The Israelis arrived first. With Major Isaac Newcomb in command, Yacob Seraph, Moshe Keceph, and Joshua Abrams piled out of the troop transport onto the tarmac and yawned. Yacob and Joshua belonged to the Israeli version of America’s Delta Force, Shu’alei Shimshon. Moshe and Isaac had left the IDF, the Israeli Defense Force, to join the Mossad, the Israeli equivalent of America’s CIA. That meant they were assassins, committed to retribution, an eye for an eye. No one killed a Jew without paying a price. These men made certain of it.
The Brits came screeching in an hour or so later. They were led by another Major, a veteran of Desert Storm and Enduring Freedom, Blake Huston. Accompanying him were Lad Childress, Ryan Sullivan, and Cliff Powers. They were all members of the elite SAS. Tough as they come, they were the ultimate combatants."
Covert Operation "Bag ’Em and Tag ’Em" was underway. As soon as the President had approved the mission, Adams and Stanley had flown from the White House to Andrews Air Force Base. Now aboard a C-17, they were winging their way to the rendezvous point, flying the great circle route over Europe, across the eastern Mediterranean, then down above portions of Saudi Arabia. Diego Garcia was south of the equator in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Even at just under the speed of sound, the voyage from Washington would consume nearly eighteen hours.
The plan was to fly carrier-based S-3 Vikings into northern India, transferring to specially-rigged Sea Hawks, SH-60Hs. By hugging the rugged terrain of the Western Himalayas and Hindu Kush, they would be able to sneak through disputed territories and enter the northern and most mountainous region of Afghanistan. They would have preferred sufficient force to sneaking, but the pacifist President had nixed the big guns.
The team of twelve planned to rappel from the helicopters and make their way up to the enemy camp. Climbing through a high mountain pass, they would arrive at the encampment just before first light. There they would seize Halam Ghumani, Omen Quagmer, and the infamous Kahn Haqqani. As captives, the world’s most notorious terrorists would be escorted out along a ridgeline near a partially frozen lake. The Sea Hawks would meet the team at a predetermined set of GPS coordinates. All the while, the mission would be broadcast to the folks back home.
Lieutenant Stanley and Captain Adams both donned their SFG suits, complete with gloves, coordinated boots, and wrap-around helmets. They wanted to double-check their systems, all of which were complex and prone to malfunction - a fact Adams had not mentioned to the President. The Lieutenant pulled out a laminated checklist from one of his Velcro pockets. "Battery?" he said into his integrated mike. The high-tech helmets included an intercom system.
"Check; ninety-seven percent life remaining." The Captain, like Lieutenant Stanley, was looking at the H.U.D. projected on his helmet’s transparent front shield.
"Check. System is showing a four-degree delta." Inside the waterproof suit, it was possible for temperatures to rise several degrees while the soldier was at rest, and as much as ten degrees - effectively cooking the wearer - when exerting himself in combat. Without the cooling systems, the suits were little more than expensive coffins in all but the coldest climes. The four-degree delta Thor was reporting reduced the inside temperature from thirty-four degrees Celsius down to thirty degrees, or about eighty-six Fahrenheit.
"Chameleon function?" Both men switched their setting from midnight to desert and then to jungle camouflage. They laughed as they watched each other change coloration.
Adams switched his SFG to the invisible mode. He knew it was operational because Kyle immediately reached out to touch him. The system worked by converting the imagery that small cameras captured around the wearer. An image of whatever was opposite the side being seen by the camera was projected through the fiber optics. It was as if the soldier simply disappeared.
"Noise canceling?" The incessant roar of the airplane’s engines evaporated, vanishing electronically. Had it not been for the remainder of the checklist, they would have retained this position and nodded off to sleep. It would be some time before they got a night’s rest.
"Check." Having memorized the list, Thor carried on. "I’m good with NES." That stood for Noise Enhancement System. As the name implied, it amplified surrounding sounds by as much as one hundred times.
"Yaaah!" Kyle shouted as he struggled to disable the feature. "Mine’s calibrated way too high. Nearly blew out my eardrums." He found and punched the disarm button.
The Captain motioned for Stanley to move on with the test. "How do you read me on intercom one?"
"Five by five," he reported, recovering. "Man, that hurt." He shook his head. "How do you read com two?"
"Loud and clear."
"Speed: six hundred and two. Tracking: one two seven degrees. Bearing to target: zero nine eight. ETA: forty-two minutes. The GPS thinks we’re going to fly directly there - tonight, aboard this overstuffed bird. Surprise. Surprise."
"My data checks with yours. How’s your moving map? Try a three twenty-mile scale." Adams was focused.
"Pretty cool. Not much chance of getting lost."
"How ’bout terrain?"
"I’m showing a malfunction. Crap. I’m going to need that to navigate when the valley tightens." It was Kyle’s second equipment glitch.
"Mine’s working fine," Adams said into his mike. "My IRF is functional, but my ELV’s intermittent."
IRF was an acronym for Infra-Red Functionality. ELV stood for Enhanced Light Vision.
"Just great. We’re gonna be like the zebra and the wildebeest. One can’t hear well enough to stay out of trouble, and the other can’t see a lion at a hundred paces. I’ve got ears and you’ve got eyes. We’re going to need to stick together."
Kyle Stanley nodded. It was what they did best. "Most everything works, Cap. Better than the last time."
"Let’s check out the video feeds before we take the gear off."
"I’m able to switch from my cam to the view from yours."
"Not me," Adams groaned. "I’m not picking up your remote at all. What do you say we shut down before anything else fails."
