Major Barnett - the base's battalion commander - was just slightly too fat for his armour and when wearing it he would make constant adjustments, as though the mere accumulation of them was enough to fix the problem. Aside from his rank it was the main reason he spent most of the time in the base. He had been second in command of an artillery battalion to a lieutenant colonel during the invasion and found himself the head of a ragtag battalion of infantry marines only three weeks after the death of Visari. Not everybody agreed with all the decisions he made but they all accepted that somebody had to make them, and that he stopped it from being anyone else. The day following the incident the men were gathered in the mess hall, scattered across the varying gradients of rock in as close to a formation as was possible awaiting an announcement from him. Except for those on guard duty and, Walker noticed, the special forces operatives (light and shadow danced on the entrance to their digs). The major stood in front of them and scratched the bald spot at the back of his thinning head, he then scratched the centre of chest or would move his weight between his feet. He did anything other than read the piece of paper he held by his side, anything other than tell the men what they already knew. The only sounds were those of humming lights, dripping water and the odd, stifled cough. He glanced to the sheet and then back to the men.
"I think-" the major paused for a moment, fumbled with the paper and cleared his throat, "I think we all know that there was an accident yesterday in the battalion head, for which one our brothers paid the highest price of all. Firstly I should stress that there was zero Helghast involvement in this. From what we can gather there was either a misfire or a negligent discharge of an M4 revolver side-arm, which was found to have belong to the deceased, one Private Brauman. There were no witnesses and..." It was all bullshit, he knew it and those listening knew it too. He stopped reading, glanced again at the sheet and swallowed before continuing. "I know that with no witnesses, rumours will be running amok and hopefully this list of what is known will put an end to them." More bullshit. It was piling up fast and he knew it was only a matter of time before one of the marines voiced his opinion.
He scrunched up the piece of paper and tossed it over his shoulder before he spoke freely, "Okay, I will level with you men. The kid killed himself and procedure stipulates that if there is any doubt of this, as in this case since nobody actually saw him do it, it is my duty suggest every other possible option. But we are all so far outside of the realms of usual procedure here that none of that seems relevant. The little bastard when into the toilets, took his side-arm out of its holster and blew his brains out. No suicide note, no final words to his squadmates, not a damn thing. And in doing so he has endangered every man in this base." Whispers slipped and slid through the men in the form of small, contained games of Chinese Whispers.
"No more time will spent on this selfish fuck," the major grew in stature, finally able to voice his true opinion on the matter, "No minutes of silence or vigils will be held and life will continue on as normal. Any man who has a problem with this can take it up with me personally at a future point, although I promise nothing." Glances were exchanged, most were shocked by this honesty and many were nodding in agreement. Mutters of 'pussy' and 'chicken shit' could be heard amongst the enlisted personnel. "We need to work together to get off this stinking rock, not shooting ourselves in the damn head. Now we all have shit to do, get to it." He sauntered off, prodding at his bald spot and most of the men followed his order almost immediately. Walker stood where he was for a moment and looked around for someone to share an agreeable not with. The major's words had added to his pre-existing belief of the mindset he needed to get through all this and get back to Vekta.
He hadn't known the private who, the day before, reasoned that the only way off Helghan was a bullet in his own skull. Private Brauner had been visiting Doc Hasford on a nearly weekly basis according to Jeff since his own company corpsman had long given up on him. After the event Doc had broken his doctor/patient confidentiality since he was the only one keeping up his end and had started talking loudly about the kid's problems; complaining of sleepless nights and horrid dreams or the poor conditions and feeling trapped. "The same problems the rest of us are having," Doc had ranted, "But you don't see us whining like motherfuckers about them." The private's leaking, twitchy corpse was found by his platoon commander who had been walking past the 'restroom' and heard the gunshot. He had started screaming uncontrollably at the discovery and spent the following twelve hours under sedation in the medical bay and woke up thinking it had all been a dream - he took the news a little better the second time. He was present for the major's speech but nobody held it against him for not really paying attention.
How a man reacted to the news depended on how well he knew Private Brauner and wasn't as if any of them hadn't seen what a high velocity bullet would do to a person's head. A Helghast was different, with or without the helmet they wouldn't give it a second thought and some would even make jokes about it. Horror stories about men in other units were closer to home and they would be discussed in hushed tones with reverence. These deaths served as quiet reminder of what could happen and were a lot harder to laugh off, even though some would attempt to. But someone in your unit? A guy you saw almost everyday even if only out of the corner of your eye was a much harder thing to swallow. Again, Walker didn't know the deceased personally but he had spoken with him briefly on occasion or shared tips on keeping your weapon clean in the dusty environments of Helghan. Not that he was upset, it was just odd to think he would never see him again. It never got any easier and as time went on there was only going to be less and less of them.
Walker thought about it all, mulled it around in his mind, again told himself that his thinking was right and weighed up confronting his squad leader about the situation. Confronting? He lied to himself in thinking it would be a confrontation. He still looked up to Sergeant Vanderburg and after everything he heard or pieced together himself yearned to hear his thoughts on the events of the last twenty four hours. He wandered shyly over to the entrance to the SF digs and stood in the doorway waiting to be noticed.
Vanderburg sat at an ammo crate with a brutish looking man that Walker recognised as being Decker - he spent most of his time in the base on guard duty - cropped dark hair and the inevitable beard that 'undisciplined' soldiers seemed to carry with them at all times. The third man in the room was Sergeant Childes, he had dark skin with wide, expressionless eyes and his short hair was starting to turn grey. He sat on what was presumably his own bunk with a stripped down M82 and was cleaning each part in turn before replacing it back next to the others. He was the only one of the three who watched Walker standing the door, intently eyeing him with rhythmic motions of the oily rag in hand. Walker got the impression from Childes that if the gun were assembled things might be different. "Can I help you?" Childes drawled and put down the freshly cleaned bolt before pointing at the bandage on Walker's arm, "You shoot yourself too?"
"We already told the major," Decker had lifted his eyes, fingertips still held onto a bishop as he decided if this was the right move to make, "We ain't going to his speech." Walker realised that they hadn't a clue who he was, that Vanderburg - with his back to the door - had never so much as mentioned him in conversation outside of the patrols and operations they had been on together. Had he even been telling the truth when he said he had picked Walker for the mission at the bridge? The boer swivelled his head round from the game and grinned at Walker.
"Decker you put that bishop there and you're only two moves from losing the queen ," he said, staring at Walker and quickly changed his tone before adding, "Walker! How's the arm boet?"
"Dude, friend, buddy," Childes muttered from the corner, "You get used to his bullshit."
"Oh, right," Walker fumbled his words, "Yeah, I should be able to grip a rifle again soon."
"That's good kid," Vanderburg turned back to the game and his voice trailed off, "Real good..."
Walker still hovered at the doorway, the atmosphere inside was less than inviting, "I didn't see you guys out there earlier."
"Why bother?" Childes looked down the stripped barrel of his rifle, "None of us knew him."
"You were his bloody squad leader!" Decker laughed, put his bishop back to its original position and thought of a new move.
"I didn't say I wasn't," a smirked retort, "Just that none of us knew him."
"Can't go crying over each and every death," Vanderburg stared at Decker, awaiting his move with folded arms, "We're all going to die here eventually." This quip brought Walker into the room and he sat on one of the spare bunks. Childes watched him but the others didn't look away from their game.
"What?" he tried his best to keep his anger tucked away inside him, "We are getting off Helghan, we just need to wait long enough."
The three men didn't stifle their open laughter at him, even the stone-faced Childes broke into a broad grin at Walker's naivety, "Yeah. We'll just steal ourselves a dropship."
"Just fly that thing up to a cruiser and take it back to Vekta," Decker continued the mocking and made flying motions with an outstretched palm, "Shit boys! I think we have a fool-proof plan here. Details? Who needs details?"
"Walker," Vanderburg was the only one who gave a serious answer, "The only way off of this rock is another full-scale ISA invasion and I don't see one of those happening for a while eh?"
"So what?" Walker stared at his boots, "We can't win?"
"Childes," Vanderburg beckoned, "Toss me that book you have." Walker had only seen two paper books in his whole life, finding one still in print on Vekta - let alone Helghan - was a tall order. Childes walked over with it whilst Decker shared what he considered knowledge with Walker.
"You have to give up on something that will never happen," he mused, "The way things are going here at the base? I don't think we have another two months. They will find out where we are eventually."
"Here it is," Vanderburg held the book open with one hand and read aloud, "'We must believe, through and through, that there was no victory except to go down into death fighting and crying for failure itself, calling in excess of despair to Omnipotence to strike harder, that by His very striking He might temper our tortured selves into the weapon of His ruin.' Which, if you ignore the God stuff, is a pretty good description of our fucked-up situation here."
"You should have seen how happy he was when he found it- hey careful!" Childes saw Vanderburg crease the book's spine, "That's one of the only copies left outside a library!"
"The point is we aren't chasing victory here, only putting off our eventual defeat," Decker moved the bishop back again and let go of the piece, "I'm calling your bluff on that queen."
"Like Decker here," Vanderburg grinned, "That move was his best one but he knows I'll win eventually. There's a difference between giving up and accepting your fate."
"And Brauner?" Walker wanted to know that his death could have been avoided.
"He did both," Childes tone was unsettling to Walker, "I guess he didn't see the difference between a Helghast bullet and his own."
"What if," Walker hesitated with the question he didn't want to know the answer to, "What if I'd gotten it worse yesterday? Got zapped?"
Vanderburg looked at him, "Then Decker and me might have gotten our game finished yesterday instead of now." Walker couldn't help but be hurt by this and try as he might he couldn't let it not show on his face. "Sorry kid, that's how it has to be. We're all living on borrowed time and better yours gets used up than mine." All the things Doc had told him were true, all the things he had thought himself were true.
"Once you accept you're a dead man," Decker looked up from the chess board, "You'll be a much better soldier." Walker got to his feet and looked to Vanderburg for one last shred of humanity, one more chance for the sergeant to stand up for him against these two. But it never came and Vanderburg's attention went back to the monochromatic war on the ammo crate. So Walker turned his back on his squad leader and plodded his way back to the door.
"Come back any time!" Childes forced enthusiasm and gave a sarcastic wave, "We do love getting visitors."
Vanderburg spoke without turning, "Patrol tomorrow kid. You're only coming if Doc says your arm could manage it."
Walker's mind burned with more questions than answers as he left the special forces' room but one thing was clear to him. If he ever got off this planet and if he ever made it back to his home and his family, he was leaving the army. He went to his bunk and sat there for hours, staring at the ceiling and thinking about what the three 'dead men' had said to him.
Well, there we have it. I thought when I started this that the story was going to be about Walker but it grew out of my control to be about Vanderburg instead which I think works a lot better. I couldn't help putting in a little jab at the ludicrous nature of KZ3's ending. It had be a cynical, downbeat ending. That was never in any doubt - to end it on some kind of high point would have been a massive u-turn in terms of tone. And sorry if this is rushed as hell. I've been writing it all week and not wanting to do it at any point. I normally write it all out on paper first and then rewrite it when it comes to put it on here but this one I have just been putting straight into the keyboard and I think it shows. I just wanted to end this one so that I can get onto my next story, of which I have already gotten two chapters down on paper.