The rain was pouring down hard and fast, an uneven and constant beat filling her ears like radio static, streaming off the sharp lines of Li Ming Cheng’s armour like a dozen tiny waterfalls. Down her neck. Plastering her hair against the shaved sides of her scalp. Dripping from her nose, chin, ears, cheeks. A poor substitution for real tears, but Cheng couldn’t make herself cry.
She sat in the mud, legs sprawled straight in front of her and back against a fencepost that had managed to stay upright during the firefight, near where Michelle lay. The Australian woman was pale and unmoving, staring up into the clouds with glassy, unblinking eyes and a calm expression that was in complete odds with the brutality of her death, her stomach ripped open and her guts torn out to make room for a monster.
Just within sight, despite the thick curtains of rain, Dori was sprawled flat on her face. The back of her armour and the body beneath had been burned away, though thankfully the weather hid the far too familiar scent of overcooked pork. Her Gremlin – Titan or Titus or something similar – buzzed around her corpse in a lazy, worried figure eight, chirping and twitching and waiting for orders that were never going to come. Some small part of Cheng felt sorry for the little robot, and she had to remind herself that it was just a machine, a tool, a toy.
James lay just out of sight, but Cheng had already seen his body. Mangled and twisted, his stomach a ragged mess of holes and his limbs a broken, twisted mess of unnatural angles and joints. Half his face had been blackened by the plasma grenade that had ended him, one eye and one mutton chop gone, jaw partially unhinged but his nose completely intact. Maybe that would allow for an open casket when they returned him and his sister to their family.
Fuck, did Dori have a family? Would she want to be returned to that family? Did it fucking matter what the dead fucking wanted? Fuck, just leave them in the mud. Let the Earth fucking reclaim them that had died fighting in its name.
More friends dead in the fucking mud.
“Cheng?” a soft voice seemed to whisper from far away to her right, then louder and closer said, “Li? The skyranger will land soon and Vargas is helping the survivors pick through the wreckage for supplies. Let me take a look at your leg.”
Cheng looked up, away from Michelle’s slack face, to see Leroy standing over her with a concerned frown beneath his shaggy beard and eyes twitching between her face and her leg. Right, she’d taken a glancing plasma round to her right calf in the last seconds of the firefight. It had hurt when it happened, scorching a trail through grieve and flesh, but now it was just numb. Another scar on a body covered in them. She waved her consent and Leroy immediately bent over and began to carefully remove the armour around the wound.
“Are you alright?” he asked after a moment, eyes briefly flicking to her face again before focusing entirely on his work.
“This is nothing.”
“I know, I’ve seen you walk off wounds like this before. I am not asking about your leg.”
Cheng chewed on her bottom lip, an old habit from her childhood long since broken that only came back when she wanted to say something but was struggling to find the words. When she didn’t say anything Leroy just nodded.
“Have you ever asked Vargas why he fights?”
“What?” The question took Cheng by surprise.
“Have you ever asked Vargas why he fights?” Leroy asked again.
“Perhaps you should. I find it helps create perspective when we struggle with the answer ourselves.”
“Have… Have you ever asked him?”
“Oui. It is revenge,” Leroy smiled softly as he said it, positioning his body so that her wound was protected from the rain, “if you want the details you should ask him yourself,” they’d tried to find somewhere with a roof to hole up in while waiting for the skyranger but the aliens hadn’t left much standing in the camp, “but let’s just say that he lost someone to the aliens once upon a time and now he wants to end them. The answer is usually revenge.”
Cheng thought of her mother snatched away in the early days of the first war and said, “I guess that’s my answer as well.”
“Only because, like everyone else, you don’t understand the question. It is not a question of why you chose to fight in the first place, but why you continue to fight that you want to ask yourself right now.” He looked up from her wound for a second and stared straight into her eyes as he growled out, “I expect it stopped being revenge a long time ago.”
Cheng opened her mouth to say something, decided against it. She looked towards Michelle’s corpse and tried to find better words to describe what she was feeling. It was funny, English felt like her first language these days. It was what she spoke most often, being the most common language on the Avenger. But she still thought in Mandarin. Perhaps that was why she was having such a hard time articulating herself right now.
“I don’t know how many more friends I can lose.”
“It is hard to bear the weight of so many dead.” Leroy said sympathetically, winding a bandage around her calf.
“I don’t know how many more friends I can lose before I don’t feel a fucking thing!” Cheng snarled, “My fucking friend is dead over there! I should feel fucking sad or angry or something… but… I don’t know. I just… I just feel…” She was leaning forward on the heels of her hands, growling at the short black hair on top of Leroy’s lowered head. Fuck.
“Numb?” Leroy asked, still not looking at her.
“Maybe. No. I still feel, but not enough. Do you understand?”
“Oui, I do.” Leroy finished bandaging her leg and leaned back on his haunches, water dripping from his heavy brow, “You should give yourself some credit. You are most likely in shock.”
“Everytime, everytime I feel less and less. What happens if I do become completely numb?”
“Then we hope that there is someone left to help you through it.”
“Oui. Like me. Someone has to be here to help.”