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       Hawx (2009), p.7

           Tom Clancy
 
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  Both the airspace and the airwaves were in a state of mass confusion.

  "Falcon Two . . . incoming," Jenna shouted. "I've been pinged. See it coming . . . taking evasive--" The next three seconds were the longest of her life.

  She jinked and rolled as she watched the white-hot doughnut of a SAM coming at her head-on.

  "Aaarrgh!"

  She felt the Gs as they stacked up and pressed on her brain, but still the thing came, pursuing her like a shadow.

  Her whole field of vision was filled by the thing. Was this really the way her life would end?

  Then came the impact as the heat seeker brought the SAM into contact with the tail of her F-16.

  There was a thundering crash of metal onto metal and a jolt that was like being hit by a freight train.

  But no explosion.

  The aircraft shivered and shook, but it did not come apart in a cloud of burning debris.

  "Falcon Two, are you there?" Hal said nervously. "Talk to me . . . are you there?"

  "Falcon Two here . . . I've been hit . . . it was a dud . . . didn't explode. I've been hit . . . hard to control."

  Troy let out a breath. At least she was alive.

  "Falcon Two, can you eject?" Troy asked.

  "Trying to get control," Jenna said. "Don't want to punch out . . . not here . . . get closer to home."

  The streaks of purple dawn were starting to form along the horizon, and Troy could make out the silhouettes of the other two aircraft in his flight. Hal was about a quarter mile away at his altitude, but Jenna was a couple thousand feet below.

  "This is Falcon Three," he said. "I'm going to descend to get a better look at the damage to Falcon Two."

  "Roger that," Hal said in a tone of voice suggesting he wished he'd thought of that first.

  "Falcon Two, that SAM must have hit you damned hard, your rudder is bent and there's a piece missing."

  "No wonder it's so hard to fly this thing," Jenna replied.

  "Do you think you can make it back to Atbara?" "I'm losing altitude and can't turn," Jenna replied. "Other than that . . . no problem."

  "We're with you, Falcon Two," Troy said.

  "Mighty neighborly of y'all," Jenna replied.

  "Falcon One, I have bogies," Hal said nervously.

  "I see 'em on the scope," Troy said. "Probably stragglers from the strike pack."

  "Negative Falcon Three, they're headed south, straight at us."

  "Falcon One . . . I've been pinged," Hal said. Indeed, the incoming fighters had locked on to him first because he was flying at the highest altitude. "I'll ping . . . him back . . ."

  Hal stood the F-16 on its tail, climbing to get above the incoming bogies, and then he looped as they approached. The added altitude gave him the advantage as they maneuvered to pursue him.

  "Fox Two . . ."

  While the other planes clawed for altitude, his loop brought Hal into firing position. He had a good shot, and he took it.

  The first Eritrean pilot was so busy trying to get at Hal that he didn't realize until too late that he was about to get got.

  The AIM-9 Sidewinder connected, and one of Eritrea's last remaining MiG-29s was gone.

  The second MiG-29 broke and ran.

  Hal, who had been in a diving attack, began his pullout.

  Had the second MiG pilot been more professional, he would have rolled in behind Hal as the F-16 plummeted and picked him off.

  As it was, he was so freaked out at watching his pal get popped that he decided to get out of the area.

  However, as he ran east, he spotted two Americans below. The first rays of the morning sun striking the rudder on one of the F-16s illuminated what appeared to be serious damage.

  How do you say sitting duck in Tigrinya?

  Realizing that he had the altitude advantage that the American had in the previous encounter, he rolled out and dove.

  "Falcon Three, bogie on your six," Hal shouted as he banked hard to intervene in the fast-closing battle about two miles away.

  "Roger that," Troy said, instinctively turning to screen Jenna's damaged aircraft as the enemy's missile lock-on pinged in his headset.

  Troy looked back. There was a bright yellow flash as the Vympel R-60 "Aphid" air-to-air missile erupted from the MiG's wing.

  Making sure that it was tracking him, not Jenna, Troy banked as hard as he could, hoping to outturn the missile.

