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SUBIC BAY NAVAL COMPLEX, PHILIPPINES
MAY 16, 1974
The sweltering Pacific heat which filled the cramped office was entirely unaffected by the ineffectual fan buzzing on a stack of paperwork. Inexplicably, there was a large baroque clock shoved between a stack of meteorological equipment and the ubiquitous piles of paper. Commodore Everett P. Colby had tried his best to be as prim as possible. While the uniform he wore gave some allowance to the tropical heat, it was hardly ideal. He had ironed it (it was wilting), scrubbed himself clean (he was sweating) and cleared his office of flies (They had come back). He sat at his desk. Across from him, Moliere von Possenreißer had draped herself nonchalantly across a chair.
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"How was Milan?"
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"We were wondering if..."
"What do you want, Commodore?"
"What makes you think I want anything?"
"You dragged me here, Colby."
"I have no authority over you, you're not under US command.'
"Don't give me that crap, Colby, what do you want?"
The clock kept ticking. Colby's smile was a little strained. Molly just kept staring out the window.
"What?" A large file folder was slid across the desk.
"Funghiguo, it's about 800 miles south of Kunming, wedged in above Laos and Burma. Commonly rendered in English as The Mushroom Kingdom. Ethnically Bai, they were a segment of the former Kingdom of Dali that was given to the Venetians as part of a deal with the Yuans some seven hundred years back. It remained a vassal to various Italian states until Napoleon conquered Italy. A group of Italian nobles fled there, and declared themselves independent. They were occupied by Japan during the war, and returned to independence afterwards. Small, but resource rich."
"And not Commies, I notice."
"And they're not Commies."
"So what about it?"
"China. No matter how well it does in 'Nam, or Cambodia, at best it's just going to have highly co-operative allies. But Funghiguo doesn't have those countries disadvantages. It's not a Chinese ally, it doesn't have the terrain, it doesn't have the manpower to protect it's borders."
"But we do."
"Yes, we do." Colby tried to make himself straighter."Moliere, we've been in communication with our allies- NATO is willing to confirm your brevet promotion."
"On the books, you've still been a field-listed Captain since '44. We're willing to not only confirm it, but promote it. Brigadier General, along with your associated back-pay since Ortona." Molly raised an eyebrow.
"What else is it for me?" she asked. Colby grinned.
"Independent command and complete control over the combat theatre for at least a few months until the rest of the troops show up."
"What's the catch?"
"Well, for one, we can only give you a regiment."
"The 2nd Irregulars."
"Never heard of them."
"That's another catch. They're untested, brand new. Made up entirely of... your type of people."
"My type of people?" Molly's voice became icy.
"Fantastics. The non-humans, the meta-humans... the... inorganics." Colby at least had the dignity to look a little ashamed. "Look, the average CO doesn't know what to do when he gets someone with abnor- with unusual abilities. Does he single him out, and possibly ostracise him from his comrades, or does he treat like a regular grunt, and loose what could be a vital tactical advantage? This isn't an attempt to be segregationist, Colonel, this is an attempt to utilise valuable American assets. And think of a proving ground! We don't know when China will move, but if you get caught having to defend against greater numbers until we send in our full strength- you'll be lauded as heroes!"
"Greater numbers? How many troops are we talking about here?"
"Not... not many. Regiment is a bit of a misnomer, it's really a small battalion. Less than a thousand, at best."
"You're crazy. How big is this Fen... Fan...."
"Funghiguo. Forty thousand square miles, give or take."
"WHAT? You expect to defend a country the size of Austria with less than a thousand troops!"
"Don't be absurd. As I said, you'll be operating as expedition, shoring up defences and learning the lay of the land. We'll be able to get more troops in there once we finish up in some of our other theatres. In addition, the Fungese have almost fifteen thousand troops under arms. You're duty will be to liaise, and provide an American presence, in the hopes that it will deter the Reds."
"A token force, you mean."
"Please, Lieutenant-Colonel, think of what you could achieve here. You're already a living legend among the troops, think it what it would mean to all those Fantastics to see you leading in such a way. You'll go down in history!"
"I went down in history a long time ago, Commodore." Molly paused to bite a nail. "Can I think about it?"
The orderly looked disapprovingly at Molly. She objected to being ordered about, she objected to demands, and she most certainly objected to being referred to as a child. Molly, for her part, simply wanted in.
"I'm sorry, ma'am, but I cannot-"
"I'll be fine."
"But ma'am, I can't just-"
"I'm gutt, really."
"You could catch something from the-"
"Never been sick a day in my life, girl, I'll be fine."
"Colonel, I protest-"
"Oh, here we are. I won't be too long. Thank you"
"Sir, I-" SLAM. The door was closed in the orderly's face.
The inside of the hospital room was clean, with a few homely touches here and there. As a long-term patient, the effect of habitation was far less intrusive than as would be seen in a short-term patient's room. It was set up for routine, a place for everything, and everything in its place. The books by the chair for the afternoon read in the sun, the clothes placed near the bed for the early-morning dressing. The medicines discreetly placed by a pitcher of water. Photographs of children, of grandchildren, the hand-drawn pictures taped lovingly against the wall. Evidence of an amateur interest in sketching occupied a corner of a small table. The sketches were well rendered and of various things: a bird, playing children, the ocean surf. Warm and peaceful, so unlike the madcap chaos of the hallway. Snoozing in the corner was an old man, his cane by his side, surrounded by the debris of a long fought battle with a recalcitrant newspaper. At the sound of the door, he snuffled himself awake, and peered at the intruder. With consciousness came recognition, and an impish grin lighted up the old man's face.
"Possenreißer, you Jerry-bred pipsqueak of a golem, you, what in the name of God are you doing on this volcanic rock pile?" At his voice, Molly grinned like a little girl and threw herself into the old man's embrace.
"General Flagg, you curmudgeonly skeletal armerikanisch, mien Gott, how dare you sit here on your lazy ass and soak up all the sun?" With her face buried in his chest, Molly allowed herself a single moment of shock at how frail her old friend had become. Then she let it pass, and it was two old soldiers reliving old times.
"So that's their deal, General. Their equivalent exchange." It was later now, and Molly had told the General of her last few years.
"You lead their little experiment into a potential disaster... and in return, you get-"
"Power." She said it greedily, hungrily, fearfully. "It's what I've wanted for thirty years. I'm tired of this pseudo-rank, of being snubbed and having people time and time again calling up higher ups to confirm that yes, it's true, I can give them orders. Power, respect, rank...."
"And don't forget the back pay" the General said dryly. Molly snorted.
"Like I need it. Do I sound mad? Power mad, I mean? Maybe I am. I'm just tired of obeying other people's orders- think of it, Lawrence- independent command! The chance to work with my own ideas, instead of another wild charge into a line of bullets. I'm tired of Phyrus, tired of empty victories of ash. Maybe I can pull this off..."
"So you're going to take the commission, then?"
"Yes, oh, Gott, yes. For the epaulets, for the control, for the..."
"Glory?" the General suggested, a tad disapprovingly. Molly said nothing. "Achilles' Choice my dear- can you really have your cake and eat it too?"
"Come with me."
"As my military advisor" she said breathlessly "I'll break you out of hear, we'll be a wall against which the Reds will simply break themselves against. How about it?" The General chuckled.
"I'm older even then you, old friend. I've had my wars. I'm content here in my patch of sun. You go find your glory, girl. Go make me proud." The General smiled. "Sing me something, short stuff."
"What do you want to hear?"
"Something nostalgic- When The Lights Go On Again." With a smile on her face, Molly sang the old man to sleep.