A fortnight later, in my dress uniform, I prepared to leave my Magpie once again. I shook the hand of the farmer and kissed his wife on the cheek, promising to send along what I could to help out. It wasn’t necessary, they assured me, but they were grateful. Finally, I turned to my daughter. I knelt down and took her hand. She looked at me with such an earnest worry, far beyond her years.
“Father, when you go back, will you--” She couldn’t bring herself to ask the question. We hadn’t discussed it since that walk from the train station. I held her hand and looked her in the eye.
“I will fight exactly as I have fought. But with one marked difference. Now, I have something to fight for, rather than simply fighting. I fight for you, my little Magpie, and for all the daughters of England.”
She smiled, a tear on her eye. “A noble intention, father.” She recalled our discussion. “I approve.” I hugged her, and endeavored not to cry before the farmer and his wife. It would have been unmanly.
“Welcome back to the front, Captain.” Two days by train and plane had brought me back to the war, where I stood at attention before my Colonel. He looked a bit ragged, though it would not do to comment on such a thing.
“Thank you, sir. You’re looking a bit ragged, if I may say.” In retrospect, I suppose I could comment after all. The Colonel’s answer was a wry smile I found most welcome.
“You may, Captain, this once,” he replied. “It’s true enough. Jerry’s been pushing us rather hard. I hope you’re ready to jump back into the fray.”
“That I am, sir.”
“Good. You’ll take command of Delta Company, newly formed with you in mind as its commander, for a special mission, details to be given later. You’ll have your pick of Lieutenants.”
“In that case, I’ll have Georgy and Myers, sir.”
“Ah, bad news on both fronts. Myers bought it last week. And Georgy… I’m afraid he’s unavailable.”
“But you said--”
“He said you could have your pick of available Lieutenants, ye twonk.” I looked over my shoulder at the new voice, and immediately smiled at the familiar face. There was Georgy - Edwin St. George - complete with his own Captain’s insignia, and that thrice damned kilt. In the face of regulations, Georgy had steadfastly refused to adopt the new uniform.
“Georgy! You bloody great ox!” We embraced with much backslapping. “You’ll be shot, impersonating a superior officer like that,” I quipped.
“And you, you haggis.” Georgy and I met in the days leading up to the invasion of Normandy, but quickly became fast friends. I turned to the Colonel, who spoke.
“Captains Baxter and St. George, you will take command of Delta and Foxtrot Companies, respectively.” The Colonel looked between us a moment before focusing on me. “Captain St. George will embark on a mission similar to your own in a fortnight.”
I nod at that. “In that case, sir, I’ll rely on your good judgment for my Lieutenants, if you’ve any suggestions.” I didn’t really know the other lads in the unit.
“Very well, Captain. I’ll take a last check of the dossiers and let you know promptly. Dismissed.”
After catching up with Georgy and some of the other lads, I made my way to the company barracks. We were to have a quick two weeks to prepare for our new mission, time enough, perhaps, if the men were hard enough. At the barracks I reviewed my Company, walking the line as they stood at attention by their bunks. Reaching the end of the line, I nodded. Not bad, but room for improvement. However, first things first.
“You, lad,” I spoke to the boy at the end of the line, nearest the entrance to the barracks. “I’m afraid you’ll need to pack it in, lad. You’ve the misfortune to be in my bunk.”
“Sir?” The lad seemed confused. “Your bunk? I thought officers had their own quarters, sir?”
“That they do, lad, and I am reliably informed they are quite posh. However, I shall bunk here with you lads.” I stepped back, walking the line, raising my voice for all to hear. “An officer is expected to set himself apart, to maintain a distance, to make decisions with detachment. However, we will fight together. We will kill together. If necessary, and strictly as a last resort, we will die together. It’s only right we do everything else together. ”
I paused, looking up and down the line. They were confused. “I’ll not ask a man in this company to do a single thing I’m not prepared to do, save for taking my orders. I’ll sleep where you sleep, eat where you eat. I’ll take my turn at chores. I’ll fight beside you, and if necessary, die beside you. Understood?”
“UNDERSTOOD?!” My shout shocked them out their state of amazement.
“Understood, sir!” They shouted as one.
“Good!” I was finding my form, now. “You’ll have heard of me, I expect,” I barked. I looked down the line expecting a reply. One man obliged.
“Yessir,” the lad barked. He had a hard look in his eyes which I liked. “Captain Baxter. They call you Bloody Baxter, sir.”
I nodded at that. “Good. Then you’ll know my reputation.” I began to pace the line. “I only fight with the best! Therefore you will be the best! We will run the fastest and farthest! We will shoot the straightest! We will fight the hardest! Everything we do – every bloody thing down to cleaning the toilets - will be done better than anyone else! And I will be there with you, every bloody step of the way! Is that understood?”
They all replied as one. “Understood, Sir!” One, the lad with the hard look, shouted, “Too bloody right, Sir!” I wheeled on him.
“What’s your name, private?” He looked back at me without clinching..
“Well, Briggs, you’ve just earned yourself an extra stripe. Congratulations, Corporal.”
Kevin leaves his flat, locking up and walking out. He turns up the block, walking toward the pub on the corner. It’s a popular place with the Oxford crowd, one he is known to frequent. He walks up the block the turns toward the pub while the men in the car watch him go. They wait for a minute to see if Kevin will come out, then one nods to the other.
The men are dressed in casual, ordinary clothing for the time of year: corduroy and wool. But their boots are tightly laced combat boots. They share a hardness in the eyes which interferes with their efforts to look ordinary. They each look up and down the block, making sure it’s clear before they step outside. One grabs a small bag of tools. They cross the road, walking towards the vacated flat.
“Gentlemen,” the voice from behind them sounds. They pause and turn to see Kevin, leaning up against their car, arms crossed, almost relaxed. “I believe that’s my flat you’re about to break into.”
The men look at each other. Then one reaches into his jacket. Kevin moves, blurring impossibly fast across the street. His fist slams into the man’s jaw with carefully measured force. The man staggers back and drops like... like a man who’s been sucker punched. Kevin turns toward the other, but he already has his hands up.
“Take it easy, mate!” the man tries not to shout. “He was only going for his identification.”
In a suburb of Indianapolis, Kevin wakes up in his old bedroom. He proceeds through his morning routine halfheartedly, trudging through the beginning of his day. He pauses before heading downstairs, picking up the picture of him with Jenny, taken in that photo booth a year ago. He sighs, then replaces the picture and heads downstairs.
Jenny left school last month, her Masters finished in only one year. She’s been accepted to Johns Hopkins, on the other side of the country. Kevin remembers the bitter sweetness of their last night together. They made promises, but part of Kevin doubts they’ll be able to keep them. Already, a month later, they’re not talking every day like they promised. Jenny’s working for her town doctor for the summer. Kevin’s got his own job, working tech support. A job he’s in danger of being late for. Again.
Kevin grabs some toast and heads for the bus. He jogs, head down, thinking of Jenny. He isn’t paying attention to where he’s going until the blaring horn commands his attention. Kevin look up. A pickup truck bears down on him in the middle of the road. Kevin drops his bag as he realizes he’s wandered into the street. Fear and anguish course through Kevin. He curses himself for being late; this never would have happened if he’d been on time. Now he’ll never see Jenny again. He’ll never get to tell her he’ll wait as long as it takes. Never get to see her smile again.
It's called Expression. Only six years since the first on record, science has figured out some of why it happens, but but none of how it happens. Fortunately, lack of understanding doesn’t prevent it from happening. The stress coursing through Kevin triggers a reaction in a part of his brain - a part most people don’t yet know exists. This part taps into a form of energy which is all around us, an energy which responds to the conscious and unconscious demands of a properly attuned brain. Without trying, without knowing how, Kevin pulls this energy into him, where it courses through his body and brain, changing it. Kevin watches as everything but him him seems to slow to a crawl. The truck bears down on him at a snail’s pace. His falling bag drifts lazily toward the ground. Across the street a woman begins to open her mouth in a scream. The entire world barely moves.
Kevin reaches out and grabs his lazily wafting bag. He turns and walks back to the sidewalk. He moves casually, and is a little surprised to see and feel the strap of his bag snap as if yanked with great force, but the bag follows. Kevin stops a few paces later, turning to catch his bag and watch. The truck inches by, driver turning to look at Kevin, eyes widening. Kevin hears the squeal of brakes slowed to a deep rumble in his ears, and the woman’s scream, even lower, almost painful to Kevin’s ears.
Then it ends. Kevin slows as the truck squeals to a halt. The woman’s scream dies, strangled in her throat as she tries to make sense of what just happened. The driver leaps from his truck, running toward Kevin to see if he's alright, still unsure what he's seen. Kevin looks at his watch and sighs, still trying to process what just happened. But he's also still late, and would really rather not deal with this right now. His bag with the broken strap clutched in his arms, Kevin takes off running. The driver of the truck and the woman watch as he vanishes in moments.
Kevin is Delta. He will never be late again.
The night before our deployment, The Colonel called me in for a final briefing and review of orders. Ours was a special mission. We wouldn’t see home again until war’s end. Some of us would never see home again. The briefing was short, and the colonel turned his attention to my men.
“Captain, Delta Company has consistently outperformed every other Company in all aspects of the their training.”
“Too bloody right, Sir,” I replied, forgetting myself. But the Colonel accepted my reply with aplomb.
“Indeed.” He looked down at the papers before him before continuing. “I have heard of some of your more... unorthodox decisions as Company Commander. But in reviewing your file, I can find no fault in your results. My only remaining concern is your ability to lead these men into battle.”
I had prepared for this. “Sir, I understand your concern. By refusing to set myself apart from the men, by involving myself in their affairs, I have formed a bond that you fear will adversely affect my ability to deliberately put them in harms way when necessary.”
“Too bloody right, Captain. A leader must maintain an objective view of his men, lest he lose his nerve. He must--“
“With respect sir,” I interjected. “You’ll agree this is a somewhat exceptional situation. It requires a different sort of handling.”
“Explain, Captain,” The Colonel said.
“Sir, you know of my rather unusual nature,” I began. The Colonel nodded. “Soon, the men will know it too. When they learn the truth of me, it will set me apart. I will become something other in their eyes. I have experienced this otherness directly. For this mission to succeed, I cannot permit the fear, suspicion, and mistrust which may reuslt. By forging a trust with them now by these means, I will more easily keep the trust a commander needs in the field. I must be able to rely on my men, and they must know they can rely on me. I must overcome any doubts before they arise.”
The Colonel nodded at that. He was a decent sort, and the otherness of which I speak had never passed his lips, though I’d seen it in his eyes that first day. “Sound thinking, Captain.”
I nodded. “Yes sir. It is not a traditional arrangement, but I am not a traditional Marine. I believe by bunking with my men, by eating with them, by performing chores with them, I have earned a trust and respect deep enough to weather the shock they will soon face.” I looked the Colonel in the eye. “Is there a danger that I will become too close? No sir, there is not. I care for my little girl first, England and the King second. I’ll send an entire division of my friends to certain death if it serves either one.”
I kept my eyes on his. I silently dared him to doubt my resolve. He blinked first. Looking back down at his papers to cover, he spoke.
“Very well, Captain. You may proceed. Dismissed.”
I threw a crisp salute. “Thank you, sir.” I retreated from his tent.