I Own the Dawn: The Night Stalkers (7 page)

BOOK: I Own the Dawn: The Night Stalkers
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Chapter 9

Dilya had come through clean in three hours flat and was resting well.

Kee leaned back in a metal chair placed beside the cot in the recovery tent, close enough for Dilya to touch her if she woke. The chair dug at her back.

She should have flown.

She knew it.

Archie knew it.

Even John knew it.

But she’d stayed.

She’d stayed for Dilya, but Dilya wasn’t a Night Stalker. The girl needed her, but had she? Mac and Jeremy had prepped her for surgery while Kee held her hand.

Once Dilya was out, there was nothing for Kee to do except feel guilty and worry. She didn’t even know who’d flown in her place. Or had the mission scrubbed? Probably not. No one had come in to check on her.

“Smith!”

She snapped her eyes open just in time to catch the yellow case with a large red cross on it that Mackenzie heaved in her direction. It thudded against her with a body blow almost knocking her backwards out of the chair.

“Hustle!” With two more cases under one arm, he grabbed a fold-up stretcher under the other and was gone out the door.

As she struggled to her feet, Kee glanced at Dilya. The child still slept.

Kee ran after the medic.

***

Mac didn’t react when Kee trotted up beside him. He simply stood on the landing field and watched the northern sky.

It took a moment for her to place where they were. Exactly where she’d stood while facing down Major Henderson one week earlier. Staring at the empty space where Beale would be landing her helicopter.

This time, the chief medic was meeting the helicopter at night.

Kee’s vision tunneled as she too turned to watch the north sky, seeking the green of cockpit glow against the unmoving stars. No running lights to attract attention, of course; Major Beale’s bird,
Vengeance
, would be hard to spot.

Someone hurt. On her chopper. Hurt, and she hadn’t been there. Hurt because she hadn’t been there. She tasted blood where she bit her lower lip.

Please not… who? How do you pray for one of your crewmates to be safe when that would cost another? When it should have been her?

Again, she felt the heavy thud internally before she heard the rotor beat against the air. Coming in hard and fast.

Kee didn’t cover her face or turn from the pounding dust kicked up by the rotor wash. The chopper flared hard, dumping speed right at the margins of safety, but the last six inches were as gentle as could be.

Mac was aboard before the wheels were fully down.

Someone flicked on the cargo bay’s white lights and the chopper’s interior glared in red, the red of blood. It was all over her seat, Big John’s flight suit was mottled with it, the deck awash. And the body stretched out in the middle of the bay was coated with it.

Bandages were everywhere. Two IVs were clipped to the ceiling, their tubes snaking down to the crewman lying on the deck.

“We can’t move him, yet. Smith, give me the red case, open to the second level.”

Kee grabbed it, set it beside him as he knelt in the bay.

Without looking, he reached back and grabbed a massive pair of shears. In moments, the flight suit was cut away. Large rounds had punched right through the crewman’s body armor, leaving his torso a pattern of bloody holes.

“Light. I need light.” Someone pointed a hand flood down.

Kee barely recognized him. He was a gunner on one of the Chinooks. Jeff somebody. She didn’t even know his name and he was dying. Dying in her place.

Her stomach started to heave.

“You can be sick later. Blue case, get me four clamps.” Mackenzie had his hand out. She found it and slapped them into his hand one by one.

No one spoke other than Mac. “John, pressure here. Smith, another IV, it’s labeled saline. Check his tag for blood type.” It had to be wiped clean of blood to be read, and Kee’d gone sprinting for the hospital’s small blood fridge.

Other soldiers came and went. Jeremy arrived and Kee was moved aside, slowly but inexorably pushed back until she stood outside the chopper.

Outside looking in.

Her guts now heaved uncontrollably. She puked until she thought to see her stomach come up and splat out on the sand before her.

When she was done and drained and there was no more in her, a movement attracted her vision. Someone dangled a cloth near her face.

“I don’t get sick.” Despite the evidence inches in front of her. The words burned in her throat.

She spat again and took the cloth. Wiped at her mouth and hands and knees where she’d squatted in her own bile.

When she looked up, the helicopter was empty. The interior light still on, but no body, no medics or nurses, just a sheen of red.

Kee didn’t need to look to her right to know her benefactor. Didn’t need to look to see the accusation in Archie’s eyes. She should have been there. She belonged on that bloody floor, not Jeff of no last name.

