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Authors: Tom Young

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The Renegades

BOOK: The Renegades
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ALSO BY TOM YOUNG

FICTION

The Mullah’s Storm

Silent Enemy

NONFICTION

The Speed of Heat: An Airlift Wing at War in Iraq and Afghanistan

THE RENEGADES

Tom Young

G. P. P
UTNAM’S
S
ONS

New York

G. P. PUTNAM’S SONS

Publishers Since 1838

Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA

Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario M4P 2Y3, Canada (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.)

Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

Penguin Ireland, 25 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd)

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Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd, 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi–110 017, India

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Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa

Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

Copyright © 2012 by Tom Young

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.

Published simultaneously in Canada

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Young, Thomas W.

The renegades / Tom Young.

p. cm.

ISBN 978-1-101-58654-9

1. Parson, Michael (Fictitious character)—Fiction. 2. Gold, Sophia (Fictitious character)—Fiction. 3. Soldiers—Fiction. 4. Afghan War, 2001—Fiction. 5. Earthquakes—Fiction. 6. Disaster relief—Fiction. 7. Taliban—Fiction. 8. Afghanistan—Fiction. I. Title.

PS3625.O97335R46 2012 2012010954

813'.6—dc23

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

While the author has made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers and Internet addresses at the time of publication, neither the publisher nor the author assumes any responsibility for errors, or for changes that occur after publication. Further, the publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.

 

F
OR
P
ROFESSOR
R
ICHARD
E
LAM
,

a great teacher and friend, and veteran of the U.S. Navy

PROLOGUE

E
ven from a thousand feet in the air, Lieutenant Colonel Michael Parson could see the earthquake had shaken Afghanistan to a new level of misery. The slums of Mazar-i-Sharif stretched below the Mi-17 helicopter like a vast, disturbed hive. People milled in the streets. Black columns of smoke seethed into the sky above a city of collapsed ceilings and crumpled walls. An untold number lay dead or dying beneath the rubble.

The quake had happened only about an hour ago, and the U.S. Geological Survey rated it a preliminary 7.2. A smaller magnitude than the quake that had devastated northern Japan in 2011, but worse in its own way. Afghanistan’s construction standards were prehistoric.

Parson stood in the back of an Afghan chopper with an Afghan interpreter and an Afghan army colonel. Up front, Captain Rashid commanded the aircraft, accompanied by his copilot and a flight engineer. Wind from the helicopter’s open door rippled the sleeves of Parson’s tan desert flight suit. Reeking whiffs stung his nostrils. Not aircraft exhaust, but something closer to the smell of coal and charred wood. Black flecks whipped through the air: soot from the fires on the ground.

Rashid, the colonel, and the interpreter conversed in Pashto. Subdued tones on the interphone like whispers at a funeral. Parson didn’t understand a word, but he could guess what they were saying:
What a fucking mess.
And Parson imagined the colonel was taking the thought a few steps further:
These people will need everything—food, shelter, medicine. How will we ever airlift enough to make a difference? Oh yeah, and still fight the war.

Parson wished his old Army friend Sergeant Major Sophia Gold had already arrived. She spoke Pashto so well, she seemed to read minds. Parson had requested that she come work with him as an individual augmentee, and she’d agreed immediately; she just had to finish up some training back in the States. There was no better translator/interpreter in the business. And as a paratrooper, she’d been around aircraft enough to speak a little of that language, too.

Parson had been back in-country only a month, in a new role as an adviser to the Afghan Air Force. His third tour, but his first in a nonflying position. In his other tours, he’d flown as a C-130 Hercules navigator and then as a pilot on the C-5 Galaxy. He’d never piloted helicopters, but as a rated officer he could help teach the Afghans the basics of running a squadron: maintain currency records, give regular testing, retrain the guys who bust their check rides, and always, always, always treat maintenance with respect.

The Afghans were making progress toward a professional air force. However, Parson doubted they were ready for anything like the job ahead of them now. For that matter, he didn’t think he was, either. To fly his own plane, manage his own crew—that was one thing. To build an air force from scratch was another.

The chopper began to descend for a flyover of the Mazar Airport. The field lay to the east of town, surrounded by a dusty brown expanse highlighted with a meandering strip of green—the weeds and trees that grew along a river. Rashid banked the helicopter toward the airfield and attempted the radio call himself. “Mazar Tower,” he transmitted, “Golay Two-One.”

An answer came back weak but readable: “Golay Two-One, Mazar Tower. Go ahead.” Louisiana drawl. The weak transmission probably meant the controller was using a handheld radio. So power was out, and backup generators were not yet running. The quake must have hit the airport hard.

“Mazar Tower,” Rashid called, “Golay Two-One requests . . .” The pilot paused. The interpreter said nothing.

“Low approach,” Parson said on interphone.

