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Author's Note: Of all the recent stories in this series, this was one of the most stimulating I've ever wrote. Writing about Major Charles days at the army and possible Centre involvement even then took a lot of work. I hope you enjoy the effort.
He woke up to the sound of gunfire and yelling. It didn't startle him. He still preferred waking up to the sounds of Nature – even if they consisted for the most part on his girlfriend Maggie's snoring – but he was getting used to that noisy wake-up call. It amazed him how easily he had stripped off of the quiet boyfriend skin to put on the timid soldier outfit. Just when they were beginning to think about getting married and starting a family, someone decided it would be a good idea to ship him off to the other side of the world to kill people he had no qualms with. Henry Charles was many things, young and naive for example, but fool was not one of them.
After getting dressed, he grabbed his gear and left the tent. The camp was under attack. How had the north Koreans managed to breach all lines of defense was something to think about later. If there was a later.
He searched around, looking for any superior officer who would tell him what to do. There was none to be seen.
“Charlie!” someone yelled from behind.
He turned and saw a north Korean running towards him. Charles didn't wait for him to take his shot, simply aimed his own gun and fired. More soldiers came and he tried to fight them off as long as he could, until he realized that he and his unit were the only ones still standing. All the others were dead. Seeing no possible good outcome if they were to stay there, he told his companions they should make a run for the woods.
“Go ahead! I'll cover you!” he said to them.
He fired a couple of rounds, all in the direction of the opponent, but very few actually with intent to kill. Though he was used to shooting ducks and other small animals, taking a life, especially a human one, was never an easy thing for him, no matter how much they told him it was a necessary evil.
Once his companions were behind the safe protections of the trees – he dismissed the part of him that feared they were heading for another ambush – they started to open fire to offer him cover. Using the opportunity, he left his hiding spot and ran. One of the soldiers got lucky and a bullet grazed him on his right shoulder. He almost lost his balance with the impact, but managed to hold on.
It was at that moment that he heard someone calling out. It was practically a gasp, enough to tell him that whoever it was, didn't have much time to live. Sorry pal, can't help you, he thought to himself, wishing that he could.
He was closer to him than he initially thought. Charles stopped – ignoring the bullets whistling by a little too close for comfort, his companions yelling for him to hurry the hell up – and looked for the man who was crying for help. He saw him ten feet to his left and ran towards him. He was leaning against a water barrel. It wasn't the safest of places to hide but, under the cloak of night, it had kept him hidden from the enemy.
Having to decide between his own safety and saving a man who probably didn't have that much time to live, he chose the latter. No man left behind. That was what they kept telling them, and even if they didn't, he wasn't going to abandon anyone. Charles made his way to the injured man and made a quick assessment of his wounds. His shoulder was bleeding profusely.
“The bullet is still in,” the man said, as if guessing what Charles was about to ask.
“Are you a doctor or something?” he asked.
“Studying to be one. My father thought it would be good for me to be on the battlefield.”
“Can you walk? We need to get to those trees.”
The man nodded. Charles helped him get up, put his arm over his neck and scurried away as fast as they could. Aside from the shoulder wound, Charles noticed that the man also had a small limp, but he figured they did not have the time to acknowledge every single wound.
As soon as he saw Charles, Frank was about to open his mouth, probably to complain, when he saw that his companion wasn't arriving alone.
“What took you so long, Charlie?”
“I couldn't leave him behind,” I answered, as if that wasn't obvious.
“Always the good Samaritan,” he said, with something of an evil gleam in his eyes.
Charles didn't know much about Frank, none of them did, but the man gave him the creeps. He always had the feeling that Frank wouldn't go back to rescue anyone but himself. This was the confirmation.
“I try my best, Frank.”
“We have to go! Now!” Andrew yelled.
No more time for reveries. It was time for them to run for their lives and hope they would all still be alive to see the next day.
They traveled all night, stopping only absolutely necessary. Andrew and Thomas helped Charles carry the now barely conscious young doc. Frank lead the way and used that as an excuse for not helping. He didn't actually say they should leave the injured behind, although there was no doubt in anyone's mind that he would quickly agree to that proposition.
