The Battle Within
by C. Jerry Ueberall
Summary: A very alternate version of the "Bring'em back alive Raid"
Notes: This story was first published 1998 in Flanking Maneuvers # 2 , a Rat Patrol slash zine by Lindberg's Legacy Press.
Series/Sequel: Third in the Pebble series. Sequel to Between the Lines
"Looks like a hospital," Tully said matter-of-factly, absently chewing on his matchstick.
"What else should it look like?" The aggressive voice reacting to the private's comment didn't normally belong to the Rat Patrol, and it was only the owner's rank that prevented it from being ignored.
"Dunno. The feeling is wrong, that's all."
"Feeling!" The captain snorted. "And, Sergeant Troy, what is your opinion on the matter?"
"Tully's right, something's wrong." Belatedly he added, "Sir."
"They have a quarantine flag up," Hitch said, pointing at one end of the base.
Captain Elan sighed. "Exactly as it should be. What better disguise for a secret laboratory can there be? Who'd expect this hospital to harbor one of the German's best scientists?"
"No one, sir," Moffitt acknowledged, exchanging a brief look with Troy. The captain was an annoyance the Rats could have lived without, but from the moment that Elan had learned about their mission he'd been on their backs. No doubt he saw this as a great opportunity for his career, and unfortunately for the Rat Patrol he had just enough influence to get whatever he wanted.
"Shouldn't there be more guards, if this man's so good?" Hitch was looking directly at the only Englishman among them, rudely ignoring the officer.
Moffitt shook his head. "Not really. It would be suspicious. Why should a hospital under quarantine be heavily guarded?"
The private saw the point and went back to watching the Germans.
"'S funny, you know," Tully started suddenly, "they're watching their base, not the area."
"Right." Troy nodded, thankful that his friend had finally pinpointed the thing that didn't fit the picture. "As if they were prison guards." He cursed silently; something wasn't as it was supposed to be, he just knew it.
"Maybe it's true and Dr. Weberling is interested in changing sides." Elan wasn't prepared to look for problems which didn't exist. "It makes it easier to get inside; we should be happy about it."
"It also makes it harder to get out," Moffitt replied, unimpressed by the glare the captain sent his way. "It would seem that they're really afraid of him. What exactly is the man working on?"
It was Troy who answered. "The information says he's a biologist. So what do you think he's doing?"
"Either creating a superhuman or a nasty virus. And if it's the latter, then maybe we should be very careful of what we do."
"Maybe the quarantine is genuine?" Hitch slid away from his place towards Troy. "Sarge? What if it is?"
Troy shrugged. There was no way of knowing. The information had seemed interesting and sound enough, but what if it wasn't complete or up-to-date? He cursed silently. When HQ had told him to go and get that German scientist it had seemed a straightforward mission, but now his feeling of uneasiness grew.
"Maybe I missed something, but the last time I looked an order was something to be carried out, and not open for discussion." The captain's face showed his anger clearly. "Do you have a problem, Sergeant?" he asked, stressing the rank.
"No, Captain," Troy said coldly, decision made. "We'll go in." Meeting Hitch's worried glance, he shrugged, "We have a job to do."
The young man rubbed at his glasses, then nodded. "Okay, Sarge. So how do we play it?"
"As always ..." Troy began, and Tully piped in, "By ear."
At that Moffitt groaned. "I was afraid you'd say that."
To walk with a fully-laden tray was something Schwester Jutta did with practiced ease, sure of her balance and every obstacle that could come her way, yet it took all her willpower not to drop the tray when she found herself suddenly looking at a gun. Her green eyes looked up and burned furiously into hazel ones.
"Was denken Sie, wird das hier?" She didn't shout, and seemed only a little bit afraid.
"Keine Angst, wir werden Ihnen nichts tun," Moffitt told her, "Wenn Sie uns helfen, dann sind wir auch gleich wieder weg."
"What's going on?" Troy asked, not for the first time wishing he could speak German.
"That's exactly what I wanted to know," the nurse told him, scrutinizing the three men before her. "This is a hospital, in case you hadn't noticed. And we are under quarantine."
"We have noticed, Miss ..."
"Schwester ... uh, Nurse Jutta."
"We are looking for someone, a Dr. Weberling." No point in talking around the issue.
The blond woman shook her head. "Then you are looking at the wrong place. We don't have a doctor by that name. There is only one doctor here anyway, we are not a ... a field hospital, not since the quarantine."
"And where's that doctor?"
She shrugged. "Working somewhere."
"I think you are lying," Moffitt said quietly, having watched her closely.
"I'm not." She shot him an angry glare.
"You reacted to the name Weberling."
"So? I think you're mistaken there." The tray in her hands shook lightly.
"Put it down before you let it fall," Troy advised, then took it out of her hands, knowing that she had been about to let it fall on purpose. "You like to live dangerously, don't you?"
She didn't answer. Putting the tray aside, he grabbed her arms. "You know where he is. Show us the way, or I'll have to hurt you."
"If you do, the whole base will hear my cries, Sergeant. That's even better than a fallen tray." The proud defiance impressed Troy as much as it annoyed him. He didn't want to hurt the girl, but their time was running out.
"You won't cry if he cuts your throat," Moffitt told her, pointing at Tully who held his long knife in hand. "I admit we won't get the information this way, but maybe another nurse will be more cooperative ..."
If looks could kill, the Rat Patrol would have been one man short, but as it was, it was just a glaring contest between the Englishman and the woman.
Swallowing the nurse closed her eyes for a brief moment then opened them again and nodded. "This way." Not waiting for a reply she stepped around Moffitt. "I don't think you know what you are doing," she told them, leading on. "The man is sick; he's the reason for the quarantine. You will get infected. You probably already are."
Troy ignored her. It seemed she believed what she was saying, but it was possible that she didn't know the truth. He hoped it was that. It fit with what they had heard about this base and the biologist, all a ruse to keep people away from him. But his instincts kept shouting to cancel the mission and to get the hell out of here, and they had seldom let him down.
The man they encountered in a small but comfortable room was middle-aged, with red-blond hair and blue eyes which scrutinized them coldly.
"Dr. Weberling?" Moffitt asked, and the man raised his brows.
"Then we would like you to accompany us."
The face seemed to lit up. "Seems my reputation is better than I thought if the Allies send someone to get me." He stood and walked to a tiny desk from which he grabbed a small bag. "I'm ready, meine Herren, if you are."
The sergeants exchanged a long gaze - that was certainly not the reaction they had expected. Finally Moffitt shrugged and motioned the man out of the door. "After you."
"You want to take him outside the hospital?" The nurse stepped directly into Troy's way, her green eyes wide with disbelief.
"That is our intention."
"You can't do that! He's sick, he's contagious."
"Well, he looks all right to me." With that Troy sidestepped her and took the lead.
Weberling and Moffitt followed right behind and then the still-complaining nurse, urged forward by Tully.
"You all will die You can't ..."
Suddenly, Moffitt whirled around and told her to be silent, indicating that otherwise Tully would ensure her silence once and for all.
"Trust you to let the boy do the job!" she hissed, then shut up under his glare.
Reaching a side door, Troy opened it carefully and looked around. A small hospital truck was heading their way and he recognized the driver as Hitch. When the truck stopped, he and the German scientist got into it. Turning back to help his friends with the nurse, he saw her shaking her head in anger.
"I cannot let this happen!" she said, then shouted "Alarm! Ueberfall! Amis!" and threw herself against Tully, who was totally taken by surprise. In an entangled heap, they both fell to the ground.
At the camp, the German guards reacted to the woman's cry, and accompanied by some shots, two grenades were hurled towards the truck. Troy had just enough time to grab the scientist and jump out of it before the car was blown to pieces.
Stumbling to his feet, he surveyed the area and saw Moffitt lying near the burning truck, hopefully just unconscious - probably dead or badly wounded. He didn't even dare to think about Hitch.
Over the German shouts, he could hear the roar of a jeep coming closer, and then he saw Captain Elan heading their way. Instinct took over. Dragging Weberling with him, he ran towards the jeep, which slowed down a little bit to let them jump in, then did a perfect turn about and headed back to the gate it had previously crashed through.
A grenade exploding in front of them shook the jeep badly. The captain lost his desperate attempt to hold the car under control when another grenade blinded him for a second. His hands automatically left the wheel to cover his eyes, and the next moment he fell out of the jeep.
In an instant, Troy slid into the driver's seat and at the last second steered the jeep around two parked cars. Under a storm of bullets he raced towards the gate. He was just through it when he heard a familiar voice shout his name.
"Troy, nein! Come back! Don't do this!"
Only a moment later he was out of earshot, heading into the desert.
