Smooth Sailing

Author: Kosh_len <kosh_len[at]>

Disclaimer: All characters belong to their rightful owners... none of which are me. If they knew what they were doing I wouldn't have to write this stuff. This is with exception of Robert Sinclair who is mine, all mine.

Summary: So, we got this boat.....

Warning: Crossovers ahead. (Yes Plural.)

Rating: PG-13 to PG-16; for mild cursing, violence, and demonic horror content... in other words a bit more grown up then the series...but only cause I don't have to suck up to censors.

Author's Notes: A special thanks to Tenhawk for letting me play in his mucked up little world. Also thanks to my editor Shollin for all her help in keeping my stuff straight.

Author's Notes: Part 2

The song is yet another Stan Rogers tune, called the Bluenose. What can I say, when I hear the song, I see the 579 for some reason... Listen to the song, you might too.

Author's Note: Part 3

Yes, I will finish Washington Disaster.... eventually. This one won't leave me alone though, I'm sorry. Blame the 579, not me.

Latest addition

Chapter 1

Once again with the tide she slips her lines
Turns her head and comes awake
Where she lay so still there at Privateer's Wharf
Now she quickly gathers way
She will range far south from the harbour mouth
And rejoice with every wave
Who will know the Bluenose in the sun?

Feel her bow rise free of Mother Sea
In a sunburst cloud of spray
That stings the cheek while the rigging will speak
Of sea-miles gone away
She is always best under full press
Hard over as she'll lay
And who will know the Bluenose in the sun?


Maria smiled as the boat cruised through the crystal waters out of the port. Cities were nice and all, but there was nothing to her like being out at sea. As she threw the throttle, the old boat lurched forward, plowing her way through the waves. Maria glanced over her shoulder to see how her nearly constant partner was doing, and she smiled as she saw the trawler that had taken to following the 579 begin to fade into the distance.

Shaking her head, she lowered the speed of the PT and punched the destination into the ship's computer, letting the autopilot take over for a few minutes while she checked the vessel.

"How we doing down there, Howard?" she yelled into the engine compartment.

An older man wearing a dirty Navy hat stuck his head around the corner of the door and smiled at the pretty captain of the 579.

"She's purring just fine, Captain," smiled Howard. "Thought I heard a hiccup, but she straightened right out when you brought her up to full speed."

Sanchez smiled and nodded to the older engineer, a man whom she had picked up shortly after returning the battered 579 to port. She had hired the engineer on the suggestion of one of the submarine captains the 579 had met during the weeks after the combat near Avalon. Her mind wandered back over how she had ended up with the new crewman.

Shortly after Year End

Maria growled as she fought with the wheel, struggling to turn the boat toward her temporary mooring. As she neared the docks, she cursed as the engine coughed, let out a smoky belch and then fell silent as the boat brushed the docks. Closing her eyes and shaking her head, she thanked God that the boat's engines had held out that long - after the weeks of combat, she wasn't sure how much she or the crew could have handled if the engines had given out at sea.

A part of her mind registered shouts and laugher coming from somewhere, but she couldn't place where it was coming from. The crew was so wiped, they barely had energy to stand, let alone throw a party, so she knew it wasn't them. Her eyes roved the docks, but the people on the docks seemed more shocked to see the state of PT-579. A few were pointing out to the channel behind her.

Slowly turning, Maria peered through the smoke and watched as the crew of a passing submarine headed for the naval station, their laughter carrying across the water. Part of her mind considered turning the boat so she could fire off a couple of torpedoes, but even that seemed like to much effort for the weary captain.

A man appeared on the conning tower of the submarine and shouted down to the sub's crew. Maria couldn't make out what he said, but she stared as the passing crew silenced themselves, stood to attention, and saluted the PT. They held the salute as their submarine headed off into the distance, leaving a confused PT 579 crew in its wake.

Maria tried not to think about the sub as she worked to secure the boat at her temporary lodgings until they could get her back to the boathouse in LA, but she was puzzled as to why the crew would suddenly salute them. The only interaction they'd had during the battle had been with the few cruisers and destroyers that the injured had been offloaded to, so why on earth a submarine would salute her boat was beyond her.

A rumbling sound filled her ears, and she glanced over the top of the console she was working on. A man in dress Navy whites was riding his motorcycle down the edge of the docks, but he was staring at the boat. Maria watched fascinated as the man brought the bike to a halt and parked it, climbed off and started down the dock toward the boat. Several of the mercenaries noticed the man's actions too and kept their eyes on him intently as he walked slowly toward the PT, before coming to a stop at its side.

"I'm looking for the captain?" he asked.

"That would be me," said Maria as she walked up on deck, wiping her hands off on an oily rag. "Maria Sanchez, what can I do for you…"

"Captain Tom Dodge," said the man with a smile. "Permission to come aboard, Captain?"

Maria stared at the Navy captain for a moment pondering just what to do. Part of her was too tired to deal with military bullshit, and another part of her was curious as to why he was here. Xander had warned that they might expect military personnel showing up to interrogate them when they docked, no matter where they docked, but for some reason, Maria felt the man standing at the edge of the dock wasn't here for that.

"Permission granted, Captain, but understand something. My crew and I are very tired, very grumpy and not apt to put up with bullshit, so what the hell do you want?" she asked bluntly as Dodge stepped aboard.

"Actually, Captain, I came to apologize to you and your crew," said Dodge finally, as he took his hat off and slid it underneath his arm.

"Pardon?" asked Maria, her eyebrow raised.

"As we were pulling into port, my crew took to laughing at a ship having trouble docking," began Dodge, "without realizing which boat it was."

"And what boat do you think they were laughing at?" asked one of Maria's crew, who had moved closer to ensure her safety.

Dodge smiled as he watched the rest of the crew gather around before he continued.

"A vessel who, by my opinion, has served her country and her world far beyond the limits those who originally designed and built her ever dreamed on the boat would be capable of," said Dodge, his eyes sweeping over the gathered men and women. "And for that, they have the thanks of myself and my crew."

"What makes you think we've done anything special recently?" asked Maria with a touch of neutrality in her voice.

"Can we take this below deck?" asked Dodge as he looked around. "This isn't the sort of thing that needs to be said in public."

Maria frowned but nodded toward the stairway leading toward the man cabin, before giving orders to the rest of the crew to finish securing the ship. Dodge dutifully headed through the main hatch and let out a whistle as he got a view of the command deck.

"She's quite a ship, I see," said Dodge with a smile as he looked around at the out-of-place equipment.

"Get on with it, Captain Dodge," shrugged Maria. "My crew and I have plans after we make sure we have a boat to come back to and not something sitting beneath the waves."

Dodge grinned, sat down in one of the command chairs and motioned for Maria to sit down across from him.

"I'm the captain of the Seawolf-class submarine DevilRay," began Dodge. "We were out there, with you; you just never saw us."

Maria raised her eyebrows and looked at the man before her, shock and disbelief written on her face for a second, before she quickly schooled her face into the same impassive mask she had on before.

"Out where?" she asked grimly.

Dodge fidgeted with his hat, trying to figure out the best way to approach Maria without completely spooking her. Word had already come down from on high that the events of the Pacific were so classified that you couldn't even talk about them in your sleep without fear of being shot for treason.

"Out in the Pacific," said Tom finally. "My XO and I actually saw PT-579, but my sonar man recognized your engines; none of the rest of the crew ever saw you. I know for a fact you saved several hundred airmen and women from waters out there. The Ghost is what this vessel is called by those you saved, I believe?"

"Captain Dodge," growled Maria. "I don't have time for this bullshit. We're not who you think we are. We got caught in a bad storm, now we're here to patch our hole and go lament the crew we lost. Now if you'll please get off my boat so my crew can finish and then go get blindingly drunk…"

Dodge held up his hands in surrender and walked out the door. Moving with a practiced ease, he climbed off the PT boat and headed up the docks to his motorcycle before climbing on and riding off.

Maria watched him go before letting out the breath she had been holding and let her shoulders slump. Part of her was happy that someone had thanked her and the crew, but another part was too damn tired to care. She knew that Xander should be notified of the development, but she decided to shelve it till morning as one of the crew called out that the boat was secure.

Climbing to her feet, she pulled on her jacket, ensuring her stake and holy water were in place. She fell in step with the rest of the crew, save the few who had volunteered to remain with the old boat to make sure it didn't go anywhere or have any unwelcome visitors before they returned. Waving to those as she went, she never noticed Dodge sitting on his bike watching the crew departing, a cell phone pressed to his ear.

"Stepanak, Dodge," he said into the phone. "Gather up some of your laughing boys, I've got a job for you."

The party was in full force as the crew of PT 579 settled in for the night. The party had started somber, as the men and women remembered those who hadn't made it back. They next moved on to remembering those they hadn't rescued in time, and then on to those they never rescued at all. As the drinks and stories flowed, the survivors let themselves relax for the first time in weeks, the magic of alcohol working its way through their bodies.

Maria watched as her crew partied and she wondered how much worse it would have been if she hadn't had such an eclectic mix onboard. From Andy, who without legs had manned the turrets day in and day out, to Giles, who seemed to shift from bookworm to daredevil at a moment's notice, to Sinclair's quiet words yet powerful magic, to Jacks and Vin's teamwork, to the rest of the crew who had fought day and night to save downed pilots and hold off the onslaught of things she still didn't understand.

A shadow fell over her as she took a drink and a voice rumbled out.

"You're in our seats."

Maria looked up and saw behind her a large mountain of Marine, followed behind by several more Marines, each wearing an identical scowl.

"I said, You're... In... Our... Seats...," rumbled the mountain a second time.

Maria stared up at the man and frowned. Out of the corner of her eye she could see Giles leaning back in his chair, a near feral look in his eyes, Sinclair smiling and bouncing a salt shaker between his hands, and Jacks mouthing the word 'turtles' to Vin. The mercenaries and Andy, who were sitting at the next table, looked up and frowned as well.

"I didn't see any sign on it when we sat down," said Giles with a sneer. "Bugger off and go find another."

The mountain snarled and glared at Giles. The tension around the tables was quickly rising, as each of the crew members settled in for what was most likely going to be a severe bar brawl.

"You better watch your mouth, old man, before I close it permanently," grumbled the Marine. "Now get out of our seats."

Giles shook his head and scratched his eyebrow, looking over the Marine and working on where the best strike could be placed to drop the man in his tracks. A cough from behind the Marines brought Giles out of his musing.

A large group had gathered behind the Marines, led by a younger-looking man, his arms covered in tattoos. He wore a devil-may-care grin on his face, but his eyes were deadly serious.

"Is there a problem here, Corporal?" asked the young man.

The drunk Marine squinted an eye at the newcomers and sized them up. Even with his mind clouded in an alcohol-induced haze, he could see that he and his friends were clearly out numbered. Now while the new guys were Navy, the odds were clearly in their favor with a superior numbers and what appeared to be sobriety on their side.

"They're in our seats," he slurred. "We always sit there."

The young man shook his head, pointed to an empty table away from the crew of the 579 and crossed his arms.

"They've been here since 6:15 and it's now 11:30," smiled the young man. "You got here twenty minutes ago. Let 'em have the table and go sit over there instead."

"And if not?" asked a braver Marine.

The young man grimaced and shook his head for a sec. The other men behind him only grinned, a few popping their necks and pumping up their fists.

"Well, it goes like this, you see," he said. "We've already paid for any damages that might - mind you, might - occur tonight. So if you're feeling froggy, just hop. We've been stuck on that sub for way too long, and the only scrap we've seen was the same one you saw out there, and the same one they saw. Only they had front-row seats, you understand what I'm saying."

The drunk Marine looked at the table before him, the sailor's words sinking slowly through the alcohol-induced haze. He could see the haggard looks on the faces of all those sitting at the table, their eyes fixed on him and his buddies.

"Which ship were they on?" he asked quietly to no one in particular.

"None you saw most likely… they're just 'Ghosts', really," the young man said. "You understand my mean?"

The meaning crept through the Marines, each stiffening as he understood the message. Straightening, the Marines saluted and turned away, heading for another table, leaving only the first Marine standing there alone.

"I apologize, Ma'ams, Sirs," he said with a little less slur in his voice and a nod.

The Marine saluted one more time and moved off toward the table his friends had quietly taken over, leaving a stunned Maria in his wake. She looked at the rest of her crew, who shrugged and went back to their drinks. The crowd that had gathered turned and vanished, leaving only the young man hovering near the table.

"Who are you?" asked Maria finally.

"Lt. Stepanak, ma'am," he grinned. "Captain Dodge sends his regards. He wanted to make sure you and your crew made it back in one piece and unarrested. He, ummm… asked us to ensure that happened."

"Part of the guys laughing at my boat, eh?" asked Maria with a chuckle.

"Yes Ma'am," said Stepanak with a tight grin. "Now if you'll excuse me, I'll get back to my soda. Oh, by the way, Captain Dodge asked if you could meet him for lunch tomorrow - he said something about a proposal."

With that said, Stepanak handed her a slip of paper and vanished into the crowd. Giles raised his eyebrows at Maria but said nothing. The others shared grins and went back to their drinks, returning to the revels that had been interrupted.

Maria stared at the slip of paper and wondered why she was doing this. Part of her was curious to see what Dodge wanted; another part of her just wanted to crawl back into bed and sleep off the hangover she had earned. Stepping into the restaurant, she spotted the captain sitting at a table and he waved her over. As she slipped into the seat, Dodge summoned the waiter and mumbled something she couldn't hear. He reappeared several minutes later carrying a glass of red liquid, a celery stalk sticking out of the top.

"Your Bloody Mary," said the waiter with a flourish.

Maria looked at Dodge with a grin and thanked whatever god was listening as she let the drink work its magic. The two ordered and made small talk, though Maria burned with curiosity to find out what Dodge wanted.

"So, your crewman said you had a proposal?" asked Maria, finally breaching the subject.

"It's more something you can do for me that will benefit you," said Dodge. "One of my crewmen was recently forced into retirement. He's a good diesel engineer and boatman, but they wouldn't let me keep him on the DevilRay. My previous ship was a World War Two sub the navy used for a training exercise. Howard helped bring her back to ship shape, made her seaworthy, and considering the miracle he helped pull off on the Stingray, if there's anyone out there who could patch your boat back up, it would be him."

Maria stared at Dodge in shock. While she hadn't known what sort of proposal to expect from Dodge, this was definitely not what she had expected.

"I'll have to talk to the owner," she said after she thought it over. "He has ultimate say over who crews on the 579. If you give me his name, I'll run it past him."

"That's all I can ask," he said as he wrote down the information on a napkin. "Except for maybe your phone number."

Maria had been surprised when Xander had agreed to meet with the engineer and Dodge. She had expected a fight about it, but she knew she wasn't able to finish the repairs on the wounded vessel herself - a second set of hands was almost necessary. She was even more surprised when Xander informed her that he had already arranged a private slip and dry dock for the 579 with a repair crew being flown in from various places to do some sort of refit.

"I think we can find a spot for him," Xander told her on the phone. "I've already looked over his service records and with the exception of dress code violations he seems to have been an exemplary sailor. There doesn't seem to be anything that screams spook either. I'll have Merlin fly him in as well."

"That's quite a boat you've got there," Howard had told Maria and Xander upon seeing her for the first time. "What's holding her together right now?"

"Duct tape and magic," Maria said with a shrug.

"Yeah, I imagine it might take some magic," he said as he stuck his head into a blast hole.

"You have no idea," grinned Maria, who glanced over her shoulder and waved to the departing members of crew, Rupert Giles and Robert Sinclair included, who had ridden with her into hell and back.

The refit took weeks, with men and women crawling all over the PT-579. When Terry had shown up, Maria had been glad she was inside the vessel and not in Xander's shoes, though she quite clearly heard every part of Terry's side of the conversation, as did most of the local populace.

The old engineer and Maria had spent weeks replacing and repairing things on the wounded PT-579. Howard had taken one look at some of the equipment onboard the vessel and just shrugged, never once asking why a showboat had functional weapons and advanced targeting systems. Captain Dodge had vouched for her and the owner of the boat personally, and that was all Howard had needed.

Howard hadn't even blinked when a new coating for the hull was also brought in and applied as the 579 sat in dry-dock. Maria, on the other hand, had been confused when the techs showed up to apply the special coating Xander had acquired from somewhere.

"I can't go into all the specifics," he had said. "It's much like the coating on my car. We, ummm, borrowed it from another group much like ours."

"What the hell does car wax have to do with my ship?" asked Maria.

It had taken nearly a month to get the ship seaworthy again, but in the end, the 579 looked as good as she had when she had first been launched more than 50 years before. The hull had been patched, one of the engines replaced, most of the electronic systems updated, and the damaged weapons systems repaired and disguised again. Add one fresh coat of jungle camouflage and the old boat appeared the same as she had in many history books and Web pages.

Shaking the memories clear, Maria headed back above deck, the chiming of the communications system drawing her up the stairs to the command deck. Muttering to herself, the captain of PT-579 fumbled with the new communication system, attempting to access the incoming channel. Finally after a moment, a face appeared on the monitor before her.

"Oh, hello, 'Commander,'" she said to the scowling face of one Xander Harris.

The image sighed and stared at the woman for a moment before starting.

"Do you HAVE to toss in the 'Commander' bit too, Captain?" he began. "I get enough of that around here."

Maria rolled her eyes. The title had become a stabbing point between her and the owner of the vessel, and the two playfully jabbed each other every chance they got.

"What? You think I've forgiven you for the scuff marks you put on the boat the last time you borrowed it?" replied Maria. "I'm still not buying your whole 'A space alien nuked the island' bit."

"Hey!" shouted Xander. "It's not like I planned for that to happen, it just did. But that not why I'm calling, it's time for you to start heading back to home port."

"You're finished?" said Maria in surprise. "I figured you were still months off."

The face in the monitor sighed and she could see Xander punching a few keys on the keyboard. The screen split and a list of names started scrolling across part of her screen.

"What's this?" asked Maria as she glanced over the names, recognizing a few as she went.

"That is a list of possible recruits," responded Xander. "Some of which you might be picking up as you make your way back toward port. Speaking of which, why the hell are you in the Gulf of Mexico? I thought we had agreed you'd stay in the Pacific."

Maria blushed for a moment and then looked out the window, her eyes fixed on a boat in the distance. She didn't even bother studying the boat, she knew what it looked like, having seen it dozen upon dozens of time.

"Well 'Commander,' I'm not so sure you want me returning to port just yet," she began. "I've got this stalker…"

"I'm not going to like this, am I?" asked Xander.

Maria shrugged to the camera and then punched a few keys on the keyboard. Pictures filled the monitor, several similar-appearing vessels covering the screen.

"The boat appeared on our third or fourth boat show," said Maria. "Howard and I aren't sure which. Howard spotted it first, that the same trawler seemed to be in port every place we went. After the sixth show, we knew we were being followed."

"And you're just choosing to tell me now?" demanded Xander, his eyes flashing with anger. "You two could have been in serious danger depending on who's out there."

Maria shrugged again and smiled at the camera.

"It wasn't a big deal as long as we were well away from you," she replied. "If you're calling us back now, then it becomes a big deal."

Maria watched as the young man ran his fingers through his hair as he tried to calm himself down. He punched on the keyboard a few more times, but Maria's display didn't change.

"Maria, the guys that are out there, if they are who I think they are," he began. "they're not going to play around when they decide to make their move. Frankly I'm surprised they haven't yet. They could very easily make the 579 vanish, crew and all."

Xander ran his hand through his hair and locked his hands behind his head, staring at the desk for a moment before looking up. Letting out a breath slowly, he stared at the screen a while, his mind working on various scenarios.

"Why would they want us?" Maria asked slowly. "Because of what happened in the Pacific?"

Xander nodded and mashed some keys on the keyboard, his eyes reading things Maria couldn't see.

"Many of the agencies out there have honestly no idea what happened in the Pacific," said Xander finally. "They are scrabbling to clues as to what exactly happened out there; the silence is one of the reasons Whitmore was impeached. If you're being followed someone told a story about the boat being out there and it got to the wrong people. It's either that or one of the alphabet soup gang actually saw the boat leave with SG-1 on it, which is a possibility. Considering the way Faith has been chased recently, I'd say we got spotted at some point in time."

Xander sighed and looked through the notes Merlin had compiled as he and Maria had talked. Several agencies had discounted the 'Ghost' story as the ramblings of downed sailors. Several naval reports from various countries had outright said that their pilots had been mistaken and no such ship had been seen in the area.

"Okay, here's what I need you to do," said Xander finally. "One of our recruits is utterly and completely afraid of flying. He loves sailing though. He's a doctor in neurology at the University of Florida. I need to you to pick him up in Miami and then swing past Bermuda and talk to a couple of people down there before heading back this way. It's time to start ferrying people to Avalon and until we get more Orcas in the air, the 579 is also going to be used."

"You got it boss," said Maria. "That's a long trip though, you sure your doc can handle it?"

"Short of sending a limo to Florida, you're the best option I got," replied Xander.

Maria punched some buttons on the computer, and Xander watched as the captain adjusted her course. Maria shook her head several times and punched in more commands.

"Is there any reason you're picking such an odd route from Miami to Bermuda?" asked Xander as he watched the course changes come across his screen.

"Yeah, I'm hoping your friend from the last time we were in the area isn't still around," she replied. "That's the last thing I need is a repeat visit of that little nightmare. I see it enough in my dreams as is."

"Ah, but that was so much fun," grinned Xander. "You'll also be picking up a few extra crewmembers in Miami. If you're being followed, I want more than just you and Howard aboard."

"Anyone in particular?" she asked hesitantly.

"A face or two you might recognize," said the man. "I'll try to get them down there as fast as I can. If you get boarded, they'll definitely be in for a surprise."

"Just not the two Irish goons," she sighed. "I never want those two on my boat again."

She sighed as she cut the connection. Glancing over her shoulder again, she could see the trawler fading off into the distance as the PT boat raced over the waters. Punching some keys, Maria programmed in the new course into the navigation computer before settling back into her command chair.

She shivered for a moment as she mulled over what Xander had said. While she had felt a sense of amusement with being followed, Maria had never realized that she and Howard could have been in danger. Reaching over, she undid the lock on the shotgun, making her mind partially at ease. When dark fell, she thought, she would arm the Thunder system, if only as a precaution.

Xander stared at the screen when the connection closed and pondered his options. Resources were shallow to say the least - Merlin had been told to look for personnel to get Avalon running, not naval officers. Most of the original 579 crew had been made up of Dragan's mercenaries so they weren't available, Giles was babysitting Faith, Andy was working on the ammunition problem, Jacks and Vin were needed here, so that left…

Sighing Xander punched a phone number and waited as the phone rang. He was about to hang up with a sleepy voice answered.

"Hello?" asked a barely awake voice.

"Sinclair, it's Xander," he said into the phone.

"Is Faith all right?" asked a much more awake and conscious sounding mage.

"She's fine, but I've got a problem and no one to handle it," said Xander. "Maria is being tailed in the 579, and you're the only one who's not tied up right now with the vampire SWAT team situation."

"Kid," said the mage after he took a deep calming breath. "I closed the bar I think about three hours ago or so, I've been asleep maybe two. Start at the beginning and use small words until my brain comes online."

Xander smiled and shook his head. The mage had moved into town shortly after Faith had moved in with him - 'to keep an eye on his ward,' he had said. He had opened a bar shortly after arriving down the street from the Bronze. Called only 'The Place,' the pub had slowly become a haven for the more mature residents of Sunnydale. It also provided another resource for information of what was happening in the town, if only on a nicer level.

