Saturday Story

Yaaaaawwwwwwnnn, scratchscratchscratch, streaaaaatch. Sorry this a little later than usual. Good intentions are great, but we all know where they eventually lead.

This is part of an older work that will probably eventually get finished – after a whole bunch of re-writing and plot repair. It takes place in the future on a human colonized world.

 

Reunion and Reprieve

 

“There, at three o’clock!” the observer called, and Chief Rick “Rednose” Leffler banked the scout helicopter over to get a closer look, after confirming that no one was shooting at them. The war had ended three weeks earlier but there was usually someone who missed the briefing, especially out in a boonies back end like the Mara River delta. Wonder who I pissed off to get assigned out here the pilot asked again as he looked at the grays and greens of the equatorial swamps blurring below his helicopter.

“There’s no camps or bases on the map, are there?” Leffler asked as he glanced down at the compound.

“No sir. And, shit! It’s flying a white flag and Alliance colors at the gate,” Specialist Pierre Sandoz said.

Leffler switched the number three radio to the general emergency frequency, broadcasting “Camp on Mara River, do you read Orion Three?”

A weak but clear voice replied, “Orion Three, this is Mara Camp and boy are we glad to see you, over.”

The tell-tale light flicked on as Sandoz started recording the transmission. “Mara Camp, who are you, over?”

“We are Northern Alliance prisoners of war. We need medical supplies and food for a hundred and fifty.” There was a pause. “And the current camp commander says that Danskold winter beer should be poured back into the horse it came from, over.”

Once he managed to stop laughing, Leffler replied, “Roger that. Orion Three will get people en route. Confirm you are aware that the war ended?”

“Affirmative. The guards skipped out when the news arrived, over,” the radio voice confirmed.

As they banked away, they could see figures waving at them, then returning to the collection of sheds and tents in the middle of the humid tropical swamp. “OK Chief, what’s the joke,” Sandoz demanded after they had notified the authorities of their find.

“Danskold winter beer really does taste horrible, if you’re from the area. Has something to do with drinking the water all your life screws up your taste buds. But folks in the capital and the big cities buy the stuff as gourmet treats and the Danskolders laugh all the way to the bank,” Leffler explained with a grin. Then he sobered a little, “Most Southerners wouldn’t know that, so the camp’s probably not a trap.”

Two days later, once a series of storms had passed, helicopters and marsh boats arrived at the camp on the natural levee of the Mara. Lieutenant Colonel Charles Erikson and a small group of prisoners met the Northern Alliance people at the gate. “Welcome to Mara,” he said after exchanging salutes. “Our sickest people are in those sheds over there, if you can get them out first, Major.”

Major Paolo Murano nodded. “Yes, sir. Medics!” he called and pointed. Five combat medics and a doctor went towards the indicated sheds, led by some of the underfed men and women. He turned back Erikson. “How many people here, sir?”

“Alive, one hundred fifty. There are another four hundred nine in the graveyard. We have lists of who they are and any messages if they left one,” the gaunt colonel said quietly.

Murano made the blessing sign, eyes wide. “Sweet lord!” He looked closely at the underfed officer, noting the grey in Erikson’s tightly curled black hair, the faint yellow of jaundice in his brown eyes, and the scars on his dark skin. “Are you in command here, Colonel?”

“No. General Frederik von Gepardbach is. I’ll take you to him, once we get the sick and injured taken care of. That’s on his orders, Major,” Erikson stated, preempting any protests. The major took a deep breath of the heavy, odor-rich air and complied. Erikson noticed a strange look on the man’s face and inquired. “Is there a problem, Major Murano?”

“Just that there were no survivors of the Kildare raid, Colonel Erikson,” the rescuer said.

The black man smiled, “I had the same reaction, Major. Now, let me show you what we have and what we need, besides transportation out of this bug-infested, stinking hole!”

The sickest and most badly injured men had been taken to the medical ship anchored in the bay. Murano and Erikson walked through the camp and Murano stared at the conditions, disgusted by how the prisoners had been treated. “How did you end up here, sir?”

“This is where they put the least cooperative, most escape prone, annoying and dangerous of the POWs, Major. You’ll notice a lot of Special Recon members, Raiders and other incorrigibles,“ Erikson smiled again. “And a few idiots like me, who couldn’t bring themselves to salute the Union flag or to stop harassing the guards and administrators.”

