Before encasing his head in the helmet, Captain Adams snapped a salute to his injured comrade. Major Sumner returned the gesture, reaching out his gloved hand to wish him luck. Truth is, they’d both need it.
Though still airborne, the helicopter was in rough shape. The left gear mechanism was a twisted wreck. It had been pushed up through the floor panels, making the Sea Hawk’s undercarriage uneven. Landing without a rotor strike would be difficult even if they could find a safe landing zone.
Leaking hydraulic fluid was starting to pool on the jagged floor, and its loss was making the machine much harder to control. With airframe damage, the helicopter would have to fly closer to the ground, making the wounded bird an easy target on its return flight. Adding insult to injury, Cole’s oxygen canister was nearly empty. No one had counted on the combatants making a round trip.
Kyle Stanley opened the door and threw out the rappel line. He was the first to descend. Isaac Newcomb was next, followed by Thor Adams. Looking back up, they saw their injured friend pull the rope back into the chopper. Frustrated and ashamed, Cole Sumner felt like he had somehow failed his comrades, believing it was cowardly to go back without having faced the enemy.
The extent of the damage was all too evident from outside the crippled machine. The port side was so severely crumpled, it had actually pushed the starboard gear mechanism down and out, wedging it into an awkward position. Landing wouldn’t be difficult; it would be impossible.
"Commander, how do you read?" Thor said into his radio intercom.
"How do we look, sir?" the pilot, Lieutenant Commander Dave Smith, asked.
"Not good. Landing’s a no go. You’re gonna have to ditch when you get back over India. Do you have parachutes?"
"For the crew. We’ll have to get down low so your man can rappel, then go back up high enough for our chutes to work. We’ve got a couple of hours, God willing, to come up with a plan. Over."
"Commander, if the jet stream is still kicking up, the extraction team is gonna have to fly west of the peaks. They’ll be more exposed to weapons fire, but I think Mother Nature is more dangerous than the terrorists."
"Roger that. Good luck, guys. Sea Hawk out."
The troops were on the ground. It was three-thirty in the morning, local time. The wind was howling, yet the frigid air was of little concern. The SFGs were doing their job. The men were down on one knee as Thor stood in the downdraft of the departing choppers. He attempted to count helmets, but it wasn’t easy. The dust stirred up by the rotors covered the front of his visor. Although it had been coated with a discharge material, the static electricity created by the rotating blades in the dry mountain air had overwhelmed its capability.
The men instinctively tried to wipe the granular dust off their visors with gloved hands. But the abrasive Afghan soil merely scratched them, further impeding visibility. At least until sunup, they would have to rely on the electronic images projected inside their visors’ Heads Up Displays.
"Alright, men. Yacob Seraph’s up front. He’s got our only mine-detection system. I want teams of two behind him. Brits, followed by Americans, then Israelis. Newcomb and I will bring up the rear. As we planned, the man on the right and his partner on the left will use opposing settings. Right’s got NES to amplify sound, left on Noise Canceling so his intercom can be heard more clearly. I want right on IRF, left on ELV. Seraph, I want you to use Terrain mode up front. It’s buddies, except with Sumner gone, we’re all in one group, not two."
Adams paused as he looked at his display. "Set your GPS moving map to a five-mile ring. I show a bearing of two five zero and a range of nine point eight. Time to move out. Let’s get this job done."
Team Uniform began jogging toward the terrorists. "Seraph, if you detect some’n, shout it out," Captain Adams huffed into his mike. "If you stop without warning, you’re gonna have ten guys crawling up your butt. We’ll knock you right into the mine."
"Yes, sir," Yacob answered.
As if mocking the fear lurking within each man, the stars were shining, forming a canopy above the blackened shapes. All each man could see was the reflection of the sky on the glossy black helmet of the man before him. The headgear should have been matte black like the rest of the SFGs on this setting, but some bozo must have thought they looked better shiny. As Adams peered through the only portion of his visor that wasn’t covered in displays, he saw ten star-spattered helmets bouncing up and down.
Courage was one thing. Realistically assessing the situation was another. These men knew how far they were from safety, from support of any kind. For all practical purposes, those stars were no farther away.
All of the combatants were in superlative condition. Just carrying a hundred pounds of gear would be enough to stop most men. But these guys could run twenty miles with that load and still be ready to fight. At least they could on the bases where they’d trained. The surface of the lake they were now circumnavigating was at a lung-robbing 10,900 feet. Their lungs screamed for the oxygen they’d left behind in the choppers.
Adams began to feel lightheaded after about forty minutes. Out of breath, he ordered the team to rest. There were no dissenting voices. Doubled over, the guys hacked and wheezed. Breathing inside the enclosed helmets was none too easy at sea level. It was far worse in the thin mountain air. They lifted their visors; it seemed to help.
The surface of the lake, Kowl Shiveh - or Cold Shivers, in Kyle Stanley’s parlance - was rippled by the steady northeast wind. Yet it was aglow with the fuzzy reflection of a billion stars. Looking up, Adams found the sight breathtaking. The jagged mountain ridges were jet black, like a serrated knife slicing through an ocean of light. The Milky Way was as bright as a new moon. There were no grays here. Everything was either black or white.
Five minutes was all it took. The visors were lowered, leaving a small opening for air this time. Captain Adams reported what they all knew, though the corroboration was somehow reassuring. They had covered 2.6 miles, with 7.2 to go. They had lost ten minutes trying to recover from their battle with nature, and another five catching their breath, but they were still ahead of schedule.
Although he knew they were transmitting video feeds to the satellite, Adams thought it was probably too early for an audience. The view wouldn’t get interesting until sunrise. And audio? Oxygen was in short supply up here; nobody was expending it on conversation.
All eleven images were shown on the large flat screens in the Pentagon situation room. The audio was being broadcast on headsets, eight of them, for now just lying on the table. None of the brass had arrived, not even Admiral Gustoff, the man responsible for briefing the President.
The show so far was simply for the benefit of the operators, three officers who were relieved to see that everything was working. They, like their counterparts in the White House, sat in the corner, just opposite of the door. Behind them, out of sight, was a maze of computers and electronic surveillance and encoding equipment. The situation, or "war" room, as it’s called, is smaller than the White House press room, only twenty by thirty feet, but is considerably more comfortable. It’s buried in the basement of the Pentagon at the end of a long, painted concrete hall.
