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0330 HOURS
THE SILVER STAR

Matt Shepherd thumped a carafe of strong, hot coffee down on the table. The resulting vibration jostled four sets of arms that were leaning on the table, and the four heads that were resting on those arms. Four sets of eyes glared daggers at their boss. "Rise and
shine, people!" Matt announced in a disgustingly loud tone. Nick, obviously suffering the effects of too much partying the night before, groaned and buried his head in his hands.

Benny Ray opened one eye and focused on his nearest neighbor, Margo. "Since I'm not in the Corps anymore, can I be court-martialed for killing him? Just a little?"

"I dunno, Benny Ray…think we should find out before we start?"

"Deke," Matt boomed out, causing another round of wincing to run through the group. "Since you seem to be the most alert, which isn't saying much, help me start pouring coffee into these three."

"I wasn't asleep," Deke replied shortly.

"Whatever," Matt replied, choosing to ignore the implications of Deke's remark. He handed a cup of coffee to Margo. "Come on, sunshine, let's see those baby greens!"

Her response was another death glare.

When the others had been served, Matt began his briefing. "Now that you're all at least semi-conscious, I do in fact have a legitimate reason for calling you all in at this hour of the night."

"Morning," Nick corrected.

"As I was saying…four hours ago, an American Navy SEAL team and a team of Israeli naval commandos infiltrated and destroyed a biological weapons facility in Iraq." Matt glanced around the table and was pleased to see that he had everyone's attention. "Although they achieved their primary objective, they came under attack and their extraction had to be aborted. One of the choppers was destroyed - the other managed to get clear and make a report."

"What's the situation, sir?" Benny Ray asked.

"All we really know for sure is that both teams are in the custody of Iraqi forces. Beyond that, we just don't know. The diplomats are trying to find a nice, neat way out of this for everyone, but right now everything's up in the air. Technically, our forces violated
their borders…technically, they violated a treaty - it's a very touchy situation, and the politicians on both sides want to put the best possible spin on things."

"How do we fit into this picture?" Deke rumbled in his deep voice.

"We're going to Israel. We're going to be standing by with a contingent from one of the IDF's special ops units…if the negotiations stall, it'll be up to us to get our people out."

"What about the chopper crew?" Margo asked.

"The pilot who made the report said it was a fireball…no chance of survivors."

"And the bodies?" Benny Ray inquired.

"We don't risk live soldiers for dead ones, Benny Ray, you know that…however," Matt continued, raising a hand to forestall any argument, "if we see a reasonable chance to bring those boys home, we'll take it…just keep in mind that our primary obligation is to the
ones who are still alive. Questions?"

"Weapons?" Deke asked.

"The Israelis will be outfitting us."

"Makes sense," Deke approved.

"Yeah, if everyone's firing the same weapons, makes it harder to pick us out of the crowd," Benny Ray agreed.

"And we won't have to worry about finding the right kind of ammo," Margo added.

"When do we leave?" Nick asked.

"Right now," Matt told them.

**********************

ISRAEL

Benny Ray nodded in approval as he examined the Galil sniping rifle that Sayerat Mat'kal operative offered him. "Gracias, amigo," he said with an easy smile.

Margo carefully smothered a grin at the confused expression on the man's face. "Todah rabah," she translated.

The commando nodded an acknowledgement.

Now it was Benny Ray's turn to look puzzled. Margo laid a friendly hand on his shoulder. "Benny Ray, we're in the Middle East," she reminded him gently.

"Yeah, so?"

"So they speak Hebrew, Arabic, Farsi, possibly English… not Spanish."

"Margo!" Deke called. "You know how to talk to these guys?"

"I seem to be managing all right so far."

"Think you can find me someone who speaks English? Got some questions about this," he added, hefting the Galil assault rifle he'd been issued.

"I'll see what I can do," Margo promised. She could tell from the gleam in his eye that Deke was dying to break the rifle down and get a good look at its innards. Margo stopped a passing soldier. "M'dabreem angleet?" she asked.

"Yes, I speak English."

"My friend over there has some questions about his weapon…he's something of a connoisseur." She gestured to Deke and the two men were soon engaged in an animated discussion of the rifle and its features. Margo shook her head in amusement…they were like two big kids in a candy store. She turned and wandered back to where Nick
and Benny Ray were checking out their new rifles.

"Hey, Margo, what've they got for you?" Nick asked curiously.

With a wicked little grin, Margo produced a Micro UZI from a bag slung over her shoulder.

"I could get to like these people," Benny Ray remarked, leaning in to admire the weapon.

"OK, people, I've got some news," Matt announced, as he joined the team. "Where's Deke?"

"He's over there, talking shop," Margo replied.

"We can fill him in later," Matt decided. "It seems we lucked out - for the moment, anyway. Because this incident has become public knowledge, the Iraqis have agreed to a public trial for our people. A Navy JAG team is being flown out to defend them."

"What about the Israeli team?" Margo asked.

