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Chapter One

The election should have made things better.

Would have, in fact, if held virtually anywhere else in the world. But this was Belfast, the blazing heart of Northern Ireland, where sanity was a concept seriously out of fashion. With the election only twenty-four hours old, the Irish "Troubles" were heating up again, threatening to spiral as badly out of control as they had in the middle decades of the previous century. And Captain Trevor Stirling was caught in the middle, a place where no self-respecting Scotsman had any business to be.

Worse still, it was his ruddy birthday.

Stirling stood gazing down at the cake for long moments, its multitude of candles a disquieting sight against the backdrop of the grim barracks. The dip and flare of the flames echoed other fires, causing Trevor to recall stories about the explosion of '69, when half of Belfast had burned. He'd lost a great-uncle in the fighting, an idealistic Scots lad sent in by Britain to keep the peace. Young Trevor McArdle, his mother's only uncle, had been caught dead in the cross fire.

Now it was Trevor Stirling's turn.

Memory replayed, cuttingly, the moment four years previously, when Trevor had come home to his mother's cottage an hour outside Edinburgh, bursting with the news.

"I've just joined the Special Air Services!" he'd shouted, jubilant to be following a good half of his male progenitors.

She'd run into the bedroom, weeping.

He hadn't really understood why—until his unit was posted to Belfast.

Stirling glanced up from the cake to see Murdoch, cavorting as usual in his underwear and trading ribald jokes with Balfour and Hennessey, who were shouting out punch lines above the blare of music. Good men to have at one's back in a place like this, among the best in his command, in fact, and they hadn't forgotten his birthday, despite the rising tensions and sporadic outbreaks of violence. He supposed there were worse situations in which to find oneself. Nor was he afraid of the job he'd been sent here to do. He just wished somebody else had been sent to do it, since he couldn't see either side in the centuries-old feud backing off or seeing reason.

Stirling squinted back down at the flaming cake, attempting to count the improbable number of lit candles, and had just come to the conclusion there were seven too many, when Colonel Ogilvie sent the barracks-room door crashing back into the wall. Laughter and party uproar chopped off. Someone killed the music even as Stirling snapped around, blazing cake already forgotten. He blanched at the look on Ogilvie's face.

"We've got riots heating up in West Belfast, boys," the colonel growled, voice harsh with strain. "Goddamned Paisleyites are burning down Clonard Gardens and ten blocks surrounding Divis Street, and the IRA's not having any of it."

They scrambled for riot gear amidst a clang of slamming locker doors and thudding boots. Candles guttered out on the forgotten cake, puddling into rainbows of melted wax across the frosting. Chairs went crashing in the rush. Stirling prided himself on being first out the door, shoving all civilian concerns back into a little-used corner of his mind. On a job like this, anything less was suicide. Murdoch and Balfour were right on his heels, Murdoch still struggling with zippers and Velcro on hastily-donned battle gear. A convoy of armored vehicles waited outside, engines idling in the muggy June heat.

Stirling stood by the barracks door, directing the lieutenants and sergeants who reported to him while other sections down at the next barracks did the same into a second line of troop transports. Stirling's men were counting off their squad members as they jumped into the lorries. One hundred twenty strong, in four-man fire teams, with lieutenants and sergeants shouting out their counts, the loading went smoothly, at top speed. Once the squads reporting to his section had called out their readiness by the numbers, Stirling flung himself over the tailgate of the final transport, mashing his radio send button to signal their readiness to move out.

Lieutenant Ian Howell and Sergeants Griffin and Everleigh, with their respective teams, plus the men of Stirling's own squad, had piled willy-nilly into the armored lorry's rear compartment, slamming loaded magazines into Browning Hi-Power pistols, SA-80 rifles, and MP5 submachine guns. Stirling was glad to have an MP5 in his hands, rather than the service Patchett regular troopers were issued.

As the lorries jerked into motion, Hennessey snarled over his SA-80. "Wish to bloody hell Ministry of Defense had never adopted these useless bits of trash. IRA's got AR-180's, why the hell don't we?"

Lieutenant Howell muttered, "I'd like to see you try clearing snipers out of a building with those old SLRs some of the other units train with. Be bloody glad you've got an SA-80, not one of those."

Nobody answered. They all knew exactly what Howell meant—the SLR was a good hundred and twenty centimeters long, a full meter and a third of another, impossible to take down a hallway without hanging up the muzzle on something. Hennessey growled obscenely again at the faulty magazine latch and shoved the loaded magazine in once more, ruthlessly ramming it home until it caught properly.

"What I wish," Murdoch muttered, finally righting his uniform, "is for those johnnies in the M.O.D. to pick somebody else for riot duty. Let the RUC handle things and send us home."

"Royal Ulster Constabulary, my arse," Balfour shot back. "Bunch of Paisleyite Orangemen, is more like, joined up after the Ulster Defense Force was outlawed, and the IRA jolly well knows it."

Stirling just grunted. The history of conflict in Northern Ireland was twisted enough to give even the slipperiest of diplomats a raging headache. Nobody understood Ireland. Except, of course, the bloody Irish. "Might've waited a few minutes longer," he grumbled under his breath. "Would've enjoyed at least blowing out the candles."

"Tough luck, Captain," Lieutenant Howell thumped Stirling's shoulder as the armored lorry jounced and jolted through Belfast at top speed. "And that lovely bird we hired hadn't even jumped out of the cake yet. Right raver, too, blonde and stacked, wearin' nothing but buttercream icing . . ."

"Prat," Stirling grinned. "And if you think Ogilvie'd let a stripper past security . . . Like as not, she'd be some Provo sympathizer, or worse yet, Cumann Na Mbann, and that'd be the end of us, right quick, now wouldn't it?" The SAS had learned the hard way how things worked in Northern Ireland. Up here, the Official IRA based out of Dublin—touted by London as The Enemy for most of the twentieth century—counted for nothing. It was the Provisionals, a splinter of the Officials born in the violence of '69, calling the shots in Belfast. Literally. Mostly out of Armalite rifles. And that wasn't counting all the little splinters who'd left the Provos in the '90s, at least three main groups of them, all hating the Protestant Orangemen with a peculiarly Irish virulence that spanned centuries. The newest IRA splinters made the Orangemen's paramilitaries look like schoolboys—and the Orange terror squads proudly claimed kinship with Attila the Hun.

And every man—and woman—jack of 'em, Protestant Orange or Catholic Green, hated the British military. Impartially and with a cold, calculating violence aimed mostly at SAS troops sent in to contain the damage. As a seasoned SAS captain with a full year's experience in Belfast—during which he'd watched seventeen of his mates shot and blown to pieces—Northern Ireland gave Trevor Stirling nightmares. It was little comfort that Northern Ireland's Troubles gave London's ministry types nightmares, as well.

They heard the riot and smelled the smoke long before the lorry ground its way to a halt. A hasty roadblock had been thrown across Percy Street. The ugly sound of shouting, of sporadic gunfire, smashing glass, and the unmistakable roar of a major fire blasted into the lorry right across the open tailgate. A stink of gasoline fumes, gunpowder, and burning buildings choked the blockaded road. Stirling jammed his helmet down tighter, gripped his MP5 in a sweaty fist, and jumped down into the middle of the hell sweeping through Clonard.

He peeled sharp left, taking up position along the wall their lorry had stopped beside, and directed his section out of their transports and into position along both sides of the street. In his own command squad, Balfour exited right, followed by Murdoch, who moved ahead of Stirling, then Hennessey, who took up position ahead of Balfour. The lorries lurched forward a few meters, giving them cover and spilling out other squads farther along the street, under Stirling's terse radio instructions. Static sputtered in his ear as more of his section reported taking up position.

Stirling swept the area with a quick, careful scrutiny, looking for trouble spots. The Catholic neighborhood consisted mainly of rundown flats, in grubby, multistory buildings owned by Protestants who refused to grant their tenants basic civil rights, never mind ordinary maintenance and upkeep, but charged rents triple the going rate across the border in the Irish Republic. Most of the windows in Stirling's line of sight were pouring black smoke and lurid flames, the classic trademark of the Orange paramilitary terror squads. Women and children ran like screaming ants, carrying whatever they'd managed to salvage and trying to stay clear of the gun battle raging from street to street. Sporadic weapons fire cracked like distant fireworks, the sharp reports of handguns and small-caliber carbines overlain by the deeper crashes and crumps of heavy rifles.

