Here are the first few chapters of my third novel, Defend Us in Battle. If you’d like to read the rest, or just have feedback, feel free to contact me.
And so I begin the fifth journal chronicling my life of service to Rome. My name is Claudius Severus Faenius, and I am a soldier of Rome. If I am dead, stranger, and you come upon this volume either on my person or among my possessions, I humbly request that you remand it either to one of my fellow Centurions of the Ninth, or, should that prove impossible, make every reasonable effort to return these pages to my family outside of Carteia in Southern Hispania. I ask you this as a fellow Roman, so that my family might learn of what I accomplished in my absence and know that Rome did not sell my life cheaply.
I threw myself into the dirt as the rocket-propelled grenade whizzed over my head. I struggled to spit the grit out of my mouth while I got on a knee and started to scan the ridgeline behind the enemy compound for threats. So far, the entire mission had been a giant cluster. We’d been late getting the news that one of the High Value Targets that we were after had just surfaced in a known enemy compound just over the Af-Pak border. My worst fears were confirmed when I heard the telltale sound of a .50 DSHKA heavy machine gun open up from a fortified fighting position well above us.
I could hear the rounds impacting around me as I crouched behind a boulder. Nearby, I could hear the frantic sound of our Air Force JTAC as he attempted to establish comms with the A-10 that was supporting us. Evidently, he succeeded because a moment later a sound that more closely resembled the noise of a truck engine without a muffler than a machine gun filled the sky as the aircraft’s GAU-8 rotary cannon stitched a trail of dust along the ridgeline perpendicular to our position.
I looked to my left and right, ensuring that the rest of my squad was alright. When my two team leaders gave me a thumbs up sign, I radioed the Platoon Leader and let him know that we were alright.
“Two-Six, this is Two-One. We’re all up.”
“Two-Three is up,” came another voice on the net.
There was some heavy breathing as someone took a second to catch their breath before speaking. “This is Two-Seven,” my Platoon Sergeant said. “We have one minor casualty with a ricochet at my position, but he’s patched up and good to hook. Tell the JTAC thanks, Two-One.”
I looked over and gave the Air Force JTAC a thumbs up, which he returned.
“Roger,” our Platoon Leader said in his thick Detroit accent sounded back over earpiece. “Once Weapon squad is in position, first and second squad will bound up to the compound. One-Three, ya’ll have outer security.”
He was soon answered by a chorus of ‘Rogers’ and the platoon started to manuever. Our Platoon Sergeant and the Weapons Squad Leader directed our heavy weapons team as they lay down disciplined bursts of fire on the compound while we approached, shifting fire while we advanced. We bounded up by fire teams; one team covered the advance of the other from behind boulders or from inside ditches while the other team advanced. I could see that third squad was doing the same thing parallel to us as we advanced toward the compound. Whoever was in there was about to have almost twenty Army Rangers smashing down their front door.
“Man, what the fuck?” my alpha team leader said as we scanned the windows for telltale signs of enemy combatants. “The Pred’s been looking at this house for four fucking hours. How did they miss the DSHKA crew on the ridge over there?”
“Thermal blankets… spider holes, who knows?” My musing was interrupted when muzzle flashes erupted from one of the darkened windows on the second level. My team immediately returned fire, pouring lead into the opening to little effect. Afghan compounds are built like small fortresses with walls made of thick clay and narrow windows to give defenders plenty of cover, perfect for defense against superior numbers and firepower.
Still, a clay wall can only do so much against an M203 Grenade launcher. One of my guys pumped two of the things into the window with the stubby, underslung weapon in less than ten seconds. The grenades detonated with a muffled whump and our two squads resumed the advance. Soon, we were stacked along the dubious safety of the outer wall. I tapped the Platoon Leader on the shoulder and motioned for him to get to the rear of my squad’s stack. I admired his enthusiasm, but he had the less experience with this sort of thing than anyone else in the platoon. He’d been back from his last deployment for only six months and attended RASP four weeks after getting back, but even so, he had a lot to learn about this sort of thing.
To his credit we moved. I eyed the other squad leader, Staff Sergeant Tidwell on the other side of the doorway and counted down with my gloved hand. His breaching man came up with a prybar and wrenched the double door open and second squad poured into what overhead imagery had indicated was the building’s courtyard.
There were three men waiting for us in the courtyard, their weapons trained on the gate. One was quick enough to fire off a short burst of AK-47 fire before the three of them were taken down. I was passing through what we call the ‘fatal funnel’ just as the third enemy combatant was collapsing to the ground.
We Rangers excel at this kind of work, logging hundreds of hours in our simulated urban shoot houses between deployments, and very few enemies anticipate the psychological effect of a sudden, violent breaching operation. All we need is a split second for the enemy to fumble for his safety, rack a round, or just try to figure out what the hell’s going on, and the room is ours. The rest of our two squads poured into the courtyard, covering all of the windows and doors and responding instantly to short, clipped commands and hand signals.
I got the nod I was looking for from the PL and had my squad stack on the main entrance to the building’s interior as the two fire teams from the other squad cleared the outbuildings that lined the courtyard. There as a burst of gunfire behind me and I whipped my head around just in time to see four Soldiers emerge from one of the aforementioned outbuildings signaling one enemy KIA. The bastard must have been either hiding or waiting for us to begin breaching before attacking us from behind. Regardless, he wouldn’t be a problem now.
I felt the pressure of the man in front of me as he leaned against by body in a silent signal for ‘ready’ that originated with the point man. I responded by leaning back against him, sending the unspoken signal back to the front. Once we were all in place, the breach man extricated himself from the stack and was about to aim a kick directly beside the cheap stamped metal door handle, when I grabbed him by the loop on the back of his body armor and pulled him away from the door. We both lost our balance and nearly fell on our asses while the rest of the squad looked at us in alarm.
I gestured at the top right hand corner of the doorframe where a small half loop of black wire could be seen protruding from the inside. My breaching man’s olive face grew pale as he realized how close he’d come to getting blown to pieces. They’d obviously rigged the door when the firefight began, knowing that we’d almost have to come in through the main entrance. In their haste, it appeared that they’d failed to notice that a small section of the command wire had folded back outside of the door when they closed and locked it. Of course, it could all be a clever decoy as well. The bitch was that it would take too long for us to figure out which it was.
So, we were going in the window. I shook my head at my bravo team leader when he took the lead position beside the only window facing into the courtyard someone wearing full battle rattle could hope to squeeze through. If someone had to go in first, it was going to be me. One of my guys crawled beneath the window and tossed two flashbangs through the opening. I counted to three and leapt in after them as soon as I heard them detonate.
The air was still smoky and stinking of chemicals when my feet touched the floor inside the house. I saw three men on the ground all reaching for their weapons. One grabbed his rifle and turned it toward the opening, even though his eyes were still closed. I fired five quick rounds into his head and torso as I moved into the corner and the rest of my squad poured through. The other two didn’t have time to get their hands back on their weapons before my men were on top of them. Using quick, efficient movements, two of my Soldiers secured their wrists with zip ties as soon as all of the doorways were secure.
We passed through a large communal kitchen with large pots still heating rice above propane heaters. The room was clear, but I could hear gunfire echoing through other parts of the house. I knew that our other squad not involved in the cordon was in the building as well. The PL requested a Tacrep, which I relayed to my team leaders. We were all fine. Unfortunately, it sounded like second squad had taken a casualty.
There was no time to stop clearing the house and surrender the initiative to the enemy now that we were inside. Still, I couldn’t help but monitor the radio as the Platoon Sergeant and medic rushed forward from where they had been treating the earlier light casualties to retrieve the casualty. I sighed with relief when the voice of one of second squad’s team leaders came across the net and confirmed that it was only a graze and Sergeant Janos, it had to be him since he was the team SAW gunner, was moving under his own power.
