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I eased Concha's head off my shoulder and turned to the rear to talk to Doug. "We can't hang about here much longer. I think we should start footing it across the border and call the helicopter again from the other side."
Doug grunted. I could tell he didn't like the idea. "You're the boss," he said.
At that moment the handset in my pocket emitted a beep. "What's that?" I said to Seb.
"The helicopter is interrogating the GPS receiver. It must be airborne and on its way."
Everybody cheered up.
We waited a few minutes more.
I was getting edgy again when Kiwi said, "Listen!"
We all sat up. Faintly, from the distance, came the regular thump of helicopter blades.
It grew stronger as we listened.
"Coming from the west," I said.
"South of west," Doug countered. "He's overshot and flying a search pattern."
We listened some more. The noise of the helicopter grew steadily and the handset beeped again, making us jump.
"He's come in to the south of us, picked up the road and he's following our tracks," Doug said eagerly.
"Everyone get ready," I ordered. I turned back towards Seb. He was sitting bolt upright in the middle seat between n.o.bby and me. His eyes were closed and his lips were moving silently. "Seb." I nudged him. "Come on, get your a.r.s.e in gear."
The noise of the blades was much louder now. "Twin-engine job?" n.o.bby suggested, puzzled. Seb still wasn't responding. His eyes were squeezed tight shut as if in pain. The helicopter sound was suddenly deafening.
Then it hit me. "Christ!" I shouted. "That's no civilian bird, that's an attack chopper! Everybody out!" And I flung the handset from me. "You b.a.s.t.a.r.d!" I yelled at Seb. "You set us up again!" He didn't move. "Well, you can stay here and get what's coming to you!" Grabbing his bound hands, I used the tail-end of the para cord to lash him to the steering wheel.
Concha looked scared. I reached across her to open the door, pushed her out and jumped after her into the road. Kiwi and Doug were baling out of the rear. "Run!" I bawled at Concha, grabbing her arm and hustling her across the road.
We plunged into the snow on the far side, our feet sinking thigh-deep into the gra.s.s and heather underneath.
"Faster! Keep going!" I shouted. "Get away from the vehicle!"
The other three were sprinting ahead, leaping through the snow and bush in great bounds. We could hear the roar of the helicopter engines blasting up the road towards us, and I looked back. Concha was gasping for breath. I dragged her ruthlessly on. We were 200 metres from the truck when a searchlight beam blazed suddenly out of the sky in the south.
"Down!" I shouted, flinging myself flat, throwing Concha into the snow. "Burrow underneath and lie still!"
I wriggled into the long gra.s.s, then worked myself round, rifle at the ready. Lifting my head slightly I saw the monstrous, blazing eye skimming up the road from the south. Just visible in the backwash of the searchlight was the stubby outline of an attack helicopter, like a huge predatory insect, cannon barrel projecting from its snout and menacing rockets slung beneath the winglet pylons. f.u.c.king h.e.l.l, I thought, an Apache!
The Apache was the US Army's primary attack helicopter, designed to operate day and night and in all weather. "Flying tank' would be a more accurate description. The fuselage is invulnerable to ordinary rifle and machine-gun fire it would take a lucky hit from a 23mm cannon sh.e.l.l to bring it down. The leading edges of the main rotor blades are plated in stainless steel to survive impact with trees and metal fragments during low flight, and the pilot and gunner sit in Kevlar-armoured seats for protection over the battlefield. The armaments comprise a 30mm Hughes chain-gun, thirty-eight 70mm unguided explosive-head rockets, and eight h.e.l.lfire anti-tank missiles. In short, it is fast, heavily armed, and near impossible to knock out.
It swung in dead along the centre line of the road. I heard the swoosh of a missile and ducked my head again. There was a shattering explosion and the ground heaved underneath us. Snow and debris rained from the sky. I risked another look. The truck was burning from a direct hit.
The Apache spun round on a wingtip, and pa.s.sed directly over where we lay crouching. Christ, I thought, we're much too close. A near miss with an anti-tank missile or rockets could take us all out.
