Disclaimer: Eric and Wes don't belong to me, they belong to BVE. I make no money writing this -- it's purely done for love and entertainment. Every other character mentioned here DOES belong to me and while you're welcome to borrow them, it would be nice if you asked me first.
Notes: Some of the locations exist, but all the people, events and the rest of the locations are fictional. I am neither a member of the medical community nor a member of the US Armed Forces and while I've done my best to get details right, there may well be some errors of procedure and protocol. Please be lenient on them -- this is, after all, fiction rather than fact and I do have the utmost respect for the US Armed Forces.
My grateful thanks go to Gamine for reading through, spotting errors and nit-picking, and also to Ecolea and Wookie for the advice and to Chris for the linguistic help. More thanks than I know how to say go to Ekat for not only beta'ing, but also listening to me whine, steering me straight, helping me with my research, putting up with silly questions and for virtually co-writing certain sections of this story. The good bits are down to you guys -- the bad bits are my own fault for not listening to you.
Part of the Identity universe, coming a couple of months after End of Time -- so I guess there are some slight and minor spoilers in here for the end of Identity.
Final word: This story, while not explicitly graphic, is violent and deals with torture and the after affects of same. If you're at all bothered by those concepts this is the point to hit the back button. Please do not flame me if you choose to read on.
Eric glanced around the changing rooms to make sure he was alone before peeling off the black t-shirt he was wearing. If there was no-one else in the room, there was no-one to ask awkward questions like: What happened to your back? It wasn't that he was especially self-conscious -- he just preferred not to think about it, and more particularly he preferred not to talk about it. He hurriedly finished undressing and picked up the towel -- now that he'd got this far, he wasn't especially keen on getting 'caught'.
As he moved across the room, though, he happened to catch a glimpse of the scarring on his side in the changing room mirror and winced.
Who put that goddamned thing in here anyway?
It looked a mess. Four, livid, quarter-inch thick scars that clearly snaked around between waist and ribcage and across his back were the worst, but in between them were literally hundreds of other scars. The other scars were marginally older -- or in some cases, just less deep -- so they didn't stand out so starkly but they were there.
Two months of my life. Two, fucking, months.
He sighed bitterly. They hadn't even offered to help him fund the cost of surgery. It would, at his current rate, take him another ten years before he could afford that.
"I'm sorry," Lemont had said, "but since you weren't officially there...our hands are tied."
And the stupid thing was, he realised as he finally got into the shower and started the scalding cascade, if he had his time over again, he'd do exactly what he did then, because that was what he'd been trained to do.
Hell, it ran deeper than that: It had been the right thing to do.
Given his home life, he wondered vaguely where he'd developed such a strong sense of right and wrong. It sure as hell wasn't from his mother. Perhaps it was from his schoolteachers or maybe it came from his lengthy martial arts studies.
Eric shrugged to himself. He supposed it didn't really matter where it had come from -- the bottom line was it existed and it tended to dominate how he lived his life. For better or for worse.
"Eric? You in here?"
And there came that sense of right and wrong rearing its head again. Most people, if they were in Eric's position, would stay silent and hope the shouter went away. Unfortunately, Eric recognised the voice and knew that its owner wouldn't be looking for him if it wasn't important.
"Dad's here for the monthly budget meeting."
"Goddamn it." That's what ya get for not paying attention. "Give me five, Wes."
"You got it."
Eric listened for the door bang that would indicate Wes had left the changing room. It didn't come.
He sighed and shut off the shower. At least Wes wasn't the overtly curious type -- and it wasn't as if he didn't already know the scars were there. Cursorily drying himself, he wrapped the towel around his waist and headed out of the showers. As he'd already figured, Wes had sat down on one of the benches to wait.
"'Sup?" Wes asked, as Eric reached his pile of clothing.
"Just pissed off with myself for losing track of time." It was a marginal lie -- granted the main source of his irritation was Wes' presence, but he was also annoyed with himself for forgetting the time.
"Dad's early -- he said something about 'escaping the dragon lady', whatever that means." Wes rolled his eyes.
Eric smirked. "You haven't met his secretary, then?"
"She's not that bad!"
"You haven't tried to make an appointment with her. Trust me, your dad has a point."
Having pulled on his underwear and uniform pants, Eric moved to pick up his discarded t-shirt, momentarily exposing the scars to Wes in all their gruesome glory.
"Sheeeeit." The exclamation was soft but no less stunned for the lack of volume.
Eric froze for a moment, cursing himself roundly for being careless before slowly turning back to face Wes. Wes looked pale beneath his tan. It was a reaction Eric had seen before -- he supposed it would have been his reaction, roles reversed. It didn't make it any easier to deal with.
"You knew they were there." Eric was aware he had retreated into brusqueness, but he couldn't quite seem to help it.
"Knowing isn't quite the same thing as seeing," Wes replied faintly.
Hastily, Eric pulled on the t-shirt, hiding the scars from view. "Yeah well..."
Wes nodded. "I won't ask."
That stunned Eric. "What? You're not the slightest bit curious?"
"Eric, I am so curious it's killing me," Wes retorted. "But I'm also not stupid. Whatever the explanation is, you don't want to give it, so I'm not going to ask."
That was comfortably the last response Eric had been expecting. As a result, he suddenly felt the inexplicable urge to explain. Eric looked down at the floor. "Look...maybe I should talk about it...to someone who isn't a shrink and who isn't gonna analyse every word I say."
"If you want to talk, then sure, I'll ask."
Eric slowly sat down on the bench. "I wanna talk."
Wes nodded. "What happened?"
"You know I was in the military, right?" Wes nodded. "Well, more specifically, I was in the Marines. I saw quite a bit of action during my service...all sorts of places. Somalia, Yemen, Saudi...Yugoslavia." Eric grinned faintly. "At least, what's left of the place, at any rate. In fact...my last active posting was to Yugoslavia. To Kosovo." Eric looked up at the ceiling, careful to avoid Wes' gaze. "Of course, I didn't know it was going to be my last active posting. It wasn't supposed to be my last active posting." He sighed and finally looked at Wes. "War zones are hell. Don't let anyone ever tell you any different. If you think about the chaos of one of Ransik's mutant attacks, multiply it by ten and take away the clear cut black and whiteness...you're getting some idea of what some of those places were like. Somalia was the craziest but Kosovo..." Eric shuddered.
"I read about it in the papers," Wes commented.
"Were they making out that the Kosovo Albanians were the victims and needed protection?"
"Yeah. I guess."
Eric smiled bitterly. "That figures." A look of puzzlement flashed across Wes' face at the comment. "I hate to burst the media created bubble for ya, Wes, but there were no victims and villains there. No good guys. No bad guys. Sure, there were people who were just trying to live their lives and getting persecuted for it -- but they were on both sides. The politicians might have liked to tell themselves there were good guys and bad guys; the media might have liked to tell you the same thing... There just weren't.
"We were in an impossible situation. Both sides hated that we were there at all and did everything they could to make that fact utterly clear -- which meant going out on patrol was dicey to say the least. We'd get stones thrown at us...some times people taking pot shots... Actually, they learned real quick not to use guns. Real ammo at us meant real ammo back at them -- and we were better shots. But...that stuff was OK -- you could..." Eric shrugged. "You could cope with that kind of thing. Hell -- after Somalia, we'd have almost been surprised if we hadn't received it."
"So what made the difference?" Wes asked.
"Attitudes. Neither side was above planting minefields where children played -- or booby trapping buildings they thought we might be using." Eric closed his eyes. "Or on rare occasions, ambushing patrols, by making out there was some kind of humanitarian problem...using one of the women as bait." He could see it so clearly. The summer day, the dilapidated farmhouse, the lost little girl, begging them over and over again to come and help her.
"What happened?" The soft question dispelled the image.
Eric opened his eyes again and once more met Wes' gaze. "I was a Master Sergeant and a squad leader, so when we went out on patrol, I was the guy in charge. They were my responsibility -- and if we came across anything suspicious, it was my call." Wes nodded. "It was the end of June 1999. We were sent out on patrol from our base. Ten-mile, foot patrol around this godforsaken, town called Novask. An hour into it, we found this kid no older than Alice sobbing her heart out..."
***South Eastern Kosovo, June 1999***
Eric could hear the screams long before he or his patrol could actually see their source.
The tone of the screams was plaintive while the word was the one phrase of Serbian he had heard too many times to count.
"Sergeant Myers -- over here!"
The shout came from one of his own men, Private Clayton -- who'd been on point duty. Eric followed the shout and found the soldier just around the bend in the road, with the source of the screams.
Glancing at the rest of the patrol, he said, "You men, wait here -- be ready." Then he turned his attention to Clayton and the person he'd found.
She was a girl of no more than ten years old -- probably less than that. She looked as if she would have been a pretty child, but owing to a combination of her tears and the general grime, it was hard to tell. She looked neglected -- but something about the situation made him cautious.
Trying not to further alarm the obviously frightened child, Eric crouched down in front of her. "Hi there," he tried.
She frowned and for a horrible moment, Eric wondered if they hadn't lucked out and found the one person in the region who knew no English whatsoever. Then she managed a watery smile. "Zdravo. Vi amerikanski?"
Eric nodded. "Yes -- we're Americans."
"Vi pomagao?" She grabbed at his hand and tried to pull him in the direction of the nearest building in the area: a dilapidated looking farmhouse.
Every last piece of intuition screamed that this was not what it seemed. "What's the matter?" he asked.
"Moj majka -- Ona ozljeda."
The first part of the sentence, Eric recognised, but the second... "Do you speak any English?"
Shit. OK -- plan B. "Your mother is...sick?"
"Da!" the girl smiled and nodded. "Ona bolestan."
Eric was instantly on guard. Granted, his knowledge of Serbian was minimal, but that wasn't the same word she'd used before. He glanced over his shoulder. "Franklin, Voges -- recon the farmhouse." Both nodded and headed off. Eric turned back to the girl. "Your mother's sick?"
"Da. Vi pomagao?" Again, she reached for his hand.
"How long has she been sick?"
"Pet dan," she replied, holding up a hand and displaying all five fingers for emphasis. "Vi pomagao?"
"Farm's deserted," Voges reported. "No signs of any life."
None of this was adding up. A lost little girl, a deserted farmhouse... Eric slowly shook his head. The girl was clearly insisting there was something in the farmhouse.
"Vi pomagao?" she repeated.
Eric assessed the situation. His gut feeling was telling him to walk away, but there was no way he could actually leave the girl standing in the middle of the road like this. He made a decision. "What's your name?" he asked.
She looked at him blankly. "Vi pomagao?"
Eric pointed at his chest. "I'm Eric." He pointed at her. "You are...?"
Understanding rushed across her face. "Iliya."
"OK. Iliya -- I'm going to call for someone to come take care of your mother, OK?"
"Vama morao pomagao!" To underline her point, she jabbed a finger into Eric's ribcage.
He pinched the bridge of his nose and counted to ten. "Iliya, if your mother's sick, she needs a doctor. We," and he waved a hand at the rest of his patrol, "aren't doctors."
Iliya made a noise somewhere akin to a sigh. Eric judged she'd understood his point.
"Clayton?" Eric looked up at him and then flicked his eyes back at Iliya. Clayton caught the unspoken order and nodded. Eric got back to his feet and stepped away, pulling out his radio as he did so. "KFOR command this is KFOR patrol alpha mike one niner, over?"
Eric waited. In the silence he was aware of a low murmur of chat coming from the rest of the patrol and the sound of a few summer birds calling from somewhere. Combined to the sunshine and general scenery, Eric could almost describe the setting as idyllic. Of course, if it was truly idyllic, he wouldn't be standing there waiting to hear back from KFOR command.
"KFOR command this is KFOR patrol alpha mike one niner, do you read?"
The longer this took, the more uneasy Eric became.
"Go ahead alpha mike one niner."
Eric released a breath he didn't know he was holding. "Command, we have a lost little girl about two miles north east of Novask centre. Speaks no English. Claims mother is sick -- but no sign of parent at all."
"Rog..." The rest of KFOR command's transmission vanished in a sudden squawk of static.
"Say again, Command?" Static was the only reply. "Command, say again."
Over the hiss of static came a new noise. A distinctive, piercing sound. Eric's first instinct was to look for the source, but even as he was doing that, he yelled, "Incoming! Everyone down."
There wasn't time to make sure the order was obeyed. As he hit the ground, the farmhouse exploded in a hail of shell fire. Iliya screamed. There isn't supposed to be that kinda artillery in this area, Eric found himself thinking, even as he was ordering the squad back into some kind of cover.
The cover proved to be a rickety barn and the last squad member made it just as the shooting began.
"Voges, Franklin, Toombes, Foster -- see if you can find some way to return fire," Eric ordered. "Clayton -- is the kid OK?"
"Not sure, Sergeant," Clayton answered. "She fainted."
Eric couldn't say he blamed her. "She's out cold?"
Eric nodded. He reached for his radio, only to remember he'd had it in his hands when the shelling had started. Damn -- must have dropped it when I hit the ground. "Is your radio intact?"
"Yes, Sergeant." Clayton looked marginally puzzled at the question but otherwise made no response.
"Good -- stay here, with her, and try to call up command. Tell them what's happened."
Satisfied, Eric crawled across to where the rest of the squad was endeavouring to return fire.
"Unknown number of hostiles. Not sure which side," Foster replied without taking his eyes off the hostile forces.
That would figure. "Anything else?"
"They're terrible shots?" Foster suggested.
When we get back to base, you and I are going to have a little chat about the appropriate time for humour, Eric promised silently.
He turned and headed back to Clayton. "Any luck?"
"Not yet, Sergeant -- just getting static."
Eric grimaced as he settled into position, covering the door. "Keep trying."
Clayton nodded. "Sergeant."
The rest of the morning passed by in a haze of noise and chaos. After an hour or so, Clayton was relieved by Voges, who came back to try the radio call and keep an eye on Iliya, who had come round and was utterly petrified by the situation she found herself in. Voges had no more success at raising KFOR command than Clayton.
Another hour crawled by and Toombes relieved Voges.
"Any luck, Toombes?" Eric asked, as the Private made his turn with the radio.
Toombes shook his head. "No Sergeant -- just getting static."
Damn it. Where's help when you need it? "Keep trying."
A movement outside the barn dragged Eric's attention away from Toombes, so he never heard Toombes' response. He levelled his M-16 and waited, wanting to be sure of his shot. The 'hostile' didn't disappoint, either. The man in a ratty looking uniform tried to rush the door. His charge lasted barely milliseconds of his coming into Eric's line of sight.
"Heads up, they're starting to flank us," Eric called, then took a closer look at the fallen man's uniform: Serbian army. Goddamn. They're not supposed to be here.
The fire-fight intensified.
More Serbs tried the flanking manoeuvre. Eric found himself increasingly under pressure, but from what he was peripherally aware of from the other side of the barn, there was no way to get any relief.
"KFOR command, this is KFOR patrol alpha mike one niner do you read?" Toombes' voice was beginning to sound desperate.
"I'm out of ammo," Foster announced.
I'm not dying in this goddamn hellhole. "Rotate with Toombes. Get command up on the radio."
"We're not getting out of this." Foster's tone sounded flat and matter of fact.
"The hell we aren't," Eric snapped, firing again. "Foster get on that radio."
Morning turned to afternoon.
"KFOR command, this is KFOR patrol alpha mike one niner, do you read?" Foster repeated the litany for what felt like the thousandth time.
"Alpha mike one niner we read you." The calm, soothing voice of command was possibly the best thing Eric had heard in a long time. "What is your location?"
"Approximately two miles north east of Novask centre along the border road. We are experiencing exchange of fire. Surrounded by hostiles. Over."
There was a pause. "Understood, alpha mike one niner. Casualties?"
"Negative. We do have one civilian under our protection. Repeat, we have one civilian with us. Over."
Another pause. "Roger that, alpha mike one niner. Relief on way, ETA two hours."
Eric yelled at Foster, "Tell them that we may not have two hours. We are getting really low on ammo."
"Alpha mike one niner to KFOR command. Put a fire under that relief. Ammunition running low. Repeat ammunition running low."
"Roger that alpha mike one niner. We'll do what we can. Hang tight. KFOR Command out."
"Sergeant?" Foster began.
"I heard," Eric replied. Raising his voice, he added, "Two hours or less to break out." No-one actually cheered the announcement, but there was a palpable sense of relief. "Keep focused."
The time dragged. The Serbs seemed to ease back from constant fire to sporadic sniping, and seemed to decide that flanking the barn was a bad idea, but both let ups just made Eric more cautious. It either meant the Serbs were conserving ammunition, or they were planning something big.
"KFOR patrol alpha mike one niner this is KFOR warrior uniform kilo two, come in?"
Eric heard Foster scramble for the radio. "Uniform kilo two, we read you."
"State your position, alpha mike one niner -- our ETA is fifteen minutes."
"Roger that, uniform kilo two. We are just off the road in the last barn before bandit country."
Eric made another mental note to have a talk to Foster about his inappropriate sense of humour. The British radio operator seemed amused though.
"Understood. Be ready for us. Uniform kilo two out."
"What's the plan, Sergeant?" Foster asked.
Before Eric could say anything, Franklin announced, "I'm out of ammo."
"Voges, Toombes, Clayton -- how you three doing?" Eric asked.
"Just about out," Voges admitted.
"Same," said Toombes.
"I'm good for a few more rounds," Clayton answered.
Eric nodded. His own ammunition situation was little better. "OK, be ready to pull back. We're busting out the second our ride gets here. Clayton, keep a covering fire up. Foster and Franklin -- the kid's all yours -- Toombes, you're with them. Voges, you're with me."
Minutes ticked by. The dull roar of an approaching armoured vehicle broke across the sound of occasional gunfire, and the KFOR warrior came into view.
At the command, several things happened at once. Eric and Voges took up their positions, and started laying in a pattern of covering fire. Clayton, from his position, and the gunner in the warrior joined in. Foster grabbed Iliya, flung her over his shoulder, and he and Franklin bolted for the warrior with Toombes acting as rearguard. The Serbs swarmed forward in an all out attack.
"Fuck it," Eric muttered.
There was a bitten off curse from either Franklin or Toombes. Eric didn't need to look round to know one of them had been hit.
There was a final burst of gunfire from Clayton's position, then presumably Clayton headed for the warrior -- Eric didn't dare look round to confirm it -- although there was a slight whoop of relief which sounded as though it was Clayton's.
Voges reluctantly started to back away. Eric moved across to cover him, steadily moving backwards himself.
Eric wasn't sure what the two orders meant, but he got the feeling he wouldn't like either of them to be carried out.
He was almost under the umbrella of the chain gunfire from the warrior, when his rifle finally jammed.
There was a moment where everything seemed to freeze. Eric couldn't believe what had happened. He could only stare in stunned fashion at the now useless lump of metal and plastic in his hands.
"Move, you dozy jarhead!" yelled the gunner in the warrior. Eric wasn't entirely sure what 'dozy' actually meant but when combined with the gunner's harsh British accent and the derogatory term 'jarhead', he had a pretty fair idea it wasn't supposed to be complimentary.
The yell was the cue for everything to restart. Three or four Serbs rushed forwards as Eric hastily back-pedalled, using the jammed rifle as a club. Unfortunately, one of the Serbs just grabbed the flailing end of the rifle and pulled. Eric wasn't quite quick enough to release it. He found himself being dragged into the press of Serbs. Somewhere along the line, his helmet came off and then something hit the back of his head, and everything went black.
The comment dragged Eric back to the present with a rush. He blinked. For a few minutes, he had forgotten he was just simply relating the events; he had been back there, facing down the hostiles. He glanced over at the source of the exclamation to see Wes slowly shaking his head.
"That's one way to put it," Eric agreed.
"So the Serbs took you prisoner?" Wes asked.
"The hostiles did, yeah."
"But you said..."
Eric smiled faintly. "I know what I said. The thing is, while the uniforms were Serbian, the guys in the uniforms weren't -- although I didn't find that out until later. They just wanted the Serbs blamed -- and with my patrol and the Brits in the Warrior all saying it was a Serb army unit, that's exactly what happened."
Wes shook his head again. "That's...that's..."
"Balkan politics," Eric supplied. "It's the only thing that fits."
Wes nodded slowly. "So what happened then?"
Eric exhaled slowly. "I won't bore you with the details of the journey I got taken on from Novask to the place they held me -- suffice to say, I think it took three days, but by the time we got wherever it was I couldn't see straight enough to know up from down." Absently, he rubbed the spot his captors had continually hit to knock him unconscious, feeling the slight lump in his skull that such treatment had left as another permanent souvenir of the experience. They had certainly lacked finesse. "On...I think...my fourth day as their prisoner, I got taken to see the head honcho..."
***Kosovo, June 1999***
Stripped of all his uniform, barring the basic pants, boots and t-shirt, Eric found himself being prodded through the cramped corridors of someone's command post. They had at least allowed him to get some sleep the night before, when they'd arrived at this compound, but they'd offered him no food, and barely any water. Combined to the low-grade ache in his head from the constant blows, he felt woozy and disoriented.
His guard brought a hand down on his shoulder and forcibly stopped him. Yay I've just learned a new piece of Serbian. Eric knew the thought was verging on the hysterical but he couldn't quite seem to clamp down on it.
The guard gave him a funny look -- almost as if sensing the detached train of thought -- before knocking on the door they had stopped in front of.
"Da?" called a voice from within.
There followed a rapid-fire conversation before the guard said, "Da," and opened the door.
