He ran in the darkness, diving into a body of water as it reached for him, holding his breath beneath the surface to get away. Sharp things pulled and tore at his body. Out of breath, he surfaced, but it stalked him still. Faster, he must swim faster. But the water dropped away and he saw them: faces and hands, fingers and claws.
A scream caught in his throat as he was pulled under. His lungs constricted, filling with ... oh God, blood ... he was dying.
“Oh shit, oh no, not again.” Jason Johnson awoke with a start. Wrenching himself into consciousness, he opened his eyes and tried to shake off the effects of the dream. Would it always be this way? Was he going insane? Jason rubbed his head with both hands to wake up. He was okay. At home in his own bed. With a groan, he pulled himself to a sitting position and reached for his clock. It read 0600, Wednesday, January 4, 1995.
Slowly his breathing eased. It was only a nightmare.
Jason rolled out of bed and shuffled into the apartment’s bathroom. He looked at the thermometer outside the bathroom window: sixty-five degrees, cold for Florida. The window overlooked the ocean where he could see the surf, which rolled in on gentle swells. Good. It will help. Any help would be welcomed today.
Turning the shower on full blast and stepping under the spray, Jason remained motionless until the water warmed, then stretched and lathered up his six-foot body. Endless training kept his weight at 205 pounds with 5 percent body fat.
Master Sergeant Johnson, thirty-five years old, was a fifteen-year Special Forces Pararescue Specialist stationed at Patrick Air Force Base on the Space Coast of Florida. Today he would lead his Blue team in a dog-and-pony show for some jerk-off bigwigs.
Years of hard work had honed him into a valued military asset. His own reward for the last ten years of never-ending missions while stationed in the Orient was an assignment to the NASA Rescue Team. If the space shuttle astronauts had to bail out of their spaceship over the Atlantic Ocean, Jason and his pararescuemen were in place ready to rescue them, circling above in Lockheed HC-130 rescue airplanes and HH- 60G Blackhawk helicopters.
The Air Force Pararescue teams were the backbone of Mode Eight Emergencies. PJs, as Pararescue Specialists are called, would reach the astronauts by skydiving to the ocean out of the C-130’s, along with their air-dropped Zodiacs. Once they had their black rubber boats under way, the PJs would do whatever it took to keep an astronaut alive. Jason and his team were highly trained medical technicians who willingly went into any environment to save lives.
They also were trained to take lives, if necessary.
Today had nothing to do with wet astronauts, though. Jason eased the showerhead lower and slid down until the water stream was hitting him directly between the shoulder blades. Is it better to run, or stay and fight, and what’s with the dead bodies? What?
This was not the first time he had had the dream. In fact, this was the third time the dream had drenched him in a cold sweat and awakened him with an abrupt scream.
The first time was in July 1990. A massive earthquake struck the mountain city of Baguio in the Philippines. Over one thousand people had been killed in the disaster. Hundreds more had been trapped under the rubble. He helicoptered in with the only rescue team available in the country. For three weeks he and his team crawled inside crushed buildings, pulling out casualties and only a few survivors. There was so much death and so little time that he ate lunch and dinner among the dead. The nightmare struck on his last night in Baguio.
Its second appearance came during the winter of 1991, just after Desert Storm. He was in Iraq with thousands of Kurd refugees on another survival team, in a fight against dysentery and disease. The Kurdish people had lost everything, and Jason and his men were trying to establish a functional camp to make life less devastating for the refugees. In the Zargos Mountains, again on the last night before leaving, Jason awoke, shaking, drowning in the same exact dream.
He had to shake it off and focus on today’s mission. Jason and his team had received the short-notice assignment and had five days to come up with a plan to assault a mock-up of the space shuttle and neutralize some fanatic terrorists.
A C-130 sitting on the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral would act as a space shuttle. Johnson Security Controls, who ran Cape security, would act as the terrorists. He sensed it was going to be a bad day: it already had been a bad week, beginning with this mission scenario he got last Friday.
The assignment thoroughly pissed him off for several reasons. Everyone else had been given months: they had five days. Damn! And why did anyone even request the Blue team?
“Why us, sir? This is a Special Operations mission, not rescue,” Jason asked the group commander when he was informed of the mission.
“Because you’re here” was the answer.
“Five days to plan and implement?”
“You better get working” was the commander’s dry response.
“A daylight operation?”
“For observation and safety...”
Jason quit asking questions.
Blue team reacted well when he informed them of the new scenario. They liked the idea of mixing it up with the best SWAT team in the nation; the challenge and change appealed to them. By Saturday, they developed a plausible plan. Today they were going to see how well their plan worked. In eight hours, the exercise would be all over, thank God. But it was just a training exercise after all, no big deal. Even though his Blue team couldn’t wait to get at the Johnson Controls team. He knew it would be tough going. Most of his boys were “pups,” young PJs with no combat experience. They allowed him only ten men for the game. It was his ten against their twenty. The team would need a big edge to get through today and win.
The inspectors gave him only one Exercise Input Card, EIC. He liked the idea that an EIC could wreak havoc with an opponent’s plan: your car battery’s dead, wrong ammo, radios don’t work, no transportation. The EIC could say almost anything and could be handed to a player at any time by anyone, himself included. A player did everything to avoid being handed an EIC. Jason had used his card before the game even began. He wondered if some rule was being broken by the way he played the card. Hopefully, it might be enough to gain the edge that afternoon.1530 / Skid Strip Operations Center Cape Canaveral / Florida
Jason was only too glad when the briefings ended; they were nothing but seemingly endless hours of listening to people who thought they had something to say, but didn’t. It was “safety this, and paramount that,” and important visibility for the higher-ups. What was even more maddening was that everyone acted as if it were a given that Blue team was going to lose to Johnson Controls. While Johnson Controls had recently won the National Special Weapons and Tactics Championships, an honor that spoke volumes for a government contractor, it was a mistake to discount his pararescue team. They still had a trick or two left. Laughing to himself, Jason stepped out from the Ops Center into the sunshine; he sure hoped today was that day. The least his guys could do was put on a show the brass wouldn’t soon forget.