So far, he was still alive. If they could reach somewhere safe fast, he might have a fighting chance. Thomas and Charles and been dragging him for the past two hours, his legs no longer able to hold his body.
“We need to stop,” said Thomas, halting his step.
“We can't stop,” replied Frank, a few feet ahead. “Not unless you want to get caught.”
“He needs help.”
“He needs a coffin,” he said, not joking.
“Screw you, Frank!” Charles said, before helping Thomas lying him down and carefully removing his shirt to to see the wound. He was squeamish about blood, but that was a nasty one. Thomas tried to hold it off, but the contents of his stomach quickly made their way out.
“Damn!” he said, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “It doesn't look that bad when you see it from a distance.”
“It sure doesn't,” Charles agreed.
The young doc opened his eyes and stared vaguely at Charles.
“Hey! Relax, okay? We're going to help you.”
He shook his head slowly. “N-no time. Give me... your gun.”
“Don't you have your own gun?”
“I came here to save lives, not take them.”
“Well, not it's your turn to be saved,” said Andrew, joining them.
Frank stood by. He knew he could not leave alone and that pissed him off.
“Fight them off... long as I can. K-keep you... covered.”
“I thought you didn't want to take lives,” Charles teased, pulling his knife and using a lighter to sterilize the blade.
“Some times we have to do things we don't appreciate.”
“Like trying to bring the dead back to life,” Frank complained.
Thomas got up and walked over to him. “What the hell's the matter with you? Have you no decency?”
“Plenty. But survival comes first. A group is only as strong as the people in it.”
“I don't know what that means, but I know that if you don't shut your mouth, you're going to regret it.”
Ignoring all the commotion, Charles reached for the tissue which Andrew had embedded with water. He needed to clean off as much blood as he could before he did anything.
“Have you ever done this before?” the injured man asked.
“Only with ducks and rabbits. And only after they're dead.” I didn't intended it as a joke but he laughed anyway and it made him gasp in pain. “Sorry,” I said.
“Not your fault.”
Having cleared enough blood to see the entrance wound, Charles grabbed the knife and was about to go for it, when the man stopped him.
“What is it?”
“You need to keep me still. If I twitch, you might sever an artery or render my arm useless.”
“No pressure, huh?”
Charles signaled Thomas to come and help them. The injured took a clean tissue from his pocket and bit on it.
“What was that?” Andrew asked.
Removing the tissue from his mouth, he repeated himself: “I'll try not to yell too loud.”
As he was about to bit on the tissue again, Charles asked him: “What's your name?”
“William. You can call me Billy.”
“Okay, Billy. This is gonna hurt like shit.”
Billy nodded, signaling that he was ready. Andrew and Thomas kept him still as Charles began to cut it.
They found a place that seemed safe enough to stop for a while. They'd been traveling for a long time and even though it could be a security risk, they all needed to get some rest. Thomas found a small cave, large enough to accommodate all five of them there. It was more practical than setting up camp; plus, it hid them better.
Frank, as always, was the only one who complained. “I can't believe I have to here like some damn lab rat!”
“There are worse places, you know?” Billy commented. Although he was still weak, he was longer under the risk of dying from an infection.
Frank ruffed and moved away from his companions.
“I wonder what his problem is,” Charles said to himself.
“Some people are simply too stubborn to deal with,” Billy answered for him.
Charles nodded. “Can I get you something to eat?”
“No. I just need to take some rest.”
“All right. We leave in one hour.”
Billy closed his eyes and dozed off. Charles stood awake, watching as his companions fell asleep one by one. It didn't take long for him to join them in deep slumber.
Charles was dreaming about how he was going to propose to Maggie when something woke him up. Since all the others were still asleep, he wondered if the sound he heard could have been something in his dream. Then he heard it again – footsteps – and and realized the cave was no longer safe. He woke his companions up, signaling them to keep quiet. They all grabbed their guns, all except Billy who was told to stay put.
“I'll be back for you, Billy,” Charles said. “I promise.”
“I'm sure you will, Charlie.”
Charles nodded and followed Thomas and Andrew. Frank, always the impetuous one, had taken the lead and was already by the entrance when the three of them got there. The sun had not yet risen, but there was already enough light to see things that remained partially hidden by the dark.
“There's at least two behind those trees,” Frank said, pointing at his left. “And possibly another one on the opposite side,” he continued.
“They have all the exits covered,” Andrew commented.
“So it would seem,” Frank agreed.
Before they could decide that to do besides wait, they heard a chopper approaching. Being the tallest, Thomas spotted it before any of the others did.
“It's one of ours!” he said happily.
“That's wonderful. But how the hell do we reach it?” Frank argued.
“One of us has to stay behind and keep the others covered,” Charles said.
“No,” said Andrew. “We all go.”
“I wish that could be possible, but under the circumstances, unless of us stays, we're all dead.”
“How can you be so sure of that?”
Charles shrugged. “I don't know. I just am.”
“Fine. Then let it be me.”
“Because I'm better rested than you are. Not to mention that wound of yours.”
“It's only a scratch.”
“Be that as it may, it damages your aim. Which leaves me as the best shooter in the group.”
“Let's just go already!” Frank urged.
“Not before we get Billy,” Charles said, signaling Thomas to go with him.
Billy was getting up as they approached him. “I heard it's time to go.”
“You heard well,” Charles said. “Let's move.”
Charles flinched as Billy put his arm over his injured shoulder. Noticing his discomfort, Thomas asked: “You wanna switch sides?”
“No. I'll be fine, Tommy.”
Frank was definitely losing his patience for having to wait. Not that he had any other choice. Andrew promised him he wouldn't guarantee his safety if Frank decided to go by himself. Judging by the animosity between them, they'd probably shoot each other if they could.
They were about to make their move, when Charles realized something.
“Wait! We can't go!”
“What now?” Frank asked.
“If there's really someone there and there”, Charles said, pointing at both directions, “as you say there are, how can Andy keep both sides covered?”
“He can use two guns instead of one,” was Frank's reply.
“Don't worry about me. I got enough ammo to keep you covered all the way to Paris.”
“I don't like this,” Charles complained. Turning to Frank, he asked: “How's your aim?”
“Better than yours will ever be!” he snapped.
“Then you keep that other side covered while Tommy and I carry Billy.”
It was clear that Frank did not like that idea one bit. However, between firing a couple of shots and risk getting himself shot while carrying a dead-weight, Frank's choice was not that unexpected.
“Fine,” he said.
They ran as fast as they could. Frank's suspicions proved to be correct: they were shooting at them from both sides. Yet, surprisingly enough, none of the bullets came any close to hit them. Maybe Luck was with them.
Deciding to take a chance, Frank left his post and ran after the trio, confident that Andrew would watch his back. After a few strides, he had already gone past Charles, Thomas and Billy.
A group of American soldiers came to their aid and they managed to reach the chopper faster than they expected.
“Is everyone here?” the Captain asked.
Frank was quick to nod.
“No!”, said Charles, ignoring Frank's glare. “There's someone still by the cave. We need to get him back.”
“Take three men with you. And don't get yourself killed.”
Charles picked up three soldiers and they went back to get Andrew.
The Captain watched as Charles and three other soldiers walked away. When they were out of ear-shot, he turned to Frank and made a comment: “I assume it well.”
“Well enough for him to believe it was all real,” Frank answered.
“I could have lived without your men shooting at me,” Billy complained.
“That won't happen again.”
“Be sure that it don't... Captain.”
“What shall I tell your father?” he asked, nodding to Frank and Billy.
Billy approached the Captain and stared at him, like a snake staring at a rat. “You are not to acknowledge us that way,” he said menacingly. “Are we clear?”
“Tell our father we should keep an eye on Charlie. I have a feeling he'll be very important to us in the future.”
“What does Fennigor think?”
“Andy is one of us. He only wants what's best for The Centre.”
“I'll deal with Thompson, if necessary,” Frank answered.
Captain Stuart Jamison nodded, feigning agreement. An unwise decision had gotten him in bed with the Devil and his spawns. The consequences of that decision would cost him his soul, not to mention his life, but it was a necessary sacrifice to keep his two daughters safe. Catherine and Dorothy were the only family he had left and he would do what it took to protect them. God saved his soul