His instincts had been right: this mission had been doomed. He cursed silently. And it wasn't over yet, he just knew it, although what could be worse than losing all his friends, he wasn't sure.
The first thing Moffitt saw when he returned to the living were the dusty boots of a German soldier, the second the forced grin of his friend and driver.
"You all right?" Tully asked him, and he nodded, sitting up carefully and gladly realizing that it was true.
"Hitch?" he wanted to know, just as two soldiers brought the young private and pushed him almost into his arms.
"I'm okay", Moffitt was told, "just a bit burned, nothing serious. I've had sunburns that were worse."
"Troy made it, with the German!" Tully offered, knowing what the next question would be.
That Captain Elan hadn't made it became clear when he was escorted to their place. Yet it wasn't the American captain who brought the three men to their feet and attention, but the German of the same rank who walked just one step behind him and his guards.
Dietrich here? Moffitt wasn't sure if that was a good or a bad thing, but at least now they could be sure to be treated with respect.
He smiled slightly at the German. "Herr Hauptmann, what a surprise to meet ..." A hard punch to his jaw stopped his greeting and sent him to the ground.
"You have no idea what you've done!" Dietrich hissed, his jaw muscles tight, his eyes burning with rage. "That was the most stupid thing you've ever done." Abruptly the Hauptmann turned to one of his men. "Sorgen Sie dafuer, dass die Wagen wieder funktionieren, wir muessen Weberling so schnell wie moeglich einholen!"
"Jawohl, Herr Hauptmann." The man saluted and left.
"Bringen Sie sie weg!" Without a further look at his prisoners Dietrich turned and went away.
"Come with us." One of the soldiers waved his gun in the direction of a small barrack and then motioned the Allied soldiers forward.
Helping Moffitt to his feet, Tully grinned. "Surprised you again, didn't he?"
"I have never seen him so angry," Hitch observed as they walked toward their prison.
"Me neither," the Englishman confirmed, rubbing his chin. "Takes it rather personal, I'd say."
At Hitch's side, Captain Elan looked confused from one to the other. "You know that officer?"
"We've met Captain Dietrich before, yes. More than once," Moffitt admitted. "But I wonder what he's doing here; this is not his regular district."
"I bet he isn't happy about seeing us here, either," Hitch commented, entering the barrack. "And if his punch was any indication then I don't wanna be Troy if he gets him."
"But he won't get him. Sarge's already out of reach," his friend stated, convinced.
"Hopefully." As he said it, a cold chill ran down Moffitt's spine and an inner voice whispered: Be careful what you wish for Ö Damn! he wondered silently. What have we done that has Dietrich so enraged?
"Are you sure that we are not followed?" Nervously the German scientist looked behind them.
"Yeah. One of my men took care of their cars. Relax. There's no one behind us for at least four miles."
"You're very anxious about your countrymen catching you. Why is that?"
Weberling shrugged. "It's known that I thought of giving my expertise to the Allied. You know how my country treats deserters."
"So why did you decide to change sides?"
"My work wasn't supported the way I earned it." Indignation vibrated in his voice.
Troy gifted his guest with a brief glance - the man really meant it. "So you'd work for anybody, right?"
"I'm a scientist, Sergeant, I believe in my work and nothing else. Governments come and go but knowledge stays."
Shaking his head, Troy rounded a dune and slightly changed the course again.
"What are you doing? Aren't we on our way to an Allied base?"
"No. Not right away." Rubbing the sweat from his forehead, he explained. "We'll take cover in a hidden ruin for some time."
"You're hoping your men will meet you there," Weberling stated with insight. "But you know they were caught."
A small grin crossed the American's features. "They've been caught before, and still met me afterwards."
The scientist didn't share his amusement. "It's more likely that we'll be met there by German soldiers. We better not go there."
"You don't need to worry. My men won't talk."
"Your confidence in your men is impressing but I think it's misled. Everyone can be forced to talk, everybody can be broken. And Hauptmann Dietrich is a very determined man, who will do everything to get me back. Everything, Sergeant."
"You're afraid of him," Troy observed, wondering what had happened between the Germans.
There was silence for a moment, then Weberling admitted, "The Hauptmann and I had a small dispute, you could say, and he told me in very plain words that he would shoot me personally if I ever tried to leave the hospital."
"What was the dispute about?"
"This and that." Weberling said vaguely, settled himself deeper into his seat and closed his eyes.
Ethics, Troy thought for himself. What ever you're working on, I bet Hans doesn't like it. In his mind he heard Dietrich's shout again, and noted the strange tone in it. It hadn't been the usual fury of encountering the Rat Patrol again, at least not entirely; something else had been carried underneath ... Worry! He nodded to himself. Yes, he was sure. Suddenly he saw the nurse again, the risk she had taken to stop them from leaving with the biologist.
She said the man was contagious. What if it is true? His fingers cramped around the wheel. I cannot take him anywhere, before I know for sure. He was about to stop when he realized that the hiding-place he was heading to was as isolated as a place could be, and at least there they had water and shadow. I'll get you to talk, Doctor, and it'd better be the truth.
Decision made, he felt instantly better, until his thoughts turned to his friends. If the quarantine was genuine then they'll all have it by now, what ever it is, and it's my fault. He tried to calm himself with the knowledge that Dietrich wouldn't let them die; he would make sure that his prisoners got an antidote. If there is one. What if there isn't, what if Hans too is ill?
Sweat ran into his eyes and he had to blink rapidly to clear his vision. Is that why you threatened to kill him, Hans? he wondered, watching the man beside him. I wish I could know for sure. I wish I could talk to you.
For a moment, he considered the idea of following his instincts and driving back to the hospital, but he put it out of his mind. Besides the point that it was all speculation on his part, he didn't feel up to the drive. He was thirsty and tired, and the oasis with the ruin was closer. It would have to do for now.
At the noise of the opening door, the four imprisoned men looked up. The two German soldiers standing guard inside the barrack stepped away from the door, both saluting the man walking in without taking their eyes from their prisoners.
From the sand covering Dietrich's uniform, it was clear that he'd just come back from a unsuccessful search, and it told its own story that he hadn't taken the time to clean himself up before confronting the Rat Patrol.
"If you value Sergeant Troy's life, then you'd better tell me where he's hiding, or where he's heading to. Because if you don't, then you'll be responsible for the death of every man, woman or child he meets on his way."
"You won't get any information from us," Captain Elan said, as he rose from his cot. "Only name, rank, and serial number."
With three steps, Dietrich stood in front of him. "Captain," he said reasonably, "obviously you failed to notice that this base is under quarantine. The man Sergeant Troy has kidnapped is the carrier of a highly contagious and deadly virus. If he gets to a village or a base, this virus will spread immediately from one person to another, and everyone there will die."
Elan shook his head. "You don't believe that Iíd fall for that, do you? We know that this whole base is only here so that Dr. Weberling can do his work undisturbed. This virus ..."
"This virus is real and deadly, Captain," the Hauptmann interrupted him, "I don't care what you know or believe. Maybe this hospital was just a fake, maybe not, but truth is, now it is a hospital and right now this quarantine is genuine. I know that because I have buried enough men to have the proof." Realizing that his words were falling on deaf ears, Dietrich turned to the Rats again. "Time is running out. The virus works fast, and without the antidote, Troy has no chance. By now he'll probably be feeling the first symptoms, and don't hope for your famous luck, for it ran out on you when you accepted this mission."
Only someone who knew Dietrich as well as the Rat Patrol could have heard the urgency in the German's tone, and see the pressure he was under in his eyes - but the reason for it, Moffitt realized, could be something quite different than his words implied.
"Dr. Weberling looked quite healthy. So do you. It's hard to imagine that he is spreading a disease."
"Sergeant, I'm no doctor, I can't tell the scientific facts. But I know that he's the carrier of this virus, he's probably also the creator, and he's the only one who's immune to it. The first antidote was made from his blood, and as far as I'm concerned, that is the only reason why he's still alive."
Subconsciously rubbing his sweaty hands, Moffitt gazed, astonished, at the German officer. He had never heard Dietrich talk like that, and it made him wonder how far he would go to get the scientist back.
"If I understood correctly, then we're all infected, right?" Moffitt asked quietly.
"And will Troy's hiding place be the bargaining point for the antidote?"
A familiar expression crossed over Dietrich's handsome face showing that he was actually considering the idea, but then the Hauptmann shook his head. "No. I'd probably have to send you back to your lines to inform your superiors and give them the formula for the antidote. If Weberling reaches inhabited territory we'll have a plague on our hand that will stop the war here single-handedly." The last was said with bitter irony.
