Copyright 2010 Kerry Plowright.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the author.

31 Highland Drive, Terranora NSW 2486, Australia
The right of Kerry Plowright to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

All the characters in the book are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, is purely coincidental.



For those interested in aviation, featured in this book is RAAF F-111 A8-272 - aka the Bone Yard Wrangler and A8-277 nick named Double Trouble. They both served with the 380th Bomb Wing SAC Plattsburg AFB before being sent to an Arizona boneyard. In 1994 they were rescued by the RAAF and soldiered on until 2010 mostly out of Amberely in Queensland. Once again they were retired and supposedly cut up for scrap (So everyone thought). What actually happened is a different story. Several airframes did become gate post decorations and many were scrapped, but not all of them. Wrangler, Double Trouble and a handful of other airframes went somewhere else.



The Seeds of Armageddon
Conflict and subjugation are attracted by weakness, not strength.



The great southern continent is home to more than 70 lakes that exist thousands of feet under the surface of the continental ice sheet, including one under the South Pole itself. Lake Vostok, beneath Russia's Vostok Station, is one of the largest of these sub glacial lakes hidden beneath 12,000 feet of ice. The Lake, a body of water the size of Lake Ontario, is over 155 miles long, 31 miles wide, and contains around 1250 cubic miles of water, a good match for Lake Superior.

There are more than 145 other lakes trapped under the ice. Vostok's two largest neighbours are referred to as 900E (named after the longitude) and the other Sovetskaya, named after the Russian research station coincidentally built above it. Like Lake Vostok, their icy waters have been sealed off from the surface for over 35 million years. The 900E Lake has a surface area of 2,000km2, which is about the size of Rhode Island, and is second only to Lake Vostok's 14,000km2 surface area. Sovetskaya Lake was calculated to be about 1,600 km2. Both are sealed beneath more than two miles of ice. The lake depths, estimated to be at least 900 meters, were calculated from gravity data taken during aerial surveys in 2000 and 2001.

Antarctica. 16 Miles North of Vostok Station

Sunday Dec 30 2010. The gunman pressed the end of the barrel hard into the back of the other man's neck squeezing the trigger at the same time. The sound of the gunshot was partly muffled by the heavily padded hood of the victim's parka, the rest of it snatched away in the blizzard of wind and ice that swept over the two lone figures. The large calibre round entered the man's lower neck and exited through the other side of his skull, taking most of his face with it and spraying sizable chunks of bone and brains over the white surface.
    Feng's dead body collapsed like a wet sack. The killer knelt next to the body quickly going through the dead mans pockets. He found what he was looking for and carefully examined it. It was a cylindrical piece of ice that with the exception of the black globules near its centre was crystal clear. He retrieved a small plastic container from his own jacket and dropped the sample inside, sealing the lid.
    The gunman stood for a moment, holstering the weapon and replacing the outer glove back on his gun hand. He watched with satisfaction as the drifting snow quickly covered the bloody evidence staining the ice. The body was also collecting snow and would be covered in minutes. In 70,000 years, as the ice floe continued its steady march north; they might find it at the other end of the lake. The man with the gun grunted and returned to the waiting snow tractor, climbing into the warmth of the cab.
    The driver waited until he was seated then shifted the snow machine roughly into gear without looking up. "Wet feet?" he asked.
    "Big fucking mouth," the gunman said, Frozen feet now.
    "You think Feng knew you were going to kill him?"
    The gunman thought about the exit wound, "didn't show in his face." He said, at least what was left of it. Hong Liu squirmed himself comfortably into the trucks seat. He worked for the Second Bureau of the Chinese Ministry for State Security, the Foreign Bureau, the one responsible for operations abroad.
    "What about Hamilton?" The driver asked.
    "If he sniffs around here again kill him." He looked through the windscreen into the blinding snow, the wipers scraped back and forth furiously in an almost futile attempt to maintain some visibility. But he wasn’t thinking about the snow, he was thinking about the Australian. Hamilton was a risk, too great a risk to leave walking and talking. He pulled his gloves off, checking his pocket for the cylinder. "Hamilton was talking to Feng,” He continued, “when the time is right..." Hong left the sentence hanging because he was really talking to himself, he knew if anyone were to find out about the ice core sample, China’s future would be gravely jeopardised.
    The driver nodded. "We have agents in Australia, why not have them do it?”
    "No,” Hong Liu said, a little troubled by the other mans complacence. “This I need to do myself.” What they were undertaking now would take many years to come to fruition and could turn the world and the balances of power upside down.
    The driver had no idea what was in Hong’s pocket or what they were doing here. He didn’t want to know; in this case ignorance was bliss. Like Shultz in Hogans Heroes, his chances of survival were much better if he ‘knew nothing!’ anyone in the PLA could tell you that. He replayed the German accent in his head, he wasn’t about to try it out loud.
    "Durnovo is preparing the drill site," Hong said shivering a little, but not from the cold.     "We don't need any more complications like Feng." He looked at the driver. “Or we might join him.”
    The driver inwardly shrank and looked away. Yes, the least said the better; Hong seemed to have an unusual degree of latitude with Beijing. He didn’t want to be Hongs next job. What ever they were doing was clearly worth killing for, not that that had ever been a problem.
    He looked up and for a fleeting moment and saw the squashed orange pumpkin shape of the moon between the racing clouds of blowing snow. The flattened shape was due to atmospheric bending of light or refraction - an effect which is more severe closer to the horizon, something poor old Feng would never see again he thought, but something the driver wanted to see many more times.
    On the way back to camp the driver tracked the moons path until it sank below the horizon, fearful now thinking somehow his fate and the moons presence were somehow entwined. Strangely, the driver was right. Thousands of miles away someone else was looking at the same moon at the exact same moment. This person was scouring its surface looking for something left behind from decades before and had a far better view than the Chinese snow cat driver enjoyed. Fate was drawing their paths together. A set of events had just been set in motion that bound them all together in a struggle that would pit them against each other, see two of them dead along with thousands of others and a planet on the brink of destruction. 

The Taurus-Littrow valley Mare Serenitatis
(The Moon) NASA Goddard Flight Control Centre

GREENBELT MD USA. The man whose life was now entwined with that of the two Chinese operatives was sitting in the Goddard NASA Control Centre. It was 3:09AM in the morning and as the Chinese snow cat driver watched the moon submerge beneath the ice in Antarctica, in the control centre the moon was still in exactly the same spot it had been for most of the night, close-up on the main view screens.
    There were no major missions underway and just a handful of staff inhabited the large room watching machines that watched and monitored other machines. Just like on the movie Appollo Thirteen, several big view screens looked down on the room taking up the entire front wall. Swimming across them were real time high resolution images of the lunar surface. Managing that process was NASA Aerospace Technician David Stringer, an imaging specialist. Stringer had the plum job for the evening, something he had been anticipating for some time. He could feel the excitement in his fingertips as he tapped his keyboard feeding the command sequences into the computer. For the next ninety minutes he was in control of several billion dollars worth of cutting edge space technology orbiting the moon. He checked the time again, these were priceless minutes and he had planned each one of them.
    What he didn’t know was that he was about make a profound discovery. But that was still a few minutes away. The billions of dollars of space hardware he commanded was a brand new Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter or LRO which closely orbited the moon. The satellite, called MoonSat1 enjoyed the best optical and digital imaging ever sent off the planet. After Stringer completed a scheduled set of unit tests he steered the cameras on board MoonSat1 to look at the lunar objective he had dreamed of visiting since a child.   
    After that he would test the LRO’s image servos – the little gizmos that oriented and moved the cameras and then the lunar orbiters reaction flywheels. The flywheels controlled the LRO’s pitch and attitude. Each reaction wheel had a flywheel. When the flywheel spun up in one direction, the spacecraft would start to spin very slowly in the opposite direction. Putting a few reaction wheels on the LRO enabled control on all three axes.
    While these mechanisms had already been tested many times, even more tests had been scheduled for that night. The LRO team were now nearing the end of a long series of such tests that once completed would make the LRO officially operational. They were leaving nothing to chance. After that the lunar satellite would be such a hot ticket that even the President would have a problem getting a few seconds of eye ball time. But the scheduled tests would have to wait a few minutes, right now the LRO was about to fly over Stringers target area and this would probably be his only chance to examine it.
    The large crisp display of the moving lunar landscape had already captured the attention of most of the technicians left in the centre.
    “What are we looking at?” One of them asked.
    “Not much at the moment, but watch this.” Stringer smiled, they would love this. After quickly loading the telemetry copied from his work sheet, the images on the big screens blurred out of focus. There was a short wait because the signal data still had to traverse a lot of space, approximately 385,000 km. After several seconds the image cleared and focused. It was worth the wait.
    The room drew a collective breath. Stringer smiled, standing behind his control module he held out his arms to his small audience. “That my friends, is the Apollo 17 Lunar Module, Challenger.” He savoured the moment.
    The image was the best resolution ever taken of the Lander. A previous LRO had taken images, but not as close and as detailed as these. Even the Hubble had problems in obtaining a clear image. With its 2.4 meter diameter mirror, the smallest object the Hubble could resolve at the Moons distance (400,000km) was 80 metres across, about 30 to 40 times less than what was needed.
    The new Faint Object Camera with superb resolution of about 0.0072 arc-seconds couldn’t see it either. The MoonSat however was much, much closer to the target; it was almost like standing there. The monitors showed the Lunar module sitting amongst a field debris ejected after the escape module had blasted off. David knew he would only have minutes of eye ball time before the satellite rolled over the horizon again. He used those minutes to explore the site in detail. Just as he was about to rotate the cameras away he noticed something very unusual, something out of place, something that shouldn’t be there.

Weapons Free
The Persian Gulf and Middle East

Location: Gonzo Station, the Gulf of Oman 100km south of Chah Bahar, Iran - Carrier Task Force (CTF) 150. USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) Strike Group (JCSSG)

The narrow Strait of Hormuz is considered one of the most, if not the most strategic strait of water on the planet. Through a small sea space less than 40 miles wide moves the better part of the worlds oil needs. This stretch of water bordered by Iran, Oman's Musandam Peninsula and the United Arab Emirates is a magnet for trouble.
    Call sign ‘Buckshot’ side number 402 approached the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) from dead astern at an altitude of 1,200 feet and a distance of eight miles. The pilot, temporarily assigned to the naval attack squadron the Fists, VFA-25, eased his F/A-18C Hornet fighter to starboard, aligning it on his final heading for a straight-in night landing.
    The USS Ronald Ragan was into the wind, the small island of Bahrain to her stern and the gulf on her bow. An approach controller in (CATCC), the Carrier Air Traffic Control Centre, called out radar updates during the final minutes of Hamilton's mission. Radio chatter was held to a minimum.
    CATCC: "Four Zero Two, on glide path, on course."

An F/A-18C Hornet from VFA-25, the ‘Fists of the fleet’ high over the Gulf

    Buckshot: "Four Zero Two."
    CATCC: "Four Zero Two, on glide path, on course, three- quarter miles. Call the ball."
    Buckshot: "Four Zero Two, ball. 5-3." Buckshot confirmed his visual sighting of the ball, his position relative to the beam of amber light, the location of the "needles" on the cockpit display of his automatic carrier landing system, and his remaining fuel available.
    Paddles: "Roger, ball." The landing signal officer (LSO) or ‘paddles’ as some called him, confirmed Hamilton's radio transmission. The LSO monitored all carrier landings from a platform on the port side of the flight deck near the ship's stern, radioing instructions as necessary.
    Eighteen seconds after his final radio transmission, Buckshot's FA/-18C Hornet slammed down on the Reagan’s flight deck. As his aircraft's tail hook reached for one of the four arresting cables spanning the flight deck, Buckshot applied full power to the Hornet's two General Electric turbofan engines. In the event he missed grabbing a wire owing to a hook skip or landed past the wires, Buckshot would "bolter" and make an immediate takeoff on the carrier's angled flight deck.
    Only when a safe arrested landing was assured (on a "number three wire") and the flight deck officer's lighted wands signalled him to reduce power did Buckshot pull his engine throttles back to idle and follow the directions of yellow-shirted aircraft handlers to taxi to his parking spot on the busy flight deck.
    After a brief post flight inspection, the temporary naval aviator that was really an RAAF Flight Lieutenant on TDY, went to the maintenance-control office to report the status of his aircraft followed by a debriefing of his mission and landing in the squadron ready room. (The LSO grades and critiques every landing on the ship as part of a continuing process of self-improvement).
    As the RAAF pilot signed his aircraft's maintenance forms to close out the mission his Squadron CO appeared, leaning through the hatch and propping himself up against the bulkhead.
    “You are Ready Five.” The Fists Commander Chris McKay looked at his watch. “In six hours?”
    “Yes sir.”
    The Commanding Officer of VFA-25 looked at the Australian. The Aussie was what they called a Hot Runner – someone who consistently performed well, better still; he wasn’t pretentious about it or full of the usual cock and bull. His mate Horde, the other Aussie exchange officer was pretty good as well. “You’re both short. Looks like we have to give you back soon huh?”
    Buckshot looked up from the paperwork and smiled. “Fraid so sir, nine days and a wakeup.” He paused, “Frankly I’d like to stay a little longer, was hoping to see some action.” The road to qualifying for active flying duty on board one of the world’s most powerful ships had not been easy and being able to put that training to practice would have been gratifying – so long as only the bad guys got hurt of course.
    Buckshot had trained at NAS Pensacola completing over 140 carrier-landing practices in all types of weather conditions day and night, before he even saw a carrier deck. When he finally did, it was flying a T-45 Goshawk trainer on and off an Aviation Landing Training Ship (AVT) before participating in fleet replacement squadron carrier qualifications (FRSCQ).
    After all that and despite his significant hours in the air force flying Hornets and Pigs, he still joined VFA-147 as a nugget. But this was a rare opportunity; he and Horde would be the only carrier-qualified pilots in the Australian Defence Force. But their tenure was drawing to a close and he didn’t want to leave without just a little bit of excitement.
    The CO of the Fists laughed, slapping the bulkhead as he straightened up to leave.     “Well, you never know your bad luck! Just make sure you and Horde don’t stain your almost flawless records before you go.” He was referring to landings and other instruments of measurement they used to weigh pilot skills.
    “What do you mean ‘almost’” Buckshot half shouted down the passageway after the retreating figure of the CO.
The Commander turned and smiled. “Just keep your god dam noses clean, don’t screw the pooch.” He disappeared past another bulkhead his voice trailing off with “See you after the sweat.” He meant the often hot and boring job of sitting in the cockpit as an alert aircraft pilot, waiting for a launch order that most often didn’t happen.
    “Aye, aye sir.” Buckshot replied. The RAAF pilot had only just got used to saying ‘Aye, aye’, a habit he would have to drop.

USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) steams through the Gulf of Oman.

At the due time and after some quick zees, Buckshot was back on the flight deck. The red shirted ordies were working to get his jet ready, loading AMRAAM’s, Harpoons and 20-millimeter ammo. After checking the maintenance book and signing the white acceptance sheet for the aircraft, Buckshot dropped off the weight sheet in Flight Deck Control followed by a quick precautionary wizz in the head before walking back to his bird. The plastic bug as some called her was parked in Fly One, the flight deck area in front of the Island. The plane captain, ordnance man and yellow shirt waited for him in preparation to get the jet started.
    Buckshot checked the boarding ladder and climbed up to the cockpit to inspect the ejection seat, checking that the SAFE/ARM handle was in the SAFE position before looking over the rest of the seat. He then checked all the switches were in the proper positions and dropped his kneeboard on the seat and stowed his paper charts. The paper was only for emergencies. After completing that detail he climbed back down and beginning from the left hand side of the fuselage commenced his exterior inspection, walking around the fuselage in a clockwise direction. He checked for loose doors, fasteners, hydraulic leaks, dents or anything out of place finishing off with an inspection of the ordnance. The two-wingtip stations carried sidewinders. In addition to these each wing featured three stations. The very inboard stations carried Harpoons, the two outer stations and two nacelle stations loaded with AIM-120 AMRAAM.
    He gave ‘a thumbs up’ to the plane captain then climbed up and strapped in.
    The air boss turned on the green launch lights and with that cue the yellow shirts started the engines. Once started up Buckshot punched in the pre-determined tactical frequency. His deck handler then signalled him and he eased the jet forwards following him towards the Ready Five position. The term Ready Five or Alert Five, as in the movie Top Gun, is a condition of high alert for aircraft crews on the flight deck in which they must be ready to launch within five minutes. Fighter aircraft are placed on the steam catapult complete with flight crew, armament, and fuel, ready to go.
    Buckshot dreaded being assigned Ready Five, because he could be there for what seemed hours on end. He taxied the jet following the plane handler up to the zipper track that led him into the launch box. When the nose wheel was just behind the shuttle, the towbar was lowered into a slot on the shuttle, the Jet Blast Deflector (JBD) just aft of the plane was raised and the Hornets permanent ‘holdback’ attached to its station. With everything ready they gave Buckshot the signal to kill both engines and waited. They waited and sweated.
    Calling it a ‘sweat’ was an understatement. It was stifling. The sun beat through the canopy, the sea was calm as a millpond and everything seemed to be going in slow motion. This wasn’t flying it was a steam bath. He waited. The minutes dragged by. He kept looking at the island hoping for the call. The minutes kept dragging by. With just a few minutes to go he let himself relax a little, relief was on the way. This of course is when it always happens.
    “Launch Alert Five!” The order blared out from the flight decks loud speakers.
    The RAAF pilot sat bolt upright. The engines were started again and he and the deck crew quickly ran through the launch procedures. Once everything was satisfied he placed his right hand on the throttles and ran them to the stops. With his other hand he snapped a salute and grabbed the upper left hand hold bracing for the shot. He wouldn’t grab the stick again until after becoming airborne.
    Within the space of a few seconds he was fired off the bow, pulling out of afterburner, heading for the tanker and then where ever it is he was supposed to be going. Twenty minutes later he was being vectored to the targets Skunk Delta and Echo, two surface contacts. The second alert aircraft, call sign Gunner, formed on his right wing.
    Buckshots radar had picked up both the surface contacts before refuelling, they looked like ‘small boys’, maybe FFG’s. He talked to Gunner over the tactical frequency, “Gunner, I’ll take the small boy north, you take the one south.” Two clicks on the transmit button located on the throttles of Gunners Hornet acknowledged the request.
Buckshot dropped down to one hundred feet at a speed of three hundred and fifty knots rolling the two ‘loud levers’ forward turning more kerosene into even more noise. He was used to flying F111’s, and down and dirty was his profession, he loved this stuff.   
    Buckshot quickly came up on the stern of Skunk Delta and he pulled the fighter into the vertical. It looked like a minelayer, a converted Iranian navy LST that looked busy somewhere it shouldn’t be, just north east of the disputed Island of Abu Musa. As far as Buckshot could tell they were at least ten miles outside of Iran’s territorial waters, which extended twelve miles into the Persian Gulf. He double-checked his main MFD, which displayed a detailed moving map. On the back half of his loop he picked up a 30-degree dive and rolled back in the direction of the target, to his surprise angry red tracers raced up to meet him. He stabbed the left pedal, gave his bird some left stick before pulling it back and punching in the burners. The Hornet flicked into a heavy gee turn, standing on its wing. He quickly reversed, pushed the nose down hard and flattened the Hornet to the deck as he escaped the fusillade. He felt several thuds run through the airframe from canon strikes but the bug seemed to shake them off without any affect. The Threat Warning System (TWS) started blaring; he jinked hard punching chaff for all it was worth. The TWS stopped and he pulled a hard Immelman to head back in to Skunk Delta, he didn’t like being shot at.
    The ROE were clear. If fired upon he could respond in kind. Staying low, just feet off the deck, he approached the target from the beam. From his left hand multifunctional display screen he selected the Harpoons and hit his master arm switch to ARM and started his attack run in. The targeting information came up on the HUD. Tracking and target lock were almost instantaneous, both missiles dropped from the rails knifing ahead, leaving long plumes of rocket exhaust behind them.
    The normal procedure was to bug out, but with no other threats to worry about, Buckshot followed the Harpoons. Ahead of him the minelayer suddenly exploded under the double whammy missile strike, the hull heaving from the water as she was split in half. Buckshot pulled up and rolled the aircraft into a turn, looking over his shoulder at the same time. He could see the boat had almost broken in two, fire erupting from the hull amidst numerous secondary explosions. Was it a boat or a ship he thought? He would have to check later. He circled the kill noticing the Iranian flag fluttering on the stern, seemingly impervious to the carnage in front. Moments later it slipped beneath the water. Was this a good day? He tried not to think about the crew and thought about heading back to the chicken ranch when the Local Air Controller (LAC) called in, there were five bogeys hauling ass out of Bandar Beheshti inbound to his position.
    “402 you have five bogeys inbound moving at 450 knots, 80 miles out.” There was a hesitation. ‘Make that five bandits, they look like Air Guards.” The LAC added, upgrading the bogey dope.
    Buckshot picked them up as they got feet wet and called ‘Judy’. This signified that he had radar contact on the bandits and could complete the intercept without further assistance from the Hawkeye. He was smack in the middle of the Strait of Hormuz, right at the apex just a few miles south of the Iranian Island of Jazireh-ye Larak. Call sign Horde then checked in merging to his starboard. Gunner was far to the north tangling with the other mine layer, so it looked like it was just the two of them in the welcoming committee that day. Horde had a bloodhound’s nose for trouble and Buckshot wondered how the hell he had got himself out there. Good thing though, two against five was better than one.
    The inbound aircraft were F-7MP Air Guards, an advanced Chinese made version of the famous MiG-21 FISHBED. It was fast and manoeuvrable and similar to the F16; the Iranian version packed 30mm canon and R550 Magic Missiles. Its pulse doppler radar system could track a thin beam to 15km in missile mode and 5km in guns with a minimum height of 150m. Buckshot and Horde turned into towards the bandits, Horde following Buckshot’s jet down to the deck. Too much altitude as they approached the coast could easily place them in range of shore based SAM systems.

Chengdu F-7/J-7 Airguard. Iranian version is the (J-7II)
Origin: China

Type: Fighter
Max Speed: 1,175 kt / 1,350 mph
Max Range: 600 km / 373 miles
Dimensions: span 7.154 m / 23 ft 5.625 in length 13.945 m / 45 ft 9 in height 4.103 m / 13 ft 5.5 in
Weight: empty 5275 kg / 11,629 lb normal take-off 7531 kg / 16,603 lb
Powerplant: one Liyang (LMC) Wopen WP-7B(BM) rated at 43.15 kN (9.700 Ib st) dry and 59.82 kN (13,448 Ib st) with afterburning. This is derived from the TumanskiiR-1 IF-300
Armament: Two internal 30 mm Type 30-1 cannon or One 23 mm Type 23-3 cannon AIM-9L Sidewinder; PL-2, PL-5, bombs; rockets

Boeing FA-18C Hornet – carrier based, multi-role fighter

Powerplant: Two General Electric F404-GE-402 afterburning engines, producing 18,000 lbs. thrust each
Wingspan: 37 ft., 6 in. (11.43 m)
Length: 56 ft. (17.07 m)
Height: 15 ft., 3.5 in. (4.7 m)
Wing area: 400 sq. ft. (37.16 m2)
Weight 23,050 lb. empty
Max T/O wt 56,000 lb
Max speed: 1,360 mph, Mach 1.8
Ceiling: 50,000 ft
Combat radius: +500 N miles
Range – 2,000 miles
Climb rate – 45,000 ft. per minute
Armament – One 20 mm M61A1 Vulcan six-barrel cannon with 570 round up to 13,700 pounds of external ordnance, including Sidewinder, AMRAAM, Sparrow missiles, bombs, rockets, and drop tanks on nine external points.  

Buckshot figured the Iranians were obviously a little ticked off about their boats being sunk. Or was that ships again? Any hoot, someone had seen them earlier on, maybe the search radar from the new Tor M1 Air Defence Systems that they just received from the Ruskis? It was this latter thought that made him mindful of his distance to the coast and altitude. The Tor M1 surface-to-air missile system was a fast tracked mobile platform which could set up in three minutes, had eight missiles ready to shoot and took just five seconds to launch from target detection. It had a range of 25km, could track 48 targets and shoot two at once with a kill probability ranging from 0.6 to 0.9. He did NOT want to test that last part.
    He turned southwest to head further down the Strait. The tiny Island of As Salamah slipped past his starboard wing with the Musandam Peninsula on the other. To try and manoeuvre here would be like trying to fly in a fish bowl, the Strait of Hormuz that separated Oman and Iran was just tens of kilometres wide at this point, which meant anywhere in the strait was potentially within range of Iranian missiles. The wide-open spaces of the Gulf of Oman lay in front him and within seconds he was due east of Hisn Diba.
    Once Buckshot felt like there was enough sea space between himself and the possible missile batteries he set-up an intercept that would bring them up behind the Air Guards. For some crazy reason they had extended out into the Gulf.
    There was of course the small issue of the ROE Buckshot reminded himself. While the minelayer had fired at him, the Air Guards had not. At the same time the word from the top down was to vigorously exercise freedom of navigation and not to be intimidated by Iranian aggression. Did the hostile action with the minelayer mean that any overt response by the other side, in or about the same place and time, be perceived as the same action?
    Fortunately that question was decided quickly. Some one had fired a missile at the Hawkeye. Gunner, who was closer to the Hawkeye, had taken care of it, no damage done. The ATCC, more than a little rattled and pissed off, gave them weapons free. Buckshot followed the Remotely Fed Radar (RFR) track painted by the Hawkeye, avoiding the use of his own radar that might alert the bandits to his position. A little more than a minute later he and Horde were behind the Iranians in a tail chase.
    Once in position they ballooned off the deck and illuminated the bad guys, the JF-17’s were closer than Buckshot had thought. He performed a low yoyo to reduce closure, the two bugs almost overshooting and now too close for missiles. Ass end Charlie of the flight of five bandits spotted him quickly and broke to port; the other aircraft picked up the call and broke in all directions. Buckshot stuck with Charlie, Horde sticking close to his wing as they began yanking and banking. The Iranian pilot was no match for Buckshot. Within seconds Buckshot hit him with guns, twenty millimetre canon shells ripping holes in the Iranian jet which began to burn before rolling on its back and smashing into the ocean. Just then Horde came under canon fire from behind. He warned Shotgun and executed a hard right turn plugging in the burners and keeping his eye on the lone Air Guard, rolling his Bug high and wide trying to separate and get him with a missile shot.
    At the same time Buckshot acquired two firm missile queues and wasted little time in allocating and shooting them BVR. The AMRAAMS sped off the rails towards their targets. Thirty seconds later one of the targets disappeared off screen. Buckshot spoke to the Hawkeye over the Tac wondering what had happened to the other guy he missed when bitching Betty blared. He dumped everything to the left and pushed the noisemakers to the wall again; he saw a bandit blow past his starboard and without turning into him targeted him with his helmet queue, firing off an AIM-9 sidewinder. After leaving the wingtip rail the AIM did a smart one eighty and chased the bad guy, just like the Raytheon brochure said it would, Buckshot was impressed. The TWS stopped, that was three bogies down. Buckshot wondered how Horde was doing and went looking for him. Hawkeye than called informing him another five bad guys were hot, heavy and inbound.
    Buckshot’s adrenalin was pumping, he snapped the Hornet on its back, rolled one eighty degrees and set-up a head on pass. He knew the other guys didn’t have helmet or off bore sight queueing. As they crossed he locked his remaining AIM-9 on the lead jet. The missile raced off the rails and he turned and burned to follow the other jets. He quickly found himself overtaking one of them and hit the guy with canon. Chunks fell of the jet whipping past his canopy, smoke poured from the tail pipe and the pilot punched out. That was four, if the other AIM was on target maybe five. Out of ammo and running on chicken fuel, Buckshot ran the jet out over the water towards the carrier as fast as he could, followed by Horde. As far as a fighter pilot went Buckshot knew it didn’t get much better than this. But he also knew it wasn’t just fuel he was running out of, he was sure he had just cashed in a years worth of luck as well.
    The whole encounter had taken just minutes. Buckshot had four, maybe five and Horde was down for two and Gunner had one as well. The Iranians were running out of Airguards. After Hawkeye told them the coast was clear (Literally), the two jets formed up and then landed on the carrier. Air to air engagements are rare, so it was with some good-humoured envy that the carriers wing of pilots welcomed back the Australians. None of the carrier’s pilots assumed for a minute that they would not have done as well as Buckshot in the same circumstance; otherwise they wouldn’t be combat pilots. It was that attitude that made them the best. But it was time to pay homage which they did in grand style; after all, Buckshot was the first ace of the new century, Hawkeye had confirmed the AIM shot splashed its target.
    While Buckshot appreciated the compliments, he knew as well as everyone else on the ship, that if the Iranians had not been so afraid to risk their new Sukhoi’s, the story might have been a lot different. Luck had been on his side. The story was also not going to be told. The Iranians embarrassed by the flogging they had taken said it never happened. Keen to keep hostilities in the region down and because two Australians were involved in the flying knife fight, the US Navy also decided discretion was called for. Buckshot’s fame would remain in the family.
    At 2300HRS local time that night, Buckshot and Horde excused themselves from the celebrations. They were exhausted. Buckshot also knew he had ops the following day and wanted to be fresh to the task. While becoming an ace, Buckshot was thankful it had eventuated without his ass being shot off. He did not however want alcohol-jaded reflexes to give some other bad guy a chance to take his scalp the next day. Little did he know how prophetic that thought was going to be, less than a thousand miles away something was already happening that before the next day was out, would see him fighting for his life in a way no one could have imagine.


