Major Johnny Evans wasn't in a great mood, even before he got the call to report to Colonel Ross's office. That morning, in the 138th Rangers' house on Firebase Zulu, he'd found his first gray hair. He knew it was long overdue -- he was edging in on 42 years old -- but knowing that he'd avoided the gray for far longer than he should've didn't make it any easier to accept the single, silver strand mocking him from the mirror.
He was considering whether or not to pluck it from his temple when Ross' aide, a young Army Kilo, on knocked 138's door. Johnny heard his second-in-command, Carl Rogan, talking quietly with the Kilo -- he could see their reflections in the mirror in front of him. They spoke too softly for Johnny to hear them, but the conversation didn't last long. A few seconds later, he saw Rogan's reflection nodding, and the Kilo turning and leaving.
"What's up?" Johnny asked, pulling on his olive-drab t-shirt as Rogan walked into the open bathroom.
"Colonel Ross wants to see you. My guess -- they got another job for us," Rogan said, checking the still-healing cut on his temple in the long mirror over the three sinks.
"Lovely," Johnny said, sighing and pulling his ACU jacket from the hangar next to him. "Tell Monica to have the truck ready in case they send us out."
It was a short walk to Command and Control, two blocks away in an abandoned mining complex. The guard outside the elevator, a Marine from the 2nd MSOB, nodded and smirked at Johnny as he passed by.
"How ya doin', sir?" the Marine asked.
"Another lovely, cold-ass day in Russia," Johnny smiled as he stepped into the elevator.
"I hear that, sir."
The elevator took Johnny several levels down, where the doors opened on another Marine guard. This one wasn't as friendly as the one on the surface -- he merely saluted and led Johnny down the long hall to Command and Control. The Marine knocked on Colonel Ross' door, and the response was instant.
"Come," Ross' voice boomed from inside the office.
The Marine opened the door for Johnny, then closed him in the office as soon as he was through. Sawyer Ross sat behind his desk typing on a netbook and wearing small reading glasses. He didn't look up for a moment -- not until he finished what he was doing. Johnny stood at attention and kept his eyes locked on the Colonel.
Ross was younger than Johnny by at least five years. His longish blond hair -- Special Forces got to skirt the grooming standard -- showed no hint of gray. He was wearing his ACU pants and a black T-shirt. There was a steaming cup of coffee on his desk, and as he closed his netbook and looked up at Johnny, he took a sip.
"At ease, Major."
"Sir," Johnny said, shifting his stance.
"Two things have me calling you in here today, Major. The first -- the work you did with the lab in Pyongyang. That was some outstanding stuff. Your crew healing up all right?"
"Yes, sir. Almost 100 percent, sir."
"Well, what you did with the 4-7 hasn't gone unnoticed. Wish there was a little more ceremony for this, but," Ross said, sighing and pulling a small box from his top desk drawer. He tossed it to Johnny, who opened it -- inside were two silver oak leaf pins.
"Congratulations, Lieutenant Colonel Evans," Ross said.
"Thank you, sir."
"And now, the bad news. As you know, we've become something of a collection point here at Zulu -- not only for our own Special Forces operatives, but for the Special Forces of our Russian allies, as well."
"And I think you've met Colonel Ivanov, my Russian Federation counterpart."
"I have, sir."
"Well, he's informed me that most of his teams are accounted for -- all except for one. A detachment from the 24th Spetsnaz Brigade, reported missing in action three weeks ago well inside enemy territory. He was ready to write 'em off, until we intercepted this."
Ross opened the netbook again and hit a few keys -- a garbled transmission, someone transmitting quickly and quietly in Russian. The static was bad, but Evans could make it out.
"Your file says you speak Russian, Evans. You understand any of that?"
"Yes, sir. It's a distress call, sir. They say their transpo is Tango Uniform, and that they're out of ammo. They identify themselves as Spetsnaz 24, sir."
"That's what my translators tell me, too. Now, you might have noticed that the situation here with our Russian friends is. . . well, tense would be a polite way to put it. Brass thinks some of 'em might flip to the other side at any time, seein' as we're doing such a good job of losing this war, and all."
"So it'd go a long way to boosting their morale, not to say strengthening their trust in us, if our boys were to go in and get their boys out."
"Here's the problem, Evans. This mission is what you might call tricky. Ah, hell, it's a fucking suicide run, is what it is. They're so deep in Chink territory that they might as well go ahead and learn the fucking language, already. But we've still gotta make the effort. Normally, I'd send in some Mechos or some Kilos, but. . ."
"But you want the job done right. Understood, sir."
"Nothing against Lieutenant Morrow and his crew. They're good, but you've got, what, 18 years in the Rangers? You're much, much better."
"I can have my team ready to roll in half an hour, sir."
"I appreciate that, Evans. But your team isn't going."
Ross stood, coffee in hand, and walked around to the front of the desk. He leaned against it and looked directly into Johnny's eyes.
"This isn't an order, Evans. This is a request. We can't risk an entire team that deep inside enemy territory -- last time we did that, well. . . it was your team. You lost more than half of your men. A team's easy to track, to pick up -- one man, moving quickly, is a lot harder."
Johnny said nothing. He just stared right back into Ross' eyes as Ross stared into his.
"You've got more on-the-ground experience than any man on this base, myself included. Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea. Anyone has a chance in hell of pulling this off, Colonel, it's you."
"I understand, sir."
Ross stared at him for what felt like a long time, then nodded slowly.
"Your ride leaves from the airstrip in an hour, Colonel."
* * *
"HALO in two minutes, sir!" the crew chief yelled over the rotor noise of the AC-130's massive turbines.
Johnny gave the crew chief a thumbs-up -- he couldn't talk through the oxygen mask he'd just strapped over his helmet. He checked his gear one last time -- M4A1 strapped high on his chest above the emergency chute. Pack with extra ammo and weapons under the main chute. Survival knife on right leg. Glock 50 on left leg. UltraVis goggles on and functioning under his helmet visor. He was good to go.
Next to him was a metal box about his size, filled with extra weapons, ammo, and body armor for the Spetsnaz team. It would go out the back of the AC-130 with him, and he'd trigger its chute by remote. He knew it probably wouldn't land right next to him, but it had a tiny transmitter set to Channel 1-9 Victor that was linked directly into his UltraVis. If everything went to plan, he should be able to find it quickly.
Johnny hadn't done a HALO -- High Altitude-Low Opening -- jump in years. As he stood near the back ramp, he tried to remember the last time he'd gone. He had been a newly-minted Lieutenant, finally an officer after six years of enlisted service. He'd been training Airborne crews at Fort Bragg, jumping from 25,000 feet above the North Carolina forests. He didn't remember much about the jump -- he'd taken too many deep breaths of pure oxygen, and had been a little giddy when he'd pulled his chute. He remembered it was a warm day, though, in the middle of a boiling North Carolina summer. This jump was going to be higher, and much, much colder. The freezing air cut through his pressure suit and the black ACUs below as the AC-130's ramp slowly opened.
"Go! Go! Go!" the crew chief yelled behind him, and Johnny took two running steps, clearing the ramp and falling through the icy night. The visor on his helmet quickly iced over, but that didn't bother him -- he could still see with the UltraVis, and the ice would clear off his visor soon enough. As the altimeter clicked away in his left lens, Johnny ran through the plan in his mind -- land, get his position, locate the gear, and get within a mile of the last known position of the Spetsnaz team before trying to raise them. Then, assess the situation and try to exfiltrate. He knew the survivability matrix was near zero, but he also knew why he had to try.
The altimeter turned red -- 2,800 feet. Johnny pulled the ripcord, at the same time activating the equipment locker's chute. As soon as Johnny hit the ground, he rolled to his left shoulder, pulling his helmet off as he landed in a crouch. His UltraVis showed the equipment box's position -- half a mile behind him. It also showed he was two miles to the west of the Spetsnaz group's last known position, taken from the distress call three hours ago. Not bad for a drop from seven and a half miles up.
Johnny packed and stashed his chute, helmet, and pressure suit, then hefted his pack and set off for the equipment box, which was thankfully on the way to Spetsnaz team's last known. He made it to the box in less than seven minutes, then pulled its chute and stashed it behind some trees. Johnny crouched by a tree and took a sip of water before continuing on, keeping to the treeline and staying low as he moved. His UltraVis let him know when he was within a mile of the location where the Spetsnaz distress call had come from, and he switched on his radio and tuned it to the Russian Special Purpose frequency. He paused for a moment and listened.
"Move and I will cut your throat," he heard in quiet Russian from behind him. He felt a knife slip under the collar of his body armor.
"No one's moving, Chief," Johnny said in English. He felt someone grab his arms from behind, and the knife slid away from his throat. A man came to stand in front of him -- thin, shaved head, sunken eyes. He was wearing dark green fatigues with no markings on them and a black watch cap.
"2-4 Spetsnaz, I assume," Johnny said.
"And you are?"
"1-3-8 Ranger. Your extraction."
"You are the advance scout for a rescue party?" the thin man asked, nodding to someone behind Johnny. He felt his arms freed, and he stretched them out at his side.
"Not a scout, Chief. I'm it."
"One man? The Americans sent one man?"
"One riot, one Ranger, Chief. How many of you are left?"
"Of an original 24, there are six of us," the thin man said. "I am Vasily Dyuzhev. Captain. I am in command."
"Lieutenant Colonel John Evans. Six, huh? I've got weapons and gear for all of you. Are all of your men mobile?"
"They will walk," Dyuzhev said.
"Good. Follow me," Johnny told him. As he started to walk, he caught sight of the other five men -- all were dressed in the same uniform as their Captain, and all were thin and unshaven. Dyuzhev crept along next to him as they moved.
"How long have you been out here?"
"Two weeks. Perhaps more -- I have been up for days," Dyuzhev said.
"And North Korean. And rebels. They're everywhere. The woods were the safest place to hide. We learned that at great cost."
"Where are your weapons? Your vehicles?"
"Vehicles destroyed and wrecked. Weapons were ditched once we ran out of ammunition. We're down to knives and three bullets for one pistol."
"Our situation doesn't seem that tenable. You seen a base near here? Staging area?"
"Yes. North Korean encampment three kilometers from here. Heavily guarded. Tanks, ground troops. We lost many men near there."
"One. An Mi-8. We have not seen it fly -- it may not be operational. But both of my aviators are dead."
"I can fly it. Guards around the chopper?"
"Light. Which, again, means it may not be operational."
"What are our chances of stealing another vehicle?"
"From what I have seen, the bulk of the tanks and vehicles are much more heavily guarded."
"Chopper's our best bet, then. Let's get your boys armed up and get us the fuck out of here," Johnny said as they stopped near the equipment locker. He opened it and started handing out M4's, pistols, and body armor.
"I agree that the chopper might be the easiest to get to, sir. But if it is not operational, we will be caught in a kill zone," Dyuzhev said as he strapped into his body armor.
"We're in a kill zone now, Captain," Johnny said, shrugging.
"Your point is well taken," Dyuzhev said.
"There's some food in there," Johnny said, nodding to the equipment locker, "You and your men look like you could use it. Eat and rest up -- we'll move on the NoKo encampment in an hour."
* * *
"Kapitán," one of Dyuzhev's men hissed. Johnny hadn't learned the young sergeant's name, but he had been the first to eat, and thus the first to take watch.
Dyuzhev had a short conversation with the man, then waved Johnny over.
"What's up, Captain?" Johnny asked.
"Sergei has seen something. A vehicle. Civilian, looks like. Heading this way."
Johnny slipped on his UltraVis goggles. Its night-vision mode lit up the night in bright green. He saw the vehicle -- a large UAZ Hunter with its headlights off, at least half a mile away.
"How the fuck did he see that?" Johnny mumbled.
"Sergei can see very well in the dark," Dyuzhev answered. "What can you see with your, eh, glasses?"
"One driver. Looks like Chinese Army. He's running with his headlights off. Sensitive cargo is my guess. I'm a good shot, but do you guys have a sniper?"
"That's me, Colonel," Dyuzhev nodded. "Driver?"
"When he gets close. Then we take his truck and get as far out of the hot zone as we can with it."
Dyuzhev raised his M4 and squinted through the night-vision sight. He took a few breaths, then squeezed the trigger. One round slammed through the windshield of the Hunter -- Johnny saw it split the driver's forehead through his goggles. The Hunter slowly rolled to a stop.
"Go!" Johnny hissed, but the Spetsnaz detachment was way ahead of him. They were already pulling the driver out of the SUV and piling in. Two of them opened the vehicle's rear hatch and started pulling out two long, shallow cases.
"No! Keep them there. Jump in on top of them," Johnny said in Russian. The men stopped and stared at him.
"Do it," Dyuzhev told them.
The two men hopped into the back of the truck and closed the hatch behind them. Johnny and Dyuzhev headed for the front seats of the truck.
"Well, it is a Russian truck, after all. Only appropriate we should take it back," Dyuzhev said, shrugging. "Would you like to drive, Colonel?"
Johnny hopped into the driver's seat. It was a tight fit, with seven fully armed and armored men, but everyone was crammed in well enough. As Dyuzhev closed the passenger door, Johnny threw the truck into reverse and headed northwest, in the direction of the closest American installation.
* * *
Three days later, Johnny and Dyuzhev stepped off a Black Hawk chopper on the airfield at Firebase Zulu. Johnny's arm was in a sling, and Dyuzhev was limping and supporting his weight on a cane. They'd come under fire several times before making it out of enemy territory, enough that they'd burned through the two thousand rounds Johnny had brought with them -- but they'd made it back alive. All of them.
"Colonel Evans," Sawyer Ross greeted, shaking Johnny's hand as the Black Hawk's rotors spun down. "You pulled it off, you son of a bitch. Well done."
"Thank you, sir. I'd salute, but," Johnny said, nodding to his immobilized arm.
"Understood. How bad are you hurt?"
"I'll heal. Colonel, this is Captain Vasily Dyuzhev, commander of 2-4 Spetsnaz," Johnny said.
"Captain. Welcome. Colonel Ivanov is waiting to debrief you. If you'll follow Convict Raines, there," Ross said, nodding to his aide, who was waiting beside an idling Cougar. Dyuzhev punched Johnny lightly on the shoulder and headed off with the convict.
"Walk with me, Colonel," Ross said, and Johnny fell into step next to him. "You did us a real good turn there, Evans. The Russians are in our debt, now. Colonel Ivanov wants to assign Captain Dyuzhev and his squad to fill out the holes in the 1-3-8. You good with that?"
"Sure. I'd fight with him any day. Just one question, sir."
"Shoot, Colonel. Time off? Better accommodations? Name it, and it's yours."
"None of that, sir. My only question is -- when do we go back out, sir?"