A big cloud of fog billowed out of SEAL team leader Thomas Hancock's mouth. He stood and stretched, coming out of his tent. He was wearing his arctic camouflage parka, white with black and light blue slashes. Indeed, he hadn't even taken it off when he slept. Way too cold for that. When he went to sleep it was near minus thirty degrees. He estimated it to be about the same now. The drawstring on the parka's hood was pulled tight around his face. Only his pug nose and striking blue eyes were visible.
In his gloved hand was the metal mug from his mess kit. In the mug was the instant cocoa from the MRE (Meals Ready to Eat). He usually drank coffee, but didn't today. Coffee sometimes made him jittery, and his hands would shake. And today, of all the days of this mission, he would need steady hands.
The satellite uplink marked his team as being only five klicks from their target. They should be able to make it to their destination by noon. If there was such a thing as noon north of the Arctic Circle. This far north, in early February, the sun still didn't rise above the horizon. When they first disembarked, the southern sky turned a twilight grey for about a half hour at noon. As they'd traveled further north, though, even that had stopped. For the whole day, the sky was sunless. But the moon, which had risen above the horizon two days ago, reflected off the ice and snow made it almost as light as day. Even before the moon had risen, the stars and the aurora borealis had helped them see fairly well. When the sky got overcast, blocking out the natural light sources, they could still see using their night-vision goggles.
His team, this time designated Team Bravo, were specialized in underwater construction and demolition under frigid conditions, not arctic assaults. Certainly, they were trained for this, and had participated in training exercises of this nature numerous times before, but this was only the second time they had participated in this type of operation for real. This didn't worry any of the team members, though. Teams Alpha and Charlie, whom they would be rendezvousing with at the objective, were specialists in this type of operation. Bravo was the support team to the other two.
Bravo had been dropped off onto the arctic icecap by the USS Salt Lake City, a nuclear submarine, north of Norway. Hancock had been told that the other teams would be dropped off north of Canada and north of Russia. They would attack from three directions, improving the odds of at least part of the assault arriving undetected.
Hancock stared down at his cup of cocoa, with its island of chocolate powder floating in the middle (for some reason the cocoa mix from MRE's never mixed well), and tossed it out in disgust. He got out his pack and stowed away his mug with the rest of his mess gear. He looked up when he was finished, and watched his SEAL subordinates readying themselves for their assault. Most of them were finishing up their MRE breakfast, like he was, but a few had already finished and were now cleaning weapons. Good idea, thought Hancock. He walked over and stuffed the trash from his meal into the white trashbag that sat in the middle of his men's tents. They would bury the refuse in the snow before they left.
"All right Bravo, ' shouted Hancock, above the shrill arctic wind that competed with his voice. "We move out in half an hour. We should be at the target within five hours."
His men cheered. Their week out on the polar icecap had been seven days too long. A couple made baying sounds like a basset hound. Hancock shook his head. They had acquired that bizarre practice from the damn Marines they worked out with back at Adak. Now, he didn't have anything personal against jarheads. He had worked with them on numerous occasions in his fifteen years in the military. They were excellent fighters on mission, when you needed cannon fodder. But if you need something done with stealth, style, and efficiency you didn't call in the Marines, you called the SEALs.
Hancock removed his cleaning kit, sat down on his pack, and with deft, practiced movements proceeded to field strip his weapon onto the weatherproofed mat, in which the kit had been wrapped. In ultracold climates, you had to clean your weapon at least twice a day, whether you had used it or not. If you didn't, the oil on the parts would coagulate, becoming a jelly-like substance, of no help at all to the gun's inner workings.
The lieutenant commander completed the cleaning and oiling procedure in less than ten minutes, then ambled over to Chief Bates. RMC Edward "Norman" Bates was the teams radioman. He and Petty Officer Graff, the corpsman, were "honorary SEALs." They had gone through arctic survival training, and were both excellent shots with a number of weapons, but they weren't SEALs. Although they got teased a lot about being regular Navy, they both had been with the team for three years, and had the whole team's respect. They knew that their specialties were vital for the team's survival, especially the radioman.