"You've heard about the new movers and shakers in town, I assume?" Xander asked, and the grunt on the other end confirmed his hunch.

"Yes, and I'm not happy about it," growled Robert. "I've got my ear to the ground, but no word yet. I'll call you when I hear something."

"We've got a line, but I need you to handle something else," said the boy.

On the other end, Xander could hear the mage moving around his apartment, struggling to get his head clear. A fridge opening and closing followed by the sound of a can opening filled the speaker.

"Little early for beer, isn't it?" asked Xander.

"Piss off, it's a Coke," retorted Robert. "So what is it you need me to do?"

"Maria is in trouble - she's being tailed by an unknown boat," began Xander. "I need to you hop a flight to Miami, sail back with her, and should anything happen, keep the ship safe or extract Maria and Howard out."

"I like your faith in me Xander, but I doubt I could keep the boat safe by myself," said Sinclair after a moment of silence. "Anyone else going besides me?"

"I don't have anyone to spare," said Xander after a moment. "Dragan's on vacation and his son can't commit anyone at the moment, we're ass-deep with the SWAT team, the Eagles wouldn't be any help to you on a boat, so unless you've got a small army in your pocket…"

Xander could hear a sigh on the phone, and he could almost see in his mind the mage pulling a Giles right now and rubbing the bridge of his nose.

"I might have something, but it gonna cost you," said Robert after a moment.

"Put it together and call me with the details, Merlin's putting your flight plan together," Xander said and then he paused. "And not Faith's brothers, Maria will most likely tie them to a torpedo and fire it rather than let them on the boat for any length of time again."

It took nearly three days for Maria to finally reach Miami and she let out a sigh of relief as she slowly pulled her boat into the boat show slip at the Miami Sealine Marina. She watched as heads turned her way as she killed the engines on her ship and Howard tied her off.

A crowd formed as she and Howard worked to secure the boat, and she could hear people discussing her vessel. The familiar sounds of cameras filled the air and Maria beamed with pride as she walked around her vessel.

Because the Miami show was one of the largest boat shows on the east cast, the crowd around the PT boat was larger than she had seen, and in some ways that made her even more nervous that usual. Her eyes swept the crowd, and she wondered how many people were there to spy on her.

As she watched the crowd, she noticed an unusual group standing on the docks near the boat. She was immediately struck by the fact that they all seemed overdressed for the hot Miami temperatures, leather jackets and jeans not being standard attire. Each of the men also seemed to stand with a sort of tension, like they were waiting for trouble, with some watching her and the boat, while a few of the others watched in other directions away from the boat. One of the men near the front of the crowd smiled at her and recognition slowly filtered through Maria's mind.

"Robert!" she called out in amazement as she jumped onto the docks and gave the mage a hug.

"Hello lass," said Sinclair. "It's good to see you as well. Xander sends his regards."

Her eyes went wide with the statement, and she took a harder look at the other men standing with the mage and understanding slowly crept across her face. With a wave of her arm, she motioned toward the boat.

"We'd probably be best taking this below, then," she said.

The oddly dressed men followed as Maria led them onto the old PT boat and down into the cabin area. Sinclair smiled as he glanced up onto the command deck and saw Howard standing there, a handgun hidden just below the counter. He nodded at the engineer and received a smile from the old man before following Maria down.

"Maria," began Sinclair as he settled himself onto a chair in the common area. "I'd like you to meet Mickey Kostmayer. He and his associates will be joining us on the cruise back to Sunnydale once we pick up our passengers."

Maria eyed the strangers with suspicion. For the most part, except for the odd clothing, each of the men was completely nondescript. They would have walked past her in a crowd and she would never have noticed them. Each of them had moved with a practiced ease though, much like Xander did. She turned back to Robert for a moment as a thought crossed her mind.

"I figured you'd be with Faith and those two…" she began and then her face paled. "Madre de Dios, tell me those lunatics aren't getting back on my boat! Please tell me they're not getting on the boat. I still have nightmares of them with the stingers."

"So she's met Conner and Murphy, I take it?" chuckled Mickey as the captain fixed him with a death glare.

"The boys were in Boston when last I checked, and Faith is under Rupert's watchful eye right now," grinned Sinclair. "You boat is safe; well, as safe as it can be in this situation."

"You want to explain the situation to us, by the way?" asked Mickey.

Maria stared at him in puzzlement and then turned and looked at Sinclair.

"You didn't explain it to them?" she asked.

"Not in complete detail, since I barely understand what's going on myself," he shrugged.

Maria sighed and shook her head, explaining the details of her suspicions about the trawler trailing the 579 and Xander's own suspicions as to who was following them. She then went on to explain how the owner had felt it was better to have more of a crew onboard when they took on their passengers before heading back to the final destination.

"So what have you done to piss off the alphabet soups?" asked Mickey after the story was finished.

"The full explanation will have to wait till after we get to our destination," said Sinclair after he shared a glance with Maria. "We happened to see and participate in something we shouldn't have and now they want to know what we saw."

"And what was that?" asked Mickey.

"If I said little green men from Mars…" smirked Robert.

"You're right, I wouldn't believe you," said Mickey as he shook his head. "OK, I get the picture; I'll wait for when we get there. So where in the hell are we going, anyway?"

His answer was only evil grins from both Maria and Robert.

So does she not take wing like a living thing
Child of the flowing tide
See her pass with grace on the water's face
With clean and quiet pride
Our own tall ship of great renown still lifts unto the sky
Who will know the Bluenose in the sun?

Chapter 2

Grab what comfort you can, however you can, whenever you can. The ride gets real rocky way too often.
-- Walter Slovotsky

"And the first prize trophy in the Best Restoration category goes to," intoned the announcer. "Maria Sanchez, for her wonderful restoration on the boat PT-579. Let's give her a big hand."

Maria couldn't help but smile as she walked up on stage and accepted her trophy, the eighth in her collection since she had started touring the boat show circuit. Inwardly she grinned even more, wondering how the crowd would react knowing the boat had seen combat as recently as a year earlier, against a nearly unstoppable enemy, and had acquitted herself beyond any expectations, even her captain's.

After receiving the trophy and shaking hands with the presenters, Maria suffered her way through the required photos. The more paranoid part of her had to wonder if those in the crowd taking the photos had anything to do with the boat following her, but she quickly squashed the idea, not letting her fears get in the way of the moment. After what seemed to be an eternity, she managed to extract herself from well-wishers and headed back down the docks toward her berth.

She paused as she heard several footsteps behind her, then continued forward, taking a turn away from her boat and toward a drink stand. Fear crept up her spine as the sounds of feet followed her, and finally Maria spun around to see who was behind her.

"Hi, boss," grinned Robert.

"Sinclair, you ass!" she exclaimed. "You had me scared shitless. What the hell are you doing off the boat?"

As she stared daggers at the mage, it slowly occurred to her that several of her new crew flanked the man, including one equally grinning Mickey Kostmayer.

"What the hell are all of you doing?" she asked hotly. "Who the hell is watching the boat?"

"Howard and a couple of the guys are still back on the boat, it's fine," said Mickey. "We wanted to come see your shining moment."

The others of her crew nodded and Maria couldn't help but smile again. Though the mercenaries and the mage had only been on the 579 a week, Maria was starting to get a good feel about all of them. As she fell in step with the men, she noticed that they had all moved around her in a protective circle, with Robert taking the trophy and Mickey hooking his arm in hers.

"Something wrong?" she asked in a quiet voice, a false smile on her face.

Mickey met her eyes with an equally false smile and continued to lead her back to the boat.

"We found two tracking devices stuck to the hull," said the mercenary, still smiling. "That brings the total to seven so far, which is a little excessive for just one agency to have planted them all. I recognize a couple of the designs, but the others are a lot newer."

Maria tried to keep the smile on her face as the bile rose in her throat. Xander had been right; someone was tracking her movements and she and Howard might have been in danger. Numbly, she let herself be led back to the boat and after a few greetings she moved up to the command deck, her trophy in hand. Settling into her chair, she stared out the main window at the collection of boats and contemplated things.

A knock brought her out of her thoughts and she realized she still had the trophy gripped tightly in her hands. She glanced around and spotted Mickey staring at her from the hatchway, a look of worry on his face.

"You ok?" he asked.

"Yeah, I think," she finally responded. "It didn't sink in 'til you mentioned the tracking devices how much danger we could have beenin."

"That's the nature of the game, unfortunately," replied Mickey after a moment of thought. "We'll get you back safe and sound though."

Receiving a smile and a nod from Maria, Mickey turned and headed below deck. He never saw Maria set the trophy on the console, pull her legs up tight to her chest and rock back and forth in the chair.

"Will we?" she asked quietly to no one.

Sinclair stared at the PDA Xander had given him and tentatively punched a few buttons on the device. Words flashed onto the screen as he compared the address he was parked in front of to the displayed text. Shaking his head, he pulled up a long ornate drive, stopped in front of a large house and climbed out.

Stepping up to the front door, he knocked and shifted into a parade rest stance, waiting. After a minute or so of waiting, he knocked on the door again, and this time he could hear the shuffling of feet and the turning of locks. The door cracked and Robert could see a set of bleary eyes looking out of the darkened house.

"May I help you?" came a voice from inside.

Robert winced as the rancid smell of the man's breath wafted out the door. He felt a momentary pang of sympathy for the man before him, having been in that state more than once in his life.

"Are you Dr. Andrew Blake?" asked Robert after a moment.

The bleary-eyed man nodded and parted the door a little more; he looked out past the mage, left and right, before turning back to Robert.

"My name is Robert Sinclair, and," began the mage only to be cut off by the drunk before him.

"I don't care what you're selling," slurred Dr. Blake. "Get off my property or I will be forced to call the police."

The doctor turned and attempted to close the door, only to find that the door refused to shut. Pushing harder, Andrew tried to force the offending door shut, but the door refused to have anything to do with closing. The doctor squinted at Robert, who stood their impassively, no hint of emotion on his face and his hands clasped behind his back. Andrew also realized that the man before him had nothing to do with his door problem, as that the man was standing several feet away from the door frame itself.

"What the hell?" Dr. Blake asked out loud.

Putting all his weight against the door, Andrew attempted to close the door again and the door again refuted its owner's wishes. Snarling, the doctor kicked the offending door, only to receive a hurt set of toes for his trouble.

"You seem to be having a hard time there," said Sinclair as he watched the man struggle with the door. "May I?"

The doctor stepped away from the door and watched as the man approached. He watched as the man pulled on the door and the door resisted closing for the stranger as well. The stranger frowned and pushed the door, attempting to open it wider. Andrew stared as the door swung further open.

The doctor jumped forward as the door swung toward him and attempted to shut the stranger out only to discover that once again the door resisted him.

"Perhaps you should hear what I have to say," said Sinclair after a moment. "Your door seems to think you should."

The doctor stepped away from the door, and Robert moved to enter the house, pausing only to pick up a briefcase off the ground. The mage took stock of the interior of the house and he shook his head slightly.

"Interior design done by Jack Daniels," he thought as he surveyed the living room, strewn with empty bottles and dirty glasses. The shades were drawn tight, keeping out the evil sun, bane of all drinkers.

"What do you want with me?" demanded the doctor behind him.

Sinclair turned and smiled a wolfish grin. Andrew jumped as the door behind him suddenly closed on its own, closing the two men off from the outside world.

"I have a business proposal for you, Dr. Blake," said the mage after a moment of silence.

Setting the briefcase down on one of the few clean spots in the room, Robert popped the latches and pulled out a thick green folder. Flipping through some of the pages, he nodded and handed it to the befuddled doctor.

"Take a look at that while I go make us some coffee," said Robert. "We'll talk more after you've looked at the files."

"I don't have any coffee," mumbled Dr. Blake.

"Don't worry," smiled Robert. "I brought my own."

With a flourish, the mage produced a white bag from the briefcase and vanished from the room, leaving Andrew standing there holding a thick folder. The doctor tried to shake off the surrealness of the situation, but his mind struggled to grasp what was going on. He stared at the folder in his hands for a long while, wondering if he shouldn't just call the police and have the stranger in his kitchen arrested for trespassing. Curiosity won out and the doctor settled down on the couch and began leafing through the files. His eyes grew wide as he took in the information written on its pages. His mind began to dance as he flipped through the pages in the folder.

Had the doctor not been entranced by the words on the paper, he might have heard the chaos that erupted from his kitchen.

When he had entered the kitchen, the mage had been amazed by the alcoholic chaos that seemed spread into every nook of the house. Bottles of varying kinds and shapes covered every flat spot in the kitchen and spilled out of the garbage cans. He thought he spied a coffee maker on the counter but it getting to it was a task even he was afraid to try. He studied the glass minefield before him and wondered for a moment how the good doctor got in and out of the room without causing a glass disaster.

Stepping gingerly into the room, he traversed the room much like a ballerina, dancing his way to the back door of the house. Opening the door, he stepped out into the backyard and studied it for a moment, noting the high fences that separated the yard from the neighbors. Scanning the fenceline, he made sure no one was watching, then stepped to the left of the door and mumbled a well-used spell.

At first it seemed as if nothing had happened, then a rattling started from the kitchen. In an almost soldierlike fashion bottles flew out the door in straight lines, dancing their way in the air toward the recycling bin. The bin's lid popped open and the bottles settled gently inside, piling rapidly up. When the bin was full, the lid closed, one of the garbage cans opened up, and the cycle continued.

Two garbage cans later, the flow of bottles stopped and Robert nodded to himself and headed back into the kitchen, dusting off his hands as he went. Whistling an old tune, Sinclair set about making some coffee and cleaning some cups. With the pot full, the mage returned to the living room.

Sinclair smiled as he noticed that the doctor hadn't even looked up when the dance of the beer bottles started. Setting a cup down in front of the doctor, he filled it and settled into a chair across from the man. Without even looking up from the folder, the doctor took the steaming coffee cup and took a sip. He paused for just a moment to stare at the glass before returning to the folder.

"Probably the first nonalcoholic drink he's had in days," thought Sinclair.

Reaching into the briefcase, the mage pulled out an old leather tome and started reading, waiting for Andrew to finish looking through the files. Half an hour and two cups of coffee later, Dr. Blake put the folder down on the table and looked at the stranger.

"Where did you get that information?" he asked.

Closing the book and putting it back in the briefcase, the mage turned and smiled at the waiting man. Gone was the drunkenness, replaced with burning curiosity.

"My…" started Sinclair, only to pause for a moment while he looked for the right word before continuing again. "…employer asked me to show you the folder. He knew of your research and felt the data might attract your attention."

"Attract my attention," stammered the doctor. "That folder contains several missing links to my research that might bring forth completely new areas of neurological research. It might…"

"We know that, hence the reason for approaching you," said Sinclair as he refilled his coffee cup.

"But why me? Surely you've heard what happened at the university?" questioned Andrew.

"Ah yes, the university," replied Sinclair.

The mage reached into the briefcase and pulled out a second folder, different in color from the first. He opened it and thumbed through several of the pages.

"Both the surviving victims report that the cadaver sat up and attacked them as well as everyone in the room," said Sinclair as he read out loud from the folder. "The victims then report that prior to their passing out, they observed the cadaver dress itself with hospital scrubs from one of the other slain victims and walked out of the room under its own power, leaving behind nine dead students and two instructors. The victims both indicated that the cadaver seemed to have thought them dead as well."

He closed the folder and watched the doctor start to shake, clearly lost in his own memories. Standing quickly, Robert put a gentle hand on the man's shoulder and waited for the doctor to regain his composure.

"So I guess you're here to call me crazy too then?" asked the doctor, who was staring down at the floor.

"Actually, no," responded the mage. "If I were to call you anything, I would call you the victim of a vampire attack."

"So where's Robert?" asked Mickey as he climbed up onto the command deck.

Maria looked up from her spot in front of the computer as she was calibrating the course for their trip back to Sunnydale.

"He's out meeting with the doctor we're supposed to pick up," she said with a shrug. "Said something about having to make an offer that he wouldn't be able to refuse."

"Fun," nodded Mickey. "Just wanted to let you know the food guys have arrived to drop off the supplies and the others will be back soon."

Maria got up and stretched, working the kinks loose from her back. She slid down the stairs quickly, following the mercenary toward the deck. Several men and woman were offloading boxes of supplies onto the boat and Maria quickly started giving directions where to put them. Leading the way down into the boat, she told the workers where to stack the boxes, bags, and other food items. As she turned around, she never saw one of the workers pull out a stun gun from behind his back. She did feel it though as he placed the device against her neck, seconds before she faded into the black oblivion.

"A what?" asked Dr. Blake tentatively.

"A vampire attack… you know, pointed teeth, bad breath, face ridges, yellow eyes," replied Sinclair.

The doctor stared at him for a moment in utter disbelief. Part of him wanted to believe the stranger, but another part of him wanted to laugh in Robert's face. The mage reached into his briefcase, pulled out several folders and laid them on the table before him.

"Tell you what, take a look at these files and tell me what you, as a medical professional, think," said Sinclair as he settled back into the chair.

Andrew was puzzled but he picked up the first folder, which upon closer look turned out to be a police file of some sort. Leafing through the pages his eyes traced the words on the page. When he was finished, he picked up a second folder, again flipping through the pages. Continuing on, the doctor read through several more of the files before finally looking up at Sinclair.

"As a medical professional, I'd have to say that all these cases were similar, so similar in fact that it could almost be the same person or persons," said Dr. Blake after a few moments of thought.

"I figured you'd say something like that," nodded Sinclair. "You ought to go back and look at the headings of each of the case reports."

Robert waited as the man flipped through each of the files a second time. He watched as puzzlement grew on the man's face before he finally threw down the files.

"This is some sort of joke? How could this happen in five different cities on the same night?" demanded the doctor.

"Vampires exist," said Sinclair plainly. "And part of you already knows that."

"What do you mean?" asked Andrew.

"You were attacked by a very young vampire," said Sinclair. "In fact, most likely he had only been turned several hours before."

"Turned?" asked Andrew.

Robert leaned back in his chair and folded his hands together. Using the tone of voice he used with Faith, he started to explain in detail the creation of a vampire, from the beginning to the dusty end of a vampire's life. Several times he was interrupted by questions from the doctor, his medical curiosity stoked. With a tempered ease after earned from dealing with the young slayer, Sinclair quickly answered the questions as best he could, admitting that very little scientific research had been done concerning the inner workings of a vampire.

"Frankly, Doc, I don't think anyone has done any research into it," said Robert after some thought. "Most of the time, we're more concerned in putting them down, not how they work."

"Putting them down?" asked Andrew, his bushy eyebrows raised in question. "You mean you fight them?"

"Every chance I get," said the mage proudly. "And we're offering you a chance to help as well."

"We?" asked the doctor.

"I represent a group dedicated to holding back the night," said Robert in all seriousness. "We come from all walks of life, all fields, all races, and all cultures. We are bound by the fact that we have been touched in some way by the darkness, but unlike most who disbelieve what happened to them, we instead have taken up a millennium-old sword and sworn to fight back."

"But why me?" asked the doctor. "I'm just a drunken old doctor, not a soldier."

"The research you do would greatly benefit us on many levels," replied Sinclair. "The first file I gave you, as was explained to me, is just the tip of the iceberg. You will be playing with bleeding-edge technology, part of which, to my understanding, will be used in certain types of weapons interfaces."

The doctor started to say something but Robert cut him off when he held up his hand.

"In addition, your experience in ER medicine would also be of great assistance," continued the mage. "We don't have any dedicated medical staff on hand at the moment, but I imagine that will change soon enough."

The doctor fell back into the couch and stared at the ceiling for a moment, his mind whirling with thought. Here before him was a man who claimed to fight vampires. After the events in the autopsy room, it wasn't that hard for him to believe, but part of him still didn't.

"How do I know you're telling the truth?" asked the doctor finally.

Robert tossed a white card into the lap of the doctor and stood up, collecting the coffee pot and the cups.

"I'm going to leave you alone for a few minutes and go wash these out. You think on what I've said," Robert said as he turned and headed for the kitchen. "If you want to know more, hold the card up to the phone; there will be someone on the other end who will confirm what I told you, including the offer."

Andrew watched as the man walked out of the living room, leaving him alone. He stared down at the white card in his lap, afraid almost to touch it. Finally, he picked the card up and studied it. His eyes grew wide as the card changed, words slowly appearing on it which read "The Knighthood."

As he was wiping off his hands after doing the dishes, Robert jumped when he heard his cell phone ring. Opening up the damnable object, he placed it to his ear and smiled as he heard a familiar voice.

"He's in," said Merlin. "He said he would be ready to go in a few hours."

Maria groaned as she swan back to consciousness, her head spinning. As she finally got her eyes to focus, Maria immediately realized that things were bad. Her wrists, arms, knees, legs, and feet were bound tightly with duct tape. She noted with a sigh of relief that her mouth wasn't covered. Twisting and turning, Maria struggled to get herself upright and stared in shock at what she saw.

All around her lay the rest of her crew, each in the same state that she was in. Several of them looked a little worse for wear. Mickey appeared to be sporting a bloody lip and a black eye, Howard had a cut on his forehead, and one of the other mercenaries looked like he had gone a couple of rounds with a prize fighter.

Twisting and flexing her wrists, she worked to see if she could get her hands loose. Glancing around the room, she tried to spot any sharp edge that might free her, but saw none. With a resigned sigh, she brought her wrists up to her mouth and began to gnaw and spit, doing her best impression of a squirrel.

She tensed when she heard handle to the door of the cabin turn. Dropping her hands to her lap quickly, she tried to turn her fear into anger as a small Spanish-looking man entered the cabin. He looked at her for a moment before shaking his head.

"I'm sorry for having to do this, Captain Sanchez," began the man as he turned a chair around and sat down. "We just need to borrow your boat for a little bit, then we will turn you and your crew loose. You'll even be paid for the gas, I assure you. We just gotta do this quick run to Cuba, pick some people up and come back. Shouldn't be a problem. We're just waiting for your last crewman to get back and then we'll be on our way."

She glanced around the room and immediately noticed that Robert wasn't with the rest of her tied-up crew. Inwardly she grinned, but externally she kept her face neutral. Outside in the hallway she heard a shout, and then another man stuck his head inside.

"Rem, this fucking boat is haunted or something!" the newcomer exclaimed. "Every time we try to set the course on the computer,it resets itself. The engines keep shutting down, and now some of the doors won't open or close. Some of the men are even reporting hearing things!"

Maria let the grin appear on her face for just a moment before hiding it. Whether these jerks knew it or not, trouble was about to arrive in a serious way.

Andrew settled into the front seat of the rental and sighed as he watched his home sink away in the mirror. Reaching back over the seat, he fiddled with his carryon bag for a moment and pulled out an old hat, which he placed on his head. Robert caught the movement out of his eye and glanced over at the man, who was now silent.

"Like the hat," he said with a grin.

The doctor took the hat off and stared at it a moment. He adjusted several of the fishing lures before placing it back on his head.

"Sorry," said Andrew. "I put it on from time to time when I get nervous. It belonged to my father. He was shot down returning home from Korea during the war. The hat was part of his belongings."

Sinclair nodded in understanding as he drove. The file that Xander had given him had indicated that the death of Andrew's father was what had spurred his fear of flying.

"You decided to follow in his footsteps though, I see," commented the mage.

Andrew sat silent for a moment, contemplating things. Watching trees and buildings speed past, the doctor pondered the question in silence before finally speaking.

"Partially," he said. "I became a doctor to honor my father's memory. It was a way to bring myself closer to a man I barely remember."

The two men drove in a silence, light classical music playing on the radio. As they neared the marina, the silence was broken as Sinclair heard his phone ring. With a sigh, he reached into his jacket pocket and placed the annoying device to his ear.

"Yes, Maria, we're on our…" he began to say.

"Mr. Sinclair, this is Merlin," said the voice on the phone. "I believe there is a situation on PT-579."

With a curse, Robert turned the wheel, ignoring the honks behind him. With a couple of deft twists of the wheel he pulled the car into a parking lot, steering the car up to the roof of the parking structure.

"What's the sitrep, Merlin?" he said finally as he stopped the car.

"Due to the ongoing situation in Sunnydale, as well as the arrival of General Grey at Avalon, I had reduced the monitoring of PT-579, as that the boat wasn't ready to leave yet," stated Merlin. "The crew was taking on its final supplies during the last checks while they were awaiting your return."

The mage climbed out of his car, ignoring Dr. Blake's questioning looks. Popping the trunk, he rummaged through a bag, finally producing a set of high-powered binoculars. Grumbling as he went, the mage quickly fit a microphone and earpiece into the phone while he made his way to the edge of the parking garage. Fixing the binoculars to his eyes, he tried to get a good look at the boat.

"Continue, Merlin," he said as he brought the eyepieces into focus.

"When I returned my attention to the vessel, I was unable to locate Captain Sanchez's, Mr. Kostmayer's, or any of the other crewman's voices, only unfamiliar voices onboard. A quick check of the ship's few internal sensors indicates there are more than the standard crew onboard at the moment, and all voices are speaking Spanish. Translations seem to indicate they are attempting to prepare the 579 for voyage."

Letting loose a string of Gaelic curse words, Sinclair observed several unfamiliar people aboard the boat, working, it seemed, to prep the vessel for sea. Judging by the unusual bulges that each of the strangers sported, they were all armed as well.

"Mr. Sinclair?" asked the doctor, who had managed to sneak up on him. "Is there something wrong?"

Fixing the doctor with a death glare for a second, the mage stormed past the startled man as he returned to the trunk of the car. Tossing the binoculars into the trunk with a thud, the mage ripped off his jacket and pulled the concealed holster from the back of his pants. Reaching into the bag, he pulled out a combat harness and fitted it around his shoulders, pausing only a second to set the phone down. Once the rig was in place, he pulled his pistol from the hostler and fit it into the combat rig. Picking the phone back up, he paused and thought for a moment.

"Merlin, remember those unusual protocols we discussed?" he asked finally.

"Yes, Mr. Sinclair," said the AI.

"Initiate Protocol Sinclair 14, Ghosts in the Shell," said the mage.

"Mr. Sinclair!" demanded Andrew. "What is going on?"

"Someone's trying to take our ride, Andrew," snarled Robert. "But they aren't getting her without a fight. Unfortunately, it's just you and me right now, but in some ways, I almost feel sorry for them. Almost."

The mage continued to dig through his pack, pulling out equipment. His grin became even more evil as he pulled two identical items out of the bag.

"So, Doc, looks like you're about to get a crash course in neural weapons tech," said Sinclair as he showed the doctor a Zat.

"What is going on!" screamed Rem as several alarm systems started whining.

Maria just smiled as she watched the ship seemingly take on a life of its own. Her captor attempted to leave the cabin, only to have his nose almost broken by the door as it slammed shut. Outside the cabin, Maria could hear the shouts and screams as the other invaders suddenly met with other forms of chaos.

"What is going on!" demanded her captor.

"I'd say you pissed off the ship's ghosts," she said calmly. "You just better hope they haven't alerted the ship's commander yet, or there'll really be hell to pay. He's a really grouchy ghost."

"I have not alerted the Commander yet," whispered a disembodied voice from seemingly nowhere. "But the other ghosts have been informed."

"Who said that?" shouted Rem, turning around in confusion.

"Said what?" asked Maria, her face seemingly carved from stone.

"That voice, talking about ghosts!" shouted the man as the alarms got louder.

"I didn't hear anything," she replied.

Mickey groaned next to her and Maria looked over as the mercenary returned to consciousness.

"Would someone turn off the damn alarm clock," he mumbled as he tried to sit up. "I can't seem to reach it."

"Easy there, Mickey, you've got quite a lump on your head," she said as she scooted over next to the mercenary.

"Maria? What the fuck is going on?" he asked as the situation slowly became clear. "Last thing I remember was storing the supplies."

"Looks like someone wanted to borrow our boat," she said, jerking her head toward their captor. "Only they didn't want to pay the rental fee. In doing so, they've managed to piss off her ghosts."

Mickey stared at the panicked kidnapper who was trying desperately to get the door open. In the back of his mind, he had a nagging thought that he knew the man, but his anger clouded his mind.

"Ghosts?" asked a puzzled Mickey.

The mercenary worked on discreetly freeing himself, trying his best to hide his movements from the nearly spastic kidnapper.

Rem tried the door yet again, pulling on it, pushing on it, twisting the knob, and finally resorting to banging on it, but over the loud alarm, he doubted anyone could hear him. He heard a noise behind him and another voice, so he figured another of the prisoners had woken up. He turned and his eyes went wide as he got a look at his prisoner for the first time.

"Mickey?" he said in a near whisper, his eyes wide.

Hearing his name, the mercenary looked up. As he stared at his captor for a moment, Maria could see a frown form on Mickey's face. The frown rapidly turned to an angry scowl.

"REM! What the fuck is going on here!" he shouted as he started hopping and pulling on the tape. "Where the hell is Shale? I am so going to kick all your asses when I get out of this tape!"

"Oh shit, Kostmayer. If I had known it was you, shit! Fuck!" said the startled captor.

Kneeling next to Mickey, Rem pulled out a knife. Maria tensed when she saw the knife and panic washed over her. She started to struggle, trying to get herself away. She was about to scream when she saw the man start to cut Mickey free.

"Easy, Maria, I know this fucker - we worked together when we were in the CIA," said Mickey as his hands were cut free. "He may not live long, when I get free, but I know him."

"Maybe I shouldn't cut you loose then," mumbled Rem, only to receive a scowl from Mickey.

Rem worked quickly and soon the bindings that had held Mickey were cut loose. Shaking his head, Mickey held out his hand and Rem handed over the knife, which the mercenary quickly put to use freeing Maria. As Maria stood up, she noticed something, and her blood ran suddenly cold.

"Has anyone noticed how quiet it is all of the sudden?" she asked.

"Oh shit," said Mickey. "I'd have to guess Rob is here."

The words had barely left Mickey's mouth when the door was thrown open and blue lightning flashed past him, striking Rem.

Most afternoons along the Florida coast involve at least one quick storm; this day was no different. Driving rain washed over the boat, forcing everyone inside. Had anyone still been on the deck, they might have noticed two figures slinking toward PT-579, but storm made looking out the windows nearly impossible and the chaos of the alarms and lights turning on and off made it even worse.

"I can't believe I'm doing this," groused a very wet Dr. Blake.

"Shhhhh!" said Robert quietly as he crouched down next to the edge of the boat. "Just remember, one shot only for the moment."

"Right, right, one shot only," nodded the doctor as he watched the other man creep onto the boat and toward the hatchway.

Robert heard the hatch release as he approached it, and he could only grin as men spilled out the door in a mad rush to escape the haunted vessel. The would-be pirates skidded to a halt as they spotted the mage. One of the men made an attempt to reach for his weapon, but his move was cut short as Robert sprayed the lot of them with Zat fire. Without even pausing, Sinclair moved deeper into the boat, zapping the command deck as he entered.

He could hear the doctor moving in behind him, but he knew the man hadn't fired the Zat yet. Sweeping down the hallway, he stuck his head into the first room to check it. Seeing no one, he moved to head out the door, only to see a stream of blue electricity fly past his nose and down the hallway, followed milliseconds later by a cry of pain.

"He came around the corner!" said a rattled Dr. Blake. "I saw him reaching for his gun and I…"

"Easy there, doc," said Sinclair as he tried to calm the man down. "You did fine. He's alive, but he won't be happy when he wakes up. Lets keep moving."

The sweep of the boat took minutes as the two men moved quickly and quietly toward where Merlin had informed him that Maria's voice had been heard last. Stopping just outside the door, Robert motioned for the doctor to stay put.

"Merlin, end protocol," he said into the fold comm as he crept toward the door.

Silence washed over the boat, and the lights slowly stabilized all across the ship. Placing his ear to the door, he could barely make out voices inside, one of which sounded like a very mad Mickey and another he didn't recognize. Making motions with his hands, gestured for the doctor to open the door while he positioned himself to clean the room.

He nodded to Andrew, who shoved the door open. Taking quick stock, the mage fired at the only person he didn't recognize, dropping the unknown man to the floor.

"WHAT THE FUCK?!?" screamed Mickey as he turned toward the door. "Jesus Christ, Sinclair! What the hell are you doing?"

"Hi guys!" he said from his prone position with a jaunty wave. "Miss me?"

In what seemed to be a channeling of Rupert Giles, Sinclair sat in a chair on the command deck and rubbed the bridge of his nose, trying to remove the headache he had forming.

"So let me get this straight, you know this guy?" he asked.

"Yeah, he and I did work off and on for the CIA. He's got some partners somewhere, but I imagine we'll have to wait 'til he wakes up," said Mickey. "Any idea how long that will be?"

The mage just shrugged and leaned back in the chair, his hands locked behind his head, his eyes fixed on the ceiling.

"Until today, I'd never used the weapon beyond the firing range," said Robert. "From what I understand though, they should start waking up soon with a wonderful headache."

"They have," said Andrew as he stepped into the room, a rag in his hands.. "I finished checking over your people, Mr. Kostmayer - they will all be fine, a bit worse for wear, but fine."

"Thanks, doc," said the mercenary. "You said they're waking up?"

When the doctor nodded, Mickey and Sinclair got up and headed below deck, stopping to knock on Maria's door to inform her as well. The three continued down the passageway and entered the small storage room that had served the would-be hijackers and was now their brig.

"Hi Rem, how's the head?" asked Mickey as he entered the room and grinned at the bound man.

"Fuck you, Kostmayer," Rem growled. "What the hell did you hit me with, man?"

"A new toy under development," said Sinclair with a smirk. "Supposed to hurt like a bitch. Does it?"

Rem only glowered at Sinclair, who just continued to smirk at him.

"What the hell did you want my boat for?" demanded Maria, her hands on her hips.

The hijacker looked down at the floor for a moment and wondered how much he could tell them. Finally after a few silent moments he looked up and stared Mickey in the eyes.

"Shale's on another op in Cuba," he said with a look of seriousness on his face. "The Cuba Libres got word that there is another drug plant just south of Havana. This time they're using political prisoners and their families to keep it from being blown up. The drug lords somehow worked a deal with a government official to use them as slaves. They paid us to head south and free them and blow up the lab. I was to get a boat to run a distraction while they slipped the prisoners onto shore. And if it went to hell we were to sail in and try to extract them."

"You wanted to use my boat for a distraction?" Maria said hotly, almost heading for their prisoner, only to be stopped by Mickey and Robert.

"You said 'and their families'?" asked Mickey. "How many we talking?"

"From the reports we got, 20 or so kids, maybe more," said Rem with a shrug. "Shale has about fifteen guys with him -they were going to steal a boat and make a run for it, we were supposed to try to cut off whoever was chasing them and lead them off. This thing looked fast enough and mean enough to make anyone think twice. I just hope he can get 'em out of there on his own now."

Mickey looked over at Maria and Robert for a moment with his eyebrows raised, a questioning look on his face. Sinclair simply shrugged to say "what the hell." Maria face went through a range of emotions before looking back at Rem.

"You could have just asked, you realize?" she said as she turned and left the room. "Excuse me while I go sound general quarters."

"What does she mean?" asked Rem with a puzzled look on his face.

"She means she's prepping the men and the boat so you can finish your op," said Mickey as he undid the bindings holding Rem.

Sinclair watched as Maria steered the boat out of the harbor and brought the vessel up to speed. The captain had been strangely quiet since they had set sail, simply concentrating on sailing the ship

"Penny for your thoughts," he said, breaking the silence.

"I've seen labs like that, Robert," she said quietly, never taking her eyes off the water. "When I was younger, the town I lived in had one near its outskirts. Several of my friends went in, but they never came out. We gotta get those kids out."

The mage nodded in agreement. Reaching behind his back, he laid a package down on the counter next to the steering wheel. The package was simple brown paper, tied together with a string.

"What's this?" she asked as she looked at the package.

"A gift from Tara," he said with a shrug. "Seems appropriate for some reason to give it to you now."

"You know what's in it?" Maria asked, but she only received a grin as an answer.

Fixing the controls, Maria grabbed the soft package and undid the knot gently, not knowing what to expect. Laying the string to the side, Maria undid the wrapping and drew a deep breath as she stared at what lay inside. Reaching into the brown wrapping, Maria pulled out a flag, much like the one that hung at the rear of the ship. Unfolding it, she gazed at the work of art Tara had crafted.

"According to Merlin, Tara discovered that Kine vessels did bear flags like most boats do now," said Robert. "But she felt that some situations might merit you flying something other than the Stars and Stripes, so she designed you this."

The flag itself was comprised of only five colors. Swirls of silver, blue, crimson, white and green mounted on a black starry background. In the center sat a PT boat, with a knight on horseback superimposed on the bow. Sinclair only shrugged when she asked him.

"You'll have to ask her the meaning behind it all when we get to Sunnydale," he said as he took the flag from her. "I'll go run it up with the other flag Mickey and I decided we should be flying."

"Do I even want to know?" she asked as she followed him out on deck where the rest of the crew waited, including the additional men and women Rem had brought along. She noted all of them were wearing a cat ate the canary look and gazing up at the flag pole attached to the radar tower. Turning around she followed their sight and let out a groan as she saw the flag riding high over the boat.

There in the wind, flapping for all to see, was a black flag, surmounted by a white skull, two arm bones crossed beneath it.

"Arrrr," said Mickey with an evil grin on his face.

Chapter 3

Health hint for the traveler: Don't throw rocks at guys with guns.
- Walter Slovotsky

"Yo Ho, Yo Ho, a pirate's life for me," sang Mickey Kostmayer as he watched the waves pass, the sun sinking into the horizon beyond them.

"Would you shut the hell up!" yelled Maria over the singing as she tried to plot their course. "I am so sick of that damn song! Ever since you ran that damn flag up you haven't shut the hell up."

"Don't like my singing?" asked the mercenary innocently only to receive a scowl from the Captain.

"Mickey, if we were in any other waters besides these," she began. "If it were any other waters but these, I might, just might, tolerate your singing. But not here, and definitely not now."

Mickey quirked an eyebrow and smirked at Maria, waiting for her to elaborate.

"Don't look at me like that," she said without looking up from the computer screen. "It's just these waters. Last time I was even in the area, I saw things that will haunt me 'til the day I die. I'd rather not tempt the things that haunt these waters again."

"Do I even want to know?" asked Mickey with a touch of sullenness in his voice.

Maria shrugged and finished her course plotting. She tried in vain to ignore the mercenary as he pestered her for more information and when she caught the man starting to take a deep breath, she stuck her index finger out and silenced him.

"Don't. If you start to sing again, so help me, I'll tie you to one of the torpedoes and launch your ass," she said with a touch of frost in her voice. "Call me superstitious, call me scared, or whatever else you want, Mr. Kostmayer. But I have no urge to have you annoy the ghosts of Blackbeard, Morgan, Sparrow, or Drake with your infernal off-key singing. Face it, Mickey, you couldn't carry a tune if it was knocked unconscious and strapped to your back."

"You wound me, Captain," responded Mickey with a hurt tone in his voice. "I'll have you know I sang in church chorus for years when I was younger. The sisters told me I had a voice like an angel."

"A fallen angel, maybe," snorted Maria.

"Besides, it's not like those torpedoes work anyway," smirked Mickey.

Maria stood and looked at the window for a moment before sitting back down. She smiled and punched a few buttons on her keyboard, nodding to herself as she watched the text scroll across the screen. Leaning over, she picked up the microphone to the radio and brought it up to her mouth.

"Robert, where do we stand?" she asked, grinning at Mickey while she waited.

"I've got tube one, three and four prepped," crackled a voice over the radio. "I'm about to start on tube two. Howard's just about got the Thunder ready, and after that we'll move onto the other toys. If you can get Kostmayer to quit singing, can you have him bring us the boxes out of the hold so we can get them prepped and loaded? The Ghost should be ready for just about anything in about half an hour, Captain."

The mercenary stared at Maria with shock written on his face. His mouth hung open, his eyes were wide with surprise, and there was a touch of fear.

"The torpedoes are real?" he asked once his brain re-engaged. "The guns are real?"

"The Ghost holds many surprises, Mr. Kostmayer," Maria said with an evil grin. "You've barely scratched the surface when it comes to the secrets this boat holds. Now, can you go help Robert finish arming the guns?"

"Aye aye, Captain Sanchez," said Mickey with a jaunty salute as he headed out.

"And no singing!" she shouted at the mercenary's retreating back.

Mickey simply began humming instead.

John Shale frowned as he peered through the monocular and studied the perimeter of the drug plant. Armed guards were watching almost every point possible, with broad-beamed searchlights lancing out from the towers evenly spaced around the perimeter.

"How many you see, boss?" asked a black man as he crouched down next to him.

Turning his camouflaged face toward Wellman, his second in command, Shale wondered yet again whether aborting the mission wasn't the more prudent idea. The thought was quickly squashed as he replayed an image in his mind of the young girls being dragged off toward the barracks earlier in the evening. Each of the girls had a look of fear on her face as the guards ripped them from their families. Screams of the families' rage could be heard by the mercenaries hiding in the tree line as the guards carried the girls away toward their barracks, yet the men were powerless to do anything. For the moment

"More than we thought," he told Wellman finally as he swept the compound with his monocular again. "But the plan still stands - we go in, get the families out, and then blow the place to kingdom come."

The ex-CIA operative nodded and moved deeper into the trees to inform the others. He never saw the look of worry on Shale's face as he retreated, nor did he hear the man mutter.

"I knew I should have gone to L.A. - the dealers there have easier money."

"Are you sure he is out there?" the man with dark eyes asked as he looked out the large window toward the fields and the drug camp beyond. In the distance he could barely make out the trees where he was told his enemy lay.

"Yes, Mr. Contreras, I am positive," replied the other man in the room, his legs propped up on a desk.

Juan Contreras looked away from the window and studied the other man closely, his eyes narrowing to slits as he did. Since taking over the reign of one of the most powerful drug cartels in Cuba, Contreras had worked hard to keep ahead of the Colombian families by supplying a steady and nearly constant stream of drugs flowing to the United States. It had been a nearly perfect setup until several months ago, when the Americans had blown up his largest plant.

"You keep telling me he is out there, Mr. Palmer, but I do not believe you," said the drug lord with anger in his eyes as he moved closer to the room's other occupant.

Richard Palmer, one-time agent for the CIA turned freelance mercenary, simply shrugged and locked his fingers behind his head. His position, while looking relaxed, was that of rigid tension. Contreras was known far and wide for his temper, and Palmer watched the man carefully for the telltale signs that he was about to explode.

"Last word from my insider was five days ago," began Palmer. "Shale and his crew had landed, and were heading inland. He's probably been up there watching us for about a day, tracking our movements and judging when it will be best for him to put his 'attack' in place."

Taking his feet off the desk, Palmer quickly stood and moved over to a map on the wall and began to explain the plan, detailing everything with quick and precise points of his finger.

"Once he's inside the camp, the extra men that have been hidden in the barracks will move out and surround him, and then you'll have the asshole," he said for the fifth time, finalizing the statement with a jab onto the map.

Contreras scowled at the mercenary but nodded finally like a chastised child. Taking a cigar from his pocket and lighting it, the drug lord moved back to look out the window, hoping to catch a glimpse of his adversary and once again began waiting impatiently for the trap to be sprung.

"Why did you sell your countryman out?" asked Contreras after a few minutes of silent puffing on the cigar.

"Because you pay better than the CIA did," said the mercenary who had resumed his resting place at the desk. "I'm frankly not as idealistic as Shale is; he's got a Don Quixote complex, always trying to fight the good fight. Me, I'd rather make the money and retire somewhere that's warm and filled with naked women, and the reward you've offered on his head will make that happen."

"So why should I trust you, Mr. Palmer?" asked the dark-eyed man as he let a cloud of smoke rise to the ceiling.

"Because I don't go back on my deals, Mr. Contreras," said Palmer with a sparkle in his eye. "And because I owe Shale too, and this way we both get what we want for a decent price."

"That's it, we're in position," said Maria as she shut down the engines.

Silence washed over the boat, with the only sound being that of the waves sloshing up against the hull. In the distance, the crew could just make out the golden glow of Havana that lit up the horizon. In the cabin, three figures stared out across the waters, watching and wondering about what was to come.

"Aren't we a little exposed out here?" asked Mickey as he broke the silence from his position at Maria's right.

"Somewhat," said Maria as she glanced down at a screen next to the wheel. "Merlin is doing what he can to make us invisible to computerized radar and satellite imagery, but he's got limits. Right now, someone with a good pair of binoculars can spot us, but there is little we can do about it."

"Ye of little faith, Captain Sanchez," smirked the man standing on her other side.

"You got something up your sleeve?" she asked.

"Somewhat," replied Robert as he headed down the stairs to the main deck.

Nodding to the gunners as he slipped across the deck, he paused near the leader of the Cuba Libres.

"You might want to send your people below deck for a few minutes," said the mage.

"What's up?" asked Rem asked as he studied the 579's second in command with a look of concern on his face.

"We need to do something to hide the ship from view and we'd rather not have you see it," said Sinclair straight-faced. "It's nothing personal, but some of our secrets are just going to remain our own, whether you like it or not."

The Cuban looked at Sinclair hard, a thousand thoughts running through his mind. Finally he spoke.

"How do I know that once we go belong deck, your not going to call Castro's goons and turn us all over?" he asked in a cold voice.

"Frankly you don't," said the mage with a shrug. "But if it will make you feel any better, you can leave one of your crew on deck."

Sinclair ran his eyes across the Cuba Libres and smiled before pointing to a young woman, her dark hair flowing down her back in a braid. She quirked her head as she say the man point at her, but said nothing, her lips pursed tightly.

"How about her?" he asked. "She can stay if she wants, I'd have no trouble with it."

Rem turned to the woman and shrugged before nodding to the others and heading below deck. The other rebels quickly followed, with some shooting glances over their shoulders at their compatriot.

"Do you have a name?" asked Sinclair when the last of the Libres had gone below deck.

"Simone," she said in a clipped tone. "Why do you have no trouble with me seeing what you're going to do?"

Robert turned and rolled his sleeves up and reached into his pocket, producing a silk bag which he laid on the deck. Opening the bag, he pulled out several small vials, which he laid out quickly with a practiced hand. With the vials laid out, he reached into the small bag and pulled out a small ornate dagger, its handle carved with Celtic knots and swirls.

Nodding to no one in particular, Robert deftly opened on of the vials and began to pour a small ring of salt on the deck, under the watchful eye of the young woman. Her eyes began to widen as she began to understand what the strange man was up to.

