PROLOGUE

September, 1969

Colonel John "Hannibal" Smith hadn't quite decided what to think of the squinty-eyed man who'd summoned him all the way to the C-base at Pleiku. He'd never met this clean-cut, broad-shouldered general - they apparently ran in different circles - and without time to ask around for other soldiers' opinions, he was left to determine for himself whether or not General Carl Davids was worthy of the sort of respect his rank demanded.

"How up-to-date are you on current events, Smith?" the general asked in a gruff voice that couldn't quite manage pleasantry even if he tried.

"Depends on the event, Sir," Smith answered calmly. Although not intimidated by the presence of a superior officer nearly twice his size, he carefully maintained a respectful tone to go with the confidence he radiated.

The self-assuredness shouldn't have been surprising to the older man; Davids had asked for the best. More than that, the request was submitted straight to the top - to General Ross Westman in Da Nang. Westman, in turn, sent Smith - a man six months into his "second tour" - and his team to clean up God-knows-what mess was brewing here. Feeling no need to complicate the definition of "tour" with a discussion of how long he'd actually been in Southeast Asia, the young colonel wondered if Davids knew even half of what his team was used to dealing with. For that matter, there was no telling if Davids had any clue about what went on out there in the "real war." It was perfectly feasible that his experience of Vietnam could be strictly limited to the mugginess of the unimpressive but structurally intact office graciously bestowed upon him by his rank.

"What do you know about A Shau?" Davids asked, rising from his scarred and pockmarked desk and reaching for his pipe before heading to the narrow window.

"At ease" in the bright, sterile office, legs slightly apart and hands behind his back, Smith eyed the general cautiously and contemplated the question. He could play dumb, but what would be the point? Besides, he had a sneaking suspicion the more he knew, the quicker this briefing would be and the faster he could retreat from this plain-looking room with the irritatingly noisy and fairly useless metal fan in the corner. Every breath of air felt like drowning, fan or no, and he was anxious to move on.

"I know the camp was lost three days ago," Smith finally answered, safely. In fact, he happened to be particularly informed about the incident at A Shau. The camp's XO had been a close personal friend in Korea.

General Davids lit his pipe, then cast a long, scrutinizing gaze in Smith's direction. By now, the man at least a dozen years his senior would've begun to second guess the reputation preceding the young colonel - too young, really, except in times of war when officers were at a premium. Smith lacked no confidence, and yet had little hope of an end to the fighting. In fact, he would be here in this stifling hot mess of a war until death or the bitter end, whichever came first; he'd put in his request for a voluntary indefinite status long ago and most of his team had done the same.

"Please," Davids invited, gesturing with a wave of his hand. "Continue."

Smith drew in a deep, cleansing breath and tipped his head up a little. "A Shau is an A-Team camp about thirty miles southwest of Hue," he recalled, "adjacent to the Ho Chi Minh Trail. We had ten Green Berets out there along with about two hundred CIDG and a couple Air Commando units. Last week, the camp's XO sent word that there might be an attack, so Nha Trang sent a Mike Force. After two days of fighting, the camp was evacuated."

Davids studied him carefully for a moment, then nodded conclusively. "You know quite a bit."

"Captain Blake and I did a rotation together in Korea," Smith said flatly.

"Yes, I know."

A long silence followed the unassuming statement. Smith recognized the attempt to damage his confidence - to make him feel as though he could make no assumptions about what might come next. A deep and heartfelt but purely internal sigh sufficed in lieu of the dismissive, unimpressed tone he really wanted to use. Nothing surprised him anymore, and short of "the war's over," he couldn't think of a single shocking thing that might spill out of the cleanly dressed and neatly groomed man's mouth. Clandestine operations riddled with plausible deniability were Hannibal's bread and butter.

Of course, it wouldn't be the first time the reputation for getting jobs done quickly and efficiently might be cause for suspicion and even alarm for the REMFs in their cozy offices both in and out of the country. The simple fact was, he operated with even more efficiency the fewer questions he would have to answer, and that did have a tendency to raise some red flags. He wouldn't have honestly minded the distrust if it had simply been stated from the beginning; all of the prerequisite beating around the bush irritated the hell out of him. It was a game - "How much do you know so that I can determine how much I have to explain?" Perhaps more importantly, how much Smith knew determined how much information would be withheld.

