Frayed Ends of Sanity*

by

Susan Balnek-Ballard

Sanity was not something you were aware of - in the usual sense - until suddenly you found yourself doubting your own.

XXXX

"Sarge! Get down! Whatcha tryin' to do, get yourself killed?"

The sergeant heard Kirby's warning - a bit belated but effective as the kraut machine gun bullets whizzed harmlessly past Saunders' left ear as he hit the dirt, the burst neatly severing a small sapling behind him, two feet and no more from the ground.

The non-com had not been attempting suicide, but hoping like hell to avoid it and the murder of his squad, or what was left of it, by getting close enough to toss a grenade. No such luck. He was pinned down and pinned good.

This day was interminable, sort of the same, no, exactly the same as the entire week had been, one long running battle, and Saunders was damn well tired of it. He, Kirby, Caje, Doc and Littlejohn were only alive by the skin of their teeth. That and their combined experience and skills as combat veterans. Saunders had, despite all efforts above and beyond human, lost the rest of his

squad, all newbies, green as grass, to wounds or death.

Ultimately, it was Kirby, snaking around the Germans' right flank, belly to the ground, pushing the heavy BAR forward inches at a time, who took out the emplacement. Saunders covered his advance with a blanket of fire from the Thompson. A pair of heaved in grenades and that particular fire fight was over.

The respite lasted only moments. The Germans advanced rapidly, cutting Saunders and Kirby off from the rest of King Company. The GIs did the only thing they could do. They ran and were relentlessly pursued in a vicious ongoing battle. Saunders led the private deeper into the woods, hoping to lose their pursuers or at least give the Americans time to hide.

"Sarge! I'm outta ammo!"

Saunders dropped down behind a thick copse of blackberry bushes, pulling Kirby down with him. Kirby was exhausted. Sweat ran down his face, leaving clean furrows in the smudged dirt, dripping from a darkly stubbled chin. His chest heaved from exertion; even the extremely fit rifleman was reaching a breaking point.

"Ditch it. Leave the BAR here." Saunders reached for the heavy weapon as Kirby slipped the supporting sling off over his head.

"But Sarge, I can manage it. The krauts'll get it!"

"It's empty weight, Kirby. Toss it in these bushes. Nobody'll find it."

The private held firmly to the weapon, his eyes beseeching Saunders to understand. The Browning was Kirby's baby. For months he'd wanted to be the squad's BAR man. For months he'd been denied by both the sergeant and Lieutenant Hanley, but not for the reasons the Irishman believed - that he was incompetent, a goof-off, unworthy. Those weren't the reasons at all. Truth was, Saunders hadn't wanted to lose William G. Kirby the way he'd lost his previous rifleman and friend. Plain and simple, the BAR man was the front man, the risk taker, the target, and Chip Saunders wanted Kirby to have more of a chance for survival than Grady Long had had.

It hurt...God how it hurt to lose a man under your command. But the sergeant, after a great deal of painful soul searching, had come to a conclusion. The pain cut just as deep, was just as raw when you knew a man and knew him well, as when you hadn't bothered to even ask his name and you lost him. Each man, each soldier, was to be valued for his individuality. But in the

end Saunders had caved in and given Kirby the spot the private so dearly coveted - BAR man, Second Platoon, King Company. The sergeant had never regretted that decision.

Kirby's face, in fact his whole demeanor, mirrored the pain he felt at having to ditch his prized rifle. He'd earned the right to lug its seventeen plus pounds twenty and more miles a day. At first the wide suspenders bit into his shoulders, the strain against his meager frame wearing down each step. At night his back, neck and arms ached so badly it took hours for him to get

comfortable enough to sleep. But he'd weathered that and more, and proven himself an expert shot with his weapon of choice.

"Dammit, Sarge!" he protested as he gave the rifle one last affectionate pat on its well-worn stock. "Dammit!"

Kirby slid the empty rifle into the dense blackberry bushes, giving it a push to send it deep. It was swallowed up by thick foliage and an even thicker armor of thorns. If the private felt the sharp stab of the needles, he never let on.

"Here." Saunders unsnapped the flap of the leather holster housing his .45 automatic and eased it free, offering the pistol to Kirby. When the private hesitated, the sergeant insisted. "Take it, and the spare clips."

