Read an Excerpt
What Heroes Do
In his white combat suit, Lieutenant Conrad Hauser—Duke to the other nine members of his elite U.S. military covert insertion team—felt like the Michelin tire man. Slogging uphill through nearly knee-deep snow, he was spotlighted by a full moon that shone like a mighty alabaster beacon, illuminating the white-blanketed forest and—most of all, worst of all—the team he led.
Slowly, Duke scanned the tree-covered hilltop, searching for any sign of the Uzekurki troops that he knew would be patrolling this sector.
He lowered his night-vision goggles from his forehead and checked the hill again—still nothing. Nonetheless, in his gut, he felt a twinge of suspicion. He didn’t know what caused it, but he had the feeling that danger was imminent, and nearby.
Broad-shouldered yet tall and lean, a white stocking cap covering his close-cropped dark hair, Duke carried his M16 A3 loosely in both hands, safety off, gloved finger on the trigger. Behind him, “Ripcord” Weems—his best friend and second in command—was complaining to the team’s medic, David Westen.
Good-natured griping was a specialty of Rip’s.
“Why is he always out front?” Ripcord asked, loud enough for Duke to hear.
Next to the lanky African American, the slightly built Westen remained stoically quiet. The redhead from Monroe, Louisiana, appeared too frail to keep up with the rest of the team; but the skinny medic had an iron will, and his way of having fun was running twenty miles daily.
Doc was also the only member of the team who spoke even passable Uzekurki.
“We’re supposed to be deadly, invisible, and sound-less,” Duke said, sotto voce. “Emphasis on the soundless.”
Undeterred, his voice rising above a strained whisper, Rip asked, “What, you think a brother can’t walk point?”
Sliding his night-vision goggles up to his forehead, Duke turned to tell Ripcord to keep it down. Though Rip’s kidding riffs could bring a welcome tension break, now was not the time. Exhaling as he turned, watching his breath trail into the frigid night air like wispy smoke, Duke said, “Give it a rest, Rip . . .”
The first bullet whistled past Duke’s ear, and he shouted, “Down,” even as he dove face-first into the snow. Half a second later, Westen and Rip hit the ground on either side of him, as bullets from up the hill raked the woods around them.
Snow covered Duke’s face and the cold stung his cheeks. He looked first to his left to make sure Westen was okay, then glanced right toward Ripcord, who grinned at him.
“What?” Duke asked, as bullets buzzed like angry insects.
With mock innocence, Rip asked, “Don’t you think I oughta be the dude in white face?”
“Would you mind cutting the damn comedy long enough to return fire? Please?”
The whole team opened up at once, shooting uphill toward the muzzle flashes, where what were presumably Uzekurki troops were hidden by the trees, and dressed in camouflage white, not unlike the Americans.
So much for Duke’s team being soundless and invisible—if they were going to get out of this scrape, they’d better get damned deadly damned fast.
The drawbacks of the mission were supposedly offset by the advantage of surprise: parachute in, extract a team of six scientists held hostage in an Uzekurki fortress, beat feet to the extraction point, and get home. It had all sounded routine if dangerous during the briefing. Now, with the Uzekurki patrol pinning them down, Duke was rethinking his definition of what constituted a routine mission. . . .
Sneaking a glance up the hill, Duke could see a possible way to outflank the Uzekurki patrol—a long gully ran up the side of the hill, perhaps twenty yards left of his team’s position. If a couple men could get to the ravine, and shimmy up the hill, they’d be on level ground with the patrol . . . and that might change the odds.
Duke was hoping the Uzekurkis hadn’t made a radio call, either for reinforcements or to alert HQ to the presence of the insertion team. But he knew that was a prayer that would likely go unan- swered. . . .
“Rip,” Duke shouted over the gunfire, “with me!”
Not waiting for an answer, Duke crawled to his left, the enemy gunfire following him almost as closely as Rip, bullets hissing through snow, splintering trees.
Rip asked, “What the hell are you doin’, bro?”
“I thought you said you liked it hot,” Duke said.
“Bikini women hot,” Rip said, “umbrella drinks on the beach hot—not up to my butt in snow, bullets flyin’ around my head hot.”
“I take you on a snowy retreat, and all you can do is bitch, bitch, bitch.”
“Come on, Duke—you know we don’t never retreat. . . .”
Duke stopped, Ripcord right behind him, the two as flat as possible in the snow, the Uzekurki patrol still peppering the world around them with gunfire, although the return fire from Duke’s team had the Uzekurkis keeping their heads down some now themselves.
Using his com-link system to the team, Duke said, “All right, guys, cover fire while Rip and I hotfoot it up the hill.”
A torrent of “Yes, sirs,” and “Got it’s” followed as the whole team seemed to answer at once.
“You ready?” Duke asked.
“Ready for what exactly?” Rip asked, but it was too late for details.
In one motion, Duke rose and sprinted toward the gully. Into his com link, he shouted, “Now!”
Instantly, the team’s rate of fire up the hill increased, although the Uzekurkis continued to blast downhill, as well. Even over the clatter of gunfire, Duke could hear Rip’s footsteps crunching in the snow behind him. Bullets continued to fly all around, and Duke had the fleeting thought that the Uzekurki army must be the worst shots on the planet, which was fine with him. Hundreds of Uzekurki rounds sent their way, and neither he nor Rip had so much as a scratch. Some freaking marksmen.
Diving into the gully, Rip sliding on his six, Duke rolled into the trunk of a tree, the impact knocking the air from him just as Rip crashed into him from the other side.
As he came up, ready to fire, Duke said, “I don’t need to worry about the Uzekurkis—you’re going to kill me first.”
With a little grin, Rip said, “Thanks for breaking my fall, buddy.”
Both men now had their weapons trained uphill as they crept through the underbrush of the ravine. No trail here, and each step had to be taken carefully to avoid sinking into the snow. Between the gun smoke and the misty breath of the combatants, a fog enveloped the hillside, making it difficult to see, even in the gully where Duke and Rip hunkered.
Duke whispered as loudly as he dared: “Let’s get up that damn hill.”
“Right behind you, bro,” Rip said as they edged up the gully, weaving between trees.
They had moved less than a hundred yards up the ravine when a Uzekurki soldier popped up, not even fifty yards away. Duke brought up his weapon and fired once, the bullet striking the Uzekurki in the forehead and dropping him in the snow.
As they watched the soldier’s last breath evaporate over his corpse, two of his comrades materialized behind him and leveled their weapons at Duke and Rip. The one on the right got off a round, the bullet striking Duke in the chest, knocking him back. As he fell, he saw Ripcord drop both Uzekurkis—one shot each to the forehead.
Duke felt like a truck had hit him as he lay in the snow, the night sky above him, the stars twinkling their gentle laughter as he tried to draw a breath.
Another thing to reassess now: Uzekurki marksmanship.
“You okay?” Rip asked, kneeling over him.
Looking up at his friend, his vision slightly blurring from the painful jolt the bullet delivered smashing into his body armor, Duke said, “No thanks to you.”
“Hey,” Rip whined. “I dropped both them suckers.”
“Not until after one shot me.”
“Yeah, but he shot you in your armor.”
Duke stared up at Rip. “That’s your excuse? That the idiot didn’t try for a head shot?”
“With your head, it’d take armor-piercing.”
“Help me up before any more of ’em show. Getting shot once per mission is once more than acceptable.”