Disclaimer: I don't own anything.
A/N 1: Wow, this got written quickly. I decided I couldn't leave you guys hanging on that not-quite cliffhanger, and pounded this out in the last three or four days. I'll be focusing on Per Ardua and Si Vis Pacem next, I promise, I know it's been a long time since those were updated, I just got distracted by how easily these last two chapters of Khaveyrim flowed onto the screen.
A/N 2: Okay, I had to go with Rule of Cool quite a bit in this chapter because, let's face it, one man SF operations just don't happen in real life that often. In fact, at all, really. Let's just say Harry's channelling his inner Sam Fisher and leave it at that. There's a few crossovers; Matthew Reilly's Scarecrow and Hawaii 5-0's Steve McGarrett in particular. Apologies to those reviewers who wanted an appearance from John Ringo's 'Paladin of Shadows' Mike Jenkins, but I couldn't quite make that plot work. Not very much of the NCIS crew in this; bluntly, they aren't the stars of this story anyway, only Harry and Ziva are.
Chapter 6 - No One Gets Left Behind
All great things are simple, and many can be expressed in single words: Freedom, justice, honour, duty, mercy, hope.
0° 6'52.79"S - 42°34'5.62"E
Yoontoy - 16.5 miles north of Kismayo - Somalia
4th July 2009 - 2310 Time Zone Charlie
Ziva was holding out. Only just, and by sheer stubbornness alone, but holding. The strangest part was that her worst torturer in this situation was herself.
The physical torture and sexual abuse was bad - obviously - and painful and humiliating and so many other words, but she was trained for that. But that wasn't the part that had really been tearing her apart. The worst of it came from the fact that she'd done everything wrong. Starting with the fact that she'd let her father get inside her head again.
I don't know who you answer to any more Ziva! … make this your aliyah! … your return to me, to us!
After Ari, and finding out she was under surveillance during the Eschel incident in Washington, and Rivkin being sent to seduce her, and so on and so forth she should have learned not to listen to him. But she had, and she'd rejected NCIS - her real family, she saw that clearly now - and returned home, taken on Michael's mission and this was the result. Waiting to die an ignominious death in a dusty basement in Somalia.
In fact, most of her emotional turmoil and present situation seemed to stem from that first mistake of trusting her father. Her misplaced determination to prove he really could trust her, combined with her blinding, stubborn, idiotic pride had sent her onwards to complete the mission when she should have aborted and returned to Israel with the others. She'd been given a mission; she would see it through … that was what Mossad agents did.
So she had gone on, against all logic, against all sanity, fought her way through Saleem's defences and come within a fingernail of completing the mission - and avenging a woman she'd never even met. She'd had Ulman quite literally in the sights of her pistol when a rifle butt had cracked down on the back of her skull.
And why had she done that? She'd let her father get inside her head. She'd somehow forgotten that there were people outside Mossad, and outside Israel that cared for her, that loved her. She'd failed them, she'd betrayed them by continuing on this suicidal quest for a redemption that she didn't need to pursue in the first place.
"There are people that care about you, people that would be hurt if you did that."
Ziva had told Harry that, back in his apartment in London, when he told her he'd been contemplating suicide after Hetty's death. She'd told him that giving up and committing suicide after loosing Hetty would have been the cowardly and selfish action to take, and she understood all too well what it was like to lose somebody.
Now, that hypocrisy was the thing that was really tearing her apart.
Back in Israel, she'd asked her father if Michael's love for her had been real - he hadn't known.
Back in Israel, Tony had asked her if she had really loved Michael - she had replied "I guess I'll never know."
She would never know the answer to the first one, but she was now certain of the second. If Harry's contemplation of suicide was any benchmark, she had loved Michael; why else would she have made such a stupid, idiotic, selfish decision, to commit suicide-by-terrorist on a one-way trip to kill Saleem Ulman?
She should have just called Harry. She knew that now. At the time, after their phone call on the 14th and after being informed of the target, she had held off on calling him again. Partly because Mossad and her father might take that as a sign of unreliability, but mostly because she feared he would send himself into a vicious circle of revenge. 'Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves,' Confucius had said; she hadn't wanted that to happen to Harry.
Instead, she'd done it herself, and even though she had never met Hetty Kirkland, she had always felt a connection to Harry's late first love. She should have considered the proverb as it applied to her, too.
She also now realised she shouldn't have taken that decision for him. He was one of the most self-controlled and self-disciplined people she knew; he would have been able to keep his emotions in check. Maybe if she had called him, she wouldn't have spent the last few weeks in this godforsaken hellhole.
She'd made so many mistakes. Even if she did get out of here, how could she ever trust her own judgement? How could anyone else? How would she be able to look Harry in the eye and tell him she'd failed to kill the man who'd hurt him so badly?
In the first few weeks of her capture, Ziva had nearly broken under the combined physical abuse, drugs and her self-inflicted emotional turmoil. She knew the chances of someone finding her decreased markedly as soon as Saleem shifted camp after the attack, and continued decreasing every day since. Furthermore, she knew Mossad or the IDF didn't have the resources to pull of a rescue in this region by itself, and probably believed her dead anyway.
Civilians or inexperienced 'professionals' who are taken prisoner - soldiers and spies alike - usually believe, in spite of everything, in spite of all evidence to the contrary that someone is coming to rescue them.
Eventually, the realisation that the cavalry is not coming, that there is no light at the end of the tunnel is what breaks them. The aim of a good interrogator is to accelerate that process.
When it comes to trained professionals, who know from the start that the rescue is not on the cards, the interrogator's job is made harder, not easier. For such people, who are always in the job out of patriotism or any passionate belief in the cause – whatever it may be - not breaking is simply the last thing they can do to further the mission; one last act of defiance, denying the enemy access to the secrets inside their head.
There is only one thing that can keep such a decision, such determination to resist in place even when all hope is lost, and that is sheer bloody-minded stubbornness.
Ziva had that in spades.
But even though her professional training told her no rescue would be forthcoming, there was some little part of her, deep down, buried under the cynicism imparted by a decade-long career as a soldier, a spy and a cop - three professions that saw the worst humanity had to offer - that knew, knew with unflinching certainty that there was someone out there who really would be looking for her.
Because if she knew anything about Harry, it was that he was just as stubborn if not more so than her.
This training camp was more like a small military base: far from a collection of tents and battered buildings in the desert, the core of this complex had once been a mansion of some long-departed colonial overseer, a holdover from Somalia's period served as a part of the Italian Empire before World War Two.
Various factions had had possession of it since. Full independence came in 1960, and after a decade or so of democracy a relatively bloodless military coup installed a half-Communist, half-Islamic system of government that governed until 1990 under Major General Mohamed Siad Barre. Initial friendly relations with Communist Russia gave way, rather ironically, to an alliance with the United States in 1977 after the USSR chose to support neighbouring Ethiopia in the Ogaden War. Those two successive alliances with major superpowers allowed the Somali military government to build the largest army in Africa.
That large army had used the mansion as a supply depot for the southern provinces, adding garages, workshops and ammunition magazines in a linear arrangement along the long drive up towards the original colonial structure.
Facilities that the newest owners – technically called Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen (HSM), meaning 'Movement of Striving Youth,' or most commonly known as just al-Shabaab, had put to good use. al-Shabaab was in the midst of a civil war against the Transitional Federal Government, the legitimate UN- and African Union-backed democratic government of Somalia.
The TFG had been in existence since 2004, and had initially experienced considerable success in pushing the powerful 'Islamic Courts Union' out of the south and centre of the country. Al-Shabaab was an off-shoot of the ICU, formed when that group splintered after a series of defeats in late 2006. Ethiopian forces had withdrawn from Somalia in early 2009, allowing al-Shabaab to declare all-out war on the TFG and quickly extend their influence in the southern provinces, expanding outwards from Kismayo, which they had taken the year before. Right now, a fierce battle was raging over the capital, Mogadishu, 250 miles to the north-east.
