"-came in without dogtags, I can't find a name."
"Fine, a Jane Doe, put her on the table."
Her vision was glazed, flashes of light shocking her into semi-consciousness. A split second of clarity took in a haggard face leaning over her before everything vanished.
Hours later, with an aching shoulder and a head that felt like it was full of cotton, she pried her eyes open and found a set of hands pushing her back against the pillow. "Easy there, just lay back."
A cup of water appeared at her lips and, as she struggled to swallow, a voice, which she assumed belonged to the hands, asked, "How do you feel?"
"I've been better." Her voice sounded hollow to her ears. "Where am I?"
"MASH 4077." The nurse leaned forward with a reassuring smile, "My name's Baker. We couldn't find your tags, mind telling me your name?"
"Alright, Vess," Baker made a note on a clipboard at the end of the bunk. "You'll be here for just a few days with that shoulder, then we'll be able to ship you out."
"Back to the front?" Her voice came harsher than intended.
Baker looked momentarily taken aback. "Back with the 306th, I'm not sure of their orders-I can check with Colonel Blake. That is your unit, isn't it?"
"I-uh, yeah. Yes, ma'am."
Nurse Baker managed to conceal the doubt on her face with a smile. "Let me bring you some food, hm?"
She stood and glanced around, snagging a passing man by the elbow. "Klinger, where's the Major who was brought in with the last round of casualties?"
"Bed 6," he replied. "But he's down for the count. Nearly lost a leg to shrapnel."
"Rats," Baker said. She waved off his confused look, "Just had a question about their orders."
Klinger shrugged and continued on his way.
Pausing at the end of the Major's cot to check his chart, Baker glanced back to see Vess slump back against the pillow, glazed eyes fixed on the filthy tent ceiling.
The next day passed in a blur of casualties, it was nearly dark by the time Baker had a chance to pull the company clerk aside. "Radar, hear anything?"
"Uh, not yet, but lines are a little busy right now with the war and, uh, all."
"Get back to me when you've heard, please."
Henry Blake entered the room, rubbing his eyes. "That's the last of 'em for now. Radar, I'll be in my office," Stifling a yawn, he continued on to his office, "if you need me, write whatever it is down on a sheet of paper and throw it into the minefield."
"Colonel," Baker called after him, "can I talk to you?"
"Please, no more casualties, Nurse, I'm beat."
"No, no, sir, it's about one that was just brought in without tags."
"From an aid station?"
"That's just it, Colonel, I don't know. She came in with the boys of the 306th, straight from the front. She seems...out of place."
Blake poured himself a glass of bourbon and swallowed half of it before turning to face her. His eyebrows were a solid, furrowed line. "What?"
"I can't explain it, sir, it's-"
The swinging doors behind her burst open. "Baker, HQ on the line-"
"Hold it, who ordered that?"
"I asked him to make the call, sir," Baker interjected, "I wanted to track down which unit this Nurse came from."
"Didn't she come with the 306th?"
"Then maybe that's where she belongs."
"Sir-" Radar attempted, from the door.
"I don't think so, Colonel, she seemed all out of sorts when I told her she'd be shipping back out."
"You'd be out of sorts, too, Baker, if you'd just had half a junkyard dug out of you."
"What, Radar?" Blake snapped.
"It's just that, uh, I got HQ on the line and, uh, there's, uh-"
"Snap to it, Radar, my bourbon's evaporating."
"There's no Vess in the 306th. Or any nearby aid stations that I could find."
Baker clutched her clipboard to her chest. Blake downed his bourbon and reached for the gin.
"I suppose you're sure she's not, uh, local?"
Baker nodded, "As far as I could tell."
"Then, she's, uhm, she's a, uhm, she's-" the Colonel splashed another finger in his glass. "What is she? Are you sure, Radar?" Blake grasped for straws, "I mean, it's not-I-are you sure?"
Radar's mouth hung open, his eyes bugged like a beached fish.
"Maybe she's a UN envoy?"
"At the front?" Baker shook her head.
"No," Blake agreed, "They tend to keep envoys in Tokyo or some other such back lines."
"Maybe we should ask Vess. Radar-!" The clerk was already out the door. In a moment, he was back. "Uh, sir, she's-"
The sun cast deepening shadows as the woman walked, unnoticed, across the compound. Mostly unnoticed, that is.
A few yards away, a furious, sharp-faced man pointed. "You!"