"So that is your plan, yes? You can forget it!" Captain Elan walked around the German to get his attention back. "Nobody here will take what you call the antidote/ I'm not stupid. You'll give us something and then send us back, right? And I bet that we'll be the ones carrying a contagious, lethal virus. No way!"
"Sir!" The mere idea that Dietrich would do something like that was ridiculous. "The Hauptmann is a man of honour, he ..." Moffitt wasn't allowed to finish his speech, as Elan ordered him to be silent.
"None of us will cooperate with you, and that is final." There was no doubt that the American captain meant it. He met the eyes of every Rat and added, "That's an order."
One by one the others looked away.
"Then you'll all die." Dietrich's words were bare of anger; only weariness remained. Without a further word, he turned around and went to the door.
"Captain?" It was Tully who called after him.
"I just wondered, there was that nurse ..."
"And?" The German captain looked back.
"I hit her and I wanted to know ... she's all right?"
Slightly amused, Dietrich resumed his walk. "I haven't heard anything different, Private." And left.
Sitting in the shade of a broken wall, Troy watched the German stretching his back muscles, seemingly unimpressed by the afternoon heat.
"The quarantine was genuine, right?" he asked out of the blue, hoping to get the scientist by surprise. "There's a disease, and you have it."
Cool blue eyes met his look. "I don't know what you mean. Do I look sick?"
"No. But that isn't the point, is it? You invented this disease, whatever it is, and an antidote, right? Am I right? That's the reason why you're okay." He stood and walked towards the scientist with angry strides. "I asked you a question, Doctor!"
"You're only partly correct, Sergeant. I developed a virus, but I didn't develop an antidote. Through a minor carelessness I got in contact with the virus and got infected, but as you can see, I'm still alive. I was ill, but I survived, as can everybody with a strong will and a strong body. And I'm perfectly healthy now. Whatever this nurse said, that was just a ruse to ensure that I wouldn't run away."
A cold shiver ran down the American's body despite the heat. "You experimented with humans, didn't you? Animals weren't good enough for you, right?"
"If you want something that works on a human, it is the logical thing to test it on a human." There was no shame, no guilt in the bright blue eyes of the scientist.
"And you don't see any wrong in it?" It was unbelievable.
"Certainly not. And I'm quite sure that your own doctors are doing the same thing."
At that suggestion, Troy shook his head and returned to his seat. "We don't even speak the same language," he commented, intending to close the subject, but Weberling had warmed to it.
"Doesn't it occur to you to wonder why you were sent to kidnap me? Obviously your superiors don't share your attitude toward my work. They'd like to - how do you say - pick my brain, will they not? I think they intend to use my knowledge for their own work."
"Forget it," Troy said tiredly, but an insistent voice in his head kept whispering that Weberling had his point there. How could he be sure that his own government wasn't supporting some scientists who were like this one, and probably just waiting for his expertise? He shuddered.
People like him should be shot! For all that it was his own utter belief, the thought echoed through his mind with Dietrich's voice.
That's why Hans swore to shoot you, so that you couldn't continue your work. You were safe in that hospital, buried alive and unable to continue to work. And I freed you. But I can't let you return to the world. He rubbed his eyes, and reached for his canteen, today the sun was getting to him more then usual. As he swallowed, his gaze traveled over the horizon. The nearest inhabited place was the hospital they had escaped from; now, it also seemed to be the most logical destination.
"Your friends won't come," the scientist said, misinterpreting his look. "They are very likely dead," he added, turning away.
"Yeah." Troy put the canteen aside and slowly went for his gun. "That's why we're going back."
"Bitte was?" Surprised, the German whipped around. "What are you planning?" he wanted to know, indicating the gun leveled at him.
"I'll bring you back, Doctor. I'm sure that Dietrich will be more than happy to see us again."
"He will kill you."
"I doubt that," Troy replied with a strange smile that irritated his prisoner enormously. "Move over to that tree!"
Doing as he was told, Weberling sat down beside a small, scanty tree and watched somehow detached as the American cuffed him to it.
"Do I take it that we won't start right now?" he asked ironically.
"We'll wait till the heat wears off." About to turn away, Troy found himself caught by the cold stare of the German.
"You will not take me back, this I promise you."
"You're not in a position to make threats." Abruptly, he broke the eye contact.
Weberling's words accompanied him to his resting place. "I don't threaten, Sergeant. Like most scientists I deal only in known facts."
Shutting the man and the whole world out, Troy closed his eyes and decided to take a short nap. He definitely felt in need of it.
"Do you think that Dietrich was telling the truth?" Hitch's words broke the silence the four prisoners had kept since the German officer had gone.
"I don't know. It's a good story, one to push all the right buttons. And very convincingly played, I admit. But we must not underestimate Herr Hauptmann."
"I dunno. It's not like Dietrich to lie about something like that," Tully said quietly from his bed. "And what about this antidote?"
"Yeah, what's with that?" Hitch echoed, sitting up. "He wouldn't give us anything really dangerous, maybe we should take it. What if there really is a virus?"
"I thought I had made it clear. There's no such thing as this virus. This Kraut is a liar, like all of them. I can't believe that you really consider trusting him." Again Captain Elan's gaze traveled over his companions, but this time no one looked away.
"That's because you don't know Dietrich, but we do. He's a good man, one who stands up to his word." With a swift movement, Moffitt left his cot and walked to Elan's side. "Maybe we should reconsider our decision, sir. If Dietrich's telling the truth then there's more at stake than only our lives or Troy's or this mission."
The captain shook his head. "I won't trust a Kraut, and you'd better follow my guidance, Sergeant, if you know what's good for you."
Controlling his anger, Moffitt walked briskly back to his bed when the door was opened and Dietrich appeared once more.
Standing in the doorway, the officer nodded towards the Englishman and said politely, "Wuerden Sie mich bitte nach draussen begleiten, Sergeant Moffitt?"
"What does he want?" Hitch asked alarmed.
"That I accompany him. It's all right." After exchanging a short look with his friends, Moffitt went obediently with the German. "Selbstverstaendlich, Herr Hauptmann. Nach Ihnen."
As the door closed behind them, Elan nodded to himself. "Now he shows his real face. I hope Sergeant Moffitt is able to endure pain."
"He is," Hitch assured him, then turned to the Kentuckian just in time to see the blond wiping sweat from his forehead. "You all right, Tully?"
"Yeah, just tired." And with that the private rolled onto his stomach, evading the worried gaze of his friend.
"Where are we going, Herr Hauptmann?" Moffitt wanted to know, his eyes taking everything in, always searching for a chance to escape. Nobody seemed to take much notice, but he hadn't missed the two soldiers who followed them, too far behind to overhear their conversation but close enough to have an easy target if he tried anything, and he was pretty sure that at least one of the sentinels was trailing his every movement with a rifle.
"I want to show you something, Sergeant." The tone of urgency was still clinging to the German's voice.
"You have awakened my curiosity, Herr Hauptmann, lead on."
"We're already there." Turning around a truck that had blocked their view, the officer stopped. "Take a good look, Sergeant, because this is something you will see en masse if Troy and Weberling reach a village or a base."
Mutely the Englishman surveyed the cemetery. It wasn't big, and the new, small, primitive crosses weren't uncountable, but they were far too many for a hospital so isolated from the battlefield; it was unlikely that so many badly wounded would have been brought here. Something other than the war was responsible for those graves, of that Moffitt was sure.
"That's a low blow," Moffitt said, facing his captor.
Brown eyes met his glare openly. "It's a desperate move. I cannot afford pride."
Yes, the Englishman could see that.
"Would it make your decision easier if I made a bargain with you? I give you my word that all of you, including Troy, can leave this hospital as soon as I can be sure that you're not contagious anymore." When Moffitt didn't answer immediately, he added, "I take it that Sergeant Troy is still somewhere in the area, probably waiting for you, because if not, then this conversation is futile."
Following his own train of thought, Moffitt nodded briskly. "You said, he's probably feeling the first symptoms by now. What are they? And how long ...?" He didn't finish.
"The disease hits everybody differently; some die within a few hours after the first signs, but mostly it takes two or three days till ... their suffering has an end." Swallowing, Dietrich continued, "The first symptoms are always the same, though. Sweat, fatigue, not unlike a cold, then fever and hallucinations, cramps. It's no easy way to die, Sergeant. I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy, and surely not on Troy."
Marveling at the fact that Dietrich had as much as admitted that Troy was not his enemy, Moffitt finally accepted the Hauptmann's story.
"And you'll let us go?"
"As soon as you're no longer a danger for anyone else. But I want your word that you won't try to leave earlier. If one of you so much as sets a foot out of this base, he will be shot. I hope we understand each other?"