Before Eric could say anything, he found himself being almost literally flung into the room, with the door being slammed shut behind him. It took him a couple of seconds to collect his balance. Once he had, he looked around at the room in mounting confusion. It was a well appointed office, furnished akin to his CO's office back at their home base, apart from one minor but glaring detail: The ostentatiously displayed copy of the Koran.
Then there was the man behind the desk himself. The neatly cropped dark hair and immaculate looking black beard were not uncommon to the region, but his Arabian features made a lie of the suggestion Eric's captors were Serbs.
The man smirked. "Welcome, Sergeant Myers," he began in English that was barely accented. "I'd apologise about the manner with which you've been treated so far, but we both know I'd be lying."
"You're not a Serb!" Eric blurted.
The man snickered. The sound sent a shiver of cold fear straight up Eric's spine. "No. No I'm not. Nor are any of my men."
"But...?" Eric began, trying to wrap his mind around that statement, and failed.
"A charade," the man clarified. "We wanted the Serbs blamed for your...disappearance."
The man laughed out right. "You surely don't imagine I'm going to actually tell you that, do you, Sergeant? This isn't a film and this isn't the scene where the villain twirls his moustache and reveals all. In case you hadn't noticed," the man continued, "I don't have a moustache to twirl." He laughed again, this time at his own joke.
"What do you want with me?" Eric tried.
At once the man became serious. "Information."
"And what makes you think I have any?"
"Oh, Sergeant Myers," the man replied, "you had better hope you have some -- otherwise you are really not going to enjoy your stay here." The man pressed a button on the speakerphone on his desk. "Da, Sacha."
A moment later and the earlier guard reappeared. There was another rapid-fire conversation, and then Eric found himself being dragged out of the office.
He was led further along the corridor, down some steps and into a basement. This time, he didn't need the guard's warning hand on his shoulder telling him to stop: He came to a halt on his own in pure shock at the sight that greeted him in the basement room. It looked like something out of a bad B Movie or trashy horror flick. There was a table with manacles attached to each corner. There were chains attached to the wall. There was a rack of assorted whips and switches. There was another rack filled with positively medieval looking metal items that his mind steadfastly refused to even try to assign names to.
Eric's stomach gave an involuntary dry heave, while his mind started to babble something about the Geneva Convention, but he let none of that show. There was no point, and -- he suspected -- if he protested, the chances were they'd just make whatever they had in store for him that much worse.
"They tortured you?!" Wes looked utterly outraged.
Eric smiled bitterly. "You didn't think I got the scars for fun, did you?"
Wes sighed. "No -- I just..." he trailed off and shook his head.
Eric relented. "Sorry."
"Two months...I think -- that's what I was told when I was finally released...it felt a whole lot longer than that." Eric waited for some sort of platitude from Wes and was subsequently surprised when none was forth coming. "No comments about being able to imagine it?"
Wes shook his head. "No -- because I can't. I don't think I want to even try, either."
"Know something? You're the first person I've told this to who hasn't said they can imagine it. Shrinks, counsellors, my CO..."
"I wasn't there," Wes replied simply.
For several minutes, that easy statement just hung on the air before Eric nodded. He could take that answer. Above all, it was honest and after hearing so many lies about what had happened, honesty was something he valued.
"What did they want to know?" Wes asked, finally breaking the silence.
Eric shrugged. "Troop strengths, locations, schedules... Half the stuff they asked me I genuinely didn't know anything about, the rest I had a few vague ideas but had no intention of telling them, and I didn't. Stupid thing is, I suspect even if I'd given those bastards what they wanted to know, they'd have probably still done what they did to me. They were sick."
"What did they do?"
Eric leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees. "Are you sure you want to know that, Wes?"
"Knowing is better than imagining."
Eric gave a snort of bitter laughter. "Don't say I didn't warn you when you wake up screaming in the middle of the night." He clasped his hands together and studied the floor, searching for the right words to describe what had gone on. "It was like..." He sighed. "There's a lot of ways to torture someone...and those bastards used most of them. See, that first day's trip to the basement wasn't for anything other than to show me they meant business. In fact, they didn't do anything physical to me for about a week..."
***Kosovo, June 1999***
The guard prodded Eric forward, back into his cell, not caring that in doing so, Eric stumbled. Robbed of balance, he fell forward onto his knees. Behind him, the cell door slammed. As the lock clicked, the solitary bulb winked out, leaving him crouched on the cell floor in total darkness.
The darkness was disorienting.
For the first time since setting out on patrol four days earlier, real and gnawing fear started in on him. There had been no sense of fear during the fire-fight -- that had been a situation he could control. There might have been a brief flash of fear as he had been pulled into the press of hostile forces -- KLA fighters dressed as Serbs, as it turned out -- but that had been swiftly terminated by the blow to the back of his head. But this...
I will not be intimidated.
Eric drew in a shaky breath and swallowed.
I am a member of the US Marine Corps. I refuse to be intimidated this easily.
The fear subsided, although it remained a vague presence at the back of his mind. With that tamed -- at least for the moment -- he turned his attention to other things, like attempting to find the cot without doing himself any further damage. He froze for a second -- which way was it?
He was fairly sure it was to the right of the door, but when he moved in that direction -- or what he thought was that direction -- all he encountered was fresh air, until he finally came up against the wall of the cell. Refusing to give in to panic, he moved until he had his back to the wall and then slowly set out back across the cell.
Sure enough, this time he did reach the cot and gratefully hauled himself up onto it. But almost the instant he lay down on it, the noise started. It was a scratching sound that, in the previously complete silence of the cell, sounded unnaturally harsh. He lay for several minutes, trying to work out what might be causing it.
And then something brushed against his hand.
I will not scream, I will not scream, I will not scream.
He realised he was hyperventilating. He swallowed and made a physical effort to slow his breathing. Whatever it had been that had brushed his hand, it had legs. That at least ruled out the slim chances of it having been a snake of some description. It was also furry, which tended to rule out roaches.
OK, mice or rats -- I can handle them.
Something scuttled across his chest.
Eric drew himself up into a ball and tried to get some sleep, but lying there, listening to the rodents move around his cell, sleep was not forthcoming. Each time he thought he'd managed to relax, a rodent would brush against him or walk over him and everything would tense up again.
The scuttering, scratching noises finally died away, but what replaced them was infinitely worse: nothing. He hadn't really noticed the complete silence of the cell when he'd been trying to locate the cot. He'd had other things to occupy his mind with, but now the silence pressed in on him like a thick, suffocating blanket.
And then something else did occupy his mind.
At first he thought he was imagining it. Hallucinating it, even -- if you could hallucinate a smell. It was the smell of baking bread, mingled with the smell of brewing coffee. Eric's stomach started to growl. It reminded him that he hadn't had anything to eat since the paltry breakfast he'd eaten before going out on patrol. The smells intensified. The growls turned to full-blown hunger pains.
C'mon Myers, you're stronger than this.
Without warning, the light bulb flared into life. Eric couldn't help but cry out in discomfort as the sudden light hurt his eyes. The next minute, a slot at the bottom of the door was opened, and a tray of food was pushed through. It wasn't the fresh bread or coffee that he'd smelled moments before, but it smelled almost as strongly.
