All at once, it's dawn. There's no gentle transition from night into blinding daylight, and the sudden glare burns Walker's eyes. He's lying on what's left of Konrad's bed, in a pile of sand so deep that he might as well be on the floor. It looked more inviting last night, when he was in need of a slightly more dignified place to pass out.
Walker shuts his eyes and tries to turn away from the sun; his neck aches in protest. No good. He's awake and he still has a job to do.
Just standing up is another ordeal. He's pushed body and soul to the breaking point. Part of him wonders how he made it this far. Everything hurts.
He looks down on the city he's saved, at the crumbling walls and shattered buildings draped in the gold and orange of a new day. The ruins are still smouldering from last night's final stand. It was the Damned's last strangled gasp of defiance; Walker can see the smoke from here. Dubai is still burning, but the embers will fade to cold ashes in time. The city might even heal someday. In the distance he can see the storm wall still raging, throwing plumes of dust into the sky. If he listens closely he can almost hear it howling.
Dubai is free of Konrad's tyranny at last and that is all that matters, or so Walker tells himself. The light of dawn reveals Konrad as a desiccated corpse, albeit one who sits on his broken glass balcony like it's an emperor's tomb. It would be a pretty place to spend eternity if it weren't a shattered ruin.
"Are you going to stay dead this time?" asks Walker. It comes out as little more than a croak. His mouth's so dry, it feels like he hasn't had water in days.
Walker waits for a response from the man he'd once admired. But Walker does not, cannot hear the colonel's voice lying to him now. The silence is glorious. It's still a more enlightening conversation than they'd had last night.
It's strange. Walker knows he's won but he can't feel any sense of satisfaction. All he feels is relief, like he's laid down a burden carried past the point of enduring. He's done terrible things to get this far. Terrible, but necessary. He hopes Adams and Lugo understood that before the end.
He takes a look back at Konrad just to reassure himself that there's no one else here but a dead man in a chair.
What a fucking disappointment.
He'd come here for answers. The truth. An explanation. Some kind of justification for the shit he'd put himself and his team through. He'd gotten a lot of empty words and a broken mirror reflecting nothing. Konrad was consumed by his own arrogance and blind to the atrocities he'd committed. He'd all but put a gun to Walker's head and ordered him to execute himself.
Doesn't matter now. Konrad's been dealt with. And Walker's mission isn't over yet.
Konrad hadn't given him a resolution, just a false choice and a coward's way out. It can't be that easy. This won't end with a whimper.
The Tower's doors open with a creak. At first all he sees is white: sun on sand, sun on glass, the glare burning white like the heart of a star. Walker squints against the light; just looking at it hurts, but right now a little headache is the least of his problems.
Outside, it's even more barren than he remembers. The darkness hid the worst of it and from the top of the tower, it looked too remote to be real. In daylight, the city is nothing but sand, broken walls, and death. The last of the Damned lie half-buried under sand and rubble or exposed to the sky. Walker damned near trips over the bodies as he goes. He'll let the fuckers rot and never shed a tear for the fate they brought on themselves.
The last spot where he'd stood beside Adams is utterly destroyed. Of Adams himself there is no sign. No bullet-riddled body, no distinctively-scarred arm poking out from underneath the rubble. Walker had dared to hope but hadn't really expected to find him. A body, at least, would have meant some closure. Walker tries to take some solace in the fact that if the Damned took Adams down, he made them earn the right.
He almost walks right past them: fresh footprints leading out of the rubble. They're uneven, as if whoever left them was limping or badly hurt. If Walker looks closely he can see droplets of red soaking into the sand. Someone else is out here. Walker blinks and tries to shake it off. He's dreamed up false hope for himself before. When he looks again, though, the tracks are still there. It's like they want him to see them. It's a sign. A message.
It can't be, but it has to be.
Walker's voice disturbs the silence. "Adams? What's your status? Do you copy? Adams?"
There's a crackle in his ear. The words are indistinct at first, but he'd know that voice anywhere.
" -ker? Is that you?" Adams sounds like broken glass: cracked and brittle, with edges sharp enough to cut him to the bone.
Last night, Adams shoved Walker out of the line of fire and stood alone against the Damned. They'd argued, but Walker doesn't resent him for that. Far from it. Adams stood his ground. He always has. It might be all that's keeping him alive now.
"Where are you?" Walker asks. "Are you hurt?"
"Never been better." Adams is breathing heavily, and Walker hopes it's just exertion. "What about you? Still in one piece? Did you get Konrad?"
"Yeah. I'm fine," says Walker. It's a lie, but he feels a hell of a lot better than he did last night. "And Konrad's dead. I think we won."
A pause. "Was it worth it?"
"It's over, Adams. That's all that matters." Walker's running on fumes. They both are. They've argued enough already, and if they're going to fight again they can do it on the ride out. "Let's get the fuck out of here. We're going home. The civvies are comin' with us."
"You actually have a plan? There's a fuckin' surprise." Sounds like Adams is still pissed at him. Walker wishes he could be surprised. Although, if he's being honest, Walker can't blame him.
"Look, I got us this far. I just need you to trust me for a little longer," says Walker. "Our mission's not over yet. We can still save these people."
"You mean, what's left of them? How the fuck do you think you're gonna do that? No one's gonna follow you anywhere." Adams chuckles. "They know what we did. We're murderers, Walker. Child-killers. You can't just wipe the blood off and move on. It doesn't wash away that easily."
"They're not going to stay here and die. We can save 'em. There's still time. Besides," says Walker, "They don't have a choice."
"If you say so."
It's a long road back, through the sand that pulls at his feet as if it's trying to drag him down. But he'll take this as a sign. His mission's not a total failure, not yet, not while there's someone who can still be saved. One last search-and-rescue. He'll salvage what he can from this disaster. Walker's armed and ready. It'll have to be enough.
"Where are you?" asks Walker.
"Just get moving," answers Adams. "We're all headed to the same place, Walker. You'll get there."
The math is simple. It takes four days to die of dehydration. It's already been a day and a half since Riggs destroyed the city's water supply. Time's in short supply and it's running out fast. He's seen groups of people in the distance; they're headed out, he assumes, now that the Damned are gone or spread too thin to maintain any kind of order. You'd have to be insane to stay behind.
The Radioman's broadcast tower is fucked, to say the least. Walker has no idea how the beacons work, so sending out his own distress signal isn't an option. Lugo would have known how. The thought's there before he can stop himself.
It's pointless, anyway. There's no way to organize any kind of evacuation now. All that's left is the direct option. Walk up, ask them, and pray for the best.
It goes about as well as he'd expected.
He'd hoped that the survivors' desperation would win out over their anger. It hasn't yet.
The remaining refugees scatter when he approaches, or they throw rocks until he gives up and leaves them in peace. They're free of the Damned and now that their common enemy is the sandstorm, they should be Walker's allies. That much is obvious. At least, it's obvious to him. He hadn't counted on a city-wide epidemic of Stockholm Syndrome.
The words they scream at him are unfamiliar but need no translation, as badly as he suddenly wishes Lugo was here to give one. He can make out "Delta", he thinks, and "Yankee", pronounced like curses. These people don't want anything to do with him and that's putting it lightly. He's tempted to stop trying. When they need his help, they'll come to him.
Eventually, it's bullets. He dives behind the nearest crumbling wall, though the closest shot was easily a foot above his head. No need to make it easy on them. Walker survived the Damned 33rd and whoever this is, he's not going to hand them revenge on a silver platter.
One of them has a goddamn gun. Firearms are not a rarity in what Dubai has become. They're everywhere, scattered in the dirt like fallen fruit in an orchard. At first he thinks it might be one of the insurgents or even one of the Damned playing escort, firing warning shots at him. He sneaks a look and no, it can't be. He's shooting to kill, but he's just firing wildly in Walker's general direction and the recoil's throwing his aim off so badly that it's obvious the man has never held a gun before.
It's happening all over again. Walker remembers staring down the lynch mob that killed Lugo, and the way his trigger finger itched as Adams begged him for the order to open fire.
Right now Walker is one man against a horde that will rend him limb-from-limb, if he lets them. Last time the civilians were unarmed, but desperate and angry. They'd murdered Lugo and then set their sights on the rest of his team. For all Walker knows he's facing some of the people responsible. This time, one's made himself a target. Anyone who fires a weapon at him is the enemy. This isn't even vengeance. It's self-defense.
It should be so easy. But these are desperate people and they don't want him dead, just gone. Walker presses back against the wall and closes his eyes. For a moment he can pretend it's one of the Damned still attacking him out of some misplaced loyalty to Konrad. Just another faceless, nameless target. Walker pulls his weapon up and everything in him aches to turn around and open fire. Every instinct screams at him to pull the trigger. Walker breathes in and holds the hot desert air in his lungs.
The shooting stops. Walker hears the group leaving, trudging through the sand on their journey out of this city. Someone shouts angry words at him. He waits until there's no sound but his own laboured breathing. There's nothing else, not even the wind.
Adams is not impressed. "So you can go five minutes without murdering someone. You want a fuckin' medal?"
"I'm trying to help. Why can't they see that?" Walker wipes the sweat off. "The Damned can't keep them here anymore. I'm startin' to think these people never wanted to be rescued in the first place."
At least they're fleeing towards the storm wall. If he's herding them in the right direction, maybe that's something.
"They're getting out of here. Isn't that what we wanted?" asks Adams. "Are you still pissed off because you don't get to play hero? What, you think they're safer with you?"
"Why the fuck not? I've gotta be good for something," snaps Walker.
It stings, though. If anyone crawls out of this hellhole it will be despite him, not because of him. Despite everything he's done, there will be survivors of Dubai. They'll be rescued, if they can even make it that far, but for some reason the thought leaves him hollow.
Right. They'd rather brave the storm wall and the open desert than stay trapped in here with him. He stopped the Damned and no one even gives a shit. Everyone in this city's desperate, he realizes. Even him. Walker's grasping at straws, trying to convince himself that his mission was not a failure, that there's still something he accomplish here. If he can get Adams out, that might count for something. If Adams lets him.
"I can't fix what happened," says Walker, mostly to himself. "I know. But I deserve a chance to try."
"You think this is all about you? If you really wanted to help, you should've just let them take you the fuck out," says Adams. "They would've done us all a favour."
That's not even an option. Just throw himself to the wolves and end up like Lugo, with a rope around his neck? He can almost feel it biting in now.
"We don't have time for this shit." Walker's head is pounding again. "Where the fuck are you?"
"Just keep going, Walker," Adams says. "That's your answer for everything."