The new novel from the author of Silent Enemy and The Mullah's Storm
When a catastrophic earthquake hits Afghanistan, American troops rush to deliver aid, among them Afghan Air Force adviser Lieutenant Colonel Michael Parson and his interpreter, Sergeant Major Sophia Gold. The devastation is like nothing they've ever seen.
It's about to get even worse.
A Taliban splinter group, Black Crescent, has begun shooting medical workers, downing helicopters, and slaughtering anyone who dares to accept Western aid. With coalition forces already spread thin, Parson, Gold, and the Afghan aircrews must find a way to strike back. But they're short on supplies, men, experience, and intel. And the terrorists know it…
It took Gold three days to reach Mazar-i-Sharif. In that time, a refugee camp sprang up. The collection of blue-and-white tents on the airport grounds sprawled across the tarmac. The tents’ entrance flaps bore stenciling that read UNHCR. Big, Russian-built helicopters pounded in and out of the airfield. Each helo displayed the roundel of the Afghan Air Force—a circle enclosing a triangle of green, red, and black. Gold saw a few American Black Hawks, too.
A familiar odor filled her nostrils: trash fires and sewage, along with the smell of dust. Even if she’d been blind, she would have recognized the location. The scents filled her with both dread and familiarity, almost a homecoming. She’d left part of herself here, and that part now belonged to Afghanistan.
Gold had talked to Parson by Skype when her plane made a fuel stop in Kuwait; as an individual augmentee, she’d made some of her own arrangements to get to her duty station. He’d told her he’d meet her at the MASF—the Mobile Aeromedical Staging Facility. No sign of him yet, though. Just doctors and nurses moving among patients lying on green cots set up in brown tents.
An Afghan helicopter landed. Though its rotors quit turning, some sort of power unit inside continued to operate. The chopper emitted a jetlike howl, and exhaust gases shimmered from a port.
Crew members opened clamshell doors in the back and began unloading patients. The injured lay on stretchers, and crewmen lifted them out of the aircraft and lined them up on the tarmac. All the fliers looked like Afghans, except one who was taller than the rest. From his short hair and clean-shaven face, Gold knew he was probably an American. He carried a faded green helmet bag covered with patches. When she noticed the slight limp and the way he pulled at his flight suit sleeve to check his watch, she knew it was Parson.
Gold found a set of foam earplugs in a pocket of her ACUs, and she twisted them between her fingers and inserted them into her ears before approaching the helicopter. As Gold strode toward the aircraft, Parson looked up and smiled at her. She waved, and when she reached him he extended his right hand, and she took it in both of hers. She wanted to embrace him, but not in front of the other troops, and certainly not in front of the Afghans.
He looked tired. The skin below his eyes sagged, and grime gathered in the creases of his neck. He wore his usual desert tan flight suit, only this one had blue oak leaves on the shoulders. The command patch over his right chest pocket read us CENTAF. He had a few flecks of gray in his hair now, but he looked pretty good for someone who’d once been blown up. Since their flight through hell last year, they had kept in touch, and she’d last seen him about two months ago. That was before his deployment, and he’d still worn a major’s brown leaves then.
“Damn, it’s good to see you,” Parson shouted over the noise.
“Likewise,” Gold said, “but I’m sorry about the circumstances.” It seemed in Afghanistan, there was always reason to be sorry about the circumstances.
Parson nodded, then leaned inside the helicopter’s crew door. “Hey, Rashid,” he yelled, “kill the APU.”
Indistinct words came from the cockpit, and Parson repeated: “APU. Turn it off.” Then he slashed his finger across his throat. The screaming whine subsided. Parson turned back toward Gold and said, “It’s not always that easy to communicate. That’s why I need you.”
“Where did you just fly from?” Gold asked.
“Balkh. It’s pretty rough up there.”
Gold looked at the patients. Dust covered some of them, as if they’d just been pulled from rubble. A girl with a bloody bandage around the stump of her arm stared up at Gold. Her hair shone with an auburn tint, and her eyes were blue. The sight nearly brought Gold to tears. She wished she could take the child in her arms and carry her to a better time and place for a little girl. Gold figured she was probably a Tajik, but those eyes and hair could suggest Russian, British, or even Macedonian. A lot of armies had entered Afghanistan and then retreated, but they’d left their chromosomes. Two medics picked up the child’s stretcher and carried her into the MASF.
