Silent Enemy Excerpt
The world went away, and every part of her hurt. But nothing made any noise. Silence rang pure as the thoughts of the dead. Sergeant Major Gold knew only that some power threw her in every direction at once, flung projectiles against her in the darkness. She was so close to the explosion the sound never registered.
A moment before, the lights had been on in her office. Now her office no longer existed; nothing existed but blackness and force. No room even for fear, just shock and confusion. Then Gold’s senses began to return. Dust, grit, smell of burning. An odor like nitric acid.
The fragments of her consciousness reconnected; her mind started to function again. For an instant, she thought with purely professional interest, So this is what it’s like to die in a bombing. Pain behind her eyes, a keening in her ears. What was that sound? Screams.
Gold moved her fingers. Twitched her foot. Bent a knee. Everything hurt, but it all worked. She couldn’t imagine how that was possible.
She eased up into a sitting position, checked for injuries. Maybe not bad, nothing broken. She coughed, and that hurt worse. Cracked ribs, maybe. Probably a concussion. Lucky. But what about everybody else?
Gold felt for her helmet and rifle. The helmet had disappeared, but her fingers found the M-4. She wanted to fight, but she knew whoever did this was either long gone or dead with his victims. She used the weapon as a crutch to pick herself up from the floor. Then she struck her head on a collapsed beam.
This day had always been coming, she knew. The Afghan National Police central training facility in Kabul made an obvious target for the Taliban. Gold helped run the literacy program; her office on the west end of the first floor was as far from the main entrance as it could have been. That was the reason she wasn’t burned or crushed.
She coughed again, spat phlegm. Squinted through smoke, looked for the door. No door remained anywhere. But she found a gap in the wall.
Outside, Gold took a clean breath. She inhaled once more, and that felt better. Still some pain in the chest. She staggered along the wall until she reached the front of the training center.
The explosion had ripped open the concrete building, side to side, top to bottom, all four floors, like some monstrous shovel had torn an oval scoop from the front of the entire structure. A burned mass of steel lay on the ground near the blast crater, the engine block from what must have been a truck bomb. Moans, shouts, and curses came from within the rubble in Pashto, Dari, and English. Gold picked her way through broken masonry and twisted beams. She found part of a hand, with three fingers. A bloody scrap of uniform. A boot with a foot inside.
A lone fire truck sputtered into view. Its horn blared in deep, staccato bursts. Afghan and U.S. flag decals marked the new Ford with labeling that read in three languages: FIRE AND RESCUE STAY BACK. A second truck arrived. Firefighters clung to the side of the vehicles, bands of yellow reflective fabric across the backs of their turnout coats.
The men pressurized a hose and opened its blast onto flames flickering thirty feet from Gold. A black spray of water and soot spattered her face. She fought tears, called names: “Hamid? Hikmatullah?” No answer but indistinguishable cries from victims hidden within the scene of destruction around her. The fires, crater, smoke, and screams made it seem hell itself had ruptured and burst up through the ground.
Gold found her way to the rear of the training center, where an exterior wall stood intact. She pulled open a door, entered the part of the building where her classroom used to be. Little remained to distinguish one room from another. Each was open to the street outside, like a doll-house with the front removed.
“Ma’am,” called an American voice. A man in firefighting gear, maybe a civilian adviser. “Stay out of there!”
Gold ignored him. She climbed stairs exposed to the sky. The thump of helicopter rotors began to build, grew louder. A Black Hawk settled onto the grounds of the police center.
She shouted names over the noise. No reply. Water trickled from a broken pipe. Odor like car exhaust and trash fire. Then she heard a familiar voice.
“Maalim, maalim.” Teacher.
The young man cried out again, and she found him. Mahsoud lay on his back in the remains of a hallway. Dust covered him, but Gold could see that his face was badly burned. He looked at her through reddened eyes. A section of wall had fallen across his legs.
“Daa kharaab dai,” he said. It is bad.
Seeing him like that made her want to rage, to cry, to strike out. Be professional, she told herself. ABC. Airway, Breathing, Circulation. If he can talk to me, then he has the A and the B. She felt the carotid artery. Pulse fast but weak. The C could be better.
