Chapter 32 - Danielewski

McQueen realized that he had backed Kylen into a corner. That had been his intention, but he also perceived that unless she had some room in the conversation to move - to breathe - he would get nothing but crap platitudes for a response. McQueen knew only that he was not comfortable with Kylen working for The Big Boys in Intel. For whatever reason, it set off a buzzer in his brain. Kylen would now have to answer McQueen's question, but he wanted a meaningful answer. He would give her room while she gathered her thoughts.

"Take your time, Kylen. Don't answer until you are ready. I want a straight answer. Maybe not tonight, but before you go home. Don't expect my help with Dale or Amy until you answer me," he said, guessing that she hadn't told them yet and would want his support in that quarter. People were not likely to be pleased with her latest maneuver. "As for Nathan and your family - you are on your own there."

Kylen gave him a weak smile. This was very important to her. I should have known he would want more information - that he would demand answers. She sat in silence and toyed with her food. She took the occasional bite and avoided looking at Colonel McQueen. Above all, Kylen didn't want the man to think she was just a Corps Groupie. She had heard about civilians, both men and women, who just liked to be around Marines for several different reasons - a number of which she was sure McQueen found distasteful - but with one constant: The Mystique.

"They want me," she said in a tiny, pitiful voice that McQueen had never heard before and didn't much care for. Kylen hoped that he could recognize the importance of the statement - what it meant to her. His face remained impassive. It wasn't his 'blank' face, it was his 'waiting' face. Kylen saw no glimmer of understanding in his eyes - not that that necessarily meant a whole lot. She felt forced to go on and continued in a stronger voice.

"Howard and Radford want me for who I am - who I am today. They want my br ains enough to hire me as a civilian. They acknowledge my life, and they don't try to ignore the obvious. They don't want me for the person that I used to be. She doesn't interest them a whole lot. They want my experience - my new experiences. Some people try and pretend that this past year never happened, but I can't. It's too massive. Radford ... Howard ... They accept it like they accept the fact that I'm right handed."

The Colonel nodded. As much as he didn't want to agree with her, McQueen was forced to admit a certain logic to her statement.

"Kylen, don't you think you need to take more time? Time for yourself and for your family? You should take time to sort all this out; to regroup and rebuild. Make sure that working for Howard is what you really want ... really need to do." McQueen still saw a problem. The Big Brass had been giving Kylen the red carpet treatment. The Corps, while rightfully proud of taking care of its own, was not well known for altruistic gestures.

Kylen smiled inwardly. McQueen had just offered her a piece of advice he wouldn't follow if his life depended on it. Kylen wished that he would take time during this leave to go on a vacation or some kind of personal retreat. Given the state of the war, he probably didn't even conceive of taking an interval for himself - of this, she was sure. Kylen looked into his face, wanting very deeply to tell him: 'Heal thyself.' Now was not the time. The fight was still too fresh, and McQueen was not in the mood. Kylen didn't want to be sent to Coventry again - she was far too lonely, so she returned to his question about the job offer.

"It is a worthwhile and important job," she said. "It's something 'outside' of myself. It's something bigger than just me."

"Colonizing a new world was something pretty big, Kylen. It's not like you haven't tried to be part of important things - tried to do big things with your life," McQueen said.

"That's it. I tried to do big things with MY life," Kylen said. "Yea, sure, there was and is the need to expand our boundaries - natural resources, food, energy, fuel, and water. We all know the drill, but the Colonies were going to be agro or industrial outposts for generations. We weren't out there paving the way for a mass emigration. Yes, it was an important thing, but I was going - Nathan and I were going for ourselves - because we had a dream to go into space. It all seems a bit selfish to me now."

"I don't think it was selfish. Your dream coincided with larger events. You were luckier than most people," McQueen said, and then recognized the foolishness of his response. He had been thinking of her life up to the point of being separated from Nathan. "Up to a point," he quickly amended.

"Up to a point," Kylen repeated sardonically. McQueen gave an anemic 'sorry about that' gesture. Kylen dismissed the gaffe with a wave of her hand and continued. "Working so closely with the Corps... It is for me, as well, I suppose... I can't lie about that ... But it is working for something much more significant. It is for something outside of myself. It is a service that I can render. And now, this is where you tell me that there are other ways that I can support The War Effort."