The Feather Men, AFGHANISTAN

The Aboriginal elders called the SAS "Feather men". In the old times Aboriginal warriors used to kill an Emu and coat their feet with the fat and feathers from the bird. This allowed them to walk across the desert sands without leaving a footprint. The term "Feather men" was a compliment with a dark connotation. The only prey in the outback that required a hunter to cover his tracks was another man.

You may have the watches, but we have the time - Taliban Saying

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN. Captain Nick Jansen RAN placed his mobile phone on the desk next to his laptop. He stared for a moment at the large map on the wall before referring back to the screen. He was reading a DIO (Defence Intelligence Organization) report that had just arrived in his inbox. Jansen was the senior Defence Liaison Officer with the ADF National Command Element (NCE) in Afghanistan, part of Operation Slipper. After reading and digesting the report he called Special Operations Task Group (SOTG) head quartered in Tarin Kowt. The Australian SAS Operations Commander Colonel David Morel answered the phone.
    “We just received some Intel on Rasputin.” Jansen said without any preliminary. Rasputin was the code name for a senior Indonesian Mujahedeen working with the Taliban.
    “Here?” Morel was as equally straight to the point; neither man was a time waster.
    “Here as in Afghanistan yes, but specifically Paktya. DIO think he’s the Taliban’s main tier-two guy operating out of Gujarghuna right on the border there, supposed to be pretty close to bungeye.” He was referring to the ‘Emir’, the one-eyed mullah Omar. Taliban meant ‘Gods Students’
    “Jaji.” Morel said.
    “Jaji, it’s a small town inside the Afghanistan border, not far from the crossing. We used to operate there in 2006; it’s where they ship all the opium through and right now its poppy season. You want us to take a gecko?”
    “That’s the general idea.” Somebody was putting turns on the two thousand mile screw driver. “They have a guide.”
    “A guide?” This didn’t sound good.
    “DIO reckons this guy will take, to Rasputin.”
    Morel wasn’t convinced, but the screw was in. He knew Rasputin was believed to be working with Baluchi drug lords across the border, protecting their opium and getting it across the border in exchange for money and arms. According to DOI’s intelligence assessment Islamic extremists from Chechnya had joined Rasputin’s small army and were taking part in attacks on Australian troops in the Paktya, Lowgar and Knowst provinces. These attacks were motivated by Rasputin’s desire to secure greater control of the local opium trade that provided much of their funding. The Chechen fighters, radicalised and battle-hardened by years of war in their homeland were fighters to be reckoned with.
    Rasputin was also getting other help, SOTG had uncovered intelligence that proved Iran was supplying logistical support and tactical guidance to his Taliban forces in the region. This had resulted in an increase in attacks with improvised explosive devices, heavy weapons, and indirect fire weapons. Several Australians had been killed by IED’s in the last few days alone. SOTG knew Rasputin’s focus was to keep control of the narco-trafficking trade and to stop the Poppy Eradication Force (PEP) destroying poppy crops and distributing wheat seed to the farmers instead. Ninety two per cent of the world's opium crop was grown in Afganistan and the Baluchi drug lords wanted to keep it that way.
    Rasputin had a long rap sheet with DOI. He had already been linked to several terrorist attacks, including those in Bali, long before he appeared in Afghanistan. Hammer time Colonel Morel thought.

KUZA KHERMANA, PAKTIA PROVINCE. Colonel David Morel tasked 1 Squadron SASR with the job of looking for Rasputin. The Squadron’s vehicle troop was then ordered to patrol the area around Ali Kheyl before inserting a patrol near a key border crossing which they suspected the Indonesian cleric was using. After weeks of fruitlessly searching the valley and near the end of the patrol the Vehicle Troop was suddenly given another tasking, a particularly unpopular one. To accommodate the new request the Troops vehicles were pulled up into a half wagon wheel a few miles out of the village of Kuza Khermana. It was too dangerous to stop in the village which would have exposed the column to hidden fire from its numerous structures and compounds. The ever changing loyalties of the village clans meant you never knew who to trust. The single road running through the valley system could take them from a staunchly pro government village to an opium warlord’s in the space of a kilometre – all part of the Taliban ratline.
    The Troop had stopped to secure a location ahead of an RV with a unit from the local Reconstruction Task Force (RTF5). Within fifteen minutes the RTF5 unit arrived. Made up of 6RAR Bushmaster IMVs; the RTF5 Diggers immediately dismounted taking up positions to form a perimeter. Once this was completed the ‘package’ as they referred to it, was told it was okay to go over and meet her new travelling companions.
    From his position in the gunner’s seat of a Nary Special Operations Vehicle (SOV), Sergeant Gary Fulham watched with more than a little appreciation the package move towards them. The fine form of ABC correspondent Natasha Braithewaite was the best looking thing he had ever seen exit a Bush Master.
    Fulham tapped the gun rail talking to the man seated in front of the vehicle. “Was that in bed with us or imbed?”
    Hamilton looked up from what he was doing to see what Fulham was on about. Oh shit, that was unexpected. “They sent a fucking woman!”
    “I hope so.” Fulham replied.
    “Bloody nuts.” Hamilton closed his note book stowing it in the door tray as climbed out of the vehicle.
    “Yess...bloody nuts.” Fulham said, simply repeating the Hammer because the rest of his brain cells were focused else where.
    Hamilton looked back and up, raising his eyebrows. “You know god dam well what I mean, stop drooling and get your ass out of there.”
    “Yes sir, absolutely.” Fulham crawled out from beneath the gun mount.

Australian Bushmaster

Nary Special Operations Vehicle – ADF version of the Supacat

    “Now walk with me inconspicuously to the back of the truck.” Hamilton said.
    Fulham followed his boss but could barely take his eyes off the apparition still advancing towards them. Gary was no perve, but his infatuation was pretty understandable. For six months he had been sharing tents and holes in the ground with a troop of hairy smelly obnoxious ozzies. All the women where they operated wore Hijaab, head to toe robes and veils and the SAS men imagined many of them to be just as hairy beneath it. This woman was a major dish...and the way she moved.
    Braithewaite could feel the eyes on her, something she was getting used to in this part of the world. She opened the A5 sized notebook she carried and checked the photograph. The man staring back at her from the picture looked a little like Hugh Jackman but with sandy coloured hair and startling blue eyes. Captain B.E. (Hammer) Hamilton, DFC, Troop Commander 1 Sabre Squadron SASR. She had written on the corner ‘Hammer’. That was his nickname; she would have to find out why they called him that. Did it have something to do with the big bounty the Taliban had put on his head? Out of everyone here why had they singled him out? Rumour had it that whoever got him, ideally alive, would receive a huge reward for themselves and their family. They then planned to skin him alive and broadcast it on YouTube. Perhaps she thought, it wasn’t exactly a good idea to be anywhere near this guy, anywhere else was probably much safer. This guy was a Taliban celebrity, except the Taliban paparazzi had guns.
    Looking at the bearded faces around her, she had no doubt the men here would have preferred she was somewhere else as well, but for different reasons. It was clear from the moment she had stepped out of the Bushmaster she was as welcome as a Rabbi in a Mosque. There was no welcoming committee, no lending hand. The men crewing the special ops vehicles opposite seemed intent on making this difficult for her. The vehicles looked as mean as the men.
    The Nary 4x4 had recently replaced the troops Land Rovers. The Nary was an "all terrain pit-bull", and offered significantly increased mobility, protection and agility over the Land Rover WMIKS. Powered by a Cummins 5.9 litre turbo-diesel engine it was capable of speeds of over 80 mph on roads and 40 mph across the desert. The vehicles crewed three and were armed with a .50 calibre machine gun, automatic grenade launcher or 7.62 General Purpose Machine Gun (GPMG) with a second 7.62 GPMG for the Commander.
    Braithewaite would have been surprised to know her assessment of the welcome committee, or lack of it, was in fact wrong. Like Fulham, all the men were a just little shell shocked with a woman being dropped in their midst when they least expected it – especially one that looked like her. They had been informed to expect a correspondent, and naturally assumed a man. Out here in the bad ass land of special operations it was men’s business. GI Jane was just in the movies. Beret qualification in the Australian SAS required extreme, almost super human physical strength, something no women had come even close to. But they were welcome to try.
    Hamilton, hiding behind the truck wanted a few moments to think. He would have felt better equipped if a bomb had been thrown at them; this was going to be awkward. He knew the correspondent was to be embedded with his vehicle mounted patrol for a few days, timed to occur near the end of their current tasking. To someone in the Russell offices in Canberra this must have sounded like a great idea, but they had never smelt an Australian SF Patrol returning from an extended time in the field. That might have even seemed okay if it was a bloke...but a woman, well that was different.
    As Braithewaite walked towards the patrol group she took a moment to look around her. Despite the horror that was Afghanistan, it could be incredibly beautiful. A lot of it looked like Mars with splashes of white and spectacular mountains draped in snow framed against clear blue skies. At night the sky was even brighter than she remembered in the bush at home. Yes, Mars she thought...with a bit more snow. She looked back towards her new hosts and scrutinised the faces. The men were all filthy. They were cammed up, mostly bearded with a mixture of head dresses that ranged from turbans to base ball caps. Weapons, ammunition and other equipment fought for space around their bodies. With desert goggles or glasses covering what little spare face one might have seen, they looked every bit as menacing as the legend that surrounded them.
    She scanned the vehicles and men again. Hamilton could have been any one of them. She caught one of them looking directly at her and headed towards him.
    “Inbound.” Hammer said flatly moving around the truck.
    Fulham cursed, he couldn’t help himself. Two firm unstabilised rounds, wobbling ever so slightly, were already on their way. There was no escape now; he tried to look busy but the two projectiles were locked onto target. They stopped just short of him, their owner looking over the top of her dark sunglasses at him. She smiled offering her hand.
    “Natasha Braithewaite, ABC News.” Fulham took her hand shaking it gently as if it would break. Or were his hands just shaking, he wondered – even the Taliban hadn’t been as nerve wracking as this. He tried to think of something to say.
    “Gary, nice to meet you.” Phew, least he didn’t make an ass of himself.
    “Captain Hamilton, you know where he went?” She asked.
Fulham gestured towards Hammer but his hands gestured to empty space. Son of a bitch, he was gone. The woman was still looking at him. He tried to look everywhere else but at her tightly packed ammunition locker right in front of him
    “He was just here.” He could feel her main armament still pinning him to the spot just inches away. “Let me go find him for you.”
    “Thank you, is there somewhere I can stow my stuff?”
    Fulham pointed into the back of the Nary. Normally over flowing with supplies, most of them had been consumed during their three weeks in the field.
    Finally the two large calibre devices turned away releasing Fulham who fled the encounter looking for his chicken shit boss who had abandoned him in action. He found the boss in another truck on the phone trying to find out how come a woman had landed in their laps. Captain Brian Hamilton looked like he wanted to kill someone. Some desk jockey jerk wanting a good news bite had obviously dreamed this one up. He rang up Morel. The Colonel to his credit knew nothing about it, a few minutes later Morel had spoken to Jansen and Jansen was on the phone back to Canberra. The signal that related to this ABC correspondent, which he had only just uncovered, came from some senior civil ‘grade one’ ass wipe in Defence Relations.
    “Jack?..hang on let me try.” There was a pause and a few clicks on the line. The operator came back on. “sorry, looks like he’s gone for the day.”
    Jansen just about lost it. “Gone for the day!” Well we haven’t, we are all still here you fucking idiot! He put a call in to the Operations Commander in Kandahar. When the General came back after about ten minutes chasing the problem down, he said he was sympathetic but they would have to live with it. Jansen passed on the message.
    Hamilton swore again. At least he had her details now. He wasn’t at all happy about this but like the General had said, had to live with it. He went back to meet her, hopefully she would stay out of the way and not be a nuisance.
    As far as Braithwaite was concerned this was an ignominious beginning. The Troop Commander had not bothered to meet her, leaving her to stand by his truck waiting for him. He finally turns up some fifteen minutes later with no apology. With his glasses on he was impossible to tell apart from the rest of the troop.
    Like the others he was close to the colour of the terrain that surrounded him. The landscape seemed almost to be absorbing them, sand and dirt covered his clothes. The talcum powder like sand of the desert had mixed in with camo and sweat forming a greasy crust on his face and beard.
    He took his glasses off to talk to her and it was this moment that took her by surprise. The photo never gave them (The eyes) justice; they were startling, almost luminescent when framed by the dark of his face. She completely forgot what she was going to say and had difficulty refocusing to listen to what he was saying. Before she knew it, he had replaced the glasses and had handed her off to one of the troopers and was gone. That was the last she saw of him.

Sikaram Nightmare
31 December 1325 HRS.

