0900 TUESDAY / 11 SEPTEMBER 2001
750 RAMP / PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE / FLORIDA
Jason Johnson stood at the ramp edge of an HC-130 aircraft giving his PJ team last-minute instructions for a water jump at the Judy drop zone on the Banana River.
"You won't believe it!" cried Rolo Perez, the aircraft crew chief, as he came running toward the plane. "Your flight's canceled. Every flight in America's been canceled! Come on!" he yelled, skidding to a stop. "It's on all the TV channels. You won't believe it. I don't fuckin' believe it! Hurry! Run!"
Clueless, everyone jumped off the plane and raced toward the closest television.
Jason shot through the door of the Thirty-ninth Rescue Squadron and into the ops center. "What's going on?"
Everybody was gathered in front of the television hanging on the far wall, all eyes were glued to the unfolding horror.
The North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York was burning. Everyone gasped when suddenly a second jet appeared on the screen and plowed into the South Tower.
Jason's jaw dropped; mouth open wide, he was speechless. It wasn't real. It was more like watching a movie. This couldn't be happening. It wasn't real.
Opinions instantly formed, and the hateful words voiced.
"Let's nuke the camel jockeys and turn their desert into a glass parking lot!"
He'd heard all the nasty words before, during Operation Desert Storm. Feeling helpless that there was nothing he could do at the moment, Jason turned from the horror and walked from the ops section and out to the back deck of the squadron.
It was a beautiful sunny Florida day. The sky was blue and a cool breeze blew offshore. But just a three-hour plane flight away hateful murder was happening.
Sirens sounded everywhere. Security police, their red lights flashing, were securing Patrick Air Force Base. Threat Condition Delta was declared: A terrorist act was under way. Every American military installation around the world was going into lockdown. He couldn't remember when that had ever happened.
"They hit the Pentagon!" a voice cried out over the intercom.
"No! Oh my God." Sorrow pierced Jason's heart. The fuckers had struck at the nation's true might: her military brains. And there wasn't a goddamned thing he could do about it! Bewildered, he sat. Confused and lost. It suddenly occurred to him that there was only one place on the base that he could go to for strength. He'd gone there in the past, and he needed to go there more than ever.
Standing in front of the Patrick Air Force Base's memorial for the five airmen murdered by terrorists on June 25, 1996, Jason closed his eyes and remembered the night that he was at the Khobar Towers in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. At the time he had already been deployed there with the Seventy-first Air Rescue Squadron for more than thirty days.
He couldn't sleep, so he got out of bed and went to work out at the base gym.
In luck, no one was on the Gravitron, his favorite machine, so he had it all to himself. He'd been on it for about twenty minutes and was working up a good sweat. As he was hanging from the machine, first the lights flickered, then there was a low, violent rumble. Before he could blink, a concussion like a giant wave blasted him off the machine and threw him across the room. Instinctively tucking himself into a ball, he rolled, doing somersaults in the air, and crashed into the mirrored wall on the other side of the room.
Glass flew everywhere. He lay there, stunned, for what seemed like forever before he came to his senses. Cut and bleeding from the mirror splinters, he felt nothing as he sprinted toward his building. At first he didn't believe it was possible, seeing massive amounts of smoke but no flames, then he looked to where his room would've been.
He fought to bring out the wounded and the dead, cursing the terrorists who did it and the base commanders, who had known for years that the building was exposed and vulnerable to an attack but had done nothing to protect it.
Everyone from the surrounding buildings worked with the firefighters to put out some of the smaller fires, then helped wherever they could.
It was a night that he'd never forget, no matter how hard he tried. Torn and mangled bodies, some victims so burned and bloody that Matt Winkler, a veteran combat rescue pilot, told Jason that he couldn't tell who was who.
People, comrades and friends, were wounded or dead. He'd even invited Justin Woods to work out with him, but Woody wanted to sleep. He was gone.
Using all his powers as a medical technician, he lost track of time while he tried to help the wounded. The next day he assisted with the grisly and gloomy task of gathering the remains of the dead. He swore revenge that it would never happen again.
