Copyright ©1996, 1997 A.D. Sullivan
Your Father's War Stories
Your Father's War Stories
Where did the wind get our names if not off those graves in France, or from the wounds our fathers wore when they danced the docks in `46? So the litany goes, as it's always gone, loss and loss, then victory or slavery one. Either way, the story's some sisters' song's soldierboy's. Then the medic morphines the brown burn of his gaze into pools the sky, any given night, might remember its own moons by.
Impressions: 1969 - 1970
For the Vietnam Vets in prison, those who died, those who are addicted to drugs and those who will, during their natural lives, always be on the outskirts of the emotional spectrum.
Vietnam was a journey into the dark realm of illusion which covered over the reality of our lives. There are many issues and emotions that bear discussion, however, my sole objective is to share my experiences as I remember them. I am sure there are others like myself who still reflect on this unreal time in our lives with a sense of incredulous loss of spiritual balance. I was nineteen years old, living in Miami when I was drafted. My phone calls to New Jersey were a matter of weekly routine. But I will never forget the distinct difference in my mother's voice when she answered my call that night in May 1969. She told me I had received a letter of greeting from then President, Richard M. Nixon. It was to eventually become my formal invitation to engage in the politics of unknown Southeast Asia. Never before in my life had I been hit with such an awesome sense of responsibility. Two weeks from the day of that phone call I was ordered to report for my physical.
Induction, basic training and AIT training were fairly routine. The reality still eluded me. Then order came, along with a thirty day pass. The time of decision. I immediately determined I was too young to decide. I ran. Not having rabbit in my blood, however, I returned to "face the music," just a few weeks late. The army decided not to waste time on a court martial, a good grunt was being kept from doing his duty. So I was shipped out to Nam posthaste.
Details for me have always been sketchy. There are, for all of us, certain singular incidents that live in the mind as if they had just happened. The journey to Nam required a couple of stops for fuel. In the Philippines, while a group of us was waiting in the airport, I saw a plane load of bets on their way back to the "world". Their expression when they saw us became a haunting that traveled with me until I arrived there myself. A combined look of pity, uncertainty, and a kind of encouraging: "It'll be okay." Yet what was that uncertainty? They had aged in a way that defied physical description. There spirits had aged beyond their bodies. You could see it in those eyes. Hard looking eyes, piercing, yet vacant. They had seen more than they should have, but they wore it well. I looked down at myself and for a moment turned inward. So green, naive, unadorned. I looked back at them. Faded. Soft but hard. Garnished, as tribal warriors often are, bearing the spoils as well as the defeats. Peace signs dulled into army greens. Jungle hates with various ornaments, wrist bands made of leather. And those indestructible army boots, worn thin. Well broken in.
Where was I going? I was bound to a place from which they had just returned. And why did they look as if they hadn't truly come back? My tainted odyssey was just beginning.
I have chosen to share the things which are fixed deeply in my mind rather than to discuss factual accounts. It does seem impossible, thought, to stay away from incidents entirely. There is a world of physical realities and their ensuing emotional consequences. There is also a world unto itself of impressions.
When I returned in 1970 and saw another group leave, I had gone the full circle. My visions and the after shocks are my bond to the nameless procession I passed, and all the ones that came after. I am forty-four years old now and safely home from that journey. I didn't full arrive until late 1980. My bridge home was the strength and encouragement and wisdom of a poet who is now my wife. Our daughter provided the light inside, assisting my inner sight. I am thankful to them both.
Pnom Pehn 1970
deluge began when indian summer rain came nuclear blackened cumulus inking asian sky below countless horsemen lie and women the unwilling obliged witnesses to massive desouling of their own beheaded disembodied counterparts grieved upon Mother earth tears mingled water, blood, ashes their long strong lamentations in a universal dirge death's rolling thunder weary-eyed women shrouded, pale in likeness to immovable black-veiled stone pillars, they came from four corners of east and west hemispheres accepting back the pieces of them remaining sealed in death kissed boxes bronze gold and wooed the babylons never built on sturdy foundations were humbled by the wrath of the Great Earthquake Spirit and unborn children stirred longingly in fruitless wombs for this is frozen timelessness of their young forefathers slain they would never come to be
A Public Service Announcement
As most of you probably know, America is currently having a hard time handling the problem of illegal aliens within its border. This problem is not confined to the U.S. alone. Every national government is engaged in controlling aliens. In a tight job market, this can truly be a serious situation.