This base was an important logistics and training hub for al-Shabaab, but fortunately they also regarded it as a rear-area facility, not under much threat from TFG forces. As such there was a permanent guard force equivalent to an over-strength platoon – about forty-five men – and two platoons worth of newly arrived recruits who had only just been issued weapons.
The camp perimeter had once been a chainlink fence, but that had long since corroded or been torn away by the powerful seasonal storms, and had been replaced by a thick mud-brick wall, about three metres high. Elevated wooden guard towers at the corners and one over the main gate watched out over the surrounding desert – fortunately without searchlights. It had once been cleared of obstacles to allow clear lanes of view and fire, but al-Shabaab had allowed the low, tough desert shrub bushes to encroach back into the area.
The centrepiece of the camp was the old mansion, fronted by colonnaded steps, with the camp arranged in a long linear pattern around the drive leading up from the road. Sixty metres directly in front of the house, down a slight hill was the main gate, always guarded and well lit by floodlights. Two long, low storage warehouses ran up the hill between the two, either side of the access road.
A sizeable garaging and vehicle workshop area for vehicle repairs surrounded what had once been the top of the drive. At the back was a more recent mud-brick accommodation block behind and to the sides in a wide C-shape, which was also built directly up against the perimeter wall; this was one of several tactical mistakes on the part of the defenders that tonight's attackers intended to fully exploit.
The thing about non-government, paramilitary organisations – like guerrilla or terrorist groups – is that when they try to run their activities like a full-on military campaign instead of playing to their usual strengths of hit-and-run and terror tactics, and instead start using pseudo-military styled organisational structures, logistics and particularly tactics, they are invariably bad at it.
After all, terrorists groups are essentially passionate amateurs. Dangerous ones, to be sure, but nonetheless amateurs.
And war is an endeavour best left to the professionals.
Harry, dressed in a ghillie suit matched to the local terrain, had spent the previous night crawling into a position about thirty metres from the perimeter wall. He'd lain up through the daylight hours in a patch of the shrubs that al-Shabaab had so thoughtfully allowed to grow back, another camouflage net pulled over his prone figure. He'd slept for some of it, watched over by Gibbs and the newly arrived Marine and Navy SEAL snipers on the ridge, and he'd also mapped out the camp using his powers, watching the guards shift changes and making a best guess on the location of the hostages.
Tony and McGee were downstairs in a basement room with a large window – from the outside, the window appeared to be at ground level, but in the cell it was just above head height, two metres off the floor. There were several more prisoners in the basement, in other rooms further down the corridor. Harry could, most of the time, identify gender by the 'silhouette' of the air molecules around them, which he could sense; all the other prisoners were female. There had been reports of Red Crescent aid workers going missing while distributing American food aid in Kismayo, barely fifteen miles away; that was his best guess as to who they were. Unfortunately, he couldn't tell which was Ziva.
Through the day he had spent outside the wall, several of them had been raped by some of the militants.
Harry had been tensed to move, practically vibrating with the need to act, but had forced himself to slow down and think. The assault force was not in place, it was daylight, he was alone and stood no chance of succeeding in a rescue. He wouldn't even make it over the wall.
So he had forced himself to stop, but that had not prevented him from torturing himself with the guilt that he should have thought of something, come up with some other plan to stop it.
Now, that part of the wait was over. Last light had been hours ago, and it was a new moon night, black as pitch; the minutes had tricked by like molasses, but it was to the attackers benefit to begin when the night was darkest, and night-vision would give more of an edge.
Now, he was waiting for a sign. Or perhaps the sign.
No, not a sign from God … although, having been a Gunnery Sergeant, most Marines would probably insist Gibbs was the closest any mere mortal was ever going to get to being such an entity.
In his ear, Gibbs' gruff voice murmured, "Standby, standby … he's turning … standby … go now."
Harry was up and moving before the second word was finished, moving the final distance in a crouching gait that was deceptively quick. The rumble of portable generators just the other side of the wall and a couple of engines inside covered the minimal noise he made.
Harry froze, crouched at the base of the wall. The human eye is drawn to movement, particularly at night, and although he would be less visible lying down, that would do him no good if he was seen in the process of doing so.
Fortunately, the sentry towers were built inside the perimeter, so their wooden structural supports were not exposed; however, this seemingly sensible precaution created a blind spot half-way along the wall between the two, where a guard would actually have to lean out of the tower to see ... exactly where he was now. Harry and Gibbs had identified this as the weakest point on the perimeter for a one-man infiltration; needless to say, it wasn't much of a weakness.
But it was enough.
"Standby … go."
Once again, Harry was moving almost as soon as Gibb's spoke; he knew exactly when the sentry was turning away, but had to keep his abilities secret.
A grapnel thickly wrapped in neoprene rubber to muffle it landed and caught on the top of the wall. Harry grasped the knotted rope that trailed down from it and pulled himself up the wall.
The top of the wall had another simple but effective defensive measure – broken glass embedded in the mud brick. This was a tactic Harry had encountered more than a few times in Afghanistan; he reached over his shoulder and pulled out a thin rubber mat from where it had been rolled up and pushed into a flexible canvas bag attached to the back of his armour. With that covering the glass, it was a simple matter to roll over the wall, keeping his body low to it to minimise his silhouette.
Once on the other side, hanging by his fingertips, the drop was reduced to less than a metre. He landed in a dark patch at the base of the wall – another reason they'd chosen this spot, the noise again muffled by the nearby generators and by landing correctly, with his knees bent and all his equipment taped up to prevent it rattling.
Harry took cover behind some stacked crates of stolen grain with Red Crescent markings, and stayed there for almost thirty seconds with his sidearm in hand, waiting to see if anyone had heard his unauthorized entry. He'd stuck with the Vector SMG for tonight's mission, because of its winning combination of recoil-reducing bolt, relatively light weight, and the effectiveness of its .45 calibre round on unarmoured targets … like Islamic militants. He'd forgone the silencer, as it was too long and bulky, but his favoured Kimber-model MEUSOC Colt 1911 had one attached if required.
They had identified three ground floor entrances into the mansion: the front, obviously, but that was well lit and guarded. The other two were on either side at the back and also guarded. Both had staircases leading down to the basement nearby inside the house.
Harry had timed his entrance to be just before the shift change. The night before, he and Gibbs had observed the guards rotated on three-hour watches … meaning it would be some time before anyone found any bodies he left behind on his way in. Most of the positions were static, but there was a roving two-man patrol that moved around the perimeter from the gatehouse every half an hour or so; they would be a nuisance, but not an insurmountable one.
So the guard should be changing … right about now.
The nearest entrance swung open and another militant stepped out, weapon slung. He exchanged a few words with the man he was relieving, opening a packet of cigarettes.
Harry's grip tightened on the pistol grip. They were discussing when their next 'session' with the prisoners would be.
He waited for several minutes behind the shack until the first guard stamped out his cigarette, said something indistinct that made the other laugh, and entered the house.
Harry moved quietly forward to the corner of the house. A quick look either way to make sure his 'sixth sense' was still functioning correctly, and then he was across the ten metre gap between the two, back pressed to the exterior wall of the house right next to the corner.
The next bit would be … tricky. If he managed to take down the guard silently, all well and good. If not, and the alarm was raised, then the assault would commence and Harry would have to proceed under the cover of the chaos generated by it.
Harry clicked the radio transmit key three times, receiving three in response. He was barely five metres from the guard now, too close to talk. Now he just had to wait for the next signal …
Harry holstered his pistol and silently slid one of his swords out of its oiled sheath, holding in his right hand. Sword was a little generous, as it was more of an oversized fighting dagger, really: at a total length of 22 inches (five for the grip and seventeen for the anodized black blade), the twin tactical blades were a little impractical for most soldiers on the modern battlefield, where hand to hand weapons were usually restricted to bayonets or sometimes a tomahawk – that was a Navy SEAL specialty in particular – but they held sentimental value for Harry.
