In ancient Roman mythology, Salacia was the female divinity of the sea, worshipped as the goddess of salt water who presided over the depths of the ocean. She was the wife and queen of Neptune, god of the sea and water.
But to the US intelligence community, The Salacia Project represented the difference between maintaining military superiority for at least another decade, and losing the country’s edge almost overnight.
A single Blackhawk helicopter skirted the mountaintops, bobbing and weaving like a prizefighter as it traced the lowest passes available, homing in on the designated landing zone. No one spoke-either on board of via radio-since leaving the long-deserted airfield just north of the Pakistan border. The old airfield was just a couple of buildings and a level patch of broken concrete that had once been enough runway for the occasional missionary visit. Now it was just one more among the thousands of relics from historic acts of kindness fallen into decay, nearly swept away by the endless wars of the Middle East. But it had made a perfect refueling area for the Blackhawk whose flight originated in Kandahar and was now bound for a classified destination.
The night sky over southern Afghanistan was inky black, blanketed with stars so bright they shone like brilliant diamonds over the craggy mountains below. But the pilot didn’t care about the dome of stars in the heavens above; he was focused on the potential hell waiting below. Accustomed to piloting general officers and State Department VIPs, he hated these classified night flights. No chase bird covering his “6” (his back), no radio contact, and if there was trouble, it was very unlikely the QRF – Quick Reaction Force – would find them at all and certainly not in time for a rescue.
The only light was the green instrumentation glow from the cockpit, so all six passengers either stared straight ahead or just closed their eyes inside their goggles. Three of the six wore a night vision apparatus, but it wouldn’t be be engaged until they were on the deck, which, if Dawson’s calculations were correct, should be very soon. By now, he figured, they were somewhere around the marble quarries and less than ten minutes out from their target. The man he knew best in this team, his old colleague Billy Winger, was chewing a big wad of gum with his eyes closed and a meditative non-expression on his face.
Ben Dawson and his security detail wore black from head to toe and were decked out in body armor and helmets, ear plugs, clear goggles, and lightweight fire-resistant gloves. Only the pilot and copilot were in camouflage. The windows had been removed from the chopper, and the wind roared as it whipped frantically at their shirtsleeves. But no one minded. A little breeze, Dawson thought, made the cabin almost comfortable at this altitude and at this time of night, even inside a Kevlar vest. As they began to slow, the copilot signaled to the passengers via a small amber light; they were over the landing zone, and about to descend. The five men in the security detail charged their weapons.
Those wearing night vision equipment jumped out first, before the prop wash had even cleared, and began scanning the area. The rest of the team followed until Dawson was on the ground. The Blackhawk’s engines came to a stop, and once again the pilot whispered aloud: “I don’t like this. I don’t like it at all.” He knew full well how long it would take to cycle the engines back up again. If they had to leave in a hurry, well, it wasn’t going to be pretty. But his orders were clear. They couldn’t afford the sound of running even at a low idle while the team was operating on the ground. The risk was just too high. The copilot quietly agreed: “We’re sitting ducks.” But all they could do was wait while Dawson did his work. Wait and hope the security detail could keep
them all alive.
The sand beneath his boots as Dawson hit the deck was as fine as baby powder, poofing away from his feet as he walked. The 120-degree heat was stifling, and beneath forty pounds of body armor, helmets, and gloves the sweat began to form in slick pools around his back and arms. His equipment added another eighteen pounds. The security team was even more encumbered with their weapons, additional magazines of ammo, equipment, and Camelback canteens of water or Gatorade. Winger stayed behind Dawson, visually sweeping the surrounding terrain and watching his friend’s 6.
As arranged, two of the night vision-equipped operators took up positions along the edges of the clearing, one on each side of the helicopter. The other took point, leading Dawson and the remainder of the security detail in a wedge formation toward the spot Dawson had designated back at their refueling point. Getting the exact target position information so late in the game didn’t set well with the team, but money talked, and this mission was paying handsomely. So they gritted their teeth and took it in stride. About fifty meters along their journey, the cry of jackals erupted from just over the rise to their east. It was hideous, and Dawson always imagined it sounded like the cry of a Comanche war party as they crested a butte and rode down in waves so many years ago in his native Arizona. No matter how many times he’d heard the blood-curdling cry before—which unfailingly splintered the night when all was quiet and the wind was absolutely still—it always startled him. Young inexperienced Marines with hair triggers from the grueling duty in Helmand Province often found themselves shooting at shadows before they realized it, and sheepishly had to confess to their commanding officers that they’d fired needlessly into the darkness.
Their objective was on the other side of the ridge and down the mountainside about 150 meters. The combination of altitude and uphill trek had Dawson breathing hard by the time they cleared the ridgeline and started down the other side. The loose rocks and sand, coupled with the fact that he was moving by starlight with just a sliver of moon, didn’t help. More than once he reached for his flashlight but then caught himself. The flashlight would have to wait until they were inside the cave. As he crossed the ridge, only one security man flanked him, and the only other team member he could see was one of the men wearing night vision goggles. The others had spread out to each side and were slowly converging on a dark spot below—an empty black crescent-shaped opening in the rock surface that made the outcropping seem like an unlit jack-o-lantern with the cave entrance forming the misshapen mouth.
When they reached the entrance, one of the security team pulled two cylinders from his vest, triggered the mechanisms for each, and tossed them inside. Then they stood aside and waited. About ten seconds later two muffled pops could be heard from inside and soon gray smoke began to waft into the night air from the opening. No one knew what creatures might inhabit the cave—snakes, bats, jackals—it was impossible to say. But anything in there would find the combination of smoke and gas sufficiently noxious to exit quickly, and that’s all the team needed.
The cave roof was too low for walking upright for the first twenty meters, and by the time they reached their destination, they were all getting a bit claustrophobic. The cavern was only about the size of a large SUV, but at least they were able to stand. As soon as it was clear that there was no human or animal threat inside the cave, the rest of the team was ordered back out, leaving only Dawson and the team leader, a man named Romero whose team just called him “Chief.” Winger guarded the entrance to the cave.
Dawson stretched his back, looked around, and spotted what he was searching for almost immediately. Moving quickly and efficiently, he got to work. First he unpacked an instrument that looked like a tricorder from the old Star Trek TV series, and snapped on a flashlight-looking device on one side. The instrument was a sort of combination video camera, Geiger counter, mass spectrometer, and light spectrum analyzer. It also contained a chamber about one inch in diameter for on-site destructive sample analysis and a satellite uplink device which would almost certainly be useless while inside the cave.
The vein, darker than the stone surrounding it, was deep green and smooth to the touch. It stood out against the relatively soft sandstone, but was not as crystalline as the local granite. Dawson wished again he could use his laser to remove the section he needed—he had a portable unit in his pack that was more than capable—but with the limited amount of breathable air in the confined space, a mechanical method was the only reasonable solution. He hacked out a tiny sample, deposited it in the small analytical test chamber of his instrument, and confirmed he had what he was looking for. Then he went to work with a titanium-edged cordless power tool. Romero had laughed, saying that the tool looked like a large Dremel, but it got the job done and that
was all that mattered.
It took him about fifteen minutes to get a sample about the size of his forearm, and once he had it extracted, he deposited a metal cylinder in its place. Then he packed away the sample and his equipment, nodded to Romero, and ducked back down to begin his crawl back out toward fresh air.
* * * *
Romero waited until Dawson was about fifteen seconds out ahead of him before turning back to the cylinder. He carefully pried free the outer casing and discarded it on the cavern floor. Then he lost no time getting back into the small shaft himself, and as quickly as he could, belly-crawled toward the surface. He had almost caught up with Dawson by the time they emerged, both of them sweaty and dirty and grateful for the fresh air. Only Dawson took a moment to breathe once he was out, though. Romero instantly signaled one of the remaining security team, and the man set to work installing two explosive devices, one basic C4 block at the entrance itself and a shaped charge just a few meters inside the shaft. Both were set up with remote triggers, and the triggers blinked tiny red lights in unison as the team moved away, returning toward the ridgeline.
Just as Dawson and Winger cleared the top of the ridge, they could see Romero stiffen perceptibly, working even harder than usual on his SA, his situational awareness. His head never stopped pivoting, and he was now clearly tense. Something was wrong. The remainder of the team picked their way down the side of the mountain, but they were more vigilant as well. About twenty meters from the landing zone, Dawson heard the engines of the Blackhawk coming to life and saw the big rotor blades beginning to move. Anticipating the prop wash, he pulled a balaclava up over his nose and his goggles down over his eyes, as he continued to pick his way through the rocks toward the helicopter. Winger stayed close behind him, his M4 constantly pivoting to sweep the terrain in tandem with his head.
Things began to go south just as Dawson reached the clearing. There was a double click on the radio earbud in Romero’s right ear, a pre-arranged signal that one of the security team had detected unexplained movement or sound. Had the helicopter not yet restarted its engines, the team would have frozen in their positions until the signal originator conveyed an “all clear” or the situation escalated. In this case, because the engine restart had blown any opportunity for remaining undetected anyway, Romero signaled double-time. The team continued to shepherd Dawson, their VIP, toward the helicopter as rapidly as possible. Suddenly, although muted by the sound of the spinningup rotor blades, Romero heard the distinctive report of a flare being fired into the air from the south, and within seconds, just as he and Dawson reached the bird, the sky lit up in an eerie orange glow. The landing zone, helicopter, and personnel lay exposed and easy to target. And then all hell broke loose.
The unmistakable bark of AK-47s coughed from two sides as dark shapes poured over southern and western ridgelines. There were about a dozen of them, and from the way they moved and the orchestrated way they deployed, Romero knew they were no ragtag local Taliban group. These were well-trained professionals, and they had been waiting. It was an ambush. Someone had leaked information about their arrival if not their purpose, and that leak had come from somewhere very near the mission planning source. After all, even Romero hadn’t seen the actual coordinates until the very last moment, while staging for refueling at the abandoned airfield. The enemy, whoever they were, had waited for Dawson to extract the mineral, and now they were determined to take it from him.
That meant there was likely to be much worse news than a dozen men with AKs. The flare, which was quickly followed by a second, erased any advantage from the night vision equipment. Romero’s primary objective now was to get Dawson and his cargo aboard the chopper and get him airborne. While he’d like very much to get all his team out alive, and himself for that matter, he knew they were all expendable. If the enemy got Dawson, and especially if they got his cargo and his instruments, the result would be disastrous. Romero wasn’t going to let that happen and, he noted, neither was Winger.
As they moved, Winger ran in reverse—a nearly impossible maneuver in the rocks, in combat boots, and by moonlight—and stayed glued to Dawson’s back, responding with sweeping volleys toward every location from which he perceived incoming fire. As Romero provided cover for Dawson and Winger, he noted enemy fire was still coming from only two directions, and they didn’t seem to be trying very hard to hit the chopper itself. Because it was facing north, the enemy didn’t have a good firing line, but why, he wondered, weren’t they moving into a better firing position? After all, if they took out the pilot in the cockpit, the rest of them would be easy pickings.
By the time Romero, Dawson, and Winger made it to the edge of the clearing and were ready to make a run for the chopper, one team member was hit and unable to move, one was pinned down about fifteen meters out, and the last was hidden somewhere amidst the boulders. Once Dawson was safely aboard, Romero clambered in behind and basically on top of him, and Winger threw himself back out of the chopper, running toward the uninjured, pinned-down team member. Romero concentrated on keeping Dawson out of the line of fire and did his best to provide effective cover for the other two men while Winger pivoted and fired toward every enemy position until his man was on board. Soon the only men out were the one who’d already been hit and one keeping to the shadows on the perimeter. The man who’d been hit dragged himself toward the bird as prop wash from the rotor threw a cloud of sand and debris into the air, obscuring both his figure and the chopper. He had just a few feet to go when he took another hit—a head shot this time. Romero could see he was clearly dead before he hit the ground. Then the last man out took a round in his right leg as he sprang from his position to reach the bird. Between Romero and Winger giving cover, he was able to pull himself on board as Romero signaled the pilot to get airborne.
That’s when Romero saw the real threat. Now he understood why the enemy hadn’t tried to hit the cockpit with their AKs. Getting into position behind a substantial group of boulders along the eastern ridge, two men were preparing to blow the bird out of the sky. One was shouldering an RPG, a rocket propelled grenade launcher, while the other looked to be readying a TOW missile on a tripod masked in camouflage netting. The ground fire had just been a show. It looked as though they planned to simply shoot down the helicopter, killing its passengers and crew in one fell swoop, and then simply recover the valuable mineral from its charred remains. These guys might be trained professionals, Romero thought, but they had no idea how valuable Dawson and his equipment really were.
* * * *
Dawson felt useless and that just didn’t suit his nature. He wasn’t carrying an M4, an M16, or even an M9 sidearm. The rifles of the security team, being fired from a moving helicopter as it twisted and rocked with incoming AK fire pinging off the sides and whistling through the doorways and windows, were not effectively targeting the RPG-wielding enemy. And although the men on the ground were being painstakingly deliberate about getting into position and getting the helicopter into their sights, he knew it wouldn’t be long before they’d be ready to fire. That moment was coming at them with the inevitability of death itself. He could hear Romero bellowing at the pilot to “Get us outta here!” but no one else could. Romero had his hands full firing off bursts at the enemy below and couldn’t trigger his mike to communicate with the pilots, and of course the pilots were doing their best to gain altitude without verbal encouragement in any case. The situation was loud and it was lethal. Bullets ricocheted in every direction, and all of them were far too close for comfort. Dawson had to do something.
He yanked an instrument from his pack and rolled onto his stomach. As it powered up, he popped up into an open corner of the Blackhawk window frame and aimed at the silhouetted figures of the RPG-wielding soldiers just coming into clear view. He hit the on-switch, and, like a stream of tracer fire, his portable industrial laser burned a smoldering path from the boulder it initially struck across the images of the men below. Like the finger of God, the blinding, pencil-thin beam shone brightly against the eerie, flickering orange light of the flares descending through the night sky. As the beam encountered the enemy soldier, it sliced through him until it struck the weapon in his hands. When it hit the first RPG round, the projectile detonated with an earthshattering roar, spraying rock and debris across the ridgeline and cascading down the opposing mountainside. “Not exactly a textbook application,” Dawson said to himself as he grunted and fell back to the floor, “but I guess it worked.”
As soon as they cleared the ridgeline, the pilot leaned into the throttle and the chopper began to climb safely away. Dawson watched as Romero pulled the remote detonator from his pocket, removed the cover, and pressed the blinking green button. Below and behind them, the charges Romero had placed into the shaft of the cave did their job.
The chopper skipped across several mountaintops, wending its way back toward the abandoned airfield for refueling. Only then did Dawson start to come out of operational mode and downshift mentally to consider what had happened. The idea had been to sneak in, grab the specimen, and sneak out with no trace left behind. They had lost one man, and another was wounded. Worse, the enemy—whoever the enemy was in this case—now knew the general location of their source. And worst of all, that enemy also had at least one mole somewhere deep in the intelligence community. Deep enough to know about one of the most heavily guarded and least known secrets of the most important US military research program in existence.
Someone somewhere was going to pay.
I have been privileged to work with some tremendous members of the United States Armed Forces over the last several years, including: General Vincent Brooks, United States Army, General Ed Cardon, United States Army, Colonel Christopher Hamilton, United States Marine Corps, and Colonel Michael Kelly, United States Marine Corps.
I have also been privileged to observe many others who – no matter what fate has befallen them since the time of their service – provided the United States of America with intelligent leadership and unflinching resolve in some of the darkest hours of modern American history. They demonstrated profound courage in the theatre of war, and I am still humbled at the memory of watching them at work in the field. These men include General David Petraeus, General Stan McChrystal, and General John Allen.
But far beyond the leaders who make headlines, the men and women who wear the uniform of the United States of America with honor and courage are the heroes of our modern age. From the teeming streets of Baghdad and Kabul to the parched and deadly hinterlands of Basrah and Marjeh, I worked with these soldiers and marines and watched in awe at their self-sacrifice. I thank Almighty God for them every day.