Little Moment: Rumble in the Jungle
A Companion Piece to Shadows 59's Little Moments
By Eric "Erico" Lawson
"Operation Rolling Thunder"
24 km NNE of Dien Bien Phu
July 1st, 1965
The USAF 563rd Tactical Fighter Squadron had some of the most skilled pilots Captain Max Tennyson had ever had the privilege of flying with, much less fighting beside. That was probably the biggest reason he'd agreed to fly his last sortie with them. While it was his turn in the rotation, the fact that he was headed back to the States for a transfer to NASA, and astronaut training, would have excused him from it. He hadn't waved off of that last flight. One last chance with the men, carrying out his duty before leaving the skies of war behind for a shot at rocketing to the moon. It was supposed to be just a normal sortie. Go looking for NVA radar sites and convoys, attack them if any were found, and then RTB for drinks at the O Club before leaving on a transport the next morning. They had already dropped their payload and their external fuel tanks after hitting a mobile SAM and radar site; His wingman had taken a bit of flak, but nothing serious enough to punch out for. Lieutenant Chris "Hawk" Evans was tough like that; he'd made a habit of refusing to punch out of injured jets, and their F-105D "Thud" Thunderchiefs were pretty durable to glancing and grazing blows.
They had been so close to crossing out of North Vietnamese airspace when…
The radar warning had come out of nowhere, with a target suddenly behind them and rising up from the jungle canopy. There had been no time to react to the shadowy thing when it appeared. One moment, everything was fine, and the next, Hornet 3 and 4 were shot down. No, not shot down. Obliterated. There had only been a horrible moment where he had heard Davis and Murray scream as blazing light scored across their jets and engulfed them in fire, and then they had exploded.
"Lynchpin to Eagle's Nest, we are under attack!" Max quickly shouted into his radio. It was what he needed to say; alert the base back in Thailand that they were in trouble. They'd need that to scramble SAR...
"Evasive!" Chris screamed, already banking high left and jamming the throttle to max afterburner.
"No! NO!" Max yelled at him, banking hard left and diving instead, trading off altitude for all too precious speed. "Dive, Chris!"
The advice came too late, and the shadowy thing of lights and strange angles flew up and went for the easier target. In his panic, Lieutenant Chris Evans had broken the cardinal rule of dogfighting; you never bled off airspeed if you had a bogey on your tail, it was just asking to be shot down.
He never stood a chance. Another blast of strange light that cut through the steady sunset with sunlike intensity, and the entire back end of his F-105D vanished in a fireball. The rest of it tumbled down in a wild spin, headed for a fiery impact with the jungle that denied his best friend any chance of punching out. Max watched it all happen with horror, and then with a seething anger that poured and formed in his chest like a crucible full of melted iron.
"Eagle's Nest to Lynchpin. Lynchpin, come in! Report status!"
Max heard the voice from Takhli Air Base in Thailand. In spite of the radio's usual scratchiness, he understood the radioman perfectly. He was surprised to find he was processing everything perfectly. The plummeting wreckage of his best friend's jet, that shadowy thing moving off at a fast, but somehow leisurely pace. He'd seen it move before, and it was plodding.
It wasn't Russian. For a few seconds early on, he'd thought it might be, but no MiG moved that fast, attacked like that, or looked like that, from what little of it he could see. So it was Aliens. There had been stories about Roswell, and then there'd been First Contact in 1952 over D.C, back when he was just a kid. The Nuclear Age had gotten their attention in a big way, but they mostly kept to themselves and left Earth alone, which was in line with the political talk always thrown out about 'our alien friends.' Max remembered hearing about the stories about the Foo Fighters during the London Blitz, who supposedly scared and chased off the German fighters and bombers alongside the British prop planes. And then how alien ships sometimes liked to go hotdogging with the early jets during the Korean War, because they 'got bored'. He'd laughed a little at the Academy when his trainer, a Korean vet, told him that one.
He wasn't laughing now.
"All my wingmen are shot down. It wasn't...it wasn't human." Max heard his voice say. It was steady, no panic there. Just an unstoppable anger. That UFO was flying away from him.
There was a slight pause as the base radioman took that in, a longer one as he was likely conferring with officers. His response sounded almost panicked. "Lynchpin, return to base. I repeat, RTB!"
"Negative." Max pushed his throttle forwards, kicking on the afterburner and grunting against the G-Forces that shoved him back into his seat. His G-Suit's air bladders inflated and he clenched his feet to keep the blood from pooling down in his legs as he turned up after it. "I'm on the bogey."
It had a good lead on him, but it was coasting up slowly, not rising towards the heavens with any great purpose. Screaming through the sound barrier with an audible BOOM, Max switched his HOTAS to missile guidance and waited as the pipper displayed on his canopy's windshield. His missile's heat-seeking boresight.
The F-105 pushed through Mach 1 and kept accelerating, although at a slower pace. The thing was still a ways off. He needed to get closer. Damn it, he needed to get closer!
"Come on, you son of a…" Max growled. As if it had heard him, the shadowy shape seemed to slow and come about, turning in towards him. He'd gotten its attention. The only thing that mattered was that it allowed him to close the gap, and get in range for his AIM-9 Sidewinders.
The speakers in his helmet's radio headset started to growl angrily; the ship was putting off enough heat that he'd gotten a solid lock-on.
It was cowboy tactics, but Captain Max Tennyson launched all four of his Sidewinders one after the other, ripple-firing the heat-seekers. He saw a flicker of light along the thing's leading edges; whatever it had used on his men, it was gunning for him now. Trusting in his missiles to do their jobs, Max jinked hard at supersonic speeds. He flinched and squinted his eyes shut as another blast of angry red light screamed underneath his fuselage, then another, as the shots trailed after his wild maneuver. He reversed his jet and dove down, bleeding off speed until he was just below supersonic, keeping to positive Gs and never breaking his gaze from the ship as it tried to hit him. All the while, his missiles closed in, and the ship finally seemed to recognize the danger. It fired another shot at him, and by dumb luck more than good marksmanship, landed a hit on his wing, blowing it off and sending him into a wild spin. The only consolation Max got was that while the UFO dodged three of his missiles, the fourth screamed in hot on its track and crashed into its rear end before the 10 pound warhead detonated.
"Lynchpin is hit." Max grunted, straining to pull his crippled jet out of its uncontrolled roll. It was going down, and he needed to level it off before he could safely eject. "Target hit also. Ejecting."
The jet played nice one last time with him, and while still down a wing and losing altitude, he got its attitude leveled off. Reaching down beside his legs, he pulled hard on the ejection handles; he had to. The thing was designed to prevent unintentional deployment.
Explosive bolts along his canopy went off, and the wind tore the now separated canopy away. A half second later, the explosive charges under his seat detonated and the rocket boosters shoved him forcibly out of the jet and into the whipping winds. Even strapped down tightly to his seat, he was battered and shoved in a hundred different ways that would leave him with bruises.
The last thing Max saw before his chute deployed and shook him into unconsciousness was his dying Thunderchief falling to the jungle beneath him, and three miles off, the UFO with a smoking hole in its ass doing the same.
Pain. Max wasn't a stranger to pain, but that didn't mean he looked forward to it. When he came to, his head was throbbing, his right arm felt like a bull moose had clipped it, and he was dizzier than one of his dates had been in high school when they'd gone on the spinning teacups. He cracked his eyes open.
Ah. He was upside down and hanging from the straps of his parachute, trapped up in the trees. That'd do it. And somehow, dumb luck had put him five feet off the ground. Max looked up into the trees, frowning. It was getting dark now. How long had he been hanging here like a pilot pinata? Too long. He was deep in NVA territory, and they loved finding American pilots. Don't get caught, was the motto, because apparently the North Vietnamese government didn't consider this a war, which meant that they didn't treat their POWs under Geneva convention rules.
Right. Don't get caught. Step one, get down. He reached with his right arm for the knife strapped to his leg and…
Stifled a scream and then gasped for air as the pain tried to make him black out again.
Busted arm. Add it to the list of everything else that had gone wrong on this mission.
"Come on, Max. Move." He hissed at himself, and reached for the sheathed blade with his left arm instead. No pain that time, so he at least had one working limb. As he pulled the knife out and grabbed the hilt tightly, he wiggled his toes and legs. Yeah, those still worked too. So. Just the arm. And a concussion. And miles away from the border, in enemy territory, after the rest of his squadron was destroyed by fragging aliens.
"Scream about it later." He muttered, and started cutting away the harness of his spent ejector seat in the air. Max tried to brace himself for the drop, and angle himself so he wouldn't land on his right side or shoulder. It didn't quite work out the way he hoped, but at least he didn't stab himself or get crushed by the chair after he cut himself free of it..
After being blinded by pain for a second time, Max rolled onto his back and gulped like a landed fish. It took him another minute until he could sit up. He stowed his blade and pushed himself up to a stand with his good arm. He stared at the hanging chair that had pulled him from the flaming wreckage of his jet, staring at the red headrest for a moment before checking himself over. No supplies, just his full-on bowie knife and his service pistol, holstered on his right hip.
Max struggled to get his helmet off with just one hand, but when he finally did, and turned it around, he was stunned to see a massive dent in the side of it. When had that happened? He must have hit a branch on the way down. That would explain why he was unconscious for so long. He tucked it under his good arm for later. There was waning daylight, but the sunset went in the same direction no matter where you lived on the planet, and it gave him a bead on the course he needed to egress. He reached for his emergency radio tucked into a pocket in the back of his hanging ejector seat, but froze when he heard the grass and bushes behind him move.
He struggled to reach for his pistol, and cursed that it was strapped wrong for a left-handed draw. Not that it mattered once the figure approaching him finally stepped into the clearing and he got a good look at it. His left hand froze as he was fumbling for the butt of his pistol, his eyes locked on to the oddly shaped head with three magenta eyes, the gray bodysuit...and the two tendrils hanging from the head like a cascade of hair. Somewhere in the silence of them staring at each other, he felt the weight in the crook of his arm disappear, and he heard something heavy hit the ground. He promptly forgot about it.
His first alien encounter, and it was a she. At least, he thought it was a she. She had one hand grabbing at a metallic collar around her neck, and was favoring one leg, based on her limp.
"Finally." She muttered in a sultry voice, giving him an exasperated look. "I was beginning to think I'd never find you."