"No," he said softly. McQueen had been thinking about telling her just that, but he wasn't going to say it - not now. Therefore, it wasn't a lie. He had promised never to lie to her.

"You know me well enough by now," Kylen moved her case forward. "I had the juice to leave my home and family to travel to Tellus - to do it even without Nathan. I would have been gone for at least twelve years. I'm not the classic 'Jody Back Home' of Marine Corps legends - either the good stories or the bad ones. Seriously, can you see me sitting around keeping the homefires burning, wrapping bandages? I wasn't that person - ever. Not even on a good day ... Not in college and not during my training for Tellus."

McQueen wondered for a split second just how many of the 'Jody Back Home' stories Kylen had heard by now. The fables were notoriously hard on the symbolic 'girl you left at home.' He was distracted for only a split second, that was a topic for a different conversation. He wasn't going to be thrown off the scent. McQueen had to admit that he didn't see Kylen sitting around waiting for news from the front. The Colonel tried to imagine her living her life like that - riding out the war at the farm ... waiting for mail ... waiting for news. He couldn't see it, as much as he wished to. It was a forced and false image. Kylen had spent the last few years of her life on the bleeding edge of science and technology. She had prepared herself to do something remarkable. Kylen had not only sat in the front of the bus; she expected to know who was doing the driving.

Kylen spoke again: "I'm smart and I'm not without skills. Could I find something else to do? I suppose I could if I had the energy to look for it, but no one is beating down my door. This appeals to me. I feel like I can really help and I will feel closer to Nathan ... We've been apart for so long already. Who knows how much longer...."

"You have to realize, though, Kylen, that most of intelligence work is mundane. You will probably be doing the most mind-numbing jobs imaginable. Believe me, a lot of it is stultifying," McQueen interjected. He had decided to try a different tack. He would appeal to her innate sense of honor, of propriety. "Do you really want to sit in a basement office somewhere reading other people's mail? Intelligence covers that little gem of a job. That is what censors do, you know."

Kylen hadn't even considered that possibility. She looked away from McQueen and into her scotch. Kylen knew that all communications were censored. She remembered a security guard sitting next to her when she called home from the Nightingale, but Kylen had never really thought about the fact that somewhere a person was actually doing the censoring. It was not a comfortable prospect.

"They didn't tell you that, I see," McQueen pressed the advantage. "Everything is screened electronically for 'hot' words and phrases, numbers and names. But guess what, Kylen. Either before or after, it gets the once-over by a pair of human eyes. The system acts as a double check. The censors flag questionable information and write up their little reports about gossip, rumors and morale. They keep lists about people and events, Kylen - it's necessary. I know you can understand that fact, but I have trouble picturing you doing it - paddling around in the backwaters of people's private thoughts."

Kylen squirmed a little in her chair. What a way to make a living, she thought. It made absolute sense, unfortunately. She had heard the AI's repeating television shows that had aired after the mission had left for Tellus. The enemy was getting current information from somewhere.

"Who watches the Watchers, I wonder?" she asked McQueen. "And who watches the Watchers who watch the Watchers?"

Irony is a Maginot line drawn by the already condemned, Kylen, he thought. McQueen didn't want her to slip out of his grasp. She wouldn't fall for his censorship ruse for too long. If Howard wanted to keep an eye on her he didn't really have to offer her a job. It would be easier to have her under his direct control, but I don't think that's the idea. And if it isn't, then it isn't going to take Kylen long to figure out that Howard didn't ask her to come aboard to snoop through people's mail. She will figure that out soon enough. McQueen decided to put on a bit more pressure.

"Kylen, you understand the term 'need to know,' but do you know the military definition of something being classified 'Compartmentalized?'" McQueen asked. If she cracks a joke about compartments or doors, I'll wring her neck, he thought.

"It's another way the military classifies Top Secret," she answered seriously.

"Good girl. The letter says 'analysis.' You will probably only see information about a small piece of any operation. You may never get the whole picture. Let's suppose information crosses your desk that concerns Nathan's group. Suppose our MEU...." McQueen stopped and looked for her understanding.

"Marine Expeditionary Unit," she recited. He nodded and continued.

