Chapter 31 - "You look like a prize prat right now."

Taylor opened the door and stepped out into the hall. A Marine was standing at a respectful distance outside the door. "Have you finished on the phone?"

Taylor nodded.

"Please follow me then."

Taylor followed as the Marine led him into the lift and down deep into the basement of the Embassy complex. This whole area looked like some kind of nuclear bunker... with a lightning bolt of realization he guessed that that's exactly what it was. This is where US Government business is carried on regardless of whatever is happening in the world above. The walls looked quite ordinary but he guessed there must but tons and tons of lead and concrete piled above, around and all about him down there. The Marine led him into a small office. Captain Flagg was waiting there. With him was a man Taylor pegged right away as being CIA, the sunglasses and serious expression gave it away. There were no formalities this time.

"Taylor before we begin your briefing Mr. Samson would like to ask you a few questions."

"Okay." Taylor sat down.

"As you know the US Government has influence within many different..." Oh dear this was going to be a long waffling boring propaganda speech. Taylor had no time for that.

"Cut the crap. You're CIA, what do you want?"

Mr. Samson looked a little taken aback, a smile crept onto Captain Flagg's lips. Then Taylor was sure he could see the beginnings of a smile on Mr. Samsons lips too.. he didn't hold it there for long though.

"Yes I am. We have an agent inside the terrorist group we believe may have been the one that carried out the hijacking..."

Taylor interrupted him again, "I know, Alexei Gregoriovich. He made contact with me the day before I left."

"He made contact with you?"

"Yes."

"What did he tell you?"

"He told me who he was and that if any of us wanted to try to make an escape he would do his best to distract the guards."

"Can you tell us anything about his demeanor?"

Okay thought Taylor, this is weird.

"He seemed very cautious, quite paranoid, but understandably so and very friendly, at least to me."

Taylor watched as Mr. Samson processed the information.

"Why don't you know this stuff?"

"Alexei Gregoriovich was a deep cover penetration. While with the Cell he was unable to make contact with us. A few days ago his beacon... much like the cellphone one you used although slightly more technical, went dead... we're worried for his safety."

Any animosity Taylor felt toward this man instantly went out the window.

"I'm sorry...he seemed okay. He helped me out. Once I knew he was there I knew I had to do this thing. And I think he was responsible for getting the guards away from where I was long enough for me to escape. Maybe even for when Zac did it too... I'm not sure. I hope he's okay."

"So do we. Thank you you've been a great help."

Then there was a momentary silence. Captain Flagg broke it.

"Taylor we have to get you outfitted and ready for the mission. Here let me show you the way."

Captain Flagg opened the door and Taylor got up to follow. Before leaving the room he turned once more to Mr. Samson.

"I hope you find your man."

For a moment he thought he could see the eyes behind those sunglasses.

"Thank you Taylor."

Isaac and Karen leaned against the wall opposite the bed where Zac slept peacefully. Neither of them said much as both of them watched Zac. After crying for a bit Zac had fallen asleep in Isaac's arms and Isaac had carefully disentangled himself from Zac and let him get comfortable on the bed for a good long rest. Whatever happened tonight... either rescue or... the alternative. Zac was going to need his wits about him so a good sleep seemed the best medicine for him. Besides, as Karen and Isaac were acutely aware it was the only medicine they had on hand.

"He doesn't look like trouble when he's sleeping."

Isaac smiled, "Yeah funny, isn't it?"

Karen cleared her throat, "Look Ike I feel sort of responsible for this... I did keep him up for longer than I should have the other night."

Isaac shook his head.

"Not your fault Karen, that was his choice. I'm his brother I should have noticed he wasn't doing too well. It's just with Zac it's hard to tell what is genuine lack of sleep and what is just... Zac."

Zac stirred, almost as though he had heard the sound of his name. Not so though, he just turned over and continued sleeping.

"What the heck is going to happen to us Karen?"

Karen swallowed hard before answering. "I wish I knew Ike, I wish I had the unshakable faith he has." She nodded toward Zac, "But I just don't know."

"If they transfer us... where do you think they'll be taking us?"

"It's hard to say... there's many different terrorist cells in the world... it can be anywhere really. Look Ike I know this isn't much help but where ever it is I don't think they mean us any harm. We're obviously far more valuable as living hostages than dead ones."

"That's for sure." Isaac sighed, "I guess there's no point wondering... what'll happen will happen. Right now we'd better start knocking together what we might find useful if... WHEN Taylor comes back with a rescue team."

Karen smiled, "That ain't a bad idea."

They knelt down and started rifling through their bags that lay scattered all over the floor.

Taylor winced, the belt bit into his flesh.

"Is that too tight?"

"It is rather." He felt a pair of experienced hands loosening the straps a little.

"How's that?"

Still hurts but bearable, "Okay."

The Corporal stood up in front of Taylor.

"Now you realize what your most important piece of equipment is?"

"My radio beacon and my water canister. Equally. You seem to have forgotten I'm not completely ignorant of the desert."

"Yes well you'd be best to try to spend as little time actually in the desert as possible."

"I'll keep that in mind."

Taylor rolled his eyes. If there was one thing worse than being treated like some pampered rock star it was being treated like a kid.

"HEY!" He felt a hand somewhere distinctly uncomfortable.

"I have to see if these pants fit properly, don't they seem a little tight?"

"They're fine."

Finally the Corporal stood back up.

"Are you done now?"

"No." he said reaching over to a table and picking up a black helmet sitting there.

"This is for you to wear in the chopper and on the ground. It comes equipped with night vision goggles and a small radio communicator for you. Try it on."

He pushed the helmet down onto Taylor's hair and at once Taylor felt it pulling at his hair.

"Ow! No way.."

"Hmm... can we cut your hair?"

"Can I cut off your head?"

"Okay... we'll tuck it under, just keep some hair ties handy or a hair net or something..."

"I'll cope." said Taylor grabbing the helmet from him and tucking his hair up like he would under a baseball cap. The helmet fit snuggly but not claustrophobically.

"Okay you pull out this little lever thing to activate the radio and you speak into here. You see?"

"I've got it."

"Oh and on your belt are three flares... should you become separated from the team these are for finding you at close range. First you use the radio beacon then once the search team is near you light one of these babies."

"Okay thanks."

Isaac sat by the small pile of clothes he had made from Zac's selection that looked to be warm enough for the desert at night. Whatever happened tonight it seemed like that was a given. He had added a couple of pairs of sunglasses to the pile. They seemed appropriate and a couple would give Zac the choice.. whatever his method of selecting accessories it inevitably occurred at the last minute so this was a good idea. Just under the bed he could see the bloodstained clothes Zac had been wearing that night. There was no where else to put them so Taylor brought them back in here before he left as a reminder of why he was doing this. The blood had dried to black now as had the blood in Zac's hair. It always looked like one of his home grown designs... heck maybe one day he would have prints made of the very same shirt. Zac Hanson blood souvenirs ought to fetch quite a price of the Hanson memorabilia black-market. Isaac smiled at the macabre thought. More likely Zac and himself and Taylor would never want to see anything that reminded them of that night. Some things are best left in the past.

He looked over a Karen. She was curled up on the floor asleep too... idly Isaac supposed that that's the very thing he ought to be doing too... but he didn't feel the need quite yet. Actually he was enjoying the peace and quiet of the afternoon to just sit and think. The last few days he had woken with an intense feeling of impending... something. Today when something no doubt will happen he felt a lot calmer. The inevitable was a lot easier to deal with than the unknown. Of course there was still unknown involved. Like where on Earth is Taylor right now?

He was in fact prancing down the hallways of the embassy feeling like the cockiest fighter jock ever born. There was certainly something to be said for this Special Forces suit. It felt like him. Oh yeah if felt exactly like him for sure.

