~ Finding Your Heart ~
by planetsolin

Top 25: May 24, 2004

Disclaimers: Though they might look like two more well known characters, Halley and Eden are figments of my own imagination. Any use of them is strictly prohibited under the laws of copyright that govern our land.
Sexual/ Violent Content: If the thought of two women being together in a manner that is more than friendship appalls, you than you are at the wrong place.
Other: Comments are welcome, but please be kind because artists are sensitive;


Halley watched the special news broadcast on the television screen for only a few minutes. She didn't need to see any more of the destruction brought by the terrorists or hear the vehement condemnations of the politicians in reaction to the attacks. In her mind she already knew what America's response would be and that she would be called to be an instrument of their decision.

She made her way through the watching crowd of sailors and marines into the corridor, picking a path that brought her out onto the lower deck near the stern of the gigantic ship. She paused for a moment, her sharp eyes observing the constant activity as ordinance crews pushed and pulled various armaments around the deck. It was a strange yet coordinated dance and unobserved she wandered through it all, making her way to the open portal at the stern. From here she could stare out at the open sea and watch the churning waves that the huge ship left in its wake.

It was impossible for her to stop the sigh that escaped her lips or the strange, yet familiar feeling that descended over her senses. She had been a member of the Marine Corps for fifteen years and in that time she had seen the best and the worst of situations. The Gulf War had been her baptism of fire and she had distinguished herself in a manner that had opened doors that would have otherwise remained closed.

In the beginning she had been excited by the new possibilities and had embraced the specialized training that placed her among the elitist of the Corps. When the government needed something done it was to people like her that they turned and because of her gender and skill she had been tapped for more then her share of special operations. Officially she was a Master Sergeant in the Marine Corps but in reality she was a secret tool of the government, used by its covert agencies to carry out their special wishes.

Halley took a deep breath, sucking the salty air into her lungs. She loved being a Marine from the moment she had been inducted into the Corps. Not once had she questioned its philosophy and she had succeeded beyond her commanders wildest expectations. She was proud of her accomplishments yet in moments such as this she began to think that it was more of a curse than a blessing.

Her intention had always been to make the Marines her career, but in the last few years she had begun to feel like something was missing. She watched as her colleagues fell in love and married, moving on in their personal lives while she just seemed to stay where she was. After thirty three years of living there was nothing to show that she was there on earth. There was no permanent home or family to come home to after a deployment and she knew that as long as she was in the military she would never have those things.

Perhaps it was time to retire; time to leave this life behind to begin a new one before it was too late. She had been lucky and had escaped from too many situations unscathed. It was only realistic to believe that her luck would eventually fail. It was with these thoughts bouncing around inside her head that she continued to gaze out across the sea.


The pounding on the door rousted Eden from the book that she was reading. She glanced with annoyance at the alarm clock on the small ledge next to her bunk. It was still early in the day and according to the flight schedule they weren't due to fly for another nine hours.

"Come," she called for whoever was in the gangway to enter. The portal swung open and a fresh faced young man in a casual khaki uniform stepped into the tiny single quarters. She looked at her Rear Intercept Officer Jeffrey Hart and wondered if their orders had been changed. There was an excited look on his youthful clean shaven face. "What's up?"

"The President is in a meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff right now discussing what our response is going to be to the acts of terrorism," the man relayed everything that he had heard on the television screen in the ward room. "It looks like we might be going to war."

War. The single word penetrated her brain. Though she knew that they had been trained for this eventuality she had always hoped there would be an alternative. She glanced at the young man, remembering a time when she had been as eager as he was, but experience had done allot to dampen her enthusiasm. Suddenly she felt so much older then her thirty five years. With a sigh, she swung her legs over the edge of the cot, closing her book before placing it on the small desk that was built into one wall.

"Does the Commander want to see us?" she asked, thinking about how their deployment would change. They were nearing the end of their six month rotation and were due back at their home base in Virginia in three weeks.

"Yeah, at eighteen hundred hours in the ready room, the scuttlebutt coming down the pipe is that our deployment is going to be extended," the man said as if reading her thoughts. The news did not come as a surprise to the woman. A short silence ensued as each airman considered this revelation.

"Is that all?" Eden asked looking up at the young man.

"Yeah, I thought you would want to know," Jeff said shifting nervously on his feet. They had been paired for the last five months but they had not become close in the traditional sense.

"Thanks, I appreciate it," she nodded in a way that the man knew he was being dismissed.

"I'll see you at eighteen hundred hours then," Jeffrey said and Eden nodded again, saying nothing more as the young officer stepped out, leaving her alone once again.

She sighed, glancing briefly at the book, knowing that she would not be able to concentrate after this interruption. The news hadn't come as a surprise and it wasn't like anyone would be expecting her home, so an extra month or two was of little concern. Her grandparents were the only living relatives she had and as they were public servants they would accept this added duty as part of her responsibility in protecting the country.

With a quick glance she took in the tiny room that had been her home for the last six months, aware that she had only been afforded this luxury of privacy because she was the only female in their squadron. It was small and she kept it tidy and impersonal. There was none of the usual photos and knickknacks that decorated most of the living quarters. It was no different then any of the temporary billets that she had stayed in during her fifteen year career in the Navy Air Corp. She stood up and grabbed her hat, suddenly feeling the urge for a breath of fresh air.

Eden made her way along the corridors and up through the bowels of the ship to the lower deck, where her senses were immediately assaulted by the familiar smell of the jet fuel, rubber and sea air. She paused briefly to watch the activity surrounding the aircraft parked nearby before making her way towards her favourite vantage point at the stern of the ship.

Her blue eyes swept the deck before coming to rest on another lone person who was standing doing what she hoped. It was the familiar figure of a female non-com who seemed to find the same sort of solitude that she did by staring out at the sea.

She had seen the soldier on more then one occasion, yet had never found the courage to approach the smaller woman. Perhaps it was the feeling of doom brought on by recent world events, and the thought that they might soon be going to war, but today she found herself unconsciously moving in the other woman's direction.

"Sgt," she said in a brisk voice as she stepped up beside the smaller woman.

Halley glanced up and immediately came to attention. Her hand automatically rising in a crisp salute as the heels of her boots clacked together.


"At ease Sgt." Eden winced at the reaction reminded once again of the differences that rank brought. "Do you mind if I join you?"

"No Ma'am," Halley replied dropping her formal posture though unable to completely relax.

The Airman glanced at the smaller woman, noticing that the slender body was standing at ease but in way that she was ready to snap to attention at an instance notice. She saw the wisps of blond hair that had escaped from beneath the green cap. There were the usual insignia to identify her rank and designation but there were not the badges and decorations that usually accompanied someone of her rank. It was as if the uniform was purposefully devoid of anything except the barest of identification. Eden sensed there was more to this woman than met the eye.

Vaguely, she remembered snippets of conversation amongst her fellow pilots in the mess hall and ward room. They had spoken of a woman who had broken through the last barrier in the military to become the first female allowed into Special Operations. She wondered if this were that woman. She wanted to ask but she was afraid.

Halley tried to remain calm even though her stomach seemed to begin an assault on her senses. She glanced covertly at her tall companion, noticing the way her cap sat on her dark hair which was neatly tucked up into a bun. She took in the square shoulders and the pins on the collar of the woman's khaki uniform. The various ribbons on the bar over her left breast pocket denoted that this woman beside her had been in the Navy for more than fifteen years.

The small Marine swallowed, attempting to ease the sudden dryness in her throat. It was unusual for her to be intimidated by anything or anyone but there was something about the flyer that made her nervous. On many occasions throughout their deployment she had watched the pilot go through her exercises, covertly admiring the sleek lines of the long sinewy body and the graceful way she moved. But it was the intense look of concentration and something else on the airman's face that had captured her curiosity.

Halley was a non-commissioned officer, and the rules of fraternizing with someone above her rank, was engrained in her head so that she easily ignored the instinctive desire to approach the lonely looking woman.

"Sgt, what is your opinion on these latest events?" Eden racked her brain to come up with something to say. It was obvious that she had spent too much time alone and not enough time socializing with others. She was not used to initiating conversation.

"I have no opinion, Ma'am," Halley replied automatically and then watched as a single dark eyebrow rose in skepticism.

"Sgt, everyone has an opinion," the pilot countered her eyes honing in on the sparkling green orbs that were looking up at her. She had never seen such beautiful eyes and the beat of her heart increased rapidly.

"I'm sorry, Commander, the Marines don't pay me to have an opinion," the smaller woman responded uncertain what this officer wanted to hear. She heard a sigh and watched as the tall woman turned her gaze out to the sea.

"I see a war coming and though I have trained all my life for that moment, I hope that it doesn't happen," Eden professed her feelings. The small woman was taken aback by the honest confession.

"Yes," Halley agreed softly, the stiffness of her shoulders relaxing. "Since the first moment I heard the news I have been waiting to hear that we are being deployed in-country."

"Have you served in battle Sgt?" the tall woman asked liking the sound of her companion's voice. It was softer then she imagined and without the earlier crispness.

"Yes," the young Marine nodded remembering those days when she had lost her innocence. "I served in the Gulf War and did a couple of tours in the Balkan's."

"Then you know what to expect," the pilot said with a grim smile.

"Yes," Halley acknowledged. Though she could see the combat ribbon on the flier's chest, she decided to ask the question anyway, willing to prolong this conversation as best she could. "Have you flown in combat?"

"Yes," was the single word answer. Like a lot of veterans, Eden didn't enjoy talking about her experiences. Though she was always high above the fighting she wasn't ever certain how many lives she ended by dropping the payload of ordinance the plane carried.

Silence fell between them, as neither woman knew how to continue a conversation, both unaccustomed to interacting with someone who was on a different level than themselves. So they contented themselves with stealing small glances at each other while feeling the desire for more.

Halley felt a strange sense of comfort in this tall woman's presence, an ease that she had never felt around officers. Perhaps it was because they shared a common bond that was invisible to everyone but themselves. It was a thread that was more complex than the fact that they thrived in an environment most would deem unsuitable for their gender. There was something that even separated them from others in their position.

Eden opened her mouth to speak yet before any words could come out of her mouth their private little world was broken, interrupted by the business of their everyday lives.

"Sgt, Commander," the young Ensign approached them with a salute. They automatically returned the greeting. He looked at the smaller of the two women. "Sgt. Braeden, Major Jamieson requested your presence in his quarters ASTAT."

"Thank you," the marine nodded dismissing the Ensign, as she looked at the tall officer. "It was nice talking to you Commander."

"Yes," Eden nodded disappointed that they were interrupted. But maybe it was for the best. "Perhaps we will get another chance to talk."

"Yes, Ma'am." The Sergeant saluted and then briskly walked away.

Eden followed the small soldier's progress as she maneuvered through the traffic on the lower deck. It seemed that it was the same all through her life. Everything was always just beyond her grasp. For a brief moment when she had looked at the small Marine she had felt a connection, that illusive thing that she was missing from her life. She sighed and turned her attention back to the scene in front of her.


There was a solemn silence throughout the room as the men seated around the table contemplated their options. They had issued their report and advice to the President and now they waited for the directive that would tell them what to do. There was a tension in the air for each in their mind had decided that there was only one course of action. They needed to respond to the terrorist attack against their country. It would be up to the President to decide what form that reaction would be. In the meantime the council waited for their instructions.

There was a loud knock on the door before it opened to admit an officious looking young man in a starchly pressed uniform. The young Captain glanced nervously around the room before settling on the grey haired individual ensconced in the chair at the head of the table. He hurried over to the General offering up the small pouch that he was given only moments earlier. He had worked at the Pentagon long enough to know that inside were orders from the President.

General George Bernard accepted the leather satchel with some trepidation. He had earned his Lieutenant's bars in the hell of Khe Sanh in Vietnam and had steadily progressed up through the ranks. His long distinguished career had accumulated only two years earlier when he had been assigned to the Pentagon.

He was only months from retirement when terrorists had attacked American interests abroad. The CIA had quickly identified the culprits, turning the information over to the President who in turn had asked the Council to make recommendations on how the country should respond.

General Bernard opened the pouch and withdrew the single sheet of paper that contained the Presidents orders. Dull brown eyes scanned the page quickly before he mutely put it down on the table in front of him. Unconsciously he folded his hands and rested them on the table top as his eyes swept over the room. He could see that his colleagues were tensely waiting.

"I had hoped to end my career without ever having to take our country to war," he broke the silence with a heavy voice. "Fortunately the President is hoping for the same resolution. In that regards he has ordered us to proceed with option three of the recommendations that we sent to him." There was a pause as his eyes settled on the man who was in charge of American Forces in the Gulf Region. "He wants a limited strike against the country he has deemed responsible for sheltering the terrorists. How soon can we enact Operation Desert Ghost?"

"All forces in the Gulf are on full alert," a man from the side of the table responded favourably. "They can be deployed within the hour."

"Give the word," General Bernard replied his eyes surveying the room once more. "Hopefully, if Operation Desert Ghost is successful we can put an end to any more conflict. Dismissed."

There was silence except for the scraping of chairs against the tiled floor as the occupants of the room hurriedly departed. General Bernard was slower to follow. The burden of his Command weighted heavily on his shoulders. If Operation Desert Ghost was a success it might save him from sending many young men and women into battle and maybe ultimately to their deaths. He could still remember to clearly the agony of Vietnam.


The orders to enact Operation Desert Ghost arrived moments later on the command ship that was patrolling the Mediterranean waters. The Captain stared for a long moment at the message, chewing hard on his cigar. They had been advised to expect to deploy a contingent of troops in the near future. He was glad that the President was trying an alternative solution to the situation. He had cut his teeth as an Ensign in the Brown River Navy in Vietnam and in spite of his lifetime career in the military was a peace loving man at heart. He requested his adjutant summon Major Jamieson.

In minutes the Marine officer was there.

"I just heard from the Pentagon," Captain Harding told his colleague, eyeing the man intently. He held out a small brown envelop. "The President gave the go ahead for Operation Desert Ghost. That envelop contains all the information your people will need. How soon until your man is ready to go?"

