Iraq. A country as old as the sands she stands on. A country that predates living memory. A country associated with some of the most famous names in history; Adam, Noah, Abraham, Gilgamesh, Nebuchadnezzar, Saddam, Cheney and Bush.
Ravaged by millennia of war and conflict, Iraq wears her scars like the old veteran she is. Her people are proud, battered and bruised. Once a power to be feared in the ancient world, today Iraq is under foreign control, and not for the first time a hostage to her natural resources.
Johnny was cautious as he flew into the rising sun, aware of the military presence of the foreign powers that hold sway here. His caution was tempered by the fact that they were heading far south, nowhere near Baghdad where the main forces were.
The ship had indicated that the Edin was a region consisting of several ancient cities, centred around the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers so famously referred to in the Bible.
Eridu was the first city to be built when the gods arrived on Earth, and was the jewel of their crown, but other cities, just as important, lay in ruins nearby – Ur, Nippur, Shuruppak and Bad-Tibira.
Situated in what is now Tell Abu Shahrain, Eridu is a major archaeological site, and has been extensively researched. Johnny would find it far harder to explore than he had the pyramid.
As they approached from the West, Johnny squinted into the brightness of the desert, looking for their destination ahead.
‘There’s nothing here!’ he exclaimed in frustration. For miles in every direction, sand and broken rock covered the landscape.
‘Patience my Lord,’ the ship said, ‘up ahead is the city of Eridu.’
Johnny scanned the barren ground until he noticed a strange shape ahead. A mound of stone, it squatted in the desert sun like an ugly gargoyle; guarding a smattering of broken stone and sun-baked brick. A small tent blinked in the sun, and Johnny noticed a larger tarpaulin stretched over what were obviously archaeological diggings.
‘Okay Ruaz, what now?’ he asked.
‘My Lord, beneath the sands should lie the Library of Eridu. What we discovered beneath the Lion in Egypt was but a memory of earlier events. What is contained within the scrolls and tablets here are the records of a people freshly arrived on your planet.
‘Your people, my Lord,’ the ship finished. Johnny felt a happy glow and turned to face Jade, who smiled at him in understanding.
‘You said “should”, could there be a problem?’ Jade asked.
‘Mistress, do you not see the workings these people are engaged in? It may be that they have already discovered the library and emptied it. They seem to have been here a long time.’
They saw what Ruaz meant. Broken ruins covered the ground, and Johnny realised that these walls of stone and brick should be covered by sand, but they lay exposed to the sun in neat rows, and it was obvious that the excavations were extensive.
‘Is there any way for you to see?’ Johnny asked. The ship remained silent for a time before replying.
‘Master, I am afraid that I cannot locate the contents of the library. It has been emptied.’
Johnny groaned in despair.
‘Kandahar Tower, Valkyrie 315 on finals.’
‘Clear to land Valkyrie 315. Contact ground once clear.’
‘Copy that tower – Valkyrie 315 cleared to land.’
The Beechcraft 1900 sank majestically the last few feet before making touchdown with a small squeal and a faint puff of blue smoke. Her turboprop engines rose to full pitch as the pilot engaged reverse thrust to help slow the aircraft.
She turned off the main runway and taxied through the maze of smaller lanes until finally pulling up outside the hangar that served as her main base.
Neil McKenzie shut down the engines and sat back with a sigh. He’d just spent the last five hours in the air, and was anxious to sign out and unwind. And he had a thirst for beer.
Neil had done his flight training in New Zealand, and had successfully obtained his commercial pilots license, but due to the scarcity of work, he’d been forced to look abroad for a way to build his hours. He’d found work ferrying tourists around the Namib desert for one of the small operators in Swakopmund, Namibia, and after that he’d flown the Okavango Delta out of Maun. He’d built hours quickly, and had gotten rather used to the hedonistic lifestyle the bush pilots in Africa enjoyed; work hard by day, drink hard at night.
Jenny, his co-pilot, stood up. ‘Are we outta here?’ she asked. Neil grinned and nodded, standing up. The two of them made their way to the exit, and squinted in the glare of the desert sun.
Jenny Venter was a pretty little Afrikaans girl with blue eyes and a firm bottom. She’d just recently arrived, and Neil had made it his personal ambition to get to know her on more intimate terms, but so far had met with little success. Her upbringing was vastly different to his, and although she had gone through the bush phase, and was no longer a stranger to her independence, she still remembered the shock she had received when first cut loose from her mother’s apron strings and her father’s stern discipline.
Bush pilots could be quite a rough bunch. She remembered the stories of guys who had stumbled directly from the pub to the airport, only to puke up on the runway and be sent home with a stern talking to. They were usually back in the air the next day, and she had tried to steer clear of that kind of bawdiness.
This was Afghanistan though, and on a completely different level. Pilots who cut their teeth here were well assured of a cushy airline job in a few short years. In fact, a lot of them held back from taking that next step in their careers as the pay was so good, and they would take a significant cut in income when they returned to civilization and resumed a normal life.
Neil and Jenny walked into the air-conditioned offices and got down to the paperwork. It was standard procedure, and second nature to both of them. As the senior pilot, Neil pulled rank and had her do it for him. Not going to earn me many points, he thought, but she has to learn. The turnover of pilots in a place like this was relatively high, and Jenny could expect command of her own aircraft within a year or two, and then she could pull rank too.
It didn’t occur to Neil that Jenny wasn’t that kind of person, and it would have confused him if it had.
While Jenny filled in the flight details and signed off the cargo manifests, Neil called out to a fellow pilot.
‘Hey Jakes! What’s up?’
‘Not much. You just in?’
‘Yup! Finished for the day, and tomorrow off. We drinking tonight?’ It wasn’t a question as much as a statement.
‘Of course! You’ve got first round.’ They both laughed.
‘So how’s it going with Jen?’ Jakes asked, smirking.
‘No so well mate. But give it time, give it time.’
‘I’ll tell you what; I’ll give you another week. If you’re not in by then, she’s fair game. Standard operating procedures apply, buddy! It’s VFR from there on!’
‘Visual flight rules, hey?
‘No – Virgin Free Region!’ They both laughed again, and Jenny glanced up from her paperwork.
Men are all pigs, she thought.
‘Hey Jen,’ Jakes called over, ‘we’re going to catch a few beers – you in?’
‘I suppose,’ she replied. Unfortunately, there really wasn’t much else to do on a military base. Burger King had franchised themselves into the war effort, but she didn’t much like American fast food, and drinking really was the only way to socialise. She considered tucking in with a good book, but they were nearly as scarce as good men in this place.
The bar itself was an unsanctioned part of military life. While drinking was technically off limits, enterprising men and women usually found a way to circumvent the rules, and illegal drinking spots had always popped up from time to time. The current CO of the base had the intelligence and realism to shut them all down except for one, which he turned a blind eye to, but kept a constant eye on.
Military police were a regular presence, and disorderly conduct was dealt with severely. It gave the off duty soldiers and civilian contractors a relatively harmless way to blow off steam, and as long as it didn’t interfere with operations and security, he was quite happy to add it to the list of tools he had at his disposal. Anything that helped make his job easier was to be considered an asset.
‘I’ll see you guys there later,’ Jenny said, ‘I need to freshen up first.’
‘Right you are,’ said Neil, grabbing his flight bag and heading for the door. Jakes followed him out, as Jenny signed off the last item and left for her dorm.
The bar was noisy and crowded as Jenny walked in. She glanced around briefly before spotting her friends. Besides Neil and Jakes, there were a few other off duty civilian pilots sitting around a crowded table.
Rihanna blared in the background.
They made room for her as she walked up, and she didn’t miss the fact that Neil was trying to manoeuvre her to sit next to him.
‘How’s it going sexy?’ he joked.
‘I’m fine,’ she replied coolly.
The talk was inane, and Jenny passed the time gazing idly about the room as she sipped her non-alcoholic drink. There were mainly American and British servicemen in attendance, with a smattering of civilian security personal, and various classes of mechanics and ground staff.
A particularly handsome American soldier caught her eye, and she held his gaze for a moment before turning away and listening to what her friends were talking about.
‘…fell over, and then his hair caught fire!’ Jakes was saying, and everybody laughed.
Neil caught her eye while he chuckled, and leaned forward as if to say something, but at that moment she felt a hand on her shoulder and she looked around.
The American GI she had noticed earlier was standing next to her with a confident smile on his face.
‘Good evening, pretty lady,’ he said, ‘care to dance?’
Jenny really didn’t, and was already regretting coming here, but she didn’t know how to refuse without causing offence, and she nodded silently. He took her hand and drew her to her feet, his other hand wrapping naturally around her slim waist. She glanced at her table in silent appeal, and the look on Neil’s face shocked her.
‘Oh no!’ she thought. Neil was almost purple with rage, and was coming to his feet. Jakes and one or two of the other pilots followed suit.
‘Get your hands off her, you piece of crap!’ Neil warned. The GI raised his eyebrows in mock dismay.
‘Or what, dipshit?’
Jenny tried to disentangle herself from his embrace, but he only held her tighter. This was a game to him, she realised. She wasn’t the prize. The prize was what was coming, and she wanted nothing to do with it. With a wrench of her shoulders she broke free and stepped back.
Until now, she had been a barrier between the two men, and now they faced up.
‘Who’s your piece of crap, you pommie git?’ the GI sneered.
‘You are, you redneck bastard!’
The fists started flying, and as Jenny retreated from the anarchy, more joined in. She saw Jakes punch an unnamed soldier before being set upon by three others. The only other woman in the group, Michelle, had leapt up onto the backrest of the cubicle and was screaming incoherent nonsense at nobody in particular.
She turned to leave just as the military police entered the bar. Thinking they were here to break up the fight and arrest the combatants, Jenny tried to distance herself even further from the melee. To her surprise, they didn’t even look her way.
‘ATTACK! WE ARE UNDER ATTACK! All military personal to battle stations, all civilians to the bunkers!’
Published Titles in the Johnny Roberts Series:
Book Two: Johnny Roberts and the Gods of Eden
Andrew Noble © 2013
Cover artwork: John Killin © 2013
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© 2013 Andrew Noble All Rights Reserved