It was a short walk from the Ops Center to the main gate. Jason carried a white cardboard box lunch under his arm. Before reaching the gate, he stopped and climbed down the bank to where a small stream ran beneath the main gate checkpoint. Pushing back the foliage until he was standing at the water’s edge, he opened the box and pulled out a turkey sandwich.
“Hello, King George. Are you there?” Jason called down into the corrugated-steel tunnel that channeled the stream beneath the main gate. The tunnel was a pipe, four-foot wide, half buried in sludge and water.
“Hey, George, look at what I brung ya!” he shouted to what was inside the tunnel, and then tossed the unwrapped sandwich into the water about fifteen feet in front of the tunnel. The water near the tunnel swirled. Deep inside the gaping dark hole, a single red orb glowed. Jason smiled. King George was about to give him an audience.
A huge alligator head emerged from the tunnel and drifted toward the sandwich. The body that was attached to the head never failed to make him gasp. The animal was at least twenty feet long, maybe more. The alligator didn’t open its jaws to eat the food. It rather just inhaled the water around it, creating a backflow that drew the turkey meat into the animal’s snout.
Massive would be an understatement. No one had ever dared to measure the creature. The alligator was rumored to be over fifty years old; some said that he had lived in the tunnel since the forties.
King George ruled the area. No other reptile ever dared venture into George’s domain. People who knew George kept him well fed with box lunches, roadkill, and anything else that might otherwise go down a garbage disposal. Every time Jason had work to do at the skid strip landing zone, he followed a regular ritual of feeding “His Highness.”
Jason reached back into the box and tossed out a red apple, then sat down on the bank to mentally go over what his team needed to do before they got airborne on the C-130. Absentmindedly, he threw a few things that were still in the lunch box to the alligator.
Jason was surprised to find a hard-boiled egg in the box. Hadn’t they stopped adding eggs to flight lunches a while back? He palmed it, then closed his eyes and visualized the insertion area.
The shuttle faced north on the taxiway. It was parked close to the Operations Center so the VIPs and brass could observe the operations from large picture windows in air-conditioned comfort. The Banana River bordered the west side, and the Atlantic Ocean, about two miles away, bordered the east. This, then, would be the area they would infiltrate.
Blue team would split into two five-man squads. Danny Inch would lead the Alpha team, and Jason would run the Bravo team. Blue team would load up on the C-130 now waiting for them on the assault zone, then fly west to east over the shuttle. Alpha team would jump out over the insertion area at 25,000 feet. Danny and his team, breathing from oxygen bottles, would open up their parachutes at 15,000 feet. They would be visible to the opponents on the ground, but that was their purpose: misdirection. Alpha team could stay up in the air for a long time under their high-glide parachutes. Danny would wait for a signal from Bravo team before coming down to attempt a frontal assault on the shuttle.
Meanwhile, Jason and Bravo team would ride the C-130 until they were just offshore on the Atlantic side at 3,000 feet. After the loadmaster cut the strap and pushed it free, they would follow a Zodiac that had been stuffed into a container strapped to the ramp of the plane. Parachutes on the Zodiac package would slow and stabilize its descent. Bravo team would free-fall. Once in the water, they would inflate the boat. With that done, they would stow their jump equipment and motor the Zodiac to the shore. Jason would use a mirror to signal Alpha team to begin the assault.
If things worked out right, Johnson Controls would be watching Alpha team descend while his team infiltrated from the opposite side and made a rear assault on the shuttle. The deception was simple. Minimum exposure. Except anyone on the Space Coast of Florida who happened to be looking up at the time would know exactly where Bravo team was landing. They would do their best to get to the shuttle and take out as many bad guys along the way as they could. The team would be working in a very small fighting area, but he knew his guys would make the most of it.
They would be going in “Hollywood,” no extra weight. They would use only guns, water, and Voiceducers for communication. Jason loved Voiceducers. The ear receiver and microphone unit freed the PJ’s hands for shooting. Everyone had already pared out their medical rucks, backpacks, and all the other crap that could get fouled up and noisy in the mangroves.
Was I wearing any gear in the dream? Why the blackness? What was I running from?
Now, on the bank of the stream, Jason sat in a gray mental fog. A nudging at his right hand brought him back to reality. He opened his eyes, looked down at his hand, and froze. The monster alligator’s teeth were pulling at the egg he was still holding. Jason remained motionless. As he looked at the eye of the monster, his heart boomed in his chest. The left one had been destroyed years ago, but the red right eye focused directly on the egg. Jason slowly opened his hand. The red eye grew larger; then the snout opened wider and gently lifted the egg from his hand. King George moved back from him and slid noiselessly into the water.
Jason had no idea how high he jumped or how long it had taken him to get back onto the road. Running a shaky hand through his wet, sweaty hair, he looked around, glad no one had seen him panic. There was nothing to do but go find his team and complete the mission.
Excerpted from Drop Zone by Michael Salazar. Copyright © 2000 by Michael Salazar. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.