"…Our MEU is going to be put into harm's way. You could conceivably know this even before I would ... or whoever is in command would," he corrected. McQueen remembered that he was no longer part of the 5th MEU. What the unit did wasn't his business any longer. "And you could certainly know before West. Could you still analyze the information in a dispassionate fashion? Could you give an honest opinion? People aren't going to want to hear 'I don't think I can do this.' And they aren't going to have the luxury or the time to think 'Is this something Kylen shouldn't see?' They want good, honest, reliable information. There are two hundred thousand Marines out there. They all have families - people who are waiting for them to come home." He paused. "Could you keep yourself in check and your head screwed on straight? Could you not try to warn Nathan?"

"Yes, I think that I could," she said calmly, with surprising maturity. She had already considered this possibility.

"Oh, you think so? And how do you know this?" he asked doubtfully. How could she grasp the concept of command decisions - the weight of making choices about the fates of men and women that you are responsible for? Could he spare her the choices of Demios?

Kylen gave a tiny smile. "Satori," she whispered to him.

McQueen narrowed his gaze. He read in her face that she understood the term and was, without a doubt, using it correctly. This, he had to hear. He gestured for her to continue.

Kylen had reviewed the pros and cons in the middle of the night and in the early morning hours; pacing around the keeping room and then walking out over the fields at the farm. The ever-curious Holsteins had surrounded her. Their breath had created jets of steam - fog in the predawn cold. Kylen had drawn comfort and strength from their nearness and heat - their calm but guarded demeanor. The soft, striking, black-and-white pelts and the placid stares were part of her internal landscape. She knew these things inside of herself. Kylen had rested, leaning against a particularly friendly 'Mama,' her arms around the powerful neck. Underneath the scent of earth and sweat there was a distinctive sweetness in the smell of the dairy cattle. Kylen looked back toward the barns and the house - the place where she had spent most of her life. She had left it once before, but it had always been her home. Life seemed so different back then. Life was different now. The farm would always be a place she could come to; a place to rest in - an anchor and a safe harbor. But it wasn't her future - it was her past. With more finality than when she had left the Earth on a spacecraft, this was her past. Kylen had followed the cattle down from the high ground toward the milking parlor. She had been able to hear her father starting his morning serenade. Frank had switched to selections from My Fair Lady, and Kylen loved him fiercely.

Kylen didn't think that she could adequately describe the experience to McQueen. She thought: How do you really explain Satori? It is by definition a personal insight. One man's Satori is another man's walk in the fields avoiding cow pies. McQueen, Mr. Eastern Philosophy, knows that better than I do. He knows that the manner and moment surrounding Satori doesn't really matter - It's the thought that counts. She was momentarily distracted by her pun. She looked up to share the joke with him. Now was not the time. McQueen would not allow her to change the subject, and her attempt to do so might change his opinion of her. He expected and deserved her answer. Dignity, Don't whine. Kylen sipped her scotch. .... And don't go around half-cocked. She swallowed and spoke in her reasonable way.

"Nathan ... all of you ... are going to go into harm's way no matter what I do. My pretending it isn't so won't make it go away. I can sit at home and wish and hope and block out as much as I can, but it will never change the facts. And, you see, I know it. I'm convinced that trying to pretend would be a slow way to make myself crazy. It's like the maxim about the elephant in the living room. The uncomfortable reality that people walk around, pretending that it doesn't exist - as if you couldn't catch the smell. Eighteen months ago I probably could have done it, I suppose, but not any more." Kylen sipped her drink again, paused and continued.

"You told me that not all news is bad news. Not everything I may hear about the 5th MEU - if I hear anything - will be bad. I'll be able to truly sleep some nights, rather than being afraid every single night. I thought I had learned early, at ten, that death will come. Momma died - It changed our lives but we still lived. My family thought I was dead - blown to smithereens. I've seen death up close and personal, and I can't stand at the gates like a wolf with K-bar in my teeth fighting it off. "

McQueen could see, however, that, in her own way, Kylen was trying to fight off death. He had seen Kylen in her 'mother wolf' mode and, in fact, got an impressive visual of her standing in front of the Gates of Hell yelling: 'You gotta come through me, you bastard." His vision was interrupted when she spoke again.

"If I do put together information that Nathan was going into danger - like he isn't in danger everyday," Kylen interjected, giving McQueen a meaningful eye. "If I knew that he was going into danger, don't you think that I would be even more meticulous? Good intelligence, good analysis could mean his survival. My silence could mean his survival, probably even more than my trying to tell him. He has become one of you - a soldier - a Marine. He knows his job, and now I'm beginning to understand it too." Kylen felt like her explanation was dissolving into babble with no clear direction.