"You're a Santeros?" she asked with a touch of concern in her voice.

"No," said Sinclair without looking up as he continued to draw intricate designs in ring. "Though I figured someone as practiced in Santeria and that is as strong as you would have recognized that already."

She narrowed her eyes at the man and pursed her lips. Crossing her arms beneath her breasts, she waited until the man turned to look at her before speaking.

"I have no idea what you are talking about," she replied with a touch of frost, only to receive a shrug from the man before her.

"Suit yourself then," said Robert with almost a tone of dismissal. "You've got no reason to hide what you are in my presence, nor any of our crew. You will find us a bit more open minded than most."

Turning away from the young woman, he picked up the dagger and unsheathed it. With a quick motion he pricked his finger, letting a few drops of red blood fall into the circle, all the while murmuring in an old arcane language. Simone watched as the circle began to barely glow in the dark night air. Abruptly, he cut off the chanting and the mage frowned.

"Something wrong?" asked Simone as she watched the man stare at the sky.

"You can't feel it?" he asked.

Simone sighed and gave into Robert's question. Opening her senses, she cast about and her eyes widened as she felt the disturbance in nature itself.

"Someone has done something, something...." she said, her mind trying to find the words.

"Someone out there has done something bad, with a capital B," said Robert. "It feels like it's pretty far to the northeast, but whatever it was its messing with the flows of nature here as well. Well fuck; that eliminates that idea."

"What were you going to do?" she asked.

"Small storm to hide us from prying eyes," replied Sinclair. "Nothing that would have interfered with the escape, but the added lightening in the air would have been a welcome source of extra firepower if it was needed. Whatever has happened out there has messed up weather patterns ever here, so that idea is right the hell out. You got any suggestions?"

The Cuban smiled wryly and put a hand on her hip.

"That's the problem with you men, always trying to complicate things," she said. "Move out of the way."

The attack on the camp was quick and brutal. The guards in the towers were taken out at long range just as Shale and his men blew through the front gates of the compound in two old trucks. Men leaned out the back of the truck spraying anything that moved as they drove rapidly through the camp. The trucks never paused as the guards made vain attempts to stop the vehicles.

Shale twisted the wheel as he turned the lumbering behemoth of a truck around one of the barracks and swung it down a narrow pass between several of the buildings, his goal now in sight. He grimaced as the truck careened over a hapless guard who stuck his head around the corner at the wrong moment, but his eyes held no sympathy as his mind replayed the images of the young girls being dragged off toward the troop barracks.

The brakes of the truck gave a groan as he brought the truck to a stop just outside the huts they had identified as where the prisoners were being held and he could feel the vehicle shift as the men in the rear jumped out to secure the area. He could hear the staccato of gunfire from behind as the men swept out, but didn't give it any pause as he moved to his own position.

Glancing around the corner, Shale quickly jerked back as the bullets slammed into the side of the building, tearing up the wood. Ripping an object off his webbing, Shale counted to himself, then casually tossed the object over his shoulder toward the other end of the building. He grinned as the men who had shot at him let out a panicked scream, a scream that was quickly silenced as the fragmentation grenade exploded at their feet.

Sweeping around the corner, Shale nodded to the man who had been crouched down next to him and the two quickly moved toward the rear of the building, neither man giving the broken bodies of the guards a second glance as they moved past. Within moments the outside of the building was secure and the men moved on to another.

Shale paused as he moved toward the next building. Something nagged at him that he couldn't place, an uneasiness at the pit of his stomach. The pause nearly cost him his life as a guard opened fire at him, forcing the ex-CIA agent to dive for cover.

"What the hell was that all about?" yelled Wellman through the radio.

"This just seems too easy," mumbled Shale as he opened fire on the guard, catching the man in the chest with several of the shots.

"Yeah, that bullet that almost parted your skull makes it seem easy," growled Wellman. "Get on the ball, man - we're going to have more guards on us soon so we gotta get the prisoners out."

Nodding to the mercenary following him, Shale started forward again, moving out rapidly across the compound and finally reaching his intended target. The other mercenaries swept in and around the barracks building, slipping around it quickly to secure it, while Shale moved up the stairs and toward the door. Bracing himself, Shale opened the door and slipped inside, steeling himself for what he might find.

"Shale and his men have reached the camp," said Parker as he laid the radio down. "Loss of life seems minimal at best, mainly the fools who let him get away last time."

"Excellent," replied Contreras with a hint of coldness in his voice. "Those men were lucky I let them live this long. They knew they were on borrowed time. When will you spring your trap?"

Parker stared at the screens that displayed images of the compound and the heavy assault that was going on. He watched as the trucks Shale was using drove through with a stunning and brutal precision, headed directly for the huts where, he knew, the ex-CIA agent thought the prisoners were being held..

"Any moment now," smiled Parker. "Any moment now."

Robert watched as the young woman removed the traces of his attempt at concealing the vessel and began setting up her own ritual. From the beginning, the mage could clearly see the differences between his style of magic and the version that Simone practiced.

Simone's style was completely different from his, and Robert couldn't help but watch in fascination. The woman had gone below deck and retrieved a pack and much to the mage's surprise, swung through the mess as well to gather up a few items before returning to the main deck and beginning her preparation. She smiled when she noticed that she had the mage's rapt attention.

"How much do you know about Santeria?" she asked without taking her eyes off her preparations.

"I know the basic premise, that you worship a combination of African gods and Catholic saints," Robert said as he squatted down next to her. "Most everything else I have read has been speculation and conjecture. I have met a couple of Voudoun practitioners, but I am not sure of the difference between the two."

"In some ways, there isn't any difference," said Simone, with a sparkle in her eyes, one Sinclair recognized immediately as one he used when educating Faith. "It mainly depends on where you come from. Santeria is a style of voodoo practiced in Cuba, Obeah is from Jamaica, and -well, you get the idea. Voodoo and Santeria are both African-based religions adapted with Catholicism. Both religions used images of Catholic saints to represent the African gods, Loas, or Orisha. The biggest difference is that we see the saints and the Orisha as interchangeable while those that practice voodoo see them as separate entities."

Robert nodded as he watched the young woman continue her preparations, which she did with great precision. Simone began to combine her ingredients, which from the mage's standpoint appeared to be several items from the kitchen including of all things a fish meant for dinner.

Robert could feel something building as the Santeras finished her preparation and lit a candle wick that had been placed in the center of her concoction, which began to burn brightly.

"Yemaya, Orisha of the Sea," chanted Simone as the smoke from her makeshift lamp washed over her face. "I beseech you, Mother of All, aid us! Help us in rescuing the children held prisoner! Lady Regla, hear my plea, aid your loyal Olorisha!"

Robert held his breath as something brushed up against the edges of his mental barriers, touching him in a gentle caress. Opening his senses, he could see a swirling torrent of power that seemed to circle the young woman as she chanted. The power clung to her like a dewy mist, dancing slowly around her like a small tornado. He gasped as the torrent of power stopped and coalesced into a snakelike form, its head seemingly regarding him for a moment before dispersing back into the mist and beginning its spin around Simone again.

The cloud of energy began to spin faster and faster around the young woman, growing in size. It shot up suddenly into the air, vanishing from sight, and the night suddenly became still. The young woman slumped backwards and Robert lunged to catch her, grabbing her just before her head hit the deck.

"Yemaya said she'd help, if only to show you the easy way," mumbled Simone just before she faded into unconsciousness.

Robert glanced around, trying to figure out what the young woman had meant, when he saw it. A fog was rolling in, thick and heavy. Within moments, the boat was hidden from sight, and the mage let out a hearty laugh as he carried the sleeping Santeras below deck.

It took a moment for his eyes to adjust, but in the dim light, John Shale could make out the forms, huddled together, mattresses piled around them. With care, he moved silently across the room, listening for anything out of the ordinary. Hearing nothing as he went, the mercenary moved toward the pile, keeping his motions easy, working hard not to spook the prisoners. When he made it to the pile, he was shocked as one of the prisoners suddenly spoke.

"You should not have come," said the dark-eyed Cuban. "It is a trap."

"What did you say?" asked Shale quickly, the nagging worry suddenly blossoming into outright fear.

"You should not have come, senor, we are merely bait for some American named Shale," said the Cuban after a moment with a touch of sadness in his voice.

"SHIT!" yelled Shale as he triggered his microphone. "EVERYONE PULL OUT! It's a trap! I repeat, it's a trap!"

He spun for the door, but paused as he realized the compound was utterly quiet. Cracking the door, he peered through and let out a sigh. Wellman and the other men were standing outside the door, hands on their head, surrounded by guards.

A grimy man in a worn-out Cuban army uniform stepped up toward the barracks and stopped. A bedraggled cigar hung loosely from his mouth, tucked into the corner of his sneer. Shale couldn't see the man's eyes, which were hidden by dark sunglasses, but he could guess they were dark, mean and cold, with just a hint of sadistic pleasure in them.

"Mr. Shale?" he shouted toward the building. "My name is Captain Dominguez. Would you care to come out and join your men? They sorely miss you. Though I would like to add, you will sorely miss them more if you don't."

With that, he walked toward the men and held out his hand. Another guard ran up, placed a worn riding crop into Dominguez's hand and backed off. The captain studied it for a moment and then in a blurring motion smacked the mercenary across the check, causing the man to fall back from the pain. Captain Dominguez gritted the cigar in his teeth as the mercenary straightened back up, ignoring the blood flowing down his face.

As Shale stepped out the door of the barracks, the guard's guns swiveled in his direction Dominguez motioned for him to move forward, and the ex-CIA agent stepped slowly down the stairs, never once taking his eyes off the captain or the riding crop.

"You may drop your weapons now, Mr. Shale, if you please," sneered the captain.

"And if I don't?" asked Shale with a grimace.

"Then one of your men will die every minute in a very unpleasant way while you watch till you do," responded Dominguez without a pause. "Or they're all dead. Then we will move on to the children."

"Can I say a prayer before you kill the first one?" asked Shale evenly. "I'm not sure I want to give up my guns yet."

The Captain let out a chuckle and nodded.

"Certainly, Mr. Shale," he said with a wave of his hand. "It had better not take longer than a minute, however, for your time starts now."

Shale looked at the ground and nodded, thinking hard. Closing his eyes for a moment, Shale took a deep breath. Finally, he opened his eyes, looked to the heavens and spoke.

"God, if you're listening, we sure could use some help here."

The words hung in the air and no one breathed. Finally after another few seconds, Shale heard the captain chuckling and he looked over at the man.

"It seems as if God has ignored your request, Mr. ..." the captain began.

His words were cut short as God made his presence known. Captain Dominguez's head suddenly exploded like a ripe melon, leaving his body standing. After a second it crumpled to the ground with a thud, startling the guards. It was only after the retort of a faraway rifle reached them did the guards realize what had happened, and by then it was too late.

With startling efficiency and sheer brutality the remaining guards were quickly overrun, the hardened mercenaries' skills outweighing the guards' by leaps and bounds. Using any means available, Shale's men took the guards down, but it wasn't without its cost. Five of the men Shale had brought with him lay still on the ground when it was all done.

"Get the prisoners loaded up on the truck!" he shouted as he moved over to check one of the downed men.

With a look of pain, Shale closed the mercenary's vacant eyes., lowering his own head as he did. He could hear the men running around him and as one of the mercenaries ran past, Shale reached out and grabbed the man's leg, pulling him down next to him.

"What is it, boss?" asked the mercenary, confusion written on his face.

"We're not leaving their bodies behind, Dan," he said plainly, staring hard into the other man's eyes. "Not like last time."

"You got it, boss," nodded the mercenary as he helped Shale move the body toward the trucks, all of which were by now loaded and waiting.

Shale noticed as they neared the truck that there were still several mercenaries waiting near the rumbling beasts.

"We got a problem," said Wellman as they approached. "There are more prisoners than we thought. We can't fit them all into the trucks, so some of the men gave up their seats."

Shale growled and dropped his head, his mind whirling at what to do next. He had already committed himself to leaving no one behind, even the dead, and he sure as hell wasn't going to let a little thing like lack of transportation stand in his way. Opening his eyes, he glanced around and smiled as he spotted what looked like a motor pool set off to the side of the camp.

"Check out the motor pool over there," he said with a jerk of his head. "That fucking captain that ran this camp must have something lying around."

Shale could only grin as, minutes later, a late-model Mercedes zipped out of the garage. The remaining mercenaries poured into the car and within minutes, the trucks and car rolled out of drug camp and down the road. Minutes after they left, far-off Havana shook as the camp exploded in a fireball.

As the car rounded the bend, Parker could see the smoke in the distance, and a gnawing feeling grew in the pit of his stomach. As the camp came into view, the gnawing feeling was realized complete as his eyes took in the damage. Every building in the camp was completely engulfed in flames that reached high into the sky.

"Your plan was foolproof, wasn't it, Mr. Parker?" asked Mr. Contreras as he surveyed what was once one of his highest profit drug camps. "I believe those were the words you said to me. Nothing could go wrong. So I have to ask you - what, pray tell, went wrong?"

Parker stared out the window at the destruction and closed his eyes, working on how Shale could have escaped. Since the initial attack there had been no contact with the mole, and Parker had to wonder to himself if Shale had caught his spy.

"My guess would be Shale got wise to us," said Parker slowly. "We know where he is going, so it's just a matter of alerting the Cuban military and having that colonel on your payroll intercept him before he makes it off the island."

"I am not a happy man, Mr. Parker," said Contreras. "Understand this, your life hangs in the balance - if you do not catch him, I will kill you."

Parker paled but said nothing; there was simply nothing that could be said. He stayed quiet as he listened to Contreras instructed the driver to head toward Havana, then as the drug lord shouted instructions into his phone. All the while Parker seethed, thinking to himself that Shale would pay if it was the last thing he did.

"Is she all right?" asked Maria as Robert passed through the hatch and started below deck.

"Yeah," he said as he shifted the weight of the young woman in his arms. "She used up more energy than she expected."

"You mean she's like you?" asked Mickey from the top of the stairs. "A wizard?"

"Not even close, Mr. Kostmayer," said Sinclair with a roll of his eyes as he continued down the passage. "We play in entirely different leagues."

Rem met him in the hallway and immediately started demanding to know what had happened, but was quickly silenced by the cold look Sinclair gave him. Stepping out of the way, Rem watched as the mage carried the sleeping woman into the cabin of the doctor without knocking and shut the door.

"What is going on here?" yelled Doctor Blake as he shot up off the bed, before laying eyes on the burden Robert carried. "Good Lord, what happened to her?"

"Just a case of exhaustion, but I wanted to bring her down here for you to look over," said the mage as he laid Simone out on the vacated bed.

Robert stopped, stared at Andrew for a moment and sniffed the air.

"You still holding to our deal?" Robert asked after a moment.

"Yes, yes," said the doctor sullenly. "No drinking while we're on this rescue mission."

Robert nodded and smiled, laying his hand on the doctor's shoulder.

"I've been where you are right now," said the mage as he locked eyes with Andrew. "The craving and desire for a drink. That feeling that nothing but alcohol will quench your thirst. It does get easier, I promise."

Andrew closed his eyes and nodded as Robert spoke, so he never saw the faint glow that erupted around the mage's hand. Suddenly the desire for a drink slackened, and Andrew felt relief as he opened his eyes and moved past Robert to attend to his patient.

With that Robert turned and left the doctor's quarters, closing the door behind him. Turning to head up the hallway, he wasn't surprised to find most of the Cuba Libre standing in the passage.

"What the fuck happened to her?" demanded one of the men, a scarred and battered individual. "If you hurt her I'll..."

"You'll do no such thing," said Sinclair in an ice-cold voice. "I have no doubt you folks know exactly who and what she is. I suspect it's one of the reasons she is on board."

Rem gave a nervous nod as Robert swept his eyes over the suddenly fearful group of men and women.

"Then let me just say this, she is fine and will no doubt be up on her feet soon enough," continued Robert. "She did what was required, amazingly, and beyond what I expected. Beyond that, what happened is between her and me. You want to know, feel free to ask her."

The ice of the words hung brittle in the hallway.

"Now, back to your duty stations," he snarled as he headed for the command deck, leaving a stunned batch of Cuban exiles staring between the doctor's door, each other and the retreating mage's back.

Silently, they quickly dispersed and headed for their stations.

Two old trucks rumbled to a screeching stop at the edge of the dock with the sleek Mercedes only seconds behind it. Shale dived out of the bullet-ridden car, ignoring the gasps of the late-night denizens that prowled the harbor, and sprinted for the back of the first battered truck. He threw down the tailgate and began shouting inside to the huddled masses.

"Move it! Move it!" he cried, waving his hand while he looked back down the road for the pursuit.

Ahead of him, he could hear Wellman yelling into the second truck, trying to get the prisoners moving faster and herding then down the dock to where a lone fishing boat waited, the name "Soldado" emblazoned on its side.

"Wellman, get them to the boat!" he yelled without turning around, his tired legs carrying him back to the Mercedes and his rifle.

In the distance Shale could hear approaching jeeps and he knew the Cuban army had joined in the chase. Shaking his head, the ex-CIA agent reached into the car one last time, retrieving his battered pack and pulling out a small black box with several covered red flip switches on it. Flipping the protective covers up, Shale triggered the switches and was rewarded milliseconds later with a loud explosion, yells, and the crashing of trees from several different directions.

"Shale!" cried a voice behind him. "It's time to go! Everyone is on the boats!"

Turning, the mercenary began to run down the deck, but he could hear shouts from behind him. As he reached the halfway point of the dock, the first of the bullets began to rend the night and he felt a sudden burning across his shoulder. Stumbling, he struggled to right himself as more bullets chewed up the deck planks behind him. With a desperate lunge, Shale through himself over the railing of the boat and landed in a heap.

He groaned and struggled to sit up, listening as the staccato of bullets bounced off the metal siding of the boat. He could hear the shouts of the Cuban military approaching, not quite to the docks, but closing rapidly.

"Wellman, tell the captain to get us the fuck out of here!" he yelled over the gunfire.

The old boat shuddered for a second, and then began to pull away from the docks. As the Cubans watched, the old fishing boat began to speed away, moving faster and faster as she left the harbor.

Shale groaned and hauled himself up off the deck, leaving a blood trail along the wall as he stood. Holding his arm tight to his body, he slowly moved his way down to the main deck where several of the others stood. Wellman turned and went wide-eyed when he saw his CO.

"Jesus, Shale!" he shouted as he moved to grab a first aid kit. "Why didn't you tell us you were hit?"

"It's just a scratch," said the man, trying to downplay the injury.

"Bullshit, you've got a through and through," said Wellman as he tore open Shale's shirt and started to clean the wound.

"Captain, where do we stand?" asked Shale as he tried to ignore Wellman's ministrations.

The man at the wheel of the boat didn't turn but chomped harder on his cigar as he gave the engines more speed.

"Shale, I don't know where you got this boat from, but she's one hell of a beast," he said through gritted teeth.

"It's a CIA extraction boat that's been down here for years," shrugged the ex-agent. "It was designed to extract compromised spies at a high rate of speed. CIA's been taking care of the upkeep, but I figured since they shit-canned us after our last OP down here, they wouldn't mind if we used it."

The captain grinned and steered the boat out of the harbor. Suddenly the water next to the boat exploded, tossing gallons of water up on deck. High on the ridges about the harbor the crew could see gun batteries and search lights suddenly come to life, bathing the harbor in a golden glow.

"SHIT!" screamed one of the mercenaries on deck. "We've got a patrol boat behind us and closing!"

"Fuck!" snarled Shale. "They've got the harbor guns up and running too. Punch it, Captain, let's see what this boat can do."

"Do we still head for the rendezvous point with Rem?" asked Wellman as he finished tying off the bandages.

"Yeah, all we can do for the moment," said the commando after a moment of thought. "We got a read on his transponder?"

Wellman rifled through his pack and pulled out a small PDA-shaped device and turned it on. Taking quick note of the readings on the screen he pointed out of the harbor and further out to sea.

"Looks like he's out that way, couple miles," said Wellman as he glanced out the windshield. "Straight out toward that fogbank."

The crew of the 579 held their breath as they heard the artillery batteries overlooking the harbor begin to fire in the distance. Maria watched on the monitors as several vessels gave chase as an old fishing boat departed the harbor at amazing speed.

"Merlin, does the boat they're in have any chance of escaping that Cuban patrol?" she asked the computer as her fingers danced across her keyboard.

Robert and Mickey held their breath as they waited for the AI to respond. Seconds felt like minutes as the watched they pursuit continue on the screen.

"Negative, Captain Sanchez - even given the boat's unusual speed, that is a Soviet Pauk II Fast Patrol Craft, and it will overtake them before they reach the fog," replied Merlin. "I can hide them on computerized radar, but..."

"I know, they can still see the boat until they hit the fog and we can lead them off," snapped Maria. "Well?"

The two men looked at each other and shrugged. Robert glanced over his shoulder to where the engineer was standing on the stairs, and gave him a questioning look.

"I should have stayed on the DevilRay," said Howard with a grimace. "You guys make Dodge look sane." He shook his head. "Ah, what the hell, I'm not going to live forever."

Robert and Mickey turned back and nodded at the captain, a devilish grin on each of their faces. Maria returned their nods and mashed a button on the panel, and an alarm began to sound throughout the old boat, calling it to battle stations.

"Now hear this," she said into the microphone. "The boat we've been waiting for is presently being pursued by what looks like most of the Cuban navy, and will not make it to the fog without some help. We're going to give it. Any of you want off, now is the time to say something so we can put you in a raft, but personally, I'm not sending women and children back into the hellhole they just left."

Maria paused, waiting for a response. Silence reigned on the boat.

"Right then, boys and girls, all hands to your battle stations," she said finally. "It's time to get to work."

The boat stirred from its slumber as the engines roared to life. Some of the crew slid into the old turrets while others readied themselves at their stations, each knowing that they were the only chance nearly seventy people had at escape from a fate worse than death.

As the boat cruised forward, the flags on the mast rippled in the wind, and for a second time in less than a year, the only vessel in the Kine navy went to war.

Chapter 4

It ain't over 'til it's over - and maybe not then, either
-- Walter Slovotsky

November 25th, 1996

"We're not going to make it to the fog!" Wellman yelled as he watched the Cuban boat begin to close in on the fishing vessel.

All the men arrayed on the deck gripped their weapons, none of them prepared to give up without a fight, their minds replaying the images of the camp and its horrors over and over. Every man bore a look of grim determination as they knew they were the only things standing between the survivors of the camp and certain death.

"They're not going to sink us," said Shale as he watched the Cuban boat try to outmaneuver the Soldado from his position next to the captain.

"What the fuck are you talking about?" groused the captain as he tried to get more out of the engines.

"They won't sink us; they can't afford to have the bullet-ridden corpses of known Cuban political prisoners washing up on Miami beaches," replied Shale with a dark smirk. "They'll probably want to take us alive so they can tout another aggressive American incursion into Cuba territory."

The boat twisted in the water, steering around the patrol boat as it tried to move into its path. With a burst of sudden speed, the Soldado jumped ahead of the patrol boat and dodged another hail of gunfire from the Cuban soldiers on deck, the bullets tearing up its stern.

Screams and shouts could be heard from the deck and bullets tore through the siding of the vessel. Shale cursed as one of his men went down, a red puddle starting to spread on the decking where he lay.

