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Chapter Four

Mike woke up once on the trip, when the plane landed, somewhere, to refuel. "Somewhere" as far as Mike could see could have been anywhere from New Mexico to Afghanistan. There was a whole strip of the world, where he'd spent a good part of his professional life, that looked exactly the same. Even the people all looked the same: dirty, slow and uncaring. He was cold as hell, hyped out for sure. He'd had hypothermia a couple of times before and he knew what it felt like. He slid the thermal blanket back and spent the time trying to warm up before the next flight. It was daylight and hot so he warmed back up pretty fast. He had what felt like a touch of frostbite on one ear, so he pulled his spare T-shirt out of the jump bag and wrapped it around his head. Then he pulled out his power bars and bottle of water and ate and drank it all. Better to carry it in the body than in a bag that might get lost. He'd toss the litter on take-off; in an Islamic country littering was a way of life; nobody would notice.

With that done, there wasn't much else to do. There was no sound of the girls being unloaded so the plane was going to refuel and go on somewhere else. Where that might be he had no idea. What he would do when they got there . . . he had no idea. He just hoped it would be at night.

No, there was something he could do. He pulled out the satellite phone, which looked like one of the old "brick" cell phones, extended the antenna and pressed 0.

"International operator, how may I direct your call?"

"Person to person to the duty officer of the day, Special Operations Command, MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa, Florida, United States of America."

"Bingo! We've got a prints match on the Athens shooter. Michael R. Harmon, social 477-98-9023, United States Navy petty officer first class. End of active service is about two years ago. Fifty percent disability pay. That's all I've got from the print run. I can do a standard request for his service record. . . ."

"Pass it up," the agent in charge said. "And forget you ever heard it. This is all TS Code word level now."

"Petty Officer Michael 'Ghost' Harmon," the briefing officer said.

Colonel Bob Pierson was the Office of the White House liaison officer from Special Operations Command. When the FBI had forwarded the information on the shooter, it had been passed to his desk with a priority to, quietly, find out everything he could about one "Michael Harmon" and prepare a brief. Now he was sweating as, for the first time, he was briefing the full "War Cabinet" on one minor, separated, petty officer. "Two years of college at the University of Georgia in Athens, mediocre to poor grades, quit and joined the Navy with stated intention of becoming a SEAL. Graduated from Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL school in class 201, was assigned to SEAL Team Three, Charlie Platoon. Operational in Mogadishu, Congo, Sudan. Towards the end of his second enlistment, requested transfer to a training position, which was granted."

"Why?" the secretary of defense asked.

"That's not clear, Mr. Secretary," the colonel answered. "It's not stated anywhere in his records."

"Go on."

"Transferred to the Naval Special Warfare Center, at Coronado, assigned to second phase training. Promoted to First Class Petty Officer while a trainer, after having a real problem with passing the bosun's course."

"Explain that," the President said.

"Yes, Mr. President," Pierson replied, thinking. "SEALs are trained as commandos. But their actual military skill is in something else, in the case of Petty Officer Harmon it's as a bosun, which is the guy who handles . . . well, 'real' Navy stuff, how to bring in a small boat to a ship, how to do an underway transfer, how to rig stuff for a storm. Winches and boat driving and paint. It's not SEAL training by any stretch. So the SEALs have to take time off to study up for the tests that they have to pass to get promoted. And since they don't do it as a regular skill, they often have problems."

"Okay," the President said, nodding. "I'm too smart to get into why they're doing one skill and listed in another. Go."

"He spent four years in the training school; his evaluations are mostly top of the list. Various advanced schools, good words from his commanders about his training ability and personal skills. Less . . . stellar comments about peripherals. If I may?" He picked up one of the sheets of paper and cleared his throat. "Quote: Petty Officer Harmon is an erect petty officer of excellent bearing whose skills as a trainer are beyond reproach. His technical skills in all areas of his primary specialty are of the highest class. He is well liked by peers and respected by his students. Petty Officer Harmon's greatest weakness is perhaps his greatest strength, a blinding determination to do his duty and an inability to choose his battlefields. Petty Officer Harmon needs to work on his interpersonal and leadership skills. End quote. That was from one of his last evaluations as an instructor."

"Can somebody translate that for me?" the President asked plaintively.

"He's a great operator and a great instructor," Brandeis replied. "And it sounds like he can't play military politics worth a damn. The kind of guy that when he sees a brick wall, can only try to shove his head through it instead of going around."

"Colonel?" the President asked. "Agreement?"

"Yes, Mr. President," the colonel said, swallowing. "I'd concur in the secretary's evaluation." He paused for a moment and took a chance. "Even if he wasn't my boss."

There was a brief chuckle from the room and the President nodded. "Keep going."

