteen men huddled, the rest slowly making room for Farooq, theirguide.

Not for the first time, Cassidy wished he'd bypassed the army entirely, had Iftikhar recruit a guide and set out alone, but that hadn't been an option.

The huddle broke, and the men lined up, scuffing their feet in the thick dust, their scarves wrapped round their mouths. Cassidy cursed the fools who'd planned this for not thinking of horses. That would at least have put the riders above most of the dust. The thought led to another. He tapped Graves' arm; "Do your men have night-goggles?"

Graves shook his head. "No, I've got the only pair. You?"

"Yeah. But just two pairs are no use. The men could march over a cliff in the dark." He shook his head disgustedly. What a cock-up, he thought. Other conflicts taking the headlines had also taken much of the budget. Resources had become increasingly stretched as little by little, cutbacks had bitten into efficiency. Cassidy sighed. "Get used to it," he muttered, too quietly for Graves to hear. "These men are all you'll get." Six of the squaddies marched in front of him, six behind, Farooq at the front, followed by Graves. High overhead, a buzzard mewed.

Soon afterwards, they entered a narrow valley, parallel to the source of the shots. "A perfect place for an ambush," Graves signaled with a look, and Cassidy nodded, watching for the flash of sun on metal or glass. It was unlikely that the local bandits would be so clumsy. They had spent hundreds of years fighting the British, and the Russians, and now they fought the Americans and, once more, the British. When they weren't fighting each other.

Cresting a rise, the squad emerged into the open, walking along a narrow ridge. One side fell away, so that they walked on the side of a steep hill of dangerously unstable scree, partly covered with sparse scrub, upon which a few skeletal-ribbed goats munched. Cassidy saw no sign of any owners, so he hoped fervently that these were wild animals.

One of the men slid down the slope, turning his ankle. After a few minutes rest, he limped on, but their pace was slow. When another man twisted his ankle, Cassidy checked GPS unit again, and said quietly to Graves, "We don't have time for this. The first squad has twenty-four hours head start. We must catch them up. If necessary we'll leave the next man who gets injured behind to take his chances."

Graves' eyes narrowed, but like Cassidy he kept his voice low, no matter how much emotion crept in. "With respect, sir, I guess you're used to working alone, or with better-trained men. My boys have had basic training, but not to SAS or whatever level's needed here, and they've had no time to prepare. Meeting every Tuesday night and two weekends a month back in the UK is not enough to prepare them for being alone, in hostile territory, miles from any kind of support."

Cassidy nodded curtly.

Graves continued. "We've only been here a month. Long enough to see for ourselves how dangerous it is, but not long enough to learn how to deal with it. While you were on your way out, we had too many conflicting orders: Wait for you; get into the mountains; observe radio silence; don't involve the Americans. Given such contradictions, we had no option but to split the platoon and send half of the men ahead. And no one has told us why we've had to hotfoot it up here from Kandahar. Sir."

Cassidy pulled a half-sympathetic, half-rueful face. "Welcome to the British Army, Lieutenant. Any army, any period in history. No one's criticizing you, but sending less than twenty men into the mountains with just a set of co-ordinates, and no instructions except, 'Look out for anything unusual' is barmy, and we're only compounding the folly of sending them in."

"Why didn't a big shot like you get us more help?" Graves asked in such a tone of wonderment that it robbed the words of their sting.

"Why do you think I spent so long in with your CO?" Cassidy asked. "We were supposed to move out at four AM, but I spent thirty minutes begging for more men. There simply aren't any. The ones who haven't been sent to the Balkans have gone to Iraq, to help the Americans fight the latest uprising in Tikrit. What's left are needed back in Kandahar. No disrespect to your men, but if there had been more experienced soldiers available, I'd have taken them." His throat irritated by the dry air and dust, Cassidy coughed, and swigged from his water bottle.

"I wondered what all the shouting was about," Graves said with a slight grin. He pointed at Cassidy's uniform, devoid of anything but a major's insignia. "Interesting regiment."

Cassidy grinned. "You mean where am I from? I wondered how long it would take you to work up the nerve to ask. I'm just a civil servant." Which was technically true. "Assistant to the Assistant to the Secretary of the Under Secretary of State. Chief tea maker."

"Bollocks are you!" Graves turned away, his color rising and his jaw set. He kicked angrily at a stone. "You're as much a civil servant as much as I'm a Martian."

"I suppose you're too young to remember Northern Ireland during the Troubles?"

Graves stared. "You served there?"

"I did," Cassidy said grimly. "It's not a memory that gives me any pleasure. Whenever we went out on patrol, it never felt like we had enough men, or were fully prepared. Anything could happen, and we knew it. Anyone who seemed friendly might have a concealed gun. You learned to look under every car, including your own. The point, Digger, is that if we survive this mission, you still won't ever feel prepared. Get used to that feeling. When it's not there, that's when you become complacent. That's when you're most likely to die. But if you survive, like me, you become a useful asset. The army seconded me to the political sections, and it's a near permanent thing, but yes, I'm a civil servant. Just like you and everyone else who works for the government." He stared at Graves. "Imply that I'm a liar again, and when we get back, I'll break your jaw."

Graves muttered, "Sorry," and looked away.

To ease the tension, Cassidy said, "This country's had every misfortune possible; occupied for centuries by British, Russians, and now the UN; internecine strife between ruling warlords. They even have drought." His laugh was sad.

Graves nodded, still stiff with resentment. "The landscape looks ... what's the word? Blasted?" he said at last, when the silence threatened to become awkward.

They resumed their trek. Two more men turned ankles, but Graves, casting dark looks at Cassidy, urged them to limp on.

The silence was broken by a clatter of rocks tumbling down, and several of the men flinched. Cassidy stood statue-still, every nerve straining, listening for the sounds of men moving. When he was satisfied that the rocks had simply fallen and not been dislodged, Graves waved the squad on.

The hills shimmered in the heat. The sky was a vaulted arch, so fiercely blue that it hurt unshielded eyes. The ground rose and dropped, twisted and turned, as if determined that only the fittest and bravest would walk it.

Graves stopped panting, and drew enough breath to echo his earlier statement, "It may be blasted, but it's beautiful." Lifting his scarf, he spat. "Even if all you can smell or taste is dust."

"But it's a beauty like that of a poisonous snake," Cassidy said. "It'll kill you at any moment. Its people are as inconstant as the land." He added, "There will be less dust the higher we climb, especially as we emerge from the rain-shadow cast by the mountains."

They emerged from a long ravine into open ground, in the shadow of a rock that was vertical on one side, and a forty-five degree slope on the other. Graves said, "The men could do with a meal. They had us packing our rucksacks at three this morning." He grinned. "You probably know how much fun it is packing sixty-five kilos in the dark."

Try doing it in the snow sometime. Cassidy thought of a nasty mission in the Norwegian winter, but only nodded. "Twenty minutes." He glanced at his watch. Men on the move needed at least four meals a day to balance all the calories they burned. All the more reason to keep the breaks short, he thought.

Graves signaled the men to halt. They dropped to their knees in the shelter of the rock, out of the wind. Cassidy dragged air into his oxygen starved lungs. He'd trained at altitude before, but never this high. And they had still higher to climb. Although the others were probably ten years his junior, they were breathing just as heavily as he was. One man lay prone on the ground. As Graves posted guards, they unclipped their packs, stretched, and broke out their rations.

After a few minutes, Cassidy took a cautious mouthful of chemically reheated shepherd's pie. Chewing, he looked up to see Graves studying him, and raised an eyebrow in silent question.

"What happens," Graves said, "if you're buried under an avalanche?"

There was a long silence then Cassidy said, "You'd better make sure that doesn't happen."

"That's your fallback plan?" Graves asked with quiet fury. "My men are here for eight months, supposedly on police duties. The regular army sneer at them as 'weekend warriors,' yet with no warning they're marched halfway to nowhere and expected-"

"Lieutenant," Cassidy warned.

Graves fell silent, folding his now empty ration tray over and over again into an ever-smaller square. He repeated, "What happens if you're buried under an avalanche? Do we abort?"

Cassidy stared into space, thinking furiously. He said, "If you repeat any of this, you'll spend the rest of your life under house arrest." Graves looked so serious, that Cassidy almost laughed. "Where to begin?" He smiled at Graves. "At least you've been spared sitting in the August Bank Holiday traffic jams."

"One thing I don't miss," Graves said. "That where you were Monday night?"

Cassidy nodded. "I've barely slept in forty-eight hours."

Graves chuckled. "And there I was bitching about getting up at three. Sorry."

"Don't worry," Cassidy said. "I sat in a traffic jam, having a blazing row with my girlfriend over my supposed commitment phobia. My spare mobile rang." He smiled at the memory of Caitlin's incredulous, "How many bloody mobiles have you got?" His smile faded. "I was summoned to a briefing at COBRA," he continued. "The Joint HQ-"

"I know what COBRA is," Graves said harshly.