For those beneath the status of Joint Chiefs and Secretaries, the Pentagon’s viewing room had been made available. Down the hall from the situation room, it was used for wartime briefings. Set up like a movie-theater balcony, the area seated thirty or forty people. Each row raised above the one in front of it. A glass panel separated the presenters and presentation equipment from viewers. One by one, staffers and aides on the short list of people who knew about the operation began to straggle in.
At Langley, Sarah Nottingly was at her post, taking in the action. Her boss, James Barnes, the new CIA Director, was expected momentarily. For now, she sat alone, antsy and apprehensive.
The atmosphere in the main briefing room of CIA headquarters, known as "the firm" to insiders, bristled with excitement. Just being there, witnessing the drama of a covert operation, was arguably one of the most spine-tingling experiences a patriot could have.
Sarah often had butterflies before a mission, she reminded herself. Devoted, she often felt a sense of destiny just walking over the agency seal and past the Wall of Stars on her way to work each day. But this feeling was different. She was on the edge of her seat, palms clammy, heart pounding.
IN THE WHITE HOUSE, the press room media managers had the images projected onto all but one of their twelve screens. They had elected to broadcast the sound over a pair of speakers they had installed up front so that the President wouldn’t have to use a headset.
The action wasn’t particularly interesting, and they found themselves peering out the north-facing windows at the traffic whizzing by on the recently reopened Pennsylvania Avenue. They could see the streetlights around Lafayette Park and some room lights in the upper-floor suites of the Hay Adams, a luxurious hotel across the way. In this town, one never knew what one might see.
It was now seven fifteen in Washington, a blustery late March evening. The President and her Secretary of Defense had good reason to be together tonight, obfuscating some of the usual gossip twisting through the White House grapevine. The two grabbed a quick meal in the President’s private dining room, conveniently located near the west door of the Oval Office. Finished, they walked down the hall, past the Cabinet Room and toward the makeshift theater.
Secretary Ditroe had been right. The pool reporter from FOX News had been more than a little irritated at being sent home. His reporter’s nose told him something was up. FOX was more conservative than the other networks, and he found plenty of sympathetic ears when he returned to the station. If there was an opportunity to embarrass the new administration, Blaine Edwards wanted in on it.
"Isn’t there some way we can tap in?" Edwards asked his team.
"We get a live feed from the press room twenty-four seven," one of the associate producers said.
"Something’s going down - we need to find out what it is."
"Why?" the station manager asked. "All they did was ask you to take the night off."
"Never happens. Especially coming from the Secretary of Defense."
"Well you know what they say about Sec-zy Suzzi. They say she likes working under the Prez. Maybe they just wanted the place to themselves."
"C’mon, Bob. I don’t care if they want to run butt naked through the West Wing. They don’t need us gone to do their thing. I’m telling you, something’s up. I can smell it."
"Alright, Blaine," the station manager replied. "Tell ya what. I’ll put a couple of guys on it. We’ll see. I just hope you’re right. If they catch us poking around, this could get nasty."
It was time for another rest. The last two 2.2-mile segments had been a struggle. The gear wasn’t holding up any better than the men. Their visors were fogging, and visibility was nil. Scratches and dust stubbornly clung to the outside of the supposedly clear screens. Worse, functionality was becoming hit and miss. On Lieutenant Sullivan’s suit the GPS worked great but not the infrared imaging. On Powers’ and Keceph’s, the enhanced light systems had failed. On Lad Childress’ it was the data display that had gone awry. Blake Huston’s suit had reverted to jungle camouflage; Bentley McCaile’s was locked in desert motif. Thankfully, the invisible mode projected on both Adams’ and Newcomb’s suits was operational.
The cooling system on two SFGs was kaput, a glitch you’d think the men could live with in the thin, frigid, predawn air of the Hindu Kush. But jogging with a hundred pounds of gear mile after mile up a mountain grade was enough to turn a man into a furnace.
An hour and ten minutes had passed since their first stop. They had covered 7.3 grueling miles. The terrorist camp lay just 2.5 miles ahead. They were now five minutes behind schedule, but it was worse than it sounded. The next segment was steeper. There was no way they were going to traverse the distance without taking a break, not in the allotted eighteen-minutes-to-a-mile pace they had planned. By the time they arrived on the outskirts of the enemy’s camp, they would be twenty minutes behind schedule, leaving them just forty minutes in which to complete an hour’s mission. It was possible, but....
There wasn’t much conversation. The troops were winded. Even if they had been of a mind to chat, very little would have come out. There wasn’t a lot to see, either. The show back home didn’t have much of a plot thus far. When they were stopped, catching their breath, they were all bent over, hands on knees, looking at the ground. And when they were running, the cameras bounced to the point that, even with image stabilization, the picture was impossible to follow without a handful of Dramamine. The only sounds were wheezes and heavy breathing. Cecil B. DeMille this was not.
"Alright, men," the Captain said, looking up. "Let’s get out of here. Two clicks this time, stopping a thousand meters from the target. The valley’s the narrowest there, giving us the best cover. We’ll break outside the camp, and then attack."
Once again, Yacob Seraph led the way, swinging his mine detector to the right and left, back and forth, until his forearm burned so badly he could no longer bear the pain. He’d shift hands and repeat the torture until his other arm rebelled, tightening up into knots, quivering. There was nothing glamorous about his job.
The Brits, Major Blake Huston and Lieutenant Lad Childress, kept pace behind Seraph. Commanders Ryan Sullivan and Cliff Powers were on their heels. The Israelis, Moshe Keceph and Joshua Abrams, followed. Less than two paces behind, Kyle Stanley and Bentley McCaile jogged along stride for stride. Bringing up the rear were Adams and Newcomb, although to anyone looking on, they were not there. The only evidence that they were even part of the team was their footprints, which vanished among those of the nine men in front of them.
"Cap’n," Isaac said, huffing, "if we live through this...who are you going to celebrate with? You got a girl...back home?"
"No. Well, yeah, maybe. Don’t know...."
"You don’t know if you’ve got a girlfriend?" Newcomb came back.
The Captain wasn’t particularly interested in talking about his love life, such as it was, on an open mike. It was bad enough that the other guys were listening, but there was also the Pentagon, the White House, the CIA. It probably wasn’t the best way to let Agent Nottingly know how he felt. It was sort of like asking someone out on a date by putting a message up in Time Square, or on the big monitor at a ball game. Yet with his brain starved for oxygen, discretion was more than he could muster.
"We’ll, she’s definitely a girl, and a friend...back in D.C.," he wheezed. "Girlfriend? I dunno. She’s amazing though...beautiful," he labored, panting as he spoke. "Something inside her...irresistible. I darn near lose it...every time...."
The breath needed to communicate was more than Adams could produce and still keep his legs pounding forward. Like films he had seen of weary men painfully placing one foot in front of another as they attempted to scale Everest, he had to concentrate in order to keep moving, to force his body to throw one leg in front of the other. Yet somehow, thinking of Sarah seemed to ease the pain. She lifted his spirits, even here, on the other side of the world.
Male-bonding protocol demanded that the Captain ask Isaac if he had a girl back home. Usually when guys ask their friends such questions, they’re just fishing, hoping their pals will respond in kind so they can gloat about some hot babe, some wild and woolly exploit, to prove they’ve been awarded their full complement of testosterone. In Isaac’s case, the "hottie" would have turned out to be his loving wife of eight years, the mother of his two sons. But the fact that Adams had read it in Newcomb’s dossier didn’t mean he actually comprehended any of it right now. He simply drifted away into his own private world.
That was a problem. For all of them. With their lungs burning for oxygen, their brains were on idle. They had the reaction time of a drunk driver. Everything was in slow motion, fuzzy, unclear, delayed. As a pilot, Adams knew what he was experiencing - the onset of hypoxia. In the thin mountain air, his body had undergone considerable stress. He could feel his respiration rate increase. He was unable to catch his breath. In short, the conversation with Isaac had nearly done him in.
"Mine!" Seraph shouted, bracing himself. Never had eleven men stopped so quickly or stood so quietly. It was as if they thought words might set it off. Yacob Seraph took three steps to his left as he kept swinging his detector. "Clear left," he said, allowing the team to breathe again. He marked the spot in the soft sand so the rest of the team could walk around it.
Although he was pleased they had adverted disaster, Captain Adams knew he was more confused, more disoriented, than he should have been. The vision problem with the SFG was a contributor, but it was more than that. As he plodded forward, he was having difficulty adjusting to the uneven ground. His coordination, normally as good as any athlete’s, was now impaired. The fatigue was nearly unbearable. His head pounded. Intensely painful, his headache was similar to one he had experienced during an emergency descent. The canopy seal of his jet had ruptured, causing the cockpit to suddenly lose pressurization.
Thor began to feel dizzy, but this time he was not alone. Every man was with him, step for step, stride for debilitating stride. In their planning, they had presumed the onslaught of hypoxia would be manageable. Their highest point would only be 12,500 feet above sea level. They had all flown that high without oxygen and managed to function reasonably well. But then again, they hadn’t attempted to do it for hours on end at a full gallop with a hundred pounds of gear strapped to their backs.
"Isaac," the Captain called out. "Is your vision starting to blur...or is it just me? Visor’s a mess...seems to...getting worse."
"Me too. Starting to lose...color vision. H.U.D.’s not good...not same as when...started...altitude...no Os."
They heard Cliff Powers grumbling over their intercom. "Childress, stop flopping...around.... Stay behind...mine sweep...you’ll get us all... killed."
Belligerence was another sign that hypoxia was beginning to set in. So was tunnel vision, the very thing that was causing Lad Childress to lose track of the terrain around him and sway from side to side. The team was in trouble, but they still had another mile to go and five hundred more feet to climb into the rarified air.
"Lay off. Let’s break. Less than...one to go." They didn’t have time to spare, but Adams knew he had no other option. If the men didn’t start getting more oxygen to their brains, they would be at each other’s throats long before they found the bad guys.
Had he been thinking more clearly, he would have turned the team around and headed to the extraction point. In their present condition, they just might make it before it was too late. Unfortunately, Adams’ brain wasn’t working. Not unlike the poor soul who had invested a year and a hundred grand trying to reach the summit of Everest or K2, he was mentally unable to turn back when the clock struck two - the turnaround time in any language. Few who had tried to storm the summit after the early afternoon had lived to tell the tale.
"Edwards!" the voice came screaming out of nowhere. "You were right. Something’s goin’ down." One of the assistant station managers had found Blaine sipping a cup of coffee in the studio cafeteria.
"What? What!" he asked as the young man nearly bowled him over trying to stop on the slippery tile floor.
"We’re getting GPS coordinates, things like range and bearing. There are some video feeds too. Terrible quality. But there’s a bunch of ’em. Some look like...what do you call it, the red stuff that detects heat?"
"Yeah. Some looks like that. Some of the feeds are similar to night-vision binoculars. Have you ever used those?"
"No. They’re for peeping toms, not journalists."
The kid remained focused. "You’ve gotta see this. They’re on a mission. There’s a lot of heavy breathing, some bickering, stuff like that. Come on!"
The two jogged down the hall, turned a sharp left, and ran into the control room. Eleven of the twelve studio monitors were streaming video and electronic data from somewhere. The imagery was horrible. The quality might have been better if it hadn’t been so dark and if the cameras weren’t being bounced up and down. The infrared was useless. There were no heat signatures other than those coming from the men themselves. The enhanced light was better, but there was no color, only stars, helmets, rocks, and what looked like a high ridgeline. The terrain view was more interesting, colorful at least. Even an untrained eye could tell they were running through an alpine valley.
"Where are they? What country? Who are they? Where’re they going?" Edwards asked, too impatient to let anyone answer.
"Don’t know. We’ve got somebody looking up the GPS coordinates. He’s a pilot and thinks he can figure it out."
"Have they said anything, or has it just been this huffing and puffing like we’re hearing now?" Blaine asked, hoping for a little more insight.
"When the feeds first came up, we heard a guy - a Captain, I think - say he was hot for some babe here in D.C. Got it all on tape. A few minutes later the same fellow asked a man named Isaac if his vision was blurred. He answered in English, but with an accent. Sounded Middle Eastern."
"With a name like Isaac, could be Israeli." Edwards tried to sip his coffee, but it had spilled out in the hallway as he had sprinted to the control room. In frustration, he stared into the empty cup. "What are we gonna do?"
"Nothing. We don’t even know what we’ve got. I called New York, but the big shots have gone home. It’s what, nine o’clock?"
Blaine eyed the monitors expectantly. His adrenaline was pumping.
The station manager had no trouble reading the reporter’s mind. "Edwards, nothing leaves this room unless we get approval. Clear?"
Sarah was petrified. Pacing back and forth, she was driving Director Barnes and the rest of the senior staff up the wall. She didn’t care. Nottingly knew the mission wasn’t going according to plan. Her friend was in trouble. She, too, was a pilot, and knew hypoxia when she saw it.
"Director Barnes," she said. "Can we call our men, or are their antennas only for transmitting?"
"Just transmitting," he said. "You know that." His tone was more compassionate than demeaning. He, too, was worried. "If I had the power to call this thing off, I’d do it in a heartbeat. Those boys couldn’t beat a little league team in their condition. How are they going to face a band of terrorists three times their number?"
One of her cohorts, a young analyst known as JT, piped up trying to brighten the mood. "Hey, Sarah. Who was Adams talking about?"
"Yeah," Barnes winked. "Has Captain Hunk taken a shine to you?"
"Not likely," Sarah said, trying not to blush. "Not by the way he described her. Besides, the scoop on the good Captain is that he has a river of tears flowing behind him, an ocean of broken hearts in his wake." Agent Nottingly hoped she was wrong.
The three Sea Hawks flew in a formation of sorts. The structurally sound machines flew behind and ahead of their wounded comrade.
"Bravo One to Bravo Two. Over," the pilot of the damaged bird said to the crew of the Sea Hawk above and forward of his position.
"Bravo Two. Go ahead."
Engaging his push-to-talk button on the yoke again, Lieutenant Commander Dave Smith reported, "We’re still running through fuel faster than the engines should be able to burn it. We must have punctured the bladder. At the present rate we’ll be toast in twenty, maybe less. Over."
"Roger that, Commander. That puts us well short of destination. There’s no safe haven within forty nautical."
"We’re aware. Suggest pulling away from the mountains. The terrain’s too steep for a pickup."
Smith selected the Ground Proximity feature on his multifunction glass display. It was covered with dark brown, orange, and red lines, indicating that the ground below them was undulating and rugged. He and his co-pilot switched back and forth from this setting to natural light so they could read the cockpit display, then to their night-vision goggles as they attempted to make the most direct course to base.
"Bravo One, our GPS shows an open area without any villages at a heading of one nine five degrees. Over."
"Roger. Heading one nine five. Descending out of eleven thousand for seven thousand two hundred MSL. That should be one hundred AGL." Their actual elevation above mean sea level was just a guess. There weren’t any reporting stations within miles, thus their altimeter setting was old and unreliable. But the helicopter was equipped with a radar altimeter so that the crew would know exactly how high they were above the ground, which was all that counted now. It engaged as they descended out of 9,900 feet MSL - 2,500 feet AGL.
Lieutenant Commander Smith sat in the right seat, unlike the arrangement in a fixed-wing airplane. His copilot, Lieutenant Wesson, managed the avionics. Working together, they determined that the closest city was Mansehra. They had passed it fifty miles back. Within minutes they would be entering the disputed territory between India and Pakistan.
That was a mixed blessing. Their odds were fifty-fifty of encountering a friend rather than a foe. In the all-Islamic state of Pakistan, downed American pilots would be as good as dead. Among the Hindus of India, they would be welcomed as heroes. This spot, however, had been selected because there wasn’t supposed to be anybody there.
In the disputed territories, everyone was a combatant. Most carried assault rifles. They were vigilant and itching to pounce on an unsuspecting enemy. While SAMs, surface to air missiles, were rare, AK-47s were ubiquitous.
The chopper had given all she had. Bravo One was beyond salvation, though her crew was not. Wesson unfastened his four-point restraint system and extracted himself from the tight confines of the left seat. He stumbled across what had once been the floor. It was now covered with hydraulic fluid. Bracing himself, the copilot hastily informed Cole Sumner of their plan. Shouting above the hundred-mile-per hour wind rushing into the open deck, he yelled, "Can you use the rappel line?"
"Yeah." Wounded leg or not, Cole was ready for action.
"Good." Motioning with his right hand, he showed Sumner the hand signal he would use to tell the wounded Ranger when it was time to open the door and drop the rope. It was a clockwise rotation of the wrist. "The signal for you to rappel is thumbs down," he shouted, unnecessarily demonstrating the gesture.
Cole showed that he had understood by giving Steve a thumbs-up. For this he received a broad smile and a hearty pat on the shoulder.
Major Sumner scooted himself toward the door as the airman moved cautiously back to the cockpit. Cole checked the rope to make sure it wasn’t snagged and could be tossed cleanly. He lifted his impaled leg into position. It was bleeding badly. The sawed-off shard that had once pinned him to the landing gear was still embedded and clearly visible. He couldn’t feel anything from his knee down. He didn’t know if that was good or bad.
Sumner planned to take the brunt of the fall on his good leg and then roll quickly onto his bottom to absorb the remainder of the impact. He put his helmet on and re-engaged the suit. He had a full eighteen hours of battery life remaining. He prayed he wouldn’t need it. In preparation, he punched in the desired settings on the SFG. Done, Cole grabbed the door’s release lever.
Steve Wesson reached behind the seats and got their emergency parachutes. He donned his first, as procedure dictated. Once it was secure, he handed Lieutenant Commander Smith his chute and took the controls.
As he flew farther from the base of the massive mountains, the sky took on a slightly lighter hue. All but the highest of the rising sun’s rays were blocked by the most westerly peaks of the Himalayas. What terrain he could see through his goggles had settled down from rough to rolling. This was as good a spot as any.
Lieutenant Wesson wouldn’t know if they had company until he switched to infrared mode. Even in the gray predawn light, infrared vision would show a heat signature for any man or beast within harm’s way. He said a quick prayer.
Focused on the radar altimeter and holding the yoke in his left hand, the copilot, without looking around, held out his right arm and rotated his wrist. Normally, opening the door was a jolting experience, increasing the noise and wind inside the cabin, but not this time. Wesson had to look around to see if Sumner had managed to get it open.
At sixty feet AGL, the thumbs-down signal was given. The bird twisted to the left as Cole jumped out and hung on the pivot point above the gangway. A second later the aircraft became more buoyant, signifying that Sumner was on the ground.
"My chute’s secure, Lieutenant," The pilot said into his mike. "I want you back at the door. When we get to four thousand AGL, I’ll give you the thumbs down. You jump. Then I’ll set the autopilot on a heading back into the mountains and follow you down."
