The married couple entered the empty church and, hand in hand, walked past the cherrywood pews. Ahead of them, red votive candles burned at either side of the altar.
The man took his time walking ahead. The black T-shirt, black cargo pants, black boots, athletic build, and strong, clean-shaven jawline screamed military man. He dropped to his knees in front of the altar, as did his wife, both facing Christ on the cross. The two bowed their heads and prayed. The woman—in her late thirties, curvy, with black hair and light-olive skin—turned toward her husband, touched his wedding band, and slid her index finger back and forth over the ring. She then gently touched the gold crucifix hanging from the chain around his neck.
"He's always looked after you. He will again. I'll be outside." She made the sign of the cross, rose to her feet, and left the church.
The sound of the doors closing behind him made the man lift his head. He stared at the cross once more. Before every mission, he took this time alone to be with Jesus Christ, eyeing each wound carefully. Always the same feeling of sorrow, tinged with anger, surfaced at each nail driven into his Savior. Ray Catlin stood, made the sign of the cross, and walked away.
He was ready.
Two hours later, Ray was in the back of a black civilian Humvee driven by a young officer who neither looked at nor spoke to him the entire hour it took to reach the military base. Outside of the twenty-foot chain-link fence around the base, the Humvee and its occupants were searched and their IDs verified before entering. At a helicopter hangar, the Humvee pulled up alongside a pair of wide double doors that were slightly parted. Ray stepped out of the Humvee and slipped through the narrow space the doors provided. Inside the surrounding walls of gray, the hangar was empty of any flying machine owned or operated by the military. In front of Ray, only his boys and girls stood waiting: ten operators clothed in black cargo pants and diverse black combat shirts.
For three years, in some of the most hellish circumstances, Ray had kept them safe. If it came down to their lives or his, he would die for any one of them, just like any good father would.
With the window of opportunity slowly closing on having children with his wife, Kate, Ray felt the members of his unit were his children to protect. It was a feeling formed on their very first mission together. Personality-wise, while they were all different, they were, at their core, connected. Everything different about each individual operator seemed to draw them together, the familial bond growing stronger over the years. And Ray was the proud father.
Ray walked closer and addressed his team.
"We're being flown out tonight to the Genesis lab. We'll prep there for our next mission. We leave in an hour."