Two months ago, a new leader arose in the Islamic world, the Mahdi—or the Chosen One. He has rallied fundamentalist Muslim forces across the Middle East who have driven deep into Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Standing against them is an allied force made up primarily of the American military.
It's a desperate fight. From armored battles in the desert to American carriers desperately dodging waves of cruise missiles, the Mahdi proves to have many tricks up his sleeve.
Marine Lieutenant Sam Erickson is in the thick of the fighting. He and his company have fought their way from a landing on the Mediterranean shore to the outskirts of Cairo. Now he finds himself at a critical juncture, but can he make the sacrifices necessary for the greater good?
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|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.80(d)|
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Life is but an illusion. Scarcely more than a whispered dream.
3:04 a.m., October 17
3rd Platoon, Bravo Company,
2nd Reconnaissance Battalion, 2nd Marine Division
Off the Coast of Egypt
Leaning against the cramped ship's railing, Marine First Lieutenant Samuel Erickson stared out at the black Mediterranean Sea. The surging ocean's waters, an aftereffect of yesterday evening's storm, crashed against the weathered ship's venerable hull.
To the north, having arrived within the hour, the ghostly silhouettes of the hushed naval armada stretched to the horizon. In front of Erickson, a sliver of a new moon and a dozen distant stars struggled to peek through the storm-swept clouds in the western sky. In the distance, a solitary flash of lightning waltzed upon the menacing heavens. The frightful sound of rolling thunder reached across the perilous waters. Its riotous discord assailed the night.
To the south, for hundreds of miles untold, the interminable artillery duels and flaming wreckage from three weeks of unyielding combat painted the fearsome skyline in vividly striking hues of red and yellow. Brilliant, death-filled flashes of man-made lightning went on without pause, its remorseless dance unending. The battle's hellish thunder consumed the North African desert.
None could have envisioned how quickly things had deteriorated. Or how dire they would become. And with the aircraft carrier battle groups not yet present, the Americans weren't ready. It, however, no longer mattered. With the sunrise barely four hours away, they were out of time. For the Marine division it was now or never. Open a second front in the next few hours or Cairo would fall to the Chosen One's fanatics before the coming day's end. By this time tomorrow, his relentless armored divisions would be crossing the Sinai and nearing Jerusalem.
Deep in thought of past and future, the lieutenant heard none of the frenzied activity around him as Marines and sailors alike rushed to their positions on the troop transport. Erickson and the twenty-two men of his reconnaissance platoon pressed in close to the undulating rail. Like their leader, each carried a heavy pack. Each cradled a weapon in his arms.
Next to the lieutenant, the platoon radio operator, Corporal Hamilton Smith, quietly spoke with the flotilla command ship anchored a mile away. The awaited moment was almost here. It wouldn't be long before the order was given. When it was, Erickson's platoon would head for their Zodiac boats. After a wild dash to the beckoning coast, the platoon's stealthy entry onto the spanning desert would commence. Soon, in the dark of night, he'd be the initial American to set foot upon the treacherous shoreline. One hundred miles behind enemy lines he would lead his men onto the warm sands of Egypt. And he would hope for the best.
Even though the vast majority of the Pan-Arabs' massive army presently were involved in the brutal assaults upon Cairo and Alexandria, there were still ample forces lurking in western Egypt. Who or what the recon platoon might encounter once they reached the immense wastelands, the platoon leader hadn't a clue.
After a minute, maybe two, Smith's hand grasped his shoulder. Erickson turned to look into the solemn face of the young Marine.
"Time to shove off, sir." The radioman's voice was scarcely a whisper.
A pair of Zodiacs, each capable of transporting up to fifteen men, sat waiting. The loading of the small platoon would soon begin. Standing with Gunnery Sergeant James Fife, his veteran platoon sergeant, Erickson watched as the coxswain in each craft made his final preparations. Behind their boats, three Humvees were being positioned on a large hovercraft. The first two carried .50-caliber machine guns, the third TOW antitank missiles. Each of the vehicles was fully armed and ready for battle.
"The men all set, Gunny?" Erickson asked.
"Ready as they can be, sir," was the reply.
"I know we haven't had much time to prepare for this, but given the situation, there really was no choice but to go now."
"Yes, sir. The men understand. I've no doubt the platoon will do fine."
Silently, the earnest Americans began loading onto the rubber boats. As they did, Erickson glanced toward the hovercraft and the thirty Marines standing nearby.
"What about Sergeant Joyce's and Sergeant Davies's squads?"