Once you start clearing a house, things get disorderly quickly, especially if you don’t know the layout. It’s really easy for stacks to become disorganized or mixed between teams and squads once the bullets start flying and the detainees start needing to be guarded. My squad was already down two guys, who had remained in the front room to guard our initial prisoners and direct follow-on forces. We couldn’t afford to stop though. It would give the enemy time to coordinate their defense and set up kill zones. We needed to clear the house quickly and violently or else we’d have more serious casualties to deal with soon, and plenty of them.
As such, we were moving up the stairs to the second floor of the compound with a slightly understrength squad. We kept our rifles trained just above each other’s shoulders as we ascended the stairs in two columns. My ears rang as a 5.56mm round flew by my head into an enemy that had been moving to cover the staircase. My eyes flicked to Specialist Christman, who had already put his rifle back on safe, barely breaking his stride as he continued up the stairs. He was a good kid. He’d been with the unit less than a year and there was a good chance he’d just saved my life.
I continued to monitor the progress of the casualty evacuation efforts on the first floor as we began clearing rooms. The first two had nothing in them but a few ratty mattresses and dilapidated pieces of furniture. I took lead on the third room, smashing it in with a swift, economical kick the instant before my squad piled into the room. Gunfire erupted almost immediately. There were half a dozen heavily armed insurgents clustered around a massive assortment of high-end weaponry. Time always seems to slow down when I’m in a firefight, and the detached, analytic part of my brain noticed that there were boxes of stinger missiles, sniper rifles, machine guns and a recoilless rifle spread about the room. I dove for cover behind a flimsy set of shelves and opened up on the insurgents as my squad followed me through.
Several bullets snapped by my head as we switched our M-4s to full auto to gain fire superiority. The two insurgents that had wrongly felt that they would receive divine protection, thus obviating the need for cover went down in a hail of gunfire as the remaining four melted into cover. The room was connected to the one next to it by an enlarged doorway, giving the enemy space to fall back and return fire.
One of my guys went down with a gunshot wound to his leg. A team leader dragged him back into the hallway while the rest of my squad piled into the room, laying down a steady stream of lead at the remaining insurgents, who were now hiding behind desks and piles of munitions. A box of flares somehow managed to ignite which in turn caused a box of ammunition near one of the crouching insurgents to begin cooking off. Everyone in the two adjoining rooms, Taliban and American alike, threw themselves flat as the ammunition shredded the box in which it was contained and ricocheted off the walls.
The noise was deafening and the smell of cordite hung thick in the room. The haze cleared after about thirty seconds to reveal two additional insurgents torn apart by their own ammunition. The third figure knelt in the middle of the room. He was in a protective crouch, hands and legs beneath the folds of a traditional-looking robe that would have looked far more commonplace farther west in Iraq, where I’d spent my last three deployments. His robe was tattered from the shrapnel of bullet fragments and shell casings, but no blood seeped into the off-white fabric and he seemed miraculously unhurt. He had an AK-47 loosely cradled in his arms.
“Drop the weapon and lay down on the ground,” I shouted, my voice still sounding strange in my head as my ears continued to ring. For good measure, I repeated the command in Pashto, and then again in Arabic. The rifle clattered to the floor, though the man did not look up at me as he discarded his weapon, nor did he make any move to get down on the floor.
I repeated my command once more, I was unwilling to take my eyes off of the prisoner, but burning with a desire to go check on my wounded squad member in the hallway. I hadn’t even gotten a chance to see who it was, and I was acutely aware that I was failing as a leader.
“Who got hit?” I shouted, without taking my eyes off of the still motionless insurgent.
“Christman,” came the reply. “It’s bad Sergeant. The artery’s severed. We need to get him down to Doc.”
“Fuck, alright.” I had no time to play games with this guy. I told the only other soldier that was still in the room with me, a buck sergeant named Guilford that had somehow fallen in on my stack in the confusion to cover me while I cuffed the insurgent, thankful that there were no other rooms to clear. I moved toward him at an angle so as not to block his line of sight.
Only as I approached did the enemy combatant look up at me, revealing his face for the first time. He definitely wasn’t a local. Blue eyes stared at me above a long, light brown beard. Still, a good percentage of the high-level facilitators of the insurgency weren’t Afghans or even Pakistanis, so it wasn’t particularly surprising that there was an obvious foreigner in the compound.
“Show me your hands,” I commanded, wanting to secure him as quickly as possible so I could go check on Christman. I heard him groaning faintly as the others lifted him and prepared to take him down the stairs. He didn’t move. ROE and my conscience both prevented me from killing him even though he probably deserved it given the atrocities that this cell had committed over the last six months.
He started moving a split second before he was in arms reach, a knife seeming to materialize in his hand. I was ready for him to try something and immediately fired three rounds into his body. Instead of convulsing on the floor, he threw the knife at Sergeant Guilford, hitting him just below the clavicle. Guilford stepped back reflexively, hands clutching the blade. Before he could do something stupid like pull the knife out of his upper chest, the strange man did it for him. He gestured with his hand, and the knife flew out of Guilford’s body and back into his hand as if drawn by a powerful magnet. Guilford doubled over, shouting in pain and clutching at his injury, which was staining his body armor red with blood.
The robed man spun on his shield and came after me next, knife flashing as I backpedaled, trying to bring my M-4 to bear while simultaneously blocking his thrusts. The knife seemed to take on an eerie bluish light as he attacked, though I might have been imagining things as adrenaline pumped through my system. With one hand, he grabbed my rifle and wrenched it from my grip, sending it clattering across the room. He slashed at me again, opening a massive gash on my upper left arm. He tried to follow it up with an eviscerating blow just below my body armor, but swung wide. I tried to hit him in the stomach with my uninjured arm, and was rewarded with a jolt of pain running up my arm as my knuckles collided with some type of armor.
Thinking fast, I tried to find purchase on his exposed arm only to realize that it too was encased in armor, with an articulated joint at the elbow. How he was able to move so easily in his while my own did nothing but slow me down was a complete mystery to me. He tore his arm free from my one-handed grip and sent me reeling with a powerful backhand. Before I could go very far, he seized my injured left arm, twisting it with impossible strength. I almost blacked out with the pain and could feel my bones twisting below his grip. He stared at my exposed shoulder and the tattoo that adorned it. It was the mark of the Roman legion, a stylized ‘P’ over an ‘X’ surrounded by a wreath and crowned by an eagle that I’d gotten right after Ranger School. He smirked at me and slackened his grip as he positioned his knife against my neck.
“Indignus,” he said still smiling as he prepared to cut my throat. The detached part of my brain thought it was strange that the last thing that I would ever hear was the Latin word for unworthy.
Suddenly, the man began jerking violently. As the knife moved away from my neck, I could see Guilford propped up with his back against the wall, holding his M4 with his off hand and pouring lead into the man’s back. None of it seemed to hurt him, but the impacts of the rounds still rocked his body. He lifted me off the ground with one arm as he turned to face Guilford. His grip slackened and I took advantage of his momentary distraction to head butt him in the face with my helmet, pushing off the ground with my legs to add momentum to the impact. I felt his nose break and he staggered backward, face awash in blood just as Guilford’s rifle went dry.
He howled in pain and glared at me, eyes burning with hatred. Despite having been shot with several dozen rounds of ammunition and surviving an explosion that reduced his two compatriots to pulp, the man seemed to be more or less alright. I grabbed one of the fallen terrorists’ rifles as Guilford struggled to reload with his one good hand. He gestured at his discarded knife, in an attempt to return it to his grip again, but I stomped down on it with my boot. I could feel the knife wriggling beneath my foot like it was alive. The instant before the knife worked its way free, I drew a bead on him and pulled the trigger.
The 7.62 millimeter ammunition slammed into the man’s body with far more force than the bullets from our M4s had, blowing chunks of his tattered robe off to reveal a sleek, articulated suit of dull metal armor beneath that looked like it covered most of his body. I’d never seen anything like it. It looked impossibly advanced and portions of it glowed with the same dull, blue light that the now discarded knife had possessed. Even though my ears were ringing from the multiple close-proximity gunshots, I could hear shouts of alarm from downstairs and knew that help was not long in coming. That was good, since neither Guilford nor I were in much condition to continue fighting. I could feel blood running down my arm and struggled to blink away the black spots that were clouding my vision.