"Have I ever told you how much I hate these flippin’ things?" Stanley griped as he removed the jet-black helmet. "They weigh a ton, and they’re guaranteed to break just when we need ’em. Even with all the data, I seem to lose touch."
"But we wouldn’t be here without the gear. The President would have axed the mission if we didn’t have video. If we want to bag some bad guys, it’s the price of admission."
"How close are we to being ready?" Halam Ghumani asked his lieutenant.
"It’ll be loaded before dawn. The boys want to give you a tour before anything’s activated." Omen Quagmer was proud of his achievement. "The ‘sleeping sentry’ positions have been installed as you ordered. They’re down the canyon from the bunker on the valley walls."
"When are we expecting our guests?"
"It could be as early as tonight." Omen laughed. "They think one of the Afghani boys, Amad, is an infiltrator. The infidels are paying him. Of course he passes their money on to us - along with everything they say."
"The infidels are funding Jihad."
"Oh, that’s not the half of it. The American candy business brought in more than fifty million U.S. last quarter."
Quagmer was in charge of accounting. Under his stewardship, al-Qaeda had become a substantial exporter of illegal drugs. It had started with heroin, though the "religious" network was now branching out. They euphemistically called it "candy" because their largest market segment was children.
"How do we keep Amad looking like a mole?"
"We tell him what to pass on. Some of what he gives the CIA is even truthful. We sacrifice a few of our own - mostly boys we’re uncertain of. The infidels trust him."
"And what has he told us?"
"That he was asked to lay low tonight." Halam smiled. "Good. I want out of this godforsaken place. There’s nothing here but dirt, rocks, and ugly women."
"We’ll be gone soon enough, sir. Our chartered plane is ready take us to Baghdad. Our insurance business paid for it."
"Have we heard anything from our boys?" the President asked.
"No, ma’am. Not a peep. It’ll be a good while longer, I suppose, before it gets interesting," Secretary Ditroe told her boss over a private dinner in the White House. They often ate together, but usually alone, seldom in the White House Mess with the other officers.
"How about our Arab informant? Do we have anything more from him? Is he still with Ghumani?"
"Yes. We encouraged him to keep his head down. We’ve got a bundle invested in that boy."
The President lifted the linen napkin from her lap and placed it near her plate. She pushed her chair back and turned to her friend. "Do you want dessert, Susan, or are you ready for bed?"
"I thought they were one and the same," the Secretary answered as she placed her hand on the President’s. Their fingers interlaced.
The C-17 touched down heavily on the uneven British airstrip. The island provided the closest friendly airport long enough to accommodate an intercontinental transport. It was approaching noon. They weren’t far from the equator, and the air that greeted the two Navy SEALs was heavy. Had it not been for the light breeze, they would have melted.
Thor and Kyle would have a few hours to get acquainted with their team, pull their gear together, and review the harrowing plan. They weren’t calling it a suicide mission, but fewer than one in ten Special Forces incursions had prevailed as planned over the last two years. The bad guys had always managed to elude the good ones.
"Captain Adams!" a stocky fellow called out. He was wearing the Israeli equivalent of Special Forces fatigues. In his early thirties, he had dark eyes, brown curly hair, and olive skin. He hadn’t shaved in days and had grown the start of a good beard.
"Yes. You must be Major Newcomb." Adams saluted and then held out his hand. "Call me Thor."
"Yitsak," he said as he returned the salute. The Israeli military doesn’t salute, but Newcomb understood the difference between tradition and good manners. "Call me Isaac." He reached out his hand and enveloped the Captain’s. The two men stood for a moment, sizing one another up. Each was aware of the other’s career, having all but memorized his counterpart’s dossier.
Most Israelis had taken Hebrew last names, but not Isaac. He had grown up in America. His father had been a successful American Jew, a retail merchant. Isaac loved him, but he loved adventure more.
Stanley, still at the top of the gangway, tossed the Captain’s gear down to him. Isaac quickly scooped it up, proud to carry the seventy-pound duffel for the man he had come to admire, if only through his reputation. It was Newcomb’s way of letting the Captain know that all nationalistic posturing aside, he was ready to serve.
"The briefing room is this way, sir," he said, motioning to the left with his free hand. "The tower gave us a heads up on your arrival, so I took the liberty of assembling the men. They’re waiting."
The accommodations on Diego Garcia were anything but posh. The palm trees added to the ambience, but this was hardly a resort destination. The briefing room was reminiscent of the War in the Pacific against the Japanese. As the Americans had advanced, they’d built Quonset huts, like these on Diego Garcia, throughout the South Pacific. To call them functional was too kind.
Entering the second largest hut in a cluster of buildings, Adams greeted his team for the first time. There were four Brits, the best of the best - all SAS. The Captain loved working with them. Isaac was about to learn why. They rose and snapped to attention, as did the others.
In addition to Isaac there were three more Israelis, all strong and dedicated. Two other Americans were already on the island: Major Cole Sumner and Lieutenant Bentley McCaile, both Delta Force, Rangers by training. They looked dapper in their black berets.
Introductions were made as the team settled into briefing mode. The Captain unveiled the same PowerPoint presentation he had shown in the President’s conference room. As he made his way through the various elements, he asked each man if he had checked his SFG. The replies revealed the same sorts of problems he and Kyle had discovered aboard the C-17. Some things worked, some didn’t.
Each nation’s suit had essentially the same features. The only prominent differences were the flags and insignias of the respective countries and military units.