Stirling's hundred-twenty-man unit hadn't even finished piling out of their lorries when a howling mob of Orangemen burst into view from Divis Street, lobbing gasoline bombs through broken windows and raking the corner of Divis and Percy with small-weapons fire. Two women and several children, including a copper-haired little girl barely five years old, crashed to the pavement, screaming and writhing or bent at grotesque angles, ominously still in the glare of the flames. Then someone else opened fire from near the roof of a building three blocks distant and four Orangemen crumpled to the street, gut-shot.

The mob scattered, burning and shooting as they went. Stirling clenched his jaw and gripped his MP5 until his knuckles whitened, aching to fire into the thick of those bastards, but he was not about to shoot live ammunition into a crowd with women and children scattered through it. His radio sputtered with Ogilvie's voice, shouting, "The police are trying to contain them before they reach St. Peter's church and the school! Move out by sections and drive those damned Orangemen back, trap 'em between the police barricades and our guns! And for God's sake, watch the rooftops, we've got IRA sniper fire coming from everywhere, they're likely to take potshots at us for the sheer fun of it!"

"Bloody lovely!" Balfour snarled as their section ran forward in a flanking movement toward the Orangemen, leapfrogging their way under whatever cover was available. "The election of the century, they call it. Catholics claim they finally got a majority, while the Orangemen are claiming fraud, and bloody Sinn Fein's all set to vote in reunification with Dublin, like the IRA wanted for years. And now we've got the bleeding Orangemen bombing us. Goddamned Ministry of Defense would've done better to let us wipe this country down to bedrock!"

It was a common enough sentiment in the SAS, one that Stirling didn't share, as it happened; but he understood it, only too well. "Button it, Balfour," he snapped. "Before some Orange bastard blows your head off! You can't do a job while you're complaining! And put your bloody respirator on, we're about to pump CS at them!"

He jammed his own gas mask on, then they were in the thick of it and there was no time for anything but survival. They moved down Percy Street in relays, with McCrombie driving their armored command lorry at a slow crawl to provide cover wherever possible. Every doorway and window offering possible cover for gunmen brought sweat prickling out beneath Stirling's body armor. Unpleasant trickles ran down his brow and dripped stinging salt sweat into his eyes under the rubber mask, an added misery courtesy of the sticky, hot June weather. He blinked furiously to clear his vision, cursing the heat and the bloody "Troubles" that made tear gas necessary.

The Orange terror squads fell back under a steady hail of tear gar canisters fired into the mob, along with rubber shot and so-called baton rounds, thick oblongs of rubber fired from 37 mm grenade launchers. They fired into the street just in front of the mob, sending the rubber projectiles cannoning like super-balls hurled with enough force to break bones.

The rioters melted into side streets to fight pitched battles with Catholic youths throwing rocks, broken bottles, and flaming gasoline bombs of their own. Orangemen shot back with pistols ranging from great-grandfather's Webley revolver to smuggled-in Makarovs manufactured three months previously in Russia, passing through three or four hands before ending on the streets of Belfast.

Surprisingly few IRA guns answered back. The price, Stirling realized after a moment's puzzlement, of keeping guerilla weapons scattered, part of the IRA's effort to keep its arsenal out of police and army hands during neighborhood sweeps. The IRA excelled at planning terrorist hits in advance, but responding to a sudden emergency was more difficult, given the level of searches these neighborhoods routinely underwent. It was ironic; the very reason the IRA had armed itself so heavily in the first place was situations exactly like this one, starting back in '69, with Orange terror squads burning Catholic neighborhoods, shooting civilians, and the ruddy police and outlawed B Special squads helping them do it. That was the whole reason the British army had been activated, to keep Orange-controlled police and their mates in the marching societies and paramilitary units from wholesale massacre of Catholic minority neighborhoods.

Not much had changed, since '69.

As homemade Molotov cocktails ran short in supply, lit car flares took their place, arcing through the air, crashing through windows and igniting curtains, upholstery, anything combustible in their path. If the fire fighters weren't brought in soon, all of West Belfast would go. Stirling's section left Percy Street under cover of their armored lorry, moving down Divis Street in an effort to drive the rioters into the police barricades set up this side of the school and neighboring church. Through his gas mask, Stirling caught sight of the police squadron at last, firing lead-filled, CS-coated bean bags from their grenade launchers into the melee, bringing down combatants from a distance of several meters. A couple of the constables gripped shotguns, as well, firing shot shells loaded with miniature rubber batons.

Unfortunately, the constables were firing indiscriminately at both Orange raiders and Catholic defenders, drawing the attention of someone with a high-powered rifle. A constable near the edge of the confusion screamed and went down, clutching his gut and bleeding between tight-clenched fingers. An instant later, a gun-wielding Orangeman suffered the same fate, sprawling under the rear bumper of a burning car.

"Got us a sodding sniper!" Murdoch shouted, ducking down. "Anybody see where he's firing from?"

Stirling scanned windows in a frantic effort to spot him, while the constables broke and ran—straight for the SAS lorry they were using for cover. "Bloody damn—"

He ate pavement as the constables skidded in. Bullets whined off concrete walls and window casements as the sniper tracked them. Policemen were shouting, "Do something! Do something, goddammit!" and Murdoch was screaming at them to shut up and keep out of the way. A stiff wind had sprung up, fanning flames and sweeping away clouds of CS gas. Stirling snatched off his gas mask, which was impeding his view, and raked the windows with a frantic gaze, looking for their hidden IRA gunman. He tracked movement at a broken fifth-story window—Christ, a ten-year-old kid without enough sense to hide, watching the riot like it was a thriller on the telly. "I don't see a thing, curse it!"

"Maybe he's broken through a roof somewhere, shooting through a hole in the roofing tiles? They've done it before, often enough."

Another constable went down less than a meter from Stirling's position, screaming and badly wounded. Orangemen were in retreat, firing at every window in sight, blasting away at shadows. The IRA sniper was driving them back from the church, at least, but there was no way to contain them as long as the sniper kept Stirling's section pinned, as well. "We've got us one savvy, trained sniper, here," he snarled. "Knows enough to keep back from the window, so we can't see spit!"

He rolled prone under the fender of their stationary lorry, where McCrombie had the advantage of bulletproof glass. Stirling craned his neck into contorted positions, trying to see the uppermost windows and rooflines without exposing himself to sniper fire. He was studying windowpanes in the building across the street from their riot-happy ten-year-old when he saw it. Reflected movement showed the boy leaping back from the window. The reflection also showed a flash of light from deeper inside the room: muzzle blast from their IRA gunman.

"Got him! Fifth floor, third window along from the corner! Bastard's using the boy for reconnaissance." God, putting the child between himself and the guns of the SAS . . . Irish Republican Army ruthlessness occasionally horrified Stirling.

One of the constables crowed, "Marvelous! We'll get that stinking gun out of his hands and off the streets!"

Stirling shot the copper a disgusted glance. "Isn't the bloody gun that's dangerous, mate, it's the man behind it. Stop thinking like a copper for a change, eh? These lovely blokes are trying to kill us, last I noticed, IRA and Orangemen alike. Take all the guns you can carry, they'll still kill you with rocks and bombs and bottles full of petrol."

While the copper sputtered, Murdoch growled, "We'll have to take him out, curse him. Can't get across there with him shooting at us and we can't contain those bleeding Orangemen, sitting on our bums!"

"If we had a Scorpion, like we keep asking London," Hennessey put in disgustedly, "that'd make quick work of it. Those 30mm cannons would take care of our IRA man up there, right handy, like."

"Yeh," Stirling shot back, "along with his neighbors and the building next door and the county over the border, besides. The very last thing those ministry types want is tracked vehicles rampaging through Belfast. Might look bad on the telly, come election time."

"So pump a CS canister in with him!" the constable snarled. "Isn't that what you SAS types are supposed to do? Control the bleeding snipers?"

"That'd be grand," Balfour growled, "if we hadn't shot the last canister three blocks back."

The constables were out of CS rounds, as well.

And none of the other squads in his unit could get close enough to resupply them, what with the emergencies under way all around them and the very sniper they needed to take out controlling the entire street. Stirling cursed long and loud. "Right, then. I'm in command of the entry team, so it's my job, isn't it? I'll circle round the block, get in from behind while you draw his fire. Murdoch, you're with me. Lay down a covering fire, mates. And try not to hit the boy, eh? I don't want careers ruined and good men jailed for shooting the lad, no matter what his Da's using him for, up there!"

"No, no, don't bloody well shoot at all!" one of the constables yelled, even as Stirling took to his heels, running at a low crouch, MP5 held at the ready, and calling in his situation over his command radio set, keeping his own commander and lieutenants informed. Unfortunately, two of the constables were following Stirling and Murdoch, howling like a bunch of disappointed soccer fans.

"Dammit, you'll tip him off, tell him we know where he is! He'll jump ship before you're even close—"

A rifle bullet snapped past Stirling's ear, striking sparks along the brick wall. He ran faster, trying to gain the corner, and cursed the interference of bloody, stupid coppers and their fixation on taking the guns and capturing the shooters, rather than stopping the immediate threat. The rest of the unit finally opened up with a withering hail of fire, clearly having won the argument with the balance of the coppers. The heavy barrage drove the sniper back, giving them a clear chance to cross the street. Stirling speeded up, racing across the open road for cover on the far side. Fierce heat from a blazing tenement blasted down an alleyway, then they were past and running for the corner. Behind them, a steady rattle of semiautomatic fire chattered, most of it coming from Stirling's pinned-down squad, with periodic shots from high overhead, where the IRA gunman held them off.

He skinned over a wall in a rollover, never lifting more than his shoulder blades above the top, and dropped into a dingy yard where a couple of cats huddled under a scraggly bush. Murdoch was over in a flash, darting ahead to kick out a window. The coppers came over the wall awkwardly, heading automatically toward the rear door.

"Get down, you bloody fools!" Stirling snapped. "Never use the doors, they expect that!"

Murdoch was already inside, through the broken window. Stirling followed, motioning the constables back when they tried to follow too closely. Stirling and Murdoch eased across the room, weapons held at low-ready position, butt-stocks tucked into their shoulders, muzzles pointed toward the floor. Easing round a corner with a rifle at low ready, a bloke didn't advertise his presence, whereas carrying it the way chaps did over in America, snout up, the first thing round a corner was the muzzle. Jolly bad form and a good way to die, trying that in Belfast.

The lower corridor was clear. They raced for the staircase, moving fast and low, coming around corners at a crouch, down where the average man wouldn't be expecting them. On the third floor landing, screams erupted from several flats and a rush of feet came charging down the corridor.

"What the devil—" one of the constables began.

A pack of women, many of them carrying small children, stampeded into the stairwell, running wild-eyed past Stirling, Murdoch, and the panting constables. One of the girls, fifteen at a glance, snarled at them on her way past.

"What the hell are you doing in here, eh? Chasing the only man with guts enough to shoot back at those butchers? Why don't you British bastards go after the Orangemen for a change?" She spat in his face, then fled down the stairs.

It wouldn't have done any good to tell her they would already have gone after the Orangemen, if the sodding IRA sniper hadn't pinned them down, preventing it.

Meanwhile, smoke poured down the stairwell in the wake of the fleeing women. Stirling cursed under his breath. "Upstairs, double time, he'll make every shot count, now the building's been torched." If he hadn't gone already, running for safety in the confusion.

Two more flights up, twisting round the landings, and they'd gained the fifth floor. Doors stood open, flats abandoned by panic-stricken residents. A chatter of gunfire sounded through broken windows from the street below. The sound of return fire from the IRA gunman was unexpected music in Stirling's ears. Their sniper wasn't as well trained as he'd thought. He was still in the room, shooting. A fully trained IRA man would've bolted the moment he saw two SAS soldiers leave their squad to head his way. Stirling motioned for the constables to stay back, then eased forward, listening intently with every step. Murdoch crept from doorway to doorway, checking each room along the corridor before slipping past. They leapfrogged cautiously down the hall, then it came again: the crump of a heavy rifle firing, three doors along, and a male voice saying, "Keep your bloody head down, lad, bastards down there'll shoot it off!"

Bullets were ripping into the hallway, slapping through the hollow-core door and punching like icepicks through thin, poorly constructed walls, embedding themselves into the ceiling. Stirling's section was doing a marvelous job of pinning him down so he couldn't run without exposing himself worse than he was already. He keyed his radio and whispered, "Cease fire, we're going in," then nodded silently. Murdoch nodded back, exchanging ready signals. The firing from the street stopped and they entered with a diving roll through the smashed-down door. Murdoch and he fired simultaneously. The sniper jerked wildly and went down with a gurgling cry, hit at least five times. In one corner, hiding behind a bookcase, the boy crouched with both arms over his head, screaming.

"Get out of here, boy," Murdoch snarled, jerking him up from his corner by one thin arm. "Building's burning round your ears!"

"You shot me Da!"

"Life's tough, mate," Murdoch bit out, dragging the boy along. "He was trying to kill us, last I noticed. Move it, lad, or we'll leave you to burn with him."

"Easy, Murdoch," Stirling pulled the boy out of the younger man's grip, "he's a scared kid who's just watched his father die. C'mon, lad, you can't stay here. Where's your mother, then?"

The boy shook his head. "Orangemen shot her."

Wonderful. Another orphan who'd grow up hating Protestants and blaming the British army. It never ended. "I'm sorry about that, lad. Come on, now, before we're trapped by the fire." He glanced around for the constables and swore under his breath. They were ransacking the flat, snatching out drawers, dumping contents across the floor, rifling the gunman's pockets.

"What in hell are you doing?"

"Looking for evidence! Lists of his mates, telephone numbers—"

Murdoch grabbed the nearest by the shoulder and roared, "Leave it, you bloody stupid bastards! It's a battle zone out there and the building's on fire! Worry about arresting the IRA when the smoke clears!"

They cursed, but complied, stuffing handfuls of the dead man's personal papers into their own pockets on the way. Murdoch radioed down that they'd cleared the sniper and Stirling picked up the terrified boy, carrying him. He managed to snag a family photograph on his way out the door. "There's a good lad, hold this." He shoved the photo into the boy's hands and set out for the stairwell at a fast jog. They left the tenement considerably faster than they'd entered, plunging down the smoke-filled stairwell past blazing corridors and other fleeing refugees. Stirling saw a woman carrying nothing of her own.

"Here, take the lad, would you? He's just lost his dad and mum."

She took the boy wordlessly, fleeing ahead of them down the stairs.

They exited the way they'd come in, through the rear of the building, only to be met by a howling mob of Orangemen, emboldened once more by the silence of the sniper. "Get the civilians out of here!" Stirling shouted at the constables, then he opened fire with a three-shot burst of full-auto fire, bringing down a man pointing a pistol at them. The mob checked its forward momentum, dispersing instants later under a hail of live fire, giving the women and children time to get clear, running down an alleyway. "Bloody bastards!" Stirling growled, slamming another magazine home. "I've had just about enough . . . of Northern Ireland's Troubles!"

"Amen to that," Murdoch agreed, firing at another gunman who'd paused to snap off shots in their direction. "I'd give all the money in Threadneedle Street to be sitting in some pub in Cheapside, right about now!"

"Tell me one I don't know, mate. It's my bleeding birthday."

They cleared the remaining Orange mob, driving them into the fringes of a bottle-throwing pack of young Catholics bent on vengeance. For once, Stirling was inclined to let them settle it amongst themselves. At least the Orangemen would be too occupied to torch any more flats.

He and Murdoch had just reached the corner again, trying to rejoin their section, when a delivery van skidded round at high speed, plowing straight toward the melee of rock-throwing Catholics and, coincidentally, toward the rest of their unit and the embattled constables who'd taken cover with them. Halfway there, the driver skidded the brakes, bailing out as the van slewed and slowed. The man ran back toward Stirling and Murdoch at breakneck speed while the van careened in a spinning turn toward the SAS position.

Realization struck instants too late.


The concussion hurled Stirling five meters through the air. The whole city block erupted in flame. Murdoch slammed into a parked car, flung like a doll by the force of the explosion. Buildings to either side crumbled into the street, smashing down in a ruin of bricks, mortar, and twisted pipe. The rock-throwing Catholics vanished in a blazing rain of debris. A heavy tiled roof crashed down across Stirling's entire section, burying them under a belching avalanche of flame and broken buildings. Then Stirling smashed into something incredibly hard and the whole world faded into dim grey chaos.

* * *

He roused briefly into an unwanted reality where the only sensation was a throbbing mass of pain the length of his body. Some unknown stretch of time after that, a rosary swung into his field of view, dangling above his face. Urgent voices floated to him where he lay at the bottom of a very deep pit.

"Is he still alive, Father?"

"Yes, God be praised, help me carry him to an ambulance. . . ."

They lifted him from the pavement, instantly rousing all the demons of hell in a vengeful dance. They stampeded en masse from Stirling's skull to the toes of his combat boots. He tried to scream and mercifully lost consciousness, instead. He had no idea how long he'd been out when reality finally firmed again, piecemeal. Bits of him hurt worse than others and his ears didn't seem to be working properly. Sounds came in a confused jumble of voices and meaningless noise. Gradually Stirling differentiated various sensations as the tug of bandages, a sharp ache from an IV feed in the crook of one elbow, a plaster cast around one wrist, something stiff, a brace maybe, around one knee, and the tug of stitches along his face, down one arm, and across his torso. Stirling's hearing cleared up next, bringing order from the chaotic noise. He made out the sounds of monitors beeping softly, a rattle of glassware, hushed voices in a corridor somewhere nearby, sobbing voices farther off, and somewhere in close proximity, a very young child screaming in endless, mindless agony . . .

