Disclaimer: Maggie Walsh, Riley Finn, Forrest Gates, Graham Miller, the Initiative, and all other characters and concepts from Buffy the Vampire Slayer are copyright © 2001 21 Century Fox Corporation. I'm just borrowing them to play with.
Notes: I researched military life as best I could, but I have no first-hand experience, so apologies in advance for any glaring inaccuracies. Ft. Tyrone is a fictional location, invented to suit the geographical needs of my story.
Dedication: This story, more than any of my others, owes its existence to my intrepid beta readers. Big thanks to Keith, Dori, Gyrus and Narcissus.
David Page Army Medical Center
Ft. Tyrone, Ill.
December 1, 1995
It was going to be a bad morning. Maggie Walsh knew it the moment she set foot outside her front door and was greeted by a spray of frozen rain, borne along on a gust of icy wind that cut through her heaviest winter coat as if it wasn't there. The traffic-choked drive to base -- forty-five minutes for what was normally a fifteen-minute trip -- didn't improve matters; neither did the empty coffee pot that greeted her in the staff lounge beneath a lopsided "Happy Holidays" banner. Even with all that, she didn't really start to worry until Peter Seville said, "Good morning, Major."
Seville was the head of Psychiatric. Like Maggie, he had been recruited into the Army from a successful civilian practice and tended to think of himself as a doctor rather than an officer. He never addressed his staff members by rank unless he was about to say something they didn't want to hear. Maggie muttered a resigned "Good morning, Colonel," and busied herself with the coffee maker, hoping he would at least give her time to thaw out before he broke the news.
He didn't. "Stewart and Zimmerman both got the flu. So it's you, me and Brady for the rest of the week."
"Wonderful." Nearly half the hospital staff was down with the flu since Thanksgiving, or at least claiming to be. Maggie privately thought that at least a few of them were faking it to get out of filling in for their genuinely sick colleagues. "I don't suppose all their patients came down with it too, and cancelled their appointments?"
"No such luck." Seville sighed. "I need you to take one of Stewart's new cases. You're the only one with a free schedule."
"I'm not free," she said quickly. "I've got--"
"You've got tons of paperwork and a whole mess of meetings, all of which can wait. I know your workload, Major. I assign it, remember?" Seville gave Maggie an impatient glare over the gold rims of his glasses. "Take the case. It won't kill you to actually see a patient once in a while."
Maggie bit back an instinctive protest as she followed Seville into his office, pausing only for a single longing glance at the percolating coffee maker. It was true that her work -- her official work, anyway -- over the past eighteen months had consisted mainly of administrative duties, but she'd done plenty of clinical work prior to that, both in and out of the military, even if most of it didn't involve actual one-on-one counseling. And even this year, with her workload unofficially doubled, she had taken her share of the hospital's group therapy sessions and anti-stress workshops. The men behind her new project had made a great deal of fuss over the importance of keeping up the appearance of normalcy in her professional and private life, so slacking off had not been an option. Unfortunately, pointing any of it out to Seville was not an option either.
Seville's office was filled with a remarkable assortment of very non-military clutter. There were golfing trophies, framed photos of children and grandchildren, a collection of Murano paperweights, stacks of paperback mysteries, and old pictures of Seville himself, with less stomach and more hair. His inbox was a small mountain of folders, envelopes and loose papers, festively decorated with color-coded Post-it notes. And yet, faced with all that apparent chaos, he snatched the correct file from the desk on the first try, without even having to look closely.
"Here you go. This guy's scheduled for an intake interview this afternoon, so Stewart hasn't even spoken with him yet, but she's done the prep work, so all the information you need to start should be in here. He was scheduled for thirteen hundred, but I switched him to sixteen hundred to give you time to prepare."
"Thanks." Maggie looked down dubiously at the manila folder in her hand, labeled "Finn, Riley D." in neat black lettering. "I guess I'd better get started, then."
Fifteen minutes later, having achieved coffee, Maggie sat down in her bright, clutter-free office to read through the file on one Riley Douglas Finn, 2nd Lieut. According to the neatly typed biographical form, Finn had been commissioned full-time a little over a year ago, after graduating from the ROTC program at Iowa State, and posted to Kigali in late January. In August, his platoon was ambushed by Hutu guerillas while returning to base after a training exercise.
A brief web-surfing detour established that Kigali was the capital of Rwanda. Maggie made a mental note to brush up on her geography, fetched a donut from the pantry to go with the coffee, and went back to her reading.
"Lt. Finn was inside a farmhouse when it collapsed," the report informed her blandly. "He was trapped in the rubble for several hours before his men dug him out."
There were medical records from hospitals in Kigali and Johannesburg. Maggie put them aside for later study and moved straight to the most recent record, compiled after Finn was transferred to Ft. Tyrone. It was the physician in charge of Finn's physical therapy who referred him to Psychiatric. Maggie turned to the second page of the referral form, where the doctor had described his reasons for the decision.
"Lt. Finn's progress has stalled since his arrival here two months ago," she read. "He consistently cuts his PT sessions short, complaining of dizziness, chest pains, nausea, and constrained breathing. The one time he tried to press on despite the discomfort, he collapsed, and was ill for the next two days. Three medical examinations by three different doctors found no conclusive physical cause for the symptoms.
Though he apparently showed no psychological symptoms immediately after the incident in Rwanda, I suspect Lt. Finn may be suffering from delayed post-traumatic stress disorder, and recommend counseling. It is my belief that his physical recovery will not move forward until the issue is resolved."
