Convert this page to Pilot DOC Format
Disclaimer - All resemblance to the Renaissance/ Universal Xena: Warrior Princess characters is not at all coincidental. I thank them for the loan.
Violence/Death/Language - These Uber incarnations of our favourite heroines are not at all opposed to slicing and dicing with whatever weapon is at hand, you have been warned. There are also some war references and descriptions of human rights abuses. Bit of course language here and there too...
Geographical disclaimer - Never been to Sarajevo, and this is pure fiction, no disrespect intended to anyone who lives there or has been there and realises that I haven't. I was more concerned with character than city locations. Remember this is fiction, I really don't want letters telling me this part of the city doesn't exist, I'm fully aware of it!
Subtext - But of course!
This story is dedicated to my Beta readers Lela and Roxanne who sifted through the ideas (as always) to sort out the good from the bad. Special thanks to Meg who gave me the characters in the first place, and to all of the Elitist Xenites without whose love and support I wouldn't have the sanity to write. Much love.
OUT OF SARAJEVO
"What does it mean, always moving towards these destinations, if the journey isn't joyful? The journey is what it is all about."
- Melissa Etheridge, Storytellers.
After a full year of siege the shrieking of an approaching missile was all too familiar. Sarajevo shook as a glow lit up the western sky. Almost beautiful, if it hadn't been so terrifying.
Somewhere, in the poorest districts of the city, the Serbs had dropped a bomb.
Tremors of the blast reached the fourth floor balcony of the Hotel Imperial, a run down pre-war relic, home to desperate families and conspicuous foreigners. Taylor Wilson watched, stunned, as the glow grew brighter, not with the force of the explosion, but with the blaze of city fires. Feet moved before her brain even had time to register.
There's a cease fire, a goddamned cease fire! What the FUCK are they doing dropping bombs on a helpless city in a cease fire?
Instinctively, she grabbed a packed, black shoulder bag and rushed from the shell-shocked apartment.
The rest of the city met her out on the street.
Taylor usually liked crowds. There were more faces to choose from, more reactions to pick apart with the lens, and more than enough heads to disguise one lonely American walking around snapping photographs of everything, trance-like and methodical.
Tonight they stared unanimously up at the western sky, trying to make out the height of the flames, the speed of the fire as it ripped through the stricken city. Some expressed grief, others terror. Still others breathed relief that the unsteady peace agreement had at last been broken, however paradoxical it seemed. It meant more bombs to be sure, but at least they knew to expect them.
Taylor shot them all, in close-up and in landscape, following some groups as they wandered aimlessly in the street. Shock registering, they looked desperately for something solid to grab hold of, to get their bearings again.
An educated guess told her the streets would be just as crowded all the way to the site of the blast. People would panic immediately, even those used to the steady humdrum of bombings that had reduced the city to rubble two, three, four times over again. There'd be no taxis. She'd have to walk. As she looked up into the burning sky, the stars becoming quickly overpowered by the spreading menace of debris and soot, she changed her estimation. She'd have to run.
She broke into a slow jog at first to clear the crowd, and then a full paced run as she hit a narrow alleyway. For six months she'd explored the twists and turns of this city for exactly this reason. No matter where something happened in Sarajevo, she knew how to get there, and she knew how to get there fast. It was still a semi-blind rush towards the glowing, distant ruin of whatever had been decimated by the missile. The acrid smell of fire thickened, spinning her senses into nausea.
Half an hour into her run, soaked with sweat and choking on dust, Taylor reached the first wave of refugees headed away from the blast. The smell of the fire was leading her directly into the western precinct, a temporary city built for the displaced of the war, just slightly off the centre district of Sarajevo.
The double displaced. Taylor was already writing the exhibition captions in her head.
She snapped the survivors in their burned rags, leaning awkwardly on the street railing to get out of the way of the retreating populace. The streets became harder and harder to negotiate, the winding alleyways all packed with miserable faces.
With a stunned gasp Taylor arrived on the blast scene. A five story building had been gutted, its red cross flag fluttering decrepitly, uselessly, in the smoke filled breeze. Thick flames licked at the tops of the adjoining houses, and she could see a steady stream of people scrambling from make-shift ladders, still trying to escape from the ravaged buildings so long after the explosion.
The UN hospital and the adjoining orphanage were destroyed. Snapping off quick shots of the wider picture she moved in for a closer look, skirting the refugees and aid workers as they either rushed from the blaze or attempted fruitlessly to put it out with makeshift fire fighting equipment and buckets of tap water. She captured the crews as they struggled with the hoses, their first concern to stop the blaze from swallowing the adjoining wooden structures that made up the emergency housing.
As she watched wave after wave of injured struggle from the ruins she wiped a tear angrily for her streaked face. Taylor was too much of a cynic to believe the target had been random. "Those bastards..." she whispered lamely, finger snapping madly to capture every face, every scream of anger or grief, every inch of the war-torn blast zone.
The photographer's senses stretched out and the hairs on the back of her neck bristled in warning. Distinct popping sounds betrayed the gathering momentum of the fire within the hospital building. Crews of people rushed in panic from the lower storeys as the remaining ceilings of each floor cracked and fell with a thunderous roar, spitting ash and sparks out over the crowd.
The streets gradually collected with the bodies of the fallen. Most had body parts blown savagely away, others sat in silence as city residents with some doctoring skills tended their shattered limbs, still alive but too frightened and shell shocked to utter a sound. She took a photograph of a man who seemed unharmed but who sat, wide eyed, with his hands over his ears as if to block out the rushing of the blast, or the screaming of its victims. When she tried to talk to him he stared up at her, confused and oblivious. The trauma pulled at her soul, tears welled and threatened to overwhelm her.
Cold professionalism kicked in. She stepped away, wrenching herself painfully back from the emotions of the crowd.
Then, suddenly, unexpectedly, she just couldn't. The strain of staring at the images took its toll and she stopped, out of breath, grasping at a street light that had somehow escaped the doom. The cool, steady metal stopped her from falling over, the touch an anchor. She dry retched, her throat spasming.
Her self-pity ended swiftly with a harsh tap on her shoulder.
"Hey, you with the camera, do you speak English?"
Taylor nodded her head lethargically towards the tall stranger, bile still bubbling at the top of her throat.
She swallowed hastily. Shake it off, Taylor!
"Hey? Hey! Hello? What are you, British?" The voice...American to be sure...home... Taylor was too hazy to figure out its state of origin. The woman was almost six feet tall, towering over her own small, blonde figure, with stern, deep blue eyes that cut dramatically through the squalor of the night air. "I'm...I'm American." Taylor stammered finally, feeling the illness backing off, her senses and her capacity to function returning gradually to normal. "Well, American, hold this bandage for me." The woman backed off and knelt by a five year old child about five metres away, Taylor noticed that her upper body was matted with blood and soot. On the ground tiny eyes opened wide with fear and surprise.
That woman must look like a giant running around like that, Taylor mused. Reaching for her camera was an instinct. She was pausing to take a picture of the dark haired woman when the stranger reared up sharply in barely suppressed anger.
"Did I say you should take my picture? I said you should come over here and hold this bandage for me." She flared.
Taylor dropped the camera slightly in surprise, but kept the lens aimed towards the little girl and her amateur doctor. The stranger gave her another filthy look before standing up to her full height and advancing.
"If you take my picture I'm going to ram that camera firmly up your ass. Now, hold this bandage or go and be useless someplace else. There are people dying here! Can't you think of anything more constructive to do than taking pictures of them doing it?"
Taylor recovered her wits and her indignation all at once. "I'm just doing my job. If there were enough people taking pictures of this and showing them to the world maybe this kind of crap wouldn't be happening at all." She grabbed the bandage from the woman's hands and held it in place as the stranger prepared a gauze dressing from the emergency medical kit she carried at her side. Despite being cajoled into irritation Taylor was thinking clearly enough to recognise the kit as American army issue.
"You believe what you want, just hold the damn bandage while you're doing it." The dark woman snapped in return, concentrating on covering the wound just below the girl's eye with the gauze.
The wound was already seeping, in danger of infection, a result of the thick ash and soot whirling chaotically all around them. Taylor looked up and saw that the stranger's face was so soot smeared that the woman must have been dangerously close to the fire at some point since the explosion.
