Vision returned in flashes. Captain John Drogue was assailed by barely perceptible ribbons of consciousness accompanied by rushes of nausea and vertigo. At first, the world had a skewed, unfocused slant to it and was completely devoid of color. He vaguely sensed a distressed tingling in his lower extremities and left arm. With flaring cramps, his internal organs seemed bent on rejecting the brain giving them orders.
After a concerted effort, The Ghost forced what felt like leaden eyelids open and focused on a gray wall. The spinning room eventually slowed and began to resemble a reality that he was familiar with. He was lying on a bed; the automatic folding type found in hospitals. In grayscale, his hazy vision made a detailed appraisal of his surroundings difficult. He could tell the room was small, clean, and orderly. After weeks of operating from a forward operations camp, the space seemed immaculate.
"Ah, the hero awakens," the voice came from his side.
The Ghost had to consciously will his head to turn to the side, earning himself a shooting pain through the neck. A middle aged man in a white lab coat looked on expectantly.
"And how are we feeling today?" the man asked.
Drogue had to fight to bring the figure into focus. His eyes seemed to be working independent of one another. "Who are you?" He asked. "Where am I?"
"And he speaks," the man seemed very happy about something.
The pilot's eyelids drooped of their own accord. Assuming he was still under the influence of powerful sedatives, he moved to rub the weariness from his eyes. His left arm seemed unwilling to respond. After a half-hearted second attempt he looked up at the speaking figure.
"He's still waiting for an answer," the captain mimicked the man's use of the third person pronoun.
"Ah, yes, well you must forgive my surprise. There were those among my colleagues who doubted you'd ever awaken. Too much damage to the brain, they said. The human body can only take so much, they said-"
"Did they all ramble as much as you?"
"Some even more so," the man replied without losing a beat. "But again, I apologize. My name is Phillip Bell. Major. But please call me Doctor Bell. All that adherence to military protocol can be so counterproductive in the hospital setting. In fact I-"
"Hospital?" Drogue asked. The doctor was reluctantly coming into focus. He held the obligatory clipboard to a narrow chest and was adjusting a pair of wire rimmed glasses over his hawkish nose. A head of thick curly hair bobbed excitedly as the man nodded. Drogue couldn't tell what color it was.
"Oh yes, you are an honored guest of Independence medical command hospital, and have been for the last week and a half."
"In Missouri?" Drogue's thoughts still moved sluggishly.
"That's a long way from the fight."
"Indeed. You were brought in by air medivac ten days ago. In quite bad shape I might add."
Among The Ghost's fractured memories, the few details that were taking shape didn't make much sense. A piercing headache flared in the right side of his skull. Reflexively he went to pinch the bridge of his nose, trying his right arm this time. His thumb struck something hard and cold on his face. Metal.
In alarm, the airman traced the metal plate up onto his forehead and back down along his temple to below his cheek bone. With trembling fingers he explored his right eye only to discover a cold circular orbit containing a dished lens. The artificial eye made soft whirring noises as it tried to bring the exploring hand into focus. Pain lanced through his head.
Feeling the natural half of his face blanche, The Ghost looked up to the doctor. Pain aside, his sense of alarm was helping to rapidly realign his thoughts and memories. He saw the leering malice of the Xiticix Queen, heard the roar of Icky's sky cycle, and then- nothing.
"What the hell did you do to me?" He demanded.
"Well, we started off with saving your life," Doctor Bell sounded only a little put off by the question. "The rest of the time was spent replacing what we couldn't save."
The Ghost's aching head drooped in resignation, realizing that he could not rightfully hold onto any anger at the man. The decision to bring a laser guided bomb down within meters of one's self was made 300 miles from here. In a place the doctor probably could not even imagine.
"I'm sorry, Doc," he said before asking, "Can I have a mirror."
"Of course," the Doctor rifled through a drawer by the bedside before producing a small hand mirror.
With trembling hands, The Ghost brought the reflective glass to bear. Small pink shrapnel wounds were thoroughly stitched and on their way to healing across his left cheek and forehead. An angry red scar just to the side of his nose traced the edge of a contoured alloy plate covering the right side of his face. The artificial eye socket ensconced a single circular lens that rotated at the egdes, dilating a robotic iris.
"The ANR-21B multi optic eye," Doctor Richter proclaimed proudly.
"I preferred the original," mumbled the airman looking into the disheartened natural one in the mirror. It should be blue.