Now it was happening all over again and more innocents had been murdered. From Beirut to now, terrorists had made their cowardly strikes against good and decent people. He'd felt the pain for too damn long.
He softly ran his hand over the picture of Kevin "KJ" Johnson, then touched the pictures of all his other air crewmates. Their mission was to save lives. These men were the good guys, lovers, fathers, brothers, and sons. Once friends, now they were pictures on a granite wall. They had touched a hostile world in peace and paid the price for it with their lives.
He sat on a marble bench and dropped his head into his hands. "Man, it never ends," he whispered. His hands started to shake and his whole body trembled.
Jason tried to calm down, but couldn't. He had escaped death's clutches in many places around the world. He'd saved and taken lives--and he was still standing. Having joined the pararescue brotherhood as a young man, the years he had dedicated to saving lives around the world also taught him about all the hatred in the world.
Used, fooled, and betrayed by others in the name of a greater good left him feeling jaded, cynical, and angry. His nightmares never let him sleep. Mind shaken, but not lost, yet. Now millions screamed out for revenge. He learned that revenge only brought more sorrow. But something had to be done.
He stood in front of his dead comrades, came to attention, and slowly saluted.
Then the tears started, and it felt as if they were never going to stop.
1850 / BUILDING 698 /
PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE / FLORIDA
The World Trade Center Towers had collapsed while the Pentagon burned. America was at war, but with whom?
The section came alive as every PJ in the group began showing up, without being called, and started putting their rescue gear together.
Jason finished packing his gear, then walked into his office and sat at his desk. Lost in thought, he jumped when his phone rang. "Hello?"
"You in or out?"
The color drained from his face. Jason knew well the deep baritone voice. "Look, my team is getting ready to go to New York, or anywhere else we get called. Man, you guys can't call on me at a time like this. I don't work for you anymore, remember?"
"We have no hold over you," the deep voice answered. "Of course, you have a pressing mission."
"But you need me more."
"That's right, Alice."
Jason cringed. He hated his code name and all that it represented. Pissed off with all that was going on, he couldn't hold back. "What? To get screwed by you guys, like usual, and then leave me holding the shitbag, too, right? I'm right, ain't I?"
"Remember who you're talking to."
Oops! The voice on the other end of the phone commanded more power than many world leaders. But he knew what he said was true. "I do, sir, more than you'll ever know."
"Then do you want payback? I know that you care. Alice, we know that you care."
"Payback? I'm not in the payback business anymore, sir."
"Get real. And get over your self-pity. You did what you had to do. Right now you can do something that will make a difference."
While thousands of rescue support people were headed to the Pentagon and New York City, elite Special Forces would be shipping out to the Middle East, Afghanistan, and central Asia. Jason guessed that the most deadly of them all, the Brotherhood of Death, was probably going in first, and as a former member they undoubtedly wanted him back.
"Look. I'm retired."
"Hey, I don't have time for this shit, Alice, so don't fuck with me. I'm in a hurry. Ya in, ya out?"
That was one thing about General Ben Cadallo--he always came straight to the point.
"Sir, don't you fuck with me. You can't try to pin me down like that. I need to hear more before I answer to anything."
"Then read your e-mail." The phone went dead.
Jason dropped the phone back on the receiver and took a deep breath. Checking the e-mail on his computer, there was only one new message: No Subject. He punched the icon.
1000. Wednesday. Swimmer's Hall of Champions. Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. You'll know the boat.
"Damn!" He exhaled.
0940 WEDNESDAY / 12 SEPTEMBER 2001
SWIMMER'S HALL OF CHAMPIONS /
FORT LAUDERDALE / FLORIDA
NATO invokes Article Five of their charter; an attack on one is an attack on all.
Everything might've looked similar, but the world had changed. America, the mighty nation, preeminent world power, had been cut low and hurt. Rocked back on her heels, her shock and pain reverberated around the world. Freedom was under attack. How did this happen? Who were the murdering animals that did it? Where were they? How to get at them? Something had to be done, but what?
One thing Jason knew for damn sure,...