"Alright, men, we’ve got one hour before we board the S-3s. Make sure your batteries are charged. We won’t have the luxury of using the solar cells, and it’s an eighteen-hour mission. Go back to the barracks and get some shut-eye if you can. It’s going to be a long night."
As the sun began to sink in the west, the twelve combatants boarded three carrier jets. At nineteen hundred hours local time, they began a journey that would change their lives.
Sitting aboard the Viking S-3s, the men watched as their F-14 Tomcat escorts took to the sky before them. The scene brought to mind images of the apocalypse; the red swirl of gasses from the afterburners looked like six setting suns. Moments after lifting off, the task force turned right and headed due north toward the pride of America, her newest carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan.
Screaming along the seventy-degree latitude line, they paralleled the Maldives as the darkness of the moonless night engulfed them. The Carrier Battle Group had positioned itself a hundred miles northwest of Bombay in the Arabian Sea. This leg of the journey was seventeen hundred nautical miles. It was scheduled to take three and a half hours.
Nature was uncooperative. Headwinds caused Team Uniform to arrive fifteen minutes behind schedule. "Uniform" was the military code for the letter "U." While it stood for a "united" multinational team of combatants, Thor liked the double entendre. "Uniform" also represented the high-tech Special Forces Gear they were wearing, the gear that had earned the mission the required presidential approval.
The space provided for each team aboard the carrier jets was constrained. The birds were fast but not particularly comfortable. Extra inboard and outboard fuel tanks had been added to accommodate a flight whose duration was beyond their normal operating limits.
Viking S-3s had been first flown in 1975. Their mission was anti-sub warfare. An attractive yet aging design, they were powered to speeds of 450 knots by twin turbo-jet engines. Designed to be flown off carriers, the S-3s were equipped with tail hooks but had neither spoilers nor thrust reversers. Therefore, on the second leg of this trip, the Vikings would chew up a considerable amount of runway in the thin air of the Himalayas.
A flight crew of two normally commanded the aircraft, with two enlisted men operating the sophisticated electronic gear behind them. Tonight, the technicians’ seats had been pulled and the bomb bay doors locked, creating enough room for four men and their equipment - barely. Team Uniform stretched out on the deck of the small cabin, leaning up against their duffels.
As is the Navy custom, the pilots had pegged their ejection seats for this flight. Because the men behind them would be unable to eject if trouble arose, the pilots were now tradition-bound to share a similar fate. One dies, all die. Honor was alive and well among America’s finest.
Unfortunately, this elaborate rendezvous off the Indian coast was not an optional part of the plan. Pakistan was no longer much of an ally. Its support during the first phase of the War on Terrorism had precipitated a series of terrorist events and assassinations, eventually crippling the pro-West government. The support America had bought by canceling billions in debt went for naught. Radical Islamic clerics were now calling the shots. The team would not have permission to overfly their airspace.
Iran was more hostile than ever, and thus entry from the west was impossible. While they were Persians, not Arabs, they viewed any assault against their Muslim brothers as a serious affront. Although they had wooed many in the West with talk of reform and support, when it came nut-cutting time, they were nowhere to be found.
Adams had considered using staging facilities in Uzbekistan, the southernmost area under the control of the Russian Federation, but there was no way to keep such an operation covert. Between the Kremlin, Washington, and European bureaucracies, too many approvals needed to be sought and received to keep anything under wraps. There was also the little problem of the population of Uzbekistan; they were Muslims.
But with the House of Islam rising up against the United States, a new ally had emerged. India welcomed U.S. efforts to thwart Islamic extremism. She had been doing so for over fifty years. Thus Thor and his team of commandos not only had permission to fly through Indian airspace but also had a green light to commandeer her northernmost base.
The carrier landings were a thrill for everyone but Adams. He had made hundreds of them before losing his wings. For his men it was another story. Without seats or restraining systems, his fellow passengers were launched forward, along with their duffels. Thor had warned them, suggesting one hand for themselves and another for their gear. But reality exceeded expectations as the tail hook caught the arrestor cable, abruptly stopping their subsonic jet.
Less than a minute separated the harrowing jolts. Each machine was quickly moved aside and unloaded. Three new aircraft were already fueled and waiting to go when they arrived.
The carrier touch and go was scheduled for thirty minutes, kind of like an elaborate NASCAR pit stop. Everything was handled with trained precision. With five minutes to spare, the men grabbed some chow, discharged their bladders, and boarded their new rides. While the mission was still ten minutes behind schedule, a thirty-minute buffer had been built into the plan.
Catapulted off the carrier deck, Team Uniform was thrown to the back of their plane. The rapid acceleration was stunning. Moments after their harrowing departure, a diversionary force climbed above them, turned northwest, and skirted the Pakistani coastline. They flew up the Persian Gulf and on into Iraq.
Returning to level flight, the commandos were more comfortable than they had been en route to the carrier. This run was shorter and fuel was no longer an issue. As a result, the teams were more relaxed and talkative. Major Newcomb and Captain Adams elected to ride together.
"Tell me, Captain," Isaac asked, "aren’t you a little old and decorated for this sort of thing?"
"I came up with the harebrained scheme. The least I could do was help carry it out," he answered, leaning back against his duffel bag.
