“According to the report, nearly four weeks ago, on July 26, the group tortured and killed an American journalist. Two days later a SEAL team stormed their safe house, but they managed to evade capture. That same night, they slaughtered a nearby settlement of farmers who had given up their location. You didn’t read about this because the whole thing was buried, kept completely out of the press.”
Jackson gave a low whistle. “An American journalist. Wonder how they kept that quiet.” He frowned. “And why?”
Onboard the USS Abraham “ABE” Lincoln CVN-72 Aircraft carrier. Approximately 6,000 crew onboard.
The following story is based on actual events that occurred while former Navy SEAL Brandon Webb was serving onboard the USS Abraham Lincoln in the 90s.
Read at your own risk.
A pair of fuel handlers in their purple jerseys—“grapes”—rushed in dragging their long lines to gas up the bird as the two crews made a hot swap, Monica and the others buckling themselves into their seats, testing their comms, checking the digital readouts.
One of the grapes ran up to the pilot’s window and held up a small glass jar. Fresh fuel sample for visual inspection. Papa Doc nodded: no visible contamination.
Tonight they were making an unscheduled ferry run to Bahrain to pick up a passenger. Pilot and copilot would trade off shifts, one taking the stick while the other rode shotgun and worked the radio.
“Halsey. I’ll fly her out. You take the stick on the leg back.”
“Yessir.” Normally the formal “Yessirs” and “Nosirs” were relaxed while flying, unless the pilot was a prick. Papa Doc was a prick.
Monica wondered once again what it was about her that Papa Doc so resented. Maybe it was her height; at six one she towered over his five nine.
Or maybe he just wasn’t comfortable with her Flying While Female.
“Hotel Sierra two zero six, Log Cabin, you are cleared for takeoff, spot one.”
That was the ship’s air traffic team coming in over the radio, giving them the all clear. “Roger, Log Cabin,” Monica replied. “Hotel Sierra two zero six, cleared for takeoff.” From here on the dialog was pure mime: hand signals and glowsticks from the brown-
jerseyed plane captain on the deck in front of them. Nothing like the elaborate takeoff dance for a jet; no yellow-jerseyed shooters, no slamming catapult, no blasting off the deck like a rocket. Their plane captain pointed directly at them—Ready—as two green shirts pulled out the forward wheel chocks and scurried off with them to the side. He spread both arms out to his sides in a T, then brought them straight up over his head, repeating the sequence several times in a series of overhead claps. Lift off.
Papa Doc pulled up on the collective and Monica felt them lift with a whisper, tilting away to the port and leveling into their southbound flight path, where for the next hour they would chop away at the suffocating chunks of night air between them and their destination.
Monica stared out into the black nothing. Checked all her instrumentation. Out into the nothing again.
Flying in the Knighthawk was like being in a cave: the close containment, condensation dripping from overhead pipes, everything draped in shadows from the glow of instrument lights, the steady soporific whump-whump-whump of rotors that could just about lull you to sleep.
Not a word from Stickman, their lanky rescue swimmer, in back. Nor from Harris, their crew chief.
This was the hardest part of flying, the part you never saw in movies: the monotony. The long stretches of empty time, having to pay attention anyway, to stay sharp and alert even when nothing at all was happening. Mostly they would eat up the time with idle conversation, though with everyone on comms it was like having a conversation with the voices in your head. Unsettling at first, but you got used to it. On some runs they’d ramble on for hours, pausing only when necessary to confirm a procedure or communicate with ATC. But Commander Papadakis frowned on too much chatter. Flights on his watch tended to be less like sitting around a campfire and more like going to church. Sit silent in your seat, join in from the hymnal when the time came, then sit back down. Yessir.
She steered her thoughts away from Papa Doc and onto the reason for their night flight: their passenger, a Navy SEAL from black squadron, coming on board solo for what reason none of them knew. Nor cared, as far as Monica was concerned.
SEALs: Sea Air and Land. Cream of the crop, elite of the elite, blah blah blah. Monica had met quite a few SEALs and had taken an instant dislike to each and every one. As far as she could see, they were all arrogant, profane, and self-absorbed. The ultimate macho-supreme assholes.
Worse than Papa Doc?
Call it a tie.
She inadvertently glanced over in her CO’s direction, then quickly looked away again. Lord, I hope he can’t hear my thoughts. The hour bled out in silence.
“Hotel Sierra two zero six, Muharraq Airfield Control.” That was the air base tower in Bahrain. “Hotel Sierra two zero six, we have you on visual, continue on course and maintain current altitude until advised.”
“Two zero six, roger that,” replied Monica. “Will maintain current altitude.”
Through the Knighthawk’s windshield Monica could make out their destination, a small landing strip at the edge of the naval airfield where they were supposed to rendezvous with their SEAL guest and the officer who was escorting him.
