Things Left Behind
A Valkyria Chronicles fanfiction by Renfro Calhoun
Notes: Hey-hey! Yes, I'm still here! Back from a somewhat intentional hiatus, as I try to sort out a few things with my life. Mostly I've been stepping up the job hunt, and it's taken quite the chunk out of my schedule. Problem is, the longer I put something off, the harder it is to come back to. Inertia is evil like that.
Good news is I can get back on track soon, as I've got a nice long vacation coming up. This was also a difficult chapter to write for a few reasons, not least of which was the whole 'writing combat situations' thing. The core idea, which you'll see shortly, was actually settled on some time ago. Also, finally settled on a cover image. That took an embarrassingly long time.
As always, thank you all for your patience. Read on, enjoy, and critique to your heart's content :)
You've Mistaken Me for Someone Else
Mission time: +3:36 hours, 02:34
"It began so nobly, light from the dark. We'd take no fame but leave our mark. "For safety of all," they said as one. "Never you mind how the facts are spun." Cross the border, begin the end, to unending war our forces attend. Little we knew and little we cared what our people had from history spared.
Too many eyes for secrets unattended. They care not that our past be amended. Two drew knives and aimed for their backs, 'round all that glitters one cannot relax. Nations and memories rent in 'twain. Was that my friend? Best check again. Who knows for what we really fought, but safe from itself our cause is not.
I pray that someone will find my voice. Memory is no longer my choice."
- Results of creative therapy session #6; Leonard Baines, observing psychiatrist
Alex's words were echoed by everyone else, each covering a part of the sizable reception area. Upon seeing bullet holes in the walls, Juno had ordered a search of every dusty corner. She'd planned to leave Alex and Oscar to guard their flank, though for all she knew someone else had thought the same five minutes ago. The lone, flickering ceiling light couldn't dispel the shadows far enough for her, and she wasn't satisfied until every chair, table, and desk had been checked.
"The evac must've cleaned the place out," Oscar noted, pushing the receptionist's chair aside and panning over the counter. A pencil lay atop a grimy newspaper dated months ago. It seemed everything of value had been taken, and nothing grabbed his gaze amidst the remaining clerical clutter of paper and supplies. Even the phone line was gone, scraps of insulation hinting that someone had looted the wiring.
Freesia was more aware of sounds, or the lack thereof. The gunfire they'd heard from outside had stopped, and with every boot on a checkered tile she expected it to start again. "It's way too quiet," she muttered, tilting her head towards a propped-open set of doors that led further in.
A small push cart hid no secrets or traps, letting Kiril relax just a bit. "Probably searching for survivors, like us. Unfortunately, we're sometimes good at keeping the noise down."
Juno appraised the room with a tactician's eye, checking for vantage points. Through the doors, a solitary light at the junction offered a welcome advantage that she quickly pointed out to Oscar. "Set up line-of-sight down the hall. If anybody shows up beside us, you give them one chance to identify themselves. Alex, I want you to cover from that desk, and keep your ears open for anybody outside. Are we clear?"
"Yes, ma'am," they answered in tandem.
Chairs scraped on the floor as Oscar pulled together a makeshift sniper's nest. Juno motioned for the other two to follow her and, rifle in hand, approached the yawning darkness of the doorway. Wispy tendrils of smoke gathered and crept along the ceiling, nearly invisible but for the movement.
Freesia squinted as she stepped under the junction light, peering down a row of darkened exam rooms. In front of one lay the skeletal remains of a light fixture, knocked from the ceiling during the artillery barrage. "Those shots came from further in, but I can't tell exactly where," she said warily.
"Any thoughts, Kiril?" Juno asked.
"There's no telling how it went down, but those fires looked pretty recent." Kiril motioned to the smoke trail, sweat building on his brow. "Just, ah… follow the burning."
Taking the lead, Juno cautiously crept down the hallway, following the wispy trails. Signs guided them into a wing of emergency rooms, open doors revealing abandoned, rusting operating tables. As with the lobby, everything of value looked to be evacuated, repurposed, or stolen. She gathered that the Imperial incursion had largely spared the building, which made the few signs of battle stand out all the more.