"We do. I'll give you my word."
For a moment they stared at each other, then confirmed the agreement with a short but firm handshake.
Walking back to the barracks, Moffitt told him of Troy's whereabouts, not surprised that Dietrich knew the place, even though he had never been there.
"Do you think you'll be there in time?" the Englishman asked quietly as they arrived.
"I hope so," the German replied calmly, but his prisoner hadn't missed the fear shadowing his gaze for a second. "I'll send a nurse to your men with the antidote; I hope you can convince your companions to take it."
"What about Dr. Weberling?" Moffitt wanted to know. "You said he invented the virus?"
Dietrich's expression darkened. "Yes, so it seems. He calls it S&HV2, but don't ask me what it stands for." His look strayed to the gate. "I'll make sure that the Doktor won't be a threat to anyone anymore," he murmured grimly, then walked away.
Returning to his comrades, Moffitt was greeted with two relieved looks from his friends and an astonished one from the captain.
"You seem okay, undamaged," Elan observed, his tone questioning.
"The Hauptmann knows that nothing short of torture would have the chance to make me cooperative, if I wasn't inclined to see reason, and he's not someone who harms others unnecessarily."
The captain frowned. "Then what was this all about?"
"Just an attempt to prove his story and make me see reason," the Englishman explained vaguely.
"And did you see reason?" Hitch wanted to know.
Moffitt raised his brows and sat down beside the driver. "I'm a reasonable man. So what do you think?"
"You are quite sure that you want to go alone?"
Dietrich nodded at the nurse. "It will be easier if it's just me; Troy won't feel threatened that way."
"It's not Troy I'm worried about," she replied, handing over the antidote. "What about the rest of the Rat Patrol?"
"Sergeant Moffitt believes me now; I guess he'll take the serum, and the privates will probably follow his example. I really hope so."
She nodded. "And the captain? What if he refuses?"
"Then he'll die."
"I could force him," the woman suggested, but the Hauptmann shook his head.
"It's his decision."
Sighing, she agreed. "I take it that was an order, right? Okay, it's his life, not mine. But I won't stand aside and see the boys die just because the captain doesn't trust us."
Amusement lightened Dietrich's somber expression. "Seems you like them. When did you find the time to get a closer look? I'd more expected that you wouldn't be on good terms with them."
Realizing what he was talking about, the nurse touched the swelling under her eye. "I'll get him for that," she commented, a smile curling at the edges of her mouth.
"He asked for you, you know; he seemed upset that he had hit you."
"I'll survive it, which is something he won't be able to say if he doesn't take the antidote."
"You'll find a way to persuade him, I'm sure of it." He turned around and settled himself behind the wheel of the kuebelwagen. "I must go." He put the box with the medicine beside him and shared a long look with the woman. "I'll radio in when I found him."
"Be careful, please?" she asked, leaning over the car's door.
"Promised." He gifted her with a soft kiss to her cheek and a smile, then started the engine.
With a wistful expression, Jutta stepped back, and then watched him leave until the car couldn't be seen anymore.
"Tully, everything all right?" the sergeant wanted to know, seeing the blond rubbing his eyes. Tully nodded but Hitch piped up that he seemed to be ill.
"I want a clear answer, Tully." Moffitt ordered and changed over to the Kentuckian's cot.
"Just tired," the private murmured, "probably the flu." His nervous gaze betrayed his true thoughts, though.
Wishing that the promised nurse would finally come, and wondering if he should ask the guards to call her - Moffitt found his silent prayer answered when somebody knocked on the door and Jutta entered. She held a small tray with four syringes and disinfectant in one hand, and her look scanned the whole room until it came to rest on Moffitt and Tully.
"You can take that away, nurse, we won't take it," Elan said before anyone else could speak.
Disapprovingly she looked at him. "Then maybe the disease has taken a new form with you by muddling your mind and burning away your common sense." As an afterthought she added, "Providing of course that you had it in the first place." His furious expression didn't impress her in the least.
"What about you?" she asked, gazing at Moffitt.
Exchanging a look with Tully, the Englishman nodded. "I'll take a shot. But I think you should start with him;" he laid a hand on the blond's shoulder, "he's already showing the symptoms."
With a few quick steps she stood beside them, touching the private's forehead and then looking into his eyes. "You are right. But don't worry, thereís still enough time." When she noticed that Tully was staring guiltily at her black eye, she added, "You won't get away that easily, soldier, you owe me."
"I'm sorry for that," the private said, giving her his best puppy-dog look.
She smiled, amused. "You know, if this is your behavior when a girl tries to save your life, I wonder what you're doing on a date?"
"Let's go to a nice restaurant and find out," Tully suggested, grinning openly.
"I might take you up on that," she replied, putting the tray down and taking up a cotton swab. "So, who goes first?"
Moffitt stood. "If Tully doesn't need to go first," he said, unbuttoning his sleeve and rolling it up, "then I will."
"That's mutiny!" Captain Elan shouted and came over. "If you take that injection, I'll get you court martialed."
The sergeant faced him coldly. "I doubt it will come to that. If you are right, then this injection will kill me and there's no need to take a corpse to the court. And if I'm right, then you won't live long enough to issue the charges."
Since he found no reply to that, the captain decided to control his anger and returned to his bed.
"Okay." Moffitt held his arm in front of the nurse, who looked at him puzzled.
"Nice, but you have to undo your trousers, Sergeant."
That was something he hadn't expected, and to the delight of the privates and the woman he blushed slightly. Swallowing, he looked at the syringes and then into Jutta's eyes, noting the mischievous gleam in their depths.
"It seems to me the needle is far too thin to work anywhere else than in an arm," he told her matter-of-factly, again raising his arm.
Laughing, she took hold of his wrist. "Stimmt. I was kidding." Swiftly she disinfected his arm. "Couldn't resist," she added as she grabbed the syringe. "Now this will burn a little, Sergeant, but I promise that you'll survive it."
"Good to know."
"What about Troy?" Tully asked, when the nurse turned to him. "He'll have it too."
"With a bit of luck, Hans will reach him in time," Jutta stated, while taking the next cotton swab.
Noting that the nurse had called the Hauptmann by his first name, Moffitt wondered aloud, "Dietrich went alone?"
From his cot, Elan asked outraged, "You told him where Sergeant Troy is?"
"Of course. Troy is my friend, I don't want him to die of some miserable disease he never heard of. And yes, I know it was against orders and that I'll be court-martialed, sir." For a moment it occurred to Moffitt to wonder if it was the unusual heat that made him so aggressive, then he forgot about it. Watching the German woman as she walked over to Hitch, he lay down on his bed, feeling somehow odd. "How does the antidote work?" he remembered to ask, belatedly.
"It kind of burns the virus out, so you'll feel a little feverish, or a little more feverish in his case," the nurse explained, waving in Tully's direction. "And then you'll be immune, and as far as we can tell, after a few days the danger of infection to others is banned too."
Moffitt nodded and closed his eyes. He had done all he could do; now they all just had to wait and hope for the best. His mind strayed towards Troy. Would Dietrich reach him in time? And if not, what would Troy's death do to the German? The Englishman shook his head. Of all the love affairs he had ever witnessed, this one surely was the strangest.
A penetrating voice calling his name woke Troy from his slumber. He sat up, alarmed and slightly confused, not sure for a moment where he was, then memory was back. He felt more exhausted than before, and moisture clouded his eyes. He blinked, then his look focused on the German scientist who was trying to get his attention.
"Sergeant Troy, wake up! There is someone coming!"
Indeed, now that the man had mentioned it, Troy too heard the roar of an engine. A kuebel, he decided after a second, and stood up to get a better look. With a few steps he was beside the jeep and pulled the binoculars from it. He had been right, one kuebelwagen and apparently only one person in it.
"Dietrich, I guess," he told the German, a warmth spreading through his being that had nothing to do with the heat he experienced otherwise.
"Sergeant, would you please get me off the handcuffs?" Weberling asked. "I'm sitting here like on a silver plate."
Troy had to admit that he was right, and although he didn't think that Dietrich would shoot on sight without a warning, he couldn't really be sure, since he had no idea what kind of situation the Hauptmann expected to find here. Not in the mood to move from his position, the sergeant reached into his pocket and threw the key to the cuffs to his prisoner.
"Here," he said briskly, his eyes again on the approaching car. Now he noticed the white cloth that was fixed on the side mirror. A smile lit his features; he just knew it was his lover. And that Dietrich had found him here, told him that at least one of his friends had to be all right. Maybe more.
