Disclaimer: I don't own any of the TSW characters portrayed within; all belong to Square. No profit is being made from their use.
Author's Note: This fits in the OOTA continuity. This is actually an old fic that I had half-finished for quite awhile – some parts of this fic are almost four years old, and it shows. I don't much like the end, but unfortunately, I can't remember what I was thinking at the time, and couldn't think of a way to change it for the better. And I really didn't want to change it too much. This story's not very significant, but it does play some part in the continuity I've been trying to establish. Looking through what I had planned in "Life's River Shall Rise, " "All-Consuming Fire," and "Eternity Burning," it suddenly occurred to me that I really should finish this fic if I want certain things to make sense… assuming I ever manage to get any further in any of my fics. This particular story was meant to explore the start of the enmity between Hein and Gray; at times, it almost felt like they had a history. Or maybe that's just my imagination. It's not the best, but oh well. At least it means I'm still contributing something to the fandom!
In His Hands
Cadet Captain Gray Edwards rarely let anything overcome his serious exterior, but he couldn't suppress a grin as he paused outside the door to what was currently serving as General Worthington's temporary office. He quickly schooled his face back into its normal expression; Major Wilkes had chosen him to take part in a Deep Eyes mission, and Gray wanted to make a good impression. It wouldn't do to seem too eager.
When he'd told his fellow cadets, none of them were shocked. After all, he was the Cadet Captain, the top of his class in his final year at the Houston Military Academy. His acceptance into the elite Deep Eyes squads seemed almost guaranteed, and now Major Wilkes' faith in him made Gray realize just how close to his goal he really was.
He wasn't nervous as he entered the office, where Major Wilkes was waiting, along with six other chosen cadets, and a man with general's stripes who was seated at the room's only desk. He saluted smartly, and it was returned. Major Wilkes introduced General Worthington, the man who had planned out the cleansing strike that would clear the borders around Houston. He had already done the same around San Francisco with surprising success, and had been asked to repeat it at Houston.
General Worthington wanted the best Houston had to offer. Gray stayed relaxed as the general explained to the handful of other cadets chosen, trying to prove that he was the best of the best by not betraying any of the excitement and nervousness displayed on the faces of the other cadets.
"Eager, are you?" the general asked him as the others left the briefing.
"Sir, it is an honor to be chosen," Gray said formally. "I'm pleased that my progress-"
The general waved him into silence. "Cadet Captain Edwards, you come very highly recommended. I'm sure you didn't earn that by brown-nosing."
Gray flushed. "Sorry, sir," he said meekly.
"There's a reason I need to speak to you alone. You are familiar with the other cadets chosen, correct?" Gray nodded. "Are they all up to this? I don't doubt Major Wilkes' judgment; I just feel you may know something about them by being with them that the major may have missed."
Gray considered for a moment. The general was asking his opinion, and it wasn't something to be taken lightly. "Sir, the major has chosen well. The cadets chosen are all capable soldiers. They work well together, and can be trusted to follow orders and get the job done."
"Excellent," the general said. "Meet me here at 1800 hours; I would like to introduce you to your commanding officer. You're dismissed."
Gray saluted, then departed the office at a sedate pace, but he couldn't quite hide the spring his step as he went to his room to ready himself for dinner. Tomorrow, he was going to have the chance to prove himself worthy of becoming a Deep Eyes soldier.
"I don't want to be here." Captain Douglas Hein was standing with his cheek and one arm pressed against the window, staring out at the strange city. "I promised her I'd be there," he continued unhappily.
Normally, one wouldn't speak to his commanding officer in such a way, but Hein wasn't speaking to General Worthington as an officer to a superior, but as a member of the family.
"Douglas," General Worthington said quietly, "it's not a matter of choice. The Council ordered us here, so here we are."
Hein just sighed. He shifted away from the window, his right hand going to the wedding band around his finger. "I didn't want to leave her. Why does the Council want us to do this now? And why do they need me?"
Worthington met the young captain's worried eyes, and the sharp words he'd been about to say died in his throat. "You need the field experience. You're not going to advance much further in rank without it. And yes," he held up a hand when Hein looked about to further protest, "I know you were part of the San Francisco cleansing mission. That was why the Council wanted you here."
"I know… but Rhiannan's due in a week. I promised I'd be there with her." Hein turned back towards the window, his mind on San Francisco and his wife.
"She's my daughter; don't you think I'm anxious to return, too?" Worthington said sharply.
Hein didn't apologize. Worthington understood the younger man's anxiety, remembering when his own children had been born. "This won't take long," he said reassuringly. "We do this strike tomorrow, and we'll be back in San Francisco the next day. You will be back for Rhiannan."
Hein cast him a nervous glance. "I just don't like going on an actual mission this close…" he said hopelessly. "I know, I need a lot more field experience. I just wish it could wait. I'm not going to be able to keep my mind on the mission; I'm going to be so worried about her…"
Worthington regarded his twenty-five-year-old protégé, trying to judge if Hein was up to this. Would his worries distract him so much that he could endanger the cleansing? He eyed Hein thoughtfully for several moments. No… Even with something like this on his mind, Douglas won't fail. He's one of those rare people that thrives under pressure; it'll serve him well if he ever makes general. "You'll be fine," Worthington said firmly. "Just keep your focus. Worrying about Rhiannan won't help her any, and it could kill you." Hein winced. "Now, come on. I want to introduce you to the Cadet Captain."
With a reluctant last look out the western window, in the direction where San Francisco lay, Hein followed the general.
Gray hadn't expected the captain to be so young. The man commanding Gray's squad was barely four years older than he himself was. Gray saluted, studying the man as he did so.
Clearly, he was an officer who usually avoided battle by running things from an office. He was thin and pale, lacking the muscle tone of one who kept up strenuous military exercises. He wore casual military dress, and his longish black hair hung in his face. Not really a soldier, Gray thought uneasily. He understood the need for those whose talents weren't for the field, but that didn't mean Gray had to like them. And he certainly didn't want to be led by one, even if there were going to be several other, more experienced commanders on hand.
The captain returned Gray's salute. "I am Captain Douglas Hein," he said calmly. "I understand you are Cadet Captain Edwards, and that you are in charge of the other cadets, correct?"
"Yes, sir," Gray said.
"You understand that this is a serious mission, not just a training run? We're going to be relying on you to cleanse the area of Phantoms." Gray couldn't decide if Hein meant to insult him by stating the obvious, or if he was just repeating it to make certain it was clear between them.
"I understand, sir." Gray decided not to take offense.
"Good." Hein cupped his chin in one hand, his blue eyes seeming to focus on something distant. Gray felt vaguely irritated by the man's inattention. Having established that Gray knew what was going on, Hein seemed to have forgotten the cadet was there.
"Sir?" Gray began tentatively.
Hein started, and his eyes lost their unfocused look. "You and all the other cadets will be briefed tonight by Major Wilkes," Hein said, as if his attention hadn't wandered. "As we speak, Major Wilkes is going over the plan with General Worthington, who will also be outlining it to the local USMF division. By tomorrow, you will know all the details. I expect you to follow my orders, Cadet – that will be vital to the mission's success."
"Yes, sir," Gray said. The captain turned and looked out the window, his shoulders stiff. Gray wondered what had disturbed the captain. Was he afraid to be going out into the field? Gray watched the captain uneasily. Tomorrow, my life will be in this man's hands…
It wouldn't be until much later that Gray would realize how true that was.
Compared to that of the soldiers around him, Hein's armor gleamed with newness. He'd rarely been in combat, and even then, he'd had the front line of soldiers between himself and the enemy. An officer wasn't something to be wasted. It bothered him, thought, that he'd never even been blooded in battle.
Not that blood played a role in a battle with ethereal aliens who thirsted for spirits, not flesh. But Hein could feel the tension in the men and women around him. The plan of action may have been set up by an experienced general and approved by several of the army's best tacticians, but they were being led by an inexperienced youth with too much rank. Hell, even the HMA cadets huddled in their own group at the hangar's rear held him in contempt; young Edwards had made that clear the previous day, even though he'd tried to hide it.
No matter… I'll never see them again after this. Pushing aside his own doubts in himself, and the ever-present worries about his wife, Hein strode in front of the assembled soldiers, who stood at attention.
When the signal was given, this group, and others positioned at other gateways around the city, would sweep outwards, beating back the Phantoms and completely cleansing the area for what was hoped to be a long stretch of time. They would fan out, supported from above by Copperheads carrying energy buoys, clearing an area up to five miles from the barrier's edge around the entire city. Afterwards, depending on where they were, they would be able to walk back to the city, or be picked up by the Copperheads.
It was a dangerous plan, involving almost every soldier in the city. But if it worked, it could lead to a bigger, perhaps worldwide cleansing, and ultimately, the Phantom's defeat.
For now, though, they just had to survive this. The San Francisco cleansing had gone well, with a surprisingly low loss of life. Hopefully, this would have the same results.
