The view was awesome from up here. To the far north, the mountains of the Hindu Kush were jagged ice points etched across the limits of the horizon. To the south, the arid wastelands of Pakistan.
At the New Year, all of the peaks were sheathed in layers of snow; only the valleys were barren. Scattered villages, even nomadic groups, showed up as bright spots in her infrared vision, but with little of note in between. It looked like a half-finished artist’s painting—ever evolving, never complete. Midnight silence reigned, so near perfect that it echoed. She could almost smell the dry desert air—so clean and clear that it was like cool water on a hot day.
For now, she floated above it all like some disembodied alien: seeing but unseen. Her favorite state. As if she was finally forever disconnected from—
Lieutenant Sofia Gracie’s voice slammed Zoe back into her chair. One moment she’d been soaring through the night at sixty-thousand feet, so completely in tune with her twenty-million-dollar Avenger stealth drone that she might as well have been up there. The next, she was back in the “coffin”—as drone control stations were called—staring at the command console for her bird. The air so sterile that it had no scent at all. The vast silence replace by the soft whir of ventilation fans.
Her soul had been in the sky over southwest Asia, but her butt was undeniably planted in Fort Rucker, Alabama.
Some remote pilots got all wound up, “It’s not a drone. It’s a remotely piloted aircraft—an RPA.” Whatever. As long as they let her fly, she was cool with anything folks wanted to call it. She didn’t even mind when they said she wasn’t really a pilot. All they were doing was proving that they were ignorant dweebs—stroking their massive egos to compensate for tiny, Air Force pricks—and were so not worth speaking to ever again.
She’d left the Air Force behind and good riddance. Zoe had answered the call to become an RPA pilot for the US Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment and not regretted it even once. She flew with the Night Stalkers, the very best helicopter pilots anywhere. No one could debate that. Not even the Air Force jocks with their big jets…and tiny pricks.
And while she didn’t fly rotorcraft, there was no question that she flew with them, over them. She was their all-seeing eye. Her view was a multi-screen array that had once made her head hurt, but now felt second nature. LIDAR (high-resolution 3D laser-scanning radar) on one monitor with image resolution down below a meter even from this altitude, infrared night vision on another, visible light on a third (which wasn’t much on this moonless night deep in Pakistan), and finally the RPA’s operations and weapons status. Each screen itself multi-tasking with superimposed readouts of relevant data: terrain, targeting, friendly assets, and the like. Keyboard and a pair of joysticks—flight (not the running-away kind) and fight—completed her world.
Zoe glanced over at Sofia, sitting in an identical seat beside hers.
Just once she’d like to look at her commander and not feel inadequate.
Sofia was a tall, voluptuous beauty that her Army coveralls did nothing to hide. Her smooth Brazilian accent made her sound even more beautiful than she was—which was saying something.
Zoe stood five-four on a good day and had all the curves of a computer screen. Of course, they were making curved ones now, which… She sighed and reported. Sofia had been busy on a command frequency while Zoe was doing the flying.
“Air space is clear,” Zoe told her. “I’m seeing no ground forces on the move. Couldn’t even see our people if they weren’t linked up.” The Night Stalkers 5th Battalion E Company was on the prowl tonight and really didn’t want to be seen as they were deep inside a “friendly” country without permission. Of course, being invisible was their specialty. The only completely stealth helicopter company in the US military, they truly ruled the night.
It felt odd to be flying here. The fact that she was sitting in Fort Rucker, Alabama, half a world away from her team, was nothing new. But she hadn’t flown over Pakistan since joining the elite Night Stalkers.
Back when she’d been flying Predators for the US Air Force’s 27th Special Operations Group—out of a coffin at Cannon Air Force Base near Clovis, New Mexico—she’d flown over Pakistan and Afghanistan all the time. The hours had been brutally long and the missions emotionally gutting. Authorization to fire in the face of collateral damage—dead civilians—permitted in order to take out a Tier One target. Women and children traveling with the target were deemed by command to be guilty by association and therefore expendable.
“Keep it smooth.” Sofia’s reminder to stay focused. Maybe she’d learned that from when she walked fashion runways in exotic climes. If she had. Sofia never talked about her past, but it was easy to picture her there.
