The Spoils of War

?Who hired all these kids?? Mac muttered, easing the brake down and bringing the Jeep to a halt.
The four guards on the main gate to the complex spread out slightly as the Jeep stopped, two to each side.  Their rifles were slung, and they looked bored.  Mac wondered if they had ever had to actually do anything.
?Recognise any of ?em??
?Nah.? He lowered his window as one approached, PDA raised. ?We?re here to see Keale.?
?Yes, sir.  Your names, please??
?David McGivern, Arnold Perry.? A light rain was falling, spotting the windshield, the PDA?s screen, Mac?s face.
?You?re cleared for today, sir.  You?re both on the reserve list?? The guard actually looked up from the PDA, letting it fall to hang against his hip.
?That?s right.? Mac had forgotten he had ticked that box.
?Go right ahead and park in the Personnel space.  Straight on and to your left.? The guard sketched a salute and stepped aside.
Mac raised his window before speaking. ?That?s what I like.  Thorough.  Methodical.?
?Gate?s already open.? Perry nudged him.
Mac drove on through. ?They didn?t even ask to see ID.  Bizarre.?
?War?s over.  Didn?t you know?? Perry twisted to look back. ?Shit, I have sperms swimming round in my nuts older than them.?
The Personnel parking section was about the same size as a football field, and almost as empty.  Mac parked in the space nearest to the building and got out.
The complex was huge, and mostly empty.  At the height of X-Com?s strength, it had been the funnel through which men and materiel poured into and out of North America.  Now the flow was down to a trickle.  The barracks were drab with disuse, the warehouses stood gapingly empty, the runways had weeds growing on them.  Only the central building showed signs of life, odd spots of light dotted across its broad bulk.
?I remember my first time coming back here.  It took me two fucking hours to find my car.? Perry slammed the Jeep?s door and gestured off to the flat expanse of the Visitors parking space, which dwarfed the Personnel section. ?Only a few thousand vehicles, trucks offloading guns and ammo, people leaving, people coming back, airplanes landing and taking off, fucking helis using the car park when the pads were full??
?Come on.? Mac set off towards the Administration building.
The cube-like building had no sharp corners, only rounded edges, a well-used toy building block.  Precious few lights spilled radiance over the wet tarmac, irregular pale patches smeared across the dark.
We beat it, Mac thought, sullenly.  We beat the dark.  But just because we beat it doesn?t mean we should throw the light away.
He shoved the door open and stepped into the building.  The lobby was narrow and pale, constricted on both sides by high desks.  A guard stood behind each one, apparently unarmed but armoured, helmet and vest.  Mac didn?t know either of them.  He approached the one on the right.
?Are you gentlemen armed??
Mac presented his 23 and spare magazine slowly. ?Habit.?
The guard smiled briefly. ?We?ll hold it for you.  McGivern, right??
Mac passed the pistol and magazine to the guard, leaning over the desk a little and glancing down.  All he could see was a short stock projecting from a shelf under the top of the desk.
?And you sir??
?Not me.? Perry shook his head and smiled. ?Don?t believe in guns.?
Mac very carefully kept a straight face. ?We?re here to see Keale.?
?Yes sir, Colonel Keale is expecting you in his office.?
Mac didn?t like the sound of that.
The other guard moved from behind his desk, murmured ?Follow me.? and Mac and Perry fell in step behind him.
They went up two flights of stairs, bypassing out-of-service elevators and some yawning office staff coming down.  The carpets had been worn thin since his last visit, Mac noticed, but little else had changed.  It just looked older now.
He caught a glimpse of his reflection in a window and turned away from it.
?I must?ve fucked every secretary in this place.? Perry reminisced.
?Were any of them women?? Mac asked.
?Oh, fuck you.?
?I?m not a secretary, so you don?t have a chance.? Mac almost bumped into the guard when he stopped at a door.
The guard knocked and opened quickly, only leaning in. ?Sir, McGivern and Perry.?
The guard stepped aside, pushing the door open wide as they passed him, then swinging it shut.
Keale hadn?t changed much.  He was a little paler, his hair was a little thinner, but he still looked like a prissy desk jockey.  The knowledge that he had four years of combat experience did nothing to dispel the impression.  Keale stood, extending his hand over his desk, and again Mac marvelled at how small he was.  Almost as skinny as Perry, and pushing all of five-six.
Mac stepped forward between the two chairs set in front of the desk, and shook firmly. ?Colonel.?
?Captain.? Keale actually smiled. ?I remember when you were my superior.?
Mac wished his memories were as fond as Keale?s, and stepped aside.  Perry shook Keale?s hand briefly and dropped into a chair.  Mac waited for an invitation before sitting.
?If you want coffee feel free.? Keale pointed to a pot set on a small folding table in the corner to the right of the door.
Perry got up and started fiddling immediately.
?Perry tells me you want help.? Keale folded his hands together on his desk.
?I got a call from Janine Parker.  I?d like to help her.  Or get help for her.?
Keale nodded. ?Go on.?
?Well.? Mac cleared his throat. ?That?s it.?
Keale frowned. ?So, what do you want me to do??
?I don?t know.  What do you think you can do??
Mac watched Keale?s knuckles whiten. ?I don?t know that I can do anything, captain.  Parker is one of our people, but at the moment, to be perfectly honest, she?s beyond our help.  We can?t hire a lawyer for her, we can?t exert pressure on the US government, and that?s all I can think of right now.?
Perry returned, sipping from a cup. ?Told you.? He murmured into it as he sat down.
?We?re on thin ice here.  We?re trying to fold up our tents, so to speak, as quickly as we possibly can.  The US is hostile to us, and Canada, much as it pains me to say it, has bigger things to consider than X-Com.  It?s unable to support us.  We?ve got no more war to fight.  We should have done a bit more warmongering while all eyes were on us, I suppose, but it?s too late for that now.? Keale cleared his throat. ?Let me be frank.  Everything has already been decided, by accountants.  Those of us left here can stick to the schedule, and get back to a nice civilian life or a military career, or we can actually do something, and delay and disrupt the schedule, and get fired.?
?So you won?t help.?
Keale held up his hands. ?I don?t know how.?
?Money.  Personnel.  Expertise.  Equipment.?
?There?s no money here, captain.  The elevators have been shut down.  The heating to half the building has been turned off.  To save on expenses.  I have a dozen men to guard this whole compound.  All the experienced personnel have quit, or have been transferred.  And while there is some equipment here, I have no idea to what use you would put it even if I let you walk away with it.?
?I think you?ve got a pretty good idea.? Perry spoke up from behind his cup.
?I?m not going to listen to that.  I had too much respect for you, captain, at least, to even consider the notion, that you?d want to try something like that.  As if I would have a Skyranger and a squad on standby.? Keale re-folded his hands. ?X-Com effectively has no resources in North America, and even if it did, it could not afford to exercise them.?
Mac leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. ?Don?t say ?it?.  Say ?we?.?
?We do not have any manpower.  We do not have any money, or guns, or equipment, or influence of any sort.  We, as individuals and as an organisation are persona non grata within the United States of America and I?m sorry am I saying something funny??
Perry lowered the cup that had been partially shielding his grin. ?Be a Do-Be, Keale, not a Don?t-Be.?
?I don?t-?
?There you go again.?
?You are not amusing, sergeant!? Keale turned his whole body away from Perry and faced Mac. ?You have more discipline than this, at least.  I can get you a good position in Europe.  You have a lot of command and combat experience.  You?ll probably get more rank, and get to keep your pension along with your pay.?
?Doing what??
?Training, lecturing, things like that.  If you want duty again, X-Com Europe is getting folded into the EU rapid reaction force.  We can get you citizenship in the country of your choice there, you might even see action again, and we?ll keep your contract short so you can quit when you want.?
?Not my sort of thing.?
?It?s not like this over there, David.? Mac was jarred by the use of his first name. ?I?m going when I?m done here.  We?re not wanted here any more, but we are there, needed and wanted.? Keale?s voice grew more intense the more he spoke.
?Why are you going?? Perry interrupted.
Keale shrugged. ?Whenever the weather?s good, we get protesters outside the gate.  Six months ago, it was a handful.  A quiet handful.  Now it?s a hundred or so, and they?re vocal.  In six more months, it?s going to be hundreds, and I?m going to be gone.  They can blame the janitor when this place blows up or burns down.  I am going to be with my family in a nice house in a quiet little country, and I will watch it happen on the news, and then I will turn the TV off and forget all about it.?
?All planned out, eh.? Perry said, putting the empty cup on Keale?s desk.
Keale nodded firmly. ?Yes.  The house is already bought.  The plane tickets are already booked.  I am, in the words of my kids, solid gone.?
?You make me fucking sick.?
?I don?t have to take that from you, sergeant!?
Perry got up. ?I?m not a sergeant and I haven?t been for fucking years, you little prick.  I remember when you were a sergeant-?
?Perry.? Mac grabbed his arm.
Perry tore it free. ?-I remember when you were um low man on the totem pole, you fucking Scandahoovian faggot-?
Keale got up, hands fisted, arms by his sides. ?Sergeant-?
?-I remember when you left a man burned blind and dying, I remember-?
?Get out!?
?Perry!? Mac stood, grabbing Perry?s shoulder and turning him away. ?Wait outside.?
Perry went, and Keale opened his mouth to shout something and then snapped it closed.  He was flushed with anger, raw-looking spots of colour high on his cheeks.
Mac sank slowly into his seat. ?Okay, you can?t do anything official.  Can you do anything unofficial??
?I told you-?
?Not the ?Com, Keale.  You.  What can you do for me.?
?What makes you think I can do anything for you??
?You?re still in.  You?ve got influence in the ?Com, if nowhere else.  You can get me some information.  If you can?t help, you can pass me the names of people who might.? Mac shrugged. ?I understand why you?re going, and I can empathise.  I think you, as a fellow officer, can reciprocate.?
Keale?s blush faded. ?I can make some calls.? He admitted.
Mac got up, and offered his hand. ?Thank you.?
Keale stood, shook, and sat back down and picked up the phone.
Mac left, and found Perry talking to someone he recognised immediately.
?Don?t know if you remember me.? Carpenter said, smiling.
?I do.? Mac almost saluted him.
?I?d like to talk to you.?

The couch was comfortable enough, but he felt uncomfortable reclining with Carpenter behind him.
?Okay, David-?
A brief pause. ?Okay, Mac, I?m going to record this.  Everything you say is confidential.  I?m here in my capacity as a psychiatrist, so this is nice and private.  Are you comfortable??
?Not really.?
?Well, put it on your TS list.?
Mac couldn?t help but grin.  Carpenter knew the lines, alright.
?How long did you do??
?Five years.  Then two training.  Then back to combat before I got wounded.  I wanted to help clean things up after, but they wouldn?t let me.  Too much of a poster boy.  You??
Mac laughed, a short unamused bark. ?Six years.  Three combat, three pussy.?
?Did you enjoy the snatch work??
Mac focused on the ceiling while he thought. ?It was tactically challenging.  Establishing a new doctrine.  Something different, sometimes almost suicidal.?
?I heard it was easy.?
?Not when the bastards had hours to dig in and prepare positions, rig traps, and call for reinforcements.  And it was a shock when we got called back to standard work.? Mac took a deep breath. ?Our casualty rate speaks for itself.?
Paper rustled and pages riffled. ?It does.  You were wounded eight times during your command.  Any of them serious??
?Got on the wrong side of a muton and ended up with my jaw bone sticking out through my cheek.  That was the worst.? A vague, ghostly ache hurt his face in sympathy with the memory.
?No big replacements??
?No.  A few toes and teeth.  I waited until after the war for them.  Cloning takes too damn long.?
?Any residual pain, or complications??
Mac stopped his hand halfway to his face. ?No.  Nothing like that.?
?Any nightmares??
?No more than normal.?
?What?s normal??
?Fuck off, don?t try that shit on me.?
?Okay.? Carpenter cleared his throat. ?Any nightmares about suicide??
?Any nightmares about tissue rejection, cancer, mutation, that sort of thing??
?No.? Mac sat up. ?Look, I?m not comfortable, can I???
?Go ahead.? Carpenter, reclining behind his desk, waved to a chair.
Mac moved to it quickly and sat, facing Carpenter. ?That?s better.?
?Were you ever scared??
?What sort of question is that?  What the fuck do you think??
?An honest one.  What I think-? Carpenter?s hands rose above the level of the desk and spread slowly, ?-doesn?t matter.  I?m asking because I want to know how you felt.?
Mac shrugged.  The chair was uncomfortable, but he felt better, sitting upright and facing the other man. ?Of course I was scared.  Christ, sometimes I was shitting nickels.  So what.?
Carpenter jotted something down, brow furrowed.  He didn?t suit a shirt and tie, but Mac couldn?t imagine him in combat gear and body armour, either.  All he needed was a pair of glasses and he?d look like a stereotypical college professor of African-American literature, decked out in a robe or whatever was trendy that semester.
?I repeat, so what.? Mac kept the combative tone subtle.
?So nothing.? Carpenter looked up from whatever he was writing, eyes large and pale in his dark face. ?I remember shitting in my pants, once, I was so scared.  But you can?t say that, because people think it?s funny, or that you?re a coward.?
?They weren?t there.?
?No, they weren?t, but they?ll gladly judge anyway.  And if you admit to losing control of yourself like that, it doesn?t matter what else you did, doesn?t matter if you went right on doing your job, they?ll have marked you, in their minds, and the war hero becomes the guy who once shit his pants in terror.?
Mac pruned a piece of nail off with his teeth.
?Anyway.? Carpenter cleared his throat, a harsh thrum. ?Why did you buy that property in Alaska?  Our file says you?re from Massachusetts??
?Country?s going to shit.  And I?m not particularly close to my family.?
?Had much contact with them after the war??
?No.  Didn?t before, either.? Mac realised he was snapping. ?All I got from them was my education and my religion, and that was more than enough.?
Carpenter waited, but Mac didn?t bite.  He knew that trick.
Mac held up his left hand. ?Nope.?
?Go to church??
?Okay.  Do you own any guns??
Mac leaned back, folding his hands together.
?Remember, I?m asking in a personal capacity.?
?My service pistol.?
Carpenter nodded, slowly, reflections from the lights shifting on his bald head. ?Okay, Mac, I?m going to tell you some things.  So pin your ears back.?
Mac leaned forward, uneasy.  He knew this wasn?t going to be good.
?There?s been a trend, in former X-Com personnel who have been exposed to psionic influences, towards certain things.  Three main issues, really, that a surprisingly high percentage?a frighteningly high percentage, have done.  One, they move somewhere far away and buy a property, in a secluded area, usually rural, but sometimes right out in the wilderness.  Mostly in their home country.?
Mac thought of his house, miles from anywhere, and his gut clenched unpleasantly.
?Two, they cut off all social contact.  They divorce spouses, abandon children, they leave family and friends behind, they stop socialising, they have the phone and internet cut off, they don?t answer their mail.? Carpenter flipped a page, lips pursed.
?Go on.? Mac?s mouth was dry, and he could taste the last meal he had eaten in the back of his throat, waiting to come up.
Carpenter looked up at him. ?Then they commit suicide.? He looked back down, and flipped another page. ?Fifty-eight percent of the suicides used their service weapon.?
Mac?s eyes drifted shut, and his hands rose to cover his mouth.
?Another thirty-three percent used other assorted firearms.  Six percent overdosed, and the remaining three by various miscellaneous means.? Carpenter sighed.
Jesus Christ, won?t this war ever stop killing us?
Mac swallowed, trying to summon up some saliva. ?Tomlins?  Pikowicz??
Carpenter riffled through pages, eyes scanning. ?Tomlins hung himself last year.  Pikowicz died of ETAC six months ago.?
He and Perry were the last.  Apart from Jan.
?I need a drink.?

They found Perry and Keale sat opposite each other in silence.  Only half the mess hall was lit, and it was otherwise deserted.
?Had to sack the staff.? Keale explained when Mac asked. ?Couldn?t justify the expense.  It?s self-serve now.  The food?s still okay, we have a contract with a local catering place.  They got rich off us during the war.  I keep them on the hook by telling them the base is about to get busy again when the US personnel transfer.?
?Cute.? Perry muttered, and Keale pretended not to hear.
Mac microwaved himself some pasta, watching the plate rotate while his mind refused to digest what he had been told.
Seclusion.  Solitude.  Suicide.
?There?s beer on the top shelf of the fridge, behind the soft drinks.  Fucking kids think I don?t know they keep it there.? Keale tossed his empty cup into a trash can.
Perry retrieved the beers, and Mac followed close behind with his food, plate uncomfortably hot in his hand.
Carpenter ripped one off the six-pack and popped it open quickly. ?Toast??
?Fucking A.? Perry handed a can to Mac and a can to Keale before tearing off one for himself.
?To survival.? Carpenter contributed, eyes on Mac.
?To life after service.? Keale chipped in.
?To driving your fucking enemies before you.? Perry added.
?To absent friends.?
The plastic cans chunked together, and they drank.