Another patient, a young man, moaned and kept rocking from side to side. He wore a bloody T-shirt and black trousers. He had a tennis shoe on his right foot, but his left foot was bare, and a broken bone protruded from the skin. The man clutched at his abdomen as he cried out.
“What’s wrong with him?” Gold asked.
“Internal injuries, maybe. I think a ceiling fell on him.”
“I’ll help you get him inside.”
Gold took one end of the stretcher by its wooden handles, and they brought the man into the medical tent. As they put him down, Gold asked in Pashto, “Does your stomach hurt?”
In addition to the broken foot, she could see bruises and scrapes all over the man’s face and arms. The blood on his shirt appeared to come from those injuries. His midsection seemed to pain him more than anything else, but the cause was not apparent. The man did not respond to Gold’s question.
“Where does it hurt, my friend?” Gold asked. “Pohaigay?” Do you understand?
“I cannot say to you,” the man said.
“Whatever is wrong,” Gold said, “let us help you. Meh daarigah.” Do not be frightened.
Inside the MASF, flight nurses and medics tended rows of patients lying on cots. Murmurs of conversations babbled through the tent in several languages. Amid the usual English, Pashto, and Dari, Gold heard snatches of French, German, and Russian. Some of the medical workers wore uniforms, and others wore civilian clothes. Several countries had contributed help from their military services, and Gold assumed the civilians came from the UN and from NGOs such as Doctors Without Borders. Gold retained a special fondness for people who worked to ease pain; she had spent so much time fighting those who inflicted it. But right now she just wanted to get this guy to talk.
“We have doctors for you,” she said in Pashto. The man still did not respond.
A medic kneeled by the man’s stretcher. The medic wore MultiCam fatigues with flight crew wings and airborne jump wings, along with badges for combat diver and free-fall parachutist. A sleeve patch from the 83rd Expeditionary Rescue Squadron. The five stripes of a technical sergeant. Close-cropped black hair. Rolled-up sleeves bulged around muscles that looked hard as Kevlar. His name tag read REYES.
“Are you pararescue?” Parson asked.
“Yes, sir,” Reyes said. He did not look up at Parson and Gold. Instead, he pulled medical shears from his pocket and began cutting away the patient’s shirt.
“He’s been holding his stomach, but he won’t tell us what’s wrong,” Gold said.
Reyes touched the man’s abdomen. “It’s not hard or discolored like you’d have with a bad internal injury,” he said. Reyes’s accent suggested someone whose first language was Spanish. Puerto Rican, perhaps.
The patient continued moaning, and sweat beaded on his forehead. Reyes took a multitool from a sheath on his belt and opened the blade. “These guys don’t like to be stripped,” he said, “but I gotta examine him.” The pararescueman cut the man’s rope belt and checked his groin area. Gold saw blood there, and she turned away. She knew the patient wouldn’t want an American woman to see him like this.
“Poor guy,” Parson said. “That’s a bad place to get hit by debris.”
“He’ll need surgery,” Reyes said, “but I don’t think he’ll lose anything.”
“So what’s with his stomach?” Parson asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Cover him and let me talk to him,” Gold said.
Reyes left and came back with a towel that he draped over the patient. The man still looked sick and uncomfortable. Gold kneeled beside him and said in Pashto, “These people can treat you, but you must talk to us. Your injury is not a punishment from God; it is merely an accident. You have no reason to feel shame.”
The man looked at her with moist eyes and said, “I—I cannot urinate.”
Gold translated what the man said. “I sure hope his bladder hasn’t ruptured,” Reyes said. He touched the man’s abdomen again. “Yeah, the bladder area’s distended.”
“What can you do?” Gold asked.
“I’ll be right back.”
Reyes returned with a plastic container, a small needle and syringe, a larger needle, and an IV cannula with a length of tubing.
“What’s that for?” Gold asked.