The armored insurgent continued to rock back, each impact forcing him back in the direction of the piled weaponry in the adjoining room. He shielded his head with one arm, not that I was in any condition to attempt such a difficult shot. As he fell back, he fumbled for something beneath the folds of ruined robes. It was a small sphere that began to pulse menacingly as he twisted it in his hands.
My weapon went dry as he tossed the sphere, aiming for the bare floor between me and Guilford. Something in his fancy armor must have finally shorted out due to the repeated blows it had sustained from Guilford’s and my gunfire since sparks began to shower out of the shoulder joint as he was midway through the motion of throwing what I assumed was a grenade of some sort. The sphere arced gently in my direction instead. Without even thinking, I reversed the grip on my AK-47, barely feeling the heat of the barrel through my ballistic gloves and struck the flying grenade like it was a poorly-thrown softball.
I didn’t even take the time to see where it had landed. I was already sprinting toward the door, grabbing Guilford by the strap on the back of his armor as I went. He’s already lost a lot of blood and was barely strong enough to move his legs in an effort to assist my progress. We flopped side-by-side onto the floor just outside and around the corner from the doorway and waited for the blast. The shout of frustration from the armored insurgent was cut off by a deep whump that sounded nothing like any of the thousands of explosions I’d heard over my short career.
Instead of feeling a shockwave, I nearly jumped out of my skin when I began to feel myself being dragged back into the room. My first thought was that the relentless armored insurgent had somehow survived the concussion of the grenade and was pulling me back into the room to finish the job. I looked over my shoulder and saw something far more horrifying. The area around the grenade was folding in on itself as if it was water going down a drain. The armored man was already halfway enveloped by the growing vortex, and I could see his body becoming impossibly distorted as it continued to suck him in. My hands scrabbled to find purchase and I noticed to my horror that Guilford had lost consciousness and was sliding freely by me.
With a shout of frustration, I grabbed ahold of Guilford with my injured left hand just as my right hand found purchase on the doorframe. The pain was indescribable. I could literally feel the damaged muscles from my arm begin to tear and the blood, which had been falling to the floor now flowed sideways in the direction of the terrifying vortex. The screams of the dying man were cut short as his body was finally consumed by the growing black sphere.
All around me, I could hear timbers splintering and clay breaking as the walls and support beams of the house were subjected to forces that they had never been meant to endure. The house was collapsing and I could hear shouts of alarm from the rest of the platoon on the floor below. I could feel my grip slackening on the doorframe.
The pain in my arm was indescribable as I struggled to maintain my grip on the unconscious Sergeant Guilford. The walls around me continued to crack from the force contained within the strange grenade until the floor around me collapsed. The strange twisting effect enveloping the room disappeared as Guilford and I went crashing down along with several tons of wood and masonry. Something hit me in the back of the head, forcing my helmet over my eyes and I fell unconscious.
It is fitting that I begin this journal just as the Legion begins a new Northern campaign. The Picts are growing increasingly restive as a new generation comes to power that has yet to taste defeat on a large scale. Such is the way of these Barbarian tribes. They have no written history, only stories. As such, the exploits of their warriors grow with the years while tales of ignominious defeat are slowly forgotten or explained away by elders eager to make excuses for their defeat and their tribes’ low circumstances. Thus arises the need to resow the seeds of fear in the hearts of the heathens every fifteen or twenty years.
The next several days were a blur, not least of all because I was heavily sedated most of the time. I flew first to Bagram Airfield, where they stabilized me enough to make the trip to Germany, where I remained in intensive care for several days while my injuries were treated and doctors monitored my body for signs of infection. I spoke with several members of my platoon on the phone during my more lucid moments. The platoon was hurting after the raid on the compound took a turn for the worse, and our Battalion commander had sidelined them until further notice. I imagine that it did more harm than good in some respects since it forced them all to dwell on any mistakes that they might have made during the attack.
The good news was that one of the senior Taliban commanders for the whole region had been pulled out of the rubble of the compound, along with four of his top lieutenants and an enforcer that kept most of the region at least tacitly supporting the insurgency through fear alone. The bad news was that half of my squad had been killed by whoever it was the Taliban commander had been meeting with. Before I left for the States, a couple of men in civilian clothes stopped by my room to speak with me. They asked questions about the raid and the events leading up to the explosion while a nurse hovered nervously just outside the door.
I told him as much as I could about the raid and what we’d seen inside the house. I told them about the European-looking man that had been with the Taliban fighters. The consensus was that he was probably a Chechen mercenary or something, but obviously there was no way of telling for sure. Eventually, the suits thanked me for my time and wished me a speedy recovery.
After being monitored for a few more days, I was deemed stable enough to make the flight back to the states. My parents were waiting for me when I got to Walter Reed, along with a few members of my unit’s rear detachment. Together, they helped me in-process and begin my long, painful recovery. My mother seemed overwhelmed throughout the whole ordeal, but my father remained calm, sitting beside my bed for as long as he was allowed. After a week and a half, they had to return to Texas to look after the restaurant, and I was left more or less to my own devices.
Once it was clear that I would indeed be able to keep my arm, the physical therapy began. I have to admit, up until that point, I felt pretty bad for myself. Still, seeing some of the guys who were undergoing therapy at the same time as me was nothing short of inspiring. Most of them had been injured by IEDs, ether while driving or while they were dismounted on patrol. As such, there was an inordinate number of soldiers in that hospital with mangled arms and legs, oftentimes struggling to learn how to use a new prosthetic or something equally painful and difficult.
Day after day we struggled alongside one another, fighting to return our bodies to some semblance of what they once were. In the end, I gained full mobility of my arm. I was one of the lucky ones. For some, even something as simple as feeding oneself would be a difficult task for the rest of their lives.
The physical therapy did more than just heal our bodies. Many of the guys, myself included to be honest, were struggling with feelings of guilt, shame, and inadequacy. While we were performing our exercises, our trainers encouraged us to interact with each other and share our feelings. It helped. Maybe more than the exercises themselves in all honesty.
By the time I got out of the hospital, my arm was fine, but I was still suffering mentally. Feelings of self-recrimination and guilt were a constant part of my life. I spent as much time as I could with the other recovering casualties in order to keep my memories at bay. Perhaps if I’d been faster, I could have stopped the strange man from detonating the charges hidden throughout the house. Maybe I could have overpowered him and kept more of my platoon alive.
The doctors told me that it would take years for my arm to return to full functionality and hinted strongly that I should begin looking into a support position that interested me so that I could continue my service.
I knew the feelings of doubt would eventually eat me alive, just as I knew that I would one day have to be able to be alone without sinking into depression if I ever wanted to lead something resembling a normal life, so I turned to an old standby to get me through the nights when I just couldn’t fall asleep.
My mom, ever the devout Catholic, left her rosary with me when she left. I began praying with it every night. The repetition and patterns were soothing and helped me relax enough that I no longer lay awake at night waiting for the sun to shine through the curtains. Even though I’d gone to a Catholic high school, it was safe to say that my faith had lapsed during my time in the Army. I resolved to put an end to that. I sought out the chaplains in the hospital in hopes that they could help me reconcile the faith of my childhood with the things that I had seen on my four deployments. I began attending mass regularly. By the time I was pronounced fit enough to return to limited duty at my home station, I already knew what I was going to do.
I look forward to bringing the fight to the hearths of the Picts after so many years spent arriving at farms and villages a day late and having little to do but bury bodies. This spring, as soon as the snow melts, the Ninth will be marching into Caledonia to end this scourge on the good people of northern Britannia, and in doing so, my cohort will bring great honor to Rome and the Ninth Spanish Legion.
The day I left the United States Army, I did the most rebellious thing that I could think of; I boxed up the last few belongings in my apartment on the outskirts of Columbus, Georgia, dropped them off at a Goodwill store, and began the long drive north where I would spend the next four years of my life learning to be a Catholic Priest. My mom was excited. My dad was confused, but supportive. My platoonmates’ reactions ran the gamut. Some were pleased that I was trying to do something I believed in, while others made jokes that were stale back in the ‘90s. Still, my decision was my own. After eight years of fighting and killing, I wanted something different. I wanted a sense of peace. I wanted to become a man of God.
I quickly found that my time in the Army had prepared me well for life in Seminary. Attention to detail, concern for others, teamwork, and discipline were all considered virtuous, just as they had been when I was in the Rangers. I had some trouble adjusting to the rigors of academic life during the first year. My online bachelor’s degree did little than waive an initial entry requirement in that regard. Still, by year two, I hit my stride and during my third year, I climbed steadily both in overall class rank and in the estimation of my peers and teachers.
Three months into my final year, I received a summons from Monsignor Colwin. I remember my footsteps echoing down the long hallway on my way to his office while the faces of seminarians who went on to achieve great things in the world looked down on me from their portraits. I spent very little time in this wing of the main building, as it was devoted primarily to administration and other tasks that a former NCO like me had little use for.
I knocked on the solid wooden door to Monsignor’s study and waited for him to invitation to come in. When I heard Monsignor’s voice through the door, turned the metal handle and entered his study. I never really understood why, but Monsignor Colwin had always seemed to take an interest in me. Perhaps it was due to my background, but he would never pass up a chance to ask me where I stood on moral and ethical issues. He was a tough grader whenever it fell to him to look over one of my papers and would almost invariably call me to his office to elaborate on the finer points of my arguments. Initially, I’d found the fact that I would inevitably find myself having to defend a paper I’d written from the questions and criticisms of one of the Seminary’s senior-most instructors to be, delicately put, an enormous pain in the ass. Later, I began to realize that the one-on-one meetings forced me to be thorough in my research and form my arguments and positions with care.
Although it had been several months since I’d seen the inside of Monsignor Colwin’s office, but everything was still where I remembered it. A portrait of the Madonna was in the place of honor behind his large wooden desk that was probably older than I was, and the rest of the wood-paneled office was lined with portraits of saints, various diplomas and certificates, and a simple unadorned cross between the office’s two windows. His had some personal touches on its surface. There were pictures of several school-age children that were probably nieces and nephews along with some older-looking photographs from his time as a missionary in Central America.
The man sitting in one of the office’s overstuffed armchairs perusing one of the books from Monsignor’s corner case stood out like a sore thumb. I guess that’s not a great metaphor. He had all of the trappings of one of the many middle-aged priests that came and went from the Seminary on one errand or another, but something about the man’s eyes caused my instincts to take notice. Most men and women don’t have that look. They want to go about their lives occupied with their own personal struggles. They are sheep, in other words. However, some men are wolves, who seek to harm the sheep, and a few are sheepdogs, who seek to protect them. The problem is, they can be hard to tell apart at a glance. I was not sure who the stranger in Monsignor’s office was, but I could tell that he was no sheep.
He was of medium height iron grey hair. Even though he was well into middle age, I could tell that he had a fit, rangy frame hidden beneath his loose black clothing. His icy blue eyes and the scar that bisected one of them were the only features that distinguished him from any other reasonably fit fifty-something. He was looking back at me with the same appraising look that I was doubles giving him.
“Dario,” Monsignor said, snapping me out of my reverie. “I am glad that you received my phone call to meet me here. When it went straight to voice mail, I feared we would be waiting for some time.”
“I apologize for the delay, Monsignor. I was praying the Rosary with a few of my classmates and had my phone turned off.
Monsignor Colwin waved his hands in dismissal. “No apology is necessary, Dario.” He gestured at me to sit in one of the two armchairs in front of his desk. “As members of the clergy, we must look to our relationship with God and those he has charged us to minister to above all else. Help yourself to some coffee.”
For the first time, I noticed a steel carafe sitting on the small table between the two chairs along with two ceramic mugs with the school crest and a modest assortment of cream and sugar. While my hour of prayer and meditation had left me feeling refreshed and energized, I felt it would have been rude to turn down Monsignor’s offer since it looked to have been prepared especially for me.
I poured a mug and sipped appreciatively while the two older priests continued to watch me. Just before the continued silence became awkward, Monsignor Colwin cleared his throat.
“I suppose you’d like to know why I called you in here this evening, Diego.”
I nodded. “I imagine it is to discuss my options after graduation.” It was a well-known fact throughout the seminary that my post-graduation plans were not yet set in stone. Most of my classmates had a solid idea of how they wanted to serve the Church as early as their second year, but I was still undecided. On one hand, my time in the Army had left me wanting to live a life of peace in some quiet parish far from any excitement or change. A part of me wanted routine, predictability, and the ability to put down roots and grow in my faith. There was another part of me that feared committing to any one place and wanted to continue to live a life where every day would be different and challenging. These two sides of me had been at war for three years.
Monsignor Colwin smiled at me, “You come to us from a rather unique background, Diego. You went to a public school and applied here while you were fighting in Afghanistan. You almost missed your first semester because you were recovering from injuries at Walter Reed, and you pay your tuition through the use of the GI Bill.”
All of these things were true, and caused me to stand apart from my classmates. Few were tactless enough to hold it against me, and most gave me far more respect for my previous career than I thought I deserved, but nothing he said was false.
“Your background is why I mentioned your name when one of my old colleagues from my missionary days gave me a call. I’d like you to meet father Ryan Donegal. He works with a rather unique organization within the church that keeps an eye out for promising young prospects.”
The man sitting in the corner from the bookshelf rose to his feet with his right arm extended. I copied his movement and we shook hands. His grip was firm, not overpowering, and wrinkles appeared around his eyes as he shook my hand and smiled.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. McAfee,” he said in a strong Irish Brogue. “Monsignor Colwin and I are in agreement that you might be an excellent fit for an organization that I represent.”
I was surprised to hear that my future was being discussed by the Seminary’s leadership, but tried not to show it.
“Alright,” I said, glancing at Monsignor Colwin, who was watching the two of us intently. “I’m open to suggestions. I guess it’s no secret that I’m still undecided about what I will do or where I will go once I leave seminary.”
“That’s a good start,” father Donegal said, rising to his feet. “My legs are feeling a bit stiff. Would you mind walking with me while I explain who it is exactly that I represent? I don’t want to impose on Monsignor any more than is necessary.”
“Nonsense,” Monsignor said. “If you need to use my office, I am more than happy to knock off early tonight.”
Father Donegal smiled and shook his head. “That won’t be necessary. Besides, I still need to take the measure of young Mr. McAfee here and I find that the outside air helps me clear my head.”
I didn’t really have plans for the evening as it was, so, with a nod of encouragement from Monsignor, I followed Father Donegal out of his office, through the front door, and into the night. Once we were out of the main quad and beyond the earshot of any of the staff or students that might be running late night errands, Father Donegal finally began to speak.
“Monsignor Colwin is good people,” he said without preamble. “When he tells me that he has a good potential candidate for my organization, I tend to take his word more seriously than most.”
I allowed myself to smile at the compliment, but I was still very curious about just who it was that Father Donegal represented. Something about the way he spoke said Vatican, but my internal alarm that informed me as to whether or not I was interacting with someone capable of doing great harm to anyone who crossed him, even though he walked with a slight limp.
“So you were with the Rangers, were you?” he asked me.
“I was. Seven years, give or take. Three deployments to Iraq, one to Afghanistan.”
He nodded respectfully. “What made you get out?”
“Well,” I said, “my last deployment got cut short when I took some shrapnel to the leg. By the time I got out of the hospital, I just wasn’t feeling it anymore. It was like something was missing. I had enough saved up from my time in and qualified for GI Bill benefits, so I figured that I would try to serve in a different way.”
“Noble,” Father Donegal murmured. “Far more so than I was at a similar age, though it pains me to admit it. Are you a man of peace then?”
“I wouldn’t say that exactly,” I said. “There are things worth fighting for, worth dying for even, it’s just that watching your friends get blown up with weapons paid for by money given to foreign governments to feed their poor or shot in the back by the people that we’re trying to help, or called occupiers when we do nothing but spend treasure and blood to improve the lives of those that hate us… it makes you stop and think.”
“I’m no stranger to fighting for causes that fail to live up to their ideals,” Father Donegal said, eyes growing distant. “Many of those that I work with feel the same way and wanted to use their skills to really make a difference.”
“I see,” I said. “What exactly do you think I would be able to contribute?”
“Let me cut to the chase,” Father Donegal said without any additional preamble. “I’ve already seen your admissions file and your performance while at Seminary is further confirmation that you are the type of person that my organization is looking for. You are selfless, courageous, able to think and react quickly in ethically ambiguous environments, and believe in the Church and our mission here on earth. I could go on, but suffice to say, you are the type of candidate that we look for.”
“For what sort of work?” I asked, giving him a sidelong glance.
“Whatever sort of work is necessary to protect the Church and the flock,” Father Donegal said simply. “What do you think is the greatest threat to the Church today?”
I paused to think. There were plenty to name. “Our good name is under attack from all sides,” I said. “That, and for the first time in a long while, no one in power seems interested in protecting Christians, either at home or abroad. Here, they get shouted down whenever they stand up for their beliefs, abroad, well, it’s even worse in places like the Middle East. People are turning their backs on values that make a society strong because they require discipline and personal restraint. It’s hard to say which of these problems is worst.”
“Aye, we live in dark times. True, life has never been better for more people, but things do seem to be taking a turn for the worse, don’t they? That tends to weigh on men’s hearts and make him cruel and petty. Rest assured though, the Church is not sitting idly by while the barbarians pound on the gates so to speak, and I believe that you could have a part to play in our efforts to make the world safe for people of faith. You’d be at the tip of the spear, as you Americans are so fond of saying.”
It was an interesting offer, but that part of me that simply wanted to live a quiet life far removed from any semblance of excitement or danger was shouting in alarm somewhere in the back of my head.
“It’s an intriguing offer, Father, but I have a commitment to the Seminary. Perhaps in a year or so, I might consider it, depending on what the work entailed.”
“Cold feet, eh?” The older man said. “It is understandable that you might have reservations about jumping into anything blind. That sort of caution is common among old soldiers like us. Not to worry. I’m not hiding a contract in my back pocket waiting for you to let down your guard. We only take the most qualified, motivated, and willing of applicants. What I do have for you is an offer.”
“You sound like you’ve made this speech before,” I said with a wry grin.
“You could say that,” he replied.
“Alright then, what do you want me to do, Father?”
“I have two more stops to make here in North America,” Father Donegal said. “After that, I’ll be flying back to Italy, hopefully with you and another likely prospect or two in tow. I’ll show you our facilities, let you talk to some others who have decided that the mission is worth the sacrifice, the cause is just and all that, and let you make up your mind from there.”
“What about my studies here? Will I be able to bring my things with or see my family before I go?”
“Regretfully, time is of the essence, though Monsignor Colwin and I have been acquainted for many years. He will see to it that your studies are not impacted and that your belongings are sent over should you choose to remain with us.” He then produced a plastic card from his pocket. “As for your family, this card will allow you to fly down to Texas and see them for the weekend without putting you out for the rest of the semester.” I started to protest, but he waved me off. “Think nothing of it. It is my way of thanking you for your time. Visit your family. Even if you ultimately choose not to come with me, it is the least I can do.”
He left me holding the frequent flyer card. “I must be going, but will return in a week. If you choose to join me, I will be waiting in Monsignor’s office, catching up on old times. Until then.” With that, the strange Irish priest was gone. I stared dumbstruck after him and pocketed the card, knowing that I had a lot to think about.
Nearly every one of our reliable scouts and spies north of the Empire’s border agree that there is a massive enemy offensive in the offing. Hopefully, our campaign north will blunt the attack before it occurs and throw the enemy into disarray. We have identified the tribe and chieftain that is issuing the call to war. His name is Alphan and he leads a people known as the Caldnadari. They have a well-earned reputation as fierce and canny warriors and control one of the largest remaining settlements beyond Imperial borders. Our auxiliaries tell us that the Caldnadari are considered a people apart, even amongst the northern barbarians. They are said to possess mythical powers and abilities that allow them to disappear during times of danger and are even said to wield strange weaponry blessed by their heathen gods. Such tales might suffice to bend their superstitious and weak-willed neighbors to their will, but it will do little to protect them from the Ninth when we come calling.
I’d like to say that I pulled a John Wayne, set my jaw and stepped into the unknown with a firm sense of purpose. I really would, but reality is more complicated than movies and stories. I prayed about it, I tried and failed to pry more answers from Monsignor. I searched for Father Donegal on the internet without success. While I didn’t appreciate the hush-hush nature of Father Donegal’s recruitment strategy, I had to admit that it worked. I was curious. I was excited. I wanted to know how I had been chosen over so many others. I also knew that regardless of where I ended up, I would always wonder about the hard-bitten Irish priest who showed up in the dead of night and offered me an open-ended chance to make a difference above and beyond what I was capable of doing himself. I didn’t want to wind up regretting not taking the time to see what he had in mind.
Finally, I took Father Donegal’s advice and went back to Texas for a few days to see my family. My mom wasn’t exactly thrilled that I was thinking about going to Europe, but my Dad seemed to understand. Naturally, I kept the details of what I would be doing in Europe hazy, since I didn’t know much more myself. I had a chance to see my brother and his new family, though my sister was too busy with classes to make it up to see me. I understood. I’d missed every single one of her graduations over the years. Feeling better, I headed back to Pennsylvania to meet Father Donegal.
We flew out two days later. Evidently, his other two stops hadn’t been successful because I was the only one travelling with him. Father Donegal didn’t talk much on the plane ride from Pittsburgh to Milan. That was just as well, since I was going to be missing a week of classes and didn’t want to fall behind. We stopped in Shannon, Ireland once we crossed the Atlantic. I’d been there before, heading to or coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, so I was well acquainted with the airport. If Father Donegal had any strong feelings about returning to the country of his birth, he didn’t display them openly. His face remained impassive even as we flew over London, the English Channel and the Ardennes forest before finally flying over the Alps.
Even though I’d flown this route plenty of times to and from deployment, the weather had always been poor or we’d made the trip in the dark, so the amazing views held my attention for most of the second leg of the flight. I’ve never been one to wax eloquent at the wonders of God’s handiwork as so many of my classmates were able to, but I felt humbled and inspired as I watched the sun set over the Alpine peaks while we began our descent into the city of Milan.
We did not stay in the city long. A hired car took us to a reasonably nice hotel near the airport, where I was afforded my own room. After half a day of flying, I really wasn’t tired, so I took out my e-reader and did some light reading while a soccer match droned on in the background. After an entire hour with no goals scored, but numerous poorly-faked injuries on both sides, I turned off the TV and focused on some classwork. After all, I didn’t want to fall behind in case the mysterious Father Donegal’s proposition turned out to be less intriguing than I expected.
I was reading some of Thomas Aquinas’s work in the original Latin. That sounds more impressive than it actually is. Growing up, I spoke Spanish whenever I went to visit my mom’s relatives in Houston, so I picked up the language fairly easily during my first year in Seminary. After about an hour and a half, the mental effort finally made me tired enough to try and get some sleep.
I received a knock at my door early the next morning, after getting only four hours of sleep. Getting by with less than a full night’s sleep is one of the most valuable skills one can learn in the Army, and after a cup of rich, aromatic coffee from the café beside the hotel, I was ready to go.
A different hired car took us out of the city and into the countryside. As the driver loaded our bags, I noticed that he was missing a hand. He spoke to Father Donegal in fluent Italian and it was clear that they were well acquainted. They spoke animatedly about trivial things like soccer as we drove out of Milan. I knew enough Spanish and Latin to follow along, but not contribute.
Northern Italy isn’t as well-known for its gorgeous countryside as their Tuscan neighbors to the south are, but I still found that the land around us still possessed an austere beauty. Signs of human settlement began to fade away as our Fiat followed the narrow, twisting highway into the highlands that separated the coastal plain of Northern Italy from the Alps. Much like our plane ride, Father Donegal remained silent and taciturn, revealing very little about our ultimate destination or the purpose in taking me there.
Eventually, the highway began to run along a fast moving river. On either side of the long, narrow valley the Alps loomed over us. Small villages were strung along the low ground, with terraced fields rising above them. If it hadn’t been for the architecture and relative prosperity of the towns we drove through, I would have thought I was back in Afghanistan. We drove through another town and I took the time to look at some of the signs. I noticed that many of the signs had two different languages written on them. One was obviously Italian, while the other looked vaguely French. I’d taken French for two years in High School though, and was surprised that I couldn’t recognize some of the words.
“Where are we?” I finally asked, gesturing out the window to Father Donegal.
“Welcome to the Aosta Valley,” he said. “It’s an Autonomous Region so far north that they don’t even speak Italian anymore. It’s one of the last places on Earth where you can hear people speak a language that was once spoken all through southern France and northern Italy. It’s isolated, we have good relations with the local officials, and very few people have ever heard of it, which all serve the purposes of my organization very well.”
That explained the strange signs, I thought. Father Donegal didn’t look like he had much else to say, so I returned to looking out the window. Finally, after several hours and a quick stop for lunch, we arrived at the base of an imposing outcropping overlooking a long, narrow valley that branched off of the larger valley through which we’d been travelling. Perched precariously on the edge of the cliff, was what I could only describe as a modest-sized castle. It probably hadn’t seen any sieges or warfare in its day; the architecture took its cues from sixteenth century cathedrals more than anything else, but the walls, towers, and spires all had a distinctly gothic feel to them and the entire building blended rather seamlessly into the surrounding mountainous terrain.
The car started up the winding drive that led to the castle. At one point, the road meandered close enough to the edge of the cliff that I could see into the valley. It was even smaller than it looked, but had a flat floor which looked to contain an airfield. My suspicions were confirmed a moment later when an unmarked C-130 cargo plane flew over the castle before turning gracefully in the air and executing a perfect landing on the short runway. The road veered around a bend before I could see anything else, but the gears in my head were already turning. Father Donegal remained quiet, but the ghost of a smile hovered around his lips.
Finally, we reached the entrance to the castle. We drove through the gate and parked alongside several other cars in the surprisingly spacious courtyard.
“Let me be the first to welcome you to the Castillo de San Michele,” Father Donegal said, gesturing expansively to the walls around us, his Irish accent temporarily subsiding as he pronounced the Italian words. “There is a good deal to show you, but before I do, I once again require your reassurance that you will not divulge anything that you see here.”
Truthfully, I was already beginning to see what kind of organization it was that Father Donegal worked for, but my curiosity to see just how expansive the effort was had me completely overwhelmed.
“You have it,” I said before I could stop myself.
Father Donegal peered at me once more before motioning me to follow him. The driver was already unloading my meager set of belongings when we entered the front door at the opposite end of the courtyard.
“Excellent,” he said, clapping his hands together. “I always enjoy giving the tour to first-timers.”
We walked through the stout oaken doors and entered an impressive front hallway. The plaster-covered stone walls were lined with a great many portraits and paintings along with a handful of busts and statues. Almost a dozen doors led off in various directions to other parts of the castle. “First, a word about our facility here,” he said as our footsteps echoed across the flagstones as we made our way to one of the large doors. “It was originally built by a minor Milanese noble who was well- acquainted with the Borgia family back in the bad old days of the sixteenth century. He built this place over an abandoned salt mine and used the tunnels and caverns below for all manner of nefarious deeds.”
I wanted him to cut to the chase and tell me about whatever mysterious organization it was that operated out of this place, but I’d always liked history as well, so I held my tongue.
“Eventually, court intrigue caused the castle fell into the hands of a rival family who in turn sold it to a succession of owners. Over the centuries, it was a mountain retreat, rebel stronghold, military outpost, and waypoint for mafia smuggling routes the USSR before the Church purchased it in the 1970s due to its extensive underground network of tunnels and caverns.”
“What use did the Church have for a place like this?” I asked. “The 70s weren’t a very friendly time,” Donegal said. “The cartels and narco gangs were just starting to get their hooks into the local governments and the communists were everywhere, stirring up trouble. Needless to say, neither of these two groups had anything but antipathy for the Church. The former saw us as a threat to their efforts to secure power while the latter saw us as a tool of capitalist oppression or whatever turn of phrase their Soviet handlers told them to use.”
I nodded, waiting for father Donegal to elaborate. I was surprised when he stopped in front of a portrait of a young looking John Paul II, his face looking down on us with a benevolent expression.
“Anyway,” he continued, “The Pope knew that he wouldn’t get help from anyone in the international community on this one. The governments in South America were either corrupt, incompetent, subverted by the Communists, or some combination of the three. America was fighting in Vietnam, and Europe was waiting for the Soviets to come screaming out of the Fulda Gap. So instead, he decided to do something about it himself and founded the Saint Michael Battalion. Our first commander thought that this would be the perfect place to stage and train, and the Pope bought it outright.”
“So you’re telling me that John Paul the Second, John Paul the Second, established a secret Army to fight the communists in South America?”
“Aye lad, though Army seems a little grandiose if you ask me. At the time, there were fewer than fifty of us, including our intel staff. Our initial membership consisted of some of the more aggressive members of the Swiss Guard, a few former members of the United States military and French Foreign Legion, some burned out cops from South and Central America, and…” he paused and coughed. “One very misguided kid from Belfast who was an expert at smuggling things across contentious borders.”
It was surprising news to say in the least, and I consciously had to force my mouth from hanging open.
“I can say with some degree of confidence and no small measure of pride that we did some good down there,” he said. “Sure, there weren’t enough of us to stop every death squad and two-bit gang shaking down the local parishes for money, but our network of informants was top-notch and we did a good job putting the more dangerous gangs in the ground. We’d hit them at night with everything we had and be out of there before the dust settled. Eventually, most of the bad guys got the hint and stopped deliberately targeting the Church. Sure, there were some priests that decided it was better to collaborate with their oppressors, but for many others, our mutual friend Monsignor Colwin included, we were heaven sent.”
His eyes grew distant for a moment, but I wasn’t about to interrupt him and divert his train of thought. “There were plenty of us that didn’t make it back. We lost a quarter of our strength during one mission in Colombia, but we regrouped, rearmed, and continued after them. I’d estimate less than one man in twenty made it out of the jungle once we found the bastards again. The driver with one hand, his name’s Fritz by the way, was there too. Lost it throwing a grenade back into a guard tower. Besides him, and me of course, I’d say that there’s fewer than half a dozen of us old timers still working with the Battalion.”
I felt my stomach drop and my heart begin to race as it all sank in. Now I knew what they wanted from me. With my training and background, they were recruiting me. They wanted me to join the Vatican’s secret army. “This is what I’m here for?” I sputtered. “You want me to join, what did you call it? The Saint Michael Battalion?”
Father Donegal pursed his lips. “You’re not one to let a man build up to the crescendo of his story before cutting in, are you lad? To answer your question, yes. That’s the long and short of it. We need good, experienced, faithful fighting men, now more than ever. You fit the bill.”
“It’s a lot to take in,” I said. “This is a big commitment, you can’t expect me to give up everything I’ve worked for these past few years in the blink of an eye, can you?
“Saint Peter did.” Father Donegal said. “Still, neither of us are saints and I understand completely.”
He opened the door and ushered me through into another, narrower hallway. Unable to contain my curiosity, I glanced into one of the partially open doors and saw what looked to be several office desks pushed against the walls complete with high-tech laptops and printers. Only one person was working this late, and we were already past before I could see anything more. More people were entering and leaving other rooms ahead of us, looking at me with curious expressions and exchanging polite nods with Father Donegal, who seemed to be at least acquainted with everyone there. Some were wearing civilian clothes, while others were wearing fatigues or clerical collars.
“Everything save our basic administrative offices is below the ground,” he said. “Our lodging is mostly up in that direction,” he said, gesturing over his shoulder where I could see several well-built figures, including a woman, walking up the stairs wearing workout clothing.
Eventually, we made it through the narrow hallway and into an oblong room that looked to be located on the back side of the castle, overlooking the narrow mountain valley below. Modern plate glass windows gave an excellent view of the sun as it set and the view of the valley and the airfield below was fantastic. The C-130 was already taxiing into a large hangar, and I could see the headlights of several vehicles moving below.
“This is quite the facility you’ve got here,” I said.
“It does nicely,” the priest agreed. “For doing good, we do well. Most of the cartels don’t care if we knock off a few of their goons, but if you hit them in the pocket book, they take notice and back off, but you haven’t seen anything yet.”
He led me to one of two pairs of steel doors located on the far side of the room, which turned out to be a freight elevator. With a push of a button we began to descend. Judging from the instrument panel, I could tell that there were at least eight levels. It took almost a full minute to reach our destination, so I already suspected that we were heading into the mines beneath the castle. When the doors opened, the sight before me was breathtaking.
A week after we crossed the border, a band of savages with twice our number attacked my cohort when we were scouting on the far side of a narrow creek. One of the tribunes, Cladus, eventually rode to our relief at the head of a column of auxiliary cavalry, but not before we killed over forty of them while losing only three men. The tribes at the top of the world breed fierce fighters, but they are no match for good Roman training and discipline.
It looked like something out of a science fiction movie. I’d expected a dingy hollowed out basement with a few computers and some dust covered maps, but what I found instead was an ultramodern command center at least the size of the castle’s front entrance with tunnels stretching out in several directions. Father Donegal smiled at the expression on my face and gave me a badge to place on my shirt.
“Procedure, you know,” he said apologetically. We walked into the command center, where a half dozen individuals were typing furiously on keyboards while satellite imagery, individual faces, and news feeds in a dozen languages fought for space on the screens above us. I whistled, which drew looks running the gamut from ‘bemused’ to ‘irritated’ from the various analysts sitting at the computers.
“This is the beating heart of our operation,” Father Donegal said with pride, “And a far cry from where we started it is at that.”
The analysts were all wearing some variation of cargo pants and casual, collared shirts, except for one guy who had a bright, Hawaiian-print shirt and another man with crisp, pressed military fatigues and a stern expression who occupied a desk with a single small monitor and three densely-covered white boards arrayed behind him. He snapped to attention as soon as he spotted Father Donegal.
His uniform was immaculate. He had iron grey hair, a trim physique, and a strong face accentuated by an aquiline nose. His olive skin had deep frown lines across his entire face, which only deepened when Father Donegal moved to embrace him like a brother.
“Sir, this is unseemly. It does not befit a commander to show such affection in front of the troops.” Several of the ‘troops’ were smirking behind their monitors as they watched the exchange.
“Nonsense Sergeant Major,” Father Donegal said, eyes sparkling. “Besides, it’s been years since I commanded the Battalion, that honor belongs to another now. I’m nothing more than the most senior of the Battalion’s chaplains now.” He turned to me. “Mr. McAfee, allow me to present Sergeant Major Diogo Sebrosa, once of the Brazilian Army, and for the last five years, the Battalion’s Sergeant Major.
He gave me a quick once-over and smiled briefly before beginning to speak English in a thick accent. “Ah, American Rangers. Good outfit. You will do well here if you can make it through the initial training.” He looked me over again. “Again, if. I will be watching your progress closely. I accept only the best into my Battalion.” With that, he spun on the heel of his immaculately shined boot and returned to studying a complex web diagram covered with photographs and lines that covered one of his whiteboards. “We have a development in Colombia that I would like your input on when you get a chance, Father.” He said after staring at the complex web of photographs for another moment or two.
“Of course,” Father Donegal said.
I looked at Father Donegal with newfound respect. “You’re the one in charge here?”
“Was. Was the one in charge here.” He lifted one of his pant legs and revealed a high-end prosthetic. I’d assumed his limp was the result of some long-ago injury, but never would have guessed that he had a prosthetic leg.
“An operation in Nigeria went south back in two-thousand three. After I got out of hospital, I decided to step down and become one of the unit chaplains. I also handle recruitment for most of the western hemisphere. Even if I’m not strong enough to lead the Battalion in combat, I still help where I can. Shall we?”
After saying farewell to the Sergeant Major and the rest of the staff in the command post, Father Donegal took me around the rest of the underground complex. They had a modern range, a well-stocked arms room, a garage that opened out onto the runway in the valley below, and everything else a small, competent military unit would need. Afterwards, he took me back up the elevator to the castle proper where he showed me the mess hall and the living quarters. The tour turned somber when he took me to a long hallway with pictures of members of the Battalion who had fallen over the past four decades, but an adjoining room contained countless photographs and mementos from missions that had gone well. There were pictures of smiling refugees, warlords being bundled into the back of NATO armored vehicles, and countless others.
“We try to give local police forces or UN peacekeepers the credit whenever we’re able,” said Father Donegal after telling me one particularly hair-raising story about a raid on a Filipino crime lord who had decided to branch into human trafficking in the late ‘90s. “It serves two purposes. For one, it helps us keep a low profile and keep those whose work supports our own from turning against us. Secondly, it helps us preserve both manpower and our morality. Most drug lords, warlords, or any of the other false lords that profit from misery and bloodshed have two things in spades. The first is vulnerabilities that can be exploited if someone takes the trouble to find them. The second thing that they almost invariably have are great heaps of enemies and rivals. Often, we’ve found that it takes only the smallest sign of weakness for the local authorities or sometimes his own lieutenants to take one of these bastards down.”
He looked at me with an odd intensity in his eyes. “We’re not in the business of taking lives, Mr. McAfee. Whenever possible, we leave that in God’s hands. We are not some globetrotting death squad that smites the Church’s enemies in the dark of the night. He look for people doing real, physical harm to the faithful and apply just enough pressure to topple them an convince whoever fills the power vacuum that it would be in their best interest to leave the Church and its people alone. Besides, many of the guards, drug dealers and low-level flunkies that we would kill if we operated more brazenly are involved simply because they have no other options. This is something the whole Battalion takes very seriously.”
“What about foreign militaries? Has a mission ever required you to fight soldiers from another country?”
“I know what you are hinting at,” Father Donegal said. “Your tactfulness and concern speak well of you. The Pope and our earliest leaders decided that we would never pursue lethal action against the soldiers of another country or its law enforcement personnel unless they are actively participating in atrocities against innocent civilians, thus waiving their status as protectors of the people.”
That was good to hear, and Father Donegal saw me relax. I would have walked back to Milan if he’d said anything different or if I’d picked up the slightest hint that he was being dishonest.
“I’m embarrassed to admit it now, but as a young member of the IRA filled with piss and vinegar, I was the most vocal opponent of this policy back in the early days. I dreamed of leading the Battalion into action against the British soldiers occupying Northern Ireland and meting out righteous vengeance for their many atrocities. I saw reason eventually, but not before I said some truly regrettable things to both my superiors and the Pontiff.”
His face was red with embarrassment. “I saw the light eventually, of course. Therein lies the road to ruin to say nothing of the dissension that it would sow within our own ranks if we began indiscriminately attacking a member’s countrymen. Rest assured, you will never be asked to harm another American soldier or peace officer, nor will anyone else in the Battalion.”
I smiled with relief. I had no intention of joining some kind of death squad, even if it was a very well-equipped death squad with noble motives.
We stayed in the room for some time while Father Donegal continued to regale me with anecdotes from the Battalion’s history. It was, to say in the least, incredibly interesting. If Father Donegal’s word was to be trusted, the unseen hand of the Saint Michael Battalion had shaped numerous key moments in history over the past forty years, though the stories that Father Donegal seemed to tell with the most passion were simple ones where the Battalion had been able to right a wrong, depose a local warlord, and save innocent lives. He was an animated storyteller, and, while I knew what a recruiter’s pitch looked like more than most, I couldn’t help but find myself drawn into his stories.
“I honestly can’t see how you guys get away with half this stuff,” I said between stories about toppling a particularly unpleasant drug lord in South America who liked to extort money from local churches, and a virulently anti-Christian politico from India who did far worse until his former enforcer turned state’s evidence against him.
“You’re right,” Father Donegal said. “If word ever got out that the Catholic Church had a secret army running black ops across international boundaries, things would get bad. As such, we’ve gotten very good at operating discreetly and have a network of associates the world over who aid us as well. It is less of a burden than you might think.”
My mind flashed back to the restrictive rules of engagement established by well-meaning bureaucrats that had gotten so many good people killed over the years, many of whom had been friends of mine. “Your solution to secrecy is to keep everyone on a tight leash?” I asked.
“No. We operate like a scalpel rather than a cleaver, only striking points of vulnerability when and if we can get away with it without harming the innocent. When you think about it, things really couldn’t happen any other way.”
“Because the world would find out if you tried anything too overt.”
“Because our own people would disown us if we strayed too far from our mission,” Father Donegal countered. “We only recruit those with strong moral fiber into our ranks. They ensure that our actions are altruistic and that we do not take lives needlessly. That in turn helps keep us hidden. If someone ever took issue with the moral direction of the group, they could easily reveal our existence to the world. Thus, our own members both protect us and keep our operations just.”
It made sense in a strange sort of way. They wouldn’t have been able to keep themselves concealed from the public eye for so many years otherwise. I followed Father Donegal out of the room as we continued our tour.
Eventually, we ended up in the chapel, which was located on the ground floor and overlooked the valley. There was room for maybe fifty people in the pews, but the space was intimate and well-kept. I suspected that I would be spending plenty of time in here over the next week while I contemplated my future.
Father Donegal broke the silence first. “Well, that pretty much sums up your orientation. I know you must still have some questions, though.
I certainly did. I paused for a moment to gather my thoughts so as not to sound tactless.
“I don’t recall signing any forms or giving any type of consent to join this organization,” I said carefully.
“That’s true. You are not obligated to join us here, and even if you agree, you will need to successfully complete our training program before we consider you a full member of the Battalion.” Father Donegal agreed. “What is your question then?”
“Well, I think it should be rather obvious. If I am not obligated to join and can, in fact, leave whenever I want, why are you telling me all of this? If any of this information made the news, any of it at all, it would be a PR nightmare that the Church hasn’t seen in a generation. You people have no idea how I’m going to take this. You’ve effectively admitted that the Church is funding a clandestine organization that violates the sovereignty of dozens of countries on a weekly basis and performs offensive military operations without any oversight or accountability in violation of every international law and treaty I can think of. Isn’t that a–heck of a secret to entrust with someone on the outside of your organization?”
Father Donegal flashed me a thin smile while he waited for me to finish. “You’re making a hell of an assumption if I do say so myself.”
“You’re assuming that we started vetting you when you and I had our first conversation back in America. In truth we’ve been watching you for far longer.”
“And how long would that be.”
Father Donegal paced over to a picture of a much younger version of himself and another man of similar complexion surrounded by what appeared to be a native tribe from somewhere in the Amazon basin. I recognized the man almost immediately. It was a much younger-and thinner, Monsignor Colwin. He waited until the recognition dawned on me. “You see, we have a network of clergy and devout laypeople who know about us spread all around the world. Most are people we have worked with in one capacity or another over the past four decades. Whenever one of them approaches us indicating that they have a likely prospect, a long vetting process begins. We feed them questions and hypotheticals to see whether the candidate is indeed someone that would be willing and capable of joining our organization.”
I thought back to the long conversations I’d had with Monsignor Colwin over the past several years. He’s always seemed interested on where I stood when it came to questions about the ethical application of violence, the role of the Church in defending the faithful, and the role of the faithful in defending the Church. What had at the time seemed to be rather innocuous ethical questions and questions about how I thought I could best serve the Church now looked much more like a deliberate survey of my personal beliefs now that I had the advantage of hindsight. I had to admit, the old man had done an admirable job concealing his true objectives.
“By the time I approached you,” Father Donegal said, “the question was no longer whether you would be willing to join us, but rather whether we wanted you to join us. I’ve been doing this for a long time and I know the type of person that we need for the Battalion’s record of success to continue. You were the only one I found worthy on that particular trip.
Father Donegal was right about me. For the first time in years, that voice in the back of my head pleading with me to live a life of ease and seclusion was silent. Instead, the other side of me, the sheepdog, the part that wanted to protect the innocent and bring justice to people that made a living hurting others hurtled to the forefront of my mind.
“I always hate this part,” Father Donegal said. “I’ve spent the last several hours showing you what this organization’s purpose is and what we are capable of. Now I feel morally obligated to make sure you understand the downsides, of which there are plenty, should you choose to join us.”
He began to tick off items on his hand as if he was reciting a list of chores that needed to be complete by the end of the day. “If this organization is ever exposed, we and everyone affiliated with us will face criminal charges from dozens of law enforcement agencies the world over. Nations will compete for custody over us and our clandestine allies in government will remain silent. You will need to deceive your family and friends as to the true nature of your assignments, telling them instead that you are studying Catholic doctrine in Italy. Most importantly,” he paused and looked me in the eye. “The Church will lose a priest with a great deal of potential. You could do a great deal of good should you elect to return to Seminary and complete your training there. Perhaps the day would come when we would have need of your assistance in the form of intelligence or support, but the Battalion would have no claim over you. Think over everything I’ve said and come back to me when you have an answer.”
With that he walked out of the chapel. Now that I was looking for it, I could notice the hitch in his step. The arm that I’d almost lost began to tingle and I inadvertently put my other hand over the spot where the Chechen stabbed me with his strange knife.
I sat down in one of the middle pews and looked up at the cross above the altar. After a few moments of reflection, I knelt down and prayed with a conviction and intensity that I had never felt before. Me entire worldview was completely different than it had been even a few hours ago. Here was my chance to make a difference in the world by doing what I was best suited to do. Still, it meant giving up almost four years of hard work and turning my back on my past life. Was it worth it? Could this tiny organization hope to stem the tide of suffering that seemed more and more likely to engulf the world? I prayed for guidance, for a sign, for advice, for anything really.
I saw a shadow flicker across one of the stained glass windows on the side of the chapel. Curious, I walked over and opened the window, using the small metal latch that was in need of some oil. There were two birds perched on the windowsill, just out of reach. One was holding a sunflower seed in its beak while a larger bird was advancing on it threateningly. They hopped around, each flapping their wings as they danced along the narrow windowsill.
Suddenly, in a flurry of motion, the larger bird launched itself at the smaller one, forcing the seed out of its beak. It nearly fell off the windowsill and onto the rocks below, but it stopped bouncing at the very edge. Confident and assured in its victory, the larger bird strutted over to the discarded seed. Before it could pick the seed up in its beak, there was another blur of motion and the larger bird disappeared in a puff of feathers, as a third, even larger bird of the same species hurtled into it. They both tumbled off the ledge and disappeared in a cacophony of indignant squawks and flapping wings. The smaller bird looked around furtively for a few moments before hopping over to the edge of the windowsill and recovering the discarded seed. The entire exchange took less than a minute. I’m not arrogant enough to presume that God sent me a sign that evening in the mountains of northern Italy, but my mind was made up and I knew what I had to do. I left the chapel and went to find Father Donegal.