Bleeding Heart: Chapter 10

Larkins was brought back to a state of semi-consciousness by the droning of engines and voices calling out around her. She struggled to open her eyes, and then lashed out with both hands when she felt herself being picked up and moved. Hands grabbed at her arms and she heard exclamations that weren’t in English. She finally managed to open her eyes partway, and the first thing she saw was the painted image of a snarling black panther on the front of a helmet hovering over her. She had seen that symbol before, and a look at the wearer’s face and the flag patch on his shoulder, which had three brilliant red horizontal stripes running across the center of a yellow field, confirmed her guess. The Vietnamese Rangers had arrived.

The soldier kneeling over her was wearing a medic armband, and he was checking her thoroughly for wounds and injuries. Another soldier who was slightly younger appeared at his side and said something to him. The medic shook his head and asked a question, and the younger man asked in thickly-accented English, “Corporal, can you hear me?”

She could tell from the sound of his voice that he was calling loudly to her, but he seemed so quiet. She tried to reply but her throat refused to work. The soldier held up one of the empty stim injectors in front of Larkins’ eyes, his voice firm and urgent. “Corporal, you need to tell us how many of these you used! Can you hear me?”

Larkins tried again to answer, but all that came out was a slurred, “Sevvv…”

She felt a lifting sensation as if she was being picked up, and she dimly realized that the movement she had felt earlier was the soldiers putting her on a stretcher. She mustered up the strength to turn her head and saw about a dozen more soldiers in Vietnamese uniforms standing around the clearing along with two more dropships. Risper and Farrelly had also been put on stretchers and were being carried towards one of the dropships. The motion changed from vertical to horizontal, and as it sank in that she was also being carried to the dropship, the sense of relief became so overwhelming that she felt dizzy, and then the dizziness turned into a feeling of falling down a long, dark hole as she passed out again.

When Larkins woke up again, she was greeted by a cool, white light and the sensation of lying on something firm but soft. The pain in her chest and arms was gone, but she still felt somewhat tired. She looked around and saw that she was lying on a bed in a large, clean infirmary, and the soft hum vibrating through the walls and floor told her she was onboard a ship. The room had several dozen other beds in it, all occupied by Marines from Point Meadow, and several Vietnamese men and women were moving from bed to bed, checking on and caring for the patients. As Larkins tried to sit up, one of them, a young woman with close-cut black hair, rushed over and gently stopped her from rising too fast, speaking rapidly in Vietnamese.

“I don’t understand,” Larkins said, even though she knew the woman likely couldn’t understand her either. The woman gave her a gentle push on her shoulders as if urging her to stay down, and then walked quickly over to a water dispenser in the wall. She filled a paper cup with water and brought it back, miming that Larkins should drink it slowly. The corporal took the cup and drank deeply, but not too quickly.

“Thank you,” she said, lowering the cup from her face when she was finished. The medic smiled at her, set the cup on the table next to the bed, gave her another gentle push downward, and gestured first to herself, then the door, and back to Larkins.

Larkins lay patiently waiting as the medic left, and then looked around again. She hoped the woman was going to get someone who spoke English and could tell her what the situation was. A few minutes later, Evison entered followed by the medic, who gestured to Larkins and smiled again before moving on to another Marine. Evison approached the bed, and Larkins realized she had never been so glad to see him.

“Evison. Where are we? What’s going on?”

“We’re on the RVNS Pham Chau Tai. The Vietnamese Rangers got here yesterday and brought almost everyone up here for medical treatment. They found you from your ship’s transponder signal. I have to say, Larkins, I’m impressed,” Evison admitted. “I didn’t think you’d be able to do it.”

“Do what?” Larkins asked hollowly. “Risper died before I got there. I might have been able to save him if I had found them more quickly. And Farrelly probably would have survived until the Rangers found him. I didn’t change anything.”

