Return to Kazbek
Part Five -- by Becky Ratliff
It soon became obvious that they weren't going to be able to outrun the Silicates. McQueen and Lucas began looking for a good place to make their stand, and found it in a large storage area. The AIs would have to cross an open area to get to them, and they had good cover behind some heavy ore crates. They hid and waited, it wasn't long until the AIs walked into the ambush.
Kylen felt her throat close off as she recognized one of them, a Julio model. "Rosie, that's the same one."
She nodded. "Yeah, he's still got that ripped place on his shoulder I gave him. That's him all right."
At that, the two Marines opened fire. They had taken positions far enough apart that they had the area in front of the hatch covered in a crossfire.
Most of the AIs fell immediately, but a tear gas grenade went off, choking them and obscuring the area. They retreated out the far end of the chamber, hurrying along until they got to clear air. Rosie and Kylen found themselves almost completely incapacitated by the gas. Their eyes burned and flooded with tears so they couldn't see, and it made them sick. McQueen and Lucas had experience with it and weren't affected as badly.
They took cover around a corner, and waited for the mine's ventilation to clear the gas away. Rosie and Kylen slowly recovered, but the gas had really made Rosie sick. McQueen asked her, "Can you breathe okay? Any swelling in your throat?"
She shook her head.
"Probably not a severe allergy then. We're affected worse, you'll be okay once you breathe fresh air for a while."
"Can't see a damn thing."
"It goes away."
She nodded. "Do you think you got them all? I don't hear anything moving in there."
McQueen said, "Give it a few more mikes. If there are any still in there, they can't sit still too long ... they'll have to 'take a chance.' "
Kylen wiped her eyes. "The dark-haired one with the torn shoulder, see if you got him. I think he was the one who threw the tear gas. That was Julio, he was one of their leaders -- he and Felicity."
When there was no movement from inside the storage area after a few moments, McQueen told the women to stay there while he and Lucas checked out the situation in the storeroom. Both of them had counted the AIs before they had started shooting, they were both sure there was one missing and none of them had a torn shoulder. It looked like Julio had popped the canister of tear gas and made himself scarce. McQueen hoped Vansen had secured the detonators or this could be a real short mission, once that AI reported in...!
They got back to Kylen and Rosie and kept moving. By then, Rosie could see a little bit, but Kylen still had to help her along, and she was still out of breath herself. McQueen realized the two women couldn't go much further without a rest. Stopping for a little while and letting them recover from the tear gas was the only real option.
Then, they had their first real break. Kylen recognized an intersection. "Okay, I know where we are now. The cellblock is down there, and we worked a vein of ore up here."
McQueen said, "Let's see that."
It was a large area, the POWs had done a lot of digging in the months they were here. There was lots of cover, from columns left to support the roof and two-meter-high piles of scrap rock. Lucas took a guard post just inside the entrance, where he could duck quickly out of sight.
Rosie lay down, shut her burning eyes. Within a few minutes she was unconscious. Kylen checked to be sure she was still breathing without difficulty, the examination didn't waken her. Kylen gave McQueen a concerned look, he didn't seem to be as badly affected by the tear gas as Rosie had been. "Did that stuff make you sick too? If you want to get some rest, I'll be awake."
He shook his head. "I'd never rest down here," he told her quietly.
"Reminds you too much?" She asked quietly.
"Yeah. I hate being underground."
She nodded, and tried to figure out if her eyes hurt worse open or closed. When it didn't seem to make a difference either way, she just lived with it. Either it would get better or it wouldn't and there was nothing she could do about it either way. After a while, she pointed out a big pile of rocks. "Right over there was where Theresa and Joanie Becker committed suicide. They found a sharp piece of metal, and when the AIs weren't looking they ducked behind the rocks and cut their wrists. I don't know how long they were back there ... it must have been a while. They were dead by the time anyone noticed they were even gone. Rosie and I had to stop some of the others ... Rosie dropped the piece of metal down that hole over there to keep some of the others from doing the same thing." She looked up at him with eyes that still saw this tunnel full of the enemy. "They gave Rosie and me to Elroy that night and most of the next day for letting them kill themselves. But Teri and Joanie just ... slipped away ... there was nothing we could have done."
