The Mullah’s Storm Excerpt
A leaden overcast covered the sky above Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, hanging so thick and low that the afternoon became a long twilight. Peaks of mountains surrounding the Shomali Plain disappeared into the cold, gray mist.
Inside the C-130 Hercules transport plane, Major Michael Parson blew into his cupped hands to warm them, then pulled on his Nomex gloves. He donned his flight helmet and turned up the interphone volume at the navigator’s panel.
The rest of the crew strapped in. The pilot and aircraft commander, Lieutenant Colonel Fisher, adjusted his boom mike and said, “If we don’t get out of here soon, we won’t get out at all.”
Parson’s weather sheet told him why. The coded forecast read: +BLSN, PRESFR. Heavy blowing snow. Pressure falling rapidly.
At the flight engineer’s station, between the pilots and just forward of Parson, Sergeant Luke tapped on his calculator. With his grease pencil, he wrote numbers on a laminated takeoff card, then handed the card to Fisher.
“They need to get that son of a bitch out here now,” said the loadmaster, Sergeant Nunez. Nunez was back in the cargo compartment; Parson heard him on interphone.
A blue van stopped in front of the airplane.
“Here he is,” said the copilot, Lieutenant Jordan. He tapped his fingers on the side console.
Two security policemen bearing M-4 rifles escorted the prisoner, a high-ranking Taliban mullah. They guided him out of the van and steered him toward the crew door, just downstairs from the cockpit. Shackles bound his hands and feet; he had just enough length of chain between his ankles to mount the steps. He wore blacked-out goggles. Long beard more gray than black. Desert camo coat and prison overalls.
Parson thought the mullah looked smaller and more frail than he had on CNN. But that had been just brief clips of the man exhorting crowds at Friday prayers, or older footage of him when his hair was all black, hoisting a Stinger launcher triumphantly over the smoking wreckage of a Soviet helicopter.
A woman in an Army uniform followed the prisoner. An interpreter, Parson assumed. A middle-aged, bald man in civilian clothes accompanied her. Agency, Parson guessed.
From the cargo compartment, Parson heard chains clanking as Nunez and the security police seated the mullah. Nunez was singing loudly, “Guantanamera, guajira guantanamera, guantanamehhhhhra….”
“Don’t do that,” Parson said over the interphone.
“Why not?” Nunez asked.
“It’s not professional. And they’re closing Gitmo, genius.”
“That’s all right. We got other places to put these pendejos.”
“Ready for checklists?” Fisher said. An order, not a question. “Let’s get these engines started.”
Terse, clipped commands crossed the interphone and radios, and the roar of spinning turboprops split the winter stillness. Parson scrunched his nose at the odor of jet fuel exhaust until Nunez closed the crew door. Large snowflakes splattered onto the windscreen and turned to running droplets on the glass. The cargo plane began lumbering, and Parson noticed the snowflakes getting smaller and flying sideways. The mountains off the far end of the runway dissolved in a white haze.
“Flash Two-Four, Bagram Tower. Clear for takeoff, Runway Two-One.”
Fisher lined up on the runway and advanced the throttles. Parson felt the vibration in his shoulders through his flak vest, and the acceleration pushed him back in his seat. The runway centerline stripes grew shorter and shorter until Jordan said “Go,” and the ground fell away. A moment later, the windscreen went solid gray as the C-130 entered the cloud deck.
“Positive rate,” Fisher called. “Gear up.”
Parson watched his radar screen as the airplane climbed. In terrain-mapping mode, it showed the mountains ahead as if they were a green photograph.
“How are we doing, nav?” Jordan asked.
“You’re good as long as you stay on the departure procedure,” Parson said. He cross-checked the radar screen with his chart, monitored the plane’s progress. On the pilots’ instrument panel, he saw the digital numbers on the radar altimeter running down, then up, then back down. A mountain, then a valley, then another ridge.
Parson looked forward to breaking out above the cloud layer. Fisher would level off and put the Herk on autopilot. Nunez would make coffee. Luke would probably want to borrow Parson’s copy of Shooting Sportsman. Easy mission from then on.
