‘Now there’s tonight’s prize winning question,’ said the leader. If it’s something biological like a virus, we’ve already been exposed to it. All of us.’

‘Christ, is this why Saddam stopped the UN inspections?’ exclaimed one of the soldiers. ‘They were getting too close?’

‘Something tells me you’re not going to be alone in thinking that before the night’s over,’ said the leader.

‘So what do we do?’

‘I vote we put this poor bugger out his misery and get the fuck out of here,’ said the third soldier who was now squatting beside the unconscious man as if mesmerised by the sight of his disfigurement.

‘We’re not going anywhere,’ retorted the leader sharply We’ve all been exposed to this … whatever it is. There’s a chance we’ll spread it. We’ll have to call in the brains.’

‘If you do that … ‘


The soldier paused for a moment before saying, ‘You don’t think some bugger might figure the safest course of action would be to wipe us all out in one tidy hit?’

‘It might cross somebody’s mind but they won’t,’ said the leader.

‘Why not?’

‘’Cos we’re the good guys, remember?’

The silence of the unconvinced was eloquent enough. It forced the group leader to add, ‘Apart from that they’ll want to know what this is all about.’

‘I like that reason better.’

‘Stow it. Get these three back in their truck and dowse it with fuel.’

‘What about him?’ asked the soldier who still squatted beside the sick man.

‘Make him as comfortable as you can.’

The leader returned to the Land-Rover to radio back to base. It was something he hadn’t planned on doing; radio contact was discouraged but circumstances dictated differently tonight. As expected, he was told to stand by. He’d thrown the shit at the fan and now it was spreading.

‘Do we light the fire?’ asked one of the soldiers who’d been dowsing the Iraqi truck in petrol.

‘Not yet. Get up top and keep your eyes peeled. They may send more when this lot fails to report back. Any sign of trouble and we’ll light the fire immediately. We want to dissuade any more of them from crossing the border while the brass contemplate their navels.’

Ten minutes passed without anything at all happening. The four soldiers sat huddled against the cold of the desert night while they waited instructions. The sick Iraqi lay by his truck. He had been wrapped in blankets and a makeshift pillow fashioned for him.

‘What if the brass know all about this already?’ asked one of the soldiers. ‘What if they don’t need to get hold of this guy to find out what it is? The more I think about it, the more I think they’re going to waste us, It makes sense.’

‘Shut it!’

There was a crackle from the radio and the group’s call sign of Sierra Mike Zulu carried to them on the night air. The leader went over to the Land-Rover and sat down in the front passenger seat to take instructions.

‘I think he’s moving,’ said one of the others, looking towards the Arab. ‘Maybe we should give him a shot of something.’

‘I doubt you’d find a place to give him a shot of anything. I think his entire body’s like his face.’

‘Poor bastard.’

‘If that’s a virus, it’s gonna be poor us very shortly.’

‘We’ve had our shots.’

‘Let’s just hope they were the right ones.’

‘I’m going to give his some water.’

‘You’re a good man, Charlie Brown. I’m not going near him.’

The leader returned from the Land-Rover. ‘They’re sending a chopper.’

‘For him?’

‘For all of us. Rendezvous is four miles south of here at 03.00 hours. That gives us an hour and a quarter. Rig up something in the back of the Land-Rover for our friend here and let’s get started.’

The leader crossed to where the soldier was dripping water from his own flask into the mouth of the Iraqi. The man seemed only semi conscious but his lips and tongue sought out the moisture. ‘How is he?’

‘Alive but I wouldn’t give odds on that being the case in fifteen minutes.’

‘We’re moving out. A chopper’s on its way. Do what you can for him in the meantime.’

The leader unstrapped a petrol can from the crashed truck and sprinkled the contents over the second Iraqi vehicle before throwing the can itself back in through one of the windows.

‘When the Iraqi had been loaded into the back of the Land-Rover on a makeshift pallet and they were ready to leave he lit two rags and threw one into each of the Iraqi vehicles. Orange flames leapt up into the night sky as the petrol ignited. He shielded his face from the heat for a moment before turning to run over to the Land-Rover and climb into the front passenger seat.

‘Move out.’

They heard the helicopter long before they saw it.

‘It’s a bloody Chinook,’ said one of the men, responding to the engine note as they scanned the heavens. There was no mistaking the surprise in his voice.

‘What the hell are they sending a Chinook for?’ asked another.

‘You did tell them it’s only one bloke and not a bloody Iraqi regiment, didn’t you Skip?

‘ ‘They know. Keep clear, I’m sending the flare up.’

The signal rocket fizzed angrily up into the night sky and burst like a miniature dawn on the scene below. A few minutes later the powerful searchlights on the underside of the huge Chinook helicopter took over a more permanent role in illuminating the scene as its twin rotor blades brought it to a hover over the Land-Rover and deafened the watching party below.

After what seemed an eternity the chopper moved about a hundred metres to the south of them and touched down. Its blades were kept turning. The driver of the Land-Rover started the engine but the group leader put a restraining hand on his shoulder.

‘Let’s wait for instructions.’

He had hardly said the words when a loud speaker crackled into life on the helicopter.

‘Sierra Mike Zulu, this is Chopper Tango Charlie. Remain exactly where you are. Do nothing until our men are with you. Flash your lights if that is understood.’

The leader nodded and the driver flashed the Land-Rover headlights.

‘I don’t like this,’ whispered the soldier who was looking after the Iraqi.

The doors of the Chinook opened slowly and several mean dressed in what appeared to be space suits emerged. They unloaded several boxes then started out towards the Land-Rover, bringing the cases with them.

‘Sorry for the high drama,’ continued the voice on the Tannoy. ‘But you men

will be going into quarantine until further notice. Is anyone ill apart from your prisoner? Flash once for yes, twice for no.’

‘Why don’t they just use the radio for Christ’s sake?’ complained one of the


‘The Iraqis have had time to figure out they’ve got a missing patrol. They’ll be monitoring everything right now,’ replied the leader as the driver gave two flashes of the headlights.

‘Good. Just stay calm.’

The men in space suits reached the Land-Rover and circled the vehicle.

‘Bloody hell,’ whispered one of the soldiers, ‘I know our personal hygiene isn’t all that it might be after a week in the desert but this is ridiculous.’

‘Bio-safety suits,’ said the leader. ‘Completely self-contained. Nobody’s taking any chances.’

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