Beyond Limits – Laura Griffin

The night was all wrong for an op, but they were going anyway, and not a man among them disputed the call. Lieutenant Derek Vaughn sat wedged between his teammates in the Black Hawk helicopter listening to the thunder of the rotor blades as he pictured the city below. The rugged outpost was hemmed in on either side by mountains. Even by Afghan standards, the place was a hellhole, frequented by opium traders, arms smugglers, and Taliban fighters with Al Qaeda links, including a group that had recently hijacked a caravan of aid workers on their way back from a medical mission in Badakhshan Province. The hijackers had killed the drivers and taken three hostages, all aid workers. Two were Swedish, and one was American, and both governments were scrambling to resolve the crisis while keeping it under wraps. But the situation had dragged on, which wasn’t good. Derek had seen firsthand how TAQ fighters treated their prisoners, and the thought of what those people had likely been through made his blood boil. But he pushed away his anger and focused on his job. “Five minutes,” the crew chief said over the radio. Derek closed his eyes. He regulated his breathing. He recalled the map of the compound that he and his teammates had memorized during the briefing. Drone photographs had shown two buildings separated by a narrow courtyard. The hostages were thought to be held in the basement of one or both of the houses.


Or so they hoped. Tonight’s entire mission was based on a call traced to a phone believed to belong to one of the kidnappers. One phone call. That was it. Typically, deploying an entire platoon of SEALs required slightly more intel. But tonight wasn’t typical, not by a long shot. Sixteen days ago, the kidnappers had demanded five million dollars in ransom from the international relief org MedAssist. Nine days ago, they’d upped the ante to ten mil. Two days ago, negotiations had broken down, and twenty-four hours ago, MedAssist had received an e-mail. The attached video clip showed twenty-six-year-old Ana Hansson blindfolded and kneeling before the camera, pleading for her life just seconds before her captors slit her throat. “Four minutes,” the crew chief said. Derek pictured the two remaining hostages. Dr. Peter Lindh of Stockholm was forty-nine and had been in excellent health before his abduction. Hailey Gardner of Boston had just graduated from nursing school before taking a job with MedAssist.

Her passport photo showed a pretty blonde with a wry smile. The photo had immediately reminded Derek of a different woman, a woman he’d been trying to get out of his head for months now. It wasn’t the blond hair or the smile but the determined gleam in her eyes that made Derek think of Elizabeth LeBlanc. As if he needed a reason. “Three minutes.” Derek snugged his assault gloves onto his hands. Focus. Thinking about Elizabeth or anything else besides the op right now was a good way to get his ass shot off. Or one of his teammates’. The crew chief slid open the door, and the roar from outside cut off all communication. Derek got to his feet and edged closer to the opening, where he could see the valley below bathed in silver. They were infiltrating under a full moon into hostile territory with scant intel to guide their assault. The odds were stacked against them, but Derek knew that every last one of his teammates relished this mission. They’d trained together, fought together, lived, breathed, and bled together for six long months of deployment. On this tour alone, they’d racked up more successful tactical operations than anyone cared to count.

But it wasn’t every day they got the chance to rescue a civilian from the country they’d sworn their lives to protect and defend. At the front of the helo, Derek’s CO held up two fingers. Two minutes. Derek pulled down his night-vision goggles, casting everything around him in a greenish hue. He checked his M-4, outfitted with a ten-inch barrel. The weapon was designed for close-quarters combat and had a suppressor to keep the noise down. He also had his Sig Sauer P226 in his thigh holster but didn’t expect to use it. Tonight was a straight-up, take-no-prisoners rescue mission. Get in and get out, hopefully before anyone realized they were there. That was the goal, but everyone knew it wasn’t likely to become reality. And they were good with that. SEALs were trained to take whatever shit the mission threw at them and find a way to make a victory out of it. The helo entered a hover, and the crew chief kicked out the rope attached to the fuselage. Both buildings had rooftop balconies. The pilot would drop off one group here, then the other on the neighboring roof, and each four-man element would assault down.

Meanwhile, an armored Humvee would pull up to the compound and unload two more elements to clear from below. Hit ’em from all directions, a classic SEAL tactic. They stacked by size, with Derek first, followed by Mike Dietz, the team corpsman. Next was Cole McDermott, their best sharpshooter, who would man the roof. Luke Jones, another medic, would bring up the rear. Derek grabbed the rope. Across the helo, Sean Harper grinned and shot him the bird. Go time. Derek’s palms burned as he slid down and hit concrete. Fifty pounds of gear on his back, but he hardly felt the impact as he sprang to his feet and sprinted for the door. They’d expected it to be locked, but the heavy iron grillwork added a complication. Derek grabbed his kit and crouched down to prep a breaching charge. Having been shot at through doors on more than one occasion, he’d learned to do it kneeling. Brakes screeched below as the Humvee arrived on target. Derek heard a string of pops, like firecrackers, as the other teams dealt with the doors.