Hetty's father Daniel had been his first martial arts instructor, and he had given these blades to Harry upon his graduation from Special Forces Selection. At the base of each blade, just above the minimal hilt was engraved a small monogram.
Two H's, intertwined.
A playful and not-so-subtle hint from a man who had become one of several surrogate fathers for the young ex-wizard; a hint that he thought that Harry and his daughter should stop pratting around and get married already. It was one of Harry's greatest regrets that he had never heeded that.
But Hetty was gone. Harry was well past the 'seven stages of grief' by now, and his memories of her no longer brought echoes of pain with them. But it seemed fitting that using a weapon with her stamp on for both avenging her death and rescuing the woman who had filled that void.
Harry waited in a crouch, ready to move, just waiting for an opportunity to dart around the corner and silently relieve the guard of his duties. Unfortunately, Murphy's Law waits for no man. The roving patrol was making their rounds early. Apart from that, if they stuck to the usual pattern, they would come around the far side of the house, exchange some words with the guard there, then check in on the two sentry towers before reaching his present position in about five to six minutes time, which meant he had to move soon.
Fortunately, good luck can strike almost as easily as bad.
The roving patrol met the guard on the door on the far side. Harry couldn't hear the conversation, but one of them raised his voice and directed a question at the man on Harry's side; it was too dark for them to see each other clearly.
As the guard took a few steps away from the door. "An aqwl muruh akhra?" Say that again?
Harry slid out from behind the corner, staying low.
The question was repeated, "Hew anek Wahid?" Is that you, Wahid?
"Hel tiryd syjarah?" Do you want a cigarette?
"La shakra, kan mjrad wahad." No thanks, I've just had one.
"Hasana. Nerakem fey bed'deqa'eq." Okay, see you in a few minutes.
The guard didn't get a chance to turn back. A gloved hand snaked around his throat and mouth, clamping them shut as a seventeen inch blade was driven up, from just under his ribcage through his right lung, heart and aorta.
Clamping the guard's corpse to him to hold it upright, Harry withdrew the sword, wiped it on the guard's tunic before sliding it away. Then he quietly let the body slide down, lifting the AK-47 from its slung position around the guard's shoulder and leaving it on the ground, before carefully pulling the guard's body into a fireman's lift and walking slowly, half-crouched, back around the other side of the crates.
That might buy him a minute or so once they found the guard missing. The body was heavy, but he was used to that; carrying upwards of sixty kilos of kit on a long-range patrol was not unusual for the SAS - that was what they did in basic training. Right now all he had was fighting order and some extra water in a hydration pouch – the dead man's weight was easily manageable for a short distance.
With that unpleasant task done, Harry returned to the door, picking up the AK-47 and slung it over his left shoulder so it wouldn't clatter against the Vector. After a quick glance to check the roving patrol wasn't looking his way, he flipped up the NVGs and pushed the door open.
"Entering the house." That wasn't Harry, but Gibbs, who had presumably had his crosshairs centred on the guard's forehead through the entire evolution. Now he was keeping up a running narrative of what he could see for the benefit of the other teams.
The sudden light of the bare lightbulbs inside was jarring, but Harry forced himself to keep his eyes wide open; there were tangos in several rooms along this corridor; most sleeping, but a few were sitting around a table a few doors down. Fortunately he didn't need to go that far, as the basement door was just a few metres away. He sidled up to it, covering the corridor with his 1911 in one hand, and eased the latch open with his left hand.
The heavy, old-fashioned wooden door creaked. Harry winced and paused, but the quiet murmur of conversation from down the corridor continued uninterrupted, so he pushed it open and quickly entered. Even if someone did notice the creaking, hopefully they'd assume it was one of their guys, but if they caught sight of him in the corridor – and he was obviously not an Islamic militant – that would be a mite more suspicious.
The staircase was steep and narrow, with old wooden steps. Harry descended it keeping to one side as best he could, where the joint was strongest and was less likely to make noise.
The basement was shaped in a kind of reverse capital E shape, with the longest side running under the front of the house. The cell Tony and McGee were being held in was at the end of the middle bar; the staircase Harry had just descended came out at the end of the bottom bar. Along the walls of the top and bottom bars were small rooms, some filled with stores, some empty and some converted to cells, with doors barred on the outside. No doors opened onto the central bar, leaving one open uninterrupted corridor to where the NCIS agents were being held. Harry could feel one man in the room with them, and one outside.
Harry extended a small handheld mirror around the corner. No one in sight.
Remember – fast is slow, and slow is fast.
Harry walked slowly down the corridor, keeping his weapon in a two handed stance, passing three barred doors to his right on the way. A quick glance through the small barred window into each revealed still forms cuffed to metal-frame beds on bare mattresses, all female. There were some other barred doors on the other side of the central bar. Once he reached it, Harry had to once again control his fury and stop himself from just shooting the guard down the corridor on principle.
An angry, wordless yell echoed down the corridor, followed by raised voices from inside the larger cell. English, clearly with a New York accent. Anthony DiNozzo, letting loose with his unique brand of annoying the hell out of the bad guys.
"Hey, it's just a little chemical addiction, don't worry." Was Tony referencing the caf-pow lead? Was he talking to Saleem right now? How had Saleem broken him so fast? "Maybe you picked that up at your American college!"
Harry could sense Saleem – the college reference made it almost certain – moving towards the door. There was only one passageway out of the cell and Harry was standing at one end of it.
He could ambush Saleem now, when he reached the end of the corridor, but the other guard would plainly see it and if he got so much as a single shot off the whole thing would be blown. Harry was here to rescue DiNozzo and McGee as his primary objectives, and Ziva 'if' she was still alive (Harry was certain she was, but the mission profile and objectives had been developed from the intel they had, which wasn't conclusive on that point). But he would be damned if he didn't even try to save the other captives … who were all still cuffed and vulnerable in their cells.
He was only one man; he couldn't protect all of them at once unless they were gathered in one place. The best place for that would be in the cell with the NCIS agents, with only one entrance – an easily defended chokepoint – and the large window, which was protected by the snipers on the hill. There were six more prisoners down here, three on each side, and he still didn't know which was Ziva. So he had to avoid contact and improvise.
That was fine. Harry was good at improvising.
"You know, maybe we aren't so bad!" Down the hall, the door to the bigger cell was flung open with a crash.
Harry turned and took two steps to the nearest cell door, sliding back the bolt as quietly as he could, slipping inside and pushing it closed. The bolt was a similar colour to the door, hopefully Saleem wouldn't notice if he passed. If not, well that was a .45 calibre pistol was for.
"You ought to rethink your master plan!"
Heavy, stomping footsteps along the passageway. Someone's pissed! Harry crouched low beneath the door's barred opening, holding it shut with one hand.
Saleem went the other way, to the second cell on the far side, unlocking the bolt with unnecessary force.
The woman ziptied to the filthy bed in the cell he had chosen to hide in raised her head blearily, eyes widening as she saw the man who was clearly not yet another jihadist pig come to rape her. Harry saw, and held a finger to his lips, gesturing for quiet.
She was probably one of the missing Somali Red Crescent aid workers, although Harry couldn't match the brutalised, dishevelled woman in front of him to any of the ID photos in the briefing document he and Gibbs had been emailed to a secure laptop over the sat link a few days before. Two were Egyptian, one Syrian, one Sudanese and one Moroccan. If anything, their treatment made his blood boil as much as the knowledge the same had been done to Ziva.
Saleem and his ilk had a long-standing grievance with Israel – obviously – which Harry partially sympathised with in one aspect only; the previous few decades' treatment of the Palestinian people had often been less than ethical on Israel's part. But to kidnap, rape and torture peaceful aid workers from other Muslim countries who were only trying to alleviate the suffering of refugees from a civil war simply highlighted the inherent hypocrisy of the extremists' so-called 'Holy War.'
Down the corridor, Saleem dragged one of the other prisoners out. No, not yet.
