January 15 1990
Western Iraq

John Lynch woke to sounds familiar since his youth: gunfire, explosions, the choppy flutter of rotor blades. A man cried out in an unknown language, his voice high-pitched with alarm; a burst of gunfire drowned his cries, and when it ceased, he was silent. Lynch had heard it all before. He opened his eyes to a dark sky drifted with smoke lit by flames, and that was familiar too. Nevertheless, he felt certain that something was very wrong.

A face appeared close above him, peering down: adult, male, Asiatic. He almost reached for the man's throat before he recognized the face: Phillip. Phillip Chang. "Easy, Top. Don't try to move. Just lie quiet, not much longer." The man's voice was oddly muffled, and his outline blurry, but Lynch could make out the man's sand-camo fatigues and boonie hat – and the deep concern under the calm words.

"The other missiles are locked down, and the crews are out of action," someone outside of Lynch's field of view said. "I'm guessing the operation planners will call this a win." A pause. "Christ. Doesn't he sleep at all anymore? Not even with a skinful of painkillers?"

"Guess the eggheads thought a trooper who didn't need sleep would be a force multiplier or something." Phillip raised his head to the sky. "Just gotta keep him quiet till we're out of here. Hear the choppers? That's should be our relief, a shitload of Rangers."

"Coming in an hour ahead of CNN, probably." The unseen man's voice was bitter. "The unsung heroes of Team Seven save the world again, and ride off into the sunset without even leaving a fricking silver bullet." Lynch finally connected the voice to a name: Slayton. But he couldn't remember if it was the man's first or last name.

"World's a lot easier to save if the bad guys never see you coming, Marcus. I don't think celebrity would be a good thing in our line of work." Phillip turned back to him with a smile that was glassy and brittle, and the two-handed grip on his assault rifle was a little too tight. "We'll be on our way home before anybody knows what happened here. And then the best doctors in the world are gonna go to work on you. They'll fix you up better than new, you'll see." He let go of the rifle with his right hand and reached towards Lynch's left shoulder, but checked his motion halfway there and reached awkwardly cross-body to pat his right one instead. "Marcus. Where's Mike?"

Mike. Michael Cray, Lynch thought. Formerly of the U.S. Navy's Special Operations Group, a SEAL. Specialist in demolition, covert insertion, night-fighting, silent killing. The information appeared in his mind like an open file, not the image of a man. Then, finally, an image: A big burly man with a do-rag on his head, trading jokes with Lynch as he cleaned his weapon. One tough sonofabitch. One of my men, and a good friend.

"He's okay. Not wounded, I mean. He just needs a few minutes alone, is all. I'll go find him." Slayton moved off. "Christ on a crutch, what a balls-up."

Lynch couldn't remember what had happened, or where he was, or why he was here. A mission, certainly, but that knowledge came from deduction, not memory. Trauma, he thought. Probably not a gunshot; his wonky vision and hearing argued for a concussion, probably from an explosion – grenade, maybe, or a mine… That explained the short-term memory loss, too...

He tried to move. His left arm was immobile, bound to his side perhaps. He raised his right hand towards his face, only to have it grasped and forced back down to his side. "Leave it alone, Top," Phillip said. "Don't want to risk an infection."

He closed his right eye: darkness. My face must be bandaged too. "Where-" Where are the others?

Another figure appeared beside Phillip, dwarfing him: Dane. "Battin cleanup now, is all." Dane's goofy bush hat sat crookedly on his head, and tipped even further as he turned away, looking at something beyond Lynch's sight. "Not much to do, really. Lights goin out allll over, just a few little fireflies left. Pretty." Sweat beaded the man's forehead and neck. Lynch noticed Dane wasn't carrying his rifle, and his hands hung loose at his sides. "They can't touch us. I'm thinkin the bullets back into their guns." A whump punctuated this statement, and Dane smiled gently. "Nothin to it."

The big man looked Lynch's way without actually looking at him; damned if Lynch could figure what he was looking at. His eyes reminded Lynch of an old-fashioned fuse panel, the mica windows clouded by overloads. "Pretty colors. Coulda done this from home, you know? Let em fire their little missiles, and think em right back into the launchers. Lotsa sparks, and spaghetti too. Next time." Dane turned away and wandered off.

The mojo. It's taken him. Lynch wasn't sure what the 'mojo' was, but he knew they all had it, and it was dangerous and hungry. Two down, six to go. Who'll be next? He blinked at Phillip and swallowed to wet his throat. "Watch him," he said hoarsely.

Chang gave Lynch a neutral look. "I know the drill, Top," he said. "We'll get him on the bird and trank him. Team Eight's already formed up for evac, so it won't be long. When Seven hands off to the Army boys, we're outta here." His hands flexed on his rifle. "I'm going to find a stretcher. I'll be right back. Just stay with us till then, okay?" He moved away.

That was when Lynch realized: when he and Phillip had been alone, and Lynch had felt his hand gripped and pushed back down, Phillip's hands had still been on his rifle. "What-"

Then a bit of memory came back, and he moaned - not with pain, but with loss. Not six to go. Just four.

January 16 1990
An Najaf Iraq

The four black-clad figures raced in single file across the rough and barren ground in the dim light before dawn. Far behind them, a tall tendril of smoke rose, so high that its upper third was bright with the rays of a morning sun that had not yet touched the ground; the fire that was its source lay unseen over the horizon, and lit the bottom quarter of the streamer with a strange bluish light.

Their progress was impossible.

Despite the heavy clothing they wore – they were dressed in black coveralls and ski masks and heavy boots, and the second in line even carried a huge rifle, nearly as tall as he was – they ran at a speed unmatched by any Olympic runner, as fast as a racehorse on a firm track. Their gait was more like that of deer than humans, their legs sometimes moving so fast they blurred. Yet the runners were eerily silent: not a labored breath or a grunt of exertion escaped them, and their footfalls were as light as a handful of dust thrown to the ground.

Not only did they travel in single file; they left only a single set of tracks behind them. The last three figures, separated by five meter intervals, copied their leader's gait perfectly, dropping their boots into his prints so precisely that the treadmarks were undisturbed. They moved like a single multi-legged creature, and snaked a path through the broken ground like train cars on invisible rails.

The leader approached a wide gully without slowing and leaped the twenty-foot gap with apparent ease. The second figure jumped from the exact same spot while the first was still in the air, and the others followed, each jump looking like a video loop of the leader's. The last in line touched down, right foot to right bootprint, and scuffed the track slightly, blurring the treadmarks.

[Five,] the leader said, still running fifteen meters ahead, [you were a centimeter off on touchdown.] The communication was delivered not by voice but by a transmission in the microwave band, time-compressed to a single click.

[A puff of wind on the descent,] the last in line replied in the same manner.

[You had ample time to correct. Chancy enough we're leaving tracks at all. If they come upon them before the wind erases them, we can't let them guess our number.]

[It won't happen again, One.]

A second of silence while the runners covered another twenty meters. [You don't grieve her alone.]

[I know. But I was the one who left her.]

[She was second-in-command. She gave you an order, which you followed. She knew how tight the timing was. We all left her. It was either that or die with her, and that choice would have disappointed her. You know that.]

[But what happened? Everything was going according to plan. How did we lose her?]

[We may never know. But we'll never stop trying to find out.] Another thousand milliseconds of thoughtful silence. [At least she's free now, and no man's slave.]

[Yes,] the other agreed. [She'd rather be dead than that.]