"I figure this might be a good time for me to start believing in God," I mutter to the guy hiding in the bush next to mine.
"Your confidence is everything an ego could ask for," Owen drawls softly in reply.
"Oh yeah, charm is the most dangerous weapon in my arsenal." Sadly enough, that might end up being true if we go ahead with our plan tomorrow night. With a sigh, I snuggle down in the hollow beneath my clump of brush on top of the mountainside ledge and close my eyes. It's dawn and I need to catch some Z's. The past night had been informative and necessary – there's no way Owen and I would have a snowball's chance in hell of getting into Phong Nha without scoping out the nightly barge operations – but, shit, I'm tired.
"We could still do things my way," Owen proposes in a tone that might have been playful if I'd given half a shit.
"Your way is painful and more likely than mine to get me dead." Sure, even if I fake an injury (or Owen very kindly knocks me out) and I end up getting "discovered" by the NVA, they'll probably shoot first and ask questions later. While it's a policy I whole-heartedly endorse, I'd rather not be the recipient of it, thanks.
Owen snorts. "Pain. You humans are such wimps."
My eyelids, itchy and drooping, pop open so fast, I'm pretty sure I may never blink again. Yup, I'm awake now.
The forest echoes with weighted silence around us.
"Hey, Captain America," I retort, "are you callin' me a candyass?"
"It was more of a general observation," Owen replies in a tone that had damn well better not be choking on laughter.
"You chop my species again and I'll have a general observation for you, pal."
"Oh, this I've got to hear."
I glare in his direction and flip him the bird. "Climb it, Tarzan."
I can't see Owen, but he must be able to see me. He chortles. "I'd beat my chest and give a great jungle yell, but I'm pretty sure you'd wig out over it."
He grunts. "I'll save it for later."
"You do that." I shake my head which is very quickly becoming crowded with rueful and unwanted thoughts. "Humans are wimps. What the hell—?"
What I'd nearly asked but had managed to shut my mouth on just in time is: What the hell are you?
Shit. Just… shit. I don't want to ask. I don't want to know. But… I'm starting to think I need to know.
If Owen hears the whole question, he doesn't reply to it. I sit in my little dirt hole and brood over the puzzle that is my only ally. It's safe to say that, despite the army gear and wry grin, Owen isn't normal. He's not just some dip stick who signed up for glory and the chance to rid the free world of communism. In short, he's not like me. He's something else.
I wish this little nugget of joy was the furthest thing from my mind, but it isn't and I can tell it's not going away anytime in the near future. I think ahead to tonight and all the possible ways I could screw up because I'm busy wondering just how long Owen can hold his breath under water and why he can frickin' hear enemy footsteps a damn near quarter mile off in the distance and how the hell he can be so tough but never eat, never sleep…
"Owen," I say, hating the fact that I'm going to say what I'm about to say but knowing it's gotta be said. "Gimme at least one reason for me not to wonder about… y'know, you."
He doesn't answer. The silence stretches until I have to grit my teeth and push the words up from my too-tight gut.
"The super hearing, super strength… Are you really gonna hold your breath under water for as long as it takes for those barges to enter the cave and dock because, that's just not possible." As I utter the last syllable, I experience a slice of memory. The face of the VC commander flashes in my mind and I recall that happy occasion: Owen's lips pressed to the guy's mouth; Owen sucking the air out of his lungs; Owen leaning back with a satisfied smirk before cutting open his throat. Shit. I cannot be thinking about this come nightfall.
Finally, Owen says, softly, "You don't have to wonder about me. I'm Captain America."
I bury my face in the crook of my arm to smother the panicked laughter. "You've been on the pipe too long," I reply when I catch my breath, "if you actually believe that, pal."
"It's not my fault they got it wrong."
They got it all wrong. I snort. "OK, sure. What the hell." My buddy Owen is Captain America in his skinny army-reject form. I can dig it.
And I do.
We move out just before dusk. My eyelids are still scratchy and each feels like it weighs about fifty pounds thanks to the constant bombardment upriver by the fantastically Allied Forces. (Yeah, you try sleeping with two-ton bombs shaking the whole freaking globe like the footsteps of God himself.)
I don't like this part of the plan much as it calls for a whole lotta risks in dwindling but still clear daylight. We creep and crawl through the jungle down to the barges that the local fishermen had hauled into an artificial and just-large-enough clearing and then camouflaged with debris the morning before. We'd watched the fishermen head back to their village and, supposedly, get on with their day, leaving the barges attended by a few kids. I don't want to think about what might have to happen if those kids get in our way.
At the edge of the clearing, Owen takes the lead. I let him. And it turns out to be the right call. Damn, but nobody on this planet is quieter than Owen. How he manages to tiptoe soundlessly over to the nearest barge (which isn't really all that near), grab the rope (well, it's more like twine, but beggars can't be choosers) I'd requested, and make it back without alerting any of the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed boys and girls who wanna make mommy and daddy proud by supporting a bunch of murdering, commie bastards I have no clue.
Feeling useless (and realizing that it's a feeling that I've gotten good and used to, God dammit), I tail Owen down to the edge of the Son River where we take off our boots (mine I tie to my belt loops) and then, under the cover of overhanging (and blessedly un-snake-infested) brush, we both ease into the water.
As the light fades completely, Owen takes the end of the twine and uses some fancy knots to put together a harness around my chest.
"Where's your knife?" he asks, giving the last knot a strong tug.
I pat my vest pocket meaningfully. If this goes badly – if my own idea literally gets me in over my head – I know what I'll have to do but I hope it won't come to that. Something tells me that I won't be given an encore. It'll be Plan B if I can't wing this. I wince.
"Too tight?" Owen breathes.
I shake my head. After a moment, he claps me on the shoulder. Then, slinging the coil of rope over his arm, he wades downstream toward the barge launch point with me in tow. With every step or stroke, my heart becomes even more firmly lodged in my throat. My pulse pounds in my ears until I'm sure my head will explode. And then I hear the footsteps of the fisherman approaching the barges, giving commands to the kids to help them uncover and move each craft into the water, a process that clearly takes an eternity longer than it should. And yet the moment the boats are bobbing in the water, tethered to the shore is not one I should be looking forward to. When it comes, Owen gives the rope on my makeshift harness a tug before silently shifting away. I retaliate when I feel the end of his braid brush over my hand. Owen doesn't even grunt. He pauses briefly in acknowledgement and then moves out of range. Somewhere in the darkness, the other end of my twine is getting tied to the last barge in the row, tethering me to my doom. Standing chest deep in lethargic river currents, I put my hand on my knife and wait.
I won't bore you with a list of all the different kinds of waiting I experience: the kind that leaves your heart pounding in your throat, the kind that makes your mind start listing every poisonous river snake and sharp-toothed freshwater fish known to frolic in Southeast Asia, the kind that leaves your mouth dry but your palms sweaty, the kind that gives you the unexplainable urge to start singing children's rhymes.
Right. Moving along.
And finally, we are. The boats are loaded, the kids sent home, and the barges are pushed out into the river. In the pitch blackness, I bob along behind the last in the line, my tether keeping me from being shoved downstream as the boat inches along (against the current) toward the famously impenetrable caverns ahead. I kick my feet, trying to keep some slack in the twine. I have no idea where Owen had tied the damn thing and, for all I know, it's inches away from the hand on the barge's rudder.
Shit. I trust that guy way too much.
Too late to cry about it now. Now I'm up to my ears in Operation: Breach Phong Nha.
I scowl and try to find a rhythm of movement that I can manage without too much effort. With each stroke, I reaffirm my determination to find JT's brother and get his ass outta here. And if he ruins my plan by being dead, I will kick his rotting corpse ass from here to Abu Dhabi. I don't care if he frickin' outranks me.
As the boat pushes through the waves ahead, I concentrate on keeping my head above the surface, my strokes silent, and my lungs clear of water. One reflexive cough is all it'll take to do me in.
Rather than speculate on how many bullets they'd waste on me if they found me, I think about the plan. Or rather, the plans. Plural. When I'd asked Owen about his objective, he'd been typically cryptic and Mister Tuff about it.
I'd teased, "Well, at least you don't kiss and tell."
Owen had laughed and then, thankfully, he had not asked me if I have anyone waiting for me back home. He hadn't asked what I'd like to do with my life once I get Stateside again. He hadn't asked, so I hadn't had to resist the urge to shoot him. Win-win.
Which reminds me… I glance around but, of course, I can't see anything. Hell, I can't even see the boat I'm tied to so I've got zero chance of spotting Owen, wherever Mister Captain America is. I swallow a sigh of resignation and keep swimming as quietly as I can and it's a good thing I do, too, because suddenly, my ears ring with the subtle echoes of several barges moving through the water, as if each tiny sound is being bounced off of looming stone walls again and again and again. Which means…
I'm in the Phong Nha caverns. If only I had a battalion to back me up. All I've got is Captain America and maybe he's not chopped liver but he's not all that inspiring, if you catch my meaning.
Despite being in the caverns, it's still pitch black. The sounds swim and churn off the walls and, with each passing moment, they mix and blend with the sounds of voices which slowly transform from mucis-like noise into military orders barked out in Vietnamese. Shuffling becomes footsteps on rock and sand. Thumps become boxes being unloaded from previously arrived barges. I swim with one arm now. The other I keep on the handle of the knife in my vest pocket.
When the barge that I'm tethered to starts to be illuminated by a warm, distant glow, I draw my weapon. The voices and footsteps are so loud now that I wince in lieu of coving my ears. Heart pounding, I wait for my chance. If I cut the line now, without a place to "land" nearby, I'll end up drifting back out into the jungle and, eventually, all the way to the frickin' ocean.
The barge turns a corner. A rocky ledge brushes my shoulder. I cut the rope.
The instant I'm free, the river does her damnedest to push me back outside, to kick me out of her caves. Yeah, not gonna happen. I bite down on the blade of the knife, keeping it clenched between my teeth as I climb rocks in the noisy darkness. I find a small depression that is shadowed and encouragingly empty of bats. There, I pull myself out of the water as quietly as I can and take a breather. I still have no idea where Owen is, but I have to trust that he'd made it in, too. If he hadn't, I'm gonna have to turn into a one-man-band to rival Bob Dylan.
In the darkness, I check my guns. They're wet, of course, as are the bullets, but that doesn't matter. They'll still fire. But if it comes down to that in here, I'm pretty sure I won't get the chance to use them for long. It sounds like there are about five thousand Vietnamese in here and only one of me.
Those 50-50 odds I'd mentioned a long while back salute and blow me a kiss on their way out the door.
I don't bother to wave goodbye. I put my boots on and get ready for what has to happen next.
My breather is too short, my boots too wet, my arms too rubbery and the job ahead of me too huge but since when has any of that made me pay attention to my better sense? I get moving. Knife still held in my mouth, I start climbing over the rocky wall of the caverns. I'm pretty sure I know where I am; Owen had given me the general layout of the place. Although, when I'd asked how he'd known about it at all, he'd given me a look that had commanded me to shut up; I'd glared back until he'd shrugged and said, "Our friend Minh Po told me."
Minh Po. The VC commander that Owen had sucked the breath out of before killing very efficiently. Now, call me crazy, but I hadn't heard any words being exchanged in that tunnel command center. In fact, there'd been only the one exchange and how the hell Owen could have gotten intel from it, I have no freaking idea. And, actually, maybe I don't wanna know.
Yeah. I don't wanna know. And anyway, it's time for me to step into my office and get to work.
I shouldn't be surprised to see the first harbor and the crates of cargo that Owen had said would be here, but I kind of am. If he's right about this, then he might be right about the POWs being held at the next harbor, further in. Looks like I'll be doing some more swimming. Yippee.
And then, in the harbor, some expressive gesturing catches my eye. I can't catch any of the actual words in the cacophony, but a guy who looks like a solder-in-charge-of-something is ordering a fisherman further up the river and deeper into the caves. The barge itself is nearly empty of cargo and I still have the length of twine tied around my chest. Hm… if I can find a convenient loophole on that leaky little boat, I might not have to swim after all.
I sink back into the water and use the rocky wall of the cavern to pull myself toward the natural harbor. I then use the stern of each boat to launch myself down the row to the barge that is getting ready to depart. Each time I jump ship, so to speak, I risk being seen by someone on the shore but no one looks my way. Probably because no one expects an enemy to be this deep in their territory.
I'll brag about it later.
I reach the barge and I daringly loop the end of the twine around the rudder. This time, I stay in the shadow of the ship as much as possible as the fisherman shoves off and makes his way further upstream. My booted feet are useless now for swimming, but the going is so slow that it turns out that all I have to do is act like the dead weight I am. The darkness of the cavern swallows us up and I drift, being towed by the boat in near-blackness. Again, I wait until I see light up ahead and then I cut myself lose and find a cubby hole to hide in.
This time, my hiding place overlooks a massive cavern. I see stacks of cargo (although not as big or as much as was in the previous cavern) and, behind those, some tables where lots of NVA guys are chattering at each other, cleaning their outdated guns, or eating. There's what looks like a makeshift infirmary and then, directly opposite, a prison cell. I let out a sigh of relief when I count the prisoners – five – and the number of doors with locks – one. I can only hope that all of them are mobile and one of them happens to be the guy I'm looking for.
There are far, far too many NVA soldiers hanging around for me to make my move now. I hunker down and watch as barge after barge arrives from the logistics cave downstream and troops start piling onto the boats. It burns me up that I've gotta let these guys go and head out into the jungle where they'll be trying to blow up or blow holes in guys like JT. My hate for my own inability sours on my tongue until I nearly choke on it, but there's nothing I can do. Not today. If I actually make it out of here alive and back to an Allied base camp, well, maybe…
Waiting isn't the hardest part of war, but it still stinks. No doubt about it. Barge after barge arrives empty and departs with troops. When the last boat pulls in to collect the last group of fighters, I finally leave my cubby hole. I move through the natural tunnels of the cave, thankful that I don't have to charge up the harbor, guns blazing like a frickin' re-make of D-Day. I creep and tiptoe my way toward the prison cell and, once I'm in sight of it, I duck behind the nearest cover – a small stack of crates – and count the enemy.
In the far back, a second cave seems to be filled with some high-ranking officers. From the looks of things, they're busy plotting world domination, so I won't have to worry about them if I stay quiet and mostly out of sight. There are a couple of guys in the infirmary either sleeping or healing on straw pallets. Two armed soldiers are hanging out at the harbor, waiting for the next barge to come in.
This is the best chance I'm gonna get tonight. The next barge that arrives is probably going to have troops and not cargo to unload. It's now or never.
I choose "now."
Crouched low, I scuttle over to the prison and, reaching the bars, toss a stone at the nearest captive. He opens his eyes and looks at me but only briefly. The corner of his mouth lifts, though, so I know he's happy to see me.
"Key?" I hiss.
"Harbor-side," he mutters back, making a show of stretching.
I pass him JT's former revolver and then slink off to do my worst. Or maybe best. I guess it depends on who writes the history books years from now.
The officers are still debating whose dick is biggest and the infirms are still down for the count, soaking up the power of healing, and the cargo boxes are right where I'd want them if I were God and could make inanimate objects obey my every whim, so it's pretty easy to ghost up to the beach. I wait, knife in hand and heart in my throat, wondering if Owen really has my back. I guess we'll find out…
When a lull enters their conversation, I make my move.
Lunge-grasp-stab! slice! catch! and I lower the dying man quietly to the ground. I look up and grin. Owen is right next me and is dragging a kill of his own behind the nearest tower of supplies. I have no idea where he'd come from and I don't care. We're further along than I'd thought possible.
I collect the guns and the keys then quietly make my way back to the prison. Owen vanishes once again in perfect silence. Good thing I know where he's headed or I'd be wigging out.
Everyone in the cell knows that the cavalry has arrived and is doing their best to act natural. "Got other business. Good luck," I practically mouth in silence as I hand over their get-out-of-jail gear.
I get a nod, a smirk, and a thumb's up and then I go after Owen. He's got his sights set on the meeting of Who's High and Mighty, of course. I almost roll my eyes. This is gonna be like the tunnel command center all over again. Oh well. At least I've still got one gun.
Still, I'm not all that crazy about opening fire. The minute I do, everyone in this bloody tunnel system is going to hear it and come running. I'd much rather be in the water, tethered to boats in nerve-wracking but life-saving silence.
I join Owen beneath an outcrop a short sprint from the meeting room entrance. "I only need one of them," he whispers to me.
"You're outnumbered," I point out, reaffirming my grip around the revolver.
"No such thing for Captain America," he shoots back with a cocky grin. "I've got this. You need to get your guys into the water and radio for a pick up."
I huff unhappily. He's right, dammit. And he's about to give us the diversion we'll need to send a coded message. He's also going to get himself killed.
"I'll give you three minutes," Owen says, his eyes glaring daggers at me.
"There's another way—" I have the balls to argue.
Owen growls at me. I shut up. "I want it this way."
I don't like it, but I think I get it. He's out for revenge, for blood and glory and suck-on-this-pal vengeance. In other words, he's a time bomb waiting to go off and this is not the time or place to try to disarm him. "Have a nice life, man." Whatever's left of it, anyway. Not much if he goes ahead with this spaz plan but there's not much I can do to stop him. "Thanks for saving my ass." I tug the end of his braid once for luck and then scuttle over to the crates where my newly liberated buddies are waiting.
"The infirmary?" I hiss at the most commander-looking guy.
"Taken care of," he rumbles.
I nod. "Radio," I grunt, motioning toward the twisting labyrinth of caverns.
"I'll go," another guy volunteers. "I know code and a pick up location."
I gesture for the others to head into a different tunnel. "Hang right and get to the harbor overlook then get ready to go in the water." I pick up a bundle of rope and hand it over along with my knife. Giving the trailing end of twine still connected to my makeshift harness a twirl, I say, "We've got a boat to catch."
I'm down to a single gun with five bullets and my charming smile for weapons as I lead the radio operator back into the caves. Owen had said the radio room would be near the big meeting spot and I'm very glad when I find out he's right. I'm less glad to see two operators sitting at the table. I hand my gun over to my new friend and mime clubbing one of the guys. I pick up the slack on my twine. Our steps are silent. Their deaths are not so, but at least nothing echoes. I stand guard with my gun once more in my happy possession as the nameless soldier gets on the horn.
The Allied frequency is selected, code mumbled, reply received, rendezvous location announced, and then everything gets reset. We boogie.
That's when the first gunshot rings out.
My eyes sting. Dammit, Owen. He'd made his move without backup and now…
Shit, he's either dead or nearly. There's nothing I can do for him now, not with a guy of my own to get to the launch point.
I'll deal later.
I head for the tunnels. I nearly turn back no less than six times between the radio room and the overlook. I tell myself that I'm an idiot to think Owen could have gotten his man and then gotten out alive. If the knots I tie in the harness around the operator's chest are too tight, I blame urgency, not anger.
As predicted, the gunshots call forth boatloads of soldiers. Luckily, several fishermen are sent out to bring in more troops before they notice the six guys treading water, clinging to the cavern wall. Hitching that ride out that I'd promised is about as easy as cherry pie and, as I let the current and the barge pull me downstream, I'm thankful for the abundance of water around me and the darkness. Tears blend so well into both.
Once we cut ourselves loose and gain the riverbank, it's no longer my show. I bring up the rear as we haul ass to the rendezvous point. It's a lot of ground to cover by dawn. I'm shocked as hell when we make it. Standing at the edge of the clearing and listening to the throbbing blades of a Huey coming closer, I nearly break down into tears of joy.
"Any of you have a brother named JT Wellman?" I ask before my throat clogs with useless emotion.
"I do," the radio operator says. Before he can ask me how I know his little brother and before I have to tell him that I'd known him from my tunnel rat unit, the Huey is overhead and moving in to land.
Wary of enemy attack and guns at the ready, the five guys Owen and I had gotten out of Phong Nha fan out and move toward the chopper. I glance back once more, hardly daring to believe that I might be wrong, that Owen might have made it out after all, might have tailed us for the hell of it…
And there! It can't be my imagination that I see a long rope of goldish-colored hair or the man attached to it. The hair is right, yes, but the man…
I gape at the broad shoulders, the muscular chest, the strong jaw.
I hear myself gasp, "Can't be…"
"It is," Owen's voice replies. "Don't miss your ride, man."
I open my mouth to tell him to hurry up, to get his ass on the helicopter.
Maybe he sees it in my eyes or the set of my jaw or the way I clutch the gun in my hand. I'm sure he sees it, but he turns me down. With a half-assed salute that's more playful than official, he pivots on his heel and blends into the jungle.
I guess that's a Mission Complete.
I don't waste time saluting him back. I launch myself at the hovering chopper and let myself be dragged aboard.
"Shit, man. What's the deal? Don't you want your medal of honor?" one of the former NVA prisoners jokes.
"A medal? What the hell for?"
"Uh, for busting all five of us out of fuckin' Phong Nha single handedly?" he snarks and the others laugh.
"I didn't—" The protest is automatic. It's on the tip of my tongue to tell them about Owen, whom they must not have noticed, but I don't. Maybe I'll explain later when I can handle the fallout. I clear my throat and talk over the roar of the helicopter, "I didn't do it single-handedly, dip shit. I've got two hands!"
I get a clap on the back for that and a couple of laughs. The other guy gets a bit of ribbing about not being able to count.
Blessedly, I get no more questions. I get silence. In that moment of relative quiet, I mourn for my team, all dead because of those five VC bullets. I thank Lady Luck for the five guys who are still alive and now free. And I think of my buddy, Owen.
As we fly over the dense green canopy, I stare helplessly down at it. He's out there, somewhere. It's a frickin' miracle, but he is. And, whatever he is, he's a miracle, too. He must be. There's no other way for me to explain how he could do the things he had or why he's even still alive.
I take a deep breath and grin through my tears.
He's alive and I'm alive.
I'm alive and I'm gonna be fighting at least one more day.
Owen and Chez continue their camaraderie in Without Wings, a novel by K. Writerly (me). Check out my website for more info on the novel, extended author's notes (including links to research and source material) and some lovely fanart by Yappichick for "Five Bullets." (^_^)
The setting of this fic was chosen because I had this superb visual in my head of Owen and Chez, standing back to back in a shallow, gurgling river, surrounded by jungle, returning enemy fire. The jungle was a must, so I thought to myself: "Hey, Vietnam!" Too bad the other stuff didn't pan out. Maybe in a future novel…
The main adventure in this story would not have been possible without the incredibly informative episode of Cities of the Underworld about Vietnam. I've changed some things around in order to keep this story from dragging out. The biggest thing I changed is distances. The DMZ is quite far from the Cu Chi Tunnels, but I make it sound like you could walk the distance in couple of days. Not so. That was my handy Artistic License at work. Also, to my knowledge, no one from the Allied Forces ever infiltrated the caverns of Phong Nha on the Son River, but it was just too awesome an idea for me to pass up.
And before you ask, yes, military pistols and revolvers were pretty waterproof as were the bullets. You could totally submerge your gun and ammo (as you swim up a river, say) and then fire it when you got to shore. (Many, many thanks to Bryan for explaining this to me in detail that I can't possibly express properly here.)
So, at the end of the fic, depending on your interpretation, Chez either dies in Vietnam eventually or not. This incarnation of him would have to die sometime before 1968 because that's when Arturo Sanchez (the "Chez" we all know and love from Without Wings) was born.