“If we fall in the race, though we win, the hoof-slide is scarred on the course;
Allah and Earth pardon sin, but remaineth forever remorse.” R. Kipling.
When General James McKendrick confronted him, Major Edward O’Neil swore that he had been joking. His fellow officers, however, had their doubts.
It began innocuously enough one night at supper when Commander Na Gael joined the others in trying to identify the mystery meat. It was Lent, and Friday, so most guesses centered on fish or seafood. “Maybe lobster,” Major Maria de Alba y Rodriguez speculated, drawing laughter.
Lieutenant Pedro Bustos, from Chile, poked the item in question and decided, “capybara. It is a fish during Lent, after all.”
Neither guess was at all likely but both were possible, Rachel Na Gael mused as she chewed. Given the absence of bones and texture, she suspected a soybean something and made a note to get more of her dried beef the next time she ventured into the town near the Defense Force base. At least the cooks had stopped stewing the vegetables into submission. She had very unfond memories of English cooking from the mid 1980s. “When in doubt, boil,” had been the motto or so it had seemed, and every non-bread, non-meat item emerged from the kitchen mushy, bland and unappealing. The thankfully brief dietary lurch towards vegetarianism in the late 1990s had also been rough for a near-obligate carnivore, Rachel sighed.
She returned from her mental wanderings in time to hear Major Edward “Oatmeal” O’Neil asking de Alba, “What are you giving up for Lent?”
The woman shook her head. “That is between me and God.” Her eyes narrowed a little, “Although if you’re looking for suggestions, talking without thinking might be a good place to start.”
The round-faced Englishman ignored the jab and turned to the Commander. “Are you giving up anything?”
“Oh, probably smoking cigars and drinking beer,” she joked lightly, collecting her tray and starting to leave.
O’Neil wouldn’t drop it and suggested, “What about a real sacrifice, like not killing anyone until after Easter?” The others at the table hissed but the Wanderer kept walking as if she’d not heard the comment, put her dishes in the washing-up area and left the dining hall to the humans. But his words hurt, badly. She’d been depressed even before the man’s comment and as she returned to the laboratory, the woman’s old ghosts emerged from their holes and fluttered around her. Rachel wondered again just how many people had died because of her and how many lives she had taken over the centuries. Too many, probably. But she was a soldier. And she’d never committed murder as the humans defined it. Killed in combat, yes, and for self-defense on several occasions. She’d executed a few individuals and felt little or no remorse at ridding the universe of their presence, and had also granted mercy more than once. But never murder.
Rachel wanted to talk to an old friend about the matter but she’d given up pestering him for Lent. Besides, he had more than enough on his desk as it was without her bothering him. So she did her best to drag her mind back to more important matters and to things she was supposed to be doing, instead of brooding over old history.
It had been fairly quiet for the G.D.F.’s British Branch recently and the soldiers were making the most of it by catching up on administrative matters, training, repairing equipment and all the other things that they never had enough time to do. Simultaneously, headquarters in Vienna started issuing a new series of training scenarios and simulations for the staff officers and senior NCOs. These were conducted without certain key staff members present, so as to force the rest of the unit’s leadership to adapt and deal with the situation. The most recent one had omitted the xenology specialist and she’d used the time to launch a counterattack on the dandelions attempting to infiltrate part of the gardens behind the headquarters building. The small ones had gone into a basket for the cooks, who used the greens in salad, while the older, bitter plants got shredded and composted.
After Rachel washed up and delivered her produce to the kitchen, she took her time wandering back to her “lair.” On the way she heard O’Neil and someone else discussing the simulation she’d missed and she decided to slow down and eavesdrop. The Englishman asked, “So this was close to what happened three years ago?”
Captain Moshe ben David replied, “As far as I can tell, yes sir, although I’m sure the details are different.”
Now very interested, Rachel eased closer to the door. “Damn! All those casualties for one person – what a waste.” Her heart almost stopped as the speaker continued, “What ever became of expendability? We would have come out of the scenario a lot better if we’d just let things run their course since the aggressors didn’t want information, and I wager the same was true for the real event.”
Sickened, Rachel didn’t stay to hear Moshe’s reply. Instead, she fled as all the doubts and guilt she’d been fighting so hard to be rid of bubbled up from her memory. The humans heard the distinctive “step-tap-step” retreating down the corridor outside the office as the Israeli exclaimed, “In the name of all that’s holy, sir, how can you say that? We always look out for our own! And who’s to say they wouldn’t force information from her, to pass on or use against us themselves?”
Once she cleared that part of the hall, Rachel managed to get herself back under control and continued on as if she’d not heard anything. She nodded to a few people as she walked briskly, taking a side door outside and cutting through the grounds on her way back to the lab. O’Neil was right, the Wanderer thought bitterly. If she’d been left to die, none of the G.D.F. personnel would have been injured or killed, her business partner Zabet wouldn’t have been hurt, and her few friends could have moved on and not have had to worry about her afterwards.
“Oh, stop this,” Rachel hissed, trying to regain command of her own mind. “No, don’t look at it that way, don’t even think that way!” She fought for control, trying to push the buried feelings and memories back to where they belonged. The Traders might well have killed Evelyn Jones anyway, and Zabet as well, for helping the “half-breed bastard.” Joschka and Rahoul would have mourned, but things might have gone differently for them had she not lived. “How many lives did you protect by continuing to serve, here and in the Empire?” she asked herself. There was no way to know but it was a valid question and one that helped push the darkness back for a while.
