Thursday, April 24, 2008

Short Story - Rover

“Surely, there’s something we can do?” asked the man at the head of the table in a tone of concerned and helpless rhetoric that distinguishes the Distinguished. “Surely?” he added, just in case the others had missed the point.
The others looked around the table, at each other, and spoke nothing.
“Damn! You mean we have to just accept their demands? Have to?”
“How much time have we got?”
“Less than 45 hours now Mr. Prime Minister” said the man to the Prime Minister’s immediate left, the Minister of Defence.
“Can’t we launch a counter offensive of some kind?” asked the Minister of Agriculture, whose presence in the room, given the context and his area of expertise, was largely unexplained.
“No” explained the Director of CBI, with a sigh that made it clear he did not want to have to go through the list of reasons again.
“But why?” the Minister of Agriculture again.
Another sigh.
“They have taken the hostages into an old dilapidated fortress near the city of Jaisalmer in Rajasthan. The fortress sits atop a rocky hill, surrounded by the desert. There is almost no human construction for several miles around the place, barring a stray cluster of temporary huts here and there, which may or may not be inhabited. The view from the fortress can range from anywhere between 3 – 7 kilometers, unrestricted, in almost all directions depending upon the quality of their equipment. Basically, there’s no way, we can get anywhere close to the fortress without them noticing. Satellite surveillance has revealed they have at least five snipers positioned around the fortress, plus almost a dozen others on watch, patrolling the walls. We have no idea how many more they have inside the fortress, but we expect the number to be not less than twenty five.”
“How about an airstrike or something like that?” offered the Minister of Agriculture, refusing to let up before he had established, beyond doubt, the extent of his ineptitude.
“There are 32 hostages inside that place, Sir. And to the best of my knowledge, our objective, in addition to getting them out of there, is also to do so while they are alive.”
Thankfully, the Minister of Agriculture did not speak up again.
“How about at night? Can the fortress not be stormed when it is dark?” asked the Prime Minister.
“We have already thought of that. Tomorrow is a full moon. And we all know just how much brilliant moonlight is in a desert. Anyone wanting to get to the fortress would probably reach closer to it than during daytime, but nowhere close enough to matter. They’d still be spotted at least a few hundred yards away.”
“If we stall for time? Delay it for a couple of days?”
“I don’t think it will work. The moon will still be bright enough. We’d have to stall for more than a week to have a chance. Plus, I don’t think the occurrence of the full moon is a coincidence. They knew what they were doing.”
The Director of CBI looked around the room if everyone had realized the implications of what he’d just said. The grave faces told him they had.
“So what you are really saying is…” the Prime Minister left the sentence hanging.
“Precisely, Mr. Prime Minister. They are not here for the fun and games. They know they are not getting out of there. And it seems stupid for them to sacrifice a couple of dozen of their men to rescue four. It is bad business. And these men are not stupid. For sheer impact, it’ll make for a much bigger success than if they manage to free their friends in jail.”
“So then?”
“It means they are not letting the hostages go, one way or the other.”
“Then why waste time with their demands? They could simply have killed them”“Yes, they could have. I don’t know why they are doing that. Maybe they think we’ll buy into it and accept their demands. Additional perk for them. Or maybe they just want to gain media attention.”
For a full minute, nobody spoke.
“What do we do now?” the Minister of Agriculture spoke first.
“You said the view is unrestricted in almost all directions?” asked the Director of RAW. This was the first time he had entered the discussion.
The Director of CBI smiled. He knew that the Director of RAW knew as much about the terrain as he did. In fact, more.
“Well, on the south, about a hundred yards from the fortress, there is another rocky hill, almost as high as the one on which the fortress stands.”
“Well, it is an obstruction. They can’t see through the hill. They can’t see the other side of it”
“If someone were to approach the fortress from that side, there’s no way they can be seen?”
“No. Unless someone walks out of the fortress and walks to either the west or the east for a couple of hundred yards.”
“And there has not been any such excursion spotted so far, yes?”
“Then we can safely assume it won’t in the future either.”
“I don’t know. Probably yes. But really, even if they make it to that hill, there’s still hundred yards of open desert to travel. It is impossible unless no one was looking in that direction. And we know they are.”
“Yes, they are. But they might not if there’s a distraction.”
“What possible distraction could there be? And even if that happens, how much time will they get? It’ll take at least a couple of minutes to cover that distance. Closer to three, given the sand.”
“I am just looking at the possibilities here”
“I know. But it is impossible. And we haven’t even considered how we are going to get a team to that hill.”
“An airdrop?”
“Airdrop is out of question. They’d be expecting that. They’d be able to spot it miles away.”
“It could be done at night. Difficult to spot, even with a full moon.”
“True. But even then, the nearest we can drop is probably fifteen miles. Could be more. In the deserts, that means traveling for at least fifteen hours. The dark comes much later in the deserts. It is at least another twelve hours to darkness. That makes it twenty seven hours to get to that hill. And that’s an almost inhuman estimate. It’ll take closer to thirty five.”
“We have forty four.”
“And what do they do once they get there? Wait for a distraction! What distraction?”
“Could be a couple of planes flying at low altitudes to the north. Close enough for them to get agitated. Not close enough to merit anything more drastic than another threatening phone call to the Government.”
“I suppose it could be done.” The Director of CBI, finally relented.
“But what after that? The team runs across the hundred yards and reaches the fortress. What do they do after that? Attack? They’d never succeed. The moment the terrorists realize the move, they’ll start killing the hostages!” The Minister of Agriculture had finally made what appeared to be a pertinent observation.
“What if they never realize it till the very end?” posed the Director of RAW.
“But how’s that possible?” cried the Prime Minister.
“Something like the movies…” commented the Chief of RAW
“For an operation like that, we cannot send in more than three men. Four at the outside. It is too few. And we’d probably need someone like in the movies. A James Bond, really. They don’t exist in real life.” said the Director of CBI, while trying, unsuccessfully, to suppress a chuckle.
“And we aren’t going to get a second chance here. The plan fails and they’ll kill everybody!” This from the Prime Minister.
The Director of RAW seemed oblivious to the fact that most people in the room thought he was out of his mind. He continued “With this sort of operation, it either succeeds completely. Or it is a miserable failure. If it succeeds, all’s well. If it fails, the terrorists won’t need to self destruct. In fact, they’ll think their position is stronger than ever. They’ll obviously raise a hue and cry over it, issue a few more threats. Maybe want a few more things. But I don’t think they’ll kill anyone if they can avoid it. In any case, do we really have a choice?”
“The problem of finding a James Bond still remains…” the Director of CBI was obviously enchanted by his own sense of humor.
“Well, there is a man.”
“A man?”
“Yes. An Ex RAW operative. Went by the code name of Rover. Did a few jobs for us on the other side. Was one the best we’ve ever had.”
“Ex operative?”
“Yes. His service was terminated in 2003.”
“Terminated? What happened?”
The RAW chief, for the first time, looked a little uncomfortable.
“He was divorced in 2002. Apparently, the man was, well, not really much of a man. Anyhow, he seemed to lose it completely after the divorce. Drank too much, talked too much. Then he was reported by one of our operatives for attempted child molestation. Nothing was ever proved, but we thought I unwise to keep him on.”
“Child molestation! Oh my God!” The Prime Minister could scarcely believe what he’d heard.
“That is the only man you could come up with Chief?” The Director of CBI quipped. “An ex operative with a troubled sex life! That’s the James Bond we’ve got! There’s no one else in your entire organization?”
“The man was involved in three rescue operations in three years. High risk jobs in rough terrain. Never reported in the media; you know how it works. He was once stranded in the Himalayan ranges after an emergency drop. He traveled about a hundred and fifty kilometers to the nearest town through the mountains in temperatures well below zero. And he did it in three days on one chocolate bar and a water gourd, half filled.”
“Impressive” conceded the Minister of Defence.
“But do we know where he is now? Or if he’s fit for the job any longer. He’s been inactive for over four years…”
“Yes, he is in Pune. Runs a small departmental store of some sort. I have had a couple of my men take a ‘look’ at him yesterday. He’s alright.”
“So you had all this planned out before the meeting?”
“Yes, Mr. Prime Minister. Time, as we all know, is of essence.”
The five men looked at each other. Nobody seemed keen on making any comments.
“Well, Mr. Prime Minister?”
“Very well. Get him here and start working on the plan”
“That will not be needed Sir. I took the liberty of flying him to Delhi without your permission. He’s been working on the details for the last few hours. I expect him to be ready with it by the time I get back to my office from here.”