"Come to finish the job?" Max growled, and tried to reach for his gun again.
She blinked at his hostility, and her eyes focused on what he was reaching for. "Be careful with that. You could actually kill me right now. But no, I'm not the one who was flying the ship that attacked you. I'm actually grateful you knocked them down." She looked around suddenly, and her head tendrils were waving. "Listen. We don't have time for this. We have to get moving. They're going to find us if we don't get a move on."
"Who?" Max demanded. "The Vietnamese?"
"Worse." Xylene growled. She started to walk on, and winced before catching herself against a tree. "Damn."
Max relaxed his posture and slowly pulled his left arm away from his gun. She suddenly didn't seem all that dangerous. "I don't think you're going anywhere with that leg of yours."
"It's my knee, jackass. The leg's fine. Unlike your arm, not that it takes much to break one of you humans."
The not so subtle dig made Max clench his jaw. "Aren't you a peach? Come on. I'm going to need your help to make a splint for my arm...and something for that leg of yours."
"Promise you won't shoot me?" She snarked back at him.
"And miss out on your sparkling conversation?" He retorted, turning back to his chair so he could start to salvage parts off of it. The first thing he removed was the radio, but he scowled when it wouldn't turn on; too much damage in the landing, if the gash on the back of the seat was anything to go off of. He let it drop and went looking for useful materials. "What do I call you anyways?"
"...Xylene. Galactic Enforcers." She conceded, hobbling over and taking his knife out of his hand. He started to protest, but then she kept on cutting with far more grace than he'd been able to do one-handed. "And you?"
"Captain Max Tennyson. US Air Force." He said, running his hand through his buzzed brown hair. "Never heard of the Galactic Enforcers. Cut here, please."
"Not surprising, you humans tend to keep to yourselves and try to ignore us as much as we do you." Xylene said, severing the straps of the chair with practiced efficiency. "I still can't believe you managed to take down a Black Sun combat transport with that primitive fighter jet of yours."
"Humans are full of surprises." Max grunted, getting to work on fashioning his broken arm a workable splint. "How'd you learn to speak English so well anyways?"
"Speak English." Xylene answered, finishing the cutting work and staring at him like she thought he was an idiot...which, he guessed, she probably did. She tapped the side of her head. "Translator microbes. Don't leave home without them."
Max looked at her for a bit after that, and then still kept looking at her, until she backed away a step and frowned at him.
"Never seen an alien before." He told her. "And you...you look like something out of Roswell."
Xylene blinked a few times at that, then rolled her eyes and snorted before helping him brace his arm in the sling and secure it down. "Given how ugly you humans are, I'll take that as a compliment."
Even walking through the jungle in the dead of night with only faint starlight and moonlight filtering through the thick canopy to guide them, Max could still make out every detail of her sinuous and inhuman form as she glided almost soundlessly through the night. He felt like a right heel, somehow managing to hit almost every loose branch, tree root, and low shrub with his combat boots and G-Suit's leggings, because every time he did, she reacted to it. At first she'd turned her head back and glowered at him with those eyes of hers that faintly glowed in the darkness, but now she was at the point that her head...tentacle...things...just twitched and flicked in his direction now.
"Could you be any less quiet, Tennyson?" Xylene finally sniped.
"Well, excuse me, doll, but we poor, dumb, ugly humans just don't move like you do." He snapped back. "How you're managing that well with a busted leg is beyond me."
"Again, it's my knee."
"Sure, I believe you after putting that splint on."
"Oh, for…" Xylene's tendrils went up in the air and matched her arms as she made a movement of pure exasperation. "Just tell me we're still going in the right direction."
Max looked up and caught a glimpse of the north star through the canopy. "Yes, we are. You don't have any alien gadgets that can tell you that?"
"No. Everything I had, they took away." She snuck a finger under the metal collar around her neck. "And with this thing on, I'm nearly as useless as you are."
It was the bitter note in her voice that made Max back down a little from their ongoing feud. "Is that like some kind of prison uniform?"
"Power dampener." She told him. "Weakens us, nullifies our racial talents. They're outlawed except for official Galactic Enforcers use, but the damn things still show up on the black market."
Max nodded. "So...Galactic Enforcers. You're like the space cops?"
"If 'cops' is a term you use for law enforcement, then yeah." Xylene muttered, scuffing the dirt a little as she kept trudging forward. "Earth is usually outside of our jurisdiction, but we got a tip that a lot of humans were suddenly showing up in the slave auctions." He caught her eyes flickering back towards him for a moment. "Highly illegal, by the way. Not that that stops the Black Sun syndicate. That's why I was here, to look into it."
"And you...ended up getting captured yourself?"
"I don't know if they got a tip that we were coming or if they've gotten better, but yeah." She growled.
Max felt that simmering fury begin to rise again. "And why would they attack my squadron? Kill all my men?"
Xylene exhaled. "Same reason they killed my partner. Because they could, and they felt like it." She looked back at him as she shoved a tree branch aside to clear the way ahead, and though it was slight, he saw her nod at him. "So...thanks. You probably only had revenge on your mind, but your dumb stunt gave me a chance to escape."
Max stood blinking for a while, then slowly nodded back at her. "You're welcome." He looked down. "Doesn't do anything for that collar of yours, though."
"Yeah, well." Xylene turned away. "First thing they did when I signed on with GE was to teach me how to fight without using my telekinesis."
"...Never mind." Xylene grumbled, and then muttered something under her breath that he couldn't quite hear. It was probably another insult. "Come on. We need to find a spot to bunk down for the night. They'll be looking for us, and if we're not under cover, their sensors can pick us out like a supernova in a dark matter storm."
"I'll take your word for it." Max replied dryly. "So...we move during the day?"
"If you want to live longer, yes."
"That'll make it easier for the Vietnamese to find us, though."
"You need to get your priorities straight, Tennyson." Xylene growled. "The other humans aren't the ones you should be afraid of."
Max stared at her for a bit after that. "...You really don't know much about humans, do you Xylene?" He finally asked.
"This was my first trip to your planet. And my last, if I have anything to say about it." Xylene said, looking through the darkness before nodding. "There. I think there's some kind of covered cave up ahead. Hard to tell from this angle, but it looks like someone made a door out of woven grass."
Max went still at that, and when Xylene started to move, his left arm shot out and grabbed tightly on to her wrist. Her head jerked back, but she stifled her angry question when she saw the bright, focused intensity burning in his eyes.
"Foxhole." Max said softly. "Could be...occupied."
Xylene kept staring at him for a few more seconds before she nodded sharply. "Knife or the gun."
"What do you want to give me? Your knife or your gun?" She explained, and while he was gaping at her, Xylene pressed on. "Wait. Can you even shoot straight with your left hand? You're right-handed, yes?"
"What makes you think I'm giving you my gun?" Max demanded irritably. "I don't trust you, doll."
Xylene suddenly leaned in far too closely for comfort, her magenta eyes burning as she stared unblinking at him. "I don't need your gun to kill you, Captain." She growled lowly, and Max shivered as he suddenly felt something strong and solid rub past both shoulders before grazing the back of his neck. He looked down at her arms, stunned to find them clenched at her sides. Then he felt one of the things wrap around his neck completely and squeeze lightly, and he placed it.
Her head tentacles.
Max blinked several times, and when Xylene pulled her appendages away from him and stepped back, his pistol was in her hand.
He swallowed and rubbed his left hand against his neck when she turned around and stormed for the entrance. There was a minute of silence before she emerged, still fuming, and shoved the pistol back into his chest. "It's empty. Has been for a while. Nothing there but a bed, a desk, and an outdated calendar with some of your undressed females all over it. Come on. You take the bed, I'll sit at the desk."
Max numbly followed her, and when he saw the bed, which turned out to be nothing but a steel-frame cot with a reed mattress, it still looked like the most comfortable thing ever.
Xylene flopped onto the chair by the desk, her head tendrils still undulating in time with her irritation. Max paused and looked down at her, and she raised her head up and met his gaze with an open challenge.
He considered his next move carefully, then set his pistol down on the desk beside her...and adjusted a small catch on the left side of the slide.
"You left the safety on." Max informed her. "It should work better now." And then he went over to the cot, collapsing on it and staring at the dark wall.
In the darkness, he heard Xylene let out a soft, watery snort and mutter, "You're a piece of work, Tennyson…" under her breath.
Max closed his eyes, and focused on the sound of his own breathing.
He was out five minutes later.
July 2nd, 1965
He awoke with a twinge in his back from yesterday, but a good stretch, or at least as much of one as he could manage with his splinted arm tucked in a sling, popped everything back into place. Xylene was sitting at the desk with his pistol in her hand and resting against the side of her leg, her face faintly illuminated by the sunrise coming in through the door. He stared at her for a few seconds as he sat up, and for once, he found his tongue twisted up too much to say anything.
She blinked once, her green eyelids closing over those magenta eyes of hers, and finished the thought for him. "Morning."
"Yeah." He yawned, slowly standing up. Then he looked at her again. "You couldn't sleep?"
"Didn't sleep." She told him. "You're worse off than I was. I kept a lookout." She tapped the side of her head. "How's your brain?"
"Uh, fine? Why do you ask?"
"Aren't you humans a little fragile with getting your heads knocked around?"
"What, you're not?"
"Heh!" She cracked a faint smile. "Well, we Uxorites don't enjoy it, but we can take a little more abuse than you can. Our brains became a little more durable to take the strain of having our powers interrupted. If you wanted to find a sapient who could get smacked in the head with a spaceship and come out fine on the other side, though, I'd probably go with a Vaxasaurian or a Petrosapien."
Max shook his head, hearing the names of different alien species, but having no basis to picture them. "I'll take your word for it. Did we have any company last night?"
"No. Not your people, and not the Black Sun." She stood up slowly, wincing less than the night before as she did. "We should get moving. I'm starting to get hungry, and the sooner we get out of their crosshairs, the sooner we can find some decent food and water."
The pilot rolled his shoulders and pulled out his knife, checking the edge. "I could probably rustle us up some grub."
Xylene blinked. "Where?"
Max got out his bowie knife, smiled at her, and walked out of the small hidden foxhole. The alien woman fell in step half a second later.