Still partially blinded, he rolled off the cot and struggled towards the tray, guided by the strangely pungent smell of boiled cabbage. Squinting at the tray, he made out the shape of a small bowl, a cup and a hunk of what was possibly bread. Picking that up first, he took a bite and almost gagged. It was bread, true, but it was very stale and...he realised as his eyes finally adjusted to the light, mouldy.
He looked at the bowl. That seemed to be some kind of cabbage soup. The cup contained water. He glanced at the bread again. He might yet have to eat that, but while there was another alternative... He started on the soup. It didn't taste great -- too salty for his tastes -- but it was considerably better than nothing. He had to physically remind himself not to rush the food. After not eating for more than three days, the temptation was to just scarf it down as fast as possible, but at the back of his mind, he knew that would be a bad idea.
Once the soup was finished, he turned his attentions to the pitifully small cup of water. That lasted all of three mouthfuls. It tasted brackish and unpleasantly warm, but like the soup, it was better than nothing.
He noticed, as he put the now empty cup back on the tray, that the edges of the room seemed to be blurring. He tried shaking his head but the movement felt sluggish. Just as the world stated to spin, the light went out once more, plunging him back into total darkness. Vaguely it crossed his mind that some, or all, of the meal he'd just been given had been laced with drugs of some kind.
And then into the silence came the sound that he had dreaded hearing above anything else. A steady, scaly rattle combined with a breathy hissing noise. It seemed to be coming from behind him. Slowly he turned.
It was pitch black. He shouldn't have been able to see the source of the noise.
Impossibly, he could.
And there was no power on earth that could prevent him from screaming.
"What was it?" Wes asked.
Eric was glad of the interruption. It gave him a few moments to silently remind himself that he wasn't stuck in that black cell. "It was a hallucination. None of it was actually real. I think there was some aspect of my mind that knew that, but it felt so real..." he trailed off.
"Snake." Eric looked up at Wes, still leaning his elbows against his knees. "The one animal on the face of this earth that I have a pathological fear of. I don't know what the drug was that they used, but it always seemed to dredge up my worst fears. That day it was a snake." He looked back down at his still clasped hands. "Stupid thing is, if they'd asked me any questions then, they'd have got everything they could have ever wanted out of me. I was an absolute and utter babbling wreck. Some tough marine I was."
"But they didn't. So they never got their information."
"But I was ready to talk after less than one day."
"But it wasn't less than one day, Eric," Wes reminded him. "This was the fourth day. You've said so yourself. I'd have probably been a babbling wreck when they got me in to see the head guy, long before they got onto anything more pressured."
Eric shook his head. "The military trains you for all kinds of things. Drop me into the middle of an uncharted forest and I can survive for months on end. Arctic, desert, middle of the goddamn ocean, I was trained to survive it. They warn you about the things that could happen if...when...you get captured. I thought I was prepared for it." Eric looked back up at Wes. "You're never really prepared for it."
Wes had no answer to that. There was a long stretch of silence between them, before Wes finally managed, "So how long did that psychological stuff last?"
Eric looked back down at his hands. "The drugs and shit only went on for about a week. The lack of food and water...that went on the whole time I was there. When I was captured, I was weighing around two-ten -- by the time I was finally freed I was down to around one-forty."
"Something like that. After the psychological crap, it was almost a relief when they started beating the hell out of me. Pain...real pain I can cope with. But even so, the physical stuff was...brutal. Their favourite piece of encouragement involved me kneeling with my arms locked in place above my head just high enough to keep me upright and be uncomfortable. One of them would then stand in front of me and ask the questions, while the other guy stood behind me with a some kind of flogger. It got to the point where I couldn't tell if they were using a cat o' nine tails, a straight whip or a cane...I know they used all three at various points.
"The guy in front would ask me a question. I then had to answer...if I gave a less than useful answer, the guy behind me would strike me across the back. They used to repeat it over and over and over again...and I kept giving the same answer over and over and over again: Myers, Eric. Master Sergeant. 569-34-9032.
"They used to keep going until I was on the edge of passing out. Then they'd throw a bucket of ice-cold water over me...that was the worst bit. The sting of the water touching the welts on my back was incredible but rather than pushing me into unconsciousness it just brought me round...back to full consciousness again. And then they'd wait until the cold of the water had worked its way through my body and started me shivering...and they'd start again. And it would go on for hours at a stretch. Sometimes they'd change guys three or four times before they'd decide they'd had enough.
"Of course, the first time they tried to get me to kneel, I fought back. I know I put four of them out of commission before one of them wised up and used a cattle prod straight to my spine. That was probably the most physically frightening moment of the whole two months. The pain was truly excruciating and then suddenly everything stopped working. I went from being an active human being to a lump of semi-comatose meat. By the time the effects wore off, I was in position. I didn't fight the second time." Eric paused for a moment to again remind himself that he wasn't back there.
"It wasn't the only thing they did, though. Occasionally, they got creative. There was one time when they chained me to the table and...once I was secure...attached electrodes to various points on my body. Each time I didn't answer a question, they sent a random pulse of electricity through one of the electrodes..." Eric trailed off. He shuddered at the memory of the almost casual way the random bursts of pain had come. He was glad that had been a one time only experiment -- more of that and he might well have been unable to stick to name, rank and ID number.
"Sometimes...when they'd finished with me, instead of taking me back to my cell, they'd leave me there, chained up. There wasn't enough slack in the chains for me to move so I was stuck, kneeling. The circulation got cut off to my legs and I'd start to get a real shoulder burn from being forced to keep my arms up. By the time they came to release me and take me back to my cell, my legs would be numb. They didn't care. If I couldn't walk, they dragged me.
"And...in due course, the welts on my back started to open up as proper wounds...and some of them got infected. By the time I was freed, I was...so I've been told...on the edges of a bout of septicaemia, which would have been fatal." Only then, at the end of the description, did he dare look up at Wes.
Wes looked about ready to throw up. "Geez..."
"I did warn you," Eric replied flatly.
Wes swallowed. "I know."
Silence fell again. Eric looked away, not needing to see the horror and nausea warring in Wes' expression any longer. If Wes was lucky, the nightmares would only last for a few days.
"How did you get free? From the sounds of things, I can't imagine it was because they just let you go," Wes eventually asked.
Eric looked up again, nodding. "They sorta didn't get any say in the matter." For the first time in who knew how long, Eric smiled. "They hadn't bargained on the UN sending inspectors to their camp. You see, it was a 'legit' KLA compound and as weapons decommissioning started, they were subject to UN inspections."
"And the inspectors found a little more than they were expecting."
"So I'm told," Eric replied. "I don't remember it. I was so far out of it by that stage. All the UN guys could get out of me was Myers, Eric. Master Sergeant. 569-34-9032. It told them who I was but beyond that was next to useless." Wes nodded. "The next point in my memories is waking up, flat on my stomach, in Landstuhl..."
***Landstuhl Military Hospital, Germany, September 1999***
"He's coming round."
"Good -- watch for any signs of discomfort."
It took Eric several seconds to actually process that not only were the two voices speaking English, both accents were East Coast. He was out of that hellhole. Or was he? Was this just another hallucination?
"Sergeant Myers, can you hear me?"
It was true that he hadn't managed to hallucinate someone actually speaking to him before. There's always a first time.
"You're not real. None of this is real. I'm still there."