With Erickson's highly decorated unit designated to handle the division's most dangerous reconnaissance assignments, for the past year the platoon had been reinforced with two infantry squads and an antitank fire team. They would be the first to respond should the scouts find themselves facing a situation beyond their capabilities. After twelve months together, Erickson considered the reinforcements to be as much a part of the platoon as his recon teams.
"I spoke with both along with Corporal Whitehurst just before we went topside, sir," Fife said. "They'll start loading the moment we shove off. If we run into trouble, they'll launch immediately. With the speed that hovercraft can maintain, they should reach us in slightly more than five minutes."
"Let's hope this assignment turns out to be routine and we don't need to call them in."
"Yes, sir. Is the initial wave of amtracs still scheduled to hit the beach within the hour?"
"Unless something unforeseeable happens, that's the plan. First two battalions in sixty, with a company of M-1 tanks a few minutes behind. If things go as scheduled, the majority of the division should be ashore before sunrise."
The last of the recon platoon's Marines had scrambled into the two craft. All that remained were the platoon's leaders. Erickson stepped onto the first Zodiac. Fife entered the second.
"Welcome aboard, Lieutenant," the coxswain said from his perch in front of the ninety-horsepower outboard motor at the back of the swift rubber boat.
"Like to say I'm happy to be here, Chief," Erickson replied. "But for some reason my mother continues to insist I not tell lies."
"Yes, sir, I know the feeling. I can think of quite a few places I'd rather be at this moment."
"Well, don't sweat it too much. After all, you're going into battle with the best damn platoon in the entire division."
Erickson's comment was no idle boast. His was the highest-rated unit in the entire nineteen-thousand-person division. Still, a casual glance wouldn't have explained why. On the surface there appeared to be little setting them apart from most Marine platoons. Many of Erickson's men had yet to reach their twentieth birthdays. And in their short lives none had distinguished himself in the slightest prior to becoming a Marine.
The team leaders were combat veterans and more than competent. But so were their counterparts in countless scores of 2nd Division platoons. Their battle-hardened platoon sergeant was as tough as the unrelenting Sahara winds and as smart as they came. Nonetheless, he was little different from fifty other platoon sergeants within the division. There was, however, one defining quality that placed Erickson's unit above all the others. The single feature separating 3rd Platoon from the rest was the six-foot two-inch, dark-haired, blue-eyed lieutenant who led them.
From the moment ten-year-old Sam was told his father had died in an unmerciful clash in the torturous mountains of a distant land, he'd wanted only one thing-to honor his memory and become a Marine. He'd eagerly arrived at boot camp on the day following his high school graduation. For three years he'd toiled without complaint as an enlisted man. But his abilities had been too strong, his intellect too great, his handsome face and captivating smile too memorable, for him to ever remain in obscurity. He'd soon risen up the ranks, being meritoriously promoted to sergeant. That, however, wasn't the end of things for Erickson.
Each year, an exceptional handful of enlisted sailors and Marines are selected for entrance into the Naval Academy. After three years of service, he'd joined them.
At Annapolis, he'd continued to shine, eventually graduating third in a fiercely competitive class. So prestigious a performance opened a world of possibilities. His efforts merited further educational opportunities and the best of assignments for the remainder of his career. Nevertheless, newly appointed 2nd Lieutenant Samuel Erickson would hear none of it. Instead, he requested an assignment with a combat unit, returning to the sole thing he truly wished to do.
It had only taken a couple of years for the highly skilled Erickson to be promoted to first lieutenant. With this promotion and his reconnaissance training complete, he'd spent the past two years in charge of 3rd Platoon.
Because he had been one of them, his empathy for his men was great. Even so, he understood that someday an exceptionally dangerous, soul-stealing moment like this would be upon them. So he'd pushed them harder and demanded more than any platoon leader within the division. Still, his concern for his Marines was genuine and because of it his platoon's loyalty absolute.
The platoon leader took a final look at those in his Zodiac and the one behind it.
"Let's get the show started, Chief," he directed the coxswain.
The sleek black boats were soon rocketing across the brooding waters. The mission was right on schedule. Three miles away, the barbarous North African landscape awaited. Despite the far distant battles' unceasing fireworks, not a hint of light or movement, nor the slightest sound, could be detected on the stretching shore.
In scant minutes, they would arrive.
3:14 a.m., October 17
3rd Platoon, Bravo Company,
2nd Reconnaissance Battalion, 2nd Marine Division
The Sands of Northern Egypt
Erickson leaped into the pounding surf. He struggled onto the wide sands. His platoon was right behind him.
