Given that I had no idea if I was ever going to be doing what I was trained to do ever again, there was some savoring of this feeling. After a mission, that high you get. Normally, I would spend this time with my sisters, decompressing. Rodriguez would be talking about getting fucked, Bethke would be all awkward, Beacham would be groaning and trying to mediate the coming conflict, Pennyfeather would be drinking, and Crow would be sitting and listening to the wind, as she always did. I desperately wished they were here right now. Wished everything could be the way it was before.
What would I be doing? I’d be thinking about Jean. Thinking about getting home to her and jumping into her arms. About holding her and telling her about it. We kept no secrets from each other. That was the rule. She had clearance, as she was still part of IS and had been with the STARS. We promised never to keep anything back, because we’d seen what hiding things did to us. Talking long into the night, then one of us getting frisky. Passionate, then tender love-making. We’d hold each other forever. I promised her I would. That I’d never let her go. Now she was gone, forever. What could I go home to now? There was no home. There never would be again. No matter where I lived, it wasn’t home. No place that she wasn’t in would be a home to me. Tears wanted to come, but inside I was so dead.
In my suit’s pocket, I opened it to see a white gold wedding band. The band always matches the ring. That’s the rule. I stared at it, and the inscription inside
Quinn and Jean, Forever
But forever would come no more. I burned down the home so I wouldn’t have to be there without her. Why keep a ring if I was without her too? I reared back, to throw it in the ocean.
“Stop!” A voice called. Jean?! I looked around, but no one was there. There was the Chinese man at the helm up top, paying attention to the sea. Putting the ring back inside my pocket, I let out a breath. Whatever it was, it was gone. Time to go below and change.
It was strange, stripping down in a fishing boat. Oh well. Beggars can’t be choosers. For whatever reason, it was much easier to get out of this thing this time. My duffel bag was sitting on the bench beside me. I opened it up and pulled out my trusty Navy hoodie and sweats. Snug as a bug. There was still time before we landed in Fukuoka.
Turning to my suit, I queued up a system in it. In the event that we can’t get to base in a timely way and have to ditch the suit, this is a system that can keep its sensitive technology by being captured by the enemy. It sends a fluid through the veins inside, igniting everything. Naturally, this can only be done when it’s off. Otherwise you’d have fused gore-tex to your skin. Ick.
I took it up on deck, hitting the system. There was a brief shimmer as lights went through it and the system blazed. Then, flames appeared. I tossed it into the ocean. This stuff was basically napalm, so I wasn’t worried about the water stopping it from burning. The last thing was secured, now I could just wait until we got back to shore. Checked the pocket cam to make sure all the pictures were in order. It was perfect. I suppose I could go back now, but why do that, when I could go back with everything? We had contacts in Japan, and unlike my former interpreter, these ones could be trusted. It wouldn’t be as long a journey, once I got to Japan.
Just then, a sound. Fighter jets! I looked up to see two F-18s flying by! So the Navy is out in force. This close to Korea, this wasn’t good. War really was looming. I may be running out of time. Sitting down, I pulled out the ring I had nearly tossed. Held it in my hands. Pain biting at me, couldn’t deal right now. I put it in my duffel bag, then laid down on the bench and went to sleep.
They all sat there with me.
Beacham finally spoke. “So, you burned the house down so you wouldn’t have to go back to it?”
I nodded. “Aye. I knew that if I went back there, I wouldn’t be able to keep going. The only way I could survive was to just wall myself off from everything. As I said, the whole idea at the end of this was to kill myself. Nothing mattered to me. I just wanted to get this done, then find a nice spot by the sea and die. It was what we always talked about.”
“Where would you live, if you could live anywhere?” she asked.
I looked up from the couch, where I had been laying down with the sunlight coming in on me. Felt like a big cat.
“If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?” She walked over to the couch, snuggling up on top of me.
“I don’t know. Wherever you are.” Hadn’t ever thought about it much.
“Well of course I’ll be there! Silly. But if you could be anywhere in the world with me, where you want it to be?”
Thought for a moment. “Never really thought about it until now. The ocean would be nice. Somewhere I could see or hear the waves each day. Make us tasty food looking out at it.”
She smiled, looking up at me. “You really are a secret squid.”
Kissed her forehead. “You know it.”
Settling in to me, we held each other until both of us fell asleep.
