Author's Note: In which Annie has a bad day, Doc arguably has a worse one, concussions suck, dead men tell no tales, and the plot thickens yet again.

I know things are getting confusing. All will be explained.

Thanks for your patience, everyone.

Disclaimer: G.I. Joe and all associated characters and concepts are property of Hasbro Inc, and I derive no profit from this. Please accept this in the spirit with which it is offered—as a work of respect and love, not an attempt to claim ownership or earn money from this intellectual property.

Chapter Seventeen: Break Time

Anne Geraldine Gorshin came from a long line of farmers, store clerks, hired labor, and moonshiners. The extended family was scattered through tiny towns in Illinois, Iowa and Missouri, and most of her people had been farming since the Civil War. (Except for her Gorshin grandparents, who'd been dirty immigrants. Good thing, too; most of those towns had populations of about two hundred, and if one more couple had gotten hitched, the whole place would've been related by blood or marriage.) Farms were the lifeblood of the Midwest, and could always use a good caustic alcohol: to clean tubs and wounds, to trade for favors or equipment, to help along a bonfire, and sometimes even to drink. By the time her family got out of farming and into restauranteering in the late '50s, the golden days of Prohibition and backyard stills were over, but family traditions died hard. Until she'd gone into the Army Annie had never used a cooking wine she'd hadn't made herself.

And that stuff packed a punch. You could drink Annie's homemade Tiger (so called because it was bright orange and ready to kill), but you woke up eighteen hours later with a mouth that tasted like old carpet and a headache so bad you were blind for two days. Nothing promoted sobriety and drug-free living like a shot of homemade hell.

Compared to Zartan, Tiger was a lightweight.

She was dangling from his grip, almost completely limp with pain and confusion. Scattered scraps of hand-to-hand training flashed through her mind, but none of them seemed to apply—not when she could barely breathe, let alone move. Her vision blurred again.

"Let's make this fast, private," Zartan said. "What did the Viper tell you?"

"You don't-" she managed, then erupted into a coughing fit. Zartan's grip eased just that little bit, and Annie tried to force more air back into her lungs. He was still holding her off the floor, as easily as Darth Vader strangling a captured Rebel, and oh she really was in Star Wars and wasn't that a funny image to have in this situation? "You don't know?"

"Why do you think I'm asking?" He lowered her, just a little bit, and the very tippy-toes of her boots touched the ground. Just enough to take some of the pressure off her neck, but not nearly enough for decent leverage, and her muscles were still weak as a kitten's. "Talk quickly, and you might live long enough to go back to the regular Army. Understood?"

"I can't breathe-" With a scowl, he lowered her again, leaving her feet flat on the floor. Her knees buckled: she still couldn't stand. She had to hang on until she could. Hopefully keep him from killing anyone until the Joes figured out something was wrong, that Zartan was out of his cell, and that Carter Hall . . .

Her stomach lurched. "Where's Hall?"

"The Viper's out of the picture." Zartan nodded his head, ever so slightly, towards the bed. The only place in the bare-ass room with enough space to stash a body under. Evidently, Carter Hall hadn't lived very long after that steak sandwich.

Annie was not in the position of cooking peoples' last meals. Sometimes it happened accidentally, like in Afghanistan, but that was war and one massive meal for hundreds of men and women. But no more than two hours ago, she'd debated over her choices and picked steak-on-hoagie, because it was good solid food and not likely to disagree with Hall's painkillers. He'd been a good prisoner, sort of. Good prisoners got good meals, and even if she was no Roadblock, she tried to make it palatable. She'd made his last meal, and then Zartan had killed him.

Murdered him? Was it murder in war? Was this a war?

It had been for Hall, apparently. She swallowed with an effort and tried not to be sick.

"Hey," she said, because she needed to do something and right now her only weapon was her mouth. "You can walk."

Zartan raised an eyebrow, almost imperceptibly wrinkling the diamonds. "People don't pay much attention to you when they think you've got amusing injuries."

"Think you've got?" Annie said. He already thought she was dumb; now it was a business of walking a fine line between 'distractingly annoying' and 'liability.' "I saw the bucket chow list. You had to have emergency surgery, and they put you on a ton of painkillers-"

The chameleon's expression darkened, and he shifted sideways, slamming Annie's forehead into the wall. Her ears rang, and for a moment, her vision blurred and went white. Zartan was saying something, but the clanging and throbbing pain in her head wiped out his words.

