The trek back was uneventful. They made it to the hill and put Kevin up for overwatch while they waited. The sun arched into the sky and evening was upon them when John signaled they keep going. Through the residential area they stopped twice to ensure no one was nearby.
John wasn't worried about the enemy discovering the stronghold at the school, that position was already well known to any enemy in the area. He was more concerned about coming under contact by ambush with one less man in the fight.
They were about one kilometer out, staring at the lights of the FOB in the distance when John gave the order for Samantha to let the control point know they were coming back in. The guards on sentry would be alerted to their route in, ensuring they didn't mistakenly identify them as enemy.
Half an hour later the front of the patrol was walking passed the outer concertina wire and through the chicane. On the far side, Stephens was waiting with several other people who had coolers at their feet. As the patrol came near, the men waiting opened the coolers and started throwing cold thermos' at each person.
“Welcome home,” Stephens said, his hand out as each soldier slapped it on their way by.
John was still outside the chicane, waiting for the last person to pass him. He turned and looked back at the city in the distance as the sun began setting. He took a deep breath and turned around, making his way through the twisted path and receiving his own cold thermos.
“Welcome home John,” Stephens said, putting his arm around John's shoulders. “Good job on bringing everyone back in one piece.”
“Thanks,” John said.
“Including the two people who weren't even supposed to be with you today.”
“Heh, yeah. I'm assuming you're going to want to talk to me a little more forcefully about that once prying ears aren't around.”
Stephens smiled that deceptive smile. “You can bet on it,” he said, true anger hiding behind his friendly eyes. “Right now I'm just glad no one is dead.”
“You'll be doubly glad when you read my report,” John said, knowing that Stephens was still unaware they'd entered the sealed Horizon Project lab.
“Oh I'd better be John. For your sake, I'd better be.”
John waved at him as he left, wondering what kind of crap he'd get for allowing Michael and Bobby along for the patrol. He followed the others into the school and met up with them as they huddled near the quarter master's cage. All where present but Syri and Bobby who were gone to the infirmary.
“Alright,” John said, dropping his bag. “Amanda, Zoe, I want your reports on the environmental situation tomorrow morning. Don't forget to turn those things back in to the CQ after uploading the info.
“For the rest of you,” John unzipped the back of his jumpsuit and steam rose into the cool dusk air. “Good job. We're all alive, we've got most of the blood we left with, except for Bobby there,” he said, pointing in the direction of the infirmary as he took a swig of the cold water in the thermos. “Considering I chose most of you for this patrol based on when you last went out, and not on your combat skills, I was pleasantly surprised when I saw the efficiency in which we pulled out of there. I've seen my fair share of aussie peelbacks. I can honestly say that was one of the best. Well,” John looked at Michael. “Except for the lag we had on one person's burst.”
“Yeah yeah, whatever, this is only the second time I get shot at on the ground.”
John laughed, “I bet you wish you were up in a jet still.”
“You know, it's not all as great as you'd think. At least when you get shot on the ground you have help, you can get carried out. Heck you can get shot and still keep moving depending on where it got you. When you're in a jet flying faster than the speed of sound and your aircraft falls apart around you, there's nothing you can do. You're a dead duck.”
“Couldn't you eject?” asked Christopher.
“At mach speeds? You could probably survive the deceleration if you've got a horseshoe up your ass, depending on altitude. But I can tell you, it won't be pretty.”
“You can defend it all you want, you aren't impressing anyone here,” said John.
“No, you're right, and I wouldn't expect to. In just these two last firefights I've seen things that will probably change me forever. That's one thing about fighting a war from the air, you don't watch the bodies get ripped apart when your bombs hit. On the ground you see every gritty detail.”
They nodded, solemnly remembering their own experiences.
“That's war,” said John, “And we're warfighters.” John patted him on the shoulder, “So are you, now.” he turned to the rest of the group. “Get a shower, get some rest and something to eat, we'll debrief at nineteen hundred hours in the north conference room. If you have any information you're worried about forgetting before then, tell me now.”
The group sat there for a moment in silence, still sweating from the rigors of the patrol.
“Alright, see you all in an hour.”