Colorado Springs, February 1999
The rental car beeps softly at me as I unlock the doors, getting in and throwing the briefcase on the front seat along with my duffel. Slamming the door shut, I reach for a cigarette, light it, sit for a minute in the dark parking lot listening to the rain pounding on the hood. God. What a day. What a fucking day.
When I got off the plane at the airport at 0300 this morning, I don’t know what I expected. But it sure as hell wasn’t this.
I hadn’t seen General West since ’91. And I hadn’t missed the bastard.
He’d been in charge of Special Operations in the Gulf. I spent most of the war at home, after I took a round in the arm on that last mission. It was supposed to be a simple incursion, go in, grab the Iraqi general, and be ready for extraction in four hours. Twenty-four hours later, our CO was dead, and two seconds after an Iraqi bullet put me in command of the team, Jack was hit and I was faced with the choice that will haunt me as long as I live — go back for my best friend who might well be dead already, or order the rest of the team out before we were overrun.
Sometimes, in combat, you have two seconds to make a call.
Sometimes you make the wrong call.
And then you have to live with that, for the rest of your life.
They all said if I’d waited a second longer, they would’ve hit the bird and we would’ve all been trapped, the whole team dead or captured. Those twenty-four hours got me a Purple Heart and a letter of commendation, and landed Jack in an Iraqi prison for four months. I didn’t meet West until I went back to the Gulf, just as the war was ending. The way I saw it, I had two options — bring my friend back, or get myself shot as soon as possible, preferably somewhere fatal.
I didn’t sleep at all the week after I found out, planning it all, how to get in, how to get out, back-up plans and alternate extraction sites, every contingency covered. It took me two days of harassing his aides before West would even discuss the possibility, and when I finally got to talk to him he cut me off after two minutes and told me it wasn’t gonna happen. There was nobody else to ask, no alternatives to consider, no second chances. It was his call, his people. There would be no rescue mission.
I lost it. The hell with rank and regulations, who gives a flying fuck if he’s my commanding officer, two aides had to forcibly ‘escort’ me out of his office, screaming curses at him halfway down the hallway. What the fuck do you mean, ‘acceptable risk’, what the hell kind of officer areyou, that’s one of our people in there, you just gonna let him rot in some goddamn shithole of a prison? The hell happened to ‘nobody gets left behind’?!
I hadn’t seen him since then, transferred back to Florida to take command of my own team only a few weeks later. If he recognized me, he didn’t let on.
“Gentlemen, have a seat.” He returned our salutes, waving us to sit at the table. “I know you’re all probably wondering why you’re here.”
An aide handed me a folder, stamped TOP SECRET in red ink, then left the briefing room and locked the door. I pulled out a chair next to Stuart and sat down. “What’s this about, General?”
He gave me a look I couldn’t interpret. “Not much for small talk, are you, Colonel?”
Jack would have some kind of wiseass answer to that, I thought. I gave him a blank look of my own and said, “No, sir.”
He looked around the table, at each man in turn. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen any of my team in dress blues. They all looked uncomfortably formal, all except for Stuart, who was an Academy grad. Third-generation, and the only man I’ve ever met who can do the spit-and-polish stuff and the crawling-through-the-mud stuff with equal enthusiasm. The rest of them looked like they’d rather be marching past enemy lines at night, in the rain, uphill both ways.
I didn’t blame them.
“Space travel,” West said simply, resting both hands on the podium. I waited for more, and when he didn’t say anything else Stuart and I exchanged a look.
“Space travel,” I echoed. The rest of the guys looked as confused as I felt. All fun and exciting and a hell of a lot more interesting than chasing cadets through the woods with fake rifles, but it didn’t make sense.
“General, we’re a Special Ops team,” I said patiently. “We’re not… there isn’t one of us with any kind of science background, and none of us even have pilot training except for Captain Stuart. We’re hardly qualified for a shuttle mission.”
West smiled tightly. “You’ve been called here because you are uniquely qualified for this project,” he said cryptically.
I raised both eyebrows at him. “I don’t understand, sir. Unless you want us to rig the damn shuttle to explode, I really don’t see how we’re gonna help you.” One of the guys, probably Sergeant Warfield, snickered at that. “We’re combat control and pararescue, sir. We shoot people. We rescue people — when we’re allowed to.” My voice was sharp on the last words, but if he noticed I couldn’t tell. “We blow shit up. We don’t fly spaceships.”
“No, Colonel, you won’t be flying any spaceships,” he said. He reached for the slide projector, flicked it on.
The image that appeared on the wall looked like a big circle, some kind of metal, with carvings around it that meant nothing to me. “What exactly is our mission, sir?” I asked. “There aren’t any people for us to shoot in outer space.”
“That’s where you’re wrong, Colonel.”
I’ve been stunned speechless only three times in my life.
The first was when I graduated the first part of Special Ops training without Jack getting us both kicked out on our asses with his misguided attempts at humor. The second was when I asked Lisa to marry me, and she actually said yes. The last was when I got that list of POWs eight years ago, and saw Jack’s name.
This afternoon, West just made number four.