Once again the sleep was restless; her brain would not shut off regarding Chris and his exchanges with her. She liked it better when she was assertive and kept her distance. Now that she had softened showed she had emotions and was human. Well, now it was harder to ignore him. The sad thing was that she had researched him before she came to the camp. She knew he was well respected and well-liked by the members of his team. She knew that he had graduated with high marks from Officer Training School and could have had his pick of assignments. He wanted to be on the front lines; he wanted to fight for his country and protect and honor America. He was a regular star spangled man! She also knew that he was hard-headed and tough. He displayed that the day they met.
But her hormones were getting in the way. He was handsome and based on his reaction when she fled like an idiot; he has compassion and feelings. He had softened in her eyes and that made him real and not just a Captain with an attitude. She felt like she had to go to him and make up some lame ass excuse as to her behavior and just leave. She was not a quitter but he was making her question her resolve, and that was dangerous.
Her feet hit the floor, and she began pulling clean clothes out of her foot locker. She was going to head over to get a shower and freshen up and try to figure out her next step. As she opened the door to her barracks, she felt like things were a little ‘off.’ The camp was unusually quiet. Most mornings you could hear some sort of commotion – men working out, guns at the range, trucks and convoys on the move. But today it was silent. She went back to her barracks and grabbed a few things before heading back out.
She exited the showers and walked back to her barracks to drop off her stuff. She finally heard voices; not like the ones from the other night, these were American voices. She cautiously walked toward them and realized everyone was in the mess tent. She stood outside and listened; it was Evans talking to everyone from the base. The longer she stood there, the more she realized that he was talking about her – more to point, he was talking about her work and what she had already found out. He was instructing everyone to be extra vigilant and to take her and her work seriously as it could save lives. She didn’t know how to react, and she felt bad for listening in but didn’t think it would be appropriate to walk in on him either.
She heard Chris dismiss the group, and she tried to step far enough away so that it appeared as if she was just walking up. She saw him walk out of the tent, and he abruptly stopped when he saw her, “Ms. Gray, good morning,” he then walked right past her without awaiting her response.
“Captain, can we talk for a minute?”
He glanced back over his shoulder at her, “No, sorry not right now.”
“Childish move don’t you think?” She said in response; her mouth working before thinking.
He stopped and quickly walked back to her, getting right into her face, “I am dealing with a credible threat at the moment, and my comment is not some tit-for-tat little game with you. I have a job to do, and babysitting and playing games with you are not part of it. You want to talk to me, make an appointment and until then we have nothing to say.”
Carter swallowed hard, the fire in his eyes that she found erotic just a few days ago now scared her. He said he was dealing with a credible threat, and that meant the voices from the other night were something to be alarmed about. She noticed that many of the troops were intently watching the heated confrontation. She was ready to respond to him when he turned and began walking toward his office. Carter straightened up, walked into the mess tent for a cup of coffee to calm her nerves and headed in the direction of her office.
The only person who came into her area was Corporal Miller. “Good Morning ma’am; how are you today?”
“I am okay Miller; I understand you had a briefing today. Anything I should be concerned with?”
“Since your arrival a few days ago,” he paused, not sure how to continue, “We have had an increase in patrols and have found evidence that an attack on our base might be imminent. Captain Evans thinks that some of the information you have been working on is valuable and is asking us to implement a few things to stave off any surprises.”
“He is using my information as the credible threat?”
“Not just your information ma’am but also the details from our patrols that show there is an increase in activity in the area. He does not want us to take any chances.”
Carter let it sink in; there was value in what she was doing. While she always felt there was something to be worried about in the data – she never really believed her information would have that much of an impact. Sure she liked to talk big about how smart she was; but in reality, nothing she had ever uncovered had been to this scale. She thanked Miller for the information and let him know he could leave if he had important work to do. She was just going to review the latest intelligence data along with some documentation and she promised to stay put.
