Once Upon a Time in the East

October in Vietnam is supposed to be relatively dry, but like everything else the country was trouble. Captain Dave Carvery disdainfully glanced from under the camo sheet serving as a hooch at the drizzle. Three days straight, just keeping it sticky enough to be uncomfortable. At least he could cool his heels here, sit back and read the reports ready for November and the push into Biên Hoa. By then, if all went well, his company and the 173rd Airborne would have proven the value of long range reconnaissance patrols. He could imagine the looks on the faces of the smug bastards in the 101st when they finally discover he’d stolen their thunder. Christmas 1965 was going to be one to remember. He returned to his paperwork.

A small cough roused him, lifting his head to see a slightly built figure standing under the camo sheet, poncho sending small rivulets to the floor. The figure removed its boonie hat and snapped off a salute, revealing a 5th Special Forces badge on one shoulder below his brown bar.

“Lieutenant Tibbs reporting Sir.” The voice matched the salute; clean, neat, fresh, by the book.

Carvery returned a casual salute from his chair, taking the offered manila envelope and pointing to an empty seat.

“At ease Lieutenant, take a seat.” He scanned the contents of the envelope. One order, short and precise, that Lieutenant Tibbs should be given absolute cooperation for the duration of his visit. Straight from General Westmoreland’s desk it was not open to debate. He placed the envelope in his top drawer and regarded Tibbs with a little more interest.

“So, how can I help 5th Special Forces? It’s a long way from Nha Trang.”

Tibbs shifted a little, relaxed. “Yeah, and the airline food wasn’t that good either. The reason we’re here, that is the five of us, myself and my team, is that we’re uprating the Special Forces long range recon training syllabus. The whole process has to be more formalised as it expands service-wide, so we have to make sure we’ve got the content right back at Recondo.”

“You’re here as observers?”

“No, well not totally. We’re actually here to go out on one of your platoon or squad level recons, then bring it back to Nha Trang.”

Carvery leant back. “You’ll excuse me Lieutenant but it’s no place to send pogues. Maybe you’d be better off asking me what I think you need rather than just taking up body bags?”

Tibbs smiled, as if Carvery’s reaction was expected. “We’ve all been active in country well before the 173rd left the states, we can handle ourselves. All I need is a place for my squad with your next long-range recon and when we’re back we’re gone, it’s over. You’re happy, I’m happy, Westmoreland’s happy.” A final lift of the eyebrows and he leant back.

Carvery nodded slowly. What the hell, he didn’t want more trouble and was too tired to really care. As long as my butt’s covered if it all falls apart that’s fine, and the General’s orders were clear. He turned his hands over, palms up, fingers spread.

“As you say, we all want a happy General. Keith!” he called, his XO appearing shortly.

“Keith, Hobbs is taking Bates and Versteen’s fireteams tomorrow?”

“Yes, 0415 for seven days.”

“Tell Versteen they’re not going, Lieutenant Tibbs’ team will take their place. Find them some beans and dicks, a place for some rack time, then fill Hobbs in.”

Turing to Tibbs he continued. “The patrol leader, Hobbs, has equal rank. I’d expect you would find it appropriate to leave him in charge?”

“Absolutely. It’s all about knowing what you need, not about me.”

“Fine. Dismissed Lieutenant.” and with a cursory salute Carvery returned to his papers.

 

Hobbs slowly clenched and unclenched his fists, stretching out the cramp from sitting motionless on the ground. Since 2100 the ten of them had sat, as they would until 0600, back to back, packs on, legs out in front. Six days in, six days of absolute silence, stealth and observation. Grudgingly he admitted the rabbits he’d found himself with knew their stuff and if anything could teach his guys a thing or two. He’d feared the usual cluster fuck when he lost Versteen’s group but for once the higher highers got it right. Tibbs was ok as far as chucks went, and their rations beat his Cs hands down. No heat tabs, no dumb ass can of fruit, just taste you couldn’t believe. They’d traded readily, Tibbs’ group curious over the Cs and not at all keen to keep the cigs or gum. No matter what if even just these rations started coming his way from the fuss well, ‘Nam would be that much more bearable.

Just turning 0200 he tugged gently on the string linking him to Tibbs. End of his watch, Tibbs acknowledging the change with a nod and thumbs up, Hobbs closed his eyes and lowered his chin onto his chest pack.

