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The Attenuation Coefficient of the Soul
Disclaimer: The A Team are not mine. Sadly.
Warnings: War, not graphic but not nice either. Brief mentions of sex.
Series: Dog Tags. Takes place about a month after “Illegal Highs and Unit Lows.”
Summary: One day in 'Nam . One Hell on Earth. Four perspectives. And the attenuation coefficient of the human soul.
Notes: I am currently re-writing this series and because I like some better than others, (not to mention some need more work!) I'll be posting these out of order. They were mostly written out of order anyway. They are all stand alone (or mostly stand alone) so it should still make sense.
The Attenuation Coefficient of the Soul
The gunners name was Samuel. Whether that was his first name or last, Hannibal didn't know. And from this moment on it didn't matter. Kid was a split second away from being another battle statistic.
Time seemed to elongate as Hannibal yelled, knowing that he would never be heard over the whop-whop-whop of the Hueys on the ground around them but screaming out the words anyway.
The LZ wasn't hot for a change and it was a nice wide clearing for the helicopters. Charlie had retreated, pushed back by the mortar fire earlier in the day, and getting the grunts loaded looked like it was going to be right out of the Army textbook – the one that 99.9% of the time had nothing at all to do with the reality.
The gunner had dropped out of his bird to help load the injured, moving further out into the LZ every time he returned for more wounded. Brave kid. Dumb kid.
Hannibal saw the moment his eyes found the child – a baby really of no more than three or four at the edge of the clearing, the one they'd all been avoiding - and saw the desperate sympathy in them that all these months of war hadn't knocked out. The gunner gestured at the grunts, pointing. Everyone shook their heads.
Too much noise. No way to explain. No time to explain.
But Hannibal yelled anyway, screaming the words into the blistering noise, barely hearing the words as they left his mouth. He saw in his peripheral that Face was yelling too.
The child stood on the edge of the LZ, arms up in a kind of supplication, like a siren calling to Odysseus. The gunner broke into a run.
Hannibal saw Face lunge for the kid, but he was a hair's breath too far away to get a grip and the gunners fatigues slipped out of Face's hand. Face yelled again and Hannibal caught his shoulder just in the case the young man harboured any thoughts of following.
It felt like minutes watching that kid run towards the child. In reality it was less that a second. The mine went off under Samuel when he was a few feet away from him, a wide all encompassing noise that drowned out the choppers for just that moment in time. A bright flash in the dimming light of encroaching dusk and then the rain of dirt and mud and people.
It was amazing how much the human body could take. A force like that would have ripped metal to shreds and yet the body of one young boy stayed mostly intact, thrown several in the air to land in a bloodied heap in front of his Huey . His right foot and pants were torn off his body but he still looked human. The same could not be said of the child.
Some of the grunts reacted by firing into the trees.
Hannibal cursed loudly. It was too dangerous to get his remains – where there was one mine there could be others - and the resultant fire could heat up the LZ up faster than the noon day sun if there was any VC nearby.
Hannibal pulled himself aboard and turned to help Face haul BA up. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the crew chief signalling the pilot to get them up. Hannibal recognized the young man in the right seat. It was Murdock, the kid who'd saved their hides a couple of times and was getting quite the rep for the risks he took to get grunts home. He noticed the kids quick glance back at the ripped remains of his gunner but the look vanished as he returned to chewing gum and concentrated on getting his bird in the air.
Good for you, kid, Hannibal thought. You couldn't let this shit get to you. He believed that. You used it to keep you going, to give you reason to keep pushing through and get out the other side. If you didn't it was just mindless crap that happened and for Hannibal, that was like pissing on their graves. Those deaths had to mean something.
Especially the deaths of dumb kids with more heart than brains, more human sympathy than base survival instinct.
The jungle flew past below them. Face stared out the door, eyes not really seeing the trees below, the air rushing in a welcome respite from the stifling humidity. Sweat trickled down the side of his face, dribbled down his back. His heart hammered in his chest, still reacting like it was running for the chopper.
He could still feel the fabric of the gunners clothes sliding under his fingers, rough and gritty. He refused to play the “shoulda , coulda , woulda ” game because he'd learned the hard way how that could drag you down and worse, drag your unit down with you. As Hannibal had once said, “you wanna go to Hell, kid? Go right ahead. But your outta my unit right before you do.” His eyes had been hard, uncompromising. “We go out together and that's one place we don't intend to visit.”
But despite himself, he could still feel the phantom touch of fabric, still smell the cordite and burnt flesh that had suddenly burst up, covering the musty, earthy scent of the jungle as if he were still back there in the LZ.
The jungle continued to blur by below him.
Somewhere down there, in this god forsaken place, was a man willing to use a baby to kill. They'd all seen that child, abandoned to its fate. But they'd heard what the VC were willing to do and even though there was a part of Face that refused to believe those stories, he had concentrated on getting the wounded aboard and ignored those pleas.
He wondered if the gunner had heard the rumours too. Probably not. But if he had, did he forget the warnings? Did he not believe them? Was he too stupid to heed them?
Or braver than all of them because he'd been willing to risk his life to save that child, even knowing what could happen?
Maybe it was just one of the moments where you do something incredibly stupid that most of the time you lived to look back on and think “man, that was dumb.” You didn't have the luxury to make those kinds of mistakes in war.
Face looked at Hannibal. He was on his knees beside a wounded soldier, trying to stem the flow of blood from his leg. From the bright jet of red spurting up in the unmistakable rhythm of a heartbeat, splattering the inside of the Huey and its occupants, Face guessed it was femoral.
“Face, find me something to use as a tourniquet.” Hannibal said, without looking up.
Face immediately unhooked his gun strap and handed it over then watched as Hannibal tightened it around the soldiers leg. The grunt moaned in pain, despite appearing to be unconscious. Hannibal continued to pull, almost brutally to stop the bleed, seemingly unaffected by the agony his ministrations caused.
Face reached down, to hold the man steady as much to offer comfort. His fatigues were wet beneath Face's fingers, wet with blood and life, so different from the gunners and the phantom fabric faded away beneath the reality. His thoughts turned to supplying whatever Hannibal needed to keep this kid alive, using the periphery of his vision to scout around the chopper without once taking his attention off of the boy clinging to life in front of him.
Let the dead rest. The living depended on him.
Perhaps it would've been better if he had liked the kid, Murdock decided. Maybe then he'd have a chunk of good clean grief to numb up the adrenalin rush of seeing Sam die, of watching his torn body hit the dirt in front of the Huey and of realising the LZ was mined and that it had just been dumb luck or a miracle one of the choppers hadn't landed on one. And it would sure as Hell take the edge off the tension clawing at his gut as the overloaded Huey's , unable to hover, used running take-offs to lift.
He glanced across at his co-pilot, who in complete disregard for SOP had taken his hands from the controls, face full of the anger and grief Murdock wasn't feeling. If the LZ had been hot, Murdock would have called him out of it, feelings be damned, because if he took a bullet and there wasn't another set of hands ready to take over, the whole chopper could go down, or worse, fall into the flightpath of another and drag them down with them. But it wasn't, so he left him to his grief and gently pulled up on the collective.
One of us oughta feel something , was his last thought before his concentration centred on the lift and keeping the skids from brushing the ground.
Two days of eating C-rations holed up in a laager actually made the food in the mess tent seem appealing. The same effect, Murdock had learned, would make his cot feel like a luxury divan after a night on the floor of his Huey . For about the first ten minutes, then it was back to being like rock.
He pushed his food around the plate, eating slowly, not really as hungry as he should be. His crew chief, Sips, dropped into the seat opposite and talked of heading into Pleiku to find a bar and down a few in Samuel's name.
It ought to have felt wrong to agree, because he really hadn't like the kid, but it didn't. It didn't feel like anything at all.
That was a good thing though. It had to be.
In the two months he'd been here, he had seen far worse – mines that had torn bodies apart at joints, like macabre jigsaw puzzles and had those pieces rolling around on his chopper's floor – so perhaps his lack of reaction wasn't surprising.
Sips and the Puppy were eager to be off, so Murdock abandoned his rations and headed after them. Sips elbowed his way to a spot on the transport and hauled Murdock up next him.
The Puppy had to fend for himself. He looked jittery, eyes a little too bright. The last time Sips had dragged him into town he'd dropped him in front of one of the whores and said he wasn't having no God-damned Cherry Boy flying his chopper. Perhaps he was hoping or dreading more of the same.
Or maybe he was missing Sam.
The truck bumped along the road, overloaded with grunts. Murdock's legs hung over the tail gate and he watched them swing in time with the jolts created by the ruts in the track. The Puppy had hopped up next to him and he could feel the heat from his co-pilot's skin every time he knocked into him. The kid's eyes, accentuated by the ever present dark patches under them, almost seemed to glow like they were irradiated.
Yeah, grieving over Sam .
Radiation was how he'd come to see the crap this war dished up. The quicker he got this kid outside of some beer the better. It wasn't as good as lead, but it would sure take the edge off.
Sometimes Murdock could feel it, bathing his skin, ready to sink into his body and be absorbed by his bones and flesh. But so far it never got far enough inside him.
He did wonder though, usually when his belly was full of beer or when his dick was buried in a bar girl: was there an attenuation coefficient for the human soul? What was it's effective dose?
The truck lurched to a stop.
The Puppy turned those irradiated eyes on him.
And he felt too much like lead.
Sometimes, Murdock decided, he thought too much.
The air was still uncomfortably warm but at least the searing sunlight had gone. The moon and stars were so bright above BA and when he looked up, he could see many more than he had ever observed from Chicago. The sky looked almost over crowded and the soft light they brought was just enough to see by.
And to write by.
BA always wrote his momma after every mission. Somehow it made her feel closer as if she was sitting there beside him listening rather than thousands of miles away.
He liked to read out what he wrote in a soft whisper, as if she could hear him say it, as if she could reply. Sometimes he'd tear up the paper when he finished because it was too much, it would hurt her to read them and she already worried enough. And in many ways the effect was just the same as if he really sent it, as if she'd really read his words. Sometimes, like today, he'd start again because he needed to tell her, needed her to understand.
When he finished, he began to read -
“Something happened today, momma . I ain't gonna say what.” His soft whisper barely audible even to himself. “I can't, momma , I'm sorry. But it were the ugliest thing. I don't want you to worry none 'bout that cos I'm fine.
There's kids here what got no place in war. And I don't mean them doves and the draftees. I mean real kids. Kids of 5 or 6 or even younger. Just babies outta their cribs. I never would have believed it, momma , if my eyes didn't see it. If I live to be a hundred, I ain't ever gonna understand it.
D'you think there's kids like that in America? When I get home, I'm gonna find out. And if there is, I'm gonna do something about it. Show 'em how to respect themselves. Teach 'em what's right. I know I can do it. That's something else to come home for, ain't it, momma ? Right next to your apple pie.
I miss you.
BA folded the paper and carefully pushed it into his pocket. He smiled to himself. “G'night , momma .”