Archie stood beside her in silence until her breathing settled. She could feel him, though she couldn’t see. Only the glitter of bright light off wet blood.

Finally, a mere whisper she barely heard in the silence of the night.

“I know it’s wrong, but I am glad it wasn’t you.”

When at last she looked over, she was alone.

She climbed to her feet and went to find buckets, water, and a scrub brush.

Chapter 10

Emily Beale found Sergeant Kee Smith sitting on the lip of the chopper’s cargo door, her feet hanging out but not touching the ground. Her clothing looked stiff and uncomfortable, caked with brown stains that had started out red. Her head hanging down. Her hair a knotted halo around her face.

The Hawk shone in the morning light. Emily would wager that not one single stain of blood, which marked Kee so darkly, remained on the Hawk itself. The ground team reported that she’d threatened murder when they’d showed up to do the cleanup themselves.

The girl presented a puzzle. A top gunner, she’d turned in range statistics like few in the history of SOAR. Her ratings were universally high as a soldier. She earned top marks, even from the commanders who had thrown her in lockup for fighting. She had struggled even harder than Emily had to get here, climbed over unbelievable hurdles that her file only hinted at.

The girl would die for her team. Nearly had several times. But the teams never lasted. Somehow they always shattered around the Sergeant. A lot died because she led teams into the fray past where any sane squad leader would venture. This drive she could identify with, having done it a few times herself.

But some of Kee’s teams had simply broken down, been disbanded and reorganized by their commanders. Report after report included the line, “If she weren’t such a dedicated and skilled soldier…”

Could she trust Sergeant Kee Smith?

Trust her with the lives of Emily’s crew on the line?

Emily had taken her reluctantly. Was it because she was a woman? No, she’d liked the idea of a team of women showing men exactly what they were made of. It was the Sergeant’s history of being a trouble spot that worried her. Yet this woman had consistently driven herself to the outer limits the military allowed. Always farthest forward, and her units, while they lasted, had incredibly low casualty rates for where they had gone.

Smith should have been in the bird. She’d proven on the first flight how fast her reactions were. No one dodged an RPG when it was that close, but Kee’s warning had saved all their lives. The girl’s nervous system ran at a different speed than the rest of humanity. Tonight, might she have been fast enough, had she been there?

The attack had come without warning, a dozen rounds fired out of the night from a goat’s perch high on a cliff. In truth, Emily held little doubt that had Sergeant Kee Smith been at the portside gun, she would be the one entering the fifth hour of surgery, not Jeff Carlisle. Mac insisted Jeff had climbed out of the woods, but there was still a long road to discover if he’d ever again be physically fit for active duty. Assuming he wanted it. He was SOAR, so he probably would. SOAR soldiers didn’t know how to quit, even when they had every right and reason to do so.

Emily moved to stand before the Sergeant.

Kee slowly raised her head until she looked at Emily. Her eyes were dark hollows, her normally sun-kissed complexion gray with exhaustion.

“Are you quitting on me, Smith?”

Kee blinked once, slowly, as if waking from a dream.

“Night. Stalkers. Don’t. Quit.” She ground it out from a throat raspy with exhaustion. But the eyes had fire in them. Whatever drove Kee Smith still shone brightly.

Emily didn’t know at what moment she made her decision, but she completed the ritual.

“Right. Until you do, we don’t have a problem.”

She turned and walked away, unable to face the pain in the young woman’s eyes.

Chapter 11

Two nights later, Kee still hadn’t spoken to anyone other than Dilya. The girl’s sunny attitude had bounced back in a day, and she returned to her habit of eating like a horse. Conversations died when Kee entered the mess tent, so she ate her meals quietly with Dilya in recovery. Sergeant Jeff Carlisle had been shipped to a stateside hospital for rest and recoup with a good prognosis.

Usually only she and Dilya were in the hospital tent. Kee made herself scarce whenever the girl had a visitor, which was surprisingly often. Especially considering none of her visitors spoke even the few words of Uzbek Kee had mastered.

Big John had brought a doll, but who knew where he’d found one on a forward air base. It wasn’t a big success, maybe it looked a bit too real for Dilya. She took it but set it aside as soon as John left. Then she reached out to turn it so that it faced the canvas side of the tent. Finally the girl draped a towel over it.