"That's the plan," Hein concluded. "I know it seems impossible, but it worked for San Francisco. And, you'll all be issued our new secret weapon against the Phantoms." The ranks of soldiers were too well trained to murmur among themselves, but he could sense their barely restrained curiosity. Hein turned to the sergeant behind him, accepting the small, round object offered him. "This," Hein held it up for all to see, "is a bio-etheric flash grenade. Press the button and toss it, and the result is an energy flash that annihilates every Phantom within a forty foot radius." Now the soldiers gasped. "Unfortunately, the grenades are very difficult to make, though R&D is working on a way to make bombs like this. These grenades are very costly, and we only have a few. Each squad will be issued seven." At his nod, the grenades were distributed in carriers to the soldiers, who divided them up and strapped them to their armor. "Don't waste them," Hein warned, slipping on his own grenades. "Use them only in areas with great concentrations of Phantoms."
"Five minutes, Captain," the sergeant behind him murmured.
"Into formation!" Hein ordered. The soldiers quickly fell in to their assigned positions, with the HMA cadets grouped near the middle, behind the first wave. Hopefully, by the time they began to spread out, most of the Phantoms would have already been destroyed. General Worthington would kill him if he lost the cadets…
Hein took up his own position, close to the cadets. He ignored the looks the seasoned troops gave him, concentrating instead on calming his jittery nerves. I've done this before… If the general knew how badly Hein got the shakes before battle, he might stop Hein from participating. And Hein needed the field experience if he was going to advance in rank.
"It's time," the sergeant announced.
"Open the doors," Hein commanded.
Every bottom level gate in Houston was opened, and soldiers swarmed out. Hein took a deep breath, steadied his shaking grip on his Nocturne, and stepped out with the rest of the troops.
Gray found the rush of battle to be an exhilarating experience. Even if he was being held back, kept 'safe' by the experienced soldiers, he had engaged the enemy. While he had accompanied the small defensive groups used when the Phantoms came uncomfortably close to the city, this was like nothing he'd ever experienced before. But Gray didn't let his enthusiasm get the better of him; he fired only when necessary, and reserved his flash grenades for when they'd be needed. So many other soldiers were using them so freely now that he knew there would be very few left once they reached the cleared zone's perimeter. As the Cadet Captain, it was up to him to set an example for the rest of the cadets, and so he resisted the urge to lob the grenades at solitary Phantoms or small clusters of them. Keep a level head in the heat of battle, Gray told himself, remembering what countless instructors had told him. So far, he thought he'd proven himself to be a capable soldier, though he wouldn't let himself become overconfident. Still, he thought the small group of cadets that had managed to stay with him even as the battle broke apart their formation was proving itself admirably. They'd lost their 'chaperones' a half an hour previously, and the students had managed to keep their heads.
"Half a mile until the designated clear zone perimeter," someone said over his helmet's radio.
It was nearly over, Gray realized with some disappointment. This was a good thing for the city, of course, but Gray's adrenaline was on overdrive, and he didn't want it to end. Classes, simulations, war games… nothing the HMA had done had prepared him for the thrill of battle, the heated rush that came with actually putting years of training to use and accomplishing something for the good of mankind.
He knew the other cadets felt the same way; he could hear it in the tone of their voices as they spoke over the radio, and see it in the way they marched untiringly forward, in the way they began firing upon Phantoms the moment one of the aliens put in an appearance. They were eager, a feeling Gray well understood.
It was their overconfidence that was nearly their undoing. In their aggressive march, they'd manage to bypass the first wave of more experienced soldiers, who were exhausted from taking the brunt of the battle. Gray and the dozen other cadets with him pressed onward, into the thick of battle. It wasn't until he heard a gasp and saw one of the cadets who had been at the edge of their group crumple to the ground just as a Phantom rose from the barren earth that Gray realized they were in trouble.
"Close in!" Gray cried, and the cadets immediately obeyed. More Phantoms rose from the ground around them, and the cadets clustered close together, Nocturnes pointed outward. Gray primed a flash bomb and tossed into a clump where the Phantoms were thickest. The bomb detonated, and the aliens' high-pitched screams assailed Gray's ears as they evaporated. More Phantoms rose to take their place.
"How far are we from the rendezvous point?" Gray asked as he fired his Nocturne into a humanoid Phantom that was drawing close. Dammit, they should have run into the other soldiers by now!
"I… I think we passed it!" the student in charge of communication with other teams said, his voice panicked.
No… Gray cursed himself for his stupidity. He'd been so eager for a fight, he'd led his fellow cadets to their deaths. "Head back the way we came! We have to get to the rendezvous!"
"We can't!" one of the rearward-facing students cried, and Gray turned around to see for himself.
They were completely surrounded.
"Sir, we're picking up a distress signal from one of the teams," the pilot of the Copperhead that had picked up Hein and his men said over the com. Hein swore softly and went into the cockpit. He knew this had been going too smoothly. "It's one of the HMA student groups." This was getting worse and worse; it was bad enough to lose a group of soldiers on a dangerous mission; to lose students would be a crippling blow to his reputation, and maybe even result in his demotion, if not a dishonorable discharge. "They're surrounded, and can't make it to their rendezvous site. We're the closest ship to them."
"Turn around; get ready for an emergency pick up." Hein turned to one of the soldiers closest to him. "Get the pick-up cables ready." If the students were surrounded, then there wouldn't be a place for the Copperhead to land. They were going to have to lower the cables to the students and pull them up, a risky maneuver at best. "Charge the weapons; we're going to have to lay a covering fire." Otherwise, the students would be vulnerable as they were being reeled in.
The sound of the approaching transport was music to Gray's ears, and some of the students gave ragged cheers. They'd lost two more of their number keeping the Phantoms at bay, and they were out of flash bombs, which were all that had been keeping the Phantoms back. The Copperhead dropped a buoy several hundred yards away from where the cadets were clustered, and several of the aliens went after the more tempting target. The remaining Phantoms were eliminated by quick blasts of the Copperhead's cannons.
Gray's elation lasted only as long as it took him to realize there was a problem. How are they going to save us? There was no way the Copperhead could land, load the students, and take off before the Phantoms swarmed over the ship. And then ship took up position over them, the rear hatch hissed open, and five gleaming wires ending in hand grips were lowered. Gray gestured for the five closest students to take the handgrips, and the remaining cadets moved in closer to defend their airlifted companions. With the ship's more powerful weapons assisting, the first lift was pulled off without loss of life. Once the first batch of cadets was safely within the Copperhead, the cables were again lowered.
Gray took hold of the handgrip, and the world began to recede beneath him. The Phantoms began to close in on where the cadets had stood, but the soldiers leaning out of the Copperhead kept up a steady stream of weaponsfire, forcing the Phantoms to keep their distance. As the gap between his feet and the Phantoms increased, Gray's adrenaline began to wear down, and reaction slowly set in. He'd been close to death; he'd seen people die, cadets who'd attended classes with him, talked with him, laughed with him, shared his delight at being chosen for this mission. They should be here, Gray thought. I should have watched where we were going; I shouldn't have led them out so far. This is all my fault…
The cable gave an unexpected jerk, and Gray tightened his grip reflexively. None of the other cables seemed to be behaving the same way, and Gray felt his stomach plunge back to the level of the Phantoms below. Something was wrong…
Inside the Copperhead, there was a shout from near the motor that was reeling in the wires. Hein turned, just in time to see one of the wires was splitting. As he watched, another silvery filament twanged and curled back, leaving cadet on the end dangling by a thread – a thread that couldn't support the weight of an armored human. As the final filament snapped, Hein was already in motion.
Hein didn't even think; he dove forward, grabbing for a point on the wire a few feet from the broken end. He cried out as the weight of the soldier on the other end threatened to rip the razor-sharp wire free of his grasp and, gritting his teeth, he wrapped the slack coils from the length of wire behind the portion he'd grabbed around his hands and braced himself against the dead weight on the other end. Adrenaline numbed the pain, and he failed to notice that the wire was becoming slick with blood…
"Pull him up!" he gasped out, and the still-stunned soldiers finally stirred into action, grabbing the wire and reeling the young student in. They worked swiftly, efficiently… but it felt like an eternity to Hein. Only when the young soldier was pulled over the edge of the Copperhead's hatch and the doors closed with a hiss did Hein dare release the breath he'd been holding. With the action came a sudden awareness of pain, and he staggered backward, doubling over and barely catching himself in time.
Gray ripped of his helmet and rubbed his sweat-soaked features. His breath came in noisy gulps; he'd been too scared to even breathe as his life had hung, almost literally, by a thread. "Thanks," he finally gasped out.
The soldier who had helped haul him into the Copperhead said, "It was the captain that really saved you." She pointed over to where Hein sat off to the side, his near-collapse unnoticed in the rush to save the young cadet. "Thank him."
Hein was still crouched over the severed end of the wire, his body very still. He didn't even look up as Gray came up behind him, removing his helmet to speak more clearly. "You… you saved my life!" Gray said. "I don't know how I can ever repay…" his voice trailed off as his savior turned towards him, raising his hands before him as if he'd never seen them before. The rest of Gray's thanks died in his throat.