Australian digger in Afghanistan

MOUNT SIKARAM, AFGHANISTAN. The elevation was 2365 meters, the location; a ridge line on the northwestern slope of Mount Sikaram southeast of the Kabul River.
    It was beginning to snow again. The wind had increased and the temperature had plummeted way below zero. Winter had been unusually late, but it seemed to be back with a vengeance. A Pashtun tribesman stopped to adjust his turban. Pashtuns tended to leave one end of their turbans hanging which the tribesman used to cover his face from the bitter cold wind. His name was Abu, behind him followed Callsign Nightmare, Captain Brian Hamilton and Sargeant Gary Fulham SASR.
    The Squadron’s Op Ord had been to insert a two man patrol to observe a crossing point on the Pakistan border. The only way to get there was to dismount at a place called Bar Belawut and walk to the objective, once there to set up a hide and observe. From satellite imagery of the border crossing, the best position they could see to observe this from was a rock out crop on the opposite wall of the valley. It was the end of the patrol of most of the Squadron, so after he and Fulham had been dropped off the rest of the vehicle troop had headed back to the Gardez FOB still several days away, for a well deserved shower, cold beer and hot food – at least that’s the order he would have done it in…maybe the beer while having a shower. They were probably enjoying that right now he thought. He watched as the guide Abu quickly resumed his break neck pace up the mountain trail. He didn’t trust that guy.
    Through the falling snow Hamilton surveyed the harsh forbidding slopes that towered all around them. They vanished into heavy grey clouds chased along by a bone-chilling cold. Fingers of wind penetrated the GORE-TEX pants he wore and right through the camouflage gear underneath. He checked his GPS heading; they were coming up on waypoint five. It was 0400 Zulu time (Greenwich Mean Time), which was 8:30am locally in eastern Afghanistan, so far so good, these were big ass mountains and they had been covertly scouting them now for days. It was hard going; he and Fulham were each weighed down by over sixty kilograms of equipment. It was steep and the contour lines on the operations map looked like they had been squeezed together and now he knew why.
    Like Braithewaite he marvelled at the beauty of the mountains and landscape, but he thought, they were as beautiful as they could be deadly. He knew the geology here well. Millions of years ago, the slow but unstoppable movement of the alpine crust near Afghanistan’s eastern border had collided with the rigid peninsular block of India, causing the earths crust to buckle, pushing up rock to create the mountainous highlands he now stood on that formed Afghanistan’s eastern frontier.
    The invisible track that Abu followed ran onto a ridgeline known as the Safed Koh or White Mountains. The Safed Koh were the most impressive mountains in Afghanistan straddling the Pakistan-Afghanistan border near the Kabul River, culminating at its highest point, Mount Sikaram. Gneiss and hard granite rock shouldered this imposing mountain peak to over 15,620ft (4,761 m). The lower slopes and ridge spurs of Sikaram which the reconnaissance team climbed were barren and made up of bare lime stones and sandstones. Where pine and deodar had once grown, the slopes were today desolate. In the mid-1980s this was the primary transit point for anti-Soviet mujihadeen fighters.
    It was now being used for launching violent attacks against U.S. and Afghan forces, which is why Hamilton thought, he was risking his neck out here on such a nice day, a nice day in almost any other place except here. But it wasn’t the weather that was the big worry; it was Abu’s relatives. The people that lived here belonged to at least a dozen ever-warring tribes who spoke Pushtu and whose political fragmentation mimicked the extremely broken terrain. This place was deep in Afghanistan’s badlands only a few miles east of the Tora Bora cave complex where coalition forces had fought many bitter and bloody battles in pursuit of Osama bin laden.
    Here medieval madness prevailed. In these tribal areas, disloyal elders were beheaded in the public square and thieves hanged in the streets with money stuffed in their gaping mouths for all to see.
The tribal areas straddled the border. Just over the other side of the border in Pakistan were the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Though it appeared there was little if any federal administration of any sort going on, just a land dominated by Jihadists. The bad guys would come over the border, past seemingly oblivious Pakistani guards, ambush NATO forces and other Afghan or coalition troops, and then run back over the border into the sanctuary of their tribal areas in Pakistan. The Taliban that NATO was fighting was now run by international Islamic extremists led from Quetta, a hot blooded Pakistani City further south. But despite NATO knowing where the primary threat was coming from, they could do little about it. The Pakistan government forbade any border incursions. “Any action without our knowledge and without our clearance and approval and without our dictation is not acceptable to Pakistan.” So a small group of just thirteen old men sent their senior commanders, all hardbitten ideologues over the border to do their worst.
    Just seven days previously a NATO surveillance drone had observed one of these men, bin Mohammed bin wali al-Haqq code named Rasputin, enter a mosque in the tribal area just inside the Pakistan border. He had delivered a sermon and had then smugly walked out with his entourage. Permission to fire a precision missile or to pursue al-Haqq had been denied. The small drone had circled the mosque in futility. As al-Haqq had left the building he had smirked and waved at the camera, he knew the infidel commanders would be really pissed when they saw that.
    These tribal areas were a terrorist breeding ground. The Pakistan government denied that it harboured al Qaeda or Taliban - declaring that al Qaeda's leadership was hiding in Afghanistan. On the ground the fact was there were lots of foreign fighters and what SOTG called Tier One Taliban. These were the more fanatical element of the insurgents; the movement's ideological hardcore who were heavily influenced by al-Qaeda and were irreconcilable. Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari capitulation to pro-Taliban cleric Sufi Mohammad in the Swat Valley a little further north, allowing him to impose Sharia law had greatly emboldened the enemy and had provided sanctuary to the militants.
    The double game played by Pakistan’s military and ISI of supporting the Taliban forces while assuring the US they were cracking down on terrorists was becoming more transparent. Now, as the internal divisions in the country widened and extremism spread it was becoming increasingly harder from preventing the Taliban contagion from invading Afghanistan.
    NATO ISR and ISTAR patrols were launched regularly to try and catch these Pakistan based fighters as they crossed into Afghanistan and destroy them before they were able to return. What Hamilton was unaware of was that Rasputin was at that moment preparing a trap that both he and Fulham were walking into. It was near the end of the day before Call Sign Nightmare finally arrived at the observation point and setup. They would wait and watch now. If anything really interesting arrived they would bring in some fire and blow it up. Otherwise they would just report the movements and someone else in the rear could decide what to do. This was a great plan and would have worked out well if the other side hadn’t been aware of exactly what they were doing.

Bin Mohammed bin wali al-Haqq, the Arab trained Indonesian faithful called Rasputin by his enemies, was a close study of the parangay, farangay dzhagérra (foreign fighting) tactics. While lacking his enemies technology he still had many ears within their camp, from those working in military kitchens to tradesmen in government offices, even some acting as faithful guides for the NATO forces. He paid them all handsomely, far more in a week than most Afghans earned in many months. The poppy trade was his source of money. He protected that illicit trade. In return he received money and even more knowledge of the movements of his enemy.
    Today, he had just received word that two more badstérgey (Shameless) unbelievers were headed towards the border crossing to meet Allahs justice. Apparently one of them was the one they had placed a bounty on. This was excellent news; the enemy would try even harder to save this one. He could use this to lure even more parangay, farangay urdu troops to their deaths. Al-Haqq watched as his men climed into the waiting vehicles. Once the last man was mounted he climbed into the cab of the old truck leading the small convoy and motioned the driver forwards. They headed towards the border just a few miles away. Knowing Abu he thought, the two infidel soldiers would be at the right place at the right time, the man was a walking compass and clock.
    The truck bounced hard along the pot holed rocky surface, grinding its gears as it navigated the tight and winding road to the border post. The road was rough, all the roads were rough. The Indonesian Jihadi in the front passenger’s seat adjusted his Chitrali, this distinctive headdress was very popular among mujaheddin fighters and he wore it like a badge of honour. He was proud of what he was doing. But his purpose in Pakistan was not just to help his Muslim brothers in Afghanistan fight off the invaders. He knew his experience here would help build his image as a holy warrior and leader, something he could take home to lead his people to the true light of Islam.
    The warrior cleric was already legend. Among Islams holy warriors and to his men he was a man of great stature, a lion in battle without mercy for the wicked. Like the humble and holy martyrs Amrozi, Mukhlas and Sumadra, he was a man without fear. Barely five and half feet tall with a slim build and deep flecked brown eyes, Rasputin sported a long thick beard that made him appear wise and imposing as against Amrozi’s poor excuse for manhood that looked more like sparse, withered and dead grass dangling from his chin.
    Al Haqq cradled his weapon across his lap. He wore brown fatigues and Russian style webbing and cut an imposing figure. There was something important about today, he was sure God was telling him something, leading him to something. God willing it would be of great importance.
    A few minutes later the old Jiefeng CA30 utility truck he sat in lumbered up to the thinly guarded Pakistani border. The truck was a Chinese copy of the old Soviet ZIL-157 and towed an equally old Soviet ZU-23-2. Despite its age the ZU-23-2 was a very capable gun made up of two Afanasyev-Yakushev 23mm autocannons. They pulled up next to the Pakistan guard hut at the border post crossing.
    A figure emerged from the guard hut as the truck stopped, it wasn’t the guard. “khéezhem pettéezzem” al-Haqq ordered, telling the man to climb in the rear and stay hidden. The Pakistani soldier on duty paid no attention. Bin Mohammed bin wali al-Haqq looked through the small rear window into the back of the canvas-covered truck. Seated in the rear of this and the other trucks behind were his fighters, mostly foreign jihadis: Asians, Arabs and especially Pakistanis. These were idealists, mostly products of strict religious madrasas in northern and western Pakistan. It would take these men less than a minute once they arrived to set-up and start firing the gun. His sipah fighters were more than enough to deal with the two infidel soldiers he had been told of. More would follow to rescue them.
    In the back next to the gun he could see the man who had jumped in at the guard post. He was nervously talking to the others. The man was Abu, he was his jāsūs or spy, and if they successfully killed the two feringhee NATO soldiers he might still be useful as a spy. He saw Abu suddenly stand and bang the roof. They had barely travelled one hundred meters past the border post. The truck stopped and the fighters dismounted, their Kalashnikovs, rocket-propelled grenades and light machine-guns in hand. With practiced skill they prepared the cannon, the toptshi or gunner quickly climbing into his seat, the other five members of the gun crew taking their places. The Pakistani border guard looked on without emotion.
    Al-Haqq climbed from the cab and walked to the rear of the Jiefeng to talk to Abu. After a brief discussion he turned to the gun crew and gestured for them to proceed, “Wélem” He ordered his toptshi (gunner). The toptshi lined up his target and squeezed the trigger mechanism.
    With an effective range of over 2.5km and cyclic rate of 2000 rounds per minute, the ZU-23 despite its age was still a nasty piece of works. The gunner, using an optical-mechanical sight had carefully laid the sights on the position Abu had pointed out. As he pressed the trigger, 23mm cannon shells, each weighing 178 grams left the barrels at over 970m/s. There were two immediate results, the first being noise, the bone chilling silence of the high mountain air shattered with the violent crash of gunfire. The second result was the impact of the rounds with solid objects. In the line of fire two Special Forces troopers suddenly realised with a great deal of discomfort they were well and truly compromised. Heavy calibre shells smashed into the rock overhanging the two men. Deadly chips of stone sprayed everywhere.  Thud…thud…thud.
    Hamilton and Fulham quickly hunkered down behind a boulder outcrop, their minds instantly switching from thoughts of Gardez FOB and a cold can of VB into survival mode as the canon belched fire. They had watched the old truck cross the border and stop. They had had then watched with incredulity the Taliban dismount and train the towed gun in their direction. How was that possible?
    The ZU-23 made a fast steady beat as the rounds left the barrels. The truck and towed gun were situated on the opposite side of a steep gorge and slightly below them. The two SASR soldiers could see the Taliban spreading out, heading quickly towards them. The valley floor below was strewn with boulders. These had accumulated there over the last few millions of years deposited by the crawling bellies of glaciers long since gone. The Taliban traversed the dry rocky stream in just minutes and began the climb towards them.
    “I guess that answers the question of whether there are AQ using this route.” Hamilton said, he wondered whether these guys were any of Rasputin’s lot. The real question though was, had they found him or had he found them. Callsign Nightmare was now keenly aware the tables were definitely turned and the odds not in their favour. At nearly seven thousand feet, with dark rapidly approaching, poor to zero visibility and hostile fire, there was little chance of an immediate exfil by helicopter. It was also cold; there was no vegetation, just a hellish rocky brown landscape pock marked with snow. Somewhere behind the depressing cloud cover the sun had already disappeared behind towering peaks, the valley succumbing to darkness.
    “You know?”
    “I bet the other guys are enjoying a shower right now.”
    Captain Brian (Hammer) Hamilton 2nd Sabre Squadron, Australian Army Special Air Service Regiment (SASR) nodded. He looked at the other man, his sun burned face sported a few days of grimy growth covered with several layers of light coloured dirt that was cracked and creased where the wearer had attempted to smile or frown. Hamilton imagined they both looked like twins. Both were the same height, slightly shy of six feet, broad shouldered and well muscled. They both wore the same field dress topped off by unruly hair and half grown beards. While Hamilton’s hair was blond and Fulham’s black, the desert and mountain had given them both the Afghanistan makeover. This had a knack of making everyone look the same, even some of the women. It was Hamilton’s eyes that stood out. Especially when framed in the dirt and dust. But with their goggles on you could only tell them apart by the weapons they carried. The SASR officer was about to say something when a heavy burst of canon fire made a really good attempt at crawling into their hidy hole. He went back to checking his kit; he was officially getting the shits now; becoming truly annoyed.
The ancient gun below kept hammering without letup, the shots smashing into stone and dirt all around shrouding him and Fulham in dust. The gun might be old Hamilton thought, but it was still frigging lethal and was making him a bloody sight older with every shot. Smaller rounds joined in the effort, ricocheting off the rocks all around. “I hate being shot at.” He yelled out over the din.
    Sergeant Gary Fulham smiled. Hamilton always said that when they were being shot at. “Me too! Can we go home now?” he replied, looking with feigned innocence at his boss but with a wicked smile.
    “We were set up.” Hamilton said flatly, reloading a magazine into his weapon.
    “How do you know?”
    “Ask Abu.”
    Fulham looked around. There was no Abu to be seen. He had buggered off before the truck appeared, to recon the path ahead he had said. “Yes, I see what you mean.” He ducked as dust and dirt exploded between them. Gary risked a peek over the top of the boulder, ducking back as the rock was peppered with a volley of small calibre rounds. He wiped the crud out of his eyes and mouth, which had unfortunately been open at the time.
    “How many?” Hamilton asked
    “Fifteen, not counting anymore in the truck.”
Hamilton ventured a quick look over the boulder and was greeted the same way as Fulham. Another truck had arrived followed by a beaten up Technical mounted with another ZU-23. Men from the first truck were yelling excitedly to the gunner pointing in their direction, one of them looked suspiciously like Abu. He now brandished an RPD 7.62millimetre machine gun and 150-round drum magazine. Seconds later the new gun joined in with the first one, the volume of fire increasing dramatically, churning the rock and dirt to more dust.
    Fulham looked at Hamilton in surprise. “What did you do to annoy them?”
    “Obviously didn’t like the way I looked. But make that count forty five turbans.” He added. “Another truck and SUV rolled up.”
    “Oh great.” Fulham sounded exactly like Marvin, the manically depressed robot out of Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy.
    The SAS Captain couldn’t help but smile; Fulham was really good at that. “Air?” Hamilton asked, referring to air support.
    “On it!” Fulham replied setting up a tactical satellite (tacsat) communication to attempt to source some fire power overhead.
Two explosions ripped into the ground to their immediate front. The ubiquitous RPG Hamilton thought, you wouldn’t even know you were in Afghanistan if you didn’t get a few of those fired at you. He looked up at the darkening murky grey soup swirling above their heads. The weather was closing in, the snowfall heavier. He made some rapid calculations. The ACM guys would be on them in less than three, there was no time to wait for air support, they had to move.
    “Skip the air Gaz, we have to take out those guns and slow the AQ down and then get the hell out of here.”
    Hammer was right. Air support would take too long; they had but minutes to act. Fulham lifted his AICW (Advanced Individual Combat Weapon) to his shoulder. He had been hoping he might get the opportunity to use the weapon. He would have preferred less pressure though, like not being shot at. He patted the weapon; it was his idea to bring it along.
    “Australian ingenuity.” He said with his trademark smile.
The Advanced Individual Combat Weapon (AICW) was an evolved 5.56mm Styr AUG with an over barrel tube-fed 40mm rapid-fire grenade launcher. (This is military talk that just means the grenade barrel sits on top of the weapons barrel) The 40mm grenades had built-in microchips so that the AICW’s internal fire control system could accurately calculate their detonation time and point. Developed by Metalstorm, the 40mm barrel could fire three rounds before re-loading is required. Firing was all electronically initiated, with no mechanical mechanism other than reloading prepacked munition tubes. Effectively, the only parts that moved were the projectiles contained within the barrels. The rates of fire were programmable from single shots to ultra-rapid rates.
    This all sounds great, but in order to fire the weapon, Fulham still had to use the Mark I eyeball to physically sight the target. This required him to pop up from behind the rock like a clay pigeon target. This is where Hamilton’s barrel mounted M203 40mm grenade launcher came in handy. From behind their protective rock, now their new best friend, the SAS Captain made a rough estimation of distance to target. He leaned back and with experienced judgement angled his SCAR (SOF Combat Assault Rifle) and fired off a grenade; he then quickly reloaded and fired again. As the first grenade detonated, Fulham went into action. He carried four reloads of three rounds each.   
    The AICW sighting mechanism was a computerised target acquisition and fire control system. It automatically displayed a corrected aiming point and elevation for accurate lobbing of munitions and set the individual time delay fuse for each grenade. In the first volley Fulham had gone for airburst. He rapidly fired the HE stack on top of the approaching troops. He then reloaded the next cylinder stack and while the confused ACM troops were recovering fired towards the trucks. It was 400 meters; he missed with the first round but found his mark with the other two. The troop carrier with the gun blew first. There was an almost instant secondary explosion, which meant it must have had munitions on board. Bodies and what looked like bits and pieces of the same blew out of the back onto the road. While that was happening, Fulham’s third round hit the SUV, which heaved into the air under the impact, throwing the ragged broken body of the gunner and his pals into the rocks of the dry stream bed below. The third truck started to back up, but before Fulham could reload and shoot at it, the trucks windscreen disintegrated under a hail of bullets. He glanced at
    Hamilton who obviously hadn’t been sitting on his ass. While Fulham had been lobbing rounds, Hamilton had stood up straight, hoping like hell the ACM were still keeping their heads down. He had his target in mind, a frozen image from when he had looked over the rock. Now he stood there exposed, his eye to the sights, it seemed to take eternity, but between the clouds of rolling smoke that billowed from the burning vehicles, he spotted the last truck reversing. Through the riflescope he could see the driver yelling excitedly. He took him in one shot and then pumped the truck cab full of lead and the canvass covered rear. The SCARS 7.62mm rounds cut through the thin metal, flesh and bone like butter. He sat back down, blowing out air. He had been holding his breath the whole time.
    With the driver shot to pieces and his dead foot holding down the accelerator, the rear truck backed straight over the side of the road plunging into the gorge and exploding in a very satisfactory fireball.
    All this activity attracted the attention of the ACM boys climbing the hill; they turned around in unison to see their rides home burning furiously, now they would have to walk. The leader of the group, bin Mohammed bin wali al-Haqq, looked back up the hill towards the enemy’s position. He was told there were only two, but it seemed like a small army. “Werdzem, khéezhem, wázhnem badstérgey” He yelled over the din, signalling his men to keep moving, loosing a volley of shots towards the Australian’s position at the same time.
    Unlike their turban-powered friends who carried just their weapons and belief, the two Australians packed enough equipment, food and munitions to sustain them for another week in the field. They were trained to go without food or to make do with very little for long periods of time. After a few days a biscuit with a little imagination and a sip of water felt like a gourmet meal with a classic Hunter Valley Red. Hammer and Fulham had supplemented their Ozzie rat packs with some American Meals Ready to Eat (MRE’s) or as some used to say, meals rejected in Ethiopia. That would all have to be dumped.
    They knew a race to escape up the mountain while carrying that extra weight would risk them being run down by the tough but light and nimble mountain fighters below. While that would help, it was the communication equipment, weapons and ammunition that really loaded them down. None of which they could really leave either. Without hesitation Hamilton pulled his field laptop they had used as a data link and smashed it under the butt of his rifle. He then extracted the ram and hard drive from the remains pouring a small vial of magnetic acid on them. There were other ways to communicate. In fact they were really a walking field experiment in networked warfare. Aside from the now defunct laptop they both had a computerised data link via AICW scopes on their weapons. Brian also carried Viper, a proven small portable system with laser range finder, digital map display and GPS receiver-blue force tracker, not to mention the radios and IR zoom laser illuminator/designator.
    This sounds like a lot of kit, but it was the beginning of the new age and the only way to find out if something actually worked, was to try it out. Hamilton thought it was all pretty good stuff, but at the moment the sum weight of the gear was too heavy, hence the laptop got the chop.
    The SAS Captains own weapon was the MK16 Mod SCAR. It featured the AICW scope, but with less integration to the weapon itself. The scope featured a neat little head up display, GPS, digital compass, laser and IR pointer and of course night vision capability. Hamilton had wanted the scope for forward observation and its ability to broadcast video and data drawn from its laser and IR sensors directly into the Global Information Grid (GIG). Or was that the Standardized Tactical Entry Point (STEP) he wondered, or maybe the DISA-operated Defense Information System Network (DISN) that punched into the Global Command and Control System (GCCS). Nope, maybe it went through the Joint Network Node (JNN), it all kept changing and the biggest output seemed to be new acronyms, but he had to admit, the end capability was worth all that confusion and more. What seemed ancient compared to all this, but becoming more important with each minute was another important data link via his ALST-5 SATCOM radio. This patched into the Enhanced Mobile Satellite Service (EMSS) and permitted instantaneous communications regardless of where he was or what the weather conditions was doing. Of course, that was before Murphy and Murphy ’s Law was quite clear - radios will fail as soon as you need fire support desperately. And yes, the SATCOM radio was damaged and they had no time to stop and try to fix it. To make matters worse Fulham said that nearly all the TAC frequencies were now jammed. There was now no way to tell Squadron HQ what was going on.
    It was getting dark. The snow was falling heavily and the wind had increased. Hamilton hated the cold as much as he hated being shot at. Why did gun fights always happen in extreme conditions? Why couldn’t someone start a war in a nice place with pleasant ambient temperatures and low humidity? Flat would be good too, no hills and soft ground to dig holes to hide in. The thoughts fled through his mind as he considered the next move, quickly explaining them to Fulham. The SAS trooper nodded his agreement.
    The first part of the ‘get out and dodge’ plan required the two men to pin the ACM fighters down to the ground with a concentrated volley of grenades and then to move and fire. If they killed some that was bonus. Wasting no time they got into position and started firing at the same time. Fulham’s airbursts had them on the deck in seconds; a few screams indicated some were at least hit. Hamilton’s rounds followed and landed neatly among the ACM group throwing deadly shrapnel in all directions. The two men then picked up and ran, moving fast, as fast as every sinew in their bodies would carry them.
    They continued to fire alternately on the move, heading up the mountain. After a few minutes they stopped for the briefest of moments. Hamilton surveyed the slope through his AICW rifle site. The men below him knew the mountains like the back of their hand. From the map he knew that beyond the crest they now climbed; lay another gorge that led onto a small plateau, an ideal LZ. They moved again, the adrenalin powering through their systems super charging what were already peak operating systems. But they were not supermen, just flesh and blood. It was rough going and both men were already breathing hard. The air was thin and their chests heaved as their lungs burned in demand of oxygen. After another hour they stopped and listened. It was now pitch black, the heavy clouds obscuring any moonlight. They attached night vision goggles and waited.

While the Nightmare team interrogated the night, at a coalition forward operating base (FOB) the command and control centre was becoming fixated on an exfil that had rapidly transitioned into a major fire fight, the centre point of the conflict being the Nightmare team. Via the GPS tracker they were able to isolate Nightmares position but because of what appeared to be equipment damage, bad weather and jamming they were unable to talk to them. The GPS worked because its signal frequency of about 1575 MHz was chosen expressly because it was a ‘window’ in the weather as far as signal propagation went. That wasn’t the case for the TAC frequencies that Nightmare used. The frustrating part was that they knew within two feet of where the two guys were, but were unable to do anything about it.
    The suspected jamming came from the ACM who had deployed a low energy radio frequency jammer (LERF). This managed to jam all the radio spectrum with the exception of a few narrow pre-determined "windows" of RF spectrum utilized by the ACM. In a bazaar twist of fate this jamming also masked something else that was contributing to the noisy electromagnetic radiation in the area that neither side were aware of.
    Near the mountains summit, unseen by those below, an intense electrical storm had developed. At its epicentre a blinding explosion of light lit up Sikiram’s peak. From the centre of the event a heavy metal rod fell to the hard granite surface, bouncing off the unyielding rock and plummeting thousands of feet below, burying itself in the snow. A pulse of EMP propagated from the site blinding radio communications for miles.
    The effect was immediate. Hamilton stopped to try the radio again but he got nothing but static. There was also another problem, out of the corner of his eye he saw Gary sway. He looked at his partner through his goggles noticing a bright patch on Fulham’s shoulder. The bright patch was warm blood glowing in the IR display, which meant not only was Fulham wounded was still bleeding.
    Damn it. Hamilton took a glove off and felt around the entry area. Fulham didn’t flinch. The SAS Captain was a little pissed that Fulham hadn’t said anything. At this height and temperature, any bleeding was bad. But, he thought, in their escape there was nothing that could have been done anyway. Obviously Fulham had thought of that and said nothing. Now he was clearly groggy. During the extreme exertion his partner had lost a lot of blood. He was amazed the man had made it this far; he wondered whether he would have had that fortitude. His thoughts were suddenly broken by the sounds of voices, he listened intently.
    From somewhere in the dark below, the sound of excited guttural Pushtu carried up the steep valley walls. He quickly plugged and bound the other troopers wound. He pulled off Fulham’s pack and his own, dropping both packs on the ground splitting and spreading some of the food packages, he smashed the PRC set and then took the scope off the MK16 and shouldered the AICW, clipping the remaining ammunition packs on his combat suit. He kept the Rhino GPS tracker and radio.
    He then removed a single hand grenade, pulled the pin and carefully placed one pack partly on the other with the grenade in between, making sure to make the two packs look haphazard and dropped in panic. There was no time for anything flash.
    He couldn’t drag Fulham. It was very likely despite the falling snow that the heavy drag marks left by the boots of the unconscious SAS trooper would still be found, which gave him an idea. Under his spare arm he lifted the now almost unconscious trooper and as quickly as he could, dragged the one hundred kilo load uphill. After two hundred metres he shouldered the SAS Sergeant and doubled back. He figured the Taliban would assume they would go for the LZ site and take the bait.
    Every muscle in his body screamed. The voices from below came closer; he tracked sideways down the hill flanking them. Somehow he slipped past them. A few minutes later he heard the explosion. They had found the packs. It would not be long before they figured out what he had done and would turn to pursue him. The turban heads were tough men. They wouldn’t quit. He kept going. Every fifteen minutes he would stop. Each time he bent to pick up the trooper it was becoming harder to lift him. His legs trembled from the effort. He kept going. The walking stints became ten minutes and then five. He heaved his murderous load throughout the night. His back and thighs quivered, strained by the debilitating burden, the pain dissolving into sheer numbness through lack of circulation.
    Behind Hamilton, the explosion and blinding flash of light from the Australians hasty booby trap had caught the Indonesian Jihadi and his men by surprise. “khataaist!” bin Mohammed bin wali al-Haqq shouted in anger, they had been deceived. He had warned his men of the treachery of the infidels. Allah’s patience was thin with those that did not listen. The two men who had overturned the packs lay injured in the snow. He had no time for fools. He casually placed the barrel of his weapon against each of their heads and shot them, a blessed and quick end.
I    n the dark he then followed the tracks in the snow up the mountain, following the likely path to the LZ before realising he had once again been tricked again. He stopped, his quarry was khatarnaak garranday, meaning – dangerous, fast and strong. This man he grudgingly admitted was resourceful and courageous. Never the less, it was just a matter of time. He turned his lightly equipped warriors about and quickly began to reel in the distance between themselves and their target.

