They Only Come At Night
Updated: Aug 1, 2021
Chapter One - Excerpt
Every town has its knights in shining armor … and its dragons. We think of these knights as police or firemen; people willing to put themselves in harm’s way to guard the door when evil comes knocking. But quite often the sheepdogs who protect the flock are ordinary citizens. They never expect to face evil in a life or death struggle. The dragons ... well, they are too often identified as the people shunned by society. They are the addicts, looters and murderers. But the real dragons are the spirits that lay behind these malevolent acts. These darker desires of humanity are the true dragons that seek to consume our dreams and leave us with nightmares that hollow our souls. Yet like Saint Michael, there are those appointed to fight the dragons of today. They are armed, not with shield nor sword, but the power to transform nightmares back into dreams.
Crested Butte, Colorado has its own special knight in shining armor. He is a life sized sculpture guarding the entrance to town. Polished and buffed in chrome plating, he stands his ground unwilling to yield. He is locked in perpetual battle against an equally chrome plated dragon. They face each other beyond the welcome sign. The sculpture was not designed for this spot and ended up guarding the valley by mere happenstance. Even so the knight stands at the edge of town, refusing to retreat while the dragon constantly lurches forward unwilling to surrender.
As the December sun set, it turned both of them into glowing bronze. Traffic sped past paying them no attention. The two of them had been battling for years. Yet this evening, the gathering clouds and the red sky made the dragon glow a little more ominously. Its shadow stretched long across the snow, across the valley, and pointed up at the mountains. Like an accusing finger, the shadow pointed to a spot between Strand Hill and Point Lookout. There stood an oversized, dark-timbered house. Whereas the knight had guarded the town for less than ten years, this lonely abode stood guard over the valley for centuries.
It was night. It’s always the deepest of night when they came: nightmares filled with deadly premonitions. Tonight was no different. Anna’s screams filled the timber framed house once again. They came less like shrieks of terror and more like moans filled with the timbre of dread. She’d been having them for months, ever since she turned seven. Her father’s feet were already on the floor. Alice Griessmer sleepily prodded the empty sheets where her husband had been lying. She had rocked their daughter back to sleep last night. Tonight was his turn, but Henry was already halfway down the hall to his daughter’s room.
He didn’t stumble in the dark, even though the century old logs were blackened with age and cemented in a single, dark secret. He’d grown up in this house and knew every part of it. Even so Anna’s fear of the dark, had led to a constellation of night lights that rivaled the vast Colorado sky. It took Henry seconds to traverse the stairs, padding past the stuffed grizzly, killed by his great-Grandfather, and down the hallway so that he could wake his oldest daughter. Practice, the cold winter night, and the urgency to quiet her before she woke her little sister turned this routine into a reflex.
“Baby it’s only a dream,” Henry softly rubbed his daughter’s back. Her cotton nightgown was damp with sweat, and her bangs stuck to her forehead in a mish-mash of gentle curls. “It’s only a dream.”
She continued to squirm and kick against unseen fears.
With equal parts patience and sleepiness, Henry continued to sooth his sleeping daughter. The moans turned into whimpers, and whimpers faded into quiet grunts. Then she rolled over and opened two sleepy eyes.
“It’s ok, baby,” Henry whispered into the dark night. “I’m here.”
Lucidity chased enough sleep from Anna’s eyes for her to realize that her father was stroking her wet hair. As they registered recognition, her face contorted with pain. Large, hot tears began to roll down her cheeks. Silent sobs shook her little frame.
Henry scooped Anna away from the covers that she had kicked to the foot of the bed. He rocked his daughter, while rubbing her back and speaking in a calm, husky whisper. Slowly the sobs lessened, and Anna nestled her small head on her daddy’s shoulder. He kept rocking her and speaking quiet words of peace. But it was the closeness which calmed her the most.
The warmth of his body and the strength of his arms gave her the fortitude to repel the terrors of this night. As her body finally relaxed, Henry slid his daughter out of a tight embrace and into a seated position on his lap. His large palm never quit rubbing her back.
“You want to tell me about it?”
Anna buried her head into her father’s chest again and stared at the ballerina nightlight beside her bed. “It was horrible, Daddy.” Her child-like voice quivered through the cold night air.
“It’s all right, baby,” Henry reassured her. “It was only a dream. I’m right here.”
Henry couldn’t see her face contort in pain again, but he could feel the hot tears soaking through his night shirt.
“But you weren’t there, daddy!” Anna hissed through her tears. “Mommy wasn’t there either. You were both dead! Only Sissy was there.” She stifled a quick, hard sob. “I had to take care of Sissy, and then she had to take care of me. There was nobody there to love us.”
“Oh, baby,” Henry once again wrapped his daughter in a strong embrace. “I’m so sorry. Mommy and I will always be here. We will love you as long as we live.”
Anna was silent. The warmth of her father’s arms thawed the icy fear stabbing her heart on this winter’s night. But her bottom lip trembled as she watched her nightlight throw pirouetting shadows across the room. She could still feel the loneliness and heartache as clearly as her father’s arms.
“Would you like me to lie down with you for a while?”
Anna nodded her little head and quieted one last sob.
As if lifting a feather, Henry picked his daughter up in one arm. He straightened her skewed covers then laid her gently beneath them. He lay down beside her, filling the twin bed with his giant frame. He slid her into the crook of his arm, placed her head on his chest, and pulled the down comforter over both of them. He knew her shivering wasn’t from the cold night. It was fear still gnawing at her bones. She was nestled at his side like a baby bird. Purposefully he slowed and deepened his breathing. Gradually, her shivering ceased as her body rose and fell to match his breaths.
“I don’t like the dark, Daddy,’ she said meekly after several minutes of silence.
“I know, baby,” he replied quietly. “But I’m right here now.”
“You weren’t tonight,” Anna insisted. “You and Mommy were dead.” She didn’t cry it out this time. She said it as simply as if she were reading one of her children’s books.
“It was only a dream,” Henry said wishing he could ease his daughter’s fears.
Again silence filled the room as shadows of ballerinas slowly danced across the dark timbers.
“When am I going to stop having bad dreams, Daddy?”
“I don’t know, baby-girl.”
“I want to have good dreams, Daddy. Dreams that make me happy. But my dreams are always so dark,” Anna paused before saying the rest. She was either afraid to admit it, or afraid that if she admitted it then her dark dreams would begin to come true. Finally her tremulous voice admitted the truth that she knew, “It always seems like death is waiting in the dark.”
“Well it’s not waiting tonight.”
Anna squirmed closer to her father as if she was afraid that she would fall back asleep and find him dead once again. She absorbed the sensations of being at his side. She breathed in the scents of the woods, streams and fields of Colorado clinging to his skin. She felt the sinewy power of his bicep and imagined it to be as strong as one of the timbers framing her room. Even the way her hair would cling to the bristles of his beard would always be with her. She buried these memories deeply in the soil of her soul hoping one day the seeds would grow and make her as strong as he was.
Anna’s eyelids grew heavy. Shadows continued to playfully dance around the room. Henry’s chest rose and fell with a comforting cadence. All was once again right in the world, and Anna started to fall asleep. Just as Anna’s body relaxed into the heaviness of slumber, her bed fell away from her with a lurch. She felt a tug at her leg. Her father’s large, strong hand was wrapped around her left ankle. His face twisted in terror as the disembodied evil of her dream began to swallow him. Reaching for a lifeline, he struggled not to fall into an abyss of swirling darkness. Shadowy dancers spun around the room with ever increasing frenzy. Henry desperately clung to his daughter’s small leg, yet an evil figure with wild hair which danced to the same frenzied pace was dragging him into the pit with shadows that should have been hands. Henry’s futile attempt to save himself was dragging Anna into the chasm with him. In fright she jerked back trying to free herself from the deadly grasp. She felt a snap at her knee, and Anna fell out of her nightmare.
Major Anna Griessmer woke from her dream with a jerk. It had been more than a dream. It had been another nightmare: the same nightmare that had been repeating itself for the past sixteen years. Her dreams were filled with ghastly images since she was a child, but she’d been having this exact same nightmare since college and a month before her parents died. And like so many dreams of her youth, it had been a faint premonition of the pain that would follow. So she let it fade into the cold, dark night like she had taught herself to do so many years ago. The C-130’s airframe rumbled with turbulence. Instinct, born of habit, made her touch the blue amulet hanging around her neck for good luck. A quick check of the cargo bay showed that her crew and her precious cargo were still safe and secure. The three MH-6 “Little Bird” helicopters filled the expansive plane. Tucked in various spots against the bulkhead, the crew and Major Griessmer were securely buckled into folding cloth seats. Most of them were asleep. A few were reading paperbacks or toying with some electronic device.
