Fiction: Levantine Gothic

Desert Rats Part I

A special forces team sent to rescue a missing archaeologist find something terrifying buried deep beneath the desert sands gothic-soldier

The chopper rose slowly, kicking up a storm of dust and grit as it banked sharply to the left. For a moment it was a black silhouette against the brilliance of the desert stars and then it was gone, the roar of its rotors
fading to a thumping low hum and then to a ringing silence that was more than just the mere absence of noise.

Elliot picked up his backpack and walked away form the landing zone towards the low dune where the soldiers were crouched in a defensive posture. Their commander, a large American named Coyle had a map spread out before him.

“I’ve sent two men to scout the dune.” Coyle said, “This map is not accurate.”

“Not accurate?” Elliot asked.

Coyle pointed “Here and here.” He said. “The diggings are where they are supposed to be, but the buildings are not.”

“It was based on the latest intelligence.” Elliot protested.

“Well the intelligence is wrong. This,” Coyle placed one thick finger on a blank space near the diggings “should be open ground, but there’ some kind of bunker there now.”

“Bunker?” Elliot asked.

“Peyton,” Coyle called to one of his men. “Tell him what you saw.”

Peyton, a wiry little man with an air of barely suppressed violence, took up a pencil and drew an oblong. It was two inches on the map, perhaps a hundred feet in life.

“Thick concrete, sloped wall, small windows with bars. And a pair of steel doors like a missile silo. Guard towers on each corner.”

“How could they have built it so quickly?” Elliot asked himself, only realizing he had spoken aloud when Coyle responded.

“You tell me, Mr Intelligence Man.”

“We did a flypast a month ago, there was nothing then.”

“They were in a hurry, it seems. Murderous savages they might be, but they can get things done when they put their minds to it.”

“Private Peyton,” Elliot said, turning to the wiry little man, “was there any clue what they might be using it for?”

“Hard to say sir, but the searchlights face inwards and the lines of sight are terrible for defence. I’d guess it’s a prison, sir, designed to keep people in, not out.”

Coyle motioned Elliot. “This is not in our mission plan,” he said when they were alone. “We’re not equipped to assault a hardened structure, this isn’t safe. I suggest we abort.”

“Lieutenant, you have your orders and I have mine. This mission is a priority for the coalition.”

“This desert is crawling with militias, government troops, our guys, Russians and Iranians and a dead archeologist and his notebook are a priority?”

“We don’t know that professor Kathum is dead and his research has huge value, both for science and for the propaganda war.” Eliot paused. “I shouldn’t have to tell you, lieutenant, that this is above all a battle for hearts and minds.”

“We lost the battle for hearts and minds ten years ago in Fallujah.” Coyle said, not quite under his breath.

“All the more reason to make this mission a success, Coyle. Now please gather your men.” Elliot nodded towards the east where the first green glow of the false dawn was lightening the horizon. “We don’t have much time.”

Coyle saluted him with a crispness that bordered on the sarcastic, “Sir, yes, sir!” and stalked off to prepare his men.

Coyle and his translator, Rafiq waited with the two soldiers at the top of the dune while Coyle and his squad fanned out and began their approach.

Through a borrowed pair of night vision goggles, Elliot watched as the soldiers covered the open ground with the quick, crouched steps of special forces commandoes. Three of them reached the first outbuilding, creeping up to the door and windows with a boneless fluidity. They swarmed in together and then moments later reappeared to give the all clear.

A second team followed behind while the first gave cover. They entered the next building, a corrugated iron shed and again, reappeared to give the all clear. Within half an hour, Coyle’s men had the entire western side of the compound secure.

The radio of one of the soldiers guarding Elliot crackled to life. It was Coyle: “It looks clear, bring everyone down.”

Following the soldiers, Elliot and Rafiq half slid, half ran down the opposite face of the dune. Elliot got to his feet and began walking across the open ground, only to be pulled down by one of the soldiers.

“Stay low, stay close!” The man hissed at him.

“Coyle said it was safe.”

The man gave Elliot a contemptuous stare. “He said it looks clear. Nothing is ever safe in a war zone. Take a look around you, Mr Intelligence, dunes, rocks, scrub and ditches, there could be anything hiding out there.”

Elliot looked out across the huge emptiness, sky and sand stretched out towards nothing. They were very alone out here. Very alone and very exposed. Chastened, he covered the rest of the distance close and low. By the time he reached the outbuildings, it was light enough to see without the goggles.

Coyle was waiting for him inside the largest of the buildings. A two storey house made of breeze blocks and pocked with bullet holes.

Elliot entered the building, ducking through the low front door and into a small, dark room, empty but for a large wooden desk and chair. The sole light source was a low wattage bulb dangling from the ceiling by a frayed wire.

“This place is deserted.” Coyle said. He nodded to a mug sitting near the edge of the desk. Elliot peered into it. It had once been coffee, but now contained a thick layer of mould. “Four or five days at least. We were told this place was swarming.”

Coyle was right. Intel had shown at least fifty fighters and three times that many workers coursing rhe site for treasures and antiquities that they could sell on to finance their endless war.

“Could they be holed up in the new building?”

“Maybe, but why leave no sentries, no scouts, no booby traps. This isn’t their style at all.”

“So what do we do, Lieutenant?”

We secure these buildings and then wait for the sun to come fully up. Then we take a look around.”

“Shouldn’t we use the cover of darkness while we have it?”

“IF anyone’s still here, they’ll start moving once its light. If there isn’t at least we’ll be able to see what the hell is going on. None of this feels right, Mr Elliot and I want the clear light of day before I send my men any further.”

Elliot opened his mouth to reply but before he could, Petyon called out from the far corner of the room. “Sir, you should see this.”

Elliot followed Coyle to where Peyton was standing. Looking down he saw a heavily stained carpet half pulled back to reveal a trap door set into the concrete floor.

Coyle gestured to the two men who pulled the carpet fully back and lifted the trapdoor, grunting with the effort. As the door opened, however, both men stepped back, gagging and let it drop.

“Oh Jesus.” One of them called out, before bending double and dry heaving.

The others covered their mouths and noses. The stench that came from the trapdoor was vile, thick enough to taste, sickly sweet with the smell of decay and cut through with a chemical reek like burned hair and plastic.

Following the others’ lead, Elliot pulled his neckerchief over his mouth and nose and pulled his sand goggles over his eyes. He followed Coyle as the man took a flashlight in one hand and his sidearm in the other and began a careful descent into the chamber below.

The steps were steep and narrow, more a ladder than a stair and slick with an organic dampness. Even through his neckerchief, Elliot could still taste the decay. It was strong enough to make him lightheaded and he had to grab the wall more than once to steady himself.

By the time he reached the bottom, Coyle had already dropped a flare and was taking photographs. With his first steps into the chamber, he felt a thick slush, cold and ankle deep. He suppressed a shudder.

By the searing light of the flare, he could make out a room perhaps twenty feet square, with a low ceiling and thick walls. The room had a strange warmth to it, like the decompositional heat of a compost heap.

At the centre of the room was a something resembling a dentist’s chair, surrounded by electrical equipment, wires and screens. On a medial trolley nearby sat a vicious array of saws and blades. Heavily used by the look of them.

Several large syringes, like those used to tranquilise horses, floated in the sludge.

The chair, he noted, was equipped with head, arm and leg restraints.

As Elliot came closer, he could make out that the far wall was lined with cabinets full of specimen jars “What is this place?” He asked Coyle, though he already feared he knew the answer.

“A playroom.” Coyle responded without a hint of sarcasm. “They torture people for fun, not for information, just for the sheer joy of making pain.”

One of the cabinets caught Elliot’s eye. Unlike the others, its door was ajar. He opened it fully to examine the content by his flashlight.

His heart froze.

“Coyle.” He said, whispering hoarsely around the sudden constriction in his throat. “What’s this?”

One of Coyle’s men was beside him. The man reached into the cabinet and pulled out a foot long gas canister. As he turned it in his hands, a skull and bones became visible through a thick layer of dust.

“Soldier!” Coyle yelled. “Put that down.” The man started, instinctively dropping the canister. It fell to the floor with a clang and began to hiss and bubble in the sludge.

“Everyone out!” Coyle screamed.

Elliot turned and ran, taking the stairs two at a time. “Gas!” He cried as he sprinted past the soldiers upstairs, out of the building and away, away from that terrifying room. He sprinted until his legs gave way beneath him and he fell.

Lying with his face in the dust, he looked back. The men upstairs had got clear. Coyle and two others were still sprinting away form the building. As Elliot watched, the last man, the one who had picked up the canister, screamed and fell, clutching at his head. He pulled himself upright and for a flashing second, Elliot saw something that seemed almost inhuman. It was bloody, bulging and raw, it seemed to steam and bubble and the eyes, staring straight at him, were like holes cut in the fabric of space.

Then the man fell again. Elliot heard Coyle scream “Blow it! Blow it! Blow it!” and then the whistling yelp of an anti-tank missile slamming into the building followed by a flash of light and thump like a punch to the chest.

Elliot pulled himself up to lean against a rock. The panic was taking control of him His vision narrowed and darkened. He stared blankly ahead and noted, through a fear stricken haze that it was not mud on his boots after all.

Instead, below the patina of dust they had acquired during his flight was an almost syrupy layer of blackish red, such as one might find on a slaughterhouse floor.

Just before he passed out, he recalled one, strange detail from the underground chamber. The restrains on the chair were loose, but not as if they had been unclasped.

Rather, they were ripped from their anchors, as if whoever had been held there had torn themselves free.

 Part II coming soon







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