Gold tried to remove the concrete slab on his left thigh. She pushed so hard she thought her spine would crack. No movement. She pushed again. The slab moved a quarter inch, and Mahsoud screamed.
“Zeh mutaasif yum,” she said. I’m sorry. Then she shouted, “Medic!” The helicopter had shut down now. Gold assumed it carried medical help.
She could not lose Mahsoud. Her favorite student. Unlike many young men his age, he had somehow managed to learn to read during Taliban rule. So Gold was teaching him English while she taught the other police recruits to read their own language.
He reached out to her with his left hand. His right was mangled. She took his hand, and he squeezed so hard it hurt. The grip of a blacksmith, his father’s occupation.
“You’re going to be all right, buddy,” she said.
He took two labored breaths, then said, “What is this word you call me?”
“Like friend. Companion.”
“This is good English word.”
“Medic,” Gold yelled. “Now!”
A Navy corpsman appeared and kneeled beside Gold and Mahsoud. The petty officer put a stethoscope to his ears and listened to Mahsoud’s chest. Shone a light into his eyes. Felt his abdomen, arms, ribs.
“Does it hurt to breathe?” asked the corpsman.
Gold thought Mahsoud would understand, but she repeated the question in Pashto, anyway. Mahsoud nodded.
“Do you have other pain?”
Mahsoud nodded again. The corpsman uncapped a needle, gave Mahsoud an injection. Then the corpsman shone his light under the concrete that trapped Mahsoud. Gold leaned to look. When she saw, she hoped Mahsoud did not notice her shock.
His lower left leg was bent back toward his thigh at an impossible angle. A section of rebar, twisted and sheared into a meat hook, had spiked the knee. A horror of torn flesh. But not much blood.
“Can we get this concrete off him?” Gold asked.
“Even with the right equipment, this would be a tough extrication,” the corpsman said. “That concrete is trapping him, but it’s also keeping him from bleeding to death.”
“He can’t stay here forever. What are you going to do?”
“I’ll have to let my skipper handle this. He’s a surgeon.”
Gold didn’t like the sound of that. “Will he amputate?” she asked.
“If you put aside the problem of moving the patient, that leg still looks bad. I think he has some lung injury, too.”
He’s not “the patient,” Gold thought. He has a name. He wants to help his fellow Afghans. God knows, their police need people who are trainable and honest.
“What about my leg?” Mahsoud asked in Pashto.
“They will do all they can,” Gold said.
“You must not let them take my leg. You know I want to be a policeman.”
The corpsman’s radio barked. The man pressed a talk switch and said, “Yes, sir. Second floor. Be careful coming up. Severe trauma to the left leg, probable smoke inhalation. Entrapped patient, conscious and alert.”
Gold surveyed the mess around her. Smoke still rising here and there. Tangled pipes and conduits. Pools of reddish water. Wailing of the wounded. Lives ruined by terrorists who thought they would launch themselves to paradise on a load of fertilizer and diesel fuel, or maybe a trunk full of daisy-chained 105s. Again.
The corpsman kneeled, twisted open a water bottle. He dribbled water onto the burned part of Mahsoud’s face. Then he tore open a foil package and took out a dressing wet with some compound. Placed it across Mahsoud’s cheek.
The doctor arrived, peeled off bloody latex gloves, and put on fresh ones. He clicked on a light to see Mahsoud’s leg. Looked around at the fallen concrete. Sighed hard.
“Tell him I’m going to have to take off that leg,” the doctor said. “I’m sorry.”
“He understands you, sir,” Gold said.
Mahsoud began to cry. “I was going to be a bomb technician,” he said. “Now I will become a street beggar.”
“I do not know what you will become,” Gold said in Pashto. “But you will never be a beggar.”
“I wanted to help stop these apostates.”
“You will, my friend. You will find another way.”
The surgeon scissored Mahsoud’s trousers. Then he injected three syringes and waited for the anesthetic to take effect.
“Look at me, Mahsoud,” Gold said. “I want you to look at my face.” Look at anything but the cutting.
“Do not let go of my hand, teacher.”
“I won’t. I’ll stay right here.”
The surgeon opened a case and took out a long, stainless steel knife.