Maggie didn't put much stock in psychiatric diagnoses from non-psychiatrists, but this seemed reasonable enough, so she scribbled "PTSD?" in pencil on the margin of the referral form and picked up the Kigali report, skimming quickly through the medical details. Fractured left tibia, compound fracture of right tibia, dislocated left shoulder, three fractured ribs, concussion... for someone who had a house fall on him, Finn seemed to have gotten off relatively easy. Still, the right leg had required surgery and was still not fully healed over four months later. Any signs of emotional trauma could easily have gone unnoticed by doctors more concerned with his survival. So she jotted a question mark in the margin next to the physician's comments, and went on with her reading.
By the time Finn showed up, at sixteen hundred on the dot, she had gone through the entire file twice and was feeling reasonably well-prepared, if not enthusiastic. She gave Finn her best professional smile as he came in.
He entered awkwardly, leaning on a cane and heavily favoring his right leg. He was 23 according to his records, but looked younger. She would've taken him for a teenager, despite his height and powerful build. Hell, Michael had looked no older than that when he--
No. She pushed all thoughts of Michael out of her head and focused on the matter at hand.
"Good afternoon, Lieutenant."
Finn nodded politely as he shook hands with her across the desk. "Good afternoon, uhm... Doctor? Major?"
"Whichever you prefer."
"Major, then." He sat down, leaned his cane against the side of the chair, and straightened his collar, which did not at all need straightening. Like most people in a psychiatrist's office, he looked as if he'd rather be just about anywhere else. Maggie had long ago learned not to take it personally.
"Do you know why you're here?" she asked him.
Finn's expression turned wry. "Because Dr. Lerner told me I had to come."
"Do you disagree?"
"I'm not sure." Finn shifted in his chair. "I know I haven't been doing so great lately." He shifted again, slumping a bit lower in his seat, and stared intently at the toes of his boots. Maggie waited to see if he would say anything else, but all he did was sit there looking dejected.
All right, so this wouldn't be one of those dream cases where the patient bares his soul the moment he sits down. Maggie tapped the folder on her desk with one finger, making Finn look up at her.
"What haven't you been doing great at?"
"I don't know... everything." Finn's voice was tired. "I can't concentrate. I've been working in the motor pool -- they've got me on Casual Status until I'm well enough to do real work -- and I lost a truck last month. Took me two days to find it." He shook his head, looking as if he couldn't quite comprehend his own failure. "I don't think I've ever lost anything bigger than a pencil in my whole life, and now I go and lose a truck. And I keep keeling over in physical therapy. Dr. Lerner says I might've been walking without a cane by now, if I'd followed my training schedule. And I want to, I really do, it's just... I keep falling apart, and I don't know why." Finn ran one hand through his hair in a nervous gesture, and fixed Maggie with a bewildered look, big puppy-dog eyes pleading for an answer. The expression made him look even younger, and Maggie had to fight down the urge to reach across the desk and pat him on the head.
"These dizzy spells of yours -- is there anything specific that triggers them? A particular exercise? A memory, a word, a smell? Do they always happen at the same time?" Maggie asked the question for form's sake, not expecting an affirmative answer, and was not surprised when Finn shook his head.
"No, nothing like that." He sank down lower in the chair, stretching his legs out in front of him, bumped his feet against Maggie's desk, and pulled himself up again, looking apologetic. Maggie wondered if he was always this fidgety, or if the conversation was making him unusually nervous. "Look, I know Dr. Lerner thinks I've got some deep hidden trauma left over from Rwanda, but I think he's just grasping at straws. He can't figure out what's wrong with me, so he's decided it must all be in my head."
"And the other three doctors who examined you?"
Finn shrugged. "They can't figure it out, either. Doesn't mean there's nothing there."
"No," Maggie said mildly, "it doesn't. But it wouldn't hurt to examine all the possibilities, don't you think?"
Finn spread his hands in a resigned gesture. "I'm here, aren't I? Examine away."
The words were accompanied by yet another fit of chair-squirming, and this time Maggie caught the slight wince as he rearranged his legs. She could've slapped herself for missing the obvious. He wasn't fidgeting; he was in pain.
"Is this chair uncomfortable for you? We can go next door. There's a recliner in there."
"I'm fi--" Finn bit back the automatic denial, hesitated a moment, then nodded gratefully. "Actually, yeah, that would be nice." He picked up his cane from the floor and hauled himself to his feet with a grunt.
Maggie and Seville shared a single consulting room that was adjacent to both their offices. Like all the other rooms in the building, it was painted a rather unpleasant shade of beige and fitted with fluorescent lights and cheap plastic vertical blinds over the window. Seville had made an attempt to counteract the institutional atmosphere with framed nature photographs and potted plants, but Maggie considered the result to be a noble failure. Still, it did have an oversized reclining chair for the patient, and a not-too-hideous desk and chair setup for the doctor. Maggie sat down behind the desk and watched Finn settle himself in the recliner. He raised the footrest and propped his right leg on it, glancing at Maggie with a sheepish expression.
"I feel like my own grandfather," he muttered. "Bitching that my leg hurts when the weather turns cold. Maybe I could solve all my problems by transferring someplace nice and hot. Then again, I was someplace nice and hot, and that didn't work out too well, did it?"
"How much time do you spend thinking about it?" Maggie asked. "About what happened in Rwanda, I mean."
"None," Finn said promptly.
"None at all?" Maggie allowed a trace of polite skepticism to show in her voice, and Finn responded with an embarrassed half-smile.
"I don't mean I blocked it all out or anything. It's just that... I see no point in dwelling, you know? It's over. I'm alive. I've got bigger things to worry about than something that happened on the other side of the world four months ago."
That sounded so eminently reasonable that Maggie immediately disbelieved it, just on principle. Expressing that disbelief, however, would likely do more harm than good. She didn't want to put Finn on the defensive so early.