So much for quiet. “Going explosive,” Derek said, and everyone hunched down. Pop! The door burst open, and a barrage of machine-gun fire spewed through the gap. Derek rolled away, breathing hard. Even when you expected it, it was always a shock when bullets whizzed over your head. Luke laid down cover fire as Derek reached into the doorway and pulled away the ruined gate. They darted through the opening, one, two, three, with perfect coordination born of years of training. “Room one clear!” Luke shouted, tossing an infrared chem light to the floor to signal his teammates. Derek darted past him and cleared the next room. A staccato of bullets echoed in the stairwell. “This is Alpha,” Luke said over the radio. “Level two clear.” “This is Bravo. Level one clear.” Derek rushed down the stairs, stepping over a body as he joined his team.

Two tangos lay dead in the middle of the floor, their AKs and chest racks beside them. Derek glanced around. Sleeping pallets, trash, empty food cans. The smell of cooking oil hung in the air. Mike looked at him. “Notice anything funny?” “No women, no kids.” Taken with everything else, it confirmed their intel. This was no typical family home. “This is Delta. House two clear, and we need Dietz over here ASAP.” Mike rushed to answer the call, while across the kitchen, Luke kicked open a door. “Basement!” “Check for booby traps,” Derek said, following him down a primitive staircase carved from the rock. At the bottom was a door with a heavy-duty lock. “Need your sledge,” Luke said. Derek was already pulling it from his pack.

They couldn’t use a breaching charge in case a hostage was being held on the other side. Derek swung back the hammer and gave the door a sharp whack, sending splinters flying as it burst open. Luke ducked in first. Derek covered him. The room was dark and cold and reeked of urine. In the corner was a shadowy lump with a mop of blond hair. She wasn’t moving—not good news, considering all the noise. “NVGs,” Derek said, shoving his night-vision goggles up. Their goggles and greasepaint made them look like alien robots, and they didn’t want to scare the hell out of her. Derek switched on the flashlight attached to his helmet as Luke reached to check her pulse. She flinched, then rolled over and suddenly started kicking and screaming like a banshee. “It’s okay, ma’am,” Luke said. “Don’t be afraid.” More shrieks and kicks. “Hailey, it’s okay.

” She went still. Derek aimed the light at her as she cowered back. Dirt smudged her face, and the collar of her shirt was dark with blood. The nasty gash above her eye made Derek’s stomach turn. “I’m Petty Officer Luke Jones, U.S. Navy.” He was already digging through his medical kit. “We’re here to take you home.” Derek knelt down and looked the woman over. She held her wrist protectively against her body, and it was wrapped with a dirty scrap of cloth. Luke tore open a syringe as Derek peeled away the bandage to reveal an oozing green wound with bone jutting through the skin. Derek glanced up at her. “We’ve got a helo coming to give you a ride.” “You’re .

American,” she rasped. “Yep.” Derek got rid of the filthy-ass bandage as Luke prepped the shot. “Hey, your Bruins are doing pretty good. We plan to get you home in time for the Cup.” She made a wet, choking sound, and Luke darted him a look. He’d meant to distract her, not make her cry. “Five minutes!” someone yelled from upstairs. Derek’s radio crackled, and he got to his feet. “Alpha, this is Delta. We need Vaughn or Jones over here.” Derek rushed back upstairs, checking his watch as he went. He’d known Sean since BUD/S training, and he could tell by the tone of his voice that something was very wrong. Probably the hostage. A cold feeling of dread gripped him at the thought of losing another one.

In the courtyard, one of his teammates was building a pile of guns and ammo. The heap of AKs, chest racks, and RPGs took up most of the space. Another pair of guys had already started SSE— sensitive site exploitation—which meant confiscating any potential intelligence, along with fingerprinting and photographing casualties and their weapons, not only for ID purposes but also so that if the mission came to light, the enemy couldn’t claim they’d killed a bunch of innocent civilians. Inside the second building, the SEAL pulling security directed Derek toward a stairwell leading to the basement. Someone had slapped a chem light on the wall with duct tape. The cavern smelled as rank as the other one. Remnants of a wooden door lay on the floor. Mike emerged from a chamber with the doctor slung over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry. “He’s alive,” Mike said, answering the unspoken question. Derek stepped out of his way. “We been on target too long, bro. Need to speed it up.” “Vaughn, get over here.” He followed a narrow corridor and almost stepped on a pair of legs jutting out from the wall. A young man was seated on the floor with his hands zip-cuffed behind him.

He wore loose-fitting pants and high-top sneakers and was fifteen, max, but his eyes already had the flat, battle-hardened look of a warrior. “Found him in the tunnel.” Sean nodded toward a passage that connected the house to who the hell knew what. The tunnel system here was like a rabbit warren. Derek spotted a workbench littered with electrical wires, nails, several jars of black powder—all bomb components. He scanned the rest of the room, and his gaze came to rest on a large safe in the corner. It was a serious box, definitely imported, and would have been a major pain in the ass to get here. Now Derek understood why he’d been called over. He glanced at the kid and tried to remember his rudimentary Pashto. “What’s the number?” Derek asked in Pashto, because he didn’t know the word for “combination.” The kid didn’t answer. Derek pointed the stock of his gun at the safe. “Open it.” The kid looked away, sullen. “Fuck this.

” Sean reached for his kit and got out some C-4. Derek stepped over to check for booby traps. He didn’t see any, but there was only one way to know for sure. Sean set a small charge, and they crossed to the other side of the room. The burst reverberated through the cavern, and they rushed back over. “Shit, look at all this.” Sean pulled out a stack of papers, singed around the edges and still smoking. He flung it to the ground and stomped the fire out as Derek reached in and pulled out a notebook computer. “Two minutes,” the CO said over the radio. Derek cursed. Even with the extra minutes they’d built into the plan, they were running behind. Sean was already pulling out his mesh bag, which they carried for this purpose. Some of the papers were in English, but Derek didn’t take the time to read them as he jammed everything into the bag. He reached in and snatched a thumb drive as Sean grabbed another batch of papers. Loose pages fluttered to the ground.

His teammate held up a sheet. “Hey, look at this.” “No time to read. We need to move.” “It’s a map.” Derek glanced at it. It was in English, with notes scrawled around the edges. Derek scanned the street names. His blood ran cold. He looked at Sean. “Guys, move it!” someone yelled down the stairs. Derek glanced at his watch. They’d been on target way too long. He glanced at the kid. In a matter of hours, this house would be looted and abandoned.

In a matter of minutes, this guy would be in the wind. “On your feet,” Derek ordered. Sean shouldered his pack. “They said no prisoners.” “On your feet!” The kid stood grudgingly, proving he knew at least some English. Sean shot Derek a look before taking the prisoner by the arm and propelling him toward the stairs. Derek’s mind reeled as he looked at the papers strewn on the floor. He scooped up every scrap and checked the safe again to make sure he hadn’t missed anything, then threw his bag over his shoulder and raced upstairs. All the windows rattled as a Black Hawk swooped overhead en route to the landing zone. He glanced into the courtyard just as their EOD guy ducked out. He’d been setting the charge on the ordnance, and the look on his face told Derek it was about to blow. “Hey, what are you doing here? Haul ass!” Boom! Derek dropped to his knees as the house shook. Chunks of debris rained down from the ceiling. “Come on!” Derek yelled. They sprinted outside, where the last member of their team was holding security by the door.

A few neighbors’ lights had come on. People peered through windows and leaned out from doorways. “Vaughn, where the hell are you?” It was Luke’s voice over the radio, probably already at the LZ, which was a vacant lot at the end of the street. “We’re half a click away.” They double-timed it toward the landing zone, pushing the prisoner ahead of them. “We got company,” Cole said over the radio as a truck screeched around the corner. It was a shit vehicle, but it was packed with armed men and had a .50-cal machine gun mounted to the roof. Derek grabbed Sean’s vest and yanked him out of the road. He pushed him down the alley leading to their alternate exfil route. “Vaughn, report! Where are you?” “Almost there.” The street smelled like sewer water. Trash swirled in the rotor wash as they neared the waiting helo. Rat-tat-tat. The gunner on the truck let loose with the .

50-cal. His buddies with AKs were well out of range, but that didn’t stop them from spraying bullets. Derek rounded the building just in time to get a mouth full of dust. Mike was lifting the doctor into the chopper. Hailey had a SEAL on each arm, and they were practically carrying her, but she tore away from them and made a sprint for it. She flung herself onto the helo, and about a dozen hands reached out to pull her inside. Luke and Mike jumped in behind her. Rat-tat-tat. Derek and Sean ducked and sprinted while several teammates aimed over their heads and returned fire. The prisoner reached the helo first, and Mike pulled him aboard. Rat-tat-tat-tat. Sean crashed down behind him. Derek turned and hauled him to his feet. Noise drowned out the words, but Derek could read his friend’s lips and the panicked look in his eyes: I’m hit. Derek heaved him over his shoulder and stumbled forward.

Bullets peppered the helo’s sides as Luke jumped down and helped lift Sean inside. “Go, go, go!” Derek grabbed the outstretched hands of his teammates as they seized his pack and yanked him aboard. His boots were barely inside when the Black Hawk lurched off the ground and lifted into the sky.

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Updated: 11 March 2021 — 14:37

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