They’d slowly resumed the patrol through the two allotted map squares, closing in on the PZ. Strung out in a line they’d take a few steps, stop and listen, look around carefully, then repeat the dose in total silence. This ‘still hunting’ in the deep forest was surreal, even peaceful, with dappled light and mist rain from above filtering wetness on spongy leaf-littered undergrowth silencing their steps. Hobbs was on tail, making sure their tracks and traces were clean, Trúc on point dressed in VC gear carrying an AK47. Always good having him there, come upon any dinks they think it’s one of their own, buys a few seconds in the confusion.

Hobbs’ reverie was broken by Trúc signalling, a clenched fist above his head. By the time the patrol had dropped the bullets had started whizzing over Hobbs’ head, pinning him 150 yards to the rear, scrabbling through the leaf litter. He caught sight of his men forming a skirmish line to the right and Tibbs’ to the left, with maybe 20 VC ahead. Moving up he could see they weren’t keen to engage, splitting right and left and trying to fall back. Trúc was heading deeper in, followed by Tibbs, the rest of the patrol fanning out. Hobbs was up and running for the right flank, catching the glimpse of muzzle flash off to the left. Tibbs might have been wounded he thought, watching him slow and fall back behind Trúc. Even as he looked a squad of dinks appeared to Hobbs’ right and by the time they’d been taken care of it was all over. A a quick head count came up one short. Walking to the small cluster around Tibbs he could see Trúc lying face down, pockmarked back rapidly staining his fatigues deep red. One of Tibbs’ men approached and casually hoisted the body over his shoulders. Then in line astern, Hobbs now in the lead, the patrol resumed progress to the PZ.

 

The two helicopters skimmed fast and low just above the treetops, taking the patrol back to base. Hobbs leant back and relaxed for the first time in a week, staring forwards through the plexiglass windshield at the slick carrying Tibbs and his fireteam. Trúc would be hard to replace, but losing one of the rabbits might have been worse.

One of his squad leaned in, hollering over the wind and thrashing rotor.

“Boss, I think fuckin’ Trúc was taken out by one of the chucks.”

“What’s that?”

“One of the chucks, the brown bar, I think the fucker took out Trúc!”

Hobbs shook his head and turned to face him. “Say again? You sure?”

“Sure I’m sure, the fuck I’m blind? I tell you I saw the brown bar behind him firin’, I turn to take on the fuckin’ dinks and when I turn back I see Trúc fallin’ and chuck goin’ over givin’ him a fuckin’ kick to make sure.”

“You saw him do it?”

“No, hell no, I’d my own mother fuckers to do but I know what I saw.”

Hobbs paused. Friendly fire wasn’t uncommon, but was this fragging, deliberate? He remembered the last time he’d tried to take one of these head on. He shook his head.

“Keep it shut, I’ll take it to the CO. We don’t want none of that shit, we’ll let him deal with it.”

 

Carvery looked across his desk to Tibbs. The relative cool of early evening sifted through the hooch, a gentle breeze and ruffle of leaves, small clouds of insects testing their mettle against floodlights and DEET. He’d talked to Hobbs, looked at Trúc before Mortuary Affairs had taken him away and was still none the wiser. Friendly fire or frag, accidental or deliberate, only one man knew for sure and he hadn’t said.

“Only one casualty, not too rough but a good man. You saw it?” Carvery leant back.

“Yes, I saw him go down, I was about five yards behind him.”

“How’d he buy it?”

“Not totally sure, you know what it’s like, it was all over in a minute.”

Carvery leaned back slowly, dropping one hand unobtrusively below the desk. “You know there’s talk that it’s friendly fire?”

“Can’t say that I do.”

“It’s not said casually, not the usual bullshit my grunts go on with.”

Carvery pulled the envelope from his top drawer, turning it end on end, tapping it on the desk in front of him.

“Another thing.”

Tibbs angled his head slightly.

“Hobbs tells me your squad was good, very good. Maybe too good. I’d think having your asses glued down back at Recondo would take the edge off, but not so it seems.”

Tibbs put his hands in his pockets. “So we keep our edge, you know how it goes.”

“Hmm. What do you think I would find if I gave Westmoreland’s XO a call about this,” tapping the envelope again “or asked Mortuary Affairs to have a real close look at Trúc?”

Tibbs stiffened slightly, eyes still fixed but hardened. “It might not be advisable Captain, some things are best left alone.”

“Perhaps Lieutenant but I’d need a reason. I’ve either got no trouble or shit loads of trouble and I’d need to know why I’m taking one or the other.”

