As the Little Bird helicopter bucked its way through the early October storm, Lieutenant Mick “The Mighty Dozer” Quinn wasn’t too worried; it wasn’t that much of a storm. Especially not by Gulf of Alaska standards. But it did think that slapping their helicopter, the Linda, about the sky was good sport and that was making him work for it. It churned enough salt into the air that inside the cabin smelled like being home. The air was unique here: salt, air fresh off the tundra, moisture whipped so hard it tasted alive—he’d missed it to the core of his soul.
Thirty, twenty, and two.
Thirty-knot winds—thirty-five miles-an-hour to landlubbers. Twenty-foot waves—not even enough to slow down his family’s commercial crabbing operation. And two miles visibility—if it hadn’t been the middle of the night. The storm they were flying into would soon cut that to thirty, twenty, and a hundred yards. As usual, the Aleutian Islands were wrapped in crappy weather and ice-cold water that always found a way down the back of your neck. He didn’t miss that, but he still missed working on one of the family’s boat.
“This is nuts! Like way worse than even cashews.”
The storm was, however, pissing off his copilot. Ready to take on Mother Nature womano-a-womano, Chief Warrant Officer Patty “Boston” O’Donoghue snarled at her opponent through the windscreen. Patty was always on the attack and she’d be immensely irritating if she wasn’t so funny about it. And so damned competent.
“It’s—squall line in a hundred yards—doing this just to spite us,” she fed him critical information slipstreamed right in with her grousing.
They worked closely together, very closely. Their AH-6M attack helicopter was the smallest manned rotorcraft in the US military’s arsenal. It fit just two people, and it was a good thing that Patty wasn’t as wide-shouldered as he was or they’d be crammed in the tiny helo’s side-by-side seats. Though she wasn’t a slip of a thing either; just right, he supposed, for a sassy, kick-butts-now-and-take-names-later Army aviator.
The rear seat could have held two more people. Except the Linda was the attack version of the Little Bird—which was why he’d named her for Linda Hamilton in Terminator II. The back seat had been replaced by large ammunition cans with feed belts running out to the guns mounted to either side of the fuselage. Just like Sarah Connor, their helicopter was trim and dangerous as all hell.
“It isn’t nuts. I used to work on the Alaskan crab boats,” Mick nodded down at the roiling sea just fifty feet below them. “My family’s probably out there working right now.”
“Big whoop, Quinn. I worked the boats on the Grand Banks outta Gloucester.” Then she laughed, “No wonder”—it came out one-de; her accent always cracked him up—“we went Ah-mee. Still say this hee-ah mission is nuts.” The accent that JFK imitators had turned into a national joke was apparently still alive and well in Patty’s corner of the country.
The reasons he’d gone Army had nothing to do with the sea. Or maybe everything to do with the sea, but not in the way Patty meant.
“I mean seriously nuts,” she waved a hand at the rain-swept darkness ahead then cycled back through checking all the helo’s systems. “Five percent falloff in power due to the damp air. Compensating fuel flow.”
“Damp air?” They had just plunged into the leading edge of the storm with a sharp slap. Rain now pounded against their windscreen as they hustled along at a hundred and fifty miles an hour. The pounding and engine noise vied for which could be louder.
“Barely worth pulling on a sou’wester for, Quinn.”
“This mission is no nuttier than you, Boston.” Much to his copilot’s irritation, their commander’s nicknames stuck and stuck hard. When Major Pete Napier tagged you, it stuck, even harder than those of his second-in-command, Captain Danielle Delacroix. Danielle’s previous tag for her had been “Irish Patty” but Napier had changed that to “Boston” and all of Patty’s protests that she was from Gloucester were dismissed out of hand. Mick saw no reason to ease up on her just because they’d flown together for two years of training and the three months since.
He hadn’t minded Danielle tagging him as “The Mighty Quinn” from Bob Dylan’s song Quinn the Eskimo. He wasn’t an Alaska Native, though his family had been up there since the gold rush days. Great-Gran was rumored to have taken an Alutiiq lover at one point—in portraits, his grandma certainly hadn’t fit in with her older sisters. Then it had skipped a generation and he liked that he favored Gran; she’d certainly been a tough old bird—still was for that matter even if she didn’t ride the crab boats anymore.
Major Napier had taken one look at his broad fisherman’s shoulders and tagged him as “Dozer.” Danielle had blended the two to Mick “The Mighty Dozer” Quinn.
Didn’t matter, he answered to any of them. But Patty couldn’t just shrug it off; she really cared about such things.
He stayed focused on flying them through the storm without accidentally flying into the ocean. That’s what he cared about, deeply—pun intended. They were now passing over the deep Aleutian Basin. Not that it really mattered. If he made a mistake, it would be the top ten feet of ocean that would kill them, not the ten thousand below that.
Tonight was a typical Night Stalkers’ mission, at least for the 5th Battalion E Company. No one could quite agree on what the “E” stood for—other than coming next after the D Company—but “Extreme” was a popular candidate. Tonight’s mission was definitely a walk on the wild side: take your four helicopters, fly out into utterly disgusting conditions, mess with the enemy’s head, don’t get caught.
And so here they were; four in formation, flying west over the Aleutian Island chain in the dead of night.
He flew his Little Bird Linda close beside the Black Hawk Beatrix. M&M and Kenny flew the 5E’s other Little Bird Leeloo on Beatrix’s opposite side. Trailing a mile behind was the workhorse of the outfit, the Carrie-Anne. The heavy-lifter Chinook helicopter flown by Napier and Danielle was the key to tonight’s operation. The rest of them were just a distraction—three attack helos and one massive transport bird. It had certainly been working for them in the three months since they’d been formed up as a company.
Mick admitted it was a little unusual to be taking on the most paranoid Navy on the planet, the North Koreans. But…
“It doesn’t feel atypically extreme,” he teased Patty.
He could sense her shrug through their shared flight controls. The collective in his left hand beside the seat didn’t lift, but he could feel the vibration of her gesture through the linkage. The cyclic joystick that arced up between their knees didn’t even wiggle that much. A pilot learned to isolate gestures from the flight controls.
Mick was damn glad to have Patty riding second on the controls. Flying in tandem like this helped prevent some tiny control mistake that might kill them both. A pilot as good as Patty added another layer of security, particularly in such foul conditions. He always flew at his best with her. Not that he was trying to impress her or anything, she just brought out the best pilot in him.
Along with the rain, the wind picked up another ten knots and the waves another dozen feet. He climbed to stay fifty feet above the crests.
This whole mess had started with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy. The PLAN had buddied up with Russia for a massive naval exercise close enough to Japan to give the Japanese a major case of hives. Then, instead of turning for home like good little destroyers and landing craft, they’d driven for US territorial waters. The PLAN didn’t push three thousand miles from their home waters just by chance.
“Right of Innocent Passage, my ass,” Patty grumbled.
“Kind of my thought as well, but it is the law.”
Major Napier’s briefing for the flight had reminded them that “innocent passage” was allowed under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea. As long as they did nothing aggressive, like launching planes or attack watercraft, they could sail right through another nation’s territorial waters and say, “Oh, I’m not really here; just in transit.”
The fact that the Chinese freaked every time the US came within two-hundred miles of their coast hadn’t stopped the Chinese from steaming a loop within a five miles Attu—the farthest west of the Aleutian Islands, uninhabited since 2011. The Pentagon had displayed far more restraint than the Chinese Coast Guard by sensibly doing absolutely nothing.
Then badly misreading the situation—and unaware of the numerous tiny retributions that the Chinese were bound to suffer for a long time to come—the North Korean leader had decided that if the Chinese could cross the American borders, so could he. He’d mobilized every ship that was in good enough repair to risk such a long voyage—all three of them. North Korea’s navy was called a “brown water navy” with reason. Most of their vessels weren’t even capable of circling from one coast of North Korea, around South Korea, and to the other side—a journey of less than a thousand miles.
Striking for the Aleutians was nuts, even if he’d never admit his agreement with Patty just on principal.
The first time, the Pentagon had again turned a blind eye just as they had with the Chinese. The second time the US had sent a pair of jets to do a low-level flyby that hadn’t deterred the North Koreans. The third North Korean incursion had passed right between Kanaga and Tanaga Islands in the outer Aleutians—a strait less than five miles wide—to thumb their noses at the Americans.
This time, working their way up the island chain to see just how far they could push it, they had crossed past Dutch Harbor and Unalaska Island within plain sight of the Alaska ferry and innumerable fisherman. Dutch was the largest fishery port in the US and that was too much for the Pentagon. And apparently for Patty O’Donoghue as well.
“The fourth goddamn passage in four weeks is—”
“Is why we’re here tonight,” he cut off her rant before she could get her Irish up. Because when Patty did, she wasn’t a firecracker, she was a battering ram. She made most of the other pilots psychotic after a single hour aloft.
Her sharp humor and passionate emotions worked for him, at least in flight. Whoever she finally latched onto in the personal side of her life would need the patience of Job or to be just as feisty as she was; he’d wager on the latter, with battles royal ensuing into the foreseeable future with both sides enjoying themselves immensely.
At the moment her sights were aimed at Julian, the copilot on the DAP Hawk Beatrix—except she hadn’t taken any action yet, at least none that he’d spotted. Maybe he’d misread it. At the end of training it had been a mechanic back at Fort Campbell. Before that was a Specialist in the 101st Airborne and then...
Patty O’Donoghue was a looker with her thick, deep red hair and cream skin, and could have her pick. But, man, the woman was a handful.
He wished “whoever” all the luck in the world; they were going to need it.
His idea of an ideal woman was—
“Contact with Korean People’s Navy group in thirty miles,” Lieutenant Sofia Gracie’s voice whispered over the encrypted radio, rich with mellifluous tones of her Brazilian childhood and Los Angeles upbringing. “Correct bearing to three-oh-five.”
He could listen to her voice all—
“You gonna fly this thing o-ah shall I, dream boy?” Patty interrupted his thoughts.
“Sure, Patty. Like I’d trust you at the controls.” Which he did—absolutely—or he wouldn’t be flying with her. She was damned good and only flew copilot because he was a little better at the flying and she was a little better at handling the weapons while he flew. He was also Lieutenant to her Chief Warrant 3 for what little respect Patty deemed that to be worth. It earned him the occasional salute, a moderately frequent “sir”—most often ironic in tone—and what he felt was more than his fair share of sass.
No big deal anyway. Mick wasn’t more than a second or two late in correcting his flight path to match the other three birds in the flight, all now heading directly toward the tiny KPN fleet. It wasn’t like they were flying a tight formation in this weather. His primary worry was not eating a rogue wave on this low-level flight.
“They don’t even own a destroyer to send,” Patty protested as if the KPN’s finest had been sent as a personal insult to one Chief Warrant O’Donoghue. “Their only full frigate has never been seaworthy. They gotta send us light frigates, corvettes really. These boys really need to be spanked and sent back home.”