Sahara Passage

by Steven Craig

Sahara Passage.

Steven and John had traveled the day across the desert just as they had been doing so for the past 3 weeks. The caravan of vehicles rocked from side to side as they followed the track to their next tracking position. As with everyday, it was boredom, sheer and utter boredom, sitting in the lorries, waiting to eat, waiting to drink, waiting to go on. The Deep desert is crissom, the air you breathe is crissom, the day is crissom, the rim of the earth is crissom, the steel of the night is crissom, and even the still of the night is crissom. The dust is everywhere, the heat is everywhere. There is no escape. And with that decided, men survive, men go on, men take the desert only to the point of wanting to return from it, and no more.

Steven had John pull over to the side of the track in the late afternoon, but motioned the caravan to proceed. He looked back at their path as the trucks came up, in a ragged line, for the track was not straight, one leaning to the right and then tilting to the left, the one behind bouncing up and tilting right, the one behind that half hidden in the dusty haze, rocking side to side, sometimes slowly, often quicker as it encountered the stony desert pavement alternating with dune sand. Steven watched the water trailer wheel by, the big lorry with the tracking station, and the second one with the major equipment. It was errie, and it was beautiful. The desert had swallowed them, they were utterly on their own, each man with his thoughts, and Steven responsible for them all. Responsible for the mission, and to bring each back home, that was his promise, to bring them back home alive.

From the track, Steven looked north, into the teeth of the desert, in the direction they were turning now, on the track to the northern borders of Chad. There, the red sands undulated in long and slow waves, liken more to the Atlantic Ocean than to a TV western with Apaches. The evening was painting the east edges of the dune crests with shadows, some deep and dark on steep slops, and others, a like orange tan on shallow slops. An along it, the precious ruts, the marks of those who had passed this way before, marking the track, the trail, the way north. Soon it was time to spend another night in the cold desert winds. Steven stayed up far into the night, watching the stars with his binoculars, remembering the stories of the constellations, and seeking for the fainter objects that peppered the sky at this time of year.

In the morning, the camp was seen to and stowed, and the caravan was off again. It was just another day in the heat, and how fast that desert sun heated the place after a nearly frosty night. It was then that a call came up from the rear of the column, Blevin had spotted something coming up behind them.

Steven and John pulled over onto the side of the track into the sand, and got out, looking back down the track, through their own dust. There was indeed something following them. Someone was in that thing, following their ruts.

Steven got his binoculars, and stood up in the back of the Rover and looked through the shimmering heated air. There was a single, large black ... knot was the word ... behind them, and it was obviously somewhat faster at traveling than they were. Steven thought about that. He looked around at the terrain, low, nearly flat sand hills, the track, some desert pavement off to the northeast, and nothing much else. He would wait for them here and see what comes of it.

“John, have the men turn out … weapons standby... lets see what our new neighbors may be about”

John nodded his consent, and gauged the distance to the following vechile, perhaps 10 minutes. John had the other vechiles pull over to the right side of the road, and posted his men in the shade of each, pistols and rifles at the ready, but not conspicuous. Satisfied, he returned to Steven who was steadily watching the knot.

“Well Sir, what but a desert bus can it be?” John was smiling his big grin at having something to do for a few moments.

Steven had watched the knot turn into a full scale apparition, a narrow based, tall, dark monster with a ragging tail of red dust tailing behind it. He handed the binoculars to John and grinned as well.

“Never seen anything like that John. Almost looks like an entire city packed into a bus or truck. It was getting close enough now to hear the motor now as it approached. John looked quickly with the binoculars and grinned and handed them back to Steven.

“Yes Sir, a city on the move, or at least a town. Taking all they own, and everyone in all the families, and packed it onto a single truck. Yes Sir, a sorry sight to see on an American road, but here, its a fact of life. I’d best stand by the road Sir, so they not be thinking we are pirates.” John grinned and winked at Steven, who grinned back and slowly nodded an affirmative.

