Moonlight Serenade

Schancer brushed a stray lock from his forehead, chewed the tip of his tongue, and cleared his throat.

"Commander Larsen, I'd like to ask a personal favor."

The pale-faced commander of Bluegrass Base betrayed no sign of surprise.

"Ralph, the vidnet is strictly for commanders and emergencies."

Suspecting the worst, Schancer persisted.

"I must see her."

Larsen coldly stared back, completely emotionless. Schancer ground his teeth, his entire body wound like a spring. The Bluegrass commander blinked and breathed out slowly. Uncharacteristically, he rubbed the tip of his chin, and looked away.

"Cross your fingers," Larsen responded.

Taoka was waiting by the door to Schancer's quarters.

Feigning manners, the commander waved acknowledgment to his second in command. PDA tucked under his arm, he stepped past the lieutenant commander and opened his room.

"Anything new or exciting from the vidnet conference?" she asked.

Schancer recalled three hours spent recounting salvage tallies, casualty rolls, the status of XCOM recruitment in each of the sixteen member nations, thirty minutes of nearly violent confrontation over the Council's choice of three Europeans and a Russian to command the four bases, thirty more minutes of Singer's racist rantings about the inexperience of the Continent's officers and soldiers, and fifteen of Kalikov's profane rebuttal.

"No," he replied.

"Late night cram session?" Taoka inquired, pointing to the commander's computer.

Inspired by the Russian commander's continual complaints of 'spineless Americanskis,' Schancer offhandedly remarked, "Just going over the psychologists' reports on every combat personnels' mental health and bravery. Really fun stuff."

"You mind if I join you?"

A bead of sweat, growing by the second, threatened to toboggan down Schancer's face.

"I'm really sorry; no. Very need-to-know stuff."

Disappointed, Taoka neverless chirped goodnight and slinked off to her quarters.

Locking the door behind him, Schancer leaned on its heavy metal frame, breathing a sigh of relief. Doubt was long gone; there was no question of the lieutenant commander's motives.

Setting down his PDA and its hard drive filled with salvage reports, Schancer tapped the room's intercom. "Route me to Sergeant Rawlings," he requested of the secondary answering.

"Yessir?" mumbled the bodyguard.

"I need your advice on something."

"Yessir," yawned Rawlings, flipping off the communications relay.

Schancer flipped open his laptop to present a reasonable front if Taoka were to peek during Jack's entrance. Nervous, he sat on his bed and fiddled with a pen. It flew from his hands, and he looked about, annoyed at the loss.

Somebody knocked. Schancer leapt up and nearly disengaged the lock before thinking better of himself.

"Hello? Jack?" he whispered through the metal.

The frame shook as the person outside slammed the door.

"Who the hell do you think it is, sir?" answered Rawlings.

Schancer let the sleepy sergeant in, locking the door behind him.. The bodyguard's shiny bronze canted crucifixes with halos stood out on his rumpled jumpsuit's collar. He rubbed his eyes.

"Sir, with-all-due-respect, it's really freakin' late. You might've been sucking coffee intravenously, but not all of us live on caffeine drip. Permission to sleep, sir?"

"Denied," curtly replied Schancer.

Rawlings sat down on the single metal folding chair provided with the quarters. Struggling to keep his eyes open, he asked, "So, what brings you to call me and me to walk here, sir?"

"Um, I've got a rather hefty personal problem, Jack."

"Taoka been rubbing up against your leg, boss? I had a cat like that when I was a kid. My dad had the damn thing spayed."

Schancer paced the confines of his room. "Yes, but it's getting worse. I need to get rid of her."

And spend a night or two with Carrie, he thought.

Rawlings snorted, sleeping.

The Southerner kicked a leg of the man's chair.

"Wha--excuse me sir. The answer's fairly obvious, though. Just cozy up to her tomorrow and use the three words."

Schancer raised an eyebrow. "I hesitate to ask what they are."

Rawlings cracked a thin smile and said, "I-am-gay."

"For Christ's sake, Jack," snorted the commander, "That's disgusting! I might as well shoot myself--my reputation would be ruined."

Rawlings silently sat and grinned, eyelids growing heavy.

"Hell, everyone would think you're my partner, what, with you coming to my quarters late at night!"

Shaking his head and blinking, the bodyguard whistled.

"You're probably right. That's not good, not at all."

"Any other ideas, genius?"

Rawlings shrugged. "I suppose I could kill her," he joked. "Just nail her with a plasma out on a ground assault."

"Jack, you know that the lieutenant commander doesn't go to assaults," muttered Schancer in complete seriousness.

"You're not kidding? You hate her that much?" asked Rawlings, suddenly completely awake.

Schancer scanned the meager contents of his room. A cot, a cabinet, a boot locker, the desk, its chair, and everything in the tiny add-on bathroom. It was an utter carbon copy of his Bluegrass quarters, complete in all but one respect.

"I don't hate her," sighed the commander. "I just miss Carrie."

Rawlings nodded, silent.

Schancer sat on the bed, the drugs, natural and coffee-derived, wearing off.

"Three fucking months, Jack. Three fucking months and I haven't even sent her a letter. But neither has she. I'm so fucking afraid, more than anything else, more than Osaka, when I imagine what might have happened to her. It's not like getting ambushed and shot in the face. You can't see that coming. But this... I'm afraid of losing the one person I actually give a fuck about."

Rawlings ignored the slight on his value. "Have you talked to Commander Larsen?"

Schancer looked up, eyes bloodshot. "Every time we're in private conference, I mention it. And every time, he blows it off, like there was nothing between us--me and Carrie."

Resting his head on a clenched fist, the commander continued. "And that's where Taoka, and every fucking female in this base comes in. I see them, and I think of her, and how she might've forgotten, or I think about how I might become weak and forget her. I've got to see her, and know that we're still... one."

The commander and the bodyguard sat for a long time, silently, the sound of the second hand on the commander's alarm clock making slow revolutions over the dull hum of ventelation equipment.

Rawlings cleared his throat, and glanced at the commander. He immediately focused his eyes elsewhere; the tall proud man was weeping, weeping without a noise.

"Sir, this base is filled with bachelors. Now, I admit I know little of this thing called affection, but if you could deflect the lieutenant commander's desire towards a more available soul... I believe that your dilemma would be solved, without harming Miss Taoka's..."

Fuck, thought the scarred bodyguard, upon hearing an especially violent sob, I've always been so envious of the boss. Of course, the only thing that's going to cure his malady is back in Bluegrass.

Schancer finally realized the presence of another, and he ceased his mourning.

He wiped his eyes, and focused the two pale blue orbs on Rawlings. "Jack..."

His bodyguard nodded and stood.

"Not a word, sir." Jack stared at the floor. "Is that all, sir?"

"Yes," responded the commander.

Rawlings opened the door and left quietly, in respect of the sleeping officers in quarters near the commander's.

Forgot to thank him, realized the Southerner. He mentally punched himself, adding to the network of scars and bruises.

Rawlings woke early, as he was his habit. His head ached from lack of sleep, and he toyed with the notion of going AWOL for the morning. However, he showered, and ate several bowls of rice, deciding that sloth would only lead to a longer stay in purgatory.

Watching the customary wide-shows on the base HDTV with the entirety of Third Kansai, Rawlings fingered the sergeant's pins the commander had awarded him after the very first ground assault. Jack figured it would be a helluva way to rise up in the ranks, cleaning up after the bossman's dirty laundry, but he didn't mind. With the two shiny jewels on his lapel, he could now chew out squaddies and rookies with impunity, or at least until they ran and got their commanding officers to beat him up.

As usual, the networks were extensively covering the strange occurrences over central Hokkaido. For an entire week, there had been numerous UFO spottings; some real, others out-and-out hoaxes. Rawlings smiled along with the soldiers watching; insiders on the action, they all knew that four, no more, no less, bug boats had made the 'milk run,' so-called because of Hokkaido's exports to the rest of Japan.

I wonder how many of those 'UFOs' were 'Rangers? pondered Rawlings.

Everyone laughed when the local SDF colonel announced that the military had no knowledge of any alien activities in that area.

After the wide shows, Jack checked his pockets, returned to the unused section of barracks he called his home, scooped up a handful of Japanese and American coins, noticed that none were larger than one yen or five cents, and stomped back to the Main Hall.

"Hey, Takayasu! Darts?" he asked.

A few minutes and several triple-twenties later, the sniper sergeant walked over to the cafeteria, deposited several yen pieces in a pop machine, pulled out the can, and handed it to Rawlings.

He cracked open the carbonated freshness of the soda. Slurping down a sizable amount, Jack nearly coughed it up. Reading the label on the outside--'Coffee Boss'--Rawlings waved a fist at the guffawing Takayasu. Staggering off, the sniper continued to point at the bodyguard and laugh.

Why in fuck would anyone drink cold coffee? wondered Jack. He downed the rest of the can, and tossed it in a recycling bin.

Bored to death, Rawlings wandered into the officers quarters, a small addition behind their offices and the communications room. He peered into the commander's room; Schancer was there, jabbering on the intercom.

"You OK?" mouthed Jack.

"Yes. Thanks," replied the commander.

Rawlings decided to go to the surface and wander around in the woods. He'd been up there previously, and he'd nearly walked into the small Buddhist temple a few miles down the valley. Motion sensors had detected him, though, and he'd been seriously tongue-lashed by the security personnel for nearly compromising the base.

The sergeant walked to his quarters and rummaged around for suitable clothing, preferably without the leaning crucifix XCOM patch. Failing to find any, he scratched his head and marched back towards the commander's quarters.

A mental alarm went off halfway to Schancer's quarters. The commander didn't spend his morning hours in his quarters--but that wasn't it. Picking up his pace, Rawlings double-timed it to the officer's rooms.

Schancer's door was closed. Nothing seemed unusual, and Jack was about to pass off his hunch when someone bellowed from the commander's room.

Davidson, thought the bodyguard, placing the voice. Volume increasing, Rawlings figured that it was the black sergeant's pissed-off voice he was hearing.

Another voice, muffled by the door, responded in a hysterical fashion. That would be Schancer, figured Jack.

The heavy metal door exploded outwards. Schancer flew after it, blood trailing from his nose and a very frightened look on his face. Before the door, the commander, and the numerous bits of doorframe could fall to the tiled floor, Davidson charged from the quarters, snarling like an animal and arms outstretched for Schancer's neck.

The huge sergeant landed on Schancer and sent a jackhammer blow straight for the officer's face. The Southerner rolled his head aside, narrowly avoiding a fist that dented the door.

Jack leapt at Davidson, punching him full force in the side of his head. The sergeant shrugged off the blow and swept and arm under Rawlings' legs, sending him sprawling. A pair of datatechs walked by the end of the hall. One dropped his laptop at the sight of the melee.

"SECURITY! GET SECURITY!" shouted Rawlings before taking a gut punch.

Breath knocked from him, the bodyguard still managed to kick Davidson in the side of his knee. Roaring in pain, the black man tossed aside the dazed commander and swiped a massive fist at Rawlings.

"This isn't your fight, fuck off," growled Davidson.

"What the fuck are you doing?" coughed Jack, rolling away. The dead weight of the plasma pistol tied down to his right leg sent a chill through Rawlings; he hoped he wouldn't have to use the weapon, but the situation was deteriorating.

Davidson whipped around, ignoring the bodyguard. Schancer, blond hair matted with blood, staggered up and turned to run. Jack hopped up and sucker-punched the big sergeant in the kidney.

"Fucker!" he screamed, a knifehand strike whizzing by the tip of Rawlings' knarled nose.

"That's enough, gentlemen!" ordered Dillan's voice. Flanked by four security guards, all bearing tazers set on full, he waved a laser pistol at Rawlings and Davidson.

"Get Commander Schancer out of here," he barked to a pair of medtechs cowering behind the wall of muscle. They scurried forward with a stretcher.

"I can walk," weakly replied Schancer. He limped off, arms over the shoulders of the corpsmen.

Dillan watched the three stagger off. A growing crowd of techs, secondaries, and a few soldiers were gathering, and the security personnel had to wave them back.

Turning his glare on the two combatants, he remarked, "Well, well. Rawlings, I've heard all about you. But from what I just saw, it looks like Mister Davidson was the one who initiated this little harmonic convergence. Why don't we all go to the brig and sort this out?"

Rolling his eyes at a day wasted, Rawlings sat down on the floor, disgusted.

"That's an order, Mister Rawlings."

Under pain of cattle prod, Davidson and Rawlings marched to the broom closet labeled the brig. Dillan flipped on the room's single florescent light, grunting and pointing at two metal stools.

Two guards stayed outside. Flanked by the others, Dillan locked the door on the inside and holstered his laser.

"You're both veterans. You know what fighting on base means."

Rawlings glanced at Davidson. The sullen black's face was utterly drained of emotion.

"Under normal conditions, that's court martial and a dishonorable discharge. Nothing fun, but it beats the hell out of XCOM regulations. Stipulated in the Charter, XCOM is always under combat readiness. That makes fighting on base equivalent to attacking each other out on a mission."

Dillan crouched down and looked Rawlings in the eyes.

"In the old Red Army, that meant that I'd have the right to shoot you on the spot."

The colonel stood and paced before the two offenders.

"But this isn't Momma Russia and we aren't the Red Army. We're XCOM, and that means you can't say a word about us."

Glaring at Davidson, he continued, "You don't get dumped in a federal prison. We stick you in the looney bin."

Rawlings' stomach turned, flooding his system with bile and hydrochloric acid. The bitter logic made a sickening amount of sense. Just label a wayward soldier schizophrenic, and nobody would believe a word out of his mouth. Plus, the asylums could use a horde of drugs to stitch a man's mind shut...

"Think about that, both of you. I'm going to have a word with the commander, so you'll have the time."

Dillan unlocked the door and exited. The two beefy secondaries remained.

A few minutes passed. Rawlings looked at his watch, at the guards, and then at Davidson.

"Mike, I'll bet we could take these two," he announced. The security men tensed up, raising their stun batons on cue. Rawlings laughed, and pulled out his wallet.

After a few minutes of staring at Emperor Akihito's young visage emblazoned on several of the larger bills, Jack pulled out a greenback with Ben Franklin's bald head prominently featured.

"You guys have family?" he asked. He focused in on the nearest guard, a shorter, but muscular Japanese man.

"Inflation's beating the shit out of the economy here. Your accounts keeping up? How 'bout I give you this," Rawlings rubbed the big bill between his index and ring fingers, "and you can build yourself a nest egg, with some of Uncle Sam's grass to keep it from bouncing around."

The secondary glared at Rawlings, baring his teeth and clenching his tazer tightly.

The doorknob turned, and Dillan entered, walking backwards.

"Sir, I can't allow you to endanger yourself again," explained the colonel. Schancer, dabbing his nose with a small washcloth, followed him in, insistent.

"Colonel, you and your men may wait outside."

"Commander, you know I can't do that."

Schancer looked at Dillan for the first time the whole day and snorted. A speck of blood flew from his left nostril.

"Gary, do you know who you've got in here? Davidson's the best squad leader I know, and Rawlings is my combat bodyguard. Now, I've said some things that didn't come out right to the former, and the latter was just trying to pull my ass out of a fire I lit. Mike and I need to talk... without your presence."

The colonel nearly rolled his eyes, but he caught himself and merely saluted.

"Hiranuma, give Sergeant Rawlings your stunner," ordered Dillan, conceding defeat.

The Japanese growled at Jack, but he grudgingly handed over the tazer. Rawlings stood, stretched, and leaned up against a wall. He watched Dillan and the two guards file out.

Schancer shut the door. Noticing Davidson's posture, he sat on the vacated stool.

"Mike, I didn't mean what I said-"

The sergeant spoke up for the first time since the brawl. "Sir, I was out of line. I'm sorry, sir. My behavior was unbecoming a member of XCOM. I will resign, effective now, if you wish. I can't apologize enough, sir."

The commander shook his head, a bloody lock swinging across his forehead. "No, Mike. I was the one out of line. What I asked you was wrong, dead wrong. I made the mistake of mixing my personal life with my duties as an officer, and I'm sorry. I can understand your anger. I was wrong."

Rawlings coughed, and glanced at the back of Schancer's bloody head. Without turning, the commander snapped, "This does not concern you, Sergeant."

Jack raised his eyebrows, but remained silent. He switched off the tazer in his hand.

"I'm sorry, sir. I've been under a lot of stress, lately. But that's no excuse. I'm sorry, sir."

Schancer patted the big black man on his back and nodded. "It's OK. I don't think that this should change anything between us. Forget what I said--forget this whole incident. Mike, you're really valuable to this base. I need a tough-as-nails sonuvabitch sergeant to keep the rookies in line. That's what you are, not some hired escort."

Davidson nodded.

"Get yourself cleaned up, Sergeant," said Schancer, standing up.

Davidson allowed himself a chuckle. "Sir, look in the mirror."

The tall blond smiled. Opening the door, he motioned outwards. The African American stood, saluted crisply, and marched out.

Dillan poked his head in. "Everything cleared up, sir?" he inquired.

"Very," acknowledged Schancer. He touched a spot of dried blood on his lip.

"Send a man for some wet towels, Gary."

Rawlings sat in the house's tower, casting a blind eye over the darkening Kansai valley below. The wet season of the spring had come to a halt, and with it, the regular UFO visits in Hokkaido. Ten ships the bugs had sent down, and with the exception of one blown to razor blades by an SDF fighter squadron, all had been successfully assaulted on the surface. Schancer had nearly cried with joy at the sizable amount of alloys, alien computers, and reactor fuel that the teams had recovered.

The commander had healed up quickly, with no visible physical scars. Rawlings ran a finger tip down the massive ditch cut into his face. Some people, he mused, were not meant to be hurt.

The day after the 'Battle of Officer Row,' Schancer had laid down the law with Taoka. He'd quietly but firmly requested that their relationship be solely professional in scope. However, Rawlings suspected that the framed portrait of Carrie sitting on the commander's mainframe had done most of the talking.

Jack scanned the twilight below. Every hour or so, a single sport/utility would cruise by; it was the secondaries running patrols. Once in a great while, another soldier would walk out of the forest, sucking in a final drag of a treasured cigarette. Rawlings thought he recognized the profile of Sakurai tossing a glowing butt from his stained fingertips.

Schancer powered up his PDA for his nightly chat with Larsen. The North American theater of operations was deteriorating quickly. Singer's Nebraska Base was sending out six to ten missions per day, and his men were starting to die just from the fatigue. Larsen had been considering transferring a team of Japanese from Bluegrass to Nebraska, but the soldiers still had long leashes of red tape leading back to Tokyo, and it was taking both commanders vital time to cut it.

But when the Southerner finally entered the vidnet meeting, it was not the tired, pale face of Larsen waiting. Somehow tanned, and looking beautiful as ever, the bright and cheery face of Carrie Unger lit the monitor.

"Hello, darling," she smiled.

"One moment," replied Schancer. "I've got to unzip my pants."

"You're terrible!" laughed the Captain of secondaries.

Rawlings shook himself awake, and glanced at the glowing hands on his wristwatch. A heavy metal knob, he'd acquired it during the all-too-brief Tokyo stay. It read twelve twenty six.

"Damn," he cursed. All personnel, with the exceptions of secondaries assigned security detail, were to be back in the base by twelve thirty.

One final glance over the moonlit valley revealed something strange--Rawlings pressed his face against the glass for a closer examination. Two people, one tall and broad-shouldered, one rather petite, walked hand in hand down the mountain highway.

Jack squinted, and laughed.

"I'll be damned," he chuckled, observing the couple's progress. "Mike and the lieutenant commander?"