Just as Parson turned back to his radar screen, missile warning tones shrieked through the cockpit.
Fisher whipped the yoke to the right, rolled the C-130 into a steep bank. Parson’s arms grew heavy with the pull of G forces.
“Flares, flares,” Jordan called. “Missile three o’clock.”
Parson grabbed the pistol-grip trigger for the anti-missile flares. Punched off a salvo. The flares torched across the sky, trailing parabolas of smoke through the clouds. Parson hoped the fast turn and the flares, burning hotter than the engines, would fool the heat-seeker.
It was not enough.
An explosion rocked the airplane. Impact somewhere out on the right wing. Fragments slammed against the fuselage, sounded like thrown gravel. The aircraft yawed to the right. Then it began to vibrate hard. On the instrument panels, white needles inside black gauges trembled into unreadable blurs.
“Fire in number three,” Luke called. A red light glowed in the number three engine’s fire handle. Then the light next to it came on.
“Fire in number four.”
“Oh, fuck,” Fisher said. “Shut ’em down.”
Jordan and Fisher began running emergency engine shutdown checklists. Parson took over the radio calls. He flipped the wafer switch on his comm box to UHF1.
“Mayday, mayday,” he called. “Flash Two-Four is an emergency aircraft. Taking fire. Two engines out. Ten souls on board.” He hoped his voice didn’t give away the fear he felt.
Jordan pulled the fire handles. Luke’s hands played across the overhead panel, shutting down fuel pumps and generators on the burning engines. The airplane was already half dead.
“Flash Two-Four, Bagram Departure. Say intentions.”
“Standby,” Parson said. The altimeters showed a slow descent. Could be worse, Parson realized. Fisher still had some control. Parson saw him shove the two good throttles all the way up.
“That’s all she’s got,” Fisher said, pushing hard on the left rudder pedal to keep the nose pointed straight. “We’re going down, boys. It’s just a question of where.”
“Right turn zero-six-zero for a heading back to Bagram,” Parson said.
“I don’t have enough speed to turn into the dead engines.”
“There’s rising terrain to the left,” Parson said. “We can’t climb over it now.”
“Damn it. Just find me someplace to set it down.”
“Come left five degrees,” Parson said. “I’ll try to get you into a valley.” Mountains blocked a full turn left, and physics prevented a bank to the right.
Parson could see nothing out the windows except cloud. Inside, the radar showed more lines of jagged ridges. His heading took the plane between two of them. Farther from Bagram with each second, but maybe the landing would be survivable.
“Bagram, Flash Two-Four,” he called. “We won’t make it back to the field.” Parson transmitted coordinates for where he predicted touchdown. Nearly fifty miles from the base.
Jordan flipped a red guard from the alarm bell switch. He gave six short rings: Prepare for crash landing.
“I can’t see shit,” Fisher said. “I’ll just try to keep the wings level.”
“Stay on this heading,” Parson said. The numbers on the radar altimeter counted down as the plane neared the valley floor, but Parson saw only mist and swirling snow. He rotated his seat to face forward for the crash. A smell like burned oil filled the cockpit.
“Loadmaster,” Jordan said, “give us a scan on that right wing.”
“Heavy smoke from number four,” Nunez said. “The whole turbine section’s blown off number three. Fuel misting out of the external tank.”
“I’m keeping the landing gear up,” Fisher said. “Engineer, pull the breaker for the gear warning horn.” Luke leaned from his seat to trip a circuit breaker.
The C-130 broke through the cloud deck, revealing the stark terrain ahead. A scattering of evergreens stood among boulders and shale dusted with powder. Fine snow roiled in the air like a spray of milk. Parson felt a spike of fear deep in his chest. He’d hoped for a nice, flat field.
“Strap in tight,” Fisher ordered. “This is really gonna suck.”
Jordan gave a long ring on the alarm bell: Brace for impact.
“Flaps to a hundred percent,” Fisher called. “Feather one and two.”
Just feet above the ground, Jordan shut down the two remaining engines so they wouldn’t burn on impact. Eerily quiet now, the wounded airplane glided back to earth. No sound but the whistle of the slipstream until Parson felt the first wrenching jolt of a wing striking a tree. Then another, and another.
A scraping noise came from the back of the airplane as the tail crashed into rocks. The fuselage slammed to the ground. Parson jerked against his shoulder straps. His arms flailed. He felt stabs of pain as he bit his tongue and cracked his right wrist against the edge of the nav table.
The left wing separated with a grinding crunch, the sound of metal ripping like the aircraft itself roaring in pain. What remained of the plane swerved hard, sent up an arc of flying dirt and snow.
Then, for a moment, stillness and silence. Parson closed his eyes and braced for the fireball, fearing his flameproof flight suit would just prolong the agony. He smelled JP-8 fumes from ruptured fuel tanks. Breathing the kerosene odor was like inhaling needles.
But no fire came. Parson exhaled, felt cold air rushing into the broken flight deck. Shouts came from the back.
“Allah-hu akbar! Allah-hu akbar!”
Then a dull thump. Metal against flesh.
“Shut the fuck up!” Nunez yelled. “Do you fucking understand me? Bet you understand this.” Whack.
Then the woman’s voice: “That’s enough.”
Parson unbuckled his harness, took off his helmet, spat out a mouthful of blood. Still stunned, he saw tiny points of silver floating across his eyeballs. He heard Fisher groan.
“I think my legs are broken,” Fisher said. “Somebody check on the others.”
“I’m all right,” Luke said. “I’ll look in the back.”
Parson stumbled to the copilot’s seat, leaned on it with his right hand. That launched waves of pain that brought him to his knees.
“I fucked up my wrist,” he said through gritted teeth. He cradled the wrist with his left hand and examined it. Maybe not broken, but sure as hell cracked and bruised.
The copilot didn’t move or make a sound.
“You OK?” Parson, asked, nudging Jordan’s shoulder with his good hand. No response.
Parson pulled himself to his feet. Now he saw Jordan’s open eyes staring lifelessly at the floor. He checked for a pulse at the carotid artery, and when he did he felt an odd bulge at the side of Jordan’s neck.
“I think his neck’s broken,” Parson said. “He’s dead.” It still hurt where he’d bitten his tongue, and the pain slurred his words.
Fisher closed his eyes and grimaced. “See if you can get somebody to help me out of this seat,” he said.
Parson descended the flight deck steps. He found Luke and Nunez pulling first-aid kits off their wall fasteners, and he swallowed hard when he saw the mess in the cargo compartment. The civilian spook sat slumped to one side, his seat belt still holding him in the troop seat. A gash in his skull revealed spongy tissue. One of the security policemen held a compress on the other’s chest. The injured SP was on his back, blood streaming under and through the gauze pad. The blood ran across the floor and pooled in the tie-down rings.
“What happened to them?” Parson asked.
“Shrapnel, I think,” Nunez said.
“Jordan’s dead. Fisher’s legs are broke. Can you help me move him?”
The prisoner sat quietly, silenced at least for now by Nunez’s blow. The woman guarded him. The uninjured SP checked his partner’s pulse and placed an ABU jacket over the man’s face.
Parson climbed back to the flight deck, then supported Fisher’s thighs as Nunez carried him down the steps and into the cargo compartment. Fisher cried out with each bump. His fingers clawed into Parson’s arm. They laid him down across the troop seats.
“Let’s see if I can get outside,” Luke said. He rotated the handle on the crew door, kicked the door hard. It opened about halfway, and the flight engineer turned sideways to crawl through. “I’m going to make a radio call,” he said.
Parson watched him let go of the bent door frame and drop to the ground. Luke pulled his PRC-90 from his survival vest, extended the antenna, pressed the transmit button. He squinted against the stinging ice pellets.
“Mayday, mayday, Flash Two-Four down. Any station, Flash Two-Four down.”
“Flash Two-Four, Bookshelf. Say location.”
Parson gave Luke a thumbs up, relieved that the engineer had already made contact with the AWACS bird orbiting far overhead. Parson handed Luke a scrap of paper with the crash site coordinates, which Luke transmitted to the AWACS.
“We’ll relay to search-and-rescue forces,” the AWACS controller said. “But be advised weather conditions have everything grounded in your sector.”
“We kind of figured,” Luke said. He stared at the murk above.
Parson heard what he thought was the pop, pop of burned metal as it cooled. Blood spurted from the flight engineer’s throat. The radio dropped from Luke’s hand, and he crumpled to the ground. Then came a burst from an M-4 firing out a troop door behind Parson in the cargo compartment. A man in a black turban ran toward the airplane and fell.
Nunez scrambled for the dead SP’s rifle and covered the other open troop door. He fired a trio of shots. The brass casings flipped through the air, rattled as they dropped.
The interpreter kicked the prisoner to the floor, held him down with her foot, aimed her rifle at him. “Peh zmekah tsmla,” she ordered. “Chup shah.”
With his good hand, Parson drew his Beretta from his survival vest. Burned gunpowder stung his nose. He heard someone grab the partially open crew door and try to pry it farther open.
Parson felt he couldn’t turn fast enough. But he raised his arm as an insurgent squeezed through the door. He fired two shots from his pistol. The intruder neither fell nor advanced. Parson fired again. The man’s torso jerked as it absorbed the rounds. He still didn’t fall, wedged in the crew door. Parson was pumping bullets into a corpse.
He moved to the crew door, pushed the dead man back outside. The body slumped and lay still in the snow. Parson forced his way through the door, jumped down to check on Luke. The bloodied face seemed like that of a stranger. No breath, no heartbeat. Wounds to the chest as well as the throat.
The broken remains of Luke and the insurgent rested within feet of each other. Flakes melted instantly as they touched warm blood. Beyond the wreckage, Parson saw only trees and rocks diffused by the swirling powder.
“See any more?” Nunez called.
“Not now,” Parson replied. He climbed back into the cargo compartment.
“Negative,” the security policeman said, peering out the troop door across from Nunez. The SP ejected a spent magazine and pulled a fresh one from his vest.
“Where’s Luke?” Fisher asked.
“Luke’s dead,” Parson said. “And search-and-rescue isn’t getting here anytime soon. The–”
“Sirs,” the security policeman said, “We need to get ready for another attack. Every hajji within ten miles heard this plane go down.”
“They know we have their preacher guy,” Nunez said.
Parson saw Fisher looking at what was left of his plane, crew and passengers. Then Fisher’s eyes seemed to rest on the mullah.
“We need to get him out of here,” Fisher said.
“That’s crazy,” Parson said. “You can’t travel with two broken legs.”
“No, I can’t. And the smaller the party, the easier it will be to evade. You’re the highest-ranking guy standing. I need you to take the prisoner and the interpreter, and go.”
“Forget it. I’m not deserting my crew.”
“You heard the briefing,” Fisher said. “This mullah is about as high-value as any detainee we have. We can’t risk him getting freed by his buddies.”
Parson felt dread flow into him like a toxin. Every instinct told him to stay with his crewmates. He looked out into the snowfall. Evade? Here, with a prisoner?
“Mike,” said Fisher. “I just gave you an order.”
“We’ll stay with Fisher,” Nunez said. “Leave us some weapons and ammo, and the SP and I will take care of him till they can get a helicopter in here.”
Parson could hardly believe it. He’d always thought Nunez was a drunk whose life amounted to flying from one party to another. But now this. Setting up for an onslaught like a pro.
“You OK with that plan?” Parson called to the interpreter. She was a master sergeant. Maybe 35, blond hair. Accent sounded like New England, but not when she spoke Pashto. Her name tag read: GOLD.
“Yeah,” she said. “Let’s do it.”
“Then get your stuff and keep it light,” Parson said. “Just your rifle and ammo. Layer up your clothes as much as you can.” He hated what Fisher wanted him to do, but now this sergeant and the prisoner were his responsibility.
Parson went to Fisher and held out his left fist. Fisher tapped it with his own fist. It was the same gesture they used when they ran the Combat Entry checklist.
“I got the first round when I see you again,” Fisher said.
“No cheap stuff, either,” Parson said.
