The letter came two days before deployment.
Missing, presumed dead
Which meant they stopped looking.
When his team was wheels down, he went to the forward staff's camp. Not even MPs dared put red tape in SEAL's face.
Torn tents flapped in the wind, glass from shot up jeeps glittered on the ground. Burned debris from exploded shed was strewn around on the blood-stained sand.
Twenty people died.
One got lost or taken.
Things'll be kept under wraps, because this was Army, the ground was hot and public opinion back home hotter.
Thorne had to find his father by himself.
Jewel in the Rocks
The jeep rattled down the dirt track of a road and stopped at the border shack.
Aminah turned to the patrolman without interest, adjusting her perfectly fitting headscarf. Her driver handed over their papers.
"Conjugal visit, eh?" the soldier leered, inviting the driver to respond. Instead the man looked away and the woman gave him the iciest glare over the rims of her sunglasses. The soldier shrugged and waved them through.
The monthly routine of the journey became almost comfortable.
She loved her destination - Petra - and always had much to see and do there.
Her husband was just a cover.
Wild Goose Chase
Third deployment after his father disappeared Thorne felt like he's been down every single track in this God forsaken country.
Then he noticed a crack in the rocks for the first time, or got new piece of intel and off he went again. At first only in his spare time. Then he started cutting back sleep - nightmares didn't allow for rest anyway.
"Commander, ya better snap out of it, before ya get us all killed!" his Lieutenant growled, as he tackled him to the ground, bullets wheezing past. Because this time Thorne got distracted during assignment.
Something needed to change.
The One to End Them All
As Aminah stepped into the air conditioned lab she was greeted by her husband's smile. She stepped around the desk to give him a hug and a peck on the cheek.
Then she bent over one of the work benches, surveying the new artifacts.
"Another ancient performance-enhancing device?" she frowned.
With the obsession their employer had over these, he should have been a superman a long time ago.
"Not just 'another', the ultimate," he shrugged. "According to the inscription."
Roughly translated, the symbols read "Hero-maker".
They shared tight, unamused smile across the table.
Neither of them believed in heroes anymore.
Change in the Weather
"You look tired," Deirdre wasn't beating around the bush.
He looked over his shoulder, making sure nobody was listening.
"You know dad's 'When tired, push harder' isn't always right..."
He fell silent. He couldn't bring himself to tell her.
She probably read it in his eyes.
In the silence he heard voices.
"...SAPFU like you can't imagine. Dirties using magic, they say. Tango Bravo Sierra, if you ask me."
"Anyway, we're Oscar Mike at o'dark thirty. Better hope the cousins get that ASS back out of Syria..."
"Thorne, are you listening?"
"Sorry, time to push harder."
Baksheesh was a lot of things in this part of the world.
An expression of appreciation for services rendered.
A way to grease the rusty wheels of bureaucracy into action.
Or a closing of a deal nobody wanted on paper for things you couldn't acquire any other way.
The military encouraged its people to show initiative.
As he offered money in a handshake to the person against him, he doubted this is what they would have in mind
Iraq was a warzone.
Everything around it was at fragile peace.
If his father is out there, he'll need a local guide.
"Talk to me, Mouse," Wolf's voice came through the magical interface.
"Not much to tell. He's still turning up mostly useless artifacts," Aminah shrugged. "His grunts are tyrannizing everyone and there are rumours of possible connection in Iran."
"Iran?" Wolf sounded surprised.
"Do you want me to look into that?"
"No," the answer came too quick. "No, Mouse, I'll deal with that myself."
"Use me, Wolf. I can handle it. Don't baby me."
"He trusts me."
"Does he tell you everything?"
"He tells me enough."
"And we need to keep it that way."
"Roger Wilco. Out."
It wasn't long before Wolf's question was validated.
As she returned home that night, she knocked on Professor's door.
"I have the things you wanted. I couldn't make the heads or tails of them, though."
"Ah, dear Aminah, you still have so much to learn. And so much curiosity..." his voice was the combination of amusement and condescension.
He arranged the nine artifacts in equal groups on his desk carefully.
She could feel their magic interacting and changing.
"Constellation magic?" she wondered.
"Some things only work in synergy," he smirked. "Can you figure them out now?"
Nowhere in Particular
Thorne looked at the stars. For the last four hours they headed due west. Which should soon bring them to where the borders of Iraq met those of both Jordan and Syria.
It wasn't the shortest, or most comfortable route. But his guide insisted on it.
Rocks that weren't quite mountains rose around them.
It came as quite a shock, when their ledge-of-a-road turned sharply around a cliff and they found themselves in the middle of an uncharted refugee camp.
"Anyone can get lost in this land," the guide explained, unperturbed. "Here is where you get found."
Part of Me Will Always Stray
The magic was pulsating, beating, thrumming.
Much more than sum of nine parts.
In Aminah's mind it conjured images - drums of war, the beating of thousand feet in a military step, the clank of a disc magazine being clipped into a weapon.
Steady beat of an enormous heart.
One that made you want to follow - to become a part of it.
It was calming and disquieting at the same time.
The Professor watched her closely.
"Now that you understand... can you replicate it?" his voice broke through her trance.