The long answer was far more interesting. Adams, after being disowned by his parents, had enlisted right out of high school. Bright and motivated, he had found his way into Naval Intelligence. Six years of working hard and keeping his nose clean had earned him the rank of Petty Officer First Class, an E6. A prolific reader and solid citizen, he had been awarded a Fleet Appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis at twenty-three. Following his lifelong fascination with flight, Thor had become a naval aviator, flying F-18 Hornets after graduation. But sadly, five years after he had earned his wings, they were clipped. A problem had arisen with his peripheral vision, something that disqualified him, NPQ’d him, in Navy parlance, from flying jets on and off carriers.
A flightless Lieutenant at thirty-two, Adams had elected to do the unthinkable. He qualified for BUD/S, the Navy SEAL School, even though he was four years older than the next oldest man. Nearly a year later, he was one of only sixty in his class to survive the rigorous ordeal, not ringing the bell. Over the next five years, Thor Adams had demonstrated what a finely tuned mind could achieve in a body of steel. As both an Intelligence Officer and a SEAL, he had planned and led some of the most daring covert operations in history.
The incursion into northwestern India was just over twelve hundred nautical miles. If all went well, the team would cover the distance in two and a half hours. With the prevailing jet stream raging at altitude, they might even make up some time.
Their bearing was north by northeast, zero four zero degrees magnetic. They would meet the Indian coast near Vadodara, cross the Tropic of Cancer, and then fly west of Jaipur. The plan was to continue north about fifty miles east of Lahore on the Pakistan border and into the Punjab. From there, the expedition would enter Jammu and the disputed Kashmir State, just prior to reaching the southern edge of the Himalayas. Descending against the backdrop of the world’s most massive mountain range, Team Uniform would then turn north and fly low through a river valley, landing at an Indian airbase near Srinagar.
"Tell me, Captain," Major Newcomb queried, "how did you manage to get a green light? We all thought your gal was going to shut down the American military. She’s the last one we thought would approve a new covert op."
"No way. There’s got to be more to it."
"Sad but true. She’s coming along with us. We arranged for a live audio and video feed into the White House. As soon as we’re out, she gets to edit the film, stifle her critics, and bask in the glory."
"Well, that answers my other two questions."
"Why we’re wearing these camo-coffins, and why we’re attacking at first light."
"No ‘coffins,’ would mean no satellite cams. And though we’d have a much better chance in the dark, without daylight the video’s a bust. For Madam Prez, the video’s the whole deal."
"The fact that we have no cover, is that political as well?"
"Yeah, no Spectre or Cobra Gunships. She was vehement - not interested in shouldering the political risk."
"But she’s a-okay with us risking our necks?" Isaac questioned.
"No problem, so long as we do it quietly and make her look good."
Isaac shook his head. "Captain, have you calculated our odds on this thing?" The Major laid back on his duffel, closing his eyes.
"They’re not good."
With his fingers laced behind his head and his eyes shut, Newcomb recounted the challenges, "If we don’t get a SAM shot up our butts flying over the disputed territories, don’t catch a mountain wave rolling off the Himalayas, don’t get detected entering Afghanistan, and don’t have one of our birds crash and burn like they did in Carter’s Iranian raid, we’ve got a decent chance of getting through the pass. Don’t we?"
"Sure. But the open area around the lake worries me, even at night."
"The narrows between the lake and the high country is what scares me," the Israeli reported. "The whole valley can’t be more than twenty paces wide. You just know it’s littered with anti-personnel mines."
"Two of the SFGs have been retrofitted with detection gear. So long as they’re not using composite materials, we should find most of them."
"That’s comforting," Newcomb said, propping himself up on an elbow and staring at Adams. "So what do you think? What are the odds that we fly in undetected, that the gear works like it’s supposed to, that we find the mines before they find us? That we sneak into the camp and nab the bad guys just as they’re taking their morning dump? Fifty-fifty?"
Adams rubbed his protruding chin. He didn’t want to answer. The odds weren’t nearly that good. He looked away. Thor recognized that trying to overcome a superior-sized force, in their encampment, in the light of a new day, was plenty risky. Then there was the problem of a daylight extraction, this time in a box canyon.
"I’m a historian, not a math major, Major. I can’t say I’ve calculated the odds. But I’ll tell you what, if we pull this off, we’ll make a little history."
"That bad, huh?"
Lulled by the ambient noise and vibration, each man finally heard the roar of the turbines diminish as the flight crew pulled the throttles back. One journey was ending; another was about to begin.
They slid forward as the jet began an abrupt descent, losing over thirty-five hundred feet a minute. The altimeter was spinning wildly counterclockwise. Standard procedure calls for descents between a thousand and fifteen hundred feet a minute, but Thor wanted the team above hand-held missile range while they were near the Pakistani border, and then low, below the peaks, as they entered the Indian valley.
While Adams, a pilot himself, would have preferred to be in the left seat, he had plenty on his mind, although none of his distractions were personal. He was a bachelor. No kids, and no parents to speak of. He and his father were estranged. His dad’s insecurity had ripped them apart. Mom, afraid of his father’s wrath, had faded into a distant memory. Their rejection had made Thor perfect for this mission. He felt he had something to prove, and nothing to lose.
Well, almost nothing. There was Sarah, the Agent who had co-authored this elaborate mission. She was a stunning brunette, tall and lean, with legs that drove him crazy. He drifted off as he thought of her smile, thought about the first time he had touched her hair, their kiss on the White House lawn - their only kiss. They just knew each other professionally, he had to admit. They hadn’t been on a single date. But there had been a spark. And down deep inside Thor Adams, it had kindled a fire.
