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Classification Action, Romance (Harm/Mac/Brumby)
Length Approximately 28,000 words; 68 pages (8 ½” x 11”)
Spoilers “Family Secrets”, “The Prisoner”, “Death Watch”, “Boomerang”
Rating GS
Supplemental Disclaimer It should be fairly obvious, but the quotes from “The Raven” aren’t mine, either. Bet you never thought you’d see Poe in a fanfic. I was just in a weird mood. Humor me.

 

Author's Note 1 The actual U.S.-China incident involving a Navy surveillance aircraft did not occur until I was about two-thirds of the way done with this story, and it had only recently been resolved when I finished. Believe me, if I’d had that kind of reference to work from, the details would be a lot tighter. It gave me an extremely creepy feeling to see the similarities. Nevertheless, they are entirely coincidental.
 
Author's Note 2 This is set mid-sixth season, approximately after the episode “Touch and Go”. Yes, the EF-111 Raven does exist, but nearly all details shown here are products of my twisted imagination. And in case anybody’s curious; yes, I’m well aware that the show ‘runs’ on Zulu time, but admit it – it’s just not worth doing the math. My frame of mind for this story is this: considering everything that our heroes have been through, they’re entitled to be a lot more emotionally fragile than the show would have us believe. A word of warning to the shippers – Brumby figures prominently in this one, and I’m fairly nice to him. (Renee’s nonexistent.) But don’t fret. All will be made right.

 

Summary How far is Harm willing to go for his best friend’s happiness?
 

 

 

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4

 

 

 

 

1042 EST
JAG Headquarters
Falls Church, Virginia

There was nothing Harmon Rabb, Jr. hated more than not being in control.

Everyone around him knew it. He’d pace restlessly, firing useless questions at anyone within earshot, all to give himself the illusion that he wasn’t helpless. And he’d never admit to doing it for a second.

Sometimes, his partner had to admit, that unyielding need to act served him well. It had saved lives on more than one occasion. Other times, when there was simply nothing to be done, it clawed at the back of his mind for days, leaving no sign of its presence save for the ache that lingered behind his eyes.

This was one of those ‘other’ times.

When Sarah Mackenzie first appeared in his doorway, he was staring at a section of last week’s Washington Post, not really reading it. He already knew what it said. The Russian son of an American POW had been captured in Chechnya, and U.S. authorities were joining the negotiations for his release. The truths that had taken him years to uncover were now being broadcast to the world.

“He’s going to be fine,” Mac said, stepping into the office. “For better or worse, Sergei’s just like you. He’s a survivor.”

Harm glanced up, then tossed the newspaper aside with a rueful half-smile. “Never thought of myself as my father’s other son before.”

“Reporters bugging you?” she asked sympathetically.

“I’ve got caller-ID. They’ll lose interest soon enough. What can I do for you, Mac?”

“Just wanted to touch base. We haven’t had too many opportunities to connect since all this happened.” She twisted her engagement ring around without realizing it. The motion didn’t escape his notice.

“You think I’m sulking because you finally moved that ring?” he asked, a little more sharply than he’d intended.

“No, I think you’re sulking because you can’t go off and rescue your brother,” she returned. “And you’re justified in that. But I also wonder if you’re … disappointed in me.”

A kind of shock flickered across his features. “Disappointed? How could you think that?”

“Come on, Harm. You and Mic have been doing pretty well at this little truce, but the fact is, you two can’t stand each other. I mean, you’ve cracked each other’s ribs. Am I supposed to just hope all of that is just water under the bridge?”

“Mac, you don’t need my approval to get married.”

“But I want it. Your opinion is important to me.”

He surrendered. “I just want you to be happy,” he said simply. “I think the world owes you that.”

“And you really don’t think I would be, with Mic.”

Without meeting her gaze, he answered quietly. “You don’t know what I think.”

There was an awkward silence for a moment. She waited for him to explain, to open up, the way they used to. But no explanation came. “You’re right,” she said finally. “I never do, do I?”

The words stung a little, but then again, he deserved it. “This isn’t really the best place to be having this conversation, is it?”

“I don’t know. Is there actually going to be a conversation?” she asked with feigned innocence. He shot her a withering look.

“Play fair, Mac. I’m trying, all right?”

“I’m sorry. I just want to show you that Mic’s not the jerk you think he is.”

“I told you, you don’t owe me anything.”

“Maybe not. But I want you to be happy for me. So would you humor me for a while? Lunch, maybe?”

He sighed. Maybe she didn’t owe him, but he somehow felt that he still owed her. “All right. I’ll come find you when I finish up this report. But no burgers.”

“Deal.”

“Damn, too late. And here I was hoping to steal you away for lunch.” Mic Brumby stuck his head around the door with a grin. Startled, Mac didn’t answer for a moment.

With a glance in her direction, Harm replied, “Sorry, Mic. We have a couple of things to discuss. Probably won’t take long.”