"As soon as I give the word Captain," Major Jamieson told his commanding officer.

"The Operation calls for two drops," the Captain outlined. "I have notified two choppers from Squadron B to be ready to go at your word. The pilots are being notified of their destinations as we speak."

"Yes sir." The Major nodded his head mutely, issued a crisp salute and then hurried from the ward room where the Captain had been enjoying an early morning cup of coffee.

The Officer hurried through the bowels of the ship to the section where his people were waiting. He had already spoken to the Marines assigned to the Operation and they were ready and waiting his word. He found them in a small ward room, their gear stacked in a neat pile next to where they were sprawled around the room. At his appearance in the portal they all snapped immediately to attention.

His eyes honed directly on the small woman in the centre of the room.

"It's a go," was all he needed to say. The Marines had already been briefed on their assignments. Without another word they gathered up their belongings and trudged out of the room. The last to leave was the small woman and a tall solid built man with dark hair and black eyes.

By the time the Captain Harding finished his coffee and reached the bridge, the two helicopters on deck were ready for take off, their holds containing the people who were responsible for carrying out the ordered mission.

He watched through narrowed eyes as the two choppers lifted from the deck and headed out to sea. From now on it would be a waiting game. Hopefully it would be only a matter of hours but more then likely a few days before they would know if the Operation was a success. He settled into his chair on the deck and proceeded with the normal day to day duties of running an aircraft carrier.

Two pairs of blue eyes followed the lift off of the helicopters with the same interest as the Captain. A man and woman stood in sweat soaked navy gym clothes on the flight deck by the operations tower. They had just finished their daily exercise routine and were on their way to shower and get ready to report to the day room for their assignments when they had noticed an unusual amount of activity. There was an air of tension surrounding them and they had noticed the small covertly dressed squad of camouflaged marines who had trotted out to the two helicopters on the pad.

"What do you think is up?" the man asked of his companion.

"I don't know," the woman shook her head, loose strands of her long dark hair falling from the ponytail in which she had it tied.

"Do you think it had anything to do with what happened last week?" the man wanted to know. They both would have been surprised by how accurate his guess was.

"Probably," Eden nodded thoughtfully, a frown burrowing its way across her brow as she noticed eight Marines climb into one helicopter while the small woman and a tall companion got into the other with a man in civilian clothes. Everyone knew that he was the lone CIA agent posted on the ship.

"Good," Jeffrey enthused with a hint of glee. "Maybe we will get a chance for some action."

The tall woman glanced at her companion wondering how he could ignore the obvious. She shook her head having to remind herself that the man had grown up in a middle class Chicago and was not privy to what went on in political circles. She had seen behind the scene's action because of her grandparents and because of that she was much less eager to engage any enemy than he was. She glanced at her wrist watch.

"We better get moving or we are going to be late," she said and turned towards the doorway. The man nodded and followed the woman into the bowels of the carrier. Just as they reached the hatch that opened to the steps leading down into the ship, the rotors of the nearby helicopters increased.

Eden paused and turned her head for one last glance, her eyes latching onto a pair of green eyes that were looking in her direction. The small marine inclined her head slightly and then the chopper lifted and they were gone. Only then did the flyer turn and disappear into the ship.


Halley was silent as she glanced around the cargo hold of the chopper that would be ferrying them into enemy territory. She glanced at the man in the civilian clothes that was seated opposite her and her colleague who was sitting nonchalantly chewing the gum. She closed her eyes thinking about the moment of lift off when she had casually glanced through the open cargo door and seen the tall female pilot standing in sweat drenched gym clothes on the flight deck. Her heart had jumped at the sight.

For a brief instant it had seemed as their eyes had met before the helicopter has slowly lifted off the deck of the ship. She had closed her eyes and savoured the moment for rarely had she ever made such a contact. She sighed and refocused her attention on the matter at hand, realizing that whatever she imagined was only a dream.

Halley woke with a start, rousted from her slumber by the feel of danger. Her senses were instantly alert and she sat perfectly still, listening for the slightest sound, her hand automatically gripping the handle of the knife strapped to the belt around her waist.

She saw the shadow before she heard any noise. It was moving swiftly across the uneven ground, heading straight for her. She knew that she had one chance. If she missed with the first strike, she would receive the next fatal blow.

She clutched the silent weapon tightly, her eyes growing accustomed to the darkness as she waited. Suddenly it was upon her, slithering across her boots. She struck, slamming the blade down and impaling the creature on its pointed edge. She lifted her arm and stared at the deadly snake, which now hung like a useless piece of cord at the end of her knife.

"Good show," a quiet voice cut through the darkness.

Halley turned her head and stared through the blackness of the cave at her companion. The bright whiteness of his teeth shone through the darkness, revealing the amused smile on his face. She pulled the fatally wounded creature off her weapon and carelessly tossed it aside before wiping the blood off on her pants and sticking the blade back into her belt.

She knew he had seen the danger yet had done nothing to protect her. He had a warped sense of humour but she was not amused. He had been standing watch and was supposed to ensure their safety.

"You should stop smoking, I can smell you a mile away," she snarled coolly and watched as the smile faded.

"A little touchy today, aren't we?" he growled. "What's the matter are you PMSing?"

Halley allowed her upper lip to curl into a sneer. In another time and place she wouldn't have taken his crap, but today they were on a mission of greater importance and she was to well trained to jeopardize her orders. She ignored the man, glancing instead at the luminous dial on her watch.

"It's time to move out."

Her companion nodded, silently collecting his gear before stepping out of their hidden shelter. She was in charge of the mission and his was purely a supportive role. He would wait at another location until the operation was finished, only revealing himself if she was unable to complete the assignment.

She slipped out of the cave and stared up at the sky, mentally cursing the misfortune of a full moon which bathed the landscape in a ghostly glow. The brilliance of the night would only add to the difficulty of her task.

She crawled up the slight incline and cautiously peeked over the lip of the boulder that shielded her presence. Through the night time field glasses she could clearly see the small encampment in the depression below.

There were five tents, erected in no particular formation with two three-ton trucks and a jeep parked on the perimeter of the camp. The place was quiet except for a few chickens wandering around pecking at the arid ground. A solitary guard was leaning against one of the vehicles.

She slid back down behind cover and made a methodical check of her gear. All the necessary equipment was there. She slung the pack on her back and adjusted the night vision goggles on her head. She checked the pistol in her belt and only when she was completely ready did she move out.

She scampered silently over the rough desert terrain, keeping her frame low to the ground. She stayed behind cover, circling the perimeter until she was behind the trucks. The guard had not moved and she could smell the pungent aroma of the cigarette he was smoking. It was not unlike the odor of her companion. The gun he carried was slung over his shoulder, the barrel pointing down towards the earth.

She bent and plucked a handful of stones off the ground and hurtled them to the side. They clattered against some nearby rocks, capturing the man's attention. The guard straightened and then moved away from the truck towards the noise.

Halley moved swiftly, creeping across the distance. She cupped her hand around his mouth effectively cutting off his breath before plunging the knife into his back. She leaned into the man twisting the blade until the last ounce of breathe seeped from between the man's lips and through her fingers. She released him and watched as he slumped to the ground.

She hastily moved towards the tents, moving with an instinct that had been honed over years of intensive training. She knelt by the door flap, pausing to adjust the gas mask over her face before pulling a small canister from her backpack. She pulled the pin holding the cap in place and then rolled it into the tent. In quick succession she darted to the other tents, repeating her action. Only when the last canister was deployed did she sprint out of the camp, melting back into the surrounding darkness.

Suddenly the night came alive. There were shouts and general commotion and the sound of a small child crying. Halley scampered back to her hiding place before doffing the mask and scrambling to the top of the ridge, where she could scan the basin below. Through the field glasses she saw movement. She reached for the rifle she carried but it wasn't needed. The few men who struggled to climb out of the tents managed only to stagger a few steps before collapsing onto the ground in a groaning heap as the deadly gas overcame them.

The noise died as quickly as it had erupted, leaving the area blanketed once more in silence. She scanned the area in search of anyone who might have escaped but there was nothing moving. She slid down the ledge and settled back into the narrow crevice. She would have to wait until morning before the poison dissipated.

Her stomach growled in hunger and for the first time she noticed the biting chill that penetrated the thin clothe of her camouflage uniform. She hugged herself tightly and settled back, closing her eyes in an attempt to sleep, content that she had fulfilled her mission. In the morning she would collect the necessary evidence and then clear the scene.

But like usual on missions such as this, sleep eluded her. Only thirty six hours earlier she had been comfortably ensconced in her bunk on the Carrier to which her Marine Corps squadron was assigned. They had been on a six month deployment which had been unexpectedly extended a month earlier. The terrorist attack on American interests abroad had caused the whole fleet in the Mediterranean to go on alert and only forty eight hours earlier she had been put on standby, informed of a plan that had been devised by council members at the Pentagon. Within moments of the Presidents decision her team had been sent into action.

Two groups of Marines had been deployed, one to act as a diversion, while she and her colleague had been sent to assassinate the man who they deemed responsible for the destruction on America. The President was hoping that if they managed to cut the head off of the serpent bent on destroying their nation than the rest of the terrorists would just disappear. But she knew it didn't work that way. There was never just a simple solution to a problem. She closed her eyes and snuggled further into her position praying that the dawn would come soon.

She was still awake when the sun cracked the morning sky, spilling over the horizon in a brilliant splash of colour that swept over the desert, wiping away the hazy white mist of the cold night. She stirred, quietly stretching her cramped limbs, careful not to make a sound. She was bone weary but keenly alert to any new danger that might have been introduced by this new dawn.

She crawled back up the incline and glanced down at the camp. It was as eerily silent as it had been the night before. The chickens, so busy combing the ground for feed the previous evening, were lying in small mounds on the rough surface, their feathers ruffled by the gentle wind that was breathing across the land.

She glanced at her watch. It had been four hours since the assault and if she calculated the time right, the poison should have dissipated but from experience she knew to be cautious. She glanced over to where her colleague was huddled and then signaled that they were to advance. She adjusted the gas mask over her face before moving out of position.

They entered the camp cautiously. The guard she had killed was lying face down on the ground, his bloody wound already covered with flies. Once the sun rose it would not be long before his skin turned black and his body began to bloat.

They walked casually around the camp, viewing the carnage her actions had brought. A few soldiers had managed to scramble out of the tent before they had been overcome by the toxic fumes. Others had collapsed in a heap at the door as they had struggled to survive. The weakest had died in their sleep, overtaken by death with a few innocent breathes.

They went through each tent, methodically checking that there were no survivors. It was in the last tent that she found her target. She recognized him from the photographs she had been given. He was lying on his stomach, sprawled halfway out of the tent.

She dropped to her hunches and picked up his hand. With the knife from her belt, she lanced off his index finger and thumb. Her superiors had demanded sufficient evidence to prove that her mission was accomplished. She dropped the severed digits into a jar of alcohol which she stowed in her pack.

She lifted the flap and stepped over the body into the tent to glance dispassionately at the scene. The man's wives were laying side by side, their children in the furthest corner of the space. They were curled up under their blankets, their mouths were open and their skin a pale bluish colour, but otherwise they looked as if they were still sleeping.

She only saw the baby when she turned to leave. The child could only have been about two years old. In a desperate attempt to live it had crawled away from the bosom of its mother and stuck its tiny head in a crack at the base of the tent. The little face was sticking out of the hole, its expression ghoulishly streaked with tears.

"How many kills are you going to credit yourself with?" a voice asked in a whisper in her ear.

She turned to stare at her companion. She didn't much like the man. He was cruel for the mere pleasure of the pain it inflicted. Without a word she turned and walked away and tried to forget what she had done. She had no say in the politics that dictated who should live or die. She was merely a highly skilled and trained instrument for their use. She carried out orders, she didn't make them.

She didn't want to think about all the people she had dispatched in the course of her duties over her ten year career. She wasn't paid to have a conscience, yet for the first time, she could not push aside the thoughts of what she had done. She knew a hundred different ways to kill a person. She could dispatch someone without a second thought.
To her they were not human, with thoughts and feelings like her own. They were targets, mere hosts for the evil she was sent to destroy.

They were in foreign territory so they had to be careful, hiking out of the area at night to prevent detection. It took them a full day of steady walking to reach their designated extraction point. Both knew that their work made them dangerous but also very expendable. Halley did not feel like the job was done until she jumped into the helicopter that had been sent to collect them.

She stared out the open door as the chopper lifted off the ground, leaving behind a swirling cloud of brown dust. They soared higher reaching for the blue sky above. Halley closed her eyes and leaned her head against the metal frame of the vibrating machine. The further away from their mission they moved the more it receded into the back of her mind, becoming just another memory amongst all the others that she tried to forget.


Eden was climbing out of her fighter jet, having just finished a training flight, when one of the helicopters returned from its mission. She removed her flight helmet and watched as two individuals exited the craft. There was a slump to the smaller Marines shoulders and a distance look on the face of the woman as she walked straight towards the Operations tower, her eyes never catching sight of the pilot who was watching. Behind the small party trailed the man in civilian clothes.

The pilot knew than they would soon learn through the media what their Marine counterparts had been up to over the last few days of their absence. There would be no official word and it was more then likely that if questioned, the officers in charge would deny any Marines had been dispatched anywhere in the region.

"What do you suppose that was all about?" Jeff asked climbing down on the deck beside her. He had seen the small party of Marines in full camouflage gear exit the helicopter.

"Don't know," Eden replied absently, watching until the small woman disappeared into the ship before turning to her companion. "We better get down to flight operations."

The man nodded assent without another word. Just as the pilot had assumed it was not more than two days later when CNN broadcast the assassination of Omar Saidi, the man everyone suspected of directing the terrorist attack on America.

