Chapter 56: No Regrets (Interlogue I) [Part II]
From where they stood, Eli and Hina could see there were two people on the bike wearing helmets that concealed their heads. The motorcyclists circled the Antithesis Operatives and the truck once before coming to a stop.
Loyd approached the driver as he stepped off. "You're late."
"We came as fast as we could. There's a lot of AAHW in the city, so we had to take a detour."
"Your 'detour' nearly got me shipped off."
"Oh, relax. I'm sure you could've handled a few weeks of AAHW summer school." The motorcyclist removed his helmet, revealing his shaggy, ruby-colored hair. "And if you couldn't, don't say I didn't warn ya. You volunteered for this suicide mission."
"Cethic," Loyd cocked his head. "We have outsiders."
Cethic's pupils followed Loyd's, meeting Eli and Hina's faces. "From where?"
"Antithesis," Loyd replied, before Hina or Eli could speak.
The red-haired mercenary's smirk vanished. "Oh. So I'm assuming this mess..."
"Was their handiwork, yes."
"I'd like to see you stop a moving truck while you're on the hood, then." Eli folded his arms. "You can ask the truckers over there how that turned out."
Cethic look past the masked Operative's shoulder. "You mean those two over there?"
Eli, Hina, and Loyd turned around to where the captured men should have been. Footprints in the sand replaced them, trailing off towards two men running in the distance.
Cethic's motorcycle growled back to life.
"Taking this!" The bike's passenger moved up to the driver's seat, grabbing a handgrip. He took the blade sheathed on Cethic's back as he drove forward. "And this!"
The new driver covered three yards by the time Cethic called out his name. As he neared the truckers, Gabriel raised the sword. The blunt hilt came down onto the back of Chris's head, knocking the trucker out cold into the sand. Bruce immediately raised his arms.
Eli and Hina stared at the entire spectacle. Loyd hung his head.
"Energized as always…"
"Motherfucker! Fine!" Cethic marched towards the front of the truck. "I'll just take the truck for myself, then. He can freeze his ass off driving back on that bike, while I'll be nice and cozy with the heater-!"
From this angle, the damage was more obvious. A tow truck would have trouble pulling the flatbed out of the dune. Hina walked up to his side.
"Pretty sure the heater's broken."
"Really? Thanks." Cethic started towards the back, where the prisoners still were. "We'll leg it then! Gets the blood flowing, you know?"
Loyd raised an eyebrow. "You gonna walk them through the desert for forty years, Moses?"
"I know our way back. It wouldn't take that long."
"No, it wouldn't." Loyd grabbed Cethic's shoulder before he would pass by him again. "Because you'd die of dehydration three days in."
Gabriel slowly drove over with Bruce walking in front of him. The tip of Cethic's sword gently pressed against the trucker's spine as a friendly reminder of the circumstances. While Loyd restrained Bruce, Cethic snatched his weapon back.
"Gabe. Do that again and I'm kicking you off the motorcycle while we're on a highway."
"Man, you're salty today." As he dismounted, Gabriel removed his own helmet, flowing his chestnut-colored hair with a shake of his head. "Did'ja really want Pashie to come here with ya that badly?"
"You took Bitch without my permission. And, you spilled coffee on my favorite hoodie on our way here." Cethic turned around to reveal a dark stain on the back of his shirt. "Black coffee. Who Domino paired me up with is the least of my problems!"
"First of all, it's espresso. Second, 'Bitch' is still a dumb name for a sword."
"You wanna meet her protective older brother, then?" Cethic raised his Modern Colt 1911. "'Bastard' here is a lot quicker with his introductions."
"Shoulda have named it Silver Edge instead," Gabriel muttered, to nobody in particular.
Eli stepped between the two. "I think we have more important things to be worried about."
"Like what?" Gabriel's sunken eyes turned to him. "The prisoners are here, right?"
"There's definitely more AAHW heading our way," Hina said. "We have reinforcements of our own coming in, but until then, we're stranded. Considering your detour, it'll probably take our side a while to get here."
"Shouldn't we evacuate these people right now, then?" Cethic asked.
"I have an idea. Once we take out the next wave of Agents, we could use their vehicles to get everyone out. It might make travelling through the city easier too." She turned to Eli. "Sounds good?"