The tower spoke up again. “Hotel Sierra two zero six, you are cleared to land.”
As the bird lowered to the tarmac Monica spotted the two men walking toward them, illuminated by runway lights.
Even from a hundred feet off she had zero trouble identifying the SEAL. He was tall, muscular, powerful, carrying his fully loaded backpack as if it weighed no more than a paper boarding pass. And lithe: he didn’t stride so much as he loped, moving with an easy dangerous grace that made her think of mountain lions she’d seen prowling the margins of their ranch back home. Perfect specimen. Asshole.
As they drew closer she could now make out the officer lagging behind the SEAL in his desert cammies, lugging the other man’s kit bag and gun case. This little guy was totally eclipsed by the SEAL, not just a head shorter but almost a different species: thin wiry limbs, knobby joints, oversize eyes. He looks like a marsupial, she thought.
In the navy, rank was everything: who outflew, outperformed, outlasted whom—and SEALs were a breed apart. For all Monica knew, the short, skinny, awkward-looking one might be an officer and technically outrank the big guy, but the big guy outclassed him in every other way. The contrast was almost comical.
Marsupial, meet mountain lion.
Stickman leaned out the door and shouted over the din of the rotors. “We’re here for Chief Finn.”
The marsupial took the backpack from the mountain lion, stepped forward without a word, and boarded the helo.
Finn silently assessed the four people in the bird with him, starting with the pilot. He could read the man’s thoughts, could sense him regarding Finn there in the back with disdain. An angry man. Finn never trusted angry men. This one was cursed with a chiseled face, classic Greek nose, olive complexion. A movie star face. Nobody should be born that handsome. Good looks like that made it tougher to keep yourself in perspective.
Finn understood the type: his talents, his limitations. The pilot would never advance much farther than where he was right now. He might be career navy but his trajectory was a dead-end street. He would cap out at O-6, max, if he got that far. Not that his ego was too big. The opposite. It was too small. Too fragile.
Finn dropped the pilot from the sonar of his mind and moved on to the copilot.
Something about Finn had startled her when he first climbed on. She’d tried to hide it, but she wasn’t skilled at concealment. She was on the stick now and focused on her task. She said something to Movie Star and Finn caught the echoes of a Texas accent in her voice. But light on the twang. West Texas, his guess. Strong, possibly headstrong, too. Someone on a mission; no dead-end street here.
Tall, good features. Must have taken a ton of shit on her way to flying a navy bird. The naval aviation officer track was brutal. Just gaining admittance was an intense selection process, let alone getting all the way through it. Not easy to make it this far. Even harder to get this far and not turn mean. Finn read the copilot as toughened on the surface but still green. He sensed a sadness underneath, too, but not too deep under, like she was grieving someone or something recent.
The crew chief in the seat next to him broke into his thoughts. “Welcome aboard, chief.” Finn looked over at him.
The junior guy, the crew’s avionics operator and designated SAR swimmer, grinned at him. African American dude, introduced to Finn as “Stickman.” Eager. Still had that new-guy sparkle. This was a kid who had not yet seen death up close.
They all had their jobs to do. He saw no reason to interfere or interrupt. He didn’t speak a word the rest of the flight.
The helo threaded its way through the invisible corridors, slipping in on the carrier’s port side as fighter jets exploded off the deck’s bow and came screaming in aft to catch the big arrestor wires. Finn watched the clockworks through the Knighthawk’s side window, absorbed in the skill of it all.
According to Kennedy, a carrier flight deck was one gigantic bolt-action sniper rifle, three and a half football fields long, only instead of firing steel-tipped 10-gram rounds it shot 25-ton fighter jets, reloading and firing at the rate of one every 25 seconds. Finn thought about the jet pilots strapped into their multimillion-dollar machines, being shot off the deck into the dark like bullets. The idea of being encased in a supersonic steel tube like that made his balls clench.
The tall copilot put their bird down on the deck like a mother’s kiss on a baby’s cranium. She was good. He noticed her making infinitesimal glances in the pilot’s direction, trying not to look like she was doing it. Checking for signs of his approval. Professionally, though, not emotionally. Finn suspected she didn’t give a shit about his approval emotionally. Good thing, because she was never going to get it, not from him. No one was.
The young SAR swimmer slid open the cabin door. Finn followed him out and down onto the flight deck’s hot surface. The crew chief, Harris, walked him over to the edge, where they clambered down a short metal ladder onto the catwalk. Harris disappeared through a hatch into the ship’s interior.
So here he was. Boarding an aircraft carrier, being carted back to the States. Leaving his team behind.
Harris turned and saw him looking back to the south, toward Bahrain. “Chief Finn?”
When the SEAL didn’t respond he said, “Everything okay, Chief?”
Finn looked over at the other man. Nodded and followed him into the ship’s interior. Nothing was okay.
The Air Transfer Office was located on the gallery deck, the level directly below the flight deck. Several rows of vinyl-cushioned steel benches for outgoing passengers to sit and wait. Shelves and files lining the bulkheads, where they weren’t cluttered with flight coats and helmets on hooks. Two desks, jammed into the two far corners. The place was crammed. Everything on an aircraft carrier was crammed. The only spaces Finn had ever seen more tightly packed were in submarines and New York City apartments. Not that he’d had much experience in either.
There were two staff, one officer and one enlisted. Neither one had noticed him yet. His lightweight combat boots made no sound at all when he walked. Despite his awkward appearance, when he moved he was the opposite of awkward. There were people who took up a lot of space when they entered a room. Finn seemed to take up no space at all.
The officer looked up and noticed him. Stepped forward and shook Finn’s hand. “Welcome aboard, Chief Finn. Lieutenant Sam Schofield. Honored to have you as our guest aboard the Abe.”
“Just a passenger, lieutenant.”
The officer paused. Hadn’t expected that response. “Campion will handle your processing. He’ll treat you right. He knows I’ll be over here watching.”
The young airman at the other desk flashed a quick grin and got down to business. Had Finn sign a log sheet. Gave him a slip of paper with a few key locations, including his berthing space and muster location. Explained how to read the “bull’s-eye” location codes posted everywhere around the ship, in case Finn didn’t already know.
The airman paused, then nodded apologetically toward Finn’s gun case.
“We’ll need to hold on to that while you’re here.”
Finn handed over the gun case, then set his kit bag down and dug out his sidearm. He
ejected the magazine, racked the slide, and surrendered that as well.
“They’ll be stored in the armory, locked and under guard,” the kid added. “Safer for you, safer for the guns.”
Finn looked over at the officer, Schofield.
“There’s no lock on the door to the compartment where you’ll be berthing,” Schofield explained. He pointed at Finn’s cell phone, which Finn had set on the desk while unearthing his sidearm. “Won’t have much use for that, I’m afraid.”
Finn glanced at the phone, then back at Schofield. “I should be getting a package. From command. How does that work?”
“We’ll put a note on your door.”
Finn nodded. “Okay.” Then added, almost as an afterthought, “Sir.”
Finn’s satphone was busted. It had happened the previous night while Finn slept.
How exactly he still didn’t know. When he woke up that morning, the thing was cracked in two. Best guess, someone had slammed a boot or rifle butt down on it in the dark. Probably stone drunk. Nobody owned up to it.
For all he knew, he’d done it himself. His memory of the night before was blank.
Finn had put in for a replacement right away. Within hours he’d learned he was shipping out. In the literal sense of the phrase. They said they would send the replacement satphone out to him. He expected that could take at least a few days, more likely weeks. Military efficiency: hurry up and wait.
Finn had had the sense that he should travel light. He wasn’t sure why but trusted the instinct. So he’d left his other gun case with his bolt-action .308 behind in Bahrain with Kennedy, along with his night vision goggles and a bunch of other tools. And the pieces of his shattered satphone.
The ATO officer ushered Finn through a maze of passageways to his compartment, a tiny space tucked in a portside corner just below the flight deck, not too much smaller than a broom closet. Across the way, a few meters from the door, was a tiny head with a single toilet. No sink.
“It’s not much,” said the officer, “but you’re probably the only enlisted man on board with a private suite.”
Finn nodded. Officer humor.
Schofield was an interesting one, a mix of soft and wary. Big guy, strength to him, but the hands and musculature of an office worker. Had never done hard physical work.
Not exactly street smart; didn’t have the kind of 360° awareness that came with life on the hustle—but Finn caught his eyes darting to the corners a few times. Habitual defensive posture. He’d been a target, not just once but often enough to grow reflexes for it. Yet he was no weakling. And the man projected something genuine. Not surprising he was an officer. Probably a good one, too: strong enough to lead by example, but he’d also been a victim often enough to be able to empathize with the ranks.
To be continued….
SOFREP is releasing one excerpt a day until pub day next week, 7.13. Please consider pre-ordering the book here and becoming eligible for a private fireside Zoom chat with the authors Brandon Webb and John Mann who spent 10 years+ bringing this story to life. Pre-orders make a huge difference.
“Sensationally good—an instant classic, maybe an instant legend.”—Lee Child
“An absolutely amazing thriller! Steel Fear comes in hot and never slows down. Exciting, action-packed, and twisty from stem to stern. This will be one of the hottest books of the summer!”—#1 New York Times bestselling author Brad Thor
Sincere thank you for your advanced order. -Brandon
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