Zoe didn’t talk about her own past either, but that was because she couldn’t imagine anything more boring—other than the one part she refused to remember.
Her mother was a stereotypical legal secretary and her father a Pismo Beach, California, car mechanic—a business he’d started with his high school best friend and next-door neighbor. It was a family she’d never belonged to. Their conversations weren’t exactly what Zoe would call intellectually stimulating. Thankfully, they also hadn’t been strife-laden, just…dull. Which so wasn’t right for descendants of the great filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille—not even if they were distant ones. As their only child, it had been up to Zoe to amuse herself. For the last nine years it had amused her to fly drones for the US military.
“Two minutes to perimeter.”
This was a smaller mission than normal. The 5E only had four birds aside from her Avenger: a massive twin-rotor Chinook helicopter (the cargo van of Special Operations Forces), a heavily-modified DAP Black Hawk (the most lethal rotorcraft weapons platforms anywhere), and a pair of Little Birds. The last two didn’t have the range to strike this far from any support so were parked in the hangar alongside her coffin in Alabama.
In the heart of Balochistan Province in “friendly” Pakistan, a ground team had identified a major arms dealer—perhaps the major arms dealer. Not only was Hathyaron (“Weapons” in Urdu) supplying the Taliban in Afghanistan, but he’d been doing it since the Americans had first arrived. Hundreds of millions of dollars for weapons and ammunition had flowed through his hands every year.
The bastard had slipped the net more times than bin Laden. He’d left behind booby traps that had decimated teams. He’d mailed informants’ heads to the US embassy in Islamabad—with the tongues cut out before they’d had their limbs removed at the neck. This just had to be the night they took him down.
Zoe scanned again.
Still a whole lot of nothing.
More nothing than there should be. No shepherd boy. No traders camped with their mules by scattered campfires. It was as if the land had been undressed.
“It’s quiet.” Now that she thought about it, almost nothing had happened at the target compound in the four hours she’d been in position.
“One minute to deployment,” Sofia announced as she scanned her screens carefully, then they shared a look.
Zoe keyed her mic. She could broadcast without pinpointing the 5E’s aircraft for any enemy. They could hear her transmission, which would cover a wide area—encrypted burst signal, of course—but the mission team wouldn’t respond, to avoid their response giving away their position.
“Carrie-Anne, this is Raven.”
The big Chinook helicopter of the Night Stalkers 5E was named for Carrie-Anne Moss, who had played Trinity in The Matrix. Their own RPA, Raven, had been named for Marion Ravenwood in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Their whole company was named for dangerous women—just one more reason to love flying with the 5E.
“It’s too quiet.”
Lieutenant Commander Luke Altman echoed the call to the rest of his team.
The two leads on his team, Nikita and Drake, grunted out acknowledgements and shouted the message down the line. Six DEVGRU SEALs—SEAL Team 6’s actual name, the Development Group—and six SilentHawk prototype hybrid-electric motorcycles in the cargo bay of a pounding Chinook helicopter. Just because it was stealth on the outside didn’t mean that it was quiet on the inside. The US military wasn’t big on wasting weight on sound insulation that could be better spent on ammunition or fuel.
The bay was eight feet wide, thirty long, and red as the devil’s armpit with the night operations lighting. The helo flew fast and furious, mere meters above the Pakistan countryside to avoid detection, slewing them side to side with every tree or tall boulder.
Not his issue.
His issue was the takedown mission.
He considered dismissing the warning. What did coffin-heads really know, locked safely in their stateside boxes?
But he’d recognized Chief Warrant Zoe DeMille’s voice. Not hard to do, since the only other person who could be on the circuit was Sofia Gracie, with her lush Latinate tones that so evoked her tall, lush body. That was his type of woman: long, leggy, and built. She wasn’t big on talk and that was fine with him. But they’d tried it once. Not even enough spark to get them past drinks. Strange. In the past he’d always been able to ignore such shortcomings, but that had shifted recently. He’d be damned if he knew why, but for some i***t reason an awesome body wasn’t enough anymore.
Zoe DeMille was the polar opposite of her commander: five-four, flat, and sassy, with hair somewhere between yellow, gold, and white except for black roots down the center. Kind of cute, in a punch-you-in-the-face style.
She’d even gone into the field with them once when an undercover mission called for it. Without her instincts, that mission might have gone down hard. She was no fighter, definitely not built for it (he could bench press her one-handed if she was a free weight), but just maybe she was a warrior despite that.
If only she didn’t make it so damn hard to take her seriously. He was always having to discount her flighty civilian lifestyle for which he had no respect at all.
However, her job was to be their eye in the sky—especially as the helos were racing along, nap-of-the-earth at better than a hundred and fifty knots—in territory they were not supposed to be in. From their low flight altitude, they couldn’t see anything past a few hundred meters—a view only two seconds into the future. And to fly even a drone with the 5E meant she was one of the best in the military at what she did, no matter what the woman herself was like.
“Thirty seconds,” Nikita pointed out. It was the way his Number Two asked questions, by not wasting time actually asking them. Thirty seconds to their planned insertion point five miles from the target. He’d studied the files and was only too aware of what might lay in wait for them at Hathyaron’s compound.
Thirty seconds meant a mile and a half out from that; they’d be audible any second if someone was waiting for them at the outer perimeter.
“Too quiet” because the information was bad and the target would be a dry hole? Happened often enough. Some leak could have spooked the target and they’d be gone. But the intel had come from The Activity—the Special Operations Command’s own intelligence service—and those guys just didn’t miss.
The other answer was that Hathyaron’s instincts—which had kept him alive for so long—had him either bugging out or digging in a ground team so deep that they were invisible.
Which meant they were flying into a trap.
He flashed a signal to Nikita and Drake to prep the team for landing as he turned and called up to the pilot, “On the ground, now!”
“Wel-l,” the Chinook’s pilot, Major Pete Napier, drawled out laconically like only a true Coloradan ranch boy could, completely belying his radical actions to slow down and land. “Don’t that beat all. You SEAL boys never do know what you’re wanting, do ya?”
“Just don’t put your wheels down, Napier. Might suck if Hathyaron put landmines out this far.”
“Might at that,” Napier agreed pleasantly as he hovered a hundred feet of helicopter to a stop less than a meter over the dirt. Danielle had sure mellowed his ass by marrying him. Pete “The Rapier” Napier was a changed man since he’d hooked his copilot—no less skilled, just less of a pain in the ass.
The rear gunner lowered the big rear ramp to reveal the night.
Napier had found what looked like a goat trail to hover over.
Luke gave no outward sign. He stood at the edge of the lowered ramp and tried to read the night. He flipped down his night-vision goggles. The NVGs revealed low brush and scrub, nothing of interest—probably not even a goat.
The night was cool—just below freezing. His breathe was as cloudy as a cold winter’s day in Maine. Aside from all of the dust being churned by the rotors, it smelled clean. He liked the crispness on the air; it wouldn’t be hiding anything. In Beijing or New Delhi the air hurt to breathe no matter what temperature it was, and it had a stench all its own that masked all other scents. He’d have to get well clear of the helo to listen to the night, but he could get to like this place if it wasn’t filled with assholes who wanted him and his country dead. Even from here he should be able to see the heat signature if a man had walked through here in the last twenty-four hours. Or if some asshole had come out to bury IEDs along the path.
There was a dead feeling to the air despite the rotor’s downwash; a feeling he knew.
“Dry hole,” he bet himself, but he didn’t tell his team because he wanted the vigilance to be at full-mission high.
“Saddle up,” he called aloud, wondering if Napier’s Coloradan was rubbing off on him. Better not be—Maine lobsterman and Colorado rancher just didn’t mix. Same as Maine farmer and Texas rancher.
Old Maine joke.
A Texas rancher is surveying a Maine farm and says, “Well, shoot, son. I got a ranch so big takes me all day to drive ’round it in my car.”
Mainer looks at him for a long moment before replying.
“Had a car like that once.” Knocks his pipe out against his fencepost and refills it. “Got rid of her.”
Saddle up? Yeesh!