Rennie Vogel stood at the open door of the plane. This was how she always wanted life to be–every nerve alive with sensation, thrumming along at 300 miles an hour. She looked for this in every corner of her life. She didn’t always find it, but she did today. And she could hardly wait to jump into the abyss.
Goode raised a thickly gloved finger indicating the one-minute warning.
The team stood hip to hip. Lincoln Goode, Brad Baldwin, Jonah Levin, Rennie Vogel and John Smythe. Their thick helmets blocked out the deafening noise of the plane cutting through the atmosphere. Rennie could feel Levin next to her quivering slightly–from the intense cold as well as from the deep distress of a mind confronted with the idea of jumping into thin air at 25,000 feet. She gave him a thumbs up. She knew he would get it together when he needed to. He always did.
Goode raised his hand again. Ten seconds. Rennie looked at Brad Baldwin who stood at her left–she could see his eyes but couldn’t read his expression through his helmet. Goode gave the final signal and they stepped off the ledge. The cold hit her like a brick. This was something you never got used to. It was like a transformation, as if her skin and muscles were being forged into something stronger and harder. And it was a relief to be airborne after shouldering the weight of her equipment. Each of them was three hundred and sixty pounds of flesh and bone and gear, the maximum allowed for a jump at this height. Rennie, as the only woman and lighter than the rest of the team by at least seventy-five pounds, carried the most.
They plummeted through the frigid air at one hundred and twenty-six miles per hour, but to Rennie it always felt infinitely faster. At this rate, it took only two minutes to drop over twenty thousand feet to reach the mark where they pulled their ripcords. And that two minutes felt like a lifetime. This was when she got to enjoy herself, glancing at her altimeter periodically to make sure she didn’t drown in the sensation. Her body always responded to this kind of intensity, like diving deep into a first kiss.
Rennie was thoroughly familiar with the area she was jumping into, having studied aerial photographs and terrain maps until she could have reproduced them by hand. Of course the land always took on a different hue when all of the elemental forces in the universe seemed to be bringing it to you at an ungodly rate.
Beneath her were a hundred acres of farmland–fields of cotton and potato and large tracts of pasture. To the northwest was a small Tajik village. To the east, an expanse of trees. But this, too, Rennie knew only from memory. This jump, like so many others she and her team had made back home in the past month, was a night jump. It was so dark she might as well have been flying through space. It was an uncanny experience, like a dream, falling into an endless void. But it wasn’t endless. Not tonight. Rennie looked at the glowing altimeter strapped around her arm over her jump suit. 10,000 feet.
No one on the team except Levin had any significant prior jumping experience. He had been with the paratrooper division of the Rangers before applying for CT3. The rest of them had done the standard jumps at two or three thousand feet–mostly static-line jumps where their canopies would automatically open. But this mission, their first important assignment, required a high-altitude free-fall jump and the other four members of the team had had to learn fast. That first time she had stood at the lip of a plane almost five miles above the earth, she had been almost entirely at peace and when she stepped from the edge she became something you should never become when you are plummeting toward the earth–contemplative. On that first drop, she had thought, what could come closer than this to transcending one’s heavy, plodding, earth-bound humanity? Careening toward the ground she had believed, for an instant, that she didn’t need to pull the cord. As in dreams, she imagined she would fly in a magnificent arc down, down, skimming the surface of the world until arcing upwards again. Fortunately, that first jump had been a tandem jump and her partner had jolted her to her senses.
Rennie looked at her altimeter again–4500 feet. She began her countdown and pulled the ripcord. Her gloved fingers were still stiff from the sub-zero temperatures of the higher altitudes but she could already feel herself thawing. She tensed her body and waited for the bone-jarring jerk as the unfurling canopy snapped into place. Thunk! She thought she could hear her brain thud against her skull. A moment later she quick-released the rucksack that was lashed to her thighs and it dropped like a rock, still attached to her by a lanyard, a standard practice, ensuring that the bulk of the bag on the legs wouldn’t interfere with the landing. The lights from the village allowed Rennie’s eyes to adjust to the darkness and she was aware of her team around her, shadowy figures drifting slowly to the field below through the clear night sky.
She slammed into the uneven ground, dropped and rolled. In seconds, she was out of her rig and collapsing her canopy back into it. She pulled off her helmet and oxygen mask–her helmet now frosted badly–and breathed in the fresh night air. She never appreciated the real thing as much as after breathing pure oxygen for an hour.
Rennie quickly scanned her surroundings and accounted for all of her team within fifty yards, doing the same thing she was, dropping their packs and peeling off their jumpsuits. She knew the temperature was about seventy-five degrees–steaming, relative to what they had just come out of–and the air for a moment felt like stepping into a hot bath. Underneath her jumpsuit, she wore layers–cargo pants, shorts, jacket, long-sleeve shirt, tank top and hiking boots. She stripped off the extra layers until she felt comfortable and stowed them in her pack.
Baldwin came up to her, dragging his rucksack.
“You all right, Vogel?” He reached out his hand and they touched fists.
“Just glad to be earth-bound again,” Rennie said, then laughed as she got a good look at him. His hair, grown over his ears, was sticking straight up and there were red marks all over his face in the pattern of his oxygen mask.
“Hey, don’t be thinking you look any better.”
Rennie had become close with Brad Baldwin over the course of their training. He had come to the trials, like so many of them, right out of a field office–Philadelphia in his case, his home town. He was a big, rangy guy with a goofy gait and an ever present grin–he was about the least likely operator one could imagine. He had taken to Rennie immediately, hell-bent on breaking down the reserve she kept so firmly in place. She had resisted at first, but his good nature had finally broken through and now she counted him as her one true friend on the team. And best of all, he was utterly unthreatened by her.
Levin and Goode straggled up to them.
“Where’s Smythe?” Baldwin asked.
“He’s coming. He came down a little farther out,” Levin said.
Rennie hadn’t gotten to know Levin as well as she had Baldwin and Goode, but she knew him well enough to realize he was about to vomit.
“Jonah, you okay?”
Levin rolled his eyes in annoyance, half-turned and retched up his dinner.
“Why don’t you sit down, buddy, and have a drink of water?” Baldwin said, leaning down to him.
Levin, still hunched over, put out his hand in protest.
“I’m okay. I’m okay. Just the same old shit,” he said, wiping his mouth.
Though he was the most experienced jumper among them, Levin’s stomach often failed him. He was otherwise thoroughly reliable and Rennie liked him, though they hadn’t become close. Maybe, like a lot of the guys, he resented her being there, taking up a spot on the team. But in all honesty, Rennie hadn’t made much of an effort to get to know him either. She was never one to reach out.
Smythe joined them, laden with equipment.
“Are we ready for our nap?” He looked straight at Rennie. This was his new thing–everything seemed to be laced with some kind of sexual subtext whenever he talked to her.
“Let’s get set and do our equipment check,” Goode said. “We’ll get into the woods and then we can see where we are.”
Everyone knelt, sorting and checking their equipment. The original plan had been to fly out of the base in Germany at 7:00 or 1900 hours on the MC-130E for the three hour flight to their drop point in Tajikistan. After two hours of flight time, they would begin to pre-breathe one hundred percent oxygen to purge the nitrogen from their bloodstream and prevent decompression sickness and, finally, be ready to jump into the abyss at 2200 hours. This would have allowed them to get a couple of miles into the woods, make camp and sleep in shifts for four or five hours before sunrise. But things hadn’t worked out that way. A violent thunderstorm grounded their plane and they hadn’t been cleared for take-off till midnight.
Rennie slipped her MP5–a small but powerful submachine gun that rested under her left arm during the jump–from the sleeve on the ground. She made sure it was in proper working order before sliding it into the specially made pouch behind her backpack. They would be disguised as hikers and as such they had to have their weapons both easily available and easily concealed. This was accomplished by the large exterior pouch. So, the MP5 sat snugly between backpack and spine in its little nest, with sufficient padding for comfort and a side opening for easy access–just a quick reach behind the ribs and the weapon was in hand.
Baldwin as their best gun had to carry his sniper rifle in addition to his MP5. He checked each piece meticulously to make sure nothing was damaged when he hit the ground and slipped it into a long round padded pouch, lashing it under his pack.
Smythe was the team telecommunications specialist. He squatted in front of his rucksack and laid out each piece of equipment. Between them, they had one satellite phone, one GPS and a PDA loaded with a Tajik dictionary and phrase book along with information on the local flora and fauna that might prove useful. None of this, however, would be necessary unless something went wrong.
Smythe kneeled in front of the equipment shaking his head.
“What’s wrong?” Goode asked, jogging over to him.
“It’s the GPS. It busted when I came down,” Smythe said angrily.
“Don’t worry about it, we’re not going to need it,” Goode assured him.
“We better not,” Smythe said looking at Rennie.
“Those things don’t work half the time anyway,” Levin said.
“Of course they do. Our satellite systems ensure that,” Baldwin said, looking unconcerned.
Baldwin was always the optimist. Rennie figured Goode was right, though. The satellite phone was more important. They would need it if disaster struck.