He put on a desert parka and pulled a black watch cap over his head. He wished he had snow camo now, but C-130 crews flew over so much varying terrain it was impossible to dress for all of it. On the flight deck, he retrieved charts from the nav table, folded them into small squares. He found Luke’s backpack filled with flight manuals. Parson dumped out the books and put the charts and two first-aid kits in the pack. He also picked up two sets of night-vision goggles, Luke’s binoculars, and three Meals Ready to Eat. From his own flight bag he took a package of charcoal handwarmers and three bottles of water.
He looked around the cockpit for anything else that seemed useful. He noticed Jordan’s pistol still holstered on the copilot’s survival vest. Parson took the handgun. He looked down at Jordan one last time as he shouldered the backpack with his good hand.
In the cargo compartment, he found Gold searching the pockets of the dead civilian. She took some paperwork from the man’s coat, looked into the lifeless face. Then she unshackled the mullah’s feet. Parson had no training on how to handle prisoners, but he knew he and Gold and the mullah had to move. Right now.
“Tell him he’s going for a little hike,” Parson said as he sat beside the mullah.
“I did. He says he’s not going anywhere.”
Parson felt a jolt of anger hit him like voltage. My friends are dead because of you, he thought, and you’re going to give me an attitude? I don’t fucking think so.
He pulled up the left pant cuff of his flight suit. Reached down to his boot knife, unsnapped the leather sheath. He withdrew a four-inch dagger as he grabbed the prisoner’s right thumb.
Using his injured hand, Parson jammed the blade deep under the mullah’s thumbnail. The mullah shrieked, shouted something in Pashto. Parson swore. He felt as though he’d rammed a white-hot nail through his cracked wrist. He twisted the knife and ground his teeth as his own pain tripled.
“Stop it,” Gold said. “Sir.”
The prisoner jerked his hand away and began jabbering and sobbing. Gold tried to examine his bleeding thumb, but he wouldn’t let her.
“He says he’ll go with us,” Gold said, “but it matters little because the flames of hell will consume you.”
Easier than I expected, Parson thought. Everybody understands pain. Bet he’s inflicted his share of it.
Parson could see Gold didn’t like what he’d just done. It probably violated all kinds of laws. And it was the first time he’d ever really hurt someone. But it was hard to care about that with people dying around you. Parson looked back at Fisher. He seemed satisfied enough. Parson nodded at him, turned to Gold: “Time to move.”
Gold took the chain from the prisoner’s legs and locked one end to her wrist. She spoke in Pashto, but the mullah did not respond. She picked up his right arm and fastened the other end of the chain to his wrist. Parson could not see all of the man’s expression because of the black goggles covering the eyes, but he did notice the mullah’s lips curling as if he’d inhaled some foul odor. Guess you don’t like a woman putting you on a leash, Parson thought. Serves you right.
“He’s going to have to see to walk with us,” she said.
Parson removed the goggles from the prisoner’s face. The mullah blinked but did not look around. One eye seemed dull and focused on nothing. It was blue. The other eye, black and alive, glared at Parson with undiluted hatred.
“What’s wrong with his eye?” Parson asked.
“It’s glass,” Gold said. “He lost it fighting the Soviets.”
“Tell him he’ll lose the other one if he doesn’t do exactly what I tell him.”
“Don’t get carried away.”
Who did this sergeant think she was? Parson decided to let it pass. He needed her.
He jumped out the paratroop door at the back of the cargo compartment. The three-foot drop jarred him, sent pain throbbing through his wrist. He reached up with his left hand and helped Gold step down with the prisoner. The move came easily to him since he was so much taller than they were. When the mullah reached the ground, his head came up only to Parson’s chest.
This son of a bitch inspires the people who shot us down, Parson thought, and now I have to look after him. For an instant, Parson wanted to grab him by the hair and slam his face into the side of the airplane.
“Good luck, guys,” Nunez said. “Major, if I’d known you was this hard-core, I’d have been more respectful.”
“You’re all right, Nunez,” Parson said.
Ice pellets made ticking noises as they fell, gathering in the folds of Parson’s coat like spilled salt. He opened his compass and took a bearing, then sighed. The mist of his breath rose in the cold air, only to get torn away by the Afghan wind.