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3-D Cover for Steel on Target

From Chapter 6

South-central Iraq-2312 hours, 30 March 2003
The trio of transport helicopters thundered low over the Tigris, lit only by the muted station-keeping lights. But to those aboard, everything was illuminated in vivid green-on-black by sophisticated light amplification equipment. For his part, Sweet sat in the rear of the lead Pave Low, encumbered by his Interceptor body armor, ballistic helmet, spare ammunition and assorted pyrotechnic devices. His carbine hung at his chest from a combat sling, ready for instant use.

The pilot's voice crackled through Sweet's headset: "Inbound now. ETA fifteen."

He felt the helicopter bank sharply to port, shadowing the curve of the river. His stomach roiled in time with their every movement. He had always hated to fly and had seen far too many aircraft go down over the years. He also knew the boys up front were amongst the finest pilots in any branch of the armed forces. He did not doubt their skill. But he'd be very happy to set foot on solid ground once more, even if every soldier in the Iraqi army was waiting for them at the primary LZ.

They had been in the air for just about two hours now. After lifting off from Camp Virginia, they stayed just off the deck and headed northwest. The Iraqi border had passed beneath them just twenty minutes later. Onward over silent marshlands they prowled, staying low to avoid any surviving air defense radars. Of particular concern were shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, of which there would be little warning before both launch and impact.

US Special Operations Command had set up a forward operating base in a dry wadi just outside As-Samawah. They landed there right on schedule, and refueled quickly before taking off once more. Now Sweet looked out the starboard door gun position and watched the Tigris hurtle by below. More radio traffic sounded in his headset as Highway 8 became visible in the chopper's forward-looking infrared. The road pointed northwest, toward Ad Dawrah. The Tigris curved west for a few kilometers before straightening out once more. The glow of the city became visible through the cockpit window. Some of these lights were simple electrical lighting, but most were not. Fires glimmered in the distance, guiding them onward.

Sweet saw the first tracers just as they crossed over into the city proper. Vivid reds and greens spat skyward, seemingly at random. Supposedly the Iraqi air defense grid was down permanently, so he assumed the gunners below were firing at shadows. Ugly gray buildings huddled in the night, dark, silent and pregnant with uncertain malice.

"Jesus. Look at that." Reed punched him in the shoulder, and pointed east, toward the river.

To Sweet's eyes the building was squat and ugly, a sort of art deco pyramid crossed with not-so-subtle hints of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. It was also on fire; flames burned all along its length, raging out of control. Even as Sweet watched, a streak of light skimmed in low from the south, and slammed into the building, low on the second or third floor. He supposed it was a Tomahawk cruise missile, launched from the Persian Gulf. More flames erupted, and black smoke vomited skyward. The helicopter actually shuddered slightly as the blast wave washed over them.

"What is that?" the team radioman wanted to know.

"The Iraqi parliament building," Reed told him. "I forget what it's called."

Sweet said nothing as they moved on past the ruins at the edge of the city. It was then that the pilots spotted their next waypoint. A tightly packed industrial complex lay ahead, dark now and seemingly abandoned. Sweet knew it was a railroad station, bordered to the west by an oil production facility. Beyond that was the central portion of the city, known as al-Karkh. There stood various governmental facilities, including the Presidential Palace, the international airport, and Ibn Sina Hospital.

More static sounded in his ear. "Palomino Lead. This is Crossbow Actual. Inbound your location."

"Roger, Crossbow. Your targets are designated."

Again Sweet peered out the starboard hatch and saw darker shapes moving in tandem with them. It was a quartet of AH-64 Longbow Apache gunships, armed with 30mm chain guns and Hellfire missiles. Tracers lanced out to meet them. He saw what looked like an RPG streak by. There were more vivid flares against the night as the gunships began to return fire with cannon and pinpoint-accurate guided missiles.

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