Adams had never given women a second thought. They were always there: on every base, in every town, around every assignment. They had managed to connect, have some fun, then separate just as quickly as they had met. But Sarah Nottingly was different. She was a goddess, at least in his eyes, easily the smartest women he’d ever met. When she spoke, he melted. Yet it completely escaped him that she didn’t seem to have this strange effect on anyone else. Only him.
Sarah was a graduate of Jefferson’s alma mater, William and Mary. She had earned a master’s degree in economics from Jefferson’s other school, the one he’d founded in his hometown, the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. The CIA had discovered Ms. Nottingly at NGIC, the National Ground Intelligence Center, located on the road connecting Charlottesville to its powerful neighbor, Washington, D.C. The talented young agent was now Middle East Bureau Chief.
Sarah and the Captain had worked together for months as covert operations to disrupt al-Qaeda were planned and then rejected. Standing near her as they peered over reconnaissance photos, sitting next to her at intelligence briefings, just being in the same room had given Thor goose bumps. The Captain, feeling like a teenager, had made it a game to see how close he could get before she would feel his presence and move away.
The kiss shouldn’t have "counted." It was just for good luck as they said their goodbyes. It lasted but a second or two, and though it was just a peck, it was on the lips, not the cheek. They had separated slowly, gazing into one another’s eyes. The gaze lasted a short eternity before he flinched and had to look away. Sarah never flinched.
These pleasant thoughts swirling in Adams’ mind evaporated as he heard air rushing beneath him. The landing-gear doors were open, and the heavy sounds meant the hydraulics were doing their job. He smiled as he felt the gear lock into place. The small actuator motors driving the flaps from approach to landing configuration continued while the plane pitched down. Sixty seconds later, there was a chirp as rubber kissed tarmac. There were no spoilers to deploy, no thrust reversers, so the deceleration felt alarmingly slow. Adams missed the sudden jerk of the tail hook catching the cross deck pendant, something only a navy fighter jock would enjoy.
Within three minutes, all three planes were down and had rolled to a stop. They taxied back to the northeast corner of the ramp and cut their engines. As they spooled down, the crews disembarked. A strong wind came off the mountains, cutting right through their fatigues. They had yet to don their SFGs, and the thin cotton they were wearing was no match for these frigid conditions. Each man grabbed his weapons and duffel bag, running to the Quonset hut some fifty yards away. As they jogged, they caught sight of others, off to their left, pulling camouflage nets off a trio of helicopters. All was going according to plan.
Fifteen feet wide by thirty feet long, the metal Quonset hut was none too big for a dozen men and their equipment. Everybody was in motion. It was zero thirty hours, local. They had made up the time they’d lost battling headwinds off Diego Garcia. Adams had allotted thirty minutes for the men to put on their gear and ready their weapons.
The SFG skin itself was like a heavy jumpsuit. It went on over a pair of standard military briefs and blister-free Teflon socks. An integrated vest and equipment pack was next. It carried everything from an onboard computer to an integrated canteen, battery packs and ammunition pouches on either side. Each man strapped a communications device to his left wrist and an integrated smart weapon to his right forearm. They had no qualms about putting on the gloves, since it was freezing, even inside the metal shed. At least they were out of the wind.
A heavy web belt held a pistol, in most cases a Berretta 9mm or Glock, extra ammunition clips, a special-forces knife, and several grenades. The principal weapon varied from country to country, from man to man. Thor, Kyle, and Isaac each had an OIWC, a new high-tech computer-aided rifle and grenade launcher. The Brits, on the other hand, were more traditional, carrying Lee-Enfields. The other Israelis were using M-16s with standard NATO rounds.
With their duffel bags now empty, the men spread them out on the gravel floor and sat cross-legged as the Captain addressed them. "We come from five services: the Israeli Mossad and Shu’alei Shimshon, U.S. Army Rangers and Navy SEALs, and the British SAS. But none of that matters here. We are now Team Uniform."
Every man was a decorated hero. Nine of the twelve had wives, seven of them kids. The lowest rank among them was lieutenant. With high-tech helmets in their laps, weapons at their sides, backs straight and eyes forward, they were the very picture of confidence. The Captain began to think they might actually pull this off.
"It’s zero one hundred hours. In thirty minutes, we’re going to fly those specially configured Sea Hawks you saw out there on the ramp through the highest passes in the Himalayas. Like you, they are the best of the best. They cannot be heard: acoustic-canceling systems suppress both rotor and engine noise. They work by broadcasting sound waves identical in length and frequency to those made by the blades, turbines, and exhaust, but their peaks and troughs are opposite. They cancel each other out. At night we can’t be seen or heard. Unless someone is under the wash of our rotors, he won’t even know we’re there."
"If that’s the case, sir," one of the Israelis spoke up, "why are we being extracted in broad daylight?"
"Political reasons, son." The young man asking the question was twenty-three, sixteen years younger than the man answering him, a lifetime in the military. It was a good question, but not a very good answer. It didn’t satisfy anyone, especially the six officers now standing behind the Captain, the Sea Hawk flight crews.
"These men are going to fly us to within seven clicks of the training camp. A journey of about three hundred nautical. We should arrive at the drop zone slightly ahead of schedule at zero four hundred. We’ll need to cover this terrain at a pace of a mile every fifteen to eighteen minutes, even in the dark and carrying a hundred pounds of gear uphill. Satellite reconnaissance shows a narrow trail from our rappel site to the camp. I expect us to arrive at the enemy’s perimeter between oh five thirty and oh six hundred. It’s going to be tough - the air’s real thin up there. And we’re not acclimated; they are."
