That Game We Played During the War

BOOK: That Game We Played During the War
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From the moment she left the train station, absolutely everybody stopped to look at Calla. They watched her walk across the plaza and up the steps of the Northward Military Hospital. In her dull gray uniform she was like a storm cloud moving among the khaki of the Gaantish soldiers and officials. The peace between their peoples was holding; seeing her should not have been such a shock. And yet, she might very well have been the first citizen of Enith to walk across this plaza without being a prisoner.

Calla wasn't telepathic, but she could guess what every one of these Gaantish was thinking: What was she doing here? Well, since they
telepathic, they'd know the answer to that. They'd wonder all the same, but they'd know. It would be a comfort not to have to explain herself over and over again.

It was also something of a comfort not bothering to hide her fear. Technically, Enith and Gaant were no longer at war. That did not mean these people didn't hate her for the uniform she wore. She didn't think much of their uniforms either, and all the harm soldiers like these had done to her and those she loved. She couldn't hide that, and so let the emotions slide right through her and away. She felt strangely light, entering the hospital lobby, and her smile was wry.

Some said Enith and Gaant were two sides of the same coin; they would never see eye to eye and would always fight over the same spit of land between their two continents. But their differences were simple, one might say: only in their minds.

The war had ended recently enough that the hospital was crowded. Many injured, many recovering. In the lobby, Calla had to pause a moment, the scents and sounds and bustle of the place were so familiar, recalling for her every base or camp where she'd been stationed, all her years as a nurse and then as a field medic. She'd spent the whole war in places like this, and her hands itched for work. Surely someone needed a temperature taken or a dressing changed? No amount of exhaustion had ever quelled that impulse in her.

But she was a visitor here, not a nurse. Tucking her short hair behind her ears, brushing some lint off her jacket, she walked to the reception desk and approached the young woman in a khaki uniform sitting there.

“Hello. I'm here to see one of your patients, Major Valk Larn. I think all my paperwork is in order.” Speaking slowly and carefully because she knew her accent in Gaantish was rough, she unfolded said paperwork from its packet: passport, visa, military identification, and travel permissions.

The Gaantish officer stared at her. Her hair under her cap was pulled back in a severe bun; her whole manner was very strict and proper. Her tabs said she was a second lieutenant—just out of training and the war ends, poor thing. Or lucky thing, depending on one's point of view. Calla wondered what the young lieutenant made of the mess of thoughts pouring from her. If she saw the sympathy or only the pity.

“You speak Gaantish,” the lieutenant said bluntly.

Calla was used to this reaction. “Yes. I spent a year at the prisoner camp at Ovorton. Couldn't help but learn it, really. It's a long story.” She smiled blandly.

Seeing the whole of that long story in an instant, the woman glanced away quickly. She might have been blushing, either from confusion or embarrassment, Calla couldn't tell. Didn't really matter. Whatever it was, she covered it up by examining Calla's papers.

“Technician Calla Belan, why are you here?” The lieutenant sounded amazed.

Calla chuckled. “Really?” She wasn't hiding anything; Valk and her worry for him were at the front of her mind.

The other Gaantish soldiers in the lobby were too polite to stare at the exchange, but they glanced over. If they really focused they could learn everything about her. They were welcome to her history. It

“What's in your bag?” the lieutenant said.

Some food, a couple of paperbacks for the trip, her chess set in its small pine box. Calla couldn't help but think of it, and the woman saw it all. Calla could only smuggle in contraband if someone had put it there without her knowledge, or if she had forgotten about it.

The lieutenant's brow furrowed. “Chess? That's a game? May I see it?”

It still startled Calla sometimes, the way they just
“Yes, of course,” she said, and opened the flap of her shoulder bag. The lieutenant drew out the box, studied it. Maybe to reassure herself that it didn't pose a threat. The lieutenant could see, through Calla, that it was just a game.

“Am I going to be able to see Major Larn?” With a glance, the lieutenant would know everything he meant to her. Calla waited calmly for her answer.

“Yes. Here. Just a moment.” The lieutenant took a card out of her drawer and filled out the information listed on it. The card attached to a clip. “Pin this to your lapel. People will still stop you, but this will explain everything. You shouldn't have trouble. Any more trouble.” The young woman was too prim to really smile, but she seemed to be making an effort at kindness. Calla was likely the first real Enithi the young woman had ever met in person. To think, here Calla was, doing her part for the peace effort. That was a nice way of looking at it, and maybe why Valk had asked her to come.

