Rated PG-13 for language and violence. Anybody offended is invited to go talk to a Marine.
The explosion slammed into his eyes. His instinctive reaction was that of a good man with no hope left: he threw himself on top of his buddy, trying with his last breath to preserve something of value. His darkness was red and orange and yellow and white, and then it was simply nothing at all.
"Fire at 4 o'clock, two miles!" screamed the spotter over the pounding of the helicopter's blades. "Already on it!" the pilot screamed back, banking the helo in a turn that would have made an astronaut toss his cookies. The gunner did not bother to grunt, but simply targeted the puffs that indicated where enemy fire was targeting them.
They'd been searching for the lost patrol for a week. With any luck, they'd found them not too long after the guerrillas had.
The gunner made a significant impression on one of the launching sites, to judge by the explosion. The helo shrieked into position above the location where the last blast had landed. Two men -- what was left of them -- lay there, one on top of the other. Eyes streaming hot tears and mouths spitting mindless curses, the helo personnel not involved in piloting or shooting jumped out and grabbed their fallen comrades.
"Fuck me!" the spotter screamed. "They're still alive!"
"GodDAMNit! Let's get them OUT of here!"
"Any sign of the others?" the spotter yelled back at the helo as another blast tried to cover them and the helo with dirt and shrapnel.
The gunner grunted and swiveled his mount to respond to the source of the blast. The others took that for a "no."
"Goddamn," the spotter muttered, shoving the bits and pieces of what used to be two whole strong human beings into the helo. "Goddamn, goddamn, goddamn... Only two, but at least two.... You gotta make it, guys, you just gotta...."
The pilot was already yelling for medical into his mic, while wrenching the helo into the air on a near-Brownian-motion course that had earned the sullenly reluctant aircraft the nickname of "slick." The gunner spared a glance at the two pieces of long-pig hamburger that were still, incredibly, pumping blood. "Their fucking dog tags are gone," he hollered.
"Just fucking pray they ain't allergic to anything," the spotter hollered back, his hands moving through the pitiful excuse for a medical kit with the professional precision and blinding speed of long bitter practice.
The hastily-coded medic station nurse charged under the spinning blades before the slick reached the ground, and added his own variety of profanity to the assessment. "Looks like the fucking big guy tried to fucking play hero and took the whole goddamn blast right in the face. Shit fuck! Get 'em on the goddamn sheets, we gotta get an IV. Any a you guys O positive? We need blood, dammit, saline won't cut it." The pilot volunteered and was turned down; he needed to be able to fly again on a moment's notice. The spotter clenched his fist and held out an arm without a word. The gunner was A positive, the nurse accepted him, with a generic curse. The condition these two were in, reaction was the least of their worries.
Eight long hours filled with horror and screams -- there was nothing left in the way of anesthetic, and both of the Marines had come partially to during surgery -- and blood. The nurse finally collapsed on the plastic tent floor. "They'll live," he told the pilot and gunner brokenly, when they got back from another sweep. "Depending on your definition of living." He buried his face in his blood-soaked hands and cried red tears.
It took two months in the field hospital before either of the men were safe to move back to the states, or conscious for more than a few minutes at a time. Dental records had ID'd Johnson, but the big guy was more problematical. He fit the profile of a dozen missing Marines. Every time a nurse changed his IV, or his bandages, he or she would ask, softly, if the shattered man remembered his name. After two months, one finally got an answer. Of sorts.
"Whitney," the shreds of flesh that had once been a mouth murmured. "Lana."
Years of rehab. Years of torture. Years of sheer fucking shrieking fury. Whitney endured it. Whitney fought it, and raged about it, and cried and screamed about it. He smashed mirrors with what was left of his one hand. He spit on people because he couldn't kick them. He cursed every human being and every god ever created by them. But he did it. He made it through.
Janet, one of his rehab nurses, was a big factor in that. She would cry with him, and be stern with his sulking, and hold onto him during the nightmares. She looked at what was left of his body and her eyes shone with pride and hope. She reflected his soul and basked in the glory of it. She woke him up to feed him a piece of chocolate. She told idiotic jokes and dared him to laugh. She snuck a puppy into his hospital room and the puppy licked him until he was helpless with giggling. She conspired with him to bring in decent food and a beer. She threw a flying fit on the steps of city hall when the VA wouldn't pay for a goddamn wheelchair, and made popcorn for him while they watched the videotape of her arrest.
Whitney got in touch with Johnson. His teammate had come through a little better, he could still walk, though with a limp and a cane, and the damage to his lungs left him unable to talk much. Johnson was living on the streets. No one would hire someone with so many medical problems, and the government for which they had nearly given their lives didn't give a fuck whether they lived or died. A cold anger grew in Whitney. His mom and Janet waited on him hand and foot -- well, one hand and no feet -- but he understood that without that kind of family and luck, he might just as well have been dead.
The same force of will that had driven him to escape what he'd believed to be a dead-end life by joining the Marines came to his stead now. He hauled his own ass out of the rehab center and onto the streets himself, questioning, learning. Kicking butt when he had to, though verbally. He browbeat a city councilman into donating him an abandoned storefront for a veteran's center. He dragged Johnson in and discussed seriously whether they should beg for donations or just shoot a few of the arrogant bastards. Payback is hell, after all.
Whit Fordman became a regular feature on the front steps of city hall. He spoke, he ranted, with the controlled anger of a man with something to say, a man who has been there and done that and written the book. Embarrassed politicians tried to buy him off. Fordman the Marine was not above concealing a tape recorder and playing back their conversations in public, to the delight of every reporter for a hundred miles around.
Thus it was that he met Clark Kent again.
Whitney hardly recognized his former rival for a girl he barely remembered any more. He'd looked up Lana during a bout of morbid curiosity while Janet was at the store one day. She'd married Pete Ross, who had gone into politics in a big way. Whit shrugged. He hoped Pete knew what he was getting. Probably. Pete wasn't stupid. He was a politician, and he needed a politician's wife, a decoration. Shallow and pretty, that fit Lana perfectly. All his own burning desire for Lana had been crushed out of him during the years of putting his body back into some semblance of working order again. Lana had hung onto him because he was a jock, a star, and she needed to be in the reflected limelight. Lana would never even have dreamed of staying in the company of a man whose whole right side was all but gone.
Whit had had to squint at the man in the dweeb haircut and dweebier glasses and dweebiest blue suit to force an image of the Clark Kent he sort of remembered into his head. He'd seen Kent's byline in the paper, dismissed it as nothing useful to him. Well, maybe the paper could give a plug for his veteran's center, though the vets he was trying to bring in used the paper mostly to keep warm with, and the high-society types with money sent their checks anonymously. But here was the dweeb himself, square-jawed and somber-faced, asking him in all seriousness if there was anything he could do. Whit wanted to laugh, but his abdomen muscles had been too torn up to do that without an effort.
"Nope. Sorry, old man. But you and yours -- " a short crippled gesture with what was left of his right arm -- "can't ever understand, and there's no point in trying. Or in pretending that you want to, really. Just put a plug in for the center, if you want." Clark, red-faced, had dug in his pocket, and Whit stopped him with the voice of command. "You don't have anything I want. Don't insult me." And he'd yanked his wheelchair around with a vicious swipe of his three remaining fingers.
Clark Kent, he thought with a burning anger he had long ago buried and thought long dead. Tall and strong and handsome. With both eyes and both hands. And had never done any goddamn thing in his whole goddamn life. Whitney would have respected him more if he had been a peace protester, instead of just a neutral bystander with no courage of convictions.
At least he wrote an article praising the work the center was doing, even if it was relegated to section whatever.
Whitney finished a day in front of a government building of explaining in as loud a voice as he could muster that he and his fellow Marines had been lied to. That they had bought the crap about the government taking care of them. That they had laid their lives and then some on the line, like so many marching morons, and now the same brass that had made their honey-tongued promises wouldn't pay for a goddamn fucking painkiller prescription. Johnson had cancer, probably from the chemical warfare that had been conducted on top of them by their own people. The VA wouldn't even give him a goddamn MRI. "Can't PROVE it's service related," they had smirked.
Everybody was going home. Practically nobody was listening. Fueled by anger, as he usually was any more, he shoved his wheelchair towards the curb. Only another six hundred and seventy two shoves to home base. He'd counted it often enough. Sometimes one or two shoves more or less, but 672 was the average.
The light was green in his direction. He shoved the chair onto the intersection. And some goddamn fucking idiot ran the light.
Whit had time to look up and straight into the driver's suddenly aware and panicked face. Oh, great. I survived the battlefield, and I'm going to buy it on 6th and Main. Janet will kill me.
Something incredibly fast and solid and warm picked him up and left a repair bill for the asshole who'd run the light. Whitney opened his eye. He was suspended about fifty feet in the air, chair and all, in the arms of a character in blue spandex and a stupid red cape.
Whitney remembered the first time he'd woken completely up after being found, body on fire and weakness dragging tears from his remaining eye. He hadn't looked at the doctor's blood-stained gown. He'd looked into the man's eyes, demanding to know whether he should fight the pain or make peace with it and let go.
He didn't look at the familiar symbol on the giant legend's chest now. He looked into his eyes.
Into eyes he remembered more clearly than he remembered what his own use to look like.
Into blue-hazel eyes scarred by pain and shock and horror that Whitney knew that only one of his own could understand.
Whitney looked Superman square in the face, one of the few people he respected, knowing that he had fought the good fight against all the odds that ever were, a hundred times, a thousand times, and never given up.
Whitney immediately recognized the kid that he had fought with over Lana, the one that he hadn't recognized behind the stupid glasses, that he'd made fun of for being a wimp back in school, that he'd thought bitterly of for being neutral, that he'd dismissed as never having done anything of importance or conviction.
"Thanks, man," he whispered.
Clark blinked, as if trying to clear moisture from his eyes. Impossible, Whitney thought detachedly. Superman didn't cry. "You're welcome, sir. If I may take you to your destination? Less trouble than putting you back on the street and having to smash another car running a red light."
"That would ... be fine." I am sitting in midair talking to Superman, Whitney thought. Hell, I'm sitting in midair talking to Clark fucking Kent.
Clark set him down in front of the vet center without asking. How had he known that Whitney lived in the room behind it? Stupid question, Whit thought. Everyone in the world knew about Superman's x-ray vision.
He'd known Clark for years back in high school and never even thought to wonder why the kid would sometimes suddenly stop and look at a blank wall.
As if he could see through it.
Clark set him down on the ramp and opened the door for him. SUPERMAN opened the door. For him. Whitney stared up at him again.
Explosion-proof skin. Both hands, both legs, both eyes. And a depth of suffering and sacrifice in them that Whitney was proud and grateful to be able to try to match.
Superman hesitated, obviously ready and needing to fly off to attend to the next ten million small disasters and the earth-shattering few big ones that only he could take on. "Sir, I just wanted to say -- maybe not everyone appreciates your sacrifice. But some of us do. I do. Thank you. And I would be proud to salute you." He raised his hand as if to make the gesture.
It was not, strictly, in accordance with protocol. Whitney damn near said a bad word at the thought. The day I turn down a salute from Superman just because he never wore a hat is the day I throw myself down a manhole and feed the stray alligators.
Whitney raised his mangled left hand and made an acceptable salute for a cripple. Clark returned it. He smiled, and Whitney saw the old boyish Kent smile through the pain in both their histories. Then he was gone.
Whit Fordman shoved himself into the vet center and said several bad words to the people standing around. "I just got rescued by Superman, dammit! Make it worth his while!"
People hopped to. Whitney debated what he was going to tell Janet. Hey, babe, the guy I grew up with and once tied up in a cornfield is....
Nah. She'd have me locked up.
Whitney chivvied and harassed a few more people into getting their asses in gear, then went on into his apartment and turned on his computer. Thank Janet for the voice-activated e-mail program. It even had spell check. Whitney froze for a minute. The funding for providing the software for voice-control for the vet center had come from the Daily Planet, at the behest of one Clark Kent. Had he known...?
"Command computer e-mail on," he said carefully, even more so than usual, through his scarred and deformed lips. Voice control required precise enunciation. But right now, he also needed the time to phrase and think. "To. email@example.com. From. firstname.lastname@example.org. Subject. Hi."
"Body of message. Hey, dude. Thanks for the assist. Your article did reach a few more of the guys. We never leave our people behind, and you helped there. That makes you one of us. Sorry about blowing you off before. We get kind of tired of the hangers-on. But I guess you would know about that. Being a famous reporter and all.
"If you get the time, you're welcome to come by the center. Bring your lady, that Lois, the one who gets all the headlines. She and Janet would get along like fire and hurricanes. I know I told you that we don't talk to reporters, but I guess you've earned the right. Maybe we can work out something. If you want.
"On an old times note, sorry about tying you up in the cornfield back in high school. Well, not sorry about stringing you up in your underwear, because that was actually pretty funny. But about the necklace. Who knew?" Whitney paused to catch his breath, and a shiver went through what was left of his gut at the memory. Lana's little green meteor-rock necklace had been what the newspapers now called kryptonite. There was probably nobody on Earth who didn't know how deadly it was to their alien hero. The mental picture came back to him suddenly, now, after all these years and all the blood under the bridge, of what he'd hardly even noticed back then, the helpless sick agony twisting Clark's face when he'd laughingly tied the souvenir of the girl they'd competed over around Clark's neck. For a high school jock's stupid prank, out of a teenager's jealous malicious ignorance, he had very nearly killed Clark. Superman.
"We were dumb kids," he said softly. "We thought pain was funny." The voice program wrote a confused set of random letters. Whitney cleared his throat and left the crud on the screen. "Anyway. Got a story to tell you. When I was in rehab, they told me that I'd tried to play human shield. They nicknamed me 'man of steel.' As a joke, y'know. Maybe I should copyright it, huh? If that guy in the stupid red cape that your lady writes about all the time hasn't beaten me to it." Whitney closed his eye. Was that too blatant a hint? Would the ever-present monitoring worms put a suspicious flag on it? Surely not. You had to have known Clark in the before-times to connect him with the person he really was now. "Command computer, send."
Sunrise saw Whitney giving a Marine ration to the people who had sat in the kitchen all night leaving their mess behind. "You wouldn't let your DOG live like this! You wouldn't let your PIG live like this! Why the fuck do you do it to YOURSELVES? Get off your FUCKING ASSES and at least PRETEND that you still think you're a HUMAN BEING! Or I'll kick your ass! You don't believe me? Any fucking takers?"
"Not me," said a mild voice from the doorway. Whitney spun his wheelchair violently. Clark Kent, in slacks and a sport shirt instead of the dweebie pinstripe, lounged against the frame, hands in pockets. He turned to the slack-eyed men on the floor. "Whit there once tied me to a fence post. I wouldn't piss him off, if I were you."
Clark Kent saying "piss" made Whitney choke. Superman just said "piss," he thought. If they only knew.
Clark came into the room and started to pick up some of the mess. Whit stopped him with a sharp word. "It's past fucking time that these people started living in the real world again, and that does not include mommy cleaning up after them. You goddamn floormats, get your asses up and fix your goddamn breakfast. And then wash the goddamn dishes. Because if I have to do it, I will by god piss in them. Your fucking arms aren't broken. C'mon, Clark, let's go in back and talk. If I have to smell any armpits besides my own much longer, I'm gonna hurl. Well? WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU WAITING FOR? GET MOVING!"
It obviously hurt him to yell, and Clark stifled a wince of sympathy. Whitney spun his wheelchair and stormed out of the room as best as a person in a wheelchair could storm.
"Close the door behind you, would you?" Whitney said, far more quietly, almost uncertainly. "Thank you for coming. I wasn't sure I had the right to ask, after last time."
"Whitney." Clark seemed to be searching for words. Whitney almost snorted. A famous journalist, a superhuman who spoke dozens of languages, and he was searching for words. "If there's anyone with any right to anything, it's you."
Whitney stared up at him with his one blazing eye, into the alien's hard-as-steel ones. Eyes that could see through almost everything on the planet. That could focus heat energy to the point of melting guns. That could pick a molecule out of a mountain, or see a planet that Hubble couldn't find. Whitney stared at Superman, and Superman looked away.
"If you think I don't know what you've been through, man," Whitney said as calmly and precisely as he could, "then you're even dumber than you were back when you wore plaid. Siddown." He gestured with the ruin of his right arm, taking a perverse and unhappy pleasure at Clark's flinch. "For you, I guess I can break the code of silence." Superman looked up at him, guilt and pain etched harsh underneath the mild-mannered reporter and the world-famous facade. Shit on a shingle, Whitney thought, how could anyone not have connected the two?
How could I not have? Because I saw what I wanted to see. The privileged wimp. He stands there all slumped like that, and you just want to sneer at him and yell at him to grow a backbone, and he puts up with it, and wears the mask of the coward, because if he ever stood up straight and took a deep breath those fucking glasses wouldn't fool a blind man.
Just like people look at me and see nothing but the foul-mouthed cripple.
What was left of his mouth tightened. That is fucking damn well going to change. Right here and now. And there is no one better on this screwed up planet to help tell it.
"Y'know what it was like, being lost and having people shooting at you and wondering if you were going to live another five minutes, much less five days? Wondering what your life was worth? Whether you were saving the fucking world, or just being a prize goddamn idiot? Whether anything you did made a goddamn fucking bit of difference? Wondering if anyone knew or cared that you were out in the fucking middle of nowhere, much less why?" Whitney took a deep, slow breath. He had spent years learning to rant, and building up the lung capacity for it, but this felt more like a confession poured from the bottom of his soul. "You know what, Clark? I think you do know. I think you knew way before I did, way back in those days when I was still a baby, a jock, a piece of shit nobody. When we teased you and dissed you for always running off, for being too much a wimp to play ball or go on field trips. When you were the one always in the background, the guy nobody noticed, the odd man out." Whitney smiled at him, a grotesque distortion of a smile. "You've always known. And I'm the one finally beginning to understand."
WAR IS HELL
A Daily Planet Special Editorial
by Clark Kent
I have never been in combat. What I bring to you today is from an old friend, someone who has seen the absolute worst that war can cost us. He asked me not to use his name, because he wants us to think of him as the soldier in general, the man on the front lines of all wars, the unknown faceless grunt, yet the pinnacle of the best in humankind who represents us all.
This is the story of a hero. Not just for what he faced in combat, but for what he faces every day, the obstacles he fights to overcome with the same strength that sent him to volunteer to serve his country. It is not his Purple Heart which makes him a hero. It is his will, and his refusal to give up no matter what the odds.
This is the story of the hero who can, who should, be present in all of us.
There are no righteous wars. There are no wars which can possibly justify their cost. There may be necessary wars. But the vast majority of conflicts in which the people on our planet have engaged were not necessary, did not accomplish any worthwhile purpose, could not possibly satisfy the hearts of those who were left behind by those they loved and lost.
War is hell. This is the story of a man who has been to hell, and who, though he denies it every day and with all his heart and his every action, resides there still."
Janet flipped the paper at him lazily while Whit sipped the horribly bitter coffee that he'd learned to like because at least his mangled tongue could taste it. "Friend of yours?"
"Old high school buddy." Whitney showed his teeth. "Tried to steal my girl. Funny thing, neither of us ended up with her. Tied him up in a cornfield once to teach him a lesson." I tied Superman up in a cornfield. And put him through torture damn near as bad as what I went through. Payback is hell.
"You gonna put this up at the center? The guys might feel a little violated."
"Hah! Fuck that shit. I'm gonna get a million autographed copies and hit every guy who comes through that door in the face with it. Time they started seeing themselves for what they really are." Whitney stabbed the paper for emphasis. "Not victims. Heroes. Superman himfuckingself says so."
Whitney spewed coffee out his left nostril. Oh, SHIT! No wonder the guy never told anybody. No wonder he was always keeping to himself. How do you hide something like that your whole life? Right, Smallville High, home of the meteor freaks and one superhuman kid from another planet. "The writer, Kent. He's got, what, a dozen journalism awards, he's been all over the world covering every kind of shit imaginable, he's screwing Lois Lane, for god's sake, and if she's half as dangerous as her cousin Chloe -- I went to school with her, and trust me, she was a terror -- that would take more guts than I got left. If that doesn't make him superhuman, I don't know what does." Aside from the flying and the vision things and moving planets. Oh, shit. Maybe I better go hit myself on the head until I fuck up my memory sufficiently.
Janet still looked doubtful. "He's never been in the military."
No, he's only fought galactic wars single-handed. "Honey, there are different kinds of courage. And heroism. I told you that when I first fell in love with you. The people who protest against wars, who risk jail to fight what's wrong, are still better than the ones who sit on their fat lazy asses and do nothing. Did you read the last paragraph?"
"About the lack of government support for vets? Yeah." She picked the paper back up and quoted it. " ' Those who have turned their backs on our heroes are shameful, the worst of villains. Those who have given their all in our defense deserve nothing less from those of us who were defended. Those who are in comfortable positions of power, who fail to provide the basic necessities for those who are not, have failed in their duty as elected officials, as citizens, as human beings. If there is true evil in this world, it lies in the selfishness of the privileged few, at the expense of those who have done whatever they can, no matter how little or how great, to make the world a better place for everyone.' He sounds a little pissed off, there. I half expected him to use the f-word in the Daily Planet itself."
Whitney laughed, a harsh, choking sound. To Janet it was as bright as sunlight. Whitney could laugh. "Clark Kent use the f-word? That'll be the day that I fly."
I did fly. Yesterday. At the hands of a kid I hated, of a man I damn near worship. Who saluted me. "Honey, once we get these whiny assholes out there straightened out for the day, let's take a road trip over to the Daily Planet. I think you'd like to meet this guy."
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