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       Hawx (2009), p.10

           Tom Clancy
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  "Let's say I was intrigued, General." Troy smiled, politely using his host's last military rank.

  "So you're still flying. That's a good thing. Great that you're able to get the hours. I wish I could spend more time in the cockpit myself."

  "Looks like you've done okay as it is, sir," Troy said, nodding at a picture of Harris with the vice president.

  "We've had some challenges, but we've built a solid business," Harris agreed. "Tell me about what you're doing."

  Troy explained what he was doing for Golden West, and about how he liked being able to fly at least four days a week.

  "Ever wish you could be back in jets?" Harris asked. "Of course," Troy answered. "But I like my job better than dealing with commercial airline schedules." "What are they paying you?"

  When Troy told him, Harris leaned back and thought for a moment.

  "What if I double that and throw in a bonus for overseas operations?" Harris asked.

  "Mmm," Troy said thoughtfully. "Tell me more."

  "Okay, here's the deal," Harris said. "Without going into operational details, let me say that the world that was always full of bastards is still full of bastards. Uncle Sam's government, which used to be in the business of taking on and taking down the bastards of the world, has grown squeamish about such things and finds it easier to outsource the dealing with bastards. That's where the PMCs come in. For Uncle Sam, it's like calling in a cleaning service to clean up a problem . . . or an exterminator. They don't ask . . . don't have to, or want to ask . . . how it's done. We just tell 'em when it's done."

  "That's a novel idea."

  "Actually, it's not new at all. Up until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a lot of the armies fighting in Europe were professional armies that had no political connection at all to the country they were fighting for. For small countries, it was a lot cheaper and more efficient than having a standing national army. That's how the Hessians ended up fighting in our own Revolutionary War."

  "How does this work?" Troy asked. "You don't read much or see much on the Net about PMCs."

  "The guidelines are pretty simple," Harris said. "As authorized by the United Nations and ratified by more than a hundred countries, PMCs can act as international and independent entities, although we have to be contracted by a sovereign state to get involved in a conflict. They then have the status as official combatants, but we're required under the UN resolution to use our own equipment to fulfill our missions."

  "That includes jets?" Troy asked.

  "Because we're required to use our own stuff, we're authorized to purchase heavy equipment on the international arms market. With a few exceptions, such as nukes and a few other things, PMCs are exempted from restrictions on conventional weapons sales."

  "That was sort of how Coughlin and Munrough explained it to me," Troy said. "They said there was a lot less red tape."

  "The concept is as old as before the eighteenth century, when the Hessians were hired out to fight for the Brits, but at the same time, PMCs are the way of the future for peacekeeping forces," Harris said. "Fewer political entanglements and quick response times .. . which theoretically makes us the perfect first responders to crises and humanitarian missions."

  "And you're running airpower as well as ground forces?" Troy asked.

  "Firehawk is mainly air," Harris confirmed. "Other PMCs do ground, blue water, covert stuff, whatever. Others do cyber warfare . . . everybody sorta specializes."

  "What sorts of jets?" Troy asked, glancing out the window.

  "You won't see them around here." Harris smiled, noticing Troy's glance. "They're all based at remote sites, or forward deployed to where we need them. We run a mix of fixed-wing aircraft. Can't say exactly which, but I will say you'd be able to step right in."

  "Where did you get F-16s?" Troy asked, noting Harris's comment about "stepping right in."

  "Can't confirm that Firehawk operates 16s," Harris said. "But there's a lot of good used equipment on the market around the world if you know where to look. We can get our hands on whatever is for sale on the international market. Mainly it's older, previously owned stuff, but you'd be surprised. Remember that guy a few years ago who was selling a Soviet-era nuclear submarine?"

  "Did you guys buy that one?" Troy asked.

  "No." Harris smiled. "But we've done some deals with the same broker who was handling it."

  Troy nodded. He knew there was indeed a lot of high-tech hardware on the used-equipment market.

  "What if I said I was interested?" Troy asked after Harris had spent about fifteen minutes giving him an overview of how Firehawk worked, and for whom.

  "I'd ask when you could start."