Early next morning Hamilton was calculating his next move. Daylight had stripped back the security blanket that the dark of night had provided them. The terrain was changing and the ground had a solid layer of snow. Juniper trees flanked the hill sides and valley floor. He knew the ACM guys had to be close behind him and would be vulnerable to air attack. But to bring in air support you needed to see the target and either mark it, or accurately communicate the target position to the attacking aircraft. You also needed time to make it all work. At that very moment Hamilton knew that if he stopped moving he was dead. Besides, he couldn’t even see the enemy, but he knew they were not far behind. The only escape option was by air and that just wasn’t going to be possible until he could get himself in a position to pull in air support fire.
    Hamilton was right, the ACM were on his heels. As light had broken over the peaks, al-Haqq had caught up to the two SAS troopers. He could see the bent over figure of Hamilton struggling with the weight of his companion. Despite his dislike of these infidels, he was impressed. The man had performed an almost super human effort. Indeed he had almost escaped. It would be an honour to kill this one. He had killed many before, men, women and children, mostly in Iraq before coming to Afghanistan to serve with his brothers. It was Gods will; otherwise he would not be here.
    Al-Haqq motioned for his men to stop. He estimated the range to the NATO soldier to be a little over 1000 meters. He passed his AK-47 to one of his men and was handed his favourite weapon for such moments. This was a Snayperskaya Vintovka Dragunova SVD, a Russian snipers rifle, the world's first purpose-built military precision marksman's rifle. Manufactured in 1963 it was the snipers version of the ubiquitous AK-47. It took a rimmed 7.62mm round, a steel jacketed projectile with an air pocket, steel core, and a lead knocker in the base for maximum terminal effect with a muzzle velocity of about 830 meters per second.
    The cleric loaded a round into the chamber and lifted the weapon to his shoulder. He looked through the scope and using the built in reticule was able to calculate the distance based on the average height of a human (The Soviets reckoned this was 1.7m tall). As he applied pressure to the trigger, his target stopped, gently dropping his load and turning to face him.
    Hamilton could sense the danger but his body was all but finished. It took all his energy to just stand. He turned to look at his back trail and spotted his pursuers in the distance. They had not given up. One man was holding a rifle, a snipers rifle he thought, he wondered if the weapon or its owner was any good.
    Al-Haqq had the soldiers head firmly in his sights. The soldier was looking directly at him, his face grimy and despite the cold, sweaty. It was a face without emotion. Even at this distance the eyes looked defiant, a startling blue in colour, unafraid. He completed the pull feeling the recoil but keeping his scope on target. Blood spurted from the side of the targets head, but the soldier barely moved. Instead he stared back at him before recovering his load and moving again. Balls Haqq thought, no God, but he had big balls. Al-Haqq knew he would need to get three hundred meters closer to ensure a kill; this infidel was not going to go easily.
    Hamilton felt the sting of the bullet. He felt the warm blood splash down the side of his face and onto his chest and shoulder. But he was still standing, he had to keep moving, the shock of the bullet stinging him into action.
    For another hour the uneven contest continued, Hamilton draining the very last of his reserves. Behind him, rounding the top of a spur, the Jihadi leader saw at last that the infidel was within range, there would be no escape this time. The infidel was struggling up the opposite ridge, 600m according to the scope, al-Haqq prepared for his next shot. The staggering figure of the soldier and his load swam back into his sites. He squeezed the trigger. There was the satisfactory recoil and the target in his sights dropped as if hit by a lead weight. Actually, al-Haqq thought, that’s exactly what happened. He smiled.
    Behind him his men stood up, eager to rush to the kill. But al-Haqq had other ideas. He held his hand up stopping them in their tracks. “Pettéezzem!” Get hidden he said. They would wait he thought. They would wait for the rescue that would surely arrive. The invading oppressors were so predictable. They would come looking for their men. “Raaghwáarrem radio.” He called the boy in his group that would be a warrior. No more than thirteen, the young Jihadi’s job was to carry al-Haqq’s radio set. The radio still didn’t work, but unlike the enemy they were used to operating with little technical support. Earlier in the evening he had dispatched a runner to bring in support, they would not be far away. The insurgent leader, a friend and devoted follower of bin-Laden and Mullah Mohammad Omar smiled again, the enemy would still come looking. Indeed this was a good day and it was just the beginning, it was his turn to teerbáasem, or mislead the enemy; it was time for a SAMbush.

Using the boy as a runner, al-Haqq repositioned his forces. Sixty minutes later al-Haqq could see his target was still down. As expected and had waited for, he could hear the faint moan of jet engines filter through the valley. “Preewézem” He ordered his men to lie down.
    Callsign Red Rider was what you call a slow mover FAC (Forward Air Controller). He had been watching the movements of Hamilton and the ACM for several hours via the infra red sensors that equipped his aircraft. But the weather, the tight valleys and continually moving combatants on the ground had made it impossible to mount a strike on the pursuing ACM. Everyone from himself to command was getting frustrated. He knew that if Nightmare had been able to, they would have already called in combat air support. But they were on the run, had been suffering from jamming, and obviously had not had the opportunity. The data link he was expecting with Nightmare was down, which meant it was probably tits up or destroyed. He guessed correctly that Nightmare had ditched all the heavy stuff and was probably just carrying the UHF radio. He brought him up again on the preset tactical frequency for the mission but there was no response. Maybe he was dead, but the bodies on the screen were still warm, assuming that was them.
    He had lots of what the air force called playtime, substantial loiter. He directed in the first fast mover.

An A10 Warthog firing its main gun

Al-Haqq watched The ‘arif’ or enemy jet roll into the valley slashing past at great speed, canon fire pummelled the mountain side. He watched as some of his jihad warriors were torn to pieces by the weight of 4200 rounds per minute of depleted uranium. But this was a price he was prepared to pay in order to hurt his enemy even more. These dzhangyaalay, his brave fighting men, were just a small part of large group, these men were true martyrs and had met a glorious martyr’s death in the cause of Islam. He hoped that he too would join Allah or khwdaay in such a way. These men would be greeted at the gates of heaven and given virgins. Blessed be their sacrifice. But now this price had been paid, it was time for the infidels to die.
    While these thoughts raced through the mind of the Indonesian, the attacking warthog pilot was still marching the cone of his gattling gun across the target. The bodies of the insurgents literally burst, disintegrating from hundreds of rounds, each heavy enough to punch through armour plating. It was a massacre, and all too easy he was thinking as he started his pull up.
    He was right, from the mountainsides that surrounded him, three missiles raced out to claim him. Two missed, the other struck the starboard engine, flipped the jet on its back plunging it into the valley wall. It all happened within a heartbeat.
    Hamilton still lay unconscious where he had fallen, Fulham slumped over his back, the two covered by fresh snow. Hamilton was finished, he had walked until his body had totally failed, brain and muscle tissue completely starved of oxygen and energy. Hypothermia and death was closing in.
    The massive concussion of the warthog and its unspent munitions exploding hit him with a thump. He crawled unwillingly out of unconsciousness and struggled out from under Fulham’s body, trying desperately to think straight. His instinct was to survive; the first thing he saw was the burning wreckage of the Warthog, which had crashed just a few hundred meters away. There was obviously enemy SAM around and probably a whole lot else he thought. This was an ambush and they had used him as bait, the guilt was another yoke on already exhausted shoulders. What he didn’t know was that his escape dash had drawn al Haqq’s men miles away from their well prepared hill side fortifications, forcing them to fight from hastily dug in positions, but they were close and had waited for the coalition cavalry in order to take more infidel lives. He knew with that last shot he should be dead, probably the same guy shooting he thought. This guy was also probably the insurgent leader of the bunch chasing him and had deliberately left him out here as bait, the Hog pilot was the first catch of the day. Was it Rasputin?
    He checked Gary’s pulse; it was weak but still regular. Using the scope he had pulled from his own weapon, Hamilton looked across the valley. The Viper Multi Purpose Rifle Scope could paint targets. Now that friendlies were near, the unit could also communicate directly to aircraft and via them into the command and control network. He knew as he scanned the terrain, that some one in Washington DC (If they were at all interested or bothered, which he doubted), could now see through his scope as well. With the small digital handset he carried in his top pocket, he dialled in the local TAC frequency and hoped like hell the jamming was gone and someone was listening. But before he could check in, the growl of jet engines invaded the valley again, another Warthog coming in.
    His radio chirped into life. “Red Rider Pig Hunt, Roger, see the target now.”
    That must be the Hog pilot talking to his controller he thought, there was no time to waste so he didn’t bother with the usual introductions; the Hog was flying into a death trap. “Pig Hunt, Pig Hunt, this is Hammer, abort, abort, abort!”
    The incoming hog was attentive, he immediately snapped into a knife-edge turn pulling hard gees and jinking. Hamilton held his breath as the hog pulled up into an Immelman reversing course. A missile snaked out from the other side of the valley, chasing the jet. The aircrafts missile defence system kicked in punching chaff and flares. Fired at extreme range the missile wandered then locked onto a flare and exploded.
    While all that was happening Hamilton heard an urgent, “Buster, buster” broadcasted over the tactical frequency.
    Other NATO fighters on the allied network had heard the same call. High above, the pilot of the specialised orbiting FAC and attack aircraft, call sign Red Rider pondered the rapidly developing situation. Red Rider enjoyed the latest and greatest in networked communications; his aircrafts electronic data link automatically fed the battlefield communications into the GIG. That combined with other data links meant the growing firefight was being witnessed in real time by Command and Control based at Bagram Air Base.
    Several hundred kilometres away from the action in the NATO Command and Control Centre the duty staff had watched the shoot down of the Hog. They could see via an overhead display a live map with the positions of friendlies and enemy and could listen to all the battlefield chitchat that followed. Like Hamilton the duty officers in the centre were quick to recognise the SAMbush. The ‘buster buster’ Hamilton heard was meant for two black hawks inbound to his position to extract him.
    On receipt of the buster call the two Black Hawks just ten miles out from Hamilton pulled up hard. Standing their birds almost vertically on their tails the pilots rotated their aircraft sharply to the right pulling back up at the same time into a reverse heading. They knew something had gone wrong and their LZ was now too hot.
The hog pilot Hamilton had just warned off looked at the fireball to his eight o’clock and smiled, the small pieces of decoy and missile falling away. “Hammer this is Pig Hunt, nice call.”
    Hamilton sagged, the small adrenalin shot dissipated. “Anytime Pig Hunt.” He barely got the words out; he was finding it difficult to breath.
    The hog pilot almost winced. The voice was forced, pain and exhaustion etched in every word. Pig Hunt knew that who ever it was down there had clearly mustered a big effort to save his ass from certain extinction and he was extremely grateful.
He wasn’t the only one thinking that. Everyone from Red Rider to the senior command on the listening end of the combat network was glued to the drama as it unfolded.
    Despite that the man on the ground and the centre of attention was oblivious to the spreading interest of his predicament. Hamilton looked through his scope at the enemy missile sites on the opposite spur and other side of the valley. The choppers were called off, there was no cavalry for the moment and he was all out of plans. The turbans were moving, they were not stupid and they would shoot and move. He watched them hustle to the next position. He looked further up the hill and caught his breath; there were turban heads everywhere.

       “What have we got?” The question was asked by a fast walking US Marine Corps General who was still shaking the cobwebs of sleep from his head.
    “Hot extraction; South West flank of Sikiram, 6000 feet….Lots of bad guys around, we have lost one Hog and have called off two birds inbound for an exfil.” The Op Centres Duty Officer answered, he had to walk quickly to keep up to the big two star officer as he marched down the entrance hallway.
    General George Perelli, the Commander of the Combined Special Forces Operations in Afghanistan nodded in confirmation before powering through big double doors straight into the Ops room. Two guards jumped to keep out of the Generals way, he was a big boy and you didn’t want to get knocked down by him. The General immediately took in the topographic and asset allocations displayed on the overhead screens, all the while striding towards his post. “Who is it?” He asked.
    “Hammer Sir.”
    The General stopped in his tracks. “Hammer Hamilton?”
    “Yes Sir.”
    The operations centre was unusually quiet. The General looked around the room. Hammer was in trouble he thought. The General would have moved hell and earth for any of his men in trouble. But Hammer Hamilton wasn’t just any ordinary bloke, not even in the world of Special Forces. He knew him, and he knew why.
    “Keep going,” he said to the DO.
    “There are two to exfil, call sign Nightmare, but we have several hundred bad guys on the other side of the valley and it looks like a whole lot of Man Pads.”
    “Did you say several hundred?”
    “Yes sir.”
    “Excellent.” The general said.

Back near the fight, Red Rider circled the combat zone just outside of the ACM’s missile envelope. He still had loads of fuel and if need be, stuff that went bang when it hit the ground. Red Rider was thinking; there was no way to bring in ground forces fast enough and no way to bring in choppers safely. A simple exfil was now something much larger. The enemy were trying to sucker them to bring helicopters and aircraft into the tight valley and their nest of guns and rockets. The guy on the ground was clearly bait, but the bait seemed pretty damned smart and had already saved one ass today. Hammer, he was pretty sure that was Nightmares lead call sign, still had the ability to paint targets and from the data feed was using a networked sighting device.
    Red Rider, sat back, sipped his coffee and drew deeply on his cigarette. Red Rider was the pilot of an MQ-9 Reaper UAV, an attack capable unmanned aircraft operated by the 17th Reconnaissance Squadron. He was seated behind the pilots console in what looked like a shipping container, a thirty foot trailer called a Ground Control Station (GCS) temporarily located in the middle of nowhere flying an aircraft nearly 100km away. He glanced sideways at the payload operator. The PO as they called him, sat at a console on the opposite side of the room that mirrored his own and looked after the UAV’s numerous electronic systems and weapons.
    Red Rider was a little unusual. He was also an imaging specialist, intelligence analyst and for the moment the designated air controller. He cued two F15’s orbiting at 40,000 feet and over 50km away to stay on station and ready for release. He then tried to talk to Hammer. There was no answer. David Stringer, Red Rider One, tried again.

MQ-9 Reaper

Brian couldn’t feel his fingers or feet. They were numb. Extreme pain shot up his arms and legs. While all that seemed bad, he knew up until now they been lucky. But that luck ended when one of the bad guys looked away from the air show and saw him move. Bullets began to thrash the earth around him. Gripping Fulham’s straps he slowly heaved him over the fresh snow towards the protection of some trees and large rocks. The same sort of rocks the turban forces had used to their favour for years. More and more rounds splashed into the snow. They were at extreme or beyond range; at least he thought that until a 50-calibre gun joined in from somewhere. That did make an impression and improved his motivation skills. Once behind some rocks he dropped Gazza and fell with his back against his protector, the mountain, one minute trying to kill him, the next protecting him. He could hear the radio squawking but his fingers were having real problems working anything. Someone was trying to reach him.
    Stringer tried again, he could see Hammer had just moved but couldn’t raise him on the radio. Obviously the guy had some problems; there was only one course of action left. Stringer took the risk and sent his expensive aircraft into the hornet’s nest. Stringer had flown her for nearly six months and had become somewhat affectionate to her. The aircraft had rarely ever complained, and had performed every mission flawlessly. But she was not worth as much as the men on the ground. He knew exactly where Hammer was and from the MPRS where the last known positions of enemy was. He flew Red Rider One down the valley corridor, stood the aircraft on its wing and emptied the hell fire missiles into the area cued on the target designator.
    This provocation was all too for the turbaned warriors below who opened up with everything they had. Red Rider One was hit multiple times and crashed into the valley walls.
    From his position on the other side of the valley, Hamilton with clumsy fingers quickly designated the enemies firing positions as they revealed themselves. Orbiting F15’s picked up the link to Hammer after Red Rider went off the air and fed them into the system. From over 40km out they punched off almost their entire war load.
    After losing his own aircraft Stringer still had the uplink from the F15’s and was able to watch whatever Hamilton was looking at through his sights. What he saw was a horror movie. As the trapped SAS trooper moved around with his data linked sights, Stringer could see visuals of the other man down and blood on the snow. The man carrying the sight frequently fell over, the sight burying itself in snow time and again before being roughly brushed off. The movements were jerky. But every time Hammer fell over, he got up. Stringer was quietly cheering the guy. Little did he know so were many others that day. Finally Hammer pointed the sights back across the valley. This was a guy that didn’t quit Stringer thought. Stringer had tracked Hamilton’s SATCOM signal all night, watching in frustration as the bad guys pursued him. Continual satellite infrared imagery had homed on Hamilton’s SATCOM signal to paint moment by moment the picture of a relentless chase that neither he or anyone else at that time could do anything about.
    From where he stood Hammer was dead meat. There had to be something else he could do. He lit another cigarette, he could think better when he smoked. Of the small contingent of four manning the trailer, they all smoked, small blessings in a place that truly sucked in every respect. Watching a mixture of satellite imagery and global hawk feeds, the impacts of the F15 war loads were very impressive. Stringer drew deeply on his Peter Stuyvesent, unless death was close he would smoke nothing else.
    He looked into the GRID, the VIPER network. He logged out and then logged back in using his commander’s username and password to regain access, his boss would truly be pissed about this, most likely cost him (Stringer) his job, if not a prison sentence. But he wasn’t going to let that one tough fighting son of bitch Hammer or his mate die on the mountain.
    Under the CO’s login he could interrogate and commit a greater range of assets. He quickly found what he was looking for, an Osprey and Talon. He gave them the vectors and then looked for some more fast movers. The F15’s were gone but he picked up some Hornets over the Arabian Sea and made the call.

