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Beck takes the place of team leader. We follow him in single file with a hand placed firmly on the back of the one in front. Beck knows the lay of the land, and where the guards are patrolling.

“They come in two-minute intervals, always in a two-man scouting unit,” Beck explains as we wait for one to pass.

Vivian comes over our comm units. “We have satellite imaging. The north sector is clear, go now.”

We move, staying low.

“Do you know where they’re holding Michael?” Laci asks Beck.

“I have a general location, but not sure of the exact site. We’ll head in that direction. Wherever he is will be heavily guarded.”

“Hold your position,” Vivian commands.

We hold steady until given the all clear. I’m sweating uncontrollably, and I’m not sure if it’s from exertion or fear. A healthy dose of fear is good. It keeps you alert and on your toes. I jump slightly as the wind kicks up, knocking something over. I guess I’m a little hyper-aware of any noises. I hear Laci behind.

“Focus, Chandler.”

I give one quick nod, letting her know I hear her. I get out of my head and remember my training. I haven’t been doing this long enough for it to be second nature. I concentrate on what we’re here for. To free Michael.

We continue to move in unison, weaving around different types of vehicles and scraps of debris they’ve gathered to use as barricades. For the next few feet, we move without resistance. We come upon a part of the camp loaded with foot soldiers. This has to be the spot. Vivian comes over the comm.

“This is the part where it gets messy. One of you will need to cause a diversion to draw some of them away, while the other two go in and get Michael.”

Beck looks at us. “You heard the lady. I’ll draw cover fire, while you two get Michael.” Beck takes a few steps. “Haul ass,” he says, taking off in a sprint.

He emerges from the shadow of cover, looking through his scope. I can see his green laser center mass on the enemy’s chest before he falls. His gun barely makes a whisper through the suppressor, like a dart hitting a dartboard. Beck quickly dives behind a broken piece of cement as the enemy opens fire. A few of them move out in the direction Beck’s shot came from, but most of them stay put. They’re hyper-focused now, guns up and ready as they scan the area. I look to Laci, still unsure of how to proceed. Between us, she’s more experienced.

“Should we shoot?”

She glares at me before answering, “That will only bring them to us, and then what would be the purpose of Beck’s diversion? No, we sneak up on them. Take them out as quickly and as quietly as possible.”

I nod. She’s right, and I can’t believe I didn’t realize that. I take all of it in, storing what I’ve learned from this mission, so I can use it in future missions. Laci and I split in order to come up on opposite sides of the remaining hostiles. They’ve spread out in order to cover more ground as they search for the shooter. I have three on my side and Laci has four. We have no idea how many are inside the compound, or if Michael is even in there. I sit in wait behind an old oil barrel. I can feel my neck stiffening up from the tension. Taking a deep breath, I roll my shoulders to try and loosen up. Three quick intakes of breath, I toss my M4 over my shoulder and grab my Bayonet from its sheath. Quick and quiet is the name of the game. I hear the footsteps getting closer. My feet shift back and forth as the adrenaline kicks up. My palms grow moist and my fingers twitch as I grip my knife. My heart beats so hard I can hear it in my head. I can see him now. It’s now or never. I slink out of the darkness, coming from behind. I turn my back to him and kick backwards, hitting him in the back of his knees, forcing him to the ground. I put my hand over his mouth and slice through his throat. It takes a bit of strength to cut deep enough to sever his larynx and trachea. More so than I thought, but I can’t have him making any noise. Bending over, I grab him by the ankles, dragging his body as he gurgles, choking on his blood, into the shadows I emerged from. I can’t leave him here for his comrades to find. I kick the dirt, effectively covering the blood trail as I set out in search of my next mark. My mind stays on Michael. I don’t allow myself to think about what I’ve just done because if I do, I may just have a nervous breakdown. I’ve killed before, but never this up close and personal. To drive a knife through someone is a slow and brutally painful way to die. If I have to kill, I’d much rather shoot someone in the head. Quick and painless. And I can do it from a distance. I make my way closer to some type of cement structure, but have no visual on Laci or Beck. I hit my comm unit and speak, “Beck, Laci, report.”

“I’m still alive, playing cat and mouse with these fuckers. Tell me you’ve made progress,” Beck replies in a whisper.

“I’ve taken out two, heading closer to a structure of some sort,” Laci comes back.

“I’m moving in as well. We’ll let you know what we find,” I reply.

“Copy, switching to channel B to inform the General,” Beck says.

“Copy,” Laci and I say in unison.

I creep up to the side of the concrete structure, hugging the wall. I can see the other four hostiles. They’re not moving from in front of the building. I have two closer to me and Laci has the other two. I speak into my comm, “Laci, we have to shoot.”

“Yes, Chandler. This time you’re right, we have to shoot. On my mark. Quick and quiet. Ready . . . now.”

I pull the trigger of my M4. Three burst in each target and they’re down. Laci’s fall in quick succession, but as one of them drops he squeezes the trigger of his AK-47, letting loose a volley of rounds. It’s loud and draws four more hostiles from inside the compound. They don’t hesitate as they exit. They come out firing in all directions. I quickly pull back, taking cover on the side of the building. I don’t see where Laci went.

Peering around the corner, I get off a few shots, missing all targets. Shit! A few more bullets head in my direction, slamming into the side of the building. I’m rigid in my prone position as I hug the wall. Bits of concrete fly off as the bullets hit. I take a deep breath, squaring my shoulders as I try again. There’s a pause of gunfire in my direction, but I still hear it. It must be Laci drawing them to her so I can get a clean shot. I take my opportunity, leaking out from behind the building and fire. This time I take out two before they refocus their efforts on me. Taking cover again on the side of the building, I hear the bullets blasting away at the concrete. Then nothing. Carefully, I peer around the side with my weapon ready. I see only Laci emerge from behind a grouping of trees she took refuge behind. We meet up about a hundred yards from the door of the cemented structure. There seems to be no movement.

“I think we thinned the heard,” Laci points out. “They’ll be calling in reinforcements. We need to hurry.”

“Beck, what’s your twenty?” I ask.

“We have a chopper incoming. ETA twenty minutes in the field of the first village we passed. I’m coming to you.”

“Copy that. We’re heading in to get a closer look,” I respond.

Beck doesn’t come back over the comm. Laci and I eye each other before moving in towards the door. My back is against the wall on the left side of the door. Laci opens the door, staying to the right against the wall. I move from my position to enter the building first. I scan the front area with my weapon tucked tightly against my shoulder before moving in to go left. Laci comes in right behind me, heading to her right. I clear my side just before Laci clears hers. My heart drops. Michael’s not here.

“Beck, the building is empty. Do you copy?” I ask.

“Fuck. Where is he?” Laci speaks softly, pacing back and forth.

“Keep looking. I’m gonna stay back and keep your egress clean. Radio when you’ve got something. The Israelis are bringing Delaney to the rendezvous point. Remember the clock is ticking, ladies.”

“Let’s move,” Laci demands.

Guns at the ready, we move out together.

We make it another hundred feet or so before coming upon a group of insurgents sitting around a small table, playing cards. Right behind them sits a shack. They’re there to guard something, or someone. There’s still no sign of Akol or Artoli, and we know they still need to be neutralized, but for now Michael is our only priority. I look at Laci.

“Another diversion?” I ask.

“I’ll go,” is her response.

She sneaks off into the darkness as I wait behind a grouping of trees. I hear two shots off in the distance, bringing the three men at the table to their feet. They mumble to each other in their native tongue before two of them cautiously make their way toward the gunfire. The one remaining moves closer to the door, standing guard.

It’s just one. You can take him, my inner companion says, giving me courage. Before I can make my way to the shack, I hear muffled voices headed my way. Shit. I’m forced to hide, again, before I can take out the guard, and confirm whether or not Michael is in there.

“Goddamn it, Laci, where the hell are you?” I whisper.

I’m flush against the tree as the men pass by, heading to the man guarding the door. Great, one guard has quickly turned into three. They converse for a second before one of them breaks off, opening the door to the shack. There’s a flicker of light, but he’s in and the door closes before I can make out anything. I can’t see shit inside, and have no idea how many hostiles there are. The tiny openings between the slats of wood that make up the wall aren’t big enough for me to see at this distance. I could really use some backup right about now. I hear wrestling in the bushes. I turn to see Laci emerge.

“Speak of the devil,” I say. “Where the hell have you been?”

“Eavesdropping. I see you haven’t made it any further than where I left you,” she scoffs, rolling her eyes. It’s dark, but she somehow makes it perfectly clear for me to see.

“So, what did you find out while eavesdropping? They weren’t even speaking English” I hear my own harsh tone come out.

“This time they were. They were speaking with an American-”

“An American,” I reiterate.

She glares at me before continuing, “He was asking about the prisoner named Michael.” She turns her whole body to look at me. “And you will never guess who grabbed him.”

“We already know who grabbed him,” I state.

“Are you sure about that?”

I stare blankly at her. “What do you know?”

“The man called the American by name. He called him Jessup, as in Christopher Jessup.”

Those two words make my stomach drop. He trained Michael, and Echo. Why would he take him? Was he the one who took and tortured Echo for all these years?

“Do we know how many are in there?” she asks, turning to face the guards again.

“At least three I know for sure,” I reply. “We can take them.”

A wicked grin plays across Laci’s face. “On me,” she says, moving towards the shack.

Hunching over, we quietly make our way to the shack. We fire a shot into each hostile on our way to the door. I can hear two distinct voices inside the shack. I hold up two fingers and she nods in agreement. She points at me then the door. I nod, reaching for the door. There’s no handle just a latch allowing you to lock it from the outside. It’s clearly meant for holding people hostage. We stay on the balls of our feet as I slowly open the door. If they do hear us and start shooting, it will be at shoulder level. The lower we are the safer we are. The door makes no noise as I ease it open. I can see one man standing about. He’s pacing in front of Michael.

“Michael,” I breathe his name.

He’s shackled and hanging from the rafters. His head is dropped and he’s not moving. Is he alive? My heart pounds as the horrific thought echoes through my mind.

“Do you have a visual?” Laci asks.

I don’t answer. He’s strung up like a piece of meat. He’s been badly beaten. I immediately see red.

“It’s him,” my tone, clipped.

“We move on my mark,” Laci states.

The man in front of Michael takes out a cigarette. He lights it and brings it up to Michael’s face. He’s about to burn him. I can’t shoot him. What if it goes through him and hits Michael? All I see is that the man I love has been tortured, and it’s about to happen again right in front of me. Well, not while I still draw breath will I allow someone to hurt him in my presence. I don’t wait for Laci’s signal. I stand, and in one fluid motion grab my Bayonet from its sheath and throw it at the man. My blade strikes exactly where I aim; at the base of his skull. I’ve never been an excellent marksman, especially with a knife, and I can’t explain how I did it. All I know is that he needed to be taken out quickly.

Laci stands after it’s all done. She doesn’t have time to protest before I make my move. Looking at her, I don’t think she cares that I did it. She doesn’t even see me for Michael hanging unconscious in the rafters. His body is bloody with both fresh and dried blood. I can’t imagine what he must’ve gone through. Laci rushes past me, I think I’m in shock because I can’t get my body to move.

“Chandler, help me,” Laci yells, holding Michael around his thighs. She’s trying to lift him to relieve the pressure on his wrists and shoulders. Her weary tone wakes me and I run to him. We work hard at freeing him. His skin is cool to the touch, and his pulse is faint.

“Hold on, Michael,” I whisper. “We got you.”

Michael moans faintly as we let loose his arms. He has to be in tremendous pain. It will take both of us to get him out of here. Laci and I stand on opposite sides of him, looping his arms around our necks. We each grab a leg and haul ass out of there. I’m praying as we go that we don’t get caught. If we do, we’re all dead. We find a safe spot to stop to catch our breath, but only for a second. We must keep moving. The alarm has been sounded. They know Michael is gone.

The sun is hitting the horizon. We no longer have the cover of night to help shield our escape.

“Beck, we have the package. Do you copy?” I ask, frantic.

My legs and arms are on fire from the exertion of the run, and Michael’s dead weight. No workout in the world could’ve prepared me for this. My breath is ragged, as is Laci’s, but we don’t stop. Stopping means dying. We hear shouting not far from us.

“We need cover, Chandler,” Laci says through labored breaths. “Shit, Beck, do you copy,” Laci repeats. Only static comes through. We hear the gunfire as the dirt around us flies up in grey clouds. We carefully lay Michael down and return fire. They’re firing behind broken down vehicles, while Laci and I are sitting ducks. We use our bodies to shield Michael, staying in front of him as we return fire. Luckily for us none of them are excellent marksmen. Suddenly, we hear rapid gunfire coming from behind us. Laci turns, gun ready, facing behind us. I hear her speak softly, “Thank God, Beck.”

Some of the weight lifts from my shoulders; not a lot, we still need to get out. Still, I’m so grateful for the help. I had mentally prepared myself to die here.

“We’ll cover you. Get Michael to the helo,” Beck shouts to the operatives.

I turn around for the first time to see Beck making his way to us with three other Collective operatives.

“You heard the man,” Laci says, getting to her feet.

Beck, Laci, and I squeeze the hell out of our triggers as the other three operatives grab Michael. We faint back, reloading our M4’s as we go. I see bodies fall from our spray, but most stay behind their cover. We’re almost to the helo when we see the Humvees approaching with the Gatling guns attached. My heart sinks. Can’t this be over? Can’t we just go home? A loud boom comes from where the helo is as a missile flies past us. It hits home, exploding the lead vehicle. I turn to see what the hell just happened. Ariel is standing next to the helo with an RPG. He lets loose another and hits the second vehicle. The other two turn sharply and haul ass the opposite direction. The men load Michael onto the helo next to Delaney. They hook him up to an IV and start treating his wounds. Laci and I sit on each side of Michael. Beck stands outside shaking the hands of the three Mossad agents who helped save our asses.

“We won’t forget this, man. Thank you,” Beck says.

The men nod, looking into the helo at us. I salute them and Laci nods. They turn, getting into their jeep and head out. There are so many things running through my head, but my main concern is Michael. He still isn’t conscious, which worries me. I’ll let Sonja and the General deal with how and why Jessup took Michael, and possibly Echo.

I see the landing strip of Bole International Airport, allowing me to breathe a little easier. We’re finally leaving this hell hole. All of us. Michael and Delaney lie comfortably, asleep, thanks to the morphine. We touch down, and the medical team is standing by to transport Michael and Delaney from the helo to the Collective jet. As soon as everyone is safely on board the pilot doesn’t hesitate in taking off.

“What a fucking ride,” Beck says, sinking into his seat.

Laci turns to me saying, “You surprised me, Chandler. You handled yourself out there.”

I nod at her before she gets up to sit closer to Michael. I guess that’s her way of finally welcoming me to the team. I’m glad to be headed home, but I feel mildly nauseous at the facts surrounding this mission. Jessup targeted Michael for a reason. I want to know why. In time Delaney and Michael’s wounds will heal. But now we know . . . until Jessup is caught, Michael is not safe.

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