  "And if I said I needed to give three weeks' notice?" "I'd get you to fill out some paperwork, y'know, a nondisclosure and all the usual stuff, and tell you where to report in three weeks."

  "Where would I be reporting?"

  "Pack for the tropics." Harris smiled. "And don't worry much about dust storms."

  Chapter 22

  Mundo Maya Airport, Santa Elena, Guatemala

  AS THE GULFSTREAM 5 BANKED HARD TO LINE UP with Runway 28, Troy Loensch could see the red roofs of the town of Flores tightly clustered on an island in the middle of Lago Peten Itza, the second-largest lake in Guatemala. Flores is the capital of the state of Peten, one of twenty-two states, but one that accounts for about a third of Guatemala's land area.

  After a two-week refresher course in a T-38 trainer at one of Firehawk's remote sites in eastern Colorado, Troy had been handed his first assignment, which consisted merely of orders to report to a nondescript hangar at the Denver Airport. It wasn't until he boarded the Firehawk Gulfstream that he was handed his briefing packet, or that he knew he was headed to Guatemala.

  It seemed that the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, which had been trying for years to overthrow Mexican government rule in the Mexican state of Chiapas, had decided to also try to overthrow Guatemalan rule in neighboring Peten. The U. S. government didn't want Guatemala to be destabilized but could not have intervened directly. When the Zapatistas started using jet attack aircraft against the poorly equipped Fuerza Aerea Guatemalteca--the Guatemalan Air Force--Guatemala called for help.

  When Troy had boarded the Gulfstream last night, the pilot asked as a courtesy whether he'd like to take a turn at the controls. However, he soon nodded off and did not wake up until they were an hour out of Mundo Maya, which served as the airport for Flores.

  As he was waking up with a paper cup of strong coffee, Troy looked out across the endless green of the Peten jungle. What a difference from Su6n, with its endless dirt and gravel landscape. With an area about the same size as West Virginia, Peten had fewer people than Charlotte, North Carolina, but twelve hundred or so years ago, millions of Mayans lived here and it was one of the most densely populated places in the world. What a dif ference a dozen centuries can make, Troy thought as he read the background page in the briefing book.

  As the G-5 taxied to an unmarked hangar across the runway from the main terminal, Troy saw two unmarked vans driving to meet them.

  "Buenos dias, Captain Loensch," said a man in a Fire-hawk Windbreaker who greeted Troy as he emerged from the cabin. "I'm Jose Turcios, but most people call me Joe."

  "Buenos dias, Joe," Troy said, shaking the man's hand. He recognized Joe's name from the briefing book as the Firehawk station chief in Peten. "Most people call me Troy. By the way, your English is flawless."

  "That's probably because I was born and raised in Pasadena." Joe laughed. "Learned Spanish from my grandparents."

  "Great," Troy said. "I'm from Northridge."

  "Small world," Joe said. "Twenty miles from me. Let's get you situated. We have a safe house in town, but I need you and Andy to bunk here at Mundo . . . come on into the hangar and meet Preston. He's gonna be your wingman."

  Troy blinked a couple of times as he entered the dimly lit hangar and did a double take. There were two Lockheed Martin F-16C aircraft p
arked side by side, each with AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles attached to its wingtip rails. Neither carried any markings except consecutive civil registration numbers. They were registered in Guatemala as civilian aircraft.

  "You must be Loensch," a red-haired man in jeans and a T-shirt said to Troy as he approached from behind and extended his hand. "Preston, Andy Preston . . . used to be with the 35th Fighter Squadron, deployed overseas to Kunsan, Korea."

  "Right," Troy said, shaking Preston's hand. "Troy Loensch. I was with the 334th Air Expeditionary Wing in Sudan."

  "Heard you got a MiG," Preston said.

  "Yeah," Troy confirmed. He was going to clarify that by saying that he'd also been shot down by one, but he decided to leave it at that.

  "I'll let you boys get acquainted," Joe said. "Preston, show Loensch to his quarters. Briefing at 1300 hours." "How long you been in country here?" Troy asked. "Twenty-three hours," Preston said, looking at his watch.

  "Look like almost new birds," Troy said, walking over for a closer look at the nearest F-16. "Where'd they come from?"