Buck Shot One - the Arabian Sea
60 miles south of Gwadar, Pakistan Coastline

USS RONALD REAGAN. Buckshot was still feeling a little hung over from the previous days excitement, probably the most he would experience for some time, if ever again. Little did he know how wrong he was. He was high over the Gulf just South of Pakistan when he got the call.
    “One Two Zero LAC”
    “Four Zero Two”
    “One two zero confirm you have iron over?
    “Four Zero Two Rog.”
    The LAC’s aircraft commander verified Four Zero Two’s bomb sheet. In real time he was able to view all the aircraft under his control including personnel, fuel and weapon states. “One two zero, LAC new vector” The LAC gave the Australian the new co-ordinates.
    Long flight Buckshot thought, it must be important. He tankered again and steered into the first waypoint of the new heading. The Gulf of Oman slipped from underneath the aircraft replaced by the rapidly changing landscapes of Pakistan. Fortunately Pakistan, despite being wanting in other areas, was still providing much needed overflight permission for U.S. and coalition forces. Within forty minutes after skirting the Iranian border he had crossed Pakistan and was over Afghanistan. Someone called Red Rider picked him up on the tactical.
    “Four Zero Two this is Red Rider, copy over.”
    “Four Zero Two copy.”
    “Red Rider, Four Zero Two steer one one three angels fifteen.”
    “Steering one one three.” He replied, rolling the Hornet into the new heading and pushing the nose down. The mountains were now at the same height as he was. The target information was displayed on his MFD. Red Rider was talking him into the target when all of a sudden he got an abort call from someone else on the same tac frequency.
    “Abort, abort” The abort call seemed to come from the guys on the ground. Buckshot had been listening to the radio chatter all the way in. Call sign Nightmare, snake eaters like his brother by the sounds of it, were down on the ground and in deep shit.
    “Say again?” Buckshot asked.
    “This is Nightmare to approaching aircraft Four Zero Two, I say again abort, abort, it’s a no go.” There was some static and a lot of noise in the background that sounded a lot like gunfire.
    Buckshot decided to ignore the abort, all it meant was that the guy on the ground telling him to bug out needed more help than ever. Buckshot already had all the dope he needed off Red Rider and flicked the Hornet on its back, shoving the throttles forward and pulling the stick back into his crutch, the heavy gees almost blacking him out. He was in. The valley quickly surrounded him, the walls closing in. Where, where, where? Missiles raced out from the mountainsides chasing him, he punched the burners, pulled up hard over the top and rolled back out over the mountains before reversing and heading back into the valley. Now he knew where some of the bad bastards were at least.
Captain Brian Hamilton watched the approaching jet with an almost detached attitude. Crazy bastard he thought. The last one died doing that. He saw it pull up hard in its first ingress as missiles began to chase it, the pilot punching chaff and pulling out of the attack run, told you so.
    But less than a minute later the jet came back, this time much lower and looking all business.
    FLT LT Lance (Buckshot) Hamilton had the throttles to the wall. The position of the two grunts on the ground, call sign Nightmare were locked via their GPS signature into his system. Somehow, somewhere along the track the individual call sign of Hammer had seemed to take over. It seemed like every one knew Hammer. Targeting information from Hammer and an infrared visual were fed to Buckshots jet via a highflying Global Hawk.
    On the ground the situation was deteriorating as more and more rounds thumped into the snow around the two Special Forces troopers. The odds were growing narrower by the minute. Not that they had ever been good.
    On the ridge opposite Hammer, Al Haqq and his men had been jubilant about the Warthog kill, the trap had been successfully sprung. Amongst all this excitement he was alerted to the fact his other quarry had come back to life, the trooper. He cursed. He lifted the sniper rifle again. Unbelievably the infidel bastard was moving again. He cursed again, the anger getting the better of him. He pumped off several rounds without effect. This man refused to die; Al Haqq felt he knew this man well now. He would die before giving up on his friend and that was his weakness. He would kill this invading infidel, but he admired that loyalty. Truly, the infidel if converted would make a great Muslim. Such a waste, he would have liked to have met this man in other times, such a powerful spirit only ever seen and tested under such extreme conditions as now.
    Al Haqq pondered for a moment. While his men were prepared to die for Allah, this man on the other ridge was different. He defied death, did not want to die, but was not afraid to stand in its path. Surely that was braver than one who gave up life so easily? Al Haqq would remember this death more than any other.

Rolling in from the west, Buckshot's Bug was unloading kerosene as fast as he could burn it. FLT LT Lance Hamilton ground his teeth as he centred his bird along the attack heading. Geez Louise here we go again he thought as he thundered back into the lower pass of the valley. He had the two friendlies showing up on the main Multi Functional Display (MFD), as well as the attacking forces. He watched as they quickly closed together. Here we go, tracer fire erupted from both sides of the valley, the missile threat warning system was bitching like hell telling him there were several ‘lock ons’. He kept going. Using the helmet missile cue, he designated his targets and munitions, and pulled back up into a climb. He felt the jolt as the weapons released, the onboard computer calculating release point and trajectories. As the bombs punched off the pylons, a release lanyard pulled open a canister in the tail assembly of the bombs, releasing a ballute (combination balloon and parachute); this quickly slowed the bombs allowing Buckshot's aircraft to escape the blast pattern as they headed towards their target.
    As the bombs headed earthwards, Buckshot's missile threat warning system was still bitching like hell, the sudden explosion in the rear and the failure of the port engine suggested to Hamilton that something was seriously wrong. The left engine warning light flashed followed by the voice alert. Buckshot immediately pressed the warning light, which closed the engine. He then pressed the ready discharge light activating the one shot fire extinguishing system in the left engine bay. The right engine looked okay, he was still flying and the jet was still responsive.
    As Buckshot struggled with the crippled jet, his load of MK83 500 pound bombs weapons smashed into their target. The unguided bombs were designed for maximum blast and explosive effect. They flew faithfully; landing in a wide spread that completely enveloped the Afghan fighters that had almost reached Hammer.
    Al Haqq had seen the Hornet fly low up the valley and over their heads. Then with great satisfaction he saw the aircraft hit with a missile, his trap was working again. He turned around just in time to see the drag chutes deploy behind the inbound 500-pound bombs. Then it all went black.
    Buckshot set an emergency squawk of 7700 and started going through his emergency procedures. The first thing to catch his attention was the fuel state. He looked over his shoulder and could see a long plume of vapour streaming from the starboard wing. ‘Shit!’ he was bleeding fuel. He checked the readouts; they were going down faster than his bank account. Craparoozie, he was still over the badlands. He didn’t trust the Pakistani military to look after him. They were all too sympathetic to the buggers he was just shooting at and considered Bin Laden a poster child.
    Hamilton nursed the sick bird to 25,000 feet when the remaining engine died of fuel starvation. With no fuel to power the APU for electrics, this meant all the controls; ECS and instruments were running off the battery, which had twenty minutes power at tops, assuming nothing was wrong with it. He trimmed the aircraft for the best glide he could manage. It was time to think quickly while he had the height. He called into ATC, the instructions were to eject over the coast. Just when he thought things couldn’t get worse the master-caution light illuminated once again and all of the aircraft’s displays, including the heads-up display (HUD), which is the primary attitude indicator, flashed briefly. He hoped it was just a simple one off glitch, ‘stray trons.’ This was a term for random, unexplained electrical hiccups.
    A few seconds later the ailing jet told him it was no hiccup, every cockpit display suddenly disappeared and Buckshot was left referencing the backup steam gauges. His bird had suffered a complete electrical failure, both flight control computers were dead and the control stick suddenly felt like it was welded to the floor. The jet instantly began a left turning skid, the nose pitched high and the airframe buffeted on the beginning of a stall. He quickly switched to the Backup Mechanical System. This provided automatic connection of a direct mechanical link from the stick to the differential stabilator servo actuators giving Buckshot limited pitch and roll control. He also decided to pull the emergency-oxygen green ring, just in case. With the ECS dead, the inside of the cockpit was also getting noticeably colder. Buckshot ‘punched the clock’ as they say, he didn’t want to be OBE, meaning overcome by events and eaten by snakes in the cockpit, a victim of task saturation. Aviate, navigate, communicate he was thinking. He slowed himself down and reset the emergency squawk, via the backup IFF control and pulled out the NATOPS pocket checklist (PCL) to try and accurately diagnose the problem. This was made more difficult because he had no idea what sort of battle damage had been inflicted on his jet.

Buckshot's situation was being closely followed on the Reagan.
    “Captain, we’ve have lost comms with Buckshot, but still have him on radar,” There was a pause, the operator was rechecking the display, “He’s still on the same glide slope and direction.”
    The Captain of the USS Ronald Reagan grimaced, had Buckshot punched out? Or was he flying a dead duck with no engines and no electrics. If that were the case he had no choice. He crossed his arms and looked over the flight deck. He had heard the whole exchange between the guys on the ground and the support aircraft. Someone on the ground called Hammer had clearly called an ‘abort’ to Buckshots aircraft in bound for the target. The whole drama was heard complete with the canon fire in the background by almost everyone on the Bridge. That bloody Australian had still gone into that valley. Now his jet was shot up, his engines were out and to cap it all off he had the audacity to ask for tanker support, tanker support for a dead jet. All the brownie points this Aussie had earned yesterday were quickly going into the red. He looked around the ships bridge. Everyone was busy, but he knew each and every one of them was still listening to the unfolding drama.
    “McKay?” The skipper snapped. The man he asked for appeared miraculously on his shoulder. He had no doubt in his mind McKay was just waiting for this. Indeed why did he have to even explain. “Damn it McKay, go!” See if you can turn shit pie into cherry pie he thought. He already had a tanker in the air, but he knew McKay would want to be there.
    From the high perch of the Islands Bridge, The skipper of the Reagan looked back across the deck. He knew Buckshot was aggressive; he wouldn’t quit till he had to, unfortunately way beyond the normal tolerances.
    Moments later walking quickly across the deck below, the Commander of VFA-25 pulled his helmet on. He had watched this whole episode unfold ever since 402 had left the deck, He knew if Buckshot was pushed he would shove that envelope as far as it would go, which is why he was prepared. The Double Nuts (side number four zero zero), the CAG’s personal Super Hornet was on the deck at ready ten. He had promised not to even scratch her. Two large tanks were slung under the wings. Providence he thought, for some strange reason he had asked CAG for this bird to be tasked for refuel, she carried more than the standard FA/18. Buddy, buddy refuelling they call it. Bloody hurry was the reality. Somewhere out there his best pilot was gliding a dead stick, probably just seconds separating possible death and disaster, so every one of those seconds really counted right now. Within one minute he was airborne, sucking up the undercarriage and holding the after burners in while he climbed the jet as hard as she would go. He had gas to spare. He picked up Buckshot on radar a few minutes out from the ship and switched to the emergency frequency, steering an intersect that brought him up behind Buckshot's stricken aircraft to pass down the port side.

    “Four One Zero this is Sundog” Chris McKay said over the radio, he sounded relaxed but didn’t feel it. ‘One Two Zero I have you at twelve thousand.” He paused for a quick check outside the office. “I am on your eleven, and climbing through nine to ten thousand feet.” He took another breath. “You there Buckshot?” Sundog had climbed through ten thousand and had executed a reverse turn to head downhill past the dead jet slipping in to have a closer look. Buckshots jet looked like a sieve. There were large holes in both the tails. The exhaust of the port engine was completely gone. He dropped below the jet to check its belly. That was even worse.
    Buckshot had picked McKay’s aircraft climbing up hard to his port before wheeling in behind, nosing around his damaged jet and pulling alongside. The bigger super hornet pulled in tight alongside. Buckshot gave a big shrug and held his hands up.
    No Joy obviously McKay thought, meaning no radio contact. McKay mimicked holding his nose and pulling the chain.
    Punch out? Buckshot considered his situation, no choice now. He nodded and gave him thumbs up. He reached for the ejection handle smacking the dash with his fist in annoyance. That was when inexplicably all the lights came back on. He sat up straight. PFM – Pure Fucking Magic, he didn’t care why that happened just that it did.
McKay had pulled away and in front to give Buckshot room to Punch Elvis but nothing happened. He was just wondering if there was another problem when the emergency radio suddenly came to life.
    “Hey Sundog, is this service station self serve or do I have to get out?”
    McKay shook his head, the SOB’s electrics were obviously back online. “Negative Buckshot, sit tight.” His pucker factor shot up again.
    Buckshot came back, “I’m still on the Backup Mechanical System. Haven’t got much control here and I’m worried if I try something I might kill the system again.” Buckshot wanted to save his dodgy electric backup to start the APU and then the remaining engine. Time was running out.

Sundog streamed the drogue chute, they were now both at nine thousand and winding down. In-air refuelling is a tricky procedure at the best of times and involved guiding the F-18's retractable refuelling probe into the drogue chute which was streamed 100-feet behind the tanker aircraft, in this case the Super Hornet. This time however, Sundog literally had to back the drogue shoot onto Buckshot's refuelling probe. This was incredibly precise flying.
    “Five feet looks good.” Buckshot called
    Sundog responded by pressing the mike. He was concentrating on lining up the drogue. They were already down to seven thousand feet when the skipper called in strongly suggesting Buckshot to punch out.
Buckshot ignored the call and stayed in the cockpit; he simply would not quit and as far as Sundog was concerned, neither would he. Sundog would hold the hose out as long as it took to get some fuel onto Buckshot's aircraft.
    Buckshot called again. “That’s a ‘connect’ and I can confirm fuel transfer.” Buckshot immediately began running through his engine start procedures. The airframe was so noisy now it was difficult to hear if anything was even turning over.
    At three thousand feet Sundog was getting real worried. “Get out!” Hamilton refused. He went through the start up procedure once again. Lance had managed to suck some fuel from Sundog’s drogue, taking it on board slightly faster than it was going out the back, but the engine still refused to start. The two aircraft slipped to two thousand, then one thousand. At that point Sundog had his own crew and airplane to worry about. He gave Hamilton the warning, disengaged and pulled up. Hamilton’s jet continued towards the deck.
    At 750 feet Hamilton reluctantly gripped the ejection handle again. At the same instant there was a slight vibration that ran through the airframe, turbines he thought? This was the point of no return. If he didn’t eject now, he would ride the bird into the water, almost certain death. His hesitation decided the action, he knew he was committed. The water was awful close. The vibration he felt turned into noise that grew louder and louder, the familiar whining of fast moving fan blades turning jet fuel into noise invaded the cockpit with hope. But was it too little too late? He was desperate; the water was coming up to meet him fast, but feeding juice to the remaining engine too early might stall it. He held out as long as was possible. At just three hundred feet he gently fed the power to the engine and it responded smoothly. One was better than none. But the jet had a sink rate that was not going to vanish in moment. He was going to hit the water. Against all his best instincts he shoved the throttle into full after burner. He had no idea if there was any damage to that engine, dumping raw fuel into a frail engine and damaged tail pipe could mean an explosion.
    The first waves came up to meet him. He could feel the airframe buffet from the turbulent air spoiling over the big waves and onto the wings. The cockpit was immediately smeared in salt spray. Even in his favourite Pig with both engines he had never dared to go this low. The single remaining engine behind him kicked. He held the stick neutral, there were loud noises and the whole aircraft shuddered and thumped, was he hitting water? As the last wave came up to meet him, to engulf him, the kick in his back turned to a thump. Not as good as two engines coming off the deck, but good enough. The sink rate evaporated, but water was everywhere, he couldn’t see. He nursed the stick fearful of pushing the aircraft into a stall, he was flying blind, he was sure he was going to die, death now measured in inches and fractions of time. The airframe felt like it was beating itself to death anyway. But there was still that steady pressure against his back. You tough little bitch he thought. He held the throttles as he headed to the sea, thanking his airplane for giving the best it could. It might not be enough this time, but damn it, she was good.
    Suddenly the noise and vibration stopped, the aircraft was accelerating and he was gaining altitude. Salty tasting sweat trickled into the corner of his mouth, it could just as easily have been seawater he thought. He nursed the crippled aircraft back to 5,000 feet before the engine stopped again.
    “Plug and tug.” he said. Sundog pulled up in front him and plugged back in, the two jets staying in those positions all the way back to the carrier.
    On the deck of the John C. Stennis, everybody from the brake rider to the chock walkers were helping clear the flight line ready for Buckshot's approach.
    Sundog towed Buckshot's jet almost all the way down to the boat. Half a mile from the stern he pulled away almost drained dry. Buckshot called the ball and prayed the electrics wouldn’t do a dance at the worst possible moment. He knew if he failed to catch the wire he would probably end up nose down in the water. Not many survived those accidents.
    Buckshot brought the jet in for a perfect trap. With the sun behind it, the holes in the badly beaten up F18/C glowed, the jet stopped and he rapidly shut down the systems in case of any fires, the fire crews surrounding the jet ready for any emergency. There was a loud bang on the deck and the jet shuddered. He wondered what that was. Everybody on the deck stood motionless, mouths open. After being hastily unstrapped and helped from the cockpit he found out. The port engine exhaust; tail and stabiliser had fallen off the ass end and lay in an untidy mess on the deck. ‘Go figure that’ he was thinking, what the hell was holding that stuff together? It was one TFOA (Things Falling Off Aircraft) that Buckshot wouldn’t forget for some time. He felt an awful cold shiver run through his spine. Maybe next time he might punch out.

Callsign Nightmare- bringing down fire

LOWER MOUNT SIKIRAM. While Buckshot had been nursing his crippled jet back to the Reagan, his older brother was having his body pulverised from the inside out, a unique experience to be avoided at all costs. If you have never been near a major explosion you have no idea of the intensity of the shock to your body. They are so powerful, that while you are still lucid, you wonder if your body is already damaged beyond repair. People die with little evidence of any injury, simply shattered from within, the cellular structure that used to sustain you turned to mush.
    This was a situation that ‘Hammer’ Hamilton had been close to far too often; it made him wonder about long-term effects, if he was lucky enough to enjoy those. The tidal waves of bomb concussions rolled over the Nightmare team as they hugged the ground, pounding their innards. Their eyeballs rattled inside their sockets, their brains threatening to turn into stew as they thrashed violently inside the cranial cavity. The good part he thought as this continued, was that the bad guys were closer. He also knew that if they survived this moment, it might be the break they had been looking for. This was a well-dropped package of hell from heaven. He was hoping the guys with the coffee cups back in the rear were ready to exploit it.
    The senior coffee cup guy in the rear was General George Pirelli. He had decided to personally take over the rescue mission. He thanked Red Rider who had done a great job so far. Stringer, he would remember that name. But the fight had now extended beyond an exfil. It was now a battle and a chance to kill some of these ass holes in greater numbers.
    So, while Hammer and Fulham were still shaking their heads from the explosive effect of multiple 500lb bomb blasts delivered by Buckshots bug, Pirelli was ordering more firepower, over whelming firepower. The 500-pound bombs dropped by the navy Hornet had been incredibly effective and had brought crucial time, but the hillsides were still crawling with Taliban and al-Qaeda. This was an opportunity to kill bad guys, which was Pirelli’s job. Pirelli would get the Nightmare team out and make the ACM bastards pay for a bad tactical error - don’t under estimate your enemy.
    Pirelli noted the Talon and the Ospreys were inbound and close. From what he had seen, Hammer, despite some real problems, was still operational and designating targets. Like most of the SOF guys he was JTAC qualified to perform terminal attack control and terminal guidance to weapons. Pirelli was betting that Hammer despite his overnight ordeal would still have his UHF, IR or Laser GPS designator. Time to wiggle the beam Hammer he thought.

Hammer realised the Hornet strike had given them a minor but much needed reprieve. But even as he looked from his position, ACM forces were moving towards them like cockroaches. It was still danger close for air combat support. The hills were still alive, not from music, but from hundreds of Taliban. The radio squawked. Someone called Hog 11 came up on the Tactical Air Direction (TAD) Net, checking in as fragged. They were two Harrier GR9As operating from 1 (F) RAF Squadron sortied from Kandahar Airfield and in bound to the fight.
    “Hog 11, this is Nightmare, Type 2 in effect, advise when ready for 9-line”
    “A3C, Hog 11 ready to copy” The Harrier pilot replied. He knew it was Hammer. They all knew that now.
    Hamilton read the nine-liner statement that advised attack headings and target details.
    “450, NB 865427, Final attack heading 300-345” The Harrier pilot replied
    “Read back Correct. Report IP inbound, TOT 3 minutes”
    “Roger, TOT 3 minutes” The Harrier pilot said validating the target location.
    “Hog 11 IP INBOUND”
    “Hog 11 continue” Hammer came back.
    “Hog 11 one minute, SNAKE”
    “Sparkle” Hammer replied. At the same time he wiggled his LPL-30 over the target area.
    “Contact, Hog 11’s IN north”
    “Danger close, CLEARED HOT”
    Hammer was using a small ground commander’s pointer (GCP) and IR zoom laser illuminator/designator. To the pilots this looked like a big flash light beam on the ground when they used their IR imaging devices to view it. By doing this Hamilton was able to designate to the Harrier pilots the target and his position, which was the non-moving end of the pointer and the place NOT to drop the bombs on.
    Another call sign came up on the net. The coffee drinker in the rear was really getting some big hitters in. Hammer was quick to bring the new guns to bare.
    “Dragonfire this is Nightmare, fire mission over,”
    “Nightmare, Dragonfire read you loud and clear over,”
    “My position GRID 234970 marked by SPARKLE over,”
    “Nightmare, Dragonfire Contact,”
    “Nightmare 278 degrees, 350 meters, troops in the open, cleared danger close.”
    “Dragonfire cleared in danger close.” There was a pause and in a voice that was almost a whisper but everyone could hear. “Hold your head down Hammer; we are coming to get you.”
    Dragonfire was an AC-130U Spooky gunship fitted with all weather sensors and strike radar. Dragonfire, now orbiting at 15,000 feet above the combat zone was tasked with suppressing enemy fire allowing the inbound Osprey to get in and out.
    Once on target Dragonfire unloaded fire from the sky. Twin 20-mm Vulcan rotary cannons spewed 7,200 rounds per minute towards the ground, a 40-mm Bofors gun opened up firing 100 rounds per minute, and a big 105-mm howitzer joined in firing over ten rounds a minute.
At the same time the two RAF Harriers called in by Hammer had already dropped and were outbound, red tracers following their exit.
    The combined effect of the Harrier war loads and the Spooky gunship impacting almost at the same moment were mind numbing. The mountainsides exploded. On the ground the ACM had suddenly turned from ambusher to cornered prey. After so many were killed in the first explosions from the Harrier drop, the Spooky followed through marching its crushing weight of firepower across the hillsides, passing the Nightmare team within just metres. Hammer truly wondered how even a bug would survive that onslaught.
    The Taliban, what remained of them, broke and fled. They fled back to the border, crossing a man made line that gave them protection from the death that rained from above. They loaded onto trucks and drove a few hundred yards over the border, past the oblivious guard and into the safety and sanctuary of Pakistan. Hundreds of Taliban, and Al-Qaeda or ACM fighters, slipped away to refit, rearm, and plan for more attacks unmolested in the lawless western border region of Pakistan. But they left behind an almost equal number. As far as they were concerned this was a victory. The two Special Forces soldiers were dead and at least two jets were shot down. It was indeed a great day.
    As the enemy slipped away and the sound of the gunfire faded, the smoke of the battlefield still lingered, drifting through the valley carrying with it the fresh smell of death, the smell of burned bodies, cordite and the rich after taste of high explosive you could taste on your lips.
    Hamilton propped up Fulham, they were getting out of here. That was his last thought.
    Moments later Lizard landed. Lizard was a Marine tilt rotor Osprey with a full section of marines. After touching down, the Marines exited the rear ramp and sprinted to Nightmares position. When they found the Nightmare team they all stopped. Both of the men they were supposed to be rescuing looked dead. There was blood everywhere. The Lizard team leader called it in, Pirelli would not be happy. But that wasn’t the least of their problems. Somehow, despite the massive aerial bombardment, there was still a lot of incoming fire.
    Carried on litters the two SF men were quickly loaded onto the aircraft, Hamilton thinking for a moment it was all over. As the Osprey lifted off she was raked from stem to stern, smoke pouring from one of her engines. The marines tried to occupy the smallest piece of space they could as holes rapidly appeared along the fuselage, several were hit.
    Five minutes out from base the Osprey lost the port engine. The remaining engine groaning under full power took the load. A transmission interconnect shaft coupled the two huge propellers for just this emergency and was able to keep both massive props spinning and the Osprey airborne. But she was crippled badly and the pilots had a whole bunch of control problems.

US Marine Tilt Rotor Osprey

FOB Tillman – Crash and Burn

FORWARD OPERATING BASE TILLMAN, AFGHANISTAN. Standing on a rocky dirt track, ringed by 6,000-foot, snow-dappled ridges, Natasha Braithwaite looked anxiously up the valley in the direction she expected the aircraft to return from. Braithwaite was posting cameras on the small height to capture the dramatic return of the Combat Search and Rescue everyone had been talking about.
    The rumour mill had been cranking all morning underscored by an unusual amount of air movements. Something big was going on. From her position three miles away, she could see the LZ was already looking very busy. It was time to get back to the main stage. She motioned the driver and rest of the crew to start up and get moving. Braithwaite unzipped her hood thankful to be out of the freezing weather.
    The atmosphere on the LZ was different than she had expected. People were looking at each other all the time, but not much said. What the hell was this all about? Obviously everyone was waiting, but there was a collective breath held for something clearly very important. The scene was almost mesmerising.
    Thirty seconds out of Tillman’s landing pattern the Ospreys remaining engine spat the dummy. The pilot of the Osprey wrestled with the controls. He called in the latest emergency. His once beloved bird was flying like a wingless chicken with lead weights. Worse still, there was no prescribed method to land safely. No one ever got to practice an auto-rotate or emergency landing all the way to the ground in one of these things. The simple reason was it was too dangerous. So the training objective had been to ‘minimize the possibility of such disastrous occurrences’ which was now too late.
    Speed is your friend the pilot thought. He needed to build the kinetic energy in the props and at the last second he would auto-rotate hoping to flare the aircraft into a controlled crash - that was the theory anyway. He pushed the nose down, kept the gear up and rotated the engine nacelles down to build up the energy in the big props. He crossed the threshold at over 150 knots, pulling the nose up slightly and rotating the nacelles into the vertical. The Osprey rapidly slowed before hitting the dirt at a little over 50kph skidding along the side of the main runway. It was all going real well until they hit the mine and the aircraft exploded.
    Braithwaite watched the skidding fireball in horror, eyes wide, hand over her mouth.
    “Shit.” Someone said.
    She looked quickly sideways to see if the camera was recording the action. It was and she immediately felt guilty, they were watching people die, two of them her own countrymen. That was when she she heard some one say Hammer. She felt her stomach lurch, this was the man she had met only a few days ago, Captain Brian Hamilton.
Within 24 hours of her witnessing the incident, the images were being played all around the world via Fox News, CNN and every other major news media.

SIKIRAM MOUNTAIN, AFGHANISTAN. While the western media eagerly consumed the latest bad news from the war, from high up on the slopes of Sikiram, al-Haqq scrutinised the scene of the previous days battle. His head still throbbed. Far below he could see coalition troops still combing through the aftermath of the fighting. It had been a great victory. But there were many more battles to be fought before they removed these invaders. But his time here had come to an end. He was needed for the fight back home. He took one last look over the majestic landscape, committing it to memory. As he turned to leave he noticed a metal rod protruding from the snow.