He nodded. "Out of all of us who were sent to Omicron Draconis at the same time I was, only six of us made it out alive. We watched the others die one by one. Accidents, the guards, older tanks, the conditions we lived in -- it was always something. In Vitroes rarely actively commit suicide, we're conditioned against it ... but sometimes people would just ... get tired and quit. It can be a form of suicide to stop fighting to live." He looked around, the tunnel was dimly lit by the eerie red glow of the ore. He thought of something. "Why didn't you tell anyone before about the women who'd committed suicide?"
"We told everyone that they died, we just didn't say how. They both came from a real strict Catholic family -- they were sisters. They believe suicide is a sin, their parents would think they were in hell if they knew." She shook her head. "I think God would understand. This was hell. If there's anything after this life, it has to be better than what we went through here." She leaned her head back against the rocks. "We were right in here most of the time. Every day was pretty much the same, they'd line us up and march us to breakfast then they'd put us to work. That was all day, sometimes we got a break about noon but mostly we could only stop for a minute or two to get a drink of water. The first couple of months, our hands were raw all the time. Handle this stuff for a couple of days, and it takes the skin off." She held out her hands, even in the dim light he could see her palms and fingertips were covered with thick pads of scar tissue. "Finally we toughened up to that. For the first few months, we were always hungry, breakfast was all we got. After that, they started feeding us enough, thank God, or none of us would have made it out. They'd take us back to our cells after that. And, oh God, the nights."
McQueen said, "They'd lock us in a played out tunnel at night, and turn out the lights. To me, Kylen, that's always been the essence of darkness, that first few moments after the lights went out. After a little while, my eyes would adjust to the darkness and I'd be able to see a little light through the gates from the mine shaft outside. But that first little while...."
She nodded, looking at him with complete understanding. "It's never really dark in here, you know. The glow from the ore is really everywhere. After you've been down here for a while, it gets so you even see it through your eyelids with your eyes closed." He looked around, she was right. There were areas of lesser and greater shadow, but there was no real darkness anywhere.
She went on in a low voice. "Every night, they always took one of us ... the chigs wanted to study us, and other times the AIs just ... we didn't know anything valuable to them, and after a few weeks they knew that for sure. They weren't allowed to do anything permanent to us. But they still ... wanted to play. I'm convinced that's what it was. It's like we were mice and they were cats, playing with us."
"I know. I've been a prisoner of the AIs. You'll never convince me they don't think it's entertaining."
She nodded. "We learned, most of the time they'd just grab at random one of the people who ended up nearest the door. So we started making sure that the sickest and the weakest were in the back. No one ever complained -- not once -- when their turn came to be up near the door." Tears started to spill from her eyes, at first McQueen thought it was the gas but then he realized she was crying without even knowing it. "Every night I was up there, I'd wait and I'd pray I wouldn't be the one they took. At first I felt so guilty about that, until I realized we all felt the same way, and I sure didn't blame anyone else for hoping it was me instead of them. I'd lie there and wonder what evil thing I'd done to deserve this happening to me."
"Nothing, Kylen," he said. "You were in the wrong place at the wrong time. There is nothing more to it than that. I know the AIs tried to convince you that you were at fault for what happened to you, but don't you buy into that."
"They said we were the invaders. There were times I believed them."
He reached across to take her small, scarred hand in his. "So did I. If they hurt you long enough and badly enough, Kylen, they can make you believe anything ... for a while. But only for a while -- not forever. It's past. You put it behind you, and you go on. It's that simple."
She regarded him very seriously, considering every word he had said. "I kept hearing all these different things from the doctors and the psychologists. It was like they were saying, you were a victim, now you can be a nice little patient from now on and let us take care of you. I'll be damned! I don't want anyone taking care of me, I want my life back."
"The chigs and the AIs made you into a victim. But that was then. At some point, you're the one who has to decide whether you are going to stay a victim or be a survivor, and there's only so much those doctors can do to help you with that. Finally what it comes down to is, taking a walk through the dark places they left in your soul and turning on a few damn lights. Kylen, you decided to do that when you came back to Kazbek in the first place. It isn't easy, but if you hadn't been strong enough to do that, you'd have been looking for help from somewhere from now on. Now, it starts to get better."
"Do the nightmares ever stop?"
