Chapter Nineteen – Bang Bang You're Dead
Her ears were ringing.
A jangling high pitched resonance deafened her as she picked herself up at the bottom of the stairs. Her body felt like it had been through the mangler as it throbbed to the touch. It took a moment for her to regain her senses, her vision blurred by the thick brick dust blown into the air from the explosion. She took a moment to collect herself. Her head spun and she stumbled as she picked her way back up the stairs. The floorboards cracked under her weight, weakened by the explosion. She kept on her tip-toes till she reached the top step. She had no idea what to expect beyond the banisters. Blood splattered patterns on the walls in front of her and the pit of her stomach lurched in fear. She hesitated before planting one foot in front of the other. She let out a gasp; Wilks lay in a heap on the floor against the furthest wall. Momentarily forgetting where she was she ran over to him, dropping to her knees trying to assess the extent of his injuries. She took note of a wound at the back of his skull and the impact mark on the wall where his head had hit it. Blood splattered across his face, gluing up over his eye.
Where the hell was she going to start?
She had taken first aid back at the Compound but now when it came down to it she could barely remember the important things such as CPR. She couldn't even remember whether she should even be giving it to the unconscious man beside her. Maybe she should check whether he was breathing first.
"Wilks?" she cried, "Wilks can you hear me?"
She looked his body up and down and then lowered her ear over his mouth, picking out his slow laboured breaths as they brushed across her cheek. She sat back, working out how to help him. The wound to the back of his head was covered in brick dust. She checked her person for anything she could use to help clean the blood and dust, opting to rip one of her sleeves apart. She tore at the fabric on her jumper, revealing a bloodied gash down her own arm. She had wondered what the stinging sensation had been. For a moment she shrugged it off; she had to help Wilks before she started thinking about herself. With the fabric in one piece she checked Wilks' canteen for water. Dampening the fabric in her hands and gently wiping at the edges of the wound working outwards. Once she had cleaned most of the mess up she set forth to clean up the blood splatters from his face and any other exposed part of his body. Most of it had belonged to the Stranded, who was now decorating the floors and walls in a joyful hue of pink mist.
With one hand cradling Wilks' head she pulled off her shawl, rolled it into a headrest and gently she set him down on her crudely made pillow. She sat back on her haunches beside him, completely bewildered as to what she should do next. It had never been in her nature to care for other people. Even her own family unit had learnt never to expect any sympathy or care from her if they were ever sick. It worried her that this Gear had brought out a completely different person in her.
Wilks stirred, letting out a groan as he tried to clutch at his head. Alerted, Aidan sat up.
"Wilks, can you hear me, Ollyvar are you all right?" She remembered somewhere in her subconscious to make sure she kept talking to the casualty, so she did just that.
A voice called out to him.
A concerned female voice kept uttering his name as he dipped in and out of consciousness. His head thudded. Wrenching him from his pained catatonic slumber, he jolted awake with a yelp, clawing at his eyes in panic, still glued shut from bloody remnants. A reassuring hand took hold of him, cooing gentle words as she prised his hands away from his face.
"It's all right; it just needs to be cleaned,"
The next thing he knew he felt a wet cloth press up against his eyes, gently easing away the dried blood and dust. He waited like a scared child till she withdrew the cloth from his face. Very slowly he tried to blink. A blurry outline sat close to him, he blinked again trying to clear his tear ducts. His eyes were burning. But that voice kept him fighting forward. He coughed and his ribs screamed back at him. He lifted a hand to wipe at his face, slowly gathering his senses together. The metallic taste of blood in the back of his throat and the distant ringing in his ears reminded him that something bad had happened, but he couldn't remember what. And still that voice.
"Olly do you hear me? Wilks are you all right?"
The blurred vision in his eyes started to clear and the blurry outline seemed more defined. He could pick out the straggled blonde hair of a girl covered in dirt and bloody scratches. He blinked again, she knelt over him a look of concern on her face. One hand held a wound on her left upper arm. Blood trickled between her fingers, but she seemed to pay little attention to it, instead she watched him carefully. He heard her let out an audible sigh of relief as his eyes fixed firmly upon her, his memory seeking out who she was.
"Wilks can you hear me?"
He nodded slowly, as his head jangled in response.
"Oh my head," his lips were dry.
"Your armour shielded you from most of the blast, but you hit your head. Do you know who you are? Do you know where you are? Do you know who I am?"
After a pause he searched her face for any clue of the extent of his injuries and seeing nothing in response.
"Corporal Wilks, Ollyvar J." He grumbled, "I'm in hell and I want to call you a boy's name – Bob possibly."
She let out a relieved laugh, "Yeah that's right, I'm Bob."
"How bad is it?" he asked her quietly, "I want it straight, am I talking from the dead."
"You have a wound on the back of your head, where you hit the wall," she indicated to the bloody patch on the wall above them, "I've cleaned it up, but it needs to be dressed to keep it clean."
"As I said, your armour took most of the blast, you've probably got some internal injuries but that's beyond what I was taught in First Aid.
He tried to sit up, his ribs letting out a dull thud. She reached out to help him, such a small thing trying to take his weight, he tried to bat her away but found himself relying on her assistance. He sat for a moment observing the mess of the room.
"What happened to the Stranded, did he..."
"If you're seriously asking me whether the man who held onto the grenade when it went off, survived? I think you're more concussed than I thought,"
He shook his head, everything was all fuzz. He was having a hard time trying to recall the last few moments before the grenade went off. He fixed his vision instead on Aidan, the blood that dribbled down her arm and the way she was trying her best to ignore it wasn't happening.
"I'm fine," she responded, "I was close enough to the stairs to jump out of the way."
"No you're bleeding Aidan, let me look at your arm," he insisted.
"Please its fine, I've had worse injuries handling the Lancer," before she could move away he took hold of her wrist and pulled her towards him, "Ouch, let go will you."
"Only if you let me look at it,"
She let out a frustrated sigh and shuffled over to him, "Fine, but it's just a cut."
He examined her arm for a moment. Wetting the same piece of fabric she had used to mop his eyes and ran it over the gash. She flinched from him but he kept his grip on her wrist until he had cleaned the blood away. He then dug in his pouch for his first aid kit, taking out a medical patch and placing it over the wound, delicately pulling off a few strips of sticking tape to fix it firmly to her arm. She had been watching him closely, a look of stubbornness on her face, as he released her wrist she looked back at him.
"I suppose I'd mention now that I'm pretty accident prone and if you keep doing this each time I cut myself you're going to run out of bandages,"
"Yeah well I'd rather you start off in one piece and we can work backwards from there," he commented softly, as he started packing his first aid kit away.
"Wait, I need to bandage your wound, don't want you walking around with half your brain hanging out,"
He shot her a worried look to which she smirked back and raised her hands in surrender, "Joking."
"Yeah well your humour falls flat on me," he grumbled as she taped a patch to the back of his head.
"Don't know how long this'll last here, but at least it'll protect it until the blood clots and it starts to heal."
"Actually I have just the thing for a situation like this," Wilks dug in another of his pouches to retrieve an old blue baseball cap with a Hanover Cougars logo leaping over it, he placed it firmly over his head to protect the bandage and his injury.
Aidan let out a chuckle as she observed his new style, "Wow whoever told you you suited a baseball cap really needs to be shot,"
"Why, what's wrong with it?" He asked self-consciously running a hand over his head.
"To put it bluntly, you look like a thug,"
"Oh thanks for that, and you look lovely too, you totally suit grunge,"
"Touché," She offered a hand out to help him to his feet, staggering backwards with his weight until he grabbed hold of her to steady them both. She reached down to pick up her shawl, wrapping it over her shoulders and using her father's pin to fix it in place.
He took a moment to steady himself on his feet. Stopping to look back at Aidan as she collected their weapons, brushing off bits of Stranded from them.
Something niggled in his subconscious, like a warning bell telling him the rest of their group was in danger and they had to get back to them. Part of him wondered how easy it would be to leave the others at the Stranded Camp and to continue on to Jacinto with just Aidan. He knew he could get them both there safely. He was certain of that. He'd probably do everything in his power to keep Aidan safe. Just like how Tate had kept the cast out Stranded Sofie safe for all those years. Considering the influence he had within his barracks, he could even choose to recruit her to his squad, away from the threat of birthing farms. But then one look at the girl waiting patiently for him, weapons lined up beside her, reminded him of her identical twin. How would he ever look her in the eye if he turned his back on her family?
"We've got to get back to the others," he said softly.
"What? Why?" Aidan sent him a panicked look. He understood; these Stranded had tried to kill them, why go to their camp when they were greatly outnumbered.
"Because I think they're in danger, something that Stranded said just unnerved me,"
Slowly they headed out of the building in the direction of the Stranded Camp. It wasn't until the sound of a loud beastly screech echoed from the camp direction that they realised danger was a lot closer than they thought.
Aidan paused for a moment, trembling as she held her Longshot with careless abandon. She then glanced over at Wilks, who had slipped out the magazine from the Lancer and was checking his ammunition, gently reloading new rounds into the mag.
"You can back out now if you want," he casually commented without looking at her.
"I have to do this, my family is in there, and I know they'd do the same for me,"
The Sun was starting to rise by the time they reached the Stranded Gates. Wilks paused for a moment, glancing over at his companion.
"We have a choice here Aide, we don't know what trouble lurks behind that gate. It's your call,"
"If it is a farm like you think, we have no choice, our family needs us,"
She rapped hard on the gate before Wilks could even respond.
Like before the flap on the front opened up. Except this time the face behind fixed on Aidan and lit up. Wilks, who had slammed himself against the gate, was hidden from view.
"I'm here for my brother," she announced with unfaltering determination.
"You must be mistaken, no boys here, but come in I'm sure you wouldn't say no to an offer of food and something to drink,"
Silently Wilks had unhooked his Gnasher Shotgun and gently slid in the rounds.
The gates clanked open and just as the Stranded at the door lustfully eyed Aidan up and down Wilks swung round the gate and fired straight into his face. The body blasted backwards in a bloody explosion as it thudded heavily to the ground. The second guard on the gate had very little time to react fumbling for his own weapon as Wilks fired a spray of shrapnel from the Shotgun. He jumped back behind the gate to reload, quickly exchanging his Gnasher for his Lancer.
"I need you behind me Aide," he said, realising she was unsure of her next action, "Stay close, but don't do anything stupid."
He headed through the gate towards a pile of sandbags, stacked waist height where the guards had positioned themselves to watch the gate. Aidan leapt in close behind him, prising a pistol from the dead Stranded's hand. Wilks kept tucked beneath the sandbags as a group of Stranded alerted by the gunfire headed towards them with Hammerbursts, each of them letting out blasts of bullets at them both.
Aidan took a moment to look over the scene; rows of huts lined either side of them. All had a quaint little terrace over the porch, as if to add a hint of homeliness to it. She had a strange feeling that people inside the huts were watching them.
"I count five men, what about you?" Wilks asked her, she nodded in return, unsure as to what she should say to a professionally trained soldier, then realising that he hadn't seen her she spoke up.
"Five out here, but I think there's more in the buildings,"
Wilks swore under his breath and shook his head, "It had to be humans didn't it."
Instead of firing back straight away Wilks waited till the gunfire had ceased and the thudding sounds of bullets hitting the sandbags rang out. He then called out to Stranded.
"Look I don't want to shoot you, we're already in a battle for survival against the Locust, why are we trying to kill each other,"
A woman's voice called back, "If I remember rightly, you were the one that came in guns blazing." She sounded perfectly at ease.
"That's because my finger slipped on the trigger,"
"You killed two men...,"
"...Twice," he quickly added, "Plus I wouldn't have been so trigger happy if you hadn't have sent your men to kill us."
"Actually it was only you we were out to kill," the woman responded, "We'll stop shooting for the girl."
Wilks exchanged glances with Aidan.
"Where are my family?" Aidan interrupted whatever sort of negotiations Wilks thought he was entering.
"I don't know what you mean?" the woman called back, "We've had no visitors."
"I saw my brother enter your gates several hours ago,"
The woman smiled at Aidan, "well if you were so attached to them why didn't you come too?"
Aidan faltered a moment, before catching Wilks' shrug, "Because I knew you were dangerous."
"Nonsense, women must stick together in this terrible world."
"I'll stick to my family, now where are they?"
"Well they were sacrificed to Cordella in exchange for our survival of course,"
"You did what!" Wilks pressed a heavy hand against Aidan, for fear that she would lurch up in horror. In return he lined up one of the Stranded guards with his Lancer, "Take us to them, now."
"Or what, if I remember rightly we still have the upper hand,"
"I thought you would say that," he grumbled to himself. Letting out a burst of gunfire at one of the guards, hitting him directly in the head, sending him crashing to the ground in a spurt of blood and brains.
"Or I'll take out your men one at a time until you do,"
The Stranded started firing back at them, Aidan gave Wilks an exasperated glance.
"You're not helping!"
"Granted not the best idea I've had today," he admitted, "I have a short patience span, what do you suggest."
"Just cover me," she stood up from the cover.
"Wait, what're you doing?"
A bullet missed her by inches, causing the woman to scream out, "Ceasefire!"
Aidan stepped away from Wilks and approached the Stranded. She could see the woman closely now, she was an older lady, signs of fatigue and stress lined the crows-feet beside her eyes. The woman was also sizing Aidan up, taking in her age and body structure. Aidan turned to take in the Stranded men holding guns aimed either at her or at Wilks, she made her way over towards the woman and stood a short arms reach distance from her.
"I've been waiting for you for a long time," the woman spoke quietly, "You'd fit in just perfectly here."
"I don't belong here,"
"I could be the mother you always wanted,"
"That's not what's on offer here and we both know that,"
"But it could be,"
"Do you lure all your unwilling victims this way?"
"They're not victims; they live here out of choice,"
"For fear of what may lurk beyond that gate, yeah I get it now. You can come and go as you please but if you do you'll be subjected to the horrors of the outside world,"
The woman smiled with a look of calm calculating adoration, "Maybe if you stay here you'll find out more about yourself."
"I'll find out on my terms, I don't fear the outside world and I don't fear you. I fear for the safety of my family, you can't keep me here and you can't keep hunting me down,"
"I'm not hunting you child,"
"You could have fooled me," she indicated to Wilks still behind cover but watching her every move behind the sights of his weapon.
"Yeah well, he's an exception," the woman responded slowly, "COG don't rank on our do not shoot list."
"He's my family now, COG or not and I will do everything to make sure my family is safe,"
"We had to make a trade. They promised me we would be rewarded with eternal life,"
"On the sacred grounds behind the church," she glanced in the direction of the ruined building beside a small hillock. Then as realisation struck she looked back at Aidan, "I'm not a monster, I had to make a decision to protect my people, I'm sure you would have done the same."
Aidan frowned at the woman, "We are two different people and my family are not to be traded with."
She brought out the pistol she had hidden in her shawl and aimed it at the woman.
"Don't you realise we're better off with them than against them," a mania filled the woman's eyes as she caught sight of the gun, "the glowing ones – we need to unite with them against the Locust to overthrow them."
"You're a monster, humans need to keep together, not side with the Locust," she gasped as her finger slipped on the trigger and a loud bang went off. For a moment Aidan thought she had missed her target, until she caught the look of shook on the woman's face as she clutched at her chest, blood starting to seep between her fingers before she tumbled to the ground.
Wilks reacted quicker than anyone. Leaping out of cover sprinting towards Aidan before any Stranded realised what had happened. He fired his Lancer at them as he raced to protect her, downing a couple with his reckless bullets. He grabbed Aidan by the arm and heaved her towards cover, pushing her forcefully to the ground as the Stranded started shouting in uproar and firing their weapons.
"Now what, genius?"
Aidan struggled from him. Trying to peer out from the cover to look at the woman, who lay on her back clutching her chest as blood pooled around her. she gasped desperately for air.
"Wilks, what have I done?!"
Wilks leant against their cover, looking back at the crumbled church and the hillside behind it where a cave lurched ominously over it.
But the rumbling feeling below them alerted him to something a lot more urgent than angry Stranded. He turned back to see the shanty houses rattle violently on their hinges. They suddenly started sinking into the ground, structure after structure toppled into the giant developing hole in the ground.
"We need to run, now!" he yelled, leaping to his feet at a crouch, "Head for the hillside."
"What?" Aidan looked at him bewildered.
"It's happening again,"
"Exactly, giant ass hole in the ground,"
Once again for the second time Aidan and Wilks ran as the ground started breaking up underneath them. As they ran past the dying Stranded woman she grabbed Aidan's ankle sending her careening to the ground.
"Glowing ones destroy Locust," The woman mouthed out words to her.
Aidan struggled from the woman's grip, a sense of terror filling her as she could see the falling ground gain its distance. It wasn't until Wilks grabbed hold of her that she was able to feel her feet again. She stumbled a few times, if it wasn't for Wilks keeping a tight hold on her wrist, she would have succumbed to the falling ground. Behind them the Stranded were panicking. Unaware of what was happening to them, bewildered at the loss of their leader. Wilks didn't stop to warn them, his one concern was to get him and Aidan away safely. If he stopped to help anyone they would probably shoot him anyway.
As they cleared the lower ground and started up the hillside Wilks felt the ground grow firmer, the entire Stranded Camp crumbled behind them. He stopped to watch momentarily as the small menacing camp was swallowed whole into the clutches of the Locust. He could hear the screams coming from the girls, babies and grown men as the underground monsters ripped into their existence.
He released his hold on Aidan as she collapsed to the floor. Clasping her hands over her ears and shaking uncontrollably. Wilks could see tears streaking down her cheeks as she closed her eyes to block out the sight below them.
"I can't do this anymore," she gasped.
He knelt down in front of her, blocking out her view of the lost Stranded camp and gently prised her shaking hands off her ears and taking them in his.
"Just look right at me Aide, concentrate and listen only to me," He stared right at her, trying to block out the sounds of gunfire down in the pit below them, "We're safe now. I won't let any harm come to you."
Her teeth chattered and her limbs rattled as she shook in his grip, she whimpered, "I just want to go home."
She closed her eyes, let out a stuttered breath and leaned into him for support. He paused for a moment before allowing himself hold her closely to him, unused to reacting this way with another human.
"Just rest for a bit, it'll be fine," he breathed, unsure as to whether he believed it himself.