“Maybe not for them, but one thing you did change is how I see you,” Evison admitted. “I’m never going to agree with how you treat our trainees, Larkins, but I think I’m starting to understand why you do it. You do it because you think you’re helping them by always being harsh. You try to act like you don’t care, but you’ve shown just how much you care over the last few days. You almost killed yourself trying to save Risper and Farrelly. I think that says a lot about you.”

Larkins shrugged wordlessly, not wanting to take the compliment or even acknowledge the truth behind it. She didn’t deserve any of it. “You still transferring out at the end?”

Evison nodded. “I’m sorry, Larkins, but I’ve worked with you too long to think you’re ever going to change. You’re going to go right back to the way you’ve always been once we get back to Earth, right?”

“What the fuck do you think?” Larkins asked, feeling a spark of irritation again. Did he really think she was going to get all soft and cuddly after this?

Evison gestured at her, an “I told you so” expression on his face. “And that’s why I’m still going to leave. Just because I understand why you act the way you do doesn’t mean that I’m any more willing to put up with it. I need a break.”

Larkins lay back on the pillows, staring at the ceiling. “Copy that. You can go now.”

“Larkins, please don’t-” Evison started to protest, but she cut him off without taking her eyes off the white metal paneling above her, trying to keep her voice from cracking. “I said you can go. You did your duty coming to check on me. You don’t need to feel like you owe me shit anymore. Just do me a favor and close that fucking curtain on the way out.”

Evison sighed and gave her a regretful look, but he got up and pulled the privacy curtain all the way around the bed before leaving. Larkins watched his silhouette against the curtain as he walked away before looking up again and closing her eyes as she began to cry silently. She didn’t even know what she was crying for. Maybe it was everything at once. Hanstad’s death, Sloan’s torment, arguing with Mathis and attacking her, being beaten by her own teammates, getting stripped of her field assignment, spending years working with an ignorant partner and underperforming, unadaptable trainees, watching other Marines die all around her in a senseless attack, and then finding three of the young Marines she had sworn to watch out for had died while under her responsibility. She could still see Renton and Taff lying on the jungle floor, and Farrelly cradling Risper’s body, a look of broken desperation on his face. She had failed them.

Larkins didn’t speak a word over the course of the next day. The Vietnamese medical personnel insisted on keeping her overnight again so they could make sure she wasn’t suffering any lasting effects from the stimulant overdose. While she waited, she caught enough bits and pieces of conversations between other Marines to get an idea of what was happening. A few Marine personnel would be staying behind at what was left of Point Meadow along with two Ranger companies, and the Pham Chau Tai would take the remaining Marines back to Earth. Meadow was going to be rebuilt with stronger defenses and more personnel to better withstand another attack.

When they were cleared to leave, Larkins very deliberately avoided looking at Evison while getting ready for cryo. She didn’t hate him, but she didn’t know what to say to him, and she wasn’t sure there was anything to say. The only thing she really wanted was to go home. When she got into her cryotube and the hatch closed over her and the gas filled the small chamber, all she felt was a sense of relief.

Larkins expected her nightmares on the way home to be horrific and was surprised when she woke up at the other end of the trip without having had a single dream. The Marine passengers were dropped off at Crandall Space Station, one of the USCM orbital shipyards, and even though Larkins hoped she and Evison would be allowed to go straight down to Lejeune from there, she had a feeling that wasn’t going to happen. The feeling was proven correct when they were instead taken to be interviewed and asked questions about their perspective on the alien attack. Reliving the experience was the last thing Larkins wanted to do, but she forced herself to recount what had happened without showing any more emotion than she could prevent.

When she and Evison had finished, they were directed to report to the shuttle station for the trip down to the surface. Lejeune was a major Marine base, so the shuttle was a regularly-scheduled trip directly there. By the time they made it back to the barracks, Larkins was exhausted. She had spent a week sleeping on the trip home, but all she wanted to do was sleep more. She flopped onto her bed and fell asleep without even taking off her jacket or boots.

It was well after 0900 when Larkins woke up the next morning. She wasn’t used to sleeping in so late, but she didn’t care. She felt listless and unmotivated as she slowly got up, showered, and dressed in a fresh uniform. It was too late to go down to the mess hall for breakfast and she wasn’t hungry anyway, but she knew she had to clean out the trainees’ rooms and get all of their personal items together for shipping back to their families. She left her room and went out into the hall, stopping when she saw Evison’s door was open. The other corporal was packing up his own belongings, and he stopped when she walked over and stood in the doorway. “Graham gave me permission to move and start my new position early since…” he trailed off and shrugged helplessly before continuing, “There’s really nothing to do here now. I feel bad leaving you with the clean-up and paperwork, but orders are orders.”

“Yeah,” Larkins said, not really caring. She didn’t even know what to feel about Evison’s departure so she was doing her best to force everything down inside herself as usual and not allow herself to feel anything at all. It was easier that way. “I can handle it. Just go. I hope you get the nice, quiet life you seem to want so badly.”

She turned and walked away before he could reply, and climbed the ladder up to Risper’s room, swiping her card through the reader to unlock the door. She might as well start there.

Most trainees kept very few personal items in their rooms, and Risper was no exception. Apart from his uniforms and other military-issue gear, all he had was a cell phone, a datapad, and two books. Larkins opened his clothes locker to begin taking the uniforms out, but the moment she pulled the first one out and saw his name stitched across the front, she once again saw him lying slumped in Farrelly’s arms, perfectly still. An overwhelming nausea struck Larkins and she dropped the uniform and stumbled over to sit down on the bed, gagging weakly. She couldn’t do this right now.

She left Risper’s room and went back to her own, locking the door and giving into the craving that she had been fighting with since they were sent to Meadow. She didn’t even pay attention to which bottle she grabbed out of the nightstand. She just took the first one, uncapped it, and started drinking. “This one’s for you, Risper,” she said softly, taking a gulp. “And this one’s for you, Renton. One for you, Taff. And one for my fucked-up life.”

The feeling of failure was overwhelming. No matter what Larkins tried to tell herself, she couldn’t stop thinking that she could have done something more to save her trainees. The fact that Renton and Taff had died long before she and Evison got there was entirely irrelevant in her mind. There had to have been something more she could have done. She hadn’t been smart enough, strong enough, or fast enough. She hadn’t been good enough at all. She was a failure as a Marine and a person. She had let them down, just like she had let down everyone in her life.

“Who the fuck have I ever done anything good for?” she asked brokenly. Certainly not anyone in her old unit. No one in civilian life before she joined the Marines. She hadn’t been able to save Risper, Renton, and Taff, and she could hardly take credit for finding Farrelly when she hadn’t even managed to get him out herself. Thinking about it made her start to feel like she had never come through for any of her trainees. Three had passed the last time, but what did that really mean? Sydell was probably going to spend the rest of her life angry and bitter at the world and everyone in it, and Larkins hadn’t been able to persuade her otherwise. And Ferro and Spunkmeyer had been far too close to each other for their own good. She had let them become too close and sooner or later one of them was going to suffer the pain of losing the other. It was all her fault. She couldn’t even remember the names of the trainees that had graduated from the class before that, but it didn’t matter. The pattern was obvious. She had failed everyone before them and everyone after, so it didn’t take much brain power to figure out she must have let them down too.

“I really am worthless,” she said painfully, a heavy feeling settling in her chest and refusing to dislodge no matter how hard she tried to fight it down. “I can’t do anything right.”

There was no point to continuing on if all she was going to do was fail. She had nothing to live for. Her heart heavy, Larkins finally accepted that it was time to put an end to the pain for good.

Composing herself as much as she could, Larkins left the barracks and went down to the armory. Although regulations on a number of bases had changed significantly and were often applied differently to RIFT members, all Marines at Lejeune were still required to keep any personal firearms locked up in the armory unless they were going to the range or off the base. She signed out her Model 719 revolver and a box of ammunition, tucked the gun in her belt under her jacket when no one was looking, pocketed the ammo box, and numbly walked back to her room. She sat down at her desk and swung out the revolver’s cylinder to load a single round into the chamber. She closed the cylinder and stared at the revolver for a long time, not sure what to think. She wasn’t even really thinking or feeling anything besides acceptance. She understood where her life had gone to.

But then her eyes fell on her computer, and she remembered there was one last thing she could do to try to bring some good to someone. She could still write out her final evaluations for the four trainees, especially because she had heard it was tradition to give a passing grade to Marines who died during training unless their performance had been particularly poor. She set the revolver down on her desk and opened up the computer. She filled out the forms and reports quickly and efficiently, recommending a passing grade for all four trainees. At least Farrelly would recover from his injuries, and a passing grade meant that he would still be able to get a RIFT assignment once he was back on full duty. As for the other three, it was the best she could do to honor them.

After she finished, Larkins was about to submit everything but hesitated, feeling as if she was missing something. There was a nagging feeling in her mind like she had forgotten something extremely important. That was entirely possible given how bad her memory had become and she could only hope that whatever it was, she had made a note of it on her datapad. She powered the small device on and began scrolling through it slowly. She knew exactly what had been nagging at her the moment she saw the brief note. She had no idea what had caused her to write it down or what had made it so important at the time, but it was there all the same. Risper had been married.

That changed things. Larkins turned back to her computer, deleted the closing paragraphs of her evaluation of Risper, and began typing. “Based on his performance in training and his actions during the alien attack on LV-542, in which Private Risper selflessly placed himself in harm’s way to save the life of his partner, Private Farrelly, I recommend that Private Risper be posthumously granted a passing grade for the Reconnaissance In Force Team Flight and Aircraft School training course and be promoted to the rank of E-6 RIFT Corporal, with the privileges and benefits thereof.”

She couldn’t bring Risper back, but this was something she could do. A promotion to E-6, even a posthumous one, would increase the benefits his widow got from the Marines for support. It felt like such a tiny contribution, but it was all Larkins had to offer. At least it was better than absolutely nothing.

Finally feeling like she was finished, Larkins submitted everything, closed the computer, and picked up her revolver again. “Do I really want to do this?”

She already knew the answer to that. She didn’t really want to die, but there was no purpose or reason for her to continue living. Better to just let go than continue living in pain.

Leaning back in her chair, Larkins took a deep breath, feeling her muscles relax. She had opened the window earlier, and the sunlight was streaming in across her face. A gentle breeze was blowing in, caressing her skin and carrying in the sounds of activity from outside as the base personnel went about their lives. It was time to say goodbye.

But as she looked down at the gun again, trying to muster up the nerve and energy to lift it to her head, the breeze carried in another sound. She turned and looked out the window, hearing the rhythmic thumping of boots on pavement and a loud, commanding voice calling out a marching cadence, and then she saw a unit of trainees from one of the other RIFT MOS training programs march by in the distance. She watched them until they disappeared from sight, and then looked back to her gun, setting it down on the desk again and rubbing her face with a resigned sigh. As tired as she was, there was a reason for her to keep fighting after all. Even if she had failed everyone else in the past, the fact that she had done one small good thing for Risper’s widow meant she still had at least some good in her. She could learn to do better.

She had been in this place once before but had kept fighting for a reason she hadn’t truly been able to define. Now she had a motivation she could understand. Time would pass and another flight of RIFT trainees would come in to learn, and she would be there for them. She would teach them how to be pilots, and she would teach herself how to improve and be a better person so that she didn’t fail them. Her purpose in life didn’t matter. It hadn’t mattered even when it had been one she couldn’t define. It didn’t make a difference now that she knew it was because she was living for other people. And if there came a day when she could live for herself, that wouldn’t matter either. As long as there was one reason, just one, to keep on living, that was all that was important. And when there was no reason, she would keep fighting until she found one again.

Chapter 9………………………………………………………………………………..Mission Reports

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