Ed's next conscious feeling was a cool breeze on his face. He opened his eyes and could see some light. Not much, but there definitely was a break in the wall of his prison. A man was standing there... his silhouette clearly recognizable against the night sky. Ed struggled to his feet. He had to steady himself against the wall to keep his balance. He managed to take a few steps towards the man, before he stumbled. He didn't fall down as Mark had rushed inside to help his colleague and provide some support. Ed was now leaning on Mark, with one arm around his neck. Bill entered the mine next and quickly caught Ed's other arm. Between the two of them they managed to help the Sergeant out of the mine.
A frustrated and worried Ironside was sitting in his wheelchair in front of the mine. Shock registered on his face upon seeing Ed. There seemed to be only a remote resemblance between the ghostly-looking, shaky, dirty figure in front of him and his neat Sergeant... but he felt an overwhelming relief. They had found him in time. "Eve, get some water – quick!"
The police woman, who had been standing and watching in disbelief, hurried to fetch a bottle of water.
Ed opened his mouth to say something – but nothing came out, no sound at all.
"Ed - don't try to talk. Have some water first."
The men helped Ed sit down on the lifting platform of the paddy wagon. Eve gave him a glass of fresh water. Ed took a sip – and turned his head away from his friends. Swallowing seemed to be impossible, and they shouldn't see his struggle. Nevertheless Ironside noticed his trouble. "Easy. Don't push yourself. It's going to hurt at first. Eve, there is a towel in one of the cupboards."
Eve drenched the towel before handing it to Ed to moisten his lips. Since he could not drink, this would at least help put some fluid back into his body. But Ed was still embarrassed because of his condition, along with his careless actions.
"Sss..." he tried. Ironside understood. Ed wanted to apologize.
"It's all right, Ed. We've found you, and we know about Bonsanto Chemicals."
But there was more. With clumsy fingers Ed fished his notebook and pencil out of his pocket and wrote something down. Then he showed the notebook to Bill. "Eric + Jamie?" was on the page, hardly legible.
"They are fine, just fine. Don't worry." Bill thought that this was bending the truth slightly. He could only pray that they would be fine.
At long last Ed was able to relax and rest his sore head against the frame of one of the back doors.
Ironside decided that they had to get him to hospital to make sure that he would not be suffering from side effects. Mark and Bill helped Ed into the paddy wagon, placing a glass of water within his reach so he could drink whenever he felt up to it.
Carefully Mark drove back to town. Ironside radioed to headquarters for some officers to secure the evidence.
Before they reached San Francisco, Ed fetched his notebook. "No hospital, please. Office." he wrote.
Eve reacted vehemently: "But Ed...!"
Ed scribbled indignantly: "I'm hoarse, not sick!"
The Chief suppressed a smile. This was the stubborn Sergeant he liked. He was considering whether he could take the risk. Ed was already swallowing more easily now. And obviously he wanted to stay with his friends right now.
Back at headquarters they split up: Bill went home to his family. Ed took a bath. Eve helped Mark prepare some soup for all of them, since Ed wouldn't be able to eat anything solid. The Chief phoned the Commissioner to give him the outline of the story, refusing to come down to give a full report tonight.
When Ed, clad in Mark's tracksuit, came out of the bath, he was surprised to see Ironside browsing a bible.
The Chief looked up at him. The Sergeant's eyes were still deeply sunken in his face, and he looked gaunt and exhausted, but he was definitely Ed Brown again.
Curiously, Ed looked into the bible. Ironside showed him the interesting verse he had found:
"When thou shalt besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, thou shalt not destroy the trees thereof by forcing an axe against them: for thou mayest eat of them, and thou shalt not cut them down (for the tree of the field is man's life) to employ them in the siege."
"That's still as true as ever," Ironside said quietly. "When the trees are dead, there will follow landslides and erosion. The forests are an important part of the livelihood of the people in Vietnam."*
Ed took a pencil and wrote down: "We didn't think of the forests. We only thought of the enemy." Then he crossed out what he had written and corrected: "No, we only thought of ourselves."
"Yes, Ed. I understand that. It's not up to the soldiers out there to think of that. It's up to us.
Did you also see the effect of 'Agent Orange' on people?"
Ed nodded and penciled: "During the last weeks I spent there, when I was in hospital. It's not true that it is harmless for humans."
Thoughtfully Ironside went on: "There are people who warn that 'Agent Orange' is dangerous. But the government doesn't listen to them. It's not the right time for such thoughts yet. We can't even stop Bonsanto Chemicals to sell the rest of their 'Agent Pink' as 'Agent Orange'. They just have to put it into new drums. We can't examine all of them."
Neither man spoke for a while – an uneasy silence settled between them while they pondered the consequences of Ed's discovery.
Then Ironside became aware of the crestfallen look in Ed's eyes.
For his friend's sake he forced himself to add:
"Ed – how many drums were there in that cave? About 200? 'Agent Pink' contains many times the level of dioxin found in 'Agent Orange'. How many people do you think you have saved from getting as sick as Bill's children and even from dying?
Look, we can't stop the evil. But we can't stop trying either – and save as many people from suffering and dying as possible. That's got to be enough."
*Neither of them was to know that because of the dioxin hundreds and thousands of people would be killed or maimed, and even more children would be born with birth defects.
Thank you, dear Lemonpig73, for your patience, your imagination, the lost hours of sleep and for your willingness to compromise!
Thank you all for your wonderful, motivating reviews!