There was a stunned gasp. "Sergeant Myers, you are safe now," the first voice finally managed.
"This isn't real."
"You're in Landstuhl hospital in Germany, Sergeant."
If this was a hallucination, it was a particularly persistent one. Eric risked opening his eyes. For a second, all he saw was a white blur, but that quickly resolved itself into a standard issue, hospital pillow. Beyond that, he could see the side of a white, bedside cabinet of the sort usually found in hospitals. For the first time, he allowed himself to acknowledge that he felt warm and clean, if not necessarily comfortable. Given what They had done to his back, he was used to lying on his stomach, but normally with his arms drawn up and acting as a pillow. Currently, however, he was literally lying flat, with his arms at his sides.
That one fact alone was enough to convince him that this could be real.
"I'm in Landstuhl?"
"Yes, Sergeant. You've been with us for nearly two weeks."
Two weeks? He tried to bring his left arm up to a more comfortable position and found he couldn't.
"You currently have an IV drip into that wrist," explained the second voice. "It will be coming out shortly but for the time being..."
"I'm stuck like this."
There didn't seem to be anything else to say. He was still not totally convinced this wasn't just some elaborate hoax on the part of his mind born of a desperate desire to escape, but there wasn't really much of an alternative other than to go along with it for now.
"We need to make a check on your back wounds," the second voice continued. "With a bit of luck they should be well on the road to healing and we'll be able to turn you. You'll feel a lot more comfortable that way."
The speaker didn't seem to expect any kind of a response. Instead, he matched action to words. Eric was aware of the bed sheet being pulled back, and then he felt someone gently touch his lower back. Much to his surprise, the touch didn't actually hurt that much. That in itself leant further credence to the idea that this was real and it really was two weeks since he'd been in that hellhole.
"I'm afraid," the voice mused, "you're going to have a lot of scar tissue there when this all finishes healing. But there are options to deal with that...I'm sure they'll talk it through with you when you get back to Camp Pendleton. Nurse...?"
Eric felt someone take hold of his left wrist. There was a brief prick of pain as something -- presumably the IV tube -- was removed. Then he felt something being pressed against his wrist. It didn't take much imagination to supply the idea that it was probably a dressing of some description.
"All right. On the count of three."
Two pairs of hands grasped him firmly, and Eric found himself being gently rolled over onto his back. He instinctively tensed, but the back wounds really did seem a lot better. It wasn't exactly comfortable lying on them, but it wasn't exactly painful either.
He looked up to see the doctor and nurse for the first time.
"Thank you, nurse," the doctor -- the owner of the second voice -- said. The nurse nodded, and departed. "I'm Dr Fredricks."
"I've really been here two weeks?"
"Yes, Sergeant." Fredricks nodded. "You were found by UN observers, in a very bad shape."
Eric frowned. "I don't remember."
"I can't say I'm surprised."
Almost in spite of himself, Eric asked, "What happened?"
Fredricks shook his head. "It's not my place to tell you all the details -- most of them are classified. What I can tell you is that you were suffering with the first stages of septicaemia, along with acute malnutrition, dehydration and numerous, severely infected lacerations to your back."
"It sounds like I'm lucky to be here," Eric finally murmured.
The doctor nodded. "You are," he agreed. "Very lucky."
There was a knock on the door, and the nurse reappeared. "Doctor...?"
"He's here?" Fredricks asked. The nurse nodded. "OK. Sergeant, you have your first visitor."
Before Eric could say anything, both Fredricks and the nurse departed. An irrational sense of panic surged forward. This was it. This was when the hallucination was going to break down. This was when he was going to find himself back in that pitch-black cell. This was...
...Lieutenant Colonel Cawdron walking into the hospital room.
Eric's subconscious processed the sight much quicker than his conscious mind did. Even as his conscious mind was still babbling, his subconscious was attempting to get him to stand to attention.
"For God's sake, Myers don't even think about getting out of that bed to salute," Cawdron snapped.
That cut through the turmoil in Eric's mind. He closed his eyes, drew in a breath and opened his eyes again. Cawdron was still standing at the foot of the bed.
"No, I'm not a hallucination," Cawdron affirmed.
Something flickered through Cawdron's expression, but it was gone too quickly for Eric to work out what it was. "When the KLA camp was...'liberated' they found a medicine chest full of assorted hallucinogens. It didn't take a rocket scientist to add one and one."
"What we'd like to know," Cawdron continued, "is what they wanted with you and why they went to so much trouble to get you."
Eric shrugged then winced, both from stiffness and from the realisation that shrugs were not deemed appropriate responses to superior officers. "I don't think it was me specifically, sir."
"What makes you say that?"
"On my first day at the compound I was taken to see their leader. He didn't exactly tell me why, but he did say that he wanted the Serbs blamed...sir."
"Which, of course, they were," Cawdron admitted.
"As for what they wanted," Eric continued, "it seemed to just be information, sir."
"What kind of information?"
"Troop placements, numbers, schedules...that kind of thing."
Cawdron nodded. "When you're back to better health, there will be a full debriefing, of course."
There was an uneasy pause, then Eric asked, "Sir, what about my squad?"
Cawdron smiled. "They all made it safely out of the situation. Private Franklin sustained a minor flesh wound but they were otherwise unharmed. It was some good work by you to see them through it."
"Thank you sir."
"And you will be pleased to know that the civilian you encountered..."
"Iliya," Eric supplied.
"Yes, well, she was safely reunited with her mother. She wasn't actually part of the KLA's plan. Just a lost child who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Eric mentally sighed in relief. "Thank you, Sir."
"Once you have medical clearance, you will be heading back to Camp Pendleton to complete your recuperation."
Cawdron turned to leave. "Glad to have you back, Myers."
"Sir. Thank you sir." Eric hesitated. "Sir?"
Cawdron stopped. "Yes?"
"How long was I captive for, sir?"
There was a long silence. Eric watched as his CO visibly shifted uncomfortably at the question. "Two months."
Eric could only stare incredulously. Two months? He had spent two months in captivity? "Two months?" he finally whispered. On one level, he had known it had been quite a while, but he had been thinking in terms of weeks rather than months. "You left me there for two, goddamn, months?"
"I'm sorry, Myers."
Cawdron shifted nervously again. "What do you mean 'what happened'?"
"What happened to 'leave no-one behind'?"
"You forgot about me," Eric accused.
Cawdron looked away. "I'm sorry, Myers, really I am."
"You're sorry?" Eric echoed. "You're sorry?!"
Cawdron sighed. "There were...problems. It only came to light that it hadn't been the Serbs at Novask six weeks after the attack, by which time whatever trail the KLA might have left had grown very cold, and Kosovo is a very easy place to lose someone in."
"Get out of here you goddamn bastard before I make you leave."
Wisely, Cawdron left.
Eric sagged back against the bed. Smart move, Myers -- insult your CO and then threaten him with violence. Way to get yourself court martialed. Some how, he couldn't bring himself to care. Two months and they hadn't even been looking for him.
"Of course," Eric mused, "if Cawdron had just fought back and reminded me they didn't know where I was; reminded me that for six weeks they thought I was a prisoner of the Serbs, things might have ended up differently. But it was the way he acted so guilty...like they really hadn't been looking for me."
"Did it get you court martialed?" Wes asked.
"No. Might have been better if it had in some ways. Cawdron just put it down to shock or something." Eric sighed. "It was three days before I had the medical clearance to travel, and another day while they organised it, but once it was hooked up, I found myself back in the US, although straight into the medical facilities at Camp Pendleton. It took another three months before I was finally released from there.
"Of course, military debriefings only wait so long. My last three weeks in the med-centre were basically spent either in rehab or in debrief. I must have hashed over every second of my time in captivity -- at least every second that I could remember -- four or five times before the bigwigs was satisfied. Then after all that came a whole slew of psyche evaluations to make sure I was still sane and still sound enough in mind to go back into the field...and to try and make sure there were no lasting effects.
"And for the most part everything was A-OK. I hadn't gone nuts, I was still capable of active duty and there were no major lasting effects. After all, it's no biggie if I'm not good with silence or total darkness. I mean -- how many times do you ever really get either?"
"I guess." Wes sounded dubious, but at least he didn't press on the matter.
"Then with all that completed, they packed me off on a month's leave, which is all well and good if you have family to see...or friends... I ended up coming to visit my Karate sensei." Eric found himself smiling. "That actually was probably my best move of the whole mess. For a whole month I got to be who I was before I went to Billingsley. I stayed in the apartment above his dojo, helped him with classes... just live an utterly normal life.
"It was great. It might not sound like everyone's idea of fun but I needed it. You know?" Wes nodded. "And then the month was up and it was time to go back to Camp Pendleton..."
***Camp Pendleton, CA, February 2000***
Eric tugged at his service uniform nervously. Why was he nervous? What did he have to be nervous about?
The change of job, he decided. When he'd got back the previous afternoon, he'd discovered he'd been transferred to a desk job. He supposed he'd been vaguely expecting that -- it would at least give him a chance to ease back into normal operations -- but it still made him feel nervous.
He took a deep breath, tugged once more at the uniform jacket and walked into the office. And stopped dead as his eyes came to rest on the private sitting at the nearer of the two desks in the room. She was blond, blue eyed and cute -- not cute in the sense she was good looking, but cute in the sense of small puppies and bunny rabbits. She would have looked far more at home in something pink and fluffy rather than the olive-and-khaki marine uniform.
And then she looked up, saw him and smiled a nauseatingly sweet, saccharine smile.
Help! It's Barbie incarnate.
"Sergeant Myers -- good to see you," she gushed, in a high-pitched, nasal tone. "I'm Private Hines. I'm your new aide."
"Pleased to meet you," Eric managed. She even sounds like Barbie.
She fluttered her eyelashes. "I'm so pleased to finally meet you," she continued, "I've heard all sorts of wonderful things about you."
Is she making a pass at me? Eric pasted on a smile. "I wish I could say the same -- but until I walked in here, I didn't know I was getting an aide."
"Oh, it was a last minute posting," she agreed, nodding and smiling. "If you need any help with the computer system, just ask. How do you take your coffee?"
Eric blinked. "Um...black. Without."
"What a coincidence, so do I!" she chirped. "I can just tell we're going to get along."
Not if I strangle you first. The KLA could use you as a whole new form of torture. Eric took his seat at his desk and turned on the computer. Never pictured myself doing this when I signed up. He sighed and turned his attention to the pile of papers already sitting on his desk. I'm not going to enjoy this.
He didn't. The week dragged. Private Hines' cheery manner grated against Eric's nerves, the paper work grated against his nerves, the lack of fresh-air and exercise grated against his nerves. By Friday afternoon, he was giving serious consideration to finding Lieutenant Colonel Cawdron and begging him to reassign him.
Unless this is Cawdron's revenge for me calling him a goddamn bastard. Eric frowned. He's not that petty.
Finally five o'clock arrived. With relief, he closed the case file he was working on, switched off the computer and stood up.
"See you on Monday, Sergeant," commented Hines as she went through her own close-down routine.
Eric was sorely tempted to reply 'Not if I see you coming', but refrained. "See you Monday," he agreed, and made his escape.
What he needed was some good, hard, physical exercise, but nothing as cerebral as a kata or sparring. He headed back to his own quarters and got changed into running gear. He wasn't especially fond of running laps, but it would fit what he needed for right now.
Heading across the base to the running track, he found it was already in use by a group of people. For the first time since returning from leave, Eric found himself smiling. Not just any group of people -- his squad. He hadn't realised how much he'd actually missed them in the six months or so since he'd last seen them.
"Hey, Sarge!" Franklin exclaimed. "How ya doin'?"
Eric smiled. "Pretty good, I guess. How about you?"
"Yeah...pretty good," Franklin replied. "Coming down for a run?"
There was something just ever so slightly off in Franklin's tone of voice. Eric couldn't quite place it, but he knew it was there. Dismissing the thought as both ridiculous and paranoid, he nodded. "Yeah. Shift some of the cobwebs."
"Cool...well...um...see ya later."
Franklin shot off in the other direction. Eric frowned and continued on his way to the track. But as he got there the rest of the guys who had been in his patrol all took off without even saying as much as Franklin.
Something I said? Eric shook his head. I'm not paranoid but the guy following me is. He sighed and started to stretch in preparation for the run. Maybe they had to be somewhere.
"What was the matter with them?" Wes asked.
Eric shrugged, finally sitting back. "Guilt, I think -- or embarrassment. Not sure. They couldn't stand to be in the same place I was." He sighed. "Actually, an awful lot of people were like that. It got real old real quick, being treated like a pariah for something that had basically been out of my control and I started to think about quitting...not re-enlisting."
Eric smiled bitterly. "Yeah. Royally."
There was a moment of silence, then Wes said, "You said you started to think about not re-enlisting...and you obviously didn't -- what happened?"
"General Aaron Lemont happened." Eric watched as Wes' eyebrows lifted in silent query. "I got told, in Landstuhl, that there were things that could be done about the scar tissue across my back and when I got to Camp Pendleton, the medics told me my options. Between us, we made a decision on what would be best and then that decision vanished into the black hole that is bureaucracy. It took six months for me to hear anything back. When I did, I was called in to see the General..."
***Camp Pendleton, CA, June 2000***
"Aah, Sergeant Myers. Pleasure to meet you."
Eric offered Lemont a salute. "Sir."
"At ease." Eric relaxed into the 'at ease' position. "I've been reviewing your...situation."
What the hell is that supposed to be a euphemism for? Eric wondered, careful to keep his expression neutral.
"Specifically," Lemont continued, "this," and he tapped a piece of paper on his desk, "request for scar reduction."
Ooh THAT situation. Why speak English when you can confuse your subordinates?
Lemont sat back in his seat and looked up at Eric. "I'm afraid I'm going to have to deny the request."
It took every ounce of training and self-possession Eric owned not to react to the statement beyond a polite, "Sir?"
"My hands are tied, Myers," Lemont replied. "Officially, you weren't there. Therefore you cannot have sustained any injuries requiring this treatment."
Eric swallowed. "Permission to speak freely, sir."
"Denied," Lemont replied. "I know that you aren't happy with this decision -- in your position, nor would I be. The order has come down from above."
Blindly, Eric saluted and left the general's office to make his way back to the housing office. Officially you weren't there. My hands are tied. The order has come down from above.
"Sergeant Myers...are you all right?"