Bureaucratic bullshit, special clearance, classification rating - it all meant precisely dick to him. Too much time in the jungle, too many kills, and too many men lost had made him care less for red tape than for the assholes who would've preferred to bind his hands with it before sending him into battle. Smith's concern was - and always had been - getting the job done, sometimes against overwhelming odds. All he needed was a target and a time frame; he didn't much know or care about anything else. Perhaps General Westman had failed to mention that.

"The NVA had four battalions," Davids explained, pacing back to his desk in anxiety unbecoming of a man with his rank. "They also had a bunch of sympathizers in the camp. The weather was on their side, too - a lot of cloud cover we couldn't fly through on the first night. Twenty antiaircraft guns for anyone who'd try to fly under it."

Smith wasn't terribly interested in any of this. Reasons - or, perhaps more properly, excuses - for battles lost were only important to those wanting an explanation to give to families. The NVA had plenty of soldiers and sympathizers and the weather on the first night of the attack was irrelevant now. But still, speaking as though he were delivering a riveting speech of astronomical importance, Davids turned and fixed Smith in a serious gaze.

"We started the battle with seventeen Green Berets, six LLDB, 143 Nung soldiers from the Mike Force, 210 CIDG, seven interpreters, and 51 civilians in the camp," he reported.

Smith offered a polite smile before replying curtly, "Your recall is impressive. That's an awful lot of numbers to remember."

Davids ignored him, perhaps sensing the hint of sarcasm, and turned away again. "Shortly before 0400 on the morning of September 9, the NVA began a mortar attack that lasted for two and a half hours. Halfway through it, they attacked the south wall, but were held off. We had a very difficult time getting any kind of air support or supplies - or even evacuating the wounded - because of the weather and their goddamn rocket fire. Two Marine CH-34s made it in, but one of them crashed. We also lost an AC-47. The next morning, the bastards did it all over again. This time when they breached the wall, the 141st CIDG Company turned on us and deserted to the enemy."

Smith's eyes narrowed, finally receiving some information worth processing. The strategist who'd planned the attack was clearly competent, and he had to wonder just how early the enemy had penetrated the camp in order to have enough sympathizers among the CIDG to turn the whole group to the enemy. The indigenous soldiers he had worked with were invaluable assets to any team he took out. True, he was only assigned those who had already been seasoned in the field and at times, even they were skittish when they saw the odds stacked against them. But they would never desert to the enemy. The thought was appalling, even offensive.

"Anybody still alive went to the communications bunker in the north corner of the camp," Davids continued. "But it got worse. We ended up having to run air strikes on the south and east wall of our own camp. Captain Blake made the decision to abandon the camp at 1500 hours on September 10. But when the Marines landed the rescue choppers, the remaining CIDG panicked and overran them. It got so bad, our men had to shoot into the crowd just to get things under control."

Eyes narrowed in silent scrutiny of the need for such drastic measures, Smith decided to say nothing. He wasn't there, after all, and couldn't speculate on what he might have done differently. Still pacing in a worrisome display of unprofessionalism, Davids recalled the events with such melodramatic tension, Smith would've thought he was actually there himself.

"They left with only 60 of the remaining soldiers from the camp," he finally concluded. "We don't know exactly how many of those left behind were still alive at the time, but those who could ran into the jungle and we've been picking them up ever since."

"How many did we lose?" Smith asked. He had a sneaking suspicion that the general would be able to quote the numbers off the top of his head.

"Of the 210 CIDG soldiers, more than half were evacuated and most left behind had deserted to the enemy. We had 75 Mike Force killed, 33 wounded, fifteen MIA. Of the crew stationed at the camp, five dead and ten wounded."

Well, what do you know? Smith had been right about the number recall. But as he quickly did the math, he frowned. "That doesn't add up."

"And that's why you're here," Davids replied with a nod.

Finally, it was getting interesting. Smith watched the man carefully, wary of his tight, uncomfortable smile. "There are two Americans out there, MIA," the general continued. "One of them, First Sergeant Alan Parker with the Mike Force, has a fairly high security clearance. We need him back."