The German car came to a halt just out of shooting range, and Troy would have known the tall figure that left it anywhere. Putting the binoculars aside, the American waved toward the Hauptmann, signaling him to come closer.
Cautiously, but without hesitation, Dietrich did exactly that. He was halfway toward the oasis when the sound of a big machine gun disturbed the quiet of the place. Around the Hauptmann sand sprayed in all directions, and under Troy's horrified gaze, the officer went down.
With an outraged cry Troy whirled around and jumped to the back of his jeep where Weberling was standing behind the machine gun. Furiously, Troy grabbed the scientist and pulled him off the car, then threw him against it with fervency. Yanking at the handcuffs that dangled from the wrist of the German, he secured the free one to the doorhandle and then ran towards Dietrich.
He fell to his knees beside the Hauptmann, his whole body shaking with shock, fear and weariness. Carefully he turned the man onto his back, but couldn't see anything as from one moment to the next his sight failed him.
"Hans, please don't ...." Blindly he stared at the point where he knew that Dietrich's head would be and swore silently that Weberling wouldn't leave this place alive if --
His heart missed a beat as suddenly a hand grabbed his arm.
He sighed in relief. "Can't see a thing suddenly," he explained. "But I cuffed Weberling to the jeep. He's no danger anymore. I'm so damned sorry, I didn't realize he was at the gun."
"It's all right."
The sounds of movement told the sergeant that his lover was getting up, then a hand tapped at his shoulder, and obediently he stood too.
"How do you feel?" Dietrich wanted to know, while he put his arm around the American, leading him to the kuebelwagen.
"Besides the blindness, you mean? Quite rotten to be frank. There's a virus, right? And I got it?" It wasn't really a question anymore.
Dietrich ushered him to the co-driver seat, took something from it and then told him to sit down. He did so and squinted at the moving shadow in front of his eyes; his sight was coming back, it seemed. His sleeve was pulled up and before he could utter approval or protest, a needle was inserted into his arm.
"Ouch. Thanks for the warning." He couldn't see clearly enough to catch the German's expression, but he had a notion that it would include a raised eyebrow and a smug grin.
"Nothing to thank me for, you're welcome," Dietrich replied, his voice confirming Troy's guess. "I'll radio in to inform my people that I have found you and Weberling. You haven't met anybody, have you?"
The American shook his head.
"Good, then the danger of a plague is averted. They'll be happy to hear it." He made his call, finishing it with the statement that he would stay here for a day or two before returning.
"I thought we'd go straight back?" Troy wondered.
"No. Believe me, when the antidote hits your system you don't want to be somewhere on a sandy road. Here we have at least water, shade and shelter of a kind. We stay."
Realizing that Dietrich knew what this illness would bring while he had no clue himself, Troy took his lover's words for granted.
"Who told you where to find us?"
"Sergeant Moffitt. He needed a little persuasion, but in the end he believed me." His light tone more then anything convinced Troy that the Englishman was all right, the persuasion had been of a civilized kind.
"What about the others? Hitch was in that truck when it blew up, I didn't ..."
Dietrich interrupted him. "They are all in good condition; better than you, I'd say. By now they will all have gotten the serum."
"About your men, yes. Meine Schwester ... er, there's a nurse who was quite fond of your boys, and she won't let them refuse it, don't worry."
The words eased his conscience considerably. "The nurse we encountered?"
"She seemed like a very spirited lady; I guess the others are well taken care of. What about Captain Elan?" It hadn't escaped him that the German had especially stressed that they were talking of his men.
"Your officer doesn't trust me and is convinced that any injection would contain a deadly virus and not an antidote. I gave orders that he is not to be forced to take it."
Troy accepted it with a brisk nod. He couldn't gather enough energy to feel any sympathy for Elan. The man had wished to accompany the Rat Patrol on an adventure, now he had to live with it - or die.
"How's your sight?" Dietrich asked, looking deeply into the blue eyes of his opponent.
"I can see again, but it gets blurry now and then."
"Good. Then we'll drive over to your hide-out. You look as if you're ready to fall down."
"I am," the American admitted and settled into the car. He watched with slitted eyes as Dietrich walked around the kuebelwagen and slid behind the wheel.
"You're hurt," he stated, observing that the Hauptmann tried to move his left arm as little as possible, and now that he took a closer look he saw a bloodstain on the German's shirt.
"Only a scratch." Dietrich replied, nodding briefly to his companion and starting the engine. "I'll take care of it in a moment."
"Okay." Leaning back, Troy closed his eyes. "You know, I was on my way back to you, had decided that I couldn't risk going anywhere, in case the quarantine was real. Just wanted to grab a nap beforehand."
"You are showing some sense at last," Dietrich commented dryly. "But it seemed safer to come looking for you. You might have lost your way."
"Not me. I'll find my way through a sandstorm if necessary."
The German groaned, realizing at what Troy was hinting.
"Or if you're my goal."
Knowing a declaration of love when he heard one, Dietrich reached over and gently squeezed the American's hand.
Then they arrived, and he stopped the car only a few feet behind the jeep.
Silently, Dr. Weberling watched as Dietrich helped Troy to lay out a blanket in the shade of a wall, close to the well. While the American settled down with a canteen, the officer filled a bowl with water, collected some blankets and lamps and brought everything over to Troy's place.
"I don't get you, Herr Hauptmann, I thought you would try to get me back as fast as possible?" the scientist asked in German, when it was clear that Dietrich was done with his preparations.
"I had to make sure that you wouldn't get anywhere. This is as close to nowhere as any place I can think of. No need to rush anything." No hint of amusement colored the officer's voice as he answered, his gaze leaving Troy only briefly.
"You gave him the antidote, didn't you?" Weberling wanted to know, changing language as well as tactics. "Besides the point that I see no reason why you should want to rescue an enemy, you know of course that it is already too late. Sergeant Troy is already experiencing the second phase. The antidote won't help anymore."
"You can't know that." Now Dietrich was facing his fellow country man. "Others have survived this phase. Nothing is decided yet."
The look the scientist gifted him with was close to pity. "You know better than I how many survived this phase and how many more died. As you well know how they died. The best you could do is to spare him the pain by shooting him now."
Dietrich didn't answer, he stood rigid, his face a mask of cold fury.
Troy had listened carefully, wondering what threats and lies the scientist would hurl at Dietrich, but one look at his lover told him that Weberling was telling the truth.
"Dietrich?" he called quietly, breaking the staring contest between the Germans.
"Yes?" Brown eyes met Troy's gaze reluctantly, unwilling to answer the questions that had to come. Yet the American found all his answers right there in those beautiful eyes clouded with a burden no one should ever have to bear. He knew then that his chances were slim at best, and that he would be in agony until it was over, one way or the other. There was no doubt in Troy's mind that Dietrich would suffer almost as much, torn between the wish to end his lover's torment and the hope that the treatment might work after all. It would break him, no matter what decision he would have to make in the end.
Cursing the scientist silently, Troy's mind reeled in search of a way which would make it easier on Dietrich, something to stop the guilt from growing that was already fostering in the German's soul. Some words only his lover would understand. And then a scene surfaced from his memory:
They were standing in what he had called the Arena, surrounded by Arabs. They had just been told that the one who killed the other could go free, and he had asked Dietrich if they could trust them. The Hauptmann had laid out the options before him, but it was his conclusion that now became Troy's guideline. "To kill one of us might be a merciful act in the long run, Troy, but it would leave the other behind alone. That was not part of our truce."
"Troy, I won't let you ..." Dietrich started just as the American knew what he had to say, and with an impatient shake of his head, Troy silenced him.
"A mercy killing might look like an honorable thing to do, but I really don't want that to be part of our relationship." Seeing his lover's eyes widen with dawning comprehension, he continued, "I'd rather have God alone deciding if I buy it or not." He managed a grin. "This way it's entirely His fault if there isn't a miracle."
Dietrich knelt down beside him, his hand lightly touching his chest. "You have no idea what awaits you."
He shrugged, right now he couldn't conjure up any real fear, the energy that had supported him through the last minutes was drained now, his exhaustion soul deep. His eyes closed of their own will, and all he could manage was a whispered "Keep ... alive" before darkness claimed him.
As Dietrich realized that his lover was asleep, he smiled sorrowfully, then stood up again. He walked to his car and took a first-aid kit from it. Taking his shirt off, he examined the wound and then did what little he could to tend it. He had lied to Troy when he had said it was just a scratch, the bullet was still in his shoulder, and though it wasn't life-threatening, it was disturbing and hurt a lot. After a moment's consideration the officer took a fair amount of painkillers, admitting to himself that he wouldn't get through the next hours otherwise, and realizing that he didn't need to save any for Troy, since as a result of the antidote they wouldn't work on him anyway.
His shoulder bandaged as well as possible, he shrugged back into his shirt, grabbed the first-aid kit and returned to the American's side. There he soaked a cloth with water and gently bathed Troy's burning forehead and cheeks. He unbuttoned his lover's uniform and slid the cloth over neck and chest. It was all he could do against the fever. His mind wandered back to a very similar situation, himself sitting beside Troy, cooling his body. Then too he had been afraid that his companion wouldn't survive it, but obviously he had. And Dietrich prayed with all his heart that it would be the case again.
Shivering as a cold breeze drifted over the land with the darkness, he reached for a blanket and wrapped it around himself. It promised to be a very long night.
He was in the middle of a sandstorm, his eyes burning with tears and his body aching from the sand that bit into his skin like thousands of little needles. He could see only vague shapes of his surroundings and it seemed that with every step he took he lost more ground. He was looking for something or someone, but he couldn't remember clearly, knew only that it was important and that he had no time to lose. At one point ahead, the wind seemed somehow darker, and as he stared at the whirling sand, it formed into a shadow, then the figure of a man. He tried to get closer, but the storm wouldn't let him. He could hear a faint voice calling his name, then the man blurred before his eyes, seemed to grow in height and breadth. And then it wasn't a man standing there anymore but a tank. A cannonball came at him in slow motion, yet he couldn't move out of its way; the sand held him rooted to the spot. He was hit in the stomach and his entire being cried out in unbearable agony as the cannonball burned a hole through his body.
Dietrich winced in empathy as Troy cried out, wishing he could do something to ease his lover's suffering. In the light of the lamps it seemed as if the American was fighting with an invisible enemy, jerking in its grip, trying to avoid the shadowy fingers cast upon him. His own pain forgotten, Dietrich tried to hold him down as his body was hit by another spasm.
"A bullet would be so much faster," Weberling reminded him, not for the first time since Troy's high fever had started.
The Hauptmann couldn't stand it any longer. He let go of the sergeant and slowly took his gun from its holster, aiming it at the scientist. "I tell you for the last time to shut up or I'll do it for you, permanently."
"I don't believe that you would shoot me. I'm too important; there're enough people who want me alive, for my expertise and knowledge."
"Probably. But I'm not one of them, and I'm not bothered by anything those people might or might not do. When you're dead, they will have forgotten you in no time."
The arrogant expression on the scientist's face didn't fade; he was too sure of his own worth. "If you weren't afraid of any repercussions you'd already have killed me, but I'm still alive, so logic tells me ..."
"You want to know why I haven't shot you yet?" Dietrich interrupted him coldly. "Because right now I don't have the time to bury or burn your corpse, that's why. But if you don't shut up I might just decide that I'd rather bear your corpse's smell than your voice."
To that Weberling found no words, and with a shrug he leaned back against the jeep. He wasn't really convinced, but saw no need to discuss it further.
His body hurt like hell, and his throat was dry and swollen, yet he didn't drink from the bottle in his hand; the thought just never occurred to him. The arena was empty except for him and Dietrich. Nevertheless, they faced each other like enemies. "You left me, Sergeant. You promised that we would keep each other alive, yet you let them kill you."
"I didn't mean to."
"You broke your word, Sergeant. I'll never forgive you." With that, the German turned around and walked briskly away. He started to follow, only to find that he couldn't move. In front of his eyes, the sand around Dietrich changed its color to blood-red, and the Hauptmann sank slowly deeper and deeper into it. "Dietrich!" As if his shout had been a magical word, his paralysis was suddenly gone and he found himself at the edge of the sandy crater that was about to swallow his lover. "Give me your hand!"
The German looked at him sorrowfully. "You left me."
"No! I didn't! I won't! Dietrich!" He tried to grab him but his lover just stayed out of reach.
The sand on which he lay was hot and burned his clothes away, but he hung on, pleading with the Hauptmann to take his hand. "Hans, please, don't leave me. I need you! Don't leave me! Don't break your word!"
Finally Dietrich's fingers closed around his wrist and he pulled with all his strength, only to find that his hand was holding a machine gun, and that the crater and Dietrich were gone. "No!" Frantically he looked around. There was no one near. But over him there hovered a gigantic dragon wearing a SS uniform and the face of Adolf Hitler. Another head looked like Lincoln and the third one he couldn't identify though he was sure he had seen it before. The dragon spit fire and roasted him to the bone. Then one of the heads attacked him, changing into a claw, piercing his organs. With a scream he fell to the ground, his body shredded to pieces. Suddenly a knight in silver armor attacked the dragon, but he was no match for the beast. One strike from one of the claws threw the knight through the air and as he hit the ground it was Dietrich who lay there, his eyes open and dead.
What was left of Troy's heart shattered and his soul flooded his veins like acid.
"No! Hans, no!"
"I'm here, Troy, I'm here." Holding the trembling man close to his chest, Dietrich tried to soothe away Troy's nightmare, but it didn't seem as if his voice reached through the delirium. "I won't leave you, I promise. But I ask the same of you. Hang on, Sam, please."
"He's your lover!" Weberling exclaimed, as all the pieces finally fell into place. "I don't believe it."
Dietrich didn't comment, but his eyes spoke volumes, daring Weberling to say anything. He had all but forgotten the scientist; totally absorbed in taking care of Troy, he hadn't realized how compromising the fevered outcries had been. For a moment the Germans silently stared at each other, then a painfilled yell drew Dietrich's attention back to his patient.
Beside the jeep, Weberling suppressed a shiver. Now he knew that Dietrich was going to kill him. After all, the officer had to ensure that he couldn't tell anybody of his secret. Slowly - making sure that the Hauptmann wasn't looking his way - he reached into his pocket and retrieved the key to the handcuffs which he had put there earlier. Carefully, as if he just wanted to straighten up a little bit, he rose. Then, when he was sure that Dietrich was fully concentrated on tending to the American, he freed himself.
The first indication that something was amiss was the squeak of metal against metal. Alarmed, Dietrich looked up just in time to see Weberling pointing the jeep's heavy machine gun at him and Troy. He grabbed his lover and rolled them both away from the light. Only a split second later, bullets hit the blankets, the sand, and the lamps - throwing the place into darkness.
Turning the gun around, the scientist sent a dozen bullets into the kuebelwagen, then slid behind the jeep's wheel and started it. Before Dietrich had disentangled himself from Troy, Weberling was out in the desert.
Knowing that a search in the night would be futile, Dietrich made no attempt to follow him. Instead he lit one lamp again and returned to Troy, relieved to find no wound on him that might have weakened his condition further. The American's body was still the battlefield of the disease versus the antidote, with neither side clearly winning.
His earlier action had jarred his shoulder, and with a sigh Dietrich opened the first-aid kit again, taking another dose of painkillers. He didn't like the way they muddled his senses, but he couldn't risk to lose consciousness, not until Troy was at least semi-coherent, and surely not before he had finally taken care of Weberling.
Having cleared the seats of the last pieces of glass that had been his former windshield, Dietrich nodded to himself and watched for a second the first rays of the sun crawling over the dunes. The VW was undamaged except for the broken windshield and a dozen bullets in the seats. He was still able to follow the scientist. With a sigh he turned back to his lover and felt his blood run cold. Just from the way Troy was lying there, he knew that something had happened. About an hour ago, the fever broke finally and the thrashing and the painfilled cries stopped. Still there hadn't been a reason for cheering; it could mean that the American was over the worst or that he was finally slipping away to everlasting peace. Dietrich had no way of knowing, but as he now approached his companion, he had no doubt that it really was over - one way or the other.
Troy lay rigid on his sheet, and the German saw no sign of breathing. As if in slow motion he knelt beside him. His throat was too tight to speak or cry, and it took all his willpower to look into the sergeant's face. Blue eyes looked back at him, weary but clear. And then the glorious sound of a man breathing in relief.
"I wasn't sure ..." Troy started, his voice only a breeze in the dawn, but wasn't allowed anything more.
Dietrich's eyes were alight with joy, his lips showing a wide smile before they claimed his lover's mouth.
"I made it." It was said as much for Troy's own belief as for the German's sake.
"Yes." Tears ran down Dietrich's cheeks but he didn't care, didn't realize that the American was looking at him with big eyes because it was the first time he had ever seen somebody cry out of happiness.
"You'll live." And with that he kissed him again.
Too tired to even lift a hand, Troy just relaxed under his lover's caresses, enjoying those intimate moments that confirmed that he was a very lucky man. Then he remembered the reason for the situation they were in, and as soon as his lips were his own again, he wanted to know about Weberling.
"He escaped," Dietrich told him matter-of-factly.