A rough voice called, “Paolo, what the blazes are you doing here? Didn’t your wife teach you any better?” Murano spun around, jaw dropping open in shock as a scrawny, cotton-blond man continued, “Who’d you piss off to get sent to this rat hole?”

“Damn it, Snowball!” the darker man exclaimed as the two slapped backs and shook hands. “Last time I saw you was just before the peninsula campaign started. What the hell happened?”

Andrew “Snowball” Smith shrugged. “Took a wrong turn and asked the wrong sergeant for directions. You know I never could read a map,” the Spec Rec captain grinned.

Erikson cleared his throat. “I hate to interrupt, but the old man wants to see the major.”

The blond POW sobered. “Understood. You still owe me a beer, Paolo,” and he backed away, then returned to what he had been doing.

“In here,” Erikson directed, opening the netting on one of the tents. “Sir, Major Paolo Murano, Special Recon, to see you,” the colonel announced formally. As Murano’s eyes adjusted to the shadows, he bit back a curse. The figure on the cot should have gone out on one of the first helicopters, if his injuries were anything as bad as they looked and smelled!

“Welcome to Camp Mara, Major Murano; I’m Frederik von Gepardbach, commander of the Raiders and acting camp commander since the departure of the Union bastards. I’d shake hands, but,” the once muscular officer shrugged. His right hand was gone and the arm looked dead, his left leg bent the wrong way at the knee, and Murano’s nose told him that something, probably the general’s arm, had gangrene.

Murano collected himself. “Understood, sir. We’ve gotten about a quarter of your men out, and the sickest are on the hospital ship ‘Solace,’ out in the bay. Weather permitting, we should be able to finish evacuating the living by the end of the day. The terrain doesn’t support passenger aircraft and with the coastal weather, it was decided to use a hospital ship rather than risk flying the sick and injured home.”

The general nodded his understanding. “I have unfond memories of training jumps around some of that coastal weather, Major. A ship sounds wise. On a slightly different topic, that box,” and he indicated a metal container, “contains the hard copy and chip data on the deceased, as well as an account of events here over the past four and a half years, since my men and I arrived. Has Colonel Erikson been able to help you?”

“Yes, sir. He’s given me everything we needed to get things moving as smoothly as possible.” Murano noticed Erikson relaxing a hair as he said that.

“Good. Erikson’s been my right-hand man, if you’ll pardon the term, since his arrival here,” Frederik explained. “Especially since my leg was broken.” The choice of terms made Paolo frown and Erikson nodded in confirmation. The general continued in a lighter tone, “So, Major, vital news from the real world. Does Neubergen have a prayer at making the championship this year?”

“Not really, sir. They traded Hemsted for a striker and a draft-choice goalie last year and got taken to the cleaners. It looks like South Kellner and Greyland United will be playing for the cup.” Murano grinned, “About time we flatlanders got a chance!”

Despite his protests, General von Gepardbach was not the last man to leave the camp. The medics were insistent that Frederik get out as soon as they saw his condition; especially the gangrene in his right arm. “No buts, sir, unless you want to lose your head as well as the arm,” Doctor Chin announced.

“I’ll take care of it, sir,” Erikson assured his CO. “And I’ll report to you as soon as possible.”

“Do that,” Frederik ordered, just before the arrival of a medivac helicopter drowned out all conversation. Erikson and the others ducked out of the way as the ‘copter’s crew loaded von Gepardbach’s litter into the aircraft.

“Is there anyone you want us to contact, sir?” the flight nurse asked as she made sure his harness was secure.

Frederik nodded. “Yes, there is: Lieutenant Colonel Andrea Nicolo. Tell her I’m coming home.”

The nurse blinked and gave him a pitying look, then got very busy with her notepad. “Yes, sir,” she said briskly, before moving to help secure a second patient.

Frederik slept through most of the flight, then fidgeted until the nurses got him cleaned up, the doctors made their inspections, and Col. Erikson reported that all the men were accounted for and taken care of. Only then did General von Gepardbach let himself relax, for the first time in months? Years? He couldn’t really say.

Frederik didn’t blink when the doctors on the hospital ship gave him the news that his right arm was beyond saving. “Take it, then. It’s been useless for the past three years anyway. What about the leg?”

Dr. Mfume smiled a little. “That we can save, although your knee is pretty much a loss. What did you do – back tackle a tree?”