"Who thinks he's hot stuff now then?"

Taylor turned and smiled as Mandy emerged from a doorway.

"You look like a prize prat right now."

"I know how jealous you are baby."

She rolled her eyes, "Yeah Lor, that's exactly what I'm feeling... excuse me I think I have to go pray to the porcelain God."

Taylor laughed.

"They gave me the works... everything regular Special Forces wear... except of course no gun."

"You'd shoot your foot off."

"I know. Both of them. Probably with one shot."

She laughed.

"Where are you going now?"

"I dunno... they said to be in the vehicle bay at two PM so I'm just passing time till then. Not that I know exactly where the vehicle bay is..."

Mandy could spot the invitation.

"C'mon I'll show you. Lor man... could you even tie your shoes without a woman around to help you?"

"I could.. but it wouldn't be as much fun."

She looked up at him. "You know I haven't the faintest idea what all those girls see in you... to me you're just a pig."

The wounded expression of Taylor's face must have been a sight to see because Mandy burst out laughing...

"Okay I guess there's something to you..."

"Admit it... I am hot stuff."

"Luke warm maybe.."

"Hot!"

"Tepid..."

Taylor punched her playfully in the shoulder.

"Hey it's five to, I think you'd better show me the way."

Mandy led him down corridors and through stairwells until they emerged into an extensive underground garage.

"Wow." Said Taylor looking around, "This is cool."

Nearby a line of trucks were being locked up after being loaded up with equipment and personal. In front of them was a line of landrovers. Captain Flagg was standing in front of one of those. He spotted Taylor and called out.

"Taylor come over here. We're to leave at once."

Taylor turned back to Mandy.

"I guess this is goodbye."

She cuffed him around the head, "Until tomorrow dimwit. You can introduce me to your brothers when you come back."

"Oh I thought I'd keep you all to myself."

She laughed. "Whatever you want Lor is fine by me."

Taylor grinned. "Look... just be here when I get back okay?"

She ran her hand down his shirt, "I promise."

Her eyes spoke to him, he leaned in and kissed her.

"I'll be back."

"I'll be right here.." He started to walk away, she called after him.

"Good luck!"

He smiled as he climbed into the landrover. Barely had he belted up before they took off... this thing was a go.

Far across the desert deep inside a stone world Isaac sat while Karen and Zac slept, he sat and he waited and he listened as the noises outside sounded more and more like impending... something.

.

Chapter 32 - "Zac your feet smell."

The plane roared off the runway in the mid afternoon sun. Taylor held onto the straps dangling nearby securely as the angle of ascent became more and more steep. He looked at the tough battle hardened men and women sitting with him in the plane and wondered what the hell he'd gotten himself in for. Just faintly he could hear the sounds of the two other planes... all C130 Hercules Transport planes lifting off from the airfield behind them. Life has it's peculiar moments. This was sure one of them. He felt a mixture of very different thoughts... starting with relief that they were finally on their way and that somebody was going to step in and take them all out of this bad situation. Also he felt uncomfortable... out of place, here he was, fifteen years old, a singer and performer by profession and he was with some kind of elite Army Tactical Squad about to participate in the kind of operation you only see in movies. Admittedly he wasn't going to see much action himself. His role was to go in after the guards had been taken care of on the top levels and direct Team Three down to the hostage detention area. Then he was to wait either outside or back at the plane depending on the safety of the area for Isaac and Zac and Karen and everyone else to be brought up from the surface. One thing was for sure. It was a fun way to spend a sunny December afternoon. Zac woke up after sevenish hours sleep. He felt a lot calmer and a lot more relaxed now and had a curious feeling that it was actually morning. Nicely too his injuries weren't plaguing him much today, his external bruising was so dull as to be almost unregisterable and his chest just felt a little tight, no more than when he had a bad cold. He smiled as he looked around the room. Karen was curled up on a pile of clothes - his clothes he noted wryly - in the corner fast asleep and Isaac was sitting against the wall also asleep. This however was not the time to be sleeping. Zac sighed... something must be done and yet again it falls to him to do it.

"ISAAC!!!!! WAKE UP!"

He couldn't be bothered actually physically doing something to wake him up so figured the loud shouting method would work as well as any other. And it did.

Isaac's eyes slowly opened.

"What are you shouting for Zac? I'm right over here."

Zac smiled to himself, "Sorry Ike I thought you were in the other room."

Isaac gave him a withering look, "What other room?"

"You know I take back what I said about you two. You're a total pain to be around." Karen had sat up from her sleeping position on the floor. "Now for what purpose have I been woken?"

"I was bored."

"Oh Zac..."

"You can oh Zac me all you like.. I know you still love me."

Karen threw a dirty shirt at Zac, "Not for much longer I'm thinking."

"Guys I think we'd better get fully ready. It's late."

"What's the time?"

"After sunset."

Zac pulled himself to a sitting position with his legs dangling over the edge of the bed.

"Ike can you grab my shoes?"

Isaac grabbed a red pair and threw them over to Zac.

"Not those one's Ike." Zac smiled, "I think you know what I'm in the mood for."

"Oh no." With a heavy heart Isaac pulled the yellow Doc Martins from underneath Zac's suitcase in the corner and put them at Zac's feet. Zac put on his most mournful face.

"Can you help me put them on?"

"Zac your feet smell."

"I know " Zac giggled, "Ain't it grand? Now gimme some socks and let's get busy."

Isaac resigned himself to his fate and pulled a pair of clean looking white socks from Zac's suitcase. At least they looked clean... though with Zac you never can tell. He pulled them onto Zac's feet.

"Aww man these smell worse than usual!"

"Hey brainsurgeon I haven't bathed in over a week!"

"Is that not normal?"

Zac ignored Ike's last remark.

"Besides I may have peed on them a couple of times too..."

Isaac recoiled even more. "Gross Zac... please don't tell me any more until I'm done here."

He pulled one shoe then the other onto Zac's feet and started doing up the laces.

"Double knots."

"I KNOW Zac... you know I am gonna get you for this. You'll be doing my washing for a month after you're better."

"I'll stuff your dirty socks into your mouth while you sleep."

"I..." It was pointless.. Zac always won these arguments.

Taylor woke with a jolt. Ow. He rubbed his head where it had smacked against the bulkhead. Maybe he should have been wearing his helmet sitting in his lap. Hey hang on... when had he been asleep? He didn't remember falling asleep but with the volume of the engines inside this cabin it cut out on any chance of normal conversation. There wasn't much else to do. He noticed why his head had smacked the plane like that. They had started their descent, it was quite obvious now. The angle inside the cabin was enough to send a bowling ball at high speed toward some skittles... providing there were some. Now he thought about it he could pick out the screaming of the air passing over the flaps over the screaming of the.. well.. engine. And the landing gear was sure to be down. That was probably what caused the bump.

No sooner had that thought entered his head another bump, followed by another one then a hard jarring series of them vibrated through the plane. Either they had just been hit by anti aircraft fire or they had landed. The ground breaks went on hard and Taylor was thrown against his belt. Now the plane rolled very shortly to a complete stop. And even before the engines had stopped spinning the doors were open and everyone was piling out of the plane.