“Go down that corridor,” the young woman directed. She consulted a printed roster on a clipboard. “Major Larn is in Ward 6, on the right.”

“Thank you.” The gratitude was genuine, and the lieutenant would see that along with everything else.

Enithi never lied to the Gaantish. This was a known, proverbial truth. There was no point to it. Through all the decades of war, Enith never sent spies—or, rather, they never told the spies they sent that they were spies. They delivered messages without telling the bearers they were messengers. Their methods of conducting espionage had become so arcane, so complex, that Gaant rarely discovered them. Both sides counted on this one truth: Enithi never bothered lying when confronted with telepaths. The Gaantish had captured thousands of Enithi soldiers, who simply and immediately confessed everything they knew. Enithi were known to be a practical people, without any shame to speak of.

Enith kept any Gaant soldiers it captured sedated, drugged to delirium, to frustrate their telepathy. The nurses who looked after them were chosen for their cheerful dispositions and generally straightforward thoughts. Calla Belan had been one of those nurses. Valk Larn had been one of those prisoners when they first met—only a lieutenant then. It had been a long time ago.

Gaantish soldiers continued staring at her as she walked down the corridor. Some men in bandages waited on benches, probably for checkups in a nearby exam room. Renovations were going on—replacing light fixtures, looked like. In all their eyes, her uniform marked her. She probably shouldn't have worn it but was rather glad she had. Let them know exactly who she was.

On the other hand, she always felt that if the Enithi and Gaantish all took off their uniforms they would look the same: naked.

One of the workmen at the top of a ladder, pliers in hand to wire a new light, choked as she thought this, and glanced at her. A few others were blushing, hiding grins. She smiled. Another blow struck for peace.

*   *   *

Past several more doorways and many more stares, she found Ward 6. She paused a moment to take it in and restore her balance. The wide room held some twenty beds, all of them filled. Most of the patients seemed to be sleeping. She guessed these were serious but stable cases, needing enough attention to stay here but not so much that there was urgency. Patients had bandages at the end of stumps that had been arms or legs, gauze taped over their heads or wrapped around their chests, broken and splinted limbs. A pair of nurses was on hand, moving from bed to bed, adjusting suspended IV bottles, checking dressings. The situation's familiarity was calming.

The nurses looked at her, then glanced at each other, and the loser of that particular silent debate came toward Calla. She waited while the man studied her badge.

“I'm here to see Major Larn,” Calla said carefully, politely, no matter that the nurse would already know. By now, Calla was thinking of nothing else.

“Yes,” the nurse said, still startled. “He's here.”

“He's well?” Calla couldn't help but ask.

“He will be. He—he will be glad to see you, when he wakes up. But you should let him sleep for now.” Between Calla and Valk, how much was the nurse seeing that couldn't be put into words?

“Oh, yes, of course. May I wait?”

The nurse nodded and gestured to a stray chair, waiting by the wall for just such a purpose.

“Thank you,” Calla said, happy to display her gratitude, though she was afraid this only confused them. They could see that Valk was more important to her than other considerations, even patriotism. They could not see why, because Calla was confused about that herself. Calla fetched the chair and looked for Valk.

And there he was, in the last bed in the row, a curtain partially pulled around him for privacy. He'd been like this the first time she'd seen him, lying on a thin hospital mattress, well-muscled arms at his sides, his face lined with the worries of a dream. More lines now, perhaps, but he was one of those men who was aging into a rather heart-stopping rough handsomeness. At least she thought so. He would laugh at her thought, then wrinkle his brow and ask her if she was thinking true.

An IV fed into his arm, a blanket lay pulled over his stomach, but it didn't completely hide the bandage. He'd had abdominal surgery. Before settling in, she checked the chart hanging on a clipboard at the foot of the bed. She'd never really learned to read Gaantish, but could read medical charts from when she was at Ovorton and they'd put her to work. Injuries: Internal bleeding, repaired. Shrapnel in the gut. He'd been cleaned and patched up, but a touch of septicemia had set in. He was recovering well, but had been restricted to bed rest in the ward, under observation, because past experience showed that he could not be trusted to rest without close supervision. He was under mild sedation to assist in keeping him still. So yes, this was Valk.

BOOK: That Game We Played During the War
7.93Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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