Commentary

Excerpt from ‘Pantheon’ by K.R. Paul

Air Force Capt. Valerie Hall has discovered via a traumatic event — a coworker attempting to sexually assault her — that she has the power to teleport herself anywhere that she can reliably picture in her mind. She is recruited into a super-secret military unit called the Pantheon — formally the AF TENCAP Special Operations Activity, or Red Horse, owing to their unit patch — comprised of six other military people with the same skillset.

Teleportation, called Jumping, isn’t some magical ability. It requires targeting training, so the Jumper doesn’t materialize inside an object, a thousand feet under the ocean, or in a California wildfire. Jumping drains the body of calories at a spectacular rate, requiring scientific attention to nutrition and physical coaching. The greater the weight, the longer the distance, the more calories are burned. Anyone touching Jumpers, or anyone whose mental signature they acquire, will be towed along with them. It’s science, but it works like magic.

In this abridged excerpt from Paul’s debut thriller, Val and teammate Damarcus have just led a large team on a tough long-distance training exercise from which they are abruptly recalled to rescue two F-15E aviators downed in hostile Syrian territory. The two Pantheon are drained of energy and connected to special fast-replenishment IVs designed to get them back into action, but they need more time.

There isn’t any.

The briefing begins.

Chapter Twelve (abridged):

“I need at least two men carrying them, two more on escort, that’s per aviator. Plus, a fallback man; two is better, but I can’t do that with what I’ve got now,” Colonel Gardner was telling Powell as Val regained consciousness.

Her head turned toward the two.

“What’s going on?” she asked from her spot on the floor. Next to her, Damarcus had also roused and listened to the argument.

“It’s the recall,” Gardner said. He came to her and squatted down. “The short version is an F-15E Strike Eagle was shot down over Syria. Both aviators ejected and their beacon is pinging, so we think they’re alive, but they’re down in a rough neighborhood. Smithfield has been to eastern Damascus and his mental imagery could get you within three miles of the crash site ...” A frown crossed his face like a storm front. “... but Damarcus is in no shape to Jump a full team.”

“How many?” she asked.

“A ton. We’ll need two men per aviator just to carry them to the exfil point, plus another two operators per to watch their asses. Plus, it’s a long haul, so I need a fallback man for Damarcus,” he sighed. “Plus me. That’s twelve men in full battle rattle out almost seven thousand miles. One person can’t Jump that round trip unless he starts at a full charge. We have no one at a full charge here, and the rest of the Pantheon are on missions, leave, or injured reserve.”

Gardner rose and turned back to his electronic planning table where CIA agent Brandon Powell stood with arms crossed over his chest.

Val scrambled to her feet with Damarcus following suit, both reaping some dizziness for the exertion. They pushed their IV poles ahead as they slow-walked to the digital map table to survey the plot. It lit their faces from below with a ghostly glow.

“Intel says the area where they’re down is extremely hostile. If the bad guys get to the pilots before we do, they will be captured and tortured on video, and then turned over to the Russians for propaganda,” Powell said. “And that’s only if we’re extremely lucky. If they turn them over to ISIS ...”

Damarcus stared at the map table, tracing his finger the distance between Florida and Syria and leaving a light blue trace where his finger touched. He thought for a moment and shook his head.

“I’m sorry, colonel. God, I’m so sorry, I can’t do it with twelve. Not after the training Jumps we just had. We’re wore out. Can’t you cut it down any?”

“I’m running a risk sending just four per aviator. Dropping personnel or ammo means a huge risk, potentially leaving more people to be captured if stuff goes sideways.”

“Split it,” Val said.

“Split what?” Gardner asked. His attention stayed focused on the map.

“I take one rescue team, Damarcus takes the other. Add another fallback man for me and I think we can take the load.”

No, Val,” Damarcus barked. “You aren’t ready, and we aren’t in any shape to do this.”

Stop it,” Val said. “I am and I can,” she said. “I’m here because people way above our paygrade put me here. Stop thinking of me as a freakin’ girl and start thinking of me as a teammate.” She glared at Damarcus.

“You have no idea what this is going to do to you.” Damarcus was having trouble rebounding from the morning’s heavy Jumps, and it irked him no end to recognize Val wasn’t suffering nearly as badly. “You are already in the energy hole, and this Jump would be worse than anything you’ve felt—even one way, and you still gotta get everyone back.”

Damarcus was getting angry explaining to the rookie matters he thought she must already know.

“Your blood will feel like acid—like it’s boiling. Your muscles will burn. Your stomach will feel like it’s filled with shards of glass. You haven’t got enough experience,” he said. It was nearly a plea. His face was tight as he shook his head. “You can’t do it.”

“Do not tell me what to do, damn you,” she said, determined. Her hands rested on her hips and she frowned at the concrete floor. Seconds passed. Maybe Damarcus was right.

Maybe not.

“No—screw that. I don’t care. I’m not leaving those men to die a horrible death when we can do something about it.”

Val pinned Damarcus with a heated stare. She was angry, tired, and half starving to death, but this made Val more formidable, not less. And indiscreet.

She stepped up close to his face and whispered so only he could hear.

“Stop being a damned punk. If you aren’t going to be part of the solution, don’t be part of the problem,” she demanded. She poked him in his rock-solid chest with an index finger. “Time to start bein’ part of the solution.”

Damarcus glared back at her but said nothing. She turned to Gardner.

“I need neither his permission nor his authority to go, boss. And I’m going. King is out with his ankle break, but he was impressed with my performance, he said?” Gardner kept his face pointed at the map, unwilling to meet her eyes. He gave her a quick nod.

“Powell, do you think you can repeat this?” she asked, holding her arms out to display the twin IVs.

“I can,” he said quietly, nodding. His face, like Gardner’s, was blank and completely unreadable.

“Okay. Then we go,” she said. “We’re Red Horse—we’re the damned Pantheon and we’re going. We’re not leaving them there.” Val stabbed the spot marked on the map with a finger and touched Damarcus on the hand.

Images and videos of men thrown from buildings were seared in their shared memories. Video clips of journalists being beheaded, and Turkish fighter pilots immolated in iron cages. ISIS fighters moving down rows of captured prisoners in orange jumpsuits, one after another, coldly firing rifles into their brains.

After years in an aviation unit studying adversary tactics, Val knew what waited for the downed Americans if they were caught.

Gardner brought his head up and searched her face. A moment passed silently before he looked at Damarcus. All around them the other team members looked on, watching.

Damarcus broke away from the touch of Val’s hand and gave a brief shake of his head.

“Forget some protocol. I’m in.” He clapped Val on the shoulder, and she reached up to cover his large hand with her small one once again, gripping it tightly and acquiring his feeling of pride and determination. She felt her anxiety flee.

“We go, colonel,” he said with a nod. He fist-bumped with Val. “We’re Red Horse—we’re the damned Pantheon. And we’re going.”

Gardner smiled and turned smartly on the platform to yell out to the men in the hanger.

“All right, people, gear up! Full battle rattle, all the mags you can carry, maximum med kits!” His roar echoed across the hangar. “Mr. Powell, there are spare IVs in our breakroom fridge. Please get them, then come back and draw a weapon. You’re familiar with our weapons?”

“I’ll manage,” he said with a crafty grin, and sprinted toward the break room.

“Are you sure about this, Val?” Gardner asked her.

Damarcus moved toward the arms room to collect his weapons and Val turned back to Gardner.

“You know we can’t not do this,” she said.

“That others may live,” he said.

Val looked at him.

“Pararescueman’s motto: ‘These things I do, that others may live.’ Many of us were pararescuemen before coming here.”

He gave her a paternal smile.

“Welcome to the team, kid.”

Val carefully peeled up the tape holding the IVs and pulled the probes out of her arms with a wince. She folded the tape back down to cover the oozing holes and walked over to the arms room.

Each man on the team gave her a simple nod or a fist bump. She’d seen it before, among men who saw each other as equals. By volunteering to save another, she’d been admitted to their inner circle.

Val drew a GAU-5A, an M4 carbine modified by the Air Force Gunsmith Shop that pilots can bail out with because it’s compact and has fewer parts. She also drew a 9mm Sig Sauer M18 handgun with leg holster and ammo for both weapons.

“I guess I’ll put those back in once we Jump,” Powell said from behind her and dumped a pile of IV bags on her backpack.

“Yeah, sorry. I can only bend my elbows so far with needles in them.” She met his eyes, searching for any sign of what she’d felt the two times their hands had touched. His face was neutral as he looked back at her.

“So, this is you trusting me now?” he asked with quiet intensity.

“To place an IV? You’ve done okay so far,” she said, dodging his full meaning. “Do you trust me?”

He regarded her without answering.

“Let me guess. You CIA guys don’t trust anyone,” she said with a disappointed shake of her head.

One eyebrow rose a fraction of an inch. “On the contrary, I think right now I trust you more than anyone else. That was one hell of a speech you made. Make John Wayne proud. Let’s see if your performance matches your passion.”

Gardner’s yell carried across to them.

“Okay, gather up. Countdown in two minutes!”

They walked over to two groups forming on concentric circles of the Point Zero departure zone.

“Val, Smithfield has your visual. It’ll take us to a small rise three miles from the crash site. We,” Gardner circled fingers at himself plus seven others, “will head to the crash, locate and move the aviators while you—” He pointed to Val, Damarcus, Martin, and Powell. “—will stay back and prep for immediate exfil upon our arrival. Twenty minutes to the scene, another ten-ish to locate and authenticate the downed personnel. Expect us back to the exfil point in less than sixty minutes. We know you’ll need at least that to recover from the inbound Jump. If we get back faster, we have enough ammo to suppress contact for some time until you’re ready to bug out.” Gardner smiled with confidence at that.

“We’ll be ready. You’re coming with us, then?” Val asked.

“Yes. Portman will stay here and get King to Medical. Plus, it gives me a chance to sign both you and Powell off on a hot mission,” he said with a wry grin. “Don’t forget, you haven’t met the aviators yet and will need to make physical contact for the Jump. Expect to bear-hug with a hand on their neck for the best skin-to-skin contact,” he told Val.

“You got it, colonel. I remember what Damarcus and Marco taught me.”

“Okay. Questions, comments, concerns?” Val shook her head. No. “Okay, tag up with Smithfield, then teams touch hands.”

Val got the visual from Smithfield: more rocky hills and scrub, gently sloping down into a bowl. At least they’d have the high ground if things got crazy. She felt his picture of harsh sun and a dry wind that sucked the moisture from exposed skin, and the grit of sand along with a hint of the young man’s apprehension. Each member of her team touched her hand with Powell tagging in last. His touch was calming but superimposed with a hint of expectation. She met his eyes, no longer expressionless but filled with respect.

When Gardner’s countdown got to one, Val took a deep breath and Jumped.

Searing hot agony lanced into Val through every pore and she could feel the acidic burn of her own blood angry in her veins. She felt as if her bones down to the very marrow were on fire. Every pore of her skin felt as though molten lead was pouring from them.

Somewhere to her left, Damarcus cried out from his own torment.

Val tried to scream. She wanted to howl in her pain, but it was as if her lungs had suddenly been filled with boiling oil, choking her.

She dropped to one knee, then both, unable to scream or even sob from within the white-hot hell enveloping her. Sure, steady hands on her arms eased her down gently on her back. She convulsed once, muscles distorted and inflamed, until blissful unconsciousness claimed her.

The last thing she saw was Powell hovering over her with a hypodermic, and he looked scared.

She raised her eyes up to where he sat above her. “How long has it been?”

“You’ve been out forty—” He glanced at his Ares watch. “—two minutes and two bags,” he said with steady calm.

Val struggled to sit upright with Powell’s assistance. Everyone was coated with the ultra-fine desert sand the troops called moon dust. She tried to push hair away from her face but settled for shaking it off her eyes.

“Any sign from them?”

“We heard some gunfire a few minutes back, off to the west toward the objective, but nothing since then.”

Val squinted down into the darkness. What had been late afternoon in Florida was darkest night in Syria. Her eyes adjusted to the darkness but there was nothing to see, just low scrub and rippling sand in all directions. She shook her head again to clear hair from her face.

Muzzle flashes were visible not far away. Martin and Powell grabbed their weapons, taking up defensive positions at the start of the path down the hill. Val reached for the pistol on her hip but saw Damarcus wave his hand.

“It’s dark. You and I are more likely to shoot a friend than a foe at a time like this,” he said as he struggled to sit up. “Our job is to get everyone back.”

“Are you going to be ready to Jump?” she asked him. Val felt refreshed and ready to go. Every passing minute with the nourishing IVs in her arms made her stronger still.

“We’ll make it. How did you do with the pain?”

Val had almost forgotten how painful their arrival had been.

“Yeah. It was easier when I didn’t really know what to expect, but I’ll make it.”

“Good,” Damarcus grunted.

The sound of gunfire blended with the crunching of running boots on the stony path. Val looked down the hill to see that the group was carrying three men, not the two she had expected. Confused, she tried to make out who was being carried. In the dark they all looked alike, but two of the men being carried had dark blood, almost black in the dim light, streaming down their sides.

“Powell, help me get my pack on around these IVs. We’re going to have to go as soon as they’re here,” Val said urgently.

“Prep to Jump!” Gardner’s voice commanded up the hill. “Prep to Jump!”

The others in Val’s group started firing down the hill at attackers only they could see through Gen 3 ATN PVS-7-3 night vision devices. Their short GAU-5A carbines barked in controlled fire, and Val could see silhouettes dropping to the sand as they got closer. She trusted that they were bad guys.

The distinctive sound of AK-47s returning firing on full auto filled the air, and random rounds kicked up dirt and stones all over the top of the hill. The team returning with the rescued aviators had their hands literally full with pilots, but several operators still managed to fire back at the terrorists chasing them. Gardner turned several times and provided covering fire while the team struggled up the sandy incline.

Powell placed an IV bag in each of Val’s upper backpack cargo pockets and slipped the straps of her pack carefully around the lines. She nodded and got ready to bear hug her aviator. It was going to sting with the needles in, but the pain would be nothing compared to what she faced on the other side.

As the teams approached, she saw that Smithfield was the third man being carried. He had blood streaming from a neck wound, soaking him from neck to knee. Val reached out for the five minds she had Jumped in with and only found four.

“Colonel Gardner!” she yelled.

The group pushed one of the aviators in a tan flight suit into her arms and she wrapped a hand up to his exposed neck. Gardner also pushed Smithfield against her and held him there until she got an arm around him.

“Colonel!” she said, a single word loaded with fear. “I can’t get Smithfield’s sig!” Tears filled her eyes. This had been covered in the training classes, but it shocked her anyway.

“He’s dead, Val. Hold him tight. We aren’t leaving his body here,” Gardner’s voice caught, and he looked up the hill at her.

“That others may live!”

Blinking back hot tears, Val indexed the remaining signatures, took a deep breath, and Jumped.

From “PANTHEON,” by KR Paul. Published by Force Poseidon, an imprint of The Artisanal Group. Copyright ©2020 by KR Paul.

Author K.R. Paul grew up rock climbing and riding horses in North Carolina. Her love of adventure took her into the Air Force where she learned to blend her love of writing with her love of adventure.

Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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