Anna would have stood up and stretched, but there was no room. The three, small choppers, her flight crews, and their gear barely fit in the transports. Instead of standing, she rubbed the sleep out of both eyes and checked her watch. Calculating that they only had another hour or two of flight time left, she grimaced as the airframe shuddered again. She was a pilot; she didn’t mind the turbulence. She did mind not being at the controls. After all, this was her flight element being transferred to Afghanistan. Well ... it was really only half of her team. The other half flew a mile behind them, identically packed into a similar C-130 flying.
She’d been flying with the Night Stalkers for six years now, but this was her first deployment as a Flight Lead. Starting out in the back of a transport truly annoyed her. She knew the routine. Her helicopters didn’t have the range, nor the speed, to make this hop in time. She’d flown sandwiched with these very birds in the back of C-130’s before. But this time was different. This time she was the senior officer and in charge.
For fifteen years Anna fought against the unspoken, sweeping current of ‘boys and their toys.’ She was a woman in a man’s world. She was a woman in a man’s war. While the Army labored to become fully integrated, she was the only female pilot for the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. There had been others. There sure as hell would be more, but for now the young Major remained the unit’s token female. Not that she’d been given her spot to fill a quota. No one would ever think that about Major Griessmer. She excelled at everything she pursued. She outflew the boys. She led by example even when no one was looking. She’d sacrificed friendships and romance so that she could advance in this man’s Army. She’d worked harder and longer than any of her male counterparts, because unfortunately as a woman, she had to. But her efforts were all paying off. Sporting a pair of shiny, new, gold oak leaves, marking her rank as a Major, Griessmer now led a mission transporting a flight element to Afghanistan in support of other teams with the 160th. The sum of her training converged to this moment. This was her dream job, and the dream was finally becoming a reality.
A third bout of turbulence roused her memory. She’d been jolted awake from a dream. Right? She couldn’t mentally grasp the dream, but its vague impression felt familiar ... no, it was more than familiar. It was a dream formed from the clay of memories and molded by a future, which was now her past. It was a dream that clung to her sleep with desperate tenacity, but it was also hidden by the protective veils of her psyche. A part of Anna knew that she would continually endure this nightmare until some future event laid the distant past to rest. But a silent, more determined, part of her mind buried this nightmare deep within the wells of her soul to be forgotten. It was the secret part of her psyche that believed, truly believed, that her dark dreams had the power to forecast the future. What had the dream been? A few details lingered, but they were too fragmented to piece back together. Anna strained hard for several seconds to recall the dream. The more she struggled, the more she could feel it slipping through her fingers like sand. She had trained herself well as a child and could lock the darkness in a silent, shuttered part of her soul like a closed-off wing of a vacant mansion. Eventually she shrugged her shoulders and surrendered. Decades of practice taught her to abandon the horrors of the night behind and focus on the task at hand.
Determined, she grabbed the briefcase beside her, opened it up, and began reviewing her orders for when they landed. As the senior officer, her job was to check in with their new commanding officer. She had prepped everything before they’d left Iraq, but she roused herself, reviewing all the necessary details. That was where the devil lay after all. Anna’s nightmare with its familiar feeling of impending doom was released into the slipstream as the C-130 sped through the black night – forgotten until it would be dreamt once again.
Forty years of war transformed Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan. Six years earlier, Major Griessmer stood on the campus as a Black Hawk pilot, ferrying boys from the 10th Mountain Division around the peaks and valleys of the Hindu Kush Mountains. The base had experienced tremendous growth since she was last there. But this time, she wasn’t headed to the Bagram she knew. The C-130’s taxied to the north-western perimeter of the airfield after landing. The hangers, offices and barracks at this end of the base were part of Camp Vance. Camp Vance was the Afghan home of Special Operations Command and those who flew for them. Now it was the new home for Major Griessmer and her Little Bird detachment.