Mac recovered quickly and moved to embrace her fiancé. “I thought you were job-hunting today.”

“I was. I got a call to be here at eleven. No one told you?”

She and Harm exchanged blank looks. “Be here for what, exactly?”

Mic shrugged. “Didn’t say, really. The message just said that there was an upcoming investigation that you might need my perspective on.”

Harm masked his disbelief that they could need Mic’s perspective on anything. “Did the mystery message leave a name?”

“Not specifically. I think it said State Department.” A sneaking suspicion dawned on him. “You don’t think – ?”

The other two finished for him. “Webb.”

“Speak of the devil, and he shall appear.” Clayton Webb was the next person through the door, not waiting to be invited in. “Glad you got the message, Brumby. And don’t bother asking how I got your cell phone number.”

“What’s going on, Webb?” Mac asked, without wasting words.

“You’re about to find out. We’re expected in the admiral’s office in three minutes.” He gestured toward the hall. “Shall we?”

She and Mic exited, and Harm rose to follow. Within two steps, however, Webb held up a hand. “This one actually doesn’t involve you.”

“You’re kidding, right? Brumby gets read-in, and I don’t?”

“Brumby’s the one I need,” the intelligence agent said bluntly. “The only reason I’m letting Mac in is that she’s marrying the guy.”

Mac had paused to listen, and turned back to them. “We don’t keep secrets, Webb. I’m just going to tell him everything as soon as you leave. Why don’t you save me the trouble?”

Rolling his eyes skyward, he relented. “I don’t know why I bother. All right, come on. Time’s an issue.”

As they filed into the office of the JAG, Admiral Chegwidden eyed them warily. “All the usual suspects, I see. If this is a reprise of the Stealth incident in Iran, you can forget it.”

Webb looked faintly surprised by that, which was unusual. “Not quite, Admiral, but close.” He took a deep breath and launched into his briefing. “Yesterday, an Australian F-111 doing patrols over the South China Sea had to make an emergency landing at an airfield outside Thanh Hoa, Vietnam. Apparently the pilot had some kind of respiratory problem, and set down at the first place he could find. He’s okay – the Vietnamese government was very cooperative about getting him back to his division. Unfortunately, they’re being less helpful in returning the aircraft. We need someone to ostensibly represent the Australians and negotiate for its return.”

“What does that have to do with us?” Mac frowned. “Doesn’t the RAAF have people for this kind of thing?”

“They do, but it’s not really their bird. It’s ours.”

Harm crossed his arms over his chest. “I don’t buy it, Webb. The Aardvark’s not exactly new technology. The RAAF still flies a few of them, but our Air Force retired them almost a decade ago. What’s so special about this one that you need a covert op to get it back?”

“Think about it, Rabb. It’s not really an Aardvark. Can’t imagine who came up with that God-awful name, anyway.” While the others looked bewildered, Webb waited for Harm to figure it out. It wasn’t long before the light dawned.

“It’s a Raven, isn’t it?”

The agent nodded. “Now make yourself useful and clue in the rest of the class.”

Ignoring the sarcasm, Harm explained. “The EF-111 Raven is an electronic warfare platform; early warning, jamming, and the like. They mainly flew SEAD missions – suppression of enemy air defenses. We had a couple of them attached to our squadron in the Gulf, before things got hot. I thought the Air Force deactivated the last squadron of them two years ago.”

“They did. This one’s even more important. It’s been overhauled and used as a testbed for new EW and reconnaissance capabilities, very highly classified. The Defense Intelligence Agency has been running the program. For security, they made sure the aircraft looked like a typical Australian model in every way. Because of that, it’s possible the Vietnamese don’t even know what they’ve got. But since they’re reluctant to give it right back, we’re assuming that they’ll call some Chinese friends to come check it out. And I don’t need to tell you how catastrophic that would be.”

“Our best technology, gift-wrapped for communist China,” the admiral mused.

Mic was shaking his head. “So you want to keep up the illusion that it’s an Aussie plane, and send me in after it?”

“That’s the plan.”

“Why me?”

“Because only a few high-level people in the Australian military even know about this. And because you know something about both their interests and ours. You have experience with international law, and I’m fairly confident that you won’t fall apart if things go south.”

“What if things do go south?” Mac demanded, doubt clouding her dark eyes. “What if they’ve already contacted the Chinese? If they already suspect that they were being spied on, he might be in danger.”

“It’s a risk. I can’t deny that. All I can say is that we’ll be ready. The USS Coral Sea is operating in that theater, and a Marine Recon team will be along for the ride, just in case.” Webb looked from her to Mic impassively. “Obviously, this is strictly by volunteer. You don’t have any obligation to me or to the DIA. But this can work. Our intel doesn’t show any activity from the Chinese air forces, so the odds are good that we can be in and out before they can even blink. I really believe that.”

To his credit, Mic barely hesitated. “All right. I’ll do it.”

“Wait,” Mac interjected. She met his gaze, and an unspoken message passed between them. Turning to Webb, she said, “If he goes, I go.”

