The boat flipped as Excelsior. Hands and I hit the bottom at the same time. For a brief moment, we teetered on the side, eyes wide, and then the entire thing dumped the lot of us, including Colton, into the brackish water below.
Then the boat came down on top of us, hot and dark. Could barely see except by the glowing strips embedded in the inside of the boat, glowing warnings about this being the absolute last position we could want to be in.
Hot moldered swamp water splattered across my skin and made the armor even heavier on my body. If I hadn’t gotten used to wearing it constantly, it might’ve even made the aches of perpetual stress flare up.
Not that those weren’t stressed already.
Seconds stretched together, knit like stockings as we sat there to try and get our bearings.
They shouldn’t be here. There shouldn’t be anyone in the bayou this close to Mobile. Not this close to our home.
A number of things happened. Shouts, distant, boots moving through the swamp, the distant cry of machines whirring to life and-
The top of the boat perforated, disjointed from the sound of distant rifles and the play of distant things in the darkness.
Disjointed with perception as it was, a number of things happened.
Colton cried out once;
and then the rest of the bullets stopped, hovering in front of us, tips bent in and smouldering hot against the invisible outline of Hand’s arm.
And then Excelsior swore.
Hands turned to stare at him, her eyes wide. I could feel her heart beat skyrocket.
She flared her nostrils, her eyes going wild, and she stared at us. Slowly, my head turned to look at Colton, who was clutching his stomach. Armor had slowed down the bullet’s path, we were all dosed to the gills in the heaviest army the military organization had to offer, but it hadn’t stopped it from leaving a dent in his armor, and the sharp smell of blood in the air.
It didn’t stop it from leaving a messy rose drooling down his gloved hands, a red smear that disappeared into the hungry hungry swamp.
“Status,” Excelsior barked.
Colton breathed, in, out, then swallowed, bringing his hands up from his stomach. Could see decisions in his eyes, spiralling out like fractals.
“Combat ready, sir,” Colton declared.
“I doubt that,” Excelsior said. “But we’ll work you like you’re on sniping duty.”
I could smell it, thick and heavy under the boat.
Excelsior’s eyes flicked back and forth. “Unknown number of assailants, ally damaged, we could be surrounded. Thoughts?”
Thoughts? My thoughts were how screwed we were.
But that wasn’t the correct response. I swallowed, then closed my eyes. “We’re sitting ducks out in the open, we need to get somewhere they can’t surround.”
“Masks on,” Excelsior said. “We need to split up and regroup up ahead. You remember where it is, right? Only take attacks when you need to, and keep moving. We’ll make noise and distract them so you can move.”
“Split up?” I squawked. “Why the hell would we do that?”
“Two groups means they have to spend twice as many people chasing after us,” Excelsior said. “We don’t know their numbers, but we do know they only have limited people. So if we split into two groups…”
Colton nodded slowly. “He’s right. With the terrain and all, I’ll have to move slower, if we’re all stuck together, I’ll get gunned down.”
I shot him a glare. Colton returned my look evenly. “If there’s two groups, we can have one help me to get to shelter while the other is free to move and handle things.”
“How do we know the place is safe?”
Excelsior’s face split into a grin that might’ve looked nervous on any other man. “I know the secret and safe rooms of every Association base that’s ever been made. I can make sure we’re safe. But only if we get there.”
A slow group and a fast group, one to harry, another to get Colton in. Not to mention, they didn’t know how many people were with us. Didn’t have a summation of our numbers, didn’t know how many groups would be coming.
“So you’ll stick with Colton, Gale,” Excelsior said. “And we’ll meet back at the Association base up ahead. Pick off the stragglers if you can, but most importantly, keep safe!”
How the hell were we supposed to do that?
I knew where it was, roughly.
His eyes flicked over to mine. “It’s about time to use the heavier armaments we got, no?” He asked, cocking his head.
I didn’t know what he was talking about for just a few brief moments, less than a second, but with my thoughts racing and the tight curl my airsense had over the group, it felt like an eternity of my right hand fumbling for the package of grenades tucked into my jacket.