A discarded, jammed rifle spelled out its portion of the tale. Freesia stepped lightly around the weapon, glancing questioningly at Juno. With a somber expression, the scout leader nodded and touched a finger to her lips.
The smoke grew thicker as they advanced, stinging eyes and coaxing stifled coughs. Before long a flickering orange glow seeped around a corner, and Juno cautiously sliced the hall until seeing the tongues of flame for herself. They leaped and danced through an office doorway, mere wisps of the larger fire that claimed the room, mocking the lifeless sprinkler just above them.
Mouth covered, Juno kept her distance and squinted into the office. Whatever had been inside was either charcoal or seconds away from it, with books and furniture reduced to kindling. Wood cracked and snapped as the blaze consumed all, spreading out from the desk and climbing bookshelves up to the ceiling. The doorframe alone was intact, and only relatively so, bearing a suspiciously jagged hole near the latch.
A fluttering bit of burnt paper drove the point home. Kiril sniffed lightly, bothered by the peculiar scent of the smoke; an oily, almost tolerable aroma akin to clean fuel being pumped. Recognition tugged his mouth into a grimace. "Ragnitro."
"What's that?" Freesia asked.
"Ragnitrolulyne." He covered his mouth as he coughed, drawing back from the door. "Ugh. Ragnite-based accelerant. Not powerful enough for an explosive, but they don't issue us flamethrowers on covert ops, so we use it to burn evidence."
Juno frowned, watching as the last stacks of books and papers rapidly disintegrated. More pieces slid into place, an incomplete picture that still revealed a few patterns. "Like the mayor's office," she said, a chill crawling up her spine in defiance of the heat. "It was locked and hadn't been ransacked. Those commandos were probably there to do the same thing. Someone is definitely covering their tracks."
"Begs the question of what's worth burning in a hospital," Kiril wondered aloud.
Muffled gunfire popped abruptly through the walls, easily getting their attention and cutting off further discussion. Distant rifles snapped shots in warning, with shouted orders and running footsteps close behind; unwelcome reminders that the battle had only briefly subsided.
This time, Freesia had no trouble pinpointing the source. Steeling herself for another fight wasn't as easy. "Center of the building. Up the hall, first left. Let's go!"
With renewed urgency, the team left the burning room behind. Part of Juno was screaming to turn and run instead. You don't know what's going on, it challenged her, playing on her own rising panic. You'll be another armed soldier in the darkness, they might shoot you on accident, or you them. You're not here for this. Just pull back and wait for the cavalry.
Morbidly, she wondered how much easier it would have been with no survivors at all.
No sooner had that thought entered her mind than she wanted to slap herself for having it. Finger outside the trigger guard, she willed the doubts into some other corner of her mind. She had made her decision and, come what may, would stand by it. They wanted us to recon. Let's recon.
More footsteps, closer this time. "They're in the atrium!" one soldier shouted. "Keep them pinned down!"
Figures crossed the hall far ahead, startling the scouts but seemingly oblivious to them. Juno intentionally lagged her pace, determined not to fire until she knew who was who. Even so, she had a hunch that the captain would be on the receiving end of whatever was happening.
In spite of her glasses, she had a known talent for quick appraisals: that split-second glance from behind cover before a competent marksman could react. As they approached the corner, she felt confident they hadn't been noticed and took a longer look to sort out the mess.
It didn't help. The image was ripped almost straight from her worst nightmare. Ringed in shadow, the small atrium was an island of moonlight, with glass shards glimmering beneath a broken skylight. Malevolent figures traded tracerless gunshots, their violent exchange and the clinking of shells going heard but unseen. Assaults came verbally as well, angry taunts filling the gaps between bullets.
Thus, a head of blonde-gray hair taking cover behind a statue base was the closest thing to comfort she could find. The statue itself – a featureless, mythical depiction of the Valkyrur – had been blow off at the knees and lay helplessly on the ground. A rifle barrel timidly crept up over the marble platform, taking aim at a second floor window only to be cowed by suppressing fire.
Freesia motioned for Juno's attention, hand-signaling her own observations. She touched her ear, made numbers and marked heights; three hostiles on the ground floor and one above them.
Signing her understanding, the scout leader turned to check on Kiril. The ambush was one thing, but attacking was another. Her stomach churned at the idea of shooting her own fellows, even if justified, and she could only imagine how the engineer was holding up.