"So you've put it behind you, then? It never comes up unexpectedly in your thoughts or in conversation?"
"Oh, it comes up. It's not like I ever forget why I'm hobbling around with a cane. I just don't go all broody and traumatized about it, that's all."
"I see." Maggie allowed another expectant pause, which Finn once again failed to fill with useful information. "Do you think it's wrong to be, uhm... 'broody and traumatized' after being seriously wounded in combat?"
"Wrong? No, I wouldn't say that. Just..." Finn hesitated, as if searching for the right word. "Pointless."
"And you never do pointless things?"
"I try not to." He smiled at her, looking more sincere and wholesome than anyone over the age of twelve had a right to. "Besides, I wasn't wounded in combat."
"Oh?" Maggie did her best not to look surprised. "The report said--"
"I know it looks that way on paper. But that's not really how it was. The fighting took only a few minutes, and no one was killed or anything. Afterwards, we were checking around for injured civilians. There were all these little houses on one side of the road that got damaged in the shooting. I thought I saw somebody moving inside one, so I went in to look, and the roof came down on me." He winced slightly, and massaged his right leg just below the knee. "It was just rotten luck, really."
For all his attempts to sound relaxed and well-adjusted, Finn was clearly uncomfortable with the subject. He was fidgeting again, and his smile began to look forced, off-set by deep worry lines that hadn't been there a few moments before. It made him look older.
"Bad luck or not," Maggie said, "It must've been painful and frightening. The fact that you weren't in combat couldn't have been much comfort at the time, I imagine?"
Finn shrugged. "I suppose not. It's kind of a blur, really. I mean, I know it must've hurt like hell, but the first time I actually remember feeling pain is later, in the ambulance. I guess I was in shock for a while. Same thing with being afraid. I was scared to death at the hospital, when no one would tell me how badly I was hurt, and I kept wondering if they were going to amputate my legs or something. But at the time it was all actually happening... all I could actually think about was lemonade."
"Lemonade?" Maggie repeated, startled. Finn gave a soft, self-conscious laugh.
"I know it's stupid. But there was all this dust when the roof fell in. Clouds of it, everywhere. I must've inhaled a pound of the stuff. My mouth was coated with it. And I was so thirsty... So I'm lying there with two broken legs and a cracked skull, all these guys working to dig me out, and all I can think of is how I want some lemonade. The homemade kind my grandmother makes, really tart, in a tall glass over crushed ice. I don't think I've ever wanted anything so badly in my whole life."
"Ever get any?"
"No," Finn muttered plaintively. "I asked at the hospital later, and they gave me some sugary crap made from a powder, and it was pink."
The last word was spoken in such a deeply aggrieved tone that Maggie had to fight hard not to laugh. It was a nice story. A nice, distracting story, and she had to admire the smooth way Finn had worked it into the conversation at just the right time to make himself look talkative and forthcoming, when in fact he was being evasive. Whatever it was that had him misplacing trucks and suffering mysterious collapses four months after the traumatic event, Maggie was fairly sure it wasn't the lack of good lemonade.
"When you were at the hospital in Kigali, did you get a chance to talk to anyone about what had happened? I assume there was an AAD?" After Action Debriefings were standard procedure following combat or any hard action, and their purpose, in theory at least, was to prevent exactly the sort of post-traumatic reaction that Finn was apparently having now.
"We had one, yes," he said. "But I wasn't there. Captain Harrison really wanted to have it within 72 hours of the ambush, and I was still pretty woozy then, drifting in and out after surgery, so--"
"They held it without you?" Maggie made a mental note to say a few choice words to Captain Harrison, should she ever run into him. The 72 hours guideline was meant to be just that, a guideline, not set in stone; and excluding a wounded participant from an AAD was inexcusable.
"It's no big deal," Finn said dismissively. "I mean, what were they going to do, crowd the whole platoon into my room while I'm lying there in traction?"
"If necessary, yes. You should've been there."
"Believe me, at the time, I needed some peace and quiet a lot more than I needed to sit around talking about my feelings. Not that there's anything wrong with that -- talking about feelings, I mean -- it just wasn't high on my list of priorities then."
"Well, that was then, and this is now." Maggie put down her pen and closed her notebook, feeling resigned. Much as she wanted to send Lieutenant Finn back to his physician with a clean bill of mental health, she honestly felt she couldn't. His symptoms -- assuming he was truthful in describing them -- seemed to rule out a PTSD diagnosis,but something was not right there. "And right now, I strongly believe you would benefit from counseling. I'm going to recommend bi-weekly sessions to start with, and another evaluation after about a month. After that... well, we'll see."
Finn looked as if he wanted to argue, but stopped himself in time. "All right," he said in a resigned voice. "When do we start?"
"Hello, Michael." Maggie sat down next to her son's bed, carefully cradling a styrofoam cup in her hands -- her fifth coffee of the day, decaf this time. "Sorry I'm late. It was a hectic day. Not that the rest of my days have been especially quiet lately, but I got saddled with a new patient at the last moment, and it threw my whole schedule off... You need a haircut again." She brushed his bangs away from his eyes.
"He's a nice kid. My patient, I mean. Lieutenant Riley Finn." Maggie blew on her coffee, and took a sip. "Just a couple of years older than you. Reminded me of you a little, actually. Don't know why. You're really not at all alike, except for being tall. Maybe it's that innocent baby-face you both make when you're trying to be evasive." She smiled fondly, and a little wistfully. It had been years since she'd last seen Michael's evasive baby-face. "I suppose you don't think it's flattering to be compared to an Army boy. Too establishment for you?" Michael had never bothered to hide his contempt for all things military. To Maggie, the Army had been the perfect way to construct a new, more structured and secure life after the divorce. To Michael, it was irrefutable proof of his mother's moral bankruptcy. Words like "fascist," "imperialist," and "conformist" had littered his vocabulary at regular intervals, and apparently at random. Once, in a fit of irritation, Maggie had handed him a dictionary and told him to look up what they meant, and he wouldn't speak to her for two days.
Ironic that it was the Army -- or at least the Army's benefits package -- that kept him alive now. A thin, wasted body in a narrow bed, no longer recognizable as the boy Maggie remembered. Each time she came here, she found herself half-hoping that the doctors were right, that Michael was completely unaware of himself and his surroundings. Because if he was aware, he had to hate this place, with the sterile white walls and fluorescent lights, the linoleum floor and no windows. Over the years, Maggie had filled the room with mementos of his life from before the accident: his favorite comforter, his childhood teddy bear, his Little League trophy. But a hospital room still looked like a hospital room, no matter how you decorated it.
"This is a bad time of year to be a psychiatrist," Maggie said. "Everyone's got the flu, or the holiday doldrums, or both. I suppose I should count myself lucky I've only got the one extra patient. But it's still a nuisance." She brushed the back of one hand lightly against Michael's cheek. He needed a shave, as well as a haircut. She'd have to speak to the nurses. "Not a nice way for a doctor to be thinking about a patient, is it? I suppose I've got the holiday doldrums too, in my own way." She took another sip of the coffee, savoring the smell and the warmth of it, if not the taste. The Psychiatric Center was located in a separate building from the main hospital, so she had to cross a street and a parking lot every time she visited Michael after work. Normally the short walk didn't bother her much, even in winter, but the cold today had been particularly biting. Even now, sitting in a warm room with a hot drink, she felt a little chilled.
Michael hated the cold. He'd been furious when Maggie accepted the transfer from the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. to Ft. Tyrone.
"It's supposed to snow this weekend. That's what the man on the morning news said, anyway. Of course he said that a number of times last year, too, and all we ever got was slush. But Mrs. Hawthorne -- she's the old lady in the upstairs apartment -- says her left hip is hurting just like it always does before a blizzard, and she's lived here thirty years, so I guess she ought to know."
She continued drinking and making small talk about the weather, keeping a careful eye on Michael the whole time. His responsiveness varied from day to day. Sometimes he showed no signs of life at all. Other times he would blink, turn his head, make soft, incoherent sounds. When she squeezed his hand, he would squeeze back. And once, about six months after the accident, he lifted his head from the pillow and whispered "Mommy?" before lapsing into silence again.
The doctors didn't believe her when she told them about it. Persistent vegetative state, they said. No awareness. Capable only of mechanical responses, not meaningful gestures. Random noises, not words. It only sounded like "Mommy" to Maggie because it was what she wanted to hear. Eventually, Maggie gave up arguing about it. It didn't really matter, since Michael never spoke again.
Today was one of his unresponsive days, and Maggie's forced enthusiasm for the weather quickly dwindled. She finished her coffee in silence and got up, grabbing her coat from the back of the chair.
"Good night, dear. I'll see you tomorrow." She kissed Michael on the forehead and quickly left the room.
The visit left her depressed and tired, wanting nothing more than to drive home, take a hot bath, and go to bed. Instead, Maggie turned her car south upon leaving the base, in the opposite direction from her house. A half-hour crawl through the traffic down Park Street put her on Route 17 heading south out of town. It was a bad road to drive even in good weather, serpentine and badly lit. With an inch of half-frozen slush coating the asphalt, it became nearly impossible to negotiate. After only a few miles, Maggie's hands began to ache from gripping the steering wheel too tightly. She thought about calling the lab on her cell phone to tell them she was taking the night off, but it would only mean more work later.
Fifteen miles south of town, Maggie turned off the highway onto a narrower road, its entrance marked with prominently lit "No trespassing" signs. She followed it for half a mile before braking to a stop in front of an eight foot-high chain link fence. Coils of razor wire topped the fence, and more signs warned against trespassing. In the distance, the windows of the laboratory building made a pale grid of light in the dense darkness. Maggie knew, though she couldn't see them, that infrared security cameras watched her from the trees.
In front of the fence and off to the side stood a metal pole with a featureless black box attached to it. Maggie pulled the glove off her left hand, rolled down the window, and reached out to press her hand against the box. Despite the cold that crept up her sleeve and numbed her face, the smooth surface felt slightly warm. After a few seconds, there was a grinding of gears, and a section of fence slid sideways to clear the way for Maggie's car.
There was another checkpoint a little further down the road, this one with an actual live guard who greeted Maggie by name, but still took the time to closely examine her ID before waving her on. She parked in the lot in front of the building, noting Angleman's silver Toyota sitting in its usual spot, and hurried inside.
Someone had decorated for the holidays in the past 24 hours, draping a "Season's Greetings" banner over the front door and pasting paper snowflakes on the walls in the lobby. The guard at the front desk had his clock radio playing Christmas carols. He gave Maggie a broad grin as she put her name on the sign-in sheet, and she managed a cordial smile back. She sincerely hoped Angleman hadn't been infected by the holiday spirit, too. That would be just too much to handle.
She needn't have worried. True, Angleman was looking rather pleased with himself when Maggie walked into the lab, but then he usually looked like that.
"Ah, Dr. Walsh! I was just waiting for you." Angleman was holding a thick stack of computer printout, with more pages spread out on the metal table in front of him. "I have encouraging news."
"Good. I could use some." Maggie fetched her lab coat from the closet and put it on. "What's happening?"
Angleman's expression grew even more smug than before -- something Maggie would've thought impossible. "I believe I've finally isolated the healing factor."
"Again?" Maggie sniffed, unimpressed. "You said that the last six times, too."
"Well, this time it's true." Angleman huffed, pushing open the door to the adjacent room. "I'm sure of it. Well... almost sure."
The room had originally been used for storage, but Maggie and Angleman had had it converted to a more necessary function three months before. Now, a wall of electrified steel bars bisected the space, turning the back half of the room into a narrow cage that housed their research subject.
It crouched against the back wall, growling deep in its throat, peering at the two scientists with tiny, vicious eyes. It had a squat, thickly muscled body, somewhat like a gorilla's, but covered with coarse gray scales rather than fur. The face, with its elongated snout, looked like a cross between a lizard and a pig. Thick-fingered hands, disturbingly human-like except for the black razor-edged claws, scraped against the floor with a sound that set Maggie's teeth on edge. No matter how many times she looked at the thing, it always made her skin crawl.
This wasn't what she'd originally signed up for when she agreed to work on the project. Back then, the goal had been straightforward and fairly modest: look for ways to decrease combat stress by conditioning the soldiers before action, with drugs and conditioned response training, rather than counseling them afterwards. It had been an interesting challenge, and after fifteen months Maggie had gathered material for two lengthy -- and highly classified -- papers based on her work. Still, none of it was earth-shattering stuff.
Until September, when the lab had suddenly been invaded by stone-faced men whose appearance had screamed military, though they had all worn suits and ties. Suddenly, Maggie's security clearance no longer covered her own project, and there had been weeks of tense interviews and background checks before she could get upgraded and return to work. And return she did -- only to discover that the work had changed. Her new research partner was a biochemist with no psychiatry background. Her new subject was a monster straight out of a bad horror movie. And somehow Maggie Walsh was supposed to figure out not only what made it tick, but how it could be made useful to the U.S. Army.
The creature -- designated a Hostile Sub-Terrestrial on the paperwork that accompanied it -- was a mystery. Maggie had no idea where it had come from, how it had been captured, whether or not there were any others. These weren't "need to know" things, apparently, even with her shiny new security clearance. After three months, she and Angleman still weren't even sure if the thing was male or female. It had no recognizable reproductive organs, external or internal. What it did have was an uncanny ability to heal almost any injury within minutes of receiving it. Even the incisions from the surgery Maggie and Angleman had done in their attempt to discover its sex had healed in less than an hour, leaving no scars behind.
If Angleman really had isolated the healing mechanism, it would be the first meaningful progress they'd made all autumn.
"So what've you got?" Maggie asked.
"You remember that gland below its stomach? The one that we thought was part of the digestive system?"
"What about it?"
"We were wrong." Angleman handed Maggie the printout he'd been studying earlier. "I've been looking through the summaries of all our previous tests, and I've noticed that the subject heals abdominal injuries, even severe ones, at a faster rate than injuries to the extremities. I've run some statistical analysis -- I think you'll find the numbers pretty startling. The graph in the back--"
"I see it, yes." Maggie flipped through the pages, skimming over the columns of numbers to get to the graph. "So you think the tissue regeneration is governed by a single organ? Given the scope of the process--"
"Yes, yes, I know. But we've looked for a complex, multi-organ system, and it's not there, is it? I'm going to take tissue samples from that gland, do a complete chemical analysis." Angleman smiled thinly. "Would you care to help?" The smug way he emphasized the last word made Maggie itch to slap him.
"Absolutely." She did her best to sound coolly interested. If Angleman was right, then this was a major breakthrough. But it was Angleman's breakthrough, not hers, and her contribution to the research would be minimal -- as Angleman very well knew. If Maggie didn't start producing results of her own, and soon, the Pentagon might begin to question the wisdom of leaving a psychiatrist in charge of the project.
"Let's get to it, then." Angleman flipped a switch on the wall, and a thick sheet of Plexiglas dropped down in front of the bars with a clang, sealing the cage off from the rest of the room. A moment later, Maggie heard the faint hiss of the gas vents in the ceiling.
The Hostile's growls turned into high-pitched roars. It rose from its crouch and launched forward and upward, slamming into the plexiglass three feet above the floor. Angleman jumped back, cursing. Maggie stood her ground. She'd seen this behavior before, every time they'd had to gas the Hostile for surgery. She had long ago ceased to be startled by it. Still, it was an impressive display. The barrier actually buckled a little before springing back and bouncing the Hostile half-way across the cage. It hit the floor with a thud and immediately jumped again. This time, Maggie heard bones crunching with the impact.
Three more leaps, and the gas overcame it. It lay in a heap in the middle of the floor, perfectly still except for the slow rise and fall of its chest, blood trickling from its nostrils in two thick black streams. Angleman flipped another switch, and the ceiling vents' hiss changed in timbre as they began to suck the gas out.
"One of these days," Angleman muttered, "it'll break its damn neck doing that."
"It'll probably heal that, too," Maggie said. They already knew from past experiments that the Hostile could recover from a broken spine in 27 minutes, a depressed skull fracture in 43. Minor injuries took even less time to heal. Meanwhile, Michael was a glorified vegetable more than three years after his accident, Lieutenant Finn still hobbled around with a cane... How many of these things were running around in the wild now, free and virtually unkillable, while humans who'd done nothing to deserve it were crippled and killed? The oppressive unfairness of it all made Maggie want to scream.
"Dr. Walsh?" Angleman sounded slightly impatient, as if he'd tried and failed to attract her attention before. Maggie realized with a start that he had unsealed the cage, and that two lab assistants were waiting by the door with a gurney. "Are you ready?"
"I'm ready," she said, and moved out of the way to let the lab assistants get into the cage.
Finn showed up for his first appointment Monday, limping through the door at exactly ten hundred as scheduled. The first words out of his mouth after they settled in the consulting room were, "I think I should apologize. I didn't realize who you were last week. Can't believe I didn't make the connection."
"Connection?" Maggie had no idea what he was talking about. "Why, are we supposed to know each other from somewhere?"
"No. But you're M.K. Walsh. I had to read some of your papers on operant conditioning for a senior seminar back at Iowa State. Fascinating stuff."
"You were a psychology major." Maggie was mildly surprised. She'd assumed, based on Finn's obvious discomfort with the idea of counseling, that he would be ignorant of the subject. "Any particular area of concentration?"
"Social psych. I was mostly interested in group dynamics. How people interact under different kinds of stress, that sort of thing." Finn smiled, looking slightly self-conscious. "It seemed like a good sort of thing for a future officer to study."
"I see." Maggie nodded. "So you chose your academic major to advance your military career?"
"Well... it wasn't as calculated as all that. I really am interested in the subject. But a guy's gotta have his priorities, you know? I knew all along I was going into the Army. I wanted to do well."
Something about the way he said it, with an almost-imperceptible emphasis on the past tense, made Maggie pause.
"You do know, don't you," she said after a moment, "that getting counseling is not going to leave some sort of black mark on your record. You've done nothing wrong. This is medical treatment, not a disciplinary measure. It's not going to harm your career prospects any more than surgery or physical therapy would."
"I know." Finn's voice was perfectly neutral. Maggie had no idea if he felt reassured, or if she'd even been right in her estimation that he needed reassurance. She decided to put the matter aside for the moment and return to her original plan for the session.
"Since you never got to take part in an AAD in Rwanda, I'd like to do it now. I know it won't really be the same -- the rest of your platoon aren't here, and I doubt we'll finish in a single session, but I think it's still a worthwhile exercise. Are you willing to give it a try?"
Finn hesitated for only a couple of seconds. "Sure. Might as well."
"All right, then." Maggie mentally reviewed the list of questions she'd prepared the night before. "Let's start just before the ambush. Where were you?"
"In the back of a truck, with the rest of my squad." Finn stared up at the ceiling as he spoke, frowning slightly in concentration. "There were two squads in two trucks, and I was in the second one. We'd been out on a night exercise, so everyone was pretty beat. Looking forward to a shower and some sleep. No one was expecting trouble. Hell, I'd been there for months, and there hadn't been any trouble."
"So this was... morning? Or still night?"
Finn had to think about that a moment. "Early morning. Don't remember the exact time, but it was still dark."
"When did you first notice something was wrong?"
"When I heard the explosion. Which was about half a second before the driver slammed on the brakes." Finn winced and rubbed the back of his neck. "Whiplash city. I thought my head was going to fly off."
"Describe the explosion," Maggie requested.
"Loud," Finn said instantly, hesitated as if searching for more adjectives, then shook his head, stymied. "That's basically it. Just a big burst of noise. We found out later the Hutus fired a rocket launcher at the first truck and missed, hit the road in front of it instead. Which was enough to disable it, but at least no one was killed. I heard later the driver had to have a chunk of windshield removed from his eye. That must've hurt like a bi-- a lot. And someone else said--"
"Let's save later for later, Lieutenant," Maggie interrupted. "I'd like to do this in sequence. You heard an explosion, both trucks stopped-- what then?"
"People started shooting at us. Automatic fire, pretty heavy, aimed mostly at the first vehicle, 'cause they were the ones out in the open. The truck I was in had stopped in a bend, with some trees on either side of the road, so we had pretty good cover, but we couldn't see to return fire. I yelled at the driver to back us up, and he did, so we got a clearer view. The Hutus were firing from both sides of the road. It was still dark, so we just sighted on their muzzle flashes and fired back as best we could."
"You were in command, then?"
"Of the squad, yeah. Captain Harrison was there, but he was in the other truck."
Maggie ran through her mental list of questions again. "Was this the first time you'd ever been shot at?"
"By people who actually wanted to kill me, you mean? Yeah." Finn gave a sudden, unexpected grin. "Hell of an adrenaline rush."
"Can you describe how it felt?"
He took his time thinking that one over before shaking his head. "Not really, no. I mean... it felt like being shot at, which really isn't like anything else, so I don't know how to put it in terms that would make sense to somebody who hasn't been there."
"Were you afraid?"
"Not... exactly. Not in the 'oh my God, I'm going to die' kind of way. But I didn't know what shape the guys in the other truck were in, whether anyone was dead or hurt, and I also didn't know how many Hutus were out there, and how well-armed they were. I was thinking, if Captain Harrison was down, it would be my job to get everyone's butt out of there. That was kind of a scary thought. But it never came to that."
"What did it come to?"
Finn shrugged. "Not much. We kept firing for a while -- felt like a long time, but it was only five minutes or so -- and then we realized no one was shooting back. So I told the guys to stop, and we waited, and nothing happened. After a couple of minutes I figured, what the hell, we can't sit here forever, so I stuck my head out for a look. Nothing. The Hutus had all gone." He sounded almost disappointed. "I think they'd been expecting one truck instead of two, and they kinda blew their wad with the rocket launcher. When that didn't knock us all out, they split."
"And that was it?" Maggie found herself wishing she could've been there at the real AAD after the ambush, to see what the other men present had to say about it. Had it really been as unremarkable as Finn seemed to think, or was he glossing over the gory details?
She made him go over the entire sequence two more times, once concentrating on his own physical and emotional reactions to each event, once focusing only on external observations. Finn answered her questions with no great show of either reluctance or enthusiasm, like a student reciting a lesson. To Maggie's ear he sounded just a bit too glib, as if he'd anticipated the questions and rehearsed the answers beforehand. But he also seemed genuinely comfortable with discussing the subject. Whatever was bothering him, it didn't seem to be directly related to the events of the ambush.
Ten minutes before the hour they were at a good stopping point, so Maggie decided to call the session to a halt.
"See you again on Thursday, Lieutenant. We'll pick up where we left off, and you can describe to me, in painstaking detail, how you ended up buried under a house."
"Great." Finn rolled his eyes. "I can hardly wait."
Later that evening, Maggie found herself recounting the conversation as she sat at Michael's side.
"I can't get a handle on Finn," she admitted. "He sits there, looking so normal it's frightening, answering everything I ask. If I ask the same question five times, he'll answer it five times and not show a trace of impatience. It almost seems rude to think that he's holding something back, or that there's something wrong with him. Back in my Harvard days, we would've pegged him as a serial killer on the theory that nobody else could be that ordinary." Maggie shook her head, smiling ruefully. "It's no wonder nobody spotted a problem until he started showing physical symptoms."
Michael made a soft, mumbling sound and rolled over onto his side. Maggie froze, holding her breath. Seconds ticked by.
Nothing. He'd lapsed back into stillness, one arm swinging bonelessly over the edge of the mattress, a trickle of saliva dribbling from the corner of his mouth. Maggie took a tissue from a box on the table, wiped his chin, tucked his arm back onto the bed, and sat down again. She felt drained and weary, not at all in the mood to continue talking. It seemed that after all this time she still hadn't learned, would probably never learn, no matter how often the lesson was repeated. Each movement, each sound from Michael brought with it the momentary hope that maybe this time-- and then the hope would be dashed before she could even voice it to herself.
Maggie closed her eyes for a moment, composing herself, then opened them again and looked up at the clock above the door. Twenty minutes before visiting hours ended. She felt reluctant to leave early just because she felt upset, but she no longer had any desire to ramble on about Riley Finn and his problems, and no other subjects for conversation sprang to mind. Maggie hovered for another couple of minutes, then finally gave up and left.
She was just approaching the reception area, digging in her pockets for her gloves, when someone just behind said, "Major Walsh?" Maggie stopped and turned around.
It was Finn, very non-military in gray fleece sweatpants and faded red T-shirt, with a towel draped around his neck. He looked almost indecently robust, which made his cane appear even more incongruous by contrast.
"Hello," he said. He looked pleased enough to see her, but also slightly embarrassed. "Didn't expect to see you in this part of the hospital."
"I'm just going," Maggie said shortly. She had no intention of discussing her personal life with a patient -- or with anyone else, for that matter. "And you, I assume, are here for your physical therapy?"
"Yep. I've got therapy all over today. Mental, physical..." Finn leaned against the wall and picked at a loose thread at the hem of his T-shirt. "Maybe I should stop by the chapel when I'm done, just to cover all the bases."
Maggie smiled, but Finn looked as if he meant it, so she answered seriously. "It might be a good idea, if you're comfortable with it. Just because you're talking things out with me twice a week by appointment doesn't mean you get to keep it bottled up the rest of the time. If you have a good relationship with the chaplain, if there are friends around who'll listen to you -- use them. It's important to have a good support system--"
"--Outside of therapy. Yeah, I know." Finn didn't sound very enthusiastic at the prospect. "It's just that I feel so... high-maintenance all of a sudden. I'm not used to thinking of myself that way."
And would it have killed you to say any of this this morning? Maggie just managed to bite back the exasperated question. The boy was nervous about the upcoming PT session, and it was making him talkative. That was all well and good. But she was in no mood to provide impromptu counseling in a hospital corridor.
"Good luck, Lieutenant. I'll see you in a couple of days." And she walked away quickly, before he had time to say anything else.
Walking across the parking lot to her car, Maggie decided she couldn't deal with the lab tonight. She called Angleman on the cell phone, told him she had hospital business to take care of, and drove home fully intending to immerse herself in a bubble bath for an hour and go to bed. But by the time she reached her apartment building, the sense of wasted seconds ticking by was too strong, and she spared only a moment's longing glance for the bathtub before sitting down at her desk and turning on the computer.
She had begun working on a research proposal a couple of days before, something designed to maintain her position on the project in the face of Angleman's possible breakthrough. Much of the background work had actually been done by Angleman, but the central idea was all Maggie's own.
"There's a surprising degree of tissue and organ compatibility," she typed, "between the subject and other species. Transfusions of whole human blood kept the subject alive during surgery (see Appendix A), and skin grafts taken from it were successfully transplanted onto rats (Appendix B). I believe that if additional test subjects are available, it should be possible to create a human-HST hybrid which, with appropriate conditioning, would fulfill the original scope of the project. As shown in Table 4..."
She shuffled through the loose papers next to the keyboard, searching for the print-out of Table 4, then swore as the whole unwieldy pile slid off the edge of the desk in a paper avalanche, carrying pens, index cards, and old issues of Biological Psychiatry with it.
"Oh, hell." Maggie knelt next to her chair to gather up the spillage. "And I had it all in order, too." She picked up a handful of papers and began to sort them, squinting in the inadequate light of the desk lamp.
A metallic glint caught her eye, and she reached to pluck a silver-framed photo from the mess. A much younger version of her own face, framed by a shoulder-length hairstyle two decades out of date, smiled at her from behind a scratched sheet of glass. Next to her, Sean grinned from ear to ear, resplendent in a hideous orange polyester shirt and Nehru jacket. He was cradling a two-year-old Michael in one arm and hugging Maggie's waist in the other. Behind them, sunlight reflected off a small pond surrounded by flowering mimosas.
A more recent, wallet-sized photo was tucked into the lower right-hand corner of the frame: Michael at ten, freckled and self-conscious in his Boy Scouts uniform. Only the vivid blue eyes connected him to the sullen, black-clad teenager he'd eventually grown into.
Maggie sat on the floor, leaning back against the side of the desk, and cradled the frame in her lap. It bothered her to realize all of a sudden that she couldn't remember where the earlier picture had been taken, or by whom. Had it been a vacation, a weekend outing, or just a random snapshot on a random day? She had still been at Harvard at the time, a couple of years out of medical school, working on her Ph.D.. Were they somewhere in Cambridge? Boston? She had no idea.
Michael would've interpreted her failure to remember as proof that she didn't care. Michael had always been looking for proof that she didn't care, and always finding it, in everything from Maggie's long working hours to her refusal to provide the latest $300 sneakers on demand. The transfer to Ft. Tyrone had been the final straw for him, though Maggie hadn't realized it at the time.
He hadn't complained when she'd announced the transfer, retreating instead into sulky, monosyllabic withdrawal that lasted for over a month. In retrospect, Maggie knew she should've recognized it as a danger sign, but she'd been too preoccupied with the logistics of the move and the anticipated challenge of the new project to pay much attention to what she'd perceived as yet another fit of adolescent rebellion.
The explosion came the following summer, months after they were settled in Tyrone. Michael had finished school and wanted to spend July in Mexico with some old friends from DC. Maggie, who had never liked the friends to begin with, refused to pay for the trip.
"You want to see Mexico? We'll go together. I have vacation time coming, we can go wherever you like."
Michael's sneer could've corroded the paint off the walls. "Mexico's not the point, Mom. The point is to spend time with my friends. You know -- people I actually like to hang out with? I'm sure you must have had one or two at some point?"
That stung, but Maggie refused to be sidetracked. "If that's all you want, let your friends visit here. We have a perfectly good guest room. They can stay for as long as they like."
"Yeah, right." Michael rolled his eyes. "Stay and do what? This town is a waste of space, Mom. There's nothing for miles in any direction, and every bar and club is overrun by Army morons. I know you don't give a shit how boring it gets, but some of us like to have a life."
Once again, Maggie refused to rise to the bait. "We're an hour away from Chicago, Michael. You have a car. I'm sure you can find a way to amuse yourself, especially if you have friends along."
"Easy for you to say! All you do is work, eat and sleep. I could drop dead of boredom in the middle of the living room and you'd never notice. All you care about is the fucking job! You screw up my whole life so you can come here and brainwash people, and now you won't even let me go anywhere. Why don't you just chain me up in the fucking basement?"
Maggie managed not to break out laughing, but it was difficult. "Don't be so melodramatic, Michael. Your life's just beginning. You'll have plenty of opportunity to screw it up without my help. I'm not keeping you from going anywhere -- feel free to get a job and pay for your own damn trip to Mexico. As for my work, you don't seem to have many complaints when it pays for your computer, your stereo, your car, your--"
"Oh, not that shit again!" Michael's whole face twisted in disgust. "Every time I try to talk to you, you throw that at me. Just like you did with Dad. God, no wonder he left."
Maggie had been congratulating herself on her patience, but the sheer staggering unfairness of that accusation triggered her temper. "Your father left," she snapped, "because after fifteen years of trying, he still couldn't convince the art world that he was the next Picasso, and he decided it had to be my fault because I was too busy paying the bills to properly nourish his genius. Oh, and because he discovered that if he went to bars and told the waitresses he was a painter, some of them would offer to take their clothes off for him. Whichever poor fool's nourishing his genius now, I hope she's got money and boobs, if she's planning to hold on to him."
Michael's eyes widened and his mouth fell open, as if he couldn't quite believe that Maggie had really said that. Maggie couldn't quite believe it herself. Michael had always adored his father. And she had always refrained from openly criticizing Sean after the divorce, or bringing up any sordid details. As her anger faded, she began to wish she'd refrained this time, too.
Michael lowered his head and glared at her, blue eyes gone suddenly cold. "Dad was right," he said flatly. "You are a cast-iron bitch." And he stormed out of the apartment, slamming the door behind him. Through the open window, Maggie heard him get into his car and drive away.
Four hours later, the police had called.
A sharp pain in her palms snapped Maggie's attention back to the present. She'd clenched her hands so tightly around the corners of the frame that the metal edges had left deep pink gouges in the skin. She forced herself to relax her grip, and laid the frame on the rug next to her, photo side down. All right, that's enough of that. She had spent enough sleepless nights since the accident contemplating that final argument and thinking of all the things she might've done and said differently. If she hadn't lost her temper at the end, Michael might not have stormed off the way he did. Of course if she'd dealt with Michael better to begin with, if they'd had a better relationship after the divorce, there might not have been an argument at all. Either way, the accident wouldn't have happened. Maggie had accepted that, accepted that there was nothing she could do now to change the past. But there were things she could accomplish for the future that might make a difference... She took a couple of deep breaths to calm herself, and scooped up more papers from the floor.
Ten minutes later, order had been restored and Maggie was sitting at the computer again, all thoughts focused on the latest paragraph in the proposal.
"...until the first successful prototype is built, but in the meantime the techniques outlined above can also be used to enhance the performance of human soldiers in combat conditions, though possible side effects may require..."
Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4
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