Thor scanned the room. Every man sat motionless, staring directly at him. "We’ll observe them, gather intel, and then strike at first light, zero six hundred. The operation should take sixty minutes. We shoot the culls and use our spray cans of N2, Nighty-Night, on our prime targets. They fall into dreamland and we use these snap ties," the Captain said, pulling several out of a side pocket, "to secure the victims’ wrists and ankles before we cart them out on our shoulders."
"Nighty-Night, on our prime targets. They fall into dreamland and we use these snap ties," the Captain said, pulling several out of a side pocket, "to secure the victims’ wrists and ankles before we cart them out on our shoulders."
"Nighty-Night" was the term the Delta Forces had coined to describe the effect the aerosol spray had on its recipient. Part anesthesia, part chloroform, it put the victim down in a hurry. The politicos wanted the perpetrators to stand trial rather than be killed outright. America wanted to show the world it was compassionate and civilized. Never mind the little fish. Team Uniform would just help them on their way to Allah.
"Our mission is to bag the top three terrorists: Halam, Omen, and Kahn. You’ve seen their mugs in your briefing materials. Ugly. We kill those we have to. Bag and tag."
"We’ll be expecting you at the extraction point at eleven hundred hours," said one of the chopper pilots, Lieutenant Commander Dave Smith. "If you’re late, we’ll be gone. We won’t be able to hang around. We don’t like flying in daylight any more than you men do."
The pick-up zone was in the box end of a narrow canyon. The choppers would fly in over the deserted side of a lake, setting down in the tip of the ravine. The team would be under radio contact only when the distances were close. The radios, unlike the video communications gear, weren’t satellite based. Their signal would simply bounce off the twenty-thousand-foot mountains.
"Once we get close, we should be able to follow your progress on our scanners," added Smith’s copilot, Steve Wesson. "You’re all wearing transponders, squawking discreet codes, complete with GPS coordinates."
"How about the movies, sir?" one of the younger Israelis asked.
"No movies," the Commander responded. "Just GPS transponder blips. They’ll be encoded with bearing, range, and speed in addition to lat-long, but that’s pretty much it."
Thor interrupted, "The audio and video feed is being scrambled, sent to an NSA satellite, and then directly to the Pentagon. From there they are going to provide a live show for the President. It’s of no use to us."
Adams looked over his right shoulder toward the flight crews. "Did you guys bring the MREs?" Several pilots stepped outside and grabbed the twenty-four meals. They handed two to each man. One was for now, the other for when they returned. Silently, almost reverently, the twelve removed the covers, leaned against the leeward wall, and began eating what they knew might be their last supper.
It didn’t take long for the timer on Thor’s watch to remind him that the witching hour had arrived. It was zero one thirty. He told the men to leave their duffels, second meal, and fatigues. As each headed outside into the blistering cold, he turned downwind and relieved himself one last time.
With black Kevlar helmets in one hand and weapons in the other, twelve brave souls boarded the charcoal-gray birds. The engines slowly came to life, whirling the giant blades. Gradually gaining momentum, the turbines began to scream as the secondary fuel nozzles dumped Jet A into the hot sections of each engine. Moments later they leaned forward, lifted off, and began the final leg of their long day’s journey into night.
The three Sea Hawks turned to a bearing of 320 degrees. Heading northwest, they attempted to climb to an altitude of twenty thousand feet. This was their service ceiling and, more to the point, less than a thousand feet above the floor of the pass they would be following between Rakaposhi and Disteghil. At 25,555 feet, Disteghil was just four feet taller than its twin brother. Soon they would turn and skirt the base of K2, the world’s second-highest mountain.
Oxygen masks had been provided for Team Uniform. The helicopters were not pressurized since they were seldom flown much above ground-hugging elevations. Special oxygen canisters had been installed to give all onboard two hours of the vital gas. The flight crew had doubled their supply, enough for the return trip.
The passengers were instructed to don their masks as the choppers made their way through ten thousand feet. There were no complaints. Breathing pure oxygen was like drinking a whole pot of coffee. The brain seemed to love it. If anyone was weary after his long journey, he was now wide awake, sucking Os.
The Sea Hawk series of helicopters was the Navy’s equivalent of the Army Black Hawk. Most were equipped with anti-submarine technology, but a special version had been configured to carry SEALs on special ops. They were designated SH-60Hs and flew with a crew of two pilots, both officers, and two enlisted men on machine guns. The gunners and their armaments had been jettisoned for this mission. The space and weight they normally displaced was replaced by fourteen hundred pounds of additional jet fuel for the turbines. This additional two hundred gallons extended the range of the birds by two hours, or three hundred nautical miles. It was just enough, they’d calculated, to make the return trip. There were no gas pumps between here and hell.
Isaac put on his helmet, curious as to where he was. He set the H.U.D. to the moving map mode on the GPS. They were still in the Himalayas, not far from the Hindu Kush, headed northwest. His display read: Track 292, Speed 132, Bearing to Target 045, Range 115, ETA 53 minutes.
They had just passed the village of Gupis and were approaching Brep. Mt. Nowshak, a towering giant at nearly twenty-five thousand feet, loomed ahead, slightly left of their present track. Then he saw it: Karl Marx. "Hey Thor, you’re not gonna believe the name of the mountain just ahead, at two o’clock."
"Karl Marx, father of Communism."
"How’d you know, Captain?"
"Our target is only sixty clicks from Marx. We’re going to veer right and fly less than a mile from the peak, through a valley in Tajikistan. Fortunately, the Tajiks love us for beating up on the Taliban. From there, we turn back to the left and descend into Afghanistan just above the village of Arakht, population ten - three goats, two camels, a pair of yaks, and three really crazy people."