She had been working for an hour or so when she heard a noise; it sounded like bodies bumping into the metal backing of her workspace. The noise made her think there were three or four men. She softly pushed her chair away from the desk and hoped to make minimal noises herself. She crept to the back of the office area and again heard voices. She still could not make out what they were saying, but the discussion was in quick bursts of words; they were not nearly as quiet as they had been the other night. While she strained to hear them and to see if any words were spoken in English, she heard a burst of gunshots.
Carter moved back to her desk drawer and retrieved the handgun she had tucked away. For all she had proclaimed about hating guns, she was not going to risk being a sitting duck or a victim if she could help it. The gunfire continued outside so she approached the door to her office and slowly opened it to see if she could have eyes on what was happening. She was cut off from everyone in her space – she had no direct communication with Chris or anyone else on base. She wasn’t exactly sure how she could help, but her account might come in handy later.
As she gazed into the courtyard, she saw several bodies on the ground. The dark sand around them indicated that they were bleeding heavily. The crackle of the gunfire had been muted when the door was closed, now she heard the shots pierce the air and could almost feel them whiz by. The sounds of the shots were now ringing in her ears; replacing the pulsing of her blood that had echoed only moments before.
While she was trying to take in the landscape and prepare for the next assault, she noticed that Chris was running toward her office. He had ducked once behind a jeep to evade shots, but he was up again and moving toward her open door; she flung the door open so that he could get inside.
“Get back inside Carter! What the hell were you doing opening the door?” He growled as he stepped in and slammed the door behind him.
“Trying to see what was going on. It was a good thing I opened the door so you weren’t standing out there exposed, she growled back.
“Yeah, thanks for that even though you should have kept the door shut. Are you okay in here?” He began looking around the room to access the area and to see if there had been any breaches that he needed to be concerned about.
“What is going on Chris? I heard the voices again and then I heard gunfire. I had no clue what was happening, and I wanted to see if I could help.” She stepped closer to him and noticed that he was bleeding slightly from his head. She reached up and wiped the blood away with her hand. “You’re hurt; let me see if I have anything in here to clean you up,” she walked away and started rifling through her things. “What were you doing running over here? You could have gotten yourself shot you know!”
He didn’t respond to her; instead, he just watched as she desperately looked for something to wipe the blood off of his head. Funny, he didn’t even realize he was bleeding. He had run out of his office when he heard the gunfire start. He ran into an insurgent and was able to subdue him before he was able to attack, or worse, detonate any explosives. The guy hit him in the head with the butt of a gun; he saw stars for a minute but was able to still able to subdue the man with a shot to the head. Chris hated the idea of shooting the man but when it came to life or death; well there was no choice.
After waiting a few moments to answer, he finally found his voice. “I am fine Carter, this is nothing more than a scratch, and I’ll be okay. And why did I run over here? Isn’t it obvious?”
“You have a death wish?” She said with a dry chuckle.
“I had to make sure you were okay. I didn’t know how close they were to you and if anyone had gotten in here.”
She gazed at him for a moment trying to determine if he was sincere and sweet or if he was only thinking about his duty as the commanding officer at this camp. She did not want to set her heart up for disappointment so she went with his call of duty. “Well, I am okay, and maybe you should be out there with your men. I will hunker down and stay out of the firefight.”
“I am not leaving you in here by yourself.”
“I’m a Marine, remember? I can handle myself if the fight comes to me. Since I am not equipped with any tactical gear, I won’t go out into the fight, but I can take care of myself.”
“Yeah, I remember, you are a Marine that doesn’t like guns. Quit arguing with me and let me protect you.”
“Look, I know you have your concerns over civilians being hurt on your base but I will be all right.” She was actually terrified, but she did not want him to know that. She really wanted him to stay with her, but that is not something she was willing to admit.
“It is not just because you are a civilian Carter.”
“Oh yeah, I forgot – I am a civilian and a General’s daughter so you have to keep me safe.” The disdain in her voice was quite evident.
“This has nothing to do with the General. You are so busy keeping your walls up that you can’t see that someone might actually care about you.” He took a few steps forward so that he was standing directly in front of her. He put his fingers under her chin to raise her gaze to his. He leaned forward and softly kissed her lips; lingering before releasing and looking into her eyes. “Let me protect you; tear your walls down and let me in.”
~ * * * ~
Carter had not anticipated the kiss. She wasn’t going to argue with him either; she was keeping walls up, and it all had to do with those damn comments from the day before. “Look, you need to quit worrying about me, and you need to do your job. I am not saying that to be hateful Chris, but you have a base with men under your command. How will it look that they were defending the camp, and you were hiding with the analyst that Quantico sent over? I promise I will be just fine. Don’t risk your command on me.”
He smiled; acknowledging that she was right but hating every minute of it. Although he was disappointed that she did not make a reference to the kiss. Maybe it was the wrong move to make; now he had shown his cards, and it might bite him later. He moved away from Carter and walked back toward the door, “When I walk out of here, barricade yourself in and don’t come out until I come and get you.”
Carter had a lump in her throat as he opened the door and walked back outside. She did notice, however, that the constant gunfire had stopped. She just prayed that he was able to be safe; he did have a big gun with him, but she had no idea what he was going to be facing. Soon after he left she heard an explosion and several sporadic shots; then everything fell silent again. It was driving her crazy not being able to know what was going on and if the threat was over and if he Chris was alright. When 10 minutes passed with no shots fired, Carter decided to open the door and look outside.
The scene was entirely different than when she looked out the door the first time. Thick black smoke was billowing from the other side of the base. The air smelled of burning rubber and oil; luckily there was no evidence of bodies blown apart or burning flesh. Most likely the explosion she heard came from the motor pool and a Humvee or transport vehicle was the casualty of the blast. Several of the bodies that had been in the courtyard were now gone; all that remained were the dark pools of blood that had soaked into the sand. There was no gunfire, and she could hear no voices; the silence was eerie.
She saw no signs of Chris; she glanced in the direction of his office and noticed that the door to the building that housed his office was open and the walls riddled with bullets. That lump in her throat was starting to get bigger. She willed herself to leave her workspace and head in the direction of his office. She glanced around again and did not see anyone so she moved forward. She ran directly across the pathway from her office and took stock of the landscape from that side of the street.
It was crazy to think this way but to run in angled patterns back and forth through the camp to Chris’s office would be the best bet. While it would make her predictable if anyone were watching; it would also provide an opportunity to scope out the situation with better vantage points each time. She checked to see if she saw anyone and when the coast was clear she ran directly to the command center; she was running on pure adrenaline, and there was no time to be scared.
She entered the command center tent and realized the place was empty. It appeared as if everyone made it out; she saw drops of blood so she knew someone was hit. She sat down in front of the computer and noticed that a message had been sent that they were under attack. The message went out more than fifteen minutes ago; so why weren’t the reinforcements there? She began typing away and realized the message had not gone through the second protocol which required authentication – no one received the message. She fumbled around and found a satellite phone – she wasn’t sure if it worked but she would take it anyway. She would not try using it until she had Chris with her and knew that he was safe.
She rifled through some items on the desk and realized what had happened. The insurgents had attacked when most of the troops were out on patrol. It meant that the camp was vulnerable and operating with a significantly reduced staff. They had to have been scoping the camp out for some time to know the routine and when it would be best to attack. It just didn’t make sense, though; what was so important on this base that they wanted to attack and not just blow it up? Insurgents were usually suicide bombers – this type of attack was odd, and something didn’t set right. There was no time to analyze that situation; she needed to move and to find Chris.
She carefully exited the command center, checked around for active shooters or traps and then darted across the pathway toward his office. The door was still on its hinges, but it was bullet riddled, and the glass was missing. She was able to position herself so that she could be partially hidden but also have a vantage point to look directly into the office. One of the first things she noticed was that the inner door for his office was blown open. Carter quickly took stock of the situation and found Chris on the ground; propped up against the wall. He was still bleeding from the place on his head, and it appeared he had been beaten; his face was swollen. She also noticed that his pant leg was bloodied; it seemed to be a leg wound. Depending on the location of the bullet, he could bleed out and die. She had no idea how long ago he had been shot or how much time he might have left. He was currently alive; she could see his chest moving from his breathing; she offered a quick prayer and began plotting her next move.
A man was walking around the room with his gun trained on Chris. He was speaking in broken English and from she could make out, he wanted to know where the target was, and he wanted to know how to get the weapons cache that was on the base. Evidently they had been looking for it and could not find it; we must be good at hiding that stuff. The man kept raising his voice and yelling at Chris, but he refused to answer any questions.
The man told Chris he would hold him hostage and get what he wanted from him when the troops returned. Chris offered that the returning troops would not negotiate for his release and would instead take this man down on sight. The man was insistent that he get what he wanted, and Chris could not stop him; he was right, Chris was in no shape to fight back. Carter watched for a few minutes to gauge the man’s movements and to determine if he had a vest or a kill switch in his hands.
Carter again said a prayer when she realized he had no vest or kill switch, he only had a gun and what looked like a belt with additional ammunition. She took the handgun that she had been holding in her hand and raised it gently. She had the man in the crosshairs and with a single shot took him down; perfect shot to the back of the head. Chris jumped when he heard the shot; it was definitely not something he expected.
Carter moved cautiously into the office; wanting to make sure the man did not have an accomplice in the room with him. When she realized he really was alone, she approached Chris. “Can you stand?” She noticed he had a leg wound and had lost lots of blood.
“What just happened?”
“You’re safe but you are shot, and you need medical attention. Can you stand?”
“Yeah, I think so – help me up.” Carter reached down and helped get Chris into a standing position. It was evident by the grimace on his face that there was lots of pain. “It hurts like hell, but I can drag the leg. Where is everyone?”
“I have no idea – the camp has nothing but dead insurgents and no sign of the rest of your team.”
“Almost everyone was out today on patrol – we had maybe 40 guys here, but that might not be right. If the insurgents are all dead, then my guys are around somewhere.”
Carter began leading him toward a chair in the corner of the office. “Here sit down for a minute; it will be easier to get you up from this chair than it was the floor.” She carefully sat him down and then began to fiddle with the satellite phone. She heard a crackle and ring then the phone connected, “This is Freedom Base One we have been attacked by insurgents. Repeat, we have been attacked, and there are casualties. Need evacuation for Captain Evans and support troops immediately.”
“Roger Freedom Base One, support troops have been dispatched, and medical helicopters are on their way; ETA is three minutes.”
“Roger that,” she disconnected the call and looked over at Chris, who wore a distinct look of shock on his face. “Come on, let’s get you up and move towards the landing spot for the choppers. You need medical attention right away, and I don’t think they can do that here. Who am I kidding? I am not even sure you have any doctors left.”
Chris put his arms around Carter’s neck, and she began to pull him up. They began the agonizing walk to the door to get out of the office. Chris had to drag the injured leg, and a snail’s pace was all they could muster. They were able to get to the landing zone just moments before the choppers landed. The medics put Chris on the helicopter and took off before Carter could ask any questions or give any details. She stepped back and watched the helicopter take off and noticed that the backup troops were driving in, and the bunkered soldiers were emerging. There were quite a few injuries and, as she had expected, few doctors. Luckily there were medics with the incoming group, and they were helping to get the base put back together.
Carter began walking back to her workspace when Corporal Miller approached with a satellite phone. He had taken a hit or two and was bruised and bandaged; she was happy to see that he had survived. She put the phone to her ear and answered a few times with “Yes, Sir!” and then disconnected the call and gave the phone back.
“Is there a problem ma’am?” Corporal Miller asked; the look on Carter’s face scared him.
“No, it’s fine Miller; word of the assault has made its way to Quantico, and I have been recalled. They want me out of the zone. They are sending a chopper for me in two hours.”
With those words, she walked off and entered her office space to begin piling maps and records into her bag. She had just enough time to get her things from the office and from her barracks. The chopper landed and her gear was tossed onboard; she climbed in and buckled in and off she went.