Twelve Years Ago
Zack Hightower and the five other men of Golf Sierra watched the scene before them as if they were merely spectators, when in fact they were the stars of the show, waiting in the wings for the play to begin.
Fifty yards away from them, the ramp lowered slowly on the Lockheed C-130 Hercules. A scarlet glow shot like a soft ray from inside the cabin, illuminating the tarmac, and the plane's four massive turboprops spun at idle, growling in the cool night.
Ground crew worked feverishly around the aircraft, moving this way and that as they readied it for its upcoming flight.
The light from the cabin did not quite reach Hightower and his men on the tarmac; they remained in the dark, gazing on, interested but unconcerned.
The six men were armed and armored, festooned with heavy equipment and bulky parachutes, but they endured patiently, embracing the suck of the weight on their bodies. The sixty pounds of gear strapped to each man made unnecessary movement ill-advised, so all of them knew better than to waste energy now, before their arduous evening had even begun in earnest.
The ground crew in front of them did not engage with or even look at the operators in the dark. That was considered bad form, so the six men were left alone with their thoughts, gazing at the glowing rear of the hulking aircraft in front of them and waiting for their cue.
All six operators wore quad-tube night vision goggles stowed in the up position on their helmets. They were also equipped with rifles, pistols, and extra ammunition, as well as fragmentation, flash bang, and thermite grenades.
They'd be dealing with extreme cold soon enough, so they wore efficient merino-wool base layers under nondescript black Gore-Tex flight suits, which were themselves under plated ceramic body armor that was housed inside load-bearing vests.
Additionally, each man wore two parachutes: a main chute on his back and a reserve in front, low, cinched around his midsection. Oxygen masks were snapped tight to their faces, with two small tanks strapped just as tightly to their bodies.
The men were already consuming bottled O2 even though they were still on the ground. Tonight's mission would begin with a HAAM, a high-altitude airdrop mission-a leap from the Hercules at twenty-eight thousand feet-and breathing from the tanks now would eliminate the risk of nitrogen buildup from the rapid change in air pressure as the men descended.
These six were ordinarily a talkative bunch, but as team leader of the tiny unit, Zack demanded a strict decorum before an operation. All extraneous conversation had ceased as soon as they'd arrived on the tarmac; no one shouted through their rubber mask about what was to come.
They all just waited, heavily laden statues in the night.
Eventually the aircraft's loadmaster came down the ramp and then made his way over to the group. He looked around for a moment, obviously for some indication of who was in charge.
Zack Hightower, virtually identical in dress and load-out to the others, took a single step forward.
The loadmaster shouted, "Sir, you can board whenever you're ready."
Zack answered back through his mask in an easygoing tone. "I'm not 'sir,' chief. Just call me Bob."
The loadmaster was in his forties, thick and brawny. He nodded; he understood what was going on. "Thought you fellas were Special Forces." It wasn't really a question, and he received no response. "Sweet. To be honest, we don't get a lot of ops like this. Doubt anyone in the Air Guard does." He shrugged. "I mean, this is just a milk run. For us, I mean. Can't imagine what you guys have planned."
Zack stared back at the loadmaster, his eyes slightly narrowed.
"Right. No worries. We'll take care of you and your boys, Bob. The pilots are ready to get this bus a-rollin' as soon as you men board and strap in."
"We're following you, chief."
The operator who called himself Bob turned back to the other five now. All but shouting through his mask, Zack said, "U.S. taxpayers bought us half a plane ride, gents. Let's go."
The team of six lumbered towards the waiting aircraft, following behind the wide-eyed chief master sergeant, who couldn't wait to tell his friends back in Nebraska that he'd flown a mission with the CIA.
The dark gray Lockheed had taken off from Camp Chapman not forty-five minutes earlier, but already its engines sucked the night sky high over the mountains, just inside AfghanistanÕs border with Pakistan.
The four-engine propeller-driven aircraft could accommodate sixty-four paratroopers, but inside the red-glowing cabin, the six men from the Central Intelligence Agency were the only passengers. They sat on the webbed benches in the rear, near the closed ramp.
The loadmaster stood up by the bulkhead, and after conferring over the radio, he raised his fist in the air and extended two fingers, garnering the attention of the team leader in the rear of the cabin. The TL stood, adjusting the Heckler & Koch rifle hanging from a sling over his body armor as he did so.
Hightower then used one gloved hand to grab onto a bulkhead railing, knowing from experience that the air here above the Spin Ghar mountain range could be rough. He raised his other hand high and, just like the loadmaster at the far end of the cabin, he held up a pair of fingers.
The five men seated around him hadn't noticed the loadmaster. They did notice Hightower, however, and they understood.
The men shouted in unison. "Two minutes!"
The five climbed to their feet, made adjustments to weapons and gear and dump pouches and parachute harnesses. Now all six operators of CIA Special Activities Division Ground Branch Task Force Golf Sierra checked and double-checked buckles and reserves and O2 hoses and pouches and Velcro closures one last time. It was second nature to do so; nothing was left to chance.
Most of this team had been together for a year now, combating the global war on terror by performing high-threat incursions all over the world. They'd rotary-winged in, fixed-winged in, HALO-jumped in, armored-personnel-carriered in, Zodiac-boated in, even inserted through national immigration under false passports. And then, no matter how they'd gotten there, they'd executed their mission, then exfiltrated whatever denied territory they'd found themselves in.
Most of this team.
Hightower turned to look at the closest man on his right, who now adjusted the webbing affixing a combat tourniquet to the shoulder strap of his body armor. Hightower was Golf Sierra One and the operator adjusting the tourniquet was Golf Sierra Six, the newest member of the tiny but formidable group.
Sierra Six had only been part of the element for the last two months; he'd made a pair of helo incursions into Pakistan in that time, and both had turned out to be dry holes, devoid of enemy contact. He'd also assisted with one relatively easy rendition of a high-value terror threat off the street in Ankara.
As the junior man, Sierra Six got the shit work, that was just part of the deal, but to his credit, the new guy did his job without protest. Hightower was satisfied with Six's effort, he had high hopes for the younger man, but Six was still the FNG-the Fucking New Guy.
Zack turned away from Six and lowered the visor on his black helmet, and all five of the other men of CIA Task Force Golf Sierra around him followed suit.
The loadmaster motioned again, and Zack turned and shouted over the wail of the four Pratt & Whitney engines.
The five other men repeated the word in a shout, ensuring that the message got through to them all. They then each immediately detached the hose from the tank they'd been breathing from and reattached it to a fresh tank lashed under their left arms. They opened the valve on the new tank, then unhooked the depleted stainless steel tube from their gear and stowed it in webbing behind their seats. As one they all sucked in the fresh bottled air.
Just then, the massive ramp lowered at the rear of the aircraft. The night sky screamed back at them, louder than the engines but just, and the men walked in the direction of the wail, lumbering towards the ramp.
Twenty-eight thousand feet below and some twenty-nine miles from where this C-130 flew in far eastern Afghanistan, the men had an objectivewaypoint the size of a basketball court, and every fiber of their being was focused on hitting it.
This was a HAHO jump, high-altitude, high-opening, meaning they would pull their rip cords not long after exiting the plane and then use their winglike canopies to fly over the border into Pakistan, towards a precise geographical waypoint.
A CIA UAV was on station above the target location now. It reported a few security milling about, but command in Virginia had talked to the task force's intelligence shop at the CIA base in Afghanistan and green-lit Zack's hit. So the six Americans stood near the ramp, the loadmaster of the aircraft now strapped to the wall next to them, and they all waited for a cue from the cockpit.
One last look around from Hightower to make sure the men were arrayed correctly in the cabin, and then he focused on the loadmaster. The chief master sergeant conferred on his radio, then gave Zack a thumbs-up, and Sierra One walked down the ramp and stepped off into the dark night without breaking stride.
The others followed right behind him, like men striding off a bus on their way in to the office.
Thirty-three minutes later, the six members of the task force all hung under canopy, each roughly twenty-five meters apart from the next man, arrayed in a descending line through the moonless night. Their O2 masks were off and stowed now; the men wore their night vision goggles over their eyes as well as radio headsets with earpieces that suppressed loud noises and enhanced soft noises, so they were able to stay in comms with one another without uttering more than a whisper.
Golf Sierra One was in the lead; he was the lowest to the ground and would be the first to land. He scanned his landing zone; the rooftop of the three-story structure they called the command building was now in sight, just a few hundred feet below and a few hundred yards away.
Triggering his mic, he said, "Phase-line Delta. Omega is clear. Lights are off in the command building. If they pop on, Bravo will take down the generator."
Behind him, Sierra Two said, "Sector east is clear to the wall. Beyond that is a technical, looks like a patrol. Negative contact in front of it."
To this Hightower replied, "No factor."
Three clicked his own mic. "Sector south, three pax in the airfield control tower with the Dishka. No signs they're alert. We're good."
"No factor," Golf Sierra One repeated.
Four now. "West sector. One pax in the guard tower at the front gate. He's got an AK. Dude looks asleep."
"Roger. Focus on your landing."
Five said, "North to the structures on the hillside outside the wall; no movement, no lights. The glow from Pesh is whitening out everything on the top of the hill and beyond."
Sierra Six was highest still and in the rear of the stick; he wasn't given a sector to scan, but he'd have plenty to do soon enough.
Zack Hightower clicked the transmit button on his chest again. "One copies all. Hit the Omega or pull hard left, turn around and land to the west. Take your chances with the dude with the AK. Pull right and you're gonna get smoked by that Dishka in the tower."
And then he looked to the north, thinking about what Five had just said. There was a cluster of little homes just beyond the wall of the compound. The dwellings looked dark and quiet, but beyond them, the team did not have a good view because of the hazy distant light affecting their NODs. If danger came in numbers, then danger would come from Peshawar, a city of two million that was less than thirty minutes to the north. This disused military base was located a couple of klicks south of the village of Kalaya, and it was surrounded on all sides by low dusty hills, and then just beyond, wheat and sugar beet fields that ran to higher hills that hid the location from Peshawar proper.
If the shooting started, the Pakistani military would be here by land in twenty minutes or by air in one third that time.
This operation wasn't one where Golf Sierra would lollygag around after the fact for a sensitive sight exploitation. No, Zack and his men were here to find a high-value target, roll him up, and get him back over the border. Failing that, they were here to find the HVT, and to kill him.
And failing that, they were here to find somebody, anybody, who might have intel regarding the HVT.
Their extraction helo was already en route, flying nap of the earth through the rugged Spin Ghar mountains to the southwest. Golf Sierra wouldn't have a single moment to wait here at the target once their work was done.
The HVT was supposedly billeted somewhere in the command building, protected by a small security force, and Zack had given the team four minutes to search the structure, a difficult task for a group of six, and this meant they would split up once they went internal. It wasn't ideal, but the intel was hot, JSOC forces back over the border weren't available, and the other CIA Ground Branch team positioned at Camp Chapman had been running a hit against an AQ base up north in Damadola and hadn't made it back in time to be integrated into Zack's raid tonight.
So, six men against an unknown number of enemy, but the intel folks were saying no fewer than six and no more than ten.
And included among them, so they'd been told, was tonight's jackpot.
All the men on the Ground Branch unit carried a picture of the man. The HVT was a helicopter pilot and officer in the Pakistani army named Omar Mufti, now supposedly second-in-command of a newly formed terrorist organization called the Kashmiri Resistance Front. Virtually nothing was known about the leader of the organization, a man who carried the war name of Pasha the Kashmiri. His chief lieutenant, Mufti, however, was now known to coalition forces. And he was, if the intel out of CIA Station Islamabad was correct, right here, right now.