At Bagram Air Base north of Kabul, Major Michael Parson peered out the cockpit windows of his C-5 Galaxy. He was waiting for aerial port to load several old Humvees into the aircraft’s cargo compartment. The worn-out vehicles were supposed to be going back to Al Udeid Air Base, in Qatar. Parson wanted to take off as soon as possible. Get the hell out of this godforsaken country. But when he’d checked in at the Air Operations Center, the intel guys were talking about a major explosion nearby. There was no telling how that might affect flight operations.
Static crackled from loudspeakers on the steel lamp poles along the ramp. Then, an announcement on Giant Voice: “Attention on base. Bagram is at Force Protection Condition Delta. MASF personnel stand by for a mass casualty event.”
The flight engineer, Sergeant Dunne, sat at the engineer’s panel. He wore his headset over salt-and-pepper hair a little longer than regulation. He unwrapped the foil on a stick of Wrigley’s and chewed it with a frown, as if the gum tasted strange. Dunne took off his headset, interrupted his preflight checks.
“What the hell’s going on?” he asked. “There’s all kinds of chatter on the tower frequency.”
Parson looked out the cockpit windows. A pair of F-16s launched, the streak-scream of their takeoff rumbling over the base in waves. The jets rode the orange-and-blue flames of their afterburners in a near-vertical climb, and they vanished from sight as they soared higher.
If they’re putting up fighters for a combat air patrol, Parson thought, this must be bigger than the usual suicide bombing. Coordinated with other attacks, maybe? He looked to the south, where the fighter jets had disappeared.
“Just keep your preflight going,” Parson said, “but watch your back.”
“Will do,” Dunne said.
“I’ll check in at ops and see what’s happening.”
As Parson jogged across the ramp, he heard the whine of aircraft turbines, then felt the wind from helicopter rotors. On the Army flight line, blades spun on three H-60s, red crosses on their sides. One by one, the Black Hawks lifted off, hover-taxied from the apron, and fluttered away to the south. Going to pick up wounded, Parson guessed.
Inside flight ops, the babble of voices mixed with the squelch and pop of radios, the jangle of telephones. Parson found the air base commander, a full bird colonel. The sleeves were rolled up on his ABU fatigues. Beretta in a holster across his chest. Handset to his ear.
“At the police center?” he said. “Yes, sir. We have an aeromed team ready to go. Yes, sir, I’ll hold.”
“Colonel, I’m the aircraft commander of Reach Three-Four-Six,” Parson said. “Is my mission on schedule?”
“You’re not a Reach call sign anymore,” the colonel said. “We’re putting you on an Air Evac mission to Germany. We’re going to get a shitload of patients. Most of them will need to fly to Landstuhl.”
There had to be some mixup. Other planes, like the C-130, were far better configured for patients. Easier to get the wounded on and off. More reliable pressurization. Parson had done plenty of aeromedical flights during his days as a C-130 navigator. But this was his first mission as a C-5 aircraft commander. The last thing he needed was a task neither he nor his crew had ever done on a C-5, a plane never meant for air ambulance flights.
“I want to help,” Parson said, “but are you sure this is a good idea?”
“We don’t really have a choice,” the colonel said. “You’re all we have to work with at Bagram. There are some patient support pallets in storage at one of the hangars here. Once your loadmasters install them, the aeromeds will take it from there.”
Not ideal, Parson thought, but we can make it work. Install the pallets, run some dropcords to power the aeromeds’ equipment, and we’ll have ourselves a flying hospital. A damned big one, too. Parson was proud to fly the largest aircraft in the Air Force fleet. Nearly two hundred and fifty feet long, with a max weight of more than four hundred tons, the C-5 could transport outsized cargo that nothing else could carry. But the A-models were older than many of the crew members who flew them. And with all those miles of wiring and tubing, in a mix of technology from two different centuries, a lot could go wrong.
When Parson got back to the tarmac, choppers were already returning with wounded. Dust and exhaust mingled in their rotor wash, stung his eyes, abraded his throat.
At the C-5, his four loadmasters were sliding the patient support pallets into place. Each pallet had stanchions for mounting stretchers. The loadmasters had expected to chain down ten Humvees, but now they were setting up for about forty wounded.
