Alex Hunter sat in the rear of the black stealth chopper and cleared his mind. The swift, sixty-five-foot machine carried a modified rotor design that suppressed the distinctive percussive noise. To anyone below, it would have been indistinguishable from a breeze in the Chechen treetops. They came in fast, low and lethally silent — a ghost ship with deadly cargo.

Alex pulled on his gloves — night black and woven through with enough armor plating and Kevlar thread to allow a man to punch a hole through a door. The gloves were made from the same fabric as his suit, which changed from black to gunmetal gray before his eyes. They now matched the helicopter’s cabin. He flexed his hand — it was termed active camouflage, the latest adaptive technology that allowed objects to blend into their surroundings by use of micro-panels capable of altering their appearance, color and reflective properties. The suit didn’t provide great thermal concealment, but if they were in snow, they’d appear white, in trees, green… and in amongst the freezing Chechen countryside or urban zones, it would move, change and dapple to provide as much camouflage as necessary.

He sat back, his fist starting a slow beat on his knee. He loved this part: everything was locked and loaded, and you were committed — everything out of your hands now — buckled up and waiting for the fun to start.

Like the suit he wore, his team’s profile was also invisible. They were HAWCs — the real best of the best — Hotzone All-Forces Warfare Commandos. Above average physically and mentally, each one had years of field experience. There were no pictures of them, no glowing articles in the press, no medals pinned on their chests by a corpulent senator. Their group existed more as a break-glass strategy, buried somewhere in a secure military database.

HAWCs didn’t volunteer or apply for the job; they were chosen. Each man and woman had a unique psychology that totally disregarded the physical self or even acknowledged a sense of mortality. In another field they may have been sent for psychoanalysis or discharged, but in the HAWCs they were prepped and then launched.

Each HAWC with him in the chopper was multiskilled, and usually with certain specializations — explosives, electronics, sniper skills, knife-work. When an imperative mission was deemed politically, militarily or plain humanly impossible, they went in.

Like Alex Hunter, everyone who sat with him in the chopper had been drawn from the Rangers, Green Berets, SEALs or DELTA Force. Alex had been a HAWC now for three years, and he was a damned good one.

This mission team, called Valkeryn, had a thirst for adrenalin only extreme combat could satisfy. Their missions were top secret, and no friend, family member — not even his girl, Angie — could ever know about them.

Former girl. The dark and brutal world he inhabited had never touched her, and never would. But he missed her — when he closed his eyes, he could still feel the strands of her long brown hair, carrying the scent of green apples.

Focus, Romeo! He could hear the old warhorse’s voice in his head: Hammerson. Alex could imagine the Major now — crew cut and jutting jaw — staring into his face with an expression hard enough to crack granite. The man seemed to have a knack of zeroing in on him personally. Always checking he was fully briefed, had the latest kit or training. He’d probably resent it, if he thought the Hammer was ever wrong.

On this mission, Bronson was at point. Alex knew he would be given his own team soon… probably next mission. He knew his stuff; he’d done his time. He guessed that was why the Hammer was staying on his case: simple preparation — stress-testing the machine.

He could deal with it. He could deal with anything. In the HAWCs they had one clear rule — we are right, and they are wrong. It simplified a lot of things up front.

A single red light went on in the darkened cabin — seven minutes out. There were three lights. The next one would tell them they were two minutes out. The third meant it was time for the HAWCs to fly.

He ran his hands quickly over his suit, checking everything was secured and in place as his mind ran over the mission brief one more time.

Dropping in for takeaway was how Hammerson put it. They’d drop in, retrieve a double package — a man and an object — simple. Just a small thing about a heavy Russian military presence, and that they could expect the Federal Security Services, the successor to the KGB, to have deployed numerous death squads of Spetsnaz GRU to make things interesting.

Alex got to his feet, pulled his rifle from the rack and slung it over his shoulder. For this mission, he and most of the team had chosen a Colt ACR, basically a heavily modified M16A2. He liked its weight, optical sighting and hydraulic buffering system to remove recoil — it was tough, reliable and accurate. He reached around and pulled hard on the short barrel — secure — it needed to be. When they left the chopper, it would be traveling at speed. You didn’t step out, or shimmy down a rope; you dove and rolled. The big bird just kept on going.

He smiled. The Russian ground forces were basically underpaid, enthusiastic young men, most with very old weaponry. The HAWCs would avoid them and only engage if absolutely necessary. After all, it was like shooting fish in a barrel, a waste of good ammunition. But the GRU, they were different; they were good — hi-tech psychopaths.

Good, he thought. Nothing like a real fight… and he liked to fight. Alex looked at the team. They all did.

Glancing down along the line of men and women in camouflage uniforms, tight against physiques that looked as if they had been cut from some sort of dark indestructible stone, he saw the same self-confidence, bordering on arrogance, on all their faces.