Near the poles it was easy to get lost. Magnetic north was off to the southeast, and the north star was overhead. All stars circled the horizon. If you followed one of those stars for orientation, you would travel in circles. You could find a landmark to the north and aim for that, but such landmarks were few on the barren plains of snow and ice. It fell on the radioman to make sure the team didn't get lost. He used the signals from two navigational satellites that orbited the equator, to triangulate their position. As long as the satellites didn't stray from their geo-synchronous orbit, Bates could make sure they were on course.
"Hey Norm," said Hancock as he approached the navigator, who was squatted by his radio.
"Good morning, skipper," said Bates, pulling one earphone away from his ear, but keeping one on.
"If you call this a morning," quipped Hancock looking up at the still-dark sky.
Ed chuckled softly.
Ed Bates had been in the Navy longer than his commander, eighteen years, had never married, and loved his work. He worked with equipment that won't be available to the public for a decade, if then. He planned to stay in for twelve more years at least, and then retire only when forced to, kicking and screaming all the way. He was a short man, five foot five, with brown hair, brown eyes, a receded hairline, and a slim, fit body that came from physical activity, not just pumping iron in a gym. He loved all kinds of outdoor activity: hiking, hang gliding, and mountain climbing, just to name a few. That was the main reason he requested to work with the SEALs. He wanted to be where the action was.
"What do the weather guys have to say?" asked Hancock.
"Clear all day today, with the five day outlook being the same. You know, we have been damn lucky..."
"I know," affirmed the officer.
Bates ignored him, not missing a beat. "... February is often the worst month for blizzards up here in the Great White North. And so far we haven't been hit by any of it.
"I know," repeated Hancock, glancing down at his watch. "You know we leave in fifteen minutes."
"Yes sir. I was just making sure of direction before I put my gear away."
"And what direction is north today?"
"That-a-way, sir," said Bates, pointing away from camp, in a direction that looked like all the others, on the dead white plain.
"That's what I thought," said the lieutenant commander, as he walked off toward the rest of his men.
Bates proceeded to disassemble the satellite dish, and stow it away.
Hancock talked to all twelve of his men, checking on morale and any kind of equipment problems. Senior Chief John Hendricks was the next person he talked to. He was the senior enlisted SEAL. The chief told him that everyone was in good spirits, but Hancock wanted to see for himself. Besides, it was good for the troops' morale to know that their CO know each of them by name.
True to the senior chief's word, all his charges seemed to be in good spirits, but were anxious to get home.
Petty Officer Graff, the medic, with his portable heater, was making his rounds too, making everyone take off their gloves and boots, checking for frostbite. Graff and Hancock reached each other last. The officer complied, grudgingly, keeping each exposed extremity as close to the heater as possible. Graff said that he was clean, and there had been no problems yet on any of the men. More good news.
Everyone was ready to go, with two minutes to spare. All the leftover MRE's, excess gear, and communication equipment were put onto the sledges pulled by two of the twelve snowmobiles, the ones driven by Graff and Bates, the two least likely to see combat.
Hancock gave the men brief instructions, none of which was new to them. He reminded "Skeeter" Goodman and Warren Provoskiya, their two scouts on the light and fast snowmobiles, to always stay within view of each other, and to radio in at once if they spotted anyone or anything. He reminded all the others to take it slow. He didn't want to lose anyone to crevasses. The SEAL team nodded their heads. They had heard it all before several dozen times, but knew that their officer was obligated to do it one last time. If something went wrong, it was his hide.
The SEAL team started forward on their snowmobiles, single file, with Iceman far in the front, followed by Hancock, Hendricks in the rear, and Bates and Graff in the middle. The two scouts leaped ahead, while the rest of the team crept along slowly, with the Iceman checking the ground with a two meter collapsible pole, every ten meters or so.
.... There is more of this story ...