"He requested transfer back to an operational platoon near the end of his third enlistment," Pierson said. "Anticipating the question, it's hard to get promoted to chief if you're not an LPO, leading petty officer, in an operational unit, and by that time the War on Terror had kicked into high gear. Guys he'd trained would have been coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq telling stories about kicking doors and wasting bad guys. Any SEAL worth the name wanted in on that. He transferred to SEAL Team Five, Alpha Platoon as an LPO. He completed retraining with the team and was evaluated. Again, there was a note about using his chain of command skills. Then, while they were actively deployed, he was relieved from the LPO slot and returned to the states. His subsequent evaluation stated that he had failed to demonstrate leadership skills of a level necessary to be an LPO at this time but that he had potential as a future leader. This, in effect, killed his career. He was transferred back to the local training detachment, but not as an active instructor and subsequently ended his service on terminal leave two years and three months ago. He has drawn fifty percent disability based upon widespread occupational damage, primarily to joints and back, and veteran's educational benefits for attendance at the University of Georgia for the last two years. His grades were not immediately available."

"What happened with the 'leadership skills,'" the defense secretary asked.

"I did as much digging as I had time for, Mr. Secretary," Pierson said. "There was an accidental discharge of a weapon and a wounding of one of the SEALs from the AD. In the report, Harmon stated that he had previously counseled the shooter about weapons safety on entries. From the . . . tone of some of the other statements, notably from the shooter and the chief, I would venture to guess that it was something like the following. Harmon was a trainer for years and he came back to a platoon that had been working together for some time. The shooter had been in the platoon for his entire career. There is no written counseling statement about his weapons control immediately available but having Harmon, some jerk trainer, tell a guy with lots of operational experience he was doing it all wrong, probably didn't sit well. Especially since Harmon, apparently, has limited tact. When, in fact, the shooter turned out to be wrong, and Harmon right, the team leadership probably had to make the choice between removing the guilty party from the team or Harmon. They chose Harmon."

"Politics," the President said.

"At that level, I'm unwilling to judge, Mr. President," Colonel Pierson replied. "I'm not going to say, from what I've seen, that they were, overall, wrong in their decision from the standpoint of the good of the team and of the military. Sometimes, just being right isn't enough."

"There's that," the defense secretary said. "I've seen it often enough in the Pentagon. A guy who's right but such an asshole that nobody wants to listen to him. Sometimes I don't but I know the information's important, so I team him up with somebody that's got some political skills. That wouldn't work on a SEAL team. And it doesn't matter to this brief."

"No, sir," Pierson admitted. "Petty Officer Harmon is a qualified instructor in close quarter combat, survival and evasion, clandestine insertion and extraction, unarmed combat, sniping, international small arms, land and underwater demolitions, Combat Diving including open and closed circuit equipment, airborne operations including military free-fall and static line. He is, from his evaluations, considered high level expert in each."

"Well, that explains Athens," the national security advisor said. "Those guys never stood a chance."

"Agreed," the President said. "So where is he? I want to shake his hand."

"We obtained his home of record," the FBI director said. "There was no one home when our agents went there and his personal vehicle was parked nearby. I've authorized a covert entry and search under national security guidelines but I think it's a moot point. There was a vehicle, registered to the cover name of one of the terrorists, discovered at Athens Ben Epps airport. It had bloodstains on the seat, secondary it appeared, not from a bleeding person, and a magazine from an MP-5 was on the floor. There were prints matching Petty Officer Harmon on the SUV and on the magazine. It was concealed near the pad where the 727 was loaded. Petty Officer Harmon was not found in the area."

"He's on the plane," the President said. "He got on the plane."

"'Clandestine insertion,'" the defense secretary said, grinning. Then his face cleared. "Can he survive on the plane? Won't he get cold? What about air?"

"Mr. Secretary?" Colonel Pierson said, clearing his throat. "I'm trained in HALO: an instructor for that matter. It depends upon how high they went and how fast they climbed. He would be subject to bends from rapid decompression in the climb and anoxia at altitude. Petty Officer Harmon would be aware of both issues and must have been willing to risk it. He may have entered the pressurized cargo bay for that matter. I don't have a design on the aircraft available at this time."

"The surviving terrorist has been cooperative," the FBI director said. "He stated that, besides ammunition, the shooter picked up a satellite phone that had been used by the terrorist commander. I suspect we may be getting a call from him. Hopefully soon."

"Now that is a conversation that I want to hear," the President said, smiling faintly.

"Major Roberts, Command Duty Officer, U.S. Special Operations Command, how may I help you, sir?"

Jack Roberts was a Special Forces officer now imprisoned, from his point of view, in durance vile in SOCOM headquarters. He knew that, at this point in his career, doing a staff rotation was a must if he wanted to get any sort of high rank before retirement. But being the "Assistant Deputy Joint Air Delivery Coordinator" was a far cry from running a group of former muj in southern Afghanistan, tracking down remaining Taliban. Which was what he had been doing. And enjoying the hell out of it, frankly. Being a tribal warlord was just like having a command, but with less paperwork. He'd considered banking some of his pay and going back when he retired. All he needed was about fifty grand in capital. He figured he could get the U.S. government to pay his band to keep doing what they had been doing for income. But he'd also need his retirement pay to live a reasonably decent lifestyle and be able to get back to The World from time to time.