Shadows hid the look in his eyes, but she could see his clenched jaw and rifle. He nodded firmly to her, the message clear: Do what you have to do.
Breath held, Juno's eyes searched for movement. A low wall divided the hall from the atrium, giving her some cover as she circled the fray. Even besides the ruckus around her, nearby sounds nearly caused her to jump: someone's equipment clicking and clattering, shaky hands working in a new magazine, an ominous mutter of "You're not stopping us, captain."
That sealed it. She angled her weapon around the corner, quickly spotting the source of the noise. The kneeling shadow fussed with its weapon, then tensed as its masked head turned her way. Whoever it was, its reaction was almost immediate. It released the useless machine gun, one hand going for a hip holster. "Contact!" it shouted in a woman's voice. "East side!"
Juno squeezed the trigger. The nightmare rocked back from the blow, knocked off her feet. A follow-up from Freesia put it on the ground, legs twitching as life left it.
"Gunfire on the right! Jennings is down!" shouted a fellow commando.
"Keep the pressure on! I'll deal with it!"
Predictably, bullets followed the words, sending chunks of wood and plaster into the air around them. Juno ducked down just in time as a hole splashed through the wall, uncomfortably close to her head. She flailed back at her own teammates. "Spread out! Find where it's coming from!"
Kiril and Freesia took wide positions along the wall, snapping shots at barely seen figures. Whatever they hit, it wasn't close enough to halt the incoming fire. "Captain!" Kiril shouted, braving another shot before hiding again. "Stay low, we're here!"
The captain bellowed his answer across the small battlefield. "Nine o'clock, Schoeder's by the elevator! Poe's trying to flank on your seven, watch it!"
"Roger! Juno, check left!"
She sharpened her focus on a corner of the wall and crept towards it under cover. Crossing a sliver of reflected moonlight, she saw a ghostly man-sized outline lean out to fire; just enough movement for her to act first. Her shot missed, the shell steaming as her rifle spat it out. Freesia had better aim, her eyes well adjusted to the darkness, but she scored only a grazing wound. Fortunately, the force of the hit twisted the outline, dragging it further out of cover – right into the path of Kiril's bullet.
Crumpling and bleeding, the commando named Poe tried to lift his rifle again. A second volley stopped him cold, his last breath torn from him as the bullets cut cleanly through his body.
"He's down!" Juno yelled out. The words seemed strangely loud to her ears, and she gradually became aware that the rest of the shooting had died down. Muffled commotion from the floor above offered a reason.
The surviving hostile could be heard clear as a bell. "Shit, we need more men! This isn't over yet, Ballad!"
No answer. Peering across the room, Juno spotted the dull brass framing the elevator and searched for the speaker. Alongside her, Kiril and Freesia trained their guns on the same spot, though the engineer blinked in confusion when he glanced at the statue base. Ballard had vanished.
"They're coming, and even if you kill us, they'll roll right over you! Do you hear me? You're not taking...!"
Schroeder's next words came in a mumbled panic, as if from a hand suddenly clamped over his lips. Bodies shuffled out of sight, and Freesia cringed at the sound of metal plunging into flesh. Seconds passed; a heavy and presumably lifeless thing slumped loudly to the floor.
Slowly, Ballard rose to his feet by the elevator, sheathing a knife and sucking wind. "Think that's it for now," he gasped, daring to step into the open. "One of them got away earlier."
"Captain!" Kiril called out, leaving cover. Juno and Freesia followed his lead. "Are you okay?"
Even in the weak light, the captain was visibly haggard and drained, less from the exertion than from the circumstance. He nodded to the engineer, keeping a tired eye on a partly-open second floor window. "I should ask why you're here while I'm thanking you," he began, "but I already have an idea."
"They attacked us at the town hall. We barely got out alive," Juno confirmed, also watching the window.
"Did anyone else make it, sir?" asked Kiril.
"They killed Clifton first, right in front of me." His was a slow, rumbling growl. The darkness couldn't hide the anger in his eyes. "I was… too slow."
"We saw another body on the way in," Juno said, feeling tactless for even mentioning it.
"MacReady, probably. He made a break for it early. Preston got away to flank the ones upstairs… he may be on the way back."