Taking the bandage she wrapped it firmly around the little girl's head to keep the gauze in place. The stranger watched her closely, making sure the bandage sat in the correct spot. Taylor felt a presence and realised that an elderly couple hovered nearby, looking at the little girl with obvious anxiety. She looked up and spoke some of the few words of the Slavic language she'd picked up in her six months in the city, asking them if the girl was theirs. The couple nodded enthusiastically and reached out for the girl, who wobbled uneasily into their arms.
The girl deposited safely with her family, Taylor was free to turn her irritation to the belligerent stranger. "Now who the hell are you? Mother Theresa? I didn't think there were any army left in Sarajevo, much less dressed like you are." Taylor gave a cursory glance to the stranger's faded black t-shirt, jeans and thick boots, all covered liberally with grit.
"Do I look like I have time for chit chat?" the dark woman snapped. Taylor might have mistaken the reply for arrogance had she not been watching the barely disguised worry playing out in the woman's intense eyes.
Taylor suppressed a desire to giggle at her ability to notice such a thing, in the middle of a disaster area, underneath layers of dirt.
She watched as the stranger gathered her medical supplies together. The woman stood up hurriedly and started making her way across the littered street.
Half way across she turned back to the photographer. "Are you going to help or not? I could use someone who knows how to talk to these people." Taylor realised she was gaping. Mortified, she gathered up her chin for a taut reply. "I only know a few words, and those not very well." "Well, it's better than me. I think I know how to order ice-cream and beer."
Humour. How surprising.
"Oh so we are human after all? Not some kind of mindless robot?"
The dark woman stared back for a few seconds before shrugging, all traces of sarcasm and humour draining quickly from her sculpted features.
"Not much point in being human at the moment."
Taylor nodded quickly in understanding, still tasting the thick bile in her throat she'd not been able to expel from her body. She noted the outstretched hand from the taller woman and took the hand firmly, trying to appear stronger than she felt.
"Alex. Ryan. Look, there's about twenty guys over the other side trying to haul a hose around to that building, only they need to turn off the water pressure first so the hose doesn't throw them all over the square. I can't seem to make them see what I mean."
"Taylor Wilson. I'm on it." Taylor replied quickly, tossing the camera quickly into the shoulder pack and placing it securely on her back.
The dark woman seemed about to react, hesitated, then changed her mind. She turned away, serious concentration settling once again on dark brows. She set a course for a group of men dragging an unconscious, burn-scarred woman from the lower story of the hospital via a long rickety ladder, her lithe body moving quickly into the fray.
Dragging her eyes away, Taylor took stock of her surroundings. She looked around, breathed a lungful of the dense, dirty air, and then raced over to the men wrestling almost comically with the makeshift fire hose.
Ten minutes later as the hose was being more successfully shifted across the square Taylor turned and saw Alex again, down on all fours pumping air as best she could into the lungs of an asphyxiating woman. It appeared her mouth to mouth was rusty at best, but Taylor could see the determination on the woman's face, even through the twenty metres of dust filling the air between them.
The injured woman struggled a little and the photographer caught her breath in hope, but sighed as the woman fell back limp, the life rushing quickly from her body. The strong frame of the dark woman knelt unmoving for a few long seconds, deflated shoulders the only outward sign of frustration for the life that had slipped through her fingers.
Taylor watched closely as Alex rocked back on her heels, wiping sweat and muck from her tired brow. The photographer inside her felt that instinctive urge to reach for her camera, but something held her back.
The look on her face when I tried to take her picture before, Taylor mused, remembering. There was something more than just irritation there.
Accustomed to the myriad looks a photographer receives from their subjects, she knew when not to push her luck. Walking slowly over to the dark woman she put one hand softly on her shoulder. Alex squirmed under the touch and rose off her haunches, doing her best to look anywhere but down at the dead woman.
"Tell that guy to put this one over with the others." Alex ordered.
Taylor bristled slightly but did as the taller woman asked, stumbling a little over the difficult phrasing. One of the men overlooking the scene nodded sadly and knelt to pick the woman up in a fireman's lift, struggling under the dead weight of the body. He dumped her as gently as he could, but still unceremoniously, on the street corner. She laid there, just an empty shell, the newest addition to what was becoming a frightening pile of the dead. Relatives looking for survivors picked amongst the corpses, trying to find missing loved ones...
...all hoping desperately they wouldn't find them in this particular spot.
And Taylor knew she had to photograph that scene. Her eye framed the shot and she raised her camera slowly, meticulously fiddling with the light meter. She could feel the taller woman's gaze boring into her back but she didn't let it break her concentration. The shutter clicked.
As she turned to face Alex she expected ridicule. She was not prepared for the dark look of utter sadness.
The chaos in the streets seemed to be dying down a little, but the flames still surged along unhindered. People had begun to stand around and watch the blaze instead of trying to fight it, giving in at last to the powerful force of its nature. Taylor wondered mournfully if there had really been anything at all the city residents could have done to stop it.
A light rain had started to fall.
"All those houses there are doomed." Alex stated flatly, mirroring Taylor's thoughts. The photographer just nodded, pulling up her camera for some final shots of the buildings as they burned away, their frames collapsing, feeding the inferno.
She became absorbed in the steady clicking and inner world of the camera, losing track of the taller woman standing beside her. When she looked up finally from her work, Alex Ryan was gone.
Irrationally, Taylor searched the prints for the photo she knew she hadn't taken - of the tall, dark haired woman. She who hadn't even hung around to see the townspeople celebrate a small triumph, saving the last of a block full of rickety buildings. She had missed the lifting of the mood, as they had all clung to this ray of hope during the mourning period that had stretched on long into the night.
In the early hours there had still been at least fifty unclaimed bodies lying on the sidewalk, some not even the nursing staff who'd survived the blast could come close to identifying. Taylor had stayed long enough to watch the military cart off the corpses, off to some unmarked plot no doubt, somewhere in one of the overfilled Sarajevo graveyards.
The pictures were stunning. Even Taylor's critical professional eye had to admit that. She had already packed the negatives securely away in protective paper, tucked into the inside pocket of her shoulder bag. When she left the city these were the prints that would cause the biggest stir in the outside world.
Taylor tried not to think about the people whose faces had haunted her constantly in the two days since the fire.
Underground newspapers recorded the missile blast as an unprovoked attack. The Serbian General Milosevic, who had ordered the breach of the peace treaty, had been branded a war criminal by the UN. There was apparently a warrant out for his arrest.
Taylor had exercised all her self control trying not to laugh. The UN in Sarajevo were like the London police force everyone made jokes about, with all the officious blustering and no firepower.
Alex Ryan is so wrong, she thought. There definitely seems to be room for a sense of humour amongst all this.
A light tapping at the door brought the photographer back to reality.
"If you open that door you're a dead man, whoever you are!" She cried out loudly in twisted Slavic, collecting the still developing prints from the tanks with the tongs and placing them up to dry. With steady hands she took care not to touch the dripping glossies, knowing every second that one slip cost her another dinner, as the price of replacement photography paper - brought in by black market dealers - drained her tenuous finances just that little bit more.
She heard the tapping again. "I'll be with you in a second." This time in English, the concentration required for the procedure stripping her of her language skills momentarily. The pictures all safely out of harm's way, Taylor crossed the room and opened the door a crack, her eyes bursting with the sudden light.
"Oh God, it's you." Taylor stumbled, instantly regretting her shock.
Alex leaned on the door frame, jeans and a long sleeved blue denim shirt lurking above the same black boots. Taylor wiped the chemical residue from her hands on the back of her stained and tattered pants, pulling her t-shirt down lower over her muscled stomach. "What do you mean, 'oh God it's me' ", the woman replied suspiciously, her body instantly losing some of its casual posture. Taylor regretted the loss. She was, however, determined not to gawp like she had been doing the night of the blast.
Come on Taylor, show me some of that professionalism you're always bragging about. She grimaced inwardly.
"I think I have a right to be surprised, you seemed to express your opinion about photo-journalists fairly succinctly the other night."
The dark haired woman stuck a hand in her pocket and shrugged non-committally.
"Wait for two seconds will you? I have some prints drying in here, the less light that gets in the better."
"Why don't you come out here?" Alex suggested.
Taylor chuckled nervously. Oh get a grip girl! What are you, twelve?
"Alright." She opened the door another crack and struggled through an impossibly small opening, her slim frame barely squeezing through.
When both women were standing in the hallway Taylor finally had a chance to look the stranger up and down, without the added effect of dirt and grime to accentuate her finally sculptured cheekbones. She took in the weather beaten skin and the eyes betraying not much sleep the night before.