He found himself sitting at his desk -- he didn't remember getting back there -- clenching and unclenching his fists. Hines was hovering in front of his desk.
"Yes. I'm fine," he gritted out.
"What did the general want?"
Eric swallowed. The shock of the general's decision was mutating into a cold, bitter fury that desperately needed an outlet. "Hines, if you wish to live out the rest of this week, I strongly advise you to stay out of my way," he replied softly, standing up. Hines shivered and swiftly moved. "I will be back after lunch."
Before he'd even thought about it, he found himself at the camp gym with his work out clothes on, pounding the hell out of the punching bag. It wasn't fair. The whole situation wasn't fair. He'd done his job in Novask but that seemed to have cost him just as much -- if not more -- than it would have done had he failed to do his job.
"Sergeant Myers I think you killed it already," commented someone.
Not ceasing to hit the sawdust bag, Eric looked round to see Lieutenant Colonel Cawdron watching him, along with Foster and Voges. It had been Foster who'd spoken.
"Lance Corporal Foster's correct," Cawdron added. "Stand down, Sergeant."
Eric aimed one final punch at the bag. "Sir."
"I'd like to see you in my office in fifteen minutes time, Sergeant," Cawdron continued.
And my day goes from bad to worse. "Sir. Yes sir."
Cawdron nodded and left the gym. Eric bent over to retrieve a towel he only vaguely recalled bringing with him.
"Holy shit." Foster's exclamation caused Eric to pause.
"What?" he asked.
"Your back," Foster replied. "What happened to it?"
Straightening, Eric was momentarily puzzled. Then he put a hand against his back and realised that in bending over, his t-shirt had come untucked, rendering the scars visible.
"Did...they do that to you?" Voges asked, a little uncertainly.
Eric considered all kinds of sarcastic responses before finally just admitting, "Yes." He turned to face his two former squad mates. "It's no biggie."
"No biggie?!" Foster exclaimed. "Sarge...Sergeant Myers what did they do to you?"
"Apparently," Eric snapped, "nothing." He swallowed. "Congrats on the promotion."
Before either Foster or Voges could say anything else, Eric left the gym for the locker room. He hoped they'd both take the hint.
Fortunately for them, they did. Eric swiftly showered and changed back into his service uniform, aware that the handful of other marines in the locker room were all staring with wide eyed horror at the scarring on his back. It took every shred of self-control he had not to scream at the lot of them. Then he headed for Cawdron's office.
He knocked on the door.
"Master Sergeant Myers reporting as ordered, sir," he said, saluting as he entered the room.
Cawdron nodded. "Have a seat, Myers." Eric sat stiffly in the seat opposite Cawdron. "Do you have any idea why I wanted to see you?"
"Are you aware that for the last five months you have been undergoing continued psychiatric review?"
"No sir." Where the hell is this leading?
"I have here," and Cawdron patted the folder on his desk, "the results of that review." Cawdron sat back in his seat. "I'm afraid they aren't favourable, Myers."
A ball of lead started to form in the pit of Eric's stomach as he waited for the other shoe to drop.
"There are three alternatives," Cawdron continued. "The first is that you go on an extended leave of absence. You see a psychiatrist and you get your head together. The second is a medical discharge. The third is that when your tour of duty finishes at the end of this month, you don't re-enlist. After today's performance, the first is not an option. I don't want to take the second, but if you don't take the third I will have to."
Eric blinked. "Sir?"
"I am strongly recommending you don't re-enlist." Cawdron paused, then added, "If you do, I will be forced to give you a medical discharge stating severe mental imbalance."
Eric blinked. It was true he had been much more short tempered in the last six months but...mentally unbalanced? Lemont's announcement that morning had been bad, but some how this was worse.
"According to the report -- and based on what I've seen myself -- you've been withdrawn, anti-social, snappish and prone to sudden out bursts of anger or depression, culminating in threatening Private Hines' life this morning after your meeting with General Lemont."
Eric shifted uncomfortably in his seat. Put that way, it didn't sound terribly balanced. "Sir."
Cawdron sighed. "And this is exactly what I mean, Myers -- before you were posted to Kosovo, you were just this side of insubordinate; in fact, your mouth has kept you from promotion on several occasions. But now... You need help and time away. Don't re-enlist. Please don't make me write the discharge form and force me to make this public."
Eric swallowed. He had been thinking of not signing on for another tour of duty anyway...and the medical discharge would carry with it a whole host of baggage that he didn't need.
"What happens if I say I won't re-enlist, sir?" he asked.
Cawdron looked relieved. "You have, according to the records, two weeks of leave remaining. The month has two weeks and four days to run."
Eric nodded slowly. "Yes, sir."
Cawdron nodded. "For what it's worth, Myers, I really am sorry. No-one should have to go through what you've gone through in the last year."
"Wow." Wes shook his head. "That's cold."
Eric gave a rueful smile. "It left me in the lurch -- I mean, yeah, I'd been thinking about it, but not enough to know what to do with myself if I did -- but it was probably the right decision. I didn't realise it until I joined the Silver Guardians, but I'd lost the ability to trust and work in a team. That's at least half the reason I wanted to be commander."
"That's why you said team work got you into more trouble than not working in a team," Wes realised. Eric nodded. "I'm also a little surprised you joined the Silver Guardians in the first place."
"Yeah -- surprised me too," Eric agreed. "I promised myself that I wouldn't go work for some security force...but no-one wants you if you don't have a college degree. And can you really see me working in Wal-Mart?" Eric grinned.
Wes snickered. "No."
Eric spread his hands in a 'there you go' gesture. "When I saw the ad for CGD I was getting just about desperate enough to do anything as long as it paid enough that I could afford to eat."
"What about pensions -- surely..."
"You weren't listening to me," Eric cut in. "As far as they're officially concerned, that two months never happened."
Eric held up his hand to stop Wes. "I know all the 'buts' you can possibly have thought of, Wes -- I've probably thought it at some point or other in the last two years. The short answer is, yes they can because that was the politically expedient response." Eric shrugged. "I know why, up here," he tapped the side of his head. "Doesn't make me any less angry and frustrated."
"That," Wes commented, "is something I can imagine."
Eric smirked faintly. "Speaking of angry -- didn't you say something about your dad being here for the budget meeting?"
"Shit! I'm toast."
Eric chuckled. "We'll just say we got attacked by a giant, mutated warthog, or something."
"And you know the problem with that?" Wes asked, standing up. "Given the kind of craziness that's gone on round here in the last six months, he'll believe it." Eric got to his feet, stepping into his boots as he did so. "You OK?"
Eric looked up and realised there was a genuine concern behind the query. He had expected some form of disgust or revulsion when he had started the explanation, or even anger, concern however, was a surprise. And a nice surprise, he realised. For the first time in two years, he actually felt accepted. "Yeah." He smiled wryly. The scars were still there -- but they seemed less raw now than they had that morning. "I will be."
Please note: Many, many thanks to Chris for these translations
Pomagati -- Help
Zdravo. Vi amerikanski? -- Hello. You [are] American?
Vi pomagao? -- You help?
Moj majka -- Ona ozljeda -- My mother -- she's hurt
Ne -- No
Da -- Yes
Ona bolestan -- She's sick
Pet dan -- Five days
Vama morao pomagao! -- You must help!
DrZite njima! -- Stop them!
Maiti se! -- Grab him!