"Completely? No. But they don't happen as often, and you can handle them when they do."
"You're the first person who's ever told me the truth about that."
"I can't explain that one. There's no sense in trying to pretend it's easy. That's as stupid as trying to tell you that you can't do it just because it's hard."
Kylen smiled, and her fingers tightened on his for a moment. "When Nathan asked you to talk some sense into me, I don't think this was exactly what he had in mind, Colonel McQueen ... but thank you just the same."
Lucas called, "Sir! I think I hear someone speaking English up here."
McQueen joined him at the tunnel entrance and listened. He could hear Vansen, he would know her voice anywhere ... but there was no way to be sure how far the sound was carrying in these tunnels. "Stay here with the civilians until I give you the all-clear."
About fifty meters down the corridor, a narrow hole led off into a low side passage. He stopped, listening intently to find out where the voices were coming from. It was the main passage, he continued on.
Vansen was talking to West and Hawkes, organizing a search of the caverns from an offshoot of the pit. They'd had no idea they were so close. She saw him and said, "Never mind, there he is."
West asked, "Are you okay, sir? Where's Kylen?"
"Back there with Lucas. We took out about half a dozen silicates, only one got away. What's the situation?"
Vansen reported, "Most of the mine is secure, sir. We've got what looks like about fifteen or twenty chigs up near the ceiling, we have them pinned down but we can't get at them. We're trying to figure out how to get to them now without bringing the whole place in on top of us."
"We'll have a look at it as soon as we get the others," he said. "We were only a few hundred meters up this tunnel the whole time."
Lucas was doing exactly what he was supposed to be doing, which was keeping watch up the tunnel, while they waited for McQueen to return. A small sound up the tunnel got his attention. "There any animals down here?"
"Sometimes, things about the size of rats were the biggest we saw," Rosie replied.
"I thought I heard something. Stay here." They did as they were told, watching while Lt. Lucas checked out the sound he'd heard. Kylen and Rosie saw a quick scuffle of movement, then Lucas went down. Rosie moved fast, but however quick an In Vitro was, an AI was faster. A leather-jacketed arm caught her and sent her flying against the wall. Kylen heard her head hit the stone and she fell near Lucas. Right behind Rosie, she skidded to a stop, just out of the AI's reach.
She heard Rosie groan softly, she felt a surge of relief that her friend was still alive. Lucas was curled up around what was apparently a knife wound -- the AI, Julio, was holding a bloody Ka-bar. Lucas's M-590 lay a meter away from him. She was careful not to look at it. "Long time no see, Julio," she commented.
"I can't believe you got up the nerve to come back here."
"Why, sweetie, I missed your company so much I just had to drop in for a visit." Her voice dripped sarcasm. Anger sang along her nerves like a drug, how could she have ever been so afraid of this thing! In five minutes, one of them would be dead ... but she had never been more alive than she was right now.
Lucas tried for his sidearm, he was hurt too badly to ever hope to hit anything but he attracted Julio's attention. Kylen launched herself at the rifle, her hand closed on the grip. Firing an M-590 on full auto wasn't like hunting squirrels in the woodlot with a .22 -- she wasn't prepared for the kick, or how fast the weapon fired -- six or eight rounds tore into the AI, it dropped its knife and fell in a shower of sparks as the weapon tracked up and several more shots hit the ceiling. Ricochets and flying rock went everywhere, something burned Kylen's ear. She finally let go of the grip and drew a deep breath. As she watched, the sparking stopped, leaving the silicate nothing more than a heap of plastic and wire.
McQueen, Hawkes and West had scattered for cover when the shooting started. Kylen looked at them, and just lay there for a few seconds.
A wide, silly grin spread across West's face as he realized she was unhurt. "Anybody got a camera? I'd like a picture of this!"
Kylen reddened. "Get some help! Rosie hit her head, and I think Julio cut Lt. Lucas pretty bad!" At that news, McQueen and the others gathered around Lucas to see how badly he was hurt, while Kylen scrambled to her feet and hurried to check on Rosie. She was okay, at least Kylen was pretty sure she was. She sat down beside her friend and watched McQueen getting Lucas patched up.
Nathan squatted beside her and gently brushed her hair away from her bleeding ear. "Turn your head this way a little, honey. What happened?"
"Something just flew and hit me, I guess. I don't think it's much of anything."
"Well, I'm not much of a medic, so that's okay." He got in a pocket for a dressing and tore open an antiseptic wipe. She hissed but held still while he cleaned up the injury. "Just a scratch," he confirmed as he taped the gauze in place.
"Will Lt. Lucas be okay?"
"It looks like. The bleeding stopped right away. He wouldn't have been if you hadn't taken out that AI. None of us had a shot, we were afraid we'd hit you."
"If I'd known you were there, I'd have been afraid of hitting you! I didn't know it would fire that many times, I don't know how I didn't kill all of us!"
He laughed. "You learn not to let it run away like that, but you got the job done," he grinned.
"Where did you guys come from, what's going on?"
"It's mostly over with, but there are a bunch of chigs up top of the pit, they're a damn nuisance. We have to figure out how to get them down from there without caving the roof in."
"Up top -- let me see where that is! If it's that big ledge, there's another way up there."
Rosie started to get up, but Kylen wouldn't let her. "You got hit on the head, you can't walk around until they scan you to see if you have a fractured skull! Stay put!"
"Don't climb up there yourself!"
"Don't worry, I'm just going to show Nathan how to get to it! I'll come right back. Are you awake enough to know not to take anything unless you're sure what it is?"
Rosie groaned and grabbed the back of her head. "What, you think I'm dumb enough to let somebody poison me? I'll be okay, Kylen, I just got knocked out for a minute."
Kylen told Nathan, "She'll be okay, she's getting grouchy."
They got the mine secured with all of five mikes to spare before the full-scale attack began. Kylen and Rosie were expecting a long drawn out thing, they were surprised at how quickly Kazbek was officially in the hands of Earth forces. The medics who took Lucas off on a stretcher assured them that he was going to be fine, it looked like he was already figuring out how to best turn some light duty time to his advantage. Rosie overheard him mentioning something to Hawkes about pretty nurses, she snickered and passed the comment along to Kylen.
Kylen watched the Earth flag go up over the entrance to the mine and grinned from ear to ear. West came up and put his arm around her. "Did you find what you were looking for down there?"
She nodded. "I think so."
"I understand now why you had to do this. I saw it on your face when you shot that AI."
"Forgive me for disobeying you?"
"I don't think they put 'obey' in the ceremony any more, honey. I guess things like this are why. You knew better than I did."
She slipped her arm around his waist. "You didn't want me to get hurt, Nathan, I can't be upset with you for that. But this was something I had to do. You couldn't do it for me. I was the one who had to find the guts to face the things that they did to me, and the compromises that I made to survive, and walk back down in that mine. If I hadn't ... I think I'd still be a prisoner for the rest of my life."
"You did it," he said. "I am so proud of you, and in awe of you ... I don't think I'd have had the strength to do what you did."
She looked up into his eyes. "I had the strength, because you were right there beside me," she replied. "Your love is my strength. All the time I was held captive, and all these months we've been apart since, you've been my lifeline, Nathan. I wish I had the words to tell you how much I love you."
"Try 'I do,'" he said. "I want to get married on the Saratoga, before you go back to Earth." Nathan suddenly realized that although they had been making wedding plans for years, he had never actually proposed to her. It was just something they had both known. He decided to remedy that omission immediately, he went to one knee and took her hand in his. "Will you do me the honor of being my wife?"
She smiled and blinked at the tears of joy that suddenly filled her eyes. "Nothing would make me happier, Nathan."
He stood gracefully and drew her into his arms. "Everything that's happened in the past, is past, Kylen. The rest of our lives starts right now."
She stood on tiptoe to kiss him, held him as if she would never let go. "I love you, Nathan."
"I love you," he answered. He bent to kiss her again. Neither of them broke the embrace until they heard a loud round of whistles and applause. They looked up to see the rest of the Wild Cards grinning and laughing -- even Lucas on his stretcher. They reddened and joined in the laughter in spite of themselves, but Nathan made no apologies whatsoever for the proprietary way he put his arm around Kylen and held her to his side. They were both grinning from ear to ear, with their faces still smudged with dirt from the mine. Overhead, the earth flag snapped in the warm breeze, brave blue and white against blue sky and white clouds.
<end part five>
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