The stuffed orange cat that Archie dug up, however, was a huge success. Dilya hugged it tightly and tried to sit up to do the same to Archie. But a sharp wince of pain dropped her back against her pillow and instead earned a brush of his hand through her hair. And a smile.

Kee could get hooked on watching the Lieutenant’s crazy smile. And when Dilya giggled at her cat and began trying out names for it, his smile slid into a lopsided grin that had no place on his well-bred face. But it absolutely belonged there. She wondered how it would feel to have that smile aimed in her direction.

Kee’d tried to leave when he arrived, but stopped a few beds away to stand in the shadows and watch them. The Lieutenant had said he was glad it hadn’t been her. Another man had been wounded in her place, and for some reason this well-bred, well-educated man had been glad it wasn’t her life’s blood pumped all over the chopper.

Boston money. So far above her, she couldn’t make any sense of it. Men like him never noticed women like her. And she ignored them. But twice, as she lingered back in the shadows, the Lieutenant turned his sky-blue eyes on her. She could detect no reprimand nor question. He simply looked and saw her far more clearly than any man she’d ever met before.

He left without offering her any words, though he’d spent some effort teasing the girl in broken Russian.

The visitors tapered off, it seemed half the camp had come through, and Dilya finally slept. Kee sat in the stiff metal chair beside the bed, watching the perfect peace of a sleeping girl. She finally rested her forehead against the sheets and just concentrated on breathing. On remembering how to breathe.

A slight movement, and Dilya patted Kee’s head.

Kee didn’t move, didn’t dare. Only one person had ever dared touch her that way. Had ever thought to. An agony of memories washed over her and she did her best to tamp them down, hard. And focus only on the small, gentle fingers brushing through her hair.

Dilya fell back asleep with her fingers tangled in Kee’s hair. They stayed that way for a long time.

***

Tonight Kee was flying again. The first time in three days. The first time since Dilya’s surgery.

The mission profile sounded easy enough. Her old unit, the 10th Mountain, was pushing a three-pronged foot patrol into three villages.

By the plan, her crew was backup. The 101st was offering primary cover with their Apaches. Except they weren’t. Some rear commander had pulled them back when the firefight got too hot.

Two squads were in it deep when the call went out for backup. Chief Warrant Clay had his pair of transport Hawks packed solid with a ten-man squad of Rangers each, ready to drop in for support. But he couldn’t get ’em down. The incessant ground fire had already wounded two of the Rangers while they were still in the choppers.

It was up to Emily’s DAP Hawk to make a place for Clay to land.

They hammered over a ridge and Major Beale’s call sounded over the headset.

“Steel!”

“We Deal In Steel!” was the unofficial motto of the DAP Hawks. They brought more firepower to the fight than any other chopper in history.

“Steel!” She and John echoed as they opened up with their miniguns.

The good guys had infrared reflective flags and buttons on their uniforms. The helicopter’s FLIR lit them up, making it easy for Kee to spot friendlies in her night-vision goggles. And the array of figures without beacons numbered near enough a hundred, against the three, eight-man squads of Americans trying to secure the LZ.

She raked the hillside with her minigun. A blazing snake arced forth from her gun. Every fifth bullet was a brilliant tracer so she could see exactly where it was headed. No real lag from firing to impact as they were only a few hundred feet up and the muzzle velocity over two thousand feet per second. But the chopper weaved and dodged, making even the short line of tracers appear to swirl and whip as Kee held it steady for a moment on target after target. Her body, trained to pure instinct, compensated her aim for the Major’s pitch and roll without thought.

“Ground reports mortars.” The Professor reported matter-of-factly. “They have no read on the direction. But if I were a mortar crew, I’d set up behind that ridge at ten o’clock.”

Kee looked out at the ridge. What distinguished this from any other? Who knew what had passed through the Professor’s brain to make that judgment. The one at seven o’clock looked the same, as did the one they’d just overflown and that now loomed on John’s side of the aircraft.

Mortars sucked for ground troops. They hid out of sight and lobbed their charges up into the air to fall from above. A forward spotter could tell them where to adjust their aim. Ground pounders had no recourse to fight back. No one to fire at, except the well-hidden spotter who did his best not to be found.

Major Beale didn’t hesitate, she clearly trusted the Professor’s estimate completely. She also didn’t turn to climb over the ridge, they broke the crest sideways, offering Kee the best chance of seeing the weapon emplacement. She wished the Major had gone the other way and given Big John the shot. Not put her on the spot.