So he cooled his heels and took odd calls from international operators.

"Major, this is not a prank call," the man on the phone said. "Can you do a trace on me?"

"Who is this, please?" Roberts replied, tersely. "I don't have time for games, buddy."

"This is one very lost former operator who is sitting in a damned plane in some third world shithole tracking some kidnapped girls. Have you heard any news from Athens, Georgia?"

"Yes," Roberts said, sitting up and waving to the staff duty NCO. Calls were automatically recorded but he made a motion to do a trace.

"I don't have much time. The plane took off from Athens airport and is now on the ground. They're refueling somewhere in the desert area. It's day, maybe afternoon local time, I can't get much of a look around. Just . . . fucking desert shit, you know what I mean? You got any experience?"

"Lots, son, who is this?" Roberts said, frowning at the SD NCO who shook his head and shrugged. The trace wasn't locking yet.

"No names, Major," the man said. "I think I'm looking at murder one, okay? And I'm going to try very hard to avoid going to the slammer. So no names. Call me . . ." There was a long pause and then a sigh. "Call me Ghost."

"Ghost," Roberts said, nodding. "Okay, Ghost, what's your situation?"

"I survived the first flight," the man said. "I'm in the nose compartment with the wheel. It's tight and I passed out, but I don't think I'm bent or too loopy." He paused then whispered. "Wait."

Roberts waited, impatiently, hearing faint breathing from the phone, then a sigh.

"Thank God for shitty mechanics," "Ghost" muttered. "They were checking the nose-wheel assembly but didn't bother to get off the ground. Just kicked the tires and wandered off."

"Well, that means you could be anywhere from Morocco to Mongolia, buddy," Roberts said with a chuckle.

"Tell me about it," "Ghost" replied with a faint note of humor. "I'm going to try to track and report. What's your number?"

"813-715-4279," Roberts replied.

"Got it on my arm," "Ghost" said. "They kicked the tires now they're lighting the fires. I got to go back to my hide."

"Hang in there, buddy," Roberts said. "We've got a warning order on this. The whole fucking world, at least the good part of it, is going to drop on them as soon as we know where you are going."

"Good to hear," "Ghost" said, then snorted. "Go tell the Spartans, right?"

"Yeah, man," Roberts replied, his face set in a hard grin. "Go tell the Spartans. Well, the Spartans know and they're coming, unlike the damned Athenians."

"Please, no French," "Ghost" said. "Out here."

Roberts leaned back and looked at the SD NCO with a raised eyebrow.

"Satellite phone," the E-7 said, shrugging. "Couldn't get a positive lock on position. The satellites it used were generally servicing the western Mediterranean."

"NSA will be warmed up for the next call," Roberts said. "Well, we have contact. The day just got much more interesting."

"Well, you got to listen to the phone call, Mr. President," the defense secretary said, smiling. "What do you think?"

"Spartans?" the President replied. "I know, in general, who they are. But what is that about 'go tell the Spartans?' The colonel seemed to recognize it. Minnie?"

"Two history buffs," Kern said, turning her face away for a moment and taking a breath. "In fifth-century BC, a group of three hundred Spartans were dispatched to the pass in Thermopylae, Greece, to hold off an oncoming Persian army. Thermopylae, by the way, translates as 'The Hot Gates.' They were to briefly delay the Persians until reinforcements from Athens arrived." She paused again and shook her head, looking at the table.

"The Athenians debated," Secretary Powers said, his face hard. "And the forces were never sent."

"What happened to the Spartans?" the President asked.

"They were outnumbered . . ." The secretary of state paused and shrugged. "Well, it depends upon which history paper you believe. But they were outnumbered by between ten at the low end and a thousand at the high end, to one. And . . . they held the pass. For three days. Fighting all day long, every day, in that high, unbearably hot, place. I've been there, I've seen the tablet." He had to pause, too, and shook his head.

"I take it they didn't survive," the President said, looking at the faces.

"They were betrayed by a Greek who led the Persians around the position," Powers said, nodding. "Each day they would rise, polish their armor, comb out their hair and bind it up, and then do battle all day long. For three days. Until they were finally encircled and destroyed."

"It's . . . legend in . . . call it the military circle," Brandeis, the secretary of defense, said, nodding, his eyes bright. "I'm surprised you've never heard of it, Mr. President. The tablet translates in various ways. But I think I like Byron's translation best."

"'Go tell the Spartans, passerby,'" Minuet said, quietly, her head still down, "'that here the three hundred lie, obedient to their commands.' The Athenians never came."

"Well, we will," the President said. "By God we will."



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