The sight that greeted them upon emerging from the fuselage was surprising to every one of those Special Forces Personal but not to Taylor. He was absolutely used to this vista. They had landed in a cold barren desolate part of the Sahara Desert. Something Taylor honestly thought he would not see again so soon. If ever. The other Commando's were pouring over maps or checking their supplies or something so Taylor was left to just watch as the two other Hercules' landed nearby and all three of them began unloading their cargo. Two elite attack force high speed helicopters a piece. These would be their vehicles for the last part of the journey as the team skimmed low over and around the mountain range looking for the secret terrorist base. On board the helicopters they had the most sophisticated heat seeking, life seeking, newspaper-reading scanners ever made but they were still relying on Taylor to confirm for sure which mountain they were looking for and where the cave entrance was. Taylor was pretty confident he could do that but... as he watched the helicopters slowly spread their folded rotorblades he became totally aware how much this whole thing went way way beyond his life experience. He felt so out of place... so out of his league and frankly scared that a feeling of weakness came over him, it sapped his energy for a moment and he had to plop right down there on the sand in the middle of the desert. Captain Flagg must have seen him do it because he came over to Taylor virtually the moment his butt hit the desert floor.

"Cheer up old man," he said in his private school English accent. "You're about to see your brothers again."

He appeared to listen thoughtfully to his own words then wandered off. His words nailed the whole point of this back into a prominent position in Taylor's mind. To hell with all this James Bondian razzmatazz... what matters here... what the core of his reasons here was save Zac. Save Isaac. And get Karen and the rest of them out of there. Thoroughly remotivated Taylor got up from the desert and ran over to Captain Flagg.

"What would you like me to do?"

Isaac, Zac and Karen all sat on the bed, all fully dressed and prepared to leave. To go where ever fate dictated them to go. After all this waiting and all this uncertainty and all these nerves the hour was finally upon them. Zac still maintained his serene confidence in Taylor. Isaac wished he could be so sure, he was preparing himself for both salvation and disappointment. At least preparing himself as much as he could. Karen held onto Zac's hand. Not for his comfort he suspected but for hers. There they sat and they waited. Only Zac would break the silence at a moment like this. He spoke thoughtfully.

"You know, Taylor will be here soon."

Isaac and Karen said nothing, just hoped, prayed that it was true.

To Taylor's surprise the Hercules aircraft lifted off as soon as they had unloaded their cargo.

"What's going on?" He asked Captain Flagg.

"Huh? Oh they're going to circle the area waiting for us to call them back. It's too much of a risk to leave them on the ground unguarded in this area and we can't spare the manpower."

He lifted a crate of something Taylor strongly suspected was hand grenades and moved towards the nearest helicopter.

"Taylor can you open the door for me?"

Taylor ran ahead of him and complied, the crate fitted neatly into the back part of the chopper. When he turned back around, to his surprise Taylor saw all of Team Three had gathered around the Captain. He addressed them in his friendly clipped tone.

"Gentlemen and Ladies this is what we've trained to do. Special forces groups have a very high expectation placed upon them by the top brass and I expect you to exceed those expectations. You're going to be rescuing a lot of innocent men, women and children today... including the brothers of Mr. Hanson who has joined us today."

Taylor blushed.

"And we will hopefully be stamping out an infectious terrorist group before it can do anymore damage. I just wanted you to know that this is a good one people. I know a lot of what we're asked to do isn't entirely morally sound... this is the kind of mission that makes it all worth it. Good luck Ladies and Gentlemen," he smiled, "God willing I'll see you in the Officers Bar tomorrow night."

He turned back to Taylor as the group dispersed.

"Right jump in, it's about time to get airborne."

Taylor climbed into the chopper and belted himself in. He put on his helmet as he watched the others doing and marveled at the lightness and ease with which it lifted off the ground and into the sky. Six helicopters. A small swarm flying across the Sahara desert... they were away.

Their mountain vacation ended at approximately six fifty five PM that night. A guard opened the door and ushered them to their feet. Escorted they walked out of their room and down the hall to join the mass of human traffic emerging from all corners of the prison complex and flowing together into one long stream of people. The line extended across the dining room and into the corridor. Not even Isaac could see where the line was going.

First hills then bigger more mountainous terrain began to pass underneath the helicopter.

"Any of this look familiar?" Asked Captain Flagg.

"Fraid not." said Taylor shaking his head, "I was asleep for the first part of the way out and the journey out was a long time ago now."

He didn't seem at all disheartened.

"Shout if you see something familiar won't you?"

Taylor nodded, "Sure."

He peered intently out the window and watched the dusky desert... what on Earth was he even looking for?

"There's a lot more of them today aren't there?" Said Zac making casual conversation. Actually he had noticed that the other day. There seemed to be a tremendous build up in the size of the force guarding them. Maybe his and Taylor's escapades had made them beef up security.

"Look I think I can see where we're headed."

Isaac was peering intently at the front of the line. Zac stood on tippy toes and tried to see for himself but it was no good.

"What is it?" replied Karen.

"We're heading down that same corridor we came in here in."

"You sure it's the same one?"

"Looks like it to me... same one."

"We must be on our way to the buses."

"Let's get better seats this time."

Karen cracked a smile.

"Should I have worn something brighter so Tay can see me?"

Isaac looked down on Zac, his blue and yellow shirt and green pants were quite loud enough.

"I should have dyed my hair... orange or something." said Zac again thinking aloud.

Karen smiled at the thought.

"Hey can't you use Zac's cellphone signal to nail the location?"

Captain Flagg shook his head, "It's good for letting us know generally where you are but the signal gets bounced to and from so many mountains around here it's rather pointless."

Taylor felt bummed, he also felt the seat belt biting into him as they swung around the side of another peak. Before them were mountains spread as far as the eye could see.

"Are your sensors any good?"

"Not so far... but we do have an approximate location based upon what you told us. We do know it's within this hundred mile radius."

One hundred miles. Damn! Taylor smacked his head against his headrest. This could take all night...

"See the Commandant about?"

"No why?"

"I dunno I thought he might have wanted to see his favorite hostages off."

Zac smiled, "He'll want to make sure we're out of his hair!"

Isaac laughed, "Well then he's gotta be around here somewhere... checkin we actually get aboard the bus or whatever."

"Do you think we scare him?" Asked Zac still smiling.

"I don't think we're what he expected... I'll say that for sure."

The steady drone of the helicopter together with the constant "sameness" of these mountain ranges was putting Taylor to sleep. That was stupid. If there was ever a time when he should be staying wide-awake it's got to be now. Lives depend on it. He mentally slapped himself awake and renewed his attention out of the window. At least some of this scenery was enjoyable. For instance that mountain a little to the left of them with that symmetrical circle going around it about halfway up. Almost like a road... Taylor opened his eyes wide. His guts rushed up into his throat and prevented him from speaking for a second. Then...

"There!"

.

Chapter 33 - "So, Do You Play Baseball?"

The Officer sitting up front next to the pilot spoke at the same time. "I've got a reading! Two.. three.. four... multiple multiple readings!"

Captain Flagg peered over to where Taylor was pointing.

"Okay we've got a live one ladies and gentlemen. Contact Team One and Two."

The front seat officer went on the radio and alerted the other choppers.

Taylor felt a pang of excitement as he realized the moment had come. The helicopter banked right and went down low around the side of the mountain.

"Now what?" asked Taylor.

"Team One is going to make the penetration... they'll have the place secure within minutes. Get ready because we're not going to be on the ground long... jump out as soon as I open the door."

Taylor nodded. He felt the thrill of action as the ground came closer and closer.

The line stopped.

"What the heck is going on?" Said Isaac scanning the crowd ahead.

"Maybe someone fell over?" Offered Karen.

"Hey back off!" Zac was yelling, "I'm getting crushed here."

The crowd behind them was still pushing forward while the one behind them was pushing back. It was much like being caught in a vice.

"Hey cool it!" Karen called out to the people behind them,"We're getting squashed here."

The pressure eased.

Their helicopter hovered just above the ground on the opposite of the mountain from the cave entrance. Taylor watched, fascinated as two other helicopters touched down nearby and the Special Forces people leaped onto the mountainside in the half-light. They waited mere seconds to group together then ran off around both sides of the mountain. Taylor was sort of disappointed he wasn't going to see them actually go in but this was exciting enough.