While the crews unloaded their choppers and made them ready for air operations, the Major met with their new C.O. She received updated orders, secured barracks, and attended to all the details required for her small squadron to begin flight operations that very night. Few Army aviators flew at such a high operational tempo as the Night Stalkers. One of their company creeds asserted that they would be ready to move at a moment’s notice anytime, anywhere, arriving time on target plus or minus thirty seconds. This capability made them invaluable to special operators worldwide. Consequently, any Night Stalker element was expected to be up and running within hours of hitting the tarmac.
Major Griessmer’s flight element was no different. Her crew chiefs spent the early morning hours poring over the helicopters, making sure they were in perfect condition and adapted for the high altitude flying that they would be doing. Her pilots took the time to settle in to their new accommodations and catch some sleep because they certainly wouldn’t be getting it tonight. The Major’s morning consisted of mission prep, planning, and coordinating with the commander of the Ranger Platoon who would be covertly inserted under the cover of night. She checked with the multiple Air Force, Army, Marine, Navy, and Afghan National Army liaisons to make certain that her birds weren’t going to get shot out of the sky by friendly fire. The Major finished her pre-flight briefings and visited the hanger where her birds were parked to confirm that her crew chiefs had everything they needed to prep the birds for the night’s operation.
About noon local time, she finally arrived at her barrack. Camp Vance housed its special operators and their flight crews near the airfield in dormitory style housing. The Night Stalkers were placed in small buildings that were modified shipping containers. At six hundred square feet per unit, each barrack could house four soldiers with bunk beds, individual latrines, and a shower. It certainly wasn’t five star accommodations, but it was air-conditioned and close to their hangers. Most officers shared one of these units with another officer, giving them a little more space and privacy. But because space was limited, and she was the only female officer serving at Camp Vance, Anna was assigned to bunk with two enlisted females. Forward deployment situation necessitated “innovative accommodations” for females, as the Army still struggled with how to incorporate women into combat operations. Anna didn’t mind. Her bunkmates were a part of her ground crew. They would be working different shifts,and would only see each other in passing or on the flight line.
As an officer bunking with enlisted, the Major got to pick her bunk – her solitary perk. Anna tossed her duffle bag on the lower bunk that was furthest from the door. A sly smile spread across her face as a small cloud of fine dust rose from the mattress. This was the same as every deployment she’d been on before. No matter how nice the accommodations or how hard you tried to keep a place clean, the Army never deployed anywhere without dirt and dust. Too keyed up to sleep and too fidgety to unpack, she needed to burn off some energy.
She dug through her bag and retrieved her running shoes, some shorts, and an old Army t-shirt. Taking less than a minute to change, she jogged the two blocks to the airstrip, passed the hangers, and headed south paralleling the runways. It was midday, and the base buzzed with activity. Transports and the occasional pair of fighter jets were taking off or landing. Fuel trucks and other support vehicles were rolling from hanger to hanger. And like every military base in the world, soldiers who were not otherwise occupied, enjoyed a lunchtime run.
Bagram’s main airstrip roughly measured two miles in length. Anna’s plan was to run parallel its length, then run back to her bunk, shower, and get a few hours of shut-eye before she had to begin pre-flight briefings with her pilots. A mile into her run, the stiffness of the all-night flight burned out of her legs. She was beginning to lengthen her stride and put some effort into it when two soldiers trotted up beside her. Both men wore the short, black running shorts ubiquitous in the Army and t-shirts emblazoned with Ranger Battalion logos. The shirts still looked stiff, and the print appeared unwashed. The men were young – a good ten years younger than Anna. They exuded overconfident, male hubris.
“Well, hello there, gorgeous!” the shorter of the two started. “Mind if we join you?”
Anna didn’t say a word. She didn’t change her stride. She was clearly older than these boys. They should’ve assumed that she outranked them and behaved with more decorum. But they were no more than boys who were still wet behind the ears, so she took pity on them.
“We’re with the 75th,” said the taller, second soldier. As if that explained everything.
Anna knew who the 75th Rangers were. They were some of the toughest soldiers in the Army. She had been coordinating with their Colonel only an hour ago.
“I fly with the 160th,” Anna replied out of courtesy.
“Hey! She’s a bus driver!” the shorter, cockier soldier shouted to his buddy.
Anna hated that term. It was pejorative. She began her career flying “buses”: Black Hawks that flew a variety of cargo from troops, to supplies, to the dead. She now led an elite unit that saw the thickest of the action as they flew special operators in or out of the fight. These boys had no idea the years of training, nor the precision flying that her unit embodied. Instead of picking a fight or starting a lecture right there on the flight line, she simply replied, “Yeah, something like that.”
“How long have you been flying buses?” the tall one asked.
“A few years,” Anna answered non-committedly. “How long have you been Rangers?”
“Four months,” the cocky one answered as if mere months constituted a life-long commitment.
“How about joining us for lunch after our run?” asked the tall soldier hopefully.
Anna looked over at him and caught him looking at her back side.
“I don’t think so,” she said flatly, increasing her pace.
The young men quickened their pace to match hers.
“Oh come on,” the first one whined. “Don’t be like that. We haven’t seen you around the base. We’re just trying to be friendly.”
Anna chuckled to herself. She knew what they were trying to be. “That’s all right. I’ve got enough friends.” Anna picked up the pace again.
Both men matched her increased speed.
The second soldier tried again, “Hey, we’re not trying to be offensive. We’d like to get to know you. We’re only inviting you to lunch at the mess hall.”
Anna jogged to a stop as they approached the end of the runway. It was time to put an end to this. The roar of a C5 transport was loud enough, as it clawed its way skyward, that she could collect her thoughts. Neither of these young men knew who they were talking to. Neither of them knew the number of times she’d dealt with this type of garbage during her sixteen years as a female in the Army. She could either pull rank and bust their balls, or ... Anna smiled sweetly at both of the boys.
“Ok. Let’s have a race. If you win then I’ll join you for lunch. If I win, then you never approach me again.”
Both soldiers laughed. The shorter one replied, “Honey, we’re Rangers. We lead the way.”
The taller one spun around and pointed to the gold letters emblazoned across the back of his shirt. “My t-shirt even says it.”
The boys might have thought she was smiling at them, but Anna was really smiling to herself. “So, just to be clear. We are running past the last hanger at the north end of the runway.”
The cocky one looked over their route and nodded. “You sure you want to do this? You’re a bus driver. You sit all day long. We’re trained to run all day long.”
“I know how you’re trained,” Anna answered with a nod. “And yeah, I’m sure.”
“Ok,” the cocky one replied.
“Are we gonna do ready, set, go?” asked the tall one.
“No,” Anna said with a dismissive wave of her hand. “You’re Rangers. You lead the way. I’ll give you a five second head start.”
The taller soldier looked at his buddy with the hint of a worried expression, but the cocky one dispelled it with a shake of his head.
“Don’t say we didn’t warn you,” he said as both men took off.
Anna patiently counted five seconds and then began running. For the first quarter mile she matched their speed. It was a good pace. These boys could probably do this all day long, but so could she. And she was already warmed up. The kinks had been worked out of her legs, and her heart and lungs were adjusted to the increased workload. So Anna did what she knew to do: she slowed her breathing and lengthened her stride.
At 5’6” she was shorter than both men in front of her. Stride alone would never catch them, but Anna was a college distance runner. That training was further honed when she made it to the 160th. They trained with their customers, and she’d spent the last six months training with SEALS and Delta Force operators in the furnace of Iraq. Few of them could beat her there. These two schmucks didn’t stand a chance. Within half a mile, she caught both of the Rangers. By the end of a full mile, she passed them, and they were trying to keep up. When there was only a half mile left, Anna looked over her shoulder, gave a coy “come and get me” grin, waved, and then poured on the gas. Years of determination had taught her that she could endure the pain. She sprinted the last quarter mile and finished the race with a perfect tour jeté. Then she curtsied like a ballerina as the two, young men crossed the finish line thirty seconds after her.
“Legs!” shouted a joyous voice from inside the nearby hanger. “No one else does ballet on the flight line!”
A breathless Anna turned to see a tall, lean officer striding across the field. His hair, like most other on the base, was so closely cropped to his scalp that it was hard to see its fiery, red color. However the thick red beard glowed like bronze in the sunlight. His face spread in an affable smile and his arms extended wide expecting a hug.
“McKenzie!” Anna greeted him in a warm embrace. “Look at you! A Captain and a Ranger now!” She said patting the rank insignia on his chest and the Ranger tab on his shoulder.
“How the hell are you? What are you now? A Captain? A Major?” Tim McKenzie asked.
“A Major,” Anna noticed both of the young Rangers go rigid.
“How’s your baby sister?” he asked with the concern of a big brother.
“She’s in a good place now,” Anna answered. “Thanks again for your help with that situation.”
Tim knew she didn’t want to talk about it, but he had to know how Sara was doing. “How long has it been since we last saw each other? Four years?”
“That sounds about right.” Anna nodded.
For the first time Tim noticed his Rangers standing to the side. Despite being desperate for breath, they were trying their best to stand at attention. He looked back at Anna and noticed her sweaty panting too.
“What’s going on here?” he asked. The inflection in his voice was the same as when he’d caught one of his four brothers trying to pull a prank on him.
The corner of Anna’s mouth curled into a smile and both Rangers grew a little whiter.
“I challenged these young men to a foot race, and they accepted.”
Tim’s face exploded with mirth. “They?” he pointed at the men, “Thought they could beat you?”
Tim’s laugh came out like the roar of a lion.
“Gentlemen,” he proclaimed as if officiating the start of the Indy 500, “did you know you were racing the fastest woman in the Army?”
Both men answered quickly and quietly, “No, sir.”
Still laughing from the idea of two of his troopers attempting to beat the great Anna Griessmer, he added, “That’s how she got her call sign: Legs. She outran everyone in Officer Candidate School. Then she did it again in flight school. I bet she can outrun anybody on this base.” The Captain leaned over and pretended to whisper, “And she’s a hell of a lot tougher than she looks, so I wouldn’t piss her off.” He finished his gentle admonition with a wink, letting both men know he fully understood what happened leading up to the race.
Tim turned his attention back to Anna. “Who are you flying with now?”
“I’m a flight lead with the 160th. I’m over a Little Bird element that just arrived ...” Anna checked her watch, “... about six hours ago.”
“Whoa! You’ve been moving up in the world. Last time we saw each other you were with their Green Platoon. Now you fly the big boys into the fight! Though I can’t say I’m surprised. You always were a go-getter.”
Anna patted Tim on the shoulder. “It’s good to see you McKenzie. I’ve got a briefing in a few hours, and I haven’t slept since five am yesterday.”
“Say no more,” Tim said giving her one more, giant hug. “I know we’ll be seeing each other around the base, but we’ve got to make some time to catch up.”
“I’d like that,” Anna said as she turned to go. “We’re operating out of the hangers up by Camp Vance. Come look me up some afternoon.”
“I’ll do that, Legs,” Tim called after her.
All three men stood watching her lithe figure walk back towards the barracks area. Even the oversized Army t-shirt couldn’t hide the grace and beauty that a lifetime of ballet had ingrained into her stride. Of course, the running shorts only helped to display the beautiful legs that justified the moniker.
“Sir?” the cocky Ranger asked quietly. “How do you know the Major?”
“We were classmates in ROTC back in college. Believe it or not, she went there on a dance scholarship. We were commissioned together, took different career paths in the Army, and didn’t see each other again. Six years ago, I was a 2nd Lieutenant with the 10th Mountain. My platoon got caught in an ambush on some God-forsaken ridgeline. The Taliban were reigning hell fire on us from every direction. We had mortars and small arms fire coming in as thick as rain. We were out of range of artillery support, and all air assets were tied up. We had circled the wagons and didn’t know if we’d make it. I thought we were going to die. All of sudden, this Black Hawk crests the nearest ridgeline and lands right on top of our position. Legs is sitting in the pilot’s seat, the chopper is getting shot to shit, and then I hear her calmly ask over the radio if we need a lift. That Black Hawk was so badly shot up that she had to fight to keep it in the air. But she got my whole platoon back alive. Did you notice that necklace she wears?” Tim looked at both troopers who were shaking their heads. They hadn’t been paying as much attention to her clothing as they had been to the curves that filled it. Tim continued, “She got that as a gift from our translator’s wife. It was a thank you for getting him back alive. It’s some kind of good luck talisman.”
Tim turned his gaze off his young troopers and back to Anna’s sultry form. “Don’t fool yourselves, boys. She may look fine, but she’s got balls of brass. She is an angel of the night, armored for battle and willing to fly through the gates of Hell to save our asses if we ever need it.”
Six months of air operations in Afghanistan sped by in the blink of an eye – the result of flying two to three missions a night. Flying special operators meant flying under the cover of night. Occasionally, they flew by day, but mostly they only came at night. And this moonless night was no different as she finalized the checklist with her co-pilot.
“That’s the last of it, Legs,” confirmed Skids. “All we gotta do is call in the customers.”
Legs quickly re-inspected the instrument panel. Her systems looked good. Tonight should be a milk run. They were inserting SEALs covertly outside of a town for surveillance. Their element of four birds would stealthily snake their way through the peaks and valleys as they flew fifty feet above the terrain to drop their assets in place. She keyed her radio, “Control, this is Dark Horse Lead. We are ready.” Before Anna finished, she could see the SEALs, dressed in all black, jogging towards the aircraft.
Legs and Skids looked at each other as the SEALs climbed onto the external benches of the choppers. Neither pilot had flipped their night vision goggles into place yet, and their faces appeared as cutouts placed inside the black helmets. This was the best part of any mission. The adrenaline was starting to run. The smell of jet fuel filled your nose. The whine of the engine drowned out any noise that wasn’t transmitted over the intercom. And the helicopter hummed with the energy of the crew and passengers. But most importantly, nothing had gone wrong yet. Anna loved this job. She was truly “living the dream.” The pilots began their pre-flight ritual.
“Death waits in the dark,” Skids repeated the Night Stalkers motto.
“And we’re the ones who bring it!” Legs replied fist bumping Skids.
With a quick touch to her good luck charm, the ritual was done. This routine was as vital to the pre-flight checklist as making certain that the fuel tanks were full.
Legs glanced over her left shoulder. The SEAL team leader gave her a thumbs up, and she lip read the words: “Good to go.”
She keyed her radio, “Dark Horse Lead is ready.”
A confirmation followed from each of the other three pilots in tonight’s mission.
Then Command weighed in on their flight: “Dark Horse, this is Cowboy. You are cleared for takeoff.”
“Roger that, Cowboy. Dark Horse out,” Legs answered.
The helicopter lifted into the air, smoothly but swiftly. Stomachs plummeted to the ground as the Little Bird throttled up and shot skyward. The tower didn’t give any vectors as in civilian airspace – a result of the previous logistics planning hours before. Legs piloted her flight element northeast at 100 feet, clearing all the base structures. As soon as they cleared the base, they dropped to 50 feet, turning due north. They’d reach Saiad Road in 1 min and 13 seconds, then bank west on a heading of 068 degrees until they reached the Darya-ye-Pamaher river in 4 minutes and 21 seconds, following that river up to the base of the mountains. At that point, the computer would guide them from waypoint to waypoint. Each waypoint possessed a time indicator, and Legs knew that she would hit every one exactly on time. That’s what Night Stalkers did. Eventually they would drop their customer’s off on the backside of a mountain peak. The SEALs would hike to the ridgeline, make a concealed observation post, and spend the next few days reporting enemy activity. The birds operated in complete radio silence, but Legs knew that they were flying exactly twenty seconds apart. Skids busily confirmed time tables at each turn, watching for unexpected obstacles. God, she loved this! There was no thrill like skimming fifty feet above the earth at over two hundred-fifty miles per hour.
Two hours later, they’d deposited the customers. Anna led her team away from the landing zone so swiftly that the green glow of the terrain was a blur in her night vision goggles. The only remaining objective was to return to base undetected. Again, every detail had been planned thoroughly beforehand. Each pilot knew their waypoints, and the computers only served as backups. All the birds were silent, but they were still listening to the communications being transmitted from the AWAC’s controlling their flight space. The AWAC’s call sign was Eagle Five. Eagle Five was a specially outfitted Boeing 707 flying at 30,000 feet above her. Its downward radar and communications gear oversaw everything in the battle space below it. It coordinated air assets in the region, so that they could aid each other and cripple the enemy. So far, all remained quiet tonight. Then a call came in, piquing Legs’ interest.
“Eagle Five, this is Specter Seven. We are bingo fuel.”
Somewhere in the airspace an AC-130 gunship was running out of gas, necessitating an immediate return to base.
“Roger that, Specter Seven. Recommend that you vector 220 to return to base.”
“Confirm that, Eagle Five. However, I am still supporting a small ground element down here that is about to be overrun. Are there any other assets that can assist?”
Legs instantly keyed her internal microphone, “Skids, are you listening to this?”
“Confirm that, Specter Seven. We have a Quick Reaction Force en route.”
“Eagle Five, What’s the QRFs ETA? From where we’re sitting these guys have about ten minutes before a force of over three hundred hostiles crest the next ridge and overrun their position.”
“Specter Seven, the QRF is fifteen minutes out.”
“Eagle Five, your QRF will be too late. These guys are getting the hell pounded out of them already. We are the only thing covering their retreat. They need assistance immediately.”
Legs knew that the AC-130 had already called bingo fuel. If he didn’t fly home now, he wouldn’t have enough fuel to reach the airbase. He was risking his plane and his crew by staying on station.
“Specter Seven, we have no other elements available at this time. We have notified command of your assessment. Fighters and a QRF are routed to your position but they will not arrive for fifteen minutes. Command is recommending that you return to base.”
Legs made her next way point and turned on a southeasterly course, once again climbing. Clearing this last mountain peak would allow them to descend into a river valley and follow it most of the way back to Bagram. She checked her fuel gauges, mentally calculated fuel levels, and double checked the instruments.
“Eagle Five,” Specter Seven replied, “these boys won’t make it that long. They are a small fire team and taking heavy contact from an adjoining ridgeline. I repeat again: there are approximately three hundred fighters who are estimated to be ten minutes from engaging them. They won’t last fifteen minutes.” Specter Seven’s voice was calm but laced with frustration.
“Specter Seven, we confirm your last transmission. Turn on a heading of 220 and return to base.”
Legs knew that they were under orders to maintain radio silence. She also knew that they’d already delivered their customers. The time for caution was over. As flight lead, it was her call to make. She keyed her radio, “Specter Seven, this is Dark Horse Lead. What is your location and how many boys are we talking about? We may be able to assist with a dust off.”
The coordinates sounded over the radio, and Legs looked at Skids. As he calculated their fuel capacity with a pad and pencil on his leg, he looked like a Star Wars character in his night vision goggles and flight helmet. Within three seconds he looked up and nodded. They had enough fuel to divert and pick up the American team.
“Specter Seven, this is Dark Horse Lead. We are good to go and are diverting now. ETA is six minutes. What can you tell me about the battle zone?”
“Roger that, Dark Horse Lead. You’ve got a six man Ranger element on the lower summit of a mountain. They are backed up to a cliff with a couple hundred foot drop on the southern face of their peak. There is a north-south saddle that is separating them from the main enemy force. There was a bunker on the higher slope that we took out, but there are now fighters with heavy machine guns and rocket propelled grenades in that rubble. There is a large enemy force approaching up the eastern slope. I would recommend a westerly approach. Our guys are under heavy fire at this time. Good luck. I will relay your intent to the ground commander and then head home. Specter Seven out.”
Skids entered in the new flight plan into the computer so that the heads up display would direct them. Legs’ bird reached the mountain peak, and she threw it into a hard right turn. No more flying map of the earth. She prepared to swoop in high and fast to extract those men.
“Eagle five, this is Dark Horse Lead. We are headed on a vector of 315,” Legs spoke as Skids gave her a thumbs up. With the new data in the computer, the heads up display appeared on her cockpit window. “Our ETA is 5.5 minutes. Can you connect me to the ground commander?”
“Dark Horse, this is Eagle Five. We see your approach vector ...”
Eagle Five was interrupted, “Dark Horse Lead, this is Cowboy. We recommend that you return to base at this time. We DO NOT recommend that you engage without fire support.”
Legs recognized that command didn’t want more casualties on that mountain. None of their helicopters carried rockets or heavy machine guns, and they possessed no offensive weapons tonight. That was why they were getting the wave off. She glanced at Skids.
“Screw command,” he said over the internal intercom. “We don’t leave those Rangers to die alone.”
Legs grinned as she keyed her radio, “Cowboy, we understand that this is a volunteer mission. We plan to rescue our men.”