Smith raised a brow. Talk about a tall order... Not only was he being asked to penetrate enemy territory and find a POW camp - in and of itself an impressive feat - but he had to find a particular one and rescue a particular person to bring them safely back to base? The odds certainly warranted a team like Smith's, and he could see why Davids had made the request. What he wasn't sure about was why Westman had agreed to the importance of the mission. What single man could be worth so much trouble?

"What makes you think he's still alive?" Smith asked suspiciously.

The general sighed. "We can't know that he is," he admitted. "But I want you to find out. There's seventeen men unaccounted for and any of them might still be alive. Your objective is to bring Parker out, but I'd like to see some of those other men recovered, too, if at all possible."

Smith stared back at the general for a long moment, contemplating the mission carefully. It posed the kind of challenge he normally enjoyed, but he had a feeling he was still missing a few pieces of the puzzle.

"What are we calling this operation, Sir?" he asked, prodding the uneasy man as carefully as possible.

"Call it whatever you want, Colonel," Davids deadpanned.

Interest suddenly piqued, Smith raised a surprised brow. "Sir?"

Davids sighed deeply and looked up. Suddenly, he looked very old and very tired, as though he had no more energy to spend on worrying over this matter or, for that matter, this war.

"I'll be perfectly honest with you," he said after a long pause. "I'm giving you complete jurisdiction over this operation because it is going to be completely off the books. You go in with your team and you do whatever it is you do. You bring that man back. I don't care where you have to go, who you have to kill, or what kind of deal you have to make with the devil. You let me handle the paperwork."

Smith's eyes narrowed, studying the senior officer very carefully, cautiously. Why keep a search and rescue off the books? His team did this sort of thing on an almost-weekly basis, although admittedly the details were far more specific now than usual. So specific, in fact, that no one in their right mind would risk the lives of their men on such an impossible mission...

"You've been ordered to leave this alone," Smith realized slowly. "You wanted me because you know my team can do it cleanly. And you won't have to explain a damn thing because you got permission to draft this mission from Westman himself."

Davids smiled tightly, but looked more like a man bravely facing an execution than a battle hardened general distributing orders. "Before you ask," he said, "General Westman was given a full briefing of the actual mission. I'm not asking you to lie to your CO. I also told him the paperwork on this assignment is going to reflect that you took A-5296 to a recon mission twenty klicks south of A Shau."

An amused smile crossed Smith's face. "Depending on who you're trying to sell that explanation to," he said, "you may have some trouble making it convincing when Parker shows up here, safe and sound."

"That's my problem, not yours."

Smith watched him for a long moment. The tired look in his eyes hinted at the explanation he would - or, rather, wouldn't - give. If they were successful, he would bear the consequences. What the hell was so important about Sergeant Alan Parker that a decorated field general would risk a dishonorable discharge to bring him back? Although Smith instinctively wanted to ask, he realized before the words came that he really didn't want to know. This was not simply a matter of dodging red tape; Davids was actually going to falsify records, whether or not they succeeded. It wasn't a mortal sin in Smith's eyes; he'd done it before, personally. But this general wasn't even Special Forces and this was most certainly not his run-of-the-mill op.

Smith's opinion of the man was changing. It didn't really matter why Parker was important. Whether for the information he possessed or for his own sake, the soldier had taken priority over the bureaucratic bullshit. It took balls for Davids to make a decision like this, to risk rank and even career for the sake of one man. Rather, to risk it all for the chance that one man might actually still be alive and could even be rescued.

But paperwork and impossibilities aside, it was a risky job. Aside from the obvious danger of an extraction of a POW - if Parker was still breathing - they would have to do it with no air support, no communication with the base, and no rescue to pull them out if they failed. If they were caught or killed, they did it while disobeying their "official orders." But if it succeeded, Alan Parker and anyone else still alive would get to go home to their families. And Smith's team would not fail. It was just that simple.

"You said complete jurisdiction, Sir," he pointed out, fixing the general in a hard stare. "How complete did you mean?"

Davids shook his head. "Once you're out that door, Smith, I don't want to know what you did or how you did it. I just want our men back."

Colonel Smith felt a smile come across his face as he considered those words. That sounded like complete jurisdiction to him. Apparently Davids knew how this game was played. It didn't take Smith long to come to the conclusion he knew the general had expected all along.

"Sounds like my kind of operation, Sir," he said with an accepting nod. "I'll brief my team just as soon as I get back."