  It came so close that the lemon-yellow flame from its solid-fuel engine illuminated his cockpit--just before the explosion illuminated his entire field of vision.

  The concussion knocked Troy's helmet against the inside of the canopy, cracking it. The F-16, which was in a roll when the proximity fuse detonated, began to spin.

  There was good news and bad news.

  The good news was that the Aphid hadn't hit Troy. The bad news was that the explosion was close enough to cause severe damage to his aircraft.

  "Falcon Three . . . g-g-g-going . . . d-d-d-down," he reported as he fought to control the shaking, shuddering, corkscrewing aircraft.

  "Punch out, Falcon Three," Hal shouted, as Troy tried to control the spin long enough to do this.

  Seeing the spinning desert rushing up at him, he decided that it was now or never.

  In a blinding flash, he left the F-16, and for what seemed like an eternity he hurtled through the air, spinning like a Frisbee. Somewhere within that eternity, he might have blacked out, because the next thing he remembered was when the canopy of his parachute jerked him back to his senses.

  In the distance, he saw an F-16 tumbling lifelessly toward the ground. He watched it hit and disintegrate, the pieces bouncing across the desert at impact speed, swathed in dust and smoke.

  Then, out of the corner of his eye, he spotted something else. It was another F-16, twisting, gyrating, and falling. Who? Hal?

  Suddenly a third F-16 flashed past, and in the cockpit he caught a glimpse of the checkerboard pattern of Hal's helmet.

  "Jenna!"

  Troy realized as the second F-16 impacted the desert that one of these falling airplanes was Jenna's.

  Hal came by again, so close that the shock wave caused Troy's parachute to bounce about twenty feet.

  Below, the ground was rushing upward.

  The last thought Troy had before the impact knocked him unconscious was that he had better prepare for a hard landing.

  Chapter 14

  Denakil Depression

  TROY LOENSCH WAS UNSURE WHETHER HE WAS DEAD or alive, but he settled on something that was somewhere in between. His first sensation was one of being enveloped in a cocoon of excruciating pain. Everything hurt--his shoulder, his knees, his head. He gritted his teeth and felt the grind of a mouth full of sand.

  He opened his eyes and saw only the gravelly ground.

  He tried to move and discovered that his limbs were wildly contorted, as though he had been wadded up and tossed in a sandbox--which was more or less what had happened.

  Troy had started to hope that nothing was broken, then settled on hoping that nothing was broken off

  He tried to summon enough saliva to spit the crud from his mouth, choked, and started to cough.

  When his mouth was reasonably clear, he attempted to untangle himself and roll into a sitting position. As he did, he saw a person standing over him. "You look like shit, Loensch."

  It was Jenna Munrough.

  "Are you all right?" Troy gasped.

  "Better than y'all by the looks of things," she replied.

  She didn't look it. Her flight suit was filthy beyond any recognition of its true color--and so was her hair. Her face was so dirty that the only thing recognizable about her was her voice.

  Amazingly, Troy discovered that he could stand--and take steps. It hurt like hell, but he could do it.

  "Guess nothing's broken," he said. "Least nothing important. Glad to see you got out okay, Munrough... I saw your bird auger in . . . didn't see your chute."

  "I was above you . . . I saw you
rs . . . figured you were toast from the way you were spinning."

  "Me too," Troy agreed.

  "Where do you suppose we are?" Jenna asked, looking around.

  "We're in that desert . . . Denakil . . . y'know, where we shot down the MiGs. Do you have your GPS receiver?" "It broke when I landed. Y'all have yours?"

  Troy checked his gear and found that his GPS receiver was working, though the information it gave them was of little practical use. They learned that they were fourteen degrees, forty-five minutes north of the equator and thirty-nine degrees, thirty-two minutes east of Greenwich, but that was merely of academic curiosity.

  Troy's radio, like all of Jenna's gear, had been crushed on impact, but the transponder with which a rescue team could home in on his position still worked.