Twenty minutes later, the two were sitting under the cover of a long-ferned bush by the river, drinking river water and snacking on grubs. Well, Max was eating them. Xylene was picking at them disgustedly.
"They don't do you any good outside of your stomach." Max told her.
"I'm not sure how well they'll feel on the inside." She answered glumly.
"You know, not eating what someone worked hard to put in front of you is an insult where I'm from." Max pointed out, raising an eyebrow.
"Is this a human cultural thing?"
"No. It's a Tennyson thing." He told her, and she looked up at him with an expression that demanded more information. He pressed his lips together, then popped another grub in his mouth and chewed it slowly to buy himself some more time. "My family wasn't the richest one out there. My mother got creative with the things she fed us. My father taught me all he knew about foraging."
"Ah." Xylene's head tendrils wavered slowly as she considered that, then finally popped a grub in her mouth and swallowed it down with a grimace. "Ugh, that tastes horrible."
"It could use some garlic." Max conceded with a slight grin. "But, it'll keep you alive a while longer. The both of us need the protein right now." He took another drink from a cup made of a chunk of bamboo and sobered up. "I think I know this river. We flew over it yesterday on the way to our objective. Once we get to the other side, we'll be about a day or two's hard walk from the border."
Xylene nodded and stood up, checking the splint on her leg for a moment. "You know, one thing surprises me."
"Your reactions to all of this." She gestured around them. "All your men are dead. My partner is dead. We're on the run for our lives, I'm the first alien you've ever seen, and you're...unfazed."
"Cool as a cucumber." Max summarized.
"What's a cucumber?"
"An earth vegetable."
"Why would you be a vegetable?" Xylene blinked with a frown. "Is that some kind of human saying?"
Max drew his left hand across his face. "It's...yeah. It means I don't panic easily. If I did, they wouldn't have let me into the cockpit of a jet."
Xylene got ready to nod when the tendrils on her head suddenly twitched strangely, and she went very still.
"Xyl…" Max started to say, but choked the word off when her hand shot up towards his face in (what was apparently) a universal sign for him to shut up. And then his training kicked in, as he realized why she was suddenly acting this way.
They were already hidden by a bush at the riverside, but a crawling sensation over his arms and the back of his neck made him pull some of the looser brush around them, lifting it up to cover one of the larger spots of open sunlight streaming through. Xylene did the same, and neither of them caused all that much noise when they did so.
And then he finally heard what had set her off. A faint buzzing in the air that sounded nothing like an insect, or any machine he'd ever encountered.
Something gleaming a silvery sheen, with no wings and no thrusters and no propellers floated into their line of sight. It faintly looked like a basketball glued to a frisbee and then coated in chrome.
It hovered about over the river, turning this way and that for about ten seconds before Max suddenly realized he'd forgotten to breathe. And then it hovered off, leaving them behind. Max slowly inhaled, but didn't move, sliding his eyes over to Xylene.
It was another minute before she relaxed.
"We need to move." She said softly.
Max sheathed his knife and they waded into and across the river, as fast as they dared.
By the early afternoon, the sense of impending doom around them hit another note of growing panic. They began to hear unfamiliar voices in the distance, although these Max placed as solidly human. He might have been based out of Laos, but everyone got a little exposure to the Vietnamese language before being shipped overseas, just to know what to listen for...and avoid.
"We don't want them finding us." He whispered to Xylene. "If they're NVA, they'd drag me off to prison or just kill me if I was lucky. You…"
"I get the picture." She cut him off with a shake of her head. "We've still got to get past them, though. Got any ideas?"
Max gripped his knife. "Not any clean ones." Xylene must have picked up on his sudden gravelly tone, because she looked over, then set her hand over his.
Max narrowed his eyes. "If it's them or us…"
"You always have a choice, Tennyson." Xylene hissed at him. "To not be the stupid homicidal ape that everybody else in the galaxy thinks your whole species is."
He blinked at her venemous assertion. "...I didn't know we had a reputation."
"You figure out atomic power, and the first thing your people use it for isn't to make a power plant, but a bomb." Xylene's tendrils shimmered behind her, in what Max now understood was full-on irritation. Her eyes went forward again, and she went silent, listening at a range he couldn't. She held up a hand for silence, and a heart-pounding half minute later, exhaled. "Okay, they moved on."
"You're saying your people don't have nuclear bombs?" He questioned. Xylene snorted at him.
"What I'm saying is, the galaxy's a big place full of riffraff. It would just be nice if you all didn't turn out to be like all the other scum I end up taking down for crimes against sapient life." She exhaled and rolled her eyes. "It's not like I'd get the opportunity, anyways. Not my jurisdiction." She glanced around one more time, slowly got up, and started walking westwards again.
Max followed, two steps behind her. "That's twice now you've said something about Earth not being in your 'jurisdiction." He pointed out to her.
"Congratulations, the unevolved human can listen." She sighed. "Yes. You have your own people to handle things here on earth, usually. They should have been looking into this mess...but once it got out beyond your planet, it became our problem too."
"Who?" Max frowned. "Who handles things on Earth?"
Xylene turned her head around in a slow swivel as they marched on, searching for something, and only shook her head at him. "We don't talk about them." She mustered a slight grin. "Unless I get to wipe your memory afterwards."
Max made a face. "I can't tell if you're joking or not." She blinked a few times, and he hastily amended it. "Wait. Both." She just kept smirking and walked on.
Max allowed himself some much-appreciated silence, and used the break in their arguing to examine her more carefully. Specifically, the collar around her neck that she said was keeping her powers locked down.
"Have you tried taking that thing off?"
"Don't have the key for it."
"Well, could you pick the lock? Maybe cut it off with something?"
"Great idea, Tennyson. Let's put a plasma torch right next to my neck and see what happens." Xylene quipped. "Besides. Not that kind of lock. And you really don't want to try and tamper with these."
"...Is there a bomb in it?"
"What? No. No, good heavens, what's wrong with you?!" She made a face. "It would electrocute me enough to likely destroy all my higher brain functions though. These collars are designed to prevent tampering. With the right tools, you can take one off without the key, but all those tools are nowhere around here."
"So," He said, more than a little tired of her constant badgering, "don't go beating on it with a rock then."
"That would be a very bad idea, yes." She deadpanned in return.
More awkward silence hung between them for another few minutes as they went along, then Xylene froze again. Used to her pauses, Max ducked low, went quiet, and waited. Her face took on another angry snarl.
"More than one?"
And then far behind them, they heard the sound of gunfire, screams, explosions...and a strange noise quite unlike any other weapons discharge Max had ever heard before.
The two looked at one another, and in perfect unison, said the same thing. "Run."
They went as fast as they dared, continuing on west away from the noise of the battle. To Max, it had sounded like the drones had gone fishing for Xylene and himself, and stumbled headlong into the patrol. And based on the sounds, it hadn't gone well for the patrol. That had been close to an hour ago, and the silence of any unusual noises in the jungle had them relaxing, though it did nothing to keep him from worrying.
"If they're lucky, they're dead." Xylene said, breaking Max from his reverie. He swiveled his head towards her, and she just stared back at him. "The alternative is they decided to replenish their slave supply. Which would you prefer?"
Max felt his face twitch a little, and kept his opinion to himself. The silence was unnerving, but it was better than getting chewed out by her again.
And then he really listened, and froze. He could hear nothing.
No chirping birds, no warbling frogs, no shuffling lizards or grazers. All the animals in the Vietnamese jungle had gone silent, and his early life lessons in the upstate New York wilderness had every danger sense he possessed suddenly firing.
Xylene looked back at him, confused. "Is something…?" Max jerked a hand up in the same gesture she had silenced him with, and she went quiet, turning her head and its tendrils in a slow circle for trouble. Not that there was anything to hear, which was the problem.
He didn't reach for his knife, but he did pointedly look down at his pistol, still gripped in her hand. She caught on and brought it up, preparing to use it.
Had they kept walking on without any sense of wrongness, the first shot would have taken one or both of them out immediately. But because they were both looking in a wide circle, Max saw the barest glimmer of artificial light out of the corner of his eye and lunged forward, wrapping his arm around Xylene and then throwing them to the ground.
The high-intensity blast of light seared the air over their heads, and when he looked over his once-again screaming shoulder, he saw the image of a man-shaped figure, distorted, standing about fifteen feet away. Xylene didn't bother waiting for him to register or question it; she brought the pistol up and fired off two rounds almost next to his head. He grimaced from the sudden noise in the quiet thicket, but he was more stunned when he heard the bullets hit the barely visible figure and then ricochet as though they had hit solid metal.
Whatever strange energy field was around the thing went down, and they were left staring at a humanoid figure with an empty death mask with glowing diodes for eyes.
There was nothing like it on earth, but Max had seen The Day The Earth Stood Still, and it looked enough like Gort to make him panic.
"Move!" Xylene shouted, shoving him off of her and racing for the thing, firing off more rounds from his gun. She aimed up for its head, and the thing's armor apparently wasn't as thick, because it raised a hand up to shield itself from the bullets.
Max hit the ground on his good arm, thankfully, and shoved himself up to standing with a grunt. When he shook off the pain, he saw Xylene struggling in a fight with the alien robot. Its expressionless mask betrayed no hint of irritation or emotion, and he wondered briefly if it even had emotions. Then Xylene's heavy punches and kicks got her close enough into it that it managed to snap a metallic arm forward and close its fist around one of her arms, throwing her hard with a whip-crack motion and plowing her legfirst into a tree. She hit hard, hit wet, and dropped to the ground in a crumpled heap, screaming in agony.
Max rushed to her side, swept up his gun that she had dropped in the last moment before impact, and whirled around in time to hear the gentle whir of hidden gears as the robot approached them.
The thing raised its hands up above its head in preparation for a hammerblow that would have knocked him out cold, or worse. He moved with a speed only adrenaline and months of training allowed for, snapping his pistol up with his left hand.
He was a right-handed shooter, but he'd practiced the quick draw with both hands during their downtime back at base. He was just crap for aiming with his off hand.
At point blank range, accuracy became less important. He snapped off one more round, and more by luck than anything, managed to land the shot in some unseen weak spot in its armor around its neck. The jacketed slug tore into it with a shower of sparks, and the robot stumbled backwards, twitching wildly as it lost control.
Stowing the pistol, he picked up the groaning Xylene and forced her up to her feet in spite of her gasps of agony. "Move, or we both die!" He snapped, and they hobbled away from it.
Not looking where they were going, they both managed to find a small ten foot bluff overlooking a river and then tumble right off of it, thankfully landing in a thick mudbank instead of onto something hard. It would have been funny if they hadn't been running for their lives, but every time that they tried to pull themselves back up, the slippery muck pulled them back down until they were both thoroughly coated from heat to toe in silt.
Then, they both heard something that made them go still in renewed panic; The strange buzzing of another drone. Only when this one flew in down along the smaller brook, it didn't look like a basketball strapped to a frisbee. The sides of the chromed sphere were out, and menacing gunbarrels protruded out from it.
They were out in the open, covered in mud, and hurting. With nowhere to run, the two backed up until they were pressed up against the embankment as the thing hovered down, scanning for them.
And yet, it didn't see them. To Max's stunned surprise, the thing hovered to within four feet of their location, and never fired a shot. Instead, some wisp of movement nearby caught its attention, and it fired off a laserbolt just as deadly as the humanoid robot had earlier, striking at a tree.
A small monkey, smoking after the kill shot, fell down off of one of the branches. The drone hovered over towards it, examined it briefly...then it retracted its guns, flew up, and shot off in a different direction.
Max felt a weak pressure on his arm, and glanced down to see the mud-coated Xylene, shivering, clutching onto him for support. "How...why didn't it see us?" She stammered, and Max winced. She must have been going into shock.
In answer to the question, he brought his only good arm down to her face and wiped away a thick patch of mud underneath her eye. The seafoam green skin shone when he peeled that layer of brown muck away, and he held up his dirty finger for her to see.
"Camouflage." He said with a light chuckle. And then stopped smiling as she groaned again. "If that leg wasn't broken before, it is now. I don't care how tough you aliens think you are."
"I'm not going to argue with you this time." She moaned. "Got any more ideas, Tennyson?"
He looked around for a bit more, sighed, then stood up slowly and crouched down. "Get on my back. You're not walking anywhere now."
And it was telling of just how miserable she really felt that she didn't argue a bit to the forced piggyback ride.
July 2nd, 1965
Max didn't know where he found the energy to haul Xylene like a backpack. Sheer determination, he supposed. There might have been an edge of protectiveness that went with it also. Alien or not, she was a woman, and his father had raised him to always care for the women he met, to be a guardian. The old man was dead now, but every lesson that he'd passed on to his son, intentional or not, was coming out to play on this long hike for the safety of the Laotian border. Some, like the Tennyson talent for foraging and living off of food sources others would never touch were obvious. The little things, like this...they crept up on him as he was doing it and surprised him, because he could hear his Father's voice, that warm but stern presence the always-right man had had, seeping over him.
By luck, following the river had led them to a small sand berm he'd been able to use to cross without subjecting himself and Xylene to a full-on wash; even as the caked on mud dried, he'd kept it on in spite of the discomfort. Those 'drones' Xylene told him, tracked targets with body heat. That mud embankment had saved them. And then, if their luck wasn't crazy enough already, they had come onto a thicker and clearly less traveled portion of the jungle, where the overgrowth was thick enough that it had overrun an entire stone temple. While there were parts of it collapsed in, the statue of the Buddha was still recognizable, and he'd been able to find a secluded corridor to set her down in while he did the work of rustling up some palm leaves and reeds for bedding. His bowie knife continued to prove its worth, but it was fast losing its edge after all the work he'd been putting it through.
As he served up a hastily prepared dinner of raw fish fillets caught in the river and a bit of young bamboo shoots, he looked over to Xylene and wondered if his luck was going so well because hers was so terrible. She picked at her food, devouring the bamboo while turning her nose up at the fish.
"You eat this raw." She said.
"They eat raw fish in Japan, yes. Ate it all the time while I was stationed there."
"They must prepare it better than you do."
"They had better fish." Max admitted, earning a weak laugh from her. "But you need the energy. Now, more than ever." The hard edge she'd had all day before being hurled like a rag doll by the robot had fizzled out completely. She'd drawn into herself, and only the need to keep her awake so she didn't die of shock in her sleep in those critical first hours had kept her aware. Now, though, they were completely collapsed, and she had nothing left to give. "Please, Xylene." He repeated, and instead of giving him any lip, she mutely nodded and gagged it back, swallowing as much water to help it along as she could.
Max had blazed through his own meal much faster, and he took to cleaning the mud off of her body as quickly as possible so he could examine her leg. To his surprise, her uniform didn't stain in the slightest after he'd scraped the mud off of it; His own was by now a lost cause. She hissed and threw her head back when he started gently prodding her injured leg, and between that, the swelling, and the worrisome warmth coming off of it, it confirmed what he'd already suspected. He could do nothing for her immediately aside from re-splint the leg even tighter, which made her pale green skin turn a few shades paler as he was tying the bracing rods back into place as tightly as possible.
"I wish I could do more for you." He apologized.
"Don't...don't worry about it...Tennyson." She rasped, in short and quivering breaths between the shivers of pain and shock. Her eyes were starting to go a little glassy. "Not like...brought an...emergency kit. Too bad...you're not a Plumber."
Max shook his head incredulously. "What good would me being able to fix a toilet do us right now?" She threw her head back and laughed at his remark. "And stop calling me Tennyson. You can call me Max. You keep calling me Tennyson, I'm going to think that you're mad at me."
"Too tired...to be mad at you." She resolved, slumping back against the wall with her legs spread out over the reed and leaf bedding. She shuddered again, took in a breath, and fought off her glassy-eyed stare. She was trying to stay awake. A stubborn woman, Xylene. "How...how many shots do you have left?" She asked, her head tendrils waving sluggishly as they pointed at the pistol tucked in the pocket of his flight suit. He pulled it out, popped out the magazine, and then braced the butt between his knees so he could pull the slide back and eject the chambered round. A quick assessment of it in the waning daylight told a grim story. "Five rounds." He told her, placing the lone bullet back in the mag before sliding the clip back into place. "Not great."
"How'd you...know about the weak spot in its neck, anyways?"
"I didn't." Max admitted. "I was aiming for its eyes."
Xylene stared at him for a bit, then shook her head. "I'm not even going to act surprised anymore." She shut her eyes. "I don't think we're going to make it, Max."
"Yes, we are." He countered, feeling the hairs on the back of his neck stand up at her tone. Was she giving up? He'd heard of injured men who just died in the night because they didn't see the point in going on. "I plan on living, and since you're coming with me, that means you don't get to kick the bucket either." She grunted at the euphemism and shut her eyes.
"I can't walk, and you're a wreck too. We've still got those drones after us, and that means at least one member of that Slaver crew's still alive and kicking...and probably ready to slaughter me, bounty be damned."
"Yeah? And we still have a gun with five shots, a knife…" She rolled her head in his direction and opened her eyes in time to see him puff out his chest and grin widely, "...and my dapper skills."
The smile she cracked this time was completely honest and open, and she mustered a weaker, though longer, laugh in reply. "They're never going to believe me back out at the office about this."
"About getting captured?"
"Oh no, they'll believe that." She quickly corrected him. "I meant about...us. Me, working with a human."
"Why is that so hard to believe?" Max pressed gently. "I mean, sure, you're a major pain in the ass...but get past that prickly outer surface and you're not so bad."
"Gee, thanks." She shivered again. "I'm cold. You have any more leaves?"
"No." He admitted, and thought for a moment. Coming to a decision, he stood up from his spot in the open doorway to the outside and joined her in the darkness, sitting down beside her on her uninjured side and pulling her body next to his. "But I'm not going to let you freeze, either."
She was tense for a minute as he rubbed his hand over her arms and shoulders, using friction to generate heat before huddling her in close.
"Are you getting ideas about me, Max?" She teased him.
"Me? Ideas? Heaven forbid." Max rebutted, feeding into the game. "But, well, I am in your bed already…" She chuffed again at his teasing remark, and he kept going. Letting the bridling tension fade, he changed the subject. "What's it like out there?"
"Out where? The rest of the galaxy?"
"Yeah." Max sighed. "You know, before my squadron bumped into your captor's ship...it was supposed to be my last combat flight. I was headed back stateside, to join NASA. They're trying for the Moon before 1970. But there's so much more out there, isn't there?"
Xylene's tendrils brushed against his chest while she sat in silence. She finally settled for a slow nod that he felt more than he saw. "More than anyone could fathom. Though we still try. Sometimes, you meet good species. Other times...you're not so lucky. The Galactic Enforcers do our best to keep things safe; stop what we can, contain what we can't. It isn't perfect, but it's better than the alternative."
"Will we ever get out there? Beyond the Moon?" Max asked her.
"I couldn't say." She told him. "Maybe everyone on your planet couldn't. But...you could, I think. With a little more training." She chuckled again. "The ships I fly would make your space program look like a joke."
"I don't doubt it." He agreed, pulling her closer as another shiver ran down her body from head to waist. "Sh. Get some sleep now. We've got a long day ahead of us. If we hurry, and don't run into any more trouble, we could get to Laos before July 4th."
"What's so important about July 4th?"
"For an American...it's our Independence Day." He said proudly.
She considered that for a bit, then nuzzled her head into the crook between his good arm and shoulder. "Independence is what caused this whole problem to begin with. I wish...I wish your leaders had decided to go with Co-Dependence."
She fell asleep not long after, too exhausted to care about how awkward the situation was, or maybe too comfortable and safe in his presence. Max just kept still until he was well sure that she was completely passed out, then gently stroked his finger down the side of her face.
"I wish that too."
July 3rd, 1965
Max was tired and running on fumes, but he kept himself from giving out. Xylene was still in no shape to do anything, and with her help, he'd rigged up a sled out of bamboo so he could drag her behind him. It was exhausting, but it kept his hands free in case there was trouble.
The most aggravating part wasn't toting her along; it was getting all muddied up again to disguise their heat signatures. He'd wrapped her broken and splinted leg with a tight layer of bamboo leaves to try and keep anything from getting at it, but he was reasonably sure it was a lost cause. At this point, it was just a matter of taking one step after another.
She wasn't able to move that much, but she could talk, and Max insisted on her doing so. He was still afraid of her just...fading away. "So, you're telling me that your home system has two suns." He huffed, keeping the conversation going after she lapsed into the silence of her memories.
Xylene laughed exactly once in reply. "Yes. Your solar system's...kind of an anomaly, actually. Most star systems are binary. But. Yours is...very stable."
"Well, at least we have that going for us." He said dryly. "What are your stars like?"
"A small red one, and a yellow one, like yours." She explained. "They circle around one another, and tug the planets between them. It makes for a warm world. Warmer than yours." She shivered a bit. "It...it's so cold here, at night."
"And during the day?"
"It feels fine then." She admitted. "I don't think I'd ever want to visit the parts of your world covered in ice."
"Lucky this Black Sun was working in the Vietnamese jungle." He reasoned diplomatically, and kept on trudging. She didn't say anything, and he thought that she was formulating a better response.
Then he heard the now familiar sounds of the drones, and he realized that she was frozen in fear.
It'll be all right, he told himself. We're both covered in mud. They can't see us. We're not talking, they can't hear us.
But the drones didn't fly overhead and fade into the distance like they had before. They weren't drawn to the heat or the movement of some wild animal, or some unseen NVA patrol. There were no unusual noises in the jungle to pull their attention away.
Methodically, steadily, the things made their way in a slow and steady sweep right through their section of the jungle. The chromed basketballs with the frisbee hats already had their guns out and extended.
Max didn't dare look behind him to see what Xylene was doing, if she was reacting at all. He couldn't drop the sled, they were too close.
They knew that they were here. Somehow, they knew that they were here. There were two of them that he could see, and they lowered themselves down through the canopy, four feet off the ground, circling for a target.
One parked right in front of him, and he could hear the other behind him, somehow picking him out.
The guns of the drone in front of him steadily tracked in, and he could see light and noise emanating from the barrel as a charge built up. A red beam of light arced out and aimed at his sternum.
Still, Max waited. A crazy idea possessed him, but he'd have only one chance at it. He had to make it count. At the last possible second, he ducked and dropped the sled's makeshift rope, earning a grunt from Xylene. A pair of angry and alien warshots blasted just above his head, baking the back of his neck with heat…
As he finally pulled out his pistol and got ready to shoot, both of the drones fell to the ground, smoking from the holes drilled into both. His sudden move had caused them to destroy each other.
"How did you…" Xylene rasped, once again stunned at his success.
"Lucky guess." Max reasoned. Lucky and stupid. It shouldn't have worked at all. Somehow it had. He sighed and stowed the pistol back in the front pocket of his flight suit, then grabbed the rope. "We need to move. They know where we are." So he pulled all the harder on the reins of the bamboo sled and trudged on.
They made it another quarter mile before the buzz of more drones than ever before swarmed in on them. One fired a shot at Max's feet as he reached for his weapon, but though the drones came down and settled around them, none of them fired. They just hovered there, watching. Waiting.
"What's going on, Xylene?" Max asked his partner warily. He looked over his shoulder to her as she struggled to lean up on her elbows, sizing their odds.
"They're holding us here." She finally said.
"Why?" Max asked. And then he heard another noise. Loud, powerful crunching from trees being shoved aside and splintered. Angry, plodding footsteps.
Xylene's light green skin turned a whiter shade of pale. "For him." She whispered, and shut all of her eyes.
Then something nearly nine feet in height stepped out of the treeline, using two of its four hands to break through with little effort. It had dark red skin, a bald head, and two pairs of eyes. Its trousers and short-sleeved shirt were both black, fringed with gold, and the shirt bore an unfamiliar emblem of an eclipsed sun. One hand brandished some kind of gun, and it stared at them with intense hatred...and then derision.
"Fargoras." Xylene spat out, and the thing's expression went to a bemused and predatory grin.
"That's his species?"
"That's his name. He's a Tetramand." Xylene muttered. "A lieutenant in the Black Sun."
Fargoras sighed. "Teaming up with the natives now, Magister? How low can you possibly get?" He crossed one set of arms and stowed his pistol. Max swallowed as he looked up, and up, and up at the thing. God, he was enormous. He'd heard stories of the Yeti, and now he wondered all those stories had been aliens like this just running around scaring hikers and Sherpas. Then he stared hard enough through the mud covering the both of them to take note of the ruined uniform Max was wearing, and his eyes narrowed. "You. You're that pilot."
Max just stared at him blankly as the thing, Fargoras, snarled. He was still trying to get his brain to work when Fargoras pulled out a small black square and aimed it at them. Max flinched as the Tetramand's thumb came down on a button, expecting to be blown away…
Instead, the drones around them all retracted their guns and floated up and out of the treeline, sailing off. Like a television remote that he'd heard about, but never owned.
"That was incredibly stupid of you to interfere in our business, primitive. Shooting down our transport like that? You had some kind of death wish."
"I've got a name, you know." Max snapped back at him, finally coming back to his senses. He was done being scared. Scared got him nowhere. His eyes danced over the thing. Weaknesses, come on, there had to be one he could exploit. "Captain Max Tennyson, United States Air Force!"
"I could care less." Fargoras answered, stowing the small remote in a small bag hanging off of his enormous waist. He stretched out his hands and cracked all of his knuckles. "My business is with the Magister."
"You want Xylene, alien, you'll have to go through me." Max growled out, finally pulling his gun and flipping the safety off. The grin Fargoras gave back at him promised untold worlds of pain.
"That's the plan, human. After all, I have to pay you back for what you did to our ship."
"Fine." Max stepped away from Xylene, circling and never breaking his stare from the enormous Tetramand. "I've got to pay you back for what you did to my squadron."
"Oooh, loud growl from such a little man." Fargoras chuckled darkly.
There was no starting gun, no dropped handkerchief. Just a moment when the two warriors decided to start the fight. Max fired, and Fargoras charged.
God-Damn, was the alien fast. He almost exploded off the turf, shielding his body with an arm and grunting as the slug buried into it, but he didn't break his stride. Max backpedaled, his left arm held out straight in front of him and he fired again. He could hear his shots hitting meat, but they didn't slow the alien down in the slightest. If they hurt, he wasn't sure either. It seemed more like he was just pissing it off.
"Max!" Xylene shrieked, right as Fargoras got within arm's reach of him and clubbed the gun away with a nearly lazy backhand, sending it spiraling off to the side. Another hand clenched hard around his throat and jerked him up into air effortlessly, as though Max weighed next to nothing. When the hand started to squeeze around his throat, it was with the same casual rage that Fargoras had in all of his other actions. Enough strength to move mountains, probably, and nothing but derision and pain for those that were his enemies.
Max's eyes bugged out of their sockets, and he kicked one leg out at the alien's chest. The Tetramand snarled louder and grabbed hold of the offending foot in the first arm of his other side, then used the second to squeeze around his broken right arm, still in its sling. If Max had been able to breathe, he would have screamed in pain. As it was, only a sick little sound escaped him. The Tetramand's final arm grabbed his other leg to prevent another kick, and squeezed hard enough to bruise.
Fargoras pulled Max in close, face to face. This close to their alien pursuer, Max could make out the wrinkles in the Black Sun agent's red face, pick out the iris behind the sheen of yellow in his four eyes.
"You stupid human." The alien growled out with a cruel laugh. "You only have two arms and you'd already broken one of them. What made you think you could take me on?"
Max's mouth flapped open and shut. He couldn't breathe, it was just instinctive. But his brain hadn't been choked out completely, even if he could feel the start of a gray-out coming on the edges of his vision. He only had a few seconds, he wagered.
The alien had four hands. Count them. One on his throat. Two on his legs. The fourth cruelly squeezing his broken arm. And Max's left arm was dangling freely...And he didn't feel the sheath of his knife being pressed against the side of his leg. Which meant it was still free.
The alien, the Tetramand hadn't noticed it. He strained his arm out towards his leg, and his fingers stumbled over the knuckles of his attacker. The feeble resistance made Fargoras grin all the worse. He probably thought Max was trying to pull his hands off of him.
Let him think that. Max felt the handle of his dagger dance against his phalanges. Somehow, he got his grip around it. He pulled, jerked his hand back.
Darker now. One last shot. With the alien's eyes focused on his bugged out face, Max relied on proprioception alone and stabbed sideways.
He felt resistance, but his knife plunged through skin and bone as cleanly as he'd hoped for, and something snapped. The alien's eyes widened in surprise and froze there, and his grip tightened for a moment before loosening all at once, dropping him to the ground. The alien wobbled, then collapsed as though he'd been a puppet that had all his strings cut.
Lying on the forest floor, Max gulped in huge lungfuls of oxygen before he finally felt the dizziness leave him. He stuttered up to his feet and looked down at the now dead alien, the blade embedded in its hairless skull...the blade, but not the hilt. He glanced down at his hand and saw that he still held the other half. It must have snapped off from the strain, after being used so heavily. Or the alien's skull really had been that thick. Max tossed the useless hilt onto Fargoras's chest and found his voice.
"It only takes one." He rasped, and looked over to Xylene, who stared at him with incredulity and relief…And attraction?
No, he must have still been dizzy.
"We need to get out of here." He told her, and Xylene held up her hands in surrender.
"You'll get no argument from me. You just killed a Tetramand, with a stub of a knife." She deadpanned.
Then they heard the shouting. Vietnamese shouting. Max winced. "They heard the gunshots." He hissed in pain and hobbled for his gun. "Hang on."
Her head swiveled around towards the noise, all of her cephalic tentacles waving wildly. "Forget about me, Max, just go!" Xylene insisted.
"Like Hell! We started this together and by God, we're finishing it together!"
"They'll kill you!" She almost screamed.
He picked up the gun. How many times had he fired? How many shots did he have left? Two? Three?
"What do you think they'll do to you?" He asked her as he spun around.
Of course, she didn't have an answer for that. They didn't have the time for one either. A five-man squad came racing into the clearing, and Max almost raised his pistol up towards them.
He didn't have enough bullets to kill them all, even if his right arm hadn't been broken and he could shoot straight. Their rifles swung up and they yelled at him in that fast-paced tongue of theirs, even as their gazes swiveled from the mud-covered pilot to the enormous dead alien at his feet. Wide-eyed and panicked, but there were still five of them.
Max shut his eyes as they repeated the order he couldn't understand, but still comprehended.
"Max, they want you to drop the gun." Xylene said quietly.
"I know." He replied. He let his left arm go slack, and heard it hit the ground a second time.
They had been walking for maybe a few hours. The Vietnamese had searched him thoroughly after taking his gun, and there had been some rather extended and active discussion between the troopers deciding what to do with the alien corpse and Xylene...at least, from what Xylene had translated. Her translator-whatevers understood Vietnamese as well, apparently. 'Not perfectly, but well enough', she'd muttered. The end result had been Max, marched ahead with his arms bound tightly in cheap rope and a guard at his back, three more pulling Xylene along beside him on her makeshift bamboo sled, and the fifth staying behind with the body of Fargoras to 'wait for backup.'
They weren't much for discussion since then, but there was no mistaking the look of awe and fear in their eyes. They had their weapons and they shouted a big game, and Max had no doubt that they'd shoot him if he dared to do anything like try to make a break for it, but they were afraid of him.
All because of what he'd done to an alien that, by all rights, could have killed him in an instant. It was a little too much to think about, so he did his best to put it out of his mind. That unfortunately meant thinking about the future, which wasn't all that optimistic right now either.
"I'm sorry." He said again, not for the first time.
Xylene snorted a little. "For what?"
"Getting us captured."
"Max…" Xylene started, sighing through her pain and shifting a bit. The NVA around her made little panicking noises before she snapped at them in their razor-quick language, settling their nerves. "Fidgety soldiers. Nothing worse." She shook her head and went on. "Max, do you think anybody else could have done any better? With the situation we were in? With your arm and my leg broken? And just a primitive firearm and a knife for weapons?" Her eyes glassed over for a bit before she shook off her lethargy. "My people would clear you to be a Magister in a heartbeat, if Earth had signed on to the Galactic Code."
Max couldn't help the laugh at that, even as the soldier behind him jabbed the business end of his rifle into his back. A sharp remark from Xylene had the boy, which Max could now see was at least five years younger than him, flinching back, though not lowering the weapon. "You scare them."
"Oh, yes. The big, bad alien." Xylene snarked. "I don't understand the fear, but I'll use it to keep them from doing something stupid."
"I thought stupid was all us humans were capable of, in your eyes."
Xylene hummed at that, and smiled in spite of the situation. "Well. Some of you aren't as dumb as the rest."
"I resemble that remark."
Xylene let her head flop back. "Whatever happens, Max, don't let them take your pride away from you. Or your courage. You fought for something higher today than a made-up region on a made-up map of your world. And I couldn't be prouder."
"And what do I do when they start to hurt you?" Max asked her miserably. Xylene blinked at his near confession and looked up at him in surprise.
"You...you really do care."
"Near death experiences and escapes do that." Max admitted with a one-shouldered shrug. "They can do what they want to me, but if they...if they try to hurt you…"
Xylene's head tendrils turned ahead of them, and her eyes followed a moment later. The concern she felt melted away into a relieved grin right after, and as Max followed her eyes, he saw they were approaching a group of four helmeted, gray-suited figures with unusual guns standing in front of a covered transport truck…
A Russian transport truck.
"Oh, Max." Xylene finally chuckled. "You do love to worry. But don't. Everything will be just fine now."
The pilot could only swallow as the Vietnamese led them up to the group. They almost looked like radiation suits, but the opaque helmets were too well-designed to be the clunky things he'd seen back in training. Another Vietnamese officer came around from behind the transport and started rattling away at the four gray-suited figures in the Asian pidgin, and was met with a much softer, though no less stern response from one of them, who had to be the leader. Max looked over to Xylene and she shrugged. "I didn't catch that. Too quiet."
"How do you know everything is going to be fine? They're going to load us in that truck and drive us to a prison camp!"
Xylene sighed. "Remember that group of humans we don't talk about?" He blinked as they closed in on them at last. The four suited figures had to be baking in this tropical heat, but they didn't show it. They stared at the procession before one leaned over to another.
"Etot ubil Tetramanda? Pravda?" Max felt whatever hopes he had slowly get dashed. Russians. He didn't know the language, but he knew what it sounded like. He was surprised when Xylene snapped back at the man in the same language.
"Pochti golymi rukami vy primitivny, tak chto proyavite nekotoroye uvazheniye!"
That earned some hearty belly laughs from the rest, and Max frowned as he looked at them all. Wait, was one of them a woman? He could have sworn that laugh was feminine…
The leader of the suited figures exhaled and threw a hand in the air.
"Vot i slavno. Odnako seychas my uluchshili situatsiyu. My svyazalis' s vashimi lyud'mi, i oni otpravili kogo-to za vami. Chto kasayetsya vashego druga zdes', on idet domoy."
Xylene relaxed visibly at whatever he'd said, and Max swallowed. "What did the Russian say?"
"That we're going home." Xylene told him. "Me to mine...you to yours." She looked back at the gray leader. "Ne mogli by vy snyat' etu chertovu veshch' s moyey shei?"
The fellow cocked his helmeted head to the side and considered the question for a bit before nodding once and gesturing to one of his subordinates. The lower-ranked soldier approached the small band, and the North Vietnamese quickly stepped far back away. From a pocket that seemed to appear out of nowhere on his gray suit, the figure pulled out an alien-looking device and pressed it to the side of the metallic collar around Xylene's neck. A faint buzzing went on for a few seconds...and then the collar fell away.
Xylene took in a deep breath, smiled...and floated up into the air. The Vietnamese gasped and stumbled away, and to their credit, none of them pointed their weapons at her. Broken arm or not, prisoner or not, Max would have slugged the first one to try it. His concern melted away when Xylene broke out into a soft laugh and spun like a ballerina in midair before swooping down to hover in front of him and grasp his good hand.
"Ohh, that's so much better." Xylene purred. Max blinked a few times, feeling particularly croggled.
"You can fly."
"Levitation. It's an extension of my telekinesis."
Max shook his head. "Could have fooled me." He glanced over her shoulder to the four figures in the gray suits. "So...we're not prisoners?"
Xylene rolled her eyes. "You need to learn to trust me."
"Oh, I trust you, doll." Max said, managing a weak laugh. "It's the situation I have trouble believing." He sobered up. "So, what happens now? You said...you're going home?"
"Yeah." Xylene smiled, gesturing up at the sky with her head tentacles. "Out there. The Black Sun problem's been dealt with, so it's time for me to leave. Not exactly my jurisdiction." She added with a wink.
Max nodded slowly. "Will I...Will I ever see you again?"
"Mmnh." Xylene's grin strained a little. "I don't know. Chances aren't great that I'll be back this way...for a while. The Galactic Enforcers don't often do joint operations." Max looked down at that, and marveled at how her toes dangled five inches off of the forest floor, slowly wavering up and down.
"Yeah. I thought so."
Her hand came to his chin, and she lifted it up so she could stare into his eyes.
"Hey, none of that, Captain Max Tennyson." She chided him softly. "I took you for the heartbreaker type, not the one who got his heart broken." Max smirked a little at the remark.
"Well. Guess I'll just have to shoot for the Moon after all." He resolved, and lifted his own hand up to rub the side of her face with his thumb. "If I get there, will I see you there?"
Xylene chuckled. "Land that washing machine your people are building safely, and yes. I'll even bring a picnic. But...if you don't, Max...if I'm not there…" She wavered for a few seconds, leaving the pilot to wonder what she was contemplating.
Something seemed to finally settle into place, and she leaned in and kissed his cheek. "You're a good man, Max. And I won't forget you."
Max struggled for a response, or even to think straight after his face fairly burned after that kiss. For some reason, all his brain could think of was to alter one of his favorite lines from an old movie.
"We'll always have Roswell." He resolved with a blushing grin. It was what he'd told her when they had first met, that she looked like something out of Roswell.
Her return grin set his heart fluttering all the more. "Ladykiller." She said coyly, and then slowly pulled back away, still hovering in the air. "Later, flyboy. You've got a ride to catch."
Max found himself being loaded up in the back of the truck, with two of the gray-suited figures sitting escort beside him. They sat in silence during the bumpy ride for a long time, with Max saying nothing to either of them and just staring blankly at their opaque helmets.
One finally turned to the other and muttered a line in Russian. "YA ne mogu poverit', chto yemu udalos' ubit' tetramanda slomannoy rukoy i tol'ko nozhom."
The other one, a woman whose voice made Max frown as he wondered if he'd heard it before, responded back after a derisive snort. "Vy dolzhny izuchit' svoyu mifologiyu. Gordost' ubil bol'shikh monstrov." And that was all that either of them said until the transport finally lurched to a halt.
The male gray suit stepped off the back, lugging a large luggage box that Max had completely missed seeing earlier, and then gestured for him to follow. "Come on, yan'qui, you have helicopter waiting!" He called out in coarse and accented English. Max lurched off of the back of the truck, and for the first time, heard the familiar thwip-twhip-thwip of helicopter blades nearby. He glanced one last time at the female gray suit still sitting in the back of the truck and raised an eyebrow, shrugged off his confusion, and then trudged ahead.
Out in a small clearing, a helicopter was indeed waiting for takeoff. An American helicopter. The pilot stuck his head out of the side window and gestured widely for him to hurry along, and Max started to. He started to, then paused and looked to the helmeted man in the gray suit who had brought him out. The fellow chuckled and opened up the case, removing what was inside.
His helmet, with the dent in the side still intact. "Souvenir." The Russian said, humor in his voice. "Good work...Amerikanski." He nodded Max on once, then turned around and started to walk back into the jungle.
It was all too surreal. Max barely remembered those last few feet, but he came to again when he was sitting in the back of the helo with a medic looking him over, and another crewman jamming a set of headphones over his ears.
"Welcome back to friendly territory, Captain Tennyson!" The Medic shouted over the roar of the engine. "We have orders to fly you directly back to Takhli!"
Max fingered the helmet sitting in his lap and let his head roll to the side, staring out over the jungles of Southeast Asia rolling on below them.
Takhli Air Force Base
Takhli District, Thailand
July 4th, 1965
Brigadier General Albert Logan was a man to be respected; As the local MACV commander in charge of the USAF at Takhli, he didn't run the base, but he did run the American ground crews and pilots. Which included the 563rd, his squadron...and Max himself.
Wearing his dress blues, the general sized up Max Tennyson as the two men sat down in his office, right next to the tarmac. "You look like hell, Captain. What did the medics say?"
Max mustered a stiff nod to match the cast his arm was in. "It'll heal, sir."
"Glad to hear it." General Logan smiled. "We've got too few Air Force boys going into astronaut training as it is. It'd be hell to lose you and let the Navy have all the fun." Then the grin dropped off. "Listen, son. I'm not sure what exactly happened out there, and I don't want you telling me about it. Matter of fact, we have orders to just...let the whole matter drop."
"Sir?" Max frowned, not liking the direction the conversation was headed. "What do you mean, forget about it? My squadron mates are dead. All of them."
"Yeah. It's unfortunate, but getting shot down by AA and SAMs happens in war." The General said smoothly. "We're just glad that you got clear of that ambush."
Max started to open his mouth to protest, that it hadn't been humans who shot them down, that it had been an alien slaver ship working for the Black Sun. That he'd in turn shot down that ship, which had freed Xylene and led to the two of them running through the jungle for days trying to escape.
He wanted to let it all out, because there had been almost no debriefing. Nothing like the thorough and hours-long process he and his squadmates went through normally. The debriefing officer had only asked him a few basic questions, and ignored everything Max had tried to say about Xylene, the Galactic Enforcers, and the 'humans we don't talk about.' He was convinced the gray-suited Russians were a part of that group after a hot shower with his cast covered, a decent meal, and a night's sleep.
Max wanted to yell it out, but the General just sat there in silence, raising an eyebrow, as if waiting for Max to catch the hint.
Max finally did, and snapped his mouth shut. They didn't want any of this on the official record. It was all being covered up, glossed over. His men, his friend "Hawk" Evans would all be given a false cover story about how they'd died.
And the world would go on thinking they were just casualties in the war to save the people of Vietnam from international Communism. Instead of what they had been...bugs on a windshield, killed on a whim by interstellar slave traders.
"So...what now, sir?" Max finally said, feeling angry and miserable about the entire situation and doing his level best not to show it. The general leaned back in his chair and dug into a file drawer of his desk, pulling out a thick manila envelope. He slid it across the desk until it came to a stop in front of Max, tilted crooked.
"Now? You get transferred back to the states to report for Astronaut Training in Houston, just like before. However, since there was a bit of a delay in the paperwork, they're not starting you for another two months after your initial check-in. That should give you enough time to heal that arm back up, decompress...put the war behind you."
Max stared at it. He was supposed to report for training in a week. They were giving him two months? Sending him back to the States and giving him eight weeks to…
Max reached for the envelope and opened it up, and his eyes went wide. A thick stack of $20 bills stared him in the face, sitting on top of his official transfer orders. Hush money? He looked up to the general, who kept on smiling impassively.
"Strange things happen in war, captain." General Logan told Max Tennyson. "We hear things that aren't there, see things that don't exist...remember things differently from how they actually happen. My advice to you? Try to put it all out of your mind. Find a girl, maybe. Shouldn't be too hard. They hear you're going to be an astronaut, you'll have to beat them off with a stick." He chuckled at his own joke, then stood up.
Max numbly followed the move, and made an awkward left-handed salute to mirror the general's own. Put it out of his mind. Forget.
Max wasn't sure how he'd ever manage to forget the last four days of his life. How he'd lost his men. How he'd done one stupid thing after another and still lived through it. The feel of his knife stabbing into that alien's skull, the stink of its breath against his face when the Tetramand had thought he had the upper hand, the surprise on Fargoras's face as the last thought in his brain before the dagger had hit it was that maybe he'd been wrong.
And he for sure wasn't ever going to forget about Xylene, the strange alien woman he'd made a connection with.
"Pack up your stuff, captain. We'll have an orderly help you out with it. Your transport leaves the base in two hours." General Logan held out his left hand for Max to shake. "Enjoy the vacation."
"Thank you. Sir." Max finally got out. "Sorry about losing my plane."
The General stiffened up for a bit, then chuckled and shook his head. "What are you talking about, captain? It got a little shot up, but you got your Thud back in. See? It's right out there." He gestured with his free hand out of the window, and Max followed it, stunned to see an F-105 Thunderchief riddled with holes being wheeled out of one hangar towards another by a base vehicle. It had his name on the side, his unit markings.
They'd really gone the distance to cover up the truth.
"My mistake, sir." Max said woodenly, his mouth dry.
"You've been through a traumatic experience, captain. It's to be expected." General Logan said, with just a hint of tension. "Dismissed."
The orderly that the general had mentioned was a lot of help to Max in packing up his belongings. In spite of everything that had happened, it all somehow fit inside the footlocker at the end of his bunk...including his now dented helmet.
"Is that everything, sir?" The airman asked him. Max was digging through a small drawer next to the bunk bed he'd shared with his squad-mate Chris, and doing his level best not to lose it every time he came across another one of his friend's personal belongings.
"Almost. I just need to find one more thing." Max told him.
"What is it, sir? Do you need a hand?" The young airman asked eagerly. Max shook him off, removing handfuls of letters, photos, and Lieutenant Evans' old empty cigarette boxes out of the drawer.
"No, I've got this. My...the lieutenant borrowed something of mine the other day. I'm not leaving without getting it back." And there, at the bottom of the drawer and covered up by an old Playboy magazine, he found it.
It was a larger blue Swiss Army Knife. The USAF logo, printed on and sold at an Air Force PX, was beginning to peel off from sweat, the Vietnamese heat, and rubbing inside of pockets, but it wasn't gone completely yet. Chris had borrowed it for the corkscrew attachment on the end. Max smiled as he held it up and spun it around in his hand. One last gift from his father, who'd bought it for him back when he had been in training. His family had never had much, and it was hardly the most expensive thing that had been in the shop, but it still meant all the world to Max. Because his mother and father had driven out to see him before his first deployment, had wished him the best.
His father had never been able to give him everything that he might have wanted. But he'd always given Max what he'd needed.
"Now I'm ready." Max resolved, sliding the pocketknife into his uniform's trousers.
There were a few other pilots of the 563rd waiting outside as he left the barracks, the airman toting his footlocker behind him. Some just nodded and looked away. Others stared with something akin to scorn, that everyone in his unit had died, and he'd lived, and it was somehow his fault. As if he didn't feel miserable enough about it. The fighter corps was a tight knit bunch. Losing one hurt.
He was the only survivor from his unit, and the men under his command in that last operation had had plenty of friends. He couldn't fault them for their hate, even if he didn't take any of it.
"Hey, Max." Another pilot clapped a hand on his shoulder as he passed. "Give 'em hell back at NASA."
"Keep flying straight, Mark." Max answered, nodding at the man, and walked on, moving ahead onto the tarmac and the waiting C-130 Hercules transport plane, whose engines were already powering on. Max passed his transfer orders to the officer waiting at the fantail, and once he got them back, walked on. The airman secured his footlocker to the side of the craft under his seat with some locking belts, then stepped back and gave Max a salute.
Max tried to swallow the lump in his throat and nodded back at the man, unable to return the gesture. "Good luck getting to space, sir." The airman said brightly. "You'll do us all proud."
Then the airman left. There were a few others on the flight, and one of the crew helped Max strap in before checking on the other passengers, and pallets of cargo in the middle of the plane were checked to make sure they were securely tied down and wouldn't shift in transit.
The rear ramp came up, and the C-130 taxied out to the runway. The propellers ramped up their revolutions, the transport took off…
And Captain Max Tennyson left Takhli Air Base and the Vietnam War far behind him.
Saint Louis, Missouri
August 2nd, 1965
He'd had nothing but time on his hands and his 'severance pay' burning a hole in his pocket. They would eventually be expecting him back in Houston, but that wasn't until the start of September, conspicuously close to Labor Day. For Max, there was nothing but opportunity...and no drive left in him.
Oh, he'd gone places, to be sure. He'd visited Gordon at College, and that had been one hell of a surprise for his little brother. He'd gone back to his home state of New York and stayed with his uncle's family for all of two days before boredom and an itching sensation wore down his complacency enough to shake the old man's hand, wave farewell to his far younger second cousins, and drive out in the used 1963 Chrysler Valiant he'd picked up at the start of his trip-automatic transmission, which allowed him to drive it one-handed.
Captain Max Tennyson drove the main roads, hit the cities, and did his level best to relax. All the while, he bathed in the music of the Supremes, the Beach Boys, and some crazy British band who'd named themselves after an insect.
He sat in diners, drank coffee like it was going out of style, read newspapers, watched Walter Cronkite on CBS. He frowned as he read and heard that the country he had left to defend against the terrors of Communism was tearing itself apart. Even after the Civil Rights Act had been passed a year ago, there were still marches, still demonstrations. Still riots and beatings.
The world just...didn't make as much sense as it had back when he'd been flying in the cockpit of his F-105. Everyone knew about aliens, had for over a decade since they'd landed in Washington D.C, and he'd visited there too, to see the Lincoln Memorial and the First Contact Museum.
If they knew that the rest of the universe was just as crazy...Would the world finally all stop fighting with each other and get along?
Max ate honest to God chinese food in San Francisco's Chinatown, and found that he was pretty handy with a set of chopsticks in his off-hand. He drove through Yellowstone and visited Mount Rushmore, stunned that human ingenuity and determination had made human faces out of a mountain of granite. And yet, despite everywhere he went, every distraction he tried for, he was still restless. Still angry. At someone else, or himself, or the situation, it was hard to say.
He still dreamed of Xylene some nights. He dreamed of being killed by that four-armed alien others. It felt like he was looking for something, but he couldn't put his finger on it. On one night, as he was looking up at the night sky outside of a motel just outside of Roswell, New Mexico just to say he'd been there, he had a thought that made him shiver. That maybe what he was looking for, nebulous as it was, wasn't something on Earth at all.
And suddenly, the Moon shot...didn't seem quite as spectacular a goal to aim for. Not when he'd had a taste of what was really out there beyond humanity's reach.
Beyond humanity's stupid little problems, and wars that made no sense anymore.
He'd stopped at Offutt in Omaha for his next medical checkup, and the Air Force doctor had been surprised at the X-Rays showing that his arm had healed up. He'd gotten the cast taken off and been given strict orders to take it easy with the arm, rebuild the strength in it carefully. He hadn't stuck around long in Omaha after that. He hit the road again and kept on going, driving through Iowa and watching acre after acre of cornfields pass him by. He'd hit the Mississippi, and followed it.
