Mariana decided to stop by Hanna’s for a drink on the way home from the Lab. With two sets of Twins running around and a third set on the way it was the only place she could find a few minutes of piece and quiet. At the Bar she grinned at Hanna, “Bless the world for the effects of quick heal and make it a double please and make it Andy’s latest, I am not a masochist like the guys.”
Hanna just grinned as she built the drink, “You may not be but I think Kat is wondering about herself!”
Mariana turned to the room and saw what Hanna had alluded to. Kathryn Jamos sat in what was obviously a very strained conversation with Lewis DeWalt from the newcomers. The strain was obvious to anyone who knew them both. She watched as Lew stood and left the room and knew she had to stick her nose in. Walking over to Kat’s table she asked in her best jab a friend tone, “So what’s biting at your butt Bitch?”
She was stunned when Kat replied, “Sit down, I need someone to talk to you asshole.”
Mariana in disbelief just pulled up the chair Lew had just left and sat down; raised her glass and waited.
After a long moment Kat raised hers and began to talk. “Bitch, do you know how lucky you were to find Andy, do you ever worry about him dying; No Way. Just as Gabe does not fear for Elana or Ash for JoAnn. Hell, even Jai has John who will go down in the face of Hell itself. That Kid DeWalt has gotten to me and I admit it. Mariana I am afraid to love him.
“You of all people know how many I have lost, I can not open my heart to someone I am afraid can’t handle the load!”
Mariana could only stare and gasp, Kat was in Hell itself and could see no way out. “Have you thought about waiting a bit and seeing what He can do? Maybe He is just good enough to open up to. You have a History of being fairly closed after all. It would be easy for your friends to tell him to chill for a while.”
Kat’s face showed the strain She was under, “That’s the problem, I don’t want to. You have no idea how He has gotten to me. In the old days I used to laugh about you and Andy. Know now that I know how it felt but, I am scared. We are going back into the fire and you know it, I can’t live with constant fear. I will pass on love to avoid that!”
Mariana carefully considered her reply as she stared over Kat’s shoulder and saw the drawn face of Lew DeWalt in the doorway. “Kat, why don’t you just give it some time. Hell I waited five years. You can give it a couple of months. Lew might surprise you!”
* * * * * * * * * *
Andy was setting going over production data when SFC Nug came into the room. “Sir, we have someone here with a strange request!”
Lewis DeWalt strode into the room and locked into a perfect Parade Ground stance, “General Stuart, I wish to challenge the Alchibah Special Forces Q-course.”
“Boy,” Andy asked, “do you have any idea what you are asking for?”
“Yes Sir, I do and I feel I have no choice. I am at a do or die point Sir.”
“Would this happen to have anything to do with Gunnery Sergeant Jamos Major?”
“That might be surmised Sir!”
“OK, if you want to go through Hell and fail; I am not going to deny you. Right of Challenge has been recognized for years. Understand that I will cut you no slack?”
DeWalt grimaced, “Yes Sir. I understand I get no slack at all!”
“We will come find you on the morning of the challenge, you get no warning. God Help your Soul Son.”
* * * * * * * * * *
Ash sat and waited quietly for the sleeping figure to awake. When he did he reached for his gun as a reflex. Ash grabbed his wrist and drawled, “That ain’t smart Son.”
Lew stopped in his tracks as he recognized the voice, anyone who flew anything on Alchibah knew the voice of the Ghost. “So what do I owe this visit to?” Lew asked in his best controlled tone.
“Because you have in Honor bitten off more than you can chew, Pup. I have looked at your file and you are good but, what you are fixing to wade into just flat ain’t in any Peaceforce Training POI I ever read. Spec Ops is a whole different world and the difference could get you flunked or dead. I am here to introduce you to the one person who might have the ability to fix that. We can not train you in public for a challenge but, some of us don’t want to see you fail as it might break a friend of ours heart. So you get to meet the living breathing epitome of what a one-on-one training program means.
“Lewis DeWalt meet John Pierce call sign Scythe. I can go no farther, what happens from here on is up to you two. Just understand that Scythe was trained by the best there is. He is quite familiar with the care and feeding of a budding and eager Spec Ops candidate. He learned it the hard way. If you don’t frack up your Challenge might just happen when John here thinks you are ready.
“Make up your mind, is She worth it? Because the suck starts now!”
* * * * * * * * * *
“Wake up Asshole,” the voice bellowed in his ear, Lew tried to move and was stopped by a hand that was like a force of nature. Lewis DeWalt knew he was in the grasp of MCPO Gabriel Benjamin. Now two hours later he was here naked in the middle of an unknown environment with two pieces of paper.
One said, “Survive,” the other was a set of coordinates. That had a tag labeled Clothes. Carefully following the directions he moved to the location, ten minutes of careful searching found the cache. It contained a set of clothes, an empty canteen and a strange single bladed ax with a skinning knife type blade as a back side. A note contained directions to his next point and the following admonition:
Welcome to a test of everything you are and wish to be. This will not be impossible but will at times seem to be. It will be as hard as we can make it for a reason. You will face terrain and predators of a frontier planet. You will also face obstacles designed to test your brain, stamina, awareness and skills. You face nature and Man as you will in real combat. Somewhere if you survive you will find weapons more advanced. Red Magazines are lethal and Yellow Magazines are blanks. Scythe says good luck.
“Andy he has a pack of Vargs on his tail, what do you want to do? His first real weapons cache is several hours away.”
“Well Gabe, how did he do with the bear pit at the swamp bottleneck?”
“He found it no problem, dropped him a tree for a bridge and was out of there in thirty minutes.”
“OK, take Ash with you and let three of the pack through. If he can’t handle three with a bow and an ax he’s gonna flunk anyway.”
“Damn that’s cold Boss!”
“Yes, but very necessary. Shit Gabe I want this kid to make it but, we can not give it away. He is the first from Task Force to try it and the town is abuzz with the rumor that this Q-course is going on. You and I know that sometime we are going to have to look Kat in the eye and swear he did not get it cheap. Beyond that consider how important this is to the total force. This will prove that there are no favorites. You get put where you do the best, period.
“We are 75% Reserve now and I damn sure mean to keep it that way. This kid will be proof that that works. Gabe, I am tired of fighting for a good long time; I just am not dumb enough to think we are through fighting.”
“So Professor Stuart, when do we fight again?”
“When someone shoots at us or creates a situation so intolerable that we can stand aside no longer. Is there any other reason to fight Gabe?”
Gabe’s reply was indirect as he spoke into his wrist comp, “Ash, saddle up; we gotta go snipe some Varg.”
Lew could not figure out why his directions told him to stop here until he took a long thinking look at his surroundings. The cliff face was almost all flint, from that realization to a fire took about five minutes. Varg was not the greatest meat in the universe but, it beat nothing. Not only that but the light from the fire showed the location of a cache. Lew lovingly caressed the shape of an Alchibah CAW and two Red mags along with three Yellow mags. “I guess we are gonna play now!”
He could have been asleep no more that two hours when the sharp report of a .338 followed by the splat of a paint round woke him up. As Lew scanned his surroundings the form of Connor Benjamin appeared in his chameleons with one hand waving in that universal “Move it Out” motion. Lew guessed that was all the rest he was going to get.
Thirty hours later a tired and beaten Lew DeWalt dug up his last cache and read the note contained therein. “Cross the Line on the Ridge though Hell and Heaven stand Between.”
Lewis reached out with senses that he had not known that he had, Situational Awareness could be honed to a fine edge in even the most normal person; his was now a jangling, screaming alarm system. For the first time in his life felt true fear. Hell was coming for him from up on that ridge.
At the top of the crest Gabriel sighed and said, “I’ll go stalk him.”
The silence was broken by Andy Stuart, “No, Kat deserves no less; I will be his Hound. And if He fails, I will be the one to fail him. He deserves no less.”
In his hide DeWalt felt the threat begin to move, even though the ridge line was back lit by the rising sun he saw no movement. His brain raced, “Magic is out, she’s too pregnant. Angel started this, so it’s probably not him. Ghost, maybe; then his mind froze in alarm; Dear God, it’s the Reaper himself. OK, odds of winning outright, none. Chance of hiding out till he sweeps by me, best chance. Find a place to hide idiot!”
Andy was in his chameleons sweeping down the ridge to the early spring swamp. At least DeWalt had not tried the dumb move of trying to win outright. They had almost caught Jai Benjamin that way, right up until she ducked and covered proving that that move had been a fake all along. He found a trail that had been covered well to someone who was not yet completely familiar with Alchibah and followed it. He was flat dumbfounded when it stopped. “Damn Boy learns fast,” he thought. He started using the optics and picked the trail back up, less than a hundred yards away it disappeared again. “Did I mention the Boy learns fast,” he thought again. Where the hell was Sinopa when he needed her?
He reached out with that other sense and felt for DeWalt, there he was less than 50 yards away. Sunk in the ice cold muck with a breathing tube in his mouth. Pulling his spotter scope and scanning the area he felt he found him. It was so small, just the bare two inches of his tube sticking above the muck.
“OK Andy, could anyone beside you or Sinopa find him?” The only fair answer was no! Andy stood and deliberately walked twenty yards down slope then found a stick on the ground. Deliberately steeping on it producing a loud snap, he broke right fast and silent. Keying up the sub-vocal mic,
“Magic, he’s behind me. Dumb shit has guts for sure.”
“Reaper, Magic; how are you sure?”
“I cheated. No way a Normal could have found him, I had to let him by shit, he’s too good not to.”
“Reaper, Angel: I have to ask. How good is he?”
“Gabe, I cheated hard. I think maybe Wildcat or Magic might have found him – they would have been cheating to do it though. Hell, Sin and Chavez would have had a time of it.”
“Reaper, Magic; you realize that you have to beat that Honor Code into our kids don’t you?’
“Magic, Reaper; please don’t remind me. Set it up this guy’s going to make it.”
Dripping muck and shivering Lew crawled up the ridge line inches at a time. His eyes always focused on the military crest. Suddenly a pair of boots landed in front of his nose and the Parade Ground voice of MCPO Gabriel Benjamin roared out, “Stand Up Academy Boy and look behind You!”
DeWalt stood shakily and turned, behind him was a white line on the ground he had not even seen, even though the chalk from it decorated his knees and elbows. Behind that line stood the figure of General Andrew Stuart.
“Stare at that line Candidate, for no one who has ever failed to cross it has ever worn this Patch and as you live and breath you must never allow anyone to do so. Tag him Master Chief!”
Lew felt himself spun and the right hand from Hell exploded into his left chest. As he hit the ground he heard a chorus of, “Welcome Nug!”
Looking down he saw the Patch upon his chest. Marina Stuart knelt down awkwardly and said, “I could have had Kurt come to do the post-mission Medical. But, this one is personal. I know why you did this and where you want it to go. Just remember, if you break her heart; don’t worry about Andy, Gabe or any other Male. You worry about me. Kat is the Sister I never had. Think about it Son!”
Andy was sitting in the den of Stuart House with a breakfast in front of him when Lew stumbled out from the Guest Room / Medical Holding Room. “Damn Tools, it really is possible for a human to sleep for 48 straight hours. Dig in there’s plenty here, Mariana was checking on you.”
Lew stopped in his tracks, “Tools, who the hell hung that on me!”
Andy just had to laugh, “Well you don’t get to pick your first call sign, it gets hung on you. There are a couple of us who remember the DeWalt brand.”
Lew snorted, “I just wish I had been remotely related to that very distant branch of the Family. I know it’s breakfast but, do you have any booze around here. I think I deserve one as a jump start.”
“Back Corner Tools, if you wear that Patch you never have to pay for booze here. Unless Mariana flags you for Medical reasons and the Green flag is up for you. Ready to hear the second reason I wanted to see that Patch on you?”
“Yeah, I know the first reason. Cripes, I did not know the whole gang was so hung on Kat. I am afraid Magic is going to shoot me if we have a fight.”
“Nope, that ain’t gonna happen. Tools you should be around for some of our fights. Leave Kat in the dirt because you are an asshole and you might need to start looking over your shoulder. Of course there is always the fact that a flat out asshole would not be sitting where you are.”
Lew sat over his drink for a long pause, “You found me didn’t you?”
Andy likewise paused over his coffee, “Yeah and only two and a half people in the Universe we know could have. Sinopa and I for sure, Chavez maybe. But we were out there to evaluate, not destroy. You are good never doubt it. So good that Ash wants you to finish getting your Deep Space Wings and take over as the XO of Assault Squadron. Lord knows we need a good one as Jai and John seem hell bent on populating Alchibah all by themselves. The current XO don’t cut it and I can not convince Hunter to take it.” Andy said grinning over his cup.
“Yeah Right,” Lew laughed, “OK, I am in for that. Just I need some time to figure out my private life!”
“Oh Hell,” Andy laughed, “I figure you have around 15 years. Take your time, Kat is probably going to slow you down a bit. Hell. You thought your Q-Course was tough!
“But, here is where I find out how honest you are. In your considered Military Opinion, how should the First Battle of Alchibah have come out?”
“With all due respect General, we should have kicked your ass! You only had one ship that could even scratch the paint on Deathfang, the F-91’s were heads up with your MK-IVs and outnumbered you. Without the interference from the PD and the Dumb Ass Rogon’s we would have won.”
“Precisely Major, that is why here is your background task no matter what your real job is. What do we need to do to stop the next threat? Anyone around here who has any kind of Staff experience is going to be thinking about that. You figure out what we need and I will build it. My greatest fear is something I have not thought of!”
The next morning Lew walked into the dining room at Hanna’s Place. The Black and Silver uniform was still stiff and new. The gleaming patch upon his chest drew stares from the room. At another table Andy, Mariana, Ash and JoAnn frantically started typing on wrist comps as the pool began building. He walked to the table where Kathryn Jamos sat slumped over her breakfast. “OK Kat, what else do I have to do?”
Kat’s jaw looked like it was trying to hit the table as the contents of her fork fell back to the plate, followed loudly by the fork. Mariana almost convulsed as she watched Kat’s mouth move repeatedly without a sound.
The room suddenly became deathly quiet as Lew turned towards Hanna, “If you don’t mind, I’ll have what she’s having,” as he eased his obviously sore body into the chair opposite Kat.
As one of the Palmtree arrivals who had found a job at Hanna’s, came out with the plate and mug he slowly leaned back. A devilish grin came over his face, “The ball’s in your court woman!”
For Kat it seemed like a lifetime before she could make her mind work, she and the other females had made many jokes about bad proposals but here was one in her face. She knew one thing, Lew had gone through hell for her.
Part of her was scared but for the first time it was not fear of loss, it was fear of inadequacy. What if she was not worth what he had done? She could only think of a line from JoAnn, “Sometimes it just comes down to do you love him, if so frack it and go for it.”
“Ah…….Ah…….Ah……,” Kat grabbed a swallow of her coffee wishing for something stronger. “I guess we have a wedding to plan.”
From the Clan Stuart table came the voice of Ash Andrews, “And the winner at 4 minutes and 26 seconds is…… Awww Dammit, Hanna Parker.”
Most of the room turned to see Hanna’s victory dance behind the bar, “Reception is on me,” she whooped.