“Low approach,” Rashid repeated on the radio.

Great, Parson thought. The pilot doesn’t speak good English, the interpreter doesn’t speak pilot, and the controller talks with an accent they’ve probably never heard before. A triple language barrier. Even the call signs were strange. Like most fliers, Afghan aviators liked macho words for call signs—in their own language. Rashid had told him
golay
meant
bullet
.

“That’s approved,” the tower said. “Golay Two-One is cleared for low approach. Be advised the field is closed to fixed-wing traffic.”

Parson gave Rashid a thumbs-up. To most people in South Asia, that would have been an obscene gesture. But Afghan pilots quickly accepted its American meaning. To give them that signal meant not only
I agree
,
it’s working
, or
okay
. The sign meant you considered them part of the international fraternity of aviators.

Out the window, Mazar’s runway two-four began to materialize through the haze. Parson knew the field well. In previous deployments he’d landed there in pitch-black on night vision goggles, in winter with snow blowing sideways, and on instruments—right down to minimums—in driving rain. But today something really didn’t look right.

Dark smudges appeared in two locations along the runway. As the Mi-17 flew nearer, Parson realized the smudges were fissures, wide gaps in the pavement. Other sections of asphalt also looked cracked up.

No wonder the field was closed. The runway had stretched more than ten thousand feet, but now no more than four thousand feet seemed undamaged. The biggest transports couldn’t get in here anymore. At best, the civil engineers could mark off a short assault strip. C-130s and C-27s bringing relief supplies could slam-dunk into the touchdown zone and deliver a few pallets at a time. But the C-5s and C-17s would need to off-load their large payloads at Bagram and Kandahar and let the smaller aircraft shuttle the cargo from there. Like digging a quarry with a spoon. And digging it under fire. Relief missions in a disaster area challenged pilots enough. What would crews face when natural disaster combined with war?

Broken pavement passed underneath the helicopter as Rashid overflew the runway. The colonel muttered something Parson could not understand. Epithets, Parson supposed. He noticed a hangar leaning as if a giant hand had tried to push it over. The control tower had suffered damage, too: A crack in the shape of a lightning bolt extended the length of the front wall. It probably wasn’t safe for anyone to remain in the building.

More Pashto on the interphone, and the helicopter climbed away from the airfield. “What are we doing?” Parson asked the interpreter.

“The colonel wishes to go into the city.”

Parson hoped he meant
over
the city. The chopper leveled at what he guessed to be a thousand feet, though he could not scan the altimeter from his seat. Not seeing the instruments rankled him. He looked across Mazar. Near its center he saw the Blue Mosque, also known as the Shrine of . . . somebody. Gold would know. He couldn’t see any obvious damage to the mosque.

The helicopter slowed, turned, accelerated, slowed again. Rashid seemed to be hunting for a place to land. Why were they landing? This is stupid, Parson thought. If Gold were here, he could explain why it was stupid. Parson started to order Rashid not to touch down, but then he remembered he wasn’t in charge. Under his breath he muttered curses, but profanity did little to ease his frustration.

People on the ground watched the aircraft, and some ran in whatever direction the helo headed. Parson could see at least a hundred Afghans milling around, and he hoped they’d have sense enough to stay out of the helicopter’s downwash and away from the tail rotor. That tail rotor could take off somebody’s head.

Rashid selected a street with no traffic. The street looked barely wide enough for the Mi-17 to clear the power lines sagging along either side. Parson knew helo pilots always worried about the radius of that rotor disc spinning overhead. But sometimes they gave themselves very little room for error.

The
whop-whop
of the main rotor thudded harder as the blade angle changed. The helicopter began descending, and the Afghans below started sprinting toward the landing zone. Two men carried children who must have been hurt in the quake.

The power lines came so close now, they swayed from the wind blast. Below them, some of the locals used scarves or bare hands to shield their faces from flying grit.

“What are we doing?” Parson asked the interpreter.

“The colonel wants to pick up some patients.”

Was the colonel nuts? With no support, no plan, just drop into a city full of desperate people?

Up and down the street, buildings lay in ruins. More locals gathered as dust billowed underneath the helicopter. Some limped alone; others leaned on assistants. Still others seemed uninjured, but they waved their arms and shouted. Parson supposed they wanted help for relatives trapped in rubble. And every one of them, he thought, wants to get on this helicopter. His heart pounded faster.

Dust enveloped the aircraft. Parson could see nothing in the brownout as Rashid touched down. How those rotorhead chopper drivers kept from getting vertigo, Parson would never understand. Dust poured in through the open door, and the interpreter coughed and squinted. He turned his face as if looking for clear air, but there was no escape from the blowing grit.

