‘They’re piling out,’ said the co-pilot.

‘Any sign of fire?’ asked the pilot.

‘They look okay. The rear rotor is smashed and the tail’s broken but that’s it. The main rotor isn’t even damaged. They were lucky.’

‘If they were lucky they wouldn’t have crashed in the first place. You have control.’

The co-pilot gripped the cyclic and tested the rudders. ‘I have control,’ he said and he took over the flying while the pilot clicked on his mic so that he could speak to the Seal in command behind him. ‘Helo One is down,’ he said. ‘What do you want to do?’

Chief Petty Officer Guy Henderson cursed under his breath. He peered out of one of the side windows but couldn’t see the downed helicopter. ‘They okay?’

‘There’s no fire and they’re getting out. But they’re outside the compound.’

‘Can you patch me through to Seal Alpha?’

‘I can talk to the pilot and co-pilot but they look like they’re busy right now. It has to be your call, unless you want to talk to command centre.’

‘Negative that,’ said Henderson. His mind raced. In all the rehearsals they’d carried out in North Carolina and Afghanistan they hadn’t once considered that one of the helicopters would crash. There was no contingency plan for what had just happened and he knew that if the decision as to what to do next was left up to the top brass then the mission would probably be aborted. There were simply too many chiefs: the President was in ultimate control in the White House but he wasn’t a soldier, so it would be up to his military advisors to make the call. That meant taking the views of the command centres in CIA headquarters at Langley Virginia, the Navy Seals’ command centre in Afghanistan and the command centre in the American Embassy in Islamabad. By the time a consensus had been reached Pakistani jets would have been scrambled and be on their way.

‘Clock’s ticking,’ said the pilot. ‘You’re going to have to make a decision here. Do we continue or do we go into rescue mode?’

Henderson held up a gloved hand. By now Helo One should have been in position over the courtyard and the Seals dropping down on ropes before storming the house. Helo Two should have been dropping four of its Seals outside the compound to secure the perimeter and then Henderson and the rest of the team were to be dropped on to the roof of the main building to gain access from there. But that clearly wasn’t going to happen now. When the CIA had first been told who was living in the compound President Obama had considered demolishing the building using B2 stealth bombers, and then had discussed using armed drones with Hellfire missiles; but he had been advised that neither offered a cast-iron guarantee of success. The only way to be sure was to send in a team of Seals, which is when they had begun to plan Operation Neptune’s Spear. Two pilotless drones fitted with high- resolution infrared cameras were already three miles above the compound and sending back live visual feeds to the other side of the world, where the President and his staff were gathered in the White House’s situation room.

The fact that the President was watching made Henderson’s head spin but he forced himself to concentrate on his options. They could change the plan completely and all go to the roof, but the element of surprise had gone and the occupants might well start shooting. They could drop down into the compound and take the role of the Helo One strike team and storm the building through the front door, but they hadn’t rehearsed that and they’d be using only half the number of men they’d used in training.

Henderson jerked his thumb down. ‘Take her down, outside the compound,’ he said. ‘Let’s see what Adam says.’

Croft made sure that all his men were out safely, then he hurried over to the cockpit. The pilot was slumped forward but seemed to be breathing. The co-pilot had unbuckled his harness and taken off his helmet but was having trouble opening his door, which had buckled in the crash. Croft ran round to it, and using all his strength he managed to yank it open.

‘Is everyone okay?’ asked the co-pilot.

‘Shaken but nothing broken,’ said Croft. ‘What about the helo? Will she blow?’

The co-pilot shook his head. ‘All the electrics are off and the fuel tanks haven’t ruptured, so no, she won’t burn.’

The pilot groaned and the co-pilot and Croft opened the door, unbuckled his harness and helped him out. He was conscious but groggy and they sat him down next to a concrete wall. They’d landed in an animal compound, close to a feeding pen filled with grain. A small herd of scrawny cows had bolted when the helicopter crashed but were now standing a hundred feet away, watching what was going on, their tails swishing from side to side.

Croft looked across the street. The second Black Hawk was hovering a few feet above a field. It landed gently and the Seals on board piled out, bent double to keep their heads away from the spinning rotor blades.

The leader of the Helo Two Seals rushed over to Seal Alpha. ‘You okay, Adam?’

‘I’ve been better,’ said Croft.

‘Do we abort?’ asked Henderson.

‘Hell no,’ said Croft. ‘We’ve no injuries so all we’ve got to do is go through the main gate. But get your pilot to radio for a Chinook to get us out of here.’

‘Roger that,’ said Henderson, and he ran back to the Black Hawk.

The co-pilot gestured at the wrecked helicopter behind them. ‘We’re going to have to destroy the electronics and then burn the ship,’ he said.

‘Wait until we’re out,’ said Croft. He waved at his team. ‘Let’s get into the compound,’ he said. ‘The clock’s ticking.’ He jogged over to the compound wall and examined the gate. It was metal with wheels on the bottom so that it could be pushed to the side. He tried to move it, but it was obviously locked on the inside. He kicked it hard, several times, and it rattled but remained obstinately closed.

All the Seals from Helo Two had moved some distance away because the main rotor was still turning. Henderson leaned into the belly of Helo Two and briefed the crew chief.

When he’d finished talking a soldier holding a Heckler amp; Koch put a hand on his arm. ‘What’s happening, Guy?’

The soldier was English, the only non-American on the team, and although he was there as an observer he had been issued with a Glock pistol and Heckler amp; Koch MP5 carbine complete with suppressor.

‘We’re going ahead, but through the gate,’ said Henderson. ‘We can’t risk losing the second helo.’

The crew chief appeared at the Black Hawk’s side door. ‘Chinook’s on its way. ETA five-zero minutes.’

‘Roger that,’ said Henderson. He nodded at the Englishman. His name was Dan Shepherd and he worked for MI5, the British intelligence agency. It was MI5 who had provided much of the intelligence on the interior of the compound and they had insisted that they were represented on the mission. Shepherd had been chosen because he had a special forces background with the Special Air Service, the nearest thing the Brits had to the Seals. ‘I’ve got to talk to Adam, stick with me.’

Henderson jogged over to Croft with Shepherd following closely behind. Croft looked up as they reached him. ‘What’s the story?’ he asked.

‘Chinook’s on its way, ETA fifty minutes. What’s the plan, Adam?’

‘We breach the compound,’ said Croft. ‘Then in through the front door.’

‘What about my team?’

‘Four men to secure the perimeter; you and the rest follow me.’ He waved at a short, squat Seal who was standing looking at the downed helicopter. ‘Get the C4 out, Tommy,’ he said. ‘Blow this fucking gate in.’

Tommy was the leader of the unit’s three-man demolition team and they hurried over to the gate and started unpacking C4 charges from their backpacks.

‘You think it’s a good idea to take everyone in through the front?’ asked Shepherd.

‘We can’t risk crashing the second helo so rope drops are out,’ said Croft. They were all wearing night-vision goggles so it was impossible to read their faces, but it was clear from Croft’s tone that he wasn’t happy about having his orders questioned.

‘Let’s move, Dan,’ said Henderson, turning towards his team.

Shepherd stood where he was, staring at Croft. ‘I get that, but do you think it’s smart to send everyone in through the gate?’ he said. ‘They’ll know we’re coming and if they start shooting it’ll be a massacre.’

‘We can take fire,’ said Croft.

‘I hear you, but the smart thing to do would be to move in on two fronts.’

‘I only see the one gate, and we’re not using the helo. Now get out of my face and let me get to work.’

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