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Sunday, November 21, 2010

Chapter 12 - The Fairy Godmother

It's about freakin' time you used that machine gun...jeez, took you long enough...

12 – The Fairy Godmother

                The sun set quickly.  Jonathan glanced at his watch, but it was so far off that he didn’t know why he even bothered.  He remembered that it had been around thirteen-hundred-hours or so when they found the burnt-out convoy – but that had been 13:00 yesterday.  When had the dragon attacked?  13:30?  It couldn’t have been later 14:00 – two in the afternoon.  And then he and the girl and the dead dragon ended up here.  Sunset in this place had fallen an hour or two after that.  And when did the sun rise?  He thought back – when the girl prodded him to start walking, his watch had read oh-one-twenty hours – 01:20.  Just after one in the a.m.  He shook his head.  No wonder he’d been so tired all day.
                He looked at his watch now.  It read 10:36.  No wonder he was exhausted but not tired – this was supposed to be just a couple hours after breakfast.  On a “normal” day, at any rate – those few days where they stayed on-base, stopping by the PX or the bazaar between shifts of tower guard and XBOX.  But here?  Now?  It wasn’t morning.  No – it was night.  And it was so damn dark he could barely make out his own hand in front of his face.
                He rubbed his eyes.  He thought about checking the sky for constellations, but he didn’t even feel up to looking up.  Not the way his stomach ached now, he didn’t.  He had long since passed the point of hunger – all he felt now was a dull ache in his stomach mixed with a woozy feeling when he stood.  So he sat in the grass, just past where the girl had thrown his pack.  He looked over her way from time-to-time, but she was no more than a black lump on the dark ground.  If he hadn’t known it was her, he would have assumed the misshapen shadow of her abaya was a gnarled log.  How she slept so peacefully he had no clue.  He was tempted to whisper out to her – to ask if she was still awake, maybe, or to ask for the name he still didn’t know – but he didn’t.  He wasn’t sure which possibility bothered him more – the thought that she was able to sleep soundly in a place like this, or the idea that she’d fake sleep just to keep him away.
                It didn’t matter.  For the moment, they couldn’t go anywhere.  Without the moon for light or a map for direction, what was the use of trying?  Never mind that they were sitting on an island of grass surrounded by the looming shadow of nematada – even if their shoes held up and neither one of them fell, they’d only get themselves more lost.
                Jonathan had pulled off his IBA and dropped it in the grass behind him – now he lay back onto it, careful to keep his head on the Kevlar and off the grass.  Sleep, he knew, would be good.  Especially since they had no food.  Still, it seemed wrong.  Turning on his side, he reached for the two-four-nine.  He draped the weapon over his chest, trying for a comfortable way to sleep with his arms looped around the bulk of the weapon.  Of course it was impossible.  If the ammo drum wasn’t buried into his stomach, then the cocking handle dug into his ribs.
                After fumbling as long as he could stand it, he hoisted the gun off his chest and set it back on the ground.  God, the thing was a pain.  He let out his breath.  What he should have done was clean it, but he knew better.  It was dark out – it was never a good idea to disassemble a weapon in the dark.  One lost piece, and all those eight hundred rounds of ammo would be about as helpful as a stack of paperweights.
                Crap.  Thinking about the machine gun wasn’t doing him any good – he felt no safer, and there was no way he’d get any sleep at this rate.  And it was no good leaving the weapon on its side.  So he sat up to open the bipod legs.  If he couldn’t properly snuggle with his weapon, then the least he could do was keep the morning dew from getting into the barrel.  Assuming they even had dew in this place.  And while he was at it, he could crack open the bolt, maybe brush off any dirt.  Yeah, he should have done that before the sun set completely.
                It was then he noticed the faint light coming from amongst the trees.
                At first, the glow hardly registered.  It was little brighter than the starlight from above.  But then it moved.  Not much, but enough that he could notice.  Instinctively, he reached for the flashlight clipped in to his IBA vest.  But he knew even before flipping the switch that it was a bad idea.  If there was someone out there, he didn’t need them to know he was there.
                He licked his lips.  What would Higgins have done?  He would have pulled on his body armor, gotten down in the prone with the machine gun, and gotten ready for a firefight.  He swallowed – he knew that wasn’t right.  No – Higgins wouldn’t have pulled on body armor.  He would have spit some tobacco and asked why the fuck Jonathan was just sitting there.
                Yeah – Higgins was back in Iraq, and Jonathan was left here in the dark with a sleeping girl and that light.  And the longer he sat, the brighter it became – still faint, but it flowed among the trees like a burbling stream of light.  Yeah – not good.  Whatever it was, it couldn’t have been good.
                He reached over, got the machine gun up, and then leaned the ammo drum against his leg so he could pop open the feed tray cover.  Was the weapon loaded?  He couldn’t tell – it was too dark.  He felt with his fingers to make sure the leading rounds were in place on the feed tray – they were.  And the bolt was back – good.  Reaching up, he slapped down the cover just like he had learned on the firing range – hard.
                He regretted the clap of the cover the moment his fingers brought the metal down on metal.  Crap, that was loud.  The metallic clang spilled out into the trees, no doubt reaching whoever or whatever was out there.  Even the girl shifted in her sleep – oh, yeah, that was a good sign.
                He thought about waking her, then decided against it.  She was best off where she was.  And if it came down to shooting, she’d wake up soon enough.
                Right.  So up and forward.  What are you waiting for, Mitchell?  An engraved invitation?
                He got up, shouldered the weapon, and started forward.  He moved low and slow through the grass, keep his knees bent and his back arched.  He felt his pulse quicken.  The trees, he decided, would provide cover.  Nematada or not, they had leaves and low-hanging branches.  And the light flickered among those leaves, diffused by them.  If there were people with a lantern, Jonathan wanted to see them before they saw him.
                But then the light emerged from the cover of the trees.  And it wasn’t a lantern – it was a person.  A glowing person.  Not just glowing, but translucent.  The glowing white cloud of a woman.  And she was walking straight toward him.
                Jonathan froze.  The breathe stilled on his lips.  His first thought was of the scene in the library from Ghostbusters, when they see the ghostly librarian and try to get her.  Except this ghost hadn’t morphed into the skeletal remains of an undead terror.  Not yet, it hadn’t.
                The woman smiled.  But was that really a smile?  Or was a trick of the pale ivory light?
                “Do not be afraid,” the woman said.  Her voice was soft and light – firm with certainty, but light as a whisper lost to the wind.  She waved her hand as if to dismiss his uncertainty with a gesture.
                “You are from Earth,” the woman next said.  “America, yes?”
                The nerves that gripped his muscles trembled.  How did she know that?  Was it the flag Velcroed to his sleeve?  Or could she somehow read his thoughts?
                He rubbed a bead of sweat from his stinging eyes.  Shit.  Maybe now he was just seeing things.
                The ghostly woman was not at all perturbed.  She lowered herself to take a seat on some invisible stool.  It looked like she was sitting on the air itself.  She smiled again as she peered forward with her chin cupped in the palm of her hand.  “You are nervous,” she said.  “Were you a warrior?  Or something else?”
                “You speak English,” he replied.  And where did that come from?  Of all the questions to ask and observations to make, how did it matter what language she spoke?  If anything, it simply proved the obvious – he’d gone insane from sleep deprivation and hunger.  Of course she spoke English – she was just a figment of his English-bound mind.
                “I speak many languages,” she said, releasing her chin to fold her hands in her lap.  “Would you prefer another?  German or French, perhaps?  Or Russian?  Chinese?”
                Jonathan shook his head.  He couldn’t properly reply.  “Who are you?”  Did that come out right?  Was she going to possess his body like some demon from Poltergeist or The Exorcist?
                “I am Hesprin,” she said.  “I am what your people call a fairy godmother.”  She nodded to the sleeping form the Iraqi.  “Hers, actually.”
                Jonathan turned his head just enough to catch a glance of the girl, and then his head swiveled right back.  He felt dumb just standing there, his weapon poised for war while apparition lady just sat there in silence.  But he was aware, now, that the shadow lines visible through the woman were the outlines of the nematada trees behind her.  They caught the illumination of her glow and reflected enough back that Jonathan could see right through her.
                “You are of America,” the woman said.  And she must have read Jonathan’s expression before he could reply.  “Please,” she said, “I can read the flag on your sleeve.  It’s quaint, the way a man would carry a weapon like that for the stars embroidered on his tunic.”  Then she leaned forward, as if just now getting down to the business at hand.  “You must wonder by now what’s expected of you.  Why you’re here – it’s a mystery to you, I’m sure.”
                Jonathan felt his hands tensing on the weapon.  The woman’s words – they were sweet and they were soft, but there was something in the way she said them.  It in the way her eyes, translucent as they were, still flickered from his face to the gun with a hint of mirth.  And the curl of her lips – was that a sneer?  Or was it simply the way a woman that glowed could reveal none of the shadows for wrinkles?
                “It was an accident,” he said, guessing.  He’d broken that metal baton the Iraqi had been carrying.  Was it her version of a want?  Was she about to obliterate the dragon from existence when he pushed her down?  Or had it been something else?
                “Nonsense, my dear,” said the fairy godmother.  Hesprin.  “It’s all right – you can lower that foolish weapon of yours.  It will do you no good against the likes of me.”  The air tinkled with the hint of laughter.  “Your NATO five-five-six rounds would slip right through my bodice.”
                Jonathan couldn’t help but take a step back.  What was it that scared him?  That she knew how a two-four-nine was loaded with 5.56 millimeter ammunition?  That she knew they were NATO-issued standard rounds?  Or that that the words slipped off her tongue with such careless, practiced abandoned?
                But then the godmother’s tone turned serious.  “You killed her guardian, you know.”
                “Her guardian?”
                “The dragon.”
                Jonathan blinked.  The dragon, a guardian?  That thing?
                “Don’t act so surprised – there is no better guardian than a loyal dragon.”
                He couldn’t argue with that any more than he could argue with flames that burned the air and inflicted sunburn from fifty feet away.
                “What do you want from me?” he asked.
                “Isn’t it obvious?” the woman asked.  “What do you suppose happens to the one who defeats the mighty guardian of a revered queen?”
                Queen?  Had he heard right?
                “Don’t you know?  Have they no queens where you live?  No tradition?”
                Jonathan shook his head.  “You would know,” he said, stepping still further back.  French, German, English?  Chinese and Russian?  And now she was telling him of tradition and dragons?  What the hell was this?  He looked around, hoping for some real evidence that this was a dream.  But he already knew it wasn’t.  No – if it was a dream, he would have known.  He wouldn’t have felt the whisper of the wind on his cheek, and there wouldn’t have been the catch of the grass on his feet as he stepped slowly back.
                “What are you?” he asked.
                “I told you,” she said, rising from her imagined seat.  “I am Hesprin.  I am the godmother.”
                Godmother.  Was there a hint of the menace in the way she spoke?  Or did fear add a dark tinge to his imagination?  Why did her words now remind him less of Cinderella and more of Marlon Brando?
                As the woman advanced, he slowly retreated.  Her face, as hard to read as it was, still registered no trace of fear.  She raised a hand and began twirling one of her fingers in the air the way a conductor might wave his baton before and orchestra.
                “Such a pity, such a shame,” the woman was murmuring.  “Ah, such a shame.”
                Jonathan backpedaled until the heel of his boot came down on something soft and thick.  The Iraqi girl yelped as he stepped on her arm.  He nearly fell over, he was so startled by her.  But when he caught sight of her own face, it wasn’t fear he saw.  It was rage.
                “Auntie!” the girl spat.
                Auntie?  The girl’s aunt?  But no – it was Arabic.  And the translucent godmother smiled right back.
                “Nahm,” she said.  “Ahna.”  Yes.  Me.
                By this point, the woman had advanced almost on top of Jonathan’s body armor.  His gear was a sickly yellow in the pale light.  He had the sudden urge to reach forward and pull it out of her way.  And maybe he could have, or should have.  But the yells from the forest interrupted him before he could do anything.
                The first arrow went right through the glowing woman.  Jonathan didn’t even notice it until it had whistled past his elbow to plant itself in the Iraqi’s ribs.  Her fingers curled around the pocket flap on his pants as she went down.
                “A pity,” the woman said.  “A hero who knows more fear than valor.”  And she smiled as another arrow zipped through the darkness – followed by another and another.  One lodged in his thigh – another just missed his ear as his knee buckled.  Then they were arcing past overhead like diving swallows – he could hear the thzip! and plunk as they planted themselves into the ground on all sides.
                No.  He felt surprise go to something deeper.  That’s what it was – no.  Not this.  He wasn’t about to let them just come and use him and the Iraqi girl as pincushions.
                He brought up the machine gun, propping it up with his elbow, and squeezed the trigger.  The first burst lit the night with sound and fire.  Was that a startled look on the glowing woman?  He didn’t know.  But in the flash from the muzzle flame, he caught sight of others – dark little men, or maybe children – darting amidst the trees.  He sprayed another burst, and two of them danced like marionettes as the bullets zipped through their bodies.
                There was a sudden, hollow silence.  Had he killed them all?  No, of course not.  But his leg hurt, and he didn’t know where to shoot.
                He switched hands with the gun, grabbing it by the carrying handle.  Then he reached back for the Iraqi.  She was doubled-over in pain – the shaft and feathers jutted out from her right breast.  But there was no time to wait.  “Il-el raheel,” he said.  Time to run.
                Too late, he saw the little people running at him in pairs.  Everything darkened as he put weight on his left leg – he could feel the arrow in there, like someone had pounded a hot poker through his femur.  And he couldn’t feel his lower leg.  But he was up.  He turned at the waist with the two-four-nine, a continuous spray.  The gun bucked in his hands – it was all he could do to keep the barrel down, to keep the rounds from racing up into the canopy.  Another and another of the little men dropped where they were.  It was like electricity, the jolting that went through them before they fell.
                But then someone hit him from behind – a hard club to the shoulder.  Jonathan twisted around, whacking the little man in the face with the barrel.  Except it wasn’t a man.  It wasn’t a human.  It was a fucking Yoda – big ears, face shriveled like a prune, and yellow teeth.  And the gun to the face didn’t faze him – he regained his feet and sprang.  It was the Iraqi who stopped him, swatting him out the air with a downward chop of her fist.
                “Il-el raheel,” she gasped.  She was already up on her feet, but seriously listing to the right, like she couldn’t straighten her back.  She staggered toward the glowing lady.  No – she was going for Jonathan’s gear.  Jonathan whirled around for a look to their rear – yeah, more of them.  But they were in the trees.  He caught them only by their movement, as they darted behind the low-hanging branches to hide.
                He turned back to the Iraqi.  She had his body armor and assault pack – she was dragged them both back toward him.  He tried to help, but his leg gave out.  He fell down the gun, planting the barrel in the dirt while the stock caught him by the shoulder.  Crap.
                The Iraqi did little better.  She ran out of steam before she even reached him – he had to crawl up to meet her.  And all the while, the ghost woman watched.  Jonathan could have sword she smiled.
                “You may still surrender,” she said.  “If you come peacefully, neither of you shall be –”
                Jonthan yanked up the gun from the ground and fired a burst through the girl.  It had no effect.  The phosphor tracers spat through her like red darts.
                “You can’t escape,” she said.  “You should surrender.  Unless you’d like an unfortunate accident to –”
                Whatever.  Jonathan pulled on the body armor.  There was no time to close the Velcro.  He tried pulling on the assault pack – he needed the extra ammo.  How much was left in the drum?  How many rounds had he fired?
                He girl took the pack from him and shouldered it.  He had no time to thank her.  Shukron, he was thinking, shukron.  Thank you.  Again he tried to stand.  This time, though, he passed out.

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