Eden watched the scenes that were flashed on the television screen barely listening to the words as the sight of death was prominently displayed for the world to see. The camera was not discrete in showing the faces of the dead, including the young children lying murdered in their sleep. Eden knew without asking that the young Sgt. to whom she had spoken days earlier had been involved and that caused a strange mixture of emotion in her heart. She didn't know how to feel. She knew that they all had jobs to do and that some were cleaner then others. Not for the first time was she glad she didn't know what many lives she had destroyed with her missions.

That evening she waited at the stern of the boat hoping that the young Sgt would return but the Marine had not shown up. After the hours of debriefing Halley had gone to the mess for a big meal and then made a ship to shore phone call to her parents before returning to her quarters to sleep. While the Naval officer stood staring at the moonlight she lay in a sound sleep, trying to forget what she had done.


General Bernard studied the communiqué that had just been handed to him. Operation Desert Ghost had been a success in assassinating Omar Saidi and his closest associates. He made a mental note to ensure that the Marines involved would receive commendations for their actions.

He was summoned to a personal audience with the President, where he informed the man and his council of advisers of the details of the mission. They had optimistically hoped that this would be the end of the matter before congratulating the military man on their success.

The General returned to his office in the Pentagon to wait for the news of Omar Saidi's death to reach the public. They were uncertain what kind of reaction it would stir amongst the Arab states or other world leaders. The United States would be blamed for his murder and they would deny any involvement. Privately the President would receive congratulations from those who supported their response.

They didn't have to wait long for the terrorist's response to the assassination of their leader. Not a week later two suicide bombers drove cars packed with explosives into the embassies killing dozens more people in spite of the extra protection that had been set up around American facilities abroad.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff were summoned to an emergency meeting in response to the President's demand for further action. He was determined to make sure the world understood that the United States would not be a target for anyone with a grudge. To that end he proposed to attack not the organizations themselves but the countries that housed and supported them. It was his job as the Commander of the Armed Forces to devise an operation. Privately he hoped that his proposal would not lead to an all out war.

It took less then two hours for them to draft a new plan of action and even less time for the President to consent to the response. Immediately upon getting the go ahead from the White House, he fired off instructions to the Captain in charge of the Carrier group still patrolling in the Mediterranean.


Commander Carleton Hawkwin glanced up from the memo in his hand and stared for a hard moment at the Captain who sat stoically behind his desk. There was no expression on the man's face to indicate what he was thinking. He had read the communiqué twice to ensure he had read it correctly.

"Is this a drill sir?" he felt compelled to ask even though he knew the answer. He was one of the few people the Captain had taken into his confidence about the earlier Marine operation. They had served together for so many years he trusted the man without exception.

"I wish it were," Captain Harding sighed. "The President wants the world to know that he is serious about what he is saying. He will do whatever it takes to protect America and its citizens."

"But this plan is close to an all out declaration of war," the Commander voiced his concern aware that his objections to the mission fell on deaf ears.

"We all know this country has been housing and supporting terrorists for year," the Captain reminded his colleague. He hadn't risen to his rank without being aware of the politics. However, regardless of his personal feelings it was his duty to follow orders. "Hell, in the last year the President has warned them on numerous occasions that they would face military action if they didn't stop giving support to Arab militants."

"But I thought those were just words," Commander Hawkwin said.

"We all did," Harry Harding sighed. "But this last month has pushed the President to back up his words. There is no turning back and if that means we go to war, that means we go to war."

"You have to know after the Presidents last speech they will be waiting."

"Yes," the Captain nodded his head. "That's why I want you to put your best pilots on this. I have already instructed Major Jamieson to send in his best team."

Commander Hawkwin was silent as he considered his options. The last person he wanted to make expendable was his best pilot but he also knew that Lt. Commander Bryce was the only logical choice for such a daring mission as Washington proposed. She would be the only one who had a chance to get the job done and get back to the ship.

"It will be a damn waste Harry," he could not keep his emotions in check.

"Perhaps," the Captain conceded with a heavy sigh. There were always certain aspects of his position that he hated. "But we have to ensure that this mission is completed. At this very moment a Special Ops team is enroute to paint the target. We are set to launch the moment they are in place. Hell Carl, I hate this as much as you do but we have our orders. If we are lucky the bastards will realize the President is serious and make an offer."

"You think that is possible?"

"Anything is possible," the other man said.

"Yes sir," the Commander nodded and then executed a crisp salute before making his exit.

He stood for a moment in the corridor outside the command post, his ears filled with the familiar sounds of this floating city, but his thoughts were only on one thing. He plucked a fat cigar from his breast pocket and stuffed it in his mouth. This was the new millennium and if the bureaucrats wanted his best pilots they would get them and damn the consequences.


For the second time in a week, Halley found herself trekking across the torrid desert of a foreign country. She had barely gotten back from her last mission when she had been summoned for this new operation. She knew that she should feel honoured that she was held in such a high regard by her commanding officer yet sometimes she felt like it was a curse.

She glanced over her shoulder at the small squad she had selected to accompany her on this new operation. All were Marines with whom she had worked with on many occasions and she felt comfortable with each of their skills. She was confident that whatever they confronted they would be able to handle.

She turned her attention back to the rocky terrain ahead. There mission was relatively simple, get to the specific location undetected, identify and then paint the target for the bombing run that was to follow. They had done this a hundred times in training and on several occasions in real life, the first being during the Gulf War.

Over the course of her fourteen year career she had risen to the rank of Master Sgt. and was in charge of a squad. No one was more proud of her accomplishments then her parents who had followed her career with interest and support. They had been there for every step of her journey and she was eternally grateful.

It hadn't always been that way for in the beginning her father had insisted that the military wasn't the appropriate career for a young woman but she had quickly won him over so that now when she returned home on leave she was treated to a drink by her father at the local bar where he would boast shamelessly about her skills.

She sighed, wondering what he would think if he knew the truth about what she really did. She wondered if he would be so proud if he knew how often she had used her skills to kill people. Her folks were god fearing, bible toting, hard working people who believed strongly that evil only breed more evil. She was certain that they would not approve, thus is why she kept most of her work a secret from them. For a moment her thoughts drifted from her parents to someone else who had been intruding upon her brain.

She had not had an opportunity to see the tall Naval Commander other in passing and then they would acknowledge each others presence with a crisp salute. They were merely strangers passing each other, their lives to different for them even to become friends.

Yet as odd as it seemed the pilot had been on the flight deck, dressed in her green flight suit and looking incredibly beautiful and dashing with the helmet tucked under her arm. She had approached them as they waited to board the chopper that would transport them to the drop zone. The woman had stopped in front of her and returned the salute she had been given. Then with her blue eyes boring in to her own, the tall pilot had extended her hand.

"Good luck Sgt."

For a moment Halley had wondered if their mission had been compromised. She had searched the woman's classical features seeking the answer to her unspoken question. What she saw was a deep intelligence and a knowing look. She knew then that the woman was speaking from experience and not from knowing anything special.

"Thank you," Halley had responded taking the larger hand in her own and shaking it, feeling a shock of electricity surge up through her arm. With that the pilot had saluted and then turned and walked to the Operations tower.

"What the hell was that all about?" Sgt. Becker had growled in her ear.

"Nothing," she had shook her head and then turned to the squad when she received the signal from the chopper pilots. "Saddle up boys it's time to head out."

She shook her head to clear her mind of the memories and glanced up at the sky. It was getting light and she knew within the next half hour the sun would be up and they would have to take refuge until the evening. She had already identified several stops that they would be able to rest and relax during the daylight hours. She checked the coordinates on her small map and pointed them now in that direction.

The Ensign found Lt. Commander Eden Huntington Bryce on the lower deck in the midst of her daily exercise routine. She was surprised to be summoned to the CO's office. She had just completed three hours of flight training and had been looking forward to a few hours of rest.

"I will be there in fifteen minutes," she said glancing at the watch on her slender wrist and calculating the time it would take to shower and change.

"The Commander says you are to come right away," the Ensign insisted, remembering the terse orders from his commanding officer.

Eden glanced dubiously at the sweat stains on the t-shirt and shorts she was wearing. She was dressed inappropriately to present herself to the commander yet she could not disobey a direct order.

Commander Hawkwin was in his office studying some paperwork when she knocked on his door. He put it aside and watched as she stepped through the hatch and executed a crisp salute. His eyes narrowed as they silently studied her.

At six feet she was taller then most of the other members of her squadron. She was beautiful with long raven hair and piercing blue eyes that seemed to penetrate a person's soul. She was slender yet her appearance was deceptive for she had the physical and mental strength that was unmatched by any of her male colleagues. There wasn't an ounce of fat on her lean, muscular frame and he knew she trained hard to keep her body in superb condition. He stared at the classical features of her aristocratic face.

What set her apart from her colleagues, besides her gender, was her tenacious work ethic. She was in constant training, always looking to improve her skills and as a result she consistently scored the highest marks in the squadron in all tactual areas. Her flights were without error and her landings were nearly perfect on every occasion. He considered her the hardest working pilot in the Air Group.

"At ease Commander," he acknowledged her salute and watched as she relaxed. He casually glanced over the scores from the afternoon's flight. "You scored very well today and managed to score kills on both Captain Adrian and Lt. Watts."

"I was lucky sir," she replied in a clipped voice.

He snorted, doubting that luck had anything to do with her success. The privilege of her birth had given her many advantages but she had used her intelligence and natural talent to make a success of her career. She was eager for any challenge and willing to take risks and responsibilities. Her cool countenance and quick thinking had safely guided her through several previous tense situations. This mission would be one more. She had the obstinate perseverance needed to survive and endure.

She had accomplished so much in her life. She had graduated in the top two per cent of her class at Annapolis, earning her the right to select any Branch of the Service. She had consistently ranked ahead for her male colleagues, earning various honours in the process, none more distinguished then top prize at Top Gun. She earned and commanded respect from all her superior officers and the top brass had pegged her for even greater things. She was a natural born leader and those under her command always followed her without question.

"Have a seat," he motioned to a metal chair in the corner of his tiny office.

"Is there a problem sir?" she asked sitting down. There was a grim expression on his face and it caused her some concern. Mentally she tried to think of something she might have done wrong.

"I am sure you are aware of the current political climate in the region," he glanced at her and she mutely nodded. "Well, the boys in Washington have cooked up a plan for a small show of force in retaliation for the attacks against the homeland in recent weeks. To that end they have selected a strategic military target which they would like us to bomb. They want a quick and precise surgical incision."

He paused and waited for some reaction but there was none. "It's not an easy mission and the target is well inside our enemies borders. A Special Ops team has been inserted and at this very moment is moving towards the target. When they are in position they will let us know and then it will be our job to bomb the target."

"You want me to fly the mission sir?" she said correctly guessing the reason she was brought to his office.

"Yes, I want you to lead the mission," he said firmly. "I need the best damn pilot and you're the only one I know who might have a chance to get in and out alive. I have to let you know that it is likely they will be ready and waiting. The President didn't exactly keep our objectives secret during his last press conference."

"I understand sir," Eden nodded remembering the special news broadcast two nights previous where the President had verbally threatened their enemy.

"If you bail out I can't guarantee any rescue," Commander Hawkwin cautioned feeling it was his duty to make her as well informed as possible.

"I understand sir," she nodded again and stood up.

"I will give you Lieutenant Mullen for your rear seat and I will assign Vincent as your wingman."

"Sir, I would like to request that I retain my regular RIO if he accepts," she interrupted.

"Mullens is the best in the squad," Hawkwin disputed her choice. He wanted the best possible combinations up in the air.

"I agree sir, but Lt. Hart and I have flown many missions together. We know each other. I would prefer to fly with someone who knows me."

"All right," the Commander agreed against his better judgment. "You better get some shut eye. The Ops team is expected to be on target by 0600 hours. You will need to be on the flight line of 0400 hours. You will receive the coordinates for your destination just prior to departure."

"Yes, sir," Eden saluted. "Is that all sir?"

"Yes," the Commander said matching her salute. He watched as she made to depart.

"Commander, if you have any letters to write I suggest you do it now."

"Yes sir," she replied and then stepped out of the cabin.

Eden stood outside in the corridor and took several deep breaths to steady the nerves that were turning violently in her stomach. Every time she climbed into the cockpit there was a chance that she wouldn't return. In their profession even the most ordinary training flight could be dangerous.

Several sailors walked passed, formally saluting her. She returned the honour before turning and walking towards her quarters. The Commander had said to make sure her affairs were in order. All her letters had been written years ago. There was nothing more she had to say to anyone. She glanced at her watch. In less then twelve hours she would be hurtling into enemy airspace. She needed to be ready. She needed to be at her sharpest.

She returned to her bunk intent on taking the Commanders advice. She had a quick shower before changing into a fresh pair of skivvies. She was sitting on the edge of her cot when there was a knock on the door.

"Thought I would pop in and let you know I have just spoken to Commander H," Jeff said sticking his head into the room.

"What did you tell him?" Eden wanted to know.

"I told him where you lead I will follow," Jeffrey Hart responded with a boyish grin that didn't quite reach his eyes. Despite his bravado she knew that he was scared. They all were.

"You don't have to do this," she said. "No one would criticize you if you stepped aside."

"This is what we have been training for. I am not going to miss the show," he countered continuing to grin nervously. "Can't let you take all the glory."

"No," she agreed softly. "You better get some sleep."

The man nodded and though it looked like he wanted to say something more, he silently slipped back out the door.

Eden lay down on the bed and flicked off the overhead light. She tried to sleep but found it impossible as hundreds of thoughts raced through her mind, one of which was her last meeting with the small blonde woman.

She had almost not recognized the Marine Sergeant in her khaki camouflage uniform and tilly hat with her face painted the colour of the desert. In an instant she knew that the small squad was being sent once more into danger and she knew that she could not just let the woman go without speaking to her one more time.

The few moments had been awkward at best but the touch of the small hand in her own had sent an unfamiliar sensation through her limb. The hand shake had been strong and an indication of the strength that was possessed in the small compact body. Now she offered a small prayer that the young woman and her squad remain safe.


The Special Ops team arrived at their designated coordinates in the middle of the night. Halley dispersed her team on the lip of small cliff that overlooked the munitions and chemical factory that was their target. There were few lights illuminating the remote position but using her instruments she was able to easily calculate the coordinates that she would use to pass along to the fighter pilots who would be involved in the air strike.

She snapped her night goggles over her eyes and scanned the compound, aware of the mid-size village that encircled the installation. It was here that the workers in the factories lived with their families. It was quiet now with most of the people sleeping in their beds, ignorant of the savage terror that would wake them on the morrow.

She double checked the coordinates aware of the disaster that could result if the village was inadvertently destroyed and the military facilities left intact. Only when she was completely satisfied did she punch in the coded message on small hand held computer she carried. The transmission was instantly delivered via satellite to the brass back on the carrier. They were in position and ready for the scheduled attack time. They had only to wait for the dawn.


Eden climbed out of her cot and got dressed, unable to sleep. She neatly packed her kit, leaving everything in order in case she didn't return. She had done it so often it had become a routine and took only a few minutes. She went down to the mess for a light meal before wandering out onto the flight line. She wanted to make sure her machine was in peak condition.

She stepped through the hatch out onto the brightly lit flight deck. Beyond the flood lights was an inky blackness. There was no reference to where the sea ended and the sky began. She glanced down the flight line to where her sleek and powerful ride was parked. Its bluish grey hull took on a ghostly image in the steamy, shadowy light that radiated from the deck.

She gulped a breath of air and tasted the heady concoction of rubber, salt and jet fuel. There was a roar and a brilliant flash of light and she turned her head as a F-14 Phantom catapulted off the deck and into the darkness. She watched as its burners were swallowed by the night.

Her stomach churned violently as a shiver of fearful premonition raced down her spine. There was risk every time they climbed into the cockpit and she never took any flight for granted. She squared her shoulders and strolled proudly towards her ride, her flight helmet clutched tightly in one hand.

Commander Hawkwin peered out of the tower, his eyes squinting as he scanned the deck. He saw the bustle of activity as the ground crews prepared for another launch, the coloured jerseys barely distinguishable in the night. Even at 0400 hours in the morning it was business as usual. On a ship this size, the activity never stopped. For twenty four hours a day it operated at peak alert.

As he glanced down the flight line, he saw the lonely figure amid the usual activity. He watched as the pilot meticulously walked around the aircraft for its pre-flight inspection, her hand running almost tenderly over the steel hull. It was a common enough sight yet today it caused a wrenching in his gut. He had an uneasy feeling. He plucked a fat cigar from his breast pocket and stuffed it unlit into his mouth.

He turned away and strolled onto the bridge and down into the bowels of the ship. He had a few operational orders to take care of before they could launch this flight. He had to have everything ready.

Eden bade her RIO a good morning when he arrived at the day room. There was a nervous tension amount the pilots and their crews as Commander Hawkwin once again outlined their mission. When it was over they filed silently out of the room, each deep in their own thoughts.

She checked one last time with the ground maintenance crew and only when she was completely satisfied did she climb into the cockpit. It was the same routine she had repeated every day for the last five years and every line and bolt was familiar to the touch of her palm. The process was so boring that it would be easy to forget or overlook a failure or something amiss. That was what generally happened when a fighter went down. A pilot had become complacent.

She had received her orders. She knew her destination. The bombs under the belly of her craft had been mounted and armed. The only thing left was to get the word to launch. After being strapped in, she fired up the jet and rolled it into position, communicating with the tower while watching the ground crew make sure the plane was locked into the catapult. The sky was beginning to lighten in anticipation of the impending dawn.

She stared stoically out the front of the cockpit across the pitching flight deck. The sky was clear but the sea was still rolling in anger from recent storms. She tried to ignore the salty spray which whipped over the bow, focusing instead on the challenge ahead.

"Roger go, you are clear for launch." A voice came over her radio headset.

"Roger, copy that," she acknowledged the transmission.

Eden took a deep breath and slowly released it, expelling the tension that had been building with this unexpected delay. She glanced out the side at her wingman who was setting up for his launch and then down at the Cat Officer, flashing him the thumbs up. On his signal she punched the throttle sending the plane lurching forward and slamming her body back against the hard seat.

The aircraft dipped slightly as it catapulted over the edge of the ship and then soared as she pulled back on the pole. The airplane ascended rapidly into the clear morning sky, its engine propelling them quickly towards the horizon. Beneath them the Naval Carrier receded, its massive structure disappearing amongst the vast grey ocean.

Eden checked the instrument panel, making sure all the screens were reading normally. The last thing she needed was for her craft to suffer a failure. She pushed gently on the pole and the aircraft leveled off at its cruising altitude. It had been a smooth launch.

"As easy as eating cake," the RIO echoed her silent sentiments. She nodded unconsciously.

"A glorious day for a walk in the clouds," she agreed in the same neutral bantering voice.

She glanced out the cockpit, her dark visor reflecting the brilliant glare of the rising sun. It was a cloudless day with a warm haze stretching across the horizon. Ahead and below she could see the dark outline of the fast approaching coastline.

On another day she would have appreciated the perfect flying conditions but today their mission was more then an ordinary flight. They were to bomb a newly completed military installation in a country that supported the terrorist groups that had attacked the United States. Logistics told them that they could expect little opposition. If everything went according to plan they would be gone before the enemy had their few interceptors in the air. But she had learned from first hand experience that things rarely went as smoothly as planned.

She glanced methodically over the gauges in the cockpit, her concentration focused on the machine and her surroundings. She did not think about the political implications of their actions. It was not her position to question the orders; it was only her duty to carry out the assigned missions.

"Iceberg to Raven," she called over the radio to her wingman who soared into view on her port side.

"I want a smooth run. I will lead the way and you follow me in."

"Check." Came the brief response.

"Make sure we get the target on the first run," she continued addressing her remarks to all members of the mission. "I don't want to have to do a second fly by."

"Everything will go smoothly." Came the cocky reply.

"It better, now keep your eyes on the sky, we are entering bogey land," she acknowledged as they zipped over the coastline into enemy airspace. The cockpits fell silent.


Halley had her team awake and on their mark well before the designated strike time. She knew that it was important that they were prepared. She glanced at her watch and then at the site spread out below them. The place was slowly coming alive with the onset of day light and through her field glasses she could see the sentries with their automatic weapons casually slung over their shoulders as they patrolled the perimeter of the installation.

Outside the gates of the compound was a small town, its narrow streets and clay brick buildings rising to support the military operation that was its neighbour. Old men in the casual western dress wandered towards the central area of the village and its coffee houses, while women in their traditional Moslem burqurka's strolled towards the town well for water.

It was a scene that was all too familiar to the hardened military veteran. She had spent much of her career in the Middle East and had even been trained in several of the native Arabic tongues. She had studied their culture and traditions and considered herself somewhat of a minor authority on the region. But she had done none of it for political gain. She had done it all to ensure every advantage for her team and herself. Their missions had often taken them deep into enemy territory where the only support they had was their ability to think clearly and act instinctually.

She turned her attention back to the target. On her right, Corporal Ernie Garrett had already practiced painting the target and now all they needed to do was wait for the signal to turn on the light that would guide the bomb to their destination. Everything was done without a word. The team so practiced that each knew their duty without being told.

Halley glanced at her watch and then passed the information with hand signals to her team who nodded their heads in instant reaction. They immediately and noiselessly settled into their positions. Cpl. Garrett settled the lazer on the main building of the installation and then patiently waited for the bombers to appear.


Commander Hawkwin sat in the carriers Flight Operations Control Room and listened intently to the exchange over the box. He chewed hard on the cigar, the tension in his body growing with every passing moment. He glanced at the nearby clock and knew with each passing second the planes crews were hurtling ever deeper into hostile territory.

He expelled a huge breath not liking the silence. The political climate in the region was hot and rising rapidly. It would only take one miscalculated action for the situation to escalate into a full scale military conflict. He would not breathe easy until the crews were safely back on the ship.

The easygoing atmosphere of the cockpit was replaced with a tension so thick that it could be cut but Eden remained in icy control. She had flown dozens of missions through hostile airspace and this was no different then any of those. Her breathing and heart rate remained normal even as those of her companions increased.

"We have been made," Jeffrey announced breaking silence, his eyes fixed on the radar screen. "They have interceptors in the air bearing towards us from 45 degrees southwest."

"Confirmed," she replied in a clear voice while mentally realizing that the enemy had been prepared for an attack. "Remain steady we are closing in on target now."

"Anti-aircraft guns have opened up," an excited voice blurted out from the pit as small puffs of smoke exploded in the air around them.

"Stay focused, watch our six, check for SAMs, we are bearing in on target," Eden reminded the man in a calm voice that belied the danger of their situation. "Target in range. Arm missiles."

Commander Hawkwin listened intently to the squawk on the speaker. He admired the woman's calm composure even as the sound of distant gunfire erupted around the planes and echoed through the speaker. He knew what the crews were experiencing for he had flown numerous missions over North Vietnam during the height of the war. He knew the fear and anticipation that coursed through the body in these situations.


Halley consulted her small computer one last time, recognizing the signals on her communications system. She nodded to her companions. They could already hear the distinct thundering roar of the fighter jets as they raced towards the position. They adjusted their equipment, flipping on the lazer beam that would guide the launched missiles onto their target.


"I have tone, target in range, launch missiles now," Eden commanded as they swept over the target area. There was a large explosion that rocked the air. She pushed the pole putting the aircraft into a hard Bat turn. "Did we hit the target?"

"Negative." Came the simple word over the radio. She glanced out the window at her wingman knowing that something was wrong. "We have a malfunction, the ordinance did not release."

"Shit," Commander Hawkwin cursed. He jumped out of his chair and started to pace.

"Can you do it manually?" the request came back over the com system.

"Check." Came the reply and Eden made the decision instantly.

"Going round for a second pass," she detailed. She could see the fire on the ground and the smoke billowing up from the flames.

Halley followed the action from her position outside the perimeter. She knew immediately that only half the target had been bombed and so instructed her colleagues to keep the lazer guidance system on the target. She could feel the tension ripple through her body. If everything had gone routinely they would have already packed up and been hiking out of the area. Every moment they lingered the more precarious their situation became. The enemy would know that they were out there and come looking.

"Raven you lead in and I will cover your six," Eden issued the orders in the same unflappable voice as she swung her gloved hand right and guided the expensive aircraft through another tight turn. "Cowboy where are our bogies?"

"Sixteen miles and closing," Jeffrey barked into the microphone, the tone of his voice heightened by the quick beat of his heart.

"Stay calm and let's get rid of the last of our load," she said coolly.

She maneuvered the craft around behind her wingman and followed him in over the target. She knew what would happen if they didn't accomplish their mission to the Pentagon's satisfaction. She was not about to risk another flight crew because of the incompetence of her own.

She kept a tight reign on her thoughts and emotions as she manoeuvred the plane once more over the target. All around blasts of explosives were discharging in the air buffeting the plane with their vibrations. She held her hand firmly on the stick watching as her wingman released their ordinance as they zoomed over the damaged area.

"Done." Came the triumphant shout as they zipped through the fire zone.

"Mission accomplished, am turning for home," Eden announced evenly and tipped the plane into a hard turn, circling away from the target area and bugging out in the direction of the Carrier. They had wasted precious time in doing a second pass and had negated any advantage that they had. "Where are our bogies?"

"Six miles and closing," Jeffrey barked into the microphone.

"How many have we got?"

"Two, maybe four." Came the strangled reply.

"How many is it?" was the tense question. "Talk to me Cowboy."

"Four," was the breathless response.

There was a deafening boom as the plane shuddered violently and rolled towards the left. Eden grabbed the pole with both hands using all her strength to steady the craft as it hurtled through the sky.

"We've been hit." Came the excited chatter from her wing.

"Stay calm Raven. How bad are you?"

"I've lost most of my maneuverability."

"Head for home, I'll cover your six until your home free."

"Negative I will stay with you." Came the reply.

"Negative, you are a liability, head for home," Eden replied in a firm voice. It was several seconds before there was a response.


Eden watched as her wingman pushed his pole towards home. She turned her attention on the enemy. Almost immediately there was another explosion and the plane shuddered again as her grip tightened around the stick.

"Cowboy, tell me what that was?"

"A SAM," Jeffrey yelled his voice rising in pitch. "Here comes another one, pull hard right, hard right."

Eden responded automatically to the RIO's instructions and watched as the missile flew harmlessly by and exploded into empty airspace.

"Where are the bogies?" she wanted to know.

"There are two at eight o'clock and two more at eleven o'clock," came the breathless response. "Holy shit, there are three more coming straight in at us."

No sooner had the man finished speaking when two of the interceptors blew past. Eden deftly moved the pole, turning and twisting her craft in an attempt to prevent the enemy from getting a chance to lock on with their weapons.

"Get 205 and 209 into the air. Now!" Commander Hawkwin barked out the instructions to the others in the Carrier's Operations Room. "If they get to the coast I want them to have some support."

"Yes sir," an Ensign immediately jumped to do his bidding.

"Engaging the enemy," Eden announced firmly, realizing that the only chance for her wingman was if they managed to stall the enemy.

"They are on our six, they're on our six," Jeffrey screamed as the sky suddenly filled with deadly projectiles. He twisted in his seat as the opposing jets swarmed around them.

Commander Hawkwin held his breath, listening to the chatter of the crew as the air battle raged. There were shouts from the RIO but only calm replies from the pilot as she valiantly struggled to keep them both alive. He glanced at the nearby radar screen and saw that it was filled with dancing images.

He watched the dots on the screen begin to multiply. His throat tightened in fear. He knew what was going on out there and marveled that the flight crew had managed to stay in the air this long. He wanted to send in re-enforcements but he was powerless to help until their reached international airspace.

He glanced at the clock. Seven minutes had passed since first contact and the airplane was still in the sky despite overwhelming odds. He knew it was only the pilots spectacular flying that was keeping them alive.