Understandably, there have been numerous requests to this bureau on behalf of these governments to act. Please be assured we are attempting to remedy this situation. But it will take a while before we can act on this matter. Therefore, in the mean time, each person can help to spot and report illegal aliens.
To assist you, we have compiled the following list of characteristics by which some of these aliens might be identified.
We hope these brief notes will be of service. Again, let me assure you we well be taking action soon against these aliens on your behalf.
Galactic High Commissioner of
Immigration for his
Imperial Majesty at Trantor
The Mathematics of Fiction
There comes a time in any good novel to ask specific moral questions of its characters, questions upon which the novel fails or succeeds. In "Fields of Fire" by James Webb, we never do get an accurate answer. What Webb gives us in an accumulation of facts and figures, none of which quite adds up, a mathematical trick where important details are lost behind the hoopla.
Such characters have inherent moral values. In cheap novels these values are displayed in "Good Guys vs. Bad Guys" and let go with that. Sometimes, the feeling in more deeply ingrained than even the author intended, and the characters think and speak things beyond the author's control.
This differs from propaganda where the author intentionally manipulated these values and stacks them unfairly while attempting the slight-of-hand at being objective.
There is no objectivity in fiction. The author in the most detached method of writing is sponsoring an opinion, showing good and bad as examples to an undeclared subject. Sometimes, an author will attempt to show truths unobtainable in non-fiction, like the inner workings of a character's mind, or aspects of life for which no documentation exists. But the minute such authors hint even remotely at objectivity: WATCH OUT!
For example: Webb does a remarkable job in showing the good and bad aspects of Vietnam. As a military man, he managed to break from the blindness often associated with those who supported the war. By using deep and diverse characterizations, he leads the reader through the swampy, primarily disgusting aspects of military life at war, showing nobility, greed, anger, love, heroism and cowardice.
His central weakness, however, during this part of the book comes with his failure to understand the role blacks played in that war, or the reason for their protests against it. He nearly stereotypes his black figure, Cat Man, into the proper behavior for a black as opposed to "those other types", and Webb is soft often heavy handed and confused when trying to balance them, that he leaves the reader with an anti-black sentiment.
Webb's big mistakes come later, in sections which brings one of these characters home to America. Even the writing here becomes stiff, and one can easily picture an enraged Webb trying to right the evils of the New Left Movement by pounding the typewriter keys with his fists. The words and actions of his characters inflate to the rough diatribes of Middle Ages morality plays, where human attributes have been sucked out and replaced by Right Wing Ideologies.
For while Webb seemed to know a great deal about life in Vietnam during the Sixties, he shows complete ignorance about events on this side of the Pacific. He manages to show us both sides of characters like Snake Hodges, The Senator, and to some extent, the Vietnamese people themselves, but when it comes to "Hippies", he flattens them into self-centered lazy, disinterested children of rich who can't be bothered with serious issues like war. Even when they are interested, he paints them as unreasonable and dogmatic, a stereotypical vision of what protesters were about -- as much an exaggeration of truth as the mad, blood-thirsty baby-killing tales that peace people used to tell about Vietnam vets.
It is upon these points that the novel fails to add up, showing clearly how extremists like Webb created the national myth about Vietnam when facts failed them.
"Goodrich," a name no doubt selected deliberately, becomes the focus of the New Left in Webb's tale, a Harvard man who is constantly judged a coward because of his opposition to the war, and one destined to become "converted" to the Webbian fallacy. This conversation is as nasty and full of prejudice as the forced conversions of Jews to Christianity. When it occurs, the read is left out of the reasoning. We are brought back with Goodrich into his good, rich world and show by comparison how good and spoiled his life had been before the truly enriching experience of war.
But here is the brilliance of Webb's propaganda. By taking us from the complexity of the Vietnam characters into the flatness of its American counterpart, he is able to convert us, too, without argument, or the need to provide evidence for his claims. Like any good debater, Webb has covered the flaws in his argument against the peace movement by detailing those of the military and asking us to take for granted those he cannot prove. He simply echoes the lies and myths long manufactured in the media.
Yet even in Webb's Vietnam, there are deep flaws. He justifies the brutality and inhumanity of an out-of-control military with the personal and misguided heroism of a few individuals. He never looks into the basic errors the way Heller did in "Catch 22", despite countless opportunities to do so. His characters never defy authority or its monstrous orders-- and they die in the end of his work, less than heroes because of it.
The most aggravating aspect of the novel comes with Goodrich's converted and perverted sense of justice. Webb makes light of mass murder in Vietnam, but weighs in heavy against those who chose exile in Canada over senseless hell in Vietnam. While he paints the reporting of a Mi Lai-like massacre as a betrayal against fellow trench buddies, Webb finds no sense of betrayal in Goodrich reporting his old school chum to the FBI.
Anything is excusable to Webb, as long as it is patriotic.
Welcome to the Twilight Zone, that eerie era of uncertain feeling which comes after the holocaust has been pronounced. I grew up in the fifties, to atomic war rumors and air raid drills, children at school sitting under the desks like toads, tucking in their heads. I used to dream of the bombs dropping. You know, one of those "Walkin'-talkin' World War" dreams Dylan sang about. I guess most of us had them. Later, the dreams changed when Jimmy pronounced Armageddon, and we were indeed all in each other's dreams, organizing some new society which would be better than the one just about to be destroyed.
It has, however, been a very long time since I have been haunted by any of those dreams. I suppose I've been lulled into false security by things like the end of the Vietnam Conflict and the fall of the Berlin Wall. It takes deadlines like the one last night to make it all come back, these dreams more a film of Vietnam with me as one of the participants.
I saw myself with a gun in a bunker waiting for the waves of enemy to overrun us, and when they came, I shot children and women and crippled men.
This, of course, will teach me to wait up till midnight to hear the sad news-- I think there might have been as many people up that time as there had been for New Years, waiting for the bombs to drop, listening out their windows for the planes and distant sound of gun fire.
McCluhan was right. The world is a tiny place and we're all attached somehow, waiting to feel the conclusion and consequence of events like these. We take them personally. We feel them throbbing in our brains. Some of us are more furious than others, wishing we could be dancing in the desert doing the killing itself. Others of us are the fearful, the waiting, terrible fathers and mothers of the children that much die, understanding death more intimately, feeling it break in us with the broken bones of wounded children dying in that distant place.
There is nothing more horrible than war. It is not merely a play ground for the self-indulgent, but the very edge of civilization crumbling into non-existence. We do not fight for moral causes, but to contain the contamination, to keep it where it is -- for the more it spreads the less there is of the past to build upon.
Each of the significant wars of the past changed humanity significantly. The Victorians were under the illusion that mankind was climbing from the pits of the uncivilized through the process of education. Previous to it, The Civil War, the Napoleonic Wars, the Hundred Years War, the Crusades and others made changes which could not be reversed. Life in America after the Civil War for instance was starkly different. We had lost our innocence. The advancement West and the murder of the indians was no longer a noble experiment, but a slaughter of life and paradise of greed. Robber Barons and Carpet-baggers roamed the land setting new and distorted values. The great thinkers of the American Revolution and their ideas were buried with the war dead.
World War One, however, proved the Victorians wrong. It was innocence we lost during and after that war, but our minds and our precious idea that the world was an orderly place. World War Two only confirmed this -- with one small exception. It introduced the idea that human kind could not merely extinguish itself in narrowly defined places like Europe or the South Pacific. It could clear the planet of life. With that war, we did not only lose our minds, but our hope for a future as well.
You and I now sit on the brink of what could be another great war. It could be over in a week, or could go on for years, spreading like the disease it is from one country to the next, till it has set fire the world.
What do we lose this time? What of value do we have left that can be ripped from us the way hope, values and sanity have in the past?
Maybe you have a clearer idea on this. I'm confused and scared and see the world changing again. The old order crumbling in a fit of desert violence.
Please promise me, that if you are called up, don't go.
There was frost on his visor. A sign that startled Nick Johnson when he re-opened his eyes -- like looking through the frosted glass in New England as a child. He didn't understand it at first. His fingers were too weary to clean the glass, aching with their crawl from the wreckage. It must be the heating system -- some small break in fluid tubes that weaved through the space suit.
The frost was like some alien life form evolving before his eyes, this, his private microscope into their cycle of life.
It revolted him.
It made him want to crawl back into the turbo tank and die with his friends.
His leg throbbed, tugging his attention away from the visor and into the deeper parts of his anatomy, his gaze peering past the frost to the hole in the suit just inches above his knee.
He was, of course, imagining things.
There was no wound any more. He should not have felt a thing. He'd been most careful, following the med-computer's instructions precisely for cutting off that part of the body-- a necessary precaution with a whole outside world of methane pressing in. Lose a leg to save a life. Besides, at the end of it all, there would be a mechanical replacement, making all this dread unnecessary.
Yet -- he could still feel the toes wiggling, as if trying to wave at the rest of him through the thick metal boots, saying: "here I am! I'm alive!" While his brain screamed back: "Die already!" He could hardly breathe out the word "death", the idea of a government medal poor comfort to a man with a missing leg.
What would Billy say?
Maybe the boy would admire the medal and ignore the new mechanical section which had taken over that portion of his father's body. Johnson laughed, looking back at the trail he'd left in the planet's hard surface, the warm human blood managing for the space of fifteen meters before freezing to eat through the skin of the planet. The result was a narrow gorge just as wide as his leg. What of Douglas and Tara?
He looked at the block hull more closely. There were no signs of life. Just darkness. Even the electronics had stopped sparking. For a time, he had thought the whole turbo tank would blow -- thus the great crawl, this single human reverting to the methods of his ancient ancestors, learning that even evolution did not erase such racial memories.
His leg was as dead as the turbo tank, and as alien as the green landscape. Above both, blue and white flashes cracked the sky, followed by longer flurries of red. Red was enemy fire. The kind which had surprised the allies and sent his tank to doom.
Johnson would indeed win a medal for this. Just for surviving. And maybe Billy would be proud. It was the frost that bothered him.....
Ten minutes to lift off, the launch computer announced, echoing through the lower landing station. It had grown harsh and annoying in the years away from such things, nagging, and he shivered as he looked to his son.
"I wish I could show you the Constitution, boy," Johnson said. "But there just isn't time to rent a flyer now."
His son's blue eyes were big and round and proud, staring at Johnson's uniform and medals. The old campaigns weighed upon Johnson's chest like another wound. The boy's gaze shifted to the shuttle which rested on the circular pad a few hundred yards. He seemed impressed enough with that.
His eyes would have exploded with the vision of the ship itself, that small metal world in which humans had learned to travel between the stars -- now, warming up as monsters of death, competing and destroying the planets from which they'd come. On a clear night, the boy might even have seen their plump silver bodies floating in orbit around the planet, glowing proudly. The war machines still awed Johnson at times. He was never able to convince himself such machine had been made by human hands.
"I wish I could go with you, Daddy," the boy said, that edge of rising hope in his voice. It made Johnson ache.
"Don't say that, boy," Johnson said. "You don't know what it means."
It was time to push off before it all grew too soppy. Johnson was never a man capable of dealing with public emotions -- and there were hundreds of men in marine green moving around him, wearing uniforms from half a dozen different campaigns. Most of them were not too much older than Billy himself, bearing the same glow. It was a young man's game.
"Then why are you going?" Billy asked, his voice growing thicker. "It's hard to explain," Johnson answered. It was the media reports of clashes in space that stirred his blood again, bringing back that patriotic chill. How he could refuse, or live with the vision of crushed colonies. And yet it was more than that, it was the call to action, his limbs connected to the machine in a kind of extended sensory experience which only war could bring.
"I don't this doesn't make any sense to you, bo--Billy," Johnson started, his own voice thick now, too. Such talks were meant for lazy afternoons on their boat, water shimmering brightly around them. But here, truth was dangerous, capable of causing more harm than good.
He signaled for the robots to take the boy. His sister's hands gripping the boy's shoulders. Her eyes were bloated, too. She knew better what war meant. She had been bitten hard by the last bout of war, when she had met him at this very place. Only then, he had been coming now going, bearing ill news of a war past.
"He's dead, Donna," Johnson had said too loudly, the echoes filling the chamber where the missing men had marched before.
"Dead? What do you mean dead?"
He lifted his hand in parting to Billy, and Billy lifted his. The robots came, surrounding the boy and his aunt with their metal bulk, as if the child was going off and not Johnson.
"They'll keep you safe until I return," he said. That was their function. "Take good care of him, Donna. And yourself as well."
"Sure, Nick," Donna said, weak smile unfolding out of her frozen face. Her eyes still looked upward, as if expecting her own man to tumble out of the sky.
"I won't be gone long," Johnson said. "Just a few lizards this time." A backward planet which had gotten too big for its britches.
"Don't say anything, Donna," Johnson said. "I will be back." Then he marched towards the shuttle, aware of the machines whirling around him, as doors opened and closed, like a huge metal mouth biting off the best humanity had to offer.
He could still feel the leg, a twinge at the toes telling him again and again there was something wrong with the cut-off. He flicked a switch on his wristband. The system readout appeared above the frozen visor. The lights seemed dim. The red lamps flickered as if there was a power loss. But the machine clearly said the cut was complete. So what was he feeling down there if not the leg? Maybe it was all imagination. Maybe more methane had seeped into him than he'd thought, affecting his perceptions. He flicked another switch. Medical reports rolled across the tiny screen. Everything was fire. Just a dead leg there with the rest of him perfectly safe. Somewhere deep in the manufacturing base of the Empire, a new leg was already being shaped for him.
He shivered. The red lightening had gotten worse, suggesting something about the progress of the war. Some backward people these lizards turned out to be, fighting like devils in ways no one could have predicted. The whole south range of mountain seemed on fire, the peaks black against an horizon of red-- a mountain range which Johnson and his team had been ordered to sweep. But something had pushed the whole tank corps out of its pattern and against the slopes, making them seem like a thousand little General Custards, surrounded and ambushed. There were glowing wrecks dotting the country-side as far as he could see.
Only occasional blue streaks firing said anything about his side of the equation. His own tank looked like a grave stone.
Static crackled in his head set, voices screaming over it trying to be heard-- some of them quite intelligible and panicked, while others, more distant, whispered like ghosts, destined to haunt those airwaves forever.
Dying. They were all dying.
Johnson could feel the cold. Johnson could see the frost. Something was wrong with him....
"Sergeant Nicholas Johnson reporting as ordered, Sir!"
Johnson snapped a salute. But the man on the bridge never turned.
Or perhaps `man' was the wrong word. The straight edge of his shoulders told Johnson the Captain had changed. Over the years, more and more of the Captain had been replaced with mechanical parts, moving him closer and closer to the machine world. There were few human pieces left.
"Cutting it rather close, aren't we, Sergeant?"
"We lift off in two minutes."
"It was my boy, sir," Johnson explained. "He didn't want me to leave."
Finally, the tall half-man turned, the one familiar face a shock mask of frozen plastic. The mouth moved, even smiled, but within limitations. Only the eyes remained as Johnson remembered, glinting with their dubious humor.
"Get to your station, Johnson."
Was it warmth he sensed in the man's vocal tones?
"Aye, sir," Johnson said, reversing himself, heading towards the doors. But the bulk-head had already closed like jagged steel jaws.
"We're already in launch procedure," the mechanical captain said. "Take the tube."
Johnson climbed into the manhole beside the door -- the ladder beneath greeted him like a private highway, so familiar and comfortable that he stopped for a moment and smiled.
How long had he been gone? Had he really settled down planet side? Or had all that been a dream, a utopian little fantasy that came and went with his son's glowing eyes?
He descended slowly, feeling the tension rise in the shuttle, knowing that the tubes became the central arteries once in space, with bodies rushing to and fro. Johnson tugged his small bag behind him, the earth-side shows slipping on the rungs. They would issue him spacewear later.
He came to the proper level with one minute left and scurried down the hall to assigned quarters. Two dozen bunks swayed on either side, all of them occupied but one. Young, frightened faces looking up as he passed. But none of them friendly. He slid into his own bunk and pulled down the straps.
What the hell was he doing here anyway? Was he crazy coming back, leaving his son for the absolute madness of old habits. None of the others said hello. None of them turned their heads with usual curiosity. Each of them reveled over their own fresh good byes.
The cocoon wrapped around him, a deep, mechanical grave fitting around his form.
He was going home again, he thought. But that was crazy, too! Home was behind him, on the ground, retreating from the blast of the shuttles carefully preserved in robot arms, looking up at the rising plume with wondrous eyes, crying, Daddy! Daddy! Don't go!
He noted then the man across the aisle peeping out of his own cocoon, the laughing eyes hinting at a smile.
"Late as usual, eh, Johnson?"
"Hammer? Is that really you?"
"Got it on the first guess, pal. Old timer's day in a brand new war zone." He sounded bitter. "Why are you late this time? Another sniveling little lady?"
"My boy," Johnson mumbled, cocoon material thick around his mouth and throat. "it got a little sticky leaving him."
"Then the rumors are true. You did settle down. My God, Johnson, if that was me I would never have come back. How old's the kid anyway?"
The man whistled softly as the shuttle began its lift and the tension increased, lift-off shaking the whole damned structure.
"It's been that long?"
"Yes," Johnson said, letting the pressure push him back into the bunk. He closed his eyes. It had been years since he and Hammer had taken up arms together, years since that last great escape from space, which both old soldiers had counted as the end. Yet Hammer had always been the one to hate all this, promising each time to stay earthbound once he got there.
"So why are you here?" Johnson asked through clenched teeth. "No place else to go," the other man hissed back. "But believe me, I've had a million second thoughts."
So had Johnson -- patriotic Johnson who should have know there would never be an end to war. Such conflicts would go on and on, and with each one, a new vision of his brother's face screaming at him.
The pressure came down harder on Johnson's chest. He grit his teeth -- the face and hands of the man he'd know all his life, loved and hated, floated before him, screaming: Go home!
"He's dead, Johnson," the medic said, his pale face close as he tended to Johnson's wounds. "I'm not supposed to tell you, but you have a right to know."
Johnson's head swam from too many transfusions -- plasma and strange blood swimming in his veins, bringing with them strange thoughts.
"But how's that possible? Where were the machines? Why couldn't the machines save him....?"
Did people really die these days with modern technology, with blood transfers and new limbs, and complicated electronic brains -- all of it almost as good as the blond and bone they replaced. Better in some ways.
Dead? How could he be dead? How did life suddenly slip between technology's fingers? Spilling? Dripping?
"But yours aren't anywhere near as bad," the medic assured him, as if Johnson could take that back to Donna cupped in his hands.
Louis is dead, Donna. But not me.
"A new hand, arm, shoulder and heart and you'll be fine," the medic continued to say -- words mumbled like funeral music in his ears.
"But my brother...."
"Brother-in-law. Can't mean that much to you, Johnson."
Best friend. Bosom buddies. Dead hero.
"They're gonna give him the medal of honor, from what I heard," the medic said.
Or the distinguished cross. Or notation of Valor! There were a thousand names for such things. But was that all that came after life, after the machines had failed to put back all the pieces?
He's dead, Donna! Dead! Dead! Dead!
"How did he die?" Johnson asked.
"A bullet," the medic said. "Can you imagine that."
"What the devil is that?"
"It comes out of an ancient projectile weapon, from what I've been told, a weapon so obsolete that it slipped right through the electronic defense shields and anti-radiation suites. I'm told there's no defense."
Johnson sent out the mayday, watching the readout confirm it in multi-colored lights, mapping the proper frequencies through the dismal din of screaming voices. He checked it again, just as he had checked the cut-off, over and over again, wanting to be sure nothing went wrong, wanting the great machine brain behind all these movements to know that one pale human existed and was in need of help.
It seemed so easy to over look one petty human with some many other factors in the way, with red lightning flashing perpetually in the sky, with other petty humans crying at if from all directions. Easy to miss one small voice in the crowd.
And he could still feel the leg. That damned frozen piece of dead meat hanging below his waist, hanging on to him only because he was afraid to move -- knowing that if he crawled again, it would not be the limb that shattered, but his heart. The med-computer told him to stay still. Keep his weak electronic hear steady and his blood-starved brain clear. But he could not stop his eyes from moving, from looking through the frosted glass at the blackened limb, frozen stiff in methane, toes wiggling invitingly as if calling him to come join the fun.
Was it simply jealousy of the living parts, the uncut piece of still warm flesh that cling to life and air, waiting, ever waiting for the red flashes to stop, for the ear to clear long enough for technology to come?
He checked the system again. Air supply? Okay. Air pressure? Okay. Time to approximate rescue? Unknown.
It could not be known. It was like knowing the winner of a war before it was fought. He shivered, shuddered. Was that psychological, too? He checked the red display. Temperature was down. That was the cold drawing heat from him despite the atomics, drawing warmth right through the fabric of the suit-- like a vampire sucking blood. It could not be helped. The suit was not designed to have him lie like this. He hit the button for adjustment. Nothing happened. He re-checked the system. Faulty thermostat. Convert to manual override. He pressed another button on his wrist control and felt the blast of heat rush through the living sections of his suit-- and with it a sense of hope.
But he felt scared, too. He could freeze to death if he slept too long. And God, did he ever feel sleepy now.
The loss of blood.
The frost on the visor.....
"You shouldn't be here, Johnson," the Captain said.
Johnson shuffled his feet, but there was not much room on the Constellation, even in the Captain's cabin -- the whole ship was smaller than he remember, like the inside of a hive.
"You mean you don't want me?"
"I didn't say that," the captain mumbled, shifting his desk chair, glancing towards the star maps displayed on his wall screen. "But this thing isn't going to be as easy as everyone seems to think."
"But it's just some lizards, Cap'n. Some backward lizards at that."
The Captain's plastic face shifted slightly, showing some form of emotion that Johnson did not understand. Was it a smile or a frown? He needed a code book to read these things. Or were there simply no more emotions left-- and the face reacted merely to the changing parts?
"Then maybe it's better I did come. A little experience never hurts."
Then, the eyes showed pain as the Captain shifted his chair to face Johnson more directly.
"How's the kid, Nick? I heard about it all the way to Central. It's a big event for Spacers, you know. Most of us can't have kids."
"Billy took it hard, Cap'n," Johnson admitted. "But if it's over quick enough, the boy won't mind."
The mixed plastic emotions came again. "It won't be quick. We're scheduled to hit a planet in the Darget system."
"Darget?" Johnson said, some of his planetary history coming back to him. "Isn't that a mining community?"
"Precisely. And worse for us, a necessary system. It's one of the chief sources of fuel crystals for the fleet."
"Which means it's going to be heavily defended."
An unnatural sigh escaped the plastic mouth. "It's going to be a trench job, Johnson. A bloody trench job."
"Hey Mayday!" A strange voice punched through the haze in Johnson's ears, waking him. Sleep came in spurts, but deeper each time. Waking became harder and harder. He shook his head. He was groggy. The temperature had gone down inside the suit again. He fingered the wrist switch. But it did not move.
There would be no more blasts of heat.
"Hey Mayday? Do you copy?
"I copy," Johnson said, forcing the words through blistered lips. His throat hurt and the words were weak, petty things after hours of imagined booming battles in the sky.
"Good to hear it, Mayday. We just wanted to let you know we've got a flight path to you. We'll be there in about fifteen minutes. What's your status?"
Johnson told them. About the leg. About the slowly malfunctioning system. About the heat.
A low whistle sounded on the other end. "Just hold on there, friend," The voice said with new sympathy. "We might be able to shave a few minute off that TOA. We'll skip over less urgent folks and pick you up first. Just hold on."
Johnson sighed and stared through the frosted visor-- just like he had as a child in New England.
"How on earth did you pass the physical?" the ship's doctor asked, looking over the results of the pre-drop medical tests.
"I lied and cheated," Johnson said with a laugh, thinking over the brilliance of his campaign, how he'd switched the files, giving the ground medics those which he'd had from his last campaign.
The doctor slid back his chair. "Well, I can't let you go down there like this. You still have wounds unhealed from your last campaign."
"They don't hurt much any more."
"Are you crazy, man? There isn't a soul on this ship who wouldn't take half what you got to go home. Why the hell are you pushing it?"
"Call me patriotic, Doc," Johnson said. "An elderly patriot who just couldn't let those lizards get away with murder."
"We have younger men for this kind of thing. Why can't you leave it to them?"
Younger men like his son-- perhaps he had simply come to pay the price of keeping his son from it, to fight this one last war to keep Billy from having to.
Johnson shrugged. The doctor punched the communicator on the wall. The Captain staggered in a few minutes later.
"And what exactly is the matter with Johnson?" he demanded, plastic face as emotionless as always. But the eyes glanced around the sterile room with undue familiarity, like a Frankenstein monster coming home.
"He doesn't belong here," the doctor said, showing the captain the report.
Johnson stayed quiet, but his fingers twitched.
"Nonsense," the Captain said finally. "All this is nothing but jumble. Johnson's been with me on three campaigns. He's the best we got."
"Was, Captain. He's over the hill. I won't accept responsibility for sending him down."
The Captain stared for a moment, then nodded his mechanical head.
"Have it your way," he growled and marched back the way he'd come.
"What, huh? Nick, is that you? It's the middle of the God damn sleep cycle..."
"I know, Hammer," Johnson said, leaning closer to the other man's bunk. "But we've got to talk."
"About what? We're dropping in a few hours. Get some sleep."
Johnson shook his head, knowing the other man couldn't see the act in the dark. "Do you really want to make the drop, Hammer? I mean honestly."
"For God's sake, Johnson..."
Johnson grabbed the man's shirt. "Tell me. Do you really want to go?"
"Of course, I don't want to go," the other man said. "No one does."
"Then how would you like to get out of it?"
Hammer laughed. "I made my choices already, Johnson. Too late to back out of them now."
"It's never too late for anything, Hammer. Just promise me one thing."
"Promise you what? I don't even know what you're talking about."
"Just promise that when you get back home, you'll see my boy."
"Get some sleep, will you."
This is your captain speaking. We'll be dropping in twenty minutes. I won't kid you, men. This is a dirty one. Two whole units are engaged on the surface now. Our orders are to support those unites. Just do what you were trained to do and you'll come out okay. That is all...
Johnson smiled and adjusted his suit. No, not his. The name stenciled over the right breast pocket said: Hammer.
"She's dead, Mr. Johnson," the nurse said, staring up from her desk like the angel of death, her pale skin and white uniform wilting his greatest moment of joy.
Spacer babies were rare.
"Dead?" he said, shaking the echoes of his brother out of his head. "How can that be?"
"It was the baby. It was too much for her."
"B-But you have all these machines here. Surely they could have saved her. This isn't out in the field where it takes time to get to someone. You have technology right here..."
"This is a hospital, damn it!" Johnson said, his fist pounding down on the desk. "You're supposed to save lives here, not take them away. She only came in here to deliver a baby."
"Mr. Johnson! We did the best we could. We did save the child. Your wife was not a strong woman-- and with the virus..."
"All right! All right! I get the Goddamn point!"
Check the systems, he told himself, flicking the broken heat switch on and off, one and off. He discovered that if he did this a number of time, heat came. Not a lot. Just a flickering of distant warmth. But enough to relieve the worst of the outside chill, which now dug through the suit like fingers. His other leg was beginning to ache now. Frost bite? Methane poisoning?
How much of him did he want them to replace?
He saw his captain's plastic face floating before him, an illusion of horror. He shut his eyes again. What would Billy say if Johnson came home with one of those, barely able to smile or laugh, or show the kind of caring he really felt for the boy?
It was easy now to say that leaving had been a mistake—the jewels of his son's blue eye ached in him as much as the cold, crying to him across the darkness of space to come home, if not whole, then any part of him, but enough parts alive for him to hug and hold.
The frost was thick on the glass now. He could barely see out. But then, what was there to see? Bleak landscape? Broken toys of war? Another shiver racked him, and with the shiver came a cough. Something was in his lungs. He checked the med-computer.
Blood clots and pneumonia.
Too much time since the leg was cut off. He needed help -- quickly.
But it was a series of coughs that came. He flicked the heat switch madly. Brief intervals of heat leaped into the suit. The med-vac would soon be there. But would it come before the cold seep in? Or the blood clots rose to his brain? He could fell his dead leg again, toes wiggling freely.
"Stop it!" he shouted. "You're dead. Now stay dead!"
And vaguely, he heard his toes respond: "So are you."
He tried to stop thinking. Thinking had always been his central problem, pushing him into his first patriotic war, getting him into his last. Thoughts made him responsible for the condition of the universe.
But now, there was only time to flick the switch again and again, checking the med-computer in between. But even the readouts began to fade as the suit's power ebbed. He smelled something funny.
Something sweet. Something burning.
He flicked the switch. The heat came, but with the scent of cooking. But what? From where did it come?
He tried to lift his head and failed. It seemed attached to the land beneath it. He couldn't even see his wounded leg now past the frost. He lifted his hand, tearing it from the grip of the planet the way he might tear flesh from flesh, bringing that gloved hand to his face. He scraped the glass with the hardened, metal fingers, stopping only when he saw those fingers grooving the glass. The frost was on the inside.
He flicked the heat switch madly.
Again came the stink of burning. A red light flickered on above the visor. Power loss. Life support indicated a heavy does of methane creeping into the air. He could feel it burning in his chest, pain searing through him with every breath. There was the sweet taste of blood in his mouth.
"Are you there, med-vac seven?" he shouted, stopping to cough up more blood. His fingers gripping the transmit button shivered through the glove.
"We're coming, Mayday," the dim voice said, fading in and out as a burst of red lit the sky.
Johnson shouted again: "Are you there, Billy?"
A brief image of his son showed in the red lit clouds: a plastic emotionless face curved by machines into perfect likeness.
He released the transmit button as he other arm fell away from his face. His head was now filled with dizziness and pain. he watched the red lights flicker on above his visor, one after another as each system failed, the smell of burning flesh rising in him. The sense of cold came closer and closer. And then, there was the frosted glass -- like New England when he was a child.
c/o A.D. Sullivan
271 Terrace Avenue
Jersey City, NJ 07307