SECTION 6: CAELIUS
Two Years Later
The camp had been spotted by a Customs and Border Protection drone during a routine flight. Some local in a tiny place called Buford had tipped off a passing state trooper to some activity in the next valley over. The flight just happened to be in the area when the Colorado State Patrol headquarters in Lakewood received the call and it was on station over the valley before Lakewood called it in to the main DHS field office in Denver.
From high overhead, flying at low speed, the drone’s high-definition camera got to work trying to root out the camp. It started with a mountain road that down a long stretch of cleared area which power lines ran running to one side. The roads were used for repair and maintenance crews, but only when needed, which was surprisingly rare. The fresh tire marks in the mud and gravel of the road told of recent activity.
Following the tracks proved easy for the pilot in Colorado Springs, some four hours flying time away. At his control board, he watched as the followed the road and watched as it disappear among the trees.
Standing over his shoulder, irritating as always, his supervisor leaned forward over his station. “Thermal imaging?”
The pilot changed the camera setting, revealing the glowing red forms of human bodies milling about. There were some small fires here and there, and by their arrangement some structures, maybe tents, and probably some cars.
“How’d they get up there without someone noticing?”
“Someone did notice,” the pilot pointed out.
His supervisor snorted. “Useless state police. They should be watching this more closely. You’re recording?”
“Yes,” the pilot responded. The drone’s camera was always recording.
“Then I’ll call it in.”
The camp was part of a larger investigation by the Department of Homeland Security into so-called “passive sanctuaries,” camps that had started springing up in wooded or rural areas in which immigrants and refugees were hiding out. They were so-called “passive sanctuaries” because the local or state authorities chose to look the other way rather than go after them. In the process they were likewise allowing members of the American public to collaborate with the squatters, some of them actively hiding them here in within the United States, others smuggling them across the Northern Border.
Either way, it was illegal, and after investigating numerous leads, CBP had begun doing something about it. Through searches and seizures, especially at border crossings, DHS had traced networks of people providing assistance to the residents of these camps and other people in the United States illegally. This allowed them to follow the movements and activities of these individuals without their knowledge, triangulating pockets of sanctuaries. Which was why and how a Predator drone owned by the Customs and Border Protection had wound up in the skies over northwest Colorado.
And which was why, forty-eight hours later, two Blackhawk helicopters thundered down into the mountain passes near Buford in the Colorado Rockies. Within, the members of a detachment of the Border Patrol Special Operations Group braced themselves against the motion of the aircraft.
“LZ sighted,” the pilot from the lead Blackhawk, just off their port side, said over the radio.
The helicopter’s crew chief threw open first one door, and then the other, letting in a blasts of freezing air, snow, and ice. With practiced ease, the pilots brought the Blackhawks to a hover over a flat expanse of snow. As they did, the agents in the back dropped ropes from either side and out they went, rappelling down. One at a time on either side of the helicopters, they plopped down in the dense snow below.
With a wet squish he felt his boots make contact with the sodden ground beneath and the residual cold immediately started coming through his boots. Whipping his M4 up to his shoulder, he made for the edge of the clearing and once there crouched down to survey his part of the landing zone’s perimeter.
Once the final member of the detachment was down, the crew chiefs tossed the ropes out and the helicopters thundered off. A moment later they were specks in the sky and then they were gone.
“Radio check,” the detachment leader said in his headset.
In turn, they all checked in. Still crouched at the base of a tree, scanning the woods beyond, Rick Garcia chimed in, “Delta-three Golf Romeo.”
Rick had no interest in the Special Operations Group when he had first joined the Border Patrol. He had just been looking for an easy job after spending five years in the Army. An easy job where he could make a decent pay check while going to school. Not that being a Border Patrol Agent was easy, it was just easier and more enjoyable than being an E-5 in the Army.
But when the Administration expanded SOG and upped their member’s pay, Rick was the first to sign up. He was bored patrolling the Northern Border anyway and didn’t really want to move up in the ranks.
“Let’s go,” the detachment leader called.
This, at least, took the boredom away.
They were formed into two teams—“chalks” in the Army—and in roughly column formation, they shuffled off in the snow, each man following almost directly behind the one in front of him.
They would approach the camp from two sides, spreading out to ensure the smallest likelihood of escape. The team from the lead helicopter would approach from the side off the maintenance road, while his team would circle around the camp and approach it from the rear. In the difficult terrain, their approach would work mostly to shore up the camp, as they would approach it from higher up on the mountainside, catching those strong enough to venture upward while driving the rest towards the other team. After that arrests, and then back to the road where CBP trucks would be waiting. Estimated mission time: three hours.
Two to two and a half hour of which involved trudging through the snow along a mountainside to reach their positions.
This absolutely took the boredom away.
They were in position well above the camp in two hours and thirteen minutes. Not great time, but good enough. Once spread out, they started down the mountainside, weapons held at the ready. More than likely the camp would be caught off guard, its residents throwing up their hands in surrender. There be lots of yelling, sure, but that was just to make sure they didn’t do anything stupid. Although firearms were a regular addition to the investigation’s evidence locker after one of these raids, these camps rarely harbored anyone who was crazy enough to fire on Federal officers.