With sweat pouring down her face and soaking her flight suit, Eden continued to guide her jet through the swarming group of marauding enemy aircraft. She jinked and rolled the plane through a hail of flaming orange bullets, narrowly avoiding the deadly projectiles fired at them.

"Talk to me Cowboy," she encouraged tersely. "Tell me what's going on."

"They're everywhere. We have one on our six trying to line us up," came back the excited chatter.

Eden climbed and dived, rolling and twisting, evading her pursuers while getting ever closer to the sea. All the exercises and training she had done at Top Gun came to the fore. Her desire to survive had never been stronger. She saw a chance to return the fire and squeezed the trigger of her forward canon watching as a round caught a target snaking in front and sent him limping away, a plume of smoke following in his wake.

"You got one," Cowboy cheered loudly from the rear seat. A spontaneous cheer arose in the operations room back on the Carrier.

Eden continued to attack. The small victory was encouraging and several more maneuvers brought her behind and within range of a second enemy bogey. She fired a missile and then dived away as the aircraft on her tail was lining her up for a shot.

"You got another one," Jeffrey shouted as he watched another opponent burst into flames.

The Commander was barely listening as she swung the fighter towards a new enemy target aware of the aircraft still dogging her six. She made another hard turn narrowly avoiding another missile. She was just beginning to believe she was invincible when a powerful explosion rocked the plane, violently knocking out one of the engines. She felt a searing spasm of pain and then a rush of cold air as buzzers and lights sounded from everywhere in the cockpit.

"We've been hit! We've been hit!" Jeffrey shrieked into the speaker.

"Right engine out, left engine failing," Eden responded calmly struggling to maintain control of the rapidly failing aircraft.

"They have us locked on," came a shout from the pit.

"I am losing control," she said quietly, her voice rising slightly.

She had never had to abandon an aircraft before and had always wondered what she would feel. Strangely there was no emotion and she wondered if her father had felt the same when he had bailed out of his fighter so many years earlier.

"Pull the handle," she yelled and braced herself for the explosive charge from beneath the seat. Seconds passed with nothing happening.

"Cowboy, pull the goddamn handle," she screamed as the plane began to spiral in its death keel. She knew they had only seconds to bail out before it would be too late.

"I can't," was the weak reply.

"Damn," she swore feeling an intense anger rage through her body. She hadn't counted on her partner freezing.

His words were a catalyst for her to act. In a few seconds they would have no opportunity to separate themselves from the disabled aircraft. She had no desire to die and instinctively reached up to grab the ejection handle.

There was an ear shattering explosion and then nothing as a blip disappeared from the radar screen. The sound box was silent except for the loud static buzz of empty airspace. A tense quiet filled the Operations Room as all eyes turned expectantly to Commander Hawkwin.

The Commander saw the expectant eyes of the operations crew looking at him for instructions. He turned to Major Jamieson and for a few seconds there was a silent communication between them. The Special Ops team was still on the ground in the area but he would need to get permission from the Captain before launching any new mission. If he went through all the appropriate channels valuable time would be wasted.

"Contact the Ops team and tell them to remain on site for further instructions," Jamieson ordered the crewman manning the communications system. Commander Hawkwin nodded in appreciation before strolling out of the room towards the bridge where he knew he would find the Captain.

Halley used the digital camera in her possession to snap the necessary photos that would convince the brass that the mission had been a success. Once their duties were complete they packed up their gear and double timed it out of the area. Overhead they could hear the sound of explosions from the dog fight that was being carried out in the sky above.

They had already traveled two klicks from the target when the communications system buzzed in her earphone, alerting her to an incoming message. She raised her hand to halt their procession and the team scattered taking positions behind the nearest shelter.

She read the message a grim expression appearing on her face at the instructions. She glanced up at the distant sky seeing streams of smoke in the air but there were not parachutes. Nonetheless that didn't mean the pilots hadn't managed to eject.

"What's up Gunny?" Horst Beck asked as he slipped up beside his chief.

"Message from HQ," she sighed and glanced at the rest of the squad who were huddled behind a cluster of rocks. "We are supposed to stay on station until further instructions. Seems one of the fighters went down."

"Damn!" A chorus of voices responded in unison to her words.

"They want us to do a recovery?" the seasoned veteran asked and the smaller woman nodded her head.

"More than likely," she looked at the squad of men for whom she was responsible and then made the decision without waiting for further instructions. "What say we get a jump on HQ and head in the direction where the fighter went down?"

"Yes, Ma'am," Sgt. Becker nodded and motioned for the rest of the team to head out.

Halley watched as the squad moved out. She felt the burden of command settle on her shoulders aware that her decisions affected each of their lives. They were her first responsibility and she would not put them in any more danger then they already were unless she was commanded too. These were men she trained and lived with. She didn't know the pilots of the fighter and therefore didn't feel any responsibility towards them, but she knew it was her duty to ensure that everyone made it back alive.

The men did not question her authority, silently obeying her direction without thought. They had been trained to follow every order without hesitation, confident in their leaders command. They knew that their survival as a team and as individuals depended on them following orders and she was proud of that fact. She scampered after the squad all the while keeping a listen for the alarm that would alert her to a new incoming message.


Eden slipped in and out of consciousness as she floated down to earth. She felt a sense of relief as she spied the open chute of her RIO a short distance away. Not far beyond in the horizon were the tranquil blue waters of the ocean. They had nearly made it to safety.

She closed her eyes in an attempt to block the pain that was numbing her body. It was hot and she could feel the rush of air against her bare skin and wondered if her flight suit had somehow ripped. She rolled her head in an attempt to clear her senses and braced herself for landing. She couldn't remember hitting the rough ground but she vaguely recalled smashing against a rock and then bouncing down a short slope. There was blackness and then a wonderful feeling of peace.

She was a child again, drifting in a state of weightlessness amongst the clouds. She was safe and held in the warm comfort of a man's arms, with only the harmonic whistle of the wind to disturb the silence as they soared across the face of the silent sky.

"Everything will be all right," a gentle soothing voice assured her. "Free your senses and feel the forces of nature. Let it flow through you, give into its power."

She closed her eyes tightly as the faceless voice bade. Almost immediately she felt the power of nature filter through her senses. She felt apart of the universe; absorbed into its limitless presence.

"Am I dead?" she wondered.

"No," the same voice answered. "Your destiny lies beyond this moment. Do not give into human emotion. You have a strong will that will carry you far beyond this place. Follow your dreams. Follow your heart."


Captain Harding listened as Carl Hawkwin pointed out the merits of his plan. Washington had already been advised of the success of the mission and the loss of one fighter in the process. The President was still debating with his advisers on how to handle the media. Normal procedure was to send in a recovery team but with the ops team still on the ground in the area it was likely that they would be able to reach the fallen pilots before any other rescue party but there was a good chance that they would encounter the enemy in the process. It was a gamble.

"Which team is on the ground?" Captain Harding glanced towards another member of staff who had joined them on the bridge. Major Jamieson straightened his shoulders.

"Master Sgt. Braeden," he supplied. "She's the best damn Marine in the squad and I would trust her with my life."

The Captain nodded his head. It was comforting when a Commanding officer spoke so highly and confident of someone under their command. To lead a team was an accomplishment, to be the only woman doing so was an incredible feat. In spite of the size of his command or the number of sailors, soldiers and fliers on-board the Carrier he was familiar with all areas of command. Over the course of this tour, he had become acquainted with the somewhat unorthodox young woman who had challenged and overcome military establishment to prove herself in a theatre of the military where no other woman had been admitted.

"Use them for recovery," Captain Harding decided. It was the best and only option until they received word from the Pentagon on any further action. Commander Hawkwin didn't wait to hear any more. He was out of the bridge and on his way to the Operations Room almost before the Captain had finished making his decision.

Eden woke with a start. For an instant she thought she was back in her bunk on the ship but she was dazed for only a moment before realizing she was lying on a hard narrow overhang. Her head pounded fiercely as she struggled to her feet, swaying unsteadily as she climbed out of the parachute harness.

She pulled off her helmet, blinking rapidly as she waited for her vision to clear. A dull throb echoed in her head but she ignored the pain and took a quick survey of the immediate surroundings, searching for her RIO. She caught sight of him on a ridge ten meters below and a hundred meters away. He was not moving.

She glanced around. They had landed on a narrow sloping ridge on the side of a small plateau in the low lying mountains that skirted the coastline. It was rugged terrain scattered with boulders and tall spindly trees that afforded a limited protection.

Eden acted automatically, flipping the homing beacon that was strapped in her pocket, before gathering up the parachute and stuffing it into a nearby crevice. Only than did she cautiously climb to where the man lay. If there was a blessing in their situation it was that the terrain was inhospitable enough to prevent immediate capture. It would take any ground troops a while to reach them.

"Cowboy talk to me," she knelt beside the still figure aware that time was of the essence. She gingerly removed his helmet and was greeted with a weak smile. There was a trickle of blood seeping from one nostril. She wiped it away.

"Did we make it?" the man asked with a cough.

"Not quite Cowboy," she was honest. "We are still in enemy territory so we have to get out of here. They will be coming after us. Can you move?"

"I don't know," he sighed with a laboured breath. "I landed pretty hard; I think I broke both my legs. Not very smart eh?"

Eden said nothing as she did a quick methodical check of his bent legs. She could feel where the bones had snapped. She was worried that he might also have broken his back. His condition caused her deep concern.

"How does everything else feel?"

"Lousy, my gut feels awful and my ribs are killing me," he replied and then his eyes narrowed seeing the fresh blood on her head and the wide gaping tear in the side of her flight suit. The torn edges were a dark shade.

"You're hurt," he croaked in an anxious voice.

Eden paused in her simple medical examination and followed his gaze. She noticed for the first time the tear and the blood, and the gaping wound that stretched from under her breast all the way down her side to just above her knee. It was funny but she felt no pain. She shrugged indifferently and ignored the wound, appearing nonchalant so as not to cause alarm.

"It's just a scratch. Come on we have to get you undercover."

"No," Jeffrey shook his head, closing his eyes in pain. He had never felt so much pain as he did now in his head, yet it was strange that he could feel nothing below his waist. "Leave me Eden; get out of here before they come."

"No," Eden disagreed. "I'm not leaving you Jeff, we are a team."

"You can't think like that," the man gasped, coughing as a spasm of pain ripped through his body. "Without me you have a chance. There isn't any need for both of us to get captured."

"I won't leave you," the Commander said tersely. She knew that if she deserted the man he would not survive. They had inflicted massive damage on their enemy and many of those searching for them now would have friends and family who may have been killed or injured by their actions. They were sure to vent their frustration and anger on whomever they captured. She was determined not to let that happen to either of them.

"I'm getting you out of here," Eden promised with determination. "I don't leave anyone behind. But I have to find us some shelter. I'll be right back."

Jeffrey watched as the woman slowly rose to her feet. He didn't want her to leave him, afraid to be left alone but he knew that her word was her bond. She would not leave him. He offered no protest completely drained of all energy and closed his eyes to prevent the moisture that was accumulating there from escaping, thinking for the first time that he might not be going home. He felt a wave of anger that this would be the last place on earth that he would see.

Eden picked her way around the area, careful to stay out of sight as she searched for any recess or overhang where they could take shelter from the elements. After what seemed like an eternity and just when she was about to give up, she caught sight of a small cave tucked behind a boulder and sheltered by a tree which hung over the ledge. Upon further inspection she saw that it went deep into the mountain.

Satisfied that she had accomplished her mission she made her way back to where her colleague was lying. She had thought about all how she would be able to move the unconscious man and decided there was only one way.

"Forgive me Cowboy," she whispered as she bent and gripped him under the armpits. She didn't know how badly he was injured and knew that she was risking further injury but she knew that it was important to get him out of the open. In the distance she could hear the thump of the rotor blades of a helicopter.

Each movement brought out a whimper of pain from the man but Eden only gritted her teeth and blocked her mind to the sounds. She needed to remain calm and clinical if she was going to get them both out of there alive.

She pulled him a short distance to where the small rock overhang sheltered the cave. It would not only offer them refuge from the sun but from their pursuers. She gathered up the parachute retrieving her own and then settled him as comfortably amongst the silk as she could.

Only then did she sit back and listen to the buzz of airplanes circling overhead. She did not count on any rescue for it would be too dangerous to send in an air rescue. She only hoped the Special Ops team that had painted the target had made it safely out of the area.

Eden glanced at Jeffrey who had fallen asleep and then closed her own eyes. She had trained for this eventually all her career yet had hoped never to have to make the decisions that were confronting her now. The responsibility of knowing that the choices she made would decide their fates weighed heavily on her mind. Quietly she wondered if her father had faced the same dilemma thirty years earlier.

She remembered that day almost as if it were yesterday. She had been playing in the front yard of their billet on a military base when a dark green car had pulled to a stop at the curb. Two men in white uniforms had stepped out of the vehicle and made their way up the walk to the front door. She had grabbed the ball she had been playing with and followed in their wake, recognizing their uniforms as the same one as her father wore.

Her mother had answered the door and with one look at the two Officers grim expressions, she had broken out into heart wrenching sobs. Eden hadn't understood what was wrong. She didn't know why her mother was crying and what it was that these strange men had done to make her mother so distraught.

It wasn't until days later that she finally understood the message that these men had come to deliver. Her father had been shot down over North Vietnam. The beloved parent she cherished so much was gone, never to return to make her laugh or take her up in the glider to soar through space.

She hadn't cried, because she was confused, not understanding why her father didn't come home. She knew about death, she had been to other funerals and seen dead bodies lying in a coffin. But there was nothing like that for her father and so for the longest time she believed that he would come home. It was only as the years went past that she knew that innocent belief was unfounded.

Tears came to her eyes and she began to sob, crying for a man who had died so many years before, lost in a war he had been sent to fight. She grieved for a father she had never really had the opportunity to know and the life they had been unable to share.


Joe Donnelly was surprised to see his wife waiting in the half-ton truck at the end of the field. He glanced at his watch and saw that it was well passed the noon hour. He had expected to be relieved by his father-in-law and felt a nagging worry.

He swung the tractor and seeder around before bringing it to a halt, disappearing for a moment in the cloud of dust that followed in his wake. He shut the motor down before climbing out of the cab and strolling across the freshly turned soil to where his wife was waiting.

"Hey," he greeted her leaning in for a kiss not worrying that his wife would shy away from the dust on his lips. "Where's Dad?"

"Back at the house sitting in front of the television watching CNN," Janice replied with a sigh, folding her arms across her chest. "The US President ordered a strike against some Middle Eastern country and there are reports that there are some troops on the ground."

"Damn," the man hissed through his teeth. He was close to his father-in-law and knew that the older man would be worrying about his eldest daughter. He peered at his wife. He was more than a little worried about Halley as well, more then just being her brother-in-law, they were also good friends. "How's your mom doing?"

"You know mom," this time it was the woman's turn to sigh. Annie Braeden was a strong woman who put her faith in God. "She wondered if you might come home and have a word with dad. She is worried about him."

Joe nodded. He knew the man better then most. When his own father had died the older man had taken him under his wing and treated him like a son. For as long as he could remember the two of them had done everything a father and son had done. It seemed only like destiny that he married one of the man's daughters.

It had been surprising when he had married the second daughter as for years it had been naturally assumed that he would choose Halley as his wife, but the girl had other dreams and desires seeking adventure in strange lands while he had been content to stay and work the land.

"Come on," he agreed without thought. They were ahead of schedule in planting the crop and the weather forecast predicted many more warm and clear days. He could afford to take some time off to chat with his father-in-law. He climbed into the passenger side of the truck.

Within a few moments they were on the main farm property, strolling up the porch steps and walking through the back screen door into the kitchen. His eyes immediately fell on the grey haired woman sitting at the island counter, calmly peeling apples for the pie she was baking. Annie Braeden always baked when she needed to think.

"Hi Mom," Joe greeted the woman walking across the room to the stove here a pot of coffee was brewing. He poured himself a mug.

"Hi Joe, how's it going?" Annie glanced up and flashed the young man a genuine smile.

"Good, just about have the North section finished, figure I will be working on the south side by night fall," the man answered. The condition of the farming operation was everyone's concern.

"Have you had your lunch?" the older woman asked with concern.

"Janice has it waiting at home," he replied glancing briefly at his wife who had mutely followed him into the house. "I thought I would pop over for a few minutes."

"I'm glad," Annie could not hide her appreciation. The young man had a special bond with her husband and she was glad that he was around; it helped especially at times like now. She continued with her chore without interruption. "He hasn't moved from in front of the television since he turned it on this morning."

Joe didn't need to be filled in on the details. The Braeden family was close and they all shared the same concern wherever a military action occurred. They understood what Halley did for a living and that she was often in a position of danger.

He scanned his mother-in-laws delicate features. There were almost no lines on her face and the skin was still smooth and soft. She looked ten years younger then her actual fifty five years. This was in spite of toiling along side her husband on the farm and raising five daughters.

When asked, Annie always attributed her good health and fortune to God. She trusted in her Lord to resolve any situation, never afraid of the outcome. She had tried to instill the same faith in her children and had succeeded in varying degrees with all of them. More then loving kindness and patience, she had given them a sense of security and support. They all knew when times were troubling they could turn to her for advice and comfort.

He said nothing as he strolled out of the kitchen, along the hallway and into the living room. He spied his father perched on the edge of the sofa, his green eyes glued to the flickering television screen.

Joe settled onto the arm of a chair and listened for a moment to the special broadcast. It was a news report of an aerial engagement between an American fighter and several aircraft from a Middle Eastern nation. He glanced at his father-in-law and knew what the man was thinking. Unlike his wife, John fretted constantly over his daughter's safety.

John Braeden had served in the infantry in Vietnam and knew first hand the horrors of war. It was for that reason that after his marriage he had moved his wife and family north to Canada. He was no ashamed to be an American; he was just willing to give his children a chance to decide with their conscious how they wanted to act in times of war. It was ironic that his eldest daughter had chosen to make the Marines her career.

"Halley is stationed on that ship," John said when a picture of an Aircraft Carrier was flashed across the screen. "It's her job to go into enemy territory and paint the target when they carry on an air strike."

"You don't know that Halley was involved," Joe reminded indifferently. "There are more than one Special Operations teams on board the ship."

The older man didn't argue. He knew better than anyone what was involved in these types of operations. He knew that there were more then a half a dozen teams like the one Halley operated, on the carrier, but he had a strange feeling, a parent's intuition.

"I know you think me a silly fool but when they have a problem they generally assign their best people," the older man replied quietly, remembering a time when he was in the thick of it all. "Halley is the best damn leader in her company."

Joe was mute as he thought about the woman who was in command of a highly trained and very skilled unit. Halley had boasted often of the confidence and strength of her small ops team and though she had remained secretive about the missions she had been on, the large collection of medals she possessed attested to her abilities.

He remembered the first time he had met the small but compact blond woman when they both entered first grade at the local country school. They had become instant friends enjoying many of the same activities and sports. When they had reached high school and his hormones had kicked in he had become smitten with her. After a few casual dates
Halley had confessed the truth about her sexuality, confiding in him when she had not even told her family. He had respected her secret and had nursed his bruised heart in silence not accounting for the fact that her younger sister would come into his life and heal his heart.

In spite of that, a part of him had always remained in love with her and he realized he always would be. She was unlike any woman he had met; she could be loud and gregarious but also quiet and thoughtful. She was intelligent and confident and had an emotional and physical strength that he admired.

"If Halley is involved she will be okay, you know she can handle any situation they throw her into," he finally spoke his thoughts out loud, making his voice sound as confident as he could.

"That's what I used to think," John sighed unconsciously rubbing his thigh at the phantom pain he felt over an old war injury. He had been as young and cocky as his eldest daughter, confident he was up to any challenge the army could throw at him. His ego had learned a valuable lesson that day he had been shot in a rice paddy. He had lain helplessly, watching as the rest of his unit were also cut down. Only five of twenty had made it out of that operation without any wounds.

"Halley's smart Dad, she knows what she is doing," Joe tried again to boost the man's flagging spirits. "She will keep her head down; you know that she has no intention of getting killed."

"No one ever does," John replied quietly, his eyes remaining on the television screen. "No one ever does."


General Bernard stepped out of the staff car and motioned the driver to remain. His business wouldn't take long. It was only the President's concern and consideration for a prominent citizen that had prompted this call in the first place. The door was answered on the first summons by a thin middle aged gentleman in a formal gray suit with a starched white shirt.

"I am here to see Ambassador Bryce," the General said and the butler nodded his head before motioning the military man to follow him.

They proceeded out of the large ornately decorated vestibule and down a long carpeted hallway. The General glanced briefly at his surroundings, aware that the place was subdued yet elegant in the manner that most homes were when they were inhabited by people of old money. The dark paneled walls were lined with portraits from the various generations of the family.

They stopped outside a large door and after a slight knock the butler stepped into the room. The General followed his lead, his eyes scanning the room with one quick glance before coming to rest on the man and woman sitting quietly on the leather sofa in the middle of the room. The gentleman rose immediately and accepted the hand extended to him.

"General it is a pleasure to meet you," Ambassador Bryce said without expression. He had been in the diplomatic corps since the end of the Second World War and knew every nuisance of polite diplomatic behaviour.

"And you Ambassador Bryce," the military man replied feeling again the gravity of the situation. "I am sorry that it is under such upsetting circumstances."

"Yes, yes," Vance nodded his head and motioned for the younger man to take a chair. "Please sit down."

"I am afraid I haven't time Mr. Ambassador, the situation is still developing as we speak, it was only because of your friendship with the President that he asked me personally to convey the news," General shifted uncomfortably on his feet.

As a young Lieutenant in the Vietnam War he had written more then his share of condolence letters to young widows and parents of soldiers lost. He had lost many friends but had been fortunate enough to be spared the task of delivering the sad news himself; until now.

"It's about Eden isn't it?" the elderly statesman said glancing briefly at his wife who remained silently watching the exchange.

"I am afraid so Mr. Ambassador," the General said. "Commander Bryce was on a mission in the service of her country when her fighter was shot down."

"Is she dead?" Vivian Bryce asked quietly in a dignified voice, trying not to show the emotion that was threatening to overwhelm her. She had lost her only child in the Vietnam War and did not wish for the same fate for her only grandchild.

"At the present time we don't have any news on her condition," the General was honest. He knew the couple would demand and deserved the truth. They had all served their country honourably. "The honing beacon each pilot carries has been activated so we have every reason to believe that she is alive."

"Thank you," Ambassador Bryce said and the General understood the unspoken request for them to be left alone.

"The President asked that we keep you posted as we learn more."

"I appreciate the consideration," the older man was honest. "Please pass along my regards to the President."

"I will sir, if there is anything you need..."

"We will be fine General, it's not like we haven't been through this before," the Ambassador stated reminding himself and his wife of a similar day many years earlier. They had almost resigned themselves to this fate from the day their granddaughter had chosen to become a fighter pilot after graduating from Annapolis. No amount of persuasion could deter the stubborn young woman from following in the footsteps of her dead father.

"The President has advised me to tell you if there is anything you need that you should not hesitate to contact him or myself."

"We will do so," the Ambassador assured him before motioning the butler to escort the General out.

There was silence in the room when the elderly couple was left alone again. Neither knew what to say. There wasn't anything they could say to comfort each other. They had wealth and prestige in a country where both were highly valued yet none of that had spared them from suffering as if they were the poorest couple in the land. They had learned the harsh reality that fate spared no one from it's wrath. In spite of their political connections there was nothing they could do but wait for news like everyone else.

Halley huddled deep into the small pocket in the side of the mountain, curling herself into a tiny ball and holding her breath as a pair of feet moved passed her position. She had been fortunate to spot the patrol before they had seen her and even luckier when she had managed to see this crack in which to crawl. She knew that she wasn't in any real danger of being found aware that they were searching for the pilots of the downed plane a few kilometres away. She only hoped that her Ops team had made it safely back to the cave that they had earlier designated as a safe shelter.

She closed her eyes feeling an incredible wave of fatigue wash over her body. They had been going for forty eight hours straight and she knew from experience it would be at least another forty eight hours before they would have a chance to relax and let their guard down. A grim smile cracked her dry lips. She didn't think she had been this tired since her days of basic training on Parris Island.

The last she had heard from her commanders was to stand by and await on station for further instructions. Experience told her that those in command were debating their next action. In spite of the public perception she knew that more then one pilot had been sacrificed as a political pawn. Something deep inside her soul hoped that this would not be the case in this situation.

Halley waited until she was comfortable that the patrol had left her immediate area. To be safe she carefully removed the tiny mirror she carried and held it out searching the surrounding area for any sign of the enemy. She could see them in the distance and felt confident that it would be safe for her to move.

She slowly extradited herself from her cramped hideout, remaining in a crouch until she had decided her next move. She plotted her route to safety before carefully picking her way across the rocky terrain. It was almost midday and sweat fell from each pore in her body soaking her dusty clothes as she made her way across the territory to where she hoped that the rest of her team was waiting.

An hour earlier she had become separated from her team. They had come across an enemy patrol and in order to distract them from the squad she had created a diversion and lead them in the opposite direction. It had taken her awhile but she had finally lost her pursuers. Now it was time for her to rejoin them.

Eden was once again a child. She was dressed in a black jumper with penny loafers on her feet. She was wandering through the flower gardens of her grandparent's estate. In spite of the brilliant colour that surrounded her, the mood was somber. She was alone yet someone was holding her hand.

"I am afraid," she whispered.

"Remember that I am always with you," her father's voice rang in her head. "You are strong. You will be able to carry on when others fail. Don't be afraid to survive. Don't be afraid to succeed. Never surrender. Your destiny is beyond this moment. Follow your dream. Follow your heart."

Eden woke shivering. The sun had set and they were alone in the cold darkness. She had used the parachutes to fend off the shuddering chill but it had not been enough. More then anything she would have liked to build a fire.

She tried to move but her body had grown stiff. The throbbing ache of her injury became more apparent with the passage of time. She needed to pee but the effort was almost beyond her strength. Her stomach growled with hunger but there was nothing left to appease the pain. They had long since consumed the meager cache of rations they carried for emergencies.

She tightened her embrace and leaned her head back. Through a gap in the trees branches she could see the clear night sky. It was black and endless with its glittering stars. She closed her eyes and sighed.

All day she had anxiously listened as helicopters had hovered overhead. She had peeked out of their sanctuary and watched as the enemy scoured the valley for them. The harsh echo of the foot soldier's voices had carried up the side of the mountain. It would not be long before they broadened the search.

She opened her eyes and stared at the man who was lying by her side. He was moaning softly, in obvious pain. She had given him both allotments of morphine, ignoring her own aches. She had fashioned a splint for his legs, but by the beads of sweat on his brow, she knew he had developed a raging fever.

She debated the possibility of surrender. It was obvious that Jeffrey was in bad need of medical attention. The one thought that had prevented her from taking that course of action was that she wasn't certain they would be given proper medical assistance. She had vivid imagines of the horrors they might face if they were captured.

"Commander Bryce," Jeffrey's eyes flickered open in panic.

"I'm here," the tall woman hastily scrambled to his side, leaning over him so that he could see her features in the darkness. She reached out to comb the damp strands of his hair from his brow, her voice soothing in an attempt to calm him. "How are you feeling?"

"Miserable," was the honest answer. His voice was loud and clear in the cool night. "I'm dying."

"No you're not," she chided, determined to remain positive. "No one dies of a broken leg. Now if you were a horse you would have something to worry about."

Jeffrey laughed appreciative of her attempt to lift his spirits. The humour died in a spasm of coughing. She winced at the sound and hastily untangled herself from the parachute in which she was wrapped. She wished there was more that she could do for him.

"I have never seen this tender side of you," he rasped with amusement when the coughing subsided.

"Don't let it get out, it would ruin my reputation," she growled lightly.

He laughed again. It was a sickly, gurgling sound and Eden knew that fluid was seeping into his lungs. She had no way of knowing what kind of internal injury he was suffering. She checked the transmitter and saw that it was steadily sending out a signal.

"You got to hang in there buddy," she encouraged. "You're not leaving me alone in this mess. I'm not going to pay for that plane myself."

Jeffrey smiled but it quickly faded as a wave of pain pierced through his frame. He felt dizzy and nauseated. His throat was parched and a fierce pounding echoed between his ears.

"I'm sorry Commander," he apologized, the strength of his voice rising and falling with each breath. "I should have been more on the ball."

"It wasn't your fault Cowboy," she brushed aside his words. "It just wasn't our day. We were out numbered from the start. They knew we were coming and were waiting. We didn't have a fair chance."

Jeffrey appreciated her words. "I enjoyed flying with you more than anyone else. I considered it an honour. There was never a time when I didn't trust you completely."

Eden said nothing. Crews rarely voiced their sentiments to each other for it was considered a bad omen. The bond between them was invisible yet strong. They lapsed into a momentary silence.

"What do you think they have told our families?" he asked after awhile. The eerie silence was scaring him.

Eden was quiet. She didn't want to think about what might be happening back home. Her grandparents had gone through this scenario once before. She had just been a child but she remembered how the experience had affected the older couple. Her grandparents hated that she flew and would never forgive her for putting them through that pain again.

"I don't know," she said finally when it became apparent that the man was waiting for an answer.

It was a lie. She did know about the official looking messages and then the visit from some nondescript military recruiter. That would be followed by silence when no new information was forth coming. It was a long and lonely process.

"I worry about Lisa," Jeffrey confessed thinking about his young wife back in the States. They had only been married eight months before he had been deployed. They had decided during their last phone conversation that when he returned they would start trying to make a family. "She wasn't happy about me joining the Navy, especially its air wing. We have been together since high school and she was afraid that I would be out at sea for most of the time. Even my Dad asked me to reconsider."

His voice faded into another spasm of coughing. He didn't want to think of his wife and the pain his death would cause her. She was so sensitive that she always needed to be held while she cried when they watched a sad movie. He didn't want to think about her being alone with no one there to comfort her.

"How about your family? Is there anyone back home waiting for you?" he asked in an attempt to divert his thoughts.

"There are only my grandparents," Eden admitted after a slight silence, hesitant to reveal anything of a personal nature. She had always been a private person.

"Are you close to them?" the man wanted to know.

"Our relationship has always been strained," the pilot confessed. "My dad was killed in Vietnam, so they were upset when I received my commission and chose to be a pilot. They were afraid that history would repeat itself." And it has, she finished in her head.

Jeffrey didn't know what to say. Even though his wife and parents had not agreed with his career choice they had always been supportive. It hurt to think that he might not ever see them again. Tears welled in his eyes as he thought that he might never again get to hold his love in his arms and caress her lips with his own.

"If I don't make it out of here," he stumbled over the words, emotion clogging up his throat. "Will you go see Lisa and let her know that I loved her very much, that there was never anyone but her."

"Don't talk like that," she chided softly. She knew that to resign was to give up. "We are going to get out of here. I have no intention of spending the last days of my life in a desolate place as this."

"No, Commander, I need you to do this for me," the man was insistent. "I need for her to know that I was happy, that I died doing what I loved most, and the only thing I will miss is her. Promise me that will you? I know we wrote letters but sometimes the words have to be spoken."

Eden was silent. She did not want to make the man any promises. She didn't want him to give up. She wanted him to continue fighting but she also realized that each person had their limitations. He was dying and they both knew they were powerless to prevent it from happening.

"Yes," she finally agreed. "Don't talk any more, save your energy."

The man gently nodded his head and then closed his eyes. He seemed at peace and that realization disturbed her. She checked his pulse and was relieved to find it. In a gesture completely foreign to her yet somehow appropriate she leaned her head on his shoulder and put her arms around him.

Commander Hawkwin stood alongside Major Jamieson in the Flight Operations Room and listened to the quiet speaker. The increased tensions in the region had made it impossible for them to send in a conventional extraction team. Instead the downed fighter pilots were at the mercy of the Special Operations team on the ground in the area. It would be a race to see who reached the pilots first.

"E Team has been alerted and are moving towards the target area," Major Jamieson reported to the group of assembled officers. It had only been a few hours since he had relayed the operational plans to his Ops team on the ground.

"What if they meet resistance?" Hawkwin asked chewing on his unlit cigar.

"They have been ordered to avoid contact if possible," the director of Special Operations replied. "They were told not to engage the enemy under any circumstances unless there was no other option."

Commander Hawkwin was silent. He understood how delicate the situation was. If the pilots were not able to be extracted by the ops team then their fate would be sealed. The President was prepared to sacrifice the lives of their people. He was angry but he showed none of his emotions.

It would be at least twelve hours before they knew the outcome of the situation. In a region were twenty four hours was a lifetime, it was a dangerously long term. He held the awful premonition that the rescue party would not reach his people in time.


It was close to nightfall before Halley was able to hook back up with the rest of her team. They were huddled in the tiny nooks and crevices in the dark cave, having had two close calls with roving patrols that were searching the area for the downed pilots. Though they would have defended themselves if discovered, the Ops team was disciplined enough not to initiate any contact aware that they were deep in enemy territory.

Halley was just able to discern the grim expressions on their faces as she relayed the change in their operational instructions. She knew what each one was thinking, it was the same thoughts she had when she earned of their new operation. Under normal circumstances they would have been out of the area and far away from the patrols searching for them. Each individual knew that their roles had been reversed. Before they had been the hunter and now they were the hunted, and each moment they remained in enemy territory diminished their chances of survival.

"We will move out as soon as it gets dark," she said knowing that no one would challenge her authority. They were disciplined enough to know their duty. The men nodded in agreement settling back into their hiding places to snatch a few minutes sleep before it was time for them to be on the move again.

Halley retreated to the lip of the cave, sitting down in the edge of the shadows, disguised from view yet able to watch the approaches to their position. A wave of fatigue washed over her senses and all she wanted to do was close her eyes and sleep, but she knew it was not an option. She had to remain alert; she was responsible for the men under her leadership and now for the two pilots who were caught in enemy territory.

Briefly she wondered who those faceless fliers were. Though they served on the same Carrier they rarely interacted with anyone outside their circle. Her mind flashed to the few times she had come across the Navy fliers dressed in their jump suits with their helmets tucked under their arms. Her memory fixed on one in particular, the lone woman F-18 fighter pilot on board the Carrier.

She closed her eyes now and was able to visualize the tall, lanky dark haired woman jogging around the lower deck of the Carrier. She could see the long fluid strides thinking that the pilot reminded her of an African gazelle moving gracefully over the open plain, oblivious to anything around her.

She had felt a stirring in her gut and remembered the few brief occasions when the pilot had talked to her. She had been intrigued with the woman from the first moment she had laid eyes on her but she had always reminded herself of the differences between them. The pilot was an officer and she was a non-commissioned officer and therefore the gap between them prevented any personal involvement. Now she hoped that the unfortunate pilots did not include the woman.

She shook her head to dispel those thoughts. The only way she was able to do her job was to remain devoid of emotion, to do her job in a workman like fashion without consideration for the consequences. When she fired her gun she never thought about the fact that she may have killed someone who had a family who loved them. She never dwelt on her actions.

Her mind shifted to her family. She tried never to think of them while on a mission because thoughts of them clouded her judgment, but in moments such as this when exhaustion was only a breath away she was unable to block her mind to those whom she loved.

She wondered what they were doing. It was spring time in Canada so she knew that her Dad and Joe would be busy out in the field, sowing grain into the land. A weary smile touched the corners of her lips at the memory of her childhood and the long days she had spent out in the fields with her father tilling and harvesting the soil. As a youth she had filled in for the son that her father had never had and because of that they had grown close, developing a bond that neither time nor distance could sever.

Her thoughts clouded briefly; glad that she had taken the time to call her parents after returning from her last mission. She knew that they worried about her and though they supported her decision for a military career she knew that they were afraid for her every time the military got involved in any sort of action. Her father, an army veteran, understood better than anyone the challenges she faced.

She closed her eyes and sighed. She was coming up on her fifteenth year of service, having joined right out of high school. She had an illustrious career distinguished by many accomplishments and not for the first time did she think it was time to retire. She was young enough to embark on a new career.

She opened her eyes again and scanned the area surrounding the mouth of the cave, weary green orbs doing a thorough swept of the landscape in the fading light, as beads of sweat continued to soak through her uniform. The thought of being in a place where there was no threat to her person was suddenly very appealing. Perhaps if she got out of this situation safely she would consider her father's offer of joining them on the farm for a long and well needed break. It was a suggestion that for the first time she began to consider seriously.

The night had been cold and the thin silky parachute material offered little protection. Eden was unable to sleep, alert to everything around them, the blackness of night punctuated and obliterated by the brilliant flash of flares that illuminated the land as enemy patrols continued their search.

She had dared to briefly venture out and had noticed that unless approached in the right way the small gaping crevice where they had taken shelter was invisible to anyone who might be passing by. She had been careful to obscure any trace of their presence, scuffling the ground in the area to remove any footprints that might reveal their presence.

She had reminded vigilant, awake through the dead of the night while her companion slipped into unconsciousness. For that she was mildly relieved for she knew that he would not be suffering the pain that obviously radiated through his body.

During that time she had long moments to contemplate her life. She had been dedicated to the Navy since the moment she had learned her father had been shot down over Vietnam. It had been her life for so long that she didn't know anything else existed outside of the military. She had trained in government affairs and knew that her grandfather wished she would resign her commission and enter the political arena or diplomatic corps.

She certainly had built the credentials for such a career but she had no ambition to follow any such path. The Navy and flying was all she had ever wanted to do and she had never thought of her life beyond that. However, now, for the first time she realized that perhaps she would have to look beyond the present. She glanced at her companion, instinctively knowing that he would never have such choices to make. His fate had already been determined.

Lieutenant Jeffrey Hart died just as the first faint traces of the morning dawn cracked the night sky. Eden sat quietly in the chilly air, staring at the still face. She wanted to cry but her senses were numb. After a while she simply released his cold, limp hand and covered his body with the ends of the parachute.

She sat back, ignoring the pain, and curled up into a ball. She took a deep breath and then closed her eyes. Her throat was parched from the dry air. Her entire body ached and she felt feverish. The heat and hunger were making her dizzy. She embraced herself tightly and allowed sleep to steal over her senses no longer caring what happened to her.


Halley stared up at the lightening sky, listening intently as the helicopters scouring the land from overhead. The team had moved out at the first fall of darkness but they had been unable to make much progress over the rocky barren terrain. Enemy patrols had set up camps throughout the area, making it difficult for them to move undetected.

She glanced over her shoulder at the rest of the team. They were sprawled out, exhausted from their efforts and restoring their energy for the next big push. Once again fortune had been on their side and they had stumbled onto a small cave with a narrow crevice opening, It was cool inside the cave and offered them not only protection from the searching enemy but also a respite from the heat that baked the land.

Halley turned her attention back out to the brown sun baked landscape. They had been without communication for the last five hours. Using the transmitter frequency given to them by the brass on the Carrier they had been able to hone in the rescue beacon set off by the downed pilots, but the signal had died hours earlier. The only thing that told her the pilots had not been captured was the circling airplanes.

She settled back against the hard rock. The air was hot and filled with the fine dust of the desert. She blinked rapidly aware that her vision was beginning to blur. She knew that they would have to be careful or they would need their own rescue.

She shook her head and opened her canteen for another small swallow of water. Their rations and supplies were almost completely depleted. They had not expected to be gone this long. But they had been in situations similar to this and had learned to ignore the pangs of hunger and the thirst that would inevitably plague them. It was about to become a race against time.

All morning the constant drone of aircraft punctuated the stifling heat. The sound interrupted her sleep, keeping her awake through the long daylight hours. She was tired and her eyes began to create strange images in her head. She struggled to keep her wits and composure knowing that if she was to get out of this situation she would have to remain in control. She waited only until darkness settled over the land before enacting her plan.

Eden had not understood yet why she had not been found. The search had intensified and several times during the day she had heard voices only feet away from her position. Even now she could see the campfire of the military searchers bivouacked only a few hundred yards away.

She tore one of the parachutes into strips which she packed over her wound and then stood up, her legs swaying unsteadily. She felt weak but mentally strong. She hoisted the body of her RIO over her shoulder, staggering under the weight yet somehow her legs held them aloft. She was determined not to buckle under the strain. She would not leave his body behind to be forgotten.

Ignoring the searing pain that radiated up the side of her body, she slipped out of her hiding place and slowly trudged upwards and towards the sea. Each footstep was a victory and to keep her mind going she counted them off stubbornly.

She used the full moon to light her path, picking her way carefully amongst the scattered rocks. Every move required a supreme effort. She knew she could travel much faster if she was without the extra weight but her conscience would not allow her to leave the body. She knew how important it would be to his wife and family.

She wanted to rest but a nagging voice in her head kept prodding her along. To stop would mean surrender and she was not about to concede such a personal defeat. More then once she lost her balance and fell face first against the hard clay earth cutting her arms and face on the sharp rocks. Each time another sharp pain would pierce through her entire body.

Every muscle ached and the wound in her side was burning with a paralyzing intensity. The strips of parachute she had used to pack the open wounds were soaked with fresh blood. When she fell again she did not move, the remaining strength slowly ebbing out of her body. She convulsed violently, her body reacting to the cold and the pain. She closed her eyes ready to give up the fight.

"Get up," a voice commanded through the foggy darkness of her brain.

"No father," she silently protested. "I just want to rest."

"Get up," the words were a clear order. "You are stronger then this. You are stronger then me. You can defeat this challenge."

"Did you give up?" she asked but her question went unanswered.

"You have a chance to have everything or you could have nothing at all," the voice reprimanded. "You are the last of me, you must carry on. Your destiny lies beyond this moment. You have dreams to fulfill, a lifetime yet to live."

The chant went over and over in her head. For the first time a sense of panic gripped her being. She didn't want to die. She had not really begun to live. She had no children, no one to carry on her memory. No one would know what happened and it would be like she had never really existed. She struggled to her feet and slowly managed to drag the body over her limp shoulder. She took one step, determined not to stop least she die. With every last ounce of will power she wanted to survive.

She lost track of the time and her surroundings. The only images that filled her head were those of reaching the sea. Already she could smell its distinct aroma. She prodded on oblivious to the shadows that moved through the darkness towards her. When they emerged out of the night, she halted, staring at their dark faces and pointed rifles and then collapsed in a heap at their feet.


Halley caught her breath, silently cursing their bad luck, as she watched the scene unfold only a few hundred yards from their position. She was torn between following her orders and going to the aid of a fellow service man. She hated to think they had come so close only to abandon the mission.

She stared intently through the night vision goggles as the enemy soldiers took the pilots into captivity. She watched as the grunts prodded and kicked the airmen before grabbing them by the wrists and dragging them over the rough ground.

"What do we do Gunny?" Sgt Horst Becker asked. The whole team was focused on the scene. Their senses alert for the nearby danger.

"We withdraw," came the quiet response. "It's up to the diplomats now."

"Hal?" the Sergeant questioned a decision for the first time. He had fought in Desert Storm and one of his good buddies had been taken prisoner. He knew better then anyone what awaited the luckless airmen. He also knew that the woman was only following orders.

"We were ordered not to engage the enemy," Halley reminded them trying to sell an order that she had doubts about. Her instinct was to rescue the airmen.

"Christ, Hal, they will kill them," Corporal Garrett grunted, his words coming out through the connecting communications mic's and headphones they wore. The young soldier was deployed at the furthest edge of their defense perimeter and nearest the situation. She stared through the field glasses for a clearer view and could see the way the pilots were being mistreated.

"We have to go in Sgt," Becker implored quietly. "We can't leave them here."

"It's not up to us," Halley argued with a hiss.

"So we are just gonna leave them?" the man asked in a sad voice.

Halley was never this indecisive. Her own instincts were the same as her men but she was loath to disobey a direct order. She could not forget the fact that those pilots were American and now at the mercy of the enemy. She knew that it was the General's decision in the Pentagon but they weren't out in the field, on the ground in the middle of the situation.

"Hang back," she decided in that instant as the enemy patrol dragged the downed airmen away into the darkness. "I want to monitor their position and strength before we attempt to move in."

The men grunted in approval of her decision. To a man they knew that they could count on the Sergeant to do the right thing even if it meant the risk of disciplinary action. They were content to follow her command.

Because they had nothing to hamper their movement they were able to advance ahead of the enemy party. It wasn't long before they realized that the patrol was heading for a small village at the foot of a mountain. They settled on a ridge on the outskirts of the town, a position that gave them an unimpeded view of the entire area.

Halley was quick to assess the situation and with simple hand signals she was able to direct the Marines into action. They thought and worked as one, instinctively knowing what needed to be done. She watched them disappear into the darkness intent on following the small military procession.

Once again fortune seemed to be on their side as the patrol stopped in front of a small clay brick building on the outskirts of the town. Next to it was a smaller but identical structure, the only difference being the antenna that was positioned on the roof. They watched as part of the group disappeared into building with their prisoners while a lone soldier strolled down the wide road towards the middle of the village.

Eden drifted in and out of consciousness, rousted only briefly by the jarring motions that sent piercingly sharp pains through her entire body. Water was poured down her throat and over her head but it offered little relief to her dehydrated body.

Her captors were speaking in a language alien to her knowledge. They would say something and then prod her injury with their rifle butt or foot. More then once they slapped her harshly across the face, but she could not understand them. Finally they left her alone and she slumped back into unconsciousness.

When she woke the next time she was lying on the floor of a tiny shed. Her ankles and wrists were bound by a crude wire that cut into her skin. The place was stifling and sweat poured out of her body. Her wound burned fiercely and the pounding in her head was so intense she could not focus her vision. She heard some shouting and felt herself being lifted off the dirt and onto a narrow cot. There were more voices and then silence.

Ahmed Azzir stepped into the tiny hut having been filled in by the soldier who had woken him in the middle of the night. He was appalled by the conditions in which the captive was being held. The stench of urine and sickness was almost overpowering. He stared at the battered figure that was sprawled out on a narrow cot, barely able to recognize the human form.

He glanced at the dirty flight suit stained with dirt and blood. He saw the gaping wound that ran the length of the slender body, and the stripes of parachute that had been packed against the torn flesh. The white silk was red from the blood. Finally he looked at the face, bruised and cut so that he was barely able to recognize that this was a woman. He took a deep breath glad that he had come as soon as he had been summoned.

All day yesterday rumours had circulated through the coffee houses that a foreign enemy had bombed their country. Only that morning he had learned from several soldiers receiving treatment in his clinic that one of the attackers had been shot down. He suspected that this was one of the unfortunate pilots.

"Whose there?" Eden asked with a hoarse voice. She sensed rather then saw that she was not alone. She could only distinguish a tall figure standing in the doorway.

"Do not be afraid I am a doctor," a clipped English voice with a thick accent replied. "I have come to examine you."

He turned and barked some orders at the sentry who was standing next to him. The man hesitated and then jumped into action, hurrying outside. The doctor knelt by the cot and gently began to remove the soiled rags that covered the injury. Eden involuntarily shuddered with pain.

"I am sorry but I do not have any morphia," he apologized. He would have asked to have her moved to the village clinic but he knew the local commander would oppose such an idea unwilling to let this prisoner out of his control.

Ahmed opened his medical bag. There wasn't much he could do with the limited amount of supplies at his disposal. The most he could do was cleanse the wound to limit the amount of infection that might set in. The woman needed a proper medical hospital but the nearest facility was several hundred kilometres away. Besides she was a prisoner of the Peoples Army and the last place she was likely to be taken was a hospital.

He worked in silence, admiring the control and strength of his patient. He knew by the severity of the injury that she was in tremendous pain yet she endured his ministrations without a whimper. He could only imagine the effort it took for her to prevent her body from convulsing in spasms of pain. Her teeth were clenched tightly together so that no sound could escape from her mouth. She would not allow them the satisfaction of knowing the agony she was in. However, she could not prevent the way her body cringed at the touch of disinfectant on the open wound.

"You are very brave," Ahmed said pausing briefly before going back to work. "I am sorry, I cannot do much to help you, but I have limited equipment."

"I understand and appreciate that you are doing anything," she said with a grimace. She needed to keep her mind off the pain. "Where did you learn to speak such good English?"

"I took my medical training in London," the doctor replied cordially as he continued to work. "I had intended to train as a surgeon but the war broke out and my professional services were needed here in my homeland."

"But the war had been over for many years," she replied quietly.

"Yes," he nodded solemnly continuing to work in a methodical manner. "Unfortunately I was unable to return to England to continue my studies."

"Do you work for the military?" Eden kept asking questions.

"No," he said briskly tossing another spoiled swab on the floor. "I run a clinic in the nearby village. You are a very valuable prize and the soldiers will be greatly rewarded for capturing you."

"Will you be rewarded for trying to save me?" she wondered as another stab of pain pierced her entire body.

"No," he freely admitted, "but I am a doctor first and am committed to helping every human being."

He paused and fixed her with a steely gaze. "Our people may be at political war with each other but neither of us are monsters. We only do as our leader's request. Besides my brother Asif lives in the United States and studies at Florida State University."

"That must make it very difficult on you," she said astutely.

"Yes," he admitted and said no more.

He could tell this stranger that his years in England had caused people to look on him with distrust and even though he had served his government in the war, he had been denied a new passport to continue with his medical training.

He tried not to think of the personal enemies who had conspired to kick him completely out of the profession or the dissenters who had gotten him sent to this desolate outpost on the frontier border. He and his family had lost almost everything because his younger brother had refused to come home to serve in the army.

Ahmed glanced at the woman. Her eyes were closed and sweat ran like little rivulets down her face. So many times he wished he could have been as brave as his brother, yet he had placed his duty to country and family above his own wishes. In a way he was very much like this woman. Both were willing to sacrifice everything they had for the honour of their nations.

He stared at her face, trying to picture what the woman looked like without the bruises and imagined her to be quite beautiful. Through the narrow slits of her eyes he could just discern the brilliant blue of her eyes. He felt sad that she would probably die young.

He tried not to think about what would happen to his patient once she was turned over to the government authorities. He loved his homeland but he was not blind to the cruelty of its leaders. She might be used as a ransom but she would probably be executed as a terrorist. He was certain that the higher authorities had already been notified and were on their way to collect their prize.

He used all his bandages to repack the wound but he was unhappy with the results. He sighed; there was nothing more he could do. He washed his hands in a bowl of water that had been brought into the room by one of the sentries.

"What are they going to do with me?" she asked clearly, the delirium gone for a brief interval. The man paused and looked down at her. There was no purpose in lying.

"As soon as they are able they will turn you over to their commander," he said. "You will probably be taken to the capital where you will be interrogated."

There was a brief silence as Eden contemplated his words. She tried not to dwell on what would become of her. She watched as the man collected his medical bag.

"What is your name?" she asked unexpectedly.

"Ahmed Azzir," he replied solemnly.

"Thank you Dr. Ahmed Azzir," she said quietly. "It was an honour to meet you."

The man was taken aback by this unexpected graciousness. He stared at her for a long moment and thought that she must be a truly honourable woman. Perhaps if she lived she might even become a great leader.

"Try to sleep. You must conserve your energy," he said abruptly before turning away.

"Will she live?" the Corporal in charge asked as the doctor stepped out of the hut.

"I cannot say," Ahmed was honest. "She has severe injuries and I do not have all the right equipment."

"Perhaps we should kill her?" the soldier suggested indecisively. The doctor was slightly puzzled by this response and before he could help himself he asked the young man if the authorities had been notified. The sentry blushed. "The radio does not work. Captain Hamas has dispatched his son Omar on motorbike to notify the Regional Commander."

Ahmed was thoughtful. He glanced at the trio of soldiers lounging outside the structure in the chilly night air, the burning tips of their cigarettes illuminating their presence in the darkness. They were young and ignorant in the ways of the world for most of these young men were boys that had been born and raised in the village and had been trained only for the local militia.

The doctor glanced out into the darkness that surrounded the landscape. He had seen the world and knew how westerners thought. He was certain that they would not leave their people to perish at the hands of their enemies and it would not have surprised him to learn that at this very moment they were being watched. He turned to the young sentries, realizing that the battered woman just may have a change to live out her life to an old age.

"I would not do anything as stupid as killing your captive," Ahmed scolded. "Instead I would pray to Allah that she lives. The President will be very pleased that you have taken the American prisoner and you will be rewarded accordingly. I suggest that you take very good care of her."

Halley watched as the tall man with the black bag emerged from the hut and stepped up to the group of soldiers that were lounging around the building smoking cigarettes. She watched as he conversed with them for a minute his eyes scanning the landscape as if searching for something. For a moment it seemed that he was looking directly at her but she knew that he could not see her. After a moment he bade his comrade's farewell and headed off down the track that lead through the middle of the village.

She put down her binoculars and rubbed her wearily green eyes. She had decided to move at the first sign of light. They had done a complete reconnaissance of the area and determined it was only a remote military outpost manned by no more than a dozen ill equipped and badly trained soldiers who lived in the village. By their best estimate there was never more then four soldiers on duty at one time, one remaining at the post while the other three performed roving patrols throughout the local sector. Tonight they seemed content to linger around their command post.

In her opinion it would be a simple operation. They would slip into the village, overpower the guards and reclaim the captured airmen. In spite of that she could not help feeling a nagging, troublesome doubt. She didn't want to think that it might be a trap.

She glanced at her watch and settled down to wait. There was still several hours of night left and she was determined not to move prematurely. She had no intention of expending any lives in this operation.

She turned at the sound of soft footfalls and turned in time to see two members of her team drop to the ground next to her position. There was dirt streaks across their painted faces and lines of fatigue etched into the corners of their eyes.

"We effectively disabled their communications system," Sgt. Becker reported the success of their mission without being asked.

"Good, Benning and Garrett found us a shelter about two klicks from here," she informed them having sent the other half of the operations team out to locate a convenient place for them to escape to during the day. "There is a cave, one whose opening is a narrow crevice. We will have to crawl on our bellies to get into it but it is completely secure."

"Good," Becker nodded not bothering to ask how Corporal Garrett managed to find the place in the middle of the night. He knew the young Marine had an uncanny sense for finding things that others never would. More then once the soldier had helped them evade capture.

Halley mentally checked another item off her list. She knew that to retrieve the pilot would bring considerable heat down in the area and that they might have to take refuge for a few days before they would be able to move out of the region and call in an extraction.

"We managed to scrounge some edible vegetation and some water," Becker smiled producing a small pouch of greens.

"You're an angel," the blonde woman smiled, accepting one of the small tubers offered. She bit down on it grimacing at the bitter taste. "Did you get a chance to scout out the village?"

"It's pretty remote, with not more than a thousand or so inhabitants," Becker said. "The only modern convenience we could detect was the radio tower but that looked like it was built in the sixties."

Halley nodded glad that her men had been able to get to the tower before a message was sent. In spite of that she knew that they were working against the clock. She glanced at the luminous dial on her watch.

"We go in two hours," she said and the men nodded immediately understanding. They crawled back to their assigned positions to check their gear one last time to make sure everything was ready to go when they were. If everything went off as planned they would have an hour to disappear before the sun rose in the East.

Continued in Part Two

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