They stiffened at a muffled roar in the distance. For perhaps twenty seconds neither man spoke, then Cassidy resumed. "A satellite had photographed a large heat source. A huge number of bodies, maybe ten thousand, in the mountains northeast of Tora Bora. On the next orbit, they'd disappeared." He sighed. "I take it you realize the ... concern this caused?"

Graves smiled thinly, "Oh, yes. One of the most sensitive areas in the world, and they have a vanishing army. That's why they're panicking?"

Cassidy nodded, impressed at how quickly Graves caught on. "That, and the fact they've no idea who the bodies are. Not knowing anything scares our elected masters more witless than usual."

Graves smiled. "All the usual suspects are accounted for?"

Cassidy nodded. "Until we find who or what is in the mountains, no one is to know, not even the Americans. So radio silence, and absolute secrecy."

"What happens when we find them?" Graves asked.

Cassidy said, "That depends on what we find."

While the men finished their food, and lit cigarettes, Cassidy stood and loosened up with Tai Chi exercises, ignoring the other's smiles. Despite his aches, he felt alive. Anything could happen. He always felt this way at the start of a new mission. Maybe this time he wouldn't end it feeling like a slowly deflating balloon.

Turning away from the others, he took Caitlin's picture from inside his pocket. Kissing his fingers he touched them to the photo. "Bye babe," he murmured, "It was good, but it's over." He wished he'd ended it more gracefully than dumping her publicly on the motorway.

He became aware that Graves was watching him with interest. "That the ex-girlfriend?"

Cassidy nodded. He studied Graves, looking so long and hard at the young man that the Lieutenant blinked and then looked away.

Cassidy clearly came to a decision. He grinned wolfishly. "If I was Intelligence, as you think," he held up a hand, "which I'm not, of course, but if I was, I'd go mad without someone to talk to. The security services discourage Catholicism, unless the priest is vetted. Can't give confession to the unauthorized." He chuckled grimly at Graves' face.

"Is that true?" Graves whispered.

Cassidy smiled. "Of course. I never lie."

Graves laughed softly. "Which is itself a lie."

Cassidy said, still whispering, "Once an agent found out about Hitler's v-weapons, but she couldn't tell anyone without compromising security. When a V-1 killed a member of her family, her guilt caused a nervous breakdown. Unless someone is a psychopath, it's impossible to keep secrets, or assume another identity for long periods, without some kind of safety valve. It can be a mirror, or a picture. Everyone needs someone to talk to." He tore the picture up, and buried the pieces.

"Who will you talk to now?"

"You," Cassidy said. Relishing Graves' shocked look, he said, "Come on, time to move on."

Graves lifted up his backpack to muted groans from the men.

"Make sure you bury your cigarette butts, and any other rubbish," Cassidy ordered.

As they neared noon and climbed ever higher it grew colder as the biting wind that cut through their thermals gathered strength. The only sounds apart from an occasional muttered comment were the buzzard crying in the wind, and, suddenly in the distance, the high-pitched chopping of a helicopter's rotors. "Trouble, sir." Graves said, looking young, green, and very scared.

Cassidy asked, "How many choppers do the tribesmen have?"

Graves grimaced sheepishly. "It's ours."

"Don't worry," Cassidy said. "We're all a bit twitchy."

A soldier signaled, waving to the northeast. Cassidy saw smoke rising in a thin twisting stream, torn by the wind, but still holding together, so thin and slight it would have been invisible, if they hadn't been looking for it. Even so, they were lucky to have seen it. "The first patrol?" Graves said. Cassidy nodded.

They quickened their pace, and every time they slowed, Graves urged his men on. They rounded a bend, and saw bodies strewn across the defile. A small fire burning in the midst of the bodies was the source of the smoke.

Graves waved a signal and the men ducked, two of them running crouched to the bodies, while the rest dived, lying prone in a star-shape, guns pointing outward in all directions. The runners checked for identity tags, and scuttled back.

"Five men, sir," the lead soldier, a Stan Laurel-look-alike in his late twenties with horn-rimmed glasses and an oversized adam's apple said, "Ours and theirs. Weapons are gone." He looked pale, swallowed several times. "They've been shot. No mutilations."

"They don't take ears, or scalps, soldier," Cassidy said. Stan's face went blank. Cassidy said, more kindly, "Pashtuns, Uzbeks, other tribes; they're all skilled, brave warriors who fought the supposedly superior Russians to a standstill for ten years." Stan looked like he'd swallowed a wasp, but shut his mouth. Good, Cassidy thought. The roasting's taken his mind off those corpses.

"But it was locals who did it?" Graves asked.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Lightning Days by Colin Harvey Copyright © 2006 by Colin Harvey. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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