Seeing no one else nearby, Vess assumed the worst. "Me?"
"Yes, you–stand at attention when addressing an officer!"
"Sure thing, Chief." She made a half-hearted attempt to puff out her chest as he stormed over.
"You will address me as Major, nurse, what are you doing out of uniform?"
"I never received mine in the mail. Just an IOU signed 'Uncle Sam.'"
"Don't get smart with me."
"I could never."
The man bristled. "What's your designation, soldier?"
"Alright, alright-five-seven-and-a-half. But don't tell anyone."
"I ought to write you up for insubordination!"
"Don't you need to be my superior to do that?"
"I am your superior!"
Vess looked him up and down. "Are you?"
"That's it," he snatched her arm, digging fingertips into her unbandaged shoulder and ignoring her wince, "I'm taking you to the Colonel."
"Major Burns, sir-" A short, stocky man jogged across the compound, holding his green rag hat on with one hand and ducking against the wind, "Sir, one of the wounded-oh." He caught sight of Vess. "You found 'em."
"Out of my way, Radar, I'm taking this nurse to Colonel Blake to report her for insubordination."
"Oh, sir, he-that's-"
"Enough, Corporal!" Burns marched Vess in the direction of the main building of the camp, a long, low tent with swinging doors that rattled in the gale.
Radar huffed a sigh before hurrying to catch up. Once inside, he ducked ahead to open the door as the burly man behind a desk lifted his cigar from his lips and began, "RAD-I don't know how you-"
"Here she is, sir, Major Burns found her."
"Colonel, this nurse-"
"She's not a nurse, Frank, at least not that we can tell." The Colonel turned to Vess as the latter wrenched her arm from the Major's grasp. "Have a seat, missy, I've got some questions."
Vess considered a retort, thought better of it, and sat.
"Now," the Colonel crossed his arms, "who exactly-"
"Colonel," Burns interjected, "I want to-"
"Frank, I couldn't care less about what you want. Now if you don't mind, I'm trying to conduct an investigation-now, miss, who-"
The doors burst open again and a woman in blood-stained scrubs entered, pulling off her mask to shout, "What's this I hear about one of my patients being questioned?"
"One of your patients-this is a hospital, Houlihan. Remember the custody deal? The patients belong to all of us." The Colonel reinserted the cigar into his mouth and took a seat. "Now," he spoke around a puff of smoke, "I'm trying to ascertain-"
"Nice one, Henry," a dark-haired man entered behind the woman, himself followed by another man who pulled off a mask to reveal a sideways grin.
"'Ascertain,'" the grinning man repeated, "that's gotta be a dozen points."
"Oh, at least," the first replied, helping himself to the liquor cabinet behind the Colonel's desk as the owner of said desk threw his hands up.
"Pierce, McIntyre, what are you doing?"
The woman answered in their stead, "I asked them here, sir, officers should be involved in the search for a missing patient and, as the patient has been found and is now being questioned, officers should be present for said questioning."
"She was just found, how'd you hear about it already?"
"What she lacks in grace she makes up with pristine ears," remarked the curly-haired man, identified as McIntyre, from his seat by the windows.
"Fine, fine, everybody just sit down."
"Here, Margaret," the dark-haired man, Pierce, pulled an unoccupied chair from the desk and patted his knee. "We're short a chair, but never fear, there's always a seat for you here."
"A regular Wordsworth," Margaret spat, "I'd rather run through the minefield."
"People!" Blake shouted, "I'm trying to conduct an investigation here. Now, as I was asking-uhm-I was asking-Radar, what was I asking?"
"Who she was, sir."
"Oh, yes," he gestured to Vess with the smoking end of his cigar, "Who is she? I mean-who are you?"
"Yes, that's what you told Nurse Baker, but, see, we can't seem to find anybody by that name."
"Au contraire, sir, you managed to find me, that should count for something."
The two men by the window exchanged an amused look.
Burns, standing by the door, spluttered, enraged, "This is exactly the reason I want to file charges, this lip of hers, I want it in her record permanently-"
"If you can find her record, Frank, you can write it in yourself. Fact, I'll be damn impressed."
Burns fell uncharictaristically silent. Margaret spoke up, "What?"
"Aside from the fact she's sitting right smack in front of us," Blake's eyes narrowed, "this Vess doesn't seem to exist."