The private accepted the weapon, turning it over and over again on his palm. It was as pretty a piece in its own way as the BAR was in its, at least to the soldier who held it. Saunders passed over the clips and Kirby pocketed those. He smiled. "Give it back to ya soon's this is over."

"I know ya will. Now let's get the hell outta here while it's quiet."

Saunders crept out of hiding, Kirby at his heels, and they backtracked out of the woods they way they'd entered. They made it about half way before encountering yet another kraut patrol.

"Jesus Christ, Sarge! Where they all comin' from? We that close to Berlin?!" Kirby wheezed into Saunders' ear as they traveled. The sergeant returned most of the fire as the pair ran, full out, ducking low hanging branches, losing their footing to exposed tree roots. Kirby stumbled, falling heavily into the sergeant, dragging Saunders down with him.

The non-com was too winded, too exhausted to curse the private soundly as he wanted to. He lay, Kirby half on top of him, in a tangle of legs and arms, panting and trying to listen for Germans through the freight train whistling of his own breath. What Saunders did hear was Kirby's soft moaning. He clamped a hand over the private's mouth until he could make out silence around them. Unwinding himself, he leaned over Kirby. The private's eyes were closed and he was breathing hard through his mouth. His uniform shirt was plastered to his body.

"Kirby? Come on, Kirby," Saunders urged, raising the GI's shoulders, hoping to ease his breathing.

Kirby moaned again, fighting to open his eyes. He couldn't seem to manage it and instead, mumbled thickly, "I'm hit, Sarge...I'm hit."

Saunders closed his eyes in mute despair. There wasn't anything left to say. He found the wound beneath Kirby's right arm, in the chest. For long wasted moments, the non-com just held the man in his arms, cradled against his body. He rocked slowly back and forth, as much to comfort himself as the injured soldier.

Saunders located a bandage and some sulfa on Kirby's belt and tended the wound. He slung his Thompson and lifted the private into his arms, his body protesting each movement. Luck was with him this time, and the sergeant found shelter close by - a thicket, enclosed on three sides with an opening barely large enough for Saunders to crawl through, pulling Kirby in after. The sergeant settled in for a long, difficult night.

XXXX

In the deepening twilight, shot through with shadows and streaks of grays and blacks, Its colors dulled, blending It effectively into Its leafy surroundings. The tree tops afforded It the perfect roost, the ideal resting place for the night whose chill would send the Creature into a state bordering on hibernation. It was vulnerable now - only now. Daylight and the warmth of the July

sun would bring life, strength and power to Its incredibly adaptable body. In the morning, the Predator would resume the hunt. It had already sighted Its next prey - had stalked it, head cocked, heart beating rapidly within Its massive chest at the bloodlust, the excitement, the only thrill left for it, the hunting. And this place, France, summer, 1944, was a breeding ground for the

Predator's lust.

It had killed countless times in the week it had been on Earth, and taken many trophies, skulls mostly, and a few of the humans' weapons. The scent of gunpowder, the flower bursts of the artillery, the mortars, the grenades, the screams and cries of the injured and dying, the sweet smell of blood all drew the Creature in, seduced it, gave it a reason to exist.

Its intended prey was a soldier, a man driven to be a professional killer - a worthy opponent. Not particularly large in stature as humans went, but possessed of cunning, a fierceness and aggressiveness in battle and a sheer stubborn tenacity. Just imagining the sport tomorrow would bring caused the Predator to trill softly in anticipation.

Saunders' head jerked up off his chest at the odd sound. He shook his head to clear the fuzziness, listening intently. He determined he must've dozed off and imagined the sound. He settled back as comfortably as possible, reached into his shirt pocket to locate a cigarette, lit it and attempted to keep awake through yet another endless night. Close beside him, Kirby shifted and

coughed weakly several times. Saunders ground the cigarette out in the dirt.

"Like some water?" he questioned, his hand moving to Kirby's forehead. The nod was barely perceptible. There was no strength for words. The sergeant unhooked his canteen and allowed the man as many small swallows as he was able to take, and those were too few.

Morning found Kirby a bit stronger, but Saunders knew that wouldn't last. The bullet was deep inside the soldier's chest. The bleeding may have stopped, but infection was sure to set in and soon. What strength Kirby felt now was the calm before the storm. Before night fell he'd most certainly be burning with fever, shaking with chills.

