Chapter 19: Journeys
Flashes of green lightning through the haze of smoke and ash. Shining eyes floating across the horizon.
Blood on his hands, blood on his face, blood on his clothes, blood in his nose, blood in his mouth. Screaming in his ears.
Private Smit on the ground, trying to hold in his intestines while considerate boots stepped around him.
Smoke and shadow, hiding away what he wanted to see. What he hoped to see. Curling around and away from reality, revealing only the horror and despair and hopelessness of the world.
Corporal Davids pressing the barrel of a pistol beneath his chin and firing his last round. The back of his head exploding, blood and brain spurting in a graceful arc like water from the mouth of a fountain.
Private Khumalo’s chest bursting in a pulse of green light, his limbs flying away and his head bouncing towards his friends. Eyes wide. Mouth open. No pain, not even surprise on his face. Just open and slack. Neck a smoking stump.
The screaming in his ears getting louder. Being joined by roars and commands. A steady thumping that he could feel through his feet, his hands. His own heartbeat maybe?
He’d never bothered learning their first names. It seemed a waste of time. Now he wished he knew them by something other than ranks and family names he might’ve made up. No one else would remember them or how they died. He should have learned their first names.
Lieutenant Botha’s face, made of smoke and ash, peeling away, flaking away, blowing away as he nodded at the captain’s orders. Only the eyes remaining steady as he turned towards his soldiers. The last of his soldiers.
No more ammunition. They had no more ammunition.
There was no hope of retreat on Botha’s face. No chance of regrouping. His face was falling apart. Being rebuilt by the smoke.
He spoke. Two words.
Joseph Ballo woke up.
The Commander looked pissed. Brows furrowed, eyes narrowed within the dark rings that seemed to have become a permanent part of his complexion, a slight downward twist to the corner of his mouth. Warning signs for the members of Menace One to be on their best behaviour as they filed into the armoury and gathered around the projector screen that had been set up for the briefing.
Not that the Commander was pissed off at them, Emily thought as she watched Li Ming limp over to one of the scattered chairs that had been left free for her. No, from what she’d heard from CO Bradford – via Martin Singh via Gerty Wilders – the Commander had taken the recent loss of three X-Com operatives in a single mission very personally, as if it was all his fault that Michelle and James and Dori had died.
Ambushes happen. Enemies are unpredictable. Sometimes you lose control of a situation and people die. Everyone knew it, and they still went out anyway. Emily wondered if the Commander had someone to tell him these things though. Wondered if the Commander had ever had someone to tell him these things. Christ knows she had needed someone.
“We missing anyone?” the Commander growled as Emily found a spot beside Navneet Banerjee, whose eyes were looking a little red and hair was damp from what was probably a recent shower. CO Bradford shook his head and the Commander stepped over to the projector screen, “Then let’s get started.”
A world map appeared on the screen with an audible and completely fake click (Emily wondered if the sound effects were a leftover from whatever ancient software their current had been built over, and who had been nostalgic enough to keep them). There were two red dots on the map pulsing ominously, one in central Africa and the other in south-eastern Europe.
“Alright folks it’s been a rough couple of weeks,” the Commander began and everyone seemed to nod agreement, “but thanks to some recent breakthroughs from our Dr Tygen and Miss Shen,” Emily couldn’t keep herself from picturing the locked doors of a hold far below decks and Allie’s grumblings about busted machines right before they’d begun necking last, “we’ve got two targets to hit, and maybe get some payback.”
The Commander’s eyes tracked over the gathered soldiers, then shifted to the map as he reached across the screen to point at the red dot in Africa, his arm casting a shadow like some dark god stretching a vengeful fist across the world.
“The facility here, on the border of the former Central African Republic and Chad, is going to take some preparation before we hit it. We need to establish contact and relations with some of the closer resistance cells before we can go in without fear of being flooded with reinforcements. The target in what’s left of Romania, however,” he raised his arm and tapped the second dot on the map, causing the whole screen to ripple, “is ripe for plucking. The Avenger will be heading to a resistance camp in Poland in-” he checked his watch on one wrist while redirecting his other towards the Avenger’s destination “-twenty-three minutes. From there we’ll… Are you alright there Mister Banerjee?”
The whole space, Emily included, turned to look at Navneet at the same time. He was leaning heavily against some crates, his normally darker skin looked pale and drawn, and he seemed to be paying more attention to the deck than to the briefing, at least until the briefing began paying attention to him.
“Just fine, sir!” He said, standing a little straighter and placing his full attention on the Commander, where it was supposed to be, “Perhaps a little tired.”
Fuck, was he slurring a little? Emily wasn’t sure, but…
“Alright then,” the Commander nodded, but his tone sounded like he’d noticed something in Navneet’s as well, “Make sure you get a full night’s sleep tonight.”
“Thankyou sir. I will, sir.”
Fuck, he was definitely slurring.
The Commander kept an eye on Navneet but continued the briefing, stepping away from the screen as the map clicked over to a few fuzzy pictures of a sparse tree line.
“This was as close as the locals were willing to get. They reported on strange sounds coming from the forest and generally agreed that people who enter don’t tend to come back out. Firestarter took a few long range Gremlins nearby in the skyranger. Scans didn’t show-” the Commander paused for a moment and looked at Navneet again (who seemed to be watching the wall on the opposite side of the screen with a blank smile on his face), but didn’t point it him out again, “scans didn’t show any signs of a building or structure in the area. They did, however, detect some crazy shit if Shen is to be believed.
“There’s an alien power source in the area, and it is doing something strange. I, for one, would like to find out what. Before we get into operational details, however,” the Commander looked over his shoulder, “Mr Bradford, could you please escort Mr Banerjee to the Barracks for some rest.”
A murmur ran through the assembled team, not words exactly but more like a collective gasp or growl.
“Sir,” Navneet took a step forward, “I’m fine, sir.”
“No Mr Banerjee, you’re not.” They’d dimmed the lights as the briefing started, but Emily could see the Commander’s hands tighten into white-knuckled fists, illuminated by the reflected glow of the projector screen, as he spoke, “We will discuss this at length when I think you’re actually fine enough to hear it, but first you need to sleep it off.”
Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck. Emily wouldn’t say that she was exactly best buds with Navneet, but he wasn’t a bad guy and something about the Commander’s voice seemed to indicate that the Pakistani with the fancy English accent would be lucky to not have his face rearranged.
She cast a glance towards where Else was standing, arms crossed under her chest, to see how the German woman was reacting. Else kept her eyes on the screen, her face a blank mask as Bradford placed a firm hand on Navneet’s shoulder and led him out. That was… strange. Else wasn’t the type for emotional outbursts, but Emily would have at least expected a raised eyebrow as her boyfriend was escorted from a briefing. Unless…
Fuck, Emily had missed something. Judging by the surprised looks, she wasn’t the only one. But Else had always been a good friend… And Emily had always been a shitty one.
“Alright,” the Commander’s voice was tight as he continued, “let’s move on then.”
Ballo cracked two eggs into the tiny cooking pan and set them over the slightly larger fire he’d managed to get burning in the centre of the old hut, and set about rearranging the contents of his rucksack for the third time. He’d found the building a few days before with Duchess, the crumbling remains of what was once a small but proud farm, with its roof intact and a working well out back. As good a place as they were likely to find in the middle of fucking nothing to hole up and rest for a bit while Duchess healed.
She was sitting across the room, watching him carefully place the last of his canteens at the top of his pack, her leg and arms wrapped in fresh white bandages and her hair falling unusually loose around her shoulders. She grinned as Ballo lifted the bag, feeling the weight and balance of the thing that he’d be carrying on his back for hours at a time.
“There we go,” he grunted approvingly, “perfect.”
“The first sign of madness is talking to yourself,” Duchess smiled at him from across the across the fire.
“But I’m not talking to myself, I’m talking to you,” he looked around the hut and spotted the chicken that had so kindly provided breakfast, “or her. She doesn’t talk back much though.”
“I should hope so.”
Ballo stepped back over to the eggs and lifted the pan off the fire. They hissed softly as he prodded them with a fork and smelled better than anything he’d eaten in a long while.
“Would you like some?” He offered the pan towards Duchess, but she just shook her head.
“You know I can’t eat anything.”
“I do, but it seemed polite to offer.”
“You’re nothing if not polite.”
“I blame my parents.”
“Raising a well-behaved child, the monsters!”
Ball laughed and it felt good, like he hadn’t laughed in a long time. He let the pan cool for a moment then began to slowly devour the eggs, savouring every bite. The chicken, almost the same colour brown as the hard-packed dust outside, wandered over and began pecking at his boots.
“Which way will you go?”
“North,” Ballo replied around a mouthful, “then east. Step by step towards the coast.”
“That’ll take days.”
“Weeks I expect. Unless someone picks up my message.”
“You should eat the chicken.”
“What?” Ballo said, reaching down and scratching the hen’s head. It clucked appreciatively.
“You should snap its neck and take it with you,” Duchess replied, unperturbed, “Cook it tonight when you set camp. It’ll become something’s lunch eventually, it may as well be yours. I’m surprised its lasted this long.”
That made sense, and Ballo knew that she was simply voicing some very practical thoughts from the more logical parts of his brain, but still…
“No,” the hen hopped over his boots and skittered towards the entrance, Ballo watching it as it went, “no, you’ll not die today. Not by my hand at least.” He turned back towards Duchess, whose smile had turned indulgent, “Would you like to come with me? When I leave?”
She shook her head again, “You know I can’t.
“I do, but it would be impolite not to ask.”
“And you don’t want to be alone again.”
The chicken clucked, grabbing his attention for half a second. When he looked back across the dying fire Duchess was gone, back into the grave he’d dug for her yesterday thirty paces from the well after the infection that had taken her foot and arm finally took the rest of her.
Ballo sighed and checked his watch. It was almost time to trigger a pulse with the transponder hanging from his waist. Maybe someone would hear this one and he wouldn’t have to wait so long as last time to have someone living to talk to again.
“Other then you, of course,” he said to the chicken, who didn’t speak back.
For some reason Neil had expected the skyranger to be louder. He wasn’t sure why, since it weren’t his first time riding its hold, but he’d expected more than the muffled whine this time. A dramatic roar like an iron-scaled dragon charging into battle, or maybe just enough noise to drown out his own thoughts.
They were finally (finally) sending him on a mission, and it was a damn important one as well. There was something powerful and alien that needed finding, and when they did it would need either blowing up or taking back to the Avenger. But it wasn’t just the objective, whatever that was, that made this mission important. They needed a win, what with all the casualties and the ‘doomsday clock’ above the world map getting closer and closer to “out of time,” and he was one of the people chosen to get that win.
They should have sent Galina. Out of the two of them the Russian had always been the fiercer one, the one that laughed at danger like it was one of those old comedy shows Miss Fatima liked to put on. If she was on the skyranger she’d probably be laughing right now. At the very least Neil doubted that she’d be damn near vibrating in her seat like he was.
How the hell did the others do it? Neil was all nervous energy, shifting and bouncing and tapping his feet like a damn fool, drumming his fingers against the grip of his new plasma rifle. James King’s old plasma rifle before he’d been blown up. Not a good thought. Need to have less of those.
The others all looked more or less normal. Mister Leroy was playing with his Gremlin, Miss Else was polishing her round glasses, Mister Dekker looked like he was checking the power levels of his damn huge storm gun. Karen Nilsen might have been twitchier than Neil, but everyone was pretty positive she was at least half crazy anyway so that was pretty normal. Even Miss Tiffany – sorry, Miss Tiff – looked relaxed. She was just leaning back against the skyranger’s hull, legs stretched out in front of her, ankles crossed and eyes closed. Her first mission as well and she might have been goddamn dozing as far as Neil could tell. How the hell was she that calm.
Then again, Galina wouldn’t have been that calm. Galina would have been excited. Eager. A damn bloodhound straining at the leash. They should have picked her for the mission. Less chance of her pissing herself before they even got there.
Hell, he needed to breath. To get out of this tiny hold. He needed to think or clear his head or something.
The Commander said they’d be running into those crab-monsters again. The ones that had killed three of theirs in a single mission. What if they did? What would he do when he saw all those teeth and all those spikes? How would he react? Would he be able to react? Or would he just freeze? Freeze, and get himself and everyone else killed.
Can’t screw this up. His fingers drummed harder against his rifle. A dead man’s rifle. Can’t screw this up. Can’t screw this up. He could hear the breath whistling through his nose and knew everyone else could hear him as well. Can’t screw this up. Can’t screw this up. Can’t screw this up.
A hand reached across and came to rest on his, silencing his drumming fingers. He followed the hand to an arm, to a shoulder, to the face of Miss Else who was sitting beside him. She gave a wink then turned towards the intercom where Louise Seo was saying something, but didn’t remove her hand. He felt his own turn into hers and grab it tight. Still she didn’t pull away. Left it there until they swung over the LZ and the ramp lowered, finally letting in the sound that Neil had been waiting for.
Maybe he saw Miss Tiff give her a grateful smile as they all stood up and turned towards the waiting zip lines.
Neil jogged to the end of the ramp and grabbed one of the lines. They should have picked Galina for the mission, he thought, but as he rappelled towards the twilight forest below he was glad they’d chosen him.
Ballo walked for hours, stopped sometime after midday to eat something, then walked again. He had enough ration packs – old pre-war things long past an expiration date that didn’t seem to matter – to last him a few days before he’d feel the need to start trapping, skinning and gutting his meals, but he had no idea where he was and how long he’d be walking. There was a very real possibility he’d die out here. That didn’t bother him all that much. Not much did these days.
He set up camp when it grew too dark to keep walking without stumbling into something’s home or turning his ankle on a stray root. He ate again and sang a song to himself. Duchess didn’t make an appearance. That was disappointing.
That night he dreamt of faces he could barely remember the names for and injuries he could never forget, fire and blood and screaming. A final order, “Fix bayonets!” And then he woke up, like he always did. Funny, the nightmares didn’t bother him like they used to either.
Around mid-morning he found an old road. It was cracked and overgrown, barely more than packed earth and gravel, and didn’t look like it had been used for years. But it led in the right direction and was easier than picking his way through the scrub that had started to grow thicker and thicker. That was a good sign. He’d need to find water soon.
“In that case perhaps sticking to the road is a bad idea,” Ballo told himself.
“We’ll see,” he replied, and kept to the road anyway.
At certain times of the day he’d switch on the transponder on his waist, hoping that someone would pick up the ping and then come to pick him up. It was an old code that few still alive would remember, but there was still those few, and Ballo had become an optimist in his old age. Well, old by his standards.
“It doesn’t matter one way or the other,” he told a gnarled, dead tree that he was pissing on, “but I would prefer to not have to walk halfway across the continent. It gets boring after a while.”
The tree didn’t reply, but he felt like it agreed with him. And still, he kept walking.