Saleem dragged his new guest to the big cell, pushing her down on a chair in front of DiNozzo.
"Questions are being asked in town about missing NCIS agents. They are concerned that US forces might mobilise." Harry could hear him clearly, the angry tone echoing up the stone-walled corridor. "One of you will tell me the identities and locations of all the operatives in the area, and the other one will die."
Harry tensed to move, just in case Saleem tried to carry out this threat in the next few seconds. It didn't seem likely.
Ulman pulled the hood off his prisoner – Harry was now certain who it was. There was no one else he would use to threaten Tony with, no one else with an emotional connection to the NCIS agent. Given Harry's past experience with Saleem's interrogation technique, it seemed to be a favourite tactic of his.
"I'll give you a moment to decide who lives, and who dies."
Saleem left the cell, the guard pulling the door shut behind him. He passed Harry's hiding place without noticing anything out of place, and climbed to the ground floor.
Now's my chance. Harry hefted his pistol into clear view of the woman on the bed, and nodded at her. The message was clear: I have to go shoot some of these bastards first. I'll be back for you. She nodded, a slight smile breaking through.
Harry was glad to see that they hadn't completely broken her; Stockholm Syndrome was not something he could deal with right now, and it could crop up in the oddest of situations. If she had shouted out or otherwise attempted to warn the hostiles, he would have been forced to incapacitate or kill her for the sake of the mission, and the other captives.
He exited, pulling and bolting the door shut behind him just in case someone else happened past. He paused for a moment at the corner, giving himself half a second to mentally prepare himself for combat rather than sneaking around, and turned the corner with his weapon already raised.
"The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him."
"I'll give you a moment to decide who lives, and who dies."
Ziva stared at Tony as Saleem walked out, not believing her eyes. Was she hallucinating? It couldn't be him …
"Well," Tony said flippantly, "how was your summer?"
Yes, it was. No, she was not hallucinating.
There was a long silence. "Out of everyone in the world who could have found me," Ziva said slowly, incredulously, "it had to be you." She still hadn't truly forgiven him for shooting Michael; hadn't even thought about doing so, actually, for the last few weeks.
It hadn't seemed important any more.
"You're welcome. So, are you glad to see me?"
"You should not have come."
"All right then. Good catching up. I'll be going now." Tony bounced his chair a few inches across the floor. "Oh yeah, I forgot. Taken prisoner."
"Are you all right, McGee?" Ziva said quietly.
"I'm just glad you're alive," Tim said from the floor behind her.
"You thought I was dead?"
"Oh. Oh yeah." Back to Tony.
"So why are you here?"
"McGee … McGee didn't think you were dead. Neither did Harry."
"Tony," Ziva repeated insistently, "why are you here?"
Tony rolled his head around as if he was struggling to stop himself from … ah, yes, Saleem's personal truth cocktail.
"Couldn't live without you, I guess."
"So you will die with me."
There was a thud outside the door, followed by a second one. Had that been a silenced gunshot?
"Not if who I think that is has anything to say about it."
"Gibbs?" Ziva asked, as the door opened. She tried to turn to look, but her ribs screamed in protest and she slumped back, breathing through the pain.
"Hey man, about time you arrived." She barely heard Tony's remark. Then someone was kneeling beside her chair, and a careful, gentle touch brushed over her jaw with gloved fingers; she knew who it was even before he spoke.
"Neshama." There was a world of meanings in just that one word. Love. Commitment. Hope.
She looked up, straight into those familiar green eyes, and saw exactly why she'd fallen in love with this man in the first place. Determination and willpower, hard as steel. Courage and conviction, solid as stone. Love and trust in her, pure and blinding as the sun.
The guard died even as he spotted the intruder, a silenced forty-five calibre FMJ punching straight through his forehead before he had time to even so much as touch his weapon. The shot sprayed the door and wall behind him with blood and liquidised brain matter, and slumped against the corner.
Harry ran down the corridor and unbolted the door. The occupants had clearly heard the guard fall. Tony was wide-eyed with relief at his appearance, as was McGee, who was now sitting up having been faking unconsciousness. Ziva was trying to twist around to see, but her battered, bruised body couldn't quite manage it.
"Hey man, about time you arrived."
Harry ignored him, grabbing the guard's webbing strap and dragging him inside before kicking the door shut; he shut off his powers at the same time, letting his eyes return to their natural colour, as he didn't want Tony to see his 'other' look.
Then he knelt by Ziva's chair and reached up to touch her face; she was his reason for being here, after all.
"Neshama." It was all he had to say.
Ziva looked up into his eyes, and a connection was made between them, as powerful and energising as one of his lightning bolts.
"Hey, you." Harry couldn't stop himself from smiling, so broadly it really did feel like he was grinning from ear to ear. "Ready to bust out of this place?"
Ziva closed her eyes and let her forehead fall forward gently against the rim of his helmet. "Absolutely."
"Great. Who's combat capable?"
"I am." McGee said, and Harry quickly left Ziva's side to cut his zipties off with a razor-sharp KA-BAR combat knife. The emotional reunion was over; now he had a job to do. "Tony's high on truth serum. Ziva, how about you?"
"I can shoot, not so sure about walking."
Harry quickly cut them both free in just a few seconds before turning back to McGee. He pointed to the dead jihadist on the floor. "Get dressed in his tunic and webbing. Wrap a shemagh around your head and pretend to be him. Make sure you stand in front of the blood spatter."
"Uh … got it." McGee got to work. Harry turned to Ziva, unslinging his borrowed AK and passing it to her. "Take cover against the wall in the corner opposite the door, under the window."
"Why there?" Ziva took the gun, checking it over instinctively. "We'll be in plain view of anyone coming in."
"No time. I have my reasons. Trust me."
"Always." Another brief connection, green into dark brown. "Tony, help me up."
Harry didn't wait to hear any more, sprinting back down the corridor to the cells. He unbolted the one he'd hidden in, and made short work of the zipties, and picked her up in his arms bridal-style.
"British Special Forces." Harry replied quietly as he negotiated his burden through the door, unfortunately jostling her somewhat awkwardly as he pulled the door too and pushed the bolt home. "What's your name?"
He was half-way down the corridor, moving as fast as he could without hurting her more. "And where are you from, Yasmine?"
"Mor … Morocco."
"We'll get you home soon, Yasmine." Harry promised, laying her down in the corner under the window, beside Ziva. He doubled back and did the same with two more cells; each time he left the sight of the NCIS agents he quickly scanned the house, keeping track of Saleem.
By the time he got back with the third woman – Simrah, from Egypt – McGee was in position at the door, dressed in the guard's thigh-length white tunic, Russian webbing and weapon with a black-and-white headscarf wrapped around his head, covering his face. His dusty cargo trousers and boots were similar enough too. "Saleem's coming back. Pretend to be the guard, open the door for him. If he gets suspicious, blow him away. I'm not terribly concerned for his well being." McGee nodded, pulling the door shut behind them.
Harry laid down the newest rescued hostage and grabbed the guard again, pulling the body to the inside wall, out of sight of the door. Saleem was at the bottom of the stairs, turning the corner.
As the terrorist leader strode down the corridor he ignored the guard's sudden change in dress. There was a lot of dust and sand in the passage, indeed the building as a whole; it was old, not in terribly good repair, and the desert night was chilly although it was mostly mitigated by the thick walls. Anyway, he saw no reason to comment, simply nodding brusquely for his subordinate to open the door.
As he stepped over the threshold, he saw the empty chairs and scrabbled at his pistol holster. "What the -"
The pistol cleared leather just as he turned to the left, noting the prisoners in the far corner but more concerned with the much closer and bulkier figure that he thought was …
The pistol was still pointing vertically when a gloved hand grasped his wrist and twisted it inwards, forcing him to turn left, back towards the door. He had a brief impression of a helmeted, armoured man looming over him.
Another hand pushed his shoulder down, inexorably continuing his turn that had begun with twisting his wrist, and a knee pad collided with his stomach. The padding was clearly on the inside, however, because it knocked the wind out of him completely.
Then his pistol, a Makarov, was knocked away, clattering across the floor. A hand grasped his throat, pulling him upright and nearly picking him off the floor with enormous strength, slamming him into the wall and squeezing, cutting off his air supply that he needed so desperately after the initial blow. Another hand continued to control his right wrist, preventing him from reaching for his knife; his left was clawing ineffectually at the iron-hard grip on his trachea.
Then, in the dim light of the bare lightbulb, he saw the eyes. Deadly, flint-hard, ice-cold green eyes that told him he was going to die by this man's hands. Either now or in fifty years, it didn't matter. It would happen.
It wasn't the first time he'd seen that look.
Then he saw the scars, the horizontal one under his assailant's the left eye, and the long one over his right eye that Saleem had himself inflicted, and even though he'd never known the real name of the man he had targeted all those years ago in Afghanistan, he knew exactly who held his life in his hands tonight.
"Hello Saleem. You remember me?"
Saleem Ulman had been chased for several years through almost half-a-dozen countries by some of the deadliest and most determined men in the world, but never before had he felt fear as visceral and as primeval as he did now.
Neither had he ever prayed harder to the God he claimed to serve so righteously.
Harry didn't wait for a reply, letting go of Saleem's throat and twisting his wrist once more, this time into an armlock that forced him to the floor, kicking the back of the terrorist's knee to help him on his way down. Harry knelt on his back, with one kneepad on Ulman's head, grinding the side of his face into the dirt.
"You are surrounded." Saleem's voice was muffled, but understandable. "You will be shot down like dogs. And we are legion. You are outnumbered, and underarmed. My men will –"
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Harry muttered, as he unzipped an admin pouch on the front of his armour. It contained things like a notebook, pens and the like – but secure and convenient in a couple of the pen-sleeves were a pair of syringes: one to use, one for a backup. He pulled the first out, uncapped it and pushed out a little bit of the clear fluid inside to clear out any air bubbles. "Heard it all before."
He jammed the needle into Saleem's shoulder and pushed down the plunger on a shot of powerful, fast-acting barbiturate tranquiliser that would put him out for at least eight hours. Ten seconds later, Saleem's tirade trailed off into incoherence, then silence.
"I kinda expected you were going to kill him," Tony observed, still under the truth serum. "You know, after what he did the last time the two of you met."
"Nah. I'm not going to give him a chance at his seventy-two virgins just yet. He's going to have to spend some time at a lovely resort run by the CIA first." Harry pulled out his own plastic zipties and began arranging Ulman's arms in the right place. "McGee, get the other prisoners."
Harry dragged Ulman over to the other rescued hostages before going to help McGee with the last two. As they laid both of them down beneath the window, Ziva asked him, "Are you the entire rescue, Harry? Because I don't think we're getting out of here with half-a-dozen hostages who can barely walk and an unconscious prisoner."
Harry snorted. "Course not." He gestured at the NCIS agents, as he began handing out ear defenders from a large pouch. "In your experience, does Uncle Sam ever do anything the subtle way?" He flashed her a wolfish grin as his radio crackled.
"Storm, Sierra One. The roving patrol is about to find the bodies, how copy?"
"Scarecrow, this is Storm. I have eight times hostages secure, one times enemy captured and tranquilised. You are clear to commence phase two." He turned to the hostages. "You might want to put that ear defence on now."
"Copy that Storm." Schofield's calm, professional voice came back to him. The Marine captain was commanding the rest of the op, despite Harry's seniority, as he was outside the perimeter and therefore had a better view of the situation. "All strike elements, this is Scarecrow. Confirm readiness move to phase two of the operations timeline, over."
"Mother here." A gruff female voice answered him first; the speaker sounded like she smoked several packs a day for the last decade. "Neptune One, ready over." That would be the first twelve-strong Force Recon team, with Scarecrow himself in command, off to the south-west.
"Fox. Neptune Two, ready." Another female voice, this from the younger lieutenant in command of the second Force Recon team, to the north.
"Blackbeard Team, good to go." Commander Steve 'Smooth Dog' McGarrett with his fifteen-man platoon of Navy SEALs, to the south. The nickname still made Harry laugh when he thought of it, despite the situation.
"Sierra One, ready." Gibbs and his Force Recon spotter, on the ridge, seven hundred meters away.
"Sierra Two, ready." Another Force Recon sniper team on the ridge.
"Poseidon One, ready." A Navy SEAL sniper pair, also on the ridge.
"Poseidon Two, ready." Another pair of Navy SEAL marksmen, to the south-east, on the other side of the river, only about three hundred meters away.
"Poseidon Three, green." Again, a SEAL sniper team to the south.
"Whiplash, just reaching insertion point. ETA twenty minutes. Ready for phase two, out." The extraction team.
"All strike elements," Scarecrow again, "weapons free on my mark. Three, two, one … mark."
"There is only one tactical principle which is not subject to change. It is to use the means at hand to inflict the maximum amount of wound, death, and destruction on the enemy in the minimum amount of time."
General George S. Patton Jr.
At this point, several things happened at once.
The tower guards simultaneously jerked and fell as heavy-calibre sniper rounds punched through them. The roving patrol, just raising the alarm having found the first guard's body, went down next, as did the guard on the second door. Then the snipers started the free-for-all; just firing on every confirmed enemy target they could see.
Blackbeard team opened up on the defensive positions around the gate with a vicious hail of 5.56 and 7.62 millimetre machine gun fire from Minimi and M240B LMGs. This was partly to secure their evac route, but also to distract any possible shooters from what was to come next, from the opposite direction.
Out in the desert to the south west and north, four marines threw off camouflage nets and rose to their knees, taking aim with tubular Shoulder-launched Multipurpose Assault Weapons, or SMAWs. From a range of a hundred meters, the first two – one from each direction - fired into the walls of the compound … the ones that were also the walls of the accommodation blocks.
The explosions produced were small, however; muted flashes of light throwing up clouds of dust, hardly the earth-shattering kaboom required to do any real damage to the solid, thick-walled mud brick structures.
That was the point, however. The first salvo had been shaped-charge anti-armour warheads, intended only to punch a hole through the wall.
After waiting a few seconds for the dust to clear, the second pair of rocketeers sighted on the holes produced by the first set, and fired in turn.
The second salvo were NE rounds, standing for 'Novel Explosive.' That was the Marine Corps' euphemism for thermobaric warheads. Normally, the thermobaric rockets' fuses would allow the explosives to go off a few milliseconds after penetrating the walls of a structure, thus detonating inside. The walls of the al-Shabaab compound had been judged too thick for this to work, however, so the first salvo of wall-breaching rounds had been required.
Because when an earth-shattering kaboom is needed, it doesn't come much more impressively than a thermobaric weapon.
Conventional explosives work by having a mix of fuel and oxidiser contained within the explosive compound itself – gunpowder, for example, has a 25% - 75% mixture. Thermobaric explosives rely on oxygen from the surrounding air, producing a significantly more powerful explosive - they quite literally turn the air itself into an explosive device. Another type of thermobaric weapon is the infamous 'Daisy Cutter,' or Fuel Air Bomb of Vietnam fame.
That detonation is also amplified when limited by a containing structure such as bunkers, tunnels, caves … or buildings with thick walls.
The large C-shaped barracks block completely disintegrated, along with its occupants: the entire complement of jihadist recruits and about a third of the permanent guard force and instructors. The other two thirds were either on duty – now mostly deceased as well – or slept in the main building.
The inner walls and roof were considerably thinner than the massive four-foot thick exterior wall, and thus the blast was channelled vertically, throwing the splintered remains of the wooden sentry towers high into the air, and horizontally towards the mansion. This was why Harry had gathered the newly-rescued hostages under the window.
Every window in the house blew inwards in a hurricane of flying slivers of glass. The window into the cell did too, but passed well over the huddled occupants' heads. The windows also channelled the blast wave of the explosion safely into the opposite wall, while the ear-defence protected them from the bleed-over.
Harry rolled back to his feet, and pulled McGee up too. "That corner." He pointed at the wall with the door, off to the right. "Cover the window."
Harry himself went prone a metre back from the doorway, covering the passageway, which was now filled with a hazy dust thrown up by the explosion. Only his weapon, head and right shoulder would be visible around the doorframe from the other end of the corridor, and the door itself was within arms reach if he needed to slam it shut.
He acquired the end of the corridor in the holo-sight and waited. Even from several hundred metres away he could hear the booming reports of the Barret M82 anti-material rifles that the Poseidon callsigns were using, engaging targets as they presented themselves through the windows of the mansion.
Footsteps rattled down the steps into the basement.
"Saleem, Saleem! Nhen thte alhejwem!" We're under attack!
Yeah, no shit Sherlock. This is clearly the brains of the organisation, right here. Harry fired as the runner rounded the corner, a short three round burst. And now it's all over the wall. What a shame.
Vaguely, Harry reminded himself that he needed to reign in his dark side or he was going to loose himself in the battle-lust. But it didn't seem quite so important as it had before. The red mist was descending, his vision tunnelling until all he could see, all that seemed important was the view down the sights of his weapon.
"Harry!" Ziva's voice, snapping him out of it. "What next?"
He shook his head, clearing the last of the rage. "Move to the other side, opposite the window! McGee, help them!" He fired at another militant who appeared around the corner, the almost-recoilless Vector slamming all three rounds straight through the man's centre of mass.
Thumping explosions from outside announced the entry of the Marines into the compound itself, using 'mouseholing' charges – blocks of C4 on a wooden frame shaped like a cross, which caved the thick exterior wall inwards, producing a small hole just about large enough to walk through. The Force Recon teams poured in from opposite sides, two taking defensive positions to watch around each side of the house and the remaining twenty soldiers stacked up on the back doors.
In the basement, Harry caught a flicker of movement through the haze at the end of the passageway. He fired at nothing, the heavy bullets chewing into the brick walls but keeping the enemy's heads down.
A tango extended an AK around the wall and fired blind, mostly hitting the ceiling. Harry's SMG blazed a short response, clipping the man's wrist. The .45 rounds nearly took his hand off, and definitely severed the artery. His target fell back with a cry, the weapon clattering to the ground.
"Storm, Scarecrow. Confirm hostages still in the basement?"
"Copy. Neptune One and Two, frag and clear."
Sharp cracks announced the detonation of the fragmentation grenades.
"Fox here, Two down. Clear. Doorway right."
"Mother here. One down. Cle -" The speaker broke off, firing a short burst. "Tango down. Now it's clear, two down. Doorway left, two doorways right."
Unfortunately, the Marines' grenades gave some other people ideas of their own.
Harry caught another flicker of movement through the haze, someone taking a quick peeking around the corner. He caught a quick smattering of Arabic words, including 'yedweyh.'
Then came the tell-tale ping of a grenade safety-lever flicking off.
Yedweyh finally registered on him. Grenade.
"GRENADE!" Harry yelled, scrambling up onto all fours even as one hand grasped the edge of the door and slammed it shut. As it closed he could see a hand in the process of throwing the weapon from the other end of the corridor.
Grenades are one of the most terrifying weapons on the infantry battlefield. They are, on the surface, overtly non-threatening little metal spheres. But they can, and will, pepper you with high-velocity, very sharp fragments of metal from ten to twenty metres away – and those are the small 'offensive' varieties. Larger 'defensive' grenades are meant to be used from entrenched positions, like the Mills Bomb or the Russian F1, and have a kill radius of thirty to forty metres, with shrapnel dispersion of up to two hundred.
Al-Shabaab were probably using ex-Soviet equipment, meaning the incoming was probably a smaller RGD-5 'offensive' device. If the tango had been stupid enough to use an F1, they were all dead including the man who'd thrown it.
The grenade bounced off the door with a solid thunk and rolled away – obviously, Harry couldn't see where from his new position huddled against the wall to the right of the door, between the blast and the hostages where his armour might absorb some of the shrapnel.
The wooden door shattered with a thunderous explosion and flash of white-hot heat, throwing Harry forwards onto somebody, he couldn't tell who. It took him a few seconds to get his bearings, to understand that this time wasn't the end yet.
He rolled off whoever it was and looked towards the door … and up at the shemagh-wearing terrorist now stepping through the door, weapon pointing straight at him. Harry's weapon was lying across his chest on its sling, his sidearm was holstered. There was nothing he could do about it.
The grenade might not have been 'his time' but this certainly seemed to be.
Someone fired, but it wasn't the enemy. A burst of automatic fire shredded the terrorist's chest and neck from behind, staining his white overtunic red, and he fell face first at Harry's feet.
A man in USMC Desert MARPAT uniform and coyote-tan body armour stepped through the door a few seconds later, clearing the room with his MP7 sub-machine gun. Despite it being night outside, he still wore silver reflective lenses over his eyes; those lenses covered matching, disfiguring plus-sign shaped scars over both of his blue eyes.
Captain Shane 'Scarecrow' Schofield had once been a Marine Harrier pilot until he was shot down over Bosnia in the mid-90s. Correctly guessing he had been performing reconnaissance on their positions for later raids by Navy SEALs, his Bosnian captors had cut his eyes with razor blades as he had 'seen too much.'
Time and a fantastic surgical team back at Johns Hopkins Hospital had restored his eyesight, but Marine Corps regulations wouldn't let him fly again. So he'd taken a demotion and returned to Basic School, taking every non-flying course they had. His dedication and skill had been blindingly obvious - pun intended – and he had been selected to lead a Force Recon team as a lieutenant.
Harry had first met him in Yemen all the way back in early 2003, fighting a brutal close-quarters battle through an old mineshaft, hunting a stolen Russian suitcase nuke in the hands of an Islamic terrorist group. They'd reached the nuke, but found it armed and counting down on a timer. Since none of the surviving Marines or Harry knew how to defuse a nuke at the time - Harry had since corrected that oversight - they'd gotten the hell out of there; the explosion had been covered up as an accidental detonation of an old, and large, ammo dump. Harry had received up-close and personal experience of Scarecrow's sometimes … insane idea of tactics, often involving his gas-powered Maghook grappling gun, and his penchant for blowing up improbably large things with the kind of regularity usually restricted to a Michael Bay film. That latter part was somewhat legendary in the special forces community.
"Was the explosion large enough for you, Scarecrow?" Harry asked from the floor, referring to the thermobaric warheads.
Scarecrow's grin was clearly visible in the dusty half-light. "Well, it wasn't a nuke, that's for sure." He reached out a hand and pulled Harry to his feet. "But give me a few minutes; I'm sure I'll come up with something."
Harry snorted – he knew exactly what was coming next in the ops plan. Scarecrow reached for his radio.
"Team leaders, sitrep over."
"Mother here, ground floor secure, over."
"Fox here, vehicle park secure," a burst of automatic fire, "suppressing the upper floors of the house, over."
"Poseidon callsigns, Sierra callsigns, sitrep over."
"All clear, no targets." A loud gunshot over the net, echoed a second later through the window. "Not any more, anyway. Over," the SEAL added, seemingly as an afterthought.
"Sierra, same here." Gibbs' voice.
"Blackbeard, sitrep, over."
"Gatehouse clear. Blackbeard has entered the compound. We are about half-way up the drive, clearing the warehouses. No contact yet, seems empty. ETA to the house is two minutes, over."
"Whiplash, ETA to extraction point?"
"Whiplash here, ETA is five minutes, Scarecrow."
"Copy that. Blackbeard, secure our exit. Sierra One, Sierra Two, Poseidon One, disengage and proceed to your extraction points. Poseidon Two, Poseidon Three, continue to suppress the front of the house. Neptune Two, get those vehicles running. Neptune One, split up. Charlie fire team will evacuate the hostages. Delta fire team will keep the first floor secure. GET TO IT!"
Footsteps in the corridor resolved themselves into a file of five more Marines, all of whom slung their weapons and picked up one of the prisoners that needed it. Tony and McGee were both able to walk, and Saleem was dragged out suspended between two burly Force Recon soldiers. Harry himself picked Ziva up, cradling her in front of him.
"Fox here. Four vehicles up and running. Two pickups, two old Soviet Ural six tonners."
They hustled up out of the basement and out to the vehicles; there couldn't have been more than five to ten hostiles left, and between Neptune Two's array of close-range carbine fire from the vehicle park out front, carefully aimed single rounds over their heads from the SEALs further down the hill and the precision shooting of the two snipers were keeping their heads firmly down.
Harry loaded Ziva into the back of one of the pickups, jumping in the cargo tray behind. The Marines had spread the hostages between all the vehicles, just in case, and the newly-arrived Blackbeard team filled in wherever there was space. Their commander, McGarrett, vaulted into the back beside him.
"You lead an interesting life, Storm."
"More interesting than chasing arms dealers?" Harry quipped, referencing McGarrett's long-standing mission for Naval Intelligence, the capture of Victor and Anton Hesse, Irish brothers who were partners in the international arms business. "You're welcome to it."
"No thanks." McGarrett fired a burst at the house. "It's just not very often I get to join the shooters in the field any more, what with chasing the Hesse brothers all over the damned place."
"Where was the last place you had a lock on them?"
"Korea, a few weeks ago. Waiting on further intel before I go have a look for myself."
"Drivers, ready to move?" Scarecrow, on the net. A chorus of affirmatives from the drivers of the appropriated vehicles answered him. "Move out."
The two six tonners led the way, with the shooters in the back of the pickups continuing to suppress the house. A desultory grenade was tossed out of a window, but fell short and only succeeded in totalling one of the other pickups left behind. Another man popped up in a window with an RPG, but was immediately peppered by a storm of 5.56 and .45 from the Marines and Harry, forcing him to duck back down again below the windowsill.
A moment later, a .50 calibre BMG round capable of piercing three feet of reinforced concrete punched through the stone façade below the windowsill. The RPG-wielder didn't appear again.
Then they were through the gate and fishtailing on the dirt track, turning right. Another few hundred meters further and they turned left off the road, bumping over the desert scrub towards the river. With multiple casualties unable to walk, the vehicles had been the best option for a quick extract.
A droning roar announced the arrival of their extraction force, callsign 'Whiplash.'
Known officially as the Special Boat Teams and manned by the Special Warfare Combatant Craft Crewmen or SWCCs, pronounced 'swick,' these fast, agile and heavily armed boats provided the USN with a dedicated shallow-water infiltration and extraction capability. In fact, their particular brand of warfare was probably one of the most specialised in the world; numbering only six hundred men in total, the SBT crews made up a tiny fraction of the hundreds of thousands of total American military personnel.
The six craft running upriver were the 'Riverine' boats – flat bottomed and low to the water, with a special hull design that allowed the craft to essentially skate along the surface at forty knots, drawing almost no water; the waterjet propulsion systems did the same, as there was no below-water rudder or propellers to snag on submerged obstacles. Five heavy weapon mounts provided a three-hundred-sixty degree field of fire.
Harry had wanted a helicopter extraction for this mission; the assault force and their rescued hostages numbered a total of 48 soldiers, and that wasn't even counting the sniper teams. They would have to extract to the coast over the next few hours via air-dropped quad-bikes and be picked up by other SWCC boats; the larger coastal MK V Special Operations Craft.
Unfortunately, echoes of the 1996 debacle in Mogadishu still reverberated powerfully in Washington. Some idiot politician on the 'House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces' – and boy, wasn't that a mouthful – had vetoed the use of helicopters over Somalia, and the presence of significant numbers of anti-aircraft weapons in the compound itself and in other al-Shabaab defensive positions in the area had reinforced that. No amount of pleading from the Pentagon had managed to change the congressman's mind in time, and no one else on the committee had overruled him – the loss of a helicopter over Somalia on their watch might well kill their re-election chances stone dead.
Normally operations of this kind, for example in Afghanistan or Iraq wouldn't require the committee's permission, as American forces were already deployed and therefore under the command of the theatre four-star. However, as the United States was not technically at war with Somalia, and therefore the operation constituted an invasion, legally speaking, the law required approval from the legislative oversight committee, except in extraordinary circumstances, like truly time-sensitive missions – which with almost four days of prep time, this one hadn't been. It was normally a pro-forma affair – the senators trusted the professionals not to screw up – but in this case one of them had made trouble, fixated on the possibility of another 'Black Hawk Down' incident.
So an alternative had been required. The SWCC boats had been flown out from their base in Stennis, Missouri only a day or so before. They had been airdropped by C-130 into the water near the USS Boxer and picked up by CH-53E Super Stallion heavy-lift helicopters. Once on the Boxer the crews had been briefed, rehearsed the mission as best they could, caught a few hours sleep and been inserted near the coastline by the Super Stallions again.
The USN Captain coordinating the mission from the Boxer had read his orders - 'no helicopters over Somalia,' – and, with the military's traditional very literal and to the letter interpretation of orders that they didn't particularly agree with, decided that phrasing meant they could go right up to the beach … or over river estuaries.
So the SWCC boats and their crews had been dropped as close as they dared in the mouth of the River Juba just as the assault began and had sped upriver at their full speed of about forty knots, a journey of about twenty minutes. Now they slowed, displaying their incredibly sharp turning circle and span within practically their own length, coming to rest against the low riverbank pointing back downstream. They came in two at a time, and the soldiers and their rescued cargo loaded in as quickly as possible.
The sixth boat nosed into the reeds on the far side, picking up the four SEAL snipers from the far side of the river. A few wild shots from the remaining al-Shabaab terrorists in the camp – at a range of nearly three hundred meters now – were answered with long, hammering bursts from dual-mounted .50 cal Browning M2s or the ripping, buzzsaw noise of a GAU-17A minigun. Whichever boat was closest to the target – and therefore the one with a clear shot – was on overwatch, and they went at it with great enthusiasm.
"All aboard?" the SWCC commander asked, when the last boat pulled away from the shore.
"Affirmative. Forty-eight in." Scarecrow replied from a different boat. "Let's go home, Whiplash."
"Copy that." The lead SWCC boat opened the throttles to the wall, the other six following in file. Fortunately the waterjet-powered Riverine craft didn't produce the 'rooster tail' characteristic of high-powered conventional outboards; if they had, they'd all be getting very wet indeed.
Harry was sat on the deck facing rearwards in the last boat in the convoy, his back to the helmsman's chair. He still held Ziva in his arms, unwilling to let her go now he had no further part to play. He unclipped his helmet, leaving his radio on, and lowered his head to hers.
"How are you doing?"
Ziva shifted in his arms, one arm coming up around his neck. "Fine."
Ziva felt more than heard Harry chuckle, the engine roar drowning it out. Her own lips twitched in a small smile.
"There's an acronym for that, you know."
"I know. We've had this conversation before."
His radio crackled; held safe in his arms, she could hear it clearly even if she wasn't wearing it. "Big George, Big George, this is Scarecrow. Rescue successful. Eight friendlies extracted, and the Bravo has been captured. Say again, eight friendlies extracted, and the Bravo has been captured. We have rendezvoused with Whiplash and are extracting downriver. ETA to the sea twenty mikes, say again ETA twenty mikes."
"Scarecrow, Big George." The USS Boxer's callsign for this mission was taken from the nickname of heavyweight boxing champion George Foreman. "Copy all. Cleanup time?"
"Affirmative, cleanup time."
"All right, patching you through to callsign Templar. Call the shot."
"Templar?" Ziva asked Harry, raising her head to look at him. "What do they mean, cleanup time?"
Harry smirked. "Let's just say the Americans intend to make a statement tonight, and they've enlisted the aid of the Royal Navy to do so."
Ten kilometres off the coast, a phantom lurked in the moonless night.
In the weak light of the stars the only trace of her passage was a v-shaped trail of slight bioluminescence marking her wake, as the microscopic organisms in the water protested her passage through their home.
HMS St. Albans had handed control of the Damocles over to US Navy ocean-going tugs based at Diego Garcia on June 30, and sprinted back across the Indian Ocean to return to her station. On arrival she had been diverted once again, this time to support the rescue mission, as the nearest US or British surface combatant. The USS Boxer didn't have the capabilities for this particular part of the mission, and her escort ships were required to continue doing just that, and were thus not free to act.
"Templar, Big George. Patching through Scarecrow for fire mission. Bouncing the ScanEagle drone feed to you."
Their part of the operation wasn't exactly complicated – shoot what they were told. On a large plasma screen mounted on the wall of the ship's Combat Information Center a black-and-white infrared camera feed from a circling ScanEagle drone appeared, circling a collection of buildings. Flashing IR strobes marked the position of the departing SWCC boats at the bottom of the screen.
"Templar, Scarecrow. Fire mission. Target is collection of buildings at Zero degress, six minutes, fifty-two point seven niner seconds South, forty two degrees, thirty four minutes and five point six two minutes East. Confirm receipt of drone feed?"
"Confirmed. Target acquired, GPS coordinates received. Standby."
The data was entered into the computer, which spat out an answer.
The Royal Navy had yet to begin using the GPS guided artillery munitions the Army had developed for the 155mm howitzer, as they used different calibre guns. Even before the post-Cold War age of military austerity had set in, the Royal Navy had arguably suffered the worst of all three British Armed services, being hit by budget cut after budget cut throughout the seventies and eighties, even after the Falklands War proved the need for a blue-water navy. In the post-Cold War years, this had continued unabated, as the Navy was cut from 51 surface combatants and 31 submarines in 1990 to just 27 and 12 respectively by 2009.
Thus, the now considerably leaner Royal Navy learned to do the same job with less resources, and to do that they had to be the best in the world at what they did; and that included the rarely-used but still important discipline of Naval Gunnery. Even in an age of missiles, there is and always will be a need for a weapon to pummel enemy shore positions and demoralise the foe in amphibious attacks; the Royal Navy has performed this task in the Falklands, Iraq both times and several other places over the years – besides, this camp wasn't important enough to expend a rather costly Tomahawk cruise missile on anyway. Mustn't upset the bean-counters in the Admiralty, dont'cha know.
So while GPS-guided naval gunfire was not yet available, neither was it really required. Even from twenty-five kilometres – pushing the maximum range of 'The Saint's' 4.5 inch Mark 8 deck gun – they weren't going to miss. To do so - and in front of the bloody Yanks, too - would just be embarrassing, and the Royal Navy had a multi-century reputation for professional excellence to keep up, after all.
The Mark 8 was an unmanned gun system, meaning there was no crew in the gunhouse on the foredeck. Gun hands loaded the rounds into a feed ring in the magazine, deep inside the armoured hull, where they were lifted up into the turret and loaded automatically.
A hand-loaded army howitzer can manage six rounds per minute, on a good day, and in the hands of a well-trained gun crew.
The semi-automatic deck gun of the St Albans could manage a staggering twenty-five rounds per minute; one every two and a half seconds, making that one gun the equivalent of a six-gun shore battery. It was computer- and gyro-stabilised, meaning that every shot went out on the same trajectory despite the unpredictable rolling motion of the ship on the waves.
"Bearing and elevation set," the gun captain in the Action Information Centre reported to the officer standing at his shoulder. "Target is a static, non-hardened brick structure. Flight time twenty seconds. Alternating impact and 1/100th delayed detonation fuses are set. Fire mission is danger close, say again danger close. Request permission to fire."
"Standby." The PWO - Principal Warfare Officer, usually called 'Pee-wo' for those that enjoy lowbrow humour - turned to the ship's captain, who was the only one who could authorise a 'Danger-close' artillery strike. The captain nodded once.
"Permission granted. Wait for confirmation from ground forces."
"Roger, loading the gun. Safeties still on." As the gun operator tapped keys on his console, the PWO switched channels. "Scarecrow, fire mission is danger close, say again danger close. Heads down."
"Copy danger close. Send it."
"Chief Petty Officer Harkness," the Captain said formally, "you may fire when ready."
The first 4.5 inch shell was a ranging shot, which landed long, just beyond the still-burning barracks block, kicking up a plume of dirt that was clearly visible over the mansion in the light of the fires. Landing the first shells long was normal doctrine, to avoid shots falling short and killing friendly forces.
There was a slight pause – no more than six seconds – to allow for a minute adjustment from the ranging shot based on the drone picture.
The second shell was walked back onto the mansion, which lost half its roof to one thunderous explosion.
The third round entered through the same hole, and its delayed fuse detonated it on the ground floor, collapsing the entire building's left side.
The fourth impacted the front of the un-collapsed portion of the house, demolishing the once-elegant stone façade and leaving the remainder creaking dangerously.
The fifth finished the job.
The sixth – only twenty seconds after the first shell had landed – detonated inside one of the storage warehouse al-Shabaab had been using to organise their offensive against Mogadishu.
Warehouses presently stacked full of 120mm mortar bombs, AK-47 and PKM ammunition boxes, crates of land mines, Semtex explosive, and the main prize – three racks of reloads for a truck-mounted 200mm Katyusha multiple-rocket launcher.
The explosion was enormous, a giant mushroom cloud of orange fire and black smoke that dwarfed even the four-story mansion that had originally stood next to the warehouse. It was joined a moment later by the other building going up in a rapid series of sympathetic secondary detonations. It made the first five impacts of the medium-calibre shells from the St. Albans look like children's toys; Harry could feel the pressure wave smack him in the face none-too-gently even from over five hundred meters away downriver.
"Scarecrow, Templar." The St. Albans PWO again. "I understand you Yanks like to have fireworks displays on July Fourth, over?"
It was sent on the general channel, meaning the entire assault force and the SWCC crews heard it. A round of only slightly hysterical laughter greeted the St. Alban's jest; they were all still juiced up on adrenaline.
"That we do, Templar," Scarecrow replied, "and I recognise the irony that a British vessel is providing said Independence Day fireworks."
"Funny old world isn't it? Templar out."
"That was the message," Harry told Ziva. "Don't fuck with Uncle Sam, or his friends."
"I'd say it's more like Britannia rules the waves." Ziva muttered back, making him laugh.
"Now that, Storm, was an explosion." Schofield said on the radio in a satisfied tone.
"You need help, man," was Harry's reply. "Lots and lots of it."
"Your significant other alright?"
Harry looked down at Ziva. The red battle-lights of the SWCC boats' commander's station cast an odd, unnatural light over the scene, but she had heard the question. He saw her smile and nod slightly in response before switching her attention to the still-dissipating fireball to the rear, and the strangely beautiful arcs of tracer cooking off through the sky from ammo caches that had been slightly further away from the main warehouse.
"No, not really. But she will be."
As always, please read and review! It'll only take thirty seconds to say what you liked, what needed improving, etc, etc. They make my day, week and month all at once! Well, maybe just my day, but still, you get my drift.
Bit of an abrupt ending, but I need a bit of time to research the psychological issues that rescued prisoners go through and suchlike. The next chapter will be an 'aftermath' chapter, probably with a lot more appearances from of the NCIS team, including the non-field team characters like Ducky and Abby.
Uni starts again this week, so less time for writing I'm afraid, plus all the other problems of being in final year with solid life plan. Still, I hope to update something soon; I promise I won't start any more stories either, despite all the ideas I have bouncing around. Four ongoing at once is quite enough.