  They could see on the GPS that they were fifty miles inland from the coast, and that the mountain they could see to the north was called Amba Soira. The GPS told them that there was a road on the other side of the ridge that lay to the west, but they could have discovered that by climbing to the top of the ridge.

  "Haven't heard a chopper," Jenna said, looking skyward. "I'm sure that Hal would have reported our position . . . or they'd be homing in on the transponder."

  "There were a lot of people shot down last night. I figure they're pretty busy . . . you suppose we ought to just hang in here and wait?"

  "I really don't think that's a good idea," Jenna said. "Remember where we are and how we got here . . . we got shot down by Eritreans . . . this is Eritrea . . . I sure as hell don't want to be a female POW in Eritrea."

  "Point taken," Troy said.

  "I'll help you bury your parachute," Jenna offered.

  After burying Troy's chute and trying to disguise it as best they could, the two pilots climbed to the top of the ridge to look at the road. It was deserted for as far as they could see, so getting across it without being seen would have been possible. However, it was what lay across it that was the decision maker for them.

  "Look at that," Troy said, pointing to the immense desert, stretching into Ethiopia, that separated them from the Sudanese border by hundreds of miles.

  "Sure hate to run out of water over there," Jenna said, instinctively glancing at the small flask from her survival kit that she had strapped to her belt.

  "Let's head the other way," Troy suggested. "There are U. S. Navy ships in the Red Sea; if they are tracking my transponder, they may be able to get a chopper out from there to pick us up."

  "Let's go and get gone before somebody comes to investigate where those two parachutes came down this morning," Jenna agreed.

  They hiked for about two hours, suffering from the midday heat and pausing from time to time in the shade of the rock outcroppings that dotted the landscape.

  "Gotta conserve water," Jenna said, scolding Troy as he reached for his flask.

  "Maybe we oughta wait until dark?" Troy asked rhetorically. "They said in survival school that you shouldn't try to hike in the hottest part of the day."

  "You oughta know, you were the one who aced the survival course."

  Troy ignored her baiting, feigning distraction as he reached into a crevice in the cliff beneath which they had stopped.

  "Whatcha looking for?" Jenna asked.

  "I dunno, just thinking there might be some condensation in the dark, deep corners here."

  "Well . . ."

  "Baked dry centuries ago."

  "Hear that?"

  "Hear what?"

  "Thought I heard a chopper," Jenna said with guarded excitement.

  "At last." Troy sighed, as the whup-whup-whup grew louder. "First thing I'm gonna do is get me a shower and a beer, or a beer and a shower."

  "Where's he going?" Jenna asked as the whup-whupwhup grew more distant.

  "Sounds like he's searching the place where we landed, maybe one of the crash sites?"

  "Let's go get us seen," Jenna said, scrambling up a low incline that they had just descended a few minutes earlier.

  Troy followed, nearly colliding with her when she stopped abruptly.

  "What's the--"

  "Oh shit," Jenna exclaimed. "Look at--"

  "Oh double shit," Troy whispered.

  The helicopter was orbiting the spot where they had come down, but it was not an American Black Hawk. It was a green and tan Mil Mi-8 with the Christmas-treeornament-colored insignia of the Eritrean Air Force.

  Without a further word, the two Americans raced back to the cliff and shoved themselves as deep into the shadow as they could.

  Jenna's hand went to her Beretta M9, as though merely touching the standard-issue automatic pistol would provide her some consolation. Each of them had two thirty-round magazines, but against an armed helicopter, or even an unarmed helicopter filled with armed troops, the Berettas were scant consolation.

  "Maybe we can outshoot 'em." Troy smiled.

  "Save the last round for yourself," Jenna replied grimly.

  Troy looked at her expression. There was no way that she would allow herself to wind up as a female POW in Eritrea.

  Chapter 15

  Denakil Depression

  "MAYBE WE CAN STEAL A BOAT." TROY LAUGHED.

  "And sail off into the sunset," Jenna said with a growl of mock sarcasm, her voice raspy from too little water and too much dust.

  "Technically, from this coast it would be the sun rising."

  The two downed American pilots had been walking for three days in the tortuous heat of the Eritrean desert. Had it been summer, not spring, they could very well have died of heatstroke by now. Had they not pulled some only slightly brackish water from an abandoned well that they had found, they could well have died from dehydration.

  No American rescue helicopter had come, despite Troy's transponder broadcasting their position. They had given up trying to figure out why.

  Fortunately, they had seen no further Eritrean choppers. They didn't care why. They were just glad.

  Troy and Jenna had decided that it would be suicide to try hiking straight back to their base in Sudan. There was too much inhospitable distance, and too many AlQinamah bad guys. Therefore, they had decided to try to reach the Red Sea coastline. They hadn't yet decided what they'd do when they got there--except find a place to get a long, cold drink of water.

  "I'm surprised that Hal hasn't tried to find us," Troy said, making conversation. Aside from walking eastward and worrying about water, that was all they had to do. "Like, y'know . . . you and him . . "

  "Me and Hal what?"

  "Oh come on . . . I saw your hand on his ass . . . ""

  "So?"

  "So I figured there was something going on . . . figure that on account of that . . . he'd come flying over this damned place trying to spot us."

  "Maybe he did . . . Maybe he did back where we were . . . we're a long way from there now."

  "Maybe."

  "What?" Jenna asked in that "I-know-what-you'rethinking" tone that people have when they think they know what you're thinking.

  "Whaddya mean, 'what'?"

  "Are you jealous?"

  "Well, I guess, y'know," Troy said, groping for words. "I've been listening to you snore every night and it's hard not to think about . . . when you're sleeping with somebody and all that's happening is that you're trying to sleep . . ."

  "You saying I snore?" Jenna laughed.

  "Yeah, but . . ."

  "Okay . . . since we may never get out of this thing alive . . ."

  "Don't say that," Troy interrupted.

  "Okay . . . since we may never get out of this thing alive," Jenna repeated, "I should admit that I've .. . y'know . . . I've had those kinda thoughts about y'all."

  "Really?"

  "You're a hunk, Loensch," Jenna said in a matter-of-fact way. "Sometimes you're obnoxious, but you're a hunk and I have had . . . kind of a thing for y'all."

  "What kinda thing?"

  "Yesterday . . . all day when we were walking through that ravine, y'know," Jenna replied. "I had
this fantasy about taking a shower with y'all."

  "I've been thinking about showers a lot too," Troy admitted.

  "I was thinking about what came after the shower," Jenna said with a hoarse chuckle.

  At that moment, the two of them reached the crest of a ridge and looked down into a landscape totally unlike anything they had seen for days. They could see the Red Sea in the distance, probably no more than five miles distant. In the foreground were patches of vegetation, even a date palm orchard and clusters of buildings. They could even see the coastal highway.

  "Green sure looks weird when you ain't seen leaves for a week or two," Jenna exaggerated.

  "Green sure looks like there's water to me," Troy said.

  "We better be careful," Jenna cautioned. "We get caught down there, we'll get ourselves turned in."

  As painful as it was, they waited until dusk to approach the date palms. As they sat in the shade of the boulder, talk did not return to the after-shower fantasy, but to earlier fantasies of drinking water.

  Unfortunately, when they reached the first irrigation ditch, the water failed to match the water of even the least-demanding fantasy.

  "Nasty shit," Jenna exclaimed as they studied the greenish liquid in the half light of the evening.

  "Probably really is a sewer," Troy said disgustedly. "There's got to be a well somewhere. Let's move out while we got some light."

  As they snaked their way through orchard, field, and vacant patch of ground, they were careful not to get too close to any buildings, and they took cover whenever a vehicle passed nearby.

  At last they found it.

  It was a simple hand pump on a rickety wooden platform. The water was not the best they'd ever tasted--but to them, it was the best water in the world.

  Jenna cupped her hands to drink as Troy pumped the handle, then thrust her head beneath the flow, moaning gently as the tepid fluid poured through her hair and trickled down the back of her flight suit.

  Next, it was Troy's turn, and Jenna pumped water onto him. He had never in his life been so happy to wash his face.

 
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