The truck had slowed, and its occupants were showing some excitement, pointing, waving arms, and there was some shouting. And Steven was amazed, yes, stunned was a better word as he saw head after head poke up or out of the great pile of possessions on that truck. He stopped counting at 35. The track stopped just as John stepped up to the side of the track, waving a ‘hello’ in his best Irish fashion, smiling, and holding out a large water can. This was his end of the business. Crowd control. And he was very good at it.

Steven walked over and looked that this marvel. A two axle truck, with a double pair of tires on the read, and the front cab of French style of truck. Every other square inch was covered with these peoples belongings, and it was piled item upon item, two stories high. There was great mattresses and bedding rolls, cans or water and sacks of food, lawn chairs, dishes and pans, clothing, suitcases with precious items, prayer mats, it all was piled upon the truck, and hung out over its sides and off the back end of the truck for several yards.

Steven looked up at the top of the thing, and there were seemingly an endless mass of people there, roped onto their pile of belongings. Men, their women, their children, malnurioused dogs, shaggy goats, small feathered chickens. A whole town, packed onto a truck. Steven was in awe of these people. There must have been eight or ten tons of load there, and one engine to power it, one truck to bear it all. He just shuck his head and laughed.

At the front of the truck, three men were looking to the engine, checking the oil, the coolant, testing the fan belts. Happy, they got back in their desert ark, and banged their hands on the door sides. Those that had ventured down to partake of Johns offer of water quickly clapped their hands together just below their noses, over their lips and bowed quickly, twice in little jerks to John, and climbed like monkeys back up the sides of their great pile to the top. In moments, they were off, a red dusty trail leading off to the horizon.

As the truck pulled off, Steven had the men ready to get back underway. John walked over and grinned and just pointed at the truck. Steven nodded that he thought it was really a sight to see.

“You see Sir, they are people from the south, from the green lands, where the forest and the grass grows, where the rivers run, but there is no work there. They have heard of Lybia, and the oil fields and that good work and good pay is to be had there. And there they go, to make thier fortune or bust.” And John stood there looking at the truck disappear over the dune, hands on his hips, the water can at his feet, nearly empty in the sand.

Steven looked at the truck moving off as well. He watched it with his eyes squinting the sun and dust out of that vision. There was a word he whispered outloud. “Lybia...” The thought stuck to him. Lybia. There was trouble that way. And that was the way they were going. Into the teeth of the unknown, already in the teeth of the desert. And it was that way, north. Lybia..

Five days later, the caravan arrived at the place that the survey was to be taken. Steven looked at the airial photo, and decided on a sequested location off the track, about 3 miles into the dune country. There was a far amount of desert pavement leading there, into a sweeping cove of a large dune that was slowly moving north. It would be a good location, protected from the random curious traveler, out of the wind in the event of a storm, yet a tall dune to post a watch upon to sweep the surrounding country.

It was a bit of a struggle crossing those 3 miles, draggnig boards bbehind the last truck to erase the tracks, and only in one spot where there was soft sands. Nearby were piles of stones, that from the photos looked like randowm erosion, but on the ground they had the strange looks of three prong forks, upended and driven deeply into the ground. John looked at then, and build a tale of woe about them, that these stone forks had been the great superstructures for fulcrums which had levered water from a series of wells. The wells must have been the soft spots that the ttrucks had found. There must have once flourished an oasis here for the caravan trade, that the north track must have passed here once, but then at some point long ago, this great dune slowly, relentlessly encroached, and buried the well makers and those that lived off the caravans. And surely, unon some poor animals back, they had piled their world possessions and sought a new place where upon they could make a living again. Now, the dune had moved on, and uncovered their livelihoods, but they were long gone, and this place forgottened by modern travelers. It was a good spot to setup a benchmark.

The lorrys were brought to the lea of the dune and parked, the semi-permanent camp setup, and by early afternoon, they were in business. The first satellite pass was taken at about 7pm. They had another 40 or 50 to go, and then, they could move on. In the mean time, they were to observe the traffic on the track, but stay out of sight. Cold camps, no flames or smoke or smells to stain the fair desert air, to excite the nosstrils of a passing camel, or desert wanderer, unless they knew that no one was in sniffing range.

Steven gave some thought to it, and decided it was time. It was time for Oscams Razor. Steven, John, and the men procedded to unpack the device from the large Lorry. It had a gas bag to be filled with helium, a rotating microwave radar mounted to its undersides, and tether that went to a wench, a set of lead wires that carried power to the device and the radar signal back to the user set. On the ground, in the shade of a lorry, the scanner display was setup, and the generator/battery system deployed behind the truck. Next, each of the trucks was netted over with camafloage, and infarred blocking materials. Then they settled down till dusk to deploy Oscam skyward.

Oscams Razor was the code word for a air/surface scanning radar. It could see large metal objects such as aircraft some distance off. Smaller metal objects, guns, belts, and such, that men would carry, could be seen as well on the ground, but the range was much shorter. Still, it gave some warning, and thus, security to party. The watches were set on the dune top, Oscam deployed at dusk, and the camp settled down for the night. The automatic satellite tracker picking the faint signals out of the air every hour or two, as a navigation satellite passed over head. Slowly, its punched paper tape output increased, preserving the observed data for procesing but at the labortory. Steven looked at it as the operator listened to the signal strength. Here was the worlds future, resting on that frail paper, a future were every place on the planet is mapped with the greatest of accuracy. No more darkest Africa, no more edges with unknown marked on the maps that the childern would study. Steven watched the machine playout its paper tape, untill the satellite faded over the horizon.

And thus did the came operate for the next three days, quietly restfully, the shade of the great dune sheilding them for many morning and afternoon hours, and keeping them from the eyes of those on the track. And on the track, there were occasional traffic. A few more of those extraordinary trucks, a few cars, several small convoys of mixed types. Oscams Razor followed them, sought them out, but none came near, none left the track.

On the afternoon of the forth day, John was on the lookout on the dune top. By that time, the men had made a comforatable place, a bit of a depression, a blanket, stored water bottles, and they could lay there out of sight, and see all the country about them. That afternoon, a new desert appraition appeared to the north, going south. A long line of animals, packed high with the possessions and wealth of the travelers, ponderously plodding southward, ever southward. It was a slow march, and at the onset of evening, the caravan began to settle down for the evening. By that time, Steven had joined John at the dune rim, and was watching the caravan setup for the night. They sought out a place of little cover, in the open, perhaps 3 miles to the southeast of Stevens dune. There were one hundred and more camels, and perhaps 12 men by Johns count. The tents and camp gear that some carried was removed from their backs and were setup. Small fires were built and the camels settled down in a long singular line.

Steven noted to John that all the camels were white, a brillent white, that in the binoculars, they were festuned with white ropes and knots, only the harnness about their heads were black. They seemed well cared for and were being fed a small amount of some type of plant. From three miles off, Steven and John could make out most of what was going on in the camp, but not the detail, nor hear the sounds. John noted that the wind was from the south ... good for them, so that the camels did not smell them and spread an alarm through the camp.

Steven patted John on the back, and skated back down the dune to the camp. This was something that he throughly enjoyed. He just lifted his toes, to stand on his heels, and off he went, sking on the side of the dune. Night was coming on, and we would be on watch with the satellite receiver. There would be 4 more passes that night. With that, they would have their 40 and they could pull out to the south, and then the west toward Senegal. That night, things were going to change for the worst.

The Night The Lybians Dropped By

John posted two men on evening watch as the sun plummetted below the western dune. The evening sky quickly grew dark blue, blue as the deepest iolite gem. The stars appearred early to the eye. And the Temperature dropped just as quickly to the same point it did every night in the high desert, quickly brinnging on dew and the cold of the open night. Steven loved the nights, the stars were his love, and the night sky offered ever the beacon to his eye, to seek the joy, the passion of solitude in the heavens. The milky way was evident even before twilight was gone. Steven lay on the dune side with his binoculars and maveled away.

The camp was still, only the occasional passing voice, mostly John, ever the mother hen, checking the receivers, looking for the next satellite pass, and checking with the observer at the Razor display. The scan was flipped from searching the ground, to reaching further out into the night sky, only the occasion glimmer from the caravan camp sight offered any attention. The evening passed on into night, and night brought the chill and the cold, and nothing more.

It was just after 2:30 in the morning, the deepest part of the night, that there was a sudden audiable beep, and a flicker of light on the observers scope. He sat upright quickly, looking at the display as the radar whirled back around. It beeped again, and a flicker was there again, near the edge of the scope. He checked his settings and called out.

“Sergant Hughs, there is something here on the display. Steven set down his binoculars as looked into the deep darkness, the shawdow of a man he knew to be John ran a short distance to the display and looked at it. On the third beep, he called for Steven.

“Sir. Sir. We have something on the Razor Sir. Airborne….”

Steven pulled himself into the cold night, and stretched, and taking a deep breath, walked quickly over to the display from the Oscom Razon. Steven bent over the operator, next to John, and quitely prodded the operator.

“What is it Stone? Which way is it going. Take your time, get it true.” He patted the young man on the shoulder and waited. Three more beeps went by. Stone nodded his head.

“Definely airbone, out there a ways, about 160 miles north of us, headed…. “ Another beep went by… “… Yes Sir, headed directly for us. Yes Sir, coming this way and there is no doubt about it.”.

“What speed to do take it to be Stone?” Steven waited again, while the operator adjusted a few dials.

“I make it perhaps 130 – 140 mph. Likely a helocopter Sir.”

Steven padded the operator on the shoulder again. He looked at the screen, and considered its origins. Due north placed it well inside Lybia. Helocopter, coming directly toward their position. His mind screamed ‘threat’. His thinking would have to wait, action was needed.

Steven looked at Johns face dimmly lit in the display glow and quietly committed them all. “Have the men stand-to. In the Navy, we call this General Quarters. … And John, issue the Redeyes.”

“Stay with the target Stone. Call out the estimated speed, range and bearing every 10 miles. Do it quietly.” Steven patted the operator once more, but a bit more firmly and walked to the center of the camp.

John had already set to work, quietly for a sergant calling “Stand-to” with cupped hands in the direction that he knew he had placed his men. It seemed seconds that they were all there, in a ragged row in the dark, John walking in front of them looking at each in the dark. As Steven approached, he turned and snapped a salute. “All present Sir, except Stone over on the Razor Sir.”

Steven returned the salute, and quitely thought for a moment. And turned to the men.

“The Razor had detected an … ‘intruder’, likely a helocopter, flying directly towards us, from Lybia. We must assume that it is not bringing the mail. In the next 15 minutes, I want this area to appear like open desert, hide everything, dis-assemble the tracking atenna, deploy the extract camoflague netting, extinqush all lights, turn off all electronics. Each of you will take your weapons and deploy with the anti-infarred blankets to the dune edges. John will issue the Redeyes. Insure that your radio telephones are connected to the low power band and your headsets are working. Lets go do it.”

John snapped his salute and quietly shouted “Sir!” He turned to face his men. “Alright now, you know what you have to do. Report back here when you have it right. Lets go boys”

With that, the entire detail setabout the camp like ants, stowing all equipment in the vechilcles, gathering weapons from the mother truck, extra water and ammo, and the invalueable Redeyes. The Redeyes, thoses marvels of invention, gave the ground soldier a shoulder mounted, infarred seeking ‘pocket’ missle that could take down low flying aircraft. The men each took on another mavel, a blanket that when laid over a man in th open, cut all infarred energy from being visiable from his body or equipment. Just a shallow depression in the sand and the blanket over his, and he was invisible from the air.

Steven and John were busy with the tracking station. There were no satellites passing near for several hours. They began shutting down power, taking down the antenna, gathering up the cables.

All the while, the operator at the RADAR was calling out information. Every 10 miles, he gave the distance, bearing, and now additional information. At 100 miles, his equipment was showing an elongated blip.

“Sir. Sir!”

Steven poked his head out of the van. “Yes, Stone.”

“Sir. The indications are that there are multiple aircraft. At least two aircraft sir, same bearing and speed sir. 35 minutes Sir, they will be on our position.”

Steven ducked back into the van.

“35 minutes John. In 20, we need to be set to. Everything done. See to it.”

“Yes, Sir!” John snapped his salute, and hustled out of the van.

Steven smiled to himself and shook his head. John was a bit formal, but then, he was English, or rather, Irish in the English army. In any even, he was the man Steven needed here and now. Steven looked over the van. It was as secure as it could be. He stepped out and John and the men arrived with the netting, and began rigging it over the van.

Steven was looking over the skyline, lite by the stars, and the sudden black edges that were the dune lines. John had picked the positions for each man, with the best cover, close the the dune edge, able to flip over from side to side as need be. Steven readed his lorrie, reached for his nightscope, his AR15, and flack vest with several grenades. He hefted it in his hands at looked at it, muttered something about a cow, and started up the dune to the edge between the camp and the caravan where John would join him.

He ran back to Stone at the Radar display. “Just for grins Stone, switch to ground for several sweeps…”

“Yes, Sir.” The operator switched to ground scan, and let the Radar make several sweeps. The echos were the same small ones as befroe the caravan camp was quiet. Steven thought on this for a moment. The now strong echos from the aircraft, the center of the scope at their position, and the caraven encampment 3 miles south, made a perfectly straight line.

Steven pressed the button to speak on his command set. “This is Craig. It is my opinion that our arriving quests are headed to the caravan encampment. We will take no action without my command. Hold your fire unless you are fired on or you have a command to fire. I want that clearly understood. Let us just blend into this dune and see what developments. Craig out.”

“Stone, at 15 miles, crank this balloon down under the nets, switch off, and remain with the set here. Switch on at my command.”

“Yes Sir. 30 miles sir, same range and bearing. Definely 2 aircraft Sir.”

“ThankYou Stone. Be a good fellow and and keep your head down.” Steven padded the operator on the shoulder once more and started for the dune edge at a dead run.

The other men were taking their positions, pulling the blankets over them, readying weapons, taking a quik drink of water, even a moments shut-eye.

Steven was in his depression, just below the dune edge. With his nightscope, he scanned the area to his front below the dune, and then scanned over the camp site. In the star light, he could see everything, not even camoflague netting would hide that great mother truck from a night scope. He hoped the Lybians did not have any with them tonight. Now, he looked out to the caravan encampment. There was a few fires burning, but no motion that could be detected. Men and camels were asleep.

“15 miles Sir. Shutting down!” came the call from the encampment. A quick whirl signaled the rewinding of the balloon carring the RADAR. John appeared just then next to Steven.

“Good morning to you sir. Tea?”

Steven nodded and broke a smile. Yes, perhaps even tea would be good about now. He lay on his back and looked directly north with his binoculars, looking for the coming Lybians. Looking for helocopters. It was not long to confirm.

At first, he saw the single red lights. Running lights, two of them. That was all. In a few moments, he heard the thumping of the rotors, beating, throbbing into the sand. In the desert, at night, in the cold, alone in the dark, it is a sound that one never forgets. The pulsing arrival of doom.

Steven took one last look around with his binoculars at the camp, at the dump edges where his men were deployed. He fingered his command set.

“Here they come boys. Remember, make like your are sand, nothing more.”

Steven turned to John. “Well, ladie, here we begin to earn our pay at last…”

“Aye, Sir, and a beautiful night it is to collect it Sir”.