"I believe you'll find this one extraordinarily useful in your line of work," the doctor continued, upbeat. "It is capable of a multitude of functions-"
"Useful? I can't even see color!" The Ghost could not keep the venom from his voice.
"Oh that," Bell smiled warmly. "I suppose I should explain."
The Ghost glared at the man past the mirror.
The smile faded and the doctor cleared his throat. "In order to attach the video leads to your occipital lobes we had to shut down that portion of your brain for proper grafting. In restarting its function, that particular section of the brain loses many former learned synaptic nexuses."
The ghost blinked twice, slowly.
"Much like rebooting a computer," the doctor explained, "What your brain has learned to do visually will have to be relearned. You are effectively seeing the world as you did at your birth. Perfect color vision will return soon, generally in a month or two, along with the 21B's higher functions."
"Yeah, like what?"
"Well, there's telescopic zoom, passive infrared, and thermal imaging to name a few. I've left the user's manual in your nightstand drawer. I believe you'll find it eminently useful during your rehabilitation training."
Drogue brought the mirror down at that, squaring the doc in his blurry gray frame. "Rehab?"
"Oh yes, I'm afraid that while many visual functions will return naturally, the high end ones will need to be learned and practiced before they are mastered."
The pilot sighed. "I still prefer the old one."
"Of that I have no doubt," the doctor sympathized. "Most of my patients are thoroughly screened volunteers. You, on the other hand, had little choice in the matter."
The Ghost looked down at his white sheets, unwilling to contemplate the doctor's choice of words.
"As for the medical options, I'm afraid I had no choice either," Richter continued, as if trying to buoy the distressed airman's spirits with the reality of it all. "The right side of your maxillo-cranial structure was completely destroyed, along with your right eye. And that was not even the worst of the damage. Considering what was left of you when you were brought here, it still amazes me that they were able to stabilize you in the field."
Drogue did look up at the reference. "What was left of me?" He was suddenly very conscious of the now distinct tingling of his extremities.
The doctor winced. "I'm afraid you have yet to view my handiwork in full." Leaning forward, he meaningfully tapped his pen against the pilot's left shoulder. The sound of plastic on metal was unmistakable.
Heedless of the stabbing pain in his neck, Drogue craned his neck to view the appendage. Bandages covered the attachment point, but clearly visible was the robotic outline of a high-end bionic arm and hand. He willed it to move. The tingling member contracted painfully, the metal hand bunching into a balled fist. He managed to hold the awkward position for a few seconds before his focus faltered and the mechanical limb dropped back to the mattress.
"Very good," the doctor crooned. "Like your eye, it'll take time but will eventually be as useful as the original. Even more so, if I may be so bold."
"All right, Doc, out with it. What all did you replace?" The Ghost was fighting a sinking feeling.
"All told, you received minor skull reconstruction, the multi-optic eye, your new left arm, and cybernetic replacement of your spleen, gall bladder, and kidneys." Richter was ticking off individual fingers with his eyes upward. "Several of my colleagues thought your lungs and heart should go as well, but I daresay that you have very healthy vitals, Captain, and I opted to keep those bits."
"Much obliged," The Ghost muttered trying his left arm again. "Is that it?"
"Not quite. Your pelvis and spine were reinforced to support the attachment of your legs."
"My legs?" The heretofore tingling limbs remained covered by a white sheet.
"Yes," the doctor explained, pulling the sheet back proudly to reveal one shining black composite structure, "Your command has spared no expense in your reconstruction."
They were obviously no crude mechanical construct. The glossy black surface was contoured artfully, resembling the natural musculature of the legs they replaced. The Ghost could not help but run his real hand across the flawless veneer.
"What are they?" he asked in awe.
"I believe the system is known as the XL-151; Night-Strider, or some such nonsense. An experimental bionics kit that incidentally arrived only days after you did."
"Oh yes, state of the art carbon composites, much lighter and stronger than the usual alloys. But the most intriguing part is their means of actuation. Rather than the usual servos, rams, and hydraulics, these are powered by honest to goodness artificial muscles, replicated down to the cellular level, but made of ballistic polymers." The doctor's eyes glittered. "For these, I almost envy you."
"Well as you can see," he said spreading his arms wide, "even as a doctor of cybernetics, I still prefer the original equipment as well."
Equipment? At that, The Ghost's eyes popped open wide, and his good hand shot to his groin.
