Art Pact 105
In the dug-out trench, clutching his rifle gloomily, Baggsie listened to Father Feldman giving the blessing to Carruthers and Strone. He put up with it as far as the speech went (there was little he could do to stop that, after all), but when Feldman came to make the mark of the fifty gods on Strone's forehead Baggsie slapped the big man's hand away angrily.
"Leave him alone, you goddamned vulture. Hasn't he done enough for us?"
Feldman withdrew his hand, but stayed close to Strone as he marked Carruthers's forehead. Carruthers himself shot Baggsie a dirty look, then closed his eyes for the final prayer. After that it took him another five minutes to die - an agonising gurgling five minutes which Baggsie tried in vain to ignore. In Feldman's favour, at least the big man stayed with Carruthers to the very end, crouching over him protectively and holding his hands, whispering constantly to Carruthers about the reward he could look forward to in the afterlife, of the two of them perhaps meeting again in one or other of the honourable conflicts that the Books told them raged wherever the dark spirits craved unnatural power.
"How can you do that at a time like this?" Baggsie asked him when Carruthers was gone for good.
"Bring solace to the dying?"
"It's preying on them in their moment of weakness. Strone isn't even dead!"
"This is the time they needed it," Feldman said simply, shrugging and sitting back into the forward wall of the dug-out. Somewhere up ahead one of the enemy snipers must have seen him moving, for they heard the high-pitched whistle of a bullet flying past overhead, then a sound like a branch snapping. "There's no such thing as an atheist in a foxhole," he quoted.
"Sure, just like there's no such thing as a man who prays for the fifty gods to cure his athlete's foot," Baggsie said. "He goes to the damn clinic. Where are we now? I'm an atheist, and this sure as war looks like a foxhole to me."
Feldman looked at him thoughtfully.
"We'll have to agree to disagree," he said.
"Fine, as long as you stay away from Strone. Carruthers is gone, there's nothing we can do about that now."
"To more just wars," Feldman muttered.
"Oh shove it!" Baggsie told him.
It was two hours more before their first sight of the support teams - a buzzing black dot far to the west that immediately retreated when two ugly black puffs of smoke appeared around it, the sign of enemy AA.
"If we can see them the enemy can too," Feldman said sadly.
"What a mess," Baggsie agreed.
If they'd still had Strone with them they could have tried to confuse the enemy's spotters, earning the support flier a few minutes in which to get close enough to land and pick them up without drawing fire. But Strone had made the ultimate sacrifice, making a hall of mirrors with the opposing psi the enemy had brought forward, waiting to send his own scan back down the channel. When the enemy psi had begun his scan he'd gone through Baggsie's mind, then Feldman's, then Dinmer's. They'd all had the right training, working themselves into a fever pitch of terror so that they were as open to the enemy as possible, and in the embarrassment of riches they'd given the scanner they'd managed to hide the fact that they had a psi of their own. If the enemy had scanned Carruthers next it might have been for nothing, but luckily Strone was next in line. Like lightning discharging down a line of greatest potential Strone leapt into the other man's mind, scanning him so that the two of them were trapped in an endless loop, each viewing the other viewing their own mind viewing the other... so on into infinity, so Strone had explained it to Baggsie as they prepared. Now they were both gone - it would be impossible to move Strone or wake him up without killing him, but at least the enemy psi was in the same state, and since no charge had come from the top of the hill it seemed probable that he had not even been able to tell his commanding officer how few of them there were.
"Light'll go in a minute," Feldman observed.
"Better for us or for them, do you think?"
"Them, definitely. We might make a break for it. I suppose. But it'd mean.."--he gestured to Strone.
"Leaving him behind? We can't do that, surely. We could support him between us."
"Sure, but what's the point? I mean we don't know what range the link is. Strone told me he could do five kilometres, but it's the weakest of the two. What if the other guy can only do a K? half, even - we're not even three hundred meters from them, they could have brought up someone with low range."
"We can't leave him," Feldman said definitely.
"Well we can't take him without risking killing him. There's still a chance, I don't want his death on my hands if we could have pulled him out of it."
"Then we go nowhere," Feldman said, with a resigned sigh. "I suppose there's comfort in knowing that our loyalty will be rewarded in other battles."
"Oh, cram it!"
As night drew in, though, both men began to feel the weight of their decision. Baggsie knew that Strone had gone into the hall of mirrors willingly, knowing that he would most likely die in there. But he had known that Feldman was the sort of good-hearted chaplain who would want to do the right thing, and that Baggsie's mulish stubbornness would not let him abandon Strone. It's like he's holding us here, Baggsie thought resentfully, then felt overcome with guilt at the uncharitable emotion.
"We have to think of something," he said aloud.
"I know," Feldman said gloomily. "Even if it means..."
"Yes," Baggsie nodded. "We'll say an hour, shall we? It'll focus our minds on saving him. If we can't come up with something by then..."
"We'll go," Feldman agreed.