"He got rid off the handcuffs somehow." Astonished, the Hauptmann watched as some color returned to his companion's cheeks.
"He had the keys," Troy said, the whispered words almost inaudible.
It was all Dietrich could do not to echo that.
"I forgot. Sorry." A sheepish smile showed on the sergeant's face before it was chased away by a cough that wouldn't stop for a minute and leave him totally exhausted.
"I'll have to go after him," Dietrich pointed out, while holding his lover up so that he could drink.
Troy nodded, and before his head touched the sheet again, he was deeply asleep.
The jeep's trail was only slightly covered with sand and easily enough to follow, so catching Weberling depended mainly on the scientists sense for direction and his driving skills and the officer was pretty sure that his own were better.
As it was, Dietrich didn't need to chase his prey very far, but found the jeep lying on its side only about a quarter from the oasis. When the Hauptmann had stopped his VW, he could see that for no apparent reason the scientist had driven the jeep over a heap of stones, which somebody had left there as a landmark. He left the car and approached the jeep carefully, looking for Dr. Weberling. The scientist sat about 30 meters away from it, his arms pressed against his belly.
"Dietrich!" The scientist's voice sounded exerted, and as he came closer the Hauptmann could see that his face was ashen and his eyes wide with fear.
"What happened?" For a moment curiosity overrode Dietrich's resentment against the man.
"A snake, it was in the jeep. It bit me and I lost control over the car. Help me!" It was clear from the commanding tone that Weberling wasn't used to pleading.
"I can't," Dietrich told him simply.
Ignoring the comment, the scientist added, "I'm unable to move my legs anymore and I have cramps everywhere. Please, do something."
"I can't," the Hauptmann repeated. "I have no antidote whatsoever and it would be too late anyway." His face was bare of any emotion, although an inner voice was whispering how very right this all was.
"End it Dietrich." Obviously, Weberling had figured out his situation and realized that he had but one way to go. "I know how that poison works. I don't want to die like that."
Dietrich raised his brows questioningly. "So?"
"I ask you to let me die in dignity. Shoot me now while I'm still able to look proudly into death' face."
"You have no right to look proudly into any face, neither those of the dead nor those of the living." With that, Dietrich turned around briskly and walked back to the jeep.
"Dietrich, don't leave me!"
He ignored the scientist's shouts and checked the petrol can for gas. There was enough of it to burn Weberling's corpse and the rest of the virus with him.
"If you don't have the courage, then at least give me a gun."
His expression a cold mask, Dietrich returned to the dying man. "You didn't spend a single thought for those who died in agony because of your damned virus. So why should I show you any mercy?"
"Because," Weberling said calmly, "you're a man of honor. And there's no honor in watching a man die in torment."
"You're right." His eyes almost black with the intensity of the emotions he tried to control, Dietrich nodded slowly. "But this is not about honor, Doktor. This is about justice."
"He had no reply for this and didn't beg again until the cramps intensified. I burned him and the jeep when it was over," Dietrich finished his story and reached for the canteen.
For a while Troy said nothing, only observed his companion. The Hauptmann seemed withdrawn and tired to the bone, although he had just slept for several hours as Troy well knew who had briefly awaken now and again to find Dietrich deeply asleep at his side. He wondered how he would have reacted to Weberling's pleading, remembering too clearly his own pain, and Dietrich, though no victim of the virus himself, had seen more than one soldier die in agony because of it.
"It seems almost like a judgment made in heaven, the punishment fitting the crime."
The Germanís jaw muscles tightened to that as he nodded in agreement. "So I thought."
"But you shot him anyway, didn't you?"
Astonishment colored Dietrich's handsome face as he turned to him. "How do you know?"
"You gave your word you would shoot him personally, so he told me."
"Yes. I shot him." There was no telling if he regretted this promise once given in anger or if he was thankful that it had provided a way out of his dilemma.
"How do you feel?" the German asked his lover, changing the subject.
Troy grinned and shrugged. "Good. Still tired, but considering that I was on death's doorstep yesterday, really good. And hungry." And to underline that he took another spoon full of his ration. Feeling still famished even after finishing his meal, Troy noticed that Dietrich didn't eat anything and sat almost unmoving on the sheet. Putting his tin aside he crawled closer to his lover and lightly touched his chin, coaxing him around.
Brown eyes, unnaturally widened, met his gaze questioningly.
"Thank you for coming after me," Troy said quietly.
"I was not after you this time," Dietrich corrected.
His hand wandering down the German's neck, Troy smiled gently. "But you would have come even if Weberling hadn't been with me, wouldn't you? To give me the antidote."
"I don't know."
"You don't need to, I do." And with that, the Hauptmann was pulled down to a kiss that was as much gratitude as it was an affirmation of life. Unable to let such a chance pass, Troy's hand slid under the shirt and over Dietrich's chest, who made an attempt to stop him but wasn't fast enough. The moment his fingers reached the bandage, the body underneath shuddered in pain, and he withdrew immediately.
"You're hurt," he stated, and started to unbutton the German uniform.
Again Dietrich tried to stop him, but with no more effect than before.
"Let me see," he ordered, shoving his lover's hands out of the way. The skin under his fingers was hot and sensitive and he didn't need a closer look at the wound to know that it harbored a bad infection.
"You need a doctor." He gazed up at his companion and met slight annoyance.
"Tomorrow we'll go to the hospital." It was no question as far as Dietrich was concerned.
Pushing the weakness of his legs aside, Troy stood and got another bandage to replace the old one. "We should go now. This really looks bad, Hans."
Breathing deeply to fight the pain Troy was causing with his actions, the German shook his head in denial. "It will be dark soon; we'll have to wait. You're in no condition to travel yet."
Gifting him with a mixture of anger and amusement, the sergeant ruffled his lover's hair lightly. "I doubt that you'll be in any condition to drive tomorrow, so you'd better hope that I am."
"I'll make it." If sheer willpower was enough, then the Hauptmann would take them back, but they both knew that sometimes it wasn't enough.
"We'll need all our strength; better try to get as much sleep as possible."
Dietrich didn't argue over that; instead he just lay down again, his eyes following his companion's movements until Troy was settled down beside him.
"Reminds me of our last nights in the cave," he said suddenly, automatically drawn closer to his lover's body heat, although he knew that any stirring would jar his shoulder.
"Yeah." Troy smiled. "We should really work on our strategy. Where is the point in being alone when we're to sick to do anything worthwhile?"
The German laughed quietly. "I'll think it over, Sergeant, and maybe I'll be able to come up with a better ... strategy."
"Good, Captain, Iím counting on it."
Night fell with its usual suddenness, and the oasis became silent only a short time later.
To be awakened by a lover's kiss instead of his orderly's calling was a change that seemed almost worth the pain in his shoulder, Dietrich reckoned, rejoicing in the intimate moment. "You seem well enough," he observed when his mouth was finally free again.
Troy nodded. "I admit that I'm still a little bit weak on my feet, but since we won't need to walk, I'll be okay."
"Good." The German hoped ardently that Troy wasn't overestimating his strength, for he was quite aware of his own growing weakness. "Then we'll better start."
"Don't you want to eat ..."
"No." Dietrich said it adamantly. "Let's go."
They collected the lamps, sheets, and other items and put them on the back seat, then settled down themselves. It took the American a moment to start the German car, and then it stopped again only some feet later. When it did so again several times, Troy was close to admitting that Dietrich's amused comment, "It knows that you aren't German." had hit the point.
"That damned thing won't ..."
Dietrich interrupted him as he began another tirade. "Stop swearing, and try again," he suggested, adding quietly in German, "Komm schon, Junge, tu es fuer mich."
And when Troy did as he was told, while grumbling under his breath, the engine came to life and this time, the kuebelwagen drove smoothly down the sandy road.
Nothing occurred during their drive and after some time even their small talk ceased, since it was costing them too much energy. The oasis lay already more then an hour behind them, when Troy thought of asking his lover why he had been in this area in the first place, only to find Dietrich deeply asleep or probably unconscious.
Worried he hit the gas and prayed that the car wouldn't again pitch another fit. It didn't, but it was still a great relief to Troy, whose concentration was slipping more and more, when he could finally see the outlines of the hospital.
The repaired gate was opened for him, and he was not only greeted by some soldiers and nurses, but also by his friends, who could obviously walk around the place without being restrained.
"He needs a doctor!" Troy told the nurse, who was already beside the car even before it had stopped. She took a close look at the Hauptmann, then shouted some orders that Troy didn't understand to the people behind her. Two soldiers lifted Dietrich out of the VW and carried him away.