Slowly, as if a radio signal was fading in from a long way away, they began to bleed back. " . . . een dead a long time ago," he said as she shook her head like a dog trying to clear water from its ears. "Even my Dreadnoks know when to keep their traps shut."

"No sense of humor," she wheezed. Something trickled down her left cheek. Blood? Even shallow scalp wounds bled like a sonofabitch.

"Oh, I've got a sense of humor," Zartan said. "Problem is, nobody seems to share it. What did he tell you?"

"Lots of stuff." She coughed. Something had torn in her throat, and she felt like she might to pass out, but that wasn't going to happen. Who would make their pancakes if she died? Murphy was a good starch man, but he was terrible with breakfast. Didn't even know the trick for faking buttermilk batter on a budget. Well, shit, were these really the thoughts that were running through her head? So much for focus and training.

"Such as . . .?" Zartan drew the last syllable out delicately, and when she didn't answer, he dropped her. Annie tried to scramble away from him. Not fast enough: he was on her before she could so anything more than flail like a panicky hamster, wrenching her over onto her face and planting a knee in the small of her back.

"I'm on a schedule," he said calmly. "So here's how we're going to do this. Every time you say something that isn't helpful to me, I'll break a bone. Understood?"

"Yusss," Annie managed to say. Difficult when her face was squashed into the concrete. With a wince, she managed to turn her head, resting her left cheek on the cold floor.

Carter Hall's body stared back at her.


Despite Zartan's warning, the word left her mouth automatically. Hall's head was wrenched at an odd angle, purplish bruises rising on skin that was even paler and more sickly now that there was no blood in it. Judging by the boot prints on his prisoner pajamas, Zartan had shoved him under there with more than a little haste and a couple of kicks. The bedclothes, disturbed by the shapeshifter's escape, had moved just far enough to expose the staring eyes.

"Fuck," she added, the word still slurred by her awkward position. Tears beaded in her eyes, but she'd swear until her dying day (about five seconds from now) that they were just because of the pain. Not at all because when you spend a couple of days alternately bitching out a prisoner and making him special meals, you get kind of . . . not attached, maybe, but used to him. Like a pet. Yeah.

"Talk," Zartan said flatly. "They were obviously using you to milk information out of him. Nobody would suspect the motormouth with the tray. Not a bad plan, for Joe. What did he tell you?"

She had to say something. Another denial might get her killed. Unable to tell the truth, knowing he might easily detect a full-on lie, Annie went for the service industry's favorite form of half-truth: the overly broad claim.

"Talked about a plan," she managed. Technically true. "Mentioned . . . mentioned Cobra higher-ups. Really pissed." She took another breath and licked her lips. "He was mad. Lots of, uh . . . " Another wheeze for breath. Not quite necessary, but a perfect stalling tactic. " . . . lots of complaining. He said he didn't think his guys were being used right."

Zartan grunted. "And what did they ask you to get from him?"

"They wanted me to ask him . . ."

"Well?" Zartan drawled.

"About the attack." Again, technically true.

Unfortunately, that wasn't the answer he wanted. Zartan grabbed her left arm. There was a twist, and a sick wet crack—like someone had snapped a whole handful of used popsicle sticks. Something seemed to run down Annie's arm, hard and hot and sharp, and she realized dimly that her hand was hanging at a strange angle. Pink spots bloomed on her skin as he released it, but when the arm landed back on the cold cement, it didn't seem to be cooperating. She tried to move it. Her fingers twitched, but that was it.

"You broke my arm," she said confusedly. "You broke my arm."

"Forearm," he corrected. "A simple non-displaced fracture. Six weeks in a cast, if you stop stalling and answer me right now. If not, we can try for a compound fracture."

It was too weird. Logically, Annie knew she should be feeling pain right then. The rest of her already was: her head was throbbing, and she would be black-and-blue sooner rather than later. Aside from the rapidly pinking finger marks on her arm, and maybe a little swelling, it looked . . . it looked like an arm. She'd seen the movies and TV shows. She should be clutching it and screaming right now. Instead, everything seemed to be happening through a thick layer of cheesecloth, like some part of her brain was out of the picture.

Zartan wasn't helping. He was some kind of international terrorist, ninja-trained to within an inch of his worthless life, and he'd just broken her arm. Yet he still hadn't even raised his voice, and knew the different types of bone fractures. He sounded educated, sarcastic, a bit like Sgt. Storm Shadow. It didn't fit into her terrorist-shaped headspace.

She blinked, and Carter Hall's wide, staring eyes came back into focus. He had pink on his face too—no, more like purple now, in the spots where blood was collecting as his face pressed against the floor. He was looking to the left, even while she looked to the right, and their eyes met.

