Gunther throttled up the engine speed and increased the blade pitch, attempting a full-out sprint. They might outrun the heavier Tiger, but not its missiles.
To punctuate this, the diving Tiger opened fire with its gun pods, spitting flames, and chewing through the snow.
"Forget outrunning the bastard!" Painter yelled and jerked his thumb straight up. "Take the race that way."
Gunther glanced at him, heavy brows knit tight.
"He's heavier," Painter explained, motioning with his hands. "We can climb to a higher elevation. Where he can't follow."
Gunther nodded and pulled back on the collective, turning forward motion into vertical. Like riding an express elevator, the helo shot upward.
The Tiger was taken aback by the sudden change of direction and took an extra moment to follow, spiraling up after them.
Painter watched the altimeter. The world record for elevation reached by a helicopter had been set by a stripped-down A-Star. It had landed on the summit of Everest. They didn't need to climb that far. The armament-heavy Tiger was already petering out as they went above the twenty-two-thousand-foot mark, its rotors churning uselessly in the rarefied air, making it difficult to maintain yaw and roll, confounding an attack pitch in which to employ its missiles.
For now, their craft continued to sail upward into safety.
But they could not stay up here forever.
What went up eventually had to come down.
And like a circling shark, the attack helicopter waited below. All it had to do was track them. Painter spotted the two other Tigers winging in their direction, called into the hunt, a pack closing in on its wounded prey.
"Get above the chopper," Painter said, pantomiming with one palm over the other.
Gunther's frown never wavered, but he obeyed.
Painter twisted around to Anna and Lisa. "Both of you, look out your side windows. Let me know when that Tiger is directly below us."
Nods answered him.
Painter turned his attention to the lever in front of him.
"Just about there!" Lisa called from her side.
"Now!" Anna responded a second later.
Painter yanked on the lever. It controlled the winch assembly on the undercarriage of the chopper. The rope and harness had lowered Painter earlier when he'd been pursuing the assassin. But he wasn't lowering the harness now. The emergency lever he gripped was used to jettison the assembly if it should be jammed. He cranked it fully back and felt the pop of the release.
Painter pressed his face to the window.
Gunther banked them around, pitching for a better view.
The winch assembly tumbled end over end, unreeling its harness in a wide tangled mess.
It struck the Tiger below, smashing into its rotors. The effect was as destructive as any depth charge. The blades tore apart, flying in all directions. The chopper itself twisted like a spun top, flipping sideways and falling away.
With no time to spare, Painter pointed toward their only neighbor at this elevation. The white summit of Everest rose ahead, shrouded in clouds.
They had to reach Base Camp on its lower slopes—but below, the skies were not safe.
Two more helicopters, angry as hornets, raced toward them.
And Painter was out of winches.
Lisa watched the other helicopters swoop toward them, growing from gnats to hawks. It was now a race.
Pitching the chopper steeply, Gunther dove out of the rarefied ether. He aimed for the gap between Mount Everest and its sister peak, Mount Lhotse. A shouldered ridgeline—the famous south col—connected Lhotse to Everest. They needed to get over its edge and put the mountain between them and the others. On the far side, Base Camp lay at the foot of the col.
If they could reach it…
She pictured her brother, his goofy smile, the cowlick at the back of his head that he was perpetually trying to smooth down. What were they thinking, bringing this war to Base Camp, to her brother?
In front of her, Painter was bent with Gunther. The engine's roar ate their words. She had to place her trust in Painter. He would not jeopardize anyone's life needlessly.
The col rose toward them. The world expanded outward as they dove toward the mountain pass. Everest filled the starboard side, a plume of snow blowing from its tip. Lhotse, the fourth highest peak in the world, was a wall to the left.
Gunther steepened their angle. Lisa clutched her seat harness. She felt like she might tumble out the front windshield. The world ahead became a sheet of ice and snow.
A whistling scream cut through the roar.
"Missile!" Anna screamed.
Gunther yanked on the stick. The nose of the chopper shot up and yawed to the right. The missile sailed under their skids and streaked into the eastern ridge of the col. Fire blasted upward. Gunther banked them clear of the eruption, dipping the nose down again.
Pressing her cheek against the side window, Lisa glanced to the rear. The two choppers had closed the distance, angling toward them. Then a wall of ice cut off the view.
"We're over the ridge!" Painter yelled. "Hang tight!"
Lisa swung back around. The helicopter plunged down the vertiginous slope of the south col. Snow and ice raced under them. Ahead, a darker scar appeared. Base Camp.
They aimed for it, as if intending to crash headlong into the tent city.
The camp swelled below them, growing with each second, prayer flags flapping, individual tents discernable now.
"We're going to land hard!" Painter yelled.
Gunther didn't slow.
Lisa found a prayer rising to her lips or maybe a mantra. "Oh God…oh God…oh God…"
At the last moment, Gunther pulled up, fighting the controls. Winds fought him. The helicopter continued falling, rotors now shrieking.
The world beyond was a Tilt-A-Whirl.
Thrown about, Lisa clenched the armrests.
Then the skids slammed hard to the ground, slightly nose down, throwing Lisa forward. The seat harness held her. Rotor wash churned up snow in a flurried burst, but the chopper rocked back onto its skids, level and even.
"Everybody out!" Painter yelled as Gunther throttled down.
Hatches popped, and they tumbled out.
Painter appeared at Lisa's side, taking her arm in his. Anna and Gunther followed. A mass of people converged toward them. Lisa glanced up to the ridge. Smoke rose behind the col from the missile attack. Everyone at camp must have heard it, emptying tents.
Voices in a slur of languages assaulted them.
Lisa, half-deafened by the helicopter, felt distant from it all.
Then one voice reached her.
She turned. A familiar shape in black snowpants and a gray thermal shirt shoved through the crowd, elbowing and pushing.