Rachel tried to suppress what O’Neil’s remarks had stirred up and she did fairly well until after the G.D.F. got called out on a mission. It proved to be unusually mild and straightforward and she’d been able to simply advise and observe, rather than getting in the middle of things as she often did. All in all, she mused as she dictated her reports, the humans had done well and probably could have carried the day without her. That was good – they needed to stand on their own feet and not get dependent on her. As an added bonus, the weather had improved markedly, turning soft and warm even though the calendar warned that it was still March. A few roses swelled and budded and when she finished the first batch of paperwork, Rachel waded into the fray, pruning shears (and hacksaw) in hand.
She was finishing tying up the last recalcitrant cane when her ”cell phone” went off. Since the ring didn’t signal a call from the Palace Guard, General McKendrick, or Graf-General von Hohen-Drachenburg, she ignored it and continued with her task, bundling up the winter-killed rose canes and carrying them to the burn stack and compost collector.
Rachel hauled the last pile to the bins, put away her tools and sat down, listening to the message. It was very personal – Brigadier Eastman, the first commanding officer she’d worked with in the G.D.F., had died from complications following hip replacement surgery and would she sing at the funeral? Rachel hung her head as sorrow and guilt crashed onto her. He’d called her just before the procedure, checking how she (and his cousin) was doing. General Johnny had given her the hospital information, saying, “Come see me afterwards. I’m going to be bored out of my mind, I can tell already.”
But she hadn’t and now he was gone. I would have known she thought. I could have caught the problem and saved him, or helped him heal faster so he wouldn’t have been in long enough to get a clot. Or I would have stopped the clot. Another death on her head, this one from neglect.
That evening she ate alone in her quarters. O’Neil had been right, she decided: she had taken so many lives that dying that September would have been better. Rachel stared into the darkness of her room, mourning her survival. Something moved and as the Wanderer stared, shapes emerged from the walls: shadows darker than the night’s blackness, gory figures that glared and pointed, whispering “killer,” “murderer,” “selfish half-breed.” She closed her eye and covered her ears but the whispers and chants continued. Despair, remorse and sorrow overwhelmed the small woman and she cried out, “You aren’t real! And I tried, I tried! You are not real, you’re dead!” But the shades swirled and circled around her, whispering and condemning.
Rachel managed to snatch bits of sleep that night despite the ghosts haunting her. The next morning she had no appetite but made herself eat a little and went back to working as she usually did. But all day long she kept seeing hints of motion in the corners of her eye and hearing hisses and very faint whispers. Rachel managed to get through Jonathan Eastman’s funeral two days later without anyone noticing a problem and it was soon obvious that no one else saw or heard anything amiss. The Wanderer felt a bit of relief for that. Her guilt was already thick enough without her fears driving anyone else mad. Because that’s what was happening, Rachel knew: she was going insane.
Rachel attempted to leave and go to a place where she wouldn’t endanger anyone if she lost control of her talents. But the psycho-symbiote in the Dark Hart refused to engage. Since she couldn’t tell what was real, neither could it, and as a result the ship’s self-protection programming blocked her escape attempt. She was trapped on Earth, in this time and place. And Rachel’s promise to Rahoul and Joschka closed off her only other possible escape route. So she did the one thing she could to protect the others.
Rachel isolated herself from the humans around her, emerging from the lab just long enough for briefings and meetings. She stopped visiting the messes or socializing in the evenings. Personal messages from Austria appeared on her e-mail but she ignored them after the first one or two and she stopped answering her “cell phone.” There was no point in worrying her friends or causing them more pain, she decided. As a further protection, Rachel hardened and locked her mental shields in place, walling her mind off from those around her. It hurt her but she didn’t see any other option.
Although the roses had come into their first glorious flush of color, the gardens held no appeal for the haunted Wanderer and she didn’t even look out the windows of the lab or venture out of doors. Her ghosts drew closer and closer and Rachel’s memory summoned up more and more images of the creatures she’d killed, of battles fought centuries before, of all the deaths that surrounded her. She could no longer sleep and instead stared into the darkness, waiting for dawn. And waiting for death or utter madness to finish her journey into Hell.
It was Colonel Tadeus Przilas who finally asked someone, “Have you seen Commander Na Gael around, outside of briefings and simulations?” He’d been away on leave and noticed her absence almost as soon as he got back.
Moshe ben David, the adjutant, shook his head, running a hand over his freshly trimmed black hair. “No sir, now that you mention it. I assume she’s been eating with the NCOs, but I’ve not seen her in the officers’ mess for the last two weeks or so and she hasn’t been around in the evenings.”
First Sergeant Anthony Lee and Colour Sgt. Morgan St. John hadn’t seen much of the Commander, either. “She’s not been messing with us, sir,” St. John told the executive officer.
“Commander Na Gael did re-qualify earlier this week, but she didn’t stay to chat, sir. Came in, shot her minimum and left.” Lee frowned. “That’s not like her at all, sir.”
“No, it isn’t,” the American agreed, growing concerned. “And she hasn’t been in the gym recently, either.”
St. John hesitated and then offered, “There’s this too, sir. Look at the rose garden – it’s getting weedy.”
That brought Przilas up short. “That’s not good, Sergeant. Thank you,” and he hurried off to talk to one more person.
He found Father Mikael Farudi checking on some things in the chapel in preparation for evensong. Przilas genuflected quickly and approached the priest. “Father, do you have a moment? I’m worried about Commander Na Gael.”
“So am I. She’s not been to services for over three weeks and that never happens if she’s here.” The priest was rather fond of his unconventional parishioner and was deeply concerned about the woman. “I noticed that she looked ill the last time she came, but I’ve not seen her outside briefings since then.” The Lebanese Anglican shook his head, “and when I tried to draw her out, she had work to attend to. I hope she’s not sick in body or in spirit.”
