Major Pete Napier hovered his MH-47G Chinook helicopter ten kilometers outside of Lhasa, Tibet and a mere two inches off the tundra. A mixed action team of Delta Force and The Activity—the slipperiest intel group on the planet—flung themselves aboard.
The additional load sent an infinitesimal shift in the cyclic control in his right hand. The hydraulics to close the rear loading ramp hummed through the entire frame of the massive helicopter. By the time his crew chief could reach forward to slap an “all secure” signal against his shoulder, they were already ten feet up and fifty out. That was enough altitude. He kept the nose down as he clawed for speed in the thin air at eleven thousand feet.
“Totally worth it,” one of the D-boys announced as soon as he was on the Chinook’s internal intercom.
He’d have to remember to tell that to the two Black Hawks flying guard for him…when they were in a friendly country and could risk a radio transmission. This deep inside China—or rather Chinese-held territory as the CIA’s mission-briefing spook had insisted on calling it—radios attracted attention and were only used to avoid imminent death and destruction.
“Great, now I just need to get us out of this alive.”
“Do that, Pete. We’d appreciate it.”
He wished to hell he had a stealth bird like the one that had gone into bin Laden’s compound. But the one that had crashed during that raid had been blown up. Where there was one, there were always two, but the second had gone back into hiding as thoroughly as if it had never existed. He hadn’t heard a word about it since.
The Tibetan terrain was amazing, even if all he could see of it was the monochromatic green of night vision. And blackness. The largest city in Tibet lay a mere ten kilometers away and they were flying over barren wilderness. He could crash out here and no one would know for decades unless some yak herder stumbled upon them. Or were yaks in Mongolia? He was a corn-fed, white boy from Colorado, what did he know about Tibet? Most of the countries he’d flown into on Black Ops missions he’d only seen at night anyway.
While moving very, very fast.
The inside of his visor was painted with overlapping readouts. A pre-defined terrain map, the best that modern satellite imaging could build made the first layer. This wasn’t some crappy, on-line, look-at-a-picture-of-your-house display. Someone had a pile of dung outside their goat pen? He could see it, tell you how high it was, and probably say if they were pygmy goats or full-size LaManchas by the size of their shit-pellets if he zoomed in.
On top of that were projected the forward-looking infrared camera images. The FLIR imaging gave him a real-time overlay, in case someone had put an addition onto their goat shed since the last satellite pass or parked their tractor across his intended flight path.
His nervous system was paying autonomic attention to that combined landscape. He also compensated for the thin air at altitude as he instinctively chose when to start his climb over said goat shed or his swerve around it.
It was the third layer, the tactical display that had most of his attention. At least he and the two Black Hawks flying escort on him were finally on the move.
To insert this deep into Tibet, without passing over Bhutan or Nepal, they’d had to add wingtanks on the Black Hawks’ hardpoints where he’d much rather have a couple banks of Hellfire missiles. Still, they had 20 mm chain guns and the crew chiefs had miniguns which was some comfort. His twin-rotor Chinook might be the biggest helicopter that the Night Stalkers flew, but it was the cargo van of Special Operations and only had two miniguns and a machine gun of its own. Though he’d put his three crew chiefs up against the best Black Hawk shooter any day.
While the action team was busy infiltrating the capital city and gathering intelligence on the particularly brutal Chinese assistant administrator, Pete and his crews had been squatting out in the wilderness under a camouflage net designed to make his helo look like just another god-forsaken Himalayan lump of granite.
Command had determined that it was better for the helos to wait on site through the day than risk flying out and back in. He and his crew had stood shifts on guard duty, but none of them had slept. They’d been flying together too long to have any new jokes, so they’d played a lot of cribbage. He’d long ago ruled no gambling on a mission, after a fistfight had broken out about a bluff hand that cost a Marine three hundred and forty-seven dollars. Marines hated losing to Army no matter how many times it happened. They’d had to sit on him for a long time before he calmed down.
Tonight’s mission was part of an on-going campaign to discredit the Chinese “presence” in Tibet on the international stage—as if occupying the country the last sixty-plus years didn’t count toward ruling, whether invited or not. As usual, there was a crucial vote coming up at the U.N.—that, as usual, the Chinese could be guaranteed to ignore. However, the ever-hopeful CIA was in a hurry to make sure that any damaging information that they could validate was disseminated as thoroughly as possible prior to the vote.
