PRELUDE

Eastern Afghanistan
Summer 2004

"Well, isn't this the life" muttered someone from behind. All Sergeant Patrick Joyce could manage was a slight nod of his head. He was thinking roughly the same thought.

SGT Joyce and his fellow members of A Company, 1st Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment of the 10th Mountain Division had shared such thoughts since arriving in eastern Afghanistan. Their mission was to work with other units to flesh out the remaining pockets of Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters who were making life difficult for the new national government in Kabul. They were also on the lookout for the most wanted man on the planet, Osama Bin-Laden. Intelligence (for whatever that was worth), had placed him somewhere in eastern Afghanistan and western Pakistan.

Joyce and his fellow soldiers at this moment found themselves 10,000 feet up in this God-forsaken mountain range because a local warlord had told his CIA handlers of a Taliban sighting in the area.

This is first-class B.S. is all Joyce thought of the intel.

A Co. had been rucking through this mountain range for three days with no tangible results except a constant feeling of utter exhaustion and the related anger. Even A Co.'s gung-ho commander, Captain Brian Hernandez, was fuming.

"Hold up" came the whispered order from the front of the patrol. Everyone went to one knee and began scanning the surrounding countryside. Sergeant First Class Aubrey Little, Joyce's platoon sergeant came waddling over.

"Listen up; we've got movement about 500 meters ahead. Joyce, take your squad and move slowly into position by that outcropping to our right. Set up in a line of fire to cover 1st squad's advance." Little had a look of concern Joyce had seen before. There was no-shit trouble ahead.

Joyce turned to his guys, "Let's move."

Joyce and his men moved with a quiet precision that came from hundreds of hours of training together both in the states and here in the 'Stan. They set up and began to watch as 1st Squad moved forward. It was deathly quiet and hot as hell. The quiet part had Joyce worried. Something's not right here Joyce thought as the moments ticked by. This feeling is one that Joyce had developed after 3 and a half years of hard soldiering in some crappy locations. Those feeling usually have a way of panning out.

BOOM!

BOOM!

Mortar rounds began to impact the precise location of 1st Squad and A Co.'s leadership element. Joyce could hear orders being given over the tactical radio frequency.

"Displace! Move for cover!

A call for close air support went out but the answer was not good. It would be 10-20 minutes before any aircraft would be in position.

Joyce used his binoculars to scan what he suspected was the area where the mortar was set up. His radio crackled:

"Joyce, take your people and attempt to flank the position from the right!"

"Roger that," responded Joyce. "OK people, let's go. Follow me!"

Joyce and his fellow soldiers started to make their way across the barren moonscape of the mountainside. They could see and hear additional mortar rounds as they impacted near the rest of A Co. Finally, the found themselves looking straight up at a ledge about eight feet above their heads. Joyce turned to Corporal Dan LaFontaine, a tall, scrappy type from Pennsylvania who served as his assistant squad leader.

"Dan, position here with the squad! Lift me up and I'm going to take a look at this ledge!"

LaFontaine and another soldier lifted Joyce up and helped him crawl over the edge and onto the precipice. He stayed in the prone position and crawled forward a couple of feet. What he saw was not good.

Five Afghans in their usual burkhas and turbans were manning what appeared to be an old Russian mortar similar to the American 88mm. They were feeding rounds and adjusting trajectory as fast as they could. One was kneeled on the other side of the ledge with binoculars doing the spotting.

No way I can get my guys up here without them knowing. Shit, this will have to be a one man job. Joyce could hear on the tactical net that they were taking casualties.

Well, it's now or never!

Joyce leapt up and began to run as fast as he could. There was about 20 feet between him and the mortar crew. He leveled his M-4 rifle to his shoulder. To his horror, one of the Taliban grunts finally saw him and screamed in Pashtun. Without thinking, Joyce screamed:

"Hey, tough guy!" His first shot took a Taliban off his feet and dropped him hard. Years of training took over as he aimed at the next two manning the mortar. He got the first with five rounds to the chest that exploded into a shower of blood. The next grunt tried to turn and run but that got him shot in the back.

Three down, two to go was all that registered in his mind. His world had become a black tunnel as his body adjusted to the stress. Joyce made it around the mortar as Taliban #4 reached for his rifle. His first shot missed low and to the left but the follow-on shots ruined Taliban #4's day.

The mortar spotter stood at the far end of the ledge and pulled out a PPK pistol as Joyce came to face him. The spotter screamed as he fired. His first two rounds went wild but then suddenly:

WHACK!

Joyce felt the impact of the bullet as it hit his left shoulder outside his Interceptor vest and tore into muscle and bone. Somehow, Joyce remained standing and through the haze of pain let loose the remainder of his 30 round magazine. The rounds began striking the Taliban soldier in the mid-section and paraded up his chest, ending in a crescendo of rounds that exploded his head and neck in a disgusting bloodbath.

Oh, man…

Just as quickly as the stress-induced tunnel vision had come, it departed even quicker. Joyce felt the massive weight of pain hit him like a freight train. Before he knew it, he was surrounded by the company's medics, who were barking orders and working on his shoulder at a fever pitch. Then out of the mist of anarchy, Joyce heard the voice of his company CO:

"That was the most amazing thing I've ever seen…"

And so it begins…

CHAPTER ONE

SGC
Cheyenne Mountain Air Station, CO
Six Months Later

This was actually one part of the morning that he liked. At least that's what Brigadier General Jonathan "Jack" O'Neill, USAF, told himself. He could sit in his office (the idea of having an office bothering him in the first place), drink some coffee and gather his thoughts for another day of both bureaucratic combat and quite possibly, the real thing.

What a way to run a railroad was all he could muster for a thought this early. O'Neill glanced at his schedule and saw all manner of mundane tasks that he didn't relish. Before he could let loose some choice words his aide-de-camp knocked and entered.

"Sir, you have a 0930 appointment with Colonel Proconti from JSOC." JSOC stands for Joint Special Operations Command, the unified command responsible for all US military special operations units and is based at Fort Bragg, NC. Col. John Proconti serves as JSOC's liaison to the SGC and as the defacto talent scout for potential SGC personnel, mainly off-world travelers. "He's scheduled to meet with you in the conference room."

"Yeah, I know. I'll be heading over in a minute."

O'Neill stood to leave, grabbing some files and his all-important coffee on the way. As he made his way down the hall, he noticed his friend and the SGC's resident cultural expert, Dr. Daniel Jackson, coming his way.

"What?"

Jackson looked incredulous. "I didn't say anything. And good morning to you too."

"Yeah, but I know you will. Listen, I'm on my way to see Col. Proconti from JSOC about a new batch of potentials. Why don't you tag along? I like getting your academic viewpoint about some of these people and their experiences."

"Sure, but I don't know what you want to hear."

"Just your opinion. You don't usually have trouble with that."

"Ha, you're pretty funny."

O'Neill and Daniel entered to find Proconti already waiting for them. He moved to stand but was waved down by O'Neill, who was never big on protocol.

"Good to see you John, you remember Dr. Daniel Jackson."

"Yes, it's good to see you again Dr. Jackson."

"Likewise, Colonel." Daniel looked at Proconti and saw nothing but soldier. He was an experience "operator" who had come to this assignment from commanding the 10th Special Forces Group at nearby Fort Carson, Colorado. He was a serious character who took his job even more seriously. Jackson could respect that.

O'Neill got things started. "Okay, John, what have you brought me?"

"I think you'll be interested in some of these people. I've brought the files on about 30 who we think should be closely looked at. In keeping with our last conversation, five are from outside the traditional Special Ops community but have unique experience."

"Let's take a look."

The three spent the next 2 hours going over personnel files and background investigations. All of the checks were exhaustive and basically contained the sum total of each person's personal and professional accomplishments, blemishes and missteps. All had extensive operational experience and were highly trained. One file caught Daniel's eye.

"Tell me a little more about this guy."

Proconti took the file and opened it. "General, this is one of the five I was telling you about. Sergeant Patrick Joyce, US Army. He's currently assigned to the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, NY. Interestingly enough, a graduate of Fordham University in New York City. A double major in History and Medieval Studies. Minored in Theology."

"Not the average resume of an infantryman in the 10th."

Proconti continued, "He had high scores on all areas on the ASVAB." The ASVAB is the vocational test required by the US military of all entrants. "He's also a graduate of Ranger School, Airborne and Air Assault qualified. He served a tour with the 101st Airborne Division during the invasion of Iraq. Awarded the Silver Star and Purple Heart for actions in eastern Afghanistan. It seems he did a Soprano's job on five Taliban foot soldiers who were mortaring his company."

O'Neill looked over the file. "He sounds interesting, but what is a guy with his background doing in the infantry? Fordham degrees aren't exactly common in line infantry units."

"Says here that he lost five friends on 9/11 and that motivated him to join the Army."

O'Neill whistled. "Well, we're not looking for people on a revenge kick. John, meet with him, take a closer look and then let me know. If he's our type, we'll bring him out for an interview."

"Yes sir."