He shrugged. "It's today's least suicidal one, I suppose."
"That's pretty neato, actually. See, even the Anti chick is talking sense!" Cethic turned to Gabriel. "Why can't you work like her?"
"Because I usually spend my time not thinking about what dumbass names to give my weapons!"
"And that should be all of it." Loyd dropped a few more firearms onto a pile atop the truck's shipping container. He dusted the sand off his hands. "Was a pain in the ass shovelling through the wrecks, but it's worth it. There's enough firepower here to arm us twice over."
Eli sat by one of the edges of the freighter's roof, legs dangling off the side. He reached out for his MP5, nestled among the mound of guns.
"This is mine."
"You're welcome. Doesn't Antithesis have protocol in not losing your weapons during ops?"
"We do. It was either losing the weapon, or losing my life." Eli rotated the submachine gun in his hands.
"Tends to happen when you jump onto a speeding truck."
Eli stared at Loyd with sore eyes. The Tertia member crossed his arms.
"Am I wrong?" Loyd asked.
Eli turned back to his front. Far away, the aged prisoners sat in little congregations, conversing about the precious things they still had left to lose. Three laughing children dashed back and forth, washing out the jaded chatter of the adults nearby. Cethic and Gabriel tossed one of the motorcycle helmets over the kids, using it as a makeshift ball.
"Those rumors you've heard about us aren't true," Eli said.
"What makes you say that?"
Eli continued watching the kids. "If we're going to work together, pretenses will get people killed."
Loyd returned to silence. Eli could hear the sound of the Tertia member's footsteps clang metal just before he sat down next to him.
"Buddy, I think you've got the wrong idea. We're not stupid enough to believe the AAHW propaganda," Loyd said. 'But we've seen the sloppy work your people leave behind. Innocents get caught in your crossfires on the regular."
"It's a war."
"Which is exactly why I'm not fond of big groups like yours. When you're one of two big armies duking it out, you're bound to cut enough corners to regret over a lifetime."
"What's your solution, then?"
"Hell if I'd know." Loyd turned his attention to the ragtag game of monkey in the middle. "Look. I travelled with these prisoners over state lines. Johnny wants to be an doctor. Michael, a scientist. Lisa, a painter. And those are just the kids."
Cethic overshot one of his throws. As Gabriel rushed backwards, he lost his footing, tripping over himself. The helmet still landed in his grasp, but not fast enough for him to run from the three charging kids. With the 'ball' in his grip, Gabriel stretched his arms as far away from himself as he could, while the trio scrambled over him. Michael stood up a few seconds later, hands on his hips and chest puffed out as he wore the helmet. Loyd's face softened.
"My point is, they have fragile futures. And, judging by how you've handled stopping this truck, your style doesn't scream 'handle with care.' I'm sure the two truckers tied down beneath us can attest to that," Loyd said.
"We won't get them killed."
"I'd hope so."
Eli turned to him. The corners of Loyd's lips curled up slightly as he watched the kids and his comrades laugh.
"Counting on ya, Antithesis. Really hoping you prove me wrong here."
The radio in his ear grabbed Eli's attention.
Eli's pressed a button on the side of his headset, connecting with his partner perched far away from him.
"You see something, Hina?"
"Two armored trucks."
There was a momentary pause. Then:
"Two armored trucks," Eli repeated aloud, as if to help digest the fact.
He nodded to Loyd, who hopped off the truck and strode to his colleagues.
"Alright, playtime's over, kids!" Loyd called out. "Head off to the side with the adults until the coast's clear!"
Gabriel scowled as Cethic snatched a twenty dollar bill off his hand. "You missed that throw on purpose, didn't you?"
"Of course I did." Cethic pocketed the money. "This is for the laundromat."
"Cut the chatter." Loyd interjected. "I need you guys by the truck."
Lisa grabbed at the side of Loyd's pant leg. "Lonny, I'm thirsty."
"We'll get you water as soon as we're out of the desert, Lisa. I promise."
"There's no water out here Lisa, so you'll have to wait until-"
She gave his leg another tug. Loyd sighed.