"The Israeli government hasn't issued a statement yet."

"Ok, so dat's officially…what about unofficially?" Nick asked.

"Unofficially, we stay right where we are for the time being…at least until we find out where the trial will be held."

"Does anyone really think this trial's gonna be on the up-and-up?" Benny Ray wanted to know.

"Again, officially, the president agreed to their terms…not that he really had a choice, since the alternative would most likely have been immediate execution."

"I hate to sound like Delvecchio," Margo quipped, "but unofficially?"

"Off the record, the IDF has some of their best hostage rescue people working on this…they think our best bet is to play along with this trial. That way, if this thing starts to go south, everyone's in one place - we strike one target and get all our people clear."

********************

"Boss, how much longer we gonna be stuck here?" Benny Ray asked twenty-four hours later.

"I don't know," Matt replied patiently.

"Yeah, Matt," Nick added, "if I hafta watch him break down that rifle one more time - "

"I could break your arm instead," Benny Ray offered.

"If I have to keep listening to these two, I'm gonna break something…or someone," Deke announced.

"Look on the bright side," Margo commented, "this is one of the top counter-terrorist units in the world - we can learn a lot from them."

Benny Ray grinned wolfishly. "Darlin,' I already know how to take down tangos…just point…and shoot." He demonstrated, aiming his weapon at a spot on the wall.

Matt reached out and pushed the barrel of the rifle down. "Stand down, soldier. Alot of these people don't speak our language…this is not a good place for misunderstandings." As if to underscore his point, two soldiers walked past, eyeing the team warily. They all
smiled and tried to look relatively harmless. Matt expelled the breath he'd been holding explosively. "All right, I know all this hanging around is getting to everyone, but Margo's right - these people are just about the best at what they do…there's a lot we can
teach one another."

"If we could understand what they're saying," Benny Ray muttered.

"I understand them just fine," Margo said innocently.

"Great…dat makes one of us," Nick muttered.

"Is there any new intel from Baghdad?" Margo asked in response to Matt's unspoken plea to get the discussion back on track.

"Nothing we don't already know…hell, we might just get lucky this time…the diplomats are doing the best they can - damn fine job, too - everyone may just be able to walk out of there."

"If the Iraqis are on the level," Deke intoned somberly.

"That's a mighty big if," Benny Ray added.

"Does anyone know what all dese guys were so uptight about dis morning?' Nick asked curiously.

"Yeah," Margo replied. "It seems their government dispatched a legal team to defend their people at the trial. The Iraqis denied them entry - said they were commandos, not lawyers."

"Were they?" Matt asked.

Margo shook her head. "They're not saying…and it really isn't any of our business."

"It is if it gets us shot at," Benny Ray objected.

"So who's defending the Israeli team?" Deke asked.

"Our Navy JAG lawyers, evidently," Matt told him.

"How many friendlies do we have to worry about pulling out of there, Major?" Benny Ray wanted to know.

Matt consulted his notes. "A SEAL squad - one officer and seven men; four Israeli operatives; two JAG officers; one representative from the State Department; and if at all possible, the bodies of the three-man Sea Sprite crew."

"Eighteen total," Margo remarked.

"Yeah, and the JAGs probably won't be armed…and God only knows what condition the prisoners are in," Matt added grimly.

"This could get real messy," Benny Ray muttered.

"It's our job to see that it doesn't," Matt told them.

****************************

Sleep eluded Matt Shepherd, his nerves wired as tight as a detonator switch. The team was sprawled around the small chamber in various attitudes of somnolence. Nick stirred and mumbled in his sleep. Deke's lanky frame was stretched out under the map table. Benny Ray was slumped beside the doorway, his arms wrapped loosely around his
rifle.

Margo was stretched out close beside Matt. Of them all, she seemed most at ease here. This was probably the first place they'd worked where no one questioned the presence of a woman on a combat mission - they simply treated her as they would any other soldier. She's spent the time since their arrival translating for the two groups, honing and refining her knowledge of Hebrew and Arabic. As if sensing his scrutiny, her green eyes slit open, cat-like in the semi-darkness. "You should be resting," she chided in a breathy whisper.

"I know," he murmured, "I'm just a little anxious right now."

Margo propped herself up on one elbow. "I know…waiting's always the worst… Want me to try and scrounge you a cup of tea…or something?" she offered, frowning as she recalled that this base was located deep in the desert and that she had no idea what constituted a soothing beverage around here.

Matt was thinking the same thing and chuckled softly. "No thanks, Margo. I'm fine, really. You go on back to sleep." He patted her leg reassuringly.

Her expression was dubious, but Margo finally lay back down. A few moments later, her soft, even respirations relaxed into the soothing rhythm of slumber. Matt watched her for a long time before sleep finally claimed him as well.

******

"OK, people, listen up - we've got some new intel," Matt announced.

Curious, the others gathered around the table as he unrolled some blueprints.

"These are the plans for the Polish consulate building," Matt told them.

"Where's we get dese from?" Nick wanted to know.

Margo chuckled merrily. "Actually, the Israelis got them from the Polish delegation…right after they moved in. They wanted an ally to have the resources to get their people out in a hurry if necessary."

"OK, what're we gonna do with 'em boss?" Benny Ray asked.

"We're gonna work out a contingency plan for getting the two JAGs and the representative from State out of there if need be."

"Uh, Matt? What're our people doing in the Polish Embassy?" Nick asked. "What?" he demanded, as the others rolled their eyes and heaved exasperated sighs. "What?"

"Delvecchio, don't you ever read a newspaper?" Deke asked disgustedly.

"Or a mission briefings?" Matt demanded sternly.

"Uh, yeah, sure…sometimes…aw, come on…why're dey in the Polish Embassy?"

Matt glared at Nick with a 'you and I are going to have a long talk about this' look in his eye. "They're staying t the Polish Embassy for the same reason they flew in on a Polish military transport - Americans aren't welcome in Iraq. For those of us who haven't been
paying attention to current events for the last decade, the Polish diplomatic mission to Iraq looks after American interests in that country."

"I knew dat," Nick muttered.

Matt gave him another hard look.

"What about the SEAL team and the Israeli operatives?" Margo asked.

"We think they're being held in a military prison in Baghdad."

"We got the plans for that one?" Benny Ray asked hopefully.

"Workin' on it," Matt replied. "One thing at a time. Now, here," he pointed to the schematic, "these are the VIP guest quarters…they'll be somewhere on this floor…"

************************

"What're you so happy about?" Nick grumbled as Margo stepped over and around the equipment the team was busy breaking down and cleaning.

"It seems we finally caught a break," she told them, smiling.

"We're about due," Matt remarked.

"The Iraqis have agreed to return the bodies of the Sea Sprite crew…there was a great deal of diplomatic and media pressure."

"I can guess which of those was more effective," Deke commented.

"And you'd be correct," Margo told him.

"OK, boss, that makes three friendlies out of the line of fire," Benny Ray remarked.

"Right. Dat just leaves the udda fifteen," Nick replied.

"Yeah, but the other fifteen are a lot more mobile than those three caskets," Deke reminded him.

Matt had a far-away look in his eyes.

'Must remind him of his dad,' Margo thought. She nudged his arm gently. "Hey - score one for the good guys."

Matt smiled back at her. "Hold that thought. OK, folks, listen up. We have three of our people in the Polish Embassy; the other twelve are being held in a military prison in Baghdad. Assuming we have to go in and get them we'll need to synchronize two different ops.

"Now, the diplomats still have to be able to function here after we're gone, so we've decided to stage that one to look like a political kidnapping. Our hosts have managed to find us a rifle that shoot tranquilizer darts - we'll trank everyone we encounter and leave enough damage to make it look like the embassy staff put up a struggle. Benny Ray, you'll handle the rifle, Nick you're with him."

"'Scuse me, sir, but are you sure you can spare us both?" Benny Ray asked. "That prison looks to be pretty heavily fortified," he added, studying the satellite photo that Israeli intelligence had provided.

"I want you handling that rifle - remember, you'll be shooting at our own people, and I want someone I trust to cover your back. Besides, you both sound American. You can reassure our people if need be - I don't want them getting hurt trying to fight you off."

Beside him, Margo covered her mouth to smother a laugh. Matt looked at her quizzically.

"Sorry…it's just that one of those JAG lawyers is a lady Marine…that raises some doubts as to who would get the worst of that fight!"

"She's got that one right, Major!" Benny Ray chuckled.

"Now, the commander of this unit will be providing you with four men as backup. You'll be entering the embassy in the middle of the night, so you shouldn't encounter much resistance. You have three targets, two males and one female. The goal is to tranquilize them, fly them to Tel Aviv and drop them off at the American Embassy there.
They'll be safe and they can honestly say that they have no idea what happened."

"Slick," Deke commented.

Matt nodded. "Our op is a lot more straight forward - we just go in, grab our people and leave. There are eight Americans and four Israelis. We're not sure what condition these men are in - we may need to carry some of them out. Questions?"

"When do we go?" Margo inquired.

"We're still in a holding pattern. We definitely want to wait until the chopper crew is out of Iraq, and the brass want to see if they can't get the others out peacefully too. Unless we get new intel, the earliest we'd move would be tomorrow night."

********************

Matt poked his head into the small chamber his team occupied. "Time to rock and roll, people - briefing room in five."

Nick shook his head in amazement. "I don't get it. We're about ta be airlifted into a country where dey use Americans for target practice and he's actin' like it's his birthday or somthin'."

"No one in their right mind wants to fly into Iraq," Deke replied.

"My point exactly!"

"The Major has a chance here to do what he does best…make sure everyone comes home," Benny Ray said thoughtfully. He slapped Nick on the shoulder as he passed. "C'mon, Delvecchio - get a move on!"

"I'm comin', I'm comin'," Nick grumbled as he followed his teammates down the corridor to the briefing room.

Matt and Margo were standing at a large table conferring with the leader of the unit, a man who'd been introduced only as 'Jared.' They were studying a large map, as well as another selection of satellite photos and the plans for the Polish consulate.

"Gather round, people," Matt instructed. "First item, the remains of the chopper crew arrived at Ben Gurion airport early this afternoon. They were met by the American Ambassador and are currently en route home for burial. Second item, shortly thereafter, the military tribunal declared our people guilty. The executions are set for dawn, which means we move right now."

He looked to Jared who nodded an acknowledgement and began the briefing.

"There's a C-130 standing by to take us in. My people have experience in this sort of thing - they'll follow a standard commercial flight path. At thirty five thousand feet, we'll HALO into the desert outside Baghdad. Some of my people will meet you on the ground and take you into the city."

"HALO?" Nick inquired.

"High altitude, low opening jump," Benny Ray translated.

"Jump? You mean like jump outta the plane?" Nick asked, looking a little green.

"Yes, Delvecchio, we jump outta the plane. Next?" Matt asked pointedly.

Jared made a quiet comment, which engendered a round of chuckles.

Matt raised an eyebrow and looked to Margo.

"He says Nick can sit next to Bruno on the plane - they can entertain one another."

"You've got one, too, huh?" Matt said sympathetically.

Jared nodded.

"All right then," Matt continued. "Once we get to Baghdad, we split up. Benny Ray, you and Nick take your team into the embassy. Benny Ray, your target is the three Americans - Nick you'll cover him. The rest of the team will take care of any resistance you encounter. Now, the stuff you'll be shooting our people with will keep them out
long enough to get them back to Tel Aviv. You're going to tape their wrists and put bags over their heads - want this to look like a kidnapping, remember."

"What about the embassy staff?" Benny Ray asked.

"Same drug, different dosage."

"Daniel and Miriam will take care of that," Jared told them, indicating two of his people. "The others will have standard rifles to cover your backs."

Matt nodded. "The embassy is on the opposite side of the city. When they wake up and start calling for help, they'll be drawing attention away from the prison. Once you have our people, your main objective is to get them out, you'll proceed directly to the exfil point - here," he indicated, pointing to a spot on the map.

"Roger that, sir," Benny Ray confirmed.

"Margo and Deke, you're with me. We hit the prison, collect our people and head out. Questions?"

"Yeah," Deke replied, "we get to use real guns?"

"Oh, yeah - we get real guns and real explosives…" Matt saw Deke's eyes light up at that.

"It is a very massive stone building - there will be plenty for you to blow up," Jared added with a grin.

"Da we know what shape our people are in?" Nick inquired.

"The report from the Red Cross observers cites assorted gunshot wounds and minor traumas. We have one confirmed leg wound - he'll have to be carried. Another has serious chemical burns…as far as we know, everyone else is mobile," Margo supplied.

"How we gonna extract, Major?" Benny Ray asked.

"Two CH-53s will rendezvous with us out in the dessert."

"Two?" Benny Ray asked.

"You wanna walk if the first one breaks down?"

**************************

C-130 HERCULES
EN ROUTE TO IRAQ

"So tell me again," Nick was asking, "how will I know when to pull the metal thingy?"

"Pull the rip cord when I tell you to," Matt told him…again.

"But how am I gonna hear you?"

"There's a comm in the oxygen mask," Margo assured him.

"And we'll all be right there with you," Deke added.

"Yeah, but 'right there' is gonna be thirty five thousand feet up on the wrong side of the airplane!"

"Which side would that be?" Deke rumbled pleasantly.

"The outside!"

******

IRAQI DESERT

Nick lay on the ground groaning. The others touched down around him, quickly unstrapping their chutes and drawing weapons.

"Nick! Are you all right?" Matt asked.

"Why's the ground still moving?" Nick moaned.

"He's fine," Margo shot back.

"Easy fer you ta say!"

"On your feet, Delvecchio!" Benny Ray snapped, hauling him unceremoniously upright.

A few yards away, a similar process was taking place involving, Bruno, the other unwilling jumper.

"Please tell me I'm not getting' stuck with both of 'em," Benny Ray prayed fervently.

There was a shout in Hebrew. Matt looked sharply to Margo.

"Incoming," she translated tersely, bringing up her night vision scope. Others followed suit.

Benny Ray brought out his sniping rifle.

One of the Israelis waved him off. "B'se'der!"

"Huh?"

Margo quickly questioned the operative in Hebrew. "She says it's OK…that's our transpo."

"This is gonna be a long night," Benny Ray muttered as three small trucks pulled up.

"No," Matt countered, "it's gonna be a real short one. We go in, get our people and get out. You know the drill."

"Yes, I do, sir. Everyone comes home." He held out his hand and Matt slapped it.