"Yes, sir." Steve Wesson did as he was ordered.
"Bravo Two, this is Bravo One. Come in."
The pilot of Bravo Two didn’t hesitate. "We saw your drop and have marked the coordinates. As soon as you’re down, we’ll swing back and pick you up. Over."
"I’m setting the autopilot to fly a course of zero one zero degrees, into the mountains. When it goes down for lack of fuel, the explosion should be less noticeable."
"Good call, Commander. We’ll stay clear."
"We’ve activated our handheld radios. Are you picking up the GPS locator beacons?"
"Roger. Unfortunately, we’re also picking up some heat signatures on infrared. A dozen men, maybe more."
"No time to deal with that now. Wish us luck. Out."
With that, Lieutenant Commander David Smith gave his copilot the thumbs-down sign. They exchanged a glance, hoping it wouldn’t be their last. The Lieutenant jumped, pulling his ripcord a second into his freefall.
Autopilot set, Smith awkwardly turned to exit the cockpit. As he did, the pack containing his chute caught on one of the protruding levers. Directly behind his back, it wasn’t in a place he could reach. He tried standing and leaning, but his movements were too restricted in both directions. Desperately, he attempted to sit back down, hoping that returning to the same position would undo the damage. It didn’t help.
As David Smith reached for the release snaps on the front of the pack, his predicament worsened. The Sea Hawk ran out of fuel. He could hear the turbines beginning to spool down. At four thousand feet, it wouldn’t take long before he was below a safe altitude to jump. It was decision time.
The chute was now off his shoulders and untangled from the lever. Instinctively he knew he had less than a second to make the call. He could crawl over the damaged floor and leap out of the falling machine while attempting to fasten his chute into place as he fell, or he could autogyro the rapidly decelerating blades and try to survive a controlled crash. The odds weren’t good either way.
With one foot still in front of the right seat and the other in the cabin, either move looked suicidal. The pilot in him screamed to turn around, to let go of the chute and land - crash - the now-silent bird. The athlete in him begged him to jump.
He lifted his right leg above the seat, clenched his left hand around one of the shoulder straps of his chute, and lunged toward the door. But losing his footing on the slippery floor, he fell against the jagged metal that had once been the landing gear. To avoid plunging face first into the rubble, he instinctively thrust out his right hand. Unable to see in the dark cabin, his wrist was pierced by a serrated piece of metal, part of what had once been the armor that protected him. Sliced to the bone, bleeding in spurts from a severed artery, he didn’t have the time to feel the pain. He lunged toward the door and jumped, falling headfirst and backwards.
Holding the chute in his good hand, the ghastly pulp of oozing flesh that had once been his right was useless. With no time to panic, he did the only sensible thing. He muscled the left side of the pack toward his face and bit down on the ripcord. As it engaged, it tore at his teeth, but that hardly mattered. It was all he could do to hang on.
He pulled his forearm inward, toward his body, hoping he could use the larger muscles to dampen the shock as the chute opened. He clamped his bleeding jaw shut, concentrating grimly on his dire reality.
At that moment, a serene vision of his beautiful wife and their baby boy flashed into his mind. He wished he was holding them instead.
Time seemed to stand still. Within a single moment, he felt the jerk as the chute unfurled, and heard the staccato sounds of automatic rifle fire. He mustered everything he had, fighting for his life, fighting to keep from letting go. The chute seemed to be yanking him skyward, though he knew it was merely decelerating his fall. In his mind, David Smith saw his wife smile again. Then with his eyes, he saw his nearly severed right hand being beaten by the rushing air. Oblivious to the pain, he fought desperately to hang on. He just wanted to feel the ground again, hear the approach of the rescue chopper, return to hold his son.
The sounds were unmistakable, terrifying. A hail of bullets whizzed by on his right, then left. Then, as quickly as it had begun, it was over. A single bullet pierced his heart. Two hundred feet from the relative safety of the earth, his lifeless hand released the parachute that could no longer save him. He fell to earth, dead before he hit the ground.
Cole Sumner had witnessed it all. Hunkering down behind a ridge, he had seen the first parachute open, the copilot’s. He had seen men in white robes, their heads wrapped in turbans, throw themselves against whatever outcropping they could find. They had steadied their rifles, unloading their clips as the American flier hung from his open chute. He had heard the gunfire, in semiautomatic bursts, then the morbid shouts of crazed men. With his enhanced light vision and amplified sound, it had all been too real.
Well over a dozen warriors, cackling like demons, had begun to fire as soon as the first chute had opened. Although it was still dark, both man and parachute had been clearly visible, silhouetted against the bright swath of the Milky Way. Cole had watched as one shot, then a second and third, found their mark. They pushed and twisted the copilot as the bullets pierced his body. With the first impact, he had heard an anguished moan. With the second, the sound was muffled. With the third, there was no sound at all.
Sumner would have given his life to engage the enemy, even after the copilot had died. But the bastards were too far away. At over a thousand yards, they were out of range. Helpless to do anything, he watched the pilot lunge out of the falling chopper, his chute held aloft in his hand. He had come so close.
The broken bird, as if in sympathy, plunged into a ridge a few hundred yards from where its pilot had fallen. The amplified crunch was horrific, but there was no explosion. There was nothing left to burn.
Within minutes of the crash, the images of turbaned men scouring the site could be seen on Cole’s H.U.D. They were shouting, "Allahu-akbar," celebrating death, brandishing their guns and firing them into the air. What kind of men, he wondered, love to kill? Sumner, overcome with pain, vomited as quietly as he could.
Rolling onto his back and facing skyward, Cole Sumner collected himself enough to speak. "Bravo Two, this is Team Uniform. Come in."
"Bravo Two. Go ahead."
"We’ve got a bad situation here," the Army Ranger reported. "Both pilots are dead."
"No! Can’t be!" The Sea Hawk crews were close. "We saw two ejections, two good chutes. We’ve got a beacon signal marking each location."
"Sorry, Cap..." Sumner was consumed with emotion. "They’re dead."
"We still need to pick them up. We’re heading back now."
"Negative," Cole said. "They’ll kill you if you come back this way. You’re a stripped-down Sea Hawk, not a Cobra Gunship. You’ve got no guns. There are at least twenty of them, maybe more, all armed. They don’t know I’m here, but they’re all over the pilots. The scene is..." he wanted to say "right out of hell," but even that wasn’t sufficient. They don’t sing and dance in hell.