Isaac, Karen and Zac were standing waiting in the corridor leading to the cave. They had been one of the last groups brought up in the lifts before the line abruptly stopped. Now they were just standing here in that narrow short passageway leading to the main big cave they had eaten dinner that very first night. No one ahead of them or behind them was moving. Guards occasionally pushed past them rudely moving back or forward to or from somewhere. Isaac and Karen managed to make a space for Zac to lean against the wall and be out of the crush. It was rather awkward for both of them but he looked like he could use it.

"So what now do you reckon?"

Karen shook her head, "They make one decision then suddenly they make another... it's a crap way to run a private army it is."

"Shall we make a complaint?" Isaac smiled.

"We'll speak to the manager at the front desk honey."

"I know you stole my good n' fruities."

Isaac and Karen both turned to Zac,"What?"

He smiled that nonsensical smile of his and said nothing. Good n' fruities... right.

"So... do you play baseball?"

"What?" Karen turned back to Ike.

"Do you play baseball?" He repeated.

"Oh yeah I do actually."

Isaac smiled, "Good. We should play sometime."

"We should."

"Are you any good?"

"Are you?"

Isaac gave her a bashful look... "Well I don't like to brag."

"He's crap."

Karen burst out laughing. Isaac glared at Zac.

"Shut up man! Ignore him Karen, he's just jealous."

Zac rolled his eyes... this was pathetic. Ike had chosen the oddest time to pull moves on Karen. Not to mention that she was married! Still he had to admire his brother's guts. He was still crapping on.

"I mean sure I didn't hit the winning home run but it was my bat so in a way..."

Karen was smiling at him. She seemed to be enjoying this. Actually she probably was Zac reasoned, it's not often an international sex symbol hits on you... oh no... now Zac was making himself sick.

BANG! "My eyes! My eyes!"

The air was suddenly filled with people screaming about their eyes and the thick smell of smoke. Everyone in the passageway instinctively dropped to the floor. Isaac grabbed hold of Karen and Zac's hands.

"Be calm okay. Be calm!"

Zac... although no one could see it through the smoke was smiling. Taylor had come back. Just like he said he would. And he brought smoke grenades. He heard short sharp bursts of gunfire and the smile quickly faded from his face. This wasn't over yet. He held Isaac's hand tight and prayed. Dear God please get us out of here alive.

And he tried to stay as still as possible.

Isaac felt his brother squeeze his hand and he squeezed it back for reassurance. Truth be told he was about as scared as he had ever been in his life. The gunfire seemed to echo around everywhere... he had no idea where it was coming from. All he knew was that something had happened... and more than likely it was the rescue Taylor had set out for.

Thank God.

He heard voices... voices with English accents.

"The hostages... they're right here!"

"Call Flagg... call Flagg!"

Captain Flagg's radio crackled to life. Although garbled and tinny Taylor could hear what it said.

"The hostages are already at the surface. They're gonna be caught in the crossfire!"

A feeling of panic gripped Taylor hard. The hostages were at the surface. He started to get all fidgety in his seat. Land this helicopter dammit! Captain Flagg turned to Taylor.

"Stay in this chopper. We'll call when we need you." The skids touched the ground as he said it and in a flash him and the other team three members on board this chopper were on the ground and running. Taylor watched as they ran around the curve of the mountain. The hell with this! He thought. He looked out the window... the ground wasn't too far away. He took a deep breath and kicked open the door and jumped with one movement. The pilot looked at him aghast through the cockpit window but could do nothing. Taylor picked himself up and starting running after Team Three. After all God helps those who help themselves.

Isaac lay on the ground panting... the smoke had cleared enough not to be choking but it was still very difficult to see. He could hear intermittent gunfire. There was a shooting match going on nearby but the acoustics in this place meant he couldn't tell where. Well whatever happened they were not in a safe place right now. He had a funny idea that more terrorists were going to come up from below and those lying in the hall would be caught in the crossfire. He did remember that the cave had a lot of rocky outcroppings to hide behind, it certainly offered more safety than this place did. He resolved to try for it as soon as they stopped shooting at each other.

Taylor skidded to a stop behind the rock Captain Flagg and two others were hiding behind. One of the other men saw him immediately and pulled him off his feet.

"Do you wanna get shot! Stay down!"

Taylor was winded as he hit the ground and for a moment he could only observe what was going on. There were small groups of Special Forces personal crouched behind rocks surrounding the opening to the cave. Nearer to the cave entrance he could see some of Team One laying low intermittently firing shots into the cave. One of them even appeared to be wounded...

Taylor felt sick. This is real, this ain't no game. He suddenly regretted his rashness jumping out of the helicopter.

He huddled closer to the rock.

"Don't go any closer."

Taylor looked up, Captain Flagg was talking to him.

"I understand you panicked but this is dangerous. You must not go any closer Taylor. These are real bullets flying out there. And we didn't bring you with us to get hurt."

Taylor nodded, he felt so foolish now. He wanted to throw up.

Captain Flagg must have sensed it because he put his arm around him.

"It's okay... you'll be safe. We're well out of range up here. Once I find your brothers I'll send them up to you."

Taylor smiled, that was nice of him. I wonder how he'll recognize... oh yeah... we're famous now. He felt a little better. The whole thing just seemed so surreal...

Isaac crawled a little closer to Karen and Zac.

"You guys okay?"

"Yup I'm fine."

"I'm okay Isaac."

"Okay... look guys we can't stay in here. I think we need to do something to help ourselves here. I've got an idea..."

He didn't say anything for a moment. Zac got impatient.

"Spit it out Ike!"

"Okay... I want to make a break for the cave. As soon as they stop shooting each other we've got to run for it."

"Isaac why?" asked Karen,"Isn't running toward the gunfire a little foolish?"

"Yes but we're going to be caught in the middle in a minute... you saw all the guards there are down below? Those guys are gonna be up here to reinforce the guys already up here as fast as they can. When they start shooting it's going to be right over our heads. We've got to break for it."

"I agree." said Zac. "The cave has lots of hiding places, we're a lot better off in there."

"Okay..." said Karen, "I believe in your judgement... give us a signal Ike."

"I will. I'll yell Banjo Kazooie! That's your signal."

Zac smiled. Trust Ike to keep his sense of humor at a time like this.

Taylor leaned against the rock stonily. He waited... for what he didn't know. Isaac and Zac were in there... just a few hundred feet away and he still couldn't get to them. It frustrated him to no end. Those bastard terrorists were putting up a fight. Screw them! This thing is getting old. He just wanted his family back... now is that too much to ask? He eyed the gun laying on the ground next to him. Captain Flagg had his back turned, he was quietly co-ordinating maneuvers over the radio. He'd never notice, Taylor could just grab the gun and run... and... No shut up Taylor that is the dumbest idea you've ever had. Taylor running into the cave brandishing a gun equals Taylor getting shot. Game over man. Nope no way, he hadn't come this far only to be tackled in the last five yards. This time he would sit tight and do things right and dammit he wanted to see his brothers!

Zac lay on the ground listening to the sounds of a lot of scared people nearby. He was actually one of them. This whole thing had gotten way too crazy way too fast. Now people were shooting each other. This wasn't right. This wasn't the way it was meant to be. He felt like getting up and telling everyone that "This is stupid! What are we doing? Why do you want to kill each other!!!?" Crazy man crazy....

Isaac listened... he listened hard... not for something but for nothing. For the beautiful sounds of silence. Because that was his signal, his cue, his moment of clarity... for better or for worse he would jump to his feet and yell for Karen and Zac to follow him. Together they would get out of this fear filled mass of people and run for it... run for freedom. Isaac closed his eyes, he strained every cell of his ears for a sign, a sign that it was time to go...

The guns fell silent, the terrorists were pulling back to reposition themselves. There it was, blissful noiselessness. Zac heard it, Isaac heard it, even Taylor heard it. Isaac didn't have to second guess himself, he jumped to his feet and yelled "Banjo Kazooie!" Zac pulled Karen to her feet and together the three of them ran.

Isaac saw the man running towards them first, following closely behind him were two others. They looked pissed and were all armed with M16 machine guns. Zac saw them after Isaac and suddenly felt very very exposed. He squeezed Karen's hand and yanked her further ahead. Isaac swerved to one side to get out of their way... they didn't even see him so intent were they on reaching cover themselves. The air exploded with firepower again as the Special Forces opened up on them. Karen pulled back, harder, on Zac pulling him to the ground behind where the Terrorists had slid down to return fire. They blocked the passageway with their bodies. Isaac saw a good hiding rock and dived for it... only then did he look up and see he was alone. Bullets bit the air.

.

Chapter 34 - "Let me have this okay Tay? I think I deserve it."

Isaac lay behind the rock breathing hard. He kept his head down until the initial flurry of shots had stopped, only then did he look up and realize Zac and Karen were nowhere to be seen. For an awful earthshattering moment he thought they'd been hit by the bullets but then common sense let him know there would be bodies if that was true. No, more likely they dived for cover before getting out of the passageway. And they were now laying and waiting for the air to clear so they could come out and join him. He looked around... the rock pretty much protected him from view by snipers from either side so he was safe. He decided to use the moment to catch his breath. "Where's Ike?"

"I dunno Zac.. keep down."

"I am keeping down... what happened to him?"

"I think he got out ahead of us."

"Is he out there?"

"I think so."

"Karen what if he's hurt?"

"He's not hurt Zac. Keep still... we've got to stay calm here okay?"

"I am calm I just want Isaac."

"So do I honey."

After a few minutes it became very clear there wasn't going to be any break in the shooting anytime soon. The terrorists were using the curve of the passageway to cover them as they took shots at the rescuers who were hidden in and around the passageway that leads to the entry of the cave. Bullets were flying helter skelter across this vast underground cavern with neither side able to score any hits. It was a frustrating situation. And especially so for Isaac who really was caught in the crossfire now. He figured he'd be safe enough as long he stayed against the side of this room. It was pretty dark in here and nobody could see him so he wasn't going to make an obvious target. Besides hopefully one side would realize the futility of this situation and regroup somewhere else. Then he would be free to... well the heck with it... he may as well try for an escape. The rescuers were obviously here to get them out of here anyway... it would be a nice surprise if one of the hostages were to make it really easy for them by walking into their arms. But for now all he had to do was keep cool and not get himself shot. Yup. That was priority Number One.

Taylor listened to the shooting echoing out of the cave. They made him feel distinctly nervous. He tried to tell himself that Isaac, Karen and Zac were probably safe far far far below them in that deep underground complex but part of his mind... that dreamer part of his mind kept telling him no. They are near and they are in danger.

"Who are they shooting at?"

Captain Flagg looked up at Taylor.

"Us."

"No not them... I mean who are we shooting at? What's happening in there?"

Captain Flagg stared at Taylor for a moment... perhaps weighing up how much to tell him. Then he sighed.

"Look." He sighed again. Taylor felt really nervous now, "Look... something went wrong in the infiltration. The hostages were already up here in that big room you described. We were fired on as soon as we hit the caves. The guards either knew we were coming or they were waiting there for something. It's nasty in there Taylor, both sides, us and them, we're sniping each other from different sides of the cave. But I can guarantee you one thing. No hostages have been shot that we've seen. Our men are the best in the world. They do not shoot anyone unnecessarily. And they will not let anyone else do that. Aside from that... pray Taylor. Pray for your brothers and for us and for everyone because it's so much in God's hands now."

Taylor hadn't expected that, not from a battle hardened Special Forces man. He was feeling very frustrated now.

"I am Captain. I've been praying ever since this freakin thing began. I'm looking for you to DO something though okay? You're not here for spiritual advice you're here to rescue the damn hostages!"

Taylor winced at the harshness of his own words. He hadn't meant it to come out that harshly.

"I'm sorry.. I just... I want this to be over."

Captain Flagg put his hand on Taylor's arm. He looked into his eyes.

"So do I Taylor. More than anything."

If Taylor was frustrated Zac was climbing the walls. Of course not literally. That would have got him shot or something. But laying on the ground just doing nothing while all this crap happened was one of the worst feelings in the world. He was glad to have Karen with him though. But it didn't make waiting any easier. The terrorists, three of them were only a few feet away. One of them crouched against the wall and leaned around the corner occasionally to take a shot. The second one lay on the ground with his eyes focused intently into the cave shooting at anything that moved. The third just sat against the wall with his eyes closed. His gun must have been out of ammo.

Zac felt a faintly ridiculous thought... it was bizarre but his mind just kept repeating it. These guys don't look so tough. I bet they'd stop shooting if I asked them to. He didn't know why but the idea wouldn't leave his head. Besides... what harm could it do. They weren't going to shoot him for asking!

Zac cleared his throat.

One of the terrorists looked in his direction for a moment then resumed what he was doing.

Zac cleared his throat even louder. Karen gave him a wide eyed 'What the hell are you doing?' look but he ignored it.

Two of terrorists looked at him. One went back to what he was doing but the other one was eyeing Zac up. He decided to say it.

"Excuse me." The other two looked around at him.

"Excuse me would you mind not shooting please? I'm getting really sick of this and it's loud."

There was silence for a moment. Then one of the terrorists smiled and shook his head. The other two resumed what they were doing. Oh well. It was worth a shot.

Isaac made slow progress around the side of the cave. He would shut his eyes and make a dash for the next large rocky outcropping of which there were a lot fortunately. He had done this about four times in ten minutes now and was about half way around the side of the cave. This WAS bizarre. He wasn't even sure why he kept moving. Surely the smart money would be on staying put but something in his mind kept propelling him forward. Same thing that had told him to make a break for this cave in the first place. Something was enticing him forward... maybe... maybe it was knowing that he was so near now. He just had to try for it. To stay put when you are this close would be just unbearable. Isaac closed his eyes, prayed and made a dash for the next rock about twenty feet away. He threw himself down behind it and waited for his heart to stop racing. Now to spot the next rock....

Taylor watched the moon rise over the desert.... well over the mountains to be precise. Already the temperature around here had dropped fast and his extremities were starting to feel the cold. Fortunately the Special Forces suit they had equipped him was versatile in the extreme... although it didn't seem much on the outside it was actually very snug and warm. He gazed at the moon coming up over the mountains and wondered if anyone who knew him - present company excluded of course, would believe it if they knew where he was and what he was doing right now. Taylor saw no reason why they would. He didn't believe it. This was all just too too trippy. It was like an action movie with all the long boring waiting bits edited back in. And yet he was too scared to actually go to sleep or do anything really relaxing... not that that would be very smart right now. He folded his arms across his chest to cover his hands which were feeling the cold now. The Sahara Desert is such a beautiful place at night....

BOOM

Taylor's head shot up from where he had been studying the soil in his vicinity. He saw the glow of fire from around the other side of the mountain. Captain Flagg glanced at him, Taylor could read all he needed to from the expression on his face. He felt his stomach twist into a tight knot.

BOOM

He could see the flash this time. With a sinking feeling he knew it was the helicopters.

Captain Flagg grabbed him and pulled him to his feet.

"Run Taylor! Get out here now!"

Taylor didn't need further instructions. He took off up the side of the mountain. It seemed the obvious thing to do. He could hear shooting now, close shooting not from in the cave but he dared not look behind for fear of what he might see.

Isaac was almost at the entrance now. This was as far as he dared go without being shot for his efforts. Now he was contemplating a way to attract the attention of the rescue team without them shooting at him. Suddenly he heard a muffled explosion....

Taylor jumped over a boulder sitting on the mountainside and hid on the other side of it. He looked up. He just had to. He saw terrible things. The remnants of the Special Forces team were....

BOOM

... valiantly fighting back against attackers who obviously had superior fire power. Rockets thundered out of the darkness to where they were hiding and ridiculed their attempts at defense. Taylor couldn't see what or who was shooting but it was clear who was winning this battle. He crouched as tightly as he could behind the boulder, closed his eyes and blocked his eyes waiting for the horror to end. It did remarkably quickly. He gave himself one glance to see what was happening. The surge of both relief and despair was almost overwhelming as he saw at least two dozen men in black clothes escorting the Special Forces people who had survived into the darkness with their hands above their heads. One of them turned and looked up the mountain, it was the Captain. Taylor sank back down behind the rock. What the heck do I do now?

Isaac was unnerved by the explosions for a second but he forced himself to concentrate on finding a pebble or something to throw over to where the rescue team was. He HAD to get their attention. Then everything would be okay, then Karen and Zac could be gotten out of here too and they'd all be safe and go home. Damn even that thought is distracting... nope... nothing else allowed on my mind just find a stone, not too large, something I can throw... something they won't shoot at so I can.... Isaac froze. He heard the crack of rifles and machine guns coming from the passageway ahead of him. But these weren't the same sounding cracks that the rescue teams guns made. Theirs were muffled, they obviously had silencers or something. This was a different sound. There was someone else in there. He heard the rescuers guns open up momentarily... they sounded right... then there was a sustained heavy burst of this new gun sound. Then.... Isaac's stomach wrenched up into his throat as he saw the body of a rescuer slump into the cave. A pool of blood slowly spread out from the body. Isaac pushed himself up against the rock as much as possible. He was breathing heavily. He had to hide from whoever had done that. Oh God get me out of here.

Zac saw the fear in the terrorists eyes as the heavy fire opened up. Then relief as they recognized where it was coming from. It was that look. The look of relief that made Zac sick to the stomach. Things had just turned for the worst. He looked over at Karen. She looked pale. He flattened himself to the floor and motioned for her to do the same. She did so. He didn't know why but it felt like the right thing to do. As he did he noticed something. They were alone in this passageway. Well aside from the terrorists of course. The rest of the hostages... they had left them behind when Ike lead them on the run for the cave. This passageway curved to the left about ten metres behind him and Zac guessed the rest of the hostages were still waiting there... but he felt alone. And it gave him an idea.

Zac heard a voice. The surge of hope crashed as he realized it was a foreign language.

The terrorists were talking to their buddies. The one's near him answered, they seemed jovial and somehow cool in their responses too... something like, "So you guys finally showed up." Like they had it completely under control. Oh yeah....

Zac heard footsteps. The other terrorists were coming this way. He squeezed Karen's hand to grab her attention.

"Play dead." He whispered as quietly as possible and to illustrate the point closed his eyes and just let his body relax. He heard the footsteps coming closer, there were a lot of them. They were shouting out to their terrorists buddies now, probably making terrorist small talk. They entered the passageway and Zac could hear hand shaking and back slapping and all that goes on when terrorists meet up. He prayed to God that this would work. They started moving, were they going to go right past him and Karen? Would the ruse work? He felt sick, almost like throwing up but that would defeat the whole purpose. He tried not to even breath. One of the terrorists kicked him in the side. It wasn't a vicious kick, just a friendly is-this-a-dead-body kick but still it brought horrible memories flooding back into Zac's mind. He forced himself to ignore them though and continued praying. They talked among themselves for a minute then moved on, walking behind him and around the corner where he could hear them order the other hostages to their feet and, he presumed, back into the lifts. It was a minute or two before Zac opened his eyes and saw that he and Karen were all completely blessedly alone. The biggest grin you have ever seen spread across his face.

Isaac listened to them walk across the cave and into the passageway on the other side with a considerable sense of relief. It was only when their voices faded that he dared look out from his hiding place. The cave seemed so big and empty now, there was no sound and practically no light. Only enough to see the horror not far from him. Isaac winced, he would have to go past the bodies to get out. But first things first, he had to find out if there was anyone still in there. Either on his side or on the other. And this involved a whole lotta courage. Isaac swallowed hard. Did he have it in him to go and look? Silly. There is no question. He had to go. Taking a deep breath Isaac stepped quietly out from his hiding place and moved slowly along the wall of the cave. He was watching the entrance way like a hawk for any sign of movement. Any at all and he would have bit the dirt as fast as gravity would take him. But there was none of course. Everyone in there was dead or had run off hopefully. He reached the corner around which lay the answer. Isaac just peered around it. There was no time for contemplation and no reason. There were lives to be saved here. It was empty. And the outside world was tantalisingly close. Isaac bit down on his lip and stepped over the still warm bodies of his rescuers. He wondered who they were... He felt the tingle of a cool breeze for the first time in too long. The stars were visible now through the mouth of the cave as he covered the short distance to open air he felt himself get fired up inside. Everything was going to be okay, he could feel it.

Feeling wonderful about himself and about life Isaac Hanson stepped out of the mouth of the cave and into the cool desert night.

Taylor couldn't believe his eyes! He had been watching the mouth of the cave for signs of survivors. After the second team of black clad commandos had gone in he felt very afraid. When he heard the gunshots he knew with a sinking heart a lot of the men and women who had risked their life to rescue his brothers and everyone else had just lost that gamble. He was waiting to see if anyone would crawl out mortally wounded perhaps but this... He blinked, rubbed the visor on his helmet and he got unsteadily to his feet. It was! But it can't be! But it is!

Taylor ran down the side of the mountain as fast as he could, it was a miracle he didn't trip on one of the not small rocks covering the land. Within ten or fifteen seconds he reached a very startled looking Isaac.

Isaac was enjoying the night sky, just enjoying being there when he heard rapid footsteps to his left. His heart froze as he saw a black clad figure running down the mountainside towards him. Curse my luck! he told himself. And he waited for whatever the inevitable would be. He prepared for the worst. Only nothing happened. The black clad figure, who come to think of it looked kinda skinny, ran towards him then just stood there for a second saying nothing. Isaac figured he'd have nothing to lose speaking to him... nothing he hadn't already lost.

"Aren't you a little skinny to be a terrorist?"

"What?" Taylor pulled off the Special Forces helmet realizing Isaac didn't recognize him with it on. He grinned broadly.

"I'm Taylor Hanson. I'm here to rescue you!"

Isaac opened his mouth to say something but no words would come. Tears were steaming down his face and down Taylor's too. He flung his arms around his brother and spoke in a croaky voice.

"It's so GOOD to see you!"

Taylor hugged him back.

"I told you I'd be back man! Don't get all gushy on me."

"Just let me have this okay Tay? I think I deserve it."

Taylor gripped him even tighter, "I think I do too."

His brother's embrace felt so good.

Zac and Karen waited two, three, four minutes before finally making their move. There was no sound around here now. No nothing. It was like everything that had happened had just been a nasty dream and now sweet quiet reality had come back.

Zac got to his knees and dusted off his pants. Karen sat up next to him.

"You reckon it's safe?"

She nodded. "I think we ought to get out of here."

He grinned. "I'm with you on that. Let's go."