"Doc, am I…is it…I mean…did you-"
The doctor rolled his eyes before cracking a reassuring smile. "Pilots…" he muttered. "Yes Captain, we managed to save your manhood, if that's what had you worried. I believe you'll find yourself none the worse for wear in that department. Amazing, actually, considering the condition of your legs. Consider yourself fortunate."
An audible sigh escaped the battered airman.
"Do I sense a little gratitude leaking through?"
Despite the pain, tingling, and general weariness that racked his cobbled body, The Ghost could not begrudge the friendly doctor a small smile. In all, he hadn't expected to come out of the battle alive. He still had the parts of him that mattered the most, it seemed. And the rest he'd just have to get used to.
"You're welcome." Doc Bell smiled warmly. "Now, if you'd indulge me, I'd like to-"
He was unceremoniously interrupted by the sliding of the automatic door to the small room. In walked a tall CS soldier, dressed sharply in his service uniform. He wore a large smile, white teeth contrasting with dark skin. He was an enlisted man by the cut of his uniform, and Drogue vaguely recognized the blurry face from somewhere in the battalion. But try as he might, he could not remember the man's name.
The newcomer snapped to attention, announcing himself formally. "Sergeant Desmond LeBlue, sir."
The Ghost may have never known the name, but he knew he'd never forget the voice. "Viper!" he cried, holding out his working arm.
The ranger shook the proffered hand warmly. "Yes sir."
"We got the Bitch?" It was a question.
"That's putting it mildly, sir," LeBlue winced before continuing. "It looked like she took most of the blast, but you were still burned, broken, and blown up pretty good."
"That would explain the headaches."
LeBlue smiled. "Looks like they got you stitched up pretty well though."
"Yeah, the Doctor here thought my face could use some improvements."
"Shee-it, he just knew he couldn't make it any worse," the unmistakable drawl came from the open doorway.
The Ghost looked to see a beaming Icky, dressed in his flight suit, saunter into the room. The man wasted no time coming to the bedside and wrapping his flight leader in a tight hug. Despite the pain that came with the effort, Drogue returned the slapping embrace with his good arm. When at last the smiling man pulled back, Drogue found it difficult to look him in the eye.
"Um…Ick, about the whole 'threatening at gunpoint' thing. I-" he started.
Icky just waved away the apology. "I knew you were hurtin, Cap. Jus' widened my orbit a bit to give you your space was all." He shrugged, then added, "-Sides, if you think I was gonna lug that turd of a bomb all the way to a Xiticix hive and go home without droppin it on somethin' cool then you're crazier than I thought."
"Something cool? You mean like my head?"
"Now that was your idea," Icky returned before offering in all seriousness. "Bravest thing I ever seen, Cap."
"Amen," LeBlue added solemnly.
The Ghost found that even blushing hurt. He dodged the topic instead. "So the unit cleared you two for leave just to come down to Missouri and kiss my carbonized butt? When do you have to report back?"
The two men glanced sidelong at each other, their expressions growing dark.
"He doesn't know," LeBlue said to Icky.
"I'm afraid Captain Drogue has just barely awakened," interjected the Doctor. "Perhaps you gentlemen can catch him up at a later time."
"Catch me up on what?" The Captain looked from one man to the other, his thoughts dragging sluggishly behind his perception.
Icky shrugged. "Aint no unit to go back to, Cap. The 14th was disbanded."
The Ghost blinked, it was an eerie sensation. The perception of his artificial right eye never faltered. It felt more like a wink.
"What?" he asked.
"Battalion commander was fragged during the op. They're saying the Major tried to throw the whole game. Some General came out from division and disbanded the whole battalion right after we got back to the rear. Everybody got new orders and off they went."
"We were given leave to come see you before reporting to our new command," LeBlue put in.
"Least they could do, if you ask me," said Icky. "After we went to all the trouble of dragging your splattered ass out of there." He looked The Ghost over, his brow furrowed. "Looks like half of the parts we picked up just got shit-canned anyway."
"I told you they would," LeBlue answered him.
The Ghost wasn't listening. He was still trying to attach meaning to the earlier proclamation. His head throbbed.
The doctor cleared his throat. "Perhaps now's not the best time-"
The Ghost waved his mother hen away. "Berthold? Frag the Colonel?" He groggily recalled the armored reinforcements halting their advance. He shook his head. "Doesn't make sense, it was her operation."
Icky shrugged again. "Well, that's what they're sayin'. Said she was sabotaging us all along, and had to off the old man to keep us from winning."