The helocopters were clearly heard, Steven could see their dark shadows blocking out the stars as they passed by to their east. Yes, they were headed directly to the caravan encampment. Steven watched them for a moment, as they passed him, breathing again. He watched the caravan encampment. There. They had fainally heard them. The camels were rossing and men were out of their tents.

Steven attempted to watch both the helocopters and the encampment. One proceeeded toward the encampment directly, the other stood off the the left of the caravan alittle.

Steven watched the first helocopter land. There were a few moments where things were very hard to see, the sand and the dust was kicked up and obscurred all vision.
But soon, it was apparent, it had taken off again, and pulled away from the encampment, towards them.

Both John and Steven watched intently.

“You were mentioning something about pay, Sir…” John whispered.

Steven watched, and poked John in the arm, the helocoper was turning back toward the encampment. Steven had almost missed the second one, through the settleling dust, he saw it move quickly over the encampment, and things were tossed out of it.

“What do you make of that John?” Steven and John both watched as something startling occurred. A mist came out of those canisters. It was dark, but it was clear to see what they were.

“Gas Sir…” John watched intently, but his voice gave away the anger and the fear it provoked.

“The gas quickly covered the encampment. Steven could see only alittle throught the dust and the haze, but it made him sick. Men running, some twisting, even firing a shot in the air. Teathered camels paniced, pulling at their moorings, some breaking loose, only to drop bodily to the ground.

The helocopters circled like evil birds of prey, waiting for their vemon to take hold, and bring their prey to bay and horrid death. After a few minutes, search lights from the helocopters began to play upon the desolation, Steven could make out occasional flashes of machine gun fire from the helocopters. Madden camels could be seen in the wreck, careening through the night, some dropping, never to rise again.

John lay there, cold as a stone, and put down his glasses. He looked at Steven as Steven turned to look at him. “On nights like this Sir, God must be asleep…”

Steven said nothing. But his mind raced. Yes, to come to the deepest part of the desert, to the most isolated place, there to find a sleeping god and the death of men. He picked his glassed back up and looked to see the helocopters circling for a landing.

For the next 20 minutes, they looted the camp site, the picked the bodies clean of what ever they wanted, and with laden helocopters, lifted back off in a cloud of dust, and pulled away slowly to the east and then to the north, to make their return flight.

“They will be in the range of the Redeys for a few moments, Sir”.

Steven turned to look at John. He wanted satisfaction. For the sake of those dead men out there, he wanted to wreck his havoc on those machines and the people inside them. Steven wanted to blast each one back to the hell they came from. He also remembered the words of the Commander…. “…if you use your weapons, you have failed in your mission…”

“I know John. But we must let them pass.” Steven clicked the command set. “Hold fire. Hold your fire. Be still as sand…”

The helocopters passed by 1000 yards to the east of their dune, rushing home now with their loot, and not an eye to the ground. Steven and John watched them depart. As the rotors faded into the distance, Steven called down to Stone.

“Stone, deploy that gas bag, get the set up and running again, give me a ground and air check as fast as you can.”

“John…” Steven looked at John in the dark, just the hint of a flicker to be seen on his ruddy cheeks from the now burning encampment. “Sergant…”

John was away in his own thought… but at the word sergant, he became the professional again. “Sir.”

“John… we have to be out of here before the dawn. We have to put miles between us and this place, and quickly. Others will come here. And we must be gone. Our tracks must be covered. Understand?”

“Sir!” John motioned in the dark. “And them, Sir?”

Steven looked at the camp again through his glasses and said nothing.

“Yes Sir. I’ll get the boys moving right away Sir.”

John got up , and started down the dune, breaking into the command set for most of the men to begin making ready to move, leaving one Redeye and rifle team on the dune line.

Steven watched the camp sight, in the blasé everyonce in a while he thought he saw motion. It would invariably turn out to be a forelorn camel, seeking the comfort of the herd now dead. Steven commited what he say to memory, a memory that would find no comfort for as long as he lived. He had added Lybians to a short and exclusive list of those he hated.


Posted on 10/13/2017
Copyright © 2020 Steven Craig

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