Not his concern.
His concern was, were they going to pass over some Chinese sentry post at their top speed of a hundred and ninety-six miles an hour? The sentries would then call down a couple Shenyang J-16 jet fighters that could hustle along at Mach 2—over fifteen hundred mph—to fry his sorry ass. He knew there was a pair of them parked at Lhasa along with some older gear that would be just as effective against his three helos.
“Don’t suppose you could get a move on, Pete?”
“Eat s**t, Nicolai!” He was a good man to have as a copilot. Pete knew he was holding on too tight, and Nicolai knew that a joke was the right way to ease the moment.
He, Nicolai, and the four pilots in the two Black Hawks had a long way to go tonight and he’d never make it if he stayed so tight on the controls that he could barely maneuver. Pete eased off and felt his fingers tingle with the rush of returning blood. They dove down into gorges and followed them as long as they dared. They hugged cliff walls at every opportunity to decrease their radar profile. And they climbed.
That was the true danger—they would be up near the helos’ limits when they crossed over the backbone of the Himalayas in their rush for India. The air was so rarefied that they burned fuel at a prodigious rate. Their reserve didn’t allow for any extended battles while crossing the border…not for any battle at all really.
It was pitch dark outside her helicopter when Captain Danielle Delacroix stamped on the left rudder pedal while giving the big Chinook right-directed control on the cyclic. It tipped her most of the way onto her side but let her continue in a straight line. A Chinook’s rotors were sixty feet across—front to back they overlapped to make the spread a hundred feet long. By cross-controlling her bird to tip it, she managed to execute a straight line between two mock pylons only thirty feet apart. They were made of thin cloth so they wouldn’t down the helo if you sliced one—she was the only trainee to not have cut one yet.
At her current angle of attack, she took up less than a half-rotor of width, just twenty-four feet. That left her nearly three feet to either side, sufficient as she was moving at under a hundred knots.
The training instructor sitting beside her in the copilot’s seat didn’t react as she swooped through the training course at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Only child of a single mother, she was used to providing her own feedback loops, so she didn’t expect anything else. Those who expected outside validation rarely survived the SOAR induction testing, never mind the two years of training that followed.
As a loner kid, Danielle had learned that self-motivated congratulations and fun were much easier to come by than external ones. She’d spent innumerable hours deep in her mind as a pre-teen superheroine. At twenty-nine she was well on her way to becoming a real life one, though Helo-girl had never been a character she’d thought of in her youth.
External validation or not, after two years of training with the U.S. Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment she was ready for some action. At least she was convinced that she was. But the trainers of Fort Campbell, Kentucky had not signed off on anyone in her trainee class yet. Nor had they given any hint of when they might.
She ducked ten tons of racing Chinook under a bridge and bounced into a near vertical climb to clear the power line on the far side. Like a ride on the toboggan at Terrassee Dufferin during Le Carnaval de Québec, only with ten thousand horsepower at her fingertips. Using her Army signing bonus—the first money in her life that was truly hers—to attend Le Carnaval had been her one trip back to her birthplace since her mother took them to America when she was ten.
To even apply to SOAR required five years of prior military rotorcraft experience. She had applied after seven years because of a chance encounter—or rather what she’d thought was a chance encounter at the time.
Captain Justin Roberts had been a top Chinook pilot, the one who had convinced her to switch from her beloved Black Hawk and try out the massive twin-rotor craft. One flight and she’d been a goner, begging her commander until he gave in and let her cross over to the new platform. Justin had made the jump from the 10th Mountain Division to the 160th SOAR not long after that.
Then one night she’d been having pizza in Watertown, New York a couple miles off the 10th’s base at Fort Drum.
“Danielle?” Justin had greeted her with the surprise of finding a good friend in an unexpected place. Danielle had always liked Justin—even if he was a too-tall, too-handsome cowboy and completely knew it. But “good friend” was unusual for Danielle, with anyone, and Justin came close.
“Captain Roberts,” as a dry greeting over the top edge of her Suzanne Brockmann novel didn’t faze him in the slightest.
“Mind if I join ya?” A question he then answered for himself by sliding into the opposite seat and taking a slice of her pizza. She been thinking of taking the leftovers back to base, but that was now an idle thought.
“Are you enjoying life in SOAR?” she did her best to appear a normal, social human, a skill she’d learned by rote. Greeting someone you knew after a time apart? Ask a question about them. “They treating you well?”
“Whoo-ee, you have no idea, Danielle,” his voice was smooth as…well, always…so she wouldn’t think about it also sounding like a pickup line. He was beautiful but didn’t interest her; the outgoing ones never did.
“Tell me.” Men love to talk about themselves, so let them.
And he did. But she’d soon forgotten about her novel and would have forgotten the pizza if he hadn’t reminded her to eat.
His stories shifted from intriguing to fascinating. There was a world out there that she’d been only peripherally aware of. The Night Stalkers of the 160th SOAR weren’t simply better helicopter pilots, they were the most highly-trained and best-equipped ones anywhere. Their missions were pure razor’s edge and Black Op dark.
He’d left her with a hundred questions and enough interest to fill out an application to the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (airborne). Being a decent guy, Justin even paid for the pizza after eating half.
The speed at which she was rushed into testing told her that her meeting with Justin hadn’t been by chance and that she owed him more than half a pizza next time they met. She’d asked after him a couple of times since she’d made it past the qualification exams—and the examiners’ brutal interviews that had left her questioning her sanity, never mind her ability.
“Justin Roberts is presently deployed, ma’am,” was the only response she’d ever gotten.
Now that she was through training—almost, had to be soon, didn’t it?—Danielle realized that was probably less of an evasion and more likely to do with the brutal op tempo the Night Stalkers maintained. The SOAR 1st Battalion had just won the coveted Lt. General Ellis D. Parker awards for Outstanding Combat Aviation Battalion and Aviation Battalion of the Year. They’d been on deployment every single day of the last year, actually of the last decade-plus since 9/11.
The very first Special Forces boots on the ground in Afghanistan were delivered that October by the Night Stalkers and nothing had slacked off since. Justin might be in the 5th battalion D company, but they were just as heavily assigned as the 1st.
Part of the recruits’ training had included tours in Afghanistan. But unlike their prior deployments, these were brief, intense, and then they’d be back in the States pushing to integrate their new skills.
SOAR needed her training to end and so did she.
Danielle was ready for the job, in her own, inestimable opinion. But she wasn’t going to get there until the trainers signed off that she’d reached fully mission-qualified proficiency. FMQ was the gold star of the Night Stalkers pipeline.
The Fort Campbell training course was never set up the same from one flight to the next, but it always had a time limit. The time would be short and they didn’t tell you what it was. So she drove the Chinook for all it was worth like Regina Jaquess waterskiing her way to U.S. Ski Team Female Athlete of the Year.
The Night Stalkers were a damned secretive lot, and after two years of training, she understood why. With seven years flying for the 10th, she’d thought she was good.
She’d been repeatedly lauded as one of the top pilots at Fort Drum.
The Night Stalkers had offered an education in what it really meant to fly. In the two years of training, she’d flown more hours than in the seven years prior, despite two deployments to Iraq. And spent more time in the classroom than her life-to-date accumulated flight hours.
But she was ready now. It was très viscérale, right down in her bones she could feel it. The Chinook was as much a part of her nervous system as breathing.
Too bad they didn’t build men the way they built the big Chinooks—especially the MH-47G which were built specifically to SOAR’s requirements. The aircraft were steady, trustworthy, and the most immensely powerful helicopters deployed in the U.S. Army—what more could a girl ask for? But finding a superhero man to go with her superhero helicopter was just a fantasy for a lonely girl who’d once had dreams of more.
She dove down into a canyon and slid to a hover mere inches over the reservoir inside the thirty-second window laid out on the flight plan.
Danielle resisted a sigh. She was ready for something to happen and to happen soon.
Pete’s Chinook and his two escort Black Hawks crossed into the mountainous province of Sikkim, India ten feet over the glaciers and still moving fast. It was an hour before dawn, they’d made it out of China while it was still dark.
“Thirty minutes of fuel remaining,” Nicolai said it like a personal challenge when they hit the border.
“Thanks, I never would have noticed.”
It had been a nail-biting tradeoff: the more fuel he burned, the more easily he climbed due to the lighter load. The more he climbed, the faster he burned what little fuel remained.
Safe in Indian airspace he climbed hard as Nicolai counted down the minutes remaining, burning fuel even faster than he had been while crossing the mountains of southern Tibet. They caught up with the U.S. Air Force HC-130P Combat King refueling tanker with only ten minutes of fuel left.
“Ram that b***h,” Nicolai called out.
Pete extended the refueling probe which reached only a few feet beyond the forward edge of the rotor blade and drove at the basket trailing behind the tanker on its long hose.
He nailed it on the first try despite the fluky winds. Striking the valve in the basket with over four hundred pounds of pressure, a clamp snapped over the refueling probe and Jet A fuel shot into his tanks.
His helo had the least fuel due to having the most men aboard, so he was first in line. His Number Two picked up the second refueling basket trailing off the other wing of the Combat King. Thirty seconds and three hundred gallons later and he was breathing much more easily.
“Ah,” Nicolai sighed. “It is better than the s*x,” his thick Russian accent only ever surfaced in this moment or in a bar while picking up women.
“Hey, Nicolai,” Nicky the Greek called over the intercom from his crew chief position seated behind Pete. “Do you make love in Russian?”
A question Pete had always been careful to avoid.
“For you, I make special exception.” That got a laugh over the system.
Which explained why Pete always kept his mouth shut at this moment.
“The ladies, Nicolai? What about the ladies?” Alfie the portside gunner asked.
“Ah,” he sighed happily as he signaled that the other helos had finished their refueling and formed up to either side, “the ladies love the Russian. They don’t need to know I grew up in Maryland and I learn my great-great-grandfather’s native tongue at the University called Virginia.”
He sounded so pleased that Pete wished he’d done the same rather than study Japanese and Mandarin.
Another two hours of—Thank God—straight-and-level flight at altitude through the breaking dawn and they landed on the aircraft carrier awaiting them in the Bay of Bengal. India had agreed to turn a blind eye as long as the Americans never actually touched their soil.
Once standing on the deck—and the worst of the kinks had been worked out—he pulled his team together: six pilots and seven crew chiefs.
“Honor to serve!” He saluted them sharply.
“Hell yeah!” They shouted in unison and saluted in turn. It was their version of spiking the football in the end zone.
A petty officer in a bright green vest appeared at his elbow, “Follow me please, sir.” He pointed toward the Navy-gray command structure that towered above the carrier’s deck. The rear admiral of the entire carrier strike group was waiting for him just outside the entrance. Not a good idea to keep a one-star waiting, so he waved at the team.
“See you in the mess for dinner,” he shouted to the crew over the noise of an F-18 Hornet fighter jet trapping on the #2 wire. After two days of surviving on MREs while squatting on the Tibetan tundra, he was ready for a steak, a burger, a mountain of pasta, whatever. Or maybe all three.
The green escorted him across the hazards of the busy flight deck. Pete had kept his helmet on to buffer the noise, but even at that he winced as another Hornet fired up and was flung aloft by the catapult.
“Orders, Major Napier,” the Rear Admiral handed him a folded sheet the moment he arrived. “Hate to lose you.” He saluted, which Pete automatically returned before looking down at the sheet of paper in his hands. The man was gone before the import of Pete’s orders slammed in.
A different green-clad deckhand showed up with Pete’s duffle bag and began guiding him toward a loading C-2 Greyhound twin-prop airplane. It was parked Number Two for the launch catapult, close behind the raised jet-blast deflector.
His crew, being led across in the opposite direction to return to the berthing decks below, looked at him aghast.
“Stateside,” was all he managed to gasp out as they passed.
A stream of foul cursing followed him from behind. Their crew was tight. Why the hell was Command breaking it up?
And what in the name of fuck-all had he done to deserve this?
He glanced at the orders again as he stumbled up the Greyhound’s rear ramp and crash landed into a seat.
It was worse than a demotion.
This was punishment.