Dusty conference room at the convention center. It certainly wasn’t the base we’d spent months in, but it was the only place dignified enough to hold the full military contingent.
Excelsior and I sat next to each other, the sole representatives of the Mobilian faction. Command Rutherford sat across from us.
Outside, the city center was finally easing back into life as even the worst of the rubble, the stuff we hadn’t been able to move without heavy machinery and gas, the stuff I’d left for the eventual eternal ‘later’, was finally moved by the Patrol’s own teams.
Rutherford’s breath was easy. In, out. Not a hint of nervousness to him.
There was no room for such things in the military, even foreign ones.
“Alright,” He said, standing up. “I have conferred with my best strategists, and listened to all information that has been given to me. I have reviewed all of our available data.”
He gestured at the gathered squad leaders and higher level soldiers.
I was quietly sure the Association had similar levels of discipline among the higher levels, but this wasn’t an Association territory anymore.
Then he gestured at Excelsior and I.
My mouth fell open, and Excelsior stood up, carefully dusted off the top of his dress armor with his left hand (red and golds suited him at times, though I felt he looked strange without silver) and started pacing.
“Alright. If we want to assail Birmingham proper, we need to get past the firebombers and sniper teams that the Association has set up.”
Rutherford nodded. “I assume you’ve worked something out with them, being our connection?”
Excelsior’s eyes flicked over to mine, to watch my reaction.
“I have, but it isn’t pretty, I’m going to confess. They refuse to lift the blockade unless we can prove that we have a beacon.”
Rutherford nodded, and his assistants scurried about, writing down that latest twist to the agreement.
“Which naturally means we’re going to have to acquire a beacon.”
I blinked at him. In what world were there spares?
“Pensacola’s shelter has been reporting that they have not received shipments on time,” Excelsior said, pointing down at the map. “One of those shipments should’ve contained a spare beacon, in order to ensure the safety of the civilians at those locations. One flick of the switch, maybe a sacrificial generation, and the guns provided would’ve wiped away anything too unnatural or villainous.”
“Cold, brutal, efficient,” Rutherford said. “The benefits of working with the Association.”
Excelsior nodded. I stared down at the map, and quietly traced where the Sea of Skin took place.
“Any comments, Gale?” Excelsior asked.
“Is Gale part of your presentation?”
“The top leadership of Mobile participated in an attempt to get back these very resources,” Excelsior said.
“Then let Gale speak,” Rutherford said.
It took me a while to find Cass in the room; in full military dress uniform her red skin was the only tell, and she stood at attention, with just the faintest hint of smugness and murderous potential lingering around the way her hidden smirk curled the corners of her eyes.
She met my eyes, and flicked her own over to the map.
“Not long at all ago, I encountered the firebombed wreckage of several towns; the Association staged an armed intervention in order to prevent the spread of a Sea of Skin,” I said, jabbing my finger along the map in front of us, tracing an outline in pencil. “At the time, the borders were here.” and the theorized location of the supply depots, were, of course, far behind the lines I drew.
“So what do you recommend?” Rutherford asked.
“The creature is weak to fire,” I said. “Move your flame troopers into the formation you’re sending to each depot, and you might be able to push it back.”
“That’s a hellish run,” Rutherford said, looking back at Excelsior. “I’ll have to discuss it with the other tacticians. More importantly, that’s contested ground.”
“If you make a line straight towards the depots,” The swordsman said, looking down at the map, “I can get the northern arms to cease bombing and sniping anything vaguely human going that way. It’ll be dangerous, however.”
“If a rogue splinter faction can do it with a tenth of the resources, so can we.”
“Also, there’s one other location I’d like to try,” Excelsior said, sweeping his hand down, far in front of the lines of monstrous human skin.
Rutherford paused. “I suppose you’ll be picking your squad for this?”
“The fighters here are ill suited for the rigors of structured combat,” the swordsman said. “No offence to any of the training you’ve done, Gale, but there’s a difference between months of desperation fighting and years of military drills.”
I breathed out. “Accepted here. What is this other location?”
Excelsior marked the map with a small black X. “This is where a hidden Association base lies abandoned.”
Rutherford raised an eyebrow. “Not marked on the map? Aren’t your lot proud of your bases?”
Excelsior shook his head. “Let me correct myself. This is a Pre-Association base. Made before the VA transitioned over into the civil sector and became the Association.”
Rutherford paused, staring down at the X. “So a World War 2 base?”
“Given the nature of the base, it might have a prototypical beacon inside. Bulky, unwieldy, heavy…”
“But that’ll be enough to get us through the roads to Birmingham and prevent any trickery,” Rutherford said, slowly nodding. “Three teams then.”
“One of just current and past Association personnel,” Excelsior said. “That is my decision for the team I will lead.”
“A bit selfish.”
“I am already exposing them to what my country did during the extended war with Japan. I hardly need to expose my allies to the same fate,” he said, gritting his teeth.
“And you’re bringing Gale, then?”
“Of course. Just because we’re going to be avoiding the main enemy to the north, it doesn’t mean we’re not going to be in danger,” Excelsior straightened in his chair.
For a moment, all eyes were on me. My jaw clenched. Suddenly, surprisingly, I was important.
“So you need me as a stabilizer?”
“Bizarrely, all of the impressive missions that Mobile has managed during and after my absence had you in common, Gale,” Excelsior said, flat. “I’m not going to risk squad chemistry by removing you just because you might have an unfortunate match up.”
My face flushed.
A curious expression flickered across Rutherford’s face. He turned and glanced into the ranks of soldiers around him, before settling on the shotgun trooper that I knew.
“Cassandra,” Rutherford said, slowly, looking at the spec trooper. “Why is our esteemed Association representative treating Gale like that?”
“Poor information,” Cassandra said, smoothly. “Since Excelsior has been gone, he’d hardly be privy to the information that Gale can sense the contents of a room.”
On the one hand, it was a compliment, and a cause for my mentor to reassess me.
On the other hand, it was a reminder that the Cuban patrol knew me more than the Association did. Cass’s eyes gleamed with satisfaction, knowledge. Mischief.
They wouldn’t underestimate me. If anything went wrong, they wouldn’t underestimate me.
A blessing and a curse.
Excelsior quietly raised an eyebrow at me, and I shook my head. Not now.
“So we’ll hit up the base, check it out and see if we can find what we need, and then if we don’t you can send in the other teams.”
Rutherford shook his head. “Time’s too important for that,” he gestured at the map. “So we’ll send all three teams in at once.”
Excelsior blinked. “He’s already been holed up there for weeks at this point, what could possibly-”
Understanding struck him like a baseball bat. His teeth clicked together, his skin paled slightly, and then he slowly looked over at me. Opened his mouth again. Shut it.
“Time’s important on this matter,” Rutherford repeated. “We need to move like we were there last week, and if we’re lucky, we won’t reap what Patrickson has spent months sowing.”
“Team leaders, go and tell your squads their orders. We leave at dawn.”
The soldiers filed out one by one, but Cassandra paused, watching me.
“I’ll see you after the mission,” Cass said.
Rutherford watched everything, a look on his face.
A desire to do what needed to be done.
It was a scary look, because I knew that it had been upon my face every time I’d decided on something gut wrenchingly stupid.
The whirr of the boat engine was the only thing that broke the silence of the bayou. Apart from the slow noises of birds and the whine of insects in the air, and the vapid pitter patter of the morning rain over the swamp.
Mobile was a civilized place, but the twisting remnants of hurricanes, abandoned shanty towns, and structural decay that was the source of the bay wasn’t. Excelsior kept a sturdy grip on the boat, his gaze focused straight ahead.
“Any of you get boat sick?” he asked, coolly, ignoring how Colton was lying flat on the bottom of the boat, trying to ignore how it pitched against the shallow depths of the slow moving river, brackish water and swamp.
“Just Colton,” Hands said, weaving her fingers together. Nervous tick.
