I've always known that it would come down to this.
The dreams are coming true and I shed my tears long ago.
Now, if I can just get my children to move on to safety, I can finally meet my fate.
I'm tired of being be the good-natured, nurturing one.
I love them all but, Goddess, they can be so clueless.
Time to smile and listen and send them on their way.
Children, they're all just spirited children. Time for the Sacred Mother to show.
I'm still not quite sure when I noticed that the command structure had been shot all to hell. Sitting in the mess tent nursing a cup of coffee, I watched the different dynamics of the men and women scattered among the tables. All ranks and specialties were represented here just after midnight, some too tired to sleep and here to find the comfort of another human. The others were here to wake up enough to go on shift to fuel the never-ending needs of jets and their crew.
My eyes dropped to my cup. I didn't think any of them were here to watch a puzzle.
The air stirred a little and without even looking, I knew she'd entered the tent. I'd seen it too many times to mistake the aura of her presence. The buzz of conversation grew brighter and the air of dissatisfaction disappeared as if it had never been. Her voice laughed at something the cook said to her and I made a bet with myself that when I looked up, she'd be holding that damned tea cup that Stevens kept just for her, along with her favorite teapot and tray.
I won my bet. The apple on her tray was a little unexpected but I realized it shouldn't have been. She was eating less and less while the war drew to its conclusion. All her energy was being funneled into ... something. I didn't have that figured out yet but I would. She'd long since given up on trying to fool me the way she did the others.
Perhaps 'fool' was the wrong word. She'd acknowledged my quest for the truth behind her outward demeanor. We had a truce, the sergeant and me. She allowed me to see her without her mask and I ... well, I let her continue to command the unit. Shaking myself back to here and now, I listened to her quiet voice read a poem that one of the men was trying to understand.
Half of these very young airmen were taking correspondence courses to keep at least part of their academic careers going while we fought for our lives. I sighed and finished my coffee, allowing my eyes to seek her again. She was chuckling at something that Gunnery Sergeant Black said and for once I wished I could hear it. The senior enlisted Marine at this Base was almost the enigma that she was.
Her emerald gaze met mine across the room and she nodded good evening. She was very fond of the proprieties and I tried to give her what she needed. If I only knew what that really was? I sighed to myself and wondered if I could handle one more cup of coffee before bedtime. A shadow fell over me and I looked up to see our doctor hovering gingerly.
"Sit down, Dr. Wells. What can I do for you?"
"I need to talk with you privately, Colonel Peters." His blue eyes looked down into mine beseechingly and I smiled to myself at his earnestness.
"Then I'll forego that last cup of coffee and we'll head to my tent." I stood up and stretched a little before taking my dirty cup to the basin of soapy water that sat at the end of the chow line. It was just one of her little innovations to help with the washing up. I could have named a dozen seemingly innocuous little suggestions but nobody would have understood how profoundly she had changed the way this unit did business.
I ducked out the side door with the good doctor right on my heels. I could feel the anxiety radiating from him and I wondered what had gone wrong now. Across tent-city, I led him to the tent that was our headquarters. Lighting the oil lamp above the table that served me as a desk, I motioned him to a seat.
"Now, Dr. Wells, tell me what's wrong."
"I got the blood results back from the physicals that we did when we set up this base." He faltered and dropped his eyes to the hands he was wringing in his lap. "I've had them for almost two weeks but kept putting off reading them because of the escalation of the war. I finished them tonight."
The pause was a long one and I felt a frisson go up my spine. "And whose came back positive?"
Those innocent blue eyes held such anguish when they met mine. "MSG Moss."
I hadn't realized that I'd said that out loud but I must have because he answered me.
"That was my reaction but I checked the figures three times and they always come out the same. She has the plague but for some reason, she's not infectious." He sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "The rest of us are fine. I did another quick test on myself and Sgt. Rosen but we tested normal. And I know damn well that we've had contact with her over the last two weeks."
"I'm not infectious to humans." The quiet voice came from the door flap and I looked up to see her standing quietly in the shadows. "I promise that none of you will come to harm through me."
"Come in and sit down." I gestured to a chair and she nodded, sitting down near the doctor. "You knew?"
That half-smile that had intrigued me from the very beginning appeared. "Yes. I've known for some time that I was infected. Once the unit leaves for safety, I'm going to meet with the aliens. It should only take five days to decimate their ranks. When they fall silent, that will be your signal to take back our cities. Just be sure that you burn the bodies that are left. I don't want anyone catching the plague."
She said it so calmly that I found myself nodding in agreement. Of course, she wouldn't want any of us to get hurt. Wait a minute. "Damn it, Moss, you'll have to be eaten by them in order to infect them."
"I know." She rubbed her nose wearily.
And that's when I saw what I should have seen so many weeks before. She shone brighter than the lantern I'd just lit. She'd known for some time that only her death would release us from this alien war in which we'd become involved. "Like War of the Worlds, you're fighting them with biotechnology."
"Yes, I've been waiting for the right time. We'll be hit in the next two days. Colonel, you'll need to get everyone away by then. I don't want any collateral damage." She sighed then smiled at me.
"We can't do that." Dr. Wells was very young and he hadn't had the epiphany that I'd just had. "It's suicide."
She reached over and let her hand rest over his forehead. "Forget, Stephen, forget and be at peace."
His face smoothed out like magic and when his eyes opened they were calm. "Well, Colonel, I just wanted to make sure that you knew the physicals came back normal. I'll say goodnight."
"Goodnight, Dr. Wells. I'll see you in the morning." I managed to sound halfway normal. I watched him leave with a soft goodnight for the Sergeant who remained seated. The silence was tense and yet ... my eyes met hers and I saw such compassion in the calm gaze. "The same for me?"
"Do you need it? I think you've known your duty since you arrived."
"Doesn't mean I have to like it." I watched her gaze turn inward. "Why you?"
The smile took me by surprise. It was a gamin grin that took years off her age. "I saw it in a dream, Colonel. It was an odd dream actually. I saw scenario after scenario play out before my eyes, like a dozen movies all with one conclusion. The endings didn't suit me so when I was offered an alternative, I took it."
"Even though it means your death?" I had to be sure that she understood completely. "Even though you know that you must be alive when they start to eat you?"
"Even then, my Colonel." She nodded. "I have a very good drug that I'll take as soon as they capture me. It should render me so numb that I won't feel a thing."
I shook my head and stood up to round the desk, catching her hand in mine. It felt like ice. "There's no other way?"
She shook her head and stood prepared, I expect, to erase my memories. I pulled her into my arms for the hug that I needed to give her. "I'd rather remember you, Hope. At least one person should be able to mourn your sacrifice."
Those green eyes blinked up at me and I saw that I'd finally caught her off-guard. "Goodness, I hadn't thought of that. Thank you, Edward. You'll get the others away?"
Nodding, I took my new orders. "We'll leave at dusk."
"Finally, a man who can think and do." Her chuckle surprised me but it shouldn't have. She was nothing if not through. "There are a few last minute things that need doing. Piper's turbine is still missing a beat once in a while. Tony's wing needs another patch. Gunnie is ready for the ground movement so that should take care of everyone."
We stood like that for a long minute while she rested in my arms. There wasn't anything I could say that didn't sound trite so I settled for the unadulterated truth. "It's been a pleasure serving with you, MSG Moss."
Laughing, she hugged me back and stepped away. "The pleasure is all mine, Colonel. I wish you luck with the rebuilding effort. Take care of the children and remember that some time in the future, I'll be reborn again into the world that you build."
And with that admonishment, she left me.
It's been five years since the collapse of the alien invasion. I like to think that we've rebuilt a world that she would approve of. The alien technology adapted readily to humans and we'd even made a few improvements. Some of us moved to the Moon and the Mars colony was established last May. The mining in the asteroid belt is going well and part of the Space Patrol is moving beyond Jupiter to Saturn. I'm curious what they'll find there.
I am head of Earth Central and none of the days are ever long enough to take care of everything that needs doing. But my old unit had provided the nucleus of the world's government so it all gets done somehow. Sometimes I wished that MSG Moss had survived long enough to see what her sacrifice had accomplished. I'd made sure that her name went up on the ten-mile monument we called the Wall of Remembrance.
But sometimes I thought I was the only one who truly remembered her.
"President Peters, we had two births this afternoon." Doctor General Stephen Wells fell in by my side, my bodyguard moving to accommodate him. "Your niece, Eleanor and MSG Green's daughter, Angela both delivered within the last few hours. Do you have time to see them?"
"Well, of course, I do. The Senate can wait for a few minutes while I welcome our newest citizens." This was part of the job that was a pure, undiluted pleasure. Walking through the hospital to the birthing rooms, I found MSG Alan Green and his wife cooing over their first grandchild. Angela looked tired but satisfied with her new son. Her husband was on route to Saturn but he'd be back in ten days. I congratulated them before moving on to the next room.
Former Gunnery Sergeant Black was holding his daughter while teasing his young wife. "Are you sure that the milkman didn't have something to do with this little lady, Elie?"
"Nonsense, sweetheart, my mother had eyes just like hers. Uncle Edward, make him stop teasing me." She pouted and I kissed her cheek.
"Stop teasing this brave young lady, Michael. And let me have my first grand-niece at once so I can tell her what's what." I held out my arms and he gave me the small pink- blanketed bundle. I held her with sure hands and looked at the little scrunched up face while she began to chew on a tiny fist. "I can see a distinct resemblance to your chin, Michael. But the nose is definitely Eleanor's. How are you, sweetheart?"
As if my words were a signal, she opened her eyes to gaze into mine. Emerald fire flashed for a moment while time stood still and I forgot to breathe. Then with a sleepy yawn, they closed again and I looked up at the only other man who knew just what had happened to MSG Moss. "Hope?"
"How did you guess, Uncle Edward? Hope Catherine Black, has a certain ring to it." Eleanor's voice seemed to come from far away but then Gunnie and I were having a silent conversation over the sleeping baby who'd once meant so much to us.
"I think it's a very good name, Eleanor. I knew someone named Hope once. This little one will have a great deal to live up to." I nestled her back in my niece's arms. "But she'll have all the help she needs. Good work, love." And I bent to kiss them both before straightening and making my way out of the hospital.
We had a new world to build and secure for that young lady.
The end for now