“Do you guys have everything you need for this?” Parson asked the senior load.
“I think so, sir. We had to break out the books to make sure we did this by the T.O. I used to carry patients on the C-141 all the time, but I ain’t never done it on this thing.”
Parson watched the crewmen slide the last pallet across the rollers. The loadmasters flipped cargo locks up from recesses in the floor, kicked the locks into place. An industrial scene of clanking metal, grease-stained checklists, commands shouted over the whine of the auxiliary power units.
Once the aircraft was configured, a bus with a red crescent on the side backed up to the open aft ramp. A loadmaster stood on the ramp, guided the bus driver with hand signals. The loadmaster crossed his fists, and the bus stopped next to a stair truck positioned against the ramp. The aeromed team–two commissioned flight nurses and three enlisted flight medics–began hoisting their litter patients up the stairs.
Other crew members continued their preflight checks. Dunne stood under the number four engine, looking up at the cowling.
On the way into Bagram, the MADAR computer had spat out a fault code for abnormal vibration on number four. Parson had thought he was going to have to shut down an engine and declare an emergency. Turned out not to be necessary, but now he was suspicious of that engine.
“Is that one going to be all right?” Parson asked.
“As long as you keep her out of the vibe range,” Dunne said.
Of course I’ll keep it out of the vibe range, Parson thought. Flight engineers seemed to think all pilots were idiots.
With his flight suit sleeve, he wiped sweat from his face. Unlike his last trip, today it was hot at Bagram. Clear and a million, too: unlimited visibility. You could see all the way into the Panjshir Valley. Bagram lay in the flat part of a bowl: scrubby vegetation dotted rocky soil that stretched into a rim of gray mountains.
It would be cooler at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, Parson’s new destination. Close to the military’s Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, one of the few hospitals in the world prepared to handle so many trauma patients at one time. Poor bastards. Most had probably never been out of Afghanistan. They had to get blown up and burned in numbers beyond what Afghan hospitals could handle to get out of this hellhole.
Parson climbed the crew ladder into the cargo compartment. The aeromeds hovered over their patients, some hooked up to monitors, a few with chest tubes, some apparently unconscious, many wide-eyed with apprehension. Human wreckage. A medicine smell like rubbing alcohol overpowered the usual airplane odors of grease and hydraulic fluid.
He found the medical crew director and introduced himself. Her flight suit bore the wings of an aeromedical nurse and the insignia of a lieutenant colonel. She wore rimless eyeglasses with a lanyard attached to the stems.
“Ma’am,” Parson said. “My crew isn’t used to this kind of thing, but we’ll do the best we can.” Though Parson was the aircraft commander, he still owed courtesies of rank to the MCD.
“And we’re not used to this airframe,” she said, “but a lot of these patients are in very bad shape, and they need to fly out on anything that’s available.”
She sounded as though she didn’t like the arrangements any more than Parson did. But sometimes in war you had to improvise, make do with the resources at hand.
A loadmaster handed Parson some paperwork.
“Form F and manifest, sir.”
Parson signed the weight-and-balance sheet, then scanned the passenger-and-patient manifest. Afghan names, mainly, blanks for Social Security numbers. A few Western names, perhaps advisers and trainers. He stopped on one: GOLD, SOPHIA L. SGT MJR. No not her–please. Not blown up, too, after everything else she’d been through. He had not seen her since that day at the Pentagon when they’d both received Silver Stars.
“Is this one of your patients?” Parson asked the MCD. He showed her the form.
“No. Her injuries are minor. She’s just traveling with some of the Afghans.”
Parson stuffed the paperwork into a thigh pocket of his flight suit. He hurried through the cargo compartment, edged between litters, stepped over cords. Looked for anyone in ACUs. She wasn’t down here. Maybe upstairs, then. The C-5 had two levels: the flight deck and troop compartment were above the cargo bay. Parson climbed the steps to the troop compartment three rungs at a time.
She was sitting in the first row. She looked up from her book, which appeared to Parson just a jumble of squiggly lines. She stared for a moment. Then, for the first time ever, Parson saw her smile broadly. He noticed her rank insignia. The last time he’d seen her, she’d been a master sergeant.
“Congratulations on your promotion,” he said.
“Thank you, sir.”
She stood, offered her right hand, and Parson shook it with both of his. She winced in pain, and Parson let go. He wanted to embrace her, but not if it would hurt.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Are you okay?”
“A couple cracked ribs. Nothing serious.”
Parson noticed scrapes and minor cuts on her face and cheek. He decided not to ask her about it. He caught her looking at the fingers of his left hand. The tips of three of them had been lost to frostbite. The same with two fingers on the other hand, and four of his toes. A memento of his last trip to Afghanistan, with her. Because of his injuries, it had taken a medical waiver to let him go to pilot training.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
Gold explained about her literacy program, her students, Mahsoud. Her smile vanished. She seemed beaten. Or was it just worry? Plenty of reason for that in Afghanistan, any damned day of the week.
“I promise I’ll get you to your destination this time,” Parson said.
“I’ll hold you to that.”
“But you’re not riding back here in coach.”
There was no direct access from the troop compartment to the cockpit, so Parson led her downstairs and through the cargo compartment. On the way, she stopped at one of the patients, an Afghan missing a leg. A DD Form 602 Patient Evacuation Tag hung from one of his buttonholes. He seemed to be sleeping or doped out. Gold spoke to him anyway. She touched his arm and whispered in Pashto.
“How’s he doing?” Parson asked. In the 602’s Diagnostic block, it read: LEFT LEG AMPUTATED IN FIELD, CRUSH INJURIES TO RIGHT HAND, SMOKE INHALATION, BURNS.
Gold shrugged. “If there’s any hope for this country, it’s in guys like him,” she said. “And look at him now.”
Parson was surprised she used the word “if.” He decided not to have that conversation. Her friends had just been blown up.
On the flight deck, Parson showed her the cockpit, explained how he’d cross-trained from navigator to pilot. Then he led her down a narrow hallway to the relief crew area, with its seats and bunks.
“This is Sergeant Major Gold,” he told his crew. “She’s going to ride up here with us. Give her anything she wants. There’s coffee in the galley. And, Sophia, you’re having dinner with us, on me, when we get to Ramstein.”
Parson left Gold in the aft flight deck. He planned to let her visit the cockpit after takeoff, but for now he wanted to put her in a more comfortable seat, near the coffee and food. For a moment, he kicked himself for using her first name in front of the crew. First names were common in the Air Force, at least when away from wing commanders and check ride evaluators. But it wasn’t the Army way, certainly not Gold’s way. She allowed few people to call her “Sophia,” and she tolerated “Sophie” from no one. He figured she’d understand he was just excited to see her.
As he settled into the pilot’s seat, he felt the warmth of meeting an old friend, but with a twinge of regret. How great to run into her again, but what horrible circumstances. Such a small world in the military. Dunne handed him TOLD cards, and he posted them on the instrument panel where he and his copilot, Lieutenant Colman, could see the takeoff speeds.
Colman entered the flight plan into the FMS. Colman, just out of flight school, took forever to check the waypoints. Parson let him finish, resisted the urge to take over the job. You couldn’t blame a new copilot for acting like a new copilot.
“Before starting engines checklist,” Parson called.
His crew began the clipped ritual: terse commands, the snap of switches, the whine of pumps and fans. Parson appreciated the choreography, felt like an orchestra conductor. His crew.
One by one, the four TF-39 engines came on speed, thunderous even at idle. Parson taxied for departure, left hand on the steering tiller. When he received takeoff clearance, he turned onto the runway and said, “Advancing throttles now.”
From the corner of his eye, he saw Dunne punch a clock on the engineer’s panel. The aircraft inched forward, thousands of pounds of thrust fighting the inertia of tons of steel and fuel. The jet moved at walking pace, then accelerated more quickly until the airspeed indicators came alive, then hurtled down the centerline like a gigantic missile.
“Fifteen,” Dunne said. “Twenty. Time.”
“Go,” Colman called.
With three fingers, Parson pulled at the yoke, and his airplane, the size of an apartment building, lifted into the air. There was a hammering roar from the General Electric turbofans. The plane’s own shadow chased it along the runway, grew smaller, vanished.
“Air Evac Eight-Four, Bagram Tower,” called the controller. “Contact departure. Have a safe flight.”
Parson pitched for climb speed, enjoying the smooth air. When the landing gear came up, he said to Colman, “Warm up the autopilot for me, will you?” Built in 1970, the plane still had some Vietnam-era electronics.
The crags and ridges of the Hindu Kush dropped away as the aircraft climbed. Parson looked out his side window at the ground where he and Gold had suffered through so much. Gold had been a passenger on his C-130, escorting a high-value Taliban prisoner. After they were shot down, the two of them went through a winter hell and back to keep that prisoner in coalition hands. And then they’d parted. But the experience had imbued Parson’s spirit in permanent ways, like metallic changes in the turbines of an overtemped jet engine. Little difference to the eye, but an altered chemistry that could never be put back the way it was before.
Now the sky seemed to open in front of him, a cerulean infinity. Pale disk of moon over the mountains. No clouds but the wisps of horsetail cirrus in the upper atmosphere. Sunlight glinting off the windscreen. He found his aviator’s sunglasses in his helmet bag and put them on.
At that moment, a screeching warble sounded in the cockpit. Parson tensed, felt his palms grow slick and his throat turn dry. Then the fear passed and left jangled nerves in its wake. Not a missile warning, just a stall tone. False alarm, since the plane was flying well beyond stall speed.
He reached overhead and clicked off the two toggle switches for the pilot and copilot stall limiters. The noise stopped. He looked to his side panel and saw the STALL light. So it was his side that had malfunctioned. He reached up and turned the copilot’s stall system back on. Felt the sweat on his upper lip and under his arms.
Whoa, boy, he told himself. Don’t let coming back to Afghanistan spook you. Just a nuisance warning. The airplane is old. These things happen.
“Maybe we can get that fixed at Ramstein,” Parson said.
“If they have the parts,” Dunne said.
The flight engineer had a point. Last time Parson and crew had broken down at Ramstein, they’d had to wait several days for a fuel control. One night during the layover, Parson came back from the officers’ club to find Dunne in the lobby at billeting, strumming a weird all-metal guitar. Dunne played it with a slide, and he called it a National Steel. Not your typical hobby for a flight engineer, Parson thought, and the guy turned out to be a pretty darn good musician.
Now Parson cracked the throttles back from the takeoff setting to normal climb thrust. He hoped Colman and Dunne didn’t see that his hand was still shaking. Then he moved his hand down to the center console and pressed VERT NAV, engaged the autopilot.
When the airplane leveled at thirty-four thousand feet, Parson felt better. Germany was just seven hours away. And today would be a short day by C-5 standards. With only one hop to fly, the gear handle was the hotel switch.
“Tell the sergeant major she can come up here and look around,” Parson said over the interphone. Unlike with civilian passenger planes, the C-5 had no secure cockpit door. Most people with any business on a military transport would have a security clearance or some other form of background check. Letting friends and VIPs ride in the cockpit remained a frequent courtesy.
Gold came forward and sat at what used to be the navigator’s seat. C-5 navigators had been replaced by inertial navigation units, three black boxes in the avionics bay, so now there was an unused seat on the flight deck. Dunne handed her a spare headset, and when she put it on she said, “Nice view.”
Parson turned to look at her. Four years had made little difference. She was still fit, still looked like she’d be attractive in civilian clothes. No gray yet in the blond hair. Lines around her eyes a little deeper, though. She didn’t seem especially awed by the cockpit.
“Feel free to take pictures,” Parson said. He couldn’t wait to get a chance for a real chat with her. If he got a day or two off at Ramstein, maybe he could rent a car, pick her up at Landstuhl, and do some touring. That wouldn’t be fraternization, he figured–just giving her a break if she got stuck at the hospital without wheels.
Before Parson could continue the conversation, Dunne said, “We have a satcom message.” Dunne tapped on a Toughbook bolted to the flight engineer’s table, accessing what amounted to an e-mail transmitted through space. “Now, that’s damned strange,” he said. He printed the message, tore off the strip of thermal paper and handed it to Parson.
The message read: MAINTAIN ALTITUDE. DO NOT CLIMB OR DESCEND UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES.