In the push to get to the first aid kits, hobbled by explosions from a thoroughly fortified position and the shrapnel from a dozen blasts from soldiers on both sides, a minute or two passed. Enough that the faintness rimming my head, making black dance around the edge of my eyes grew into a deeper and deeper shade.
I was caught before I hit the ground, shaken free. Helmet tumbled off. Crashed against the ground in a shower of sparks. Water poured onto my face; there was blood dripping down from a cut over my eye.
Time blurred together, events played out in fast motion, then slow. Above, the vanguard of the beyond called, crying birds draped in drooling vines. Thousands of teeth bestowed upon flagrant green, scythed out of the sky by automatic fire where they hit the ground and bloomed like artillery shells.
But by the time I’d gotten my feet back under me, and the events made sense again, I was at the base of the RSA tower.
And at that point, the Beacon deployed behind us.
The beast howled in agony.
The soldier escorting me stopped and stared. I drifted, half a dreaming, and stared as the top thread of the monster unravelled. Flesh peeled back into sinnew, and that single strand was joined by a dozen others. Then the mass of it floated up into the air.
The beast dug hands of red thread into the ground, but the unspooling continued. Unreal how long the threads were, unballed and uncoiled. The street splintered under the strain. The human body of Gunze, long split open to reveal nothing but threads, screamed a human hoarse cry.
Then the street broke.
The entire behemoth floated up.
Into the sky, where the reign of Green Towassa diminished.
The edges of the great maw of the void contracted, rimmed with teeth, and then pointed inward. Like the end of the world, as threads passed into it, the great jaws closed.
Reality warred with the intruders. In the air, the vanguard invasion forces ceased being able to fly and crashed into the earth; green rotting, brown taking over as the dominant shade. Bones crunched. Skin tore.
The tops of buildings molded. Wilted. Rotted without the endless immortality (but not for long) brought about by the strands of green radiation.
And then the escort remembered themselves, and I was inside of the building.
Cassandra sat nestled in a sea of bandages like a demon sat inside of a sea of tails. Red blossomed across her side, a pained look on her red skin, slack with sweat. She coughed ungracefully, looking up at the soldiers around her.
“Gale made it in,” Cass muttered.
“In the flesh,” I winced. A soldier shoved me down into a chair. A nurse barked out status reports. Armor removed, showing off the worst of the injuries.
Right arm was a mass of hamburger; skin perforated, half flensed in a moment of enraged threads. Dark bruises wrapped around the skin that hadn’t been lost.
They took the knives to it.
Cassandra kept a level gaze on me while they worked. Painkillers injected onsite to keep the pain dimmed rimmed the side of my head with fuzz.
“Cass…” I whined.
“I’m not dying,” Cass said. “I’ve been stabilized. Just waiting for a gut surgeon to show up with the main bulk of the army.”
She didn’t move a muscle of her lower half. Sheer strength of will perhaps, or just practice. Stubbornness even.
Something between there more likely.
“Whose our guests?” I gestured with my left arm, and a soldier lightly put hands on it and shoved me forcefully back into the chair.
“Looking at the remnants of my infiltration team…” Cass said. A few of the soldiers in heavier rugged armor, dulled to a fine grey to avoid reflecting light. Somehow looked more dangerous than most of the soldiers around.
“And the remnants of several Renegades who decided that holing up with my team was better than getting scythed down.”
Her tone fell into something resembling disgust, but nobody bothered to correct her. “Most of them had previously served with me,” Cass admitted. “Good to know self preservation overcomes loyalty.”
Even the nurse treating me was silent. There was nothing to say.
I swallowed, and chanced a look down at my numb right arm. Regretted it, looked back up. Glad I wasn’t too vain about my arms at this point.
Cass held a bit of amusement in her face, mixed with something like pity. I glared at her until it shifted away.
“Mission complete,” She said, flicking her eyes out the window. Montgomery burned.
But we’d broken the forces controlling the city.
Or rather, Patrickson had done the lion’s share of breaking for us.
“So,” I said, ignoring the feeling of knives digging into my arm. No pain but sensation, sensation crawled up nerves and danced around my heart. Swallowed. Kept still as the nurse did her best. How much was ruined?