"You'll come to understand when you get older. Right now, let us do our jobs. Stay with the others away from the truck, alright?"
Without a nod or word, Lisa ran towards the rest of the group hiding behind one of the sand dunes. Loyd turned around, ensuring his lips couldn't be read.
"Guns are on top of the truck."
Cethic and Gabriel only looked at each other in response. The trio returned to Eli, who was already positioned atop the truck's hood. By the time they had armed themselves, Hina's warning became visible down the horizon.
Cethic checked Bastard's rounds again. "Shit. That's some heavy armor."
Gabriel turned to him. "Cold feet?"
"We're not in a facility and we've got civvies nearby." Cethic's palm slid the magazine back into place. "This isn't our natural element."
"Cethic's right. AAHW specializes in open spaces." Loyd braced his aim. "Stay behind cover and stay down until my signal. If you get shot out there, you're as good as dead."
The incoming duo of vehicles stopped just a couple of yards away from them. The boots of eight Soldats, clad in plate carriers and carrying rifles, touched down on the sand.
Hina fired before any of them could take aim.
One of the two Soldats, exposed to her from their side, had his blood blasted against the armored truck. A crimson mush of brains and gray matter splattered onto the driver-side's window as the sound of the sniper reached everyone's ears. The remainder of the section turned towards the direction of the shot.
Loyd raised his head and gun.
The quartet sprung out of cover: Gabriel from the left, Cethic from the right, and Loyd and Eli from the hood. They fired in unison, killing three of their hostiles in a hellstorm of bullets. With half of their squad already wiped out, the remaining Soldats fell back behind their trucks.
Moments later, they fired back, peppering the rebels' cover with rounds. One of the Soldats aimed for Hina, nearly hitting her as she adjusted her position in the dark.
"Those were Soldats? What a fucking joke!" Cethic reloaded Bastard over the sound of loud metal pings. "That was Grunt work! Literally!"
"Don't get too cocky," Loyd replied. "I saw at least four!"
"Four what? Bodies? Tangos left?"
Eli's headset buzzed. "Eli, I can't get a bead on them from this angle."
"I know. Just make sure they keep their distance."
Four cylinders the size of soup cans arced towards them. Small hisses fizzed out of the canisters as they lined up.
"All of them are smoking the cross." Cethic sighed. "Fucking Silvers. Always wasting their utility."
"We're about to lose our sniper support," Eli said.
"Shh!" Loyd hushed. "Both of you, shut up and listen!"
Smoke, hastened by the wind, enveloped the space between the trucks. The hum of an engine permeated the eerie silence that returned to the battlefield briefly. Loyd's eyes widened as he heard tires dig up sand.
Cethic jumped out of the way just before one of the armored trucks blasted straight through the smoke in front of him. As everyone turned to him, a Soldat appeared from the smoke on both sides.
"They're pushing!" Gabriel yelled.
Loyd turned away as the sound of footsteps clanging against metal reached him. He turned back to his front, taking a wild shot at the third Soldat that had climbed atop the truck. The projectile missed its mark, giving the Soldat the opportunity to return fire. Loyd moved to his side, but not fast enough - the Soldat's shot found its way into his left shoulder..
The Tertia member fell backwards, clutching at his wound. As Loyd dropped off the truck, Eli fired a burst towards their assailant, making contact with the Soldat's abdomen. The soldier crumpled to the ground, but Eli was reminded of the AAHW's armor as the Soldat raised his shooting arm. Hina struck him down before he could fire again.
"Loyd!" Cethic yelled.
Cethic had only stood back up halfway as his own Soldat faced him. He quickly fired a shot from Bastard, which the Soldat strafed away from. He propelled himself off of the truck with one hand and onto his feet just as the Soldat fired back. Bullets tore through the metal of the vehicle behind him as the proximity between the two forced Cethic to go for a pistol whip with his revolver.
The Soldat blocked the attack with the side of his rifle, grabbing for Cethic's shooting arm. Seeing Cethic pull out Bitch with his free hand, the Soldat leapt back from a horizontal slash. Pulling out his billy club, he swung for Cethic's head, instead denting the truck as Cethic ducked. Cethic impaled the Soldat's chest from the ground and rose to slice the top of the soldier's head off.
A quick glance to Loyd cost Gabriel his advantage, allowing the Soldat in front of him to calibrate his aim. Gabriel barely managed to move away from a volley of shots, though his leg was grazed by one of them.
Gabriel corrected his earlier moment of hesitation by grabbing the rifle pointed for him and shoving the muzzle sideways. By reflex, the Soldat fired another burst into the air, as Gabriel felt the steaming barrel vibrate against his calloused hand. His right ear ringing, Gabriel delivered two blows to the Soldat's face, followed by a push kick to his stomach.
The Soldat lost his grip on his weapon, allowing Gabriel to toss it to the side. Gabriel fired at his right pec, but similar to Eli's circumstance, the Soldat continued his charge. He grabbed at Gabriel's face, trying to force his thumbs into the fighter's eyes. Gabriel shoved his pistol under the Soldat's chin and squeezed off two rounds. Blood splattered onto his face as Gabriel gasped in relief, shoving the fresh corpse off himself.
With three dead Soldats, the smoke finally began to clear. Gabriel helped Loyd sit up, while Cethic dashed back to them.
"You're one lucky son a bitch, you know that?" Cethic reached into one of his pockets for a roll of medical bandages. "The rest of the mag, and your arm wouldn't be yours!"
"We need to move," Eli said.
The armored truck that drove past them from earlier had turned around. Gabriel grabbed the back of Loyd's shirt, hoisting him.
The four men hurried onto the shipping container just as the armored truck brushed past. The freighter's sideview mirror snapped off as it smashed against a reinforced headlight. Hina, Gabriel, and Eli fired at the Soldat's vehicle. Their bullets pinged off the armored truck's sturdy skin as it circled around them like an enraged shark.
Gabriel turned around, searching for the moving armored truck again. A different realization greeted him.
"We've got a problem."
"Yes Gabe," Cethic yelled as he started to bandage Loyd. "We noticed!"
"No. Another problem."
Everyone looked to where he was staring out. The sight sank their hearts and lowered their guns.
Two more armored trucks, this time coming from the opposite direction.
Eli checked his magazine. "Let's move."
"Behind the truck," Eli slapped the box back into place. "It's our only option for cover right now."
While the smoke cleared, the darkness retreated with them. To anyone in a mile radius, Eli and Gabriel were visibly running atop the shipping truck, with Loyd leaning against Cethic. By the time they leapt off the roof, the fresh pair of AAHW trucks had already parked. The new five Soldats that dismounted kept their distance.
Hina peered down her scope, only to see two of the soldiers already aiming at her. She pulled herself back, activating her headset as a few bullets tore air inches from her head.
"They know where I am, Eli!"
"Stay down and relocate," Eli quickly replied.
They both knew it was easier said than done. The rocky formation Hina perched herself on was unique in height. Moving adjusted too many constants. Room for more mistakes.
No footsteps or tires crunching sand gave the four men by the shipping truck any indication of where their enemies were. Gabriel peeked out from from behind his cover and brought his head back quickly as more ricocheted bullets forced him back.
"They're not moving. And I think that truck circling around drove off… for now," Gabriel reported. "Unless that sniper chick can pull something, we're pinned here."
Cethic looked at the first armored truck. "Do you think we can make a break for that truck?"
"With your injured friend, at least two of us are roadkill for that Soldat that's still driving around," Eli said.
"Just our luck, damn it!" Cethic banged the side of his fist against the shipping truck's exterior. "Maybe… if I can move out west quick enough-"
Loyd's voice cut him short. It wasn't until he grabbed Cethic's hand that Cethic realized how tightly he was clenching his revolver.
"Go. I'm weighing you three down," Loyd said.
"Don't give me that shit, Loyd." Cethic yanked his hand away. "You think I didn't know that? Gabe and I would make quick work of these guys if it wasn't for the damn good reason we're sticking here."
"And I'm saying that reason isn't good," Loyd said, forcing stoicism in both tone and expression. "Make the first move before they do, Cethic."
No response came from the other three men. The enemy gave one instead, as three toilet paper roll-sized tubes fell just a foot nearby them: two on the left and one on the right. Cethic pushed Loyd down to the ground as Eli and Gabriel dove into the sