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To Protect and Serve

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Two weeks passed by very slowly as he gradually regained his health and, during this time, Thornton could not find fault with the medical attention he received, but then, when compared to the Chinese hospital with its negligent and surly staff, any show of care was a relief. However, despite many attempts to engage the various medical personnel in conversation, no-one would tell him where he was, and more importantly, why he was there.

From the very beginning he had feared the worst; had assumed General Wei had sold him knowing that there was no-one who cared enough to come looking for him. No doubt the Americans believed he was dead and, as Fung was also dead, there would be no investigation of his disappearance from the Taiwanese. As far as he was concerned, wherever he was, he was on his own.

Every few days Mahmed, the Arab who had initially inspected him, would enter his room to check on his progress. The man would talk openly with the doctor, both men pointing and prodding at him as if he were some dumb animal rather than a human being. It was a thought that did not sit well with him, amplifying his fears that he had been sold for more than his knowledge of the US - or even the Taiwanese - Secret Service.

****

Three weeks after arriving he was moved out of one gilded cage and into another. The fact that this move coincided with his slowly regaining strength was not lost on him, and he wondered how secure the previous accommodation had been compared to his new room.

If anything, this room was even more opulent than the last being richly decorated with plush Persian carpets and heavy brocaded curtains. A large, ornately carved four-poster bed draped with the finest muslin stood in the center of the room, and it was here that he was carefully deposited; a silk sheet drawn over him.

The restraining straps had been removed almost as soon as General Wei had left the room all those weeks ago so he was free to leave the bed whenever he wished but, until now, he had not felt strong enough. He waited until the orderlies had left then he pushed back the sheet and eased his legs over the side, ignoring the sharp pain in his chest as he pushed himself up to sitting. He tried to stand but his legs folded up beneath him as if they were made of jelly, fortunately depositing him back onto the bed rather than having him land in an embarrassing heap on the floor. He eased himself onto his back, shocked and shaken by this lack of strength. Until that moment he had been so sure he was growing stronger with each passing day. Now, he wasn't certain what to believe. His muscles felt wasted and he knew his body weight was far lower than was healthy for his height and build, not that he had ever been a stocky man, having always tended towards a lean, athletic figure. He did not need to look into a mirror to know he looked gaunt; he could feel the sharpness of bones covered in too little flesh.

Thornton made a silent vow to himself to try and eat a little more of the bland food placed before him. He needed to put more meat on his bones, needed to build up muscle, realizing that what he did manage to choke down was barely enough to keep him going. If nothing else then it would stave off the constant threat of being re attached to a nutrient IV.

****

Another week passed but he could feel his strength slowly returning as his own personal physiotherapist was brought in to assist him, twice a day, with a program of gentle exercise. By the end of each half hour session he was usually exhausted and sore, his muscles trembling from exertion but, a week ago, he had come to realize how important it was that he kept his muscles toned while the chest wound healed.

Thornton thought back to his one-time boss, Pete Jamieson. He remembered Jamieson telling him that he had once taken a bullet for the vice president of the day. Jamieson had been out of action for four months, and then only returning to take on light duties for the two months following. It had seemed incredible at the time, the thought of spending so many months trying to recover but now, as he lay on the bed with his chest still paining him with each and every breath he took, he understood the seriousness of it all. By Jamieson's reckoning, Thornton had at least another month or two before he would even begin to feel as if he were ever going to recover from the gunshot wound, and maybe another two months beyond that before he would be free of the crushing pain.

Initially he had asked the Arab doctor for stronger painkillers, relieved that, unlike with the Chinese doctor, this time he would be granted something. However it was but a small victory as the doctor refused to give him enough to completely deaden the pain, just sufficient to mute it. He could hear the doctor's reasoning.

Pain is healthy. It tells us when to slow down... when to stop pushing ourselves too hard.

Thornton wondered savagely whether the doctor would feel the same way if it was him lying in this bed with the intense pain in his chest. He sighed. At least all the work with the Physiotherapist was paying off, for he now felt strong enough to move around a little.

The first thing Thornton did when he managed to get to his feet, while alone, was check the door. His investigation proved that he *was* locked in; that the mechanical thud of a sliding bolt was not just a figment of his imagination nor a sound effect just for his benefit. He had collapsed back onto the bed exhausted, deciding to save any more investigation until later. His second trip out of bed unassisted was to the windows. The elaborately carved window covering was made of metal, its edges deeply embedded into the surrounding brickwork. He tried pushing on the cover hoping it might be loosened with a little pressure but to no avail. Perhaps when he was stronger then he might have more luck, but had to admit that all this effort had managed to achieve so far was a deepening of the ache in his chest. Instead, he contented himself with gazing through the ornate holes to the desert that stretched out beyond.

He considered making escape plans but, to be brutally honest, unless the other side of this citadel faced a river or sea then the chances of him walking out of there were pretty remote. Without the proper equipment, and a decent idea of which way to go, he would merely end up a pile of bleached bones long before he reached anywhere.

****

One Week Later:

When he awoke this particular morning Thornton knew something different was going to happen. It wasn't any one thing in particular, just an air of expectation as the doctor checked him over. His breakfast was carried in and placed on a table a little way off from the bed for, now he was stronger, he was encouraged to get up and move around. Before he could lift the cover to what would probably be the usual nutritious but boring oatmeal his attention was caught by the unexpected arrival of Mahmed.

"The good doctor tells me you are much stronger. It is time to instruct you on your new duties."

"What duties?"

"All in good time. I shall return for you after you have eaten and bathed."

Thornton spent the next hour with his gut churning, hardly able to swallow the gray lumps of oatmeal as all kinds of images crept into his head. He was aware only that it was now payback time for all the medical assistance he had been given, and Thornton could not help but be concerned at what price they would demand in return for his improving health.

Eventually Mahmed returned for him and he was led through a maze of corridors that opened out into an impressive entrance hall. Pillars of marble stood majestically at intervals around the room, with a wide staircase of the same rose colored marble sweeping upwards. The walls to either side were lined with art in a mixture of styles; Constable, Turner and Gainsborough vying for attention amongst the brightness of Kandinsky, Picasso and Miro in a haphazard way that spoke of wealth portrayed rather than a true appreciation of the masterpieces.

He was led up the staircase, a household guard on either side of him with an unobtrusive hand beneath each of his elbows. He wanted to shake them off, but swallowed his pride as he felt his legs already feeling weak from the unaccustomed exertion; the long walk had exhausted him more than he wanted to admit.

At the top of the staircase was another large open area leading towards a large set of double doors. The doors were made of a rich red mahogany that was offset perfectly by the rose-colored marble surrounding them, and they were a work of art all by themselves being beautifully carved with a scene depicting a garden with shrubs, flowers and birds.

The heavy doors opened when they were but a few feet away, gliding aside with the smoothness of automation to reveal another reception room beyond.

This large room was filled with natural light reflecting off the same rose marble of floor and wall but Thornton's attention was caught by the raised dais directly opposite. His eyes widened as he found himself confronting images of his childhood, remembering bedtime stories of Caliphs, Aladdin and 1001 Arabian Nights.

The old man seated on the dais was the epitome of those Caliphs with his heavily bejeweled fingers stroking through his gray-flecked beard. Thornton was forced forward.

"Ah. We meet at last."

Thornton took another step forward on his own but gasped in pain as he was forced down onto his knees by the burly guards, the suddenness jarring at his already aching chest. The old man's voice held no sign of weakness as he barked out to his guards in anger.

"Enough! You are relieved."

The guards stepped back quickly with a bow as Mahmed moved forward to assist Thornton back onto his feet. Thornton could feel the sweat beading on his forehead as he tried to straighten up on legs trembling with fatigue, and was grateful when he felt himself being lowered to a chair that had been brought up behind him. The old man stared at him as the guards footsteps receded, the door closely softly behind them.

"My apologies. My personal guard can be a little overzealous... but I am assured that you will be able to curtail their enthusiasm."

"You want me to train your guards?"

"Why, yes... among other duties, although that particular duty will wait until you are much stronger." The old man gave Thornton a secretive smile. "President Fung spoke very highly of your abilities."

"Fung is dead."

"Yes. Most unfortunate. I have lost a friend and ally."

Thornton ignored the false show of grief, offering no condolences.

"What other duties?"

"You are to become my personal assistant, performing any service I require of you... and in return you will be well cared for."

"Will I be free to leave?"

"No. You must understand that you are not an employee. I own you. However I am a generous man. You will be given anything you wish; splendid clothes, beautiful jewels, servants to tend to all your personal needs. Yes, you will be given anything you ask... except your freedom."

"Why?"

"Because I can."

"Then at least tell me... why me?"

"My good friend Fung was not prone to exaggeration. He was most pleased with you... and all this talent in such a beautiful package. I expect you to serve me with equal distinction."

Thornton spat out his response to the smug old man, barely containing his fury especially at the very personal remark that implied he was might end up as just another beautiful possession for this man to display haphazardly like his masterpieces in the rooms outside.

"I served Fung because he paid me well. I was never his slave."

"Are you so sure?"

"What do you mean?"

"Have you never wondered why your loyalty was so easily transferred..."

"Cahill was..."

"President Cahill was a fool, but no different from any other president you served so unswervingly in the past."

Thornton frowned as images of Cahill's seamed face giving lecherous looks to all the pretty female staff came crashing into his head. He felt his anger rising as he remembered how that important guest he had smuggled into the White House had turned out to be no more than a giddy dumb broad in a secret tryst. He recalled the repulsive sight of Cahill fondling her; those liver-spotted hands teasing at the flawless ivory of her uncovered breasts, seamed lips diving to pluck at the peaked brown nipples. Cahill had not even waited until he had turned away, let alone that he had left the room. He had felt sickened... not because of the sight of this lecherous old man with this nubile young woman, after all, wasn't that every man's secret dream? What sickened him was the deceit, and the abuse of Cahill's powerful position. Cahill's adultery betrayed the First Lady, betrayed the concept of family values that Cahill had used as the crux of his presidential election campaign, betrayed *him* by making him a party to this abuse and deceit.

He cast his mind back to former president's and realized that they all held the same repulsion to him for various infringements; adultery, abuse of position to give family members and friends highly lucrative contracts, lies, bribery, cover-ups... and through it all the American people, gullible like sheep. Yes. They sickened him too with their stupidity, their inability or unwillingness to see through the façades of these corrupt politicians.

Why should he take a bullet for someone like Cahill? Why should he take a bullet for *any* of them? They were a cancer, all of them. Fung was right, bomb them all. Bomb all their diseased cities with their stinking ghettos and petty gang wars. They didn't deserve to live, none of them... did they?

He felt giddy, bright lights exploding behind his eyes as conflicting images raced round and round his head. His stomach started to churn at the thought of them, at the very sound of their voices.

"I.."

"Enough. Mahmed will commence instruction in your lighter duties.. until you are well enough to take on the rest."

Thornton was aided to his feet and led away, still too confused to understand exactly what had happened, knowing only that his head was pounding, his stomach burning and the excruciating pain in his chest was throbbing along with his rapid heart beat.

****
The Emir watched as the handsome American was led away and smiled. He and Fung had spent many hours deep in discussion on how they would bring about the fall of the Western World. Time and again the Americans and their allies had interfered with his plans for expanding the borders of his emirate, but retribution was now at hand - and Thornton was the key.

Little did Thornton know that he had been brainwashed; drugs, pain and hypnosis being the tools used to destroy the man's faith in his own people, turning Thornton's passion in on itself without destroying the loyalty that had made him such a prize catch, but there had been an unfortunate side effect of redirecting that loyalty.

Fung had given Thornton a set of codes; a series of passwords that would unlock the tight programming surrounding Fung's back-up plan should the Taiwan president fail to bring about the mutual annihilation of the Americans and Chinese. However, Fung had not gambled on Thornton being so loyal that he would disobey a direct order to return to Taiwan when events spiraled out of control. Instead, Thornton had lain in wait for Connelly, taking a bullet trying to protect his new 'master'.

It was fortunate that General Wei had known of the connection between himself and Fung, the wily old devil seeing a chance to profit from the disaster. If it had been otherwise then the Emir had no doubt in his mind that Wei would have left Thornton to die. He smiled maliciously as he wondered whether Wei realized exactly how important Thornton was to his continuing plans for world domination. He was sure that was not the case or Wei would have demanded ten times more for the American... and he would have been paid.

Mahmed returned, having given orders for Thornton to be escorted safely back to his room.

"Have you made any progress in obtaining the codes?"

"No, your highness. We have kept all communication at the most basic level. As you saw, the conditioning he underwent causes severe physical debilitation when he tries to deal with any mental conflicts. Until he has regained sufficient strength it would be dangerous to tax his fragile health."

"Mahmed. I am a patient man, but even that patience has its limits."

"Yes, your highness. I shall be commencing with stage 1 of my plans today by showing Mr Thornton what he could expect his position to be should he not have anything to barter with, but this does assume that he is aware of what he carries in his head."

The Emir stared hard at his servant, well aware of the ramifications. He had gone along with Mahmed's ruse, deliberately baiting the man with innuendoes of what he might become, but if Thornton truly had no understanding - or knowledge - of those codes then it might take a while to extract them.

"You have two weeks. You may go."

Mahmed bowed deeply and withdrew from the room, leaving the Emir to his thoughts.

Locked away inside of the American's head were the passwords and codes for arming and firing the biological weapons stored in missile silos deep beneath the desert floor. He had been a fool to allow Fung the only one access to those codes but the Taiwanese president had been adamant that he needed a show of trust. At the time it had seemed a reasonable request, for Fung's plan to destroy both the Americans and Chinese had seemed watertight, so the likelihood of needing to use those additional weapons extremely remote. However, Fung had not only failed in his plan but he had also managed to get himself killed in the process.

The Emir thumped his hand down on the small side table. Without the codes the weapons were next to useless. For two months he had sat idle while highly paid hackers attempted to breach the elaborate security system - with little luck. The designer of the system had been a true genius but had paid for his intricate knowledge with his life. So far the hackers had managed to break into the top level having been locked out completely for most of the first month after the initial attempt triggered a shutdown.

The Emir thought about what he could achieve once he had the codes. At the moment all the missiles had pre-programmed flights that targeted the main political centers of several of the NATO pact countries, as well as a few others cities for good measure, but even if the hackers managed to infiltrate the launch program two of the missiles would be wasted; Beijing and Washington DC no longer existed except as piles of radioactive dust. If Thornton gave him the codes then they could select new targets for those missiles.

He had given Mahmed two weeks to gain those codes through natural means. After that, the Emir fully intended on handing the American over to his doctors to see if their drugs could loosen his tongue.

Of course, Mahmed might be right. Thornton may not be aware of what he carried and the danger of using more drugs was that a wrong word might trigger a shutdown code programmed into Thornton's mind by Fung's doctors, locking away those passwords forever.

The thought should have disturbed the Emir greatly, but he knew Thornton was a mere expediency. In time his hackers would break through the security... but that could still be many, many months away.

His thoughts returned to Thornton, the man. Once he had the codes, Thornton should have been of little value to him but then, he had not expected Thornton to be such a beauty, with his ivory skin, blond hair and green eyes. All were physical traits that he enjoyed gazing upon, so exotic compared to the sultry dark looks and almond colored eyes of his own people.

Perhaps there would be room for Thornton as one of his personal assistants after all.

*****

Same time
Cheyenne Mountain Military Complex

"President Valdez!"

Valdez turned, her face drawn and haggard from two months of too little sleep and her own personal grief. She had lost many friends and colleagues when Washington DC was leveled, her ex-husband being among them. Only the fact that their child was safe in Los Angeles with her mother at the time of the disaster had prevented her from falling into a pit of despair.

Her show of strength in launching the counterattack on China had earned her the respect of her own generals, and proved to the rest of the world that despite the loss of Washington DC and the majority of the senate, America was still fully capable of defending itself. Countries in the NATO pact had quickly rallied around offering physical as well as political assurances. Even now there were special teams from Britain, France and even Russia searching through the remains of the once great city, seeking out survivors. There were not many, and the majority of those that had survived the bomb blast were dying from the radiation fallout.

Her attention came back to the aide who was, even now, making his way towards her, a grim expression on his face. No doubt he was the bearer of more bad tidings.

"Madame President. We have a problem."

Six minutes later she was seated in the War Room amongst her executive staff listening as the latest horror was revealed.

"British Intelligence has been monitoring the Middle East since the Gulf War and had noted, but ignored as inconsequential, a slow weapons build-up in the relatively small emirate of Aldibadah. They were also aware that President Fung had been a regular visitor to the Emir."

"Get to the point, Wilson."

Valdez gave her general a sharp look and he subsided with an apologetic nod.

"Please continue, Mr Wilson."

"Over the past two months there has been a tremendous amount of activity, enough for the British to send in an agent to investigate. He has reported overhearing discussion of there being maybe a dozen or more silos buried under the desert, each filled with a missile armed with a biological warhead."

"If the Emir was going to take advantage of the chaos surrounding Fung's failed Armageddon then he would have launched by now."

Valdez nodded at the general's good perception.

"Passwords." Everyone looked at Wilson in confusion. "Fung had them, but did not trust the Emir with them."

Valdez sat back, her forehead creased with delicate frown lines.

"If this is the case then why all this sudden urgency?"

"Craig Thornton."

Valdez look even more puzzled. She recognized the name having spent many an hour pouring over Connelly's reports detailing the death of President Cahill. She had spent even longer trying to understand how someone with such an exemplary record as Craig Thornton should so suddenly switch sides, for Connelly had implied that Thornton himself had forced Cahill to reveal the codes that sent the American missile soaring towards Beijing. What she discovered was a chilling account of how easy it had been for Fung's people to single out one highly capable, extremely knowledgeable individual and subject that man to drugs and hypnotic suggestion - in effect, to brainwash that individual into betraying everything he had previously held sacred - and no-one had been any the wiser.

"Thornton is dead."

"No, Ma'am. Thornton is very much alive... and under the protection of the Emir of Aldibadah. The British believe Thornton was given the codes by Fung, but may have been too ill to pass them over to the Emir - until now."

"Why were we not told sooner?"

"They were unaware of Thornton's presence until a few hours ago. It was mere chance that their agent was cleaning floors in the main corridor when Thornton was brought before the Emir." Wilson paused. "Madame President. All the information we have on the Emir shows a depth of fanaticism bordering on the psychotic. The man has delusions of becoming the most powerful being on Earth. Once he has those codes then all bets are off."

"Our options?"

"Remove Thornton before he can deliver the codes."

"In what way?"

The General had the good sense to look apologetic so it was clear he meant Thornton should be terminated. Valdez felt a twinge of remorse. They had failed Craig Thornton when they allowed him to be brainwashed right under her security forces collective noses. Then they had failed him again by assuming he was dead. At the time they had believed he was a traitor and could not be bothered to spare the resources required to retrieve his body, but there could be no excuse for abandoning him this time.

"No. I want Thornton extracted; alive. We owe him. If not for our lack of vigilance, our lack of protection given to our own people, none of us would be in this position today... and certainly not Craig Thornton."

The General bowed his head at the implicit reprimand of his own people. It was so easy to put the blame onto Thornton but the truth of it was that it was his responsibility to ensure his people's protection, and he had failed Craig Thornton.

"I'll relay your request."

"Do it. In the meantime we also need a counter-plan should Thornton have already delivered the code - or gain access to the missiles another way."

"Yes, Ma'am."

****

Mahmed sat back on the soft cushions and watched as Thornton was exposed to the lighter tasks expected of him now that he was stronger. One of the servants stood regally at the center of the room while another dressed him in the rich undergarments and robes worn by the Emir. The servant then stripped off and pointed at Thornton and then at the second pile of clothes, his meaning obvious. He was expecting Thornton to copy his actions.

Mahmed smiled as he watched the tense figure, knowing those green eyes would be sparking in anger and indignation. Thornton had already spent the past hour being taught how to bow and kneel in the Emir's presence; an episode that was almost as enjoyable as the first of the day where Thornton had been forced to endure the indignity of being taught how to dress and present himself at his best, having been told that the Emir enjoyed feasting his eyes on all of his possessions, and most especially on the transient beauty of his servants and slaves.

He watched as the servant forced an article of clothing into Thornton's hand, seeing the snarl curl up one side of the pretty mouth, pleased to note that Fung's brainwashing may have altered the man's loyalty but had not bowed his spirit. His own smile widened. He could not envisage Thornton holding onto his temper for much longer, but then that was his intention. He wanted to break through the apathy surrounding Thornton, wanted to see that spark of independence reassert itself. He wanted Thornton to buck against the idea of being little more than a personal slave, revealing the intelligence that had made him such a prize catch to President Fung. He wanted Thornton to offer up that intelligence rather than accept a lowly position as a manservant.

Mahmed grinned broadly as the servant who was pretending to be the Emir lashed out at Thornton for making a mistake. Thornton picked up a brush and threw it; the servant barely ducking in time.

"Enough!" Mahmed clapped to command everyone's attention. "You may leave. We will try this again tomorrow. In the meantime, Celadon, I will instruct you on..."

"Cela..?"

"From this day onwards that will be your name."

"No fucking way. My name is Craig Thornton. I am not some fucking possession that you can..."

"You will answer to that name or you will be whipped. Is that clear.. Celadon?"

"Go fuck yourself."

Mahmed found it hard to hold back the grin that threatened to break across his face and give the game away as he took in the taut figure standing before him that shaking in anger.

"I will overlook your impertinence today... but you will learn to accept your new position." He softened his voice. "Perhaps if you look upon this as a code name then you may find it easier to adjust."

"But it's not a code name, is it?"

Mahmed gave a deep mental sigh at the bitterness and apathy that seemed to suddenly envelope the frail man. Perhaps he had pushed him too hard, too soon, for this was not the response he had expected. More anger, yes, but not a return to this apathy.

"No. Come. Not all your duties will be so personal. Fung was also impressed by your computer skills. Perhaps we can make use of them too. But enough for today."

****

The following day carried on much the same as the previous with Thornton expected to learn how to assist the Emir into his robes. Once again Mahmed observed how the menial tasks grated on the American, putting some fire back into his soul. Eventually he sent the servants away and sat Thornton down in front of the computer.

After watching Thornton completely absorbed for more than two hours, Mahmed was as impressed as Fung had been. He found himself mesmerized by the long fingers dancing over the keyboard as Thornton familiarized himself with the software used by the household. He smiled, his plan was working. He was gradually allowing Thornton to realize that his future role depended on his ability to present himself as worthy of a higher position in the Emir's household. A man full of apathy had little to offer and would be assigned only menial tasks, whereas the intelligent, ambitious man could expect to reap the benefits from using his talents to the best of his ability.

Until yesterday Thornton had been full of apathy. The chest wound had sapped his strength, both physically and mentally, and the death of Fung had only added a sense of failure to the mix. Mahmed hoped that the apathy would disappear as Thornton regained his strength and health but, with less than two weeks before the Emir ordered a more aggressive means of extracting the passwords, Mahmed knew he had to be more proactive. It could take another two months before Thornton recovered enough from his injury, longer still for a full mental recovery especially as the man had been knocked off balance by Fung's brainwashing techniques.

He had one slight of hand he could play, though; a subterfuge. He intended to allow Thornton to set up his own private data areas on the off-chance that if Thornton had no idea of the true significance of the codes Fung had given him then he might just use them there as his passwords. Mahmed watched as those fingers started making simple keying errors, recognizing the growing fatigue.

"Come. You are tired. Let us finish for today. I will ask one of the servants to assist you to your room."

Thornton nodded his head and sat back. In truth he loved working with computers as much as he had enjoyed the physical side of his work in the Secret Service; it was his computer skills that had opened the door for him. In this modern age the day of the thug was well and truly over. They wanted people capable of understanding the latest technology, and computers could pose a threat that was easily as great as an automatic weapon.

As he sat back, arms dropping to his lap, Thornton's thoughts became far removed from the computer in front of him.

"I need to know one thing, Mahmed. How personal does the Emir expect me to be?"

Mahmed laughed, deciding not to misinterpret the ambiguous question.

"It is true the Emir likes both sexes... but his preference is for much younger flesh." Mahmed paused to watch relief flood across Thornton's face before continuing. "Although he has been known to make an exception on occasion, especially for the beautiful and exotic."

"Meaning?"

"Meaning one cannot discount the possibility of him wanting more than just your dressing skills."

****

The sound of the bolt sliding back later that afternoon brought a perplexed expression to Thornton's face. Usually he was left alone until supper time. Mahmed entered, his closed expression giving no clue as to why he was there. Two of the servants followed in behind; one carrying soft silky fabrics draped across his arms, the other a jeweled box.

"You will allow these servants to dress you. The Emir has requested your presence, immediately."

"Requested?"

Mahmed gave a wry smile. They both knew that a request from the Emir did not imply having any choice but to attend.

Thornton knew he could be awkward, that he could make it difficult for the servants and, hence, for Mahmed, but what would he gain? Maybe a few minutes reprieve from whatever the Emir had in mind? He bowed to the inevitable, his heart thumping in his chest as he was assisted into the beautiful clothes and jewels.

"Ivory and Green... to match your skin and eyes."

Thornton found himself reddening in embarrassment as Mahmed confirmed his worst fears; his presence was being sought for pleasure rather than business.

Various ideas came to him as he was escorted to the Emir. He could grab a gun, or knife. He almost laughed aloud at the thought of acting like a maiden defending her honor and, anyway, the Emir might only be interested in looking, not touching.

He was led towards the same reception room with its ornately carved mahogany doors, and took a deep, shaky breath as they glided open to reveal the Emir seated high upon the luxurious dais that was covered in soft cushions. Before the dais were many more cushions, and seated upon them were maybe a dozen well-dressed men. Some were lounging but others sat up, taking an interest in the beautifully dressed westerner brought before the Emir.

"Ah... there you are, Celadon. Come. Sit beside me."

Thornton swallowed hard, hearing the slurred words as the Emir sloshed a crystal goblet in his general direction. He perched himself on the edge of the dais, as far away as he could without seeming to be rude, ignoring the raised eyebrows and leers he was gaining from the other men present.

"No, my Celadon. Come closer."

The Emir patted the cushion by his feet, missing the daggers Thornton's eyes threw in his direction. Mahmed stepped forward, face tightening in warning when it looked as if Thornton would refuse, but he relaxed when the American shuffled closer as requested.

Thornton remained impassive, his face expressionless, as the Emir ran his fat fingers through the blond hair before gently tugging at the small gold loop placed through Thornton's left ear lobe.

"You look beautiful. A living work of art." The Emir raised his voice as he turned to his group of sycophants. "Don't you agree."

"Yes... beautiful."

"A jewel indeed, your highness."

Thornton felt the bile rise in his throat as these toadying men toasted him even as they undressed him with their eyes. Cliché or not, he wished he had given into the temptation to lunge for a knife or gun. He had a feeling that this could turn ugly.

Two hours later, having been pawed and mauled by the Emir constantly, he was tempted to reach for the ornate knife in the Emir's belt and slit the man's throat. He knew his life would end moments later but at least it would bring an end to this shameful ordeal.

The Emir stood suddenly, wandering away to make private conversation, leaving him alone on the edge of the dais. Thornton closed his eyes and wished this would all end. He opened them suddenly, in shock, as fingers drifted across his lips, to find one particularly disgusting individual leering down at him. The man's lecherous grin disappeared sharply as a knife was placed against the man's throat.

"Celadon is the personal property of my master. I will cut off any part of your anatomy that touches him again... be it your hand or your..." Mahmed smiled maliciously. "I am certain I do not need to spell it out for you."

"Yes. It is very clear to me. But when the Emir finally tires of this exotic beauty, then perhaps I shall make an offer."

The man turned and sauntered away leaving Thornton no choice but to swallow back the revulsion he felt at the possibility of being sold to such a man.

"My apologies for leaving your side. I have convinced the Emir that you are still too fragile from your injury, and I have suggested that he would gain greater pleasure by choosing a different companion for the remainder of the night." Mahmed smiled. "His highness has agreed, and has requested that I escort you back to your room."

Thornton closed his eyes, releasing the breath he was holding in a long sigh of relief. He had escaped the Emir's clutches this time, but would he be so lucky next time?

****

When darkness fell over the desert that night it was complete for there was no moon to cast its silvery light upon the sand. This suited the five black-clad figures well. They moved silently through the darkened corridors, following a memorized floor plan, until they reached what they hoped was the rendezvous point. Guns swept round as a small figure detached itself from the deeper shadows but the man held a finger to his lips, requesting silence.

"This way."

The SAS operatives trailed after the lone agent keeping alert, their bodies hugging the dark shadows near the walls of the corridor.

"Here."

Ahmed could not see the man's features clearly, the black ski-mask and camouflage paint concealing him so completely, but he recognized the hand gesture that told him to stand aside and wait. He stood back and watched as the operative placed an electronic device next to the door lock. Lights began to flash, faster and faster until...