After giving Kirby the last of the water in either of their canteens and offering him a bit of food, Saunders made the decision to venture out in search of the narrow river they'd crossed the day before.

He stood outside the thicket, basking in the new day, stretching out the stiffness in his legs and back, but wary and alert. Always that. With a good supply of water for the wounded man the sergeant would make a stab at getting him back to their own lines, wherever those might be. Slinging the Thompson to check his map, Saunders decided north, back the way they'd come was the best bet. He folded the well creased paper, stuffed it into his breast pocket and brought the Tommy gun around into his arms.

Something caused a ripple of apprehension to run up Saunders' spine, not unlike the sensation you'd get from being watched. He dropped into a crouch, inching his way back to the entrance of the thicket where Kirby lay, totally helpless, the .45 forgotten at his side. Saunders watched, listened, searched the area in his immediate line of vision for any possible threat. In his vigilance he even scanned the tree tops. He knew what he was looking for - something out of place, a too thick cluster of leaves where they didn't belong, movement when there was no breeze.

Saunders squinted up into the sun, rubbed his tired eyes, tried again and caught it. A shimmer of colors, a hint of iridescent movement, and then it was gone Hell, maybe it had never been there. Exhaustion had a funny way of playing tricks with a man's senses. Saunders closed his eyes, opened them, gave the huge twisted oak a final going over.

"Nothing." Somehow he wasn't surprised. He shook his head, climbed to his feet and struck out on his original path, north through the woods, avoiding the narrow meandering trail.

It wasn't long before he came upon a scene that shouldn't have shocked him, not overly. A squad of Germans, all dead, sprawled in and around a small clearing and near the rivulet Saunders was headed for. The fact they were all dead didn't shock him. It was how they'd died. All had massive traumatic injuries. Some were missing their entire upper torsos. Others had their chests exploded outward, the gaping wounds fused and cauterized. The flesh resembled meat cooked medium rare. Others were only headless, spineless bodies. The ground was littered with spent shell casings, 9mm, 7.62 and .30 caliber machine gun. At Saunders' approach, clouds of black flies rose, their buzzing a heavy drone in the clear morning air. As he passed, they settled

down again.

Bile rose in the non-com's mouth. He spat the acid out onto the ground and made it to the stream to scoop up handfuls of cold water. He rinsed his mouth, not once, but a dozen times. He splashed his face and scrubbed the back of his neck with a sweat stained bandanna before filling his canteen and Kirby's.

A sound, behind and off to his left, and Saunders realized what he'd heard the night before had not been conjured up by dreams or exhaustion. It was a low pitched trill followed by a series of clicks and warbles. It was loud and it was completely alien. It was coming from back where the sergeant had spent the night.

"Kirby," he whispered. Then louder, as if in warning, "Kirby!"

The sergeant ran, heedless of the branches snapping into his face and tearing into his thin shirt and trousers, or the exposed roots reaching out to trip him up.

There was something out here! That something had decimated a company of heavily armed German troops. It would have no trouble with the seriously injured private. If Saunders had been thinking straight he would've realized such a thing would also have very little trouble indeed with one worn out 28 year old buck sergeant.

XXXX

With infrared vision, the Creature, the alien hunter, easily saw through the mat of woven vines and branches that was the thicket concealing the wounded human. Not see him as a human could, but effectively nevertheless. And the Predator knew without doubt this particular being was injured; the colors he gave off were those of heat, yellows, oranges, reds. The body temperature was too high. It meant fever or strong physical exertion. The man hadn't moved in many hours. The heat was fever heat.

Within his protected nest, Kirby heard rustling, then frenzied tearing at the foliage that formed his protection. Within seconds he was exposed to the outside, the sun weaving its way in through the trees far above him and the huge tear in the canopy directly over his head. The soldier raised an arm to shield himself from the sudden glare.

"Sarge? Sarge? he whispered, his voice all but lost to thirst and fever.

Hands were on him, on his face, his hair, the touch not rough, but the hands, the texture of the skin, callused and leathery.

Kirby dropped his arm, forced his eyes to open. He blinked...squinted...protested. He still felt the touch of the hands, but there was no one there. All he could see through his fever clouded haze was a shimmery aura, almost an outline of someone, something, but nothing he could plainly

make out. He pushed at the hands, crying weakly, begging Saunders to answer him, pleading to the sergeant for help.

The Predator examined the wounded human at its leisure, stroking the soldier's darkly bearded cheeks, his militarily short hair. It pressed both hands to the chest and felt the rapid breathing and the hammering of the heart beneath the opened khaki shirt. Without warning, the Creature grabbed Kirby by the lapels, pulling him up off the ground. Its face was inches from the human's. With careful deliberation, it examined the skull through its thin layer of skin and found it to be a fine specimen. A shame, a waste, this human could not be taken as a trophy. Its skull was not won in battle.

With indifference, the Predator released Kirby back onto the ground and went about continuing its exam. Locating a pile of white bandaging on the private's side, it watched, fascinated. At the rough treatment, Kirby had begun to bleed again and the alien watched, body coiled, head cocked, as a red flower budded with in the center of the white bandaging, spreading into full bloom. It reached out a clawed finger, tentatively touched the gauze, then tore it free.

Kirby let out a garbled shriek and passed out. With the object of its intentions unconscious, the Predator lost interest, returning to the search for more interesting prey.

Saunders stopped a moment to catch his breath. He heard nothing out of the ordinary. But then again, he heard none of the ordinary sounds either. No calling of birds. No rustling of the leaves littering the forest floor, evidence of the tiny animals that inhabited any woods, any but these.

He figured Kirby's position was about a quarter mile further on. Giving the tree tops one final perusal, Saunders pushed onward. He hadn't progressed fifty feet when, almost simultaneously, he heard a highly pitched whine and felt a sharp pain burn past the top of his shoulder. He cried out in surprise, dropped to the ground and rolled, he hoped, out of the way of whatever it was that had stunned him. The whine came again and with it a flash of light that barely missed his thigh. Instead, it burned into the tree he was using for cover. Saunders pulled further back and flattened his body tighter to the ground. He followed the trajectory of the light and found its source - the shimmery outline he'd thought he'd only imagined earlier. Another whine, another blast of hot light.

The outline was vaguely human in that it had two legs, two arms and a head, but that's where the similarities ended. If the outline was any indication, the thing, creature, devil, was huge.

The exhausted sergeant released a short burst from the Thompson. But it seemed as soon as the bullets left the barrel, the outline vanished.

"Damn!" Saunders rubbed his shoulder. It burned, but the wound was slight. His shirt had taken the brunt of the attack; it was singed and blackened. He couldn't stay here and he damn well knew he couldn't lead it back to Kirby. He decided to outflank it, head for the river, go upstream and see if he couldn't reach his lines. "But how the hell do you outflank something

you can't see?"

Saunders heaved his body up into a crouch and ran low to the ground, way around to the left. He reached the narrow, fast running tributary without incident and waded in. The center was deep so he decided to stick close to shore for better speed. The next few moments were so quiet, so uneventful, Saunders almost began to believe he'd imagined his attacker. Other men, lots of other soldiers as battle hardened as he, had had breakdowns. Battle fatigue, they called it. He'd seen it happen himself in Sicily. A corporal had lost it, screaming and crying for his mother. He swore he'd left her, dead, in the tiny village they'd just cleaned out. Lieutenant Swensen had tried to keep an eye on him, but it was no use. First chance he got, that corporal ran off back to the village. Saunders never saw him again.

But the burn on his shoulder offered him proof. He wasn't crazy. Not him.

A loud splash, slightly behind him and to the left, caused Saunders to pivot, Thompson up, but he wasn't fast enough. Hands were on his throat, throttling him. The only thing that kept him from losing his Tommy gun was the sling across his good shoulder.

Saunders fought, his terror giving him strength of which he wasn't normally capable. The hands, hands he couldn't see, lifted him clear of the water. Black spots swam and merged, and the sergeant knew if he didn't do something fast it was all over. In a final release of pent-up energy, Saunders clasped his hands into a fist and brought both up, hard and fast, beneath where he prayed the Thing's jaw was. He connected with something solid. The hands dropped from his throat, and Saunders fell back into the water, gagging and choking for breath. He brought the Thompson around, but before he could release a burst, he stopped, stunned.

Sparks crackled and flew around the outline and the Creature shrieked in pain as it lost its camouflage and became visible.

Chip Saunders' mouth dropped open. Even in his wildest dreams, his worst childhood nightmares, he'd never seen anything so godawful horrifying as this Thing.

