"All right, cut the crap, Main Control. What is it?" Christ, sometimes these little melodramatic interruptions can be annoying. What was that line from? One of those old space videos. Sometimes life on a star cruiser can be pretty weird.
The lights instantly went to normal as the synthesized voice responded. "You have strayed too near the observation target, Commander Orr. You will be caught in the gravity field in forty-three seconds."
"Well, this time I don't think you're right, but let's check it anyway. I've never known YOU to be wrong before, but I was extra careful with this one." Commander Jason Orr's hands moved swiftly, adroitly over the controls, bringing up displays of trajectory parameters and neutrino force field wave propagation. The multi-colored video displays were superb. The graphical representations were flawless. There was no better equipment made and few who could use it as well as Commander Jason Orr.
His mission was to approach and study the temporal distortion factors surrounding XT-1134, one of the smaller, charted black holes in this sector. He was the best "black-burner" that had ever flown the fleet. He didn't make mistakes.
"There. I get a gravity-omega reading of one-one-oh-four. That should give me plenty of passage." Orr's panel indicators showed a safety margin well within the range of his own extra cautious limits. Just then the temporal surges started causing a predictable but gentle "swaying" feeling on his emotional/intellectual matrix, and he had programmed his closest encounter with the stellar behemoth to be well defined before any such effects began. It was yet another indication he was right on target.
"You have miscalculated based on a localized anomaly in the time-space warp continuum. You now have nineteen seconds to terminal passage." The computerized voice was calm and matter-of-fact.
"Well, if that's so, then why are you still on-line?" Jason felt certain of his calculations and a little smug in his comeback, but the damn thing deserved it. His hands flew over the controls making minor adjustments anyway, just in case.
"I transcend" was the response just as the first wave of nausea hit Jason with the force of an ocean surf. An unmistakable shift in the reality matrix was beginning. How odd, he thought. This is like some kind of deja vu. I've felt this before. His hands continued to do their best in responding to the changing parameters of the complicated board.
The realization of what was happening hit him with full force. OH, NO! Aw, you bastards can't DO that. Aw, shit!! Jason Orr's cry rang out, smothered in an ultimate sense of frustration.
The panel throbbed with a pinkish glow, in perfect synchronization with his heartbeat. The pace became faster and faster. DAMN!! Jason felt himself go pale, hit by the pounding surf of a time-tide. He was going in, all right. He had failed to catch the shift in warp-surge and was being sucked into the Swartzschild's radius, just like the computer predicted.
No. No. This can't be. How could I have let something like this happen again. He froze in his own thoughts. AGAIN?? Oh, no, you mean this is.......... The very thought brought an unwelcome paradigm shift.
"That's right, schmuck. You blew it." That cold computerized voice. I've heard that before. I hate it. I've got to get out of here. I've got to break away. I can't let this thing drag me down.
I'm slipping! I've got to get back. Away. Out of here. Jason Orr's desperation grew like the increasing tempo of ritual jungle drums.
SHIT!! The cold determinism of his predicament was unspeakably deflating.
No! Please! I don't want to go back! There was no hope that the pleading in his voice would reach out to an unknown tormentor. The emptiness of the resounding silence was devastating and final.
The side of the star ship ripped apart as something hard and cold punctured the sturdy alloy skin. It pried away the scene like a grave robber with a giant crowbar tearing a gaping hole in a sacred tomb. Blinding light streamed in to violate the sealed sanctuary. Light from another universe, another time, another reality.
No! No fucking way!! I'm not going. Not any more! Don't make me go back! With brutal clarity, the magnitude of his slight error dawned on him. Jason floated, caught just at the edge of waking, where he straddled the fence of reality. Jump! Astral project! Get away! Waves of despair washed over him, pounding him into submission as the futility of his struggle became obvious. No. Not another day! NO! Oh, PLEASE! Not again!
It was time to do a body check. He struggled to continue straddling the fence as he quickly assessed his predicament. Pain. Drug fuzz all over the brain. Crippled! Out of whack, out of kilter. Bad move. Go back. Too much pain here. The assessments came slamming back to him like damage reports from a huge battle cruiser under attack. But it was too late.
No! I'm not going! There's too much bullshit there. I hate it! Oh, God, I hate it! It was the sound of empty defiance, a hollow assertion of individualism in an overwhelmingly impersonal Universe.
Despite his refusal, his consciousness slowly and ever so solidly shifted back into his wretched body. Back into a pain-racked body with a dead spirit. Back into a world of medication that left him suspended in a bowl of jello, intact but surrounded by an alien substance that made his mind mush and his body limp. Back to a world were he was alone, where he didn't belong.
The aching joints, like sand sprinkled on greasy ball bearings, then beat on and heated to a bone-dry brittle plaster. Then stomped on by the boot of a Jolly Green Giant. Ground to a fine powder. Every cell still alive, still trying to function. Every attaching muscle and fiber and tendon would be bruised and torn. But never replaced. Never repaired.
Aaaawww, shit! There was still defiance, but now laced with the realization of futility, with a reluctant acceptance of defeat.
The body check was a routine he went through every morning, just as he caught himself in the first inevitable twinges of awakening. It was a routine comprised of running down a check-list of the physical status of the robot piece-of-shit-meat everyone called Jason Orr. But I'm HERE, not THERE. Give me a fucking break! He didn't want to get back into that broken down, beat-up piece-of-shit body that lay on the bed ready to trap him in its world of misery.
"Time to go, Jason. Time to return." Oh, you dirty fucker. You let me fall right into that trap, didn't you. You FUCKER!! The sound of his cry filled all of Creation as Jason stood at the edge of reality and bellowed out his anger and his pain. He was being given a direct order to return to a tactically useless battle station. One that was burned out, gutted and beyond function. One that would continuously play out an endless cycle, doomed to be over-run by an invisible, tenacious, cruel enemy. Doomed to re-play a scene of utter defeat. It was a direct order. He had no choice.
