I'll Be Home for Christmas--
by Sue Kite
December 9, 0900 hours, UTC+8 (coordinated universal time)
One thing that Crane fretted over was the fact that although the infection seemed to be in abeyance, Nicoli still didnít have the strength to use the crutch he had crudely put together. At least not more than the occasional trip to the head. Once the old man could get around, he would be more able to take care of his granddaughter until rescue came. And that would allow Lee the opportunity to still escape.
The other thing that worried Lee was related to the first thing. The food supply was rapidly dwindling and what was left wasnít that great for building up strength in someone who had lost a great deal of blood. He gazed at the several cans of vegetables and beans in distaste. The chili had taken the last, or rather he should say, the only canned beef and it was gone by lunch of the second day. The canned chicken was dinner and didnít last beyond that meal. Yesterday was a variety of soups, none of which had enough protein to do more than satisfy the taste buds of a young girl. Lee had tried to supplement it with more bullion, but that had only made them thirstier.
His stomach growled and he mentally ordered it to cease and desist. As it continued to grumble, Lee quickly realized that he had better luck with green rates. Sighing, he laid the cans on the counter and looked outside the window. Today, the fourth day, the sun was trying to come out, peeking between clouds that seemed to want to hang on, but didnít have the energy to do so. The temperatures appeared to be on the rise, although the wind was still enough to take your breath away. Still in all, he would have to go hunting after he had fixed something out of that conglomeration on the counter. There was water in the large pot and he threw in the last of a survival box of dried rice and along with a couple of cans of mixed vegetables and a can of navy beans. Another irony, he thought. He set the pot on the hottest eye and threw another couple of sticks of wood in the stove.
"Trying for a feast, Andjen?" Nicoli asked, not unkindly.
Lee shrugged. He knew that the old man was aware of their situation. Nicoli had apologized several times during the past couple of days when Neera hadnít been in the room. "Dr. Seuss stew," he threw over his shoulder without thinking.
"Whoís Dr. Seuss?" Neera asked, climbing on the stool near the stove to see what he was doing.
Lee mentally groaned. As hard as he tried to give as few clues to his nationality, he still let slip when he wasnít thinking. "Um, someone who came up with some weird ideas."
"Oh," she said. She had learned over the past few days that when he gave an answer that vague, she wasnít going to get any more out of him.
Lee had so smile to himself. She was a sharp cookie, he had to grant her that. Still and all, he would have much preferred to be at the Institute right now, enjoying the camaraderie of his friends and family there. It would be good to get back home. He paused in his thoughts. Here he was in a foreign enemy country, a spy, without the means to get out anymore and he was thinking about going home? There was always that chance, he admonished himself, butÖ. He stopped the thought. There was no way he was going to just leave these two. Not until he knew they would be safe.
He watched the simmering pot. The rice was swelling and the bullion, beans and vegetables were making a pretty decent aroma despite the blandness of the individual ingredients. Cookie wouldnít be impressed, Lee thought with a smile, but it would do for the day. After everything had cooked for a bit, he turned to Nicoli. "Do you have a rifle?"
Nicoli was sitting on the couch with his foot propped up. He raised an eyebrow at the question and then asked, "For hunting?"
"Yes, Grandper," Lee answered respectfully. The older man had finally given in to Leeís form of address. While Nicoli wasnít as old as his grandfather would be if still alive, he was older and Lee had been taught as a child to respect that. "We need something more than beans and carrots." He nodded toward the tree that was now propped up with split logs.
"A rifle will be very loud," Nicoli said softly. Neera looked puzzled, but Lee knew exactly what the old man was referring to and felt a rush of gratitude toward this man who was a friend in an enemy country.
Lee didnít know how deep Nicoliís loyalties to the government ran. The older man hadnít praised or vilified the Peopleís Republic leadership; hadnít mentioned them at all. And of course, Lee hadnít either. He shrugged. "Fresh meat will not come to me, I am not good at archery even if I had a bow and arrows, and trapping is too slow even if you did have traps. Even a rabbit will be enough for a meal; or to supplement one," he said, ruefully looking into the pot again. Lee pulled it off the hottest part of the stove to simmer.
"Iíve never had a rabbit before," Neera said softly, her look something between horror and curiosity.
"Rabbit is very good in a stew, Neera," Lee assured her.
She glanced at Grandper for his reaction and he nodded. "Yes, I have a rifle on the top of the wardrobe. The shells are there, too," Nicoli said, answering Leeís previous question.
"Good. Iíll chop some more wood and then set out. If Iím not back for lunch, the soup will be sufficient and it will be warm. Whether I get anything or not, I will be back before dark," he promised.
"Be careful," Nicoli said solemnly.
Crane put on the parka and other gear he had been wearing when he found the cabin. It had been given to him by his contact and had kept him very warm. He reached inside the inner pocket and felt the thin packet of microfilm smaller than a teabag and wondered if he should take it with him or not. Something told him not to. It was one of those by the gut feelings, not anything reason figured out. Most of the time those kinds of intuitions turned out to be right. He glanced around, even as he put the parka on. The tree was leaning a bit more than it had been the night before and that gave Lee an idea. He strode over and made motions to right it, his body hiding most of his actions. "Going to need to find something more to straighten this out," he murmured loud enough for the other two to hear him. One of the larger tin foil ornaments was more than sufficient to hide the tiny packet. Lee folded and crimped the edges and put the ornament back on the tree.
With that done, he turned and pulled his gloves out of his larger pocket. "Iíll get the wood done," he commented unnecessarily, then headed out the door, shutting it quickly to keep out the still cold wind. He was sweating an hour later after he had split enough wood to keep the cabin warm for another day or so. Laying the ax down, he gathered an armload and walked to the door. As if by magic, it opened wide enough for him to walk through. "Thanks, Neera," Lee said as he stacked the wood by the fireplace. "Let me get another load. That should be enough to do through the afternoon."
Within a short while, Crane had the rifle and was heading out into the woods. Small patches of blue showed among the clouds and the wind was moderating a bit. He wouldnít have long before road crews would be out in force. If they had been able to get a fix on that transmitter before it died, it would not take someone very long to get up to the cabin. Perhaps Wu-jin or government officials. It would be only as long as it took to clear the road. Something else to keep an eye out for, he thought sourly. If he got some game close to the cabin quickly; if he saw people already up on the mountain before he got back, then he could take off cross country and still have a chance.
In the two-day-old snow, he saw faint tracks cutting across his trail and he studied them. Could be a rabbit, but he had become a more fair weather boy and wasnít sure. The snow was still powdery and where it had drifted, it was difficult to wade through. He tried to keep to the more scoured areas between trees. In the distance, Crane heard the soft pounding of some sort of machinery. How far was it, he thought? He had been going downhill from the cabin, but he saw another rising slope and decided that he needed to see if he could detect what was in the valley below them. Pulling out the tiny compass he had in a different inner pocket than he had kept the film, Lee determined to head east. That way if there were people close enough to rescue Nicoli and Neera, heíd be already heading in the right direction.
Then he thought of the microfilm. Damn! If he had it, he could just take off for the coast right now. Couldnít be more than thirty, forty miles. Suddenly the pounding noise became a more distinct whump, whumping noise and Crane realized why the space between his shoulder blades had prickled. A helicopter! And it was close. Coming up from the valley. He ducked between trees and lit out in as close to an easterly direction as he could go and still stay hidden. His eyes darted around for the more dense copses, caves, anything that would better hide him, keep him from the detection devices of the approaching helicopter.
It was close enough that it beat not only the air, but upon his senses, buffeting the very marrow of his bones. There was no help for it; he had to continue. Tree limbs whipped and the snow cascaded down on his head and shoulders as he continued, threatening to blind him. They must have more sophisticated detection equipment out. They must have not only found out he was in the country, but also figured out which area he had been holing up in or direction he had been taking when this storm had hit. Now Lee was glad he had left the cabin when he did. Now he wouldnít be caught with the girl and her grandfather and they wouldnít be incriminated by his presence.
A cave! He knew there were caves in these mountains, but where? Where the hell else could he lose the tenacious helicopter? Very dense trees lay ahead of him; so dense that is seemed almost black under their limbs. A startled deer, a young buck by the look of the short spikes that preceded antlers, almost ran him over as it burst out of the dense copse. It ran back along the way he had come and Lee dashed into the trees. There was a momentary lull as the helicopter overshot and continued up the slope. He could dare to hope, but not too much. Lee continued, but followed the more dense areas, taking him a bit more south. That was okay with him right now. He was willing to go with anything that would give him a chance and the heavy forest seemed to be his best chance. The whumping continued to diminish and Lee had hope. He kept going, not slowing down even when it seemed that he wasnít being pursued.
His breath came in panting clouds right now, the slight pain in his side was growing to something he couldnít ignore, but something he had to. He needed to find a cave, a place he could crawl into and hide for a few minutes out of reach of the surveillance. The trees seemed to follow around the slope, not climbing up the steeper sides of this mountain. Lee continued along their line to the far side, then clambered down the rocks to a narrow valley filled with pines. He crossed and started up the next slope, when a smaller, faster helicopter zeroed down on him from the east. Crane ducked back behind the rocks and tried to continue using them as a quasi-shield from detection. It zipped above him and on up the slope and he had hope that his white Nordic wear had hidden him. Then he smelled it. Something in the air, something sweet and metallic and he knew, even as his senses closed downóhe knew that he had lost. They had him. The rifle clattered on the rocks from his nerveless fingers even as he fell to the ground retching at the cloying, strangling scent of gas. Then there was nothing but a bitter echo. He had lost. He had played a dangerous, stupid game and had lost.
December 9th, 1700 hours, UTC+8
Nicoli heard the thumping sound on the door and sent Neera to peer out the window. They had spent almost the whole day wondering where Andjen was, fearful for his safety, fearful for their own. Several helicopters had flown overhead, but had gone away. Most of the rest of the afternoon it had been fairly quiet. He and Neera had eaten the soup in veritable silence. Only the crackling of the new logs in the fire broke the silence for long spaces of time.
Nicoli alternated napping with worry. He practiced with the crutch, clumping clumsily until he was worried heíd fall and do more damage. Then he would sit down. Neera sat on one end of the couch, looking through the old family Bible, tracing the curlicues of the beginnings of each chapter with her finger. "Do you thinkÖ?" she would begin.
"Heís all right," he would answer. This happened several times. When the afternoon waned, he had told her to fetch another cup of the soup for each of them. He didnít remember what it tasted like this time anymore than he had the first. Why in the world, the old man berated himself mentally, would he be worried about an American interloper in his country? The man was probably a spy of some kind. It would serve him right to be captured. And yet, when he thought of such things, he would invariably feel a stabbing of guilt. Andjen had stayed because of them. But what if he had stolen dangerous secrets, or was an assassin or something of that sort? Then he and Neera would have done the Peopleís Republic a favor. Still, the man had done nothing but good for them. How could an assassin be so honorable, so compassionate to their needs? His mind was a turmoil of conflicting thoughts and reasoning.
Then came the knock.
"Grandper, itís Uncle Kroshna! We have been rescued!" Then her face fell. "What about Andjen?"
"I would guess that our rescuers found him or he has continued to where he came from," Nicoli observed.
"He wouldnít leave us, would he?"
"He would if he thought we were safe, Neera. Now open the door before that big mastodon breaks it down," Nicoli told her.
She did so and the burly man walked through the door, his eyes darting back and forth in the room. Finally he turned back to her and Nicoli. "You are both unhurt?"
"Except for the wound that I inflicted on myself trying to split wood, we are very well, Kroshna," Nicoli replied.
"Yes, Andjen took very good care of us!" Neera said excitedly. "He saved us."
Kroshna looked puzzled, his brows coming together like a brush pile in the middle of his forehead. Normally, Neera would have giggled at such a sight, but this time she was too intent on telling her information. "Yes, he came when Grandper was very sick and he took care of both of us."
"Andjen?" the large man asked.
"Yes!" she repeated. "Andjen. He came right in the middle of the storm, like someone God sent."
Kroshna frowned again, but didnít say anything for a moment. "Where is this angel now?" he asked warily.
"Who knows about such things, Comrade? If an angel, then back to heaven where angels come from," Nicoli said seriously.
Kroshna looked skeptical but finally nodded and then smiled indulgently. "Ah, but you are safe now. I will take you to your Papa, Neera, and your Grandper to a doctor. I will return with the others in the rescue vehicle. You both remain here." Kroshna left and shut the door behind him.
"But Grandper, what about Andjen?"
Nicoli looked thoughtful. "Neera, I think it would be better to say nothing else about Andjen."
"Because . . . well, I donít think he was supposed to be here. He would be in very big trouble if he were found. So if we donít say anything for several days, Andjen will be able to get away and back to his home."
Before Neera could say anything else, they heard the sound of an engine chugging itís way closer and closer. Soon it stopped in front of the cabin. Nicoli knew she wanted to ask more questions, but he shook his head as heavy steps were heard on the porch.
Kroshna came back into the cabin, another man behind them.
"By the way, Kroshna, did you find Wu-Jin?" Nicoli asked.
Kroshna nodded. "He was found dead at the bottom of the mountain."
Neera gasped. "Uncle?"
"Yes," Kroshna said tersely. "We must go now."
"Not until the fires are put out and the place readied for our departure."
Kroshna shook his head. "No, Comrade Nicoli. I will have a man clean up the place and put out the two fires. You and Neera must go down now."
This time Nicoli didnít argue. There was nothing else he could say until he saw his son.
Neera ran to the little tree and began gathering ornaments from its drooping branches. She stuffed them in with her clothes that she had carried up in a large overnight bag. Then she stood stiff by Nicoli. "I am ready to go." Still as they left the cabin and got into the mountain vehicle, she looked around, as though expecting Andjen to step out of the woods. He didnít, even as Nicoli figured he wouldnít.