“Not quite, but I probably should have,” Frederik said just as lightly. “So a new knee?”

“Yes, but not now. Arm first, before the gangrene spreads any farther. Then once you’ve gotten some strength back, we’ll plan on replacing the knee and probably some of the nerves in the lower leg as well,” Mfume outlined. “You’ll be able to do everything but go through a metal detector once we finish.”

The now grey-haired general nodded. “Good. I like me in one piece, Doc. Thanks.”

Dr. Mfume gave Frederik a light sedative to start the pre-op and Frederik relaxed against the clean sheets and closed his eyes, wondering how his wife was reacting to the news of his return. He pictured her surprised expression, green eyes lighting up with joy, then went on and summoned images of the rest of her. She was not pretty, but not homely, either. Just plain, with a small nose, broad cheekbones and a tan complexion, she stood 1.9 meters to his 2.1. Her strength of character, stubborn will and protectiveness were what people remembered, not her physical features. Frederik saw her again in her black Special Recon uniform, the pinecones of a Lieutenant Colonel on her shoulders and a determined look in her eyes as they stood before the chaplain at their wedding. He smiled, drifting off to sleep.

Frederik awoke numb and disoriented. Everything seemed too pale and he felt strange, as if the ground were moving under him. He forced himself to relax as he tried to sort out where he was and what the situation was. Oh yes; he was on the medical ship, thus the motion and vibrations. And he’d been through surgery, so of course he would be numb. The general opened his eyes and looked towards his right side. Even knowing what to expect, the empty space where his arm had  been hit him with a jolt. Bandages covered his shoulder and a short stump, and everything else was air. But it didn’t hurt, thanks to modern pain blocks, and it didn’t smell of death anymore. That was definitely a relief. How was he going to explain to Andrea? Hullo love, I’ve finally lost those ten pounds? I gave my right arm for a good meal? Considering what she’d been through, she probably wouldn’t even blink.

During the four days it took the ship to travel back to an Alliance military port, Frederik recovered from the surgery and tried to keep track of the men who had been under his command. However, only some of the former POWs had been scattered over the hospital ship, while most had been flown in stages back to two military bases for processing, so all Gepardbach could do was focus on his Raiders. Eleven of the original twenty-five had died in the camps and Frederik dictated letters to their families. He also did as much as he could to make certain that the surviving Raiders had their paperwork in order and experienced as few difficulties as possible.

That proved to be a true nightmare. He’d learned of the problem after pestering one of the orderlies about any messages from Andrea. “Ah, sir, well, here’s the problem,” the sergeant had explained very sheepishly and reluctantly. “We’ve been holding all communications from you and the other Kildare survivors, per government orders.” As Frederik’s eyes started bulging, the man hurried, “You were all declared dead after the raid, and the government doesn’t want to cause your families any more shock than they’re already going to face – no media pressure, no holo-vultures appearing at people’s doors. So we’ve been ordered to keep quiet until we get to the hospital at Stavensport.”

“Oh. Thank you,” Frederik said, with a modicum of civility. What he thought was an entirely different matter but he still growled after the sergeant departed. The Northern Lion, as his men had dubbed him, had little patience for those who tried to short or mistreat his men. That’s what earned him the broken knee, along with other now healed injuries he’d gotten at the hands of Union guards. Well, now what was he going to do? Frederik decided to keep doing what he could, and relished the though of some bureaucrat’s expression when all of the Raiders’ paperwork hit his inbox in one large slug. The work kept him busy and occupied most of the time he wasn’t sleeping or just resting, so he didn’t really have a chance to think about his missing limb, and the next phase of his recovery.

Soon Frederik had something else to distract him: real nightmares. He’d be fine for the first part of the night, but then . . . Scenes from the prison camp, the painful interrogations after their capture when the assigned air-transport never arrived, elements of fantasy that mixed in with real events, all sorts of things crowded the hours between midnight and morning. Andrea also visited the horrible hours, in the form of an official notice of her death or captivity. The general awoke soaked with sweat from re-fighting battles that only existed as shadows. Once he did wake up, Frederik’s ghosts and tormentors lingered until he fought himself back under control. He knew what it was – post-traumatic stress. He also knew that he didn’t want someone from the mental health specialists trying to sort out his head, or prescribing him something, so he kept his fears and night terrors to himself.

(C) 2015 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved.

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