"That's right. Everyone." Matt turned to boost Margo into the truck with Jared.

"See you soon, Major."

"Count on it!" Matt called as the truck pulled away.

*************************

POLISH EMBASSY
BAGHDAD, IRAQ

The truck carrying Benny Ray's team rolled to a silent stop at the service entrance of the consulate. Daniel quickly tranked the single guard. Nick patted him down and produced a set of keys. They entered the building and dragged the guard inside.

"The plans show the VIP quarters on the third floor. Let's do it, people."

Daniel and Miriam took down two more guards at the main staircase.

"How long'll they be out?" Benny Ray asked quietly.

"Long enough," Miriam replied, with a wolfish grin.

"I hope so," Nick muttered.

"Y'meena!" Daniel whispered sharply. The other Israelis looked right as he aimed and fired in one motion. Guard number four was out of the game.

One of their escorts indicated an ornate door on the third floor.

Benny Ray nodded and they pushed the door open, alert for movement.

The room appeared to be a sitting room, with four doors opening off of it. The first revealed an empty bed and bath suite. The second had one occupant, a sleeping man who Benny Ray quickly tranquilized.

Nick checked his pulse quickly. "Sleepin' like a baby," he announced.

"Looks like the guy from State," Benny Ray murmured, quickly taping the man's wrists together and slipping a black bag over his head.

Daniel hoisted the unconscious man over his shoulder carefully, while Miriam checked the bathroom.

They found one of the JAG lawyers in the next room - a tall, dark-haired man. Nick got off a shot while Benny Ray checked the bath. Miriam traded weapons with one of her teammates, a burly man, the only one of the group tall enough to manage the lanky man. As he hefted the officer over his shoulder, he accidentally knocked into the nightstand, tipping a small clock onto the floor. They froze, listening to see if the noise would attract any attention.

When it didn't, Benny Ray gestured them forward. He paused outside the fourth bedroom door, thinking he'd heard a movement.

"Clear?" Nick mouthed.

Benny Ray shrugged. They had a schedule to keep. He eased the door open, surprising a tall woman with short dark hair. He fired immediately, hitting her left shoulder. The woman clutched at the dart, swaying on her feet. Even as she fell, she managed to grab a
small vase from her nightstand and heave it at them, striking Nick, who yelped in pain.

"Calm down lady - we're Americans!" Nick hissed as she collapsed.

"Smooth, Delvecchio. Very smooth," Benny Ray remarked. "You did good, ma'am," he murmured in a peculiarly gentle tone as he checked the unconscious woman's pulse.

Nick lifted her over his shoulder while Benny Ray switched rifles. "You take the lady and I'll take point. Let's go, people!"

They moved quickly through the silent building back out to their vehicle.

"You think the others are OK?" Nick asked as the truck headed out to the rally point.

"They'll be fine," Benny Ray replied firmly.

"But how da ya know?" Nick persisted.

"I don't know - but I have to believe. I have to believe that they did their job and we're all gonna make it outta here."

"And if they don't?" Miriam asked curiously.

Benny Ray turned to look her in the eye. "If they don't, we still complete our mission - we get these people to safety - then we come back. We don't leave our people behind."

"Neither do we," the Israeli operative informed him. "If you have to come back, so will we." Her compatriots nodded their agreement.

"Thank you, ma'am."

"You are welcome," she replied. "Let us hope that no one has to come back here."

"Roger that," Benny Ray agreed.

**************************

IRAQI MILITARY PRISON

The two trucks stopped outside the walls of the prison. One operative remained behind to guard the vehicles.

Matt jumped out and held out a hand to help Margo down. Then he looked up at the massive stone monolith that was their target. "My God," he breathed, "that thing's built like a mountain."

Jared nodded. "But it does have its' weaknesses. Follow me."

They crept down a foul-smelling, dead-end alley littered with rotting trash. Jared gave a signal and two of his men stepped forward to help him lift a man hole cover. One of his men slipped on night vision goggles and started down. A moment later, he called up that
it was clear. The others followed down the ladder.

"Charming," Margo muttered under her breath. She slung the micro-Uzi over her shoulder and started down the ladder.

Jared went down next.

"Go on," Deke offered, "I'll cover your six."

Matt nodded and started down, careful to keep a good grip on the slimy ladder rungs. The stench hit him about half way down. Dropping down the last few feet into the squalid water, he looked around quickly. Margo caught his eye and gave him a smile and a
thumbs-up. "Jared," he called in a loud whisper. "Do we need to leave someone up top?"

"No. It's a dead end…Ari knows where to watch."

Deke followed with the last Israeli operative, the two of them pausing to slide the manhole cover back into place. Once they were all down, Jared barked a command and several of his people produced lights.

Matt sucked in a deep breath of the foul air. Big mistake. His eyes watered as he fought not to choke.

"Breath shallow, man…it's a little easier that way," Deke advised, clapping him on the shoulder.

"Yeah…I noticed," Matt wheezed, coughing slightly.

They followed the sewer until they encountered a rusty metal grate.

Matt thought at first that they'd have to blow it, but two of the Israelis went to work on the rotten mortar and tugged it free in short order, allowing the team to pass, then setting it back in place. He noticed that the stonework on the other side was older - they must be underneath the building now. Rough stone steps led up out of the sewer, which was good. Unfortunately, their presence disturbed the residents of this lowest ring of hell, four-legged residents with long tails. The rats squealed their displeasure at being disturbed, some jumping into the water to swim…or to drown.

Matt's leg bumped against one of the latter, triggering memories…another old stone prison…a drowned rat in the water bucket…and the screams echoing from the walls… Matt shook his head sharply, banishing the torrent of images. Glancing over at Margo, he
saw that she'd gone deathly pale and her eyes were very wide. Damn. He should have thought of this…but he and Deke didn't speak any local language, and she did.

Matt slogged over to her side and nudged her gently with his elbow. "Hey…how you doing?" he asked, mustering his most charming grin.

Margo gave him a weak smile. "I'll make it," she whispered back.

"Yes, you will," Matt told her firmly. "We are on the right side of the bars this time, OK? Deke and I are right here, and we won't let anything happen to you."

"I know." The smile she manufactured this time was a bit more genuine. "Everyone comes home, right?"

"That's right," Matt agreed.

The team scrambled gratefully out of the water. Jared ordered the lights off and they held position for a few moments, allowing their eyes and ears to become accustomed to their surroundings. The constant drip of water and occasional squeals of rats were enough to
strain anyone's nerves, and Margo was very grateful to feel Matt standing close beside her in the darkness.

Finally, Jared gave the order and they moved cautiously up the steps. At the top, the point man gestured sharply to the left. At the end of the corridor was a massively fortified door. Deke came forward to check it out and one of Jared's people handed him a bag of plastique and detonators.

"Y'all better get back a ways," Deke advised.

The group moved back from the door.

"Fire in the hole!" Deke yelled as he and his associate came flying back down the corridor. A moment later the door blew off its hinges.

Deke was up and moving through the billowing clouds of dust, firing at the startled guards on the other side of what used to be the doorway.

**********************

RALLY POINT
IRAQI DESERT

"You sure this is the place?" Nick asked again.

"Yes, Delvecchio, I am sure. Now will you shut the hell up?" Benny Ray replied irritably as he scanned the night sky.

"Why? We're out in the middle of the freakin' dessert!"

"Because I'm tryin' to look for our ride, an' listen fer the Major, an' because if you say one more word I'm gonna break your jaw. Comprende?"

"Awright, awright."

"Go make yourself useful…check on our three passengers."

"Wa for? Dey're asleep."

"You wanna join 'em?" Benny Ray continued his search. "Heads up, people...we have incoming…" A moment later, he heard a tinny voice through his comm. He had no clue what was being said, but the Israelis relaxed, engaging the safeties on their weapons.

"Our ride!" Miriam shouted over the din of the rotors. "They need to refuel. Have you heard from Jared or your major yet?"

"No, ma'am, I have not," Benny Ray replied gravely.

"I'm sure they're fine," she tried to reassure him. "The walls in that prison are very thick, and Jared won't want to risk a transmission while they're still undetected."

"I'm sure you're right, ma'am," Benny Ray responded, fervently hoping that she was.

 

**********************

IRAQI MILITARY PRISON

"How close are we?" Matt whispered to Jared.

"From the level of resistance, I'd say quite near," the Israeli leader replied, irritably wiping blood from his forehead.

"Are you all right?" Margo asked, concerned.

"I'm fine," Jared assured them.

"All right then," Matt continued, "we've absolutely got to take down any guards before they have a chance to open fire on our people.

"Agreed," Jared responded. "I think..."

"Matt, down!" Margo yelled.

Matt dropped to the floor instantly as Margo's bullet whizzed over his head, impacting with the man who'd been aiming for him. "Deke!" he yelled.

"I'm on it," came the swift reply, followed shortly by the shock of a grenade.

The group surged forward firing, taking full advantage of the Iraqis' distraction. Matt shot the final guard, who was reaching for a phone. As the team entered the cellblock, they realized that none of their people were there. Jared ordered his team to question the
captives, trying to determine who they were. A few moments later, they reported back to him.

"Mostly Iranian," Jared translated, "some Egyptian, some Saudis..."

A scuffle erupted and they turned to see Margo and Deke trying to dissuade one of the Israelis from shooting a prisoner.

"Hey! Back off!" Matt shouted.

Jared questioned his man sharply, then turned back to the Americans in weary resignation. "Palestinian," he explained. "Old hatreds, you understand."

"We don't have time for any kind of hatred right now," Matt insisted. He thought hard for a moment. "Let them loose - all of them," he decided.

"Some of these people are our enemies," Jared replied darkly.

"I know - that's the idea. If we let all the prisoners out, it'll create some confusion about who's behind this and help to cover our tracks."