That was how he'd found himself in Saint Louis, a city in change. Down at the riverside, they were still building an enormous metal arch, a towering thing of two still separate legs that captured his attention. They'd called Saint Louis the gateway to the West a century ago, the first stop for those headed to Oregon, and the Arch was going to be a reflection of that heritage supposedly. And then, as he'd taken to wandering around from his hotel room one warm afternoon, the sounds of rock and roll he'd never heard on the radio before dragged him out to a nearby park, where a new band was playing. He stayed the entire afternoon through their set.
He walked out $15 poorer, decked out in a tie-dyed headband, a peace medallion, and a fringed leather jacket over his short-sleeved uniform shirt. And a copy of Shag Carpeting's latest single, a tiny little vinyl disc in a paper sleeve that would fall apart after one good rainstorm.
Eager to see if there was any other music in their style, he asked around for directions and soon found a small, but busy records store just off of a College campus. It was packed full of students, giggling and comparing albums. It was easy enough to put them all out of his mind and focus on the task of flipping through stack after stack of vinyl records. They had plenty of jazz and classical music pieces, some big band and swing, but only a scant collection of Rock and Roll on hand. He flipped through the single rack that they had twice over before he sighed and gave up the ghost.
The boy behind the counter nodded respectfully at him as he walked up. "Couldn't find what you were looking for, sir?"
"Not today." Max admitted with a sheepish smile, hefting the record under his arm. "Guess I'll just have to wait a while for them to come out with some more." The salesman glanced down and caught sight of the label, and his eyes widened.
"Shag Carpeting? Oh, wow. They are going places." His voice went from polished and respectful to loose and laid back in an instant.
"You know about them?"
"Yeah, absolutely. Hang on." The salesman ran a hand through his dark hair and crouched down behind the counter. After some muttering and shuffling in the unseen shelves, he popped back up with a wide grin and a smaller record without any label at all. "I caught a gig of theirs in Kansas City over winter break; begged the sound guy for a copy of the recording afterwards."
"No way." Max said, his eyes widening. "You've got a bootlegged album?"
"You bet I do." The salesman chuckled. "I'd love to sell their stuff here, but the boss is still kind of a stick in the mud about Rock n' Roll. We're getting him warmed up to the idea."
"You want to sell it?"
"Sell it? No way." The salesman quickly shook off the idea. "Buuut, I tell you what I can do." He sized up Max, taking in the odd combination of military uniform and counterculture paraphernalia, then nodded. "I've got a friend on campus, works in the recording booth at the auditorium. I could probably talk him into making a copy of it."
"For how much?"
"10 bucks for each of us."
"Deal." Max pulled out his wallet and flipped out a twenty without a second thought. "When can you have it ready?"
"Wow, man. You are hooked." The salesman chuckled. "I'll call his dorm up in a few minutes here, he can scratch it out tonight. You come back tomorrow at lunch, it'll be here waiting for you. That's when my shift starts, I've got class in the morning." He pocketed the bill and held out his hand. "What's the name, soldier?"
"Jack Strang." The salesman replied. He held up a finger, then went back underneath the counter again. He came up with another record and slid it across. "On the house. Another one the boss doesn't let us put on the shelves. You like Shag Carpeting, try giving them a try."
Max took the record and sized up the label. "The Moody Blues? And I thought Shag Carpeting was a weird name."
"Hey, don't disrespect the 'Blues, man." The salesman grinned. "Try it. You'll see."
Max chuckled and added it to his Shag record. "Okay, okay. See you tomorrow, Jack. Don't stiff me now."
"Peace, brother!" Jack called after him.
The early evening summer sun had Max sweating away as he walked through an outdoor bazaar of picnic tables full of knick-knacks, pictures and portraits, clothes, records, and food in the neighborhood. A Blues ensemble was jamming away at the far end. Wandering without a purpose, he waded through a sea of people of every color and size just for the experience of seeing what he could find.
Even a wanderer had needs, and that eventually forced him to look for something to drink. One of the local diners had moved its staff outside to a propane-powered griddle and was serving burgers, hot dogs, and bratwursts like there was no tomorrow. It was the Coca-Cola sign they'd hung above the register, and the massive chest cooler nearby that got his attention.
He was forty feet away from it when a woman seemed to step out of nowhere in the middle of the crowd and went up to the front counter. The sight of her stopped him dead in his tracks.
Bright red hair the color of a fall apple harvest fluttered in the slow breeze, and she wore a faded blue blouse and a worn green sunskirt that danced around her legs. Caught only in profile at a distance, he couldn't make out her eyes, but her smile…
He took one step, and when the world still hung silent around him, moving blurs that no longer had his attention, he took another. And another.
She'd ordered a Coke, but was frowning as they set the glass bottle down in front of her. "What do you mean you don't have a bottle opener?" She asked the server warily.
"Most folks bring their own to these block parties." The other woman at the register shrugged. "Sorry, honey. I bet if you'd ask around, someone else would have one."
"I might as well get a drink at another booth then." The red-haired woman sniffed.
Max felt his hand reach into his pocket and come back out with a familiar object as he moved behind her. He extended his arm out into her field of view and opened up his hand, revealing his blocky USAF blue Swiss Army Knife.
"Here, you can use mine." He said, taken aback afterwards at how husky his voice had become.
She turned her body halfway around and fixed her eyes on him, and Max forgot how to breathe.
Sparkling, almost impish green eyes sized him up from a face full of freckles, and a few strands of her fiery red hair fell over one eye as the hot summer wind caught them again. She cocked her head to the side with a curious stare, then nodded once and took the pocketknife from him. After some fiddling, she unfolded the bottle opener out of the case.
"Thanks." She popped the top off of the bottle and handed it back to him with a wry grin as she stepped away. "My hero."
Max nodded, tried to speak, choked, coughed once, and then shifted his gaze past her to the vendor. "Could I get one too?" He asked the server, digging out a quarter and dropping it on the counter. The glass bottle of the dark liquid he got in exchange was ice cold when he picked it up, and quickly started to perspire in the heat. He uncapped it and put the knife away, and took a quick swallow to wet his throat. When he turned back to talk to the red-haired woman, though, she was walking away on her flat sandals, Coke bottle in one hand and the other carrying a canvas bag full of paintings. Something lurched inside of him, and Max hurried to follow.
"Hey, wait up." Max called after her, and she did slow and throw a single glance over her shoulder as he raced to catch up. "I...I'm…"
She lifted two fingers up off of the bottle in a silencing gesture and looked him over from head to toe in a much more thorough appraisal than before. "Don't tell me. Let me guess." She said, and squinted her eyes as if thinking really hard before smugly smirking at him. "You look like a Max."
He blinked rapidly. "That's...how did you know?"
She shrugged amusedly and kept on walking, although a little bit slower to allow him to catch up and stroll beside her. "Lucky guess. I have a knack for names. But your name really is Max? I'm not usually that on-the-mark."
"Max Tennyson." He said, finally finding his feet in the conversation. "Please. Tell me your name."
"Why?" The red-haired, emerald-eyed woman asked him with the same casual air of playful detachment as before.
"Because…" He blinked and frowned. "That's what you do. You introduce yourself."
"We're doing introductions?" She laughed, never breaking her stride. "And here I thought we were just a couple of strangers crossing by one another on a warm afternoon. Not that you aren't a little more unusual than most who make a pass at me."
"Are you from around here?"
"Do I look like a College girl?" She countered, clearly enjoying herself too much, and likely enjoying his flustered state more than anything else. By some miracle, the crowds were parted just enough to let them get by without him losing his place beside her.
Max struggled to find the right words, which was new for him. He'd never had this much trouble before. "You move with...a freeness." He stammered out. "It kind of makes you stand out."
"Stand out. Hm." She reached into the bag bouncing off of her hip and pulled out a pair of sunglasses, slipping them on. "And what about you? A hippie soldier? Should I offer you a Cappuccino or a salute?"
"How about a date?" He asked quickly, sensing an opening. She laughed at that, a musical sound that set his heart dancing.
"Sorry, no. I don't date flyboys."
"How about astronauts?" He wagered cautiously.
"Oh, they're even worse." She grinned. "Still, it's nice to know I can still turn a few heads. It's been nice talking to you, Max, but…"
She sped up then, and Max shivered as he suddenly imagined her slipping away into the crowd as quickly as she'd appeared, vanishing from his life. It terrified him, and so he did the only thing he could think of. "Please." Max stepped out ahead of her, not quite in her direct path. He could hear the pleading in his own voice, but he didn't care about it.
His freckled vision of loveliness stopped. The playful smile on her face faded to a more exhausted flat look as she sighed and took another drink of her Coke, then she took off her sunglasses to fix him to the spot with a stare. "What do you want, Max?" She asked him wearily.
"I," Max started out, and froze up. She stared at him expectantly, and he could hear a hundred different thoughts thundering in his head. But he could say none of them, pinned under her cautious gaze.
So he shut his eyes, reached for his endless courage, and tried it in the dark behind his eyelids.
"I want to get to know you." He said with just a bit of a croak in his voice. "I want to know why, when I look at you, everything that didn't make sense finally does. I've been traveling all over, looking for something I couldn't put my finger on. And I want to know if I was looking for you."
He held his eyes shut for a few more seconds, then cracked them back open and looked at her in worry, wondering how she'd take it.
She seemed stunned. Those captivating green eyes of hers were looking everywhere aside from his face, and seemed to lock in on his throat, and the peace medallion over his military shirt, most of all.
She took a wavering step back and shook her head. "That's one hell of a come-on, Max Tennyson."
He shook his head. "Not a come-on if it's true."
She laughed again, but it was softer than before. More genuine. She used her Coke bottle to push her hair back away from her face, like she was nervous. At length, she finally lifted her chin back up and let her green eyes meet his brown ones. She slid her bag a little bit further up her arm and held her hand out.
"Verdona." She said, and smirked again at his confusion. "Nice to meet you, Max Tennyson. I'm Verdona."
He took her hand and shook it gently, and felt his own smile crack his face wide open.
Author's Note: This story is also available to read on Archive Of Our Own as part of the "Little Moment Sidestories" series. Over there, you will find the author-recommended music to listen to throughout this story.