The main bulk of troops marched into Montgomery to destroyed defenses. The promised resistance was absent, barring skirmishes with half brutalized tanks still trying to clear the area.
Renegades who’d turned traitor back to the side of righteousness were taken away. Interrogation, probably. Hopefully not execution. I didn’t… really know how I felt about that.
Just numb, mostly.
My right arm was wrapped up and bandaged properly. My left arm ached, but it wasn’t unusable. My part was done. We could just… wait for the Patrol to do the rest.
Cassandra shot me a tired look as the nurses came to give her more painkillers, then shooed them off.
“You’re due for your next dose,” The nurse pointed out.
“You really should get another dose,” the nurse insisted.
Cass flashed the nurse a look. “Claiming special privilege of rank. Let me come out of it.”
“You were shot in the gut,” I said, staring at her. “You should really go back on the painkiller.”
The nurse gestured at me.
“Ignore Gale,” Cass barked, a hint of amusement in her voice.
With a sigh, the nurse their hands up and left us alone.
“So Hands and Colton are…?” Cass started.
“You heard the transmission as much as I did,” I snipped.
Outside we could hear gunshots, rockets, exchanges of live fire. I itched to be back out there, looking.
But I was beaten bloody. The hell was I supposed to do like this? Just… wait for them to turn up.
I could picture it. Excelsior, knowing where he was going, leaving Hands and Colton to watch me. A few seconds difference, and they lost the swordsman.
At least they had each other.
That wasn’t much of a patch there.
But Colton was every inch a soldier himself; he’d carried out extra judicial business until he’d ended up in Dauphin island. That counted for something.
Hands could stop bullets. That counted for something.
But after the beacon was deployed…
The beacon locked down super powers. I was still half blind from having my wind disabled; if they were caught out without their powers… they’d have to fall back on whatever was in their kid.
With the pounding cut over my eye, I couldn’t even remember what was on theirs.
“We’ll find them,” Cass said.
I breathed in. Breathed out. Felt the tug against my ribs. Sank down into the cushions they’d dragged up for me and Cass. Around us, the wounded groaned.
“You lost one of yours too,” I said, finally.
“What was their name?”
“Mads,” Cass said. “Helped me out back when I was drifting after Patrickson left. We used to be close, you know?”
I closed my eyes. “Then he turned into a homicidal lunatic.”
“In war, you’d be surprised how fine the line is there. And after the mess in Mexico…” Cass trailed off. “Mads was the one that figured out my resistance was high enough that I could get in close. I hated him for that for a long time, you know?”
“Why?” I asked.
“There’s not a lot of front line fighters,” Cass said. “Lots of back up and support, but… when the time comes, you need someone to stop it from moving so everyone else can take shots.”
I breathed in. Felt my ribs. “You ever forgive him for that?”
“I hated him for the first few missions. Then, I don’t know, I realized that as long as I was up in front, everyone else had a fighting chance.”
I breathed in. Dread was still there. Broken bodies behind my eyes. Renegades about to take shots. How many times had I almost died? How many? I shouldn’t be alive.
It wasn’t a terrifying prospect there.
It was the stark realization we shouldn’t be alive at all. A sort of slippery idea in my head, in my brain.
But I knew what she was saying. She knew it as well as I did, maybe better.
Trade your life for fifteen minutes. Trade your life for months.
Breathed in. Breathed out. “Now you’re high ranked?”
Cass smiled slyly. “That came later.”
Thinking about Hands and Colton hurt. We did the mission, why were they gone? Why weren’t they there beside me?
What’d I been trading my life for, anyway?
Gunshots were getting less frequent outside. Rumbles not as awful.
The flares for the dead were growing, though. Fortifications were going up.
Last march on the compound, and I wasn’t there.
“Tell me a story about Mads?” I asked. “So I remember him too.”
“He’s one of the snipers we designated for use with old-steel rounds.” Cass gestured. “I’m sure you saw some of them; long bullets, explosive, disrupts… monstrosities.”
Ontological self perpetuating folds of sentient reality overlaying human bases, sure.
“Something like what’s in your guns?”
“No, that’s all me,” Cass smiled. “I’m just that good.”
Willpower? Regular power? It didn’t…
It didn’t have to make sense. Missing too many pieces. Dammit all, I wanted to know. I wanted to know so much.
“At any rate, we were doing recon in the ruins of Panama. We were trying to figure out if we could get the canal operational; give the world a reason to care about it again,” She gestured her head to the side, trying not to move the bullet in her gut. I watched her move.
“He gets cornered by a Revenant, cluster of souls stuck together unable to leave after what happened in Panama in the 80s. We’d thought they’d mostly been settled, but we were wrong.” her eyes were closed, recalling it.
“Like the one in Dauphin island?”
“Exactly. A bit worse, since this one hadn’t been injured to hell and back.” Cass resumed the story. “Cut off, without anyone to support him, he decides to try for cover in one of the old abandoned stores. No dice, it belonged to one of the souls. So he’s trapped inside, shouting and screaming into his radio, and we’re going as fast as we can into one of the helicopters for evac.”
“Obviously he got out of that alive.”
A pained wince followed from both of us.
“So he unloaded his rifle, since it was on top of him, and he couldn’t get off a shot, and used one of the bullets like a knife to stab it. Stupidest idea ever, since it meant he got close to it. But it worked. Pinned it against the ground, and when we got there, he was just beating it to death with a cash register. Stupidest thing we had ever seen on clearance duty.”
“As you can imagine, he got a reward for not wasting bullets. We don’t exactly have enough old steel to give our entire army. I wish we did, it’d make my life easier.”
“A glimpse into the Cuban Patrol,” I muttered. “It’s… nice when we’re not arguing ideology.”
Cass laughed. “You’re a product of the best of what I hate the most. I’m scared you’re going to shatter and break soon, Gale.”
Tested the strength of my arms. Felt the muscle tug and burn. But there wasn’t any indignation.
Hands and Colton were gone, and I didn’t know how I was going to deal with it if they didn’t show back up.
Shatter and break. That sounded good.
“Hey,” I asked. “How’d they find where Mads was?”
“He activated his transmitter. Gave away his location to everyone.”
Then it clicked in my head.
And I stood up. “How’d he die?”
“Cut down by cross fire,” Cass said. “We were out of place when the alarms went off. Just a few feet but…”
I breathed in. Breathed out.
“We can’t always get back up, Gale.”
“I’m going to find Hands and Colton.” And until I said that, I didn’t realize I was thinking it. I’d figured out another way of looking.
“Good,” Cass said. “Try not to get hurt anymore. You’re currently my favorite member of the Association.”
“Considering what you’ve said about the Association before, I don’t think that’s terribly hard.” Then I left.
I thought she was smiling. “Be careful out there.”
The RSA building was filling as the infantry moved in. A few new injuries tainted the air with fresh blood. Equipment, military mostly, with the occasional civilian application, settled into conference rooms. Generators kept the lights running. Supply lines entirely established.
It was looking good for the gulf coast. A nice central hub, most of an Association base intact, and military troops to hold the city while they mustered around it.
A tiny bit of hope in my heart that we were really doing it. That I wouldn’t be needed again.
But this mission was more personal.
After milling about and asking questions, I found myself in front of Boreas. A wide bandage wrapped around his head and over one eye, so his left eye quirked the eyebrow when I emerged.
“Looks like you got roughed up too,” Boreas commented, a bit of a grin on his face.
“What happened to you?”
“A bit of turbulence when the sky broke open,” Boreas admitted. “Turns out I don’t have the training to fly in an alien sky for more than a few seconds.”
I couldn’t imagine the difference. Reality probably didn’t have to work the same way in Green Towassa. Not really.
“What do you need?” Boreas smiled. “We got the same dad, so you get my full support.”
“That’s all it takes?,” I called him out on it.
“You haven’t tried to call me out for actually getting a job that’s not a desk job, so yeah, that’s all it takes..” Boreas pointed out.
Another thing to call my father out on. Another objective. Goal, mission.
I couldn’t keep thinking of things like that. I’d lose my goddamn mind, wound up tighter than a hand grenade.
“What can I do for you?” Boreas asked again.
I looked around. The conference room Boreas was holed up in was empty, probably on the account that Boreas had labelled it as his office, and the lights were off so he could adjust to having one eye by just not giving a shit about using his eyes.
Or maybe he was after a nap. I was overthinking everything.
Things weren’t going well in my head.
“Do you still have the ability to track the signals Colton was setting off?”
Boreas blinked. “I should, certainly. We were using them to highlight where the tanks were for the infantry moving in.”
I breathed in. Felt the sweet tickle of oxygen, and a smile fell on my face.
“Great. Can you tell me where all of them are?”
Boreas laughed. “As one of the ranking members of the Association here, I can do more than that.” He reached under the conference table and pulled out a laptop, then threw me the charging cable. I darted to the extension cord wedged under the door and plugged it in. Fan turned on inside the laptop, and then he was on it.
I looked over his shoulder. Montgomery city map overlaid with GPS coordinates. Alright.
Another keystroke, and the beacons appeared on the map. Dots hovering in place.
“Okay,” I said. “Where are the destroyed tanks?”
Boreas brought out his Com, made a few calls, and then they were brought up on the map. Followed by approximations of where the rubble had fallen, retrieved from survey drones sent out by the infantry.
I counted off the beacons one by one and prayed that Colton was as smart as I knew he could be.
Signals blipped in and out of the graph.
“What’re you looking for?” Boreas asked.
“I want to see signals that aren’t tanks or marks of destroyed Anti air guns,” I admitted.
“Ah,” Boreas said, clicking his tongue. More keystrokes. Clearly practiced.
The dots disappeared on by one. Crossed my fingers, my heart. Remembered to breath again.
“You really care about them that much?” Boreas asked.
I couldn’t even talk about the emotions that came up. Complicated tangled up things, heavy things that made my eyes water, my mind race. Surging up electricity across a live wire. They made my heart sing, they made everything matter, and I…
I’d betrayed them. I’d sent them into the meat grinder because I’d always assumed that it was the proper way. That we’d save the world.
Now I didn’t even want the world saved. I just wanted them back.
And then I’d face their judgement, maybe.
“I can see it in your face,” Boreas said. The computer clicked, comparing maps with each other in whatever proprietary program the Association hero was running it in. “You’d give it all to see them alright.”
“I would,” I said.
The map solidified.
A few dots, clustered together.
Montgomery city hall.
Where Patrickson was holed up.
I breathed out.
I’d had a feeling. I didn’t want it to be true.
Captured. The capitol was perhaps the last fortified position in the entire city.
And they were there.
“That’s one mystery solved.”
Boreas sighed. “Patrickson.”
I slumped into the chair next to him, feeling the bandages tug on my arms. Wanted to rip them off and rub my wounds raw. It’d keep my mind off of laboring over the last few moments before I’d seen them. It’d make me realize just how little I could put into rescuing them.
It wasn’t fair. I’d given myself up for the mission.
They weren’t the ones who were supposed to eat the consequences for it. I wanted anything but that.
“Patrickson,” I agreed.
“Let me Com it in,” Boreas said, and brought his Com back up.
Arms were cut up. My head ached from more than half of a concussion.
But I couldn’t wrench my eyes away from the few dots still on the map. For the love of everything that mattered, I needed them to be alright.
I needed them to alright. I didn’t know what I’d do if they were gone. They might be the only ones that understood.
The only ones I could count on.
Breathed in. Breathed out.
But it was out of my hands now.
Later that day, with the city held, the Cuban Patrol made their push on the renegades. In the history books for America, it would go down as a complete and sound defeat of the invading forces. Weeks of pushing through blighted territory had weakened them, and with supplies and their own leadership at an all time low under the stress of war, their defenses were soundly obliterated by a Cuban Patrol/Association strike force.
The books would say that Gunze, once thought dead, briefly returned, before being put down finally under the weight of Cuban Patrol technology. They might mention a hero named Gale, who, left in charge of Mobile, had done in the impossible to take the city with limited supplies, limited manpower, after most of the Gulf Coast states had been abandoned in favor of saving Florida and Georgia, larger population centers prioritized. Perhaps romanticized Gale into being some inspired general, to further ideas of Association supremacy in the post-Crisis world.
Or it might fail to mention that D-rank at all in favor of pushing a narrative that the Association had always been in control. It might mention Excelsior, raw with grief from the loss of his team, rallying the splintered Cuban Patrol together to seek revenge on those that had killed his Association partner. It might mention that there was a brief infestation of some villain’s plague upon the land, or the killing fields it created.
But the history books wouldn’t mention what I did when I learned that after hours of navigating mines, drones, and automated defenses, the capitol building was empty when they breached.
The blips on the map had disappeared.