The man they called Rover, sat with three other men in a small dark room that contained a table (supporting an extraordinary number of coffee cups at the time) and the requisite number of chairs. A projector beamed an aerial view of the fortress near Jaisalmer, onto a screen on one of the walls. An almost identical map lay wide open on the table.
On his arrival, Rover had asked to be shown the satellite pictures of the area. He had them run the pictures at twenty times the actual speed, thus observing occurrences over a day in just over an hour. The sniper positions and their shifts had been noted. Ditto for the other men on watch on the walls. They had looked for any other activities of interest. They had found none. At no time had anyone other than the guards been out in the open. Spotting hostages was out of the question. It could hardly be expected for the terrorists to allow their captives an early morning stroll in the circumstances.
The entire time, Rover had spoken nothing except for the odd request to rewind or freeze certain frames. At the end of close to five hours, when he said “That should be all”, the other three men in the room were completely aware what progress, if any, had been made. But it was not their job to ask any questions and so they did not.
The Chief of RAW scrutinized the man he’d chosen from amongst the thousands he’d worked with, seated on the other side of the table in his cabin. The years out of service had not affected the slim, athletic build, nor had it tempered the steely gaze. The eyes did not betray the gallons of alcohol pored into his body in those years. His hands, as he picked up the cup of coffee in front of him were as steady as ever. However, his once jet black hair had turned almost completely gray.
“I’ll need two men with me. Both of them need to be outstanding rock climbers. One of them needs to be an explosives expert. We might require him to defuse a bomb or two. The other, a man trained in rescue operations; good with his weapons and good with his hands. Both, obviously, need to be fit men. There’s a bit of traveling to do.”
“You will have them.”
“Excellent. We leave in three hours’ time. That is 19:00 hours. I expect the drop to happen at 19:30 hours. We shall reach our position behind the hill by 05:00 hours. Sunrise is at 05:43 hours; it will still be dark when we get there. You will order the distraction at 06:15. It’ll be light enough for them to see the planes. The guards change shifts at 06:30; after almost six hours they should be at their sleepiest. The ones to replace them would probably still be asleep or just woken up. In any case, there’s a fair chance they won’t be at their keenest. That’s the best we can hope for. I will be positioned on top of the hill with my Sniper. The aerial view shows there are enough rocks at the top to conceal my presence there. I will be on the lookout for the commotion that we expect to occur when they hear the planes. The moment the guards on the south desert their positions, I’ll signal the other two to make their move. They will reach the side of the fortress in a maximum of two minutes, make sure you give me men capable of achieving that. The walls of the fortress have enough aberrations for trained men to be able to climb. They will carry a rope with them which will aid me to climb later.”
Rover stopped and sipped some coffee.
“I have observed the guards’ movements. At intervals of about twenty to thirty minutes, there comes a situation when there’s only the lone sniper on the southern wall. It stays that way for somewhere between thirty to sixty seconds. When that happens, I’ll take out the sniper from my position. The two men will then climb over the wall and ambush the other patroller to reach there. It takes at least another nine minutes for any other guard to reach that spot, by that time, they will have gone inside. Their primary objective is to locate and dismantle and explosive devices the terrorists might have. In seven minutes, I will climb down the mountain and up the rope on the wall. My objective will be to take out the guards on top before locating the hostages and eliminating the others.”
“Climb down the hill, run across the sand and reach the wall in nine minutes? You think you can do it?”
“I have to do it. There is no other way.”
“These guards you will take out at the top, won’t they be missed?” enquired the Chief.
“The satellite surveillance has been unable to spot any transmission devices used by the guards. There seems to be no formal arrangement for communication. If they have to pass on a message, they simply relay it to the patrollers who carry it to the concerned person. Basically, they expect at least one patroller crossing any given point in the wall every two minutes. And they are correct, it does happen that way.”
“And how do you plan to release the hostages and eliminate the other men inside? Or dismantle the bomb?”
“To be honest, I don’t know. We can’t have a specific plan for that. We don’t know how things are inside. We’ll just have to get there and figure it out, improvise. We do have the construction plans of the fortress with us. We should be able to find our way inside that place. That’s the best we can do.”
“Very well Rover. You will get whatever you want from us. I’ll find you your men. You can brief them yourself.”
“Right Sir. And one more thing Chief. I am not doing this for charity. When I come back, I need a job. I know you can’t reinstate me officially. But I am also aware you don’t need to.”
The Chief considered his options very briefly. There was too little time for negotiations. And Rover knew it.
“I’ll do whatever I can Rover. Get on with it now. Good luck”