Rennie rubbed her arms. The warmth of the night had begun to seep through the chill that had sunk into her bones in the upper atmosphere–she’d be glad when they got moving.
Jonah Levin was gathering their jump equipment–the rigs, the jumpsuits, the helmets, masks, tubes, oxygen canisters and all the rest and stuffing it into the duffel bags that had held everything they would now carry with them on the hike. When Goode assigned duties before they left the U.S., Levin had joked that he was on trash duty–they had no choice but to leave the jump gear behind and it could never be tied to the FBI in any way. So, all jump-related equipment stayed and only the bare essentials for the hike and the mission would go. The farmer who owned the field would eventually stumble across it–Rennie imagined him scratching his chin and wondering where the hell it came from.
Rennie bent down and retied her boots. She wondered if anyone had ever made a HALO jump wearing Timberlands–hers had been modified to meet the stability standards required for the jump. The idea that the team would perform this, their first important mission, undercover, had come as a not entirely welcome surprise. The mountains of Tajikistan had drawn adventuresome hikers from around the world for years. Most knew to stay clear of the trouble spots. Occasionally, though, one would find himself someplace he shouldn’t be. And this was their cover–just a bunch of stupid hikers who didn’t have a clue they were edging up on a terrorist training camp. The essence of their cover was twofold–first, to draw as little attention as possible and secondly, and most importantly, to get themselves out. This was not going to be a scenario where they ran out of the woods and a chopper would be waiting for them. No, the U.S. didn’t have a friendly base near enough to launch an extraction operation. They would have to walk out.
Goode was staring at his maps, looking thoughtful. Rennie wondered what was on his mind. She knew he was stressed that they had lost so much time. Goode was the oldest and most experienced special agent. He had spent ten years in the New York City office–maybe the toughest assignment in the country–and had seen everything there was to be seen. When he was assigned the leadership position, right after Smythe replaced Perez, he had immediately taken the reins of the young team firmly in hand. He made a point of getting to know each of them and had done his best to cool the tension between Rennie and Smythe.
Everyone had their packs on now and stood waiting for orders, looking as much like ordinary hikers as such a group could. Goode finally put his map away and joined them. He looked at his watch and took a deep breath.
“It’s nearly zero-three-thirty now. We lost a lot of time due to the storm.”
Rennie knew what was coming.
“By the time we get deep enough into the woods to bed down, we’ll only have about two hours of sleep before sunrise. I think that’s a waste of time. So, let’s push through tonight and we’ll all have a good sleep tomorrow night.”
Rennie knew Goode wasn’t happy to be delivering this news and from their stony expressions, the team wasn’t too glad to receive it either. But they accepted it.
“Hooah, Boss,” Levin said quietly and without enthusiasm, but with a big grin. It was an old, ironic joke between them, an allusion to the pumped up enthusiasm so often stereotyped in movie portrayals of special forces or the military. Their team had a reputation for being unusually laid back.
“Okay, let’s move out,” Goode said.
Rennie shifted her pack on her shoulders until it was in a comfortable position. She felt good. The field was damp from the night but it hadn’t rained in at least a couple of days, so it wasn’t mucky and walking was easy. She loved night work, she always seemed to be at her best after the sun set, but she was worried about Goode’s decision not to take any rest. This was no training mission. This was the real deal and they all had to be in top form.
Ending a man’s life on orders was not the most comforting proposition Rennie had ever encountered and she wasn’t certain how to feel about it. She knew that on some level she hadn’t taken it in entirely, hadn’t allowed it to absorb into that part of herself that mattered, the part that made choices about how to live a good life in the world. Of course she’d considered when she decided to try out for CT3 that she might have to end a life. That it was even a likelihood. But assassination left a bad taste in her mouth. It was an acknowledgment that her country had exhausted all other possibilities and could no longer afford to play fair.
They were almost at the edge of the woods. Goode stopped and waited for the team to gather around.
“Okay, we go in single file, people. Keep your wits about you. We don’t expect to have any company this far out, but you never know. Godspeed.”
They all touched fists and filed into the coal black forest.
The woods were dense and the lights from the village were immediately snuffed out. Goode and Smythe led. Rennie fell into rhythm behind Levin. Baldwin brought up the rear. They were keeping a good pace. Rennie took a deep breath. The woods smelled organic and lush. The temperature was just right for a hike. It was fortunate that the terrain was mostly level, because it was very dark, the moonlight barely penetrating the thick canopy of leaves. Her senses were on full alert as she concentrated on each step. Every twig that snapped beneath their feet reverberated through the forest and through her nerves as they made their way through the black night ever closer to Armin and the mission they came so far to complete.