Not enough to impede the nerves, I had that going for me at least. Breath in. Let it out of the lungs. Half remembered classes on how to deal with first aid. Wasn’t as bad as being trapped under Dauphin island, or being trapped behind enemy lines, thinking of how dead we were.
Wasn’t as bad as that queer place in the ground we’d found the beacon left in the hands of the Cuban Patrol to scythe through what was blocking the bulk of their forces.
“So?” Cass asked.
The question hung in the air for a moment.
Cass leaned her head back, the first real movement of her body. “We don’t know.”
Breath in. Breath out. Feel the knives in my arm. They’d be interested in the dappling of bruises across my chest. The cut over my eye was already cleaned, taken care of while we talked in between one moment or another.
“You don’t know?” I asked again. “He’s somewhere in the city, right?”
The pain on the monstrous Gunze’s face flashed in front of my eyes, drug up into the great green void of the other place. Just for a moment, then it was gone. Painkillers perhaps.
“We suspect,” Cass said, and when she said we, her eyes flicked over the various Renegades strewn around her. Even half dead and caught by a rogue blast, nobody was willing to rebuke or talk against Cass. “That he’s embedded himself in the Capital building. But we’re not exactly the sort of team that investigates that.”
I breathed in. Breathed out. “And why don’t we rout him?”
“That’s a job for the army,” Cass said, lightly. Gently. “As you might be able to tell, the majority of people here aren’t willing to fight anymore. The army proper’s on the way.”
Fists clenched, and then many hands kept me pressed in place. I breathed in. Breathed out. We were surrounded by allies of fortune, of chance, not anyone we could count on.
They’d protect us here from attack. But they weren’t people we could actually order around.
Not people we could count on to make a difference. Fine. We could wait until the rest showed up.
“Anyone have a radio?” I asked. Time to report in. Mission accomplished. The rest didn’t have to involve me.
I didn’t know if I liked that, but that was the case.
I’d done my part. Paid my dues.
Someone handed me a hand com unit. Without Green Towassa blasted the place with radiation and gumming up signals, it all rang clear. Wrenched the frequencies for a bit, trying to find the right channel.
“This is Gale, reporting in.” Voice broke a little. Enemy territory. “Beacon has been placed, I repeat, beacon has been placed.”
A few seconds passed. Someone replied on the line. “This is Rutherford.”
Breathed out. Breathed in. “Status on the next phase of the attack?”
“The army’s coming in,” Rutherford said. “Resistance on the road has plummeted in the last ten minutes. I have reports that the mess on the roads are clearing up. The heavier pieces of machinery are sliding into place. What news do you have?”
“Resistance in the city is gone,” I said. “We have Renegade forces giving up their arms. Patrickson turned off his beacon to rout us out.”
“On his own men?” Rutherford asked. “Strange.”
“Strange,” I muttered. Breathed in. Kept my report more concise. “A reanimated A-class hero was involved; cut through masses of troops and Scythe tanks. The sky opened up to show-”
Where were the rest of the reanimated troops at?
“Green Towassa, to save you the trouble,” Rutherford cut in. “Quite a light show.”
“I was separated from the rest of the Beacon delivery team, and elected to lead him on a chase to give the rest of my team time to deploy without being harrassed. Looks successful from here.”
A brief paused, muffled voices on the other channel.
“Excelsior here,” the swordsman said, and I relaxed, sinking into the chair. “Beacon deployment successful. I’m bleeding, but relatively uninjured.”
“Thank you for your service, Mobile team,” Rutherford said. “We’ll handle it from here.”
Excelsior didn’t leave the radio.
“Gale,” he addressed. Slow breath in and out. We were done.
A brief pause. “Are Hands and Colton with you?”
Wasn’t relaxed anymore. We weren’t done.
“Heartbeat spiking,” The nurse said, heavy accent. A tendon twitched in Cass’s neck.
“No,” I said. Mind was a bit blank.
“I’d like to amend my report.” Excelsior said, voice level and steel. “We are missing two squad members of the Beacon team.”
Fade to black.