Aw, shiiiiiiiit! I'm don't want to do this anymore. I don't have to play this silly fucking game. I don't HAVE TO!
GOD DAAAMMMMMmmmmmmmmmmnnnnnnnn. The sound began as a defiant war cry and slowly faded away as he fell from the edge of the Abyss and descended into the mist which separates dreams from reality. He was sucked from the dream world scenery by the merciless hose of some mystical vacuum cleaner, into its canister containing the physical dimension.
His body jerked as his reluctant spirit took back control. A spirit that felt soiled and tainted from having any relationship whatsoever with his body. What a piece of shit. He hated that first flash of awareness every morning that told him he was stuck. Handicapped. Trapped. Wrapped in a net. With nothing to identify as an enemy to fight, nothing to strike out against. Nothing to kill. Another wave of nausea engulfed him.
Jason slowly opened his eyes as he turned his head toward the medication on his bedside table. His eyes smoldered with hatred and rage.
It was time to go.
Some inner clock struck the hour and Jason was set into motion. His fuel was an inner drive and determination that resided far below the level of conscious thought. It was as if he had always been ready, that he had always known what he would do. A plan had been seeded long ago in his past misty past. It was an unusual plan for someone like Jason, because even now it remained vague. The most it had ever been for over two decades was a skeletal outline that never required the meat of detail. It was a fill-in-the-blank document and the blanks were always left empty. They were simply irrelevant. The overall certainty of the broad outline never required any energy to work out the details. And now that he was in motion, the details fell into place as if on their own accord.
It was time for him to leave. His only concern was to get away cleanly. He would use every skill he possessed to blend into the passing scenery, not just physically, but circumstantially, socially. He would make himself even more invisible than usual against the background of society, like a chameleon. Or a ninja. He had set the immediate framework into motion over the past week. Now he would move forward by refining the particulars.
The only appropriate way to pull this off was to be totally alone and completely free from anyone's attention. He set all those conditions well into place over the past years, without much choice, almost unwittingly, as if waiting for this cue from his inner clock.
Who would ever know he had gone? Only a handful of people, and they would take the full two weeks to conclude he was actually gone. Maybe it would take them longer, if they just thought he was being a little more evasive and secretive than usual. His absence would spark only mild curiosity at first, if at all.
He had no commitments to anyone for two weeks. No one was expecting him to be anywhere or to do anything. He had signed out of the office saying he might be out of town for several days and then maybe around the house doing some fix-up, so he would be a little hard to catch. Without a doubt the office would call to ask his advice on some matter or other when a problem came up at the warehouse, as it always did. But the recorder would say that he'd get back to them in some vague future. Then somebody else would eventually handle the problem and things would go on as usual. At least for the first two weeks.
What would people say when he failed to show up at work after two weeks? He projected that, after a few days, the office would start asking questions. Or maybe someone would begin idle questioning a bit sooner. He suspected that the first person to start the questions would be Susan, his once-in-awhile companion, the closest thing he had to a friend. She would call the office after about a week and find out he was on a two week vacation. Then she'd just wait, feeling a little rejected, but patient in her own independence.
After the initial two week period, maybe as long as another week would go by before they broke into his house. Nobody else had a key, not his family, not Susan, not even his daughter. He had arranged with his aging aunt to pick up his mail on a daily basis and she would continue to do so until the postal service collapsed. She would just fold the daily pick-up into a monotonous routine, never questioning, never changing, never failing.
In another day or two, after entering the house, someone would notice that some of his camping gear was gone from the garage. That certainly wouldn't be much help except to tell them that he probably wasn't in the city. They'd first look for him up in the Gunnison area, where he had spent a lot of time camping in past years, near where the family used to own land. They'd look around places where he used to spend weeks at a time during the summers between school terms or while on vacation in his early years. That wouldn't help much either.
Jason seriously doubted that any of his old high school friends would even remember who he was if they happened to glance at a news article, if one even happened to be written. And the chances that one of the old gang would remember the wild party they had in the summer before senior year was a virtual long shot. Back then, they had climbed almost to the top of Mount Bross and found an old mine entrance completely covered by a crystal clear sheet of ice. A marvel to behold, where he could look back into the cave eight or ten feet and see the picks and shovels, the lanterns and tables, solidly frozen in water.....frozen in time.
He vowed then that he would someday find the secret to an eternal rest which mimicked the stasis of that scene. It had been an experience he never forgot, yet he was certain everyone else had. He often thought about that place whenever he wanted to feel cool while sweating his balls off in Southeast Asia. He pictured himself leaning up against the slightly concave ice surface, forehead and cheek sliding on the smooth, glassy texture, stealing heat from him, burning his skin into numbness.
He never went back there, never went wanting to find out that it was anything but exactly the way he remembered it. He didn't want to face the reality that by now, 25 years later, someone had probably chopped open the ice tomb, releasing the spirits of the past which had been so serenely sealed. But the memory and the concept were safely locked away in his mind.
He would be headed around the back side of the mountain and onto a neighboring peak, not interested in revisiting that old mine. He wanted only to be close to the power of those frozen spirits.....to the force capable of stopping time and preserving a day long past. He was headed up above the timberline of Mount Democrat, where the scree slides and crevices at 12,500 feet would conceal him in the crisp Rocky Mountain air. And there he would evaporate like a cloud, setting his soul free to the winds and the icy spirit of the mountains.
