Author's Note: This story was originally published in 1989 in a zine called Suffering Heroes by Tanis Press.
Pain: sweet, intensifying pain, eating destroying the senses. How long can you sanely suffer it before it becomes a pleasure? When the silence and stench of rotting clothes and forest become not a part of life, but a reason for existing?
He slowly opened his eyes, forcing all his will and effort into this one slow solitary act. Even this was becoming too much, and all he saw was the haziness brought about by the unearthly heat. His head fell forward to rest weakly upon his bare knees which he had earlier drawn up to himself in a vain attempt to make himself smaller - and, anyway, it gave the rats more room to move around him instead of over him.
He had given up asking for help or water, and never gave a thought to quoting the Geneva Convention as he had doubts if his captors had ever heard of Geneva. Anyway, the last soldier who had, had ended up in the swamp; that was one of their best games, in that they would lower one perhaps two soldiers into a wicker basket which in turn was lowered into the swamp so that just the heads were above water level. It could, and did, break men's souls, it ripped a sane mind to shreds. As time went on, the creatures of the river realised the feast that had been placed before them. The game was to bet and see who lasted the longest.
When he had first been thrown into this prison - no, this hell - it seemed so long ago. So much had happened, so many had died. His thoughts once again sped off into the unreachable realms of his mind.
God, how he hoped the others had escaped. It was his own fault and all he could do was wait and die. A sob, nerve wracking, timber splitting, escaped him. He didn't want to die, he couldn't - he hadn't lived. He felt as if his whole life had been a lie, a game of pretend, yet this wasn't how the games were meant to end.
The silence of the jungle was disturbed as another animal met its death at the hand of another, its angry cries fading with its life.
He gasped as another rat bit deeply at his defenceless feet, but the pain soon faded into the whirlpool of his other discomforts. He hugged himself more closely and vainly tried to catch with his tongue the salty tears that slipped through tightly closed eyes.
He was alone, he knew that now. The other soldiers who had been with him had been dragged from their cages a while back, for what he didn't even want to guess. He couldn't, it took to much energy and time. Anyway, their screams had ended shortly after they had left, at least it was over for them.
He span off again. Living in this hell was not so impossible, he was getting used to it. Nobody will ever know how terrifying it is to discover that you are going insane, you can't laugh or cry 'cos that only adds weight to that nasty thought that flees about your covered soul.
They were here, by his cage, for him. They were going to torture him, maybe place him within the swamp and let the animals attack him. He wondered how long he would last. He didn't realise that he was still crying, still trying to bargain for his life.
Hands grabbed his arms, lifting, dragging him from his haven of safety. It was the only place he knew in the strange enemy camp into which he had been brought. Now he knew it was true - the Vietnamese were animals; they would torture and kill for pleasure.
"Can you walk?" The voice was American, but he found it hard to believe. It came again, this time tinged with urgency. "Can you walk?"
He made an attempt at answering, but found that his voice would not work.
His unknown saviour seemed to understand, for he went on, "Now, don't try to run. We'll just take it slow and easy. " He took the wounded man's arm and placed it around his own neck, smiling at his little joke, knowing full well that this soldier could hardly walk, let alone run. Then, half carrying, half dragging, he started off across the clearing. Around him lay the bodies of the Vietnamese he had been forced to kill to reach this one American soldier. He shot a glance sideways; the man was young, no more than a boy really. He did take time to wonder what made liks like this rush into the army: this was indeed a bitter war.
Hours later the young began to stir, pain once again beginning to seep back into his consciousness. He was no longer being forced to move, but was laying flat. He lay there for a while, enjoying the freedom of being able to lay flat out without the presence of those sodding rates. Fear surged through him, causing him to jerk up, opening his eyes. Had it all been a dream? Was he still a captive in the Vietnamese prison?
No, his rescuer was still there, sitting against a tgree, watching him, waiting.
"Glad you're awake. You know you're kind heavy to carry," he said, after removing the battered end of a cigar from his mouth. This one act fascinated Peck. Where in the hell did this man come from and how did he get a cigar out here?
"What's your name?" The cigar was placed back within the mouth.
"Lieutenant Templeton Peck," he stated, trying to sit up straighter, but gave up as a searing pain shot up his left side. Instead, for good measure, he added, "Sir."
The man thought about this for a few seconds and hen, after once again removing the cigar, said, "The name's Hannibal Smith. Colonel, that is. Now, how did you get caught, son."
Peck chose to ignore the 'son' part, but was surprised to note that this man was a Colonel. To his mind, they never came out of the security bunkers long enough to be seen, let alone this deep into the enemy's territory.
"Chopper crashed, sir."
"Cut the 'sir' crap. I told you, the name's Hannibal."
"Yes sir - I, er, mean Hannibal."
"Did you lose many men?"
"No, we managed to get the other chopper back and they picked up most of the battalion."
"All, in fact, except you and two others, is that right?"
Peck was surprised and his face showed it. How did this man know the circumstances of his capture and of how many others there were with him?
"In fact, Peck, you jumped back out of the chopper to try and save those men, didn't you?"
"You can take my word, if I'd thought that damn chopper was going to leave without us, I would have had second thoughts." He ended by giving Hannibal a sickly smile which, considering the state of his face, was better than he intended.
"Well, lucky for you the chopper pilot is a friend of mine and I just happened to be in the area, otherwise you would be feeding the fish by now, son."
"Don't get me wrong, I'm awfully glad you showed up, but - well…" he hesitated. 'How do you ask a Colonel why he's out in the jungle, instead of safe and sound behind your own lines?'
"Well what, son? Out with it, we haven't got all day."
"What were you doing out here?"
"Nothing." The look of innocence upon this man's face was frightening. If only Peck could nurse his features to look so good, he could end up being the best con-man alive.
"Nothing," he stated. "NOTHING. Do you always do 'nothing' in the middle of the Vietnamese jungle?"
Colonel Smith obviously decided not to answer that question, for he glanced at his watch and said, "We've only got two hours to get to the pick up point, so we had best be moving." And he went on, to himself, "I hope Murdock's on time."
"How far do we have to do, Si… Hannibal?" he asked, as Smith bent down to help him up.
The Colonel turned and, after placing Peck's good arm about his neck, replied, "Seven miles, due east. In this jungle, it should take us about an hour and a half, possibly more." "Possibly more, " Peck mumbled under his breath as they started out.
Murdock was not really worried - after all, thousands of pilots got their choppers show down from under them, and he had to admit that it was a great landing - but he could not help but feel that command was going to be a little upset that he had first stolen, then lost one of their choppers. He began to whistle - after all, he was still two hours away from the meet sight that he had arranged with Hannibal. Again he frowned, he knew that this little upset was going to annoy his leader. Taking off his hat, he again began to force his way through the jungle. BA was right with his view about flying. Right, Murdock decided, he was never going to fly again. Now, he knew that this might just upset Hannibal, so he was not going to tell him. Murdock felt so much better after he had thought this out - you know, life wasn't really all that bad…
Hannibal was annoyed. He had agreed to meet Murdock here over an hour ago, so something had happened to Murdock. He glanced at Peck; there was no way he would be able to fight his way back to US lines. Even now he was lying there with eyes tight shut, trying to gain his breath back. Smith hated having to force the lad to go through this, especially just after his ordeal with the Viets, but Smith was soldier enough to know that if they stayed they would both be fish-meat - yet he had to wait a while to see if Murdock had gone down… he would try to reach this point.
Sitting down, he took out a cigar and lit it, watching the landing area. Peck, he knew, would soon be asleep.
However, it turned out to be short-lived. The experiences of the last few days had thrown the boy into a light fever and he would jerk awake every time his body twitched. Hannibal watched this restless torture for about an hour before he decided to distract Peck's mind from his pain.
First, he began to tend the lad's badly bitten feet; he had a first-aid supply with him, but soon found just how unreliable it really way.
He looked up as he felt the boy's eyes upon him.
"Hi, son. How'd you feel?"
Tem thought about it then, giving a slight smile, replied, "I've felt better."
"Oh, yeah? When?"
"Sir?" Peck was thrown by the question. This guy was certainly like no Colonel he'd ever known, so he decided it would be safer to change the subject. "Where's the chopper, sir?" he asked quietly.
"er… it's a bit late."
"You mean it's down," he corrected, leaning his head back. God, he was going to die in this hellhole.
"I never said that. Murdock's a good pilot. We'll wait. He'll turn up."
Peck watched him through half-closed eyes. "How long do we wait?" 'he could have gone down with the chopper.' He thought.
Hannibal just gave a knowing smile. "You don't really know Murdock very well, do you?"
"No, sir," Peck admitted. "I'd only just met him before the mission."
The both instinctively ducked at the sound of mortar shells exploding over to the east of them. A barrage that lasted quite a few minutes.
"Friendly fire," the Colonel stated. Peck nodded, but to him there was no such thing as friendly fire when they were exploding so close. He cursed under his breath. They were so near and yet, for him, so far from their own lines.
"Why don't you just leave me, sir?" He gritted his teeth, trying to control the pain in his ribs.
"No, I promised Murdock."
"Sir," Templeton stated, "I am a dead man."
Hannibal glanced up: they could both be dead men, but Hannibal was not going to die with that thought and neither was the boy.
"Okay, soldier," he rasped in his best command voice. "You may be dying, but until you're dead you're my responsibility. Do you understand?"
The lad's head snapped up, recognising the voice of command. He slowly nodded his head.
Hannibal suddenly grinned and finished up bandaging his feet. He patted the youth's leg. "Are you hungry?"
"No, sir," Tem replied quietly.
The Colonel sighed and, holding up the dead snake, explained tiredly, "I killed this especially for you this afternoon, son."
"Sir," Tem smiled sickly, "we can't light a fire."
"So?" came the joking reply. "We'll go Japanese." Hannibal realised it was the wrong thing to say when the boy's face paled even further. "It's all right," he added. "I know how to build a smokeless fire. I was only kidding."
Peck smiled again; this time he didn't even bother to put his soul into it.
Hannibal gave him a warm smile back and began to prepare the snake.
At first Peck was unwilling to try it, but Hannibal gave a curt command and, having the man towering over him, knife in one hand, eyes boring into him, there was no way he could refuse.
Within twenty minutes he had finished the snake and was looking for more. His body was hungry now, having tasted the food, but the Colonel was wise enough to know that if he gave him any more to eat it would prove too much for his starved body to handle. So, after giving him a drink, he settled the boy down for the night.
"What if Murdock doesn't show by morning?" Peck questioned again.
Smith licked his lips: what would he do? He'd treated the boy's feet, but what about his other injuries? They needed seeing to before he could be moved further. Anohter night's sleep would help. We'll leave in the morning." His voice was determined. If Murdock did not reach them by then, he would try and take the lad out with him. Maybe he would be lucky and meet up with the unit or, at the very least, one of the many guerrilla groups..
Murdock stumbled upon them in the early hours of the next morning; darkness prevented them from having more than a few words.
Silently, Hannibal checked Peck: he was out of it - whether asleep, or maybe it was the fever that held him unconscious, he could not tell - but he was pleased that Murdock had brought more medical supplied. He would let the boy sleep till morning before finishing his makeshift doctoring on the youth's wounds.
Turning round, he pushed the exhausted Murdock down beside Peck and commanded him to get some well-earned sleep. He would keep watch for another night.
Murdock was too tired to argue. A two or three hour journey had changed into twelve. He was exhausted. Slowly he reached out a hand and rested it upon Peck's arm. Comforted, he slept.
Morning found them already on the trail. Smith was working on the hope of finding a scouting patrol and getting help back. He glanced back at Peck, his arm around Murdock's shoulders, stumbling along.
The kid was in a bad way. His only hope - no their only hope - was to find a patrol, because he was not about to leave anyone behind.
An hour later he called a rest and Peck sank to the ground. "I can't go on," he panted, leaning back against a tree, eyes closing.
"Sure you can," Murdock enthused, kneeling down beside him. "Think of American… hot apple pie."
"Murdock, you're one hell of a pilot, but I can't go on." He sounded so tired. Murdock laid a hand upon Peck's chest: it was hot. Too hot.
"Hey, what would your mom say if she heard that?"
Peck smiled slightly, "I ain't got no family."
Murdock frowned for a moment, then, patting Peck's arm, he went on, "I'll be your family. How about your big brother, huh?"
Face smiled. "Yeah, you're that all right."
"All right! So, big brother's telling you you're getting up and going on."
"Okay, Murdock, you win."
"I always do."
After fifteen minutes, Hannibal called a start. Murdock jumped up and again helped the young man to his feet.
Here we go," he said, placing the boy's arm about his shoulders.
"Murdock," Peck smiled. "Don't step on my feet, please."
How you feeling, Lieutenant?" Smith asked, taking his other arm.
"Hey, I'm fine," he replied, throwing his head back, trying to get his hair out of his eyes. "Just point me in the direction you want to go, then drag." His head fell forward as he laughed.
Hannibal's and Murdock's eyes met above the blond head. Smith shook his head, but Murdock just glared defiantly and, with a slight shrug, Hannibal began to march forwards, voicing encouragement to the semi-conscious man between them.
The journey was slow and it began to rain about midday but, to Peck, the water was cooling against his feverish skin.
He heard the voices either side of him, asking questions: questions about him, his life, his dreams, his friends. He heard an answer, a rasped reply, and was surprised that his strange-sounding voice seemed to know so much about him.
Finally the questions ceased to get a response and the body between Smith and Murdock became a dead weight. They stopped for a rest and Hannibal checked the wounds upon the youth: not good- the fever was gaining too big a hold. He used the last of the bandages, unable to hid his worry from his pilot.
"He will make it, colonel," Murdock stated.
Smith smiled and placed a hand upon his shoulder. "I know he will, Captain."
"No, Sir, I mean it, he will make it," Murdock began in earnest, "I'm his big brother. I've got to get him back."
Hannibal smiled again, then, standing up, he walked a few paces away. Turning, he watched Murdock making Peck more comfortable.
Over the past few missions he had noticed a change in his pilot; a kind of slipping away. Not with his flying - he was always razor-sharp upon that subject - no, it was as if the war was getting too much.
He sighed. God, it was getting too much for all of them; but Murdock, like himself, had been here since the beginning and Hannibal knew the reason why he stayed here: he was needed. Really needed. His childhood had not been a happy one: his mother had died when he was so young; his father too busy building an empire for himself and his son. The only problem was, when he stopped building, his son had already left, gone to join the airforce, and he had not even noticed the absence.
Smith remembered two days ago: Murdock reaching him, breathless, babbling about the boy who had jumped back into the paddy field to help his two friends. How Murdock had had no choice but to lift off, to get the others to safety, but it had torn his soul. He had to go back. Would his colonel help him? Silly, silly question.
Now, as he watched Murdock with Peck, he began to realise that this boy could be the anchor that Murdock needed in his life. A person who needed him. The youth was green - Smith felt shamed to admit that if he was not so green, he would not have jumped back into the paddy field. He had seen too many brave mens' souls destroyed by the guilt.
He removed his cigar and realised that he would have to find out more about this youth but, for now, they had to reach a base camp. He estimated at least anoher seven hours of waking before they hit their own lines and it would be dark by then. The would rest then - only fools travelled at night, for it was then that the Charlies took rule of their land.
Smith moved to Peck's side, saying, "Okay Murdock, let's get going." He bent to pick up the senseless youth up, slinging him over his shoulder. He went on, "We'll each do half hour shifts, we'll move quicker that way."
Murdock brought up the rear, gun at the ready. Sometimes he slipped in front to hold back a branch.
They made their way like this for the rest of the day, stopping every two hours, pacing themselves. At one stage, Murdock got lucky and caught another snake. Grinning, he said, "Dinner's on my, colonel."
"Great," Smith smiled. "Can I have my bit well done?"
"Sure thing, but the kid wants soup."
"Murdock, you get to cook it if you're gonna get fancy."
Murdock smiled again, then returned his eyes and senses to the jungle.
Lieutenant Templeton Peck came to: a face was bent over his; water dripped down the side of his face; a wet cloth was placed across his forehead.
"Hi," Murdock said. "How do you feel?"
Peck took count, groaned and replied, "Terrible."
"Great. Wait here." The pilot disappeared for a few seconds, then returned carrying a tin cup. Lifting the fair head up by the shoulder, he ordered, "Drink."
Peck was about to protest that he was not hungry, but Murdock placed the rim against his lips. He could either swallow or drown. He decided to drink.
When the cup was empty, Murdock smiled broadly and placed him back down.
He lay there, watching the two men moving about through half-closed eyes, then they faded.
Murdock finished throwing dirt over the fire and, after rinsing the cup, filled it with the last of their water.
Knelling back beside Peck, he saw that the boy was either asleep or unconscious again. Placing his jacket over the sleeping boy, he went to relieve Hannibal.
They came upon a US patrol early the next morning and Smith pulled rank, using the patrol's radio to get a transport out to met them.
They had left the jungle behind them and Murdock watched with wonder as he saw a helicopter sweep out of the sky, landing gracefully in a smooth clearing.
Smith waved to the pilot and lifted his burden aboard, closely followed by Murdock. Soon they would be at a MASH unit and then Smith would have to report.
He could imagine Morrison's reply when he found out what Smith's latest escapade had been but, looking down at the feverish face of Peck, he knew it was well worth it. His only sorrow was that he could not take all the soldiers out of the Vietnamese jungles, as he had this one.
"sir," Murdock said, "He'll make it, won't he?"
"Yes, Murdock. After a bit of rest."
"I'm fine," came a weak voice from behind them. Both spun round.
"Hey, my man," smiled Murdock. "The colonel here got you your very own chopper."
The fever was bright in his eyes; he began to ramble about his men - the two he had left behind - but Murdock held him down, soothing him with calming words, wiping his brow. Lifting a flash he had got from the patrol, he gave him a drink.
Slowly his eyes began to close and his head lolled to one side. A smile suddenly lit his face as he mumbled, "I've never had a big brother before."
Murdock clasped his hand. "You have now… you have now."
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