by Heuradys and Panther
Beta Read by Nikki, Sherrylou and Cougar Pryde
Written for PetFly by Paul DeMeo and Danny Bilson

Rated PG-13
internal thought in italics

Act I

Jim couldn't help but feel happy. He had a family in the Army. The Army was the mother that would never leave you, the father that was always there for you, the brother that caught you when you fell, and the grandfather that showed you how to survive in the real world.

Laughing at their off-key harmony, eight men bellowed the next line of the song, "In the warriors' code there's no surrender. Though his body says stop, his spirit cries never."

Jim sang along with his men as loudly as he could, to be heard over the whirring sound coming from the helicopter blades. Strapped in, Jim and his men were on their way to their next mission. They were to contact the local tribes and organize a militia to stop rebel activity in the Chopec Pass.

Hitting a shift in air currents, the chopper shimmied and shook now and again. The ride wasn't anything unusual. Jim was about to sing the last line of the song, when the pilot, Lt. Moritz, called out, "Captain!" The sound of alarms accompanied the pilot's cry.

A sudden dip and a hard left was the only other warning they got before the sounds of gunfire filled the cabin of the chopper. Lt. Moritz tried to outmaneuver the gunfire coming from the jungle canopy. Weaving and bobbing, the chopper moved in fluid motion as bullets flew through the air like demented fireflies. A bullet managed to hit a hydraulic line for the blades, making maneuvering difficult.

"Cobra to Snake Charmer! This is Cobra 279. We are under fire. Come in, Snake Charmer," Moritz yelled over the radio.

A shot hit the engines causing the controls to lock up.

"Shit! Captain, I need a hand up here." Moritz fought the flight stick trying to get it to respond.

Jim worked on freeing himself from the harness as he yelled to Moritz, "Lieutenant! Try to keep her steady until I get up there."

"I'm trying, Captain, but the controls aren't responding. I'm going to try something that may free them up a bit, but we have got to land, sir."

Getting free, Jim held onto the roof of the cabin with one hand. His other hand on Devine's shoulder helped to stabilize him as the chopper suddenly shifted to the right.

"Yes! I've got some of the control back, Captain. Hang on," Moritz said as he struggled to right the chopper.

Jim let go and inched closer to the pilot. More lights and sirens went off as a bullet hit the back fuel line causing a leak. Moritz got back on the radio. "Mayday! Mayday! This is Cobra 279. We are going down, I repeat we are going down hard and fast. Snake Charmer, please re--"

The sound of glass shattering interrupted Lt. Moritz's call. Though it was the bullet that shattered the window, it was the glass that slit his throat and shot through his eye to his brain that silenced him forever. Jim lunged for the flight stick, but the Lieutenant's body slumped over it causing the chopper into a hard left turn. Jim desperately tried to hold on to something but was thrown and began falling out of the chopper.

Jim realized he was going to die when he cleared the skid. His only consolation was that he would be joining his mother soon. In a split second, Jim had accepted his fate, only to realize in the next that he shouldn't have given up so quickly. Something snagged his arm, giving Jim a second chance he didn't realize he so desperately wanted. Jim looked up and realized he was hanging hundreds of feet above the jungle locked in Sgt. Tony Sarris' grip, his best friend and fellow soldier looking down from the skid.

"Hey, Captain! It's not time to leave this party yet," Tony said as he grinned wickedly down at Jim.

"Let me go, Sarris! That's an order, damn it!"

"Sorry, Captain. Not going to happen."

"Sarris, I'm pulling you over with me, now let go!" The chopper rocked drunkenly again, dropping steadily.

"Negative, Captain. Not until this bird goes down a few more feet. Devine's on the stick, but she's fighting…" Hooking his feet around a bracing pole, Tony tried to get a better hold on his captain. "Grab my other hand sir."

"Let go. You'll get us both killed," Jim yelled over the noise.

"Grab my hand, damn it! I'm not going to let you go until it;s safe to drop. Got it?" Tony yelled back.

"Sarris, you're a pain in the ass. You know that don't you?" Jim couldn't help but smile up.

"Yes, sir. I pride myself on it, sir."

While the chopper descended into the dense forest, Jim could see a clearing. The chopper's speed was almost nerve-racking. However, true to his word, the sergeant didn't let go until they were close enough to the ground and the clearing for Jim to drop safely. Jim landed hard, his head striking the ground, dazing him. As his head cleared, Jim looked up to see the chopper smash into a tree. The impact that followed rocked the earth. One of the chopper blades came loose, flying end over end toward him. Eyes wide, a scream frozen in his throat, Jim watched as it embedded itself in the ground at one end and sliced him on the thigh just enough to break the skin with the other. Day turned to night in Jim's mind as he passed out to the screams of his men dying.

"Eight days ago, we launched the ASCSAT14 satellite. We picked this up on the third orbit. This is over Peru." General Lyles watched his subordinate as he spoke; his gravelly voice the only sound in the room. The younger man watched the wall-sized screen, his men arrayed behind him.

Captain Joshua Mathis watched the infrared image on the large screen beside him dutifully. "Looks like a downed Huey, sir."