Karen and Zac got to their feet and walked cautiously out of the passageway and into the big vast amphitheatre cave. It was completely silent and very cool. They paused for a moment before taking a step forward. The cave entrance looked so enticingly close yet so far away.

"Don't run, keep your footsteps quiet. Be ready to hit the ground any second okay?"

"Yup I think I'm getting used to that drill."

"Hopefully you'll never have to use it again sweety."

Zac and Karen set out.

The sound of a truck engine rudely interrupted Taylor and Isaac's reunion. Taylor didn't even hesitate to grab Ike by the hand and drag him up the mountainside to where he had been hiding up till just now. Together they watched as a truck drove up to the cave entrance and four more terrorists got out.

"This is getting ridiculous... how many are there?"

Taylor could only nod in agreement with Isaac. There seemed to be an ever-growing supply. He watched in wonderment as these terrorists stood back and watched while the truck was driven around in circles. Only then did it dawn on him what they were doing. They slowly backed the truck up until it blocked the entrance to the cave.

He heard Isaac gasp, "Oh no."

Zac and Karen were maybe a third of the way across the cave when they saw the light disappear from in front of them. Simultaneously they heard a voice shout out in Serbian behind them. Zac needed no warning, he dived to the ground while Karen dived to the cover of a nearby rock. He looked round to see a man running towards him holding a gun. He must have seen them walking.

Damn!

Damn!

Damn!

The man reached him and grabbed Zac by his collar and pulled him to his feet. Zac felt his whole body go limp. The memory of that night came pouring back into his mind. He tried to block it but it didn't work. Tears were pouring down his face. The man was shouting at him in Serbian except Zac couldn't understand a word... he mumbled a response... something like, "I don't understand." But all he got was more shouting. The man's voice got louder and louder as he got more and more impatient with Zac. Finally he dropped him to the floor and kicked him in the chest. Zac felt indescribable pain flood his entire body.

He shut his eyes and just tried not to scream. The intensity of it was so strong he almost passed out. But he couldn't! Not now. He heard Karen's voice. It made him open his eyes. He saw the barrel of a gun pointing at him. The man was still shouting only now he was in so much pain he could not even hear. He saw Karen run over to him, she grabbed the gun and pushed it away. Zac felt an icy feeling mix in with all the other pain. The man tried to hit her with the gun and she grabbed it and held it. The man got more and more angry. Zac felt pain ripping through him.

A shot rang out.

.

Chapter 35 - "'God only knows."

Zac cried out. Not in his own pain but in sheer horror. Karen fell to the ground next to him. Her face an impossible contortion of pain and shock. The man realizing what he had done took fright and ran off... he probably wouldn't report what had happened to anybody. In a well run operation the random shooting of prisoners was as frowned upon as anywhere else. A red stain spread slowly across Karen's blouse. Zac pulled himself to his feet despising the pain he felt as he did so. The will to do this was much stronger than he had ever experienced before. He grabbed Karen by the arms and pulled her over to the side of the cave. There in the very dim light he could still see the beauty of light shining in her eyes. It was the shimmering effect of tears. He sat down and pulled her head and shoulders onto his lap. Zac was more scared now than he had ever been in his entire life. But he had to say something.

"Karen be cool okay? Just lay still and you'll be okay."

Karen's eyes focused back from the vague stare and looked at him. She whispered something very quietly.

"Please.... please tell me how bad it is."

Zac closed his eyes. He took a deep breath. He reached down and untucked her blouse and slowly lifted it up her stomach. There about two inches above her belly button and a little to the left was a neat round hole which blood steadily flowed out of.

"It's a belly wound." He said, "Hold still I have to stop the bleeding."

She nodded and closed her eyes. Zac calmed himself down. The rational part of his mind was telling him that yes stopping the bleeding was the key right now. Some pressure had to be applied. And he was the man for the job.

Zac looked around for something to use. All they had were the clothes they were wearing. A T-shirt in Zac's case and orange pants and a flight attendents uniform in Karen's case. It was the only clothing she brought with her. Well he wasn't going to ask her to take her own clothes off. That was obscene and beyond rude. It would have to be his T-shirt. He guessed the bats or whatever there were hanging around this cave could handle the sight a pasty white chest. Zac pulled off his T-shirt and bunched it up into a ball.

"This is gonna hurt okay?"

He pushed the shirt against the bullet wound. Karen winced automatically. He felt her whole body tense up and her saw her trying to breathe through it. Zac got scared.

"If it hurts too much I can take it off..."

Karen weakly raised a hand, she whispered through the pain.

"No... leave it there... apply pressure... must stop bleeding." He saw her visibly exhausted just from that effort. Tears sprung to his eyes. Never had he felt so frustratingly powerless. Most of all he just wanted to cry out "HELLPP!!!!" but he knew the help they would get would not be a good kind. Most likely they would shoot Karen to put her out of her misery... there is no time for the wounded down here.

He felt her tugging on his arm, he looked over to her. She made an effort to raise her head this time and spoke a little more calmly.

"You've got to find out if there's an exit wound okay? I might be losing blood from both sides. Lift me up a little, see if there's blood on my back."

Zac nodded, he rolled her up as gently as he could and examined her back carefully. He rubbed his hand all around and it came back clean. No exit wound.

"Nothing."

She seemed relieved. "Okay. You're doing good Zac... hang in there buddy."

Zac lay there just listening to Karen breathe without saying anything for what seemed like forever. Everytime she took a breath there would be a short pause before she breathed out. Each time that happened his heart leapt into his throat. The rush of relief when she breathed again felt good every time. But none of that could overwhelm the fear he felt in his heart. This was heavy stuff... Karen was lying on him badly wounded and he was the only one she had. The only one who could help her and he didn't have a clue what to do. The sense of helplessness was both real and very constant. He didn't have a clue what else he should be doing so he just lay there cradling her. Lay there cursing the guard who had shot her and cursing the truck parked in front of the way out.

"Zac?"

Each word came out a little shrill. He could tell she was forcing them through painfully clenched teeth.

"Yeah?"

"Zac I don't mind if you talk to me. Any kind of distraction would be good ."

Zac smiled a fake smile. Even though she probably couldn't see it he felt like she could sense the smile vibes. He wondered what to say...

"So... I spose how you feeling is out of the question?"

He felt her smile vibes.

"Oh piss off Zac."

He smiled, for real this time.

"Karen?"

"I'm here."

"Taylor's come back. You know that."

"I know."

"He's come back and by the look of it he bought a small army with him."

"Uh huh."

"Man he's having some fun for sure... he's so lucky. He alway gets to do the fun stuff."

"Hanging with me is not fun?"

"That's a different kind of fun...."

She smiled. "I bet he's thinking the same thing about you Zac."

He sighed, "Big brothers always have all the fun."

"Little brothers get away with anything."

"I know. I guess that ain't bad either."

She laughed. Or she sort of half laughed/coughed.

One hour turned into two as the night wore on and Zac just yammered on to Karen about anything and everything, pausing every so often for Karen to drop a Karenlike pearl of wisdom that never failed to make him see things more clearly. Zac already admired Karen a great deal for her compassion and her kickass attitude in dealing with this whole situation but now he was really getting to know her as a person and he found she was one of the coolest adults he had ever met. Actually she was one of the coolest persons he had ever met. Period. He never even wondered how he ended up having so much in common with a woman somewhere near three times his age. It was just... cool.

All this time Karen's condition was never far from his mind however. He felt her tense up in a spasm of pain every few minutes, she tried to be as quiet as possible so he wouldn't know but he knew. And it broke his heart every time it happened. She could be so stubborn sometimes... He stroked Karen's hair as he talked and it began to worry him that as the hours passed her hair got wetter and wetter. She was evidently sweating a lot but as his goose pimply skin told him quite clearly it was cold in here. But she didn't acknowledge any of this as she continued to listen in happy confidence to Zac's tales of his life and times. She was trying not to make him worry and it just made him worry more. This was silly.