"That's not what I heard," LeBlue said quietly.
Icky looked curiously at the sniper. "Well, you're the one who's buddy-buddy with all them S-2 eggheads, so spill the scuttlebutt, Ranger."
"Gentlemen, please," the Doctor pleaded, "I'm sure there will be plenty of time to discuss things once the Captain has had some rest." By now it was obvious that nobody in the room was listening to him.
LeBlue opened his mouth to speak but was cut short when the doctor let out a yell.
"Attention on deck!" he called sharply. From the doorway came a flash of brass as a graying officer in full dress uniform marched into the room. Icky, LeBlue, and the Doctor all snapped to attention.
"At ease, men," the senior officer said as he strode into the room.
Drogue's vision, even being what it was, he was still fairly certain that he could count four shining stars on the man's epaulet along with a host of campaign ribbons and medals upon his chest. As the man drew closer, a pair of I.S.S. 'Specters', nameless government agents, entered and flanked the doorway.
"Captain John Drogue?" The General asked.
The man produced a framed document and began to read from it. "By these proceedings, so shall it be known that on the second of April, in the year post apocalypse one hundred and two, that Captain John Drogue, while assigned to the 14th Coalition Expeditionary Force, 4th Infantry Division, led a combat mission from forward airbase Charlie one-four, into enemy territory. As flight leader, Captain Drogue led his men gallantly against overwhelming numbers of the enemy…"
The Ghost new what was coming. In his years of service he'd heard enough awards citations to recognize the formatted recital after the first few words. The General rolled on and on, extolling a great number of exploits. Some real, but others embellished somewhat, or at least chronicled with such lavish formality that they seemed to take on a fantastic scope. Despite the praise, the pilot could not help but feel as if he were being used as a smoke-screen to cover a military's moment of disgrace. It was true; his last sortie had seen the worst the monstrous Xiticix could throw at him. But a disturbing thought kept bouncing around in his bruised mind. In the entire campaign, not once had he seen one of the aliens turn on another. The General's monologue flitted in and out of his consciousness.
"…despite heavy losses, and even the gross treason and betrayal of a superior officer..."
The Ghost thought he saw LeBlue flinch but couldn't tell for sure. Damn blurry vision.
"…For intrepid leadership under fire, and a selfless dedication to duty above and beyond even the proud traditions of the armed forces of the Coalition States of America, it is with great pride that I hereby award Captain John Drogue with the Iron Cross and promote him to the rank of Major. May his actions serve as an example to us all, until final victory, and peace, is humanity's." The General paused briefly before going on to read the signatory line. "Signed, Ross Underhill, commanding general, 4th combined infantry division, Coalition 3rd field army, commanding."
Holding out the framed document, the stern looking General even cracked a small smile. "Congratulations son, your country is proud of you, and your sacrifice does not go unnoticed."
"Thank you," The Ghost managed. He wanted to ask if Cracker, Huck, or any of the others who were killed in action would receive such honors. He held his tongue.
"I take it they're treating you well, here? Got you all patched up I see."
The Ghost shrugged his metal shoulder. Behind the General, he saw Dr. Bell's eyes bulging at the perceived slight. But the high-ranking officer didn't seem bothered in the least.
"Keep your chin up, Major, you'll get used to it."
"Yes Sir," the Ghost replied quietly.
"I mean it, airman. Got one myself," the man tapped a knuckle on his left coat sleeve, the metal echoed. Drogue met his commanding visage as he added, "And God knows there are pieces of a leader that are not so easily replaced."
The elder officer just nodded sagely. "We're soldiers. It's what we do. And unfortunately, they won't be the last."
Next, the general produced a black velveteen clamshell and clicked it open. The Ghost could not even bring himself to look at the medal it contained. There was a long moment of awkward silence before Dr. Bell mercifully cleared his throat.
"Um, Sir, I believe the Captain… er, Major is still suffering from the shock of his wounds, all this excitement and such. Perhaps if you leave the medal with one of his men…"
"Very well," the high-ranking officer said. He snapped the clamshell shut noisily and handed it to Icky. "See that he gets it, Lieutenant."
"Yes Sir." After a round of salutes, the polished General strode for the door. He paused and turned, locking the wounded Drogue in an evocative stare.
"I mean it, Son. You've got to let them go."
The gathered soldiers then watched him turn and leave. The Internal Security Service agents remained behind, bleak sentinels at the threshold. The room was quiet.
Among his other talents, the doctor seemed to be good at breaking odd silences. "Well, it appears that you have able help on hand," he said with a glance at the black-clad agents. "I'll let you three catch up. Remember that you can page me at any time with the call button at your bedside."
The doctor turned to leave.
"No, it should be me thanking you. All of you." And with a salute, he too was gone.
Icky sauntered up to the bedside, looking meaningfully into the velvet case. He blew a low whistle.
"The Iron Cross, highest award for valor in air combat. Never thought I'd actually ever see one." Icky shook his head wistfully before continuing. "Whatcha want me to do with it?"
"Does it matter?"
Icky slapped the case shut and put on a disgusted frown. "Oh man, would you get over yourself? This wallowing shit is getting' kind of old."
"So what do you think? That I should just- let them go?"
"For God's sake yes! It's what the Crack-head would say to your face if he were here right now!"
"But he isn't."
"And that aint your fault!" Icky's words came quickly. "We all knew when we took off that morning that we might not make it back. You blame yourself for that, like we aren't qualified to risk our own necks or somethin'. We followed you, by choice. And dammit, we…" he motioned collectively as if to include the entire hospital, or maybe the entire planet, "…won because we followed you."
"Look at me," The Ghost replied, indicating his shattered body. "Look what happened to the unit. Gone. Do you really feel like we won anything out there?"
Icky looked away.
The Ghost was shaking his head when LeBlue stepped up to the bedside. "For what it's worth, sir, I lost a friend too. Bugs hit us good. But make no mistake, not a single one of them crawled away from that nest. You did what had to be done." He glanced at the ISS Specters before he looked back at The Ghost meaningfully, "We all did."
Try as he might, the pilot could not look away from that penetrating gaze. The eyes of a warrior could say much even when his lips could not. And they never lied. What seemed unbearable and had to be hidden from when alone was suddenly tolerable with the proffered strength of a friend. Carefully crafted barriers, years in construction, were difficult to see past. But, for the first time in a long time, The Ghost realized that he was not alone. He felt his self pity melting away even before Icky spoke up again.
"-Sides, these things aint won," he was looking into the case again, "they're earned." He held out the Iron Cross.
Major John Drogue reached up and touched it. For a brief moment, both held a small black ribbon from which dangled a burnished iron cross. For a longer moment words were not needed.
Icky stepped away, setting the medal swinging. The Ghost noted that it was probably the only object in the room that was truly the gray hue that he perceived. Wetness threatened in one good eye. With a sniff, he tucked the item away, determined to change the subject.
"You two will be alright without me around for a while?" he asked.
LeBlue nodded quietly.
Icky's response was much livelier. "We're soldiers, Boss." Icky did his best Cracker imitation before cracking a smile. "And like a wise dude told me once… it aint about us."
The Ghost could not constrain the smile that followed.
As the tension fell away, Icky faced LeBlue. "C'mon 'Blue, I think them hot nurses were fixin' to challenge us to another game of spades."
The sniper just groaned.
"I take it you two have been here a while?" The flight leader asked.
Icky glanced at the taller soldier before throwing an arm across the man's shoulder. "Shoot, this sumbitch has been schoolin' me at spades for the last ten days while we waited for you to come back from the dead." He glanced at the man again, stifling a wry grin. "Crazy init?"
"What, that you suck at cards?" Drogue didn't find the revelation all that earth shattering.
"Not that. From the way he sounds over the radio, I'da never figured my man here for a brother," Icky ruminated. "Sounds more like a Chi-Town white boy."
"That's funny," LeBlue interjected with a smile. "The way you sound, I'd have never figured you for an officer."
The Ghost only smiled. True comrades, offering one another the ultimate compliments: insults. If the taciturn agents in the doorway saw any mirth in the situation, they didn't show it. They just stood there, dutifully emotionless. It occurred to him then that aside from slightly different hues of gray that all the men looked the same in his nascent vision. They were human. They did what they had to do. And that was okay.
Authors note: Well, if you made it this far, I'm assuming that you at least liked something about the story. I really appreciate any and all comments and will reply to every one. Let me know what worked for you, what didn't, or what was confusing. I found myself cutting a lot of explanatory exposition to try and keep the piece moving, and I'm fairly certain that some things were lost in translation as it were. All told though, I had a great time writing it and place high value on any pointers as I roll into the next project. Thanks for the read. -Mojo