I saw the pilot line up along the road again. There was a burst of flame from under the starboard wing-stub and a pod of unguided rockets streaked towards the ground like burning arrows. The ground heaved again and the truck vanished in a cloud of smoke and fire.
The Apache was circling round again. I held my breath. The truck was lying toppled over on its side, a ma.s.s of flames. The bodies of Josh and the four Argentines had fallen out and lay strewn in pieces in the snow. I prayed it would look to the crew like they had got us all. I couldn't see Seb, but he must have been dead too. The road was cratered for fifty metres either end of the truck. If the gunner launched his second load of rockets from the western side of the road, we were done for.
The helicopter lined up from the north this time. Its searchlight blazed through the smoke like an evil eye as the gunner loosed his other pod. The nineteen 70mm folding-fm rockets spread out in a fan formation, rus.h.i.+ng towards us in a cloud. I wedged myself down into the earth, clutching Concha's hand.
The explosions seemed to go on and on. Something struck the ground nearby with incredible violence; metal fragments fell hissing all around us. One of the rockets had run wide and ploughed into the snow metres away.
Snow whirled round me in a cyclone as the machine thundered overhead. The truck was still on its side, burning fiercely.
The Apache pivoted, there was a shattering sound, and a solid stream of red light stabbed out from the helicopter into the truck. The gunner was letting go with his Hughes chain-gun. The 30mm rounds ripped into the wrecked truck, slicing through the metal like a giant chainsaw, tearing it apart, obliterating it in a cloud of flying pieces.
Jesus, I thought if he turns that thing on us we're done for.
The helicopter buzzed around the wreckage like a hungry wasp, giving occasional squirts from the cannon, while we cowered in the snow. Abruptly its nose lifted and it soared skywards, its tail spinning around.
Uh-oh, I thought. It's going to check around for survivors.
The Apache held the hover for a minute. I watched the turret swivelling from side to side as the gunner scoured the ground through his heat-sensitive goggles to locate us. Against the snow we must have stood out like fireflies in the dark.
I readied my 203 not that it would be any use. The b.a.s.t.a.r.d was on the far side of the highway, the burning remains of the truck between him and us. He could sit up there at a thousand feet and rake us with the chain-gun from a safe range.
If only he would come closer, we might get a shot at him.
The red light in the chin turret winked and a burst of sh.e.l.ls blasted over our heads. Snow and earth rained down on us. The gunner took another burst, chewing up the bush to my left, then evidently decided to take a closer look. The Apache's nose dipped and it came skimming in towards us, moving fast, chain-gun rattling as it came.
I could feel the rounds hosing closer and closer, kicking up debris as they detonated in the snow; I could smell the phosphorus from the tracer in the base of each round. The noise of the twin engines was intensely loud, the rotor thudding almost directly over where we lay, whipping up the snow into a blur around us. The gunner was firing in short bursts, but he was shooting behind us.
Now was the moment. I jumped up from the snow, my weapon vertical, and swung the grenade launcher towards the dark shape overhead, aiming for the centre of the main rotor disk. It would take an extraordinarily lucky shot to penetrate the Apache's armour with the 23mm grenade. I was shooting at extreme range, but there was a chance I might frighten the pilot off. If not, I had definitely given away our position to the gunner for his next pa.s.s.
Where the round went I didn't see but there was no flash of an explosion. I worked the slide swiftly, chambering a fresh round; rifle fire was useless against the Apache's thick armour.
The helicopter swung back round in a tight circle, put its nose down again and came swooping back for the kill, angered by the infantryman who had dared to fight back with his puny weapon. Cannon sh.e.l.ls burst around me as I sprinted forward in a desperate attempt to lead the firing away from where Concha lay.
Then I saw n.o.bby jump up from where he had been lying away to my left, the last RPG tube clamped to his shoulder. Hardly pausing to aim, he squeezed the trigger. There was a swish and the rocket grenade scorched upward, trailing smoke. The pilot must have seen it, because the Apache banked violently on to the starboard wing-stub. I thought the grenade was going to miss, but then I saw the flash of an explosion as the warhead detonated under the tail rotor.
The Apache was already banking hard over. It climbed for a moment, then, deprived of the stabilising thrust of the tail rotor, it spun round several times, flipped over on to its back and fell away from us, plummeting downwards.
There was nothing the pilot could do. In another instant the craft struck the ground a hundred metres away with a terrific impact, exploding violently into flames.
I ran back to where Concha lay. "Are you OK?" I cried.
She got to her feet and nodded shakily as she stared at the horror of the blazing crash. The crew never stood a chance of getting out.
"The phone?" she said.
I nodded. "I was stupid. Of course the Argentines would be monitoring the phones. Seb must have told them the system. They homed in on the GPS signal and ran us down. He didn't care if he died so long as he took us with him."
n.o.bby was stumbling jubilantly through the snow to join us, Kiwi and Doug following him. Amazingly none of us had been hit by the sh.e.l.ling or the rockets. The burning helicopter was throwing off a fierce heat and spare rounds from the chain-gun were popping off like firecrackers. In the lurid light of the fire, choking smoke drifted across the snow-covered ground.
"We need to move out fast," I said. "This lot will bring out everyone in the neighbourhood. We've an hour before dawn to make the border."
"The border is not far from here," Concha said, 'and I know a way across."
Dawn had reached us, and a keen wind was blowing from clear skies. The snow was crisp and hard along the path. I had lost count of how far we had walked. According to my watch we had been going two hours. The country here was unchanging -featureless pampas with clumps of long gra.s.s, heather and gorse. The reaction from the attack had set in and we were drained. I felt as if I had been walking all night.
Led by Concha, we had circled round the border crossing and were making for a village on the Chilean side. There were no markings that I could see, unless we had pa.s.sed them earlier in the darkness. We might be "Someone's coming," called Kiwi, who was scouting in front. "Looks like a kid with a bike."
"Hide yourselves," Concha said. "I will ask for directions."
Wearily we ducked down behind a clump of gra.s.s and waited. The boy approached slowly, pus.h.i.+ng his bicycle through the snow. He wore a red hat and was singing a little tune to himself. He greeted Concha politely, and they spoke in Spanish for some minutes. Concha seemed to be questioning him animatedly. The boy pointed down the track. s.h.i.+t, I thought, we've still a way to go.
At last they bade one another farewell and the boy trudged on.
Concha came leaping through the snow to join us. Her face was beaming.
I stood up. "How much further?"
She laughed. "Haifa kilo metre to the village. But it is OK, we are in Chilean territory. We are safe!"
There were whoops of relief from the others. "About f.u.c.king time!" Doug said as he sat down in the snow.
Concha was still smiling. I looked at her. "There's something else, isn't there?" I said. "What else did the boy tell you?"
She nodded. "The boy was an Argentine but living in Chile. He was on his way to catch the bus to Rio Grande. He said that on the news half an hour ago it was reported from Buenos Aires that the military junta has fallen. Argentina is free again!"
"So the fighting is over," I said. My mind was so dulled with fatigue I could hardly take it in.
She flung her arms around my neck. "The fighting is over. You have fought your last mission, soldier."
Chris Ryan was born near Newcastle in 1961, he joined the SAS in 1984. During his ten years he was involved in overt and covert operations he was also Sniper team commander of the anti-terrorist team. During the Gulf War, Chris was the only member of an eight-man team to escape from Iraq, of which three colleagues were killed and four captured. It was the longest escape and evasion in the history of the SAS. For this he was awarded the Military Medal. For his last two years he was selecting and training potential recruits for the SAS. He wrote about his experiences in the bestseller The One That Got Away (1995) which was also adapted for screen. He is also the author of the bestsellers, Stand By, Stand By (1996), Zero Option (1997), The Kremlin Device (1998), Tenth Man Down (1999),77?e Hit List (2000) and The Watchman (2001). Chris Ryan's SAS Fitness Book is also published by Century. He lectures in business motivation and security and is currently workinp as a bodyguard in America.
Author's photo: Michael Trevillion ISBN: 0 7126 1545 8