The thin wire had been looped around his hands several times. Gray's weight had drawn the wire taut around his hands, causing the slender, hair-thin filaments that made up the wire to bite into the skin and it was now embedded in the torn, blood-slick flesh. Contrasting with the brilliant scarlet was the white of bone, visible where the flesh hung in tattered ribbons. Hein looked up at Gray uncomprehendingly, his face pale and bloodless. In a pained whisper, he said, "I forgot that I removed my gauntlets…" Then his eyes rolled back and he slumped to the metal deck plating beneath, accompanied by a chorus of shouts for the medic.
"Did you hear me, Douglas? She had a girl."
Captain Hein finally looked up his examination of his hands, which were so bound in bandages that it looked as if his arms ended in clubs. The bandages were blotched with red; he was due for another change in bandages soon. "A girl…" he repeated softly. A daughter… he had a daughter!
A daughter whose birth he hadn't been there for, because he was here in a hospital in Houston, while she was in San Francisco. A daughter that he wouldn't be able to hold in strong, steady hands, because his own had been so badly ripped apart that the doctors weren't certain they'd ever regain their full strength and mobility. And his wife had gone through the birth without him at her side, where he'd vowed to be.
General Worthington seemed to understand his son-in-law's misery – why wouldn't he, since this was his daughter and granddaughter, and he hadn't been there for them, either? "Rhiannan understands, Douglas. She doesn't hold your absence against you. Quit beating yourself up over this! The doctors say it's safe to transfer you to San Francisco, and I have a flight for us tomorrow morning."
Hein's gaze fell back to his bound hands. "Thank you," he muttered. Worthington cleared his throat, about to say more, then seemed to change his mind. Hein was glad; he knew he was still in shock over his accident, and he still felt numb inside. Which was why he didn't even look up when the young cadet he'd saved, whose name Hein couldn't remember, entered the hospital room. He was dimly aware of him exchanging a few words with Worthington, and then the general left the room. Hein didn't even look up as the young student shifted his weight nervously, clearly uncertain as to whether he should salute or not.
Finally, he ventured, "I just wanted to thank you. For coming to my team's rescue, and for saving me when the wire snapped." Hein didn't respond. "I'm sorry that this happened," the youth tried again. Hein still didn't look up. "If there's anything I can do…" Hein's gaze finally snapped upward. You've done enough, he wanted to snarl, but he didn't say anything.
Finally, frustrated by his silence, the young cadet left him alone.
As he exited the captain's room, Gray nearly collided with General Worthington, who had clearly been waiting outside the room for him. Military conditioning was the only reason he was able to snap off a weak salute; he was too preoccupied to have done it consciously. The general returned it, saying, "At ease."
Right. As if it was that easy.
"You're the cadet captain, correct?" the general asked, his tone void of any emotion.
Gray's shoulders slumped. He'd been dreading this moment; in the hurry to get Captain Hein to the hospital, his actions in the field had been overlooked. Now, though, it was time for the ax to fall. He'd let three students die, and it was his fault that a promising officer had been hospitalized. He deserved whatever punishment he received. "Yes, sir."
"From what my officers tell me, you did a fine job in the field. You didn't panic, you gave and followed orders well, and you kept your team alive when you were separated from the rest of the soldiers and waiting for rescue."
"We shouldn't have been that far out in the first place," Gray said dully.
"You're not to blame; the soldiers you were supposed to meet up with were held back by an Omega Phantom. Anyone would have missed the rendezvous point." Worthington's reassurances did little to assuage Gray's guilt.
"I lost three of my team. Three students," Gray's voice was bitter.
"It's a terrible loss," the general said, finally showing some emotion. "They were good cadets, and would have made fine soldiers. But this is a war, Edwards; many soldiers don't make it. It's the hardest lesson to learn, one that the Houston Military Academy can't teach you. You managed to keep your head in battle and minimize the losses to your team. I'm afraid you will face some punishment for your failure to check in with any of the other experienced teams when you couldn't reach the team you were meant to meet up with, however, but you have potential."
Gray straightened a little. He didn't feel he deserved praise, but he was glad he wasn't going to be booted out of the HMA for his failure. "I accept whatever punishment you feel is appropriate."
The general nodded, as if he'd expected no less. "Major Wilkes will want to see you in his office first thing," he said. He gave Gray a nod. "That's all I wanted to say to you." Gray took it as a dismissal and took his leave.
As Gray walked away from the general, it wasn't his conversation with Worthington that bothered him, but his encounter with Hein. Even as he put distance between them, he thought he could still feel the older man's gaze boring into the back of his neck. Hein had saved his life, yes, but at a cost to himself, and Gray couldn't help but feel some guilt about it. As he left the captain behind, Gray couldn't help but wonder if the older man would ever forgive him.