We were all nervous.
Excelsior had bought us a reprieve from watching my sins overtake the town, but I had bought us full stomachs and new armor. I felt like I was wearing my father’s coat and pretending, but the Cuban Patrol armor had brokered nothing for aesthetics, and everything for pure raw protection.
Straight to the point.
“What… are we doing here?” Colton whined from the bottom of the ship.
“We’re heading to one of the number stations used during the war,” Excelsior said. “Abandoned some odd forty years ago.”
“And why do you know about it?” I asked.
“I knew someone who worked there,” Excelsior said. “Stations like that needed to be protected from assaults, so…”
“They might have the protection we need?” I asked.
“That’s the hope. That, and I didn’t want to send you into the maw of the grinder that the northern conflict will be. What would you even do with all of the flame whirling about?”
He was right. The soldiers cutting up north wouldn’t have a need for us; they were armed to the teeth and would scythe through anything less than Birmingham itself.
Or the sniping team that the Association had watching the roads.
“What’s the Association think of the Cuban Patrol being this close?”
“They’re of many minds,” Excelsior said. “They’d rather they weren’t here, obviously, but this isn’t the first time that either side has had to negotiate a crisis alliance, and it won’t be the last if we don’t get this settled this time.”
“And what,” Hands said, speaking up. “Exactly requires a more than a hundred soldiers to invade? Without waiting for us?”
Excelsior’s teeth clicked together.
“From what I can tell,” I said, slowly standing up and joining Excelsior near the front of the boat. Careful not to step on Colton, curled up in the middle, or destabilize the ship anymore than it already was. “Patrickson invaded Dauphin island and stole the research there.”
It wasn’t quite a lie.
Excelsior shot me a look. Grateful, perhaps, but it was always more complicated than that.
“Of the monsters down there?” Hands asked, sounding worried.
“And the data held there,” Excelsior said. “Each base has back ups of the relevant information there. They’ll have Colton’s genetic code, and the code and information of every hero that was in the gulf coast area.”
Everyone except Excelsior and I.
Dangerous information, and that was before we even included Fafnir.
What the hell was it that could motivate armies to fight, and keep Excelsior’s jaw wired shut?
He said they were secret police, fronted by the Association in the most dangerous of cases.
What the hell was so strange about Fafnir that moved the world like this?
“You’d tell us if we’d met a Fafnir, correct?” I asked, quietly.
“You did,” Excelsior said, flicking his gaze over to my own. “Gunze was the squad leader in the purple Capes. He was treated.”
Raw pain hit my heart, and then the burning of anger, and then, like a candle snuffed, nothing at all.
I was already on a mission of revenge. Embracing that stupid spark anymore would just burn me and everyone else.
Keep calm, and cool.
“I can’t go into the specifics, but… of the few things that can lead to a hero’s demise, few hit harder than old age,” Excelsior said. “As a hero ages, their powers leave them, and their chance of suffering permanent complications increases. Even for Fafnir.”
But what did a vial even do in the first place?
What could it do in the end?
The boat sputtered quietly.
“So we’re killing them all, right?” Colton asked. “That’s our orders?”
I shook my head and knelt down next to Colton, watching as his face twitched and paled with each movement of the boat. “Not yet. We need to get to Birmingham first.”
His teeth clenched, and he bit back words, something he desperately wanted to say, given how his heart fluttered, given how his fingers twitched.
“We need to talk after this mission, alright?” Colton said, quietly.
Excelsior breathed in, then hissed it out between his teeth. “After the mission.”
“You’re leading this?” I asked.
“Of course,” Excelsior said. “I do still have seniority here.”
All at once, every single ounce of my body screamed.
Perhaps it was the fact that the birds had gone quiet in the trees, their perpetual squabbling over territory and lust quieted for just a moment.
Perhaps it was how the rain stopped, waiting with bated breath.
Or, more likely, it was the glint of a distant scope, poking through the twisted trees far ahead.
It’d been a while since I’d been shot at.