Parson felt a bump, and the dust cleared as Rashid throttled back to idle. The crew chief kicked the door ladder into place. Locals began running toward the aircraft. Under his breath Parson muttered, “Oh, shit. Stay away from the tail. Stay away from the tail.” Landing was a bad idea.

A man holding a little girl with a crushed leg reached the helicopter first. He came so close to the tail rotor that wind from its spinning blades tousled the girl’s hair. The man seemed not to notice. We’re committed now, Parson thought. Might as well help who we can. He and the crew chief pulled the man and daughter aboard. The child’s blood dripped from a yellow blanket and spattered onto the floor. She held on tightly to her father’s shirt, tiny handfuls of fabric clutched in her fists.

The crowd surged around the aircraft, and people began to try to climb inside. The crew chief and interpreter shouted to them and to each other. An apparently unhurt man pulled himself through the doorway, and the crew chief shoved him back out. A woman with burns across her face stumbled against the side and started up the crew steps. The interpreter grabbed her by the arms and yanked her aboard.

The colonel forced his way down the three steps. Then he lifted two more kids into the chopper. He let two men come with them, presumably the fathers. Then he pulled aboard several more patients until the cabin was full.

“No more,” the interpreter yelled. “Captain Rashid says we have room for no more.”

The colonel tried to climb back inside. Some of the locals also tried to get aboard, and they got in his way. The colonel pushed back at them, then began waving his Walther P1. Parson thought he looked like a martinet, brandishing that German pistol. You shouldn’t pull a weapon if you weren’t prepared to fire it.

When the colonel made it back inside, Parson pressed his talk switch and said, “Go.” He knew Rashid understood that much.

The noise of the engines and rotors rose, and the Mi-17 began lifting off. A man started climbing through the doorway, and the crew chief punched him. The man dropped outside and fell three feet to the ground.

A boy hung on to the lip of the doorway. His feet dangled in midair, and the crew chief tried to push him off by the shoulders, but the kid wouldn’t let go.

The helicopter was about nine feet off the ground and climbing. Parson feared the child would fall to his death if he didn’t let go before the aircraft got higher.

“No more,” the interpreter shouted. “Rashid says we are too full.” The aircraft yawed to the right, settled, then yawed left.

Seeing no other options, Parson kneeled and pried loose the kid’s fingers. Despised himself for doing it. The boy yowled in protest, kicked his sneaker-clad feet, dropped into the dust cloud. When he hit the ground, he got back up and gestured with his thumbs. Parson met his eyes for a moment before losing sight of him in the dust. The boy seemed unhurt, but with a look on his face that said the Americans had just made a new enemy.

Parson hated to think why that kid wanted to get on board so badly. Was he trying to get help for a trapped mother? An injured sister? Parson had used force before; he had killed when necessary. He’d never lost a night of sleep over it, either. Those terrorists deserved what they got.

But this boy hadn’t done anything wrong. Parson was glad Sophia wasn’t here to see what he’d done. But then he wished he could talk to her about it.


H
alf a world away from Afghanistan, Sergeant Major Sophia Gold stood on the open ramp of a C-130 Hercules as it flew at twenty-five thousand feet. The slipstream whipped at the sleeves of her uniform. Beneath her stretched an expanse of evergreen forests and tobacco fields, and the brown S-turns of a river called the Cape Fear. She took a breath from her oxygen bottle, then launched herself into the void. The growl of turboprops surrendered to the pure white rush of wind. Gold arched her back, spread her arms and legs, and flew.

That’s what free fall felt like: not a sickening plunge, but flight. In fact, at Fort Bragg’s Military Free-fall Simulator—essentially a vertical wind tunnel—her instructors had spoken of “flying your body.” In her arched position, she controlled her center of gravity so she wouldn’t tumble and cause her chute to tangle when she opened it.

But she didn’t have to open it yet. She glanced at the altimeter on her left wrist the way a civilian might check a watch. The needle unwound through twenty thousand feet as she dropped toward the world at about one hundred and twenty-five miles per hour. Gold wished she could freeze this moment, live in it for longer. The wind and the speed swept away all worries about the future and despair over the past.

Slightly above and to her right she saw one of her five partners on this high altitude/low opening jump. All five were men: four Special Forces troops and an Air Force pararescueman. Gold was one of very few HALO-qualified women.

The sun glinted in her visor and reflected against the cumulus beneath her. Cool mist enveloped her as she fell through a cloud. For an instant she felt stationary as the grayness took away all visual references, and then
FLASH
: The trees and ponds and roads of eastern North Carolina reappeared, larger now. Green loblolly pines stood among the orange and yellow of sweet gums and maples. Brilliant scarlet encircled a few of the trunks: the odd beauty of poison ivy at the height of autumn color. Lush hues and flatland varied in all respects from the stark mountains of Southwest Asia.

BOOK: The Renegades
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