I was not looking forward to my tour in Helmond Province. So many had been lost or maimed, but 'England expects ...' and all that. As I boarded the chopper my head was full of possibilities, but not what actually happened.
When the bright light hit I was sure it was a missile attack. A shout of "What the fuck ..." from the pilot told me this was something different. As the chopper lurched and rolled I was certain we were going down. I readied my gun and braced myself for a hard landing but it never came. Everything went silent. Surely this was death come calling.
When the engine noise returned, I rushed to the cockpit. "This is not fucking Afghanistan." Ahead was a volcano, smoke rising from its crater. Below, a river, meandering through rainforest to a waterfall.
"Where the fuck are we?"
"I'm fucked if I know," the pilot shook his head in disbelief. "I'm taking her down. There's a bit of a plateau." I looked where he was indicating. It was grassland but I've never seen grass that bright emerald color; a trick of the light?
"Ready for action, men. We don't know if there's hostiles down there." As a man they readied their guns and braced for landing, eager to get into battle. They hadn't seen what I had.
The plateau was bordered on three sides by jungle; the fourth was the rocky volcano base. I looked up at the smoking crater. Was it about to erupt? We set up temporary camp next to the chopper. Three men were posted as lookouts. The pilot tried the radio but got only static. The rest gathered round.
I took my notepad and began to sketch. "Right, this is where we are," an X marked the bottom of the volcano. "As we came in I saw a river south west two clicks. And there's a waterfall four clicks down stream. We have no idea of our location and we have to assume all encounters hostile."
"Wilks, Smithy, Morpeth, on me." We gathered on the jungle edge, at a spot where there was a break in the foliage. We weren't equipped for jungle warfare so had to fight our way through with just our clasp knives. The surrounding plant life was nothing I had seen before. Morpeth was on point and when he let out a yell I ran to his location, rifle ready, but it was not a gun I needed. The man was struggling to free himself from a creeping plant which had encased him. As I used my knife to cut one vine another slithered into its place.
The leaves were serrated, like teeth, cutting into flesh. At root level I found a flower shape but the petals were thick and meaty and as they spread a gaping mouth opened and a long tongue tasted my cold steel. I reached for my handgun, aimed into the mouth, fired. With a ghastly howl the plant shook, withered and died. The vines lost their grip and I was able to cut Morpeth free.
Covered in puncture marks, strength sapped and sweating profusely, we carried him back to the chopper. Jackson, our medic, took one look at him and said "Poison."
"We need to evacuate back to base."
"Er ... and you know where that is?"
Adding to our problems, the white smoke blackened and hot ash rained down like snow. "This stuff will clog the engines in seconds." We were up shit creak alright. I made the decision to abandon the chopper and skirt around the foothills, keeping well away from the plant life. Maybe, somewhere on the other side of the volcano, was our way home.
Wilks and Smithy stretchered Morpeth, Jackson walking beside, keeping a watchful eye on his patient. Large rocks acted like stepping stones on the early terrain. Then the ground became loose as we hit shale. Cornwall and Connor took over stretcher duty from the exhausted Wilks and Smithy. "Another click and we'll take a rest."
We left the jungle behind, and came out to some of that emerald grassland. The ash was not falling on this side. We breathed in the fresh air. "How is Morpeth doing?"
"Not good. I'm worried his breathing will struggle if the paralysis moves to his chest." I gave the men fifteen minutes then we took off across the grassland.
We hadn't gone far when we spotted riders on the horizon. I signalled to drop. Were these friendlies? As they got closer I saw that it was not horses they were riding but something that resembled giant chickens. Now I knew for certain we were not in Afghanistan. The men got closer and pulled bows from their backs. Arrows flew over our heads. A tremendous roar came from behind us. Intent on watching the riders we had failed to see the creature approaching our rear.
A dragon, or something resembling one, rolled in agony. The men rode past us like we weren't even there. They thrashed at the creature with swords until it was finally stilled. Ropes were attached and the animal was dragged behind the horses. I realised that the men really couldn't see us. I signalled that we should follow. At least we would get to some kind of civilisation.
The village resembled what we would expect in Afghanistan but maybe a few hundred years ago. Was this some sort of time slip? There was a heat haze between us and the village. It made everything slightly blurred. The men and the creature faded into the haze. The sunlight became much brighter. I shielded my eyes but was still partially blinded.
The light faded as we got within touching distance of the first building. I noticed a satelite dish on the side of the one opposite. The sound of Kylie Minogue rang out.
"Hey bud, where you come from?" an American soldier called out from an armoured vehicle.
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you."