The office fell silent. Vess adjusted the sling holding her shoulder in place and winced again. She felt the weight of a half-dozen pairs of eyes.
"Well, have anything to say for yourself?" The Colonel asked.
She shrugged. "Nice place you got here."
"Let me rephrase: I'm about to call the MPs in here to arrest you, there any reason I shouldn't?"
Vess squarely met his gaze and said nothing.
"Turn out your pockets." Blake set his cigar down in the coffee mug that served as an ashtray and got to his feet. "Radar, get-"
"-the MPs, yes, sir." The young man scurried out the door.
"Come on, up," Blake snapped and, out of habit, Vess got to her feet. The Colonel pointed to his desk. "Empty your pockets," he repeated. When Vess made no move to do so, he rolled his eyes to the ceiling, "'Less you want me to do it-"
She gave him a sharp look and complied, using her free hand to pull scraps of paper, a hankerchief, a few spent bullet casings, and a half-melted chocolate bar from her trousers. Blake sifted through the pile on his desk, fishing out a paper that caught his eye. Radar returned with the officers, and the Colonel waved them off. "What's this?"
Pierce stood and peered over Blake's shoulder. "A press pass?"
"You a correspondent, Vess?"
"Well, why didn't you say so?" Blake's shoulders slumped in exasperation. "What outlet?"
"W-LOC, sir, out of D.C."
"'LOC'?" Pierce frowned. "The Library of Congress?"
"Yes, sirs, they're expanding into print and radio. Tired of the same old books." Vess' voice wasn't rushed and she appeared calm, though her mind was racing. "Might I get an interview?"
"Oh, ah, well-" Blake seemed to be struck bashful, "With little ol' me? Gee, I don't know."
"C'mon, Henry," Pierce said, pointing, "See that seal? Looks like it was made with lipstick, not candlewax."
Blake prodded at the official-looking seal and grimaced when part of it rubbed off on his fingertip. "Where'd you get this?"
"A very convincing MacArthur impersonator issued it to me at a bar," Vess replied, "I thought it was the real thing. Serves me right, I'm too trusting."
"You could get in serious trouble for impersonating a correspondent, kid."
"What, it's not a crime," Vess bristled at being 'kid'ed, "The First Amendment and all."
"This is wartime, things are different."
"Oh, that's right-you use the Constitution to stuff the cannons, how could I forget."
Blake threw the paper back on his desk. "Take her to the prisoner's tent, give me a minute to figure out what to do with her."
Before the MPs could move, the already crowded office welcomed another visitor: a limping man with wild eyes and a bright white bandage wrapped around his head. "They said she was in here-oh, there you are!" He did his best to snap to attention, sluggish from the morphine.
"Major?" Margaret grabbed his shoulder to steady him, only to find herself brushed aside as the man lurched forward to vigorously shake Vess' hand.
Vess couldn't hide her surprise as she suddenly found herself on her feet, free arm pumped up and down.
"Thank you, thank you," the man was saying, "We're forever in your debt."
"What the hell is going on?" Blake asked, "You should be in bed, soldier."
"This is Major Dobbs, Colonel, from the 306th," Margaret said quickly, as the Major continued.
"This man saved our lives, Colonel," Dobbs didn't relinquish his grip on Vess, who found herself struggling to stay upright with his full weight on her right side. "Weren't for him, we'd all have been blown to smithereens."
"You were pretty close to smithereens when you came in," McIntyre remarked, sipping his gin and looking, despite the situation, largely unperturbed.
"No, no, he saved us-we were surrounded, out of ammo, one of 'em came up and was about to send us all to kingdom come, but he talked him down. Got us out of there. Woulda been home free but artillery fire came down, and, well, we wound up here. But it woulda been a hell of a lot worse if not for Vess."
"A translator?" Pierce asked.
"Don't speak a word," Vess replied with a shrug.
"I don't know how he did it, but the man's a godsend." The man leaned heavily on Vess, and she gently pushed him into the chair she'd previously occupied.
"The man's not a soldier," Blake appeared baffled, "Man's not even a man."
"Respectfully, sir, we'd be dead without this son of a bitch. I'll swear on my commission, on my life. I'd take him back to front in an instant."
"Well, uhm, Major Dobbs, this, uhm-hm." Blake chewed on his cigar. "The officer's manual didn't, uhm, say anything about, heh, this. Hm. Huh. Radar, coffee?"
