The morning past, and Hands showed up around the right time, radio playing in the SUV. Her smile was strained, and her uniform was still dirty.
“Mom wasn’t happy when I told her I was going back to Dauphin island,” Hands muttered.
“Do we need to say anything about it?” Colton asked.
Hands looked over at me instead. “No, no. There shouldn’t really be any trouble, should there?”
“Probably not. We might have to frighten off some scavengers, but the remnants of the police have been watching the bridge.”
“Nothing really stopping a boat from landing there though,” Colton said, almost as an afterthought. “That’s what I’d do if I wanted to get on it; going the proper route drags you through the city.”
“Luckily,” I cut in. “We’re the rightful authority. So come on, let’s all get in.”
Hands cracked the doors for us and we slid in. She paused before moving the car again, and stared at the two of us. “You alright?”
“Perfect,” I lied.
“Colton looks like he was crying. Anything I should know about?”
Colton looked over at me, then back at Hands. “Probably nothing. Just working things out with the team leader.”
“Just let me know if you want to talk about it, alright?” Hands asked, shooting the two of us a shaky grin. “I got a house we can fall back to, after all.”
“How’s your fan?” I asked.
Hands’s lips relaxed slightly. “Better than ever. Sees my name on the TV and won’t stop talking about how awesome I am. It’s… really nice actually,”
I laughed. “Yeah. It’s weird to see your name up in lights, but it’s not like there’s much other good news to talk about.”
“Enough of that,” Hands said, shutting the doors automatically. “We can’t keep Excelsior waiting for that long.”
“Roger,” Colton said, sinking into the chair.
By the movement of the wind in the car I could feel the tremor of his heartbeat, uneasy, nervous. I didn’t blame him.
Bizarrely I could feel Hands’s heartbeat as well. Just as nervous.
But the drive through town was short, traffic was at an all time low with the gas rationing, more people sticking to their suburban houses and only venturing forth to food banks and deployment points.
I’d need to tinker with them again when I got back, see how well the fish was supplementing the storages, but I wasn’t the leader right then, I was another person leading an away team.
Something less to worry about.
The bridge to Dauphin island wasn’t closed off, but Excelsior was walking it like it was, striding down the side of the road. Hands barked the car at him until he stopped, and she rolled down the window.
“Come on, hop inside.”
Excelsior joined them, forcing me to slide into the back so he could take the front seat. “Excellent. I was afraid you might be late. Everyone knows the plan?”
“We search until we find the cache,” I said.
“There’ll be a map to it,” Excelsior said. “We just need to find the map, hopefully intact, and then we can move on from there.”
Colton closed his eyes. “Well… depending on how much of it’s been cratered… I might know where we can find a map like that.”
“And while we’re there, we’re getting Gunze’s body,” Hands said, in a tone that brokered no argument.
Missing the memo, Excelsior started. “That’s the basement, right? It might not be safe to try and get in there.”
“We’re getting his body,” Hands said. “We had to leave last time without it, and he deserves better than to just be left there.” She paused and looked at me in the rear view mirror. “Besides, Gale can keep the smell away from us.”
Practical, but disgusting. I made a face at her in the mirror. “I don’t know if we should move him… we don’t even know what’s left of Dauphin island.”
But turning the road ahead, we could see the cordoned area surrounding the base, and could see that despite the best efforts of the Cuban Patrol, the base was mostly in tact.
If one could say mostly intact when one was talking about a structure that had been firebombed to pieces, and the additional top floors reduced to rubble supported by the bunker like first floor.
Colton breathed out slowly, then took a long deep tug of air. It hitched in his throat, making me turn to look at him.
Excelsior whistled as the SUV drew closer, weaving between cars that had run out of gas and sliding to a halt in front of the guard gate.
We waited there for a moment.
“And you were in that?” Excelsior asked.
“After the fact,” I admitted, softly. “We were too late to save most of them.”
“You got me,” Colton said.
“We got him, and Rebecca,” Hands said. “Rebecca’s been keeping the injuries low enough for us to sustain, and Colton’s been trying to keep us on our feet even when we want to die,”
Colton looked away, but his eyes were drawn back to the base.
I wondered what he remembered at that moment. The anger, or the people he‘d known there? Which one was at the forefront of his mind?
“Good,” Excelsior said, his voice dark. He stepped out of the car and shot a look at the officer walking towards us. “Official business.”
“Inspector says to not let anyone inside,” The officer said.
“Because it’ll collapse at any moment?”
“Asbestos, actually,” The officer said. “That bottom layer could take a direct hit from a bunker buster and still be mostly standing.” He paused. “Apart from the floor the buster went off, I suppose.”
Excelsior slowly cocked his head to the side. “Then we’ll need gas masks.”
“You really want to go in there?”
“There’s unfinished business,” I said, stepping out of the vehicle. “And we’re rummaging for supplies, regardless.”
The officer looked from Excelsior, then over at me, and snapped off a salute, sliding over to his shack.
The gas masks he unearthed were old, but they were workable, and one by one we slapped ours on.
“Asbestos?” I asked.
“It’s a repurposed military base,” Excelsior said, roughly. “They made it out of sturdy materials. Just not necessarily the materials best for the people living in them. It’s always like that.”
“Of course it is,” Colton said, then snapped his on properly, testing the filter. We stood there for a moment, testing them one by one, then stepped past the cordoned area. Spent metal and bomb materials littered the ground, where once kept grass had been turned to ash, there were barrels that had once contained explosive.
While the building was in one piece, I could definitively say that there was no use trying to salvage anything out of it for a base.