“He’s going to get a suprapubic needle cystotomy. Talk to him. See if you can get him not to look at what I’m doing.” Reyes pulled back the towel, then ripped open a Betadine pad and rubbed it on the man’s skin. With the small needle, he injected something just under the skin.
“What are you giving him?” Gold asked.
“Local anesthetic,” Reyes said. “Lidocaine.”
Gold tapped the man on the shoulder and said in Pashto, “Where are you from?”
“Balkh,” the man said.
Reyes raised the large needle and uncoiled the tubing. He left one end of the tubing in the plastic container.
“I have never seen Balkh,” Gold said. The man glanced down at his waist, and Gold asked, “Is it a pretty place?”
Reyes inserted the needle straight into the patient’s bladder. The man cried out and clutched at the towel. Even if he didn’t feel the pain, Gold imagined, he knew something cold and metal had just pushed inside him. Yellow fluid began to flow into the container. Reyes taped the IV cannula into place. The man closed his eyes and sighed.
“Tashakor,” he said.
“He says thank you,” Gold said.
“Glad I got that right the first time,” Reyes said. “I’d hate to stick him like that twice.”
“Tashakor,” the man repeated.
“Will he be okay?” Parson asked.
“Yeah, but I think it would have ruptured before the end of the day if you guys hadn’t brought him in.”
Gold looked down the rows of patients. Some had suffered amputations. Some cried out in agony. Some looked near death. Only the man Reyes had just treated showed any sign of relief. A drop of mercy in an ocean of pain.
Just then, the lightbulb fixtures suspended overhead began to sway. Gold felt strange rolling sensation through the soles of her boots, as if for a moment the earth had turned to jelly. Patients cried to Allah.
“Aftershock,” Parson said.
Parson reached into his helmet bag and took out his satphone. He dialed a duty officer with Joint Relief Task Force at Bagram Air Base. When the officer picked up, Parson said, “Felt like we just got hit again up here. What kind of damage reports do you have?”
“A few more buildings down in Mazar. Other than that, we don’t know much. A lot of the outlying villages didn’t have phone service to begin with, and those that did have lost their cell towers.”
“I’m in Mazar with an Afghan flight crew,” Parson said. “What do you need us to do?”
“The ops commander wants all available helicopter crews to survey the villages. Find out how much worse it is now.”
“There are some PJs up here with us,” Parson said. “Can I get some of those guys on board the Mi-17s?”
American pararescuemen didn’t normally fly with Afghan crews, but in the aftermath of the quake, a lot of regs had been waived. Parson hoped he could bend one more rule.
“Stand by,” the duty officer said. When he came back on the line, he said, “Commander says okay. We’ll cut the flight orders and fax them up there.”
With more people probably hurt, headquarters wanted him to wait for paperwork? Parson started to swear into the phone, but then he caught himself. He looked at Gold, decided to stay on his best behavior.
“Fine, fax the flight orders when you can,” Parson said. “But can we go ahead and launch on the commander’s verbal approval?”
“Stand by, sir.”
Parson waited, fuming. It seemed the most common phrase in the Air Force was stand by. When the duty officer came back, he spoke a less common phrase—one Parson liked better: “That’s approved.”
“Roger that,” Parson said. So somebody showed some sense down there at Bagram. He cradled the phone against his shoulder while he pulled a Tactical Pilotage Chart from his helmet bag. He unfolded the TPC across an empty cot. “All right, then,” he said. “Which villages?” Parson jotted in the margins as he listened, circled a dot on the chart.
After the phone call, Parson found Rashid and his crew. “They want us to check Ghandaki,” he said. “We have some American PJs we can take with us, and I got an interpreter you’re gonna like.”
“PJs?” Rashid asked.
“Pararescue jumpers,” Parson explained. “Badass medics.”
Parson reminded himself to stop throwing acronyms at Rashid. The guy was smart, but he had a hard enough time with standard English, let alone Air Force jargon. Rashid probably didn’t know what badass meant, either.
Reyes and another PJ, Sergeant Burlingame, brought a wheeled cage filled with equipment out to the Mi-17. Parson helped them lift it into the chopper. When he raised his end of the cage, it felt like it weighed at least a couple hundred pounds. Inside it, he saw a crash ax, a sledgehammer, a power saw, and some other items he did not recognize.
“What the hell is this?” Parson asked.
“A REDS kit,” Reyes said. “Rapid extrication tools. We use it for pulling you flyboys out of wreckage. But it’ll help get people out of collapsed buildings, too.”
Rashid looked on with a puzzled expression. Gold spoke in rapid-fire Pashto, and Rashid said in English, “That is very . . .” Then he and Gold had another exchange in Pashto.
“Impressive,” Gold said finally.
“Yes,” Rashid said. “That is very impressive.”
“If you ever need a PJ,” Parson said, “it means you’re in a world of hurt.”
Rashid nodded, but he didn’t look like he really understood until Gold translated. Then he said, “I fear many Afghans are in hurt.”
“Yeah,” Parson said. “We might as well go find out.” He pulled on his flak vest, clicked its snaps into place. Then he put his arms through the sleeves of his Nomex jacket and zipped it over the vest. Now he wore protection from both fire and shrapnel.
Rashid and his copilot and flight engineer strapped into the cockpit and donned their white helmets. Parson, Gold, and the two PJs buckled into troop seats in the back.
The Afghans spoke just a few words on interphone, and the two Klimov engines spun up. Parson did not understand the terse conversation, but it didn’t sound like enough talk for a proper engine start checklist. He’d have to work on their checklist discipline: Someday these guys might go on to fly more advanced aircraft, and you didn’t just jump into an Apache and fire it up from memory like starting a Chevy. But for now, the fine points would have to wait.
As the rotors increased speed, Parson felt the vibration in his molars. He’d never get used to that. He’d spent his career in machines that rode the air. This one beat it into submission.
The Mi-17 lifted off, lowered its nose, gathered speed, climbed. Through the door on the left side, Parson could see the refugee camp and then the city of Mazar as Rashid made a turn to the southeast. The helo’s shadow flew across the ground ahead of the aircraft like its own disembodied spirit.
Wind whipped a few strands of blond hair across Gold’s face. She raised her right hand and brushed them away with her index finger. When she caught Parson looking at her, she did not change her expression, though he felt her lean into his side. Perhaps she was just cold, but he took it as a gesture of affection—one she could get away with here.
The gesture gave him a warm turn in the pit of his stomach. Parson didn’t know where this relationship was going. But he liked it that a woman he respected so much would treat him with that kind of familiarity.
She still looked good. Parson knew she was pushing forty, though he didn’t know her exact age. But the Airborne kept her fit. The lines around her eyes looked just a little deeper now, but that was all right. Someone so well-conditioned could remain attractive all her life.
The helicopter leveled, and Parson stretched to look over the flight engineer’s shoulder into the cockpit. All three crew members seemed to peer outside. So they were navigating from memory, too. A bad habit. A good way to get lost. And at night, a good way to fly into a mountain.
Parson pressed his talk switch and said, “Charts, Rashid.”
Rashid spoke to his copilot in Pashto, and the copilot said something back. Gold smiled. The copilot opened a VFR chart and clipped it to his kneeboard.
“What?” Parson said, off interphone.
“He says you are like a hawk that sees everything,” Gold said.
“They’re good guys. I keep on them because I want them to live.”
The terrain changed as it flowed underneath the chopper. The brown plateau of Mazar gave way to green patches of agriculture. In one field tucked into the cove of a hill, Parson saw scattered purple and white flowers—the telltale blooms of opium poppies. Most of the harvest had already ended. Maybe the guy wanted a late second crop. Sometimes Parson wished he could find an American or European drug user, beat the shit out of him, then show him photos of Taliban atrocities and tell him his money paid for the bullets and blades.
The opium field receded into the distance. It gave way to more hills, then a village.
“That’s Ghandaki,” Rashid said over interphone. The aircraft slowed and banked. Parson saw part of the village flash by under the crew chief’s door gun. He unbuckled his seat belt and rose to look out a window.