Excelsior raised an eyebrow, then flicked his gaze over to where the bullets had come from.
Colton’s face slowly turned white, his mouth opening and closing, and I swallowed. A sudden spike of pain. I knew that feeling. We weren’t dealing with faceless abominations now. “Alright. I’m going to disengage and distract them. Hands, stop the bullets from killing all of us, if you can, and then we’re going to scramble and move, alright?”
“We’re all trained Association members,” Excelsior said, flatly. “And we still have our mission.”
“Mission?” Hands squeaked, staring at Colton.
Colton swallowed. “Mission. They’re counting on us. We need to get there and back.”
“He’s right,” I said.
Not to mention that trying to get back would be insane. We were miles away from anywhere safe, and our boat was destroyed.
We’d need to hold out for reinforcements.
My air sense finally drifted across the banks of the river, and I closed my eyes.
Reached inside and grabbed the grenade. It felt awkward, heavy, dangerous in my hands. What was it doing there?
My left hand reached over to the pin. Excelsior calmly pointed out how to turn off the safety mechanisms first, then shook his head, gesturing at my teeth.
My eyes crossed to stare at the pin as I brought it up.
“On three, alright?” Excelsior said. “Make sure it is properly away from us, you’ll be covering our escape. We’ll dive down, it’ll catch the shrapnel.” He paused. “Keep your cool.”
“Three,” Colton said.
“Two…” Hands said, watching the top of the boat nervously. Golden sun poured through the bottom of it.
“Don’t feel bad for using it, alright?” Excelsior said, calm, smooth. Like a mentor.
I’d’ve killed to have had him earlier, but he’d tried to save the north first.
“They’ll try to kill you. Don’t feel bad about defending yourself.”
It would be hard to get out of here with a broken boat, but it’d be even harder to get out if we weren’t prepared.
A gunshot blew apart the front half of the boat, and then another came closer. Hit the engine. Metal fragments, shrapnel caught by my vest, hit like a mule.
“One,” I said, pulling the pin. Mask slammed down on my head, and I dove into the water.
Wasn’t hard to arc an arm out of the surface of the water, nor was it hard to get my power wrapped around it like a glove, like something dangerous. I was dangerous for a moment, just wrapped loosely around an explosive shell.
Bullets spattered around me, shattering like glass against the surface of the water, obliterated by drag forces. Hot splashes. The boat eviscerated under a hail of lead.
But I didn’t need to be above the surface of the water to see what I was doing, and knew everyone else was diving mostly blind in the muck.
And it flew against the laws of physics, buoyed up by a hot wind. Just like I knew it would. Just like I commanded it to. Arced across the surface of the water and-
Arced through the air like an apple, and I could pretend it was, ignoring the splashes as everyone scattered.
Before it could even detonate my hands found the next one and grabbed the pin. “DOWN!” I cried again.
The surface of the water rippled as the other three dove to minimize shrapnel.
Then all hell broke loose; the side of the bayou’s bank detonated in a flurry of hot shrapnel and water
Could see chunks of metal whir past, slowed by the water, as the muck atop shattered on the attack by mortal explosives.
Then, I found my grip on the next one, and threw it at the bank.
They’d hurt Colton, and I could hear him thrashing desperately as water attacked his chest. First aid as soon as found an opportunity, and maybe we’d…
The grenade exploded, and I knew it hurt people this time.
They were in my senses and it played out like something out of a nightmare. First they were there, standing, and then it caught them, hot shrapnel, dessicated twisting limbs, blood, bone. Armor.
Cooling flesh hitting the ground.
Things I didn’t want to think about for much longer, but I reached for the third
And fumbled, dropping it into the bayou.
Tried to reach for it and it rolled off of my fingers, disappearing into the muck.
There wouldn’t be a third on the barrage. Couldn’t let that stop us.
Legs pumped forward with the rapid pulse of my heart, and I lurched ahead, bubbles trailing behind me as my mask fought to give oxygen instead of water.
“GO!” Excelsior shouted, and I lurched out of the water and slammed myself back.
And into the flurry of chaos that I’d left behind.