  "I was told that they were bought from Chile out of the ones they got from Lockheed back in 2006."

  "Don't look like they have much time on them," Troy said. "That's good. Have you picked one?"

  "Neither one has a serial ending in thirteen, so I say we flip for first choice."

  "Tails," Troy said as Preston pulled a quarter out of his pocket.

  Mundo Maya Airport, Santa Elena, Guatemala

  "YOU'RE BOTH FAMILIAR WITH THE SU-25 FROGFOOT, right?" Joe Turcios said, glancing up from his clipboard. They were sitting around a desk in the shack adjacent to the hangar that served as the Firehawk command post.

  Troy Loensch and Andy Preston both nodded. The Frogfoot was a twin-engine ground attack jet designed in the 1980s by the Soviet design bureau, Sukhoi, and widely exported to Soviet client states. Hundreds were still in use throughout the Third World, most having been passed from one air force to another to another a time or two.

  "Well, our intel says that at least two, and possibly as many as four or five, have wound up with the Zaps," Turcios explained, using the popular slang for Zapatista rebels. Despite the presence of state-of-the-art weaponry, the briefing was extremely low-tech and informal by comparison to the slide shows and live satellite feeds that the pilots had experienced while serving in the U. S. Air Force.

  "They appear to be based here in the jungle up in Chiapas," Turcios said, unfolding a fairly detailed Michelin road map. "The Russkies designed the plane to operate from crude landing fields, and that's exactly how they're being used. In the past two weeks, Guatemalan government convoys have been hit here, here, and here in three separate raids. Our job is to intercept the Frog-foots or Frogfeet, or whatever the damned plural is, and shoot 'em down."

  "How will we know where and when?" Preston asked. "Are we supposed to fly combat air patrols?"

  "No, you don't have to fly a CAP," Joe assured him. "That would be a waste of Firehawk's. gas. No, we got a guy working ATC radar in the main tower across the runway here at Mundo. He gets a little on the side from Firehawk to help take care of us. His air traffic control coverage includes the border region. You guys will be on alert. When we get the word, you launch and track the Zaps on your own radar."

  "What if they see us coming and run across the border back to Mexico?" Troy asked.

  "Go get 'em." Joe smiled. "The Mexicans aren't gonna complain if you kill a Zap airplane. You get one free ride in this deal. The Zaps have no idea that we're here with F-16s. The first time you go out on an intercept and they see you coming on radar, they'll think you're commercial traffic, and they won't run. They know that the Guatemalan Air Force consists of pretty much nothing but helicopters and trainers. They will not be expecting F-16s."

  "That's just the first time," Preston said. "After that, they'll know about us."

  "I expect that they will have lost half their air force in the first engagement, so there shouldn't be much more than two or three for you guys and the job will be done."

  "Speaking of air force, I guess I can't really imagine that the Zapatistas are sophisticated enough for this kind of equipment," Troy said.

  "I don't imagine that the guys flying these Frogfeet are actually Zapatista rebels," Turcios said.

  "Who are they then?" Preston asked.

  "Firehawk isn't the only PMC in the world," Turcios said. "And not all the PMCs in the world are working for Uncle Sam and his friends."

  OVER THE NEXT TWO DAYS, TROY AND PRESTON LOGGED more than eighteen hours in the cockpits of the two F-16s.

  Unfortunately, during all of the hours, the cockpits were parked ten feet off the ground in the hangar. They ran up the engines a few times, but other than that, time was spent in the most boring form of just sitting around.

  It was at about 0945 on the third day that Joe Turcios came into the hangar shouting, "Crank 'em up and roll 'em out!"

  At last.

  The man in the Mundo Maya tower quickly put a ramp hold on an Aviateca flight that was about to take off for Cancun and cleared the Firehawk F-16s for a runway.

  Other than the thunder of two fighter jets taking off, the passengers hardly noticed. Their delay getting off the ground was about four minutes.

  Troy and Preston climbed out fast and leveled off at about eight thousand feet, high enough to avoid ground turbulence but low enough to intercept an aircraft on a ground attack mission. Troy took the lead with the call sign Firehawk One, but the two F-16s flew in tight formation so as to appear as one on the radar in the Frog-foot cockpits.

  On the F-16 scopes, the two Frogfeet were distinctly separate, circling a point about sixty kilometers inside Guatemala and ignoring the oncoming Americans.

  Within ten minutes of wheels-up, Troy had a visual on the two Su-25s. He even glimpsed a contrail leaving the wing of one of the aircraft. It was possibly a Kh-25 air-to-surface missile, although the Frogfoot was often equipped with simpler, unguided ground attack rockets.

  Two plumes of smoke were rising from the jungle canopy beneath. The attackers had found some targets. However, these attackers were about to become targets themselves.

  As the F-16s approached, neither Su-25 seemed to notice.

  When he was sure that he was close enough, Troy locked on to one of the Sukhois and fired a Sidewinder. With only seconds to live, the pilot continued his attack. Troy saw ordnance drop from the pylons beneath his wings just as the aircraft erupted in a ball of fire.

  The pilot of the second Frogfoot pulled back on the stick and started to climb when he noticed that his wing-man had been hit.

  "Fox Two," Preston said in a low calm voice.

  Troy broke right as he saw the Sidewinder streak toward the climbing Sukhoi. The pilot's urge to climb away from danger proved fatal. It reduced his already slow airspeed and made him an easy target.

  Preston banked left and formed up on Troy, who was already headed back toward Mundo Maya. He gave Troy a thumbs-up, and Troy waved back. They deliberately kept their communications to a minimum to avoid the prying ears of eavesdroppers. Even with state-of-the-art encryption, there was always someone who cracked into secure channels.

  Both pilots made tracks for Mundo. The less time they spent over the target area, the better. They had caught their quarry completely by surprise, and perhaps neither of the Frogfoot pilots would have had a chance to report that he was being attacked by another aircraft.

  "DAMNED GOOD SHOOTING, BOYS," RAYMOND HARRIS shouted as Troy opened his cockpit.

  The two pilots were surprised to see the Firehawk, LLC, Director of Air Ops standing next to Joe Turcios in the hangar when they returned. He had arrived on an inspection tour just after the two F-16s had departed. "If I had known you were out on a mission, I woulda had the G-5 pilot follow you out so I could watch."

  Troy and Preston glanced at each other. It was a good thing he had not. To have an unexpected airplane show up in airspace where ordnance was flying aro
und would have been dangerous.

  "Scratch two, sir," Troy said succinctly. "We were engaged for only a couple of minutes, but both of the bogies were destroyed."

  "Good work," Harris effused. "If our luck continues like this, we'll have this thing wrapped up in about five minutes . . . ten at the most."

  Mundo Maya Airport, Santa Elena, Guatemala

  THE TEN MINUTES HAD A SLOW WAY OF MANIFESTING themselves. Troy and his wingman stood by, suited up and ready to respond to word that the Zapatista Air Force had shown themselves again. A week and a half later, they were still lounging in their hangar, ready to scramble into their cockpits and take off. They had set up a ready area twenty feet from their F-16s with folding aluminum longue chairs and a television set.

  Harris had remained at Mundo for a couple of days, hoping to be on hand for a quick second round in Fire-hawk's air war against the Zapatistas, but he was disappointed and had flown out on his G-5. for parts unknown.

  The two pilots speculated on whether they would fly another mission. Preston figured that the remaining enemy aircraft would lay low indefinitely.

  "We may never see those clowns," Preston postulated as he sipped a Coke and leafed casually through a magazine. "They saw what happened to their buddies and they've been hiding under their beds ever since. They don't wanna die . . . but who can blame them? You tangle with the best . . . you die like the rest."

  Troy was more pessimistic.

  "I'm worried that they've spent the last ten days shopping for Aphids or Atolls," he said, using the common nicknames for widely available Russian air-to-air missiles.

  "Maybe, but we've got the edge on the Frogfoot in terms of performance," Preston said, turning the page of his magazine.

  Troy was about to reply when Joe Turcios entered the hangar.

  "We got incoming," he said. "The general's back. His G-5 is on final."

  The two pilots folded their chairs, tossed their empty soda cans in the trash, and were standing next to their aircraft when the G-5 rolled in.

  "Still no action?" Harris said as he exited the forward door.

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