Having disgorged their human cargo, both Zodiacs edged away from the coastline. They would retreat a safe distance into the swirling seas. Each would settle close enough to swoop in and evacuate the platoon should the situation call for it, but far enough away to not be susceptible to enemy rifles.
The Marines paused, crouching on the beach to get their bearings and determine if anything seemed amiss. Nothing out of the ordinary appeared-no unanticipated sounds or movements greeted them. Using hand signals, the platoon leader motioned for the three recon teams to start toward their objectives. Their rifles at the ready, night-vision equipment in place, the somber six-man teams responded.
With his best man in the lead, Staff Sergeant Laird's team headed east along the crashing surf. Anxious and wary, they would go out a half mile to scout the water's edge before heading inland to evaluate any potential threats looming in the unending desert. The Americans were exceptionally alert, as yet uncertain of their surroundings. With every tentative step, their keen senses assessed the dark, sinister world around them. In such a hostile environment all understood their next breath could be their last.
Staff Sergeant Charles's team headed west, their mission identical.
Sergeant Merker's Marines moved south, directly inland.
The platoon's five remaining men stayed on the beach waiting for Merker's force to create some distance between them before edging forward. They would follow the scout team partway as it moved deeper into the Sahara. Two hundred yards from the water's edge, they'd set up their command post on the small bluffs where the measured beach met the unending vistas of the tedious desert. A few blades of parched grass were the only indications of where the mixing sands met. From the coastline, the beach gradually rose fifteen to twenty feet to create the slight hilltop where the first of the dry grasses lay.
It took less than two minutes for Merker's men to reach the rise and head down its far side. It felt significantly longer for those waiting near the angry tides. As Merker's team disappeared, the time had come for the command element to move. Erickson came up from his crouch and headed inland. The others followed.
"Sergeant Ingram, when we reach the top, set up your machine gun in the middle of our defenses," Erickson whispered.
"Will do, sir."
"Corporal Smith, stick with me every second. I've got to have the radio where I can get to it without delay."
"Just try to get away from me, sir," the likable corporal from the tough streets of central Los Angeles said.
"Petty Officer Bright, stay by Gunny's side so he can provide supporting fire should we have wounded needing attention," Erickson directed the platoon's corpsman.
It wasn't long before Erickson and Fife were lying on the crest surveying the staid world around them. From their position they could see the three teams moving toward their objectives. Each had covered a quarter mile, halfway to their initial goal.
While the command group watched the trio's progress, Hamilton Smith was on the radio with the invasion task force. He looked over at the lieutenant. "First wave of amtracs will launch in a few minutes, sir. Twelve M-1s are being loaded onto hovercraft as we speak. Tanks should be here within ten minutes of the amtracs."
"Thanks, Corporal. Let them know that so far things are going as planned. No sign of anyone or anything near the beach."
Without responding, Smith spoke into the radio once again.
The relentless minutes slowly passed as the cautious Americans reached the boundaries of their search areas. A half mile inland, Merker's team set up a small defensive position directly in front of the center of the mile-wide landing zone. Laird and Charles finished their treks along the pounding waves and turned south, heading into the Sahara. Without incident, the torturous moments, one after the next, plodded on. Things couldn't be proceeding any better. At least that's how it appeared.
The situation, however, was about to change.
It was LairdÕs scouts who first heard, and then moments later saw, the approaching enemy.
The Pan-Arabs were coming up a desert draw that until this moment had masked their presence from the recon team. There could be no mistaking what was headed their way. A significant force crammed in the rear of a lengthy line of battered pickup trucks was churning across the inhospitable sands. So far, the roving patrol had yet to spot the Marines. Even so, the struggling formation was moving directly toward them.
"Sir, we've got company!" Laird's senior radio operator exclaimed.
"Where and how many?" Erickson replied.
"They're less than a thousand yards away, coming up that big ravine south-by-southeast of us. Got to be at least a dozen small trucks, each carrying a number of men. Must be sixty of them, possibly more. Most are holding rifles, with some RPGs mixed in. Wouldn't be surprised if they've also got a few machine guns and possibly a mortar team or two. What are your orders, sir?"
The threat was far too real. Unless the enemy changed course or the recon team took evasive action, there was no way they wouldn't spot Laird's men.
With so many in the approaching force, the lieutenant had little choice. "All three teams are to fall back on my location. We'll consolidate our rifles and call for help. Is that understood? Avoid detection at any cost and fall back on my position immediately."