"You look kind of exhausted." Taylor began, indicating the blackness under Alex's eyes.
Touching her hands lightly to her eyes, Alex nodded grimly. "Too much happening in this city right now."
"There's been too much happening here for the past twelve months." Taylor replied stiffly.
Alex couldn't disagree, she merely nodded and looked deep in thought. Taylor endured the silence for long moments before her natural curiosity took over.
"What are you doing here? And how the hell did you find me in this dump?"
"I checked all the dumps an American photographer might use until I found one that had ever heard of you."
"I thought you didn't speak Slavic?"
She produced a tattered piece of paper from her hip pocket. The words Do you have a Taylor Wilson here? were scrawled across it in a spidery, economical hand, in perfect Slavic syntax.
"I had some guy in the main square who knew a few words of English write this down for me. It's worked before."
"Nice plan." Taylor replied intrigued. "But you didn't answer the 'what are you doing here?' part."
"I have a proposition for you."
Reaching into the back pocket of her jeans she pulled out a cracked leather wallet. She drew out yet another tattered piece of paper, this one with faded symbols and strange lettering.
"Don't tell me, another guy who didn't speak English decided he'd draw you a map?"
"Funny." Alex replied, not laughing.
"Yeah well, I have a bizarre defence mechanism against cryptic strangers showing up out of nowhere."
"You mentioned something the other night about wanting to stop a war." Alex interjected, bluntly.
Taylor's eyes narrowed. "I'm listening."
"So is everyone else in this hotel. Can we go somewhere and talk?"
Alex shook her head. "Army recon."
"The difference being?"
"Subtle." Taking a long sip from her glass of water Alex leaned forward slightly in her chair. "I do the jobs that military intelligence is not supposed to some back from. Expendable so to speak. So we have our own little special division. One the Pentagon doesn't talk about much. I'd be surprised if they had files."
"How many of you are there?"
"I think at last count we were about...four. They don't last long in this division. The maximum tour is two years."
"How long have you lasted?"
"Two years." She stared off into middle distance, her eyes wandering but alert. "Once I get out of Sarajevo, that's it. But I've got one more thing to pull off before I leave. Call it a personal vendetta if you will. One last mission."
"And that involves me."
Taylor lifted her feet from the chair and stiffened out her shoulders apprehensively. Staring across at her companion she sensed something about her that had been missing from the chaos of the other night, a kind of paranoia that made you feel like she was constantly watching over her shoulder, without moving her head. With the wounded she'd been curt, but efficient and compassionate. The woman she was looking at now was all duty.
"So what do you need?" She asked at last, her curiosity whetted.
"I need your reputation." She glanced over at Taylor's face, saw the incomprehension, and shifted irritably, lengthy explanations obviously not her strong suit. "I checked you out. Three exhibitions from Cambodia, one from the Middle East. You travel around on UNESCO scholarships taking pictures of war zones and shoving them in people's faces. It appears I might have a use for that after all."
Tactful, Taylor scowled. "I don't work for the government. I told them that myself three years ago."
"And they've blackballed you for funding ever since. I know, I read all about it."
"Cut the bullshit." Taylor reached for her coffee and downed half the cup at once, suddenly feeling in need of the caffeine rush. She lowered the cup from her lips and stared into it, horrified. "You obviously didn't choose this place for its coffee."
Alex raised her eyebrows blankly. Throwing a last disgusted look at the coffee Taylor was all attention.
Pausing for effect, Alex sipped with what seemed like uncharacteristic delicacy at a glass of water. Taylor could almost feel her weighing her words with care.
"You refused to join Navy Intel, after a specific presidential request, and take pictures in Cuba of Socialist activities. Why?"
"Because I'm not a hired thug. Or a spy. I don't work for one side or the other." Taylor spat, staring straight down her nose into the sharp blue eyes that studied her, too intensely, in return. An involuntary shiver raced down her spine. She chose to ignore it.
"And because you're a communist."
"I'm not a fucking communist, not that it would be any of your business if I was. Is that what your dossier told you?"
"Yes, as a matter of fact."
"I took pictures of student rallies in Moscow protesting against the economic reform that was dragging the country into the sewer. I hardly think that makes me a communist. Why the fuck do you care anyway?"
Alex looked unimpressed at Taylor's explanation. "Actually, contrary to my own department's intel, I know you were there that day completely by accident, because your girlfriend, a Russian journalist named Michaela Ornova, was meeting you outside the Kremlin building. The protest just happened around you. You shot the pictures, captured some kid being beaten to death by Russian military, and were shortlisted for the Pulitzer. I even have the pictures."
"And this is supposed to prove what? That your computer is bigger than mine?" Taylor fidgeted in irritation. "You still haven't told me why you need me."
"I'm not sure I do need you, I just have to be sure."
"Sure about what?"
"That the message gets out right." Alex breathed heavily, and leaned in even closer. "You said you were interested in making people see the truth about war?" Taylor gave what she hoped was a perfunctory nod, pretending not to notice the obvious distaste Alex had for whatever it was she was so reluctant to spit out.
Finally the recon officer steeled herself visibly, taking a deep breath.
"I'm pretty sure... no I'm positive, we have evidence of Serbian genocide."
A heavy pause hung between them.
"Holy shit." Taylor breathed, professional and personal interest snapping into focus.
"Three days from here, there's an abandoned military post that the Serbs captured from the Croats more than ten months ago. There'd been rumours...at first there was nothing specific, just enough to feed my curiosity. But then my contacts found them. Mass graves, thousands of people, innocent people, being led out and shot in the streets. Stuff the world hasn't seen since Hitler."
"And you think we can get close enough to take pictures? You're the intel expert, why don't you just take them yourself?"
"My reputation isn't all that clean, not even within the military. The shots could look posed. Like a set-up. It can't be anything that the Serbs can brush away, or deny, or that can be questioned. A TV crew would be the best thing, but there's no way we'd ever get either a crew or a satellite link in there. Stills are our best bet, and your reputation with them..."
"With my UNESCO backing, gives the UN a boost towards bringing down the law on their heads." She nodded in approval. "How long have you been dreaming up this plan?"
"Just since we met the other night, when I went back and checked your background." Taylor was surprised to see a small blush creep to the darker woman's cheeks. It disappeared almost instantly. "You wouldn't be working for the government really, just with the government. Or just me to be precise."
"And no military interference with what gets printed? My photos, my negs, my way?"
"I told them I was asking for info on another American citizen stuck here in Sarajevo. They don't even know I'm approaching you."
Taylor's brows knitted in confusion. "I don't understand."
"I was supposed to bug out a month ago, but I kept hanging around because of these rumours. Finally I got my orders. Ship leaves in four days, be on it. I've got just enough time to get out there, get the evidence I need, then it's back to the States. Maybe a war record with honours, and something to show for ten years of regular army, and two years of recon hell."
"So you'd want me to hold off with publicising the find until you're free and clear from the military..."
"Then we publish them, acknowledging both our roles in finding the evidence. You get to do whatever you like with the pictures."
"Do you know what this will mean..?" Taylor let out a sharp breath, not even realising she'd been holding it for the duration of Alex's speech.
"I'm hoping it will mean the beginning of the end to this goddamned war." Alex mumbled. "After what happened the other night it can't be fucking soon enough."
"I think we can agree on that."
She quickened her pace as she walked down the dark alley, the camera equipment she hadn't pawned off to the black market dealers wrapped snugly in its shoulder bag; two Nikon cameras, a telescopic lens, and several filters. The bare minimum for a tabloid photographer, she thought, laughing softly to herself.
After the tragic wailings of the people in the blast zone the alleys still seemed deathly quiet to her, as if the entire population of the besieged city quivered silently under their beds. Taylor looked up at the windows, some shattered with blast impacts from long ago, others shuttered and boarded to the outside world, as if the precaution would make any difference against bombs or machine guns.
What Taylor had felt in the streets the last few days had surprised her. Rather than being openly afraid of renewed attacks on the city the people seemed vaguely relieved that the inevitable end to the cease fire had come at last. Before the attacks had been worse and the devastation more intense, but at least the people had known what to expect.
During the cease fire the whole city had sat in limbo, not knowing where the next attack would fall, or when. A sense of intense paranoia had been lifted from the streets and the people of the city began to function again, in fear of course, but in fear of the expected, rather than living in horror of the unknown and unanticipated.
Taylor increased her pace until she reached the stairwell leading down to the secret cellar, deep in the centre of the city. A barber shop traded above, oblivious to the fact that a dark woman lurked underneath, information feeding madly through her sophisticated army technology.
Tapping twice at the door she heard the bolt slide, and the door creaked slowly open.
Inside she found Alex working on the sight of a long range rifle, snapping the instrument roughly into place and adjusting the distance settings. On seeing Taylor she offered no greeting, merely leant down and picked up a sidearm from the table littered with various firearms.
"Do you know how to use one of these?" She asked, preoccupied.
"Yes." Taylor replied, not making any move to reach for the gun.
"Here." Flipping the gun Alex attempted to give it to Taylor, staring confused as the woman refused to handle the weapon. The photographer looked up briefly, connecting gazes with the dark haired officer, then shuffled her eyes back to her camera bag. As unsure as she appeared, her voiced refusal was strong and decisive.
"No, I don't carry a gun."
"Don't be stupid, you want to walk unarmed into a war-zone?" Alex protested sternly, offering her the weapon again. Taylor merely stared back.
"That's exactly what I'm going to do." The photographer took out a camera and started to load it, winding the film methodically through the reels, ignoring the disbelieving gaze from her companion. A long, tense silence followed, interrupted only by the clicking of camera shutters, and the shuffling of Taylor's feet.
"Take the gun, Taylor. I'm serious. I can't always be there to protect you."
Taylor finished loading the camera and held up her "weapon" triumphantly. "I have all the protection I need."
"A camera is not going to protect you against these butchers. If they catch you, they'll kill you." The look on her face showed that the tall soldier could not even believe she was having this argument. It was a hitch the officer had not foreseen.
Taylor took a long breath. "If I wear that gun I'm forfeiting the only protection I really do have, and breaking every ethic I have ever believed in."
"What good are ethics going to do you when you're being tortured to death?"
"Maybe nothing, but then again if I'm in that situation the gun won't help me much either." Taylor reasoned, stubbornly.
"Taylor, this is not a game! These people are for real! They're not going to be impressed by pretty pictures and fancy word games."
"Hey, I know how real these people are, OK? They're as real as the revolutionaries in Cambodia, as serious as the death squads in Iraq chasing after Americans in the streets. Believe me, sometimes I feel so empty after all that I feel like ethics are the only things left inside me."
"Ethics get you killed." Alex growled, impatiently.
"Shall we check the stats on lethal guns versus lethal ethics on your funky little computer here?" Taylor shot back, sarcasm building. The stare down was intense, and neither woman could back down. "This camera has kept me alive more than once. I trust it. It protects me and doesn't get anyone else killed."
"That is just so much crap." Alex threw at her, reflexes burning. Taylor placed her camera down softly on the back pack and approached the stalking soldier who had taken to pacing the room armed with her rifle.
"When did you become so jaded?" Taylor asked, self-defensive gruffness slipping for a second as she regarded the tall officer. Alex didn't reply, she just shoved the smaller woman aside and searched in a large chest in the corner for something Taylor couldn't make out.
"Alex, I just can't. I know it seems weird, but I can't. We have just as strict rules about this as the Red Cross. We're there to record what's happening, not fight for one side or another." She sat down roughly on one of the chairs, resting her head heavily in her hands. "I use the camera to show death and destruction. I couldn't do that if I felt a part of what it is I'm trying to tell."
"You're always a part of it." Alex replied, her voice fierce. "You can never escape being a part of the violence. It's in all of us."
"You are such a prime example of what death and violence does to a person, you know that?" Taylor snapped. She instantly regretted her words as the pain of them hit home with the taller woman, but the hurt lasted only an instant before it was replaced by a cold reality.
"You're absolutely right. But now I want to do something to stop the deaths, and I don't want either of us getting killed in the process."
Taylor pulled her back pack open in front of her and stared squarely at Alex. "You are not responsible for me, Alex. This might be your crazy scheme, but I'm doing this by my own free will. Let's get that straight right now." She picked up tins of food and canisters of water from the ground, stowing them securely in the bottom of the bag. "I don't need mollycoddling, I don't need protecting, I've been doing this for a bloody long time. You take care of your own butt. I'll watch what happens to mine." Taylor's eyes hardened. "All right?"
Not a muscle of recognition twitched in Alex's stony face.
Taylor softened her features, just enough, for emphasis. "This is my life. It's what I do."
The photographer finished by setting the bag down on the ground and staring defiantly over at the soldier. Alex's only response was to snap a bullet quickly into the chamber of her revolver, and shove the gun into the holster on her belt.
Taylor carried nothing with her except her cameras, her passport, a change of socks and shirt, and the canned food that Alex had insisted they carry rather than trying to find places to eat on the road. The tall soldier shouldered a large combat pack, where Taylor had seen her pack a lightweight laptop, several hundred rounds of ammunition, several small hand grenades and a gun. Looking over at the woman she seemed to be showing no effects from carrying the equipment, and Taylor wondered at the hidden strength that must lay behind her tall, slim muscled frame.
The soldier pulled out a shabby map and began to plot points.
"What are you looking for out here?"
"Our transportation. I sure as hell am not walking all the way to the outpost."
"Didn't you say they'd spot all cars from the air?"
"All cars, yes. We need something with a little more cross-country ability."
"And you stashed it out here?"
"Safer than in the city." Alex spotted what she was looking for with a satisfied grunt and proceeded to slash her way up the brush covered incline. Taylor followed with a look veering close to amusement, watching the taller woman struggle to clear a path up the hillside that led to a small cave.
"I put this here when I first came to the city, with a can of gas and a tool kit, just in case it wasn't quite in working order when I came back for it."
Scrambling through the entrance Alex let out a small whoop of relief. The three wheeler sat exactly where she'd left it. It was covered in bat droppings and spider webs, but other than that looked in great shape. Alex chatted with the bike fondly.
"Let's make sure no one has messed with you, hey girl?"
It was relatively simple to push from its hiding place, the thick wheels churning through the dirt. The bike wasn't exactly designed for two passengers and two largish backpacks, but after stowing Alex's securely to a tray at the back and leaving Taylor to carry hers they seemed to have come up with a viable system of making it work. Alex filled up the gas tank and revved the motor of the three wheeler soundly.
"She's purring like a kitten, aren't you girl?" Alex claimed, almost proudly.
Taylor couldn't help herself anymore, she burst out laughing, tears streaming down her face. The soldier stared back in annoyance.
"What's your problem?"
"You. This bike. I'm seriously worried about your relationship to it. Is there something about you I should know? Are you going to start sniffing the oil? Fluffing it's pillows at night?" The smaller woman gasped through fits of chuckling.
There were traces of annoyance, then slight embarrassment and a flush around the cheeks. Finally, Alex relaxed enough to let her mouth break into a reluctant grin. Taylor choked on her giggles.
Figures the first hint of humanity I see in this woman is in response to an inanimate object, Taylor joked to herself, which sent her even further into hysteria. Double entendre was a beautiful thing.
Alex wiped her hand fondly over the well worn leather seat, staring down at the laughing Taylor blankly. "Yeah well, you just be nice to this little girl here," she deadpanned, "or she'll buck you right off. I've seen it happen. She isn't pretty when she gets her back up."
Alex wondered vaguely why that should send Taylor into a renewed fit of hysterics. Taylor knew that if she didn't stop laughing soon she'd bust a rib.
As the laughter died down they got ready to leave. They were just about to climb onto the bike when Alex turned back slowly. Alex searching for words looked absurdly like a tourist searching around in a foreign language phrasebook, Taylor mused. After a brief moment the dark woman looked at Taylor quizzically, unsure.
"You laugh at the weirdest times."
It was half way a question, half a statement, with more seriousness behind it than the small photographer had ever expected to hear in the soldier's tone. Taylor thought about it carefully, tightening the straps of the pack to her shoulders.
"Thank you, I think." Cautiously.
Alex looked down at the bike, back at Taylor, gave a brief nod, and then her eyes went back to the bike. The smaller woman stared into the back of the soldier and shrugged imperceptibly.
The gears on the three wheeler popped in and the bike accelerated forward.
They stuck initially to tracks beside the main road with a good level of tree cover, but after a while the vegetation was reduced to low lying shrubs that offered little in the way of protection. Alex made sure to steer the bike well off the dirt of the road so they didn't raise a trail of dust sweeping up behind them.
They were both ticking over the mission in their minds. If everything went exactly to plan they'd be back, outside the Sarajevo city limits, for the military transport, the one that would carry Alex out of her last war zone. A conservative estimate, if nothing went wrong, got them there twelve hours before the plane took off. Alex couldn't help but be dissatisfied with any plan that depended so much on "if nothing went wrong". It was in her nature to expect the worst.
A day of relatively uneventful travel passed them by. American dollars pulled casually out of Alex's combat pants had procured a tank full of fuel from a remote village seven hours from Sarajevo. Serbian tanks rolled casually down the main roads within a hundred metres of them as they crouched, silent, behind huge boulders protecting the bike from the lookouts. During these moments when they couldn't move, they ate, drank and sometimes slept a few minutes at a time, anything to ease the tension.
Taylor checked her cameras every time they stopped, the immediacy of the routine keeping her mind off the growing anticipation she felt in her chest. Alex watched her, a non-committal look settling on her dark brow.
"You do that like soldiers inspect their guns, pulling them apart and putting them back together again."
"It serves the same purpose I expect."
"Probably." Alex agreed. She continued to stare at Taylor's concentrated care of her equipment. "You know, in situations like this fake bravado is almost as good as the real thing. If you convince yourself you're not scared, chances are you'll be OK."
Taylor's head snapped up and she regarded her companion coolly, resentfully. "Let's just get the bike out and go, the sooner we get these shots the better."
As the second night drew closer Alex announced, from her less than reliable map, that within an hour they'd be at the outpost. They'd already been forced to ditch the bike two hours before due to thickening patrols, gamely avoiding detection ever since. The four or five miles they'd covered on foot criss crossed multiple times.
"If there was some kind of extermination camp here you'd think we would have seen something. Buildings, fire, heard gunshots, anything." Taylor worried.
Alex shook her head. "I don't think they kill them here, I think this is just where they bury them. And we've been seeing those trucks coming and going along that road all day. You know, the big supply trucks with the canvas backs. They have to be filled with something."
"What a pleasant thought." Taylor grimaced.
Alex looked down unrepentingly, a little bemused by the smaller woman's reactions. "The pictures won't be much good at night time, we're going to have to approach by daylight." Taylor's professional instinct glanced up at the horizon and watched the sun slowly threatening to sink. "Definitely not enough light, especially if there's any tree cover where the outpost is."
Alex kicked a boulder in frustration and dropped from her crouch into the dirt.
"So we'll have to make some kind of camp where they don't just accidentally find us." She mentally surveyed the surrounding flats. All of the nearby territory offered next to no comfortable shelter. "Half a mile back there was a low outcropping, could have been good shelter, maybe half a cave underneath it." She concluded, avoiding the look of exhausted protest from Taylor at retracing their steps once again. "You're welcome to stay here." She answered the look, dragging the photographer to her aching feet.
Willing their legs forward they began down the long flats again, towards a small pile of rocks they could just make out in the distance.
Even Alex managed to see the humour in the rabbit's "lucky escape". After a while a semi-peaceful silence fell over the pair. Their nerves still simmered as they settled in to rest their aching bodies, a solemn preparation for what they knew they had to achieve in the morning.
Alex drew a knife from her boot and started whittling away at a piece of old tree that was lying on the foot of the cave. Taylor watched fascinated as the wood carving failed again and again to take shape, just becoming a pile of wood slivers on the ground until there was nothing left of the stick to carve into.
"What was it supposed to be?" She asked bravely, motioning to the stick.
"Nothing, I just like whittling little pieces of wood." Alex replied. "Haven't got an artistic bone in my body."
Again Taylor couldn't help but laugh.
Alex picked up the dagger, and, balancing it neatly in one hand, threw it across the cave where it landed point first into a small sapling. Quivering from the impact the blade hung fast in the wood until Alex got up to retrieve it.
"Some would say that was an art form." Taylor commented wryly.
"Yeah, if you work in a travelling circus."
"Jesus Christ, Alex what is your problem?" Taylor burst out, humour vanishing. She threw the empty beans can stroppily to the back of the cave.
"My problem? I don't have a problem."
"You have a fucking chip on your shoulder the size of Mount Everest and you just won't quit. If you're not putting me down, you're dishing it out on yourself."
"Yeah well, the chip on my shoulder is none of your business."
"Oh I see. You can look up my whole life story on that fucking computer, I'm supposed to put my life in your hands tomorrow out in the field and suddenly your life is none of my business. You've got a nerve!"
"What the hell do you want to know?" The soldier sneered, peering into her own half eaten can of food. Her eyes did an involuntary comical dance and she wrinkled her nose in disgust. Seeing the action the anger drained from Taylor's eyes. She collapsed, choking on restrained laughter.
"Your...face...it...was...so...funny..." She let out a loud hiccup and started laughing again, this time producing a bemused stare from the dark haired woman.
"You are fucking nuts. You know that? And the whole goddamned Serbian army is going to be along any second to back me up."
Taylor recovered slightly from her fit of laughter and attempted a serious reply. "Better than being half catatonic most of the time."
Alex jumped up from her spot in the cave and attempted in vain to stalk out the entrance. Instead she found herself face to face with the determined, green eyes she'd been trying to avoid since the night of the bomb blast.
"Alex, I'm sorry, but you do have that GI Jane act going annoyingly well. You need to relax."
"Don't tell me to relax, nothing pisses me off more." Alex snapped back.
"It was just an observation."
"What do you expect? I'm a soldier!"
"You're a person!" Taylor drew a deep breath. Taking this particular plunge was taking more nerve than she thought it would.
No time like the present, she chanted to herself. I'll be damned if I'm going to lose any more sleep over those eyes.
She'd never been one for wasting opportunities. "And a damn beautiful one at that."
Alex froze, refusing to let shock register. Fake calmness radiated instead.
"Why did you say that?"
"Because it's the truth. Because if I get myself shot tomorrow I'll kick myself for not having said it."
"No one is getting themselves shot."
"Because you won't allow it?"
"That's a better attitude. At least you know what you can do."
"Oh yeah, I'm really good at blowing people away."
"I thought we were talking about no one getting blown away?"
"I meant us, not them."
The soldier tried to get through again, but still the small photographer still wouldn't allow Alex to run off out of the cave. She blocked the entrance thoroughly, her mere presence in the tall woman's path enough to prevent Alex from getting her desired escape route from the conversation.
"So you shot someone. Who was it?"
"I've shot lots of people."
"No, no. I mean specifically, the person you shot that you're so twisted over."
"I told you, my life is none of your business."
"I'm making it my business. I want to know everything about you."
"You don't mess around do you? You're like a fucking freight train!" Alex cried, retreating a few involuntary steps as the words crashed into her.
"No, I don't mess around, not at times like this."
"What do you want from me?" The dark woman demanded, dangerous tension oozing from every pore, eyes pulsing fire, visible even in the deepening darkness.
"This." Taylor replied quickly. Reaching up before Alex could flinch away she planted a kiss on the taller woman's lips. The blonde woman's mouth searched desperately for the truth, her tongue moving quickly to manipulate its way through shocked lips to the warm, open mouth beyond. Her lips crushed Alex's, sucking at her shortening breaths. When she thought she'd made her point she drew away, reluctantly.
"There. See? That's what I want. I thought it was pretty plain, but obviously you big soldier types are too dense for subtle hints."
"There was certainly nothing subtle about that." Alex heard her voice, it sounded like a strangled whisper. She cleared her throat and touched a fingertip to her still tingling lips. "I was right about the freight train."
"I've been called worse." Taylor mocked confidently, hands resting on her small hips.
"You certainly know how to get rid of pre-op jitters."
"Well, now we've been through every reaction, except the way you feel..."
"I don't know how I feel! I don't want to feel anything. I'll feel even more responsible for you tomorrow than I already do."
"Seriously, is that possible?" Taylor approached again, softer, with feline grace. She placed a hand gently on Alex's arm and felt the dark woman shiver, the touch speeding through both their veins, icy heat.
"Is this just a 'in case I get shot tomorrow' fuck, too?"
"You can call it what you want Alex..." Taylor dropped her voice a notch, the gravelling tones catching lightly in her throat. "...but just don't call it anything until afterwards. The question is... " Taylor reached for Alex's lips once more, "...do you want me, right now?"
The second kiss was gentle and more explorative, feeding from Alex's growing desire as the blonde woman shifted her body closer to the soldier's own. Alex placed a sweaty, nervous hand at the base of Taylor's neck, feeling the racing pulse through her fingertips.