"He's being taken to surgery," the nurse - whom Troy now identified as Nurse Jutta - informed him.
"He has a bullet in the shoulder and the wound is infected ..." he started to explain, but she stopped him with a shake of her head.
"We'll take care of him, don't worry. We'll get him onto his feet again in no time." Then she stood suddenly at his side of the kuebelwagen and touched his forehead, while looking deeply into his eyes. "It seems you're over the worst; all you need now is a good rest." She smiled at the Rats who stood eagerly only some feet away. "Sergeant Moffitt, I guess you and your men know your way around here well enough to take care of your friend. He needs a meal and a bed. And a bath," she added as an afterthought. "Not necessarily in that order."
Moffitt grinned and saluted. "Yes, Maíam!"
And then she was gone, vanished into the same building Dietrich had been taken to.
"You look awful," Moffitt observed as he took Troy's arm to help him out of the car.
"I feel that way." No chance to deny it. His vision was all blurry and his feet felt as if they were made of porridge. He was most grateful for the shoulders of his friends, who took the burden of standing on his own from him. Still, he was their superior and his duty was to look after them. "What about you?"
"We're all right. Had a little fever, nothing more. Tully was the worst case, but I think it's only because he wanted to put Nurse Jutta in a mild mood," Moffitt answered, exchanging a grin with the mentioned private, who didn't contradict his teasing.
Realizing that they weren't accompanied by any German soldiers, Troy looked at the British sergeant inquiringly.
Understanding the silent question, Moffitt shrugged. "I promised Dietrich that we wouldn't leave here before we are all cleared, and he gave his word that then we could all go, including you. So there's no reason to have shadows at every step. Of course, that might change now that we have you back and Dietrich ... sick?"
"He got a bullet in the shoulder," Troy explained shortly, following his own train of thought. "And Captain Elan went along with it?" The following silence told Troy everything he needed to know.
It was Hitch who gave him the details. "The captain didn't believe in the virus; when he finally did it was too late; the antidote didn't work anymore. We buried him yesterday." The private's voice shook with emotion as he recalled the officer's last hours. His gaze met Troy's. "We didn't think you'd make it."
"Neither did Weberling, and it was a close call. But Dietrich wouldn't give up on me." Automatically the American sergeant looked back to the kuebelwagen. "And obviously it wasn't my time yet."
"Seems we owe Dietrich your life," Tully commented, putting a matchstick between his lips.
Troy nodded thoughtfully. "No doubt about that." Then he shook himself out of his musings. "Wasn't there something said about a bath?" he asked Moffitt, and the Englishman pointed ahead.
"We're on our way, Troy."
"Good." He had trouble keeping his eyes open, but the wish to get the sweat and sand off his body was stronger than his exhaustion. "You'll have to stay with me, or I might drown," he warned them, only half in jest.
His men laughed at that. "Believe me, Troy, not in this bath, that's just impossible," Moffitt told him, and with a sigh he let the picture of a comfortable bath go.
"So you're ready to go."
It was no question and so Troy didn't answer it; instead he asked, "How do you feel?"
"Better. The shoulder is healing well, and they say I won't have to fear any complications." They were alone in the room, free to speak of everything. Jutta had left them shortly after bringing the American to Dietrich's quarters.
"I'm glad to hear it." Troy looked from the German's chest, where an open shirt showed the white bandage underneath, to his lover's face. Dietrich's eyes were clear of the fever that had him in its grip for four days, and only reflected his own sorrow, the sorrow of saying goodbye.
"They think we're clear, so there's no reason to stay any longer."
"No," the German agreed. "What will you write in your report?"
"I'm still working on it." Troy sighed. "Probably that Dr. Weberling was killed when we tried to kidnap him, and that Captain Elan became ill shortly afterwards so that we stayed at an hidden oasis. Unfortunately he didn't survive. It should raise no questions. When we tell them of the quarantine flag and the many graves we have seen, it will become obvious that the information wasn't up to date. And you?"
"I'll stay as close to the truth as I dare. I will not call it kidnapping, but an attempt to defect on Weberling's part. I had to shoot him then, of course. Captain Elan was captured but died because of the disease. The men who accompanied him escaped, but we're quite sure that they didn't catch the virus."
"What if any of your men are questioned?"
Dietrich raised his brows. "The story is plausible; there's no reason why anyone should doubt it. I would be more worried if I were you."
Surprised, Troy wondered, "Why?"
"Because I simply cannot believe that Allied Intelligence knew about the hospital and Dr. Weberling, but didn't know that the quarantine was genuine." A frown darkened the officer's expression. "Tell me, did you volunteer for this mission?"
The American shook his head "No. I just got the order and off we were. Why?"
Instead of answering Dietrich seemed to change the subject. "Did you ever get the one who wrote the letters?"
"No." Troy grimaced. "We questioned Major Bracken and his staff, but only got the information that he had received an anonymous letter himself which reported our meeting, so he went to see if it was true. He showed us the letter, so we were at a dead end there." His blues eyes shone with anger about the failure.
"A pity." The German didn't say anything more, but it was obvious that he was waiting for his lover to answer an unspoken question.
"If you're wondering if the order for this mission came from Bracken's office, the answer is yes," Troy said slowly, his mind concentrated on following Dietrich's line of thought. "But that proves nothing. He could still be being used as a scapegoat."
"I doubt that. This mission was meant to be your final one, Sam. No road back. If there'd been the slightest chance of your returning, the risk just would have been too high. You could have brought the disease with you. No, whoever sent you here was sure that none of you would make it back, that you would be shot or die because of the infection. So why should he use anyone as a decoy? Who would have investigated your deaths?"
"It could still be someone else from his office."
"That is a possibility. If you see Major Bracken as someone who doesn't know what's going on in his own quarter." Dietrich's voice indicated that he didn't think that the British Major was such a man.
Troy thought it over for a while then grinned wolfishly. "You're most likely right. I guess, it'll give the good Major a real shock when I walk into his office, probably complaining of a cold."
"I'm sure it will. If not, you'll know that I was wrong." Dietrich's eyes echoed the American's amusement for a moment, then sadness returned to them.
"It's time to say goodbye."
"Yeah." What else was there to say? "God damn it, I hate to leave you, not sure when we'll meet again and if we might have to kill each other then." For all that it was spoken out of deeply-felt frustration, Troy didn't shout.
The German smiled. "I've heard that before, and thought it more than a hundred times myself, but it doesn't change a thing. We just have to take it."
"I know, but I don't have to like it, do I?"
"No." Dietrich grabbed his lover's sleeve and pulled him closer. "At least we have the chance for a real goodbye. Let's make the most of it."
"Yes, sir." Grinning widely, Troy bent down and kissed the Hauptmann almost chastely. "Goodbye," he whispered, then sat down on the bed and embraced him carefully, initiating another, much more intimate kiss.
Dietrich's good arm went around him and pressed their bodies together; he ignored the pain that this action caused in his wounded shoulder.
Out of breath they separated, their gazes locked on each other, promising and confirming more than mere words ever could. A knock on the door broke the spell. Almost guiltily, Troy stood and looked to the door, waiting for someone to enter. But it was only Jutta's voice that drifted through it, informing them that the rest of the Rat Patrol was already waiting in the jeep.
Nodding to himself, Troy walked to the door. He was afraid of turning back to his lover, not sure he could leave him if he did.
"Sam." Dietrich's voice held no question, as if he understood why the American wasn't looking at him. "Be careful. There's someone after you, and it isn't me."
"I know." With a sigh, he finally faced the German once more. "But don't worry. An enemy known is only half the danger." He gifted the blond with a salute. "Be careful yourself, Captain, there are still some things I want to do with you that we haven't had time for yet."
Dietrich brows raised at that and a mischievous gleam sparkled in his eyes, but all he said was, "Goodbye, Sergeant."
And Troy left without a further word.
The gate was wide open, and the soldiers standing guard there were ignoring the Rat Patrol's doings as they had done the last few day - it still felt strange to the Allied soldiers. From the medical staff only Nurse Jutta was there to send them on their way, being the one who had tended to them most of the time.
"Goodbye," she said and shook hands with the four of them. "Be careful, will you? I'd hate to see all my work undone."
"We'll be all right," Tully promised with a grin. "We still have a date, don't we?"
Jutta nodded. "I'll be waiting for your call when the war is over, and if it's not coming, I'll come and search for you. Youíve been warned." She kissed him on the cheek, then stepped back from the car. The privates waved, then Hitch started the engine.
The woman followed them slowly out of the gate, a sorrowful smile on her face.
Her expression reminded Troy so much of Dietrich that the picture stayed in his mind long after the hospital had disappeared behind the dunes.
© Late 1997