“So, what happened next?” Bethke asked.
Snapping out of memory, I nodded. “Well, after I got to Fukuoka, I said my goodbyes and thanks to the fishing boat’s captain, then made my way ashore. My fake passport was still good, so I used it to get myself to Tokyo. To a little place we all had been told about in Akihabara.”
Everyone knew exactly what I was talking about.
The young man’s face lit up when he opened the door and saw me standing there.
“Quinn-chan!” He cleared his throat then continued. “You came! Was wondering if you ever would.”
I smiled as much as I could at him. “Well, a girl has to keep her word eventually.”
He gave me a coy look. “Oh, I don’t think you came here just to see me. What brings you?”
I held out the micro SD card from my pocket cam. “I need a favor.”
Now he got that sneaky look in his eye. “Oh? What kind of favor?”
Got close. “The secret, American military kind. Can you help me?”
He leaned in as well. “Of course. Though, a contribution to my lab would be appreciated.”
Shrewd. Very shrewd. “The United States is always happy to provide. You know that.”
“A bingo!” he said. “I’ll get right to work! Come on in”
I stepped in, removing my shoes. He had slippers by the door. This place was an unholy mess. It had piles and piles of tech, just everywhere. The fact that a person lived here blew my mind. From behind a computer, a female head stuck up. She shouted something in Japanese in this annoyed voice.
“What’s her deal?” I asked.
“Oh, she just mad that we have a stranger in here. Normally only lab members are allowed.”
Rolled my eyes. “Whatever.”
He sat at another computer and pulled up the data that I had. “Oh!” Said a bunch of stuff in Japanese that I couldn’t follow. “Very interesting. You bring me some Korean secrets. I can see it already. Very shady, Quinn-chan…”
I sat at the only open seat in there. “This is why it’s the American military kind of secret. The kind you could get in a lot of trouble for talking about. Too much to handle?”
A devilish look was in his eye. “No way! You need this translated, I think?”
“Aye. The faster the better. I have a war to stop, depending on what’s there.”
He nodded, seeing the seriousness on my face. “Okay. Got Dr Pepper in the fridge. Drink up. Will be here a while.”
“Thanks. I’ll do that.” This place was a mess. So much tech everywhere. Reminded me of some of the labs I had been to at the STARS facility in San Diego. All their R&D teams. Some warm memories. Sitting down, I suddenly felt very tired. It had been a long trip in here. Hadn’t slept since I left Fukuoka. He said a long time, right? Time to get some rest.
Woke up to the female just above my face, looking down at me. Her expression was like a scientist studying something. The second my eyes opened, she squeaked and went running back to the computer she worked at. Well, that gave me a fucking heart attack. Sitting up, I opened my drink and guzzled some down. Let my heart settle.
“Don’t mind Maki. She never seen an American, outside of her computer. And you’re very pale American. She was curious.”
“Your friends are as weird as you, Toriyama.”
“Very hurtful thing to say. Maki is very nice. Good lab member.”
Settling back down, I shrugged. “If you say so.”
“Good timing you wake up! Almost finished translating. Even put in English, since I’m nice like that.”
Rolling my eyes, I stood up. “Yeah, you’re a real peach, T-Dog.”
He turned around, trying to do his best James Bond look. I couldn’t help but chuckle. He was such a goof. Met him at a military event here in Tokyo. Was able to impress us all with his translation skills. He can speak 12 different languages, and while his English can be a little broken, his ability to get languages down was impeccable. We had used him for quick work a couple times. It wasn’t standard procedure, but he could get things done on the DL, and was dependable. Though you did have to grease his palms, like anyone.
Walking over, I leaned on his chair, looking at the screen. “What do we have?”
“Very dangerous things. Made sure to get translation just so. North Korean can be tricky. Like how Mexican and Spain Spanish are, subtle differences. But I know I’m right. You find very big secret, Quinn-chan. Dangerous one. Your superiors want to know, right away.”
Looking over what he had written down, if I could go pale, I would. This was scary shit. Very, very scary shit. The brass was right, something was happening across the DMZ. I had to get back to the US now! In a way that would get the brass’ attention so they would come talk to me right away. Had an idea.
“I’ll wire you the money tonight, T-dog. As always, nobody can know about this. Understood?”
He just waved me off. “Ya, ya. I know.”
Kissed his cheek. “Just making sure you don’t forget.”
Rodriguez was smiling. “Glad to hear he’s still in top form.”
“So was I. But now came to the big part. I had to tell the brass what they needed to know. There wasn’t time to get all the way to DC. Especially as war was about to be declared. So I had to get their attention another way.”
Bethke was excited. “How?!”
I made sure that my uniform was spotless. Had left my dress blues in a storage locker. Glad they kept pressed. Nothing else had gone in there since I left them. Officer’s uniform, I still looked fly as fuck. This literally would be the last time I wore them, so might as well make this one of my best moments.
Stepping out of my cab, I looked over the Washington Navy Yard. This place was still gorgeous. Had always wanted to live in Washington. This state is beautiful, no matter the time of year. And no snow. Had never been a fan of the stuff. Straightening my uniform, I headed toward the JAG office. In my hand was my briefcase. Entering the door, I removed my cover. Just because I was AWOL doesn’t mean that I was going to break protocol. This is there for a damn good reason.
When I got to the desk, I saw a Petty Officer young lady sitting there, at the computer.
“Greetings, Chief Warrant Officer. How can I help you?”
I nodded in greeting. “Yes, my name is Quinn Pierce. I’m with the STARS. I’d like to turn myself in. Three weeks ago today, I went AWOL. Please inform your LCO immediately, and have them get on the horn to Rear Admiral Gregs. Tell his staff that this is a matter of national security.”
Everyone in the room was looking at me like a frog just dropped out of my ass. Shock and awe, as Bush II would have put it.
I walked over to a bench, set my briefcase down, then sat there and waited. I was sure the Master at Arms would be coming to arrest me very soon. Sure enough, they came to get me. When they went for my briefcase, I showed them it was locked with a key that hung around my neck.
“The contents of this briefcase are classified TS and higher, Chief Petty Officer. I’m afraid these will have to stay with me until I can be debriefed by the Admiral. For his eyes only.”
He looked at the Ensign who was with him. Was so weird, to have a superior officer staring me down, and me standing my ground.
“Per protocol, the case will have to come with us, but as the contents are secret, you may keep the key to it, and can verify it was unopened when we return it as the Rear Admiral arrives.”
“Very well. Chief Warrant Officer Quinn Pierce, as per the Uniform Code of Military Justice, I am placing you under arrest for desertion of your post, along with arson of your home.” They slapped the cuffs on me, and I was taken to a wagon to be transported to the Naval Yard’s brig. Now I would be waiting again. Something told me that I wouldn’t be waiting long.
Everyone was looking at me wide-eyed.
“So you just strolled in there like a boss and told them to take you into custody?!” Bethke said, clearly in disbelief.
“Aye. Strolled right in. Wasn’t even a thing.”
Beacham nodded, taking it in. “I remember when we got word you had reappeared. Everyone assumed that you had gone and killed yourself. After torching the house, we figured you had gone crazy or something. But because we had no confirmation that you had died, we couldn’t have a funeral. So many tears, not just for Jeanie, but also for you. We figured one day we would get word that you had been found in a ditch or something.”
The words hurt. I had made my sisters sad. No wonder they had hated me. I hated me right now. A lot.
“Then you just showed up, out of the blue,” she continued. “Everyone was in shock when the Lt gave us the news. We literally didn’t believe it. He showed us the report that he was given saying that the AWOL member of Alpha Team had been found and taken into custody, at the JAG office in Washington. We didn’t know you had given yourself up, but given where you were, we all figured. There were a thousand theories as to why. One of them happened to be that you got some super secret mission that couldn’t be given to anyone else, but we didn’t get why you would go there instead of Command.”
Pennyfeather piped in, “After three weeks, we figured they had to list you as dead. By that point, we all believed you were gone.”
“I didn’t!” Bethke said, an obstinate look on her face. “Not for one second. I knew that you were still alive, somewhere. Somehow.”
Never in my life have I felt like more shit than right then. “I…I…I didn’t want that to happen. I just, needed to make the people who took Jean away from me pay. Make them all pay. It was, all I thought about. Every second of every day. If I did nothing, I couldn’t have lived with-”
A hand on mine stopped me. It was Crow. “Continue.”
I nodded. “Aye-aye.”
Chilling in the officer’s brig. Now this was pretty alright. Was allowed to keep my uniform, and I hadn’t been sentenced yet, pending court-martial. That was neat. Sitting in a room, for a day, watching what the watch officer’s had on TV. Had a lot of time to think. Tried to avoid it, wherever possible. Too much time to miss Jean. Too much to miss everyone else. Too much to think about what I had done, the lines I had crossed, and what would happen next. Everything hinged on the Admiral not fucking me over. If he didn’t keep up his end, I’d not only be disgraced out of the military, but would spend time in a real prison for burning the house down. It was an terrifying specter, in a lot of ways.
Then there came a Commander. Immediately I stood at attention. Old habits die hard, I suppose.
“You’ve got visitors. Important ones.” An attending sailor handed him the briefcase I had the evidence in. Looked it over, no evidence of tampering.
“Come with us.”
No cuffs. Walking like civilized people. This was nice. We got to a room that had no windows. An interrogation room? Stepping inside, I saw a ton of video equipment, and a laptop. Streaming? This was weird.
“Have a seat, Pierce.” The Commander indicated a chair in front of the camera. Sitting down, I felt so uncomfortable. At least there weren’t any blazing lights. That would have made me figure I’d been had. This wasn’t that strange, actually. Reminded me of some of the podcasts I had watched on YouTube. I sat there, with the briefcase closed on the table.
A brief wait, then the door opened. In walked the Admiral, with a couple attendants of his own. Everyone stood up, myself included. He walked right over to me, with a smile on his face and an outstretched hand.
“Pierce! Good to see you again! For a while there, we thought you were dead.”
Shaking his hand, I did my best to smile. Showing happy emotions was so much harder for me than before. Happiness was the road to painful memories. “It’s been a crazy journey, sir.”
“I bet. You certainly chose a flashy way to get my attention. You couldn’t have just flown to DC and talked with me there?”
I shrugged. “War is on the verge of breaking out. I didn’t think I had the time. Needed something big enough to get your attention and put things on hold until you could come talk to me.”
He snorted. “Well, you did that. Got everyone in the Pentagon who knew about Operation Shadow Knife looking.”
“And who was that?”
“Joint Chiefs, the Secretary of Defense, and the President, of course.”
Holy shit. That was some major names that I was now a name to. Was a little hard to believe.
“We’re going to be streaming with them all right now. They’re queued up in the Situation Room at the White House. I take it from your dramatic reappearance that you have something?” There was a kind of desperation in his voice.
“Aye sir. I’ve got what you wanna know. I know exactly what happened in the attack on the Pacific Fleet, and why. You were correct, sir. It was big. Bigger than anyone could have guessed. And it wasn’t Kim Jong Un who ordered the attack.”
“Have a seat, Pierce. Let’s go over what you found.”
“Aye-aye, sir.” I sat down, and he was across from me, at another camera. The Commander was sitting at the laptop, running the show, and their aides were on the edge of the room, taking notes.
“Start from the top, Pierce. What have you found?”
“Well, sir, as I said, you were correct.” I opened up the briefcase and showed a picture of the man who led the base I had attacked. “This is Gen. Yi Jung Choi. He is the commander of the base that sent the fighters. A few months ago, he had convinced Iran to sell them some of the popper planes they were developing. The stated goal was to increase security against the United States. A goal that Iran could get behind. Since the sanctions were lifted on imports to North Korea, they seized the day and got a whole squadron of planes to the North Koreans. They had secretly been training fighter pilots through China. They had tried to make an agreement through them to get planes, but the negotiations fell apart as Chinese intelligence figured out that they were planning some kind of attack against the US, and they didn’t want to be part of it. In fact, China’s dedication to trying to stop things before they happened is worth noting.”
Had to give something to Zhang. He stuck his neck out for me.
“However, the attack on the Fleet was not the big plan. We’ve all known for a while the Kim Jong Un does not command the respect his father did. That’s just common knowledge. It seems that the tears in the military from the Supreme Leader goes far, far deeper. There were plans for a military coup against Un. There was one problem – he does have a large contingent of the military who is loyal to him. In order for the coup to be as bloodless as possible, they needed a third party to assist. Someone who had the resolve to get rid of Un, as quickly and efficiently as possible. Sound like any nation we know?”
The Admiral had the same face he had in the car when he was taking things in. It was such a perfect expression. All the critical analysis, taking things in, debating in his mind. I could watch him think for hours.
“They were hoping that an attack on the Pacific Fleet was going to be the boost they needed to get America into the fight. Public outcry for vengeance, the far-right and their war rhetoric, and the mob mentality in this country were all solid indicators of what would happen. Then, as the KPA is preparing for war, they could come in, do the coup with Un, and offer him up to America. They genuinely didn’t count on the US actually believing what he said about not being responsible. To be fair, the public doesn’t, but that’s why our dumb-shit President has military advisors. Not that he listens to them, either.”
From the laptop, I saw the Commander silently chuckle.
“So all of this was a ruse to get us to bring down Un. After he was deposed, wouldn’t they have thought that we would try and install a leader of our own?”
I nodded. “Aye. But that wasn’t a problem. All of the major political leaders in that country are associated with the military. Democracy exists in that country in name only. So no matter who we put in as the puppet leader, they still get what they want. This plan was thought out. Our belief in Un saying that he wasn’t responsible was the only hitch. And if Congress bows to pressure for war, it could still be.”
There was silence in the room.
“Unbelievable,” the Admiral said, finally. “To think that they planned this all that far out. These are some devious bastards.” Turning to face the camera. “It’s time we got back to the drawing board about our response to the attack. We need to get Congressional leaders into a room. We got some ‘anonymous intel’ straight from the source in North Korea, and can head off the plan for war. Will also mean coming back to the table with Kim Jong Un. His nation could devolve into civil war if he finds out the extent of this, and we don’t want our allies in the South worrying. Not with the North still having nukes.” He got out of the camera’s view, then motioned for them to cut the feed. Then he turned to me.
“I gotta say, Pierce, that was some damn fine work. I have NO idea how you got this, or got everything translated. I’m to assume all the intel is in that briefcase?”
“Aye, sir. Every page that I scanned, along with the translation.”
“We can trust that it’s accurate?”
“Down the characters used, sir. The source I had do it was flawless. They even went through potential translation issues, just so there are no mistakes.”
“And this source can be trusted?”
“Aye. Though I made sure to grease their palms enough to have no worries, down the road.”
He smiled at me. “Well done, Chief Warrant Officer. Probably the last time I’ll be able to call you that.”
I nodded. “Which leaves the court martial situation.”
He motioned for the aides to leave, along with the Commanders’.
“Yeah, it does. But I wouldn’t worry. As far as I’m concerned, you’re free to go.”
The Commander had a look of disbelief. “Say what?”
He gave him a serious look. “Your ears malfunctioning, Commander?”
Can’t imagine how small he felt then. As much as I did listening to it.
“Excellent.” Turning back to me. “Well then, Pierce, that wraps things up. You won’t be able to serve in the military anymore. But, if you ever are able to put your skills to work in the private sector, let me know. We may end up having more work we can do with you in the future.”
I snapped to attention, saluting. “Aye sir!”
“And that’s how it ended. From there, I worked out how to start my PMC, then got here. So now you know. That’s everything.” Finally wrapping up this tale, it felt like this massive, unimaginable weight was off my chest. No more lies to at least my sisters. So many other people who I would never be able to tell the truth to, but not my sisters.
They all looked like they were processing.
Finally, Rodriguez spoke. “So, hermana, we gonna get to come chill at your swinging pad again?”
I smiled at her. The cold feeling was gone. For the first time, in years, I was my old self.
“Aye. But next time you all are bringing the booze. Bitches ain’t gonna freeload off me forever!”
We all shared a laugh, and the drinks began to be poured as we reminisced about the past. Years of anger and pain had been swept away. This was the best night I had had in forever. A night I would never forget.
Later on, as they were passing out on my couches and chairs, or in Rodriguez’s case, in my guest shower because she was nearly puking, and I was cleaning up the place, Crow came over to me.
“There is one thing I was wanting to know. You said that your plan was to get to the ocean and then kill yourself. Tell me, what are you going to do, now that you’re here?”
Grabbing a glass, mixing up a tequila sunrise, I took a drink. Never once did I break eye contact with her while drinking it. Not one time.
Until next time, a quote,
“I promise, one day I will take you to Paradise.” – Count Darcia, Wolf’s Rain