"So that's why they stopped firing," said Freesia, noting that noise beyond the window had ceased.
"Garity's remaining squad, all of fourth platoon." He shook his head, his voice just starting to crack. "They just… started shooting."
A sharp shriek filled the air and pulled every gun barrel upward. Through the window, two silhouettes frantically grappled with each other, punching and clawing. The melee charged into the window pane, and the glass shattered as it failed to stop them.
Glass and wood fell outward in splinters as the two bodies tumbled from the hole, still struggling and fighting on the way down. By chance one hit the tile first with a weighty thud, battered and broken beneath the other landing on top of him. Both bodies went limp as their heads collided, and only after the glass shower slowed to a trickle did the winner release his death grip.
Gasping and wheezing, the commando jerked the knife free from the chest of his impromptu cushion. He rolled off the lifeless body and let the bloody blade slip from his fingers, seemingly oblivious to the quartet of dumbstruck onlookers. "Thought that guy was dead," he croaked, trying to climb back to his feet.
The balaclava hid his face, but there was no mistaking the baritone. "Preston!" cried Kiril, rushing to aid his colleague.
Preston grimaced as he grabbed Kiril's outstretched hand and pulled himself upright. Slightly dazed, he blinked through his clouded eyes and pulled his mask up to his forehead. "You would not believe the day I'm having," he said dryly, blood trickling from a cut on his lip. He was about to continue when the sight of Freesia and Juno prompted a double take. "Wait, what are you guys doing here?"
"We're having the same day," was Freesia's answer. She took a step back as Preston brushed bits of glass off his outfit. "Kind of."
"So what's going on, captain?" he asked calmly, unperturbed by the mayhem that surrounded them. "Are we the bad guys now, or what?"
Even though the fight had ended, the darkness wasn't getting more hospitable, and Juno was anxious to get moving. "We found the body of your major back at the town hall," she explained, cutting to the chase. "The killer sent a message with the telegraph, and the name of the recipient was one of our generals. Whoever it is, they're after the vault."
Ballard's face was a pile of mixed signals, a stony mask whose every twitch hinted at disbelief. He seemed to stare a thousand yards beyond Juno, here and yet not here. Eventually his eyes shut, and he let out a long, deep sigh. "Of all things…" he whispered to himself before addressing Juno. "It has to be Trish. Her and fourth platoon got to the town hall ahead of us… except Clifton and Mac, they were from first. She kept pushing to check it out."
Kiril caught a glimpse of the pulverized corpse Preston had landed on. "We knew these people," he muttered, gulping past a lump in his throat. "Why did they do this? What in the world is happening?"
"Whatever's down there, it's valuable," said Juno. "Damon wants it, your major might have known about it, and maybe even the Imperials knew about it."
The captain nodded ruefully. "I didn't want to admit it. This was already a massacre, but it was war. This…"
A loud bang cut him off, a far-off crack that might have left a ringing in the ears up close. He jumped in alarm, expecting to be attacked again, but no further shots followed it.
Freesia recognized the report: a sniper rifle. "Oscar," she gasped, throwing a worried look at Juno.
She nodded. "Back to the entrance. Let's go!"
Caution was abandoned as rapidly as the hospital had been. Together, the two teams dashed out of the atrium in the shot's direction, barreling through a set of push-doors. Chipped wall signs and failing lights led them, empty exam rooms whipping by. Their hurried pace brought deeper breaths, drawing in smoky air that scratched their lungs. Preston nearly doubled over as he coughed violently, already winded from his fall.
"Captain, be straight with me. What's down there?" Kiril asked in mid-stride. "It was Parker's men that attacked us at the town hall. They've got to be in on this, right?"
"Maybe, or maybe it's every man for himself," Ballard grunted, shoving a stretcher out of his way.
"But why would they do this?" the engineer pressed.
"Why does anyone ever switch sides?"
The cryptic, rhetorical answer unsettled Juno, but she had no time to dwell on it. She cut a wide angle around a corner, pushing off a wall to keep moving. Above her footsteps and pounding heart she could just make out shouting; barked orders from someone that sounded like Alex.