I’d known it was bad, but as the water drooled heavily across my mask the bayou had been transformed into a mess of blood and shouting staggered parties.
They’d been surprised.
We’d stumbled into a patrol and they hadn’t been ready for us or looking for us.
We’d been surprised, we weren’t expecting them here.
It didn’t make the sight of twisted bodies, perforated bodies covered in shrapnel any better. Didn’t see anything move, but heard the distant shouts as they cleared the banks, fearing more reprisal.
I didn’t have enough grenades left to buy me the banks for free, and I needed
I stumbled and dove behind a tree, heart thumping in my chest. Armed people all around. I saw the twinkle of scopes, the dim glint off of roughed up rifles, and smelt death in the air. Distantly, I saw Excelsior mount the opposite bank, followed shortly by Hands. He paused, and caught my eye.
His sword flicked out and it cut through the armor of a downed soldier. Not even a whimper. No hesitation, just a sure, strong cut.
Then he pointed into the bayou depths. Then disappeared into the tree line to cause more noise.
Which just left Colton. Needed to catch up with him. Injured as he was.
Counted my breaths and-
My air sense whirled around me like a typhoon. If only it had the power to lift myself off the ground instead of just being a second set of eyes, maybe I could get out of there and join the others.
To my left, a hand lurched up from a body I’d dismissed as dead, but now I could hear the beat of his heart and smell, hot on the wind, the agony he was in, the rising spiral of a gut wound.
But he was reaching for his weapon. Plays, measures, counterplays, countermeasures, and I grabbed a rock and darted over to his position. Felt exposed in the open mire, this covered in death, this covered in open sightlines.
I was lucky he had on a mask to assist in the low light, because otherwise I would’ve had to watch the expression on his face.
But there was no room for subtlety, and as he breathed in to cry out-
I brought the rock down on his head. The first hit just stunned him.
He had a helmet after all, but it didn’t stop the second or third hit, and my senses cried out that there were other things coming near and I-
Brought it down again, hands shaking and I felt in that omnipresent way that my air sense had always granted me every moment and I-
Dove back into cover to catch my breath. In. Out.
Vision swirled about. Left hand ached like hell had stomped on it, and belated I realized that using it to help beat the soldier’s head in had been a bad idea. There’d be hell to pay later.
I just needed to make sure there was a later.
Tasted blood on my breath and took a few moment to center myself.
Then Colton lurched out of the water and I raced over to his side, helping to support him.
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” Colton said, shuffling to the same tree I had been hiding behind. “Just didn’t want to draw any more attention. How long do we have?”
I paused, then looked behind the tree, and it hit me.
They’d only been scared off by the grenades. Everyone who hadn’t been killed had retreated, just for a moment.
But now they knew we were here. Which meant our time was even shorter.
Colton looked around, catching his breath, and then we locked eyes.
“I’ll keep an eye out, and you’ll take them out?”
“I think I can remember where the weak point in their armor is. It’s like riding a bicycle.”
I knew it was far more likely that it was seared into his head from trying to keep himself alive in the ruins of the base, searching for survivors to help him.
“It’s like a crawfish,” Colton said, his eyes flicking down to see the dead around us. “You pop their armor and they’ll die and then you cook them up.” There was a harsh tension to his shoulders, and a curve to his voice.
My eyes flicked down to his chest, and I breathed, seeing the slow curl of blood.
“You going to be alright?”
“It hurts to breath,” Colton admitted. “But I think it just cracked a rib. We’re pretty heavily armored.”
“And the blood?”
He slowly shook his head. “Just… make sure I get back to Rebecca, alright?”
I didn’t like that tone.
“We’re getting back, alright?” I said. “We’re getting in, and we’re getting out.”
“What if they’re already there?” Colton asked. “Wouldn’t that be a death trap?”
“They’re not,” I said, firmly. “Because if they were, they’d already have what they wanted and they wouldn’t be here.”
Colton’s teeth grit as he stared at me.
Then nodded, firmly.
“Watch my back, I’m calling it in,” I said, pulling my com off of my belt. Then called for back up from the Cuban Patrol.
We’d make a stand with the others, but they’d be coming in quick.
That was my hope.