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Chapter Eight

"Mr. President, I think you should see this," Secretary Brandeis said, keying one of the overhead video screens. It was an oblique shot, probably from a satellite, of a line of soldiers and a helicopter. Two men were descending from the helicopter.

"We can't get resolution on faces, Mr. President," the secretary said. "But from the body shape and clothing, the man on the right is Basser Assad."

"So it's not a rogue Syrian operation," Minuet said. "That's good and bad to know. The tall one, though, is that who I think it is?"

"Probably," the secretary replied. "Given his height, movements and the way that he holds his right arm."

"Makes me tempted to nuke the facility right now," the President said, darkly. "I've heard about the first video tape. Have we gotten the demands, yet?"

"A group calling itself The Popular Front for the Islamic Jihad was the contact to Al Jazeera," the CIA director said. "They called for a withdrawal of all crusader forces from all areas of the Dar Al Islam. Now, that's an incredibly broad demand. Arguably, it includes not only all of the Balkans but Spain and Southern France as well. Certainly, they're referring to all European and American forces in the Middle East. Otherwise, they will do what they have already done to one girl every two hours, until their demands are met. I had analysts go over the video, which is already on the Internet. Several of the girls who were kidnapping victims have been identified from 'audience shots.'"

"What's the download rate like?" Brandeis asked.

"High," the CIA director admitted. "It's flying around the net. And, of course, the news media is all over it like flies on shit. They're interviewing all the parents of the girls and various commentators are already talking about Stockholm syndrome."

"Unlikely in this situation," Minuet said. "Conditions are too extreme. And it takes some time to set in. Any word from Harmon?"

"Negative," the defense secretary said. "And he's overdue to check in. But security on the site has been increased. I'm not sure he can get out of his hidey-hole."

"We give him five more hours," the President said. "That is two and a half lives. Then we go whether we know where they are or not."

The room was dark with the only light coming from a sheet of one-way glass. It took Mike's eyes a moment to adjust.

"Come in, Doctor Chayanov," a voice said in Oxford-accented English. "You are very welcome. Come watch the show."

There was a desk set a meter or so from the window and Mike walked to it, setting the sample case on it and glanced through the window. A girl with dark brown hair was being raped and had had part of the skin on her side peeled off. The man on her was rubbing his hands into the exposed flesh as he thrust into her. Even through the thick glass, the screams were clearly audible.

Mike turned away from the scene with apparent indifference. He was horrified and repulsed by what was happening. But, at the same time, hating himself, it turned him on. However, the sexual turn-on was close enough to rage that he could channel it and he was well prepped to explode.

He controlled his reaction and glanced at the group in the room. There were two guards by the door and a short-coupled man, the one who had spoken in English, that he vaguely recognized and thought might be Basser Assad. His eyes widened, though, when he recognized the tall man at Assad's side.

"I am truly honored," he said, nodding. "It is a great pleasure to meet you, sir. You have done much damage to the American pig-bastards."

"As I did to the Russian pig-bastards," the tall man said darkly. "But as I worked with the Americans to defeat your kind, so I am happy to work with you to defeat them. Allah's ways are complex, but he gives his servants opportunities such as yourself. What did you bring to Allah's servants?"

As Mike opened the sample case, one of the guards stepped forward but all Mike pulled out at first was a pair of gloves. He tried to ignore the shrieks at his back as he pulled out the first of the gas grenades.

"Sarin," he said, setting it down. "Lethal in low concentrations but very short-lived. Which means you can move in the area no more than five hours after dispersal. This grenade will, well . . ." He turned around and gestured at the room full of naked women. "If I tossed it in that room, there would be no women to torture in less than five minutes. And that is just the time it would take to disperse fully." He turned back, set the grenade back inside and pulled out the next.

"VX. Lethal at the same level as Sarin, but persistent. Which means wherever it lands, it stays for from weeks to years. Decontamination after VX has been used widely is nearly impossible. For months after dispersal, people opening up a door will die from residue on the underside of the knob.

"This I particularly like," Mike said, putting the canister back in the case and lifting out the spray can. "It can be painted to resemble the sort of can that is used in wasp spray. Currently, we only have it in mustard gas, which is a very simple material, but we may have it in VX or Sarin soon. The problem is that VX and Sarin need to be mixed to function.

"It is very simple to use," he added, taking a subtle breath. "You simply point," he continued, pivoting towards the guards, "and spray," he added, depressing the tab.

The stream of yellow liquid hit the right guard square in the face then tracked across to the left guard. Assad was wearing a sidearm in a fancy buckle-down holster and was trying to draw it as Mike pivoted to him and hit him in the face.

The tall terrorist had ducked to the side and was heading for the guards, who had fallen to the ground, clutching at their throats and gurgling as the gas reached their lungs and began burning them. Mike stepped around the desk and tripped him, then stamped on his lungs to get him to exhale and sprayed a puddle on the floor in front of his face. Then he stepped back, set the can on the desk and donned the gas mask. First he pressed it down to get a seal, then breathed out. Then he covered the inlet and inhaled, slightly. The mask pressed in indicating a good seal and he released the inlet and took a cautious breath. No scent of sulfur, no burning. Thank God.

As soon as he had it clear, he stepped over to check on the terrorist. The tall man was rolling back and forth, red froth bubbling out of his mouth, trying to scream, the frantic inhalations causing his lungs to melt faster.

"Dulce et decorum est," Mike murmured, looking the man in the eye as he died, "pro patria mori. You motherfucker."

Two guards in the corridor, by the door. The door had been soundproofed and the nice thing about mustard was people couldn't really shout when they'd been hit by it. So the guards probably weren't even aware that anything had happened.

Mike picked up one of the dropped AKs and checked the magazine. Full. He visualized the two guards, aware of the screams that were continuing in the other room, flicked off the safety and opened the door.

The officer guide had, fortunately, left. And there were no additional guards. So he simply placed the barrel in the side of the left-hand guard, fired twice and then turned to the right-hand guard and did the same. Neither guard had time to do more than register surprise at the sight of a gas-mask-clad figure stepping out of the room.

Mike wasn't too sure at what level mustard was lethal. He had vague recollections of people talking about "a touch of mustard" from WWI, so apparently you could get some in your lungs and not automatically die. But he didn't want any of the girls dying from his mustard contamination. On the other hand . . . short time.

He hadn't gotten a good look in the torture room, but he was pretty sure he'd seen at least one guard and a group of unarmed soldiers. So he picked up a spare magazine and stuffed it in his back pocket. Then he stepped to the door to the torture room and opened it.

Amy was surprised that she'd almost gotten inured to the screams. Clarissa had taken two hours to die and, from what she could tell, Rachel was getting pretty close to the end. She'd learned to figure the time from the pattern of the torture. Clarissa had been raped by two of the soldiers, then tortured with electricity and had her skin stripped off in spots, then two more soldiers raped her in the mouth and ass, then she was tortured again and so on. Towards the end they had burned off her nipples with a blowtorch and after that they'd just beaten her with clubs to break her bones. Then they'd killed her by cutting her throat. Amy knew that Rachel was going to die, soon, in terrible agony, because while the soldiers were still raping her, one of the men in the aprons had started up the blowtorch.

She had her head down, just praying. She'd started off praying that somebody would come rescue them all. Now she was just praying that somebody would come before it was her turn. She'd done the math. Depending on what pattern they used, she had either forty-six or fifty-two hours to live. And the last two hours would be really bad. Bad enough she'd rather just die beforehand and get it over with. The one thing she had going for her was that the guards were pretty lax with the girls. When they got to her, assuming none of the others were any good at self defense, she'd have a trick or two for them. With any luck she'd be enough of a problem they'd just kill her. Assuming she could stay sane that long.

She looked up, though, at a scream from the front of the girls and the shot by the door.

"What's the situation with SpecOps, Don?" the President asked. He'd dropped just about everything to cover this situation and he was starting to get a little ragged at the edges. "Do we have a mission plan to get these girls out?"

"Yes, Mr. President," the secretary said. "We have the alert Ranger battalion at Fort Bragg rigged and in the air. Delta is on the way and performing mission planning enroute. However, it'll take time for Delta to get there. We're going to lose hostages if we wait. So. The best compromise between time to target and available forces is in theater SpecOps units. We've got a SEAL platoon staged out of Baghdad International looking at all the intel that we have. They're the closest, and best trained, team we have for this. Delta is as good as they come and I'd rather use them. But given the time constraints, I'd say go with the SEALs. It's going to be a high risk mission, though, even for the SEAL team."

"Why?" the President asked.

"I've brought in someone to brief on that," the secretary said, clearing his throat and gesturing at the major by his side. "Major Andreyev is an expert in advanced HALO, a special forces officer. It was his suggestion on insertion which is being implemented. It is . . . somewhat unusual . . ."

"It's insane, sir," the major said, in a soft-spoken voice. "But it's the only thing that might work."

"Go ahead, Major," the President said, leaning back.

"Sir," the major replied, getting up and going to the briefing stand. "The problem is that Syrian Integrated Air Defense System is as advanced as that of most first-world countries. They were defeated by the Israelis in 1978 but it took four days for the Israelis to fully suppress them. The Syrians have been playing against the varsity for a long time, and were positioned to learn all about our air operations during the previous fracas to the south. We don't have the time to roll back the air defense system prior to inserting the assault team. The need was to place a team on site, before the enemy was fully aware that they were under attack. There is only one way to do so: stealthily."

"You mean 'stealth,' don't you, major?" the NSA said, wonderingly. "As in inserting them by, what? Stealth bombers? We don't have enough B-2's to lift a large assault team! And where would you place the parachutists?"

"Yes, ma'am, I mean stealth," the major replied, bringing up a Top-Secret schematic of a bomb-bay rack. "Special Forces HALO did a very secret test with the Spirits last year at Nellis. The bomb-rack ejector mechanisms were modified, and an O2 distribution hookah was improvised. In addition, the B-2s are required to modify their climb profile for decompression. On the plus side, it is possible to eject a full SEAL platoon from a bomber, stealthily. Their insertion will be from forty thousand feet, twice normal height and about the maximum a person can handle without specialized equipment that can't be made available in time. We have already begun the necessary modification on a B-2 that was rotating through Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi, and the SEALs will marry up with their transport there. The down side is that the bomber is visible to the enemy radar as long as the bomb bay is open, discharging the team. It has to offload the entire platoon in a hurry, which won't be pleasant for the SEALs, in order to avoid missile fire, which is more unpleasant. Given Syrian air defenses, we may lose a Spirit."

"Authorized," the President said, coldly. "How soon are they going to be on the ground?"

"The team is supposed to be being briefed about now, Mr. President."

"You have got to be shitting me!"

Petty Officer First Class Roy Simmons was the Leading Petty Officer of Charlie Platoon, SEAL Team Three. He had had been at Team Three his whole career. He'd gone through the predictable stages. The new meat that thought being a SEAL was just the coolest damned thing in the world but wasn't quite sure they were up to it. Then when he was "made" in the teams and promoted to PO Third he knew he could lick the whole world because he was a God Damned Frog. Then came the wife, then the kids, then the regular deployments and the advanced training, and now he knew it was just a job. One of the toughest jobs in the world, one that occasionally threw you a damned curve. But at the end of the deployment it was good to get back to the mamasan and forget the blood and the screams and just play with the kids. And he'd thought he'd heard it all until he heard this damned Air Force major lay out this shit in a calm and matter of fact voice.

"Oh, dude!" Roman snorted. "This is going to be so cool!"

"We're going to be SEAL legends!" Sherman said, raising his arms in victory. "Live or die, we're going to be fucking legend!"

"This ain't happening," Simmons said, looking over at the new meats. The poor guys' eyes were as round as saucers and they were looking at Roman and Sherman as if they were fucking insane. Which, of course, they were. That was the job of the PO3s on the teams and Roman and Sherman were already legends.

"We're inserting from a B-2?" Vahn asked. "I want to be clear about that. We're going to be loaded in the god damned bomb bay? Hooked in a rotating bomb release system and, what? Automatically ejected?"

"Yes," the Air Force officer replied. "It has been . . . successfully tested."

"How many times?" Simmons snapped. "And who in the fuck was crazy enough to try even once?"

"I'll go, daddy!" Roman said. "Me! Me!"

"Me, too!" Sherman said, grinning.

"Height?" Chief Adams asked, calmly.

"Forty thousand feet."

That shut Roman and Sherman up. Roman was left frozen with his mouth open and one hand raised in a "number one" sign. Sherman was just openmouthed.

"That's unsurvivable!" Vahn snapped. "Damn it, I was in Dev Group. You don't go over thirty thousand!"

"At thirty thousand the Spirit, especially with personnel and equipment in the bomb bay, is marginally detectable, given the radar signal strength that we are expecting over the target," the Air Force major said. "Again, forty thousand has been tested."

"Successfully?" Vahn snapped.

"Successfully," the major replied calmly.

"This ain't happening," Simmons said, his head in his hands and shaking back and forth. "This just ain't happening."

"In addition, it is anticipated that there may be significant aerial combat in the area of operations," the major continued with his briefing. "Your position will be noted and AWACs support will attempt to steer such combat into other areas of operation, however, the reason that the Spirit is being used is due to the conditions."

"You're talking about a dogfight going on," Vahn said, with the voice of calm terror. "While we're in the drop."

"Yes," the major said. "Time is of the essence, gentlemen. I would suggest you begin rigging up."

"Well, with all due respect, Major!" Simmons snapped. "Fu—"

"Wait," the chief said, holding up a finger. And everyone turned to look at him.

That's what Simmons remembered. The OIC had just been sitting there the whole time, trying to look frosty and doing a pretty good job even though Simmons knew he was probably on cloud nine with fear. The whacko E-5s were high-fiving. The new meats were terrified. Vahn and he were both really terrified because they'd done enough to know how just completely fucked they were. The mission was shit, no idea where the hostages were, maybe somebody on the inside but no name except "Ghost" and no idea who you're dealing with, no plan for the building for God's sake; ground penetrating radar hadn't been able to get anything more than ghost images. But everybody stopped and everybody turned to look at the chief, even the damned AF major.

"We're good," the chief said, nodding. "Let's get it on."

"Chief," Simmons said, quietly. "You sure?"

"Sure," the chief said, standing up. "I've done weirder things."

"Really?" the OIC asked, standing up as well as the chief headed for the door.

"Yeah," the chief said, pausing in the doorway. "I was in Class 201."

"No shit?" Roman asked, his eyes wide. "Jesus, Chief!"

"No shit," the chief said, his demeanor suddenly cracking slightly and a shiver shuddered through his body. "After that, being shot out of a B-2 at twice the recommended altitude into a dogfight and a mission with no damned plan or even a damned map . . . well . . . it ain't much."

"What in the hell is Class 201?" Meat Two whispered as the team quietly got up and started to file out.

"Meat, you're too young to know," Roman said, his head twitching in horror. "You're just too young. Maybe if you're drunk enough to take the horror. God. I knew Chief was tough but, God!" He shuddered again and walked out, shaking his head.

"Normally, Meat," Simmons said, gently putting his hand on the newbie's shoulder, "I'd tell you that Roman was as full of shit as a Christmas turkey. But . . . in this case, he's right. Sometimes, when you're a SEAL, you have to be harder than stone. When you're with a survivor of Class 201, well, you know that they're not going to quit unless they're dead."


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