Rarely did not mean always.
They were only about half the way down when the sharp crack of an assault rifle reached them. Down towards it they pushed on, jumping and running their way down. Over the radio, the lead team reported in that they had taken fire from the camp and were engaging.
“We’re almost there,” Eddie, their team leader, panted in response.
And then, they saw it. Down below them at the foot of a cliff, they saw the camp. Tents, an RV trailer, and some cars—and hell of a lot of garbage. Rick saw the muzzle flashes coming from the far side of the camp and instinctively dropped to the ground, only realizing belatedly that the flashes were aimed at the camp and not at him.
He gave an annoyed look to the other members of his team as they ran past—none of them had thought to take cover—but he got back to his feet and started after them. Running down the cliff’s left side, they approached the camp through a stand of pines. Crouching behind cars or whatever other cover they could find, he saw some of them, wrapped up in a mishmash of second-hand clothing, overcoats, and scarves. They were shooting rifles, shotguns, and pistols towards the roar beyond.
Directly in front of him, he saw a man firing around the trailer with a hunting rifle, using the vehicle as cover.
Without hesitating, Rick raised his weapon and fired.
They hadn’t been expecting to be attacked from the other side. One or two of them managed to get off a shot, but his team worked methodically, clearing them as the detachment commander’s team continued to engage people closer to the road. A moment later that part of the camp also grew silent, and the detachment spread out by pairs to check the tents and inside of the vehicles.
He and Winston cleared the trailer, bursting in with their weapons trained on any sight of movement. What they found were a group of small children—mostly four or five years old—standing around the bleeding body of a woman, their mother presumably. She was emaciated, and her toes were purple with frostbite. The children weren’t much better off, he realized as he shined the flashlight on his rifle down on their tear-streaked faces. Jesus, they were starving.
He glowered at them a moment and then down at the woman. “There are some children in the trailer. Boss, they’re in really bad condition.” He looked away, trying to clear his thoughts. After a second, he bent down and turned back to face the children. They backed away quickly, a few of the smaller ones wailing at him.
He looked down at the woman and felt for a pulse, but she was gone. “One adult female, Hispanic, deceased—”
Some hint of motion beneath the woman’s coat caught his attention, and in rush of air he realized what it was. Pulling open the coat, he found the wriggling, blood-soaked form of a swaddled baby. It barely made a sound when he picked it up, and when he looked at his face, he saw why: it was ghostly pale.
Feeling it over quickly, he found the injury, nearly dropping the child when he finally saw it. A bullet had taken one of her legs clean off before striking the mother in the stomach. He felt his breath catch as he quickly wrapped the baby up again. “One injured, bleeding severely.” Rick waved at Winston, who nodded and yelled out the door, “MEDIC!”
“Injured is female, one or two years old.”
Someone cursed into their mic.
“Medic on the way. We can’t an ambulance in yet, so you’ll have to wait.” As if to underscore the point, a fresh burst of gunfire rang out.
She was dead before the medic reached them. Rick had inadvertently undone what had effectively been a makeshift tourniquet when he had unwrapped the baby’s swaddling, allowing her bleed to death.
“She was going to die anyway,” the medic assured him. He looked like he was going to give him a pat on the shoulder, but one look from Rick was all he needed to get the message. Instead he turned to the children, trying to cajole them towards him.
Winston eyed him from the door. “Nothing you could have done, man.” Another burst of gunfire drew his attention, but a second later came the all clear and he relaxed. “It’s a dangerous world. That’s why we’re out here doing this. To make sure shit like this doesn’t keep happening.”
Rick, still holding the baby, just blinked. Had he fired into the trailer? Had one of his stray rounds struck it? He had fired towards the trailer as they had come around the cliff side, but that had been past it, not at it.
“You all right, man?” Winston said, breaking through his thoughts.
Rick wasn’t sure if he ever responded or if he just sat there in silence, holding the dead baby until EMS came rushing in. They took the small body from him and then took charge to check out the rest of the children, all of whom cried and shied away from them.
He looked down at his gloves and sleeves, streaked with red. He looked past them at the children one last time before turning around and walking past Winston and out of the trailer.
A harsh wind was blowing snow off the trees, making visibility poor where it had been clear only moments before. Even the sky was different, clouds blocking out the sun. Pulling his goggles down, he walked through the wind towards a knot of agents in the center of the camp. There he saw more bodies, all of them wrapped in that same combination of dirty clothing and blankets. They lay where they had fallen, some behind cover, others in the open.
But they weren’t armed.
The more he looked, the more he realized what he was seeing. Here and there, yes, there were weapons, but not enough—not nearly enough. Not one for each person—
For each body.
He saw his chalk leader gesticulating angrily at the detachment commander, saying something to the operations commander. Fresh from his SUV, the operations commander didn’t look especially happy to be held up like this. He glowered at both of them and said something, to which Eddie only responded by pointing at his boss.
“Forget it, man. If you don’t, it’ll eat you up inside,” Winston said at his side. He looked up and saw what Rick was seeing. “Come on, we should go.” When Rick didn’t respond, he nudged him with the butt of his rifle. “Come on.”
“Yeah,” Rick said, still watching the argument in progress. “Sure thing.”