He had never been on Mt. Democrat. In fact, he didn't know precisely where on the mountain he was headed. He hadn't even bothered to get a section map, which was totally contrary to his usual way of traveling in unfamiliar territory. In fact, he had purposely avoided it. But he felt intuitively that he would know the place, like going home. It was a place he belonged, a place he felt akin to. Desolate, wind-swept, barren, exposed to the elements and inconspicuous by its openness.
He had become a hermit and this was his unvisited hermitage. He didn't remember being that way when he was younger, but he had been a hermit for the last 20 years. He figured Zarathustra must surely have lived on that kind of a mountain. It was the kind of place where Moses must have talked to God. It was where Sisyphus was headed on his eternally recurring trek up the slope. This is where Jason's soul would be closest to being free. Mt. Democrat was a magnet for the solitary soul within him, yearning for release. He would now relinquish that soul.
From a very detached perspective, Jason thought about the events he would put into motion. Even the thought that his actions would cause some reaction seemed a selfish assumption, as if he could never be important enough to set off a significant chain of events. But still, there were certain codes of etiquette, certain rules of decorum he needed to follow. Those universal guidelines involved diminishing any kind of impact on, and involvement of, other people in his very private act of personal freedom. He felt bound by some silent code not to involve anyone else, and to create the least amount of turmoil possible. Beyond that, he had no responsibility to anyone but himself.
He wondered about the obituaries and eulogies that would follow, still with a twinge of guilt about being so presumptuous. Did newspapers and ministers have ghost writers or standard templates for people who lived empty lives, or did they skip that part altogether and get the ceremony over with quickly? Best to skip over it, not make anything up. What could they possibly say, anyway? And who would be there to hear it? Who would care?
He couldn't help thinking through the scenario. If it were up to him, about
the only thing he could put together was something like:
"Jason Orr was a productive member of society who was dedicated to his work. He was quiet and self-controlled. He was detailed and thorough in his work, intense in his approach to the task as well as to the people involved. He was totally dependable. He kept to himself and was considerate of others. And the strange circumstances surrounding his demise were totally unexpected and out of character."
No one knew what he had experienced on the inside for the last 20 years, as he played out the role of the successful, dependable business man. No one had seen the internal agony that led him to live such a humble life. Very few had seen the glaring weaknesses and flaws he hid so well. Yet very few could compare the Jason of pre-Viet Nam with the Jason of today.....the Jason who created his own demons and then obeyed their every beck and call. He would deal with those demons now, on his own terms. It was time to confront them, and all the chaos they had created in his life.
Well, just who would be there, if they did have a funeral? His family. Some of the five or six friends he made and kept over his lifetime. And definitely a few from the office.....any excuse to get out of work for half a day. But that was about all he could expect. That was about as close as he got to anybody. Probably neither of his ex-wives. Certainly his daughter, now a budding young woman, still close to him because she hadn't yet discovered that he was only a weak and useless old man. She was the soft spot in the whole plan, the only soft spot in his heart. But he felt confident he had taken care of her in ways that would help her generate the opportunity to forget and forgive, to soothe her childhood memories before she learned the truth of his weaknesses and flaws. He tried to instill in her a sense of self-confidence, independence, and inner strength that would get her through times like these. He left her everything of what little material value he had. But ultimately, it would be up to her to survive. He could do no more for her than what he had already done. He had no regrets.
Would there be other women there? Secretaries from the office, who all knew him strictly on a professional level. Susan for sure, with her own inner strength to draw from. But no one who could claim he was robbing them of a piece of their own soul. He had struggled with that situation for a very long time. He would make no claims of someone else and gave no one else grounds for doing so with him. It left him desperately lonely, but absolutely free.
From this pseudo-omniscient perspective of detachment, he felt a Zen-like smirk engulf him. As much as he loved women, there wasn't much of a legacy in that regard, was there? What a brutal, subtle irony!
What kind of woman did a man like Jason need, he often wondered? Sometimes the thought was confusing, almost contradictory. He could do everything for himself. He could survive. He denied the necessity of most other needs. He desperately needed sex, even though his growing frustrations with life recently led to impotence. But he refused to compromise his own independence even to that great master. He would do without before he would beg. What kind of woman would put up with that?
Jason had the world, and the women in it, neatly categorized.
When you dealt with a whore, you got what you paid for. Or at least, you were obliged to pay for what you got. The great advantage of that arrangement was the convenience factor. Theoretically, it was an even trade, but generally the whore made out better than her tricks. Sometimes you got more than you expected. But generally, it was a simple and straight-forward service contract, with no strings attached.
The earth mother was the nurturing soul, ready and willing to cure and comfort even the most painful of bruises. They each offered their own specially designed way of getting done the things he could already do for himself. And usually, not as efficiently as he could. But definitely with more emotion. It was their individual, unique approach to problem-solving that attracted him. He concluded there was an overall weakness in the commitment they made to their task at hand. They lost their peripheral vision and threw themselves with too much trust upon the mercy of the universe. And unfortunately, this was a world that could eliminate them without the slightest remorse, though few of them would ever confront that ultimate truth. Those who did would simply not survive it, so there was no need to warn them about their own vulnerability.
The beauty queens tended to exploit their natural gifts and talents, and that usually created a blind spot in their distorted self image. They spent too much time looking in the mirror. Too much time scheming events. Jason had determined they were not to be trusted because they were wanted by everybody, and they thrived on the attention and the competition they created. Somehow, they were the very essence of war itself. Men lived and died for the emotionally explosive conflicts the beauty queens spawned.
The air-heads and bimbos didn't even count.
A real friend was someone to share his needs. They were as independent as he was. They were able to live with him or live without him, making no special claims or holds on the arrangement. It was only in that environment, Jason concluded, that a man and a woman could open themselves up to each other. It allowed for a relationship based on honesty and trust, as simple as that. You got what you got because that was all there was, all that either one could give, with no excuses. And that's all they ever expected from each other. Any physical and emotional exchanges were given totally, honestly, with nothing else expected, except what was mutually agreed upon. There were probably a lot of women like that. He acknowledged the probability of a large number based on pure statistics, but not on experience. Finding them in the everyday world was another matter altogether.
He thought he had caught glimpses of several of them over the years. He had even known a few who were in the process of becoming. Like maybe Susan. But he never met the one that befriended him as he needed. And that was the crux of this whole ambiguous feeling: could he ever accept a friend? Or be one? That would mean he would be required to be as open and honest as he would expect them to be. That just didn't seem to be in the cards for him. It was certainly never the hand he was dealt.
He remembered coming home from Viet Nam to hear Jannie, his high school sweetheart and assumed fiancee, tell him she had lost interest in him, and had only been writing to him during the last year of his tour out of some perverted sense of duty. She never really meant the things she wrote, the things she told him. The things he had stayed alive for. She had changed, she said, and she just wasn't the same anymore. She told him he would never understand what she had gone through, waiting for him for the year and a half that he had been gone. She claimed to be a victim of change as if she were the only one set upon by that cruel Fate. By doing so, she denied Jason the most profound change of his entire life. She forced him to question his own reason for being.
He remembered writing his first and last poem, trying to tell her he had changed, too. His words had been the nails in his own coffin, twenty years ago, and he had been a walking zombie ever since.
He wrote a letter to her while sitting atop a hill at the southern edge of South Park. He mailed it to her, never to hear from her again. It was a poem, but it flowed from his heart like a speech. It was the last creative thing he ever did before he put his soul on ice:
Wall-less, like sandy regions open to the onslaught of the elements, like the dry wrinkled texture of lace. What I had to offer could never have been broken down into increments of any size or color, for whatever reason. And now I'm turned away for being part of something I worked so hard to separate myself from.
I hang my head in the guilt of sharing a deceitful moment of innocence and honesty, with the burden of a weathered soul.
It's not shame but knowledge of your desire that keeps me from your door. For far along the stretch of Time, your smile will warm my tears and remind me there is no one else to blame just as there is no one to reach out to now.
So I send my armies home to tend the fields, only to find the Wasteland and your hand-print upon my soul.
Yet all is right in the cycle of Life. And this moment flows as I stand aside like the noble fool, knowing there are secrets I was never meant to share and moments that belong to no one.
Know that Life will never die and all things change the same. And I pray the gentle, silken hand of Creation wipes your brow and soothes your weary feet in the lonely night.
Know the strength of giving and the shamefulness of pride when hands reach out for you in desperation.
Wastelands by their very nature cannot be shared, and a memory is such a burning thing -- as I press my palm against your cheek and tell you one last time..........and the silence reappears as if forever.
And what would happen next? He had given that some pretty serious thought, again more out of a feeling of guilt than precaution. Would his self-destructive actions create some sort of bad karma, some form of energy that would set into motion a retribution from the universe. Would he end up paying for his self-indulgence and indiscretion? If so, it might still be worth it, if only he could deal with the project of life in some other setting. In some other time and space. If he had a choice, he would choose the existence of a tree. A serene spruce on a mountain slope, spending the days absorbing the sunshine and the atmosphere. Maybe a Bristle Cone pine, tough and gnarly, adaptable and stout, surviving the forces of nature for centuries. Maybe as long as a thousand years.
Trees must be very wise beings, he reckoned, because they ran their internal factory with perfectly synchronized functions. But they had the patience and sensitivity to stand for ages and simply absorb. Absorb the elements and the energies around them. Energies and interrelationships that frail humans would never be able to tune in to. And their apparent passive absorbing was more likely an active observing, but in some special way, on some special frequency, well beyond his own limited comprehension. He was willing to give it a try.
For the present, his own personal turmoil had somehow been put into neutral. Not resolved, just set aside. He never had, and never could, resolve the ghosts of his past. But they never really haunted him. Instead, he haunted them. The real ghosts never came knocking on his door without some sort of invitation, not any of the Team, not the others. It was Jason who wouldn't, or couldn't, let go of them. Other demons knocked on his door, but they weren't ghosts he knew personally. They were mostly unidentifiable demons lurking just beyond the threshold of conscious thought. His real demons were the result of a chemical imbalance beyond his ability to repair.
He remembered reading Bagavad Gita when he first came home from Viet Nam. It was an ancient poem where Krishna and Prince Arjuna talked on the battlefield, trying to resolve the age-old question of "Why?" Like Arjuna, Jason manifested severe misgivings about the nature of things. He could accept every mistake he had ever made but he could never forgive himself for his failure to do more.....his failure to save the others, even at his own expense. In the story, somehow Krishna and Arjuna worked it out, came to an understanding and an acceptance of how things are supposed to be. Jason had never been able to come to terms with the role he had played. Not even when seen in the light of all possible roles he could have played but didn't. He would allow himself no excuses. He had failed. In the end, Arjuna reluctantly accepted the role of warrior; Jason denied it and revolted.
So he was now ready to leave. A feeling of hollowness echoed through his chest. It reminded him of coming around a corner to see the bus he'd been running to catch all morning just pulling away, leaving him stranded, helpless, without purpose. And so terrified of the consequences that all his thoughts stopped and he just stood there, frozen in time, holding his duffel bag in one hand and his orders to Coronado Training Center in the other. He knew something very important had just occurred, and it probably wasn't going to be beneficial to his future. On that occasion, he hitch-hiked and actually beat the bus.
This time he had a similar feeling, except things were operating in reverse. All of a sudden, something he'd been waiting for finally showed up, bringing with it an overwhelming sense of emptiness, a sense of impending doom that compelled him to avoid asking any questions about the outcome. His soul felt as empty as his stomach after a lengthy fast.
That emptiness had been a violent see-saw he had ridden on many occasions. Now it reached back into his memories to tear out another piece of his soul.
Jason sat on the straight backed bench facing the closed door. The bench was like a church pew. The silence and the suspense reminded him of his early experiences of being in churches where there were mysterious things going one around him, but he hadn't a clue as to what they might ultimately mean.
The building was obviously an old barracks, converted now to administrative offices and meeting rooms. He sat in a corridor that ran the length of the building, giving the appearance, from the inside, that the building was indeed very long. From the outside, it didn't seem to be that long at all. The evenly spaced windows placed at mid-height down the outside wall to his back provided adequate lighting, but the overwhelming sense of the ominous and unknown and the confinement of his vision to the narrow corridor made things seem darker than they actually were.
He had been told to be here at 1400 hours in his Dress Whites for a meeting with the Base Commander. He slid onto the bench with only five minutes to spare, the jog over from his quarters much slower than he had expected. His ribs were still tender and lightly taped, as has his left hand, having received his full release from Sick Bay just this morning. He was surprised how out of shape he had become in less than a month.
The door across from him opened with a click of the knob and a slight creak. Gunner's Mate First Class Clinton Roberts stuck his head and shoulders into view, looking for a minute up and down the hall as if expecting something. Or making sure the coast was clear. His eyes came to rest on Jason, as if surprised to see him sitting so obviously in front of the door. It was a clownish gesture that caught Jason off guard. He gave Jason a quick nod. The slight trace of a crooked smile on the Gunner's face immediately disappeared. He said, "They're ready for you now," and stood back, opening the door wider as Jason Orr stood and walked toward it. Through the open door he could see the end of a log table, with the left shoulder of a Marine Officer just barely visible. As he passed Roberts, the Gunner quietly said, "You'll do all right. Just relax."
As he enter, he saw the full length of the dual table set-up. It was a very sparse setting of folding tables set end to end with several folding metal chairs behind them. Seated behind it were three men. Roberts walked briskly behind Orr, around the far left end of the table, and took his place as the fourth man on the left facing Jason.
In the rightmost position sat Lieutenant Colonel Harrison, the Commander of the Marine contingent at the Base. To his immediate right sat Captain Winchell, Base Commander and obviously in the center position. To Winchell's right sat Commander Jack Cunningham, Officer in Charge of the SEAL Training here at Coronado. He was relatively young and reputed to be a brilliant Officer. Jason had met him on two occasions, the first being his initial interview for the SEALs. Several chair spaces away, to Cunningham's right, sat Clinton Roberts. On both Cunningham and Roberts, above the left breast pocket, above the rows of ribbons, shined the golden insignia of the Navy SEALs.
Orr stepped forward just as Commander Cunningham barked out "Third Class Boatswain's Mate Jason Orr, front and center!" The sound reverberated in the empty room. Jason positioned himself directly in front of the Captain, about three paces from the table. He stood at attention, straight and stiff. He felt the bandage wrappings on his ribs strain against this new position.
Each of the Officers had a writing tablet in front of them, along with a paper or two. In front of Captain Winchell were two manila folders, one obviously being Jason's Service Record. The other contained about a dozen sheets of some sort or other.
The sound of Jason's spit-shined shoes clicking against the wooden floor echoed. The echoes died out as each of the Officers looked from Jason to the papers in front of them. As Jason caught Commander Cunningham's eye, the Officer briefly nodded with no change of expression on his face, then looked back to the papers.
Captain Winchell cleared his throat and said, "Boatswain Orr, let me explain to you why you are here. This is an informal inquiry into your current status, to determine what exactly we're going to do with you. It seems you've made a bit of a mess of things. But we'll try to get to the bottom of this and come to some determination as to what our next step will be. You are being evaluated as to any pending disciplinary action based upon your involvement just over three weeks ago in a civil matter in San Francisco. This is not a Court Martial proceeding, nor a formal Mast. This is simply an inquiry. Do you understand?"
"Yes, SIR!", Jason replied, much too loudly for the small room they were in. Out of his peripheral vision, Jason could see Clinton Roberts look down to cover the wide grin on his face. Commander Cunningham smiled slightly, as did the Captain.
"At ease, Orr," the Captain said in a conversational tone, as if in response to the tension that had bellowed out with Jason's reply. Jason quickly went to Parade Rest, still rigid, hands behind his back, eyes looking straight into the Captain's forehead.
"Yes, Sir," he managed to say in a normal tone, matching the Captain's volume level.
"Orr, this is Lieutenant Colonel Harrison on my left, Commanding Officer of the Marine Battalion stationed here at Coronado Training Center. I believe you know Commander Cunningham. And Gunner's Mate Roberts." Jason met the eyes of each man as he was named off. Roberts rolled his eyes in a clownish gesture as Jason looked his way. It was meant to take some of the tension out of the air, and seemed to communicate to Jason that as formal and official as this was, it was nothing to be critically concerned with.
"Let me review a few of the facts that we have to work with so you will understand the nature of your situation and our interest in coming to a determination as to your status at this Base." The Captain's voice was calm and professional, everything being said in a fashion as if for Jason's convenience and consideration.
"We have foremost an incident which involves the civil authorities of this State of California, who, quite frankly, want your ass. And if they ever get hold of it, they won't let it go. However, in that regard, you are currently under our protection and those matters are being handled as expeditiously as possible. We will want to discuss some of those details in this inquiry."
"We have secondly the matter of your recent injuries that have kept you from graduating with your class. We will need to make a determination as to how much lea way is afforded us in that regard."
"I have chosen not to have a Legal Officer present during this initial inquiry, but have some extensive notes from our legal staff." The Captain indicated the papers and file laying on the table before him.