Hospital, Stirling realized fuzzily. They got me to hospital through that mess, that priest and whoever was with him. Gratitude prickled behind his eyelids and thickened his throat, making him long mightily for the strength to blow his nose. Instead he lay quietly, trying to recover the use of more of his senses.Vision cleared at last, revealing a stark white ceiling, equally stark walls, and the steel railings of a hospital bed. He lay in a casualty ward, with gurneys stacked in the spaces between the regular beds, all filled with badly injured civilians. In the corridor just beyond, Stirling could see harried doctors and nurses performing miracles of triage, routing the worst cases into surgery. He wondered how long he'd been here. Whether any of his command had survived that car bomb. If his commanding officer knew where he was.

He tried not to wonder how badly injured he might be.

Time stretched out in that endless way it does when the body is too traumatized to move, but the mind is too alert to sleep. Stirling was left with no activity to distract him, save listening to the unfolding chaos out in the corridor. More wounded were arriving every minute, giving him all too grim a notion of how badly the riot had spread through West Belfast. Eventually, footsteps entering the ward roused him to greater attention. Stirling focused on three figures approaching his bed, one dressed in hospital whites, one in the unrelieved black of the Catholic priesthood, and the third in badly stained battle gear. Surprise registered when he recognized Colonel Ogilvie. The look crackling through the colonel's eyes told Stirling the most important news of all. None of his section had made it out of that street alive. God, a hundred and twenty good soldiers, snuffed out in an instant. And who knew how many innocent civilians with them . . .

" . . . captain is very lucky that Father McCree, here, pulled him out of the rubble," the doctor was saying.

"I'm afraid we weren't able to reach the others," the priest said in response, an exhausted note of horror wavering through his voice. "The whole block of flats came down, buried the whole of Divis Street in burning rubble. The entire SAS unit was under it, along with at least a dozen constables and a whole crowd of boys, most of them no older than sixteen."

Ogilvie nodded sharply. "I'm grateful to you, Father, for rescuing at least one of my lads." Ogilvie's radio crackled and he listened, then spat orders. The next moment, he'd reached the bedside. "Stirling, it's good to see you. Doctors tell me you're bloody lucky, son."

"Sorry, sir," he croaked out, horrified by the rasping, watery whisper of his voice. "Orange bastard drove a panel van past us, cram full of explosives. Didn't twig to it, not until it was too bloody late . . ."

"Easy, son." Ogilvie pressed his shoulder with one calloused, grime-streaked hand. "It's no use blaming yourself for a suicidal maniac. They've set off half a dozen other car bombs of the same type, set to blow on timers. Run 'em into a big crowd of Catholics with a margin of a few seconds for the drivers to get clear. There's no way anyone could've stopped it. Believe me, we've tried. Shooting the drivers doesn't stop the bloody bombs ticking and they're on too short a timer to defuse 'em."

Stirling wanted to be comforted by the news, but all he could see was Murdoch slamming into that parked car, buildings toppling down across his men, crushing anyone who might've survived the initial blast. Maybe Balfour had been right, after all. Scouring this place to bedrock seemed a sane solution, in light of the Orange terror machine's latest atrocities. Stirling had never expected to understand the IRA's hatred of the Orangemen as thoroughly as he did now. Not that the IRA was any better, for all that they didn't torch Protestant neighborhoods the way the Orange paramilitaries torched Catholic ones. They preferred blowing up crowded shops and pubs, instead, and SAS facilities, vehicle checkpoints and RUC stations, or executing prominent Protestant politicians, government officials, and members of the British Royal family. The worst of it was, he couldn't see any way to end it. Not with both sides demanding total capitulation to mutually exclusive goals. The hollow feeling in his chest terrified him.

Ogilvie squeezed his shoulder again. "Rest for now, Stirling. We'll talk again when you've recovered a bit more. The doctors will take proper care of you."

"Yes, sir," he whispered, utterly empty inside.

He faded into sleep while the doctor was still telling him about his injuries.



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