It stood close to eight feet in height, its body splotched greenish brown and hugely muscular. Crisscrossed around the massive chest it wore a bandoleer of skulls. They appeared to be those of tiny animals, an assortment. It was vulgar. But most disgusting was that between every few skulls were strung what Saunders was certain were human vertebrae.

Its ungainly head was covered in wild abandon with thick ropes of some type of hair bound with ornate metallic bands. But its face - that rivaled Medusa's. The eyes were small, set widely apart, its expression one of hatred mingled with pain. Blood, a sickly fluorescent green, dripped from what must've been the chin, though Saunders could see no mouth, no opening, no lips or teeth. The creature, animal, whatever it was, appeared to be wearing a mask attached to a small pack.

The Thing screeched, going deep into a crouch, posturing ferociously at Saunders as if to scare him off. It must not have been used to being the victim of an attack. It seemed surprised, wary, maybe even just a bit frightened.

The posturing worked. Saunders was ready to bolt, but not before he released a burst from the Thompson. Most of the shots went wild, but one found its mark in the creature's left biceps. Its cry this time was agonized. The soldier wasted no time seeing how badly the Thing was wounded. He ran, back into the woods. Finding a place to hide was his only option now. Hide and when the chance presented itself, and somehow he knew it wouldn't be long in coming, kill that damned thing before it got the chance to take him.

As silently as possible the sergeant moved through the forest. Ultimately, it was exhaustion and pain that drove him to ground. The shoulder wound burned and throbbed. Saunders pulled out a canteen and took a long swallow of water, splashing some onto the injury. It quenched the fire temporarily. Saunders took another swallow from the canteen, his thoughts on Kirby. The private needed water desperately, but the non-com couldn't risk making his way back to where he'd left him. He couldn't risk leading the Monster back to Kirby. Maybe in the dark, and it would be dark soon, he could try.

He settled down to wait, nearly dozing off in the process. But something jolted him back. Kirby...it was Kirby calling out to him from a distance, the soldier's voice raspy and weak.

"Sarge? Sarge? Help me...please!" it begged, repeating over and over with no deviation.

"Sarge? Sarge? Help me...please!"

Saunders didn't believe he was that close to the thicket. Then again, Kirby could've found the strength to climb out. Anything was possible, and Kirby was no quitter.

Within its sheltered place, the Predator repeated the human's plaintive distress call, imitating Bill Kirby's voice to perfection.

Without answering the call, Saunders slipped from cover, ten feet, twenty, fifty...the voice grew closer. Words in answer formed in the soldier's mind, but there was no time to voice them.

The sharp whine, the flash of light, and Saunders was down. This time the beam had caught him in the side as he twisted upon contact. He had no time to scream. His body rolled down a slight embankment and was swallowed up in the thick undergrowth.

Night fell with what seemed an absurd suddenness. There was no twilight. When it grew dark, it also grew chilly and finally cold.

XXXX

Everything in the Predator wanted to finish the search for the soldier, his prized trophy. But as the cool overtook it, the bipedal lizard grew sluggish, its cold blood requiring warmth to function capably. And its wound hurt. It sought the shelter of its treetop lair to tend the wound and sleep and gather strength. It had scored a direct hit on the human. He would not go far, if indeed he was not already dead. The final coup could wait a while yet. It would have to wait. Victory was to be savored in the light and heat of day.

XXXX

Saunders figured he must've been unconscious for hours. It had been barely dark when he'd been hit and now the moon had risen fully.

He stifled a groan, rolling onto his belly, drawing his legs up into a tight fetal position. He rocked, praying the agony to pass. The burn across his side was gaping and raw, but it didn't bleed. The Predator's weapon had cauterized the wound, but the tissue damage was extensive. Saunders wanted to scream - to cry - but he couldn't. No matter his needs, he had to remain quiet.

His most ardent desire, his only coherent thought, was to kill the Thing, the Monster, before it could kill again, Kirby, himself or anyone else. No one deserved to die the way the Monster made them die.

It took Saunders a long time to gain enough control over the pain to make a stab at climbing up out of the shallow gully. The full moon shed enough light to see by, enough to judge his position.

He crawled, dragging the Thompson by its strap, stopping only to drop the empty clip from the machine gun and slide in his last magazine. On his web belt hung one grenade. Little enough to work with.

A few hundred yards further on, Saunders pulled himself up against a tree. Dizziness swept over him, dizziness and cold sweats. Deep breaths helped clear his head and he moved forward, one stop at a time.

On the thick dark carpet of leaves, something caught his attention. Several somethings, like a cluster of squashed fireflies - yellowish green fluorescent drops of the Creature's blood. For the first time in a week, Chip Saunders allowed himself a true smile.

The trail was short, ending at the base of an ancient elm, its trunk many feet in diameter. Saunders took several steps back and looked up. Backlit by moonlight, its camouflage lost, the Predator was plainly visible, settled in the crotch of the tree twenty to twenty-five feet up. It seemed oblivious to his presence.

Saunders' breathing became rapid. His heart rate accelerated. You're nothing but a lizard! A cold-blooded, goddamned lizard!

Slowly, each movement agony, Saunders brought the Thompson up and released a spray. It caught the Monster at the waist and as the weakened sergeant lost control of the weapon, a path of .45 slugs ripped diagonally up across the Creature's chest.

If the Thing had been asleep, it wasn't any longer. Its cry tore through the night quiet. Kirby heard it through his fever delirium half a mile distant. Hanley and the rest of the squad camped two miles or more away heard it.

Saunders stumbled back, falling hard to the ground, the Thompson bouncing out of reach. He scrambled away on hands and knees, shaky fingers reaching for the grenade at his belt. He pulled the pin, held the handle closed.

The Predator leaped to the ground, agile despite its terrible wounds. Again it postured and threatened the human who had turned the tables on it. No longer was it the hunter, but the hunted and the situation was totally foreign to it. Foreign and unacceptable. With its dying breath it would crush the life out of the soldier and take immense pleasure in the task. It crouched, ready to launch itself at Saunders.

The sergeant released the handle of the grenade, counted to five and rolled the pineapple the few yards to its target. All he had time to do was cover his head with both arms before the concussion from the grenade sent him reeling over the edge of consciousness.

XXXX

"Lieutenant Hanley! Over here! I found Sarge! Lieutenant!? Over here!" Billy Nelson knelt at Saunders' side, afraid to touch him, afraid to feel for a pulse, but there was no need for that. Billy could see the sergeant's short, uneven respirations in the pink dawn light. He could also see how badly Saunders was wounded. Nelson's stomach churned at the sight of the burn, charred flesh weeping clear fluid.

"Aw geez, Sarge," the youngster whispered, finally finding the courage to lay a hand on Saunders' sweat matted hair before yelling again, louder, more insistently for Lieutenant Hanley. "Bring Doc! Hurry!"

Hanley, settled a Kirby's side, watched while Doc worked over the private. Kirby was alive, barely. The lieutenant radioed for an ambulance to meet them up on the road. He answered Nelson's frantic call, instructing the medic to "follow me as soon as you get Kirby stabilized. Leave Caje with him. Littlejohn...meet the ambulance. Bring two stretchers and another medic - whatever Doc needs."

The big PFC standing guard nervously outside the ruined thicket replied with a jerky nod and a "Yes, sir, Lieutenant." These woods, the odd stillness, the horrifying deaths of the German soldiers King Company had discovered earlier were working on all the men. They were jumpy and tense and scared.

Hanley followed the sound of Billy's voice and found him and Saunders at the edge of a small clearing, several hundred yards down a narrow path. The private knelt next to the sergeant. Nelson had stripped off his field jacket and draped it over Saunders, careful to keep it away from the burned area. The non-com lay mostly on his good right side, his left arm held rigidly above his head.

Billy jumped skittishly at the sound of Hanley's approach. His eyes were wide, his baby face pale. At the sight of his lieutenant, relief washed over him, and he eagerly moved aside to make room for the officer. "He's hurt awful bad, Lieutenant. Some kinda burn on his side. I was afraid to check for anything more. Didn't want to hurt him worse by movin' 'im."

Hanley knelt, eased Saunders over onto his back. The sergeant was conscious. With great gentleness, the officer leaned down to examine the extensive burn. He winced in sympathy.