She'd made him a goddamn steak sandwich.

Annie threw her one good elbow back as hard as she could. Maybe he wasn't expecting it, maybe he was still slow from all the caffeine and sleeplessness and surgery and bullshit, maybe her lord and savior Beach Head had smiled on her, because Zartan had one knee pressed into her back and the other on the ground, and he was in a perfect position to have one crucial shape involuntarily shifted.

Bullseye. Zartan didn't seem too pleased about his little friend's new form, though, because he let out a strangled squawk and doubled up, clutching his personal bits. Annie yelped as his chin hit the back of her head, and the world went white and blank again.

As she swam back to consciousness, she became aware of a number of other factors. Instead of the staring eyes of Carter Hall, there was a pair of feet in her direct vision. The dead weight on her back was shifting, but awkwardly, as if someone was pulling it. Voices were echoing in the distance, and somewhere off in the distance, she could hear an alarm shrilling.

The feet were replaced by another pair, this one wearing desert boots with incongruous red BDUs. Annie blinked vaguely, but couldn't focus on anything much beyond the bizarre splash of color in the gray of the cell. Someone was shining a light into her eyes.

"Hall," she said. Her tongue felt like it was made of carpet. "I made him a sandwich."

"You made something, all right," someone said. "Where the hell's Doc? There's blood-"

"Ruptured stitching," the owner of the red legs and desert boots said from above her. Oh, right. Sergeant Lifeline. "Doc's in the infirmary right now. Stretcher, Four-Eyes, get him over there. I want a ninja or a ninja trainee on guard at all times, including in surgery. Call Billy if we have to. Understood?"

"Gotcha," said the first voice, sounding rather reluctant about the whole thing. "That's not gonna be fun, though."

There was a scrape of metal on concrete, and the bed was pulled away. Good: they were retrieving Hall. Hands slid under Annie's arms and hauled her to her feet. The world reeled, and her vision momentarily blurred out again. Through the fuzzy darkness, she heard Lifeline pronounce the prisoner dead.

Somebody half-carried, half-frogmarched her out of the room. It didn't feel like Lifeline—not skinny enough—but Annie didn't particularly care who it was any more. The cheesecloth was getting thicker, and how annoying was that? She should be reacting, doing something, anything. She was a trained soldier of the United States Army. She should be jumping up, getting back in the game, kicking ass and taking names . . . or breakfast orders, at the very least. It was time to get shit done! Lead, follow or get out of the way, right?

So said the little voice in her head, anyway. It was like a running commentary from a sports announcer with an extremely personal vendetta, echoing shrilly in the back of her brain while the walls turned from gray concrete to white-painted plastering. Annie had just begin to register the change—not in the basement any more, apparently—when they changed again, this time to the warm tan of the new infirmary, and she found herself sat down on a bed.

It took her a moment to recognize Spirit Iron-Knife, the chill survivalist. She blinked vaguely at him.

"Hi," she said.

"Hi. You have a concussion."

"Do I?" She blinked again. "I do. Everything feels fuzzy."

"Lifeline will be here soon. Don't fall asleep."

"Not gonna happen. Mom always said I didn't need any more brain damage." She laughed a little, even though it wasn't funny. Or was it? Maybe a tiny bit. Kind of. "I feel like I should be traumatized."

That got an eyebrow-raise from Spirit, but he didn't say anything, so she elaborated. "You know. My arm's broken, and it's turning purple . . . and greenish," she amended, peering at the limb. "That's new. Would you call that color lime or pistachio?"

After a moment's pause, Spirit examined the arm gravely. "Apple green," he pronounced. Annie cracked a small, loopy smile at his solemn tone.

"You're right. It's like green and yellow, but not yellowy enough to be lime. But why am I talking about green? I got the crap kicked out of me. That's not in my job description, weirdly enough. You'd think it would be. Army and everything. But the crap was kicked anyway, probably because Cobra doesn't read contracts. And I'm not sad or scared. Okay, I'm concussed, but that's sort of a given when you've got a giant Australian biker pinning you down." She paused. "That sounded wrong. Very much not my type."

"That'll come in time," Spirit said. She frowned at that. "It's still sinking in now," he explained levelly. "When it happens, don't be scared. Nobody's happy the first time they get hurt."

"Okay." She propped herself up against the head of the bed and ran a hand through her hair. Blood and melted ice cream came away on her fingers, and she wrinkled her nose. "Not a flavor I'd pick. Blood is metallic and salty—it's gross with sweet cream, unless you were planning to use it as a soup base or a savory cream sauce." She blinked. "Seriously. Yuck."

"I'll keep that in mind," Spirit informed her.

And that was that. The world stretched out, silent and confusing and soft at the edges, and for a few long minutes Annie just zoned out and let it be its confusing silent soft self. She stared blankly at the wall, her eyes open but her brain out to lunch, and focused on the sound of her own breathing. Things passed back and forth in front of her bed, carrying people on stretchers, but it didn't really touch her.

She came out of her daze as a patch of red moved across her vision. Lifeline had appeared, and Spirit disappeared. Very ninja-esque, although since Spirit had never scared the crap out of her, he was still okay in her book. While she pondered the notion of a shamanic ninja, though, Lifeline was gently probing her arm. A bolt of pain shot through it, and she yelped, flinching.

"Sorry," he said. "It's a clean break, though, and there's actually minimal swelling. We'll take some x-rays and then put a cast on it, okay?"

" . . . okay." Annie forced herself to focus. The world was sharpening again, the colors bleeding back in. A little. "I still feel weird in my head."

"We'll need to examine that, too, but you should be all right if you don't push yourself. You'll be in overnight for observation." He frowned and pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. "Will I have to threaten you with vacation time to make you stay put?"

To her own surprise, Annie laughed. "Normal people stay in bed when the world's spinning."

He checked her pupils. "Is that what it feels like?"

"No. No, I was joking. But I'd like bedrest, please. Lots of bedrest. And to not have to make any bucket chow while I'm here."

"Considering that you're not even allowed on PT for the next week-" Annie grinned, tempted to throw a pair of heavy-metal devil horns "-I don't think you'll be in the kitchen for a day or two. And remember, if you feel any strange weakness, fading vision, anything like that—tell me." He stepped back and made a note on some kind of chart. "Okay. How many fingers am I holding up?"

"Um." Annie frowned. "None?"

"Very good. You'd be surprised how often people get that wrong. What's your name?"

"Legal or military?"


"Anne G. Gorshin."

"Where are you from?"

"Hollis Junction, Illinois. So cosmopolitan, we've even got a gas station."

"Sarcasm, good." He made another note on the chart. "And before you ask, yes, there's a box for that," he added, even as Annie's mouth opened. "I managed to talk the general into getting us customized forms. There's a box for everything."

The notion was oddly comforting.

They ran through several more questions, establishing that Annie's brain wasn't too badly bruised, and then she was whisked off for scans and x-rays. At one point she saw Doc, who was stripping out of a pair of used surgical gloves and looking wry as he made a few notes on a chart of his own. Zartan, evidently, was going to pull through, and Doc had a new story about his rather unique job.

"Hey, sergeant?" she said as one of the lab techs unwrapped the lead x-ray cape from her shoulders. "How did Zartan get in there? To Hall's cell?"

Lifeline frowned a little. "I don't think you should be worrying about that right now. One thing I've learned in this job is that giving people any excuse for blaming themselves retards the healing process . . . and increases the number of patients I have to drag out of air vents."

Her stomach dropped. "It was my fault?"

"No, I meant that people will blame themselves whether I—never mind. No, it wasn't your fault." The sergeant shook his head. "He had help. Somebody rearranged the guard schedules to give him a five-minute window, and put a video loop on both cells to make it look like he was still in his. Once the window was over, the alarm was raised, but it was still pretty close. It's a good thing you kept him talking."

"Couldn't exactly kick his ass." Annie lurched a little as she was guided back to the bed. "Can I have some painkillers? Please? I'll be good. But this is starting to . . . um . . ." She wasn't sure how the sentence was supposed to end.

She got painkillers. She got water. After what felt like several hours of waiting, her arm was put into a temporary plaster cast and she was ordered to rest. She'd still be woken up every fifteen minutes and forced to answer questions about first names and fingers held up, but right then, sleep still sounded heavenly. She didn't even bother to kick off her boots before burying herself under the starchy infirmary sheets and dozing off.

It was well into evening by the time Lifeline and Doc entered General Hawk's office. Flint was already there, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed. Both the surgeon and the medic took chairs, but Flint stayed standing: he looked tense. General Hawk was reading through some paperwork, and just nodded to the newcomers before going back to it.

There was a knock on the door. After a moment, it opened again, and Psyche-Out slid in with a file in his hands. Lifeline and Doc were already occupying the only available chairs, so he perched himself on the windowsill. Duke followed.

After several long moments of silence, Hawk turned over the last of the paperwork and looked up. "Well?" he said to Psyche-Out.

"At risk of sounding unprofessional, general, I'd like to say that I called it." Psyche-Out tapped the folder he was carrying. "We had the man you suspected under twenty-four hour surveillance, and he wasn't anywhere near Zartan's cell when it happened. Either he's innocent, or there's definitely another agent involved."

"So much for smoking out the traitor," Flint said sharply. "Having the 92G poking around was just supposed to push him into making his move. Once we had proof that he was the one passing information to Cobra, we could shut this mess down once and for all. Instead, it turns out we've got an extra mole in the ranks?"

"I warned you about that," the psychiatrist pointed out. "His profile doesn't indicate that he's the type to act alone. At least we didn't lose anyone, and Zartan's safely back in his cell."

"In the infirmary," Doc corrected. "And for the record, gentlemen, I definitely didn't enlist for the purpose of seeing enemy combatants take repeated savage blows to the testicles."

There was a moment of awkward silence. Nobody crossed their legs, but the thought was obviously there.

"So what now?" Flint said finally, looking to General Hawk. "I don't think we'll be getting any valuable intel out of Zartan any time, sir. The man we thought was the traitor didn't so much as twitch, either, so there's no way we can shut him down—not legally." From the expression on his face, it was easy to see that he didn't like having to wait for 'legally.' Warrant officers never appreciated being jerked around, especially by regulations.

Hawk looked at Lifeline. "How's Short Stack?"

"Broken arm, concussion, shock," Lifeline recited. "The whole thing will probably take a day or two to sink in, and there'll likely be some delayed mental trauma as well."

The general nodded and looked to Psyche-Out. "Did she like Hall?"

"Hard to say, sir. But the tapes definitely show that she was getting him to talk."

"Which means she'll be angry." Hawk leaned back a little, surveying the assembled men. "Psyche-Out, I want you to visit her in the infirmary. Then downgrade her clearance: take her off sniper training, restrict her access to secured areas. Official policy is that she's been compromised. Not to be trusted."

Psyche-Out frowned. Then his eyebrows leaped as he made the connection, and he nodded. "That should do it, sir."

Flint glanced back and forth between the two of them. "Sorry, sir, but what the hell's going on? She isn't the traitor, is she?"

"No. But she's the opposite of a good soldier." Psyche-Out's tone was blunt. "That makes her an excellent stalking horse. Loud, angry, attitude problems likely stemming from a deep-seated inferiority complex . . . the downgrade will rankle her, and she'll spread it around with a big shovel. With her making that kind of noise, the mole or moles won't be on the lookout for the rest of us."

"And what if he figures it out?" Duke said, his expression grim. "As you said, she's not subtle."

"Then he'll toy with her. Trust me, gentlemen; this is a target he won't be able to ignore. He's happy that he's been able to sneak around under our noses for so long, and seeing someone who wants to take him down will be irresistible. Her downgrade will be a win for him, because it means the spy we set against him has visibly failed."

"This is too damn political for me," the first sergeant muttered.

"'Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.'" Flint, of course. He rubbed his face, adjusted his beret, and sighed a little. "I won't lie, general. I'd be a lot more comfortable if we could just grab our suspect and grill him until he spilled his guts."

"Me, too," Hawk said. "Believe me. But he might not even know who the other man is, and the Jugglers have been looking over my shoulder ever since Pitfall. We have to play this subtle for a little while longer." He leaned forward, planting his hands on the desk. "Find the moles, gentlemen. Find out how they're communicating with each other and with Cobra. Don't trust anything that looks too obvious. And don't let Short Stack back in the kitchen for at least three days, because I suspect the downgrade is going to have a bad effect on the pancakes."

She blinked. The ceiling failed to blink back, or do anything extraordinary.

Something big happened last night, her brain informed her, but it didn't see fit to remind her exactly what. Her arm was in a cast, and something about that niggled at her. It was connected to the big thing, whatever it was. But the big thing was also a bad thing, and Annie didn't want to deal with that. She settled for staring at the ceiling, waiting for it to make any sudden moves.

Somebody had taken off her boots, but everything else was still accounted for. Good. Her damp hair told her that her scalp had been sponged clean . . . which was a good thing too.

She ran the fingers of her good hand through her limp hair, and found a spot they'd missed. It was sticky, but not blood-sticky. When she sniffed her fingers, they smelled sweet. Vanilla?

Oh. Right.

Annie pulled her knees up and rested her forehead against them, trying to ignore the dull throbbing in her arm. Everything still felt blessedly distant, though she was willing to guess that that was the effect of the pills Lifeline had put her on. Trying to focus, she considered her options.

She could wallow in self-hatred, which didn't sound like too much fun. There was something comfortingly indulgent about crying and throwing a tantrum over something going wrong, but the calm fuzzy world of concussions 'n' drugs counseled her against it. What would be the point? Alternately, her brain proposed, she could get angry and possibly do something stupid. She liked that second one, but she didn't know if she could get angry again. Those were some good pills, whatever they were.

There was a scraping noise as the door was yanked open. Then footsteps, and the rattle of a tray. They sounded familiar, but shouldn't have been so distant. Why?

Bucket chow. Someone was coming down to bring bucket chow to the infirmary, and it wasn't her. The world really had gone all weird and upside-down.

A tall, broad-shouldered blond man was picking his way between the rows of beds. He had a bristly yellow beard and the huge, distinctively callused hands of a heavy machine gunner, and the tray he carried looked tiny in his massive paws. Definitely not one of her KP monkeys or a quartermaster. It took a moment for memory to flick a card: Rocky? Rockwell? Rock'n'Roll, that was it. He'd been scheduled for dishwashing last she'd heard, thanks to something the duty log would only refer to as 'car surfing.' Evidently he'd been reassigned since her incapacitation. The tray held chicken soup, shelf-stable bread, and a cup of milk.

"Hi," she said. "Is that for me?"

"Yep." Rock set it down on the bedside table. "You're lucky there's no one else in here right now. The whole base is on high alert, and a guard always gets posted when there's too many people in the infirmary."

"Oh." Annie frowned at the food. Something wasn't right. The bread was shelf-stable, and anyone in the kitchen should've known not to give shelf bread to a concussion case. A nasty feeling twisted in the pit of her stomach, and her gaze flicked from the bread to the casual, callused Rock'n'Roll. Rock'n'Roll, who she trusted, and who was bringing her something to eat. A cold chill ran down her spine.

She jerked back against the headboard and scrambled sideways. Rock's eyes widened, and he reached out to grab her good arm, drawing a strangled yelp from Annie. He did grab her—just in time to stop her falling off the bed. For a moment, the world reeled, and Annie couldn't breathe

Of course. Pitfall. The world righted itself. She sucked in deep breaths, trying to stabilize herself. Rock was watching her with a concerned frown as she pried her own white-knuckled hands from the bedclothes.

"Just hang on," he said quickly. "I'll go get Lifeline! You're having a seizure or something-"

She shook her head, still trying to calm her racing heart. "I . . . no. No. I just forgot that we aren't making much fresh bread yet." That got a confused look from Rock, and she closed her eyes, trying to focus. "I saw the shelf-stable bread, and I thought it didn't come from the kitchens. I thought you might be Zartan."

Comprehension dawned, along with a grimace. "Sorry," he said, his tone dry, "but I promise I'm not Zartan. It'd be hard to aim with my head that far up my ass."

Annie smiled, just a tiny bit, as her heart rate began to slow. "Thanks for the mental image."

"No problem, greenie." Rock stepped back another couple of paces. "By the way, this is your first time in the infirmary, right? Here's a tip: do what Lifeline tells you. He can get pretty creative when people try and sneak out early." He examined Annie cursorily. "And watch some TV. Stupid TV, with cartoon animals and that kind of stuff. Just do something that cheers you up. You have to keep your head on straight, or they win."

That sounded like the voice of experience speaking. She'd seen Rock around the base—decent guy, always listening to something loud and squealy with lots of heavy guitars in it, tended not to drop things in the steam tray when she was looking. But for a moment, his expression was drawn and haunted, and Annie knew better than to question the voice of experience.

"Received and understood, sergeant," she said. "I think I'll start right now." What else was she going to do, anyway? After a moment's deliberation, she flexed her bruised fingers and half-raised her wrapped-up broken arm from the mattress. "Sign my cast?"

"Sure. Got a marker?"

"Uh . . ." She glanced around the infirmary. "I don't think so."

"Then I'll bring one down when I'm on dinner duty." He gave her a casual salute as he reached the door. "Later, Short Stack."

He came back at 1800 hours, bringing soup that was too thin, bread completely lacking in taste, and Jello that was an insult to the cows whose hooves it had been made of. He also brought Dusty, though, and ten minutes later her cast sported two signatures, an impromptu game of tic-tac-toe, and a picture of a confused-looking Snow Job riding a camel backwards.