Finally they came to the starting junction, and the scout leader urged everyone to a stop. Rifle ready, she peered down towards the doors and nervously called out. "Alex! Oscar! Are you okay?"
To everyone's relief, the reply was quick and expected. "We're here!" Alex hollered back. "Caught one of 'em trying to run!"
In seconds, the teams had fully regrouped, practically racing each other to get to the reception area. As they entered, Alex acknowledged them with a nod, keeping his eyes and gun trained on their newfound friend. A pistol slid on the ground as Oscar kicked it away, joining a discarded submachine gun out of reach.
"On your knees, and hands behind your head," said Alex, gesturing insistently with the barrel.
"So there's number five." Ballard stepped towards the masked captive, his voice restrained but menacing. "That makes you… Gilroy. Lance Corporal Devlin Gilroy."
The commando's beaten frown showed right through the mask. He sighed and turned his head. "Present."
A rare sense of loathing settled in Juno's mind. There was nothing to visually distinguish this man from any of the other commandos, yet there was something off about him; his attitude, his demeanor. He'd been cornered and would submit, but wasn't begging or pleading for mercy. It clicked in her mind, a distinct arrogance she had seen only on occasion.
No remorse, or guilt. He doesn't think he's doing anything wrong. Or he just doesn't care.
"Why'd you do it?" Kiril demanded, pressing his way to the front of the pack. "Why did you betray us!"
Gilroy scoffed. "You're the smart one, dark-hair. You figure it…"
He didn't see the punch coming, perhaps expecting it from the engineer instead. Alex lashed out with astonishing speed, landing a solid right hook to the captive's nose. Groaning in pain, he stumbled back into the receptionist's desk and had to cling to it to keep from falling over.
"He asked you a question," Alex glared at him.
Shock mingled with humiliation behind the mask, tears welling up from the sting of the blow. Gilroy touched at his nose, as if feeling blood dribbling out from it.
"Son, I knew you since basic," said Ballard. "Your father fought in the first war, with honor. You served with honor. And now you turn your back on all of it. Why?"
Gilroy stared back at him, regaining some of his defiance. "I think you know why, captain." He practically spit out the rank. "The question is, did you tell them about it?"
"What are you talking about?" asked Juno, wedging herself into the interrogation. She felt awkward for doing so, but curiosity had dug too deep.
"I'm hardly surprised. You're a fine one to talk about honor, Ballard. 'Never derelict in duty,' right? No matter what it makes you do, no matter what they want to keep hidden."
Kiril twisted free and lunged at the commando, grabbing him by the collar. He had had enough. Rage painted his face crimson, and frustration threw weight into his words. Pistol in hand, he pressed the barrel to the commando's temple and screamed, "WHAT! IS! DOWN! THERE!"
The word was so quiet, so gentle, yet it rang out louder than any gunshot, a pitiless period to the chaos that preceded it. All turned towards the captain, and his composure crumbled as his head lowered and shoulders fell. There was no mistaking the posture; it was not betrayal that weighed him down. "It's all about gold," he said, again with an eerie softness.
Everybody had heard him clearly. Nobody had believed him. "What do you mean, sir?" Preston dared to ask.
Gilroy freed himself from Kiril's grasp, ignoring the pistol. "He means, the vault is holding a shipment of refined gold bars. Pure, processed, unmarked, and just waiting to be picked up. It's supposed to be in the billions."
"The vault was built decades ago, but the cache itself dates back centuries," Ballard continued for him. "We suspect it was assembled before Gallia was even a country. In today's money… it is roughly one-third of your country's gross domestic product."
Ever the bookworm, Juno had often wondered about the utility of certain words. Mouthfuls like 'flabbergasted' and 'incredulous' seemed pointless where simpler ones would suffice. "Don't use a bomb when a bullet will do," was the refrain during scout training, and she had adapted it to many other aspects of her life, especially her vocabulary.
One-third of Gallia's material wealth lay somewhere beneath her feet. At long last, she was faced with a situation where 'shocked' just didn't say it.
"I-I don't understand," she stammered, a choice understatement in a night full of them. Her mouth gaped like a fish on dry land. "Wh-what the... how is this possible? Why here? Why doesn't anybody know about this? How do you know about this?"
There was no hiding the shame in Ballard's eyes. "Because we helped you bury it."