“So —”

“So level with me, now. You tell me what went on now, or you tell the Adjutant General in Nha Trang from a cell. Your choice.”

Tibbs sighed resignedly. “Ok, fine, but you’ll hear me out?”

“Of course.”

Tibbs bunched then withdrew his fist from his pocket, placing his hands across his knees.

“It wasn’t the VC. It wasn’t friendly fire. I took Trúc out, deliberately. No accident, no mistake. It’s what I was sent to do.”

“Sent to do?” Carvery sneered. “Since when does the U.S. Army use hit squads or issue summary executions?”

“Who said the U.S. Army?”

“Ahh ….” Carvery moved his hand down his leg to his holster, unclipping the strap.

“And it’s not what you think.”

“Which is?”

“You’re thinking who do I work for. It’s the wrong question.”

“And the right question is?”

“Trouble.”

“Hmmmfff.” The hooch was still, an enveloping thick silence warming stale, oppressive air. “I’m waiting Lieutenant.”

“The right question is when, not who.”

“When? I know when, eight days ago.”

“No, when do I work for.”

“When do you work for?” Carvery screwed his face up. What sort of fool question was that? He slipped the safety off his pistol and coaxed it quietly out of its holster.

“Correct. You wanted it on the level, so here it is. The when is 300 years from now. I work for the future, your future.”

Carvery’s soft chuckle transformed into a cynical grunt as he bought the pistol up and trained it on Tibbs. “Lieutenant, I’ve heard some bullshit before but this beats all. Why you killed Trúc doesn’t really matter but you don’t get out of it by playing nuts.”

Tibbs hadn’t moved. “Oh but Captain, the why is critical. If I say I’m from 300 years in the future you can believe me.” He looked around slowly, through the open walls of the hooch to the camp outside. “Don’t you think it’s a bit quiet outside?”

Carvery smiled, raising the pistol until it pointed straight at Tibbs’s face. “Don’t even think about it. This conversation is over, for now at least. Keith!” he called across one shoulder, eyes still fixed forwards.

“Keith!!” louder this time, his initial call going unanswered. Tibbs sat still, a sad smile forming.

“XO! Get your fucking ass in here now!” Carvery’s eyes betrayed the slightest concern, absolute silence being the only thing answering his calls.

“No one is going to come Captain.” Tibbs commented in monotone. His hand shot out and before Carvery could react the pistol was gone, magazine and chambered round lying on the desk, pistol in Tibbs’ hand. Tibbs leant back, legs crossed, arms folded, eyes steady.

“Perhaps you will listen now. Take a good look outside Captain, tell me what you see.”

Carvery cautiously shifted his gaze over Tibbs’ left shoulder, beyond the hooch to the camp. The trees were still, silhouetted against the early evening sky. No breeze, no movement. Moths slowly circled the camp lighting … Carvery’s’ mind took several seconds to realise that no, the moths weren’t moving but were suspended in mid-air, small tufts of down dangled on invisible wires. He looked over Tibbs’ other shoulder to a group of men around a small fire. Flames, men and smoke formed an image of still life, frozen rigid. Twisting, directly behind him his XO was locked in mid-stride, back foot on the ground, front foot suspended in mid-air. His cigarette balanced at an impossible angle from the corner of his mouth, glowing amber but stubbornly refusing to be consumed. He stayed transfixed for a few seconds then, subdued and confused, turned Tibbs.

“How … I mean why are they —”

“Honestly, I couldn’t explain it if I wanted to, it’s not my area. They tell me it’s a bubble in time, we’re simply going faster than they are.” He patted his trouser pocket.

“One press and the field is up, or I can drop you out of it and you won’t even see me leave.” He smiled. “Is this enough proof to get you to listen?”

Carvery slumped slightly. “Ok, you’re an alien from three hund—”

“No alien, I’m as human as you are. In fact I’m from Boston, or more correctly from what Boston has become. You ready to listen now?”

“Sure, go ahead.”

“Right. First up the five of us, we’re all from your future and we’re all military, all Army if you like. Not strictly U.S. Army, but still what you’d call the ‘good guys’, Special Forces. We get sent out to do one thing, one thing only, and that is to kill specific individuals and do it in ways that are as invisible and unidentifiable as possible. People falling off cliffs, heart attacks, traffic accidents —”

“Casualties of war —”

“Exactly. Just as long as it looks normal for the time and arouses as little interest as possible. We get in and out fast, doing nothing to screw up the timeline.”