Driven half mad by fear and frustration Alex gave in to the soft insistent pressure of Taylor's tongue and let it slide deep into her mouth. It bothered her momentarily that she was having trouble keeping one ear alert for intruders. She guessed she'd just have to trust that fate wouldn't interrupt them with a scout patrol, not right this second, not for a little while...
Alex swore under her breath and racked her brains for a solution. "We need a diversion."
"What do I have to do?" Taylor agreed instantly.
"You? You take the pictures when you can, let me do the dirty work."
Taylor opened her mouth to protest but stopped at one look from the cold steel in Alex's eyes. "OK, this is your show. Tell me where you want me."
"Stay here until you see a bunch of them rushing towards the other side of the camp. I don't know what I'll be doing yet, it depends what's available when I get there. Then you go in and start clicking."
"That easy, huh?"
Taylor's worried look elicited a rare chuckle from the dark haired soldier. She held a hand out to grab the photographer's arm almost roughly. "Stop worrying. This is what I do." It was difficult to miss the sparkle in Alex's face as she began to rise from her crouch.
"I just love confident women." Taylor joked, half heartedly, trying to stave off the effects of her nerves.
"Then watch this." Alex replied, grinning. "We meet back here? ASAP."
Taylor nodded, gripping the camera surely with both hands, the coldness and familiarity of the little black box easing her turbulent stomach. She shrugged at Alex.
"What are a few Serbian megalomaniacs next to a tribe of crazed Cambodian terrorists anyway?"
"My point exactly." One pointed stare and the soldier was gone, scrambling quietly and efficiently around the rock face that surrounded the Northern entrance to the outpost.
"Good luck, my friend." Taylor whispered into the empty air.
But, she reasoned to herself, they could be burying pineapples for all they knew. A bunch of holes in the ground isn't proof of anything.
The dirt below her was beginning to crumble when she lifted her body weight off her shoulders and clambered to her feet once more. Creating the required diversion was going to be tougher than she had thought. Firstly, it wasn't a sure bet that the damn fools would all race after a diversion, they seemed well trained, disciplined... Armed with firepower that could only have come from the ex-Soviet bloc, she mused to herself grimly. If she hadn't known better she would have sworn they were Russian.
Through field glasses, she looked each man and his equipment over critically. Big, hefty AK-74's, 2 grenades apiece with another boxful in easy reach, a small handled knife looped in the utility belt. Standard Russian issue. Two T-72 tanks sat idle behind the group. A man she recognised as an officer by his stripes walked around, a British issue 9mm Browning holstered at his belt. No match for her own Beretta, but a nasty little surprise all the same. Kalishnikov's all round. AK-47's lying in readiness on gun racks, just in case all the rest wasn't enough.
Photos of all that would be worth the price of admission alone.
It was no surprise to her that Russia had interests in Yugoslavia, they'd been exercising their power in the region since before the second world war, but she and every other American war analyst thought they'd stop short of supplying the Serbs with weapons. They'd thought wrong.
She ran out of safe options in her own mind and started sorting through the diversions she could create where it wasn't certain she would get out alive. This list seemed obviously, inevitably, more plausible.
Damn, wouldn't she be pissed if I got my head blown off, Alex mused. For the first time in years, Alex felt a surge in her blood that wasn't adrenaline, wasn't desire...was something completely different. She knew that one of the less dangerous options was the best course.
She didn't want to die.
Damn you Taylor Wilson. Damn you and your "last night before Armageddon" fucking ideas.
Well, fucking had certainly been part of it.
Alex shook her head and kick started her brain. She was...had to be...professional enough to put thoughts of the last night out of her mind and concentrate on the job at hand. At least fifty guards had to be taken out of action long enough for Taylor to sneak in and get the shots they needed.
"And at least one of us has to get out alive", she whispered to herself fiercely. One has to escape, get to that transport, and get the negs out of this godforsaken country.
Looking behind her she saw she had a fairly clear run back to the rendezvous point, all covered by the rock ledge.
The seasoned veteran cocked her Beretta, sliding the first bullet of the clip into the chamber. Fifteen per clip, make 'em count girl.
Aiming for the wheels of the excavator she adjusted her sights, and fired. The front wheel of the machine popped loudly, bits of tyre exploding in a mass of rubber. Moments later as the sound carried up the hillside Alex heard the pop, and kept shooting.
Men were already beginning to race under cover, returning fire into the hills. She ducked out of sight as a flurry of bullets sprayed in her direction. Popping up her head just high enough to aim her sights again, she fired more bullets into the fleet of digging equipment. More tyres popped loudly, giving the impression someone was throwing small grenades into the fleet.
Grenades. That was a plan.
Reaching into the front pocket of the pack she pulled out a miniature hand grenade. Not large enough to do any real damage - she'd seen it rip the arm off a human, but not kill him - the grenades were easy to throw and let off a satisfying explosion. The camp was too far away for her to reach without exposing herself, but she had another idea.
Aiming the grenades at a point just down the hill from her vantage point she threw the small bombs. The explosions looked remarkably like guns blowing up in someone's face, and within seconds the majority of gunfire was hurtling in the direction of the blast. She continued to pop the tyres from under the excavators, drawing the occasional confused shot from a camp defender. The majority of the soldiers had now gathered on her side of the camp to return fire. There was no way to tell how many Taylor still had to deal with on the other side.
It wasn't a pretty or well structured diversion, but Alex just had to hope it would be enough.
Three or four dutiful sentries remained on their watch, peering out in her direction. Taylor could only assume, by the volume of noise, that Alex was raising hell's fury over the southern end of the makeshift compound.
She saw a cleared pathway off to the left, with enough cover for her to sneak through if she crawled. Hunting through the back pack for something to draw their attention over to her right Taylor found what Alex had obviously intended for her to find. A small revolver. Fully loaded.
"Doesn't that woman ever give up?" Taylor snarled under her breath. Considering for a moment she decided it was the best possible plan. She fired the gun over far to her right, shivering at the slight kickback of the small pistol, musing on how long it had been since she had fired a gun. It distracted the guards long enough to disguise her exposed slip down from the rock crevice and into a space big enough for her to crawl down out of danger.
She had dropped the gun like poison by her back pack. There was no telling how long Alex's diversion would last.
The words, or how long Alex would last, came unbidden to her thoughts.
The sentries weren't as stupid as she had hoped . Only distracted momentarily by the pistol, they snapped back into their positions and waited patiently for the threat they knew would come. Emerging slowly from her place behind the rock, Taylor approached the first of the guards from behind, With a swift chop to the neck he fell to the ground, soundlessly unconscious. Another assailant spotted her and raised his rifle to aim at her body. Charging him she dealt him two swift kicks to the stomach, spinning back to land a punch on the side of his head that rendered him senseless with a sickening crack. She hoped irrationally that he wasn't dead..
Resisting the urge to take his picture she stumbled further on into the campsite, hiding at first behind the wheel of one of the huge trucks. Urgently aware of the need to hurry, she wheeled her way further into the centre of the outpost, avoiding sentries, flattening herself to the ground every ten seconds as groups rushed by with guns or ammunition. The onslaught over the other side was deafening.
How can one woman make so much goddamned noise?
There was nothing in the camp. At least, not as far as her investigations could make out. There seemed to be nothing there except trucks, weapons and soldiers. Nothing to attack, nothing to protect.
But what else would they be doing out here, other than disposing of stuff others weren't meant to see?
She remembered seeing frightening documentary footage of the holocaust back in college. It had been like a production line, the Jews given product like names like "goods" or "merchandise". Whatever was happening here it didn't remind her of those images. There didn't seem to be much order, much pretence at cool, calm efficiency. It was anything but a Nazi-esque operation.
After what seemed like an eternity of dodging guards she wondered if they'd even come to the right place. She questioned Alex's contacts for the first time in that part of her mind that was prone to panic. Her rational mind kept hold and she kept searching, peering in the windows of empty buildings and over the lip of huge holes that still lay freshly dug and empty.
Despairing at last she sprinted over to one of the large trucks, peering through the canvas that covered the back end of the cargo tray.
Just as quickly, she turned and emptied her guts onto the ground.
The bile that had threatened to choke her since the bomb blast in the city finally found a release. She retched until she could no longer see, her efforts at quiet merely twisting her stomach into more intense spasms.
Fucking hell, pull it together. Damn well, keep it going you stupid bitch! This is what you came here to see!
Her camera raised itself to her eyes with barely a thought. Without focus or feeling for artistry she snapped frames off. She had to shift back the rotting canvas in order to get enough light to illuminate the bodies. Hypnotically, she curled the material back and took more shots, close-ups of severed arms and hands, full shots of individual corpses and wide shots of the back of the truck.
She heard the sounds of someone approaching. Gathering enough wits around her, she pulled the material back down, clambering underneath the truck. The chassis was so high off the ground that it offered little protection, but she guessed by the speed of the soldier's movements and the barrage that still continued in the distance that they were still being called to deal with whatever havoc Alex was managing to create on the other side.
When the guards had passed she emerged again, side stepping over to another large canopied truck. Inside was a similar horror, only she managed to control her bile as the smell wafted out, grateful the guards had been too preoccupied to notice her puke by the tailgate of the last truck.
Around the main house was the remains of what used to be a giant hole, filled recently with soft, red earth. She snapped a shot of this new grave, but somehow in her heart she knew it wasn't enough. She had to find an open grave just being filled with the corpses, something to link the camp with the atrocities being committed against these people. After everything they were going through she didn't want to come out with evidence that looked circumstantial, or fabricated, at the very least.
With a sinking heart she knew that the best chance of finding that evidence was over by the excavator, which, by the sounds of things, was the centre of the hell Alex was creating for her benefit.
Shots rang out and she dove under cover again. She crossed herself involuntarily, even though she'd long since stopped believing in God. Bullets rang out all around, pockets of earth being dug up as the shots peppered the ground around the truck. She rifled around in her combat pants for something to use, and her fingers found matches. The precious firelighters gave her the inkling of a desperate idea.
She figured in the back of her mind that the people crammed into the death truck wouldn't really care about the difference between having their bodies committed to the flames and being buried in some unmarked mass grave.
Taylor crawled over to the side of the truck not yet being attacked and struck the match. She had to crawl out from under her hiding place to unscrew the gas tank, and she felt the bullets flying dangerously close, ricocheting from the metal of the trucks. Instructions yelled in an incomprehensible dialect flew in the air, the soldiers changed their positions and milled around.
Taylor threw the lit match inside the tank. Fire ripped out and she felt the heat as it raced up her arms. Her common sense told her too late that there was no way she would have been able to get away quickly enough. She kept her head long enough to light a second match, throwing it up onto the dried canvas. Between the two, the truck was most definitely on fire. Flames spread quickly over the canvas, licking at the vulnerable parts of the vehicle. Her only thought was to escape before the truck blew up, taking her with it.
Running from the scene she groaned with the movement, nearly fainting from the shock of her wounds. The burns were the most excruciating pain she'd ever felt, but she kept going around the corner of the building, flopping down desperately on the cool, freshly turned earth. The dirt came as relief to her burns, but only for few seconds as the pain washed over her and threatened to render her unconscious.
No! Goddamnit! She screamed to herself as the darkness threatened to take her. Burns you can survive, if they find you here you are dead!
The truck exploded finally, spewing out human debris over the outpost. Between that and Alex's steady barrage there was pandemonium.
Her charred fingers could barely hold the camera steady. She knew she had to find somewhere close to the excavators to shoot her final shots, but there didn't seem much room to manoeuvre amongst the chaos she'd created.
As she registered just how bad her injuries were, suddenly blowing up the trucks seemed like a really lame plan. Gathering her failing strength she willed herself moving. She could still hear the occasional popping she'd been hearing all along, and as she got closer to the machines she realised that half of their tyres had exploded.
But it was next to the third machine she inspected that she found her gold mine. Or her hole of horrors. She couldn't decide. Disobedient fingers somehow clicked and wound film, every movement an agony.
She stopped shooting while the entire guard from the outpost went to inspect the damage. Two more trucks caught fire, their canvas tops catching in a bonfire of confusion. The truck had obviously taken out several of the soldiers, she could see human parts flying out over the camp, visible even from the outcropping Alex hid behind.
All at once, as she popped up her head to survey the damage, she spotted Taylor. Out in the middle of nowhere, seemingly oblivious to the disasters following in her wake, the photographer was snapping at something on the ground.
No. In the ground, Alex realised.
Throwing aside her smaller sidearm she reached for her pack and pulled out the long range M21 sniper rifle. The sight was twisted and she knew she had no time to fix it, the soldiers she could see were approaching from behind Taylor, raising their weapons menacingly.
Alex took one practice shot to determine how far the sight was out, something to gauge where her shots would fly. The photographer kept on snapping shots like a tourist at the Grand Canyon, insensible to the encroaching danger. With two quick shots Alex took out the nearest pair of guards to the small blonde woman, dropping them efficiently to the ground as if they stood point blank.
The gunfire woke Taylor from her reverie and Alex saw her twist around, diving for cover underneath the wheels of the excavator nearest to the holes. Guards tried their best to approach but Alex dropped them one by one, loading and reloading her rifle with calm, deadly efficiency. Hands flew of their own accord - trained, drilled and honed to perfection - as they snapped the chamber shut after each empty magazine flew to the rocky ground.
Finally Taylor took the hint and emerged from her hiding spot, starting a full pelt sprint back into the chaotic camp.
Clever girl, Alex nodded her head in approval. Just when instincts told you to run one way, turn around and go the opposite direction. There was no way the guards would expect the small woman to go running back the way she came in. Packing up her equipment hastily Alex abandoned her position and headed for the rendezvous. There was nothing more she could do. If she was ever going to see Taylor alive again, it would be there.
>From what she could understand, they were all completely confused. The entire camp had not been suddenly overrun by a UN army division. The commanders were having difficulty figuring out exactly what, or who, was attacking them
Taylor smirked as her sense of humour took over. Or was it delirium? It pleased her to think they were afraid Alex's lone-woman attacks from the hillside were the work of an attack force.
She hurtled herself towards the outer wall through which she'd come. The guard she'd dropped was neither at his post nor lying on the ground. She could only assume their medics had picked the man up and hauled him off, leaving a clear run for her to skip back into the crevice by the rock that had protected her entry into the outpost.
She lay there, almost fainting again as the dogging pain caught up with her once again. She heard the motors of the remaining trucks turn over. The Serbian guards were attempting to salvage the remainder of the trucks and their cargo by removing them further away from the quickly spreading fires. Everything flammable within twenty five metres of the initial truck had now ignited, and Taylor began to consider that it hadn't been such a bad move after all, wincing as she shifted positions off her wounds in her cramped hiding spot.
Deliriously, she pictured Alex squatted less than a hundred metres up the hillside, cloistered away in their initial vantage point, out of sight from both the camp and this small outcropping of rocks.
Taylor tried to crawl again but the pain was too great and she collapsed. Instinctively, resigned, she accepted that she wouldn't be able to move her rebellious muscles and peeling arms any further towards the rendezvous. Prostrate on the ground, closer to death and discovery by the enemy than she had ever been before in her life, memories flashed before her. She remembered vividly how funny Alex's face had looked as she pictured the dark woman handing her the shiny pistol, telling her that she wouldn't be able to protect herself without it.
Thanks Alex, she grinned absurdly to herself, I wish I had that gun now, it would get me out of this mess, for sure it would...
She lifted her head slowly from the hiding spot. The burning trucks were moving now, men scrambling to stifle the burning canvases, she could see they were running scared, afraid of a force they couldn't see. Confusion reigned.
Irrational to the last, Taylor decided to take one more picture. A kind of farewell to the world.
Better than last words really. This was the last thing I saw.
The photographer had a smile on her face, her finger squeezing the button of her camera, when her world went black.
Without the bike hidden in a clump of trees five miles behind them they had no way out.
Desperately, Alex pulled out the laptop.
The division was under no obligation to respond to her emergency calls for pick up, as expendable as she was. She was one of the untouchables of the military and she knew it, not worth the risk in the eyes of the top brass, especially those that had wanted to see her court martialled. Killing your superior officer in a bar brawl was not the way to forward your career, even if the prick had pulled his service revolver out in front of a barful of twenty witnesses and threatened to blow your brains out. All because she wouldn't go out back and fuck the moron in an alleyway.
Now that same moron's colleagues and best friends had to decide whether or not to send in a chopper, risk an international incident and pull her and some scrawny photographer out of a war zone.
She knew she had one card to play, the brass were more likely to react to Taylor's name than her own.
The laptop was fitted with a state of the art homing signal. As soon as she set it off it would bounce off every satellite hanging above Europe and send that signal back to every American base on the face of the planet. The signal would reverberate with her name, that of her companion, and their current position.