“The sergeants say that she’s acting odd, not eating with them and that she’s neglecting the rose garden,” Tadeus advised Fr. Mikael. “And she’s not eating with the officers either, or socializing in the evenings. Something must be wrong with her,” the officer continued, thinking aloud.
A Scots’ accented voice said, “Something is.” Priest and colonel turned as General McKendrick closed the door to the small chapel. “I’m glad you’re both here. I just got a phone call from Vienna, from Colonel Rahoul Khan. Both he and General Eszterházy have been trying to contact Rachel. She’s not answering her private ‘cell phone’ and she’s not responding to e-mails from them, either.” The stocky redhead walked up the side aisle to where the two men stood. “So they called to see if she’d gone on leave, or if she’d been injured or was otherwise out of contact.”
“She’s withdrawn completely, sir,” Father Mikael said. “From us and from the gardens.”
A puzzled expression crossed McKendrick’s ruddy face. “Rachel seems like her normal self when I’ve seen her, if a bit quiet.” Which was quite a change from her customary eruptions of wise-assery, McKendrick thought. “But I’ve only seen her at briefings or presentations recently.”
“Sir, perhaps someone should check on her in the lab. If she’s having trouble and trying to cover it up, she might have her guard down on her own turf,” Przilas offered.
The general grunted. “See to it then and let me know what you find.” He turned and left the chapel.
“Father Mikael, will you . . .” the American’s voice trailed off as the priest shook his head.
“No, Tadeus. As soon as she sees me, she’ll know we’re checking up on her. Try Major de Alba or Captain ben David – I’m told that the two of them have gone with her on garden tours once or twice,” the Anglican suggested.
“Rachel?” ben David called as he pushed the lab door open and looked around. There was no response, but he saw a familiar profile across the room, standing at the window and staring into the late afternoon rain. “Commander Na Gael?” Only silence answered and Moshe signaled “caution” as he walked in followed by Major de Alba. Together they threaded their way between worktables and equipment to where their advisor stood.
Her blind side was towards the pair and the Wanderer showed no sign of noticing their presence. “Rachel?” Maria asked, reaching out and touching the other woman. At last Rachel gave a sign of life, turning slightly so she could see the humans. “Blessed Mary!” the Spanish communications officer gasped, grabbing the advisor. “Rachel, what’s wrong?”
The alien looked horrible. There was no color left in the Wanderer’s face. Normally pale, now her skin appeared almost transparent, the long scar prominent on a sunken cheek. Rachel had never been heavy despite the amount of food she ate, but Maria felt only bones as she gripped the xenology specialist’s arm. Loose bits of brown-black hair escaped here and there from the woman’s braids and bun. And worst of all was the gray eye, as dead as the blind one. All the fire, energy, and life that Maria had come to know were gone, leaving a Rachel-shaped shell. The Wanderer rasped, “Is there a mission?”
“No, but you need help,” Moshe replied.
Rachel shook her head, turning away again. “No, thank you. Just let the darkness come. It’s overdue.” The soldiers looked at eachother and de Alba pointed towards the desk and its intercom. Moshe nodded and ran across the room, dialing first the infirmary and then General McKendrick’s office number.
“Sir? It’s Captain ben David. Something is very, very wrong with the Commander.” He heard Maria gasp and turned around to see her trying to catch the xenologist as Rachel sank to the floor. “I think she’s dying!”
An hour later Dr. Tomasso Albioni emerged from Rachel’s personal quarters. It had been decided to keep her in familiar surroundings, despite the difficulties of getting her up the stairs. McKendrick waited below, very worried about his advisor, and Albioni told him, “Dehydration and starvation caused her collapse, General. But otherwise I don’t know what’s wrong. She accepted fluids but won’t respond to my questions, except to ask me to ‘let her go’ because ‘it will be better for everyone’.”
It soon became apparent that something had happened to Rachel’s mind. She no longer slept, as far as the people watching her could tell. Instead she stared into the shadows of her quarters or covered her eyes with her hands. “She keeps going on about ghosts and shadows and asking to be left alone or for us to let her go, what ever that means,” the nurse reported to the gathered staff officers two mornings later. “Commander Na Gael is also refusing to eat or drink anything,” he added.
“Thank you, Sergeant Patel,” McKendrick said, then dismissed the nurse-paramedic. The general sat back in his chair, arms folded. “Do any of you have any idea when this started? Dr. Albioni thinks if we can find out when, he might be able to puzzle out what led to her collapse.”
The humans wracked their memories. “The last time she ate in the officers’ mess that I remember was, hmmm, late March, I think. Just after we had the last mission,” Edward O’Neil, suggested.
Ben David nodded energetically. “That’s right, because it was the day before she asked for leave to go to a funeral.” He scrolled through a computer file. “Yes, here we go, March 22 she made the request, so it was the 21st.”
“Funeral?” de Alba asked.
“Brigadier Jonathon Eastman’s service,” the adjutant explained. “Apparently they had kept in touch after his retirement and she went to his funeral, along with Lieutenant Eastman from the motor pool.”
“I remember now,” the Spaniard nodded. “That’s also the last time she dropped by the lounge. I’d assumed she was spending the evenings out in the garden and greenhouse,” she admitted, ducking a little guiltily.
“That’s what everyone thought,” McKendrick rumbled. “Until Tadeus realized something was wrong.” Looking back, it was obvious that they should have been checking on her more closely. McKendrick had learned the full details of her previous “difficulty” after reporting the Wanderer’s collapse to Vienna. All the warning signs had been there, he sighed, but none of the officers had recognized them and Na Gael had avoided the long-time NCOs who might have caught the situation.
“Well, one thing is clear: we have to keep better eyes out for eachother,” he continued aloud. “I told her a year and a half ago that she wasn’t the only person in the G.D.F. to have problems, and that still holds true.”
