After the initial adrenaline rush was over they floated quietly together, drifting upon the slow swell of the waves for another ten minutes before Ramos verbalized what the other three men had also been thinking.
"They're not coming back for us. If they were then they would have been here by now."
Ramos looked worriedly around at each of the battle-wearied faces. The inflated jacket kept Curran afloat, his arms spread wide, eyes showing that the man himself was still not quite with the rest of them as his mind continued to float between this world and another, drug-induced dimension. There seemed to be deep lines etched into the boyish face; lines that had not been there before they started this mission. He swallowed hard. Curran was more than just his lieutenant; more than just a team leader... he was also his friend and he wanted to reach out and smooth those lines of pain away. His attention turned to the others before Curran could focus on him and read the concern that was so painly written across his face. Hawkins was treading water easily, giving credence to Curran's claim that the man was part-fish, but Leary seemed less steady, his breathing a little more erratic as time passed. Ramos wondered whether the additional pressure of having to see to Curran's wounds was getting to the medic. He knew Curran was hurt bad... and he knew they all expected Leary to work a miracle nonetheless. Ramos let his feet move smoothly beneath the water. He was free-floating... just like Leary and Hawkins, but none of them could do so forever. He spoke again, hoping to draw a response from one of the others.
"So, what do we do?"
Leary gave both him and Hawkins a grave look, his eyes darting towards their team leader.
"Whatever we decide we'd best do it on dry land. Curran needs to have those wounds re-dressed... and he can't afford to catch a chill."
Hawkins glanced across and noticed the increased awareness in the lieutenant's pain-filled eyes as the effects of the morphine slowly wore off. His attention was drawn back to Leary as the other man continued, smiling slightly at the fearful tone.
"Anyway, I don't know about you guys, but I don't plan on becoming shark meat."
"I don't think there are any sharks out here..."
"Yeah? With the amount of blood in the water, I'd still feel safer if we got back to shore."
The flippers made it easy to swim back, but Curran was a dead weight as they half-carried, half-dragged his water-soaked form from the water. They laid him down on a patch of rough grass, wincing at the hiss of protest he made as he tried, but failed, to ignore the pain that radiated outwards from his side and leg. He assisted as best he could as Leary and Hawkins pulled the water-logged clothes from his body, spreading them out to dry off in the warm, early morning sun. Ramos reappeared moments later with a bundle of cloth in his arms, dropping it in a pile beside their wounded leader.
"Liberated some native clothing. Another hour and we'd start to cook in this lot."
He indicated the dark uniform and neoprene that had been such an advantage during their night mission into Beirut but would be completely impractical under the intense heat of the Middle Eastern sun. Once Leary had changed the bandages, he helped the medic to dress Curran. Even without the fluid loss from his wounds, Curran was the least advantaged of the group; his blond hair and fair skin was ill-suited to this climate. Already, Ramos could see sweat beading above the pale, full lips... and the sun had barely risen.
Hawkins pulled on the ill-fitting pale clothes and then sat down a few feet away, back towards the others as he gazed out across the beautiful blue of the Mediterranean Sea. With Curran out of action he had become the team leader. It was now his responsibility to get them out of there, but, as far as he could see, they had just two options open to them.
One: they could head back into Beirut and try to find the boy who had guided them to the school house where the missiles had been stashed. Ali would have all the right contacts, could probably, at the very least, get a message out to arrange a new pick-up, but finding one boy among the ruins of that once great city would be like trying to search for a needle in a haystack full of nine-inch spikes. As he glanced back towards the quiet city he wondered at how life could still go on. The fighting seemed to ease up with the first rays of the new day and, as they fled the city, Hawkins had noticed the movement of women and children, the survivors, crawling out of the dilapidated buildings to begin what must be a daily hunt for food and water. Why they stayed he could not guess. One thing he was pretty sure of, though, was that the 'ceasefire', for want of a better word, would end as dusk fell over the city.
He turned his mind to the second choice, which was really two choices in one...
They could follow the coast south, down to Israel, or north into Syria. Either would be dangerous as the Lebanon was a cauldron of boiling anger and seething resentment from wounds, both modern and ancient. In fact, the whole of the Middle East was in a softly roiling state of unease where small incidents led to sporadic fighting. At least there was a lessening of hostility between the Israelis and the Palestinians within the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, but he still felt a little uneasy about taking what amounted to a seventy mile journey in either direction along the coast of a country at war with itself.
He sighed. Which to choose? With another even larger sigh he realized that Option One was never in the running. They would never find the boy and would get themselves killed real fast if they stayed around any longer. They had to start moving; give themselves plenty of daylight to put as much distance between themselves and Beirut before night fell over the city. Hawkins reached into his pocket and pulled out a coin.
"Heads, Israel; tails, Syria." He flipped the coin into the air but it dropped to the ground as his attention was caught by a soft, pain-filled voice.
Hawkins pushed to his feet and rushed over to drop by Curran's side.
"Hey, fellow cake-eater. How're you doing?"
Hawkins exchanged a meaningful glance with Leary, reading the concern in the field medic's eyes. He reached out to prevent Curran rising; grateful when the man dropped back without too much of a fight. Hawkins pushed a damp lock of sun-bleached, blond hair from the sweat-dampened forehead but flinched when Curran grasped his wrist to grab his attention.
Hawkins looked out over the Mediterranean then back to his lieutenant.
"Why? It's got to be... what, a hundred miles away across open sea."
"You think... I didn't plan... for... Jesus..." Curran screwed up his eyes as a wave of pain washed over him. He re-opened green eyes that were glassy with the remaining morphine and renewed pain before carrying on, "...all eventualities?"
Hawkins found his cheeks heating. Curran was nothing if not meticulous with his planning. He should have realized the man would have prepared a fall-back plan should they not complete the task before dawn, but then embarrassment turned to confusion... and then to anger.
"And just when were you planning on telling the rest of us?"
Curran had the good sense to look chagrined. He *should* have ensured the others knew what to do before they left the plane. Certainly, he should have told Hawkins but he had to admit that, where Hawkins was concerned, he hadn't been thinking straight. He was still carrying a whole lot of anger towards his second. Billy Graham had been his friend... and he blamed Hawkins for the loss. There was little he could do to rectify that mistake now, except to point them in the right direction. Curran noticed that Ramos had drawn closer so he could overhear although the dark eyes still raked around their perimeter, watching for any signs of danger.
"We'll need a boat..."
"Hell, if I'd known that before then I wouldn't have blown up that..."
"Can the attitude, Hawkins." Curran grimaced as pain lanced through his thigh and abdomen. He continued more softly. "It ain't helping any."
Curran started to struggle again and, with a little reluctant assistance from Leary, he finally managed to sit up, leaning back against the medic.
"The British have a military... presence on Cyprus. They were... to be informed if we failed to keep... the rendezvous. Our people... were going to ask... them... to keep a look-out."
"So, all we need to do is steal a boat and head north-west across one hundred miles of the Mediterranean to Cyprus where the British may, or may not, be looking out for us." Hawkins let the words hover in the air for a moment and then took a deep breath. "Sounds like a plan to me."
He reached out and placed a hand on Curran's shoulder, seeing the gratitude written in those soft green eyes then, looking up with a devil-may-care smile, Hawkins gave Leary a high-five before flashing a grin at Ramos.
"There's the remains of a port about a mile along the shore. Should be one or two boats anchored there. You and Leary lay low. Ramos and I will go fetch your transport."
Curran waited until the others were out of sight and earshot before he addressed Leary.
"How... bad is it?"
"As bad... as it feels?"
"Worse. The morphine is still kicking around your system. Another half hour from now and you'll be in screaming agony."
Curran nodded his head, wisely, well aware of his condition but needing to hear it nonetheless.
"Hawkins should have... left me. I ordered him..."
"He wasn't the only one with selective hearing. None of us was gonna leave you behind."
"Well... probably not gonna... make much... of a difference..." Curran took a deep breath, breathing out raggedly. "I'm not gonna make it."
"Yes you are. We didn't drag your sorry ass all the way out here just for you to give up."
Curran laughed, hoarsely, reaching out to clasp Leary's hand. His grip tightened as another wave of pain rolled over him bringing blessed unconsciousness.
The ground seemed to be undulating beneath him as he clawed his way back through the fog of pain and morphine. He could hear the soft lap of waves against wood, could smell the salt in the air. When he opened his eyes he saw a beautiful blue sky above him, surrounding the dirty white of a thick canvas sail. A makeshift shelter of cloth had been placed over the top half of him to give some protection from the worst of the sun but the strong breeze kept lifting it from its moorings.
"Welcome back to the land of the living."
"Where..." Curran coughed, surprised by the rasp of his voice as he tried to speak. His throat felt like sandpaper, all rough and scratchy, and his tongue felt thick and dry. Curran sucked, gratefully, at the moist cloth that was placed against his cracked lips.
"We're about ten miles out, heading exactly north-west. We should have passed into international waters by now... but who knows."
Curran shuddered as Leary pulled back his shirt and checked the pressure bandage he had applied earlier. The medic pursed his lips. Curran had lost a lot of blood and, if they didn't get him to a specialist medical facility soon then his chances of making it would be pretty slim. At least the bullet had passed right through his leg, causing a minimal amount of damage, and yet, this alone would still be enough to kill him if they didn't get rescued soon. Leary sighed, knowing it could have been far worse. A few centimeters one way or the other and it would have clipped the artery. Curran could have bled to death in minutes. Even the gut shot was lucky... if there was such a thing as a lucky gut shot. The bullet had gone through soft tissue, missing all the major organs, but again, the continuing loss of blood made it a serious threat to the man's life.
Hawkins crawled over and sat down beside the injured man, leaving Ramos to steer the boat alone for a moment. He had spoken to Leary about an hour ago and he knew there was little chance of Curran making it through the night. He gave a nod to the tired medic, requesting as much privacy as they could afford on such a small boat. The other man stepped over the pair and moved aft to help Ramos.
Even though the bright sun was overhead, Curran's pupils were dilated, unevenly, the soft green forming a corona around the black. Hawkins pressed the moist cloth against the dry mouth, watching those full lips part as the eyes closed, believing Curran had slipped back into sleep. He stared for a long moment at the lieutenant's face, etching the features into his memory as he wondered if this would be the last living sight of this man. His mind pulled back with a start.
"You... should have... left me. Ordered you..."
"I couldn't. I couldn't leave you behind. You're not just the team leader - you're also my friend. I..." Hawkins bowed his head as he fought to find the words that seemed just out of reach. The last few hours had given him plenty of time to think, and he knew he may never get another chance to say these words to Curran. He felt the burn of tears behind his eyes. "I'm sorry about the Chief. I fucked up... and I'm sorry."
He was hardly aware as Curran reached up and patted his cheek. Eyes darkened further with grief met his own, but a glimmer of hope crossed Hawkins' face as he recognized the wry smile that lifted the corners of Curran's mouth. He opened his own to say something more but froze, head lifting, eyes focused inwards as he extended his other senses outwards. Hawkins turned his head, quickly, to the front of the boat, standing suddenly. The boat dipped precariously.
"Hey, what the hell...?"
"Shut up." Hawkins pointed as Leary's and Ramos' eyes widened in knowledge; a distant thudding noise drifting into their hearing. He began to wave his arms. "Yes. Come to Mamma, baby."
Moments later a Sea-King helicopter circled high overhead, its tail bearing the blue, red and white roundel of the British Royal Airforce. It moved off to one side, losing altitude before a diver leaped from the cockpit into the sea. The man cut through the water swiftly, reaching the small boat in minutes. The diver didn't bother to clamber on board, unsure if the boat could take the extra weight; it was little more than a dinghy and was not built for deep sea trips. There was a real fear that the whole thing could flip over if the sea chopped up any more, which was why the helicopter kept its distance.
"Anyone here want a lift? If so, then your carriage awaits."
The diver took stock of the situation on-board the small craft and formed his own mental plan on how the survivors would be hoisted out. It was quickly decided that Ramos should swim out with the diver and be winched on-board. Leary and Hawkins could only watch as the winch was lowered and both Ramos and the diver were lifted from the sea. Once inside the cockpit, a few minutes passed before they saw a cradle being lowered with the diver. Leary and Hawkins waited until the diver had pulled the cradle over, and then helped him place Curran into it, strapping the injured man securely. They leaned over the sides of the boat as the diver hauled the cradle away, watching as the winch was lowered once more. The cradle spun slowly as it was winched on-board and Hawkins found himself sighing in relief when hands reached out to pull it inside.
Less than ten minutes later, Hawkins was seated inside the cockpit, the last to be winched to safety. He watched the small boat become a black dot in the distance as the helicopter banked sharply away, and then he looked back down at the activity beneath his feet. Leary and two of the British airmen were busy attending to Curran. He saw a drip being set up, knowing that any replacement fluid was better than none but wishing it were blood being dripped into the injured man.
The bodies surrounding his friend parted, momentarily, and Hawkins' eyes widened as they were captured by the green depths. A small smile crinkled up those eyes before they closed in restful sleep... and Hawkins could not prevent an answering grin from breaking across his face as all of the fear, guilt and tension of the last few weeks faded away with that single forgiving smile.