‘Get off me.’ It was Johnson, older than Alex by a few years, and ex-Delta Force. He’d been dozing, and woke to find a cigarette sticking from his ear. His heavy lidded eyes couldn’t hide a formidable intellect, and his bull-like neck suggested all the power needed to back it up. He screwed up the cigarette and tossed it back at the man next to him.

Jack Kolchek laughed out loud. ‘Oh yeah, blame me… peace offering?’ He grinned and offered Johnson the same brand of cigarette. He batted it away, and Kolchek shrugged, tucking them in his pocket. He was a former SEAL like Alex, and the funniest man he had ever met. The guy could make you laugh even when the bullets were flying.

Next was Samantha ‘Sam’ Stozer, who was shaking her head, but trying hard not to smile. She was ex-British SAS and attractive in a brutal sort of way — blonde hair pulled back tight against her head, clear eyes and a flattened nose she always promised to get fixed one day.

To the rear an enormous man was on his knees with his back turned, head bowed and his hands pressed together. Bruda, built like a human bulldozer with fists that looked like they were designed for tearing apart artillery, rivet by rivet. He had the pleasure of carrying the AA12 rotating shotgun. The squat weapon was a Gatling machine gun that fired shotgun shells — it could push out three hundred twelve-gauge rounds per minute. Bruda liked to call the big gun his front-door key. It opened doors, all right. It also cleared rooms, and would obliterate a squad of bad guys in an instant.

Bruda was the only HAWC Alex had known to wear his heart on his sleeve — in a manner of speaking. Before any mission, he would draw a crucifix in blackout paint on his chest. Then, on his knees with eyes closed, he would say his own private prayer — no one doubted the man’s faith, no one asked him what he prayed for and no one ever poked fun at him either. Bruda was no man of peace.

Last in line was Wild Bill Singer, part Cherokee, and a former Ranger like Hammerson. He was the only one of them with a kid, Arnold. He’d never admit it, but the man now had something valuable to lose — having a child altered his priorities — that’s just the way it was. Alex was hoping he’d retire after this mission. Soon as you had a life to care for other than your own your focus drifted, and then…

The second light came on, and as they got to their feet, a voice as deep and dark as its owner floated up the crowded cabin. ‘Listen up children — quick in and out — just like your first date.’ Bronson, their mission leader, stood holding the metal rail overhead, looking at each of them from under a lowered brow. ‘Mistakes make for dead bodies — not on my watch. Clear?’

In unison they repeated the word.

He grunted and looked again along his team, his eyes stopping at Alex. Bronson inclined his head and Alex nodded back. The man didn’t say much — didn’t have to. He could communicate an idea or command with just the twitch of an eyelid. His large body carried three bullet holes — nothing human could kill him, or at least that was how he’d put it when Alex first met him. Under Hammerson’s instruction, Bronson had been his guide and mentor. But this time, Alex was second in command — if Bronson went down, it would be up to him to step in and complete the mission.

They all formed up in a tight line. They’d be dropped a mile out from the town. The conditions outside were close to freezing — patchy snow and ice. The small urban centre should be shut up for the night when they arrived.

Drop in, grab up their packages and pull out. If it all went to plan, they’d be back on the bus and heading home in a few hours. A single night’s work — piece of cake. They’d fall back to a clean zone to the south, and call in a waiting chopper. They’d jog, grab a vehicle, or bobsled there if they had to.

If there was too much chop, or the Russian Air Force paid them a visit, then they’d simply break into two-person teams, and find their own way across the border into Georgia. It’d mean a nice winter holiday living off the land for a while — they’d done it before and could do it again.

But if things really went to shit, and they were encircled, or caught in a firefight and trapped, well… The HAWCs were a deniable unit — they didn’t exist. You didn’t let yourself get taken alive, because there would be no backup. Very few HAWCs would die old men or women, wishing they had led more exciting lives. As Hammerson, a military history fanatic, had said to them many times: come home with your shields or upon them — just like the Spartans. Never be taken alive, because it never ended like it did in the movies where you got slapped around for a while, and then were handed back in a week or two with just a single black eye and a bad hairdo. Alex had seen what man could inflict upon man… He knew he’d fight to the death.

Alex looked over his shoulder and saw Stozer looking at him. He winked at her. She blew him a kiss in return. The woman looked slightly satanic in the dull red glow of the chopper’s interior now that the blackout lights were on. She was pretty cool. I might have to take her up on that one day, he thought. She’d certainly dropped him enough hints.

The bird eased back a few knots, but remained so silent and stable it barely felt as though they were moving at all. Alex drew in a deep breath through his nose. He held the roof railing with one hand; the other was a fist that drummed a slow beat against his leg. He felt the explosive energy coursing through him — he was a thousand pounds of dynamite packed into a human shell, a warhead waiting to explode.

The cabin went black — the third light went on.

* * *

Major Jack Hammerson sat at his desk and linked his fingers behind his big square head. The Hammer, so named because of his uncompromising personality, fists like iron, and a head that looked to have corners… an impression not helped by his iron-gray crew cut.

On his computer screen a small digital clock had just started to count down from 24:00:00 hours — the mission was in motion.

He hadn’t been in the field for years, but every time a mission started, he wished he was with them. The hardest part was letting go and acknowledging that the people he sent were the best in the world at what they did. That was why he had chosen them.

His teams, his HAWCs, would enter a red zone like a hot spike, burn a small hole to their target, and then withdraw, leaving little more than a cauterized wound. Unfortunately there were a lot of bones around the world that belonged to his people. Every one of them was his responsibility — not everyone came home — but that was just a fact of life in the HAWCs.

Hammerson leaned forward and clicked to a screen showing six boxes covered in graphs, peaks, troughs and pulsing dots — the life signs of the team members — all optimal with normal adrenalin and oxygen spikes in line with terrain touchdown. The team was spec’d up on weaponry and as armored as all hell. They’d get the job done, or die trying.

Hammerson looked at Alex Hunter’s readout: slightly elevated endorphins. The man was probably pushing himself to be out in front. He was a natural competitor. Hunter would be given his first team soon. He’d watch him and get a report from Bronson when they returned.

Hammerson paused, thought for a second and then shook his head. The guy was so much like his dad, and would never know it. Hammerson had known Alex’s father, Jim Hunter — he’d been a special ops sniper in the Rangers with Hammerson. Six confirmed takedowns, unparalleled hand-to-hand skills and competitive as all hell. The only thing he feared was that his young son would find out he killed for a living. No matter how many times Hammerson told him he saved lives, rather than took them, there was always a seed of doubt, that little something inside him that burnt every time he pulled the trigger… and burnt even hotter at the thought of his son pointing at him one day, and saying: murderer!

Jim had confronted Hammerson before his final mission — perhaps he’d had a premonition of what was coming. It was strange; most special ops soldiers believe they’re indestructible. But every now and then, a day comes when something whispers to them in the night: tomorrow will be your last. Some men and women resign immediately, others try to deny it. Jim was a fatalist.

He had grabbed Hammerson’s forearm and stared into his face before they mission dropped. Promise you’ll look out for Alex, he had asked. And never tell him.

Perhaps when Alex was old enough he would have shared what he did. Who knows now?

Talk about fate playing its hand. From a distance Hammerson had watched the kid go from the schoolyard to the military in the blink of an eye. Always pushing himself harder, never surrendering to pain or fatigue. He had moved on to advanced training and had been selected for the SEALs. There he had excelled, distinguishing himself with his drive and aggression, until his skills were impossible for Hammerson to ignore. It was as if karma had played a crazy joke on all of them. Hammerson snorted — we all become our fathers sooner or later.

Hammerson could never have promised Jim Hunter he could keep Alex alive, or safe, or even always be able to bring him home. But he could look out for him. That was one promise he would damn well keep.

He grabbed one of the folders from his in-tray, leaned back and looked up at the brass sign on his wall: God, Guns and Guts it read in heavy copperplate lettering. He drummed his fingers on the folder’s hard cover — when traveling to hell, you needed all three.

He flipped open the folder. On the first page were three large words in red: Classified — Arcadian Project. Hammerson groaned. He liked Captain Graham; the military doctor was brilliant, and his team had patched Hammerson and his people up a hundred times using new techniques others only dreamt of. But it seemed these days, the man’s interest had turned to yet another super-soldier project.

Hammerson flicked through the report, looking over the theoretical projections for physical improvement, tissue regeneration and stamina enhancement. He snorted — when were these guys gonna learn? Battle superiority came from training, internal fortitude, advanced weaponry and a certain type of psychology — fearless, determined, and maybe a little psychotic as well.

He paused on the last page, nodding in agreement. Hmm, ready for human trials by year’s end. I suppose, if the eggheads could give my HAWCs an extra ounce of speed, strength or stamina, I’d support ’em. He looked at the data on animal test subjects — twenty-five percent catatonia, thirty percent motor neuron disorder, stroke, embolism, and all the rest… dead.

He’d heard the Chinese were working with reanimation — soldiers that didn’t feel pain or fatigue… because they were already fucking dead. Only problem was, they fell apart after a week.

Hammerson went to throw the folder into his out-tray, then changed his mind and tossed it back onto his in-tray with a shrug.

‘I doubt it’ll be in our lifetime, Graham.’ He went back to watching the screen.


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