"We have known freedom's price. We have shown freedom's power. And in this great conflict, my fellow Americans, we will see freedom's victory." – President George W. Bush, in the first State of the Union address after September 11th, 2001.
OFF THE COAST OF GAZA
Jack held Rachel's hand as they saw the two Palestinian gunboats closing off the mouth of the harbor. Behind them, they were out of range of the Hamas speedboats but Mahmoud Al-Harazi and his men would definitely be waiting. Unlike the powerboats that had been pursuing them, the ones up ahead were sizable watercraft formerly belonging to the Turkish coast guard and manned by trained Palestinian police. Jack's eyes scanned the promontory reaching out. Indeed there were military jeeps and Hamas foot soldiers approaching the area as well.
AIRBORNE OVER THE PORT OF GAZA
"We're taking fire from hostiles on the seawall!" Lance radioed the command center as he looked at the tracer fire coming up from the curved promontory jutting out over the harbor, leaving a narrow opening between the port area and the open ocean beyond it. An entire convoy of Hamas terrorists was approaching on the dirt road that ran on the top of the giant seawall that had been not destroyed by the payload of cluster bombs dropped by Air Force jets. There were multiple vehicles including pickup trucks with heavy machine guns mounted on the back, Russian military surplus jeeps, and several tarped trucks filled with armed terrorists. The terrorists in the pickup trucks spotted the US Army helicopters in the sky turning inland toward the coast and began unleashing a furious hail of heavy machine gun fire.
The terrorist rounds impacted the side of the Black Hawk, clanging off the metal surface and forcing the pilot to bring the aircraft even further out to sea even as they saw Jack's speedboat being boxed in by the gunboats and Mahmoud's cabin cruiser.
"Helo-2, we need backup immediately! Approach from the rear!" Henderson radioed, guiding the other aircraft to a safe position where they can take aim at their targets. The Apache pilot acknowledged and flew high over a collection of ramshackle dwellings and then the part of the seawall that had been demolished by the F-15Es. The terrorist convoy was essentially on a newly formed island but they cared more about killing Americans than about their own precarious situation.
The gunners on the Apache squeezed the trigger and let loose a shower of CRV7 air-to-ground missiles at the convoy. Four of the vehicles were destroyed immediately in the string of massive explosions that sent a loud boom across the expanse of the harbor. A number of terrorists began abandoning the convoy and taking up positions among the rocks on the seawall and among the burning vehicles. The Apache made a wide 360 degree turn over the edge of the harbor and back toward the seawall as the terrorists there turned their attention to the new threat, allowing the Black Hawk to come back toward land.
"Helo-2, the gunboat to the north is turning its armaments toward your position, you may have to take defensive action quickly," Lance Sizemore radioed from the Black Hawk.
"We copy," the Apache pilot replied. The helicopter gunship then flew low and engaged with the M230 automatic canon, blasting away at the terrorists on the ground. It must have been what the Japanese banzai charges in World War II were like, the pilot thought to himself as the jihadis continued to fire even though they were no match for American technology. Within fifteen seconds, all of the machine guns on the seawall fell silent.
Jack desperately squeezed off one burst after another at the gunboats but it was no use. In addition to the half dozen crewmen he saw on the deck armed with AKs, there were several heavy guns. He wished he hadn't wasted that rocket earlier while trying to escape the speedboats then thought that it wouldn't have made a difference anyway. Both of the coast guard vessels had hulls made of reinforced steel and even in the slight chance the rocket could penetrate a small area, the vessel wouldn't sink fast enough, and in any case there was another boat too.
Jack looked up again and saw several sailors preparing to operate the heavy weaponry, then furious bursts of destructive rain were launched toward the speedboat. The sailors' aim wasn't perfect and the first round hit the water though the hostiles were quickly adjusting the aim as massive burst of water were kicked up from the harbor and rained down on the boat, completely soaking Jack and Rachel. Suddenly, however, the entire superstructure of the first boat disappeared in a massive blaze, then the other. The Apaches had targeted both vessels and made direct hits on the superstructure, purposely aiming topside to limit the strength of the tidal wave that could swamp Jack's speedboat. Jack and Rachel both felt heat wash over their faces again, then saw a curtain of exploding flames on the seawall, the terrorist vehicles being hurled everywhere.
"I see them, hover right over there position!" Henderson ordered the pilot.
"Yes, sir!" the pilot replied as he brought the Black Hawk helicopter over the plumes of smoke rising from the gunboats and seawall. The majority of the sailors had been killed with only a couple survivors on the second vessel trying to abandon ship.
"If they make any attempt to fight back, don't hesitate to blow them out of the water!"
Two surviving hostiles who had jumped off a jeep were now on the pile of rocks that supported the Gaza seawall, ignoring the ocean surf crashing into their legs as they raised their AK-47s up at the helicopter. Both let out a pitched, banshee like battle cry but before they could fire, Darius Greene cut them down with the helicopter's heavy armaments, transforming the two terrorists into heaps of mangled flesh. Lance Sizemore fired another missile into the first gunboat for good measure, and the vessel quickly began sinking toward the bottom of the shallow harbor.
Rachel cut the engine to the speedboat and excitedly left the controls, making her way to the back, trying to keep her balance as the small pleasure craft bobbled on choppy surface of the water. The Black Hawk hovered directly above the boat and dropped a harness as the Apache gunship circled the area, checking for any more threats to neutralize.
Jack didn't know how to describe the rescue to Rachel. "You ever been zip lining?" he said, trying his best.
"No, Jack, but after all the shit we been through today, this can't be that bad." Jack checked to see that she was harnessed in safely and she flashed a thumbs up to Lance, who along with another American soldier pulled her up into the chopper.
"So you're the reason Jack went through all that!" Lance said with a smile, shaking her hand.
"I'm very flattered, but I'd do the same thing for him," she managed with a smile before looking down and motioning for Jack to follow her. "I did everything I could to keep him from coming, but you probably know he can be stubborn sometimes."
"Yo that's what's up!" Darius laughed. "I knew you and him were tight, but not like that." He still remembered her from the time they had gone out to that bar outside the base. "I'll make sure he knows you're a keeper."
Soon enough, Jack was also pulled up into the helicopter and the doors were finally shut.
"Base, this is Helo-1," the pilot radioed, "We've secured both packages. We're headed home."
OFF THE COAST OF GAZA
Rachel grinned weakly as the helicopter flew on in near silence after all the congratulations were done with and it was clear they needed the moment to unwind and process everything that had just happened. Gradually, the pall of thick black smoke over Gaza disappeared in the background as the helicopter continued north, crossing into Israeli airspace about ten minutes later. Jack smiled back at her, but like hers, his smile was one simply of relief mixed with sadness as he thought of Rafi, Merina, and Minaj who had seen nothing but war their entire lives and came so close to escaping but gave their lives so that he and Rachel could make it out alive.
Rachel thought the same thing as the freeways and the modern high-rise skyline of Tel Aviv came into view as the helicopters overflew the city on its way to the Givitayim IDF base where the American forces contingent was also based. So many times, she was certain she would never see any of this again, but now, because of the sacrifices that these brave strangers had made, she would be able to just go home and tell her parents how much she loved them. She would spent the night in the comfort of her own bed instead of in a moldy, rat-infested Hamas prison. She could even go back to worrying about the little things like the traffic on the highways on her way to her posting at the airport and whether that big fat college packet would arrive from somewhere in the United States. Eventually, as she thought of the darkness that was Gaza, and the light that nonetheless had continued to shine there, she finally let the tears come. First it was just a trickle, and then she let loose, sobbing uncontrollably as she curled up in Jack's arms.
Jack also finally let the tears come as he thought of the Latifs and Minaj shot down by the terrorists on those sandy streets that they came so close to escaping, just so he could be here. He thought of the American soldiers who no doubt were killed during the terrorist attack on the base, and all the innocent children who were executed, especially that 19 year old trying to muster whatever dignity she could as Nakkash chopped her head off. He was conscious of the other soldiers looking at him, but they knew better than to judge. Jack had seen and done more in the past 24 hours than these guys had in their entire careers.
He wanted to be strong for Rachel, to comfort her and soothe her as he ran his fingers through her hair and stroked her back. To his surprise, though, she started doing the same to him. She also realized that Jack needed comforting as well, and she wanted to do everything she could to make him feel better. Neither of them even felt the chopper land on the tarmac outside the American forces building or notice the doors sliding open.
"Bauer, we're on the ground," Henderson said, trying to jolt Jack back to his senses.
"Sir, with all due respect, I think they deserve a moment. They….they've earned it, sir," Lance said.
Henderson looked at him and wanted to argue but didn't. The rotors stopped spinning and they just sat alone in the silence for a few minutes. Jack's mind began moving forward toward the future, thinking about his father and the fallout from this day, about his plans, but gave up. Right now it was just this moment as his heartbeat raced, trying to calm back down from the harrowing experience he had just had and all the things he had been forced to do. Jack's feet wobbled as he stepped off the chopper, holding Rachel's hand as they walked toward the building and the large American flag draped over its side. Soon enough, he would have to face the future.
IBRAHIMI MOSQUE, LATER THAT DAY
There wasn't much left of the Ibrahimi Mosque. Nearly every inch of the large structure had been destroyed, assimilating the compound into the ruined neighborhood that surrounded it. What was left of the toppled minaret lay horizontally on the ground, most of it shattered. The cries of injured and dying terrorists filled the air. Mahmoud gasped as he ran and climbed through the piles of rubble, ignoring the acrid fumes that burned his lungs.
"Imam Ravid! Imam!" he shouted. There were several Palestinian paramedics on site, guarded by Hamas terrorists.
"Where is Imam Ravid?" Mahmoud demanded, slipping on a broken window frame but getting back up. "Will any of you fools answer me? Speak, in the name of the Prophet!"
"Over here, commander!" one of the rescuers said. He was wearing scrubs and a name tag that identified himself as a doctor with the Gazan Health Ministry. The doctor eyed the ground as Mahmoud approached due to the trepidation he felt at breaking the news to Mahmoud, who was soon about to be the highest ranking member in Hamas's operational arm.
"We have done everything we could, mujahid. He will soon be in paradise along with the other martyrs. He has lost too much blood. The Zionists also tried to attack us with drones to slow down our response."
Mahmoud knew the last part was probably not true and that the doctor probably just believed the lies that Hamas told the Palestinian people and the international media alike. Fortunately for the doctor, Mahmoud simply shoved him aside and knelt down next to Ravid.
"I want you to make me this promise, Mahmoud," Ravid whispered softly, straining to speak, though his eyes had the same blazing hatred that had always defined him. "You must make the infidels pay for this. Make the ground shake beneath their feet. Make the holy fire rain down upon them from the skies. The Koran tells us in Sura 8:12, 'I will cast terror into the hearts of the unbelievers. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them.' Be the hand of Allah, Mahmoud. Bring the jihad to the West, slaughter their women and their children. Spill the blood of the infidels onto their own soil." Ravid's voice weakened as the life began to leave him, but he had made his final point nice and clear.
"Yes, Imam. I swear to Allah on the honor of my clan that we will never give up the sacred struggle. Rest in peace with Allah, Imam, for you shall be avenged."
HENDERSON'S OFFICE, THE NEXT MORNING
After landing at Givitayim, Jack and Rachel were given some time to nap and freshen up before the seemingly endless debriefings begin, Jack with both the military and the CIA, including a live videoconference with both the Pentagon and CIA headquarters and Rachel with the Israeli Defense Forces. Afterward, Rachel desperately needed to go back home to her parents, and Jack understood perfectly. He wished he could do that same, but couldn't even bring himself to call his father. That would have to wait till the next day, he decided.
The moment he woke up, he was informed that Captain Henderson wanted an immediate meeting with him in his office. Jack was exhausted, but he owed Henderson not just the respect due to a superior officer, but the gratitude for leading the rescue operation that brought him back in one piece. Jack didn't know what to expect given the circumstances and what had caused his foray into Gaza in the first place. Jack mustered all the confidence he could as he walked into the American command building, almost all of the soldiers he passed, including many who outranked him, saluting him and congratulating him, even if they didn't know the full magnitude of what had transpired.
The Army troops opened the door to Henderson's office and Jack walked in. The TV was turned to Fox News, which covered the ongoing fighting in Gaza. The involvement of the US military in the recent events have stirred up controversy in Washington, with many on the liberal left denouncing President Ryan's decision to deploy American forces to rescue Jack, even if it was only for a few hours. The response from the UN could have been worse, but Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the Persian Gulf countries were surprisingly silent.
"Thank you gentlemen. Please, give us the room," Henderson ordered.
"Yes, sir." The two men left and closed the door behind them.
It was like déjà vu, as he thought of the last time he had been here like this, right after arriving from the airport after his embarrassing first encounter with Rachel, all thanks to Henderson and his unannounced training scenario.
"Reporting as ordered, sir," Jack said, then added, "And Captain, thank you for saving my life."
"Have a seat, Bauer," Henderson ordered. For some reason, Jack was nervous at what his commander was about to tell him. He wasn't sure what his future was at this point since his head had just been a spinning mess the entire night before. But he was still afraid of being reprimanded. It was just in his nature now, something the military had grilled into him.
"Sir, I know I disobeyed direct orders yesterday when I offered to exchange my life for Private Friedman's. I know you taught me….."
"Damn right I taught you better than that, Bauer," Henderson replied gruffly, leaning back in his chair. "Remember what I said the first day, that you should always put your men and this team first. That you needed to not let anything get in the way of the mission, including pussy."
"I know sir. Private Friedman, means a lot to me. More than I should have allowed her to, Captain. Again I know it doesn't justify anything." He knew how dumb and clichéd that sounded but he couldn't come up with anything else on the fly.
"You ignored a direct order from me! You blatantly and publicly engaged in an act of insubordination and you know this is punishable by a court martial and a dishonorable discharge from the United States Army."
"Sir, I know I made a mistake that put you and my fellow soldiers at risk. I accept whatever punishment you deem appropriate. I have no excuses for my actions, except….except sometimes I think about what you taught me, Captain, about your examples of unconventional leadership and…."
"It's not your place to make these calls, and certainly not to let your personal feelings get in the way!" he thundered, then softened up. "And yes, you deserve to be court martialed, but there is a problem with that. Because if you hadn't done what you did, Nakkash Bin Rahal would have succeeded in his plot against America and the world would be a very different place right now. I see you're surprised, Jack."
"I thought you had called me in here to discuss my punishment, Captain," Jack replied evenly.
"No, Bauer. I called you in here to discuss your future. I'm sure your father has been asking you to think ahead."
"This is my last deployment, sir, and I don't intend to renew my enlistment. I'll be returning stateside and most likely taking a position with BXJ Technologies." Jack said the words, but deep inside they were beginning to feel hollow, like it was a lie. Yes, that was the plan he was going to stick to, but something just gnawed at the back of his mind.
Henderson helped his mind fill in the blanks. "And is that what you want, Jack? Sitting in a fucking office all day, attending business luncheons, videoconferencing with a bunch of Wall Street investors every week? C'mon, Jack, you know that's not who you are. You can do better than that, Jack." Henderson slapped Jack on the shoulder and pointed to his US Army patch. "This is who are you. I've always known it, and yesterday you've proven it."
"I don't know what to say, sir."
"Jack, in light of the nuclear threat that you, yes you averted yesterday, Congress finally began to acknowledge the level of the terrorist threat facing our country, and approved funding for a new counter-terrorism unit that President Ryan's been proposing ever since he took office. It will take years for this new agency to get off the ground, but I've been tapped to play a part in its formation. I would like to have you on board, Bauer. In preparation I can recommend you for the Delta Force and get you the kind of elite training I know you're qualified for. Even with what little training I gave you, you've proven your skills and instincts yesterday. Before this new CTU comes online, you'll continue to serve our country in the Delta Force."
Jack's first instinct was to decline as he thought of the plans that he and Rachel had made together. But he also thought to the events of yesterday, and all of the innocent people who had lost their lives. He also remembered looking on that map as the nuclear warheads raced toward their targets as the clock counted down. Maybe this was what he was meant for, Jack thought to himself. He had the skills to confront the new threats head on. A week ago, he had finally had a future planned out for himself but now, knowing he had the skills to prevent a tragedy like this from happening again to more people, possibly on American soil, could he look at himself in the mirror if he just walked away from it?
Henderson pressed on. "You know I'm not a particularly religious person. All that bullshit is a bunch of fairy tales, so I can actually look at this whole situation here impartially. Think about why they attacked us yesterday. Because we have a few thousand soldiers stationed in Saudi Arabia, not even anywhere close to Mecca and Medina. These same people would kill you for drawing a simple cartoon of their prophet. They and the Israelis both have a religious claim to the land we're standing on now. The difference is Israel has always been willing to split this land as a compromise, but not them. You see Jack, these people are not interested in peace. They're not interested in negotiating and they sure as hell don't answer to reason. You got these pussies back in Washington and those hippies on college campuses saying violence is not the answer. You of all people should know that violence sometimes is the only answer. You know how to take the fight to the enemy, Jack. It would be a waste for you to not utilize these skills."
His choices flashed before his eyes as time seemed to stand still. "Sir, there are many others qualified for the job. I appreciate your offer, sir, but I'm confident you will find someone else who has everything you're looking for. Sir, I have faith in the United States armed forces, our government, and our allies to keep us safe."
"Evidently, Bauer, you have more trust in the higher-ups than I do, and its more trust than they deserve."
"Excuse me, sir? I don't completely understand."
Henderson took a deep breath. This was it, he thought. He thought of the past few days, and the past few years he had spent in the Middle East and other war zones. One way or another, Jack Bauer would work for him. He only hoped this would work.
"How did you think the terrorists were able to ambush your entire team? First Minaj at the Qissariya Market and then the rest of you as you were heading to the harbor?"
Jack was confused and this was clearly reflected on his facial expressions. "We know Hamas is directly supported by Iran. We were guessing the Iranians in turn got satellite imagery from their allies in China and Russia and passed it down to the terrorists on the ground."
"Well I suppose it could have happened that way, but it didn't," Henderson said, then dropped the bombshell. "You know, Jack, obviously when American agents are killed on the ground both us and the CIA investigate very thoroughly and press on all our resources on the ground. It should come as no surprise to you that we have people inside the United Nations in Gaza as well as within the Palestinian Authority to keep an eye on things. Sergeant Bauer, your location was leaked by none other than Defense Minister Moshe Doron himself."
"What?" Jack exclaimed loudly, exactly the expression Henderson wanted. If this was not enough, Henderson would arrange something himself that would bring Jack into the fold. Hopefully it wouldn't have to come to that. "Why in hell would Doron do that?"
"Because of you, Bauer! Because you know too much, and he knows that if you ever were to reveal his attempted shootdown of the helicopter with Private Friedman inside, he would most likely be spending the rest of his life in a military prison, maybe even sharing a cellblock with Islamic terrorists. So you still think you can trust those in power? In the meantime, Jack, Hamas is now under the control of Nakkash's next in line, Mahmoud Al-Harazi. Each one is more delusional and radical than the last. I promise you, if you come on board with me, I will find a way for you to get your revenge on Doron in a way that would be diplomatically acceptable. At the same, you are forbidden from going about this any other way. It's not in our interests to see the kind of upheaval that will tear Israel apart if these allegations against Doron ever reach the media."
Henderson didn't mention that the Prime Minister had also signed off on Rachel's death initially but he played no part in leaking the details of a classified operation to terrorists. He also didn't mention General Malachi, but that military man was a lapdog who wouldn't even bark unless Doron ordered him to. Malachi would not be causing any problems in the future.
"This is very hard to take in, sir," Jack said simply.
"I imagine it would be, son," Henderson said in a more gentle voice. Now was the time to show Jack that he was there to support him. "You have a gift, Jack, one that very few people in the world, even very few people in the Army have. Anyone else caught in any of the situation you were just in wouldn't be alive right now. Don't waste it, Jack," he said, trying to get into Jack's head, urging what was probably already there. "Think about how close we came. Think about all the families affected by the recent tragedy. You can stop this from happening again. Listen to your own heart, Jack. You don't want to just walk away from this when you can make a difference and save lives."
"Sir," Jack managed weakly. His legs wobbled and he became lightheaded at the realization of everything that was going on. "I need a few days to think about this. Please, sir."
"I'll give you a week, Bauer," Henderson replied, then added, "Even though I already know what your answer's going to be."