No explanations, no undignified grovelling for help. Either they'd come or they wouldn't.
Meanwhile she had to find Taylor, whether the photographer was dead or alive. From where she was sitting, unless Taylor had been captured on her way through the camp, it seemed there was only one place the small woman could be.
The mid-afternoon sun streamed down as Alex struggled with her too-large form down the small outcropping of rocks she had to assume Taylor would have used to mask her initial advance on the outpost. The camp still rang with the confusion of the surprise attack, but to Alex's shock they didn't seem concerned with sending out patrols to catch their attackers. She could only assume that the commanders thought there'd been more than just one woman throwing mini-grenades and doing pot shots from the hillside.
The belly-crawl she was forced to do ripped holes in her fatigues and caused some nasty scratches on her legs that she barely had the energy to feel anymore. "Take care of my own butt, huh? I'd love to, Miss genius photographer, but I'm crawling around in the middle of nowhere searching for your bony ass." Alex muttered to herself, barely comprehending her own jumbled thoughts.
She chided herself. You've handled worse. Deal with it.
When the army green of Taylor's shirt came into view, missing the sleeves and revealing blackened patches of skin, Alex managed not to let her already fluctuating emotions get to her. Officiously she gripped the unconscious woman and placed her full weight on her back, turning around to crawl back up the hill, without pausing for breath.
Flashes of burns and scarring from the victims of the vicious bomb blast at Sarajevo tortured her mind as she dragged her lover up the crevice. It was slow going, the smell of cooked skin flowing up her nose and making her gag uncontrollably, worse even than the carnage of Sarajevo.
Probably because I know what this particular piece of charred flesh smells like when it's alive and breathing, naked and exposed....
It crossed her mind that she hadn't even checked to see if Taylor was alive or dead. For all she knew she was struggling not to cause any more serious injuries to a dead woman.
The soldier in Alex knew that it didn't really matter. She knew that while Taylor was being carried on her back, the photographer wouldn't get another scratch.
Not for the first time in her military career Alex was overwhelmed by the emotion a helicopter approaching from a distance could evoke. She reached the laptop with dragging steps, laid the photographer to the ground as gently as she could feeling urgently for a pulse.
Still alive but breathing shallow, Taylor was soon wrapped in Alex's extra shirt, special care taken not to have the material stick to the burned flesh. She'd slipped in and out of consciousness once, making Alex's heart lurch as eyelids fluttered, opened, but slid back into place again as the effort became too much.
As the Huey circled menacingly above the Serbian camp completely unequipped for anti-aircraft defence, Alex sent up a flare advertising their position. She felt a twinge of resentment shoot through her as the helicopter advanced. In all her two years of service in the recon division she had never yet asked for pick up, and she knew she wouldn't have now, if not for Taylor.
But nothing was worth having Taylor die in the middle a goddamned desert, she thought viciously, not even my pride.
The chopper wheeled around again, flowing into hover above their hiding spot, exchanging hostile fire with the outpost below. A single man dropped from a life line onto the ground next to her, immediately seeking cover from the crossfire.
"We have to take the civilian first!" The young lieutenant yelled over the din of the gun fire and chopper blades. Alex nodded her head, of course, she wouldn't have had it any other way. Strapping a rescue stretcher to the lifeline, Alex helped the soldier load the semi-conscious photographer onto the guerney. The cover fire increased dramatically as Taylor's stretcher was pulleyed up into the chopper, the pilot of the chopper taking no risks with their high profile civilian passenger.
When at last the stretcher was loaded aboard the chopper a third line was hurled down to the ground, a round harness attached to the bottom. Alex slipped the harness securely around her shoulders, making sure the strap was secure but not crushing her chest, then gave the thumbs up.
Firing yet another flurry of bullets into the enemy camp the Huey banked right and fled the pick up scene. Alex and the lieutenant flew free below the chopper until it was well out of range of enemy fire, and then the crew hauled both the soldiers onto the deck.
Once she hit the floor of the chopper, Alex fumbled at the collar of the photographers shirt to try and release the camera strap still clasped firmly around the young woman's neck. Freeing the Nikon from its owner, Alex had one goal in mind, to rewind and remove the film long before anyone in the chopper had time to ask what their mission so deep into enemy territory had been.
Leaning close to Taylor's chest she made an exaggerated show of her concern for the injured body of her companion. Her shoulders heaved in fake sobs, as her fingers worked madly with camera, releasing the film from the Nikon and shoving it unceremoniously down the front or her shirt. She dragged a dirty hand across her face and sat back, still wracked with pretend grief. As she felt a genuine sob rise to her throat Alex backed away, the real-life grief of seeing the blonde woman sprawled unconscious on the stretcher hitting her harshly. Choking back the tears she sat, her face a mask of calm, an outward show of strength and detachment for these men who had saved both their lives.
Suddenly, as she felt the coolness of the film warm against her breast she felt a tide of guilt and abhorrence wash over her. All her thoughts since getting on the chopper had been to get the film, to hide it from the prying eyes and curious faces of the men surrounding her.
Taylor would understand, she reasoned rationally. There was no way she would go through that hell and not have the world eventually know what it was all for. Even with such a glitch in events...Wake up Taylor for chrissakes! ... they'd damn well know about the rest strictly according to plan. In her time, by her rules, and not one goddamned second before.
"Welcome back." A voice soothed. "Don't try to open your eyes yet. You'll only make your head hurt worse." Alex cautioned, pressing the emergency button to call the doctor to the photographer's bedside.
"It's not my head I'm worried about, it's my arms." Taylor croaked, suddenly panicked.
"They're pretty bad Taylor," Alex whispered honestly, her voice catching in her throat. "You can't move them yet. You've suffered third degree burns to your arms and chest. I wasn't really able to get you much help for hours after it happened...but..."
Taylor read her lover's face easily. "But, you're surprised I'm here at all." She recalled vaguely her final thoughts and last rites in the enemy ditch. She spent a few intense seconds trying to come to grips with her surroundings, and the fact that she was still breathing.
"Ummm, where is 'here'?"
"You're in Stuttgart. In a military hospital. This is where the chopper brought us."
"I'll tell you the whole story later." Alex promised gruffly. "You need your rest now."
"I bet you're not much of a storyteller, you'll probably leave out the best parts." Taylor whispered back bemused, her dulled eyes sparkling with a hint of her normal humour.
Alex grunted. "I see your wisecrack complex is still intact."
Taylor managed a wider grin, though the effort obviously cost her. "Firing on all four cylinders..."
Her voice trailed off and she slipped back into semi-consciousness, the same dream-like state she'd been in and out of for a full forty eight hours. The doctor finally appeared and Alex gave her the run-down on Taylor's brief excursion into consciousness, before stepping aside to let the physician administer another dose of morphine for Taylor's pain.
Three hours later Alex stared listlessly at the army discharge papers that sat in her hands. The dotted line awaiting her signature sat menacingly at the bottom, burning a mark into her brain. She regarded it all with a mixture of sorrow and anticipation. There was no mention of blighted service records, court martials, incident reports. Straight service credentials, courage in the line of duty. Tour completed successfully, all thanks from a grateful nation.
With a flourish, and under Taylor's heavily sedated gaze, she signed off on them and her long career in the army, handing them back to the nameless army lawyer. The man promptly filed them in a plain black briefcase, saluted his superior officer for the last time, and disappeared from the ward. He was tactful enough not to offer congratulations.
Watching his retreating back Alex couldn't help sighing a little. Through the fog of pain killers Taylor could sense a change in the former soldier.
"Are you sad, about the way you're leaving? They're not exactly holding parades for you." Taylor croaked, staring up at Alex's suddenly unreadable features, amused by the dark woman's on-going struggle to prevent those blue open windows from showing all her thoughts without her permission.
"I hate them anyway." Alex assured her, brushing a soft hand across Taylor's brow and smoothing back the lines that had appeared almost overnight on the photographer's tanned face.
"Figures." Taylor muttered, and dropped her head back fully into her pillows, exhausted.
Alex heard a rattle of breath deep in Taylor's chest, and the world slowed.
Staggering, she reached for the emergency buzzer. Nurses milled around, officious but caring, attempting platitudes, sympathetic voices trying in vain to draw her away from the bedside... she heard none of it.
As the green eyes disappeared from view for the last time, she mourned the loss of them for the whole world, more than she could ever have imagined mourning anything for herself.
Return to the Fan Fiction area