“Chief Warrant LaRue?”
Lola couldn’t see who addressed her despite the bright airfield lights driving back the night. The helicopter that had come to fetch her kicked up a whirlwind of fine brown dust.
The dust coated everything, everywhere in Afghanistan, and Bagram Air Base felt like the worst of it. It had taken less than ten minutes from arrival in-country for it to penetrate every pore of her being. No need to brush her teeth here, she could chew the air and they’d be sanded clean in no time. Bathed by the whirlwind, duffel in one hand, she raised her free arm to wrap her uniform’s sleeve across her face to block the worst of the rotor-driven brownout.
“Yo!” she called out in what appeared to be the right direction.
The turbines didn’t cycle down, the blades didn’t slow to idle, they stayed at flight speed, and the dust continued to roil upward in a never-ending supply from the ground.
No previously imagined pleasant meet-and-greet on the ground. No Welcome aboard! We’re so glad you’re here! entry to the innermost circle of US military heli-aviation.
They had come to fetch her and return to base as if she were as exciting as a new artillery piece rather than only the fourth woman in history to qualify for the 160th SOAR and only the second female pilot.
A hand emerged from the dust and wrapped about her upper arm and guided her into the maelstrom. She should’ve pulled on her flight helmet instead clipping it to the pack strapped on her back. And tied back her hair, which now beat her about the face and neck until her skin tingled with the stings of the wind-whipped ends.
A pause and a shout in her ear stopped her before she could bang her knees on the Black Hawk helicopter’s cargo deck. Considerate.
Lola was barely aboard before she heard the blades biting the air more deeply. She was pressed heavily into the hard metal deck by the helo’s accelerating lift.
The hand guided her to the rear cargo net where she clipped her duffel and pack. As she dragged on her helmet, the hand snagged the D-ring on the front of her survival vest and snapped a monkey line to it. She was attached to the helicopter by the three-meter-long strap, moments before the helicopter’s nose plunged downward and they roared forward. Only a quick grab of the cargo net kept her from sweeping forward and sliding right into the console between the pilots’ seats.
One tug by the unseen hand confirmed the line’s solid attachment to her chest. Decently, the hand didn’t use the opportunity to grab her breast. Even the heavy SARVSO vest and flight suit didn’t stop most guys in such a situation. She’d had to sprain more than a few thumbs during her military career, one she’d had to break before the jerk backed off. Sent him squeaking all the way to his commander, who’d thankfully booted him down two grades and shipped him stateside. It was the goddamn 2010s, but jerks still thrived. Or thought they did.
Despite no welcoming committee, she’d take the lack of a grab as a good sign on her first mission assignment with the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, the Night Stalkers.
In the backwash of the airfield’s lights, with the dust now cleared from the cabin by the draft of the open cargo doors, she could see the man who’d guided her aboard. As much as anyone could see a person in full flight gear.
Not a big guy, but clearly a strong one by how his grip had felt and the way his uniform’s sleeves were tight against the skin instead flapping in the wind like most soldiers’ would. Definitely a weightlifter. She could appreciate that.
A lot of military time was spent waiting. Waiting for the next round of training, waiting for the “go” on a mission that could come in two minutes or two months. Different soldiers burned off the time differently. Some gals plain old stopped, lying on their bunk and reading or watching movies or something. That was fine for ten minutes at a time, but not as a lifestyle.
There was a whole generation of techno-geeks that were always tinkering with their toys, whether a smart-phone or a four-million-dollar Predator drone. Lola often wondered what the geeks had done in olden times before tech was such a big deal. What did they play with back in ’Nam, their FM radios?
Most troopers stayed active. US Army grunts had left a string of jury-rigged basketball hoops at thousands of temporary bases around the world. She was tall enough and fast enough to do well in these games, but she wasn’t much of a team-sport gal. She did better in solo endeavors. Many soldiers ran. A lot of them, like the guy who’d helped her aboard, clearly liked moving iron up and down. Weights were her second choice. Her first choice was swimming long distances.
The guy’s helmet looked black in the dim cabin with an incongruously crossed knife and fork painted on the side, oriented like crossed bones on a pirate flag beneath a large smiley face.
The only other thing she could see clearly as they left the last of the airfield’s lights was a smile. Not a leer, but a genuine smile before he slapped his visor down. Another point in his favor.
She smiled back.
He plugged a comm line into the jack on her helmet. She could immediately tell that this ship flew with open communication channels. Many pilots kept the intercom system off so that the crew had to key in to speak, but she could hear the quiet chatter of the pilot and copilot. A radio squawk from the field tower wishing them “safe flight.”
“Master Sergeant Tim Maloney, ma’am,” her escort introduced himself as he returned to his crew chief’s seat. “Welcome aboard Viper. Major Beale drew escort on a forward flight tonight, so she sent us to fetch you.”
“My pleasure, ma’am.” He made it sound as if it was completely his doing and was a pleasure. Clearly a southerner. Not deep-fried South, definitely not Louisiana, no real accent, but a soft, pleasant weave to the words. Unhurried speech. And an inborn politeness that was too often lost these days. She could feel the familiarity of Tim’s speech pattern relaxing her.
He saluted—she could make out the motion as a silhouette against the soft glow of the cockpit readouts behind him—then he faced out the gunner’s window before the left-side chief’s seat.
She hadn’t seen the bird falling out of the night sky until it was too late and the dust had blinded her. It was definitely a Black Hawk, but she hadn’t heard it until it was right on top of her.
They’d made her wait outside the normal circle of field lights, beyond the edge of the pavement. And still the bird had surprised her.
Looking around, it took her only moments to assess why the unusual treatment.
The cargo net behind her kept extra cans of munitions from sliding around. Outside the bird, she could make out the weapons pylons sticking out to either side where serious missiles and cannon were hanging.
They’d picked her up in a DAP Hawk? A Direct Action Penetrator Black Hawk was the nastiest piece of hardware ever thrown into the night sky by any military, and only the Night Stalkers regiment of US Special Operations Forces flew them. There’d been twenty of them built—ever.
If a girl was gonna hitch a ride, this was about the sweetest muscle car she could land in. She’d always had a dumb-as-a-brick weak spot for guys with muscle cars, but never stuck around long because they always had to drive. Half the reason she’d gone pilot was that she got to drive.
But the rotors sounded odd. Wrong. She’d flown over a thousand hours in Black Hawks, over a hundred in a DAP during training. To have the sound be so different was as if she’d gone to sleep and woken up on a different planet.
She leaned out the cargo door, but there was nothing to see in the night.
“She’s a quiet one, ma’am.” Tim must have noticed her actions.
A quiet one. Stealth?
Lola had forgotten. She’d flown a quieted DAP Hawk on an actual mission once, well, at the end of one. She’d been so wound up and terrified of screwing up that she hadn’t noticed the differences at first. The stealth one that had hard-landed in bin Laden’s compound back in 2011 was the only one the public knew about. Here was another.
They’d fetched her in a stealth DAP Black Hawk. This wasn’t a muscle car. This was a friggin’ big-block GTO with a turbocharger and nitro. Made a girl feel special. It made up for any lack of a “welcome aboard” moment. And made up for the dust that still coated her like an oil slick.
No wonder they’d had her stand in dirt beyond the field lights and kept the rotors going. This bird was not a sight meant for casual eyes. She had to take a pull on a water bottle from her thigh pocket, rinse a bit, and spit out the door and into the roaring wind to clear the last of the grit from her mouth.
Clear of the airfield, her eyes were adjusting to the night. Lola could make out the stars above. And the complete lack of lights below. Primitive agricultural. As soon as you were away from the cities, fires and oil lamps were the only nighttime lights Afghanistan had going for it. It wasn’t merely dark down there; it was a blank slate visible only by night-vision gear.
Inside the Hawk, she could make out enough in the darkness to identify the Miniguns in front of both of the crew chiefs who lived their lives facing sideways and craning their necks out the gunner’s windows. If they were using the standard setup, the guy who’d helped her aboard would be a dead-on gunner who could also fix a helicopter blindfolded, and whoever hunched over the right-hand gun would be the chief mechanic who could also shoot better than most people in the Army.
Copilot forward to the left and pilot forward to the right. That was her seat. But it wasn’t. She bit her lip, hoping she’d made the right choice. She’d given up the pilot’s seat in a CSAR, combat search-and-rescue bird, to fly copilot in SOAR.
Two years of training before they’d let her aboard for a mission, and that was after she’d already been flying for seven years. She’d thought that was ridiculous when she heard about it. Two years later she wondered if that had been enough time. From CSAR, the jump to SOAR was like going straight from a tricycle to NASCAR. It had been a hard two years.
“Y’all welcome aboard, Chief Warrant 3 Lola LaRue.” She could see the pilot turn his helmet slightly toward the gap between his and the copilot’s seat. The voice wasn’t the guy who’d helped her, Tim Maloney. Normally lousy with names, his had stuck easily.
The pilot was clearly trouble. He said her name in the drawn-out slurring way so many had before. Not even the accent was real—faked Texas. Badly faked.
So, if it was gonna play that way, it was time to “pull on her soldier.”
“Yes, sir. Appreciate the lift.”
“Lola LaRue.” He said it again like he was rolling it around on his tongue.
Shit! was the only thought she could come up with. She’d hoped SOAR was above this. More than hoped, believed. Stupid, girl. Really damn stupid.
“Somebody named y’all that?”
Upbeat and chipper, LaRue. “My daddy. I think he wanted me to grow up to be a stripper.” She’d discovered that taking it head-on was the only thing that worked.
“Looks like y’all’ve done gone and disappointed him and probably many other men besides. ’Specially if you’re half as purdy as your file photo says you is.” He actually drawled “purdy” into a weird kind of over-Texas-saturated slur.
“Disappointed the hell out of him. And I look way better than my stupid Army photo.” It was true and to hell with him.
A deep chuckle.
She swallowed hard and dug down into her Creole badass, street-girl soul for the serious load of rude she’d be needing to launch. A deep breath to tighten her gut. Okay, here it comes. Stupid joke about maybe a private performance, or maybe a private one for his crew, or—