Everyone froze as the click of the locking mechanism releasing echoed along the silent corridor and the bolt slid back. The door was pushed open and two of the operatives entered, guns ready. The faint glow of a lamp cast long shadows about the opulent room and one of those shadows moved; the guns trained upon it instantly. The weapons were lowered when they realized Thornton had no intention of raising an alarm.

Thornton moved back into the circle of dim light until he was standing by the side of the bed, eyes narrowed as he awaited some sort of explanation.

"We're here to get you out."

"British?"

Thornton glanced around uneasily as another of the dark shadows slipped into the room and came towards him. He wanted to get out of here, desperately. The idea of staying in Aldibadah as Celadon, personal slave to the Emir held no appeal whatsoever especially after this afternoon's little demonstration. But would he be jumping out of the pan and into the fire? The British were closely allied to the United States; they had to know of his involvement with Fung. Were they retrieving him solely to return him to the US to answer for his crimes? Treason was a capital offense. Were he to return there then he could expect to be executed for his part in the destruction of Washington DC. At least here in Aldibadah he would live...

But for how long?

He already had a taster of what could become of him while the Emir found him useful. But what *would* the Emir do once he had become bored with his new possession? Could he bear to be sold off again - or even given away - to someone like the lecherous man who had approached him? It was no longer hard to believe that he could find himself sold into a far worse fate, and it occurred to Thornton that, for him, even death would be preferable to what the Emir and that other man had in mind.

One of the dark-clad men reached out a hand to him, impatiently, but Thornton drew back.

"Wait."

Thornton moved to the wardrobe and pulled out a long dark cloak. He wrapped it around himself to conceal his body, knowing how unusual the sight of his blond hair and pale skin was in the citadel.

The British SAS officer grinned in approval, lamplight glinting off the strong white teeth, and gave Thornton a 'thumb's up' sign before slowly moving back out into the corridor. Thornton followed, finding himself sandwiched between two black-clad operatives. They managed to travel about forty feet before the distant staccato of automatic weapons broke the deathly silence.

"Shit!"

Thornton was pressed up against the wall, his body concealed in the dark shadows. He could hear the whispered one-sided conversation as the leader of this group talked to his team mates, but Thornton was experienced enough in this type of thing to understand the gist of the conversation nonetheless. Part of the team had been discovered and had become pinned down by the Emir's household guard.

Despite the urge to the contrary, Thornton knew he was too weak to be of any great assistance. He realized the most help he could give was to follow orders without question, and rely on these men to get him out of there alive.

A starburst of light bloomed from the dark muzzle of the SAS officer's gun as two armed guards raced around the corner - obviously heading for Thornton's room. Their bodies danced grotesquely within the hail of bullets before falling to the floor.

"Go! Go! Go!"

Thornton was grabbed, Ahmed on one side, an SAS officer on the other, and hurried along the long corridor.

"We have 3 minutes 42 seconds to reach the LZ."

Thornton grimaced as the pain in his chest increased from a dull ache to a sharp stab of agony, suddenly grateful for the strong arms that supported him. Bullets ricocheted off the masonry near his head; a chip of plaster grazing his cheek.

"Keep low!"

They ran out into an open courtyard towards the sound of a fast approaching helicopter, the SAS firing sporadically into the shadows. Thornton realized he was effectively being protected, his body surrounded by several of the dark-clad men as if they were using their own bodies to shield his own from any stray bullets. The helicopter appeared suddenly as a dark mass plummeting down before him, the sudden rush of air and the rhythmic beating of the blades almost frightening in their sudden intensity. He was half-thrown, half-dragged without ceremony into the darkened interior and pushed flat onto the floor in one corner, a warm body draping itself across him protectively until the helicopter had gained altitude and banked away across the desert.

****

"Madame President!"

Valdez gave a sigh and turned to see her personal aide, Wilson, making his way towards her.

"Madame President. Good news. We have Thornton."

Valdez gave a wry smile and sighed. It was high time her luck changed for the better. She listened carefully as Wilson told her of the operation and was saddened to learn that the British had lost a man during the extraction. She knew that many would question her judgment but, after all, that man could have died just as easily if the team had gone in there to execute rather than extract Craig Thornton.

"And what condition did they find Mr Thornton in?"

"Physically? Weak... but that was expected; it takes months to recover from a chest wound. Mentally? Well, he gave the British no trouble at all. Practically welcomed them with open arms."

"A good sign."

"Not necessarily. The British agent in Aldibadah reckons he was being subjected to mind games by the Emir's people. Thornton probably believed his chances were better with the British than staying with the Emir. They have him under tight security in case he tries to make a personal dash for freedom."

"How long until he reaches American soil?"

"He's in the air, on a direct route to Cheyenne Mountain. Should be landing in less than 12 hours."

"Thank you, Mr Wilson."

****

The Emir watched with grim satisfaction as the captain of his household guard was brought before him and forced to his knees. It had been his captain's duty to ensure that no-one could breach the security of the citadel. He was the one who assigned the guards, who armed the electronic security system. He was the one who was supposed to ensure the Emir could sleep safely in his bed at night... and he was the one who had been given the duty of keeping Craig Thornton securely in the Emir's grasp until the American was no longer of any use. He had failed miserably on all counts.

The captain raised his head, eyes beseeching mercy as a large man approached. His pleas became audible as his hands were tied behind his back and he was positioned on his knees with his neck exposed. A flash of light glinting off the sharp axe blade heralded its curved descent to the back of the vulnerable neck; the thud of a decapitated head bouncing off the marble floor was accompanied by an arc of blood from the severed neck artery. The rest of the body slumped to the ground.

"Clean up this mess... but leave his head on a pole as a reminder to the rest of you of the price of failure."

Mahmed could see the guards eyes flickering from one to the other in nervousness as they approached the body. Moments later they were dragging it away, the executioner having taken up the task of presenting the head as ordered.

Mahmed watched the Emir's blood-lust filled eyes turn to him, feeling a quiver of fear race through his own body.

"And what news do you bring me, Steward?"

"You highness, not all my news is bad. Through subterfuge I was able to extract two of the codes from Thornton. We may now have the ability to arm and fire seven out of the fifteen missiles. My people are checking it over as we speak but I will know for certain by this time tomorrow."

The Emir stared hard at Mahmed and then visibly relaxed.

"You have twenty-four hours, Mahmed. If the missiles are not ready to be fired by that time then your head will join his one on a pole."

"Yes, your highness."

Mahmed bowed deeply and backed out of the room leaving the household cleaners busily swabbing up the blood. As soon as he cleared the room he started to walk briskly towards the computer complex. Thornton had unwittingly given him two of the passwords but, unfortunately, not for the same group of silos. He had the code to arm four missiles and the code to fire another three. What he was banking on was the ability of his hackers to find a connection between the passwords that would allow him to arm and fire all seven missiles. Of course, if a connection was discovered then that might open up the entire missile network to him but he was a pragmatic man and knew when to be a little more modest with his answers.

****

12 hours later
Military Hospital
Cheyenne Mountain Military Complex

There was sterility about the room where formerly he had been surrounded by opulence, but that former luxury seemed immaterial compared with the price he had been expected to pay for it. He frowned. There would be a heavy price attached to this new accommodation, most probably his life, but that still seemed a better deal than a lifetime of slavery, being at the beck and call of that depraved Emir or one of his sycophants.

He collapsed onto the bed, lying on his back staring up at the concrete ceiling. The journey had taken a lot out of him, least of all because the people on the flight had insisted on talking to him rather than allow him to rest. He had been cold at first, refusing to even look at them, their American accents grating on him, making him feel sick.

Thornton sat up, face screwed up in confusion. Why should their accents make him feel nauseated? The sound of the British didn't have the same effect on him, in fact he had felt strangely comforted by their presence. He dropped his head into his hands, scrubbing his face before raking his fingers back through his hair. Something was terribly wrong here but the more he thought about it, the more his head seemed to pound. He thought about Cahill, and about the Americans on the plane. Remembered the way they treated him, so gentle and concerned with his welfare. He could hear them talking, asking him this and that, wanting to know about Fung, about the Emir. His stomach started to churn, his head felt like it was going to explode but he persisted in this train of thought. There had to be a reason why every thought of his people, every American sound or ideal made him...

He barely managed to angle his head over the edge of the bed before he vomited.

"It's okay... just relax..."

He wasn't even aware of the hands that had gripped his shoulders, holding him securely as he dry retched having already emptied the contents of his stomach onto the floor. The cool cloth that was wiped over his face was a blessed relief but he wished whoever it was would stop talking. The slow drawl was slithering over his senses, coiling itself around his throat and threatening to choke him as he gagged against the sound.

"You're gonna be okay... just let it happen."

"Please... just... shut the fuck up."

The hands started to withdraw as Thornton placed his hands over his own ears.

"No! Don't... don't go... please don't go... just don't talk... please."

The last few words came out as a whisper, and Thornton felt the man bending closer to catch them. Through his peripheral vision he saw the man nod his agreement then sit down behind him. The man pulled him back against his chest and they sat still, the silence broken only by Thornton's ragged breathing.

****

"What do you think caused that, Doctor Fletcher?"

The general pulled back from the two-way mirror that allowed him to observe Craig Thornton.

"Well, General. He reacted in very much the same way on-board the aircraft, trying to shut out the sound of our voices. I assumed he was overtired, resentful, perhaps deliberately antagonistic because of what he had been through, but now I wonder whether there is more to this than meets the eye."

"We already know he was brainwashed into betraying the American people..."

"Yes. But the means employed are what interest me. Drugs, lights, pain are nothing without the power of hypnotic suggestion. He seems to have developed a deep seated hatred of anything American. His blood pressure rises, heart beat quickens, perspiration increases whenever he is questioned. I assumed it was the questions alone... but now I wonder if it is also the way we talk, our accents..."

"You can hardly make that kind of supposition on a few hours..."

"You forget. He was a different person with the British; understandably anxious but relatively calm nonetheless. He followed their instructions, listened to them, *talked* to them even, without any sign of increasing tension or malice... or physical sickness."

"Connelly said he was polite - if a little distant - before all hell broke loose on-board Fung's ship. Said he never suspected a thing, even assumed Thornton was on his side until it became obvious that Thornton was directing the attackers towards his position."

"That was a slightly different situation. Thornton had the upper hand then. He was calling the shots... and remember, Cahill told Connelly how coldly Thornton turned on Burke after the man gave him his spare gun; camaraderie one moment, cold-blooded murder the next. It was a hate crime."

"If you're right, then there is no way Thornton is going to give us the codes until we have deprogrammed him."

"If I'm right, then he'll have no reason to withhold those codes from the British. He has no pre-programmed animosity against them."

The sound of the door banging open brought them out of their debate.

"Sir. The Emir has launched the missiles."

The General's eyes widened in horror.

"How long to impact?"

"The first will reach Paris within eleven minutes."

The General turned to Fletcher with an expression of defeat clearly written across his face. They had maybe nine of those minutes to input the destruct codes. They had hoped for a little time to try and break through Thornton's conditioning but nine minutes was not going to be enough. Fletcher's eyes widened as an idea came to him.

"Connelly."

"What?"

"He treated Connelly like an equal... at the end."

With no time to question Fletcher's reasoning, the General sent out the order to bring Connelly to him straight away. It was fortunate that the man had resumed his duties as one of President Valdez's bodyguards, and would be somewhere within the Cheyenne Mountain complex. The general paced the room impatiently, unable to stand still while he waited for Connelly to arrive. As the door burst open for a second time, he turned on his heel.

"Connelly. We need the codes from Thornton... and we need them NOW!"

"How the hell am I...?"

Fletcher interceded.

"You made a connection with him, in China. Use it. You're our only hope."

****

Thornton was sitting quietly, eyes screwed tightly shut, still leaning back into the silent stranger's secure embrace. He wasn't sure why he found it so comforting, wasn't certain why he needed to feel another being, and a man at that, so close to him. It was as confusing as his abhorrence of all things American for, after all, wasn't it his fear of ending up in the Emir's arms that had led him back to his home country?

He opened his eyes as the door opened and he tilted his head at the familiar face that came towards him, trying to place the man. His eyes widened as the memory swept back. It was Connelly; the man Burke had told him about, the presidential bodyguard who had made known his refusal to take a bullet for Cahill and had been placed on football duty instead. Thornton's mind flicked back to that final exchange between them as he lay, slowly drowning, in a pool of his own blood. He had spoken first, calling Connelly's attention to the fact that he was still alive... barely alive.

You took a bullet for him.

Yeah. So did you.

I suppose that makes us both a couple of assholes.

No. Just you.

He hadn't understood at the time what made them so different. Hadn't understood why Connelly felt no shame in taking a bullet for Cahill when he had been so opposed to the lecherous old man before. With a frown deepening the lines at the bridge of his nose, Thornton leaned forward, wanting to take the opportunity of asking that question now.

"Why?"

Connelly seemed taken aback. He had expected to have a problem getting the man to talk to him at all and yet, here was Thornton opening the conversation. It wasn't hard to determine what Thornton wanted to know for they had so little history between them to confuse matters.

"Because he turned out to have some guts after all." Connelly swallowed hard. "Do you remember how he refused to cooperate? How Fung threatened to have you chop off his hand for the fingerprint ID, and pluck out his eye, if need be, for the retinal scan?"

Thornton frowned, but nodded.

"Yeah... I remember."

"Do you remember having to drug him to get him to give you the codes?"

It was Thornton's turn to swallow hard, but then his face hardened and he sneered in response.

"So he had a little backbone after all. Didn't change what he was - a whoremonger, a liar..."

"When I got the football back, after I shot you... after I killed Fung... Cahill gave his life to send those abort codes. He could have run away, could have hid until it was too late... until he was safe... but he didn't. He did his duty."

Connelly took a deep breath.

"I'm not saying he was a saint. I'm not saying it made up for all the unpleasant things I'd seen the man do. What I am saying, is that he had some redeeming qualities. At the end he was someone worth taking a bullet for."

"I don't like him. He makes me feel sick with his..." Thornton frowned, squeezing his eyes shut against the images and the nausea they invoked. "...but he did give his life in the end... to save them. Though why he'd want to save them..."

"All life's worth preserving... even the dung beetles have a role to play."

Thornton chuckled.

"Thornton. The Emir launched the missiles. It's not just the Americans who're gonna get hit. France, Britain, Belgium... there's even one headed for Moscow. If all those countries retaliate then there'll be nothing left of the world. Good or bad."

Thornton replied as if he had not even heard a word from Connelly.

"You know... I can still hate him... and yet I can almost admire him, too."

"There isn't much time."

Thornton looked up, directly into Connelly's face, no longer seeing an American in front of him, but a fellow bodyguard; a colleague.

"2Gandalf7. 3Boromir7."

Connelly looked into the mirror as Thornton slumped back against his human pillow.

"Did you get that?"

Beyond the mirror Connelly could hear the muffled sounds of orders being given, of a door slamming. All that remained now was to wait and see whether Thornton had given them what they needed.

Connelly took a seat near to the door and stared hard at the man opposite. He had learned - on the grapevine - what had happened to Thornton, had discovered why the man had turned traitor, and had spent the time since then feeling very guilty for the way he had treated him at the end. He remembered turning his back on Thornton, leaving him alone and dying without any care, without any remorse. At the time, as far as he was concerned, Thornton was dead... and good riddance to him.

But it could have been me. Could have been any of us.

He remembered his fellow agent who had been forced to hand over the codes; the man's wife and children had been held hostage by Fung's people. He wasn't to know that they were already dead, and even if they had not been killed many hours earlier, it still would not have mattered for the missile launched by the Chinese in retaliation for the one that leveled Beijing, had wiped Washington DC off the face of the Earth.

Long minutes passed by in silence while all present seemed to descend into their own thoughts, until the door suddenly reopened. When President Valdez stepped inside, Connelly quickly stood up.

"Madame President."

She waved Connelly aside with a reassuring smile and approached the bed, recognizing the mixture of pain, confusion and hatred that seemed to dance behind those smoky green eyes as Thornton looked upon her.

"Craig Thornton. You will not understand any of this... yet. But know that you are safe here. Know that you are home. In time you will understand everything that has happened to you. In time you will remember who you once were... who you still are deep inside."

She smiled and reached out to touch his hand, saddened when he shrank back from her in repulsion, but well aware of the reasons why.

"In the meantime, I thank you - from all of us."

****

Epilogue:

The sun was warm upon his upturned face; the air fresh with the smell of newly mown grass and the heady scent of flowers. It had been a long time since he felt this good, this at peace with himself. The inner turmoil that had ruled his life for so many months had vanished along with the excruciating headaches that accompanied all of the early sessions with Doctor Fletcher, but at least he could now think of his own people with acceptance rather than nausea.

The hardest point had been when he fully understood all that he had lost when he helped Fung destroy Washington DC. The faces of dead friends and acquaintances now haunted him... memories of laughter, of friendship enjoyed in places that no longer existed made his breath catch when he thought of them.

He knew he still had a fair way to go before the nightmare ended completely, but that journey had been eased by President Valdez and her continued support and encouragement. He smiled. He had become Valdez's pet project, but it still gave him a lot of comfort to know she did not hold him responsible for his actions, even though he had yet to learn how to forgive himself.

He gazed up at the passing clouds; all white and fluffy, and tried to see pictures in the varied shapes. It was a game he loved to play as a kid once all the pretend fighting was over.

He narrowed his eyes. Yes... that one looked like America. He grinned, realizing how easy it was to look upon that shape and not feel the daggers of pain and disgust claw at his head and belly.

Perhaps he was closer to being his own man again, after all.

THE END