The mercenaries opened up with gunfire of their own as they tried to drive the approaching boat back, but the Cuban patrol boat continued to draw closer. The vessels continued to trade fire; it was becoming apparent to the Soldado's men that they were outgunned and quickly about to be outrun as the patrol boat continued to gain.

Shale growled as the breach locked open. Flipping the release on the AK-47, he dropped the magazine to the deck and reached to grab another one when his radio crackled to life.

"Shale? Man, are you there?" asked a staticky voice over the headset.

"Rem, where in the hell are you?" he shouted into the radio as he finished reloading his AK and dropped the slide. "We're being swarmed by a Cuba patrol boat and could really use some fucking help here."

"Shale, you guys just gotta keep running for the fog bank, we're just about on top of you - you gotta trust me on this," the other man said with a grin in his voice.

In the distance, even over the gunfire, Shale heard something approaching and held his breath as he turned to look at the fogbank. He blinked once, then twice, trying to check his eyes as he saw something moving in the fog.

She appeared from the mist like an avenging angel, sleek and deadly, her bow cutting through the water like a proverbial flaming sword. The would-be rescue party stared awestruck as an old-style PT boat sailed past with its engines screaming like banshees, then with startling precision, the vessel swerved and came to a stop, resting between the approaching Cuban patrol boat and the fishing boat.

"What the hell is that?" screamed the captain as he twisted the wheel, trying to regain control as the Soldado rocked from the massive wash of the passing PT, before he paused and muttered with reverence. "Dear God, I haven't seen one of those in years."

"Attention Cuba vessel! This is Captain Teach of the Golden Hind!" blared out a voice in English from the small ship. "This boat is under our protection. If you continue pursuit, we will be forced to open fire. This is your only warning."

"American vessel, you are in violation of Cuban waters - stand down and prepare to be boarded! This is YOUR only warning," floated another voice across the water as the approaching patrol boat closed in.

Shale watched as the boats continued to converge on the PT boat, but the small vessel showed no sign of moving or backing down. He could see figures moving around on the deck as they brought their weapons to bear. His eyes grew wide as he could see from his position at least two figures crouched down behind the gunwales and Stinger missiles resting loosely on their shoulders. He turned as he heard another voice blare out from behind him from the fog.

"Attention Cuba vessels, this is Captain Barrett of the destroyer Antelope. We presently have you targeted with ALL of our Harpoon batteries. I highly suggest you take Captain Teach's advice and back the hell off. In the immortal words of John Wayne, 'Draw, Pilgrims.'"

Back on the boat, Maria stared at Mickey Kostmayer as he laid the microphone down, utter disbelief in her eyes. Her eyes flicked over to where Sinclair stood grinning as he looked out the main windshield.

"Have you two lost your ever-loving minds?" she demanded as she watched the Cuban boats closely. "Captains Teach and Barrett? What the hell are you two up to?"

"It seemed to go with our running theme, what can we say? When we had you slow down just before we headed out of the fog, Robbie and I dropped a buoy with a bullhorn and a radio attached," grinned Kostmayer. "Merl said the ECM package on the 579 was enough to confuse the Cuban's radar right now, so they have no idea what is or isn't in the fog."

"In theory, it should be enough to keep the Cubans confused long enough for the fishing boat to make the fog bank," Sinclair added. "Then we simply depart and make for international water. By the time the fools figure out there isn't a destroyer out there, we should all be well and away."

Maria looked at each of the men with shock on her face, her mouth moving but no words coming out. Glancing out the window for a second, she could see the Cuban vessels mere feet away, bobbing up in down in the water, but none of them seemed ready to take any aggressive movements. Peering over her shoulder, she could see the fishing vessel vanish into the fog and finally she managed to make her voice work.

"You two ARE out of your minds," she growled.

"Yes, but it seems to be working, doesn't it?" asked Mickey with a hint of amusement in his voice.

"I would not pat yourself on the back just yet, Mr. Kostmayer," said Merlin suddenly. "I am detecting several boats leaving a private harbor and heading this way at a high rate of speed. Satellite images seem to indicate the vessels are armed. And do not call me Merl."

"Fuck!" yelled Maria and she spun her chair around to look at the HUD. "Can you give us an image?"

"Not a very good one," replied the AI. "The satellite above Cuba presently is not the best in the world. The images are grainy, but if DEA files are correct, I believe the drug lord whose camp was just raided is presently in pursuit."

"This just gets better and better," mumbled Maria as she continued to punch buttons on the console and prepared her vessel for war. "It's an easy job, he said. No sweat, he said. I really hate Xander sometimes, I really do."

Captain Miguel Sola looked out from the command deck of his patrol boat and stared at the small boat standing in his way as the political prisoners slipped into the fog bank. He couldn't believe the Americans would dare come this deep into Cuban waters, yet here they were, floating in his path, taunting him to move.

"Do we have anything on radar?" he demanded to one of the younger men behind him.

"Negative, Captain, something is interfering with the radar," stammered the crewman. "I can't even get a read on the boat in front of us."

"Should we open fire, Captain?" asked the second-in-command. "We have them sighted with the main gun and the crew is ready to board it on your command."

"If there truly is a destroyer out there, we would be dead in seconds," replied the captain as he looked through a set of binoculars and studied the smaller vessel before him. "Somehow I don't think El Presidente would be happy if we lost the only patrol boat in the Cuban navy, do you?"

Sola watched with consternation as the escaping fishing boat vanished into the fog bank, and he let out a small groan. There was going to be hell to pay from this; not only would Castro be mad, but Contreras would raise unholy hell, and people tended to die when that happened.

"Captain, the patrol boat appears to be preparing to leave," said the helmsman.

Swinging his glasses, the Captain could see the strange little boat began to move away, sliding across the dark waters with an ease that belied its form and shape. Sola scowled through the binoculars as one of the men on the turrets gave a jaunty wave toward his boat, but as he was about to lower his glasses, his eyes locked onto the flags hanging from the mast as they took to the wind. Twisting the knobs on the binoculars rapidly, trying to bring the image before him into focus, the Captain let out a loud curse.

"What is it, Captain?" asked the second-in-command as the captain continued to let out a flurry of curses.

"That ship isn't flying an American flag!" he yelled. "It's flying one of those damned pirate flags they sell to the tourists! All hands open fire!"

The patrol boat shuddered as the 76 mm gun on the front of the boat fired. Sola watched through his glasses as she shell flew through the air and impacted with the retreating boat, rocking it back and forth, but doing absolutely no damage. The gun fired a second time, this time hitting the boat directly in the main cabin, but again the PT boat shrugged off the shot like it had never happened.

"What the devil!" shouted Sola as he watched the smaller boat pick up speed out of range and then vanish into the fog.

"What just happened?" demanded the captain. "There is no way that boat could have survived those hits!"

"Do we go after them, sir?" asked the helmsman tentatively.

Sola was about to say something when he caught a movement out of the corner of his eye and he turned to see four fast-moving torpedo boats shoot past the patrol boat, moving in quick pursuit of the escaping vessels. Bringing the binoculars back up to his face, the Captain watched as a very angry Juan Contreras urged his men forward after the fishing boat from his place behind a large heavy machine gun.

"Return us to the harbor, helmsman. This is something that scum Contreras started," growled Sola. "Let him finish it. I want the ammunition in the main gun checked over; there is no way that boat should have survived. Check for sabotage, I want this boat gone over with a fine-toothed comb. You have the helm, Lt. Miguel."

"Where are you going, sir?" asked the lieutenant as the captain began to leave.

"I have to inform the Minister and El Presidente concerning what has happened," he said with a touch of forlornness in his voice.

"Sir!" shouted one of the men on deck. "There is another boat out there, I think!"

"Where?" demanded Sola as he returned to his chair.

"Out there, sir," said the crewman, pointing. "You can barely make it out, near the edge of the fog."

Sola peered through his glasses and frowned. He twisted the focusing knob on top of the glasses as he stared out toward the fog. The crew watched as the captain lowered his glasses and examined them carefully before bringing them back up to his eyes. His face paled a moment before he lowered the glasses a final time and set them on the chair.

"What is it, Captain?" asked Miguel.

"Nothing," responded Sola in a shaky voice as he left the command deck. "There isn't a thing out there - he must have been seeing things in the fog. Take us back to the harbor."

"Incoming fire! All hands brace for impact!" came the sound of Merlin's voice seconds before the 579 was rocked as the Cuban patrol boat opened fire on it.

Crewmen were tossed about, and Maria could hear screams and shouts coming from below deck. They could hear small arms pinging on the sides of the boat as the vessel settled in its rocking.

"Are we alive?" asked Mickey when the boat was suddenly hammered a second time, dropping him to the floor.

The old boat groaned as the incoming fire continued.

"Merlin, get us the hell out of here, before they get another shot off!" shouted Maria as she struggled to get up off the moving deck.

The engines roared to life and from their prone positions they could see the wheel start to turn. Mickey stared amazed as the command console took on a life of its own and they could feel the boat start to move and pick up speed. With a unified groan, the command crew struggled to their feet and watched as the boat entered the thick fog.

"Why the hell are we still alive?" asked Mickey as he slumped over the back of a chair, rubbing the back of his head.

"MBS holding at 95% capacity. Minor structural damage only," replied the AI.

"MBS?" asked Kostmayer.

"Molecular bonded armor. I told you the boat had many secrets, Mickey," grinned Maria. "What's the rest of our status?"

Merlin was silent for a moment as he probed the rest of the 579's systems, checking to make sure the boat had not been compromised.

"Captain, I've got a few minor wounds and a broken arm, but nothing life-threatening down here," announced Dr. Blake over the intercom.

"Engines holding fine," responded Howard from the engine room.

"All systems functional and operating within parameters," said Merlin after a moment. "I must inform you, though, that the boats that left the harbor have passed us and appear to be in pursuit of the fishing vessel. They are closing in on the vessel at a high rate of speed, but I am having a hard time getting a reading now of things in the fog bank, so I am unable to determine the actual location of the fishing boat. I can, however, plot its most probable location, given its previous heading and speed."

"Fuck. Give me the heading, Merlin, and release controls to me," said Maria as she stepped up to the helm. "All hands, we're not out of this yet, back to battle stations."

"Fucking fog, I can't see shit," growled Parker as he peered out over the sides. "This crap is so thick you could probably walk on it from here to Miami. Hell, Shale could be five feet away and we'd never see him."

"Such crude language, Mr. Parker," said Contreras as he lightly caressed the trigger on the stand-mounted M-60. "However, I do not think Mr. Shale will be getting out of this one. He can only run so far, and if I was not mistaken, it looked like that boat he was on was taking on water."

Parker paused as he checked the magazine on the AK-47 and looked at Contreras for a moment before answering.

"And what about that PT boat?" said Parker finally as he loaded the magazine back into the AK and dropped the slide.

"Merely a showpiece, I saw it at a boat show several months ago," replied Contreras.

"You're joking?" said Parker. "You mean to tell me a fucking showboat just stalled out the Cuban Navy?"

"No, I'm saying that by the sounds, the Cuban Navy just blew up a showboat," snarled Contreras darkly. "Pity though, the captain of the vessel was beautiful if my memory serves."

"Sir, I think we're closing," said the helmsman. "I think I hear something."

"At last," said Contreras as he racked the slide on the M-60. "They won't escape us now. Signal the other boats. It is time for Mr. Shale to die."

"Can we catch them in time?" asked Rem as he moved up onto the command deck.

Maria watched her screen closely, hoping for any sign of the other boats. It was one of her least favorite nightmares all over again, suck in a freak mist with none of the instrumentation working. Even their connection to Merlin had dropped as soon as they entered the fogbank, something that hadn't occurred when they had been there before.

"I don't even know where they are right now. With the heading Merlin gave us, we should be close to the rear two, but I am not sure we can head off the lead boat or the second," she said sullenly. "Robert, you got any tricks to see through this muck?"

The mage closed his eyes for a moment and was about to begin concentrating when he felt a presence wash over him. Opening his eyes, Sinclair turned toward the stairway and watched as Simone floated up the stairs, her eyes jet-black. She came to a stop in the center of the deck, her dark eyes staring out into the mists. Without even thinking Robert began to draw power when suddenly Simone spoke.

"Do not attempt anything, master mage," said the young woman in an eerie, haunting voice. "The young Olorisha has willingly loaned me her body for the moment."

The others tensed as Robert studied the young woman carefully. No one moved and no one breathed as the mage stepped closer to Simone and much to everyone's surprise, Sinclair suddenly bent down on one knee and bowed his head before the young woman.

"Forgive me, Lady Yemaya," he said finally, his eyes fixed on the floor. "I did not realize. I meant no offense."

Simone smiled and laid her hand on top of Sinclair's head. Her dark eyes swept over the rest of the crew carefully, pausing for a moment on Maria and then moving on. Finally the dark eyes looked out the main windshield, and the fog suddenly parted before them.

"Umm…. Robbie, what's going on here?" asked Mickey tentatively, his eyes flicking back and forth between where Sinclair knelt and Simone, all the while his hand resting on his sidearm.

"Stay your hand, Mickey Kostmayer," said Simone without turning to look. "I am merely here at the request of my priestess. When this is all over, I will grant her body back to her."

"Robert?" asked Mickey a second time and he was finally rewarded with motion as Simone removed her hand from the mage's head and Sinclair stood.

"It's OK, Mickey, she's on our side," he said, stepping back from the figure, carefully keeping his movements nonthreatening. "And if you call me Robbie one more time, I'll turn you into a goldfish."

"Would I get a cool bowl?" asked Kostmayer with a grin.

"No," was the only response he got, and oddly enough it came from several people at once.

The fog was heavy and thick, moving like a silk sheet around the boat as it cut its way through the mist. Even the sound of the boat's passing was muffled by the gray haze that hung thick and heavy. The mercenaries peered in vain in all directions, their weapons held at the ready. Each man on guard silently hoped and prayed that he would not catch a glimpse of the Cuban patrol boat as he stared out into the mist. Others worked on the wounded, trying to keep both their patients and their families quiet as they tried to stem the blood that seemed to be flowing like rivers on the old fishing boat.

"Where the hell is Rem?" whispered Wellman as he watched out the broken windows of the command deck. "All we're getting is static on the radio."

"From the sounds of that gunfire, they may not have survived," groused the captain as he steered the Soldado onward toward what he hoped was Florida. "That was the ship's big gun that fired."

Shale nodded in agreement from his position on the floor, and the mercenary struggled to stand. Grimacing in pain, he moved slowly over next to the captain, his wounded arm tied close to his bandaged chest.

"You got any idea where we're at?" he asked as he nodded toward the spinning compass and scrambled GPS displays.

"Not a fucking clue," the captain replied gruffly. "I think I've got this barge going in the same direction, but I'm not sure. Once we hit this damn fog, all the nav systems went to hell."

Shale shook his head and leaned heavily on a bulkhead, his forehead resting on the cool metal beam. Out the broken windows he could hear the weeping of the families they had just rescued and the moans of the wounded.

"What are our odds of reaching Miami?" he asked finally.

"If this fog holds out all the way to the States, pretty damn good," said the captain with a shrug. "But hell, Shale, we could be going in circles for all I know."

The mercenary nodded again, and struggled to stay upright as the blood loss made his head swim. Wellman moved in when he saw his boss begin to lose his legs and slowly lowered the man back down to the deck.

"We gotta get you to a hospital, you've lost a lot of blood," he said as he checked the bandages. "Once we get the radio working again, want me to call the Coast Guard?"

"No," groaned Shale as Wellman tightened up one of the bandages. "If we can't get 'em to shore, they'll send 'em back to Cuba."

Wellman nodded in agreement and silently continued to check the bandages. Moments later he realized that Shale once again had fallen into unconciousness, and with a gentle ease, he lowered the man completely to the floor and covered him with a blanket. With a sigh, Wellman stood and moved back to his watch post, pausing every now to see if his partner was still breathing.

"He's not going to make it, is he?" asked the Captain.

"I don't know, man," he said. "If we can get him some help, maybe, but I'd say it's going to be touch and go."

The captain nodded as he held the boat steady, his hands gripping the wheel tight. He was about to say something else when a whining sound reached his ear and he instinctively dropped to the floor. A hail of bullets ripped through the main cabin, and through the shattered remains of the door, he could see a bobbing boat off their side. Crawling under the console for cover, the Captain peered out the door quickly, yanking his head back just as another spray of bullets cruised through the cabin.

"There's a boat off to our starboard, maybe two," he shouted. "Toss me one of them guns!"

Wellman slid an AK-47 across the deck and snuck his own glance around the corner. Through the fog, he could barely make out a boat sitting less than 200 feet away. The M-60 mounted on it spat hot death toward the nearly defenseless fishing boat and the mercenary wondered for a moment if this was it.

The screams of the women and children below shook him from his reverie and quickly he began to return fire. The sounds of more gunfire joined his own, and from his position he could see the Captain and Shale had joined him in returning fire. From other points on the boat he could hear the other surviving members of their team open up, but it was of no use as a second M-60 opened up on the prone fishing boat.

The three boats traded fire as the drug lord's two speedier torpedo boats circling the wounded fishing boat like sharks preparing for the kill. With a desperate tone, the men and women on the fishing boat fought back, grabbing any weapon they could find and opening fire on their aggressors. It seemed all for naught when suddenly the battle changed.

Contreras giggled like a small child as he fired his heavy machine gun at the boat, the shell casing tinkling around the man's handmade leather shoes like coins in a Vegas slot machine. His sunglasses hid the mania in his eyes, but from his spot on the boat, Parker recognized it.

"Come, Mr. Parker, join the fun," cackled Contreras over the staccato of gunfire. "We are finally getting vengeance on your enemy, I thought."

"Shale is one thing," he said as he pointed out the men randomly spraying the other boat. "Gunning down women and children hiding on the deck is another."

"Bah, they are useless, they are slaves," Contreras sneered with contempt. "You were so willing to use them as bait."

"Using them as bait and killing them ourselves are two different things," said Parker with a shrug. "Just pull up next to the boat and I'll more than willingly crawl on and kill Shale and his men and you can take your slaves back to Cuba."

"Punta," growled the drug lord. "You are like that assassin, Il Duce, no killing of women and children, bah. Next you will start muttering Latin prayers."

Contreras spit at the mercenary's feet before turning back to the machine gun and opening fire again. Parker shook his head and looked around as the boats swept around the trapped fishing boat. He almost missed it as he watched the foggy horizon. His eyes locked onto lights approaching up what appeared to be a passage in the fog. Beyond the lights he could see what looked like flames on the water, and the mercenary knew in his heart as he reached down for his weapon that trouble was rapidly approaching.

Tension was running high on PT-579 as an eerie quiet washed over the boat as it forged its way forward through the grey mire, the fog itself seeming to hold its breath in anticipation of what was to come. The low rumble of the boat gave the crew some comfort as she slid through the water.

"So which way?" asked Maria, breaking the silence on the command deck.

She looked over her shoulder and waited for an answer, her questioning eyes fixed firmly on the mage and the creepy woman standing next to him.

"The fog is my doing," said the Olorisha with a sigh. "I had hoped it would give you time to find and save the children, but it appears that they have been caught already."

"So then what the hell do we do, lady?" Maria snarled, anger flashing in her eyes.

"You do the job you have elected to do," grinned Yemaya evilly before she waved her hand toward the main windshield.

The fog parted like the biblical Red Sea, splitting down the middle and then sliding apart. The crew watched dumbfounded as the mists broke away and much to their amazement revealed two torpedo boats parked right in front of them.

The men aboard the drug boats stared at the specter that appeared out of the mist for a moment before the spell was broken and they realized what was there. It was a moment too long.

"Mr. Kostmayer, remove them from my waters," said Maria almost ferally.

"With pleasure, Captain," said Mickey in a cold, deadly tone as he punched a button on the console and spoke into the microphone. "Unleash hell, boys and girls."

In the second it took for the drug lord's men to realize they were in trouble, the bulk of PT-579's arsenal was unleashed in their direction. The whole boat shuddered as the 50 Cals, the 20mm Oerlikons, and the 37mm cannon unloaded themselves on the two boats.

Flesh, metal, and plastic were treated the same as the hail of gun tore through the boats and their occupants as if they were tissue paper. Within seconds, the one-sided battle was over, and all that remained were simply bits floating on the water.

"Well, that was anticlimactic," said Mickey as the guns quit firing.

"Shut up, Kostmayer," said Maria, trying hard not to throw up as she caught sight of the floating bits of flesh in the water.

"What? All I'm saying is I expected some sort of fight," he shrugged.

Maria glowered at him, trying hard not to yell at the man, the simple fact that she had just ordered the annihilation of living beings screaming through her head. Biting her lip as she steered the 579 through the remains, she looked away as she noticed that the sharks had already begun to gather in the remains of the vessels, the blood attracting them from miles away.

"Do not grieve for these men, Maria Sanchez," said a voice behind her. "Their souls were already doomed. They are not worthy of your pity."

"But," began Maria as she turned to face the glowing eyes of Yemaya.

"There are no buts in this matter," continued the Olorisha. "They knew the dark path they trod upon, and they knew the fate they would eventually face."

Maria took a deep breath, and closed her eyes for a moment, her mind replaying images of her childhood village and the men like them who had preyed on her own friends and family. Nodding to herself, Maria turned and stood more rigid, her eyes once again hard.

"OK, boys and girls, that's two - we got two more bastards to find," she growled she pushed the boat forward down the parted fog.

PT-579 arrived with a barrage of hot steel and a crash of thunder overhead that perforated one of the attacking boats. Like a hawk diving after a rabbit, the 579 descended with a ferocious attack, her guns blazing after her intended victim. Unlike the two previous boats that had met their fate at the hands of the crew of PT-579, the men aboard the torpedo boat returned fire almost the instant they came under attack.

"Does that look like a fucking museum piece chasing us?" screamed Parker as the seat and the man next to him were shredded by gunfire, the 20mm shells tearing through the boat effortlessly. "We gotta fucking run for it before that thing tears us to pieces!"

Contreras muttered an oath that Parker couldn't hear as the drug lord opened fire with his M-60 in a vain attempt to stop the boat chasing them. He watched in bewilderment at the bullets simply bounced off their pursuer like water on a freshly waxed car. As the bullets careened of the main windshield of the boat, Contreras noticed for a moment that her was staring into the faces of two women, one angry-looking, the other with glowing eyes and a knowing smile. His eyes flicked back and he wondered for a moment why the angry woman's face had shifted to something akin to fear. Then she pointed beyond him. On instinct alone Contreras turned, and there he beheld something his brain could only register as a nightmare.

With the engines running full out, 579 entered the battle, her guns firing away at anything looking hostile. Maria fixed her sights on one of the boats and the chase was on. She ignored the sounds of gunfire, her eyes fixed on the target before her. Twisting the wheel back and forth, she steered her boat on, never letting herself be shaken loose as the torpedo boat in front of her tried to escape.

She felt a presence step up next to her as the boat rolled through the water, and out of the corner of her eye, she could see the being known as Yemaya. She gave the moment no more thought as she winced seeing the gunfire headed their way, only to be brushed off the armor plating.

"It is time," she heard the woman next to her say with a tone of finality, and her eyes grew wide as something detached seemingly from the fog itself and headed for the torpedo boat as it ran. From a distance, it looked almost like an old sailing ship, but there was something odd about it. It looked as if it had seen better days; its sails were in tatters and the rigging lines hung down low and flagging. As the two boats closed in on it, Maria swore she saw something move on the decking, but she couldn't make it out.

The boat in front of her turned quickly, attempting to avoid hitting the wraith that appeared before it, nearly flipping on its side as it did. The bow of the boat dove into the water before springing up like a dolphin, its nose shooting up and away from the monster behind it. Maria could see someone in the back of the boat egging the driver on, pointing and yelling at the man, trying to telling him where to go, but it was all for naught.

With a roar that startled everyone on the boat, the old sailing ship opened fire. 8-pound cannon balls sailed through the air, striking the torpedo boat and splintering it to pieces. A second volley erupted from the boat, destroying the pieces that remained, before falling silent.

Powering down the engines, Maria stared at the vessel before her, her eyes wide with terror. She watched as suddenly the wind picked up and filled the tattered remains of the sails, and the ghost ship started to turn into the wind and pick up speed. A flag broke high over the mast and Maria couldn't help but notice that it looked vaguely like the one that flew over her own boat.

As the bow of the vessel turned toward her, Maria's eyes grew wide, for there in faded white paint stood out the name of the vessel before her.

"Did that say what I think it said?" asked an awe struck Mickey.

"The Black Pearl," Maria breathed with a hint of panic in her own voice.

"Thank you for the wonderful idea, Mr. Kostmayer," said Yemaya with a touch of amusement in her voice. "It seemed like a fitting punishment."

As the boat turned to aid the badly damaged fishing boat, the crew of PT-579 could hear singing on the winds.

We're rascals, scoundrels, villains and knaves. Drink up me 'earties, Yo Ho! We're devils and black sheep, really bad eggs! Drink up me 'earties, Yo Ho!

Yo Ho, Yo Ho! A pirate's life for me.

Shale looked around the wreckage that once was the control room of the fishing boat Soldado. Where once was a modern helm, now was a twisted, holed wreckage, with three bloodied men resting on the bulkheads. The metal felt cool against his neck, and the ex-CIA agent wondered if they had won. The gunfire had stopped, but he didn't have the energy to look outside, even when something bumped against the side of the boat.

The world seemed dull, the sounds muted and his vision was blurry. A conscious part of him realized that he was glad the pain was less, if only because he knew, just from the stain on his shirt, that he had gotten another bullet hole. He gave a cough, and wondered for a moment what was dribbling down his chin. He tried to reach up to wipe off the offending liquid, but his body didn't want to respond.

"Great," he muttered, as he struggled to stay awake. "How you doing over there, Wellman?"

"Been better," replied the black man with a groan. "I think I've been shot and it looks like you've sprung another leak as well."

"Yeah, well," he replied, only to be cut off by another cough. "Get 'em back to land if you can, Wellman, I think I'm done here."

"I wouldn't count you out of the game just yet, ese," said a voice from the door.

"Rem?" Shale slurred as the world started to blur even more.

"That's right, amigo," responded the Cuban.

"Well, unless you got a doctor up your ass, I still think I'm dying," muttered the mercenary.

"I'm not up his ass, but I am following him," replied Andrew Blake as he entered the wrecked cabin and took stock of the situation before shouting orders back out the door. "And my goal is not to let you die. You hear me?"

Shale nodded once before closing his eyes and letting the black oblivion wash over him, knowing finally that there was a chance of waking up again.

"How bad is it?" Maria asked as she watched her crew and the Cuba Libres swarm over onto the fishing boat with much needed medical supplies and repair equipment.

"Bad," replied Robert as he punched rapidly on the keyboard, his eyes scanning the screen quickly.

"Should we call the Coast Guard? There is probably a cutter out there close by that can help," she asked with a pensive look.

"They'd just send these people back to the hellhole they just left," replied the mage as his fingers danced across the keys. "They can't apply for asylum unless they've actually managed to get to American soil. That damned 'Wet Foot, Dry Foot' law says they have to get at least one foot on dry land before they'll listen, otherwise it's back to Cuba."

"Maybe Xander and an Orca then," she asked as the worry lines grew on her face.

"None in the region, I already checked," Robert said as he continued to scan the screen and finally he pointed at the screen. "But I got an idea; as soon as Howard can get a tow line on that bitch, make way for here as fast as you can."

Maria looked at the map and her eyes grew wide.

"Why the hell there? We can make Miami in a few hours," she asked with disbelief on her face.

"Because in Miami, they're going to ask questions about gunshot wounds; not the ones on the refugees, but the ones on the mercenaries," the mage answered quickly with a jab at the map. "There I can have some help waiting for us. I gotta go make a call to get things set up."

The ringing phone woke him from his slumber and he wondered who in the hell could be calling this late. He had just left his friends, though by the sounds outside, several were still up and partying at the bar. His wife was groggily waking up next to him, so he wondered again as he picked up the receiver who could be calling him.

"Hello?" asked the barely awake man.

"Doc!" said a voice. "It's Robert. I need your help."

"Robert who?" he asked as his brain came slowly online, the urgency of the voice on the other end of the phone clear.

"Doc, it's Robert Sinclair," said the voice with a touch of desperation in his tone. "I heard you guys had moved to Key West, and I suddenly find myself in the need for your help, but it's got to be on the down low."

"Robert!" replied the now awake man. "What going on?"

"I've got a large batch of wounded, and I need some place to take them that won't ask too many questions," said the mage.

"What kind of wounded?" asked the doctor as he struggled to get his pants on.

His wife looked on as he husband danced around the room, picking up clothes as he went. As she listened, her eyes grew wide and she too began to pull her clothing on, grabbing up things as she followed her husband through their home toward the front door. She winced as her husband tossed the phone over his shoulder and something broke, but that didn't matter at the moment, lives were at stake. As she cleared the front door, she felt a burst of pride in her husband as he began to speak.

"Listen up, people, we got an old friend who needs help and he needs it now," said Doc Webster to the assembled bar.

"We're almost there, but I don't see shit, Robert!" yelled Maria as she steered the 579 toward the coast.

Behind her, on a drag line and barely floating, was the wounded remains of the boat once known as Soldado. Men and women moved around the deck, struggling to keep the wounded alive as they drove on toward what they hoped would be help.

"Where the hell are these people, Sinclair!" Maria bellowed as she struggled to move the boats toward the coast. "I fucking knew we should have gone for Miami!"

"Easy, Maria, they'll be there," said the mage as he moved up to look out the main windshield, a young child asleep in his arms.

"And how the hell do you know?" she demanded. "Who the fuck are these people?"

"Old friends," he stated simply. "Not fighters, more something we need right now, combat support if you will."

"Then where in the fuck are they?" she snarled.

"There," he said simply, pointing toward the dark beach ahead of them.

Headlights of dozens of cars, trucks, and vans sprung to life, bathing the two boats in light. Maria could see men and women waiting on the beach, makeshift stretchers and other medical supplies stacked and ready.

"How?" she started to ask only to find the mage and the precious cargo he had held in his arms gone.

Thirty minutes later, the cars, trucks, and vans save a few had vanished into the mists, headed up the highway toward safe havens. The most serious of the wounded had been spirited up to the local hospital where they were quietly treated under the careful and watchful eye of Doctors Webster and Blake.

The crew of the 579 sat and watched as the last of the cars headed up the road, coming down from their own adrenaline highs. A half-full bottle of whiskey was passed among the crewmembers, a vain attempt to unwind encased in glass.

"Its times like this I miss Avalon's tubs," said Maria after she took a swig of the hard biting liquid.

"I'd have to agree," nodded Robert, his feet dangling over the edge of the boat.

"Avalon?" asked Mickey as he squinted an eye and stared at the two.

"Our eventual destination, Mr. Kostmayer," said the mage. "But first we have more work to do."

"Such as?" the ex-CIA agent asked.

"We need to dispose of the rather bullet-ridden ship behind us, clean my boat up," began Maria.

The crew let out a groan, but the men started to move anyway.

"And then dock, find a hotel and sleep for several days, and that's an order," she finished.

CIA Headquarters
Langley, Virginia

The ringing phone brought Jack Ryan out of his file-induced coma with a start. Since taking over for Greer as director of the CIA, it seemed to Jack that the piles of paperwork never seemed to end. If anything, since the changeover in the administration, the paperwork seemed to have gotten worse. Jack picked up the phone without looking at the caller ID, wishing instantly that he had.

"Ryan! What the hell kind of show are you running down in Cuba?" Chief of Staff Arnold Van Damm demanded hotly.

"Operation in Cuba, Arnie?" responded Ryan with a hint of confusion in his voice. "We haven't had any ops down there in a while. Not since the last fiasco at least. Why? What happened?"

"I just spent the last twenty minutes with a very irate Cuban dignitary wanting to know why we, and I quote, 'violated Cuban waters and attacked the innocent citizens of Cuba, kidnapping several of its people along the way, and are presently holding them hostage,' end quote," snapped Van Damm. "Now I ask again, what the hell kind of operation are you running down there?"

"Listen, Arnie, I have no idea what the hell you're talking about," replied Ryan evenly as he tried not to let the man's tone get to him. "We haven't had anything going on down that way since Clark's operations were shut down."

"Goddammit, Jack, I know it had to be you and your men," growled Van Damm. "The President needs to know what Teach and Barrett wereup to down in Cuba."

There was a long pause as Jack stared at the phone.

"Who did you say?" asked Jack after a moment of thought, his mind coming to an abstract conclusion.

"The Cubans said whoever was down there raising hell announced themselves as Captain Barrett of the Antelope and Captain Teach of the Golden Hind," snarled Van Damm. "I want you to bring them in so we can get to the bottom of this, Jack."

Jack stared at the phone for a second as the names wormed their way through his mind.

"Ummmm, Arnie, that might be a little difficult," said Jack as he tried to suppress a snicker. "Last time I checked, the Golden Hind was a British vessel."

"What?" roared Van Damm into the phone. "What in hell are the British doing down in Cuba?"

"Hey, calm down a second," said Jack as he rubbed his forehead and tried not to laugh. "I don't know who's playing a joke on you, but I've got to admit, it's a good one."

"Spit it out, Ryan," Van Damm snapped back, his anger radiating through the phone.

"The Golden Hind was a pirate vessel captained by Frances Drake in the 1580s," said Jack after a moment of composing his thoughts. "Captain Teach you probably know better as Blackbeard."

"And Barrett and the Antelope?"

"A British pirate from an old Stan Rogers folksong," said Jack simply. "I don't know who's yanking your chain or how they got the Cuban ambassador to do it, but I'm impressed."

Jack could hear Van Damm grind his teeth in anger. Finally after a few moments and some whispered counting, he heard the Chief of Staff speak again.

"Thank you for the information, Mr. Ryan," said Arnold a little more calmly. "The Cuban ambassador even reported that one of the attacking vessels was an old World War Two PT boat. Frankly I'm embarrassed I fell for the story. I apologize for wasting your time."

Jack blinked as he listened to the Chief of Staff say his goodbyes and numbly he hung up the phone.

"He couldn't have, could he?" asked Jack out loud before he answered himself with a shake of his head. "Yes, yes he could and mostlikely did."

He closed his eyes and continued to shake his head in disbelief, wondering to himself what sort of world-ending event must have just occurred.

"He's going to give me an ulcer," he said after a moment of thought.

Jack opened a drawer and pulled out a bottle of Pepto-Bismol before he reached for the phone, determined to get to the bottom of this.

Maria sat and stared at the screen, never once glancing at her companion. Nagging dread ate at her stomach, and she started to reach for the console, only to stop and retract her hand yet again. Sighing, she wondered to herself for the umpteenth time if she could just get away with not telling Xander, hoping that the 'Commander' never found out what happened. As she mulled over her survivability chances, her musing was broken as her companion spoke.

"We have to tell him sooner or later," said Robert plainly. "He's going to find out one way or another. Merlin will tell him, he'll see it on the news, he'll … "

"Fine," said Maria hastily as she tried to get up from the command chair. "You tell him and I'll go swab the deck or something."

"Maria," began the mage, only to have his next sentence interrupted by Merlin.

"I believe the Commander wishes a word with you two," said the AI as his face popped up on the monitor. "I will warn you that he seems a bit angry. I will also warn you that he received a phone call from Sir Jack Ryan of the CIA a few minutes ago, so I believe that'the jig is up,' as you humans are so apt to put it."

"Oh shit," said Sinclair as he closed his eyes and began to rub the bridge of his nose.

"Fuck," said Maria as she settled back down in her chair and reached for a button on the console. "You ready for this?"

The mage only shook his head and left his eyes closed as he collected his thoughts. Forcing a smile onto his face, Robert finally looked up at the screen and nodded.

As the screen sprang to life, Robert and Maria internally winced as Xander Harris' anger jumped through the monitor at them. It came at them in waves, rolling and crashing across them far worse than any storm that the boat they resided in had every weathered.

"WHAT IN THE HELL HAVE YOU TWO BEEN UP TO?" he yelled. "I send you two to pick up a few recruits and you stop to burn down half of Havana! Are you two out of your fucking minds? What part of low-key and subtle did you miss?"

"Are you through?" said Robert after a few more moments of letting the young man rant, his face stoically calm. "There is a perfectly good explanation for the events that transpired, it's just going to take some time to explain."

"Fine, explain," snarled Xander as his eyes drilled holes in the two.

"We were," Maria began, paused to find the appropriate words, then continued, "approached to be a distraction by some Cuba Libres, freedom fighters more or less, trying to get political prisoners out of Cuba and away from a drug lord who was using them for cheap slave labor."

"And?" asked Xander, his chin now propped up on his hand, a incredulous look on his face.

"Their plan went awry and we were forced to take a more direct approach into the situation," finished Robert.

"You call a raging gun battle in the streets of Havana a direct approach?"

"No, actually we took no part in that," answered Maria quickly. "We just held off the Cuban patrol boat."

"Cuban patrol boat?"

"Yeah, that was right before the raging gun battle with the drug lord and several of his boats," said the mage with a smile.

"By the way, Commander," Maria jumped in, "we'll need a restock of ammunition when we make it back to harbor, just to let you know. We've already asked Merlin to requisition them."

"What?! "

"We assure you, it was for a good cause," said Maria with a smile.

"There are times I really hate you two, I hope you realize," snarled Xander

"Don't worry, Commander, the feeling is mutual. Do you want us to continue? And while I'm thinking about it, I have a few suggestions to make … " said Sinclair as he pulled out a notepad with scribbled notes on it.

Xander let out a groan, knowing he was in for a long conversation.

Chapter 5

Probably the most difficult decision real humans have to make is whether something is necessarily brutal or unnecessarily brutal. I wish there was something funny about that, but there you have it.

-Walter Slovotsky

The Place
Key West, Florida

The bar was hopping as Maria and Robert made their way through the doors with the morning sun warming their backs. The crew of PT 579 and the regulars of The Place capered merrily around, everyone singing, dancing, and otherwise amusing themselves. They slid through the crowd as people moved away from the sight of their haggard faces. Coming to a stop at the bar, the two settled onto the stools and waited.

"You two look like shit - these might help," said the bartender as he set two cold beers in front of them.

"Thanks, Jake, I feel the love," said the mage as he took a swallow of his beer. "Maria Sanchez, meet Jake Stonebender, one-time hippie, musician, bartender, all around nice guy, and owner of The Place."

"Pleased to meet you," smiled Maria as she took a swill off her own beer. "I'm surprised to see a bar going this early."

"It's not early, it's actually kinda late for us - we just never ended last night due to *someone* calling us," Jake said with a grin.

Sinclair rolled his eyes and settled down in a high backed bar stool, swinging it around to watch the madness that was The Place. As he let his eyes wander across the crowd, a smile slowly crept across the tired mage's face as he felt the energy of the people around him warm his soul.

"Thanks for the help last night," Robert said without turning around.

"We were getting a little slim on options."

The sound of rubbing cloth told the mage that Jake had shrugged and Robert couldn't help but smile more. The Place had always had the sense of unconditional loyalty and trust, where any request was met with the full attention of the bar.

"Them's the rules, you know that," smiled the bartender. "Rule one still hasn't changed. Shared pain is lessened, shared joy is increased."

Robert shook his head with a smile on his face, his eyes sweeping across the bar and its denizens. Maria leaned back in her chair as well, letting the tension flow from her body. She frowned as she saw the mage's body suddenly stiffen and a frown grow across his face.

"Jake, how long has the guy in the corner been staring at the bottle?"

asked Robert as he set the beer bottle on the counter and slid out of his chair.

"Came in with Doc Webster a while ago, haven't seen him take a drink of it yet though," replied the bartender. "He's just been staring at it. Been waiting for him to step up to the line, but he hasn't yet."

Maria watched as the mage slid through the crowd and finally she saw what he had been talking about. There, in a dark corner of the bar sat Andrew Blake, slumped in a chair, his eyes fixed ahead, staring intently at a Jack Daniels bottle.

"Shit," she swore under her breath.

"Problem?" asked Jake as he watched her line of sight.

"Yeah, you could say that," replied Maria through gritted teeth as she watched Robert settle down into the chair across from the doctor.

"He had a bad drinking habit until recently and the last thing I think Andrew needs now is a relapse."

Well, there's a devil in the bottle, staring straight at me Daring me to reach out, but I know he's testing me If I take just one sip, I become that devil's son Act a fool, sell my soul before God and everyone Oh Lord, I know, I only hurt the ones I love I'm walkin' down this dead-end road, all alone and by myself Wish I could blame the whiskey, but I can only blame myself Running out of chances, and Lord that's such a crime I got to find the answer before I lose my mind Oh Lord it's a cryin' shame, oh Lord I've caused so much pain I only hurt the ones I love

With one hand propping up his head, Andrew Blake stared at the bottle with deep intent, willing the hand lying on the table to take up the bottle and remove the shakes from his system. Willing, and failing. As it had every time before, his hand seemingly ignored the command to pick up the bottle and take a drink.

He leaned back in his chair, rubbing his face and eyes, the stubble on his cheeks biting into the palms as he massaged the skin. Letting out another sigh, he laid his hands down on the table and opened his eyes to continue to stare at the bottle, only to find that it had moved. He squinted in an attempt to find his good buddy Jack, only to find his missing companion on the other end of the table, in front of one of the last people in the world he wanted to see.

"I figured you didn't want this since you were just staring at it,"

said the mage as he set the bottle down in front of him.

"Fuck you, Sinclair," he snarled. "Give it back."

The two men locked eyes, each testing the other's will, one with an uncaring resolve on his face, the other with a wild-eyed pleading.

Neither man moved, nor blinked, nor spoke; they just sat there staring at each other, the outside world oblivious to them. Finally, after an interminable length, the silence was finally broken.

"I just want to make the pain go away Robert," said the doctor with a slight sob, his eyes falling to the table. "I don't want to see her anymore."

"Her who, Andrew?" asked the mage quietly, his hand still resting protectively on the bottle.

"The girl, the one on the boat," said the doctor through a sob, tears finally running down his cheeks.

"Oh," was all Robert could say as a dawning realization hit him. The girl.

No one had known her name. Even the refugees that they had saved on the boat had only referred to her as "the girl." One small life snuffed out by a drug lord's bullet, a life that Andrew Blake had been unable to save.

The crew of the 579 had swarmed over the boat with rescue supplies and aid, hell-bent and determined to save everyone. It was only after they had gotten onto the bullet-ridden vessel that they realized how little to late it was, with wounded and corpses everywhere. With a vengeance, they had worked tirelessly to save those they could, but they soon realized some just wouldn't or couldn't be saved.

It was in such a spot Andrew Blake had found himself, his hands working quickly to stop a seemingly endless supply of blood that poured out of the small frail frame of a young girl. In the end it was for naught, and just before the boat had reached the shore of Key West, the light left the young girl's eyes, eyes which the doctor himself had closed for eternity.

"So drinking is going to make her go away?" asked Sinclair as he stalled for time, his mind awhirl with things to say, but nothing sounding quite right.

The doctor shrugged and he wiped away the tears that moments before had fallen, wiped away the sadness suddenly with a fierce anger.

"It'll make me feel better, make me forget - but you know what, Sinclair?" he snarled suddenly. "At least I tried.

You're a fucking wizard, what's your excuse?"

Sinclair raised his eyebrows, taken aback at the sudden attack, before returning his face to its impassive state. Folding his hands together in a prayerlike pose, his nose resting on the tips of the fingers, Sinclair studied the man before him, judging what to say next.

"Magic, though seemingly infinite in its ability, is still limited in its scope," he said finally. "I too have boundaries on my abilities, just like you have with your skills. Even though you're a doctor, I'd never ask you to operate on any other mammal, because they're outside your scope of knowledge. Healing is, alas, outside of mine. I might be able to seal up some small cuts or perhaps heal a broken bone, but complicated things like healing multiple bullet wounds are outside of my area of expertise."

The mage could see the answer hadn't pacified the doctor and he braced himself mentally and physically for the next attack. Rage poured off the man like a tsunami, with Sinclair waiting on the shore waiting for it to break. Neither man noticed that the bar had gone silent, the conversation holding the rapt attention of everyone. Every face was impassive, seemingly waiting for something, yet no one knew what.

"What of the other girl, Simone?" Andrew barked loudly. "She had skills, powers - wasn't she a healer?"

"Frankly I am not entirely sure what she was or wasn't," replied Robert with a shrug. "I'd guess the closest thing would be to say she was physically possessed by a guardian angel or some other sort of elemental spirit."

"So why didn't she do anything, then?" Andrew all but yelled.

"Because she was bound, most likely, by even greater rules than even I am," said the mage plainly.

"Rules! What kind of fucking rules are you talking about? What kind of rules would let a young girl die like that?" yelled the doctor as the walls of anger and rage finally broke.

"God's," said Robert succinctly. "Or whatever other higher power she was held accountable to."

"Fuck you, and fuck your goddamn cause," Andrew yelled as he finally willed himself to pick up the bottle and tear off the lid. "What the hell good is your cause if you can't even save one life?"

As he raised the bottle to his lips, the drink wavering on the lip, a small voice cut through the stillness of the silent bar.

"But you saved more than forty lives, Senor. Could you have asked for more?"

The old man leaned on a cane in the doorway, watching the scene. His hair was white and sparse, and his skin brown and weathered with time. Though small, he had immense presence as he moved forward toward the doctor, who had turned to face him. He stood before Andrew, who now stood with his hand limp at his side, the bottle barely clutched between his fingers. The doctor wavered. The angry winds had been taken from his sails, and he seemed as if to deflate in on himself as the weathered man watched him and waited.

"Yes," continued the old man as he stared at the doctor. "Yes, you could have *asked* for more, but you couldn't have *done* any more.

You saved the Dominguez family, you saved the Marquez family, you saved Paulo and his wife Marguerite, who the doctors tell me are expecting their first child."

The old man shuffled across the floor, his cane tapping lightly as he walked. Everyone could see the sadness in his eyes, but he moved with a strong determination. Stopping in front of Andrew, he peered up at the taller man, waiting for the doctor to make eye contact.

"My name is Ramon Ortiz, I am a Cuban businessman in Miami," he said with a heavily accented voice. Though it was said quietly, the silent bar could hear it all. "I am one of several men who gave money to Mr.

Shale and his men in an attempt to rescue our families. We knew there was a chance that the attempt would fail, but we had to try something to save our families from that butcher Contreras and Castro."

A loud wheezing cough cut his words off, and his body was seemingly wracked with pain. Acting on instinct alone, Andrew stooped to help Ramon, only to have the aid waved off.

"I am an old man, Doctor Blake - there is no help for me," he said around the coughs as he continued to wave off the doctor. As the coughing stopped, Ramon took a deep breath and clutched his cane tighter, his face wracked with pain. There was a scratching sound behind him, and Ramon smiled as one of the bar patrons slid a chair up behind before leaving almost as silently as he came. Settling into the chair, the old Cuban looked up at Andrew and motioned for the doctor to sit with his cane, its end moving partially as a directive, partially as a warning.

"In our hearts, we knew there was little hope that the mercenaries we hired could pull it off," he began again, pausing to take a drink from the glass of water that had been placed in front of him. "I think Mr.

Shale knew it too when he took the job, but he too was willing to try. And you know what; they would have failed if you hadn't shown up when you did."

He paused and regarded all in the bar for a moment, his dark eyes sweeping the crowd, unshed tears in each corner. He had everyone's rapt attention; no one moved, no one spoke, each person was locked on the conversation going on before them. The old man's eyes stopped when they looked at the other man sitting at the table, and he smiled lightly.

"I don't know what your cause is, sir," continued Ramon. "But if it is saving the lives of those in need, then it truly is a good cause, not one to be damned. You and the people with you saved the lives of those who had run out of hope. And you did it unasked, which is more than most in the world can ever have claim to have done. You could have turned a blind eye, but instead, you risked your lives to save others, regardless of your own safety, and for that you have my thanks."

"Did we save??" Andrew stuttered, stopping only when he watched the unshed tears on Ramon's face begin to fall.

"No, son, you didn't. But you did bring my little Theresa's body to me," the old man said after an eternity of silence.

"Theresa was the little girl?" asked Sinclair finally.

"Yes," said Ramon after another small bout of crying.

"She was an angel. From what the other survivors tell me, her parents were killed several months ago, and she survived alone on the scraps that the other captives could give her. It was a miracle she made it that long though; she had a bad heart you see. The fact she made it all the way to the America is a miracle unto itself even if it was only her shell, and for that I am grateful. I wasn't able to bury the body of my son and his wife, but through Theresa, I can remember them too."

Sinclair nodded as the old Cuban addressed him, his eyes flicked over to the doctor from time to time. Andrew's eyes had glazed over for a moment, lost in thought as he listened to the two men talk and his mind wandered back through time and a memory long forgotten fluttered through him mind.

<Now I know how Dad felt,> Andrew admitted to himself. He'd read his father's letters, the ones that his mother had kept hidden in Henry Blake's old desk. When he'd read them as a young man, he'd seen the hope that his father has always carried with him, but after a few years of being a surgeon himself, he now saw what was between the lines. How it didn't matter how good a doctor you were, there were just some you couldn't save.

"So," barked Ramon as he returned his gaze to the doctor. "Do you really wish to drink away my granddaughter's memory? A child who lived longer than she should have, and for a moment saw a breath of freedom away from those monsters who took her parents? Do you wish to erase the memory of the one child you couldn't save, even though you helped save forty-two other people, not counting the mercenaries who went to save them?"

The old man reached down, took the bottle from Andrew's hand and sat it on the table before him, waiting and watching the doctor with sad eyes. A multitude of emotions crossed Andrew Blake's face, and the bar held its breath as he took hold of the bottle and brought it up before his own eyes to stare at it, the amber liquid washing up against the sides of the bottle and spilling out onto the ground.

Andrew leaned over, picking up the abandoned bottle cap off the ground, and delicately placed it on the top of the bottle, pushing down the cap, sealing in the whiskey. He gripped the neck of the bottle with his right hand tightly, his knuckles turning white with the force. He suddenly reversed his grip, lifted the bottle over his shoulder, spun and launched it at the nearest bare wall.

The bottle hit the wall with an explosion of glass and booze, a momentary piece of abstract art, before sliding down and pooling on the ground, the glass tinkling down to the ground like rainfall.

The silence continued for a moment, only to be broken as Andrew finally let himself mourn for the ones he couldn't save. He settled down onto his knees, the tears flowing freely down his face for the first time. The doctor looked up as he felt a hand on his shoulder, and he met the old man's eyes, which also had tears flowing freely.

"Come, do not mourn for those you couldn't save," he said as he pulled the doctor up to his feet, echoing his thoughts. "Instead, celebrate for those you saved, and remember, not mourn, the ones you couldn't."

As Andrew nodded to Ramon and wiped away his tears, the bar's patrons let out a loud cheer, their contained energies finally being released. As the party resumed, Andrew found himself being led through the crowd by the old man to a private table where the two continued their discussion in private as Ramon regaled the doctor with stories of his family.

No one heard the mage as he settled back into his chair and let the tension of the situation wash away, closing his eyes and murmuring to himself.

"Rule two: Shared despair is squared, shared hope cubed, if not raised to the power of infinity."

There's a devil in a bottle that just won't let me be So many times I've been hurtin' my soul and family But I got free on the day I fought the Devil in the bottle The next time that ol' devil tries to get the best of me I'll smash that bottle against the wall and know I'm finally free There's a devil in a bottle that just won't let me be There's so many times I let him hurt me I got free the day I fought the Devil in the bottle Devil in the bottle Devil in the bottle

Mickey settled into the seat across from Sinclair and nudged the top of the man's head, which was resting on the table. He placed a steaming cup with a frothy top in front of the mage and waited as the smell reached his nose. Sinclair sat up and stared vacantly at the cup for a moment, willing his eyes to focus before he looked up at the mercenary and gave a weak smile.

"Bartender said you could use that," said the mercenary as he leaned back in the chair, only to receive a grunt in response from the mage.

Sinclair took a sip. A smile crossed his face, and he raised his glass toward the bartender. Settling back in the chair, the mage let himself relax for the first time since the boat left the dock in Miami.

"What is that?" asked Maria as she sat down in a chair next to the two, her finger pointing at the glass Sinclair held.

"God's Blessing. One of the greatest drinks in all history. It contains all the major food groups : fat, caffeine, sugar, and alcohol," smile Robert as he took another sip, covering his nose in whipped cream in the attempt. "Best way to describe it though is an Irish Coffee."

The three sat in a companionable silence, each relaxing and sipping their drinks. The effects of a long thirty-six hours washed over them, and one by one, each at the table let out a loud yawn.

"So what's our next step?" asked the ex-CIA agent finally. "Continue on south to Bermuda to pick up the Breubaker guy?"

Robert shook his head and set his empty coffee cup down on the table. Folding his hands before him, he watched Mickey for a moment, searching for the best thing to say.

"We've been recalled immediately," said Maria, beating the mage to the punch. "Boss wants us home at best speed possible, if not faster."

"Must have been one hell of an ass-chewing," smirked Mickey, a wry plastered on his face.

"There's a good thing about being a wizard, Mr. Kostmayer," replied Sinclair with a straight face. "Using magic, you can reattach your ass after it's been handed to you."

"So when do we head out then?" Mickey asked, chuckling.

"We'll get a days rest, and then we'll get back on the water," Maria replied with a grimace. "With good luck we'll still be avoiding whoever was following us. I imagine, though, they'll pick us up at the canal again, so we'll have to lose them again in the Pacific."

"I'll let the guys know, then," nodded the mercenary as he pushed away from the table and vanished into the crowd in search of the rest of the crew.

"I figured you'd mention the SRT idea that you were talking to Xander about," commented Maria as the two remaining at the table watched their companion leave.

"Nah," shrugged Robert. "Why ruin the surprise? He'll be up to his neck with it when all is said and done anyway."

Chapter 6

December 16th, 1996

Somewhere in the Pacific Ocean

"Are we there yet?" asked Mickey Kostmayer from below deck for umpteenth time as the PT 579 cut its way through the water.

It had been over three weeks since they had left Miami, and everyone's nerves were on edge. Though the old boat was under-crewed, the smallness of the space made it very difficult to get away from each other after long periods of time. Even with most of the crew having parted ways at Pearl harbor, tension was still high with even five people on the boat.

"I told you we should have left him in Pearl with the others," groused Captain Maria Sanchez to her companion as she adjusted the course of the boat again. "The doc must be in his cabin and Howard must have locked himself in the engine room again for Kostmayer to be bothering us again."

"I would have if I didn't need his experience and qualifications,"

replied Robert Sinclair, wizard at large. "What's our ETA to Avalon anyway?"

"You are ten hours out from Avalon," said the haunting voice of Merlin as the screen on the console sprang to life, revealing the AI's avatar. "I realize you are anxious to have a break from each other and get on with the holidays, but the Commander has requested that you make a swing through this island chain."

The image of the avatar was replaced with a detailed map of a nearby island chain, which looked vaguely familiar. Maria shivered involuntarily as she recognized the landmarks. Memories flooded her mind and she closed her eyes in attempt to forget the nightmares, memories of smoke, burning aircraft fuel, screams, and death. She shook herself from her memories and stared at the screen, her eyes locked and tight, as the AI returned.

"What exactly is it we're looking for?" she asked.

Merlin smiled evilly and the screen was quickly replaced with more images. Maria paled almost instantly and her eyes went wide.

Turning to her right, she could see the mage shaking his head, a disgusted look on his face, the bridge of his nose pinched between two fingers.

"Of all the things in the world to ask for, for Christmas none the less," he grumbled. "The Commander had to ask for a fucking dragon."

Unknown Tropical Island

The wind was rustling the trees as Geoff Bowenson woke from his afternoon nap and stretched out his tall, muscular body across the cabana chair he laid in. Letting out a yawn, the man glanced around in an attempt to figure out what had awoken him from his sound slumber. A sound akin to a boulder being fed into a chipper/shredder floated across the waters of the nearby pool and scooted the remains of the Mai Thai closer to the edge of the table. Moving quickly, the man lunged, barely catching the glass as another rumble pushed the glass over the brink.

Setting the glass back on the table, Geoff's eyes swept the parameter, looking for just the right object. Grinning, he bent over and picked up a piece of volcanic rock and bounced it in his hand.

An evil smile crept across his face as he felt the perfect weight in his hand, and with a precise pitch, lobbed the rock across the pool in an attempt to stop the noise maker. The rock flew true and sure, and with a loud 'thunk', hit the dragon known as Drake squarely between his sleeping eyes.

With an offended snort and huff the dragon's eyes popped open in search of the attacker, its large pupils trying to come into focus. Squinting for a moment, the dragon's gaze settled onto the grinning figure on the opposite side of the pool, and Drake rolled his eyes and let out an exasperated sigh.

"Did you have to throw a rock at me?" grumbled the dragon as he elongated his body, trying to get the maximum amount of sun on his massive bulk.

"You were snoring," retorted the man as he walked around the pool toward the bar near the back of their house. "You almost broke another glass with your rumbling."

"I was sleeping, what'd ya expect?" whined the great beast. "You didn't have to hit me with a rock. I don't throw rocks atyou when you snore."

"My snoring doesn't move the furniture either," grinned Geoff as he headed toward the bar to refill his empty glass.

Crossing the patio and heading toward the outdoor bar, Geoff mused once again about the beauty of their home and the surrounding island. Bought discretely from the local government, the two had converted an old Marine airbase into a viable island home, complete with its own water, power, and food supplies. Settling onto the island, they had successfully managed to ignore the world for nearly half a century, until the events of the previous year had roused them from their isolation, a rousing which had left a lingering wanderlust in them.

Wandering behind the bar, he watched as Drake shifted his bulk around, trying desperately to cover every inch of his great bulk with more sunlight. Laying on what could best be described as a concrete lounge chair, the dragon's long body stretched out across it, his tail wrapped around the edges. With a final huff and snort the great beast settled down and closed its eyes once more, a light snore starting almost immediately.

"Lazy piece of shit," said Geoff with a grin and a shake of his head.

Letting his eyes wander over the island, Geoff peered out toward the beach and contemplated going for a swim, the waves looking warm and inviting as they crashed up against the pristine shore. He squinted as he noticed something in the distance and reached beneath the bar for a pair of binoculars. Bringing them into focus, he stared out at the straight between their island and the next and frowned.

"Hey Drake?" he yelled. "You remember the PT Boat?"

The dragon cracked an eye and looked over at his partner, his head barely moving.

"Tell me McHale isn't out there again is he," groused the dragon. "The last time he visited, you two spent the week drunk.

I distinctly remember you waking up with an orange traffic cone on your head, and I still don't even want to guess where you found it on this island, let alone the meter maid's stockings."

Closing his eyes and shaking his head, Geoff wondered once again why he stayed around the dragon. Counting to ten before opening his eyes, he turned and looked at the dragon with a humorless look on his face.

"No you twit, the PT Boat from last year," he yelled. "You remember, the one pulling the sailors out of the water?"

The dragon sat up, an angry look on his face, his teeth bared in a snarl.

"You mean the one with the wizards on it?" Drake asked in a quiet and deadly tone.

*Oh shit* thought Geoff as immediately realized the tactical mistake he had just made. Ever since the Inquisition the dragon had a nearly irrational fear of wizards. It stemmed back to a point in their history when a wizard whom they had saved from the Inquisitors had tried to kill Drake in an attempt to gain something called an Accession or something.

"Don't go getting paranoid on me again," started the warrior, his finger pointed at his friend.

"There are wizards out there, and you think I'm wrong to be paranoid?" huffed the dragon. "Helloooooooo. Last Dragon on the planet here, I'm a spell component waiting to happen."

Sighing, Geoff closed his eyes and shook his head with a grimace on his face. He hated when Drake shifted into this mode, the dragon became nearly impossible to deal with.

"Besides," continued the dragon. "When was the last time I was paranoid and wrong?"

"Chicago, October 8th, 1871," answered Geoff quickly as he settled down on a barstool and waited for Drake to calm down.

"Now wait a sec," protested the dragon with an indignant tone to his voice. "That was blamed on the cow, not me."

"San Francisco, April 18th, 1906," continued the warrior without pause.

"Earthquake, followed by gas fires," sighed the dragon.

"That's what history says, but I distinctly remember you attempting to fry that Watcher," grinned Geoff. "Who just happened to be trying to help the Slayer we were aiding, not attack you."

"London, 2nd of September 1666," finished Geoff, his arms now crossed over his chest, a smug look on his face.

"Hey, that was the bakers fault, not mine," retorted the dragon weakly, knowing full well he had lost this round.

London had been a monumental fiasco, with a local wizard named Christopher Wren trying to help them escape the city after the dragon had accidentally hurt his wing in an attempt to rescue a friend who had been falsely imprisoned in from the Tower of London. The escape had almost worked, but a surprise cannon shot had torn through the dragon's wing as they escaped in the dark, sending the great lizard crashing to the ground into the nearby courtyard where the mage had been studying astronomy.

Wren, in an attempt to aid the wounded and barely conscious dragon, had cast a spell upon Drake, just as he was waking up. While some healing spells are designed to heal wounds, they unfortunately tend to be species specific, and unfortunately for Christopher Wren, the one he cast was not for a dragon. With a mighty roar, Drake awoke from his stunned stupor and let loose a flame at what he considered an attacker. The ball of fire impacted with a hastily erected shield spell and careened over the wall of the courtyard and impacted with the roof of a baker's shop.

With a roar, the roof immediately caught fire, the flames leaping from building to building. Soon the fire was out of control, and much to both Drake and Geoff's chagrin, soon leveled most of the city and centuries later, history would record it as The Great Fire of London.

Chapter 7

"It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him."

J.R.R. Tolkein

"So what is it I'm looking for again?" asked Mickey as he leaned back in the deck chair, which was sitting precariously on the deck.

From an outside viewer's perspective, he looked like he was just sunning himself, tacky Hawaiian shirt hanging loosely open, sunglasses perched on his head, legs propped up on a torpedo. Across the boat, over the drone of the engines, the mercenary heard yet another exasperated sigh and what sounded like a head smacking into metal. With a big smile on his face, the mercenary knew he had hit his mark, and he looked over to the gun turret on the other side of the deck and waited for a reply.

"As I have told you several times already, Mr. Kostmayer," said Sinclair through gritted teeth. "You will know it when you see it."

"Yeah, but what does that mean?" groused Mickey as he went back to looking through the binoculars. "Sometimes I think you enjoy keeping me in the dark."

"One has to find pleasure where one can find it," retorted the mage from the other side of the boat. "You've been around me long enough to realize that when I say 'you'll know it when you see it,' I mean it quite literally."

Silence washed over the boat as the two men settled back into their search, hearing only the dull thrum of the old boat and the splash of the water against the hull. As Mickey continued to look out on the various small islands in the chain they sailed through, the mercenary had to wonder again the sanity of what he was doing. Sure, the pay was good, but being kept in the dark was starting to get annoying.

Even Doc Blake had a better insight into what was going on than he did, and it was that fact that was starting to grind on his nerves.

A sudden stirring of birds caught Mickey's eye, and he swiveled in his chair to get a better view. Peering through his binoculars, the mercenary had to blink, twice, as something flew up out of the trees. Lowering the binoculars and looking at them a second, Mickey gave them a whack, and then shook them a couple of times before placing them back to his eyes. Twisting the knob, he tried to correct the focus on the binoculars, only to discover that everything truly was right.

"Hey Robert?" asked Mickey as he finally broke the silence, his eyes still fixed on the object in the distance. "We wouldn't be looking for a dragon, would we?"

"Perhaps, Mr. Kostmayer," said the mage as he turned from his perch to look over across the boat. "Why do you ask?"

"Because it's headed this way," he said slowly, his eyes never leaving the incoming dragon. "And judging by the guy on its back with the really big gun, I don't think it's happy."

"Would you listen to me, you overgrown iguana!" screamed Geoff as he tried to talk sense into the beast beneath him.

"This is a really BAD plan."

"What? We buzz 'em, and if they attack, we waste them," retorted the dragon as his mighty wings propelled them out over the water and toward the PT boat in the channel.

Dropping close to the waves, the mighty beast let his toes trail in the water, an enjoyable habit he had no idea where he picked up.

Flapping his wings faster, the dragon picked up speed, and like a torpedo, homed in on the boat. He grinned as he watched the two men on deck scrambling around before dropping to the deck as he cruised over their heads, missing the boat by mere feet.

Looking over his shoulder, Geoff could see the tiny boat rocking back and forth in the wake from Drake's flyby. On the deck, he could barely make out the two men struggling to stand as the dragon began his turn and started to dive back toward the boat for a second run. One figure on the boat, dressed in a Hawaiian shirt so bright that it hurt the warrior's eyes from altitude, scrambled for one of the gun turrets and began fumbling with the weapon.

"See, I told you they were here for us!" growled Drake as he wheeled above the boat and prepared to attack.

"No!" yelled Geoff as he felt the dragon tense and begin another dive. "He's probably reacting to you strafing them, you stupid lizard, STOP!"

But it was too late.

To the outside observer, it happened in an instant, but to those on the boat, it was an eternity. While Mickey raced to prepare the one of the Oerlikon machine guns as the dragon began its dive, Robert began to make his own moves, his eyes locked on the dragon and his hand tracing emblems in the air.

As the dragon continued its dive, both men's movements on deck became more frantic, each trying to perform his attempted goal before the dragon did whatever it was going to do. Time seemed to slow down more as the great beast let loose a torrent of hellfire from its mouth, which traveled toward them, threatening to engulf the entire boat with its first strike, until the flame ran into a scintillating wall that appeared in the air above the vessel and the waves of flame fizzled harmlessly in the waters around the boat.

"Get of the deck, Mickey," said the mage through gritted teeth, his eyes fixed to the sky above. "Get off the deck NOW! Tell Maria to batten down the hatches and call for help. I'll hold this bastard off as long as I can."

"But?" stammered the mercenary as he stumbled backward across the deck and toward the hatchway.

"Now, Mickey!" Robert shouted, his hands still weaving in the air, a ring on his right hand glowing with an unearthly light.

"The boat should keep you safe if I can't keep this shield up, but I can't take that risk with you on the deck. I'll be all right. You're going to have to trust me on this."

The mercenary hopped over the main cabin, dropped down the stairwell and looked at Robert one more time before pulling the hatchway closed. As he twisted the latches on the door, he could hear Maria shouting at him down the passageway, but he ignored it for the moment as he tried to catch his breath before making his way down to the cabin on shaky legs. The faces stared out the windows, and then Maria wheeled on him.

"What the fuck is going on out there!" demanded the captain as another wave of fire washed down around the boat.

"Maria, there is no time," said Mickey, cutting off another question. "Rob said to call for help and batten down the hatches, but we gotta do something to help him. Can we control the thunder system remotely from in here?"

"Firing the thunder system is unnecessary," said the ghostly voice known to the mercenary only as Merlin, a voice that he had become accustomed to after several weeks on the boat. "Help has already been called for."


"Another day, another problem," sighed Doug Masters as he looked over the training rosters and pilot reports on the handheld screen in Avalon's massive flight deck.

Through recruitment, they had gained pilots, but it had been slow going to train people into how the Hammerheads and Orcas actually functioned, as the trainers themselves were still learning all the functionality of the planes. His musing was cut off as an alarm began to sound through the flight deck.

"Eagle Flight! Scramble! Scramble! Scramble! This is not a drill! I repeat, this is not a drill!"

"What the?" Doug said as he started to trigger his comm unit. The motion was stalled as the avatar of Merlin appeared before him.

"PT 579 has come under attack," said Merlin in a calm tone, the AI's face showing almost no emotion. "You are to take Eagle Flight on an intervention. You are to persuade the attacker to cease its attack, but to engage only if ABSOLUTELY necessary."

"But?" started Doug only to be cut off by the AI.

"These are the commander's orders. I will explain more once you are airborne," said Merlin, his tone brooking no discussion.

Heading for his plane, Doug thanked whatever gods had been watching over the 579 and had whispered into his ear to wear his flight suit to the deck today, which alone saved precious seconds as he began his preflight. Looking to his left and right, he could see Wheeler and the others of Eagle Flight arrive. With everything on his console green, Doug opened his comm channel and spoke.

"This is Eagle one, I have all green light and am ready for launch," he said and waited.

"This is Eagle Two, ready," came Wheeler's voice.

"Eagle Three, prepped and ready," came Rudy's.

"Eagle Four ready," came the voice of one of the rookies.

"Eagle Flight," said a stern voice over the line. "This is General Gray; you have a go for launch."

A hum filled his cockpit and Doug Masters once again found himself hurtled into the air at an astounding speed. He mused that the launch system of Avalon never failed to amaze him as he turned his plane, already at speed, toward his destination. As the plane leveled off, he could see the other planes pull into formation next to him, and he punched a few buttons on the console to check their flight path.

"All right, Merlin, what's going on?" he asked as the center screen on his console sprang to life.

"PT 579 is presently under attack by a dragon," said Merlin, his face brooking no emotion. "It is unclear why the dragon has attacked. Mr. Sinclair is managing to keep it at bay with a shield, but it is indeterminate how long he can hold out and keep the vessel safe."

"Did you say a dragon?" asked the newbie as he listened in on the comm channel.

"That is correct. It was a major asset in our last conflict with the Goa'uld," replied the A.I. "The commander asked Captain Sanchez to see if they could locate it for recruitment purposes, and while they have found it, the discussion is not going well. You orders are to stop the dragon, get it to land if you can, and invite it back to Avalon, where the commander wishes to discuss recruitment with it and its companion."

Doug stared at the screen as his mind wandered back in time to the battle over the Pacific. In his mind's eye, he could clearly see the dragon, without pause, ripping wings and canopies off the incoming Goa'uld fighters, and he couldn't help but shudder.

His thoughts were interrupted as Merlin spoke again.

"The commander asks two things of you though," continued Merlin. "One, that you do not attack the dragon unless absolutely necessary, be it for your or PT 579's survival. You are to dissuade it from attack and try to get it to listen to reason, or chase it off so that PT 579 might escape."

"And what's the second?" asked Wheeler in a snide voice. "Does he want us to walk on water or part the harbor with our hands?"

"Actually, something much more difficult for you, Wheeler," replied the A.I. with a straight face. "The commander asks that you do not reveal to anyone the nature of this mission to anyone until such time as he deems appropriate. I believe his exact terms were, 'Make them understand to keep their mouths shut about the dragon, especially Wheeler.'"

With the parting words, the screen went dark, and Doug could hear Wheeler's dark muttering coming over his headset. With a grin, he checked his console over one more time. Finding everything green, he settled back into his seat and watched and waited, his mind lost in thought on how they were going to pull this stunt off. In his mind, he could hear the voice of his mentor whispering battle plans in his ear, and Doug's grin grew bigger as he came up with an idea.

"OK, Eagles, here's what we're going to do," he said, and began to lay out the battle plan.

Sweat rolled down his neck and soaked his clothing, making it look as if he had taken a shower in his clothes, but Sinclair refused to acknowledge the discomfort. His eyes were fixed and locked onto the massive beast in the air above the boat as it ducked and weaved, trying to get around his shield.

It had become and effort of wills, a contest to decide which of the two had more energy and gumption, one completely offensive, one completely defensive. Had he wanted to, it would have been easy to redirect his powers into an attack, but that hadn't been part of the plan. Granted, the plan had gone to hell when the dragon began strafing them for some reason.

'What the hell is the fucking thing's problem?' Sinclair asked himself as he adjusted his stance, preparing himself to ward off another attack. 'I just wish Mickey hadn't run for the gun.'

Mentally he sighed, wishing for once that his acerbic sense of humor hadn't gotten the best of him and that he had actually informed the mercenary that they were looking for a dragon and to not make any hasty moves until they had the beast's trust. But then he reminded himself as Robert Burns had once put it, that the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.

His thoughts were rudely interrupted as yet another blast of flame washed down onto the shield he had erected above the boat and the mage had to wonder what it was going to take to make the dragon let up.

"I don't know about him, but this shits starting to get old," Robert mumbled as he dug deeper and deeper into his internal reserves and continued his staredown with the dragon.

It had been a long time since he had used this much magic nearly constantly. Magic, like a muscle in the body, was fine if used every now and then. But for efforts like this, practice and exercise were essential, and that had been one thing he had gotten away from over the years.

'Note to self, practice magic more often, end note,' he groused as he adjusted the shield again to deflect another attack.

The mage weighed his options, trying to figure the best way to deal with the critter without hurting it too much, but the options were limited. He studied the clouds above the dragon for a moment, and was about to summon a chunk of ice above the beast in an attempt to knock it out of the air when he caught something approaching at high speed from the direction of Avalon. As the speck got closer, the something became several somethings and Robert let himself relax as the cavalry arrived.

It happened in an instant - first Geoff started getting the feeling that something was wrong, followed rapidly by the feeling that he was being watched, and finalizing with the nagging feeling that someone was pointing a weapon in his direction. Glancing below him, he couldn't see anything different on the boat - the wizard still had his shield up, and the boat was quickly trying to escape, but nothing was threatening them down there. As the warrior continued to look for the source of his unease, Geoff noticed a humming noise in the air behind him, and as he looked over he shoulder, he let out a big gulp.

"Hey buddy, I think you need to quit attacking the boat down there," said Geoff slowly, with a hint of concern in his voice.

"Why is that?" asked the dragon out of the corner of his mouth between the streams of fire he continued to rain down on the boat. The dragon's attention was completely fixed on the wizard below as he continued. "I think I have the wizard on the ropes now.

His shield is starting to weaken."

"Because the guy hovering next to us with the really big cannon pointed at me seems to want us to stop," replied Geoff, raising his hands in the air.

"What guy with the cannon?" asked Drake as he cut off his latest attack and began to look around, only to come face to face with an oddly shaped plane hovering next to him, its cannon pointed right at his snout. "Oh, that guy."

Though Drake couldn't see all of the pilot's face, the anger that showed on what was visible and the hand gestures that he was making gave no doubt in mind that the dragon was mere seconds from being fired on if he didn't stop. Looking just beyond the first plane, Drake could make out at least three more of the unusual birds hovering and circling around them. The pilot gestured again, pointing downward toward the island, and the message became even clearer. Land. Now.

"I told you this was a bad idea," mumbled Geoff as the dragon slowly descended toward the island beneath them. "But did you listen, noooooooooooo?.."

Under escort, Drake slowly winged his way down to the beach, the ugly planes hanging close with their forward cannons aimed constantly at him and Geoff. His strong legs touched down on the sand, and he could feel his partner sliding out of his saddle and down onto the ground. Geoff was clearly angry, Drake realized as he watched the man storming around discarding his gear on the ground. The dragon was about to say something, then he caught the look on Geoff's face and decided to keep his mouth shut rather than make it worse.

A hissing noise filled the air, and one of the fighters touched down on the ground nearby. Geoff and Drake turned to watch as the cockpit opened. A ladder was tossed out, and a figure began to climb out, shinnying down with a practiced ease. The figure began to approach. As he neared, he reached up and unstrapped the helmet from his head and placed it under his arm, stopping just before the two.

"Name's Doug Masters," said the man before them. "Either of you two want to explain why you were breathing fire at our boat?"

Geoff and Drake looked at each other in shock. Most people, upon their first encounter with a dragon, were usually less than confident than this man before them. The two looked back, shock still frozen on their faces, neither knowing which of them should speak.

"Ummm, it was an accident," began Geoff, trying to sound innocent about it. "He's a little touchy when it comes to wizards."

"You call trying to roast a boat touchy?" replied Doug in disbelief.

Internally the pilot had to wonder what the hell Xander was thinking trying to recruit these two. Sure, one of them was a dragon, but in the grand scheme of things, he had to wonder where it all fit in.

"I thought he was here to collect spell components," said Drake finally.

"Spell components?"

"Yeah, I'm the last dragon and everything," continued Drake as he tried to defend his actions. "And, well, I figured he was here to take me out. Wouldn't be the first time?.."

He never got to finish the sentence as a smell of smoke, sweat, and burnt hair rolled over the group and a voice broke into the conversation.

"What in the fuck is your problem, lizard?" the mage demanded angrily as he stormed up.

"Easy, Sinclair," said Doug as he tried to keep control of the situation, but to no use.

Robert stalked up in front of Drake, his eyes filled with rage. The two stared at each other, neither wanting to break the other's gaze. Finally, after an eternity, Drake glanced sheepishly at the group.

"Sorry," he mumbled, as best a dragon can.

Sinclair pursed his lips and squinted at the abashed-looking beast, before his scowl turned into an evil grin.

"You're so lucky I'm tired and Jacks wasn't on that boat," said Sinclair through tight teeth.

"Or what?" asked the dragon hotly, his anger coming back almost instantly.

"Or we'd have turned you into a talking gecko and you'd be selling car insurance on television," sneered Robert. "That's what."

As he reached behind him, everyone tensed. Doug relaxed as he saw the Knighthood datapad appear in the wizard's hand, which he promptly tossed in front of Geoff.

"Be at those coordinates at the time that it displays and our commander will explain his offer to you, because I'm too mad to do it," he said as he turned and started walking back toward the boat, only to stop suddenly.

He turned and regarded Drake for a moment, his face thoughtful. A mixture of emotions crossed Robert's face before settling on reflective. After a moment or two of silence, he spoke.

"By the way, you're not the last dragon," he said simply before he turned and walked off.

The two men and one dragon on the beach watched as the mage stormed his way back toward the water and climbed into a raft that propelled itself silently toward the waiting PT boat. After a few minutes, the PT headed out to sea, vanishing from their sight. Finally, after a long silence, the warrior and the dragon turned to the pilot

"Commander?" asked Geoff.

"Not the last dragon?" added Drake, confused. "Offer? And what the hell is a Jacks?"

Closing his eyes and tilting his head back to the heavens, Doug wondered again what he had done to deserve this. For a moment, he could almost swear he heard Chappy laughing at him.

As PT 579 slid through the mists, Dr. Blake, Howard, and Mickey stood on the deck and watched as they had been told to do. Sinclair lounged in the chair he had stolen from the mercenary and waited, his eyes fixed on the men. Like a curtain parting, the boat floated out of the mist, and the mage could hear all three men suck in air as the island seemingly appeared before them.

"Gentlemen, welcome to Avalon," Robert said as he stood, and triggered his comm unit. "Avalon control, this is PT 579, we're finally home."

"PT 579, this is Avalon control, it is my pleasure to welcome you back," replied Merlin. "You are cleared to enter the lagoon.

The Commander and General Grey are awaiting your arrival."

As the boat moved around the island on course for the harbor, the three newcomers couldn't help but marvel at the island and its pristine conditions. Even from a distance, it seemed alive with a multitude of fauna whose cries could be heard over the low rumble of the old boat. Rounding the curve Robert's smile grew as the three men gasped again as the waterfall in the lagoon came into view.

"I'm surprised no one has turned this place into a resort," remarked Howard as he puffed on a cigarette.

"They probably would have if they could find it," shrugged Sinclair. "As is, in the last thousand years or so, no more than a few thousand people have been on this island. Most of them within the last year."

"Let me just go ahead and get it out of the way and say 'Huh?'" snorted Mickey as he stared in disbelief at the wizard. "How is it possible that someone could miss an island of this size?"

As the boat stopped in the center of the harbor Robert stood up from his chair and stretched his back out, his fingers reached up toward the sky and a yawn on his face. Smiling at the waiting men, he leaned against the cabin of the boat, his hands folded on his chest.

"One part magic," he said simply.

"And what's the other part?" asked Doctor Blake, a look of curiosity on his face.

He never got the answer as the water around the boat suddenly began to glow, moments before the entire thing was engulfed in a bright light and vanished from the harbor. Moments later, as their eyes refocused, they found the boat floating in a massive, open, stony chamber, filled with people moving about, none of whom paused to notice the appearance of the old boat.

"The other part is ten thousand-year-old Atlantean technology," finished Merlin as he appeared on the dock alongside the boat, his imagine shimmering in the air.

"Would someone like to tell me what the hell is going on here?" demanded Mickey as he broke the stunned silence only to receive chuckles from Sinclair and Maria.

"It goes like this?" said Maria, starting the explanation as she climbed up onto the docks and led the crew into Avalon.


Chapter 8

"People think that professional soldiers think a lot about fighting, but SERIOUS professional soldiers think a lot more about food and a warm place to sleep, because these are two things that are generally hard to get, whereas fighting tends to turn up all the time."

-- T.Pratchett, SMALL GODS

The clouds were thick as Geoff and Drake winged their way out above the open ocean. Geoff stared down at the tiny display in his hand, and looked over Drake's side. He gave the datapad a shake and wondered once again if someone was yanking their chain.

"Are you sure we're in the right place?" asked Drake as he too glanced down at the cloud-filled sky beneath them. "We've both been above these waters before, and I know there isn't anything out this way."

Coasting on his great wings, Drake continued to look down, his eyes scanning below him. The clouds and fog grew heavy around them, and as they passed through the bank, Drake suddenly found it necessary to surge upward as massive stony cliffs rose out of the ocean as if by magic.

"Nothing out here, huh?" groused Geoff as he clutched tightly to Drake's back. "That's a pretty massive piece of nothing you almost splattered us onto."

"Shut up," grumbled Drake with a chagrinned look written on his face.

As Drake circled, the duo marveled at what lay before them, spread out across the land below. A complex of stone which appeared to be of European or Celtic look lay sprawled out beneath them, seemingly untouched by the trees and jungle that surrounded it. Settling themselves down in a stone circle surrounded by aging statues, the pair looked around in awe at the architecture and art older than even themselves.

"What is this place?" asked Geoff with awe in his voice as he studied the figure carved into a stone column.

"It's Avalon," said a voice behind them, causing them both to whirl around.

It took a moment for them to spot the figure, dressed in black, who had stood silently in the shadow of one of the pillars and watched them as they landed. They could also see, standing in the shade of another pillar, was another figure which both immediately recognized as the wizard from earlier.

"Avalon, as in King Arthur, Merlin, and all that other fantasy stuff?" asked Drake with a look of incredulity on his long reptilian face. "Shouldn't we be in England and not the middle of the Pacific?"

"Asks the dragon?" snorted the wizard.

"Hey, just because I'm a myth, doesn't mean I have to believe in everything people tell me," he retorted hotly. "I mean, you're a wizard, but that doesn't prove you're not an ass yet."

Hot magic flared for a moment before it was abruptly cut off with a shout.

"Don't even think about it Sinclair," snapped the first figure, a grin on his face. "You two are going to have to work together,so get used to the dragon's attitude."

"I haven't yet, and it's been almost a millennium," groused Geoff as his eyes roved over the sights around him. Turning around in the circles, his eyes flicked from statue to statue, his mind lost in thought.

"This is the place Bowen, Draco, and Gilbert wrote about," he whispered. "The place in the journals."

"Huh?" queried Drake, his head craning toward Geoff's whisper. "It couldn't be, that place was supposed to be off the coast of England."

Geoff continued to turn in circles, much to the amusement of Xander and Robert as they watched his antics. The warrior stopped before one of the more intact statues and stared at it, his brown eyes glazing over, lost in a memory. A voice whispered in the young man's ear, and Geoff sunk down to his knees.

"A knight is sworn to valor," he spoke with a low voice, his head bowed before the statue.. His whisper became louder and he raised his head higher, his eyes now closed. The others in the circle could hear him as his voice was raised.

"A knight is sworn to valor
His heart knows only virtue
His blade defends the helpless
His might upholds the weak
His word speaks only truth
His wrath undoes the wicked."

As Geoff quieted and lowered his head, his thoughts were broken by a slow and pronounced clap which was followed by another and then another, turning into a loose applause.

"It's a pleasure to see someone else knows the Old Code besides me," said the first man, a big grin plastered on his face. "Glad to see the recommendations we got about you two are true."

"Just who the hell are you," asked Drake with a growl in his throat and a hostile look in his eyes.

"Gentlemen, please let me introduce Commander Alexander 'Seraphim' Harris," grinned the wizard, with a hint of mischief in his eyes. "Oh, by the way, my name is Robert Sinclair."

"We knew that," nodded Geoff with a smirk, as did the dragon. "The pilot, Captain Masters, told us."

"Well with that, my work is done here," said Robert as he dusted his hands off. "See you guys later and I'll…."

"Freeze wizard," growled Xander, a dark look in his eyes. "You got a job to finish here."

"Excuse me?" asked the mage incredulously. "My job was just to get them here; the rest was up to you. I've got Christmas plans, you know."

"As do I, but your job was to RECRUIT them," finished the Commander of the Knighthood.

Looking back and forth between the dragon and Xander, Robert looked like a deer caught in the headlights.

"He tried to turn me into a roasted marshmallow, and you want me to recruit him?" asked the mage in a childlike high-pitched voice. "You've got to be fucking crazy."

"No," said Xander flatly. "We know they can do the job, we saw that when they helped with the Goa'uld."

"Is that was who was piloting the funny looking planes?" interjected Geoff. "We were never formally introduced. What country are they from?"

Closing his eyes, Robert seemed to think for a while, his face awash with emotions.

"They were space aliens," he said finally through gritted teeth his finger pointing up. "And he," the finger pointed toward Xander now, "represents the last remnants of the Atlantian Army who are tasked at protecting this planet against the forces of night."

Geoff and Drake looked at each other a moment, silently communicating between each other. Finally they both nodded and turned back toward the two waiting men.

"So let us get this straight," asked Geoff finally, an impassive look on his face. "We join your little group, and we get to fight space aliens?"

"Pretty much so," nodded Sinclair

"As well as things that go bump in the night like demons and vampires and such?" continued Drake.

"You got it," nodded the Commander as well.

The dragon and man looked at each again for a moment and then turned back to face the waiting men.

"We're in," they said together with grins on their faces.

The room was hot and sticky to Maria as she sat at the table dressed in her blue naval Kine uniform next to Mickeyand Robert, each of which were wearing the black uniforms. Sitting opposite them were General Grey, Major McQueen and the Commander, each with a look of disbelief on their faces. The mage had just finished the overview of the plan they had outlined since Cuba.

"So let me see if I understand this," began General Grey, his loud gravelly voice ringing off the walls of the conference room as he addressed the people assembled across the table from him. "You want to put together an armed group of medics for search and rescue purposes, and you want to use members of the Commander's Cadre to do it?"

"Essentially, yes," began Robert Sinclair as he attempted to explain the outline of what he and Maria had come up with, only to be stopped for the umpteenth time.

"Why?" asked McQueen in with his nearly emotionless voice the ex-Marine used.

"We've gotten lucky so far, not having too many wounded or casualties but sooner or later were going to need it," sighed the mage as he rubbed the bridge of his nose. "The Miami/Cuba deal only proves that we need a constant medical corp on duty."

"That was your own doing, not something that concerned the Knighthood," said McQueen emotionlessly. "So I ask again why?"

"So you would have been a punta and left those women and kids to die, Major?" growled Maria, her eyes on fire. "Doesn't seem like something we'd turn our back on, or did I miss a memo while I was out trying to keep the snoops away from this island."

"Easy there," cautioned General Grey. "What the Major meant was what happened in Cuba wasn't something we would have normally gotten ourselves into, under present circumstances. It wasn't exactlyunder the category of 'laying low'. He was attempting to ask why you want to use Cadre members."

"The easiest reason is because they are already here," said the mage finally as he adjusted the collar of his uniform. "Many already have the necessary qualification we need."

Mickey Kostmayer, nodding from his seat, laid out several brown folders on the table in front of General Grey, who picked them up and leafed through them silently.

"Some of these are the cream of the crop," said the General as he looked up from the folders. "Some aren't mind you, but some of these men and women had great potential to be good Knights."

"Think of it as a detached duty," said Mickey for the first time since sitting down at the table. "A trial run, if you will."

The ex-spook had sat silently in the room, watching the interaction between the two groups from the sidelines while his mind processed everything that had been explained to him since his arrival. The story laid out to him had been hard to digest, but equally hard to refute in light of the fighters and other out of this world equipment he had seen

"In what way," asked McQueen his eyes fixed on the mercenary, daring the man to speak.

"Give us a few months to prove ourselves," countered Mickey. "If we don't meet with your approval, you get the folks back and we do whatever you need us to do from then on. No harm no foul and your guys are trained a little better to handle medical events if and when they happen."

"I don't see any problem with this," said Xander as he too finally spoke up, his eyes alight at the idea. "It frankly sounds like a good idea. Also if they're going to do this we might as well have them train Corpsmen as well just in case."

"Well then," said Grey as he closed the folders and handed them back to the waiting trio. "I guess you have got your trial run, say six months?"

Xander and McQueen nodded in agreement as they stood and moved toward the door. The Commander stopped and turned, smiling at the three with an evil grin. "Good luck, somehow I have a feeling you're going to need it," he said, before his smile faded into seriousness. "Almost as much as I feel we're going to need you."


Level 14, Grey Sector, Training Room A

Looking at his watch for the fifteenth time, Captain Benjamin West let out a growl as he took in how much of his training time had been wasted already. Receiving a message through Merlin to report to the unused floor early in the morning, West had shown up to find several other members of the Cadre as well as faces he didn't recognize, milling about the room, but no explanation to the summons.

Scowling, he glanced around the room in displeasure, catching several other equally confused faces as he walked around the room and began pacing like a caged lion. Out of habit, the army captain studied those individuals that he didn't recognize in an attempt to decipher the reason for the summons. Some were dressed in the black uniform that nearly everyone wore and was slowly becoming known to the men and women of Avalon as Kine standard, while others in the room were dressed in civilian clothing.

As he began his third circuit of the room, West noticed three people, two men and woman, leaning casually against a wall. They seemed to be watching the room with what looked like knowing smirks on their faces, as if they knew what was going on. All three, he noted, were wearing a grey uniform of the same design as the one he wore, yet different and this stood out as odd to the man. The captain also noticed an unusual patch on the woman's and one of men's shoulders. The patch looked similar to the ones the older pilots wore, but different somehow and he was too far away to make out the details.

Continuing to prowl about the room West finally stopped in the center of it and checked his watch for the umpteenth time before shouting out.

"Does anyone have any idea what the hell we're here for?" he demanded of the assembled crowded.

"Ha, I told you he'd be the one to crack," cackled on of the men in grey leaning against the wall. "Fork it over suckers!"

The man and woman standing next to him each sighed and reached into their pockets. From a distance, the crowd could see the duo hand the man a clump of bills before leaving their positions and head toward the front of the assembly. They were quickly followed by the chuckling man.

As they walked past the dumbfounded Captain, he swore he could hear the smaller woman mutter something.

"Couldn't have waited two more minutes, could you?" she growled in a low voice, a scowl written on her face.

He was about to retort, but he was cut off as the doors behind them opened up and Major McQueen stormed his way in. The Major's path took him right past the Captain, and West's eyes grew wide as he heard McQueen growl as well.

"Five more minutes, West," snarled McQueen as he stormed past handing the cackling man a twenty dollar bill as he passed. "You could have waited five more minutes."

Reaching the front of the crowd, McQueen turned to face them and yelled at the top of his lungs.


Those who were, or had been in the military snapped to attention in crisp fashion, while those who hadn't loosely joined the ranks. Watching over the assembled crowd, McQueen began roll call, checking off names as he went.

"All right ladies," he said finally, as the last name was checked off. "I am here to inform you that as of now, you are all assigned to detached duty for an indefinite amount of time."

Cries of confusion sprang up from the crowd, with members of the Cadre leading the charge.

"Settle down children," chastised McQueen in his best patronizing voice. "I'm going to turn this over to the man you will now report to. Ladies and children, your new CO."

One of the men in grey moved forward and faced the crowd with a nervous look. Looking off in the distance the man gathered his thoughts before speaking and taking a breath, he addressed the crowd.

"Ok folk, my name is Robert Sinclair and I have been given nominal command of this unit," began the wizard. "This is going to be a trial run, and should it fail, you will be returned to your original posts within the Knighthood."

The mage's face took on a hard look and his eyes pierced their way through the assembled mass before him.

"This does not mean however you will not do your all so you can get back to your cushy positions on the base," he continued. "What we will be doing here is just as important as the Cadre itself, if not more."

"And what's that," cried a voice out from the crowd.

Grinning, Sinclair looked over his shoulders at McQueen, Kostmayer and Maria and winked. He knew he had piqued their interest at least.

"The Cadre and other Knight forces are going to be going out into the world and getting themselves into trouble," he intoned with a somber look. "Our job is going to be going out and getting them out of trouble, no matter where they are and no matter what the cost. You will become one of the finest search and retrieval units in the world."

"You mean search and rescue," yelled another voice from the crowd.

"No, ladies and gentlemen, I mean retrieval as well as rescue. We aren't even leaving our dead behind. Living or dead, we will go out and bring our lost sheep home," said Robert with an evil grin.

"You will be trained, much like the Cadre is, but with a rescue slant," he said as he addressed the crowd, a fire building in his eyes. "Welcome to the Kine Special Response Team, or as one of the Commanders geekier friends put it, welcome to the DocWagon."

The End


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