Mark Polaski’s face turned ashen at the news. The message from NRI headquarters had come directly from Stuart Gibbs. Polaski’s daughter had been struck by a car while jogging. She’d been taken to the ER with severe head and neck injuries and wasn’t expected to regain consciousness. A ticket had been purchased in his name on a direct flight from Manaus to Miami, where a private jet would meet him. The Manaus flight left at 9:43 A.M., if he could get there in time.
He looked at Hawker. “Can we make it there in time?” he asked, quietly.
“If we leave now,” Hawker said.
As Polaski climbed aboard the Huey, the others wished him well. Devers handed him his pack and McCarter, suddenly reminded of his own losses back in the real world, promised to look him up on their return to the States.
Polaski barely acknowledged them. He sat in the copilot’s seat, staring blankly at the deep, azure sky, fumbling in his backpack for something.
Beside him, Hawker ran through a short version of the checklist, pressing the ignition switch and waiting for the needles to come up. The blades above them wound up slowly. As they began to hum, Hawker pulled back on the collective and the helicopter’s weight came off the skids.
Once they became airborne, the helicopter pivoted to the east, lowered its nose and began to move off, gathering speed and altitude as it went.
Before long, they were cruising, droning along at five thousand feet and 120 knots. In three-and-a-half hours they would cover what had taken the group ten days by boat and foot.
Inside the cockpit Polaski had lapsed into a state of silence. Hawker let him be. What could one say that would matter anyway? He busied himself with a pilot’s routine, checking the instruments and scanning, his eyes settling on one section of the sky, focusing for a moment to make sure it was clear, and then switching to the next in a constantly repeating pattern. Scanning was a process ingrained in pilots from the day they begin flying and Hawker fell into it out of habit, not expecting to encounter any aircraft. But he spotted something just the same.
A tiny black dot appeared in the sky at the Huey’s two o’clock position. Like a smudge on the windshield, it was motionless, showing no relative movement—the unmistakable sign of a converging path.
Hawker adjusted his course slightly and put the Huey into a shallow climb.
The other helicopter continued on its path. Before long, Hawker could make out the type, a Hughes 600, commonly called a NOTAR, an acronym that stood for No Tail Rotor, because it used funneled exhaust from its turbine for directional control instead of the standard rear blade. More ominously, this particular NOTAR was black, devoid of any markings and carrying a pair of external pods on either side.
“What’s wrong?” Polaski asked, coming out of his trance.
“No markings,” Hawker said.
“What does that mean?”
“I don’t know,” Hawker replied. “But it can’t be a good thing.”
The NOTAR passed beneath them, off to one side and heading in the opposite direction. Hawker kept his eyes on it, craning his neck around and slewing the Huey to the right in an effort to keep the target in view. Just before it passed from sight, he noticed something else: the NOTAR had banked into a turn. It was coming back around.
Back at the camp, Danielle returned to the satlink to apprise Gibbs of Polaski’s departure.
“Confirm they have departed,” he said.
“Affirmative,” she said. “Five minutes ago.”
There was an extended pause and then Gibbs said, “Understood. I’ll contact you at nineteen hundred with an update. Gibbs out.”
Danielle went to cut the link, reaching for the switch, and then paused as she remembered needing to speak with Gibbs about a bug in the defense system. The latest in a long line of electronic problems they’d been having. She grabbed her notes and pressed transmit.
There was no response.
She checked the display. Link terminated. Apparently, Gibbs had hung up.
She retyped her authorization code, pressed initiate and waited. Nothing happened, and then the display read: Link not established, please retry.
She tried again, only to receive a more ominous response: Authorization Invalid—Access Denied.
A knot began to form in her stomach. She exhaled in frustration and looked around for help, but Polaski was in charge of the beta test on the satlink and he was gone.
Hawker’s eyes swung forward. The black NOTAR had continued its turn and would soon be obtaining a position behind them. In an effort to prevent that, Hawker forced the throttle and dropped the nose. As the Huey picked up speed, he looked back for the other helicopter, but he couldn’t see it anywhere.
Polaski turned in his seat. “Are we in trouble?”
“We might be.”
Seconds later, a burst of tracer fire took away any doubt.
