Moving through the empty trees, the scars and shrapnel ebbed away to the perpetual rot. Every foot step was awkward, dangerous; ground wasn’t as solid as I wanted it to be.
Colton watched behind us, his hand clutched into mine.
“Alright, alright,” he said, flicking his gaze back and forth. “What’re we watching for?”
“Anything that moves,” I shot back. “Excelsior will keep Hands safe, and they can both block bullets, so we just need to catch up with them on the other side.”
“And how are we-”
A scream in the distance. Horrific, painful, bloody.
Not either Excelsior or Hands.
My right hand clenched in Colton’s grip. Swallowed.
Excelsior was serious about keeping us safe. “There’s our distraction.”
Colton squeezed my hand, and I hurled my air sense out to sense around us.
Movement. Hurried, flurried movement, and I took us against the back of a tree, squeezing my eyes closed.
“There.” I pointed blindly, quiet. Colton moved, and I grabbed him before he looked, tugging the two of us even further into cover behind the tree.
Eyes snapped open just in time to catch the Cuban Patrol armor, glinting dark in the afternoon sun, close enough that I could breath and touch it, and I threw my arm over my mouth to muffle even that. Colton stiffened and I ducked down low, gesturing urgently.
Seconds later, boot steps hit the bayou’s banks with urgent squelching, and he was joined by two more, looking around.
Then the first Patrol member spoke.
He spoke Spanish.
I’d never had a grasp for other languages, and for the first time, I was really feeling the pain. While Cass and Rutherford had spoken fluently in English, the Renegades were under no reason to speak in my tongue.
Barked into the air, with what I could only assume was into a radio in his helmet.
Sweat dripped down the front of my face, sliding across the inside of my mask. Wanted to wipe it out, but any movement could give us away. Ground was unsteady, awkward, we couldn’t sneak away.
Colton’s heartbeat sounded like gunshots, and his gloved hands shook. Too close for missiles.
He gestured at their exposed backs, and I shook my head, holding up my left hand.
Paused, waited for the Spanish to cease. Then waited a few seconds as they started to move.
Brought my hand down.
Colton lunged out of cover and slammed into them with knives in both hands.
There was a moment where they saw him coming and then it was over. The images muddled together as I tried to piece them back together, but it all came down to one thing.
They were in armor meant to stop bullets, meant to survive being thrown around by powered humans.
They weren’t meant to stop a sharp knife across the back of the neck, and Colton had never forgotten what he’d learned.
As the third turned to face the other two, he came face to face with Colton, lunging at him, arms covered in hot blood spurting like a hose from the other two, who were still falling to the ground.
Spines cut like puppets.
Colton has been trained long in neutralizing targets. It’s what he’d gone to school for, and what he’d done before reporting to Dauphin Island.
But the plain determination sketched across what little I could see of him, the rigidity of muscles, and the way the knives disappeared from the corpses sitting around him, cooling against the flesh of the bayou made me think of how lucky it was that he was on my side after all.
Colton breathed out and clutched his chest, and I dashed over to him.
“Careful careful,” I hissed, dancing around the bodies.
“No careful about it,” Colton said, baring his teeth like a wolf. “Now help me toss these bodies into the grip of the bayou so that it’s not as obvious.”
Then he stepped forward and tore off the helmet from one of his victims. The bottom of the helmet ran with fresh blood, and he plunged his head into it.
The dead man looked like he’d been surprised, and had died with wide eyed horror on his face.
Colton held up a hand to stop me, and fiddled with the helmet for a minute. Listened.
I might not speak Spanish, but that didn’t mean Colton didn’t. His head slowly bobbed up and down. Eavesdropping.
After a moment, he gave me a thumbs up, and switched off the radio in the helmet.
“Get rid of the bodies.”
The bodies were heavy. Heavy armor, heavy like the dead. Grenades disappeared into my pockets, plucked from their bodies.
Made sense why they hadn’t tried to use them on us. Blind throwing grenades was a good way to frag your own soldiers.
We didn’t have that problem.
Then they disappeared into the drink, bobbing, sinking, armor weighing them down.
“Maybe a scientist will pull them out of the depths in a hundred years, marveling at how they can still see the knife wounds,” Colton muttered, leaning back against the tree. Ragged cough.
“I’ve… been better.” He laughed, taking a moment to breath. Watching the last few bubbles rise from the depths of the bayou.
“Let’s get going before anyone else moves to reinforce up north.”
After all, if they were moving this way when they called in…
That could only mean that their base was ahead as well.
“Hurts like a bitch,” Colton whined, clutching his chest.
“You up for moving ahead?” I asked, throwing my sense of the air behind us, to the limits I could muster.
“Don’t think we have much of a choice there,” Colton rasped. “Just point me where and tell me when to kill. Just wish we could help them up there,” he gestured up ahead, where Hands and Excelsior had gone.
Excelsior would keep her safe. Oh, hell, Hands could keep herself safe.
The bayou rang with the buzzing of mosquitoes and the call of distant birds. The reach and grasp of man hadn’t touched this place, not enough to scrape the heart out of it yet, and on some level it knew it.
Soon, the Greenlands would take it back, grasping, and squealing, to some primordial place where it would seize the land and squeeze out the mess of humanity that lived near it, if we didn’t get things under control.
But it was not yet that wild of a place. Just wild enough to be a disaster to fight through.
Colton shot a look behind us, and I followed his gaze. Nothing. Nothing at all.
“So we’re on the south perimeter,” Colton said, lifting the helmet again.
“They were reporting in before they went to reinforce,” Colton said. “You don’t speak spanish?”
“No,” I admitted. “But I’m glad you do.”
Colton gave a shy smile for a moment, and then his fingers drifted back down to his chest. “I can feel every beat of my heart like this.”
Wondered if it felt like his heart was being squeezed in a giant fist. Arm as long as a mile, fingers as long as femurs, with a head tilted far to the side with eyes like madness.
What would death look like for him?
“Which means that if we head directly north, we’ll run into their main camp.”
“The Association base couldn’t have existed in a vacuum, right?” I asked.
“Probably not,” Colton agreed. “Maybe they’re using some of the existing structures around it for their base.”
“But why are they even here?”
Colton opened his mouth, then clicked his teeth shut, looking behind me.
I listened for a moment and heard the distant noise of boots. “Come on, let’s go.”
Before, when we’d encountered the Cuban Patrol the first time, there’d been a faint trace of childlike innocence to it. It seemed stupid now, but I’d never been that close to armored guards before.
It had quickly lost that charm when the guns had started firing.
It wasn’t here at all, and I waved at Colton. “Let’s go.”
He hesitated, then took my hand again.
It wasn’t urgency that made our footsteps lighter, but rather a concentrated effort on my part to remove some of the noise we made as he raced ahead. Distantly, trees winding into a mess of knotted wood and brackish water, I wondered if they could see us. In our modified Cuban Patrol armors, we probably blended right in with the rest of the Renegades, at least at a distance.
Especially with Colton wearing the dead man’s helmet.
We made quicker progress than before, relying on Colton pausing every few hundred feet to point where the next patrol was coming from so we could hide from them.
It was nice to not have it go utterly wrong, unlike our entrance.
Which was how I knew it wouldn’t last long.
Colton tapped his helmet, and then pointed in both directions, left and right. I paused, raising an eyebrow, and then threw my senses out.
He shook his head. I quirked an eyebrow at him, half hidden behind my mask.
Colton tore the helmet off of his head and stared at me.
“We need to get to their camp.”
I paused. Stared at him. It was utterly ludicrous.
“What do you mean?” I hissed, looking around.
“They’re guarding something here,” Colton said. “Something big enough to warrant this many guards, there’s a lot more out here than I’d put forward, this far from their base.”
“We can’t risk it,” I said, firmly.
“The perimeter, the guards. They’re guarding something dangerous here, Gale,” he said, firmly. “We need to see what it is.”
“We’re not scouts,” I hissed at him. “We’re trying to meet back up with Hands and Excelsior! This wasn’t even supposed to be trouble!”
“When has anything this month not been trouble?” Colton argued. “We can’t just leave this place here like a tumor.”
“We’re not doctors, Colton. What the hell are we supposed to do? Wait until reinforcements get here, they can take care of it.”
“It’s here now, and we’re here now.” Colton said, his eyes hardening. “And I refuse to bow down like gutless mice. Just because you suddenly have faith in them doesn’t mean I do.”
“This isn’t something we can do,” I said, leaning in. “This isn’t something we should do.”
Colton stiffened, and glared at me. “This is our chance, we move in, we figure out what’s going on, and we stop it!”
“That’s not our mission,” I hissed.
He changed his stance, the knife master twisting in place, then sent a glare my way. “I’m making it my mission. Now you can go with me or you can leave me.” His eyes glinted as he stared at me. Would I leave him?
I couldn’t leave him.
“You’re injured, you complete idiot,” I hissed. “You won’t make it alone.”
Colton knew victory when he tasted it. “Then you’ll just have to go with me.”
“And how the hell are we supposed to make it that far?”
Colton gestured down at the helmet in his hands. “I can use this to avoid the patrols, we get in, we get out, and then we go on with the mission.”
I’d never really been in the position to realize I had authority. It had always been accepted without question, largely because I’d never had to make a decision that wasn’t obvious, or just give out orders to keep everyone from dying.
Not since Dauphin Island.
Colton slipped the helmet onto his head and slipped forward. My heart thumped in my chest.
This was stupid, but I couldn’t let the asshole get himself killed. We’d gotten this far.
I’d give him hell to pay for it later. For now, I had to keep him alive.