"We can’t leave you. We can’t leave them. We’re coming back."
"If you do, I’ll shoot you myself! You’ve got a job to do. We can’t risk losing another bird. If you go down, the men you dropped at the target are as good as dead. Get your butts out of here! That’s an order." He didn’t have rank, but he was right.
The frustrated pilot swore under his breath. Truth be known, he wanted to lean his chopper forward and run his blades through the crowd of celebrating hoodlums.
Sumner didn’t respond. There was nothing more he could say. Two good men were dead.
All any of them could think of was the news footage from Somalia, ancient history now but still fresh in their minds. The images of the Black Hawk crewmen being stripped naked and paraded through the streets of Mogadishu by what looked to be sub-human thugs haunted them. The more zealously Rangers like Cole had tried to rescue their fallen comrades, the worse the situation had become. It was the Devil’s own version of lose-lose.
"Keep your head down, Major. God willing, we’ll pick you up on our way back. Your GPS signal is five by five. Bravo Two, Out."
Major Sumner had not been the only one to witness the horrific deaths of the American pilots. His helmet cam had beamed the NSA’s video feed to the situation room in the Pentagon, to the CIA, to the White House - and to FOX News.
"Perfect! They’ve screwed up another mission," the President seethed. "Thankfully, it’s covert. Can you imagine the fallout if the press found out?"
"Madam President!" Susan protested in tears. "Those men! That was the most awful thing I’ve ever seen."
"Well, I’m not going to watch any more of this. I’ve had it with the lot of ’em. You shouldn’t have talked me into this, Susan."
Ditroe was shocked; the wind had been knocked out of her. She stared in dismay and started to cry.
"I’m going to go to bed. Let me know how it turns out in the morning. And Suzzi," the President spun around as she reached the door, "call your pals at the Pentagon and make sure they keep a tight lid on this. I’d lay odds the rest of the mission is just as doomed. Captain Doolittle’s done. The rest of those guys aren’t even there yet, and they’re about to puke their brains out." With that she walked through the eastern door of the press room and retreated upstairs.
"I’ve got the GPS coordinates, sir." The young studio exec steamed back into the control room. "Sorry it took so long, but I didn’t have charts for that part of the world." He looked around. No one was listening. They were all staring blankly into the upper right monitor. It hadn’t even been on when he’d left the room. "What did I miss?"
The station manager smiled grimly. "Only the most wonderfully horrible war video ever shot. One guy parachutes out of a helicopter that’s all torn up. He gets shot a bunch of times. Then a second guy jumps, holding his parachute in his hand! Then they nail him, too. He lets go and smacks into the ground just before the chopper crashes. A minute later they’re surrounded by all these diaper-headed crazies."
"It was all there, the shots, the moans, the crash, the idiots celebrating."
"Where are these guys?" Edwards asked.
"Those guys, I don’t know. The others - the ones with the GPS numbers - are in the Hindu Kush just inside the border of northeastern Afghanistan. High country."
"We’ve got to release this, Bob," Blaine pleaded.
The station manager turned and told one of his subordinates to call New York again. "This time use their home and cell numbers. Dial anyone with a VP or better after their name." Edwards was out of control, bouncing up and down.
"No, Blaine. You need to calm down. This isn’t going anywhere until we get the green light."
"Come on, Bob! This is the story of a lifetime. It’ll make our careers." Edwards, too, was on a mission.
"Get me Admiral kerrington with the Ronald Reagan Battle Group," Chairman Hasler ordered. "Now!"
Not even fifteen seconds passed. "Admiral Kerrington here."
"Chuck, this is Bill Hasler. We’ve got a problem. One of the Sea Hawks you stationed in northern India has crashed. We need another one delivered to Srinagar yesterday. In fact, send two."
"We’re already on it, sir. One left here two hours ago. We got a call from the Sea Hawk pilots saying that one of our birds was damaged. They said they needed another for a successful extraction of your Special Forces team. I’m guessing they’re working with the same twelve guys that came through here yesterday from Diego Garcia."
"That’s right, Admiral. How many Cobra Gunships you have?"
"Four assigned to the Ronald Reagan. There’re more on...."
"I want them sent to Srinagar," Hasler interrupted.
"Yes sir," the Admiral returned. "The unit that carried your boys in has already requested them. But without authorization, they haven’t flown. We sent a request to the Pentagon some time ago, but no joy."
In the background, they could hear the Admiral talking to the Captain of the Ronald Reagan. A moment later he was back on the speaker. "They’ll be en route in under ten, along with the second Sea Hawk. It’ll take ’em a while to catch up with the other bird. Do you want air cover, sir?"
"Yes, but not F-18s. At least not as part of the extraction team. The threat is from the ground, not the air. The enemy is unsophisticated. We need something slower. Guns, not missiles or bombs."
"How about Spectre Gunships?" The AC-130Us are slow but deadly: howitzers and cannons.
The Chairman thought for a moment. "The nearest Air Force Base is Prince Sultan in Saudi, right?"
"Yes sir. Most everything has been pulled out, but between Riyadh and Qatar there may still be something left. I don’t know what. Do you want me to call General Smithe and coordinate?"
"Yeah. But I’m afraid the AC-130s may be too slow. By the time they get there, this thing might be over. What about A-10s? Do we have any WartHogs in the region?" Hasler asked.
A-10 WartHogs were Air Force weapons, not Navy. Ugly (they earned the nickname) and relatively slow for a jet, they were designed as tank killers. A derivative was modified for close-in troop support. They were more than nasty enough to keep any enemy’s head down - or failing that, take it off.
"If he’s got ’em, send four A-10s as cover for the extraction team, and two AC-130s. Use your F-18s to provide air protection for the mission over India, but not over the disputed territories, and not over Afghanistan."
"Aye, aye, sir." There was a short pause. "General," Admiral Kerrington said, "we have General Smithe on line now."
"You tell him to make sure the A-10s have their full complement of cannons and small rockets, mostly anti-personnel ordnance."
"The General says he can have all six birds readied and up per your orders in less than twenty."
"Get ’em airborne. And Chuck, make sure there’s enough fuel in Srinagar to complete the mission. If not, fly a tanker in there. I’m going to turn you over to Admiral Gustoff. He’ll provide your team with the coordinates and briefing you’ll need to get this done."
"Yes, sir. But tell me, sir, what happened to our men?"
"No time for that now, Admiral. Do this right, Chuck. We’ve got men in trouble."
A momentary silence descended upon the situation room as Admiral Gustoff went into the back office to complete the briefing. The assembled brass wondered if the Chairman had asked for too little or too much.
"You can’t do that." Unfamiliar with military operations, the Secretary of the Air Force jumped into the fray. He was a civilian, as is customary, a political appointee. Reflecting the attitudes of the Administration, this Secretary, like the other suits around him, was actually hostile to the uniforms surrounding him.
While backward, that was nothing new. Most of the career officers, especially those who had served during the Clinton Administration, had come to expect such upside-down thinking. Horror stories of under-qualified youngsters swaggering into Pentagon briefings were commonplace. Time after time, a disciplined and devoted cadre of spit-and-polish officers would go into a meeting prepared, only to find that their politically appointed civilian overseers weren’t. To their horror, and to the shame of their Commander-in-Chief, they were often disheveled in appearance, lackadaisical in attitude, and short in attention span. But somehow such news never seemed to make the papers. The Washington press corps must have had more important issues to cover than the readiness of America’s national defense.
The Secretary of the Air Force slouched in his chair. He cleared his throat and spoke the words Hasler was dreading. "On whose authority are you doing this, General?"
"My own," he barked in the most condescending voice he could muster. "Nobody else dies on my watch. We’re going to protect our men." He stared holes through the political weasel. "If I’m ordered to withdraw them, I’ll resign." It was practically a dare.
"I understand you don’t want a repeat of the Mogadishu Black Hawk thing on your hands, General, but this was supposed to be a limited covert operation."
That was the core of the issue. As in Mogadishu, disaster was assured because a politically motivated President had prohibited the military from using sufficient force. Clinton had been more concerned about the military presence not offending the Muslims than he had been about protecting the lives of the men he’d sent into harm’s way. Without sufficient cover or an adequate show of force, Americans had been butchered by the very people he was trying not to offend.
"I’ve been instructed by the White House, by the Secretary of Defense herself, to keep this thing under wraps. We must consider the political fallout. The President doesn’t want us to start World War III."
Hasler glared at the young man. "In case you didn’t notice, Mr. Secretary, World War III began on September 11th, 2001."
"Say your prayers, men, if you’re into that sort of thing. It’s time to rumble." Adams wasn’t much into prayers; he believed in guns. He had always thought "say your prayers" was a good luck wish, sort of like saying "gesundheit" after a good sneeze. He’d heard Sarah say she was praying for him, but the implications never registered.
"We’re half a mile from the bunker - less than a mile from the barracks."
The briefing was redundant. Even in their current state, they were up to speed. They had memorized the briefing papers and the satellite images. Their enemy would be well armed and eager to fight. With bullets guaranteed to fly, the men knew every inch of the rebuilt training camp. It was etched in their minds.
"The valley reaches its narrowest point just before the first bunker. So stay focused. As we approach, bunch up behind Seraph’s mine sweep. Keep your head down and stay together. Let’s do our job and get out of here."
With their fourth five-minute break now history, the men’s legs, if not their minds, seemed to spring back to life, at least temporarily.
"Yacob, lead us in," Thor ordered, speaking into his intercom. "Same pairings. Keep it tight. We didn’t come this far to get blown up now."
The hypoxia-induced bickering they had experienced during the last leg had subsided. They were too exhausted to squabble. Yet somehow, as they moved in to surprise their enemy, each man actually began to feel a surge of energy. Their bodies were supplying ample doses of adrenaline.
If all went well, they would arrive at their target in less than fifteen minutes. The incline was steep but only slightly worse than what lay behind them.
Unfortunately, by this time Team Uniform was really starting to hate their uniforms. The SFGs had begun to chafe. There were too many straps, buckles, and belts. The Kevlar and titanium fabric was rough, and the weight of the batteries, fuel cells, integrated canteen, computer, electronics, and ammunition had shifted from side to side as the men had jogged up the final ridge. In places, their skin had been rubbed raw. Had they not been numbed by the shortage of oxygen, the constant irritation might have stopped them in their tracks.
The problem of shifting weight was grating on the systems as well. Not one soldier had a fully operational suit. There was only one properly functioning terrain system. Although most still had infrared and enhanced light capability, as the sunrise approached, these functions would become largely redundant. The projected camera images were useless in the dim light. Jogging rendered them nauseating, even with image stabilization.
The system glitches were aggravated by the harshness of the mountain environment, the cold, the dust, and the uneven terrain. With every passing hour, functionality deteriorated. With the exception of Isaac and Thor, they were now an Army of many colors. The chameleon feature had more bugs than a fat frog.
"Halt!" Seraph whispered as loudly as he dared. The briefing worked. No one ran over him, wisely respecting the mine he’d detected. But this time it wasn’t a mine. Seraph spoke softly, "Left, right."
He didn’t need to say anything more. No matter what form of visual enhancement they were using, the image was the same. On each side of the troop, on both ridges, less than fifteen yards away, they spied a guard asleep at his post. Each wore a white robe and turban, making them all too easy to spot. Their guns were tossed off to the side. Whatever respect the international team had held in reserve for these al-Qaeda fighters evaporated. Anybody that lazy deserves to get shot! they thought. I can’t wait to send them to Allah.
In a voice not much louder than a whisper, the Captain said, "Move out, quietly. Heel-toe. Tighten up. Isaac, you stay with me."
With impaired peripheral vision, the Captain stared directly at the terrorist on his right. He knew that if either of these guys woke up while the team had their backs to them, they would be slaughtered. A few automatic bursts from an assault rifle and it would be all over. "Once you’re clear, we’ll take out the guards," he told his troops.
With eyes still fixed on the man closest to him, Adams whispered, "Left is yours. Shoot when the men are a hundred meters out."
The SFGs had their advantages. As difficult as it was to feel one’s surroundings, and as irritating as they were to wear, delivering these instructions would have been impossible without the intercoms. Their voices would have awakened the sentries.
As Adams eyed the guard on his side of the canyon ridge, he heard him groan, and saw him squirm, trying to get comfortable on the rocks. Thor held his breath, drawing his gun. Isaac did the same.
Newcomb carried a Glock 9mm with silencer and subsonic rounds. With its ceramic components and tight tolerances, it was arguably the world’s finest sidearm. The Captain used a heavier Berretta 9mm semi-automatic pistol. Elegant and reliable, it too was equipped with a silencer. Even its muzzle blast was subdued. Unless the fired projectile struck a rock or careened off a metallic object, the whole affair would go unnoticed - except, of course, by the unfortunate sentries.
The Captain and the Major crouched down, steadying themselves. Their first shots would find their marks as soon as Team Uniform was a safe distance away.
Bunched together as ordered, continuing to march, the men were now nearly a hundred yards ahead. Thor maneuvered for the perfect shot. But then he saw it. The sleeping sentry nearest him was grinning.
"It’s a trap! Shoot! Now!" He was no longer whispering. Adams instantly wiped the grin off the guard’s face. A split second later Isaac finished Mr. Left. Both sentries keeled over without a sound, shot through the heart. Allah had claimed two more martyrs.
"Trap!" Adams repeated, screaming. "Fall back!"
But it was too late. Yacob Seraph had already felt the tug of a wire yanking his right foot. "Mine!" he barked out instinctively, drowning out the Captain’s order.
In an instant, horrific explosions engulfed the team. Multiple flashes of brilliant white light lit up the mountainous terrain like paparazzi around a movie star. There were at least four enormous percussions, but it was hard to tell with everything echoing off the valley walls, reverberating.
Team Uniform was instantly blinded. With their H.U.D.s set on either the light enhancement mode or heat-detecting infrared, the blasts overwhelmed them. Their hearing was shot too, especially those with operational noise-enhancement systems. The sudden sensory overload was completely disorienting.
Adams and Newcomb watched, frozen in the moment. They were pummeled with rocks and debris. The coating of dust that had made their visors so ineffective went from annoying to intolerable. Their eardrums were throbbing. Half a dozen white spots seemed to circle in front of them. Gasping for air following the impact in the narrow confines of the steep ravine, they rubbed their sides to determine where they had been hit. But they could find no injuries. Their men hadn’t tripped a mine. There was no shrapnel. So what was it?
All Isaac and Thor knew was that there had been multiple explosions, some in front of the column, some behind. They appeared to have been underground, to the left and right of their team. But it was so hard to tell. A giant plume of dust was now all that was left of Team Uniform.
By the time the air had cleared, their men had vanished. They had simply disappeared.
Running forward, Adams instinctively called out, "Kyle, what’s happening? Where are you?"
"Can’t see, sir."
The only reason he could hear was that his noise-amplification system was inoperative.
"The ground just gave way," he coughed. "We’ve fallen into a pit!" he said, choking out the words. "I can feel," his voice slowed, "the ot.h..e..r..s a...r...o...u...n...d...." And then he was gone. Stanley’s mike went dead.
"Kyle!" the Captain cried out to his best friend. There was no reply. "Bentley! Blake!" Nothing. "Lad, Ryan, Cliff, anyone!" The Captain beseeched his troops to respond.
"Moshe?" the Major pleaded. "Yacob? Joshua?" he shouted.
Still cautiously moving forward, Thor suddenly felt a tug on his left shoulder. Newcomb was holding him back. If it was a trap, they would soon have company.
"Sir, listen," the Mossad agent said.
They saw dozens of armed combatants storming toward the pit from the opposite direction, screaming at the top of their lungs like savages intent on butchering their foe. Waving their weapons in the air, they rushed in. "Allahu-akbar!" they cried.
Neither the Captain nor the Major knew if they should charge or retreat. The odds looked hopeless. Their hearts urged them to rush into the marauding mass and rescue their fallen comrades. Their heads, their training, told them that to do so would help no one but the terrorists.
Isaac, his right hand still firmly ensconced on the Captain’s left shoulder, pulled him back. "We must retreat."
"No!" Adams felt both impotent and responsible.
"Yes, and now!" Isaac was thinking more clearly. "We need to assess the damage - come up with a plan. We can’t fire into that plume of dust."
Thor was still trying to pull forward.
"They haven’t seen us, Cap’n. We’ve gotta go - for our men’s sake."
He was right. They didn’t know if they were fighting twenty or two hundred and twenty.
"It’s the suits. We’re invisible," Adams realized. He could tell from the way the approaching mob was acting. Thor looked toward Isaac. Had it not been for the infrared image in his H.U.D., his comrade would have been impossible to see, though he was right at his side.
"You’re right," the American agreed. "If we don’t fall back, they’ll kill us, too."
"Walk backwards, sir."
Looking down, they recognized that the only evidence of their presence was their boot prints in the soft Afghan soil. If they moved backwards, the terrorists wouldn’t know anyone had escaped. It might buy them the time they needed to figure out what had happened - and more important, what to do about it.
Jogging backwards and looking over their shoulders, the two men retreated to a small cave they had spotted a quarter mile back. As they moved off the center of the trail, they brushed out their footprints until they reached rocky ground. Climbing up the canyon wall, they were careful not to dislodge any of the rocks along their way.
The cave was no more than thirty-five yards off the narrow path, east of the trail and up some forty feet. There were enough boulders near the entrance to close off much of the opening.
Thor and Isaac felt like cowards, as if they’d deserted their men. But the sickening emotion evolved not into depression, but determination - a resolve to resurrect a rapidly deteriorating situation.
Adams knelt down close to the mouth of the small cave and peered outside. He could no longer see the place where his men had vanished, but he could still hear the shouts of their captors. "Allahu-akbar! Allahu- akbar! Allahu-akbar!" The chant went on and on. "Allah is Most Great!"
Frustrated, he turned so that his antenna was facing southwest, out the cave, and over the next ridge. "This is Team Uniform. We have a bad situation here. Nine of our eleven men have vanished into what appears to be a large pit. Thirty or more al-Qaeda troops, all well armed, are now hovering over the area. We do not know if our men are dead or alive."
For the moment, it was all Thor could do to provide the grim play by play. He was in denial. His mind told him this couldn’t be happening. Was it playing tricks on him? Was it the fatigue, oxygen starvation, a lack of situational awareness caused by his SFG? No. He’d seen what he’d seen.
He continued his account. "Do not launch rescue at this time. Clouds are building and ceilings are well below the peaks. We don’t know if the enemy has SAMs. They appear to be well equipped." Then he lowered his voice, almost as if embarrassed. "They were expecting us. I repeat: They knew we were coming!"