"Houlihan, get the Major back to his bed. Now, Vess-uhn, if that is that your real name?"
"It is, sir."
"Why don't you start from the beginning."
"Yes, do, I can't wait to hear this," Pierce settled back in his chair, whiskey in hand. To his right, McIntyre propped his feet on the Colonel's desk.
"Would you knuckleheads get out of here? You too, Frank."
"Get out, I said. Radar, bring me that damn coffee."
"It's here, sir," Radar thrust the mug into his hand, and made to exit the office.
"You stay, I want you to take down what she says."
"I can write it, Henry, I'm technically literate," Pierce quipped.
The officers filed out. Vess, Blake, and Radar were left in the suddenly quiet office, the silence punctuated by the distant pop of gunfire.
Vess drew in a breath and again adjusted the strap of her sling. "I didn't mean any trouble."
"Who are you?"
"An ally, I swear. I just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, got my shoulder busted up for it."
"Is what Dobbs said true?"
"We were under fire. A soldier came right up to us, I just, I dunno, I talked to him. He couldn't understand me, I couldn't understand him. But we were both of us pretty scared, and I guess we managed to find some common ground."
Blake frowned. "Go on."
"I gave him some rations."
"Supplying the enemy is a pretty big offense."
"Then write me up as offensive," Vess clasped the arm of the chair. "I did what I thought was right, human to human."
"Though not quite soldier to soldier." Blake's wry remark caused her to bristle.
"Look, sir, I tried to enlist. I did."
"As a nurse?"
"As a pilot," she retorted. "But the Air Force turned me down-seemed to think I was a woman. So I tried the Navy, but they said they'd reached their quota. Then the Army, same squat. I tried, Colonel, I did. I had to get over here, one way or another. I had to know what's going on. Had to see-had to help."
"We need nurses, Vess, desperately."
"Not me, I've got deplorable bedside manner."
"Then what? What did you hope to achieve?" Vess said nothing, and Blake blinked a few times, trying to comprehend what the other was saying. "The front line is no place for a young woman like yourself."
"Says who? Why the hell not? I can handle a gun as well as anybody, sir," she spat the last word, "Would you tell your nurses they aren't capable enough? That Houlihan, isn't she one of your officers?"
"My head nurse."
"You think your head nurse can't handle herself simply because she happens to be a woman?"
"Of course not-"
"Besides, I don't see why I should be punished for the simple crime of being born a woman. You think I asked to be a-think I wanted-" Vess exhaled a sharp breath through her nose and attempted to compose herself. "Who's to say I don't belong here?"
In the corner, Radar had put his pencil down and was staring fixedly at one of the scuffed legs of Blake's desk.
"I didn't write that last bit, sir."
"Let me tell you something, kiddo, there are a lot of good men who gave up a lot to be over here, and a lot more of us who did the same without much of a choice. We all do our damndest to keep ourselves and each other alive. You secreting yourself to the front lines, god knows how, really put Dobbs and his company in the thick of it. I don't know what you told him about who you were or what you're doing here, but to have a civilian on the battlefield is bad for business. Do you understand what I'm saying? Think of the trouble it'd've caused if you'd gotten yourself killed. The U.S. Army doesn't want anybody who doesn't have official military business being anywhere near the big guns."
Blake paused, then said: "During the fight, were you afraid?"
Vess finally looked up. "What?"
"Were you scared?"
She searched his face. "Of course I was. I thought we were going to die."
"Good, you have some sense." Blake stood and Vess followed suit, hand curled into a fist.
"Can I ask you a question now, sir?"
He gave a slight nod.
"Why'd you have the others leave?"
The man's jaw clenched. "Would you rather they'd've stayed?" Vess' chin lifted, eyes flicked away. Blake gave a tight-lipped smile that didn't reach his eyes. "Radar, have the MPs escort her-hi-Vess to the P.O.W. tent."
Once the clerk had returned, he loitered in the doorway.
"What do you think, Radar?"
The Corporal's eyes widened. "Think, sir?"
"What should we do?"
"Oh, uh, that's a bit above my head, sir."
"You heard Dobbs, he wants Vess back on the front lines with 'im." Blake gulped down the rest of his drink. "Think we should offer a compromise?"
Wryly, Blake noted, "The big guns won't like it. I'd be sticking my neck out pretty far."
"For a civilian, sir?"
"Well," Blake studied the empty glass in his hand, "that's not his fault."