"Colonel McQueen, I've spent too much time in the dark. Don't expect or ask me to stay there. I'll be able to do my job."

McQueen understood Satori. He did not argue the point.

Chapter33 - Dante

"Is there anything else, Kylen?" McQueen asked her.

Kylen sighed. It was obvious that she was making up her mind just how much to tell him, but she had relaxed and was ready to talk.

"One of the reason is selfish - I'll admit it. It is because I want to know," she confessed. "There is just too much activity around us - the survivors. Everyone tries too hard to be casual. Geez oh man, McQueen, you can see the veins standing out on their necks when they ask questions. They think that we either have a key or are a key. And I want to know what it is."

Here it comes. This could be where all the pieces fall into place, McQueen thought. He had been dreading this.

"What will that give you, Kylen?" he asked. "How will that make a difference in your life - other than just to know? And what you learn would be 'Classified,' most likely. You couldn't tell anyone - not without being locked away again in a prison or a mental hospital. Just to know what it is they think they want from you? Is it worth it?" he asked her, hoping desperately that she would pick up the intended warning. "Leave this alone, Kylen. What does it really matter?" McQueen asked. Follow your own star, Kylen, leave everything else alone, he thought. 'Come forth to see the stars again.'

Kylen, however, was not listening closely enough to pick up his thread. She went on. "I don't think that I can leave it. It is all just right there," she said, gesturing to the left of her head at something just outside her peripheral vision. "Take Aerotech. Why are they still so involved? Their main point is still questioning people. Any rehabilitation or compensation they talk about seems like an afterthought." Kylen paused. "But without knowing the reason, given that they are so involved - it's strange who is there and who isn't there. Like, just where is Sewell? He is the space exploration bigwig. I had to be interviewed by that guy twice. Smarmy. He should have been all over this like white on rice - if only for damage control."

Oh, what the hell? McQueen thought. She is too close. I can't hold this off forever. Howard must have known this would happen. He is probably waiting for it. Better it hits here, in private, than with him. The Colonel shifted in his chair.

"I don't think you will be seeing Sewell, Kylen," he said softly.

"I see that you've met the man. I can tell by the look on your face," Kylen said. "Isn't he a real piece of work? On the other hand, he would make himself scarce in all this. I swear the guy walks around with his golden parachute strapped to his back. The Aerotech Colonial Expeditions have hardly been an unqualified success have they? No, Sewell will be somewhere else, putting as much distance between himself and us as he can. He'll have moved on to something else."

"You could put it that way, Kylen," McQueen admitted.

Kylen looked at him, questioning and attentive.

"He's dead."

Kylen laughed out loud and clapped her hands. "Serves him right, the bootlicking little S.O.B.," she spat with such venom that McQueen gave a start. "Officious Little Shit that he was. Forgive me, I'll dance on the man's grave. Or did he die in space? Please, please tell me he died in space - far away from home."

This positively vicious streak in her nature did nothing to stem McQueen's worries about how Kylen would handle herself in Washington with the Big Boys. Like when she had quoted Lady Macbeth, the hairs on the back of his neck stood up.

"Kylen, I personally detested the man. But you have to remember to stay in control," he again tried to head her off.

"Not with you, Big Bird. Not with you. I can smile at them if I have to. I'll lie if I have to - but not to you. I have to have someone I can tell what I really think. Sorry, but you're it. We all hated Sewell's guts before the flight ever took off. Then after the attack and the crash ... How that condescending little worm used to wax poetic about the epic journey on which we were embarking. "Building a new life on a new world. The New Pioneers. The wonders of space." We used to devise our own tortures for him when we were down in the mines. The terrors we felt - injuries we had - we'd say: "Put that one in the bag, we take back to Sewell."

"A Silicate got him - in space," McQueen told her.

"Good," Kylen said banging the table for emphasis. She seemed to suddenly realize just how much of her hidden self she had allowed to show. The two sat in silence for a few moments while she reined herself in.

"I can see I'm going to have to spend some serious time with Dr. Feller vis a vis the Sewell issue," she lamely attempted to joke.

"Probably a good idea," McQueen replied.

Kylen drained her scotch and held it out to McQueen for a refill. She took another sip as she rose and began to clear their half eaten desserts away. Neither one of them had really been hungry. She began to think out loud again.

"Then there is the Pink ... they all want to know about the Pink ... even you. What does it do, anyway?" she asked as she busied herself at the sink. "It's important isn't it?" Her movements slowed. "How could they know it was there?"

McQueen wished that he could really read her face. He needed to see her face, but the reflection in the window above the sink was muddied and irregular. Kylen shot him a glance over her shoulder.

Click - that's one tumbler in place. he thought. She is so close. If he attempted to lie to her now she would never trust him again. Kylen won't back down and she isn't going to stop at the edge and think better of it. No, she has big brass cajones. Damn little pillar of fire. She will follow the trail until it leads her right off of the cliff. McQueen had seen things like this before with squadmates, but never with a civilian. He hoped it worked the same way.

Kylen stopped what she was doing and looked up into the window to catch McQueen's unfocused reflection. She was remarkably still.

Click. There's the second tumbler. McQueen thought. God, I hope I'm strong enough to catch her. This won't be good. It's going to hit hard and she is too passionate. As McQueen looked at Kylen, a quote floated through his mind: 'Passion has little to do with euphoria and everything to do with patience. It is not about feeling good. It is about endurance. It does not mean to flow with exuberance. Passion means to suffer.'

McQueen watched in silence as Kylen's features seemed to dissolve into a mask that he couldn't begin to describe - and never wanted to see again.

"He knew ... They knew ... Didn't they? They knew," she whispered horrified as she turned to face him.

Click, he said to himself. Another train wreck. I hope she doesn't throw up again. This is it. The lock is open. It is Kylen's choice now. She can retreat and deny it all or she can yank it all open. Get ready, McQueen, you've known all along what she will do. The sleeper will awaken. God, I'm not good at this soul-catching stuff. Make me strong enough to catch her.

He stood and took a few steps toward her. She halted him with a look. No, she would do this all on her own. The great flame that follows the little spark - Kylen would take the full force of the truth alone. It was as if she felt it was her punishment for having survived. The tumblers had all dropped into place, and the lock fell open.

"It's more than the Pink .... They knew ..... Knew about .... My God, we shouldn't have been out there, and they knew it," she said. Her voice was strained and oddly detached, and McQueen felt sick to hear it. All the suspicions and scraps of information had fallen into place. She now knew the whole picture - or at least enough of it. In a flash, Kylen's whole being dramatically altered.

"All this pain," she growled, and threw a coffee mug against the wall. It wasn't enough.

"All these deaths?" She turned and grabbed the second mug and sent it flying as well, but it was still not enough for her.

"All the dreams gone and they could have prevented it all," she cried out, picking up their plates and smashing them against the floor with all her st rength. A satisfying crash.

McQueen moved toward her. Kylen reached down and grabbed a fork. She held it firmly in her fist with her thumb against the tines. She wasn't kidding around. If he came any closer she would make a move on him.

"And you knew this," she hissed at him. "Don't even think of trying to lie to me. I know that you did. You knew. How long?" It was the final betrayal. Her anguish was unbelievable.

"Knew for sure? No doubts?" he asked her, remarkably calm. She nodded 'yes'.

"I found out the day you were rescued," he whispered. "I learned the truth and got my leg blown off." McQueen did not wish to trivialize Kylen's recognition, but he wanted want to let her know that such knowledge came at a dreadful price. A price he had tried to spare her.

Kylen considered McQueen's response as she stared into his infuriatingly calm face. He was 'handling' her again and she didn't like it, but she knew he was telling the truth. "You weren't allowed to tell me. That's why you said nothing. It's compartmentalized," she affirmed. "But you couldn't tell me anyway, could you? You didn't know how." Kylen said it as a statement of fact and understanding. "What good does it do me, other than just to know," she reiterated. Kylen looked at the utensil in her fist and let it drop to the floor.

"They knew ... And they knew where we were and they did nothing ... they left us there. They left us to die to protect their dirty secrets. This whole war.... Oh, McQueen," she groaned. "Just which Circle of Hell are we in?" Kylen slowly slid to the floor, her legs no longer able to hold her up. She didn't cry. She was beyond tears.

"Forth? Seventh? Ninth?" McQueen answered her softly. "It doesn't matter. It's their circle, not yours. You are just passing through. You don't have to stay there, Kylen. You just have to get through it." McQueen finally moved to her side. He squatted and made a move to touch her. She shocked him by abruptly pushing his hand away. It had been a big gesture on his part and he was hurt by - and did not understand her refusal. Kylen looked briefly into his face and then away again.

"No. It's taking everything I have to hold it together. If you touch me - I know I'll lose it. And I don't mean crying lose it, I mean padded room lose it," she whispered and rested one hand on his knee. McQueen remembered the time on the Asjiki when she had stood guard over him. He looked down into her face. Up until this moment and even after being a prisoner, Kylen would have gone to her grave denying that such a level of greed - of sin - existed. It was something she hadn't been able to imagine. McQueen was deeply afraid for her. He had just seen her entire understanding of life shift in twenty seconds. McQueen did not know if it would cut another facet or add another layer - or smash the jewel altogether. After a few minutes he spoke.

"Should I get Dale? He would have something for you. If not here, then at the Clinic," he suggested.

"We'll see. Not yet, anyway. Can I have some water, please?" Kylen's voice had taken on the childlike tone McQueen had heard once on the trip home. He thought that he could at least copy some of her actions. He stood and wet a towel which he handed down to her, then he drew her a glass of water. He sat next to her, their shoulders touching, while she sipped.

"I'm so cold," Kylen whispered as she drew up her knees. McQueen was aware of the signs of shock. He stood without difficulty and, not wanting to leave her alone for too long, moved to the back hall, returning with a coat that he tucked around her like a blanket. He sat next to her again. They were still for quite some time. Kylen moved her arm from under the coat and slipped it through his.

McQueen knew that he could only help so much. He could walk the trail with her, but she would have to find her way out of these woods by herself. He could not read Kylen's expression. He had always been impressed by her self-possession. Kylen did know who she was, no matter what she had feared. Kylen carried her own force within herself.

On the transport leaving the Saratoga, while Kylen had been asleep, McQueen had made the choice to touch her hair, establishing for himself that she was a real person. From the moment he had made the choice to see her as a person and not a symbol, he had felt a kinship with her defiant and determined spirit. He had envied her completeness. McQueen hadn't always understood her or read her correctly, but when he had looked at Kylen she had always been 'right there' looking back at him.

McQueen had no idea where she was at this moment. He felt that they had gotten separated. Her expression was dull and her eyes unfocused. This was the closest that he and Kylen had ever been - physically - but he felt keenly how far she had 'removed' herself from him while she tried to wrap her arms around this new reality.

Kylen began to speak in a faraway voice. "What's the first thing you remember?" she asked. "Not about this, but the very first thing in your life?" She paused but did not wait for his answer. "I remember taking my first steps. People tell me that I'm making it up, but I really do remember it. I remember my little dress - white with pink flowers - and I remember looking down at my feet. I was outside holding onto the fence with my right hand, and I remember the feeling of just letting go."

If this is what it took for Kylen to rebuild a sense of herself, McQueen was willing to go along. After a pause, he spoke.

"It is true, you know, a lot of InVitros can remember being born. Not everyone - too traumatic I suppose, and a lot won't admit to it. But I do remember being born. God, it was so cold - so uncomfortable. I think it was feeling my own weight for the first time. It was painful, really. I don't remember learning to walk though. I must have blocked that out." McQueen was surprised. He really couldn't remember it.

Again there was silence. Their conversation progressed at a slow, measured pace.

"I remember my second birthday party," Kylen went on. She spoke gently, as if she was afraid that a firm tone would cause the rest of the glass in the kitchen to crack and splinter. "Well, I remember my cake with the animals on it and blowing out the candles - where the cake was and who was standing next to me. I had on a blue dress."

"I remember learning to tie my shoes," McQueen confided. "I had a hard time learning and the monitors were angry about that, which made it worse. I finally got the hang of it after lights out - by the moonlight though the window. Clemence helped me. He made it off of Omicron Draconis and he survived Port Riskin, too." He paused, remembering. "I don't know where he is now."

"You should look him up," Kylen suggested as she rested her head against his shoulder. "I remember learning to tie my shoelaces too. It must be a universal. I finally got it on a Sunday morning. I was sitting on my parent's bed. Mom was still under the covers and Dad was just in from milking." Kylen rested for a few moments, matching her breathing to his. "How old were you when you learned to ride a bike? A two wheeler? Christian taught me. I was six."

"I've never ridden a bicycle," he confessed. "A Harley, yes. But not a bicycle."

"You have a Harley?" Kylen looked up at him.

"I was a fighter pilot. It's got to be a muscle car, a sports car or a Harley. Mine is in storage down at Loxley."

"Well, you have something to look forward to then," Kylen whispered after some consideration.

Again silence and the passage of time. It was a very slow process.

Kylen's tone of voice changed slightly. "This whole war.... This whole war," she repeated. McQueen nodded, waiting to see where she would go with the thought, but she said no more. McQueen lightly plucked a piece of pie crust out of her hair.

Kylen shifted and rested her hands on her knees. She stared intently at them, and then she slowly turned them over and stared at the palms. McQueen could only guess what was going through her mind.

"What are you looking for?" he whispered to her.

"I'm memorizing," she replied. "I wish they looked better."

"They do look better. The cuts and bruises have healed, Kylen. Your fingernails are growing out," McQueen reassured her. Her fingers had been smashed, but in a few more months the black-and-blue fingernails would grow out and the callouses would be gone. Just a few more months.

"Yes, I suppose they do. But I need to memorize them now." Kylen asserted.


"Isn't that how you control your dreams?" she asked him. "Doctor Feller told me that a person can stop a nightmare. You have to tell yourself - in your dream - to look at your hands. If you can look at your hands in your dream, the nightmare usually stops. You may wake up, but the nightmare will stop. Is this how you do it?"

"I can't control my dreams," he told her. McQueen still had killer nightmares.

"But you can. I've seen you do it. The first time I ever saw you - you were on the transport. It made me angry, watching you control things even in your sleep."

"What makes you think I was controlling my dreams," he asked, now curious. McQueen looked at his own hands.

"You would start to dream. Your breathing would change and your face would tighten. Your fingers would twitch, and then moments later your face would relax and your hands would rest and your breathing would become easy again. I was jealous."

McQueen said nothing. He wondered if Kylen was right. Maybe there were some dreams that he had been able to fight off. If there were images he had controlled, maybe there were others he could learn to beat back as well.

"Maybe you just can't remember doing it, or maybe you can't do it all the time," she said, disappointment evident in her tone. She snuggled against his side and again rested her head on his shoulder.

"Do you sing?" Kylen asked.

"Not well. Why?"

"I wanted someone to sing me, like I was a little again," she said simply.

"Don't push it," he teased her ever so gently, nudging her with his shoulder, testing her reaction. Kylen looked up and gave him a weak smile. McQueen felt he should continue to let her take her time.

"None of this had to happen, did it?" she asked.

McQueen assumed, correctly, that she was talking about the war again. "No one can say what may have happened. We could have encountered the Chigs under different circumstances. It still may have happened, but it didn't have to happen like this."

Kylen felt a strange sense of relief. She had begun to feel responsible for the start of the war - even if it had been in ignorance,

After several more minutes, McQueen felt her stir at his side. Kylen shook her head and looked around the kitchen.

"Oh, my God, what did I do?" Kylen slowly reached out and picked up a piece of broken china. She had done a spectacular job on the crockery. "Oh, thank goodness this wasn't Dale's good china. I don't think I could afford to replace that." She pulled away from McQueen, moving slowly as if she was moving through water. Kylen began to crawl around on her hands and knees picking up the pieces.

McQueen could see the tears starting in her eyes. Crying may be good at this point - I honestly don't know - but I 'll be damned if I let her crawl around through garbage as penance for having lived. It's not going to happen, he thought to himself. McQueen reached out and grabbed her arm and rather unceremoniously pulled her around to face him.

"No," he said as if she were two years old again.

"But I made the mess," she protested. "It's my job to clean it up."

McQueen wanted to explode but restrained himself, speaking through clenched teeth. "Do you really think Dale gives a hot damn about a mess in his kitchen? He cares more about you than a few broken dishes. 'Don't do your job so faithfully that you lose your peace and your life,' Kylen."

"You would," Kylen said with great simplicity, looking him straight in the eyes. The tears were gone.

"I'm not talking about being a soldier. I don't mean dying in battle, Kylen," he said.

"I knew what you meant," she said gently. "You would," she whispered it again.

Next : Chapter Thirty Four

Previous : Chapter Thirty One

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