“For what? Moral support? You won’t be able to do much from the ship.”

“Better than being half a world away. I’ll be a legal aide, or something. I don’t care. But I’m not going to sit here and keep the damn home fires burning. I’m going, Webb. Deal with it.”

Harm spoke up. “Got room for one more?”

“Oh, for God’s sake,” Webb threw up his hands, exasperated. “Can’t you keep your nose out of anything?

“Think it over, Mr. Webb,” Admiral Chegwidden suggested, amiably but firmly. “This might go exactly the way you planned, but it’d be the first time. These two have pulled your ass out of the fire more times than you’ll ever admit. Wouldn’t it be wise to have them both in your corner?”

“Not this time. Rabb stays here. And don’t bother trying to pull rank. This is a black op, remember? There’s no one to tell.”

“Whatever you say.” The admiral leaned back in his chair. “Commander, I believe you have an investigation to conduct on the Coral Sea? Something about observing shipboard legal procedures?”

Harm was nothing if not fast on his feet. “Ah, yes, sir, the captain’s-mast review.” He wasn’t about to mention that he’d set up the mundane review for the Patrick Henry. “I can leave whenever you give the word.”

“Good. Be prepared to stay a few days. Those captain’s masts can be pretty tricky.”

“I hear the Gulf of Tonkin is lovely this time of year, sir.”

Mac was trying to hide her amusement at Webb’s frustration. Admiral Chegwidden merely fixed him with a cool smile. “I may not outrank you, Webb, but I can sure as hell out-maneuver you. Those of you that do report to me, keep me informed. Good luck, Mr. Brumby. Dismissed.”

As Webb stalked past, Harm couldn’t repress a satisfied smirk. “Have fun trying to get my orders canceled.”

“Don’t think I won’t try. You know, not everything in this world needs your style of diplomacy.”

“Hey, I’m just along for the ride. And to do a three-hour review, apparently.” Harm watched Mic follow his fiancée back to her office, then lowered his voice. “Be realistic, Clay. Do you really want a worried Marine on your back while all this is happening? At least I can try to keep her busy, distract her from the fact that you’re putting her future husband into hostile territory.”

“As long as she doesn’t break my nose. I’m sick of getting pounded on by lawyers.” Webb shook his head. “Have you thought about this? You, of all people, going to Vietnam for a downed plane?”

“This isn’t about me,” he countered. “My ghosts are buried.”

“The hell they are. Your ghosts have human form, and he’s in a Chechen prison camp.”

“Look, save the shrink routine. It’s a long flight.”

“All right, all right. Transport leaves in two hours. Be ready, or I’ll happily leave you behind.”

“I’ll be there. And Webb – ” His voice took on a warning tone. “If she gets hurt, I’ll break more than your nose. Consider that a promise.”

In her office, Mac closed the door and faced Mic. “Are you sure about this?”

“Not really, but I’ve got a few hours to convince myself.” He flashed a smile, but it was tinged with apprehension. “It’s the best way, love. I know I’m not wearing the uniform anymore, but I still consider it my duty. You’d do the same.”

“And you’d hate it if I did.” She wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him gently. “I’m proud of you, you know that?”

“Never had a doubt. Come on, let’s get going.”

 

1612 Local
USS Coral Sea
Off the coast of Vietnam


Harm stood at the rail, gazing out over the flight deck. The plane crews were going about their duties, without a clue as to where the recently-departed helicopter was going, or why. They might not have noticed the passenger, a man in Royal Australian Navy blues; although they most likely noticed the beautiful Marine who’d kissed him goodbye. Certainly they hadn’t noticed the change in her stance when the helo faded from sight. Harm had seen it, even from his vantage point on the weather deck. He knew her too well. Sarah Mackenzie wasn’t going to get much sleep that night.

Webb had laid everything out with military-like precision, but that wouldn’t keep her from worrying. The entire operation was dependent on Brumby’s cover. If his ties to the U.S. were exposed, it would be a toss-up as to who got to him first: the Marines or the Chinese. To improve the odds, he was wearing a small radio and a state-of-the-art transponder so they could track his location. Harm had hung back from the planning session, less out of deference to Webb than a sense of keeping his place. He wasn’t particularly fond of playing third wheel. Besides, Mac and Brumby needed some time. It would have to last them a while.

So he’d watched from there as she strode back across the deck, head held high, as if her fiancé was simply going off to New York for the weekend. Not for the first time, he admired her strength.

Behind him, the hatch opened. “How’s the view?”

He turned, surprised. “Same as always. How’d you get up here so fast?”

“Not much else to do now.” Mac shrugged and stepped up beside him at the rail. “Done with your ‘review’ already?”

“You know me – master of efficiency,” he deadpanned. “Guess I’m on vacation now.”

“You and me both. Webb doesn’t want me anywhere near his crew.” She mimicked a line from A Few Good Men. “ ‘I have no responsibilities here whatsoever.’ ”

He responded in kind. “ ‘My kind of case.’ ” Studying her calm exterior, he asked, “How are you doing?”

“Okay, so far. I just keep telling myself that they know what they’re doing.”

“They do,” he said resolutely. “Mic’s a good negotiator. He’ll have them convinced in ten minutes flat, and he’ll be on the radio asking for a ride home before you know it.”

She smiled faintly, but the smile, like his reassurances, was forced. “How’d Renee take the news that you were skipping town again?”

“I wouldn’t know, since I talked to her voice-mail. We’re, ah, taking a break from each other.”

Mac drew back, caught off-guard. “When did this happen? Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I would’ve said something yesterday if we hadn’t gotten extremely sidetracked. We decided it over the weekend.” He stared out at the waves, expressionless. “Renee and I get along great, but we’re not madly in love. And we respect each other too much to pretend otherwise.”

She would have guessed that months ago, but she wasn’t about to say so. “So it’s over?”

“I don’t know. She may be optimistic, but I’m not. I think we’re doing this to find out if we can live without each other, you know? And I think I already know the answer to that.”

It occurred to her that this decision had come rather soon after her engagement, but she dismissed the thought. The world doesn’t revolve around you, she chastised herself. Especially not his world. “So,” she said again, changing the subject. “The Raven, huh? Much better name than the Aardvark.”

“Fairly good metaphor, too. Like the Raven in the poem, always watching, never acting. But the watching was enough to drive anybody mad.”

“The poem?”

“Edgar Allan Poe? ‘Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary …’ You never read it?”

Raising an eyebrow, she tilted her head. “And you apparently did?”

“They do teach literature at the Academy, Mac. Besides, we were too close to Baltimore to escape it. They worship Poe over there – I think it’s his hometown. Personally, I couldn’t get into it. I thought the poem was about twice as long as it needed to be. I mean, we got the point from just from the last few lines.”

“And what was the point, Commander Shakespeare?” she inquired, amused.

Suddenly he seemed to pull back, uncertain. “It’s depressing.”

“Poe was a depressing guy. Come on. What was the point?”

“The Raven was haunting him. He said it was the memory of his lost love.” Distantly, Harm spoke the words with a measured tone and cadence. Amazing – after all this time, she was still learning new things about this man. “ ‘And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon that is dreaming/And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadows on the floor; And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor/Shall be lifted – nevermore.’ ”

Coming out of his reverie, he noticed that she’d turned away. “Oh, God, I’m sorry. I’m an idiot. The last thing you need right now is morbid poetry. I’m supposed to be cheering you up – ”

“It’s me, isn’t it?”

He shook his head, not comprehending. “What?”

There was sadness in her voice, of a kind he’d never heard before. “I’m the Raven. I’m a constant, unspoken reminder of her.”

Understanding flooded through him, and it stopped him cold. “Mac, I wasn’t thinking that. I was spouting off some inane first-year memorization. I don’t identify with the poem.”

“Why not? It’s true, isn’t it?”

“No. It’s not.” Taking her shoulder, he turned her gently to face him. “It’s been five years, Mac. No matter how much you once looked alike, I don’t see Diane in you. Not anymore. You’re the one who helped me move on, and I’ll always be in your debt because of it. I thought you understood that.”

“Maybe I did. It’s just so damn hard to know what you’re thinking sometimes …”

For instance, on a ferry in Australia. The same thought flashed through both partners’ minds, but neither dared bring it up. If his office hadn’t been the place for this conversation, the deck of an aircraft carrier was certainly no better. He effectively broke the silence by wrapping his arms around her protectively. “At present, I’m thinking that Mic’s going to be fine, and needs to get his six in gear so that you can stop worrying about him. I’m also thinking that you look like you’re freezing. Want to go below decks?”

“I suppose.” As he released her and turned toward the hatch, she called tentatively, “Harm?”

“Yeah?”

“I’m really glad you’re here.”

At that, he smiled unexpectedly. “What do you know? We finally got our Hallmark moment.”

 

1703 Local
Deng Sha Air Base
Socialist Republic of Vietnam


Mic straightened his uniform, for the first time in ten months, and faced the trio of men that was walking toward him. He felt decidedly alone as the chopper ascended behind him, and he found himself wishing Webb hadn’t convinced him to go without an ‘assistant’. But since keeping his cover was paramount, any additional personnel would have raised suspicions. The trick was in the level of interest he conveyed: he had to want the aircraft back, but not need it. The harder he tried, the more dangerous it would become.

He met the approaching officer with hand outstretched. “Leftenant Commander Michael Brumby, Royal Australian Navy. Thank you for agreeing to meet with me so soon.”

“Colonel Li Tranh. My associates are representatives of the Foreign Ministry.” The colonel, older but sharp-looking, studied him carefully. “I, however, am a man of the air. I had expected your government to send the same.”

Mic answered with honesty – probably for the last time on this particular trip. “I may be a man of the sea, Colonel, but I am also a man of the law. I believe that is why I was sent.”

“Very well. Allow me to show you in. We can start immediately.”

As he followed Tranh into the building, Mic caught sight of the Raven, sitting quietly under a makeshift hangar on the tarmac. The base was small and sparsely populated, and no one seemed to be paying the visiting aircraft any mind. So far, so good.

Once they were seated around a conference table in the stark command center, Colonel Tranh leaned forward. “I will begin the discussion with a question, Commander Brumby. Why is the Australian government so eager to retrieve this aircraft as soon as possible? Surely your fleet is not so depleted that a few hours would make any difference.”

Here goes. Mic folded his hands on the table and prepared himself to lie like crazy. “It’s not so much the importance of the aircraft,” he said smoothly. “As you know, the One-Eleven is rather outdated. It’s more a combination of politics and unfortunate timing. Our Ministry of Defense has recently come under fire from many sides, primarily because of budget concerns. There are allegations that corners have been cut in some programs to circumvent the parliament’s power to assign funding. I assure you, of course, that we have done no such thing. But if our press were to learn that one of our aging planes had gone disastrously off course, even due to a medical emergency … there would be a firestorm. The Ministry would be accused of ignoring safety and endangering lives. We seek to minimize that damage by resolving the situation as quickly as possible. Does the timing present a problem?”

“Only a minor one.” The colonel spoke just as smoothly. “We would like a day to examine the aircraft.”

Mic’s surprise was only partially false. He turned on an indifferent expression. “Colonel, we have recruits younger than this plane. Is there really anything you could hope to learn from it?”

“Perhaps, perhaps not. But we are not as affluent a nation as yours, Commander. Our resources are limited, and we do not have the luxury of American-built fighter planes. We take the opportunity to learn what we can, when we can.”

He attempted a smile, his mind racing. “Well, say what you will about the Yanks, they do build a decent plane. Can’t say I’m fond of their hamburgers, though. At any rate, I’m sure my government would be willing to provide you with some kind of training tool – maybe a deactivated aircraft – at a later date. As an offering of gratitude for your assistance in this matter.”

The colonel spread his hands. “We don’t intend to take your plane apart. All we ask is that you wait until tomorrow to bring your pilots in. We have no flight engineers on this base, and although they are traveling as we speak, they will not arrive until the morning. Is it really so critical to have it back immediately?”

Mic wondered where these engineers were traveling from. Beijing, maybe? Warning signals were flashing in his head, but he had no choice but to maintain his story. “As I’ve said, the longer we wait, the greater the potential for embarrassment to our military and discord among our legislators. Is it really so critical for you to have a look at this specific aircraft?”

Suddenly, the gloves came off, and Tranh came out of his chair, leaning toward him with obvious mistrust. “This ‘specific’ aircraft was in Vietnamese airspace, Commander,” he hissed. “Were I in your position, I would first be grateful that it wasn’t shot down on sight.”

Bloody hell. Mic, of course, knew why it hadn’t been shot down: they simply hadn’t been able to see it. That fact alone probably had their suspicions up. His options were rapidly vanishing. “Are you suggesting that our plane intentionally entered your territory?” he said indignantly. “You’re making a very strong accusation, Colonel.”

“No, I am.”

He swiveled toward the door, where another man in a different uniform stood. Mic paled, recognizing the red star at his collar. Guess we didn’t have to worry about getting in before the Chinese, he thought bleakly. They’re already here. “What’s going on here?” he demanded, rising to his feet.

“You may drop your masquerade, Commander,” the newcomer said evenly. “This is a spy plane, is it not?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. You had our pilot examined – he had a genuine medical condition. Why would we send an ancient fighter on a reconnaissance mission?”

“This is a fighter without claws. We have inspected the air-to-air missiles. They are nothing but empty casings. Are you now so advanced that you can win a war without shooting?”

“I was only told that they were participating in an exercise,” he hastily countered. “They must have been training without live missiles.”

The Chinese officer shook his head. “Empty missiles serve no purpose. Tell me, was it done to save weight? Perhaps there is something else on that aircraft taking up the weight. Something important, or the canopy would not be armed with an explosive charge.” His eyes bored unflinchingly into the Australian. “My men have not yet found a way to bypass the explosives, but they will. And then we will see just what is so special about your lost plane. If you’d like to help accelerate the process, I may be able to keep you from being prosecuted as a spy.”

Mic stared straight ahead. Damn it, Webb. Why didn’t you tell me? “I have told you all I know. I have nothing further to say.”

“As you wish. Commander Brumby, you are under arrest for espionage.” A guard appeared and immediately seized his arms, dragging him out of the room. In less than two minutes, everything had gone to hell, and instead of a halfhearted group of Vietnamese airmen, he now faced a merciless Chinese leader. If he were to get out of this at all, it would have to be soon.

As he was roughly pulled toward the stairs, he focused on a large window at the end of the hallway. The glass was already cracked, and he allowed himself only a split-second to wonder whether this foolish idea had a prayer of working. Then, without a second thought, he wrenched himself free of the guard’s grip and hurled himself through the thin windowpane.

It was a fifteen-foot drop to the ground below, and although he rolled to soften the impact, he felt and heard a sickening crack in his left leg. But there was no time to lose. He shook the shards of glass out of his jacket and flattened himself against the wall, evading a hailstorm of gunfire from above. As fast as possible, he moved around the other side of the building and took off at an uneven jog. Only two hundred yards, and he’d be in the trees. It would be getting dark soon, and these soldiers wouldn’t be prepared to comb the entire jungle. Would they?

More gunshots rang out behind him, along with a flurry of shouting, but he dove into the bushes and kept going. All he had to do was find a decent hiding place and radio for help. If anyone could get to him in all this. He took in his surroundings, a dizzying mass of green and brown, and wondered how anyone had ever made it out of this bloody country and lived to tell about it.

His leg was screaming in protest by the time he finally felt safe enough to stop. There was something resembling a cave hollowed out of a medium-sized hill, and its entrance was partially obscured by low-hanging branches. Good enough for now. How far had he come from the airfield? It felt like miles. He collapsed against the tree trunk and fumbled for the palm-sized radio transmitter, thankful that no one had found time to search him and confiscate it. “Emergency, emergency. Recovery One, come in.”

The static-filled voice that answered had never sounded so good. “Recovery One here. What is your status?”

Mic sighed. “Webb, the next time you ask me for a favor …”

 

1925 Local
USS Coral Sea


Harm was stretched out in his rack, reading a Time magazine article about the ongoing conflict in Chechnya, when the intercom signaled. He swung his legs around and crossed the stateroom in three long strides. “Rabb.”

“Listen to me carefully,” Webb’s hard-edged voice replied. “Go get Mac and bring her up to CIC right now. Don’t stop for anything. All right?”

At that, his blood ran cold. This was not good. “Got it,” he said curtly, and hung up. In ten seconds, he’d scuffed into his shoes, grabbed his uniform blouse off the chair, and was out the door. In another two minutes, he was buttoning his shirt in front of his partner’s room.

Mac opened the hatch, taking in his unkempt appearance with a puzzled smile. “Better not let anyone catch you looking like that.” But his eyes betrayed his apprehension.

“Mac, we need to get up to CIC.”

The color drained from her face as she began to realize the implications of that quiet statement. Without a word, she followed him to the Combat Information Center.

A steady hum of low, tense voices underscored the usual activity of the CIC. It virtually came to a halt the moment Mac stepped into the room. The half-dozen techs and intel officers were fixated on their controls, pretending they didn’t know why she was there. They fooled no one.

Webb didn’t waste time with platitudes. He knew she wouldn’t want them. So he looked her directly in the eye and told her what he knew. “A few minutes ago, Brumby’s signal started moving. It shows him about a mile and a half off the base. We’re presuming that he’s on foot. Our best guess is that he’s been compromised, and he’s trying to elude them.”

Mac didn’t move. In a corner of her mind, she felt Harm behind her, silently offering support. “Anything from his radio?” she dared to ask.

“Not yet.”

“Why haven’t you tried raising him?”

“We don’t want to risk breaking radio silence, in case he’s not alone.”

Knowing he was right, she nodded numbly. Harm’s fingers tightened around hers. So much for a simple, straightforward operation. She forced herself to breathe normally and not automatically jump to the worst-case scenario.

After a moment, the radio crackled. “ … emergency, Recovery One, come in.”

She closed her eyes with no small amount of relief. He was alive. That was a start. Webb lunged for the handset. “Recovery One here. What is your status?”

Mic’s voice was strained but clear. “Webb, the next time you ask me for a favor, forget it.”

“What happened?”

“It was a bloody set-up, that’s what. The Chinese are trying to break into your booby-trapped cockpit as we speak.”

Webb cursed softly. “What tipped them off?”

The Australian’s exasperation was recognizable even through the speaker. “For Christ’s sake, Webb – you might have warned me that the so-called weapons hanging off this plane were fake!”

“Damn it, they were supposed to do something about that weeks ago.” The agent ran a frustrated hand through his hair. “I’m sorry. That one got by us. We’ll deal with the plane later. Is your position secure?”

“For the moment, at least. I managed to ditch the regular Vietnamese guards, but who knows how many Chinese troops are out and about. I’m out in the middle of the bloody jungle, though. I hope your search party’s read their history books.”

“Don’t worry about that. We’ll have someone to you in two hours. Until then, stay put, and stay off the radio unless it’s an emergency. I don’t suppose you got a hold of a weapon?”

There was a rueful laugh. “Optimistic little bugger, aren’t you?”

“Can’t blame me for trying. Hold tight, all right? We’ll have you out soon.”

Impulsively, Mac seized the handset. “Mic – keep your head down, all right?”

She could almost hear the anxious grin in his voice. “Always, love.” After that, the radio went silent, and she waited a moment to compose her thoughts before turning on Webb. “Empty weapons, Webb? That’s about as inconspicuous as a neon sign! How the hell did this happen?”

“I don’t know. Air Force Special Operations wanted to really arm it – the Ravens have never carried weapons before – but there was a weight issue. They were supposed to have a fix by now, but DIA wanted to keep flying in the meantime … never mind. It doesn’t matter. We dropped the ball, and I’m sorry.”

“You’d better be sorry! You were so worried about his cover, when all they had to do was tap on the missiles to figure out they weren’t real!” Fury blazed in her eyes, but Harm’s hand on her arm stalled some of her desire to strike.

“Kill him later, Mac. Right now, the main objective is to get Mic back.” The commander’s voice was level, and she didn’t see how tightly he’d checked his own anger. “Webb, he said that the cockpit was booby-trapped?”

Webb would’ve taken anything Mac wanted to give him, even a right hook. At that point, he felt he deserved it. But there was no time for recriminations. “It’s a security feature, to make sure no unauthorized people can access the avionics. Normally it would simply lock you out. But if you try too hard to get past the canopy bolts, the crew-ejection explosives arm themselves. Any impact from a tool primes it. Apparently they’ve already figured that out, which means it’s only a matter of time before they figure out a way around it.”

“Can it be detonated by remote?”

“Not unless you want to throw a grenade at it. It was supposed to be an absolute last-chance scenario.”

“Well, I’d say we’re there, wouldn’t you?” Harm folded his arms.

He was right, and Webb knew it. He really didn’t want to have to explain to the higher-ups that they’d been forced to destroy a multi-million-dollar aircraft, but it was better than the alternative. “We can pull Brumby out, but not without being noticed. Once that happens, there’s no way we’ll get within a mile of the Raven. And it’s not as if we can blow it up from the air – that would play like an airstrike on Vietnam.” Belatedly, he realized that Harm had that look on his face, the one that signaled a possibly brilliant but highly unorthodox idea. Their gazes met, and Webb sensed that this needed to become a private conversation. He raised his voice. “Mac, why don’t you wait in the pilots’ ready room? We’ll let you know when the Recon team’s set to take off.”

She looked from one man to the other, her eyes narrowed. “You’re not telling me something.”

“We’re just going to work out some details, Mac. We’re going to get him back. I promise.” Her friend’s words seemed to reassure her slightly, and she understood that she would be of little help. Webb watched her leave, then moved to a corner of the room to hear what Harm had to say.

“It’s amazing how far she trusts you.”

“It’s a good thing, considering what I’m about to suggest.” Harm leaned in, lowering his voice. “We can’t get to the plane after we pick up Brumby, and we obviously can’t leave Brumby out there while we go after the plane. So what if we did both simultaneously?”

“And just how do you propose we do that?”

“Instead of sending a Recon team, send me. I’ll find him, and the two of us will fly the Raven out of there.”

Webb snorted in disbelief. “You think you can magically learn how to be a Recon Marine and a One-Eleven driver in two hours?”

“Try me. I spent a week as a Recon gunnery sergeant once, and my men sure as hell didn’t complain. If you drop me within a couple of miles, I’ll get to him. And flying a One-Eleven’s not so hard. It’s a swing-wing, dual-engine aircraft. It just doesn’t have as much under the hood as my usual ride.”

“It also doesn’t have any damned weapons. Even if you could get off the ground – and I’m not saying I think you can – how far do you think you’d get before they shot you down?”

“Far enough. All we’d have to do is make it into international airspace. There aren’t any operational fighters at that airfield, are there? The Chinese would have to scramble some F-8s from another base, and that might give us enough of a head start to make it to feet-wet in one piece.”

“And how do you expect to get into the cockpit at all without getting shot?”

“I didn’t say it’d be easy. When sneaking around fails, I’ll start shooting back. And you’ll have to tell me how to bypass the explosive trigger. There are a couple of other major hurdles, though. When your pilot set the Raven down, did he say how much fuel was left in the tanks?”

“Should be over half full. They were only fifteen minutes into the mission profile.”

“That’ll get us airborne, but we’ll have to be conservative to make it all the way back here. Incidentally, the AFSOC guys didn’t take anything else off to save weight, did they? Like, say, a tailhook?”

Webb shook his head. “Don’t worry. The aircraft’s been carrier-based for the last few months. If you can land a Tomcat on this deck, you can land a Raven. It’s half the size.”

“Then what’s the problem?”

He realized he’d nearly allowed himself to be talked into this insane idea. “Hold on a minute, Superman. I didn’t say I approved of this whole thing. There are a lot of ways for this to go disastrously wrong.”

“Since when has that ever stopped you before?” Harm kept his voice light, but he was deadly serious. “I know what the odds look like. But we don’t have a lot of options. Access and ability, remember? Even if we can’t get the Raven off the ground, we can at least destroy it before anyone else can get any information from it. And you can always send the Marines in after both of us.”

“What’s left of you, maybe. I doubt these guys will let another escape happen.”

“Well, with all due respect to Brumby’s jungle warfare tactics, if they let him slip, they can’t be too well prepared.”

“Maybe not the regulars, but their radar’s up now. That place might be crawling with Chinese reinforcements.” Webb paused for a moment and studied the determined officer in front of him. “Do you have any idea what this will do to Mac? To have you both out there … ”

“Don’t you think I’ve thought about that? Believe me, I don’t want to make this any harder on her than it already is, but I don’t think we have a choice. We can’t let that technology be compromised, and we can’t abandon Brumby. If you’ve got a better solution, I’d love to hear it.” Harm’s stance was unwavering, but Webb could see just how much it tortured him to leave his friend in this awful situation. Then again, maybe it was for her that he had to do this. And, as he’d said, options were limited.

“She’s going to take it out on me, you know.”

“I know. I’m just hoping she’ll have cooled off by the time I get back.”

Webb sighed. “All right. Suit up and get moving.”

In the pilots’ briefing room, Mac’s nerves were threatening to snap. She’d been pacing the aisle for twenty minutes, and so far she hadn’t heard a word from Webb or Harm. Opening the hatch, she flagged down a passing crewman. “Are you on the helo crew that’s going mainland?”

“Yes, ma’am. We’re up in fifteen minutes.”

“Is the Recon team already assembled?”

The young pilot frowned. “Ma’am, as far as I know, we’ve only got one passenger on this hop. But they’re being pretty hush-hush, so I could be wrong.”

“I doubt it. Thanks, Lieutenant.” Something was definitely up. She turned around to head back to CIC and came face to face with a nervous-looking Clayton Webb. “Somebody had better tell me what’s going on, Webb. Why aren’t you sending in a full team?”

Webb held up a hand. “Before you break me in half, you should know that very little of this was my idea.”

“That’s not enough to save you. You are going to pull Mic out, aren’t you?”

“Of course we are. We’re just going to pull him out in the Raven.”

She gave a short, derisive laugh. “Oh, terrific. That makes all the sense in the world. I suppose Harm came up with this little scheme. Where is he, so I can break him in half instead?”

“Can it wait until I get back? Then it’ll be open season on dumb-ass pilots.”

At his voice, Mac turned, and froze. In the back of the briefing room, Harm dropped his gear on the nearest chair and faced her directly. He was wearing a dark-gray flight suit, with no patches to identify him, and a rappelling harness. The final pieces fell into place, and she stared at him in muted horror.

Harm’s resolve didn’t waver, but he seemed to shrink under her gaze. “Clay …”

“Don’t worry. I’m out of here.” Webb had no intention of encroaching on this discussion. He exited quickly through the side door, leaving the partners alone.

She spoke first, her tone dripping with skepticism. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“It’s the best way,” he said simply, unconsciously echoing Mic’s words from the previous day.

“How do you figure that? You’re going to put your six on the line to save a man you hate and a plane that might not even fly!”

“It’ll fly. That’s the least of our concerns.” What he was about to say should have been said a long time ago. He cursed himself for all the lost chances. “I don’t hate him, Mac. We don’t get along, but I could never hate anyone who makes you happy.”

Slowly, understanding lit a dim corner of her mind. “You’re doing this for me, aren’t you?”

He avoided meeting her gaze. “I’m doing it for both of you. And because it’s the right thing to do.”

“Then let it be the right thing for someone else to do. You don’t always have to be the hero.”

“I don’t see anyone else stepping up. We can’t let them get to the Raven, and we can’t guarantee Mic’s safety while we figure out what to do with it. I’m the only one who’s got a chance at doing both.” Surprised to notice a single tear slipping down her cheek, he reached up to brush it away. “Mac, you know I have to do this.”

She caught his hand and held it tightly, needing desperately to show him just how much this was killing her. “I can’t lose you both,” she whispered. “I can’t even think about it.”

“Then don’t.” He drew her close, his iron will almost beginning to falter. If he could do anything, anything, to ease her torment, he’d do it in a heartbeat. But his duty, to her and to his country, had to come first. Otherwise, it was all for nothing. “I’m going to find him and bring him back to you. I swear.”

The embrace seemed to give her strength, and when she pulled back, her eyes were clear. “Don’t make a promise you can’t keep,” she said quietly, instantly taking him back to another time and place … another lost chance. Although there were a thousand things he wished he could say, there was only one for this moment.

“Haven’t yet.” Reluctantly, he released her and picked up his survival gear. “Hang in there, ninja-girl.”

“Good luck, flyboy.” As he moved to the hatch, where Webb now waited silently, she called out instinctively. “Harm?” He turned back, and her eyes betrayed her fear. “Just come back alive, okay?”

He nodded once, and was gone. Truly alone, Mac sank into a chair and allowed herself a few tears for lost chances.

 

 

 

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