The broken front doors hung off of their hinges, the glass all blown out and decorating the ground. Our heavy boots made what little was intact shatter into fine powder as we swept through, eyes scanning each hallway. Even as we stepped inside, I saw Hands flinch, and saw the scattered bones littering the front walk.
First kill, their bones shook apart from skeletons and put together, mixed up, unrecognizably, into a mess of pieces and fragments on the ground. Mixed in with detritus and white powder, pulverised tile, and electronic smokes.
A Cuban Patrol helmet remained on the ground, dented and seared. Excelsior lifted it up and tested it, rotating it a few times, then tucked it under one arm.
“It’ll be useful,” He said, his voice wildly distorted by the filter. “If we have one of these.”
There was a hesitation, and then he lightly thumped the helmet, sending shards of skull out onto the floor with a dry clutter.
Colton’s face, what little of it I could see through the mask, clenched.
“Colton?” I asked.
“What?” He said, sounding rather faint.
“Where would you start looking for a map?”
The lobby disappeared behind us. The walls were studded with the spray of automatic fire from so many days ago, and I thought I could smell and taste blood.
I couldn’t the mask stole even that from me, though the wind whispered to me in pieces about everything that had happened. A dark bloom of black mold in front of an old corpse, feeding the next generation, a tattered recollection of where the bodies had been last time.
As carefully as he could, with a rigidity to his spine I hadn’t seen since we’d been here last, Colton guided us to each room, taking notes of where the bodies were.
“So I can come back for them, eventually,” he reassured us, though his eyes jerked about the rooms wildly.
“Noble,” Excelsior commented. “The cemetery of heroes only grows.”
Then we stumbled across the courtyard we’d been chased out of with bullets, and we paused. Colton’s breath ran ragged through the mask, each intake a desperate gasp, and each exhale something demonic.
“Gale,” Excelsior said, softly, placing a hand on Colton’s shoulder. “Go with Hands and see if you can find Gunze. We do need medical supplies as well, perhaps?”
Colton shot me a frantic harried look, but I ignored him and looked over at Hands. “Do you think…?”
The two of us split off from the swordsman and the mind of knives and we made our tracks.
Without Colton, and without the burden of leading Excelsior around unfamiliar ground, the path became clearer. Perhaps because every moment had been etched painfully into my nightmares, I found the path to the basement without much trouble. Hands shifted nervously beside me, inch by inch, feeling out the air in front of me.
“Tell me if the room is intact, alright?” She rumbled through the mask.
I gave her a thumbs up, and we made it to the stairs without much trouble. I closed my eyes and gently felt around. While the upper rooms were destroyed (and blooming with mold. How many people had died in the upper rooms? How many had still been alive with the building had been struck? Had we missed any?) the lower rooms were mostly intact.
Hands gripped my shoulder with her invisible appendage and then we both stepped down the stairs, inch by inch.
The past swarmed up to meet me, a chaotic haze of laughter, guns, screaming, bullets, shots, and boots. Looking down, I saw the spray of blood, now rife with mold, littering the ground and cracked tile floor. More forward and ahead, I saw…
“It’s gone,” Hands breathed through the mask.
The blood had puddled underneath of the dead man, and the bore still bore the outline of his shirt…
But Gunze was gone.
We shot each other startled looks and looked around.
“He was… dead right?”
“Dead,” I confirmed. “He was dead.”
For a moment, hope fluttered in my heart, then Hands stooped down low and stared at the ground. “Come over here,” she barked.
I knelt down beside her and stared at the ground. Scratches on the floor from Gunze’s outfit…
And long bloodied drag marks moving away from the source of the dead pool on the ground. My breath caught in my throat, and I turned around and smashed my fist into the cracked glassware littering the tables. “SOMEONE STOLE HIS BODY!?”
“Gale,” Hands said, warning, looking around. “Don’t make so much noise.”
“THEY FUCKING TOOK HIS BODY, HANDS,” I shouted, stopping in the middle of the room. “They… took his body after we left.” I fell to my knees and hugged them, staring down at the room. It had seemed bigger when it was full of people, but now it just looked like any other lab. If I squinted, I could still see my name, charts of genetics.
“Gale, it’s not…” Hands shook, her real physical hands tearing at the mask on her face, then leaving it there. She gripped the table as well, her skin flushed. “This isn’t fair.”
“They took his fucking body, Hands,” I said, and kicked the counter. It bounced off of the armor lacing every inch of my legs, and my entire leg ached from the after impact. “They came here, they shot everyone here, they shot Gunze, they kicked me, they took his body away, and I don’t know why Hands.”
“Gale…” She said, a shrill edge to her voice.
“I don’t know why they’d take his body, they left everything else here, why did they take his fucking body?! They fucking took his body away and-”
Abruptly, the sense of the air around me told me that something horribly wrong was about to happen.
I stood still at the sound of an ominous crack underneath of my feet.
“Gale, I don’t think the floor here is safe.”
“This is the basement,” I said, woodenly. “There are sub floors from here?”
“Take my hand,” Hands said, and I narrowed my eyes at her.
I could see the dust clinging to the invisible appendage, wriggling back and forth, too many fingers, too long of bones to be human, but…
I took a step forward, and the floor shifted. The wind told me what would happen next if I put anymore weight on it, but common sense told me it was the only way.
I lashed out ahead and my fingers brushed against the wayward edge of that inhuman hand. Just the finger tips, clicking against each other, and then the floor gave way out from under me.
I hit the side of the crumbling floor hard, and my finger tips tug into the tilting tile, scrabbling for purchase, and Hands moved as fast as she could, boots thumping against the ground, and then what little purchase I had disappeared against the slick moldy tile and
I tumbled and fell.