“So who are you targeting? Dictators, despots, what? Trúc was just another dumb ass on the ground, what’s he to you?”

“What was Trúc? He was one of us, someone who didn’t like it then. You see we don’t go back for people in their own time who do things we don’t like. Think about it. Each time we have a change in government or policy a different set of people would be up for the chop. Give it long enough and no-one would be left.” Tibbs looked at the ceiling.

“When we found out how to time travel the temptation was to go back and make it right, or go forwards and see how we’d do. It took us a little while to figure out that would never work so we outlawed any interference, visits or even just observation. Eventually we managed to control the technology and put up a … well, I guess you’d call it a barrier, a barrier to the past and future that can’t be crossed by just anyone. But it took time.”

Tibbs pulled his gaze down.

“Trouble was that in that gap there were people, we don’t know how many exactly, people who thought they didn’t like it when they were and headed back or forwards to when they thought life would be better.”

“And Trúc was one of them?”

“Yes, Trúc was.”

“And he had to be killed?”

“Look, time and history are harsh bitches, try to push them off course and they’ll move but eventually they get back on track. It’s just the how and when that’s changed. So Trúc and everyone like him pollute history, they shouldn’t be anywhen else but when they belong. Even just being somewhen else has consequences. And before you ask no, we can’t simply take them back as that would change our future, a future in which they aren’t there.”

“So he dies just because he’s here. Or is there more?”

Tibbs sighed, looking pensively at Carvery. “Guess it can’t hurt.” he murmured.

“Trúc’s not the issue. He just wanted to live in a time with more rules and different morals. If it was just him and he made no difference there’d be simpler, less complex ways to take him out. It’s his son. Decades from now his son denies someone membership of a political party. If she was admitted she would live the rest of her life as a harmless marginalised crackpot. Instead she forms her own party and leads her nation and this part of the world down a very dark path. So, we’re sent back to take him out, to do it before 10 November 1965, before his son is conceived on R&R. The only way that worked was here and now, to make him a casualty of war.”

Carvery and Tibbs sat in silence. Carvery looked again to the frozen world of the camp, to his XO leaning forward ever more improbably.

“Well ok, what do I say? It sounds nuts, it is nuts, but this” pointing at his XO “I can’t explain. But you’ve got one problem. You’ve told the whole bit to me so I know. So much for discretion and lose ends.”

Tibbs smiled sadly, slowly reloading Carvery’s pistol. “Not quite as I see it. In less than a second of ‘normal’ time my squad and I are gone, we won’t be found or remembered and all you will have is a story, a dead body and forged orders. You get two choices. One you tell the truth, all of it, and if things work for the best you get locked in a rubber room for a while until you are ‘better’ or,” and his eyes hardened “they pin Trúc’s frag on you and it’s all over. The other option is you say nothing, tell no one and it all goes down as just another ‘Nam statistic.”

Tibbs placed one hand back inside his trouser pocket, the other gripped the loaded pistol by the barrel, sliding it back across the table.

“Your choice. Thanks for the beans and dicks Captain.” with which, and a slight shimmer, Tibbs popped out of existence.

The noises of the camp returned, together with cooling breeze and smells. Keith appeared by his side nearly instantly.

“Sir??”

Carvery was taken slightly aback, then realised Keith must have heard all his calls at once. What do I say? Tibbs and his men are gone, Trúc’s still dead and all I have is a story no one will buy. He looked up.

“XO, make sure Trúc’s effects are taken care of before we break camp tomorrow. Dismissed.”

 

WU1 XV    GOVT PD    =    FAX WASHINGTON DC    DEC 04    630    PEDT    =    MRS ANNIE CARVERY.

ROUTE 5 RAVENNA OHIO =

THE SECRETARY OF THE ARMY HAS ASKED ME TO EXPRESS HIS DEEP REGRET THAT YOUR HUSBAND CAPTAIN DAVID ARTHUR CARVERY DIED IN VIETNAM ON 8 NOVEMBER 1965. HE WAS ON RECON PATROL WHEN ENGAGED HOSTILE FORCES IN FIREFIGHT. PLEASE ACCEPT MY DEEPEST SYMPATHY. THIS CONFIRMS PERSONAL NOTIFICATION MADE BY A REPRESENTATIVE OF THE SECRETARY OF THE ARMY =

JOSEPH C LAMBERT MAJOR GENERAL USA    F48    THE ADJUTANT GENERAL    DEC 02 1965

DEC    05    920A …

 

END

 

 

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