The trudge through the sands happened without incident. They spoke very little and only in undertones. The almost full moon cast a brilliant glow over the desert, bathing the sands in beautiful shades of white and gray. It was the kind of night that encourages the poetic form of romanticism in those that are thus inclined; but for the three men life was about too many other things to concern themselves with such inanities.
When they reached the hill, it was 04:45 hours. In all that time, all they knew about each other was their code names. The explosives expert had obviously been recruited in times of creative disenchantment by RAW. He was called Bomber. The other man was known as Lottery. Rover hoped it was not a comment on the man’s capabilities. He had risked enquiring about the origination of it; "I win a lot" was the response.
They had made better time than expected. Rover continued to the top of the hill without waiting to rest. Limbs have a curious tendency towards exhaustion only when they are rested; for as long as one keeps going they pose relatively insignificant hindrances.

The Sniper on the southern wall of the fortress was feeling terribly drowsy. He looked at his watch. There was still an hour and a half before he would be relieved. It had been a long cold night staring at a landscape that consisted chiefly of a vertical rocky structure. Through the night, he had kept himself awake noting the movement of the hill’s shadow with respect to the moon until the moon had gradually started to disappear behind the hill. He could only see a little tip of it now, peeking through the top of the rocks. It cast a strange glow around the edges of the hill, as if the hill had some aura of its own. The Sniper smiled to himself for being capable of making such observations in a time such as this. But he quite enjoyed it. “What could be more gratifying than this, when you have only a few hours to live” he thought. And then, the speck of moonlight suddenly disappeared. Too suddenly.
The outline of the man hiding behind the rocks was almost instantaneously picked up by the scope of his rifle. The man had his back towards him. The Sniper took time, adjusting his aim to precision and shot.

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