"I'd like to take up this second matter first, concerning your current status. It seems that you completed nine weeks of extensive training before your unfortunate, uh, altercation. While you were in the hospital recuperating from, lets see", the Captain shuffled some papers, "three cracked ribs, a broken left wrist and two fingers, and multiple concussions and contusions, you missed completing your training and graduating with your class. The question on the table at this time is, all other things aside: what was your performance during the first nine weeks of your training?"
"Gunner Roberts, you were Mr. Orr's Drill Instructor. Could you inform this committee as regards to Orr's performance during his initial training?"
"Yes, Sir. Boatswain Orr was a member of my Team during that time. I found Mr. Orr to be extremely competent in his three areas of expertise, which are Communications, Weaponry and Water Transportation. He was one of the best on the mats, which accounted for his excellent performance during the E & E weekend. I recall that during the Escape and Evasion exercises, he eluded Lieutenant Colonel Harrison's men longer than any Team member, and bruised a couple of them when they finally caught up with him." At that, Clinton Roberts gave a wry grin as Lieutenant Colonel Harrison shifted slightly in his chair, showing no sign of emotion whatsoever.
"In fact, I personally believe Boatswain Orr can out-shoot any Marine on this base." Although Gunner Roberts hurried on to the next point, Jason was aware of the sound of pride in Roberts' voice and of the somewhat agitated, raised eyebrow glance Lieutenant Colonel Harrison gave to Captain Winchell, as if silently asking "Do I have to put up with this?"
"Furthermore, Boatswain Orr is the best coxswain I've ever seen, Sir. He can handle a boat in any condition with unprecedented skill and expertise. I'd have no problem heading out into the eye of a hurricane with him at the helm."
"Fine, Mr. Roberts. That will be enough. I take it, then, that your evaluation of Boatswain Orr's value to the services of Naval Special Warfare is favorable."
"Absolutely," responded the First Class Gunner's Mate. "I would want him on my Team if I were going in."
"The records substantiate Mr. Roberts' conclusions, Captain. Boatswain's Mate. Orr is a definite assets to the SEALs," Cunningham replied in a matter of fact tone.
During this brief exchange, Jason was more than surprised at the level of support he was receiving. He was actually a little embarrassed to be the focus of what amounted to praise for his actions in training. He had felt that he was always falling short of the requirements, never quite good enough in any of the activities. There was even a little suspicion that perhaps the reports were being exaggerated for some unknown reason.
And First Class Gunner's Mate Clinton Roberts was actually showing his real self, out of his role as D.I. Of course, Jason knew that the D.I. role was a false front for all the Instructors, that a real person hid behind the tough guy D.I. role. But for Roberts to be letting down the charade now, before Jason had even graduated from his class, was another big surprise.
"Well, Boatswain Orr. That sets out onto the table the fact that around here, you've been doing some acceptable work. However, our next concern is your status off this Base." The Captain opened the folder in front of him and looked briefly through the papers.
Jason glanced at the faces of the four men in front of him. Lieutenant Colonel Harrison and Commander Cunningham were glancing over the papers. Gunner's Mate First Class Clinton Roberts was looking at Jason with a wry, twisted smirk on his face, slowly shaking his head. He obviously didn't take these proceedings too seriously.
"How much of that incident to you remember, Orr?" The Captain asked the questions without raising his head from the reading he was doing.
"Not much after the fight started, Sir. I guess I went down pretty quick." Jason hated admitting that was what happened, but the truth was the truth. He did, however, remember clearly how things started. He remembered getting his immediate goal taken care of: taking out the queer on the sidewalk that was harassing the old man. He even remembered making the conscious decision to keep his back turned to the on-rushing mob to make sure that his target, laying on the sidewalk on his back, staring at him with surprise and hatred in his eyes, received a sharp stomp to the side of the neck before he had to deal with the others, already on him by that time. It was a face that Jason had never forgotten. To him, it was the personification of an unnatural evil.
"What have you heard regarding the details of the altercation?"
"Well, Sir, actually, nothing. No one at the hospital seemed to know anything about it, and as soon as I regained consciousness, an officer came to visit me with the an order that I was not to ask about it to anyone, under any circumstances. The next day, Commander Cunningham came to visit, stating the same thing." He and Cunningham exchanged nods at that point. "So I guess I really don't know much more than what I remember, which isn't too much at all."
"Well, then," the Captain said, finally lifting his head to look Jason in the eyes, "let me enlighten you to a few of the facts. At this point, the information I am discussing with you is Classified and Confidential, so the original order remains in effect."
"According to the report, the San Francisco Police and the Shore Patrol arrived upon the scene at just about the same time. You were down on the sidewalk, as were a few others. The Police dealt with the group that jumped you, while the SP's removed your wallet. Apparently, a Chief Hargot?"
"Hargrove," corrected Lt. Colonel Harrison.
"Yes, Chief Hargrove lifted your ID and called in to verify what he suspected.... that you were from our training base. According to the report, the Police were told that your wallet and all ID had been stolen. Chief Hargrove radioed in the situation and received verification that you were assigned to a training class down here. Insisting that you no longer had any ID, he indicated to the police that he believed your name was Marshall....... Joe Marshall, stationed at Treasure Island. Apparently, the police did not check any of your clothing markings. The Chief then called for an ambulance, which by luck was already patrolling not too far from your location. That got you to an airlift directly to Balboa Hospital, San Diego. It was quick thinking on the part of Chief Hargrove. You created quite mess up there."
"Sir?" Jason responded, not quite following the complicated story line yet.
The Captain and Lt. Colonel Harrison exchanged glances. "There were civilian casualties. And plenty of broken bones. You were on the road in an Army Ambulance before the City paramedics arrived, but you left behind one dead, one in critical condition with a ruptured windpipe, two broken knees, one dislocated shoulder, and plenty of cuts and bruises." The Captain took a deep breath and signed out loud. Both Roberts and Cunningham shifted slightly in their chairs. Jason thought he noticed each of them sit up a little taller in their seats.
"Obviously, our problem is the civilian casualty, much more so than the other multiple injuries. Right now, the Police don't have your name or unit attachment. I don't think that will be a problem. We can deal with the civil authorities. Most of the men who jumped you had rap sheets a mile long, and were known to the officers who were first on the scene. I understand from Chief Hargrove's report that they were somewhat pleased with your work."
However, there is still a question of the City wanting to press charges, and we've got a legal team working on that right now. For the time being, you're safe here on Base. But you will remain here, confined to Base, under strict orders to discuss this entire incident with no one, until a determination is made regarding out next move. In fact, once its been settled, you are to keep the lid on this forever. Is that understood?"
Yes, Sir. Absolutely."
The Captain glanced at Clinton Roberts and returned his gaze to Jason. "You understand the need for the highest level of confidentiality in this, don't you?" It was less of a question and more of a statement to Orr. "I can't emphasize enough that, although I'm certain we can work this out, it is putting a certain strain on our working relationship with our contacts in the San Francisco Police Department as well as other City officials. We generally like to be as up-front with them as possible. As far as your Service Record is concerned, none of this will be entered in there because, as you see, none of this will be on any one's records. Or so we suppose at this time."
"Jim, you've handled cases like this before. What's your take on this?" Captain Winchell subtly leaned his head to his left, indicating the statement to be intended for Colonel Harrison.
"Well, the most expedient thing would be to get him out of the country as soon as possible. But then, that depends on the status of his training. I suspect that he could stay here indefinitely, although I wouldn't bank on it. I'd say, if things go as planned with the City, we won't have any time constraints. Otherwise, you may not want to push it past about 30 days. Maybe 60 at the outside. And that's only if any of the other Agencies stay out of it, depending on how things go downtown."
"Commander Cunningham, what is this man's status as far as Special Warfare is concerned?"
Commander Cunningham addressed the Captain directly. Jason was beginning to feel like, although he was the subject of the conversation, that he ought to be out of the room. Or that, in everyone's mind, he actually was. "We could run him through another program, or even pick up the last few weeks of a class currently under way. However, Boatswain Orr was involved in a unique program that we were testing. He was a member of a Team that went through without the full BUDS. We were preparing some specialty support for a rather specific activity that I understand now is being re-thought."
Jason had not received the full Basic Underwater Demolition School training, one of the mainstays for the SEALs. He had only received the basics of shallow water diving. His specific concentration and efforts had been in the areas of communications and weaponry as well as extensive Assault Boat operations. All of that had ostensibly been to support a planned assault by the SEALs on North Vietnam, during which he would play a key role as surface support. Or one that had been planned. He was disappointed to hear that it may not take place at all.
The Commander continued, "I don't know if or when we'll run another special group through like that. That would be a call from upstairs. In the meantime, if he does have time, he could pick up the full SEAL training by going through with another class. Unless we have constraints that require him to be assigned to WESPAC immediately, I don't see why that wouldn't work. I'd like to get Gunner Roberts' reading on that."
The Commander finished addressing the Captain and turned to his right, leaning back in his chair. Clinton Roberts moved his jaw around in a circle a couple of time to indicate that he was giving deep thought to the matter. Then he glanced at both the Commander and the Captain as he replied, "I don't think Orr would have any problems with that, if that's the way he wanted to go. I'd certainly consider him capable and qualified. If he ends up in my class, I could keep punching him in the ribs to kind of keep track on his healing process, if that would be all right?" Roberts never cracked a smile. The Commander let a grin cover his face as he straightened back around in his chair, head lowered to downplay the near insolence. Colonel Harrison looked directly at Jason with his own brand of smirk on his face and nodded, as if to say 'Yah, I'd do that too, if I had the chance.'
"Well, its unfortunate that you've run into these difficulties, Mr. Orr. It appears that you're a pretty gung-ho individual. According to this," his right hand tapped the eraser of a pencil on the Service Record laying on the table, "you quit college and gave up a Reserve Officer Candidate deferment with Naval Security Forces to get into this outfit. I suppose with commitment like that, we should consider leaving as many options open as possible. Had you not been jumped on the streets of San Francisco, you would by now be in Viet Nam, which is where I understand you want to be."
"Yes, Sir!" Jason replied, again at a volume a bit out of place in the otherwise low-toned talk.
"I must impress upon you, however, the extreme severity of your situation. You are being given special training. But not to be used against American citizens and the tax payers who are ultimately paying for you training. Is that understood?"
The question was again meant to be rhetorical, a statement rather than something needing an answer. But Jason could not control the urge to set the record straight. It was something that had bothered him from the first statement indicating he had 'been jumped'.
"Excuse me, Sir. They weren't."
As the puzzled looks spread over each individuals face, the Captain raised an eyebrow and spoke through a frown, "Excuse me?"
"Sir, they weren't American citizens, Sir. They were queers. Homosexuals. And they didn't jump me, Sir. I initiated action against the group of them because they were harassing a man on the street. I believe they were going to sexually assault him, Sir."
As Jason spoke, a sudden change took place in the room. The Captain sat upright in his chair, staring at Jason, eyes now suddenly seething with rage. The others all slumped forward, looking down at the table. It was as if a chilly wind had swept through the room, turning everything icy like the Captain's stare.
There was no sound in the room for a full minute as the Captain looked at several papers in the folder, made a few quick notes on his tablet, cleared his voice and replied in a tone of authority that he hadn't used up to this point.
"After reviewing all the facts of this case, it is my recommendation that you be given orders for immediate active duty. With the Fleet. Any comments?" The Captain glanced briefly to his left, waiting for perhaps a statement from Colonel Harrison. There was stone silence.
"Commander, attend to, uh, the necessary details. That is all."
Captain Winchell rose abruptly, taking his hat and leaving the papers and folders on the table. Colonel Harrison immediately stood and followed one step behind the Captain as he walked behind the table toward a door at the far end of the room, a different door than the one leading out into the hall. Neither man looked at Jason Orr.
Gunner Roberts and Commander Cunningham stood a bit more slowly, but in obvious deference to the Captain's departure. They continued to look down until both senior Officers were out of the room.
Jason was stunned. In the blink of an eye, the scene had shifted from a bright day to a cloudy afternoon. All he had done was tell the truth.
Commander Cunningham walked slowly around the table, having gathered up all the files and papers from the table. He approach Jason, initially avoiding eye contact. Finally, he stood in front of him, looked into his eyes with a kind of sadness, and said softly, "Bad move, son. I'll do all I can to keep you near the Teams. You're valuable to us. But I can't buck the old man on this one. I'll do what I can." He paused briefly as if wanting to say more, then nodded and left the room.
Roberts was leaning on the table directly in front of Jason, looking at him with his skewed mouth, slowly shaking his head, a look of disgust permeating from him.
"What??? What did I do?" Jason blurted out the question, not specifically for Roberts to answer, but intending to query the universe at large. He had never seen this more human side of Clinton Roberts, and didn't quite know what to expect from the First Class Petty Officer. "What went wrong?"
Roberts looked at Orr, mouth again skewed into a frozen, crooked smirk. "You dumb shit! Jesus, I don't fuckin' believe you." He shook his head again. "You stupid asshole!"
"What? What'd I fuckin' do?" Jason's voice still carried the incredulous mystery he felt as to why the sudden change had occurred.
"The Captain's son is some kind of homosexual, anti-war activist. I'm surprised you hadn't heard the rumors all over camp. He's been trying to maintain his cool and live them down for the past six months. You stupid shit! He was trying to smooth things over for you."
"Christ!", the Gunner bellowed. "Do you realize what he went through to....." His voice dropped like the leaded spirit of a man on the gallows. "...what Cunningham and him pulled off while you were out cold in San Diego?"
Jason stood there, still stunned, feeling so disappointed that he couldn't even muster up enough emotion to feel the disappointment that was growing inside him like a silent pressure kettle. Roberts took a deep breath and pushed himself away from the table. "Now you'll never wear the Insignia. You won't get that crest, even though there are a dozen men I'd gladly rip it off of just to give it to you. Men who don't deserve it half as much as you do. Jeezus!!"
He started to walk past Orr and stopped when they were nearly shoulder to shoulder. "The Commander will do what he can for you, you can count on that. You're Team, as far as I'm concerned. I'm pretty sure Cunningham feels the same way. But you'll never be able to wear that eagle."
There was a brief, silent pause. "I expect you'll be gone by tomorrow afternoon." Clinton Roberts looked Jason Orr in the eye and held out his hand. "Good Luck, Orr."
It was time for a long overdue vacation. A permanent vacation. The plan was simple and quick. He would finish putting together the few things he needed to carry up the mountain. Canteen; candy bar; sleeping bag (just for comfort); his .380 automatic in its shoulder holster (no extra clips); a light jacket; a change of clothes he would never need; all packed and strapped to his Kelty frame pack. The sleeping bag was more a matter of habit than necessity, but maybe he would take the time to just lay back for awhile, absorbing. He didn't need food. He sure as hell wouldn't need that damn medicine anymore. And no more than a half day's worth of water. But the pack itself was important. It had always been his symbol for leaving the crowded turmoil of city life, and getting away to the freedom and openness of the outdoors.
The details of his project were finally falling into place, finally taking on a definite form. He would pick up tickets for the Denver-Gunnison Continental Trailways bus later this afternoon. Early tomorrow morning, he would drive to the airport, leave his car in long-term parking, and take a shuttle bus to a downtown hotel. Then he'd walk to the bus station, his pack and clothes neatly stowed in a cardboard box with a shoulder strap made from simple rope. On the side of the box would be a Grand Junction address, some flight stickers from the airport, and a few directions about the handling of fragile packages written in Cyrillic characters.
Then he'd just sit and smile, not able to talk to any of the foreigners surrounding him during his two-hour bus ride. He'd be wearing a suit he'd bought at Goodwill for $8, no tie. He'd get off the bus when it stopped briefly in Fairplay, and would slip behind the old gas station to change out of the suit, opening the box to retrieve his jeans, boots and back pack.
He'd roll up the suit in the shell of the cardboard box, tie it all together with the rope, and carry it as far as Alma, six miles to the northwest, where he would stow it in the town dumpster behind the city offices. Then up the side of Mt. Bross and on to the final cut-over to Mt. Democrat. Nothing was missing. There wasn't anything else he needed. The trail he left would be confusing. Not necessarily ingenious, merely intriguing. Somehow it was a fitting departure. He was headed for the hills for the last time.
Jason had decided to pit himself against a second challenge, one last statement of defiance against his demons and the medication which he had been using reluctantly for the last several years. Dr. Bondurant explained to him in detail how important it was to never skip his scheduled dosage. The levels he was taking were abnormally high, and could only be decreased slowly over a long period of time. He was now at three milligrams four times per day, with an extra milligram at bedtime.
His decision was to quit his medication after the six o'clock dose this
evening, skipping the 10 o'clock bedtime dose. He realized he would be feeling
the effects of the abrupt discontinuation by the next afternoon, and would
definitely be losing control at the 24-hour point. He would push it to the
limits. But that's as long as he would need to hold on. After that, it
To be continued...
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