Laughing, Isaac checked the landmarks before turning his system off and removing his helmet. "You’re a history major, right?"
"Yeah, at Annapolis. The Academy," he returned with justifiable pride.
"Okay, Mr. History Major, where was the first Communist society?"
"A Kibbutz in Israel, not far from the Sea of Galilee. 1909, eight years before the Bolshevik revolution in the Motherland, comrade."
"Remind me not to bet against you," Isaac muttered.
"Tell me, comrade. Where in the Torah does it say Jews have to be liberal? In the States they’re all Democrats. Heck, even Lenin was a Jew."
"It began with Abraham. When he ran into his nephew, Lot, near the Jordan River a few thousand years ago, the story is that Lot went right, so Abe went left. We Jews have been going left ever since," he laughed.
Even with a moonless night, the snowcapped peak of Karl Marx was starting to glow off the right side. The more impressive Nowshak, still dominated the view out the left windows. Now, at the extreme western end of the Himalayan Range, the winds had gained considerable force. The turbulence buffeting the three Sea Hawks instantly went from nauseating to unbearable, from concerning to terrifying.
Lenticular and rotor clouds could be seen blocking the starlight along the jagged ridges on both sides of the helicopters. Worse than thunderheads, these were the airmen’s ominous sign that tumbling winds of wicked proportions awaited them.
The pilots pressed on, displaying more courage than discretion. As they made their way through the ridges, the high-tech birds became little more than corks. Swirling winds were having their way with them. Everything worked against man and machine as they traversed the world’s tallest and most massive mountain range. It was here, along their western extremity, that the jet stream first caught the high ridges. The valleys were breathtakingly narrow, and the ridges on either side were steep and undulating.
To make matters worse, the air was unbearably thin. Hugging the terrain, they were a mere five hundred feet above the ground but a lung-pounding eighteen to twenty thousand feet above sea level. The turbines loved to perform in the thin, cold air, but the rotor blades struggled to gain sufficient bite.
Unpredictable and violent wind shear exacerbated the problem. As the jet stream made its way past the granite monoliths, it was forced to change direction. The choppers strained as they shifted from headwind to tailwind, from updraft to downdraft.
"Cap’n Adams," Commander Smith said into his headset microphone.
Thor was wearing his oxygen mask, complete with intercom. Straining to speak as he was tossed by the turbulence, he answered. "Y-yeah."
"We’d li-like to disable the noise-suppression systems. As you ca-can tell, we’re fighting to keep the birds aloft. Wind sh-shear is awful. Need to he-hear the engines so...."
"I know. Go ahead. I’m a pilot, t-too. Keep us alive, Commander."
As Adams grabbed hold to keep from bouncing in the cramped interior, he heard the turbine engines roar back to life. Just then Team Uniform began to rise from the floor, almost weightless. That was a bad sign. "Commander, what’s ha-happening?"
"I need full up collective," he shouted, lifting the stick in his left hand. "Redline it!" Smith screamed to Wesson as he pulled the stick back into his lap with his right. "We’re fa-falling like a rock! Must be caught in a downdraft off that r-ridge."
The Captain moved between the pilots’ seats, kneeling just behind them. "Push it right, next to the f-far wall. We need to catch an updraft be-before we strike a rotor."
"I’m t-trying, but we’re g-gonna lose lift as we bank, sir."
"Just do it!" Adams commanded. "Now!"
As the words left his mouth, the chopper slammed into a rocky pinnacle so hard it drove the landing gear up through the floor. Each man attempted to brace himself, trying to keep from banging against the machine. Frigid air rushed in as the commandos scrambled to find their oxygen masks, all of which were tethered to the side of the craft and had been ripped off by the impact. Without them, they had only minutes of useful consciousness.
The Sea Hawk bounced to the right, placing its blades dangerously close to the valley floor. A fatal impact was only seconds away. But as the chopper struggled toward the eastern wall, it caught an updraft, just as the Captain had predicted. The gust was every bit as strong as the downdraft that had slammed them into the rocks. Now every man was pinned against the jagged floor of the debilitated bird. They were climbing faster than they had fallen.
The Captain found his oxygen mask, took three quick, deep breaths and threw it off. He grabbed a flashlight he’d seen stashed between the two pilots. Shining it toward the back of the craft, he could see that Isaac and Kyle had both lost their masks. Newcomb was turning a ghastly shade of blue. Stanley was turning white.
Isaac was closest. Pushing him upright and leaning him against the side door, Thor reached out for the mask dangling to his right. Although he was being pressed against the floor as the helicopter bounded skyward, he managed to lift his arms and wrap the device around the Major’s head.
The aircraft careened wildly in the turbulent air. As he shined the light further back, the beam bounced erratically, as did Kyle’s mask, still dangling above him. Adams pushed himself over the jagged floor and around what was left of the landing assembly, cutting his left hand in the process. He could see that Kyle had been knocked unconscious. Blood dripped down the right side of his face. As he had with his own, Adams took three quick, deep breaths from Stanley’s mask. Then, lifting his head, he placed the life-giving oxygen against his best friend’s nose and mouth. With his other hand, he pulled the strap behind Kyle’s head.
Isaac had regained consciousness, at least enough to help. The Captain returned to his mask so he wouldn’t pass out. The Sea Hawk had to be above twenty thousand feet now, well above its operating ceiling. With his mask on he could feel warmth begin to move down his body and into his extremities. Without oxygen, the cold was unbearable. The SFG was the only thing keeping him from freezing to death in the thin and frigid air.