A rattle of small-caliber machine gun fire rang against the Hawk. Nothing like the caliber that had nailed Jeff Carlisle, but still she twitched. Before they passed over the shooter’s position, a round or two spattered against her shin armor. They hit like hammerblows despite having punched through the ship’s side plating first. No sharp pain of a through-shot, probably just be black and blue. No time to check. And the heat roared back into her blood. They weren’t going to do to her what they did to Jeff two nights ago. It just wasn’t gonna happen.

The Major held steady over the ridge as Kee scanned for the mortar. Big John’s minigun burped out a couple hundred rounds. That was probably the end of the machine gun nest. Either way, that was just an irritant. It was the mortar that was killing ground troops or would be real soon. That’s what counted.

Kee scanned over and back. “C’mon, buddy boy! You lying sack! You’re here somewhere.”

On the verge of calling, “No joy,” and declaring the Professor’s guess wrong, she saw it.

A flicker. A heat trail across her night vision. At least a hint of one. Going straight up.

“Circle left! Circle left!”

Without hesitation the bird laid over. Almost. Almost. There.

Kee unleashed her gun, walked its tracer-lit whip of brilliant green across her night-vision gear right into a deep crevice.

Half a second later a pair of rockets launched from the chopper’s side pods and tore a new hole in the mountainside right where Kee’d been firing. The Professor had taken his cue from her aim and pounded the daylights out of them. No time to double-check, no need either. The explosion kept going as the mortar charges cooked off, destroying everything in the area.

“We’re gonna have to call you the Magic Man, Lieutenant!”

Her only response was a grunt as the Major jammed them back toward the ridge and they pulled a few gees.

Ten seconds later they were back in the fray, making a hole for Clay’s birds to drop their load of troops.

“Come on, where are you?” Kee kept looking for the spotter in between other cleanup shots.

“Watch the peak five hundred yards to the west.” Archie’s voice sounded soft but clear in her headset.

Kee didn’t even know she’d spoken her question aloud. But he’d been dead-on with locating the mortar crew, so she kept glancing there each time she had a moment.

Finally she spotted a man crawling out from under a boulder that had shielded him from discovery. It cheered her immensely when she deep-sixed the mortar team’s spotter.

“You are the Magic Man!”

His tone was dry over the headset. “I think I preferred ‘Professor.’”

An hour later they were a mile out cleaning up strays.

The 10th Mountain was back to doing what they did, tearing up a village looking for an arms depot. Clay had reloaded his Rangers and dropped them on the backside of the village to keep the baddies from squeezing out as the 10th pushed in. Fighting insurgents foot by foot, but at least no one was battering them from impenetrable positions up the mountainside.

The 101st still hadn’t released their Apaches, bet that was chapping someone’s behind.

Kee changed over to her fifth belt of ammo. She’d never burned through so much ammo in a week, never mind an hour. Her gun was smoking hot, but she wasn’t melting barrels yet, and Kee hoped she never would. That kinda firefight didn’t make for likely survival of the chopper.

Major Beale had kept them in the center of the fray as the Hawk bounced and shifted over the brutal mountains of the Hindu Kush throughout the night. They’d given every baddy who thought he’d hunkered down hard enough, deep enough, a rude shock.

The vertical slashes of shattered rock soared vertically to impossible heights and heavy trees clung to the upper slopes, though the valleys below were bone dry. She’d walked and fought on those hills with the 10th Mountain and now couldn’t believe it. It was the most rugged ground she’d ever seen, and the locals had been fighting back and forth across it for centuries. Without helicopters.

Suddenly the Hawk pulled a hard left. Her stomach hadn’t noticed the extreme limits of control that the Major used throughout the firefight. Big John had been right. To fly with the woman wasn’t a bad gig at all.

And there was no way she’d quit. She’d never again miss a flight.

They turned down the valley and climbed high enough for safety as they headed home. Kee fired a short burst into the mountainside to make sure the new belt was tracking well then let the gun drop against the stops.

Someone must have finally released the 101st Apaches now that the fight was over and the morning light hinted at the eastern horizon. She couldn’t wait for the next time she ran into their pilots back at some cozy, safe air base with AC and iced Coca Cola. She was gonna smoke their behinds.

With the dirty work done, Beale’s Hawk headed home.

And Kee felt that she once again belonged in her seat. Almost.

BOOK: I Own the Dawn: The Night Stalkers
10.46Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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