With cold composure she dodged the answer.
"I need some air."
"If my father isn't here, WHAT on Earth are we waiting for?" Thorne was pacing between the tents, drilling his guide with a glare.
"No worry, they come," the guide was unperturbed.
"People who find people."
"Why didn't we go to them directly?"
"You no come them, they come to you. They pick. Less danger face to face."
As the guide finished, a jeep drove into the camp and Thorne finally understood. The three men on it were - quite obviously - crimps for one of the paramilitary fractions.
This was their recruiting pool.
And they were not taking just men...
Variety of Responsibilities
The artifact she was restoring gave Aminah some trouble as the original text on it was mostly illegible.
She traced the intricate lines with practiced precision.
As she finished the last one, there was a flash of magic.
It left a metallic aftertaste in her mouth, but she smiled.
Job well done.
Time to put it in the hold.
In the corridor she met a soldier leading a little girl.
"Ah, Mistress, new apprentice for you, Master said."
She had the sinking sensation of realizing you forgot something vital.
The sweet child shouldn't be here.
She could have stopped it.
"Prime specimen, gents, really," Thorne's guide doubled as slave agent. "Strong. Fast. Good fighter."
Despite his efforts, the men were not interested in Thorne. Only people with magic. The guide made him hide from all the other crimps coming through.
"No intel, just guns. You need best. Magic one."
Various people hid from various groups. There was a young woman coming into the camp irregularly, usually before the magic seeking group came. She gathered a few people - mostly children and women - and took them away.
Where, nobody knew.
Sometimes those people came back after the crimps left - sometimes they didn't.
Pressure is On
This time Aminah was voluntold to lead the recruiting party. She scanned the crowd. The soldiers with her knew very little about magic. Still, there were some people she couldn't quite pass by.
She lifted her hand to point them out, eyes cold and hard.
"You want me," the man spoke broken Arabic with an accent. No magic.
"I am not your way to heaven from this purgatory, soldier," she declined in English.
"Oh, you're definitely not an angel, I know," his eyes were as hard as hers. "Take me. Or I'll tell your companions about your other activity here."
Never Give Up
"No," the woman said icily. "You won't tell. And you're no use to me."
She gave her companions a quick succession of commands in Arabic, ignoring Thorne.
Five people got onto the jeep and they drove off, leaving him in the dust, defeated once again.
She was right.
He wasn't ready to put lives at risk - and talking wouldn't help his cause.
The dead end got deader.
In the evening, one of the hidden people, creeping back, flashed Thorne a quick, shy smile.
A ray of hope, a kick off towards the surface.
He offered them food and started asking.
[fire cracking, cicadas chirping, quiet talk in the background]
Thorne: Where did she take you?
Woman's voice: Can't tell.
Thorne: I just need help. For my family...
Woman: It was dark. No light. Only crack, high up.
Thorne: A cave then.
Thorne: [resigned] Which direction?
[wood snaps, scratches against sand]
Woman: That's how you go.
Thorne: Thank you.
[fabric rustles, steps walk away from the fire]
Thorne: Thanks for your services.
Guide: Desert dangerous at night, I guide!
Thorne: No need. Me and darkness are old friends.
[pistol magazine snaps, small motorbike starts up]
In Plain Sight
The hideout was more crowded than it should have been, when Aminah got there couple days later.
She pulled aside the two people she needed and set a time and place for pick up with them.
Out of the corner of her eye she caught a movement in the back of the cave.
It was a woman in a niqab, fretting.
Something was off about her.
As Aminah left, the woman slowly followed.
She waited for Aminah to start her car, mounted a motorbike (growling and cursing at the fabric of the dress getting in the way) and tailed her.
Adventures in Tailing
Considering he barely saw anything through the slit in the veil, things were going well.
Thorne kept distance, following the taillights.
She'll lead him where he needs to go, willingly or not.
The taillights suddenly disappeared. He slowed down to creeping pace.
He got just close enough to make out the silhouette of the jeep in front of him when its headlights flashed and it sped straight at him.
He barely had time to dive headfirst into the brambles on the wayside.
Cursing, he jumped up, covered in thistle heads, tore the headscarf off and glared after the disappearing jeep.
Aminah's phone rang in the middle of the drive.
Her unofficial phone.
"We have a problem," Racoon's voice sounded level. "Professor is appointing new head of the Petra project. There are three candidates."
"I'll put in a word for you."
"I am not one of them, Mouse. It's not good."
That was stating the obvious.
She stopped the jeep, breathing and listening for a few moments, but he didn't go on.
"He doesn't trust you," she stated.
"We need our person on that list, Mouse. You're the only one who can try."
She ended the call and punched the wheel.
Hold Your Friends Close
She went to the Professor ostensibly to discuss her next trip to Petra.
"I am bringing Eyal in," he responded, surprisingly. "I don't want you distracted from the Synergy project - with him here, you don't have to travel there."
The three father figures in her life didn't have much in common, but the one trait she shared with all of them was stubbornness.
She suspected that what ultimately drove her biological dad to disown her, was cunning - something the two others had in plenty, but he lacked.
She's going to need both to get out of this pickle.