Cole Sumner’s mask was still on, but he didn’t look good. He was on his side, obviously in pain. When the Captain shined the light in his direction, Cole motioned for him to lower it. As he did, the reason became clear. Sumner’s left leg was twisted up in the landing gear apparatus. Air rushing through the opening in the bottom of the chopper made conversation, even with the masks and headsets, nearly impossible. Movement within the jagged confines of the Sea Hawk was as difficult.
As Kyle came back to life, Isaac was able to help Thor with Cole. Both men braced themselves and tugged at the displaced gear with gloved hands, hoping to free their comrade, but to no avail. After several such attempts, the Captain saw that a jagged shard from the undercarriage had pierced the Major’s leg. Before they could lift him free, the knife-like wedge of aluminum would have to be cut.
Adams reached to his left and released the Velcro covering on his vest pocket. He handed the flashlight to Isaac and removed a tool that looked like James Bond meets Elmer Fudd, part high-tech apparatus, part all-in-one carpenter set. It was just what the doctor ordered. Adams found the right combination of tabs and levers. A three-inch hacksaw blade extended from the handle. He handed the tool to Isaac, grabbing the flashlight back. Both were now covered with the Captain’s blood.
The Israeli Major had a better angle. He went to work, struggling to keep pressure on the shard as the chopper bounced violently. None too quickly, he cut through the metal wedge that bound Cole to the aircraft. With Adams’ help, he was then able to slide the Major’s leg free.
While it seemed like an eternity, the whole ordeal had taken less than ten minutes. The Sea Hawk was back under control and descending to a manageable altitude. Kyle appeared to be good to go, having wiped the blood from the gash on his forehead. Cole was not so fortunate. The damage to his leg would heal, but not quickly enough for him to carry out his role in the mission. Unfortunately, he was wearing one of only two mine-detection suits. The men would have to stay even closer together, as one group, not two as they had intended. That multiplied the risk.
As Thor moved back up to his position between Smith and Wesson, the copilot handed him a note. It read, "Other birds OK. No damage."
Team Uniform was now in Afghanistan, barely. In three minutes they would be in the most remote portion of Tajikistan, not that it mattered. Much of the territory they had covered was disputed. Drawing a map of this part of the world was a fool’s folly. This tiny sliver of Afghanistan, no more than ten miles wide, protruded northeast, actually touching China. It was thought to be uninhabited, too high in the Himalayas to support intelligent life.
"Mr. Haqqani!" The al-Qaeda sentry spoke excitedly into his hand-held radio. "I hear them coming. Can I shoot?"
"No. We’re expecting them." Kahn Haqqani was third in command after Omen Quagmer. Even at this ungodly hour, the terrorists were too nervous to sleep. "What you have told us is important. If you hear or see them again, you may shoot, but not this time. Allah is great. Haqqani out."
Kahn turned to Omen. "You were right. Those fools are flying right through the Himalayas. They’d rather tempt nature than the Russians."
"How far out?" the pudgy Quagmer asked.
"Less than fifty kilometers."
"Are we ready, Kahn?"
"As you have asked, it has been done."
It was nearing dinnertime at the White House. The Secretary was pensive. This was the first mission on her watch. Even though it was covert and could easily be denied if it failed, she was worried all the same. This night there would be no dessert.
"I’ve taken the liberty to set up multiple screens in the press room for the show tonight. I like it better than the situation room down in the basement."
The President nodded in agreement.
"I figured that since the audio-visual equipment was already there, as were the satellite feeds and projection equipment, why not?"
"The seating is theater style, too. It’s kind of funny in a way. We’ll be sitting in the seats the press corps normally uses to interrogate us." The two women were alone in the Oval Office. The President was slumped in an overstuffed chair while Secretary Ditroe sat on the blood-red sofa facing her employer/lover/Commander-in-Chief. A small coffee table separated them, littered with a nasty stack of briefing documents. The news from every corner of the world was black, as black as the moonless night just starting to envelop Washington.
"Susan," the President continued, "have you sealed off the room, sent the pool reporter home?"
"Yes. It was FOX News’ turn tonight. He wasn’t happy, but what could he say? The only folks left are our equipment operators. They’re the two geeky-looking guys you always see sitting back in the corner, inside the glassed enclosure with all those cables."
"Do you think the American people have any idea how ugly the press room actually is?" the President grinned.
"No, and it’s a good thing they don’t. All they ever see is the rostrum with the Presidential Seal and the blue curtain with the White House insignia. The trimmings of power."
"Yeah, but the room is ugly as sin. Those threadbare orange chairs are hideous. They’re even screwed down. The place must have been decorated during the Nixon era."
"Have you checked out the name plaques on ’em? They’ve got these little brass plates. One says ABC, another CBS. There’s one for AP, The Post. Everybody has assigned seating." Ditroe eyed the President.
"Did you know the press room is over the old White House swimming pool? Rumor has it Jack Kennedy used to skinny-dip in it with Marilyn Monroe. It’s still there, under the floor."
"Are you yanking my chain?" Susan asked. "The pool reporters are actually over the pool?"
"Would I lie to you?"
"Hey, watch it," the President chuckled. "So, Susan, besides you and me, who else have you invited?"
"No one. The NSA, the Pentagon and the CIA all have their own feeds. They’ve each got at least six flat screens. They’ll watch the party from their own situation rooms. Here, it’s just you and me."
"Are you bringing popcorn?"