Burrows laid the Sony GH-3400 digital handicam down on the bench seat, kneeling to rummage through his gore-tex pack for the extra batteries and tapes. Across the aircraft Brunheld opened one of his closed eyes to stare at his lieutenant. He let out a quiet "hurumph" before turning back into the semi-softness of the personal baggage pallet that occupied the rear half of the C-17 transport.

"Craig?" Captain Terry's voice came from up near the flightdeck. She'd been doing a quick story with the flight crew since their take-off from Sri Lanka with Airman Drosdoff.

"Yeah. What?" Brunheld grunted, trying to extricate himself from the pallet webbing. It never failed, just when he'd comfortable for one of these Trans-Pacific flights someone would wake him up. Burrows flashed a quick grin at him as he got up.

"The inventory on the BDA tapes." She asked quickly, brushing the strands of auburn hair away from her face. Although her hair was up and well within regulations it was easy to tell it hadn't seen a brush all day. She'd probably been up for twenty hours or so Brunheld figured. She never delegated much.

"Pallet two – in the lockbox. Checked it myself during on-load." He rattled off, half tempted to turn away from her and resume his nap. A Senior Master Sergeant could get away with such things if he had the brass, but he pulled the load list out of his right BDU cargo pocket and opened it up to the section detailing the tapes. It was properly labeled with all the right classified stamps, and he was the courier for the shipment. All was in order.

"Thanks. I just wanted to make sure. If there's anything Combat Camera has to hold unto it's the Armament Delivery Recording mission." Brunheld didn't even bother to reply. He just refolded the load list and stuck it back in his pocket. "Anything else?"

"No, thanks Craig." She remarked, flashing an easy smile. She turned her attention back to Burrows, who was captioning another tape in the VX-1000.

"I thought I asked you to let Airman Drosdoff to do that." She said. Burrows shut off the tape with a flick of his thumb, and powered the camera down.

"Just trying to help out. Sorry Ma'am." He replaced the lens cap, and put the camera back into its aluminum carry case. Terry, apparently satisfied, went back toward the flight deck. Brunheld started to settle back into his "nest" watching Burrows carefully for sign of rebuttal, but the lieutenant just finished stowing the case then stretched out on the bench seat, a CD Walkman emerging from his own cargo pocket.

"She's a good officer Sir…even though she still micromanages a bit." He remarked. Burrows looked over at him, his face noncommittal. He started to say something, but thought better of it. He laid his head back unto the hard bench seat and turned up the volume on the Walkman. Brunheld didn't say anything further either. He could mold good officers, he'd been doing it for years, but when there were two as close in rank and as competitive as Captain Sharon Terry and Lt. Michael Burrows sparks were bound to fly.

Russian technology was never as backward as it was purported to be. Throughout the late nineties money still flowed generously to military weapons research despite the breakup of the communist regime. While the West made great strides in stealth technology for its aircraft, the Russian scientists worked the other end of the niche – stealth detection. Several concepts were explored – particle emitters, air pressure sensors, multi-phasic radars - all with some success, but the breakthrough came in the area of pinpoint laser technology. By flooding the spectrum with tiny laser emissions a picture could be developed of the sky by the reflected light. The major drawback in the early models was power consumption. Even the smallest models of the "Lased Aerial Detection System" or LADS could suck enough electrical power to shut down a grid the size of a small city, but each new model took less and less wattage until finally in late 1999 – four years before the war – a vehicle mounted LADS was deployed with several anti-aircraft units. By then tying the LADS systems into their YR-300 anti-aircraft missile systems, they could not only spot stealth aircraft, but also track and destroy them with impunity.

Major Gregor Urov smiled as the young LADS technician pointed excitedly at the screen readout. An American C-17S could easily be distinguished on the screen, starting its ascent toward 38,000 feet and supposed safety. The YR-300 system was operational well above that altitude – much like during the Gary Powers U-2 incident the Americans once again underestimated Russian missile technology.

Detailed in the remote reaches of Occupied Nepal, it was the Major's job to disrupt the known American re-supply routes tracking from Diego Garcia and Sri Lanka. He was to prevent a repeat of the American "Flying Tigers" campaign so successful in World War II. Troops and supplies were shuttled over "The Hump" of the Himalayas from Japan and Taiwan to the fronts in New Persia and India. He gestured to the other technician, who began the intricate lock-on countdown designed to imprint the C-17S flight signature to the missile.

A small orange light flashed almost imperceptibly on the flight panel above Shane Drosdoff's head. He looked at it for a second before turning his attention back to his camera. The pilot, one Captain Trey Holstein, was talking about the current mission he and his crew undertook – supplying the Western front of India. Capt Terry read a list of questions from her sheet, not noticing the light flashing behind her either.

"Okay Trey – What's been the greatest success of your mission so far?" She asked. Holstein paused, looking back over his shoulder at Bill Spiers, his co-pilot, who stared out into the twilight sky barely piloting the plane at all letting the autopilot set his course.

"The fact I don't have to stay in tent city." Holstein laughed. Terry laughed as well. Drosdoff half wanted to snort. He'd been stuck in the hellhole that was tent city for 180 days while Terry and the other officers had been in the few downtown hotels still open in the almost deserted Sri Lanka. He remembered the day they'd arrived as if it were yesterday.

"2nd Combat Camera, assigned to 1st Provisional Air Expeditionary Force." Capt Terry said angrily, practically shoving the orders in the face of the airman that was the sole person not already being yelled at in the small PERSCO tent. "Damn it, we've been on a plane for twenty hours…" She trailed off, obviously frustrated. The airman cracked open his billeting book again looking nervously through the arrivals list.

"Captain." Lt. Burrows said, coming up behind her. "Sergeant Brunheld found the rotational guys from the 1st COMCAM, we can share their tent…get the guys some shut eye…" He whispered, barely loud enough for even her to hear in the din that was the in-processing area.

"That's fine, but you and I need to be downtown." She replied.

"Why? It'd be just as easy to stage out of here…show we can take the shit with the troops…" He started, but she quieted him with a look.

"We have to be with the leadership Pat. If we can't be close to the heartbeat of this base we'll miss out on the mission. Besides fraternization is a big concern, that's why they separate the officers and enlisted." Burrows didn't answer for a second, an incredulous look on his face, but the emotion quickly passed and his professional demeanor returned.

"Alright Ma'am. I'll get with Sgt. Brunheld and get the pallets broken down."

"Good idea." She replied not noticing the change in mood of the lieutenant, more focused on the PERSCO paperwork the airman had handed across the desk to her. "I'll contact the Wing King after getting our rooms, and meet you at Base Ops in an hour."

"Roger that. Shane…you're with me." Burrows said turning on his heel. Airman Drosdoff followed the lieutenant out the door of the large PERSCO tent into the mud and heat that made up tent city. They'd only been on the ground twenty minutes and already it had rained a good inch before the clouds gave way to a blistering sun driving humidity through the stratosphere.

"You're alright El-Tee." Drosdoff said as they crossed the mud flats on sun baked two by eights back toward the flightline where they'd left the rest of their team.

"Why is that?" Burrows questioned, digging a pair of Ray-Bans out of his BDU blouse pocket and pulling them unto his face. Drosdoff didn't answer at first. He just stopped and swatted at his neck. A large fly buzzed one last time before dropping lifeless into a rapidly drying puddle.

"Just cuz." He said, stepping on the dead insect with his muddied boot before starting once more toward the shimmering tarmac.

"…I mean the flies alone are bad enough." Holstein continued. Drosdoff caught the fact that his framing in the camera was starting to slip as his mind wandered. He caught himself, steadying the handicam with his other hand.

"I guess…oh shit…Airman, how long has that light been flashing by your head?" Drosdoff turned looking up at the orange beacon strobing silently behind him.

"I dunno, a minute or so…why?" Holstein's reaction was immediate. He jumped from his position in the navigator station toward his pilot stick, flipping a couple switches.

"They said this route was clear!" Spiers shouted, checking his own instruments quickly. Both men strapped into their seats and started pushing several switches. The cockpit went from brightly lit to a dull red hue as several of the lights switched to emergency mode.

"What's going on?" Terry questioned, motioning with her left hand for Drosdoff to keep filming.

"We've been lased! For some reason the audio indicator didn't sound, and I didn't notice the beacon. The SITREP said this route was clear of AAA, but if we're painted by their LADS systems we only have a minute or so before they can lock on. Get in the back and strap in for emergency maneuvers!"

"I want Airman Drosdoff to stay and document…" Terry replied, belaying the fear in her voice.

"Not now!" Holstein yelled, switching out of autopilot and back into manual control. "Countermeasures?" He asked urgently, flicking another couple of overhead switches.

"Active." Spiers replied. He pulled out his crewbook from underneath the seat and started doing some hasty calculations. Terry still stood in the small doorway separating the cockpit from the rest of the aircraft. She looked over at Drosdoff again. He was still shooting, but halfheartedly just letting the camera roll without any thought behind the set-up or framing.

"Keep rolling." She mouthed soundlessly to him as she turned and started back into the rear of the aircraft, she was met by the heavyset loadmaster – Technical Sergeant Al Yates.

"What the hell is going on?" He asked breathlessly, trying to stare past Terry unto the flight deck. Both of them stumbled a bit as Spiers yanked the stick into a steep banking turn. A high-pitched klaxon suddenly screamed from the interior of the cockpit. Terry looked up into the eyes of Yates immediately seeing the terror that registered there.

"Missile lock." He gasped, his mouth falling open.

Major Urov smiled almost imperceptibly as he watched the readout of the LADS. The C-17S was now trying to move into a lower altitude among the twisting peaks that made up the foothills of the Himalayas. The heavy atmosphere and weather patterns could break-up the LADS ability to garner a clear lock. It was a textbook American flyer's response to missile lock – no matter what type of lock-on was being employed. The technician sitting below him flipped open the launch activator toggle switch. The dull red light popped on and the whine of servos filled the tiny LADS capsule. The technician looked up for approval. Urov nodded once. With a quick twist of the wrist the LADS technician triggered the YR-300.

"Missile in the air! Thirteen seconds until impact!" Spiers read off his readout. Holstein activated the chaff and flare system, unsure as to whether the bird would be heat seeking or working off the laser finding that had initially found them. He realized in the worst case it would probably be both. There were a series of dull thuds as the chaff – thousands of particles of dense metallic fragments – and hi-intensity flares were ejected en masse out the rear of the aircraft. The cargo jet eased into another tight turn as Holstein directed the lumbering plane into a flight path away from the incoming missile, trying to keep the chaff and flares between the two.

The missile's complex circuitry barely noticed the change in signature as the sky suddenly became littered with the radar blinding chaff. Designed to recognize only the heavier density of an actual aircraft the missile ignored the new targets and with a miniscule calculation in its western made computer brain adjusted it's course to match the big aircraft.

"Shit! Shit! Shit!" Holstein said, the fear in his voice as evident as the anxiety. He watched on the heads-up display as the missile veered around the billowing cloud of chaff and redirected toward them like an angry hornet. He slammed down the chaff lever again, knowing it wasn't going to do any good. He yanked at the control stick absently, his training slipping away with the realization he was about to die. His mouth slacked open and the first tears of fear sped down his face. Behind him Airman Shane Drosdoff zoomed in on the frightened pilots face, the viewfinder a shield against the gravity of the moment. It was only when the image cleared as he pulled focus that he understood that all rational thought had left the pilots' face and that it had been replaced by absolute terror.

"Jesus." Drosdoff mouthed almost silently as the missile slammed into the port wing of the C-17S aircraft. Explosive decompression rocked the entire aircraft, making it feel as if it had been swatted out of the air by a giant hand. Titling ever so slightly on its axis it began to plummet toward the ground far below.

The entire pallet shifted as the explosion tore through the C-17. Craig Brunheld barely was able to extricate himself from his nest as the plane started into its yaw. He looked up to see Lt Burrows pulling himself up off the floor. His face was a mask of horror and disbelief. When Brunheld finally saw what Burrows had he understood the expression. The loadmaster lay in an ever-growing pool of his own blood – a piece of fuselage firmly embedded in his abdomen.

"My…God…"Burrows muttered, still unable to tear his eyes from the body.

"Snap out of it Lieutenant!" Brunheld yelled. "This piece of tin is going down!" Burrow's eyes cleared and he looked up at the Senior Master Sergeant. He stole another glance at the body lying at his feet, but then nodded starting toward the front of the aircraft. Already the angle of descent was growing steeper. Nothing anyone could do would keep it in the air.

"Captain Terry! Drosdoff!" Burrows yelled, grabbing at the rail of the stairwell that led up into the flightdeck. There wasn't an answer, but he was knocked backward as a parachute sailed from the uppermost opening. Two more followed in its path, followed by Sharon Terry.

"Holstein has lost it! Spiers is trying to get us back level. We've got to bail out." Burrows didn't acknowledge her, looking up to see Drosdoff still shooting from the rear of the flight deck.

"Three parachutes, four people. Guess that leaves one extra. I'll stay!" Burrows said, looking back at Brunheld who'd come up behind them.

"Bullshit Michael! I'm the commander here, I decide who stays!" Terry glared back, bristling at the affront she for some reason felt.

"We don't have time to argue this! I have an idea but it'll take too much time to explain! I'm not planning on riding this thing down trust me!" Terry stared at the lieutenant, obviously unhappy with his insubordination, but self-preservation easily swayed her opinion. She grabbed one of the three chutes, shoving one of the others at Brunheld.

"Get a hatch open!" She said authoritatively. She turned her attention back toward the flightdeck. Drosdoff looked from his eyepiece and then back at the two pilots before shutting off the camera and running back toward where the three of them stood. Burrows leapt up to the lead pallet, tossing away the makeshift nest that Brunheld had made.

"You're not riding the pallet down!" Terry screamed out realizing what he was planning. He ignored her, rigging the pallet chute for deployment.

"Any better ideas I'm all ears Captain! We're dropping way too fast to scream about this at each other – I'm not trying to be insubordinate, I'm just trying to save everybody's' ass!" Brunheld, ignoring the confrontation, had started cycling the rear doors. Heavy wind started to rip through the plane when a second missile struck the same wing, pushing the plane back level, but also into a lazy flat spin.

"The weight of the pallets will overbalance the plane. You'll never get them out." Brunheld remarked to Burrows as he pulled on his own chute. The lieutenant looked up from rigging the massive pallet chute, thought briefly about replying, before going back to his task.

"Craig! The tapes!" Terry yelled as she finished cinching up her own chute. She'd been part of the Air Force Academy parachute-training program and was fairly comfortable with a jump. She examined the quick release absently; making sure it was properly seated then yelled at Brunheld again.

"The tapes! We've…" She started, but Brunheld cut her off abruptly. Now was one of those times he had no qualms about making sure a young officer understood that sometimes the lives of the team were much more important than some battle damage tapes. There were always multiple copies, and even if this set didn't make it back to the Joint Combat Camera Center at the pentagon for processing he knew that the electronically transmitted versions of those hard copy tapes were already on the server. Having the actual tapes themselves was just a backup redundancy in the process.

"Fuck the tapes Captain!" He yelled out. With a last grunt of exertion he finished checking Drosdoff's chute and bodily kicked him out the wide-open tail of the C-17. Without a second glance he dove out himself the wind and clouds making him seemingly vanish.

Terry started toward the hatch, a sudden anger filling her. She pulled herself up unto the pallet and grabbed Burrows by his lapel.

"Those tapes are more important than anyone on this mission!" Burrows didn't reply, but the supposed concern about his using the pallet as a taxicab to the ground had vanished. He'd thought the tapes were ordinary run of the mill battle damage tapes, but maybe he'd been wrong. For some reason he had a feeling this had everything to do with the rumors that had been floating around prior to their departure. The rumors that the convoy had been destined to be ambushed; that his presence had somehow upset a delicate balance of betrayal. Discretion seemed the better attitude.

"Get going Captain. Ten bucks says we're about a minute from plowing into a mountain." Terry hesitated, then without another word ran and leapt out the back of the aircraft. Burrows finally got the parachute rigged properly and hurriedly undid the two pallet straps that held the monstrous piece of cargo in place. He hopped down off the pallet and dug his shoulder into the back of the huge piece of cargo trying to get it to start rolling along the tiny casters lining the floor. It didn't move at first, but then slowly started inching toward the outer door. He leaned into the pallet, hoping they could avoid another missile hit before he got the huge cargo out the door.

In the cockpit Spiers wrestled with the controls. There was no way he was going to be able to keep the aircraft level much longer. He looked over at Holstein, who still sat motionless in the pilot's chair staring at the mountaintops that were growing ever bigger in the windscreen. The United States Air Force trained the best pilots in the world, but nothing could simulate the moment someone understood that they were going to die. Holstein didn't understand why he felt no apprehension, no terror. He looked up at the massive peak that had begun to fill the windscreen in front of him and decided he'd done enough.

"Trey, time to go dude!" He said, trying to sound as casual as he could in light of the growing specter of certain death.

Clicking the autopilot back on, for whatever good it would do, he extricated himself from his seat and started in on Holstein's gear, but his partner would have none of it – screaming and thrashing every time he'd try to unbuckle his harness.

Spiers turned away from Holstein, trying to keep himself from becoming lost in his own emotional feelings. He and Holstein had been crewing together for almost a year now and had become close friends. Their wives planned parties together; their kids attended the same school and basically shared four parents instead of two.

Trey...come on man..." He whispered, but it was no use. He could now see nothing but black mountain rock looming in front of him. He had little chance of survival having given the parachutes to the Combat Camera crew, but he could try rigging a drag chute out of the life raft on board, or even try and ride the pallet down as he'd heard the two officers yelling at each other about.

"I'll see ya soon man." He said as a parting comment, but he got no response other then the blank stare. He took the steps two at a time into the cargo bay. Below him the younger kid, Burrows he remembered, strained against the massive pallet to really no avail. He leapt down the rest of the stairs and slammed his shoulder into the cargo beside the Lieutenant. Burrows looked up for a second, amazement on his face before he just nodded slightly – almost imperceptibly. The two men had barely met, but now toiled as if one in defiance of the granite death that loomed ever closer to the aircraft.

The pallet began to move, slowly, inexorably forward, but the pace wasn't even close to fast enough. Spiers knew immediately that they would never get the pallet out the door in time. He calculated about thirty seconds before impact and they'd already spent at least ten of that allotted time. He glanced over at Burrows and then at the emergency release. His last look was back up at the cockpit to where he knew Holstein still sat awaiting death. He wasn't going to let death come to him. He was going to meet it head on or not at all.

"Strap yourself in."

"No, we go together or we don't go!" He shot back still leaning into the pallet for all he was worth. The way it was set up one man would have to trigger the release while the other rode the pallet. There was no way anyone could do both.

"This is an order Lieutenant. Get on the fucking pallet!" Spiers could tell the kid was half a second from argument so he made the decision easy, he reached out and slugged him dead in the face then wrapped the netting around him as tightly as he could. Dazed, Burrows didn't do much except let out a bewildered groan.

"If this works tell my wife I love her very much and my son that I'm as proud of him as a father could ever be." With that he grabbed the emergency chute deployment pin and yanked.

The explosive charge went off with a loud "whoomph" and the triple chutes slammed outward through the rear cargo doors and yanked the pallet out with such force that it seemed as if a giant had tossed it like a softball. Burrows, his wits barely about him, grabbed at Spiers with one hand, his other wrapped tightly in the webbing that suddenly constricted around him like a shroud. At first he thought he'd actually made the impossible catch. There was the briefest grip of something and then it was gone and he was outside in the freezing air. The plane faded away from him rapidly, like a movie on fast forward, before half a second later it disintegrated as it slammed into the side of the mountain that rose up like a giant claw from the valley floor far below. Burrows dug himself deeper into the pallet as it righted itself and begun its slow decent to earth below. He glanced down at the hand that he'd thought he'd caught Spiers with as he'd gone shooting past. In his hand, bloodied from the catch, was a set of dog tags – Spier's own – the broken chain sliding out of the aluminum tag and tumbling downward toward earth in an ever increasing spiral. Burrows pulled his hand close to his chest, the tag cutting into the soft flesh, and felt the hot tears spring from his eyes. For the second time on this deployment he'd watched as another man had given his life for his.