"She was carrying a crew from Seventh Troop on an anti-insurgence op, commanded by Captain James Ellison. Their Huey disappeared en route to the landing zone."

"Did we send in a second team, sir?"

"No, we were subsequently advised that all rebel activity had ceased in that area. The chopper crew and the team members -- eight men in all -- were reported as MIA." The General directed his attention to the screen. "They were presumed dead until we saw this."

The slide projector clicked and a new image shone on the screen.

"Seven graves. There was a survivor?"

"We don't know. Mathis, I want you to take your team, recover the bodies, and ascertain the status of the eighth man."

"Yes, sir." Mathis nodded once, firmly.

"One word of caution. The locals claim that for the past 18 months no one who's gone into that jungle has ever come back out again."

What the hell did he just order us into? Joshua wondered, drawing himself up and hoping his wariness and suspicion didn't show on his face.

Whoosh. Slap!

"Damn it to hell!"

"Yell a little louder, Eades. I don't think the ENTIRE jungle heard you," Captain Mathis said to his lieutenant.

"Sir, I'm all for rescuing and such, but did they have to land in such a godforsaken place?" Lt. Eades complained.

"I'm sure at the time they were crashing and losing their lives, pissing you off was at the top of their to-do list, Lieutenant. Now shut it before I shut it for you," Mathis ordered. How did this idiot ever make lieutenant?

Captain Mathis and his men arrived at the crash site shortly after. Looking at the damage, Josh whistled at the destruction. It saddened him to think that these men had died; he only hoped their deaths were swift and merciful. Ordering his men to begin, the captain moved farther down the embankment to where the seven graves lay. Looking around, Josh could feel the hair on his arms stand up... Someone or something was watching them. Josh opened his mouth to order his men to be on the lookout when something whizzed by his ear to hit a nearby tree. Arrows. Lots of arrows. He and his men took cover, several firing blindly into the thick vegetation, only to realize they were surrounded.

Mathis called out to the others, "CEASE FIRE! CEASE! STOP!"

Looking around, Josh continued, "Hold your fire. Nobody move. They could have killed us already if they wanted to."

A signal among the surrounding natives clued Josh into the fact that someone important was arriving. Looking around, his eyes widened at what he saw approaching him. Inhaling sharply, Josh watched a man in fatigues make his way lithely down the hill.

The man extended his hand and shook Josh's. "Captain James Ellison. O.D.A. 731. You my relief?" the man asked.

"Your relief?" Josh looked at Ellison, clearly confused by the man's actions.

Nodding, Ellison elaborated, "We were ordered to contact the local tribes and organize a militia. These men and I have held the Chopec Pass for eighteen months. And quite frankly, Captain, I'm kind of tired."

Josh could easily see this man had been through hell and that this soldier was more than ready to go home. Mathis started to tell the Captain exactly what he was there for. Ellison's head snapped up, his stance transforming from that of a tired man to one of a pure predator in less than a heartbeat. Going on alert himself, Josh looked up trying to spot what had put the other man on alert. At first Josh saw nothing, but then a flock of birds flew overhead and Ellison was signaling his men to aim. Arrows flew. Five out of the eight birds fell to the ground, and as Josh watched, wide-eyed, he was surprised as the Captain motioned for a spear. It had no sooner gotten into Ellison's hand that he was aiming and throwing it with deadly force into the thick forest. A cut-off piercing scream was heard, followed by a thump. Following Ellison and his men, they located the source. There, lying face up was a very dead sniper.

Shocked, Josh looked at the man in front of him. As blue eyes met brown, Josh understood true fear. Knowing what he saw was a man turned predator in order to survive this jungle didn't lessen his fear that this man could and would kill him and his men without remorse if he needed to. Josh tried to hide his feelings deep down, his face reflecting none of what he thought or felt. He didn't even flinch when Ellison paused as he passed by him. The other man's nostrils flared, his stare now directed his way, Josh nearly swallowed his tongue when Ellison stated, "You're afraid of me," matter-of-factly, as if there was no doubt in his mind, "You should be...I'm afraid of me." Eyes clashed and Josh again witnessed the change from predator to tired soldier that just wanted a normal life again.

"Don't sweat it, Captain. You'll be home soon, and this will be just one thing you'll file away to forget about." Josh tried to sound comforting and convincing though he wasn't so sure he completely believed it himself.

Ellison just nodded and moved on, heading back for the tribesmen. It wasn't far to the Chopec village; Ellison had insisted on going there before he went home. Josh supposed that after a few months with the people, Ellison thought of them as a home, too. There was time before the choppers would pick them up.

Once they arrived, Josh sat Ellison down and explained enough of the situation as to get the other man to understand what he'd be facing once he returned home. He watched closely as the Captain said his good-byes, the children gathering around him, looking up with saddened eyes - never speaking, just looking. Ellison reached out and hugged each in turn, giving every one of them a warm smile, hesitant though the facial expression may be. Gathering his things, Ellison followed Josh and his men to the rendezvous site never speaking. Soon, everyone and everything was loaded. The bodies of the seven men who had died eighteen months earlier were being loaded onto a second chopper as they lifted off. Josh almost wished he could take Ellison's place, pitying the man who had lost so much and would have so much to face when he got home.

Act II