Hawker threw the stick over and dove toward the forest, five thousand feet below. The NOTAR followed, and despite the speed they’d picked up, it was closing in fast.
The NOTAR was two generations younger than the Huey. It was smaller, lighter and faster. Hawker could never hope to outrun it or outmaneuver it over the long run. And without weapons of their own, the situation seemed desperate—like being accosted on the street by an armed man: if they asked for something you gave it up, and if they didn’t ask, then you ran like hell and hoped you were lucky. As Hawker yanked the Huey into a hard left turn and dove toward the river; he hoped they were lucky.
“Who are they?” Polaski shouted, trying to be heard above the noise.
Hawker didn’t answer. The Huey accelerated rapidly. The needle on the airspeed indicator swung through the yellow arc and past the red line: a marking that pilots call Vne, for Velocity—Never Exceed. The speed was labeled that way for a reason. Beyond Vne the structural cohesion of the airframe came into question. As if to emphasize the point, the old Huey began shaking violently, rattling and threatening to come apart around them.
They dove to treetops and leveled off with the engine screaming and the craft shuddering under the strain, skimming across the canopy at 150 knots. Shells tore in from the left and Hawker cut toward them, forcing the NOTAR to overshoot. A higher clump of foliage loomed in their path and Hawker pulled up, hearing the skids ripping though its leaves. He dropped down behind and raced on.
“Look out,” Polaski shouted.
The NOTAR flashed over the top of them, firing and crossing from the right. A sharp pinging rang out through the helicopter like a metal rod held against a rapidly spinning fan.
Polaski’s eyes swung through the cabin, looking for damage. Hawker checked the gauges for the same thing. Polaski saw daylight pouring through a dozen holes in the side. Hawker saw the needles remaining where they belonged, everything functioning as it should. Even though the bullets had hit them, the helicopter was mostly empty space and the shells had passed right through without taking out anything vital.
Hawker watched the NOTAR making a wide arc, setting up for another strafing run. There was only one place left to go.
With the engine roaring and the airframe straining under the load, he cut back toward the river once again. The NOTAR followed, closing in rapidly.
The trees flew by beneath them, falling away, just as the black helicopter fired. Hawker dropped the Huey toward the water and turned to follow the river’s course. The NOTAR overshot, swung wide and curved back, moving in behind them and quickly closing the gap once again.
They were on the deck now, thundering along the riverbed. Two helicopters racing across the shimmering water, jinking and turning, with their rotor blades swirling overhead like a pair of massive dragonflies in a territorial dispute.
The twisting course gave the Huey some cover, but the trees lining the banks boxed them in like canyon walls, making their maneuvers more predictable to the other pilot. Hawker cut left but quickly ran out of space against the towering trees. He broke right, crossing in front of the NOTAR’s blazing guns and wincing as shrapnel ripped through the cabin.
“What are we going to do?” Polaski shouted. “Why are they attacking us?”
For a moment the river widened, giving them some space, but up ahead a narrow stretch loomed. With the throttle fire-walled, the Huey raced toward it, aiming for the center of a thin, wooded island around which the river spilt. He turned at the last minute, shooting down the left side of the tall woods, while the NOTAR went right. Two seconds to pass the island, and Hawker broke hard to the right, turning toward the NOTAR and trying to force it into the trees on the bank of the river.
But the NOTAR slowed and Hawker was forced to climb out over the trees or cross right in front of the waiting guns. He pulled back on the collective and the Huey edged the treetops, safe, but only for a moment.
The NOTAR came up behind them with its guns blazing.
Cannon shells ripped into the tail and ran up to the engine housing. A horrible scream of wrenching metal drowned out all other sounds as something in the turbine ripped itself apart. The shuddering helicopter thundered forward, shaking violently and careening out of control.
Hawker tried to stabilize the craft, but with the hydraulics out his efforts achieved nothing. The craft was little more than a projectile now, an object answering only to the laws of physics. It nosed over in a declining ballistic arc, twisting to the right and trailing a dark plume of smoke.
The gap between helicopter and jungle shrank rapidly and the Huey slammed into the forest, shattering tree limbs, rotor blades and Plexiglass. The canopy of trees shuddered from the impact and then closed, swallowing them up like a stone heaved into the ocean.