He'd seen burns before, from flame throwers, incendiaries, explosions, but this was different. It was sealed, cauterized. The lesser injury at the shoulder was already infected, thick with purulent matter, red and hot at the edges. Both injuries were adhering stubbornly to the shirt. At Saunders' neck were dark bluish black bruises that circled his throat like a collar. Without looking up from the sergeant, Hanley ordered, "Nelson, go back. Tell Doc Sarge needs

him ASAP. If he can't leave Kirby, you bring back morphine. Now go!"

Hanley pulled his own jacket free of the web belt, shrugged out of it and laid it across the shivering sergeant. The lieutenant unhooked a canteen, unscrewed the top and offered the water to the injured man. Saunders was slow to take it at first, but after several half choked swallows, he reached out to grab for the container. In his body's desperate need to replace the fluid he'd lost to the burns, Saunders became frantic when, reluctantly, Hanley had to limit the water to short sips every couple minutes. Calmly, but with tender firmness, the lieutenant restrained the sergeant, attempting to reason with him through the soldier's pain, confusion and frustrating thirst. He succeeded.

Billy trotted up, out of breath, hunkered down and held a small metal case out towards his commander, who accepted it with a brief nod. "Doc'll be here in a couple minutes. He was just finishin' up with Kirby. How's the Sarge?" Billy pushed the helmet back on his head and rubbed a grubby hand across his eyes.

"Better now he's got this," Hanley replied as he withdrew the needle tip from the skin on top of Saunders' right hand. Within moments, the exhausted non-com relaxed back against the ground. It was a battle just to keep his eyes open, his thoughts clear long enough to get said what he had to say.

"Check out the area, Nelson. Keep watch for Doc," Hanley ordered.

Saunders turned toward the sound of Hanley's voice. The officer bent lower to catch the sergeant's breathless words, strung out in sentences punctuated by gaps and pauses. "Kirby...you found Kirby, huh? He's alive? It didn't get 'im...did it, Lieutenant?"

"No, Saunders. Kirby's alive. Nothing got him. He's safe. You're safe....What do you mean 'it didn't get him'? What did this to you, Sergeant? Who did it? What happened to that German patrol? Do you know?"

The morphine was taking full effect and Hanley could see the effort it required the sergeant to stay awake. The expression in his eyes became dreamy and unfocused. But Hanley had to know. With Saunders' last bit of strength, he pulled the lieutenant nearer yet, whispering, "I killed it....Waited till nightfall. It took to the trees...to sleep, like a huge lizard. Cold blooded,

I think. It got sluggish. Hit it with the Thompson. Kept comin'. Screamin'. I was hit. Couldn't move fast. Used a grenade...blew that sonofabitch to hell....Maybe that's where it came from. I dunno, Lieutenant....I just dunno."

Saunders quit fighting the drug. His eyes closed. He didn't hear the medic run up, Littlejohn at his heels, nor did he feel it when Doc cut his shirt away from the burns and applied moist bandages to keep the fleshless area wet and protected. And he was oblivious to the commotion Billy and Littlejohn caused when they discovered the remains of the Creature.

Hanley had the area cordoned off and contacted Company. He explained the situation as succinctly as possible over the unsecured radio and requested G-2 send out a team of investigators and fast.

XXXX

The dead Predator had been just inexperienced enough in the ways of human prey to have made a costly error. It had underestimated a wounded animal. The error had been fatal.

But this Predator, the parent of the other, was neither inexperienced nor prone to error. It watched the squad tend its wounded, move them out to waiting vehicles. Its heart swelled with hatred. Its blood warmed as it thought of the stalking, the trophy taking that would be done that day. The two humans left behind to guard the Predator's remains were unimportant, simple

drones. This Predator was interested in only one - the human in command, the tall one who barked orders and issued brisk instructions the others scurried to obey. The tall one picked up the badly injured soldier's weapon, slinging the empty Thompson across one shoulder, cradling his own rifle in both hands. The Predator knew it had chosen its next prey correctly when Hanley

turned, scanned the area around and behind him and then the tree tops. For an instant his gaze rested on the camouflaged Predator.

Hanley scowled. His senses told him someone, something was out there, but he couldn't make out who or what. His gaze flickered past. Turning, he followed his men back up the trail.

The Predator cooed softly in anticipation. Revenge would be sweetly savored. Retaining its camouflage, it moved off through the trees in silent pursuit.

END

*Metallica - 'And Justice for All'

Copyright 12/93 - Susan Balnek-Ballard, all rights reserved.