It could be hard to assess damage from the air, even from a low and slow helicopter. An exploded home or a cratered courtyard might have been bombed yesterday or in 1984. Parson found it tough to distinguish war destruction from earthquake damage in these mud-brick towns. He had spent his career as an airlifter; he knew little of aerial surveillance. But even Parson could see Ghandaki had just lost its mosque.
He saw the collapsed dome, the toppled minarets. Judging by the brick walls that remained, Parson figured it a crude structure—nothing like the Blue Mosque in Mazar—but surely the best Ghandaki could afford.
Rashid and his crew chattered in their language. Gold furrowed her brow and checked her watch. She got up and looked outside.
“It might have been full of men praying,” she said.
The Mi-17 made a low pass. Below, villagers climbed over the rubble. Some waved their arms. Men wearing pakol berets and white prayer caps pulled at lumber and crumbled masonry. They worked with only their bare hands.
“Put us down there, sir,” Reyes said.
“All right,” Parson said. “Rashid, did you copy that?”
When Rashid didn’t answer, Parson looked to Gold for help. But then Rashid said, “I search for place to land.”
Parson leaned forward to peer out the cockpit windscreen. Rashid had his work laid out for him. The mosque—or what was left of it—lay within the cut of a mountain stream. Mud huts surrounded it. A steep hillside dotted with scrub rose above the town. No spot within a half mile looked clear and level enough to serve as a landing zone.
Rashid twisted the grip throttle on the collective and pulled back on the cyclic. The helicopter cleared the hill, then turned back toward the mosque. Parson didn’t consider the Mi-17 the best-designed aircraft he’d ever seen, but the damn thing had power. And unlike some U.S. aircraft, it wasn’t junked up with electronic components from every congressional district. The Russians clearly intended a simple machine, maintained easily at a forward base by Ivan the mechanic with his vodka hangover. Perfect for Afghanistan.
The PJs looked out, and Reyes sized up the problem. “Sir,” he said, “if they can give us a good hover, we’ll put the REDS kit down on its lowering harness.”
Parson raised his eyebrows at Gold, and she translated. Rashid gave a thumbs-up. The crew did not have much experience with helicopter suspension techniques, but Rashid was qualified, and he seemed game. They all needed to learn to think on the fly, literally, so they might as well start now.
The last time Parson and Gold had flown together, he’d certainly needed to think beyond any normal procedures. He’d mustered all the know-how he and his crew could find to crash-land a jet crippled by a terrorist bomb, and he still carried the scars. Like elderly people whose arthritis got worse when it rained, Parson’s leg ached whenever the altimeter setting was low. He wondered if Gold carried scars, too. She had none he could see, but the invisible ones could be just as bad.
Reyes clipped a carabiner to a tie-down ring on the floor of the helicopter. He attached another to the top of the cage that contained the REDS kit. Then he looped a bight of rope around a figure-eight belay device and attached the figure-eight to the carabiner on the REDS cage. Parson, a lifelong outdoorsman and hunter, remembered mountain climbers used a similar belay system to protect themselves from falls.
The PJs placed suspension harnesses around their waists, and they moved the REDS cage near the door. Rashid pulled into a hover near the collapsed mosque, and dust began to swirl below. The chopper seemed to sway for a few seconds, but then Rashid stabilized his hover. When Reyes was satisfied he had a steady platform, he called, “Ropes.” He and his partner positioned the REDS kit out the door and lowered it to the ground.
Then the two pararescuemen looped lines through their own belay gear. They stood in the door, facing inside the Mi-17, with their boots on the bottom edge of the door frame. Both men braked their rappelling lines by holding the ropes behind their backs. In unison, they brought their hands forward, bent their knees, swung themselves outward, and descended down the lines.
After the men reached the ground, Parson unclipped the lines, dropped them, and said on interphone, “Ropes are clear.” Just as he saw the PJs remove their gloves and unstrap their harnesses, Rashid climbed away.
“There is a field outside of the town,” Rashid said. “I land there.”
“Copy that,” Parson said. “You guys stay with the aircraft, and Sergeant Major Gold and I will walk to the mosque.”
Rashid acknowledged with a double click of his interphone button. Another bad habit, but Parson tolerated this one. It meant I heard you and understand.
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