So he had to say something...

"And then we went to Trinidad and this Concert featuring only Steel Drums and.... uh.... Karen? Please tell me the truth. How bad are you?"

She didn't say a word for at least forty-five seconds. He began to distinctly believe she'd passed out. Then she spoke.

"I want you to do something for me Zac."

Dread gripped him. "What?"

"Lift up your shirt for a minute and poke the skin around my wound. Gently please."

Of course... duh. Okay I can do this. He lifted up the bloodstained T-shirt. The fate of two of his T-shirts now he noted wryly. With two fingers he pushed lightly into the flesh at various spots around her bullet wound. She winced several times.

"Enough?"

She nodded. He couldn't see it but he could feel the movement in his lap. Zac took his fingers away and put the shirt back in place.

"Well?"

"It's okay."

"No it's not Karen. I felt you wince. Tell me!"

Another frustrating moment of silence.

"It could be many things...."

"Please Karen. I know you know. Please tell me."

"It's.... okay I feel really messed up down there. I'm no expert of this but the amount of pain I felt is co-ordinate with a punctured intestine."

"Is that bad?" He already knew the answer.

"That's bad. It means the contents are leaking into my bloodstream. It's a toxin. Like a poison. It's bad."

Zac nodded, he couldn't speak. The unspoken was scaring him far more than what she had said now. Finally he spoke.

"Can I do anything?"

"You're already doing... everything Zac. I really do appreciate it."

"I love you Karen."

Whoa... that was unexpected. For her too.

She was genuinely shocked for moment, he waited to hear her response.

"I love you too Zac. You're so special to me sometimes it amazes me. You're like no thirteen year old I've ever met."

"Then stick around okay? For me."

"I'll try."

Those words bit like ice into his bones.

He decided to stay positve. For her.

"I've never said that before. Not to anyone not related to me."

"I'm honoured."

"Just don't go telling all your girlfriends okay?"

"So can I tell the teeny magazines?"

He rolled his eyes. "Oh man they'd kill me. Please... PLEASE don't tell them."

He laughed, she laughed.

Hours passed... the day passed from night into early morning as the midnight hour passed and then one and two went by without anything changing. Zac sat against the rock with Karen cradled in his lap. He watched over her as she drifted off to sleep then woke up then drifted off then woke up then drifted off again. A couple of times Zac caught himself falling asleep too but he woke himself up before too long. No he pretty much stayed awake the whole time. Always listening to Karen's breathing and watching her chest rise and fall in the darkness. There seemed to be no dramatic change in her condition as time passed. Her breathing was still regular but a little raspy. And every so often a spasm of pain would make her whole body go rigid for a moment before fortunately it passed. The whole time Zac worried, a million concerns floated around his mind but the only one he cared about right now was Karen's condition. What she had said chilled him to the bone. He knew enough about toxic poisoning to know it was very very serious. It just made him so mad to know all this evil stuff was flowing through her veins right in front of him and there was nothing he could do about it. But most of all he just wanted to hold her as she had held him and make it all go away.

The memories of that day were fresh in his mind. Karen had just seemed like someone he could instinctively trust. He didn't know why he felt that he just did so he dropped the "I'm tough" act around her and let her in. And it felt good to know someone cared. She had helped him immeasurably in the days since. He was pretty sure she had been the only one holding him and Ike from going crazy all those days locked in that room.... she was an angel. And now he was going to lose her.

Tears poured down his face as his mind said those words. He tried to fight the idea but it wouldn't leave. It felt too real. No way. He was not giving up this easily. He was going to do everything possible to save her. Or die trying. Hard words but at that moment he meant them. But had to ask the one person he knew would know what to do. Right now that person was Karen. As odd as it may seem. He spoke her name quietly to wake her up.

"Karen."

She stirred a little. Her eyes fluttered open. Guess she hadn't really been asleep.

"Yes?"

"Can I go for help?"

She stared at him for a moment. He wondered if he had said the wrong thing.

"I'd love that Zac but.... what kind of help will you find out there? This is the desert."

She had a point.

"I have to try something."

"I...." She started to say something but didn't seem to want to finish.

"What is it?" He was genuinely curious.

"I'd rather you stayed here with me Zac. I don't want to be alone right now."

Of course! He smiled so toothily she MUST have seen it.

"I'll never leave you Karen. Rest easy... you're right. I can't go anywhere. Thanks."

"Don't mention it Zac... I understand how frustrated you feel."

She does? He nodded.

"But really... you're doing the best you could posssibly do. You're a real find Zac Hanson. If I was twenty years younger..."

"And not shot."

"Of course... well... you know."

This made him feel good.

He drifted off to sleep again, though he would deny it, later, but a horrible sound woke him. Karen started coughing. Loudly. Hacking coughs that seemed to make her whole body shake. Zac's eyes opened wide as he held her tight.

"It's okay Karen... it's going to be okay... just be cool... it's okay..." Ironically he felt anything but what he was telling her. She didn't respond, she couldn't. He tipped her head forward a little to open up her airway and she seemed to have a respite for a moment. Then her whole body convulsed and she coughed blood. Zac couldn't see it but he could feel it running down his fingers and his arms. It scared the crap out of him. This is when he started praying heavily. And a minute or so later his prayers were answered. The coughing stopped. But he knew now. He knew what was happening. Zac blinked back his tears.

"Karen."

She made a sound he took as a response.

"Don't be scared okay. I don't know if you believe in God but I do and I know he's waiting for you. Don't be scared Karen. He'll look after you."

She made a gurgling sound. He wondered if she was drowning in her own blood. To his relief she coughed to clear her throat and repeated what she had said.

"She."

Zac laughed, he couldn't help himself.

"She'll look after you Karen. You can diss men together."

"Only some men Zac... I know some men who are very special."

He blushed. An idea occured to him.

"Karen. Karen can I sing to you?"

"I think I'd like that."

"Just lay still okay. You're very privileged."

She smiled. Zac cleared his throat and hoped he remembered the words.

I may not always love you
But long as there are stars above you
You never need to doubt it
I'll make you so sure about it
God only knows what I'd be without you


If you should ever leave me
Though life would still go on believe me
The world could show nothing to me
So what good would living do me
God only knows what I'd be without you


God only knows what I'd be without you
If you should ever leave me
Though life would still go on believe me
The world could show nothing to me
So what good would living do me
God only knows what I'd be without you
God only knows what I'd be without you
God only knows what I'd be without you
God only knows what I'd be without you
God only knows what I'd be without you
God only knows what I'd be without you
God only knows what I'd be without you
God only knows what I'd be without you
God only knows what I'd be without you
God only knows what I'd be without you
God only knows what I'd be without you
God only knows what I'd be without you
God only knows what I'd be without you


As the last echoes faded from the underground cavern Zac heard Karen whisper a very faint, "Thank you Zac."

He brushed his hand across her face and felt it was wet. With tears this time. He held onto her tightly now. There was really nothing more he could say. Her breathing became more and more laboured. Its shudders of pain came faster and faster. He held onto her and he prayed. Something inside him kept him calm. Something told him to keep doing what he was doing.

Something made it feel right. Something told him it was time.

Zac bent down and kissed Karen on the cheek.

"Goodbye. I love you." he whispered.

"Always." he heard her faintly reply then her whole body went rigid for a second.... It relaxed into the most amazingly free state he had ever felt.

Karen died just before sunrise on a beautiful African day. Zac wept, he knew her soul was free from this prison now but he wept. God only knows what'll he be without her.