Jared still hesitated.

"Look," Deke added in his most reasonable tone, "we're not asking you to bring these people home to meet your mama…just open the cell doors and let them go."

Finally, Jared nodded and barked orders to his people.

Matt grinned slightly. "Come on, we've still got a job to do."

They made their way deeper into the building, disposing of guards as they encountered them. One of Jared's people limped along, supported by a comrade.

"Is he gonna make it?" Matt asked.

"He will make it," Jared assured him, "if I have to carry him out myself."

Matt nodded - he'd do the same. From farther down the corridor, he heard shouts in English. "Let's move it, people!"

Rounding a corner, they interrupted a group of soldiers who were about to open fire on the prisoners and a brief firefight ensued. One lone Iraqi soldier tried to escape down the hallway, but the prisoners spotted him and yelled. A moment later Jared picked him off.

"We're here to get you out!" Matt announced.

Deke set to work placing small charges to blow the cell doors while Margo covered him. "Get back and cover your faces," he instructed.

Margo quickly repeated the direction in Hebrew.

A single soldier emerged from one of the cells, clutching at a bloodstained bandage wound around one arm. "Who are you people?"

"That's need to know…and right now, you don't," Matt informed him curtly. "What shape are your men in, Lieutenant?"

The battered man nodded once…he'd said the same thing often enough himself. "Report?" he called out to the men in the next cell.

"Bastard got Johnny, sir."

"Damn!"

"I'm sorry," Matt offered. "We'll bring him out with us."

"Thanks. I got one man with a leg wound."

"We know." Matt nodded to Margo and she went to check on the wounded man. "Anything else we need to know about?"

"One of the Israelis died last night. The guy who got burned by that stuff at the plant."

Margo quickly assessed the SEALs' injuries. "Can the rest of you walk out of here?"

The response was a chorus of "Hell, yes!" followed by a belated "Ma'am."

She smiled. Two of the SEALs got their injured comrade to his feet, while a third carefully lifted their dead companion over his shoulders.

"Got any extra weapons?" the lieutenant wanted to know.

Matt passed him his sidearm, and nodded to Margo, who scrounged firearms for the others.

The lieutenant briefly examined the Desert Eagle and nodded approvingly.

"How are you doing over there?" Matt called to Jared, who was checking his compatriots.

One of the men made a quiet comment and Jared laughed. "They have had quite enough of the Iraqis' hospitality," he translated.

"I'll bet," Matt replied. "Can they move?"

"Yes," Jared replied firmly.

"All right then, let's go."

The lieutenant tapped Matt on the arm as they moved out. "Did they really send the bodies of the helo crew home?" he asked quietly.

"That's what our intel says."

"What about our lawyers, and that guy from State?"

"Everyone's being taken care of. Let's just keep focused on getting out of this building."

"I hear that one, sir," the lieutenant grinned.

They were headed for the street when they encountered the bodies of several of the prisoners they'd set free. Matt signaled for silence. Jared gestured and one of his people scouted ahead. Moments later, there was a burst of gunfire and a voice cried out a fragment of a Hebrew prayer…one last service to his people, warning them that the
enemy was ahead.

Matt swore. "Deke, what's the situation back there?" Before Deke could answer, Matt got his answer in the sharp report of gunshots. "Forward it is," Matt muttered, then louder, "Deke, can you delay them?"

"I've got your six, Major," came the affirmative reply.

The concussion of several grenades rocked the corridor to the rear of the team. They exploded out of the sifting dust, firing on the knot of enemy soldiers who were trying to hold a doorway to the street. The last Iraqi fell before fire from Margo's micro-Uzi, then she and one of the Israeli operatives were setting charges to blow the door.

The team shrank back against the wall as the heavy door blew. As he was moving for the exit, Matt noticed movement from one of the downed bodies. It was the Israeli scout that they thought they'd lost. Reversing course, he headed over to the fallen man.

"Matt?" Margo shouted.

"Go on - I'm right behind you!" Slinging his rifle over his shoulder, Matt gently turned the operative over checking for a pulse. Hearing a weak moan, he carefully lifted the semi-conscious man. "Hang on, buddy, we're going home."

As he stood, Matt found himself face to face with an Iraqi soldier - and an assault rifle. The man's finger tightened on the trigger, but the shot that rang out was from Jared's pistol. Heaving a sigh of relief, Matt stumbled to his feet and followed the others from the
building.

************************

RALLY POINT
IRAQI DESERT

Benny Ray was scanning the horizon with his night vision scope when he heard Matt's voice through his comm. "Major, what's your sitrep?" he replied quickly.

"We're on our way out of the city. Are the choppers there?"

"Yes, sir. They're refueling now."

"Good. Get set up - there might be some party crashers."

"Roger that, sir. Everyone all right?"

"We're bringing out two dead and some wounded. Deke and Margo are fine. You?"

"Our three guests are sleepin' like babies. They're already aboard one of the choppers."

"Good work. See you soon."

"We'll be waitin'," Benny Ray promised.

******

Matt heaved a sigh if relief as the two choppers came into view. "Benny Ray?" he said into his comm.

The sniper's voice came in clearly through Matt's earpiece. "Yeah, Boss?"

"I can see the rally point. Those birds ready to go?"

"Yes sir. They just finished refueling. You folks bringin' any company with you?"

"That's a negative," Matt laughed. "They're all back in the city…repairing roadbeds."

"Do tell?"

"Deke decided that a few new potholes were in order," Matt elaborated.

"Yeah," Margo chimed in, "the kind you lose the whole front end of your car in…Nick would have been right at home."

"Hey!" Nick protested, "da roads in New York aren't dat bad!"

"No, Delvecchio, they're worse," Benny Ray retorted. "I can see you now, sir," he added as he spotted the trucks.

The trucks skidded to a stop near the choppers and the teams quickly began loading the injured and the dead aboard. Benny Ray caught Margo as she jumped down. "You OK?" he asked softly.

She nodded, smiling at him before turning to help one of the injured. Nick moved up to help her and she got a good look at the puffy, bruised cut over his eye.

"What happened to you?"

Nick shrugged elaborately. "Well, you know how dese things are - between that, ah, halogen jump-"

"You mean HALO," Margo corrected."

"Yeah…dat. Well anyways-"

"It was the lady Marine, wasn't it?" Deke asked.

"Mm-hmm," Benny Ray purred. "She grabbed somethin' off her nightstand and let fly. Pegged 'im good, didn't she?"

"Benny Ray," Margo scolded, trying not to giggle, "you were supposed to shoot them before they could do anything like that!"

"Hey - I already had a dart in her when she got 'im!" the sniper protested.

The last operative jumped down and Benny Ray slapped the tailgate. The driver waved once as she pulled away.

"Time to go, people!" Matt shouted above the noise from the rotors.

Climbing aboard the chopper, Matt went over to check on the man he'd carried out of the prison. "How's he doing?" he asked Jared, who was field dressing the man's wounds.

"I don't know if he will make it…but I do know that whatever chance he has, it's because of you."

Matt nodded and patted the injured man's shoulder gently. "You're going home," he whispered, as the chopper became airborne.

***************************


AMERICAN EMBASSY
TEL AVIV, ISRAEL

From his vantage point in a car parked on a side street, Benny Ray observed intently as a van rolled to a stop across the street from the embassy. When it pulled away moments later, three forms lay unmoving on the sidewalk. "Major, the package has been delivered,"
he muttered into his comm.

"Anyone sign for it yet?" Matt wanted to know.

"Not yet, sir."

"Come on, boys," Margo muttered under her breath.

A detachment of Marines came out of the embassy compound to check the bodies.

"We got activity, Boss."

"Marines…wait, this guy looks like a medic," Margo elaborated.

"They're bringing out stretchers," Benny Ray reported.

"OK, that's the ambassador," Margo stated.

"Good. Now get back here so we can all go home," Matt ordered.

***************************

THE SILVER STAR

Debbie set up a round of beers as Matt, Margo, Benny Ray and Nick flopped onto the couches and chairs in their favorite corner. "You guys look beat," she observed as she passed out the bottles. "That must have been some conference!"

"Darlin', you have no idea," Benny Ray told her with as straight a face as he could muster.

"Anything exciting happen while we were gone?" Matt asked casually.

"Well, not really…I mean nothing besides that big trial."

"What trial wazzat?" Nick asked innocently.

Debbie stared at him like he'd suddenly sprouted another head. "You mean you don't know?" she asked incredulously. "It's been in all the papers and on the TV and the radio."

Margo cleared her throat to choke down a laugh. "Who was on trial?" she asked.

"It was some Navy guys - you, know, the top secret ones? Well, anyway, they got caught - over there in the Middle East - and they were put on trial for being spies and they were going to be executed, but then they disappeared!" She paused to catch her breath.

"Funny," Matt commented, looking puzzled, "I can't imagine how we could have missed something like that."

Finis.

**************

For further details on this mission, you may wish to refer to my (alternate universe) JAG fanfic "A Walk in the Garden: Red Rose." posted at my archive: http://www.geocities.com/Hollywood/Lot/3958/

**************

Miss Kathleen A. Klatte
kat@gsidigital.com
kawklatte@aol.com
http://members.xoom.com/Kath725/

Feedback is most welcome.

Disclaimer: SOF is the property of Rysher, et al this is a recreational endeavor, no profit is being made and no copyright infringement is intended.

Notes: Fortitudo is Latin for physical strength, moral bravery and courage. The plural form signifies 'deeds of bravery.'

Spoilers: "Tight Spot;" "Party Girl."

Thanks to: Chris, Dr. Ranger, Gunslinger, Chris, the folks on the SOF Fanfic list, and especially Tom.

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