He flipped some pages on the table in front of him. “So March 21 and 22 are the probable start dates,” and the others nodded their agreement. “Ben David, tell Dr. Albioni, please.”
There were no other major administrative matters for the staff to sort through or discuss, so McKendrick relaxed as he broke the next bits of news. “On a completely unrelated topic, the warrants for Col. Przilas’ arrest have expired, so he will be returning to North America, likely followed by a staff assignment.” It took the others a moment to realize that their commanding officer was joking. When they did, quiet laughter flowed around the table and the American executive officer grinned.
“As if that is not enough to cause an eruption of total chaos, I’m leaving in two months to return to the real world and take command of the Black Watch,” the Scotsman continued, smiling and acknowledging the congratulations. “Colonel Rahoul Khan will be returning to take over here and to receive a promotion to brigadier general. He will act as executive officer until I leave to enjoy a few moments of tranquility before my next assignment.” So much for a quiet posting after his unexpected time with the G.D.F., McKendrick had sighed when he read the letter.
“Sir, wasn’t he the senior surviving officer back three years ago?” O’Neil inquired.
The redhead nodded. “Affirmative. No offense intended Przilas, but I had wanted him to stay on afterwards. However, Vienna in their infinite wisdom decreed otherwise, and so he went on a staff rotation at headquarters. They liked him so much they wanted to keep him an extra year, but he’s being released on time served.” McKendrick chuckled at the officers’ response to two jokes in one meeting. “Khan will arrive on Friday, with his family following later, so that we can have as smooth a transition as possible.” With that, the meeting concluded.
Rahoul Khan took a deep breath of the warm spring air and smiled at the faint scent of roses. It had been almost two-and-a-half years since he, Panpit, and their children had moved to Austria and while there was much to like about Vienna, he preferred England. Not much seemed to have changed around the G.D.F.’s British headquarters, he thought as he stepped out of the car. Then he remembered what waited for him and his smile faded abruptly. He reached deep into a tunic pocket to make sure that the item the Graf-General had loaned him was still there, and considered what he knew about their advisor.
He’d first met Commander “Rachel Na Gael” when Jonathon Eastman had been in command, shortly after she’d been hired. Rahoul had volunteered for a tour with the G.D.F. after graduating from Sandhurst and ended up making the Defense Force a career. Rachel had mentored him in her own way and he’d come to admire her as well as learning a lot from her over the years. He’d returned to the G.D.F. as executive officer first under Brigadier Andrew Whitehead and then the ill-fated Evelyn Jones. Now he and Rachel had come full circle and Rahoul wondered what had happened to her to break her so utterly.
As it turned out, almost nothing had changed as far as the Headquarters building was concerned so Rahoul opted to skip a tour and reported directly to Major General McKendrick. The heavy-set Scotsman smiled broadly and extended a beefy and strong hand. “Welcome home, I dare say,” he offered a few minutes later, after the requisite formalities.
“Thank you, sir. It’s good to be back in England,” Khan replied, taking the offered seat.
They discussed basics and Rahoul caught McKendrick up on the changes in Vienna. “There’s been something in the water, sir. General von Hohen-Drachenburg retired in January, now the shuffle here, the creation of a Central African Branch, and to top it all off, the Secretary will be leaving in August!”
“At least we’re spared early elections here,” McKendrick grunted.
“There’s that, sir,” his successor agreed.
The redhead sat back and smiled a little. “Well, G.D.F. shuffles means nothing to me after June first. I’m glad I’ve had this assignment, Khan, but it will be good to get back to the regular Army and regular Army problems to deal with.”
The South-Asian officer smiled, teeth white against his medium-brown skin. “It’s funny, sir. When I was with the Irish Guards in Iraq and Afghanistan, I kept thinking how confusing and frustrating it was to deal with human opponents. I’d managed to get used to extraterrestrial enemies.”
“I’m glad some people can.” McKendrick frowned, “Speaking of extraterrestrials, have you looked in on Commander Na Gael?”
“No, sir. As much as I would like to, there are other priorities,” Khan said.
James stood. “There are but we do have a few minutes to spare.” He looked at the wall clock and took off his glasses to clean the lenses. “She’s in her quarters. Go see her, Col. Khan. Maybe she’ll respond to you. And be back by 1430, so you can meet the rest of the staff.”
“Yes, sir.” Khan saw himself out and walked quickly and silently down the hall to the lab. He paused automatically to check the door light, then shook his head. The light was off – what else would it be with Rachel out of action? He noted a few changes to the lab, then climbed the metal spiral stairs to his friend’s quarters, tapped on the door, opened it and made his way between the bookcases. Rahoul stopped long enough to let his eyes adjust to the dim light, then turned left to the sleeping area.
Sergeant St. John was taking a turn watching Rachel and she smiled a little when she recognized the visitor. “Welcome back, sir,” she offered after rising to her feet.
“Thank you, Colour Sergeant. Sit, please. How is she?” Badly off, that much he could tell at a glance. Rachel’s eyes were both closed but she wasn’t asleep. Instead she murmured and whispered in a strange language. All Rahoul could see easily in the dim light was his friend’s dark hair, because her colorless face matched the white sheets lining her wood and wicker bed-nest. He’d given her grief about her strange sleeping arrangements, Khan recalled, but Rachel had pointed out that it was none of his business if she wanted to be warm and cozy in winter. Now she lay motionless, all extra flesh gone from her face and from the hand resting on top of the duvet.
“I’m afraid Captain ben David was right, sir. Her body is dying, now that her mind is trapped away,” the mousy-looking Welshwoman told him, pale eyes sad.
Her words caught Rahoul’s attention. “What do you mean, ‘trapped away’?”
St. John thought hard. “Well, sir, even though it’s after the equinox I tried reaching her through this” and she held up a piece of carved and smoothed wood. “All I found were corpses and ghosts of all sorts of creatures and people. They surrounded Commander Na Gael and kept screaming and cursing at her. I think that’s what she’s seeing in her mind and I was afraid to try and wiggle through to her, in case there’s nothing of her left behind the wall she’s built to keep the monsters in.”
Oddly, her words made some sense to Rahoul, given what he’d seen of Rachel before and her well-known concern for her fellow soldiers. “Thank you, Sergeant. I think your effort might be a clue towards what happened to her. Good work,” and he smiled.
As he spoke, Morgan pointed and Khan glanced over to see that Rachel’s good eye had opened and she’d turned towards them, her face a study in guilt and anguish. Then she shuddered and the eye closed again. “Nothing but shadows,” a faint voice whispered harshly in Trader. “Only darkness left.”
Rahoul waited a few more minutes, but she didn’t move again so he excused himself. He arrived at the appointed conference room a little early, in time to meet a small man with black hair and olive skin. “Col. Khan?” he introduced himself. “I’m Major Tomaso Albioni, the medical officer.”
“Pleased to meet you, Dr. Albioni,” Rahoul smiled, offering a hand.
“General McKendrick mentioned that you know my current patient?” the Italian ventured as they shook.
“Yes. I was just looking in on her. You know that she’s hallucinating?” Khan inquired, leading the way into the briefing room.
“I suspected, but you’re certain?”
Khan nodded. “Sgt. St. John tried reaching her and got a glimpse of what the Commander is seeing. She said it was ‘corpses and ghosts’.”
Albioni considered the colonel’s news. “I wonder if that is why she kept asking me to let her die because ‘the shadows have won’, and that ‘it would better for us to let her go’.” The Italian sighed. “I wish I could sedate her and let her rest, but she’s hypersensitive to narcotics and other depressants – she’d die.” Khan filed the information away for future reference and echoed Albioni’s sigh.
The arrival of the other staff officers ended the conversation but both men had a lot to consider that afternoon. Khan met and listened to Major de Alba, Captain ben David, Major O’Neil, Col. Przilas and Regimental Sergeant Major Sheldon Smith, the senior NCO. As it turned out, a series of shuffles in the North American branch meant the Przilas would be leaving in two days, not the two weeks he’d anticipated, so he and Rahoul spent the rest of the afternoon and most of the evening comparing notes and getting things squared away. Despite his concerns, Rahoul fell asleep as soon as his head touched the pillow that night.
Meanwhile, somewhere in the darkness Rachel shivered and cried silently. Her victims clawed at the walls she’d built around them, trying to get out to hurt others. She tried to warn the people watching her to flee and get away in case she lost control, but the humans wouldn’t leave her alone. Rachel needed to die, she wanted to die, had to die so the ghosts would be content and find their own peace. Their hissing and cries tormented the Wanderer and she begged for forgiveness and mercy. But she’d shown none and so she received none. “Let me go,” the woman pleaded weakly. “You’ve won, let me die!” Please may I die, oh why didn’t I die? She heard no answer beside the jeers and screams of the dead.
The next morning Rahoul got up early and joined the other morning people working out in the recently expanded gym. Rahoul recognized First Sergeant Anthony Lee and a few others, but everyone was exercising, lifting weights or otherwise trying to stay in motion, so he didn’t do anything besides nod. After a brisk shower, Khan grabbed a seat in the officers’ mess and tucked away soft-boiled eggs, tomatoes and toast. “No sausage or bacon?” he asked O’Neil.
“No sir, not on Fridays in Lent,” the nondescript Englishman reminded him. “Have some kippers,” he offered, reaching for the plate.
Khan speared one of the smoked fish and regarded it soberly, hearing Rachel’s voice in his mind’s ear complaining about kippers. He ate, then excused himself. Next week would be Holy Week, he remembered, and Passover as well. Khan was at loose ends for the next hour so he decided to check his e-mail. There was a message from Panpit with pictures of the chaos that was their flat as she tried to pack around Robin and Sita. “I hope you’re enjoying your holiday,” he read aloud and chuckled. A second message, this from General Joschka von Hohen-Drachenburg, asked about Rachel and provided the Graf-General’s very private phone number. Once again Rahoul wondered about the relationship between the Austrian and the alien. He wished that Joschka wasn’t tied up in a legal matter and could come to England to see Rachel himself. Khan grimaced at the mess, reviewed a few more notes and sent the Graf-General an update before logging off.
Early that afternoon, a corporal found Rahoul helping Tadeus Przilas sort through materials in the latter’s overly-full office. “Sirs? General McKendrick wants you in the staff briefing room right now.”
“Mission?” Tadeus inquired as they rushed down the hall.
“No idea, sir,” the corporal said, holding the door for them, then leaving.
General McKendrick, Dr. Albioni, Moshe ben David and Edward O’Neil were already in the room and McKendrick looked like thunder. “We may have sorted out what caused Commander Na Gael’s collapse,” he informed the new arrivals. “Shut the door and lock it.” Startled, Przilas did as ordered, then stood beside the adjutant.
“It seems Sgt. St. John’s discovery jogged some memories,” the general said, glaring over his glasses at ben David and O’Neil. “Tell all of us what you told me, Captain.”
The Israeli took a deep breath, as if gathering his nerve. “Commander Na Gael began hiding on March 22, but her collapse started before our last mission, sirs. I think she overheard Major O’Neil and me talking about a simulation that we ran without her. It was a partial replication of the September Disaster,” he said, looking at everyone’s eyes but O’Neil. “We were discussing how hard it had been and how close it was to the actual events, and the Major asked what had become of expendability.”
Jaws dropped and O’Neil locked his eyes on the far wall, not meeting anyone’s gaze. “And what else did you say, Major O’Neil?” McKendrick demanded, furious at the man.
“I joked and said that she should have been left. That way there wouldn’t have been any other casualties and the G.D.F. would have used less resources, since the invaders didn’t want information from her,” O’Neil said. “I was just kidding, sir; just trying to get a rise out of Moshe!”
Moshe disagreed. “No, sir, that’s not what I understood. You were quite serious. And I think that the Commander overheard all or at least part of what we said.”
“Damn it,” Col. Khan swore under his breath as McKendrick fumed.
The general growled, “Major O’Neil, is there anything else you said to Ra . . , to Commander Na Gael that might have upset her?”
The brown-haired Englishman shook his head. “No sir.”
Keith Przilas’ eyes narrowed. “Wait. What about that comment that drove her from the supper table, Major?”
At McKendrick’s raised eyebrows, the Englishman shrugged. “It was just another joke, about a month ago at supper. We were talking about giving up things for Lent and I suggested that she stop killing people for a while. But everyone knew I was winding her up, like we all do.”
A cold chill ran down Rahoul’s back. Oh Lord. That started it. No wonder St. John said Rachel saw dead bodies and ghosts, especially after what she had to do in Germany last year. Khan wanted to strangle the man. He glanced to McKendrick, who nodded permission to speak. “Well, Major O’Neil, between your ‘jokes’,” Rahoul glared, “and her own sense of guilt, we may just have lost the Commander completely. Congratulations, Major: you’ve accomplished what even the Tarqi da Kavalle failed to do. You drove her insane.”
“Or more correctly, into a depression so deep that even pharmaceuticals won’t help, if we knew what to give her,” Dr. Albioni snapped, anger clipping his words short. “Commander Na Gael is catatonic – locked in her own mind. She doesn’t respond to stimuli, won’t or can’t move and will probably die unless I put in a feeding tube.”
O’Neil bristled. “With all due respect Sir, Doctor, it’s not my fault! If the stories are true, a few jokes about killing people shouldn’t have bothered Commander Na Gael, since she’s done it so often. And you said yourself that she already had mental problems, Sir,” he nodded towards Col. Khan, “so how can a few jokes have anything to do with her going ‘round the bend if she was at least half-way there to begin with?” The Englishman looked at the others for support and found only anger and contempt.
McKendrick stood up and the men shifted out of his path as he approached Major O’Neil. “Gentlemen, you are dismissed. Not you, Major.” Khan, ben David, Przilas and Albioni wasted no time clearing the room. As the door shut they heard, “All right, Major. Just what did you think you were doing?” The reply was inaudible but McKendrick’s response was clear, even through the heavy wood pf the closed door. “It was not funny! No funnier than asking Dr. Albioni how many patients he’s killed. I know you don’t care for the Commander but this was beyond the pale! Let me be clear just what your cruelty has done.”
“Perhaps we should move to the lounge?” ben David inquired sotto voce.
Albioni nodded and the four men eased out of earshot of the furious general’s speech.
“Is there anything that can be done for Rachel?” Przilas asked.
The medical officer shrugged. “I hope so, but I doubt it.” He took off his glasses and waved them for emphasis, perching on the sofa arm. “I’m not a mind specialist, but it seems as if she thinks she should die for what she’s done. But since she apparently won’t or can’t kill herself outright, the tension broke her mental defenses apart and her ‘ghosts and shadows’ overwhelmed her.”
Moshe studied the carpet. “When I heard her in the hall, I should have stopped her and made the Major apologize.”
“We can ‘could have, should have’ all day,” Przilas snapped. “The question is: what do we do to get her back?”
Albioni gave the executive officer a questioning look. “I’m not certain we can, sir. And given what she seems to be going through inside her head, it might be kinder to let her waste away. At least her suffering will end.”
Rahoul Khan had been thinking hard. “Actually, I may have a way, Tadeus. When McKendrick told General Eszterházy about her collapse, it reminded me of what of what the Graf-General did that pulled her back after the September Disaster. Apparently Rachel is conditioned to respond to a specific verbal cue, no matter what else is going on or how lost she is in her own thoughts. General von Hohen-Drachenburg told me what it is and I’d like to try it.” He turned to the medical officer, “with your permission, Dr. Albioni.”
“It can’t hurt, Colonel Khan. But keep in mind that Commander Na Gael’s body is already failing. Even if you can bring her mind back, there might not be enough body left to keep her alive. And she still may be so wrapped in her ‘shadows’ that she’ll remain non-functional.” It was obvious that Albioni didn’t like offering such a bleak prognosis but wanted to give Rahoul and the others fair warning.
“I’m willing to chance it, Doctor,” Khan said, walking to the door. I can’t stand by and watch my friend damn herself.
After he left, ben David paced back and forth a little. “Do you think Col. Khan will have any luck?” he asked the air.
“From what I’ve heard, he’s one of very few people who might have a prayer of reaching her,” Przilas answered. “But that’s just rumor and guessing.”
The Israeli captain stopped pacing. “In case he can’t, I’ll go pull her file, sir, so we can contact who ever needs to know.” At Przilas’ nod Moshe excused himself. Actually, it was to give him something to do, the Israeli sighed quietly. He already knew what he’d find because he’d checked her personal disposition papers immediately after she collapsed. That’s sad he’d thought, looking at the blank spaces. Rachel had no friends or next of kin; no one who needed to be informed if she died, no one to sit shivah for her, no one to pray for her soul’s rest. All that the form said was to cremate her remains, if there were any, and to “dump the ashes somewhere out of the way and give the Survivors’ Fund any money raised by selling my personal items. There’s a list in my quarters – first drawer in the kitchen.” Well, I’ll pray for her, even if she is a goya ben David decided.
Meanwhile, Rahoul Khan crouched beside Rachel’s bed-nest, heartsick. His friend stared at the dim ceiling, unresponsive to voices or touch and unable to hold off the darkness. When he took her hand and extended his own Gift, Rahoul could vaguely “see” the wall she’d built in her mind. Behind it he dimly sensed her guilt, remorse, and anguish as the woman relived all the times that she’d killed, all the deaths she felt she had caused, and all that she’d suffered over the centuries. He wondered if even Joschka’s cue would break through the swirling memories to reach her core, to the heart of the generous, clever, wise-ass, courageous friend he so valued and trusted. Joschka believed that it could and Rahoul was determined to try. “Rakoji?” he asked quietly. She blinked. “Rakoji da Kavalle, can you hear me?” Khan ventured in Trader.
The deathly pale face turned towards him, the first sign of a response she’d given in days. “I can’t fight anymore,” she whispered. “I should have died. They’re too strong; I can’t hold them back much longer, sir. Give me mercy, Colonel. Please give me mercy!”
“What do you mean, Rakoji?” Khan took her head in his hands. He had a sickening feeling that he knew exactly what she wanted of him, but asked anyway. “Do you want me to call Father Mikael?”
Her head shook ever so slightly. “Kill me, Sir,” she begged. “Please, kill me before the shadows take you too. I should have died years ago.”
“Rada, I can’t do that.” He tried to conceal his horror that she would even make that request. “There’s still time, Rada! Fight through to me; as long as you live there’s hope!”
“I’m sorry sir, but you’re wrong. I’m already in Hell, Colonel. It’s where I belong; I was damned at my birth. There’s nothing but darkness . . .” Her voice trailed off and she tried to turn away again.
“Damnit, Rada, no!” Khan released her long enough to go over beside the fireplace and open the hidden second door to her quarters. He came back, knelt, and worked his arms under the slender form, somehow managing to lift her out of her bed-nest. She’d never been that heavy and without as much effort as he’d anticipated Rahoul carried her down the pitch-black stairs, fumbled with the outside door and took her into the warm spring afternoon. He caught sight of someone out of the corner of his eye but they vanished and he concentrated on getting Rachel as far as the stone bench at the end of the rose garden.
“Look around, Rakoji, and see what’s real,” he ordered, holding her head up. The silvery-grey eye squinted at the brightness, blinked, and tried to focus. “None of this would be here if it weren’t for you. The shadows didn’t bring this beauty into the world; you did.”
“So? A hundred roses don’t balance hundreds of lives.” She tried to lift trembling hands. “Can’t you see the blood, Colonel? I need to die, sir! Why won’t you let me atone?”
Now or never, he thought. “Because someone already has atoned for you and for all of us, Rakoji. Someone who loves you and everyone else more than we can imagine and who doesn’t want you to suffer like this.” Rahoul fished a compact item out of his pocket. “Joschka sent these as a reminder of that and so you’d have them for Easter.” He wrapped the string of age-smoothed wooden beads around her icy hand.
Rachel blinked and fingered the rosary, shaking her head. “I’ve killed too many; caused too many deaths and too much pain. There’s no forgiveness anymore.” She tried to push the beads off her fingers but her friend stopped her.
“Rakoji, ‘all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God’,” he quoted. “You have, I have, so has Panpit, so have we all. Every one of us. And God forgives all of us! And if He can, He who knows everything we’ve ever done, surely you can forgive yourself?”
The woman’s head dipped until all Rahoul could see was her brown-black hair. “I’m expendable. I should have died. It would have been better, “ she repeated hoarsely, but at least no longer rejecting the beads.
“And if you had? Who would have showed us how to save the hostages on the Gerzall da Kavalle?” Rahoul asked. He heard footsteps and saw General McKendrick and some other people approaching. “Tell her why she should not have died that September,” Rahoul half-ordered, half-begged.
“A dead Rachel wouldn’t have reminded me that there are far more important things than tinsel and guests at Christmas,” the Scotsman said.
“And she couldn’t teach us how to stop an ifreet on foreign soil,” ben David added.
De Alba continued forward and rested a hand on Rachel’s shoulder, “Or shown us how to block and corrupt invaders’ communications.”
“And she couldn’t have brought Joschka back and protected the lives of those around him,” Rahoul whispered in Trader.
As her friends watched, Rachel shook her head and attempted to speak. Rahoul felt the battle in her head and heart as she struggled, torn with paralyzing guilt but wanting to believe what the he and the others were saying. If only she’d lower her shields, she’d realize what was real! He projected as much encouragement as he could. Please God he prayed, please help us reach her.
A long shadow appeared and Sgt. Lee knelt at Rachel’s side. “And a dead Commander Na Gael wouldn’t have offered her life to save my squad’s and mine.” He took her other hand. “Thank you.”
“Lower your shields, Rachel, and feel,” Rahoul suggested.
The woman shook her head weakly. “I can’t. The ghosts will take you.”
“No, they won’t,” McKendrick rumbled. “Because we won’t let them.”
Rahoul whispered in Trader, “Rakoji, open the walls. Please? If not for us, for Joschka?” It was his final card.
The tide turned. Rachel hesitantly thinned the walls around her heart and mind and as he propped her up, Rahoul saw the despair weakening, the self-loathing and hatred starting to crack apart as she felt her fellow soldiers’ fear and concern for her, and their respect, friendship, support, and love. “It was like a plant responding to sunlight,” Rahoul would later tell Joschka in a very private conference.
Too weak to hold her head up any longer, Rachel let it sink to her chest. “I’m sorry,” she rasped quietly from a parched throat. “Forgive me?”
McKendrick shook his head. “There’s nothing to forgive. You are sick. Now you need to let us help you get better.” The others voiced their agreement and Rachel swallowed hard. “Sergeant Lee, go ask the cooks to send something to the lab. Something with meat in it that she can swallow easily,” the general ordered, drawing uncomfortable looks from Lee and Khan.
Lee shuddered as he stood up. “That would be a meatshake, sir.” And he hurried off, smiling broadly.
“I wish he hadn’t mentioned those,” Khan sighed as he and Maria helped Rachel sit upright and stabilized her.
“But I like meatshakes,” a little voice whispered.
“Which proves once again that your wiring is quite different from ours,” Khan smiled, teasing her.
“But your heart and soul are the same and that’s what matters,” McKendrick stated firmly. After Khan and de Alba had Rachel securely propped up, her commanding officer demanded, “Commander Na Gael, what happened?”
Rachel closed her eye but started talking. “I always get a little depressed in the spring as my access to Logres’ power fades away. I, I suppose I overreacted to some things I heard,” she said.
“Overreaction doesn’t send people past Barking, Rachel,” the general informed her. “What happened? And we know what Major O’Neil said.”
Lee returned, carrying two bottles of water. Rachel accepted one and with some help, drank half of it before speaking again. “I don’t know how many people I’ve killed at this point in my lifestream, General; several hundred at the very least. And I’m responsible for more deaths because of things I’ve done and not done.” She started trembling and Khan and de Alba supported more of her weight. “They all came back, sir. And I realized that even though I pray and hope that God has forgiven me, I’m still damned.”
“You cannot know that, Commander,” McKendrick growled. “Only He knows that – we cannot. You may also be among the Elect. But we cannot know,” he stated firmly. “Either way.”
Rachel hung her head again. “Then the ghosts came back. I could have saved General Johnny, but I didn’t go see him and so he died. I should have died, like Major O’Neil said. It would have been better for everyone . . .” her words trailed off amid a chorus of angry denials.
“Bullshit, ma’am,” Lee snarled, surprising everyone. “You couldn’t have known and maybe it was his time, even if you had gone to see him. Maybe he would have been run over by a lorry as he left the hospital!” Rachel gaped at the lean NCO.
“And it is not better if you die,” Moshe spoke up as Maria nodded. “You don’t have any family or friends listed in your contact form, ma’am. But what about us?” The young officer waved at the soldiers surrounding the Wanderer. “We are your family, all of us! We’d miss you and we worry about you. You take care of us; we look after you. That’s how it works, no matter what some bloody idiot spouts off with!” McKendrick cleared his throat and the black-haired man flinched a bit. “Sorry sir.”
<<This is what Joschka and I tried to tell you at Klarbach and on that night in September>>, Rahoul sent. <<Now will you believe us?>>
“Yes,” she whispered. He felt her rallying and raising her shields just enough to keep from being overwhelmed, and he did the same.
“Rachel, if you ever, ever start having difficulties again, you will talk to someone and get help,” McKendrick ordered. “Is that clear?” He accepted her nod of assent. “Now, you need to get back indoors before Dr. Albioni has a heart attack at finding you missing. Give me a hand, Khan,” and the Scotsman picked his advisor up, easily carrying her back through the garden to the lab. Moshe held the door open and Maria helped the very weak Rachel get up the stairs and into a chair. Rahoul made the extreme sacrifice of bringing the meatshake up to his friend’s quarters, holding the concoction at arm’s length. His commanding officer had taken one look at the mess in the glass and fled, faintly green.
Rachel sniffed it and perked up a touch. “Liver! I really like the liver ones,” and she took a large slurp as Rahoul and Maria looked away.
“Well, sir, the more liver she eats, the less we have to,” the communications officer pointed out.
“That is true,” he agreed, turning back in time to see Rachel neatly licking as much as she could reach off the inside of the now-empty glass. She smiled, then yawned, already starting to drop off to sleep. Maria took the glass away before it could fall and the two carried the Wanderer back to her bed-nest.
As soon as he could, Rahoul phoned Joschka von Hohen-Drachenburg. “Yes, sir. And your cue let us break through to her.” A question and Khan said, “Very close. Dr. Albioni says that if she’d gone another twelve hours, her kidneys would have failed and her heart not long after.” He nodded. “It will be several weeks before she’s back to normal physically and probably months before her mental state recovers, but then this has been coming for how long?” A murmur at the other end of the line. “At least that long, my lord General.”
Joschka asked a question as Rahoul shook his head over the sorrow of it all. “Yes, sir. She had it on her hand when she fell asleep. It helped a lot, sir. Thank you.” Another pause. “Ah, I think it would be better for you to tell her directly, sir. She’ll be answering her phone again as soon as General McKendrick gives it back to her. He has it so she can sleep.” As they spoke, the South Asian officer decided that it was a good thing for Edward O’Neil’s physical safety that the Graf-General was unable to leave Austria just then. Because if he ever learned who had driven his oldest friend into perdition . . .
After Khan rang off, Joschka got up from his desk, walked through the quiet darkness of night at Schloß Hohen-Drachenburg and slipped into the chapel. The graying man bowed to the Presence, then lit a candle and knelt in front of an image of Our Lady of Sorrows. “Ave Maria gratia plena, Dominus tecum. Benedicta tu in mulieribus . . .” he began as he’d promised to do if his friend survived, slowly counting off the decades on his spare rosary.
(C) 2016 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved