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In the sandbox
It was a crisp, bright morning without a cloud in the blue sky. The sun had barely peaked above the horizon before the wind started blowing, whipping a cloud of fine brown dust and yellow sand across the beige tents as they strained against their tethers. The sandstorm was already promising to leave a mess behind at Forward Operating Base Able, likely grounding the helicopters for another day. The sand was playing hell with their intakes, a flaw which was supposedly fixed when the Arapahoes rolled off the production line.

They were in the sandbox, all right. Things never went the way you expected them to. When Toni’s squad had first disembarked from the C-130J and secured their equipment, they found their tents had no friggin’ cots. Not a good thing in the snake- and scorpion- infested Sahara. There was a scorpion called the friggin’ Deathstalker. Which sounded real kickass but she didn’t want to wake up to one. Apparently the equipment that was supposed to be delivered by the Nigerien military had been instead sold to the locals. The liaison officer, Maj. Abebi Aketola, apologetically explained that this was all too common an occurrence, but that the responsible parties would be severely punished. That was reassuring to Toni.

Major Atekola had plenty of helpful advice about Zinder -- pronounced Cinder -- the large city apparently built entirely out of clay and mud that sprawled out near the the airfield they were rapidly turning into a fortified encampment. “When you go into the city, stay in the market areas,” he said with a heavy accent. “You can go into the shops, but don’t into any of the houses and definitely stay out of the lower parts of the city. That’s how people disappear in Zinder.” Not that Toni had any interest in doing any of those things -- and her squad certainly wasn’t going to get any passes to go to any of those places. Zinder was creepy. There were far too few people for a city that size -- like three quarters of the city were just gone. All too skinny locals just watched you. The adults, anyway. The children played recklessly when they didn’t look emaciated. And the women, especially, seemed very nervous. It was all very unnerving.

She found out more about that soon enough. “Don’t forget that we are guests here, not occupiers,” said the new company protocol officer, 1st Lt. Donavan Marshall. The West Point grad was eager to get his first deployment out of the way, likely so he could get his second bar and a fresh new assignment. “We don’t enforce local laws. Stay in your lane. As a part of our guest status agreement we will help train and organize local law enforcement groups contracted by Shale Industries. But we do not get involved with local politics when it runs contrary to national law. We are here to maintain order and protect the work on the Transnigerian Aqueduct, the Shale Industries employees and contractors.”

Some of those women were undoubtedly slaves, then. The civil war of the 2020s and 2030s had wiped out nearly half the population before the military had restored order. Surviving families had turned to selling off their children, especially their daughters. Slavery was technically illegal, but in practice the law was still ignored. Many of these women themselves were complicit in it, having no other options. Faced with the choice between slavery or starvation, of course they chose to remain.

It made Toni want to vomit to think of someone beaten down so badly. She sighed. Orders were orders. Best she could do was help make sure this aqueduct got done. Access to water in the far reaches of the desert would get the mines operating again, which would restore prosperity to Niger and Chad -- and, of course, Nigeria, who was undoubtedly making money hand over fist in this deal through their water sales. And prosperity meant options besides starvation or slavery. They’d already tried the fighting thing out and it turned out they weren’t so good at it.

But all of those things were way above Toni’s pay grade to worry about. What was for her to worry about was making sure her squad was properly bedded down and ready to roll first thing in the morning. First thing was to dig out bunkers reinforced with sandbags so they could take cover if they got mortared. Flying shrapnel would rip right through those tents. That made for a good night’s sleep. Toni and Weber crashed in the one long tent reserved for females. The camp had room for 4,000 soldiers but was only about a quarter filled, and only a couple of the pilots and other non-ranger personnel were female. The morning would consist of baby-wipe baths -- water was too scarce to waste on showers -- and relieving oneself in the one-seater latrine before PT. Toni led her squad on a morning run in full battle rattle around the inside of the still-being-constructed dirt berm and barbed wire perimeter. She expected them to get acclimated Then came breakfast, which was prepackaged MREs and bottled water. Apparently the locals hired to run the DFAC had been fired for trying to use substandard food products. Awkward.

Toni finished up the last of her lemon poppyseed pound cake - delicious!
-- and put on her kevlar and body armor. Double-checked her M6 for cleanliness and operational failure due to the dust. She clicked on her Land Warriors and saw a message from the CO that the time of departure had moved up by five minutes.

“All right Weber, it’s time to roll,”
she said. Barbie doll looked like she was still recovering from the long flight and from sleeping on the tent floor. Well, she did have a woobie at least. “Today we’re heading to the Nigerian border to provide escort for a convoy of construction materials to Maradi. Then we’re picking up a Shale VIP who’s flying in to Maradi and taking him to one of the mining camps. Taking the ground vehicles since the wind's too bad for the helicopters so it'll be a long day. But you should get some stuff to write about.”
Pretty much everything was calm on the Nigerian side. The government seemed to really want to get this pipeline built and was taking security seriously. But things really started to break down on this side of the border. Along the way they’d have the opportunity to inspect the completed sections pipeline from the border to Maradi. “Be sure to give your boots a good shake before you put them on.”

Edited by Toni Perez, Sep 19 2016, 12:18 AM.
Zinder was a hell hole, but Carolyne had seen worse. Still, that didn't make it better. Women and children sold as slaves, and too beaten down by the threat of starvation to fight back. It made her shiver to think that being raped by a slave owner could be the preferable alternative to anything.

They'd slept in a long tent near the center of the living area. Carolyne wouldn't say she wouldn't have preferred an actual bed, but sleeping on the hard ground was par for the course in her line of work. Even so, she was jet lagged and her muscles were sore when the staff sergeant woke her. The woman didn't look the least bit out-of-sorts, and that annoyed Carolyne. Still, she took her advice and stuffed herself into the body armor.

"How far's the drive?"
she asked, once she was packed inside the gear.

Toni pulled a folded, waterproof map out of her body armor and looked it over. "About two hours to the border and three more to Maradi. With luck we'll get the VIP to his destination before nightfall."
She rapped Carolyne on her helmet. "Bring plenty of water. You're with me in the lead vehicle."

Carolyne almost rubbed the spot where Toni hit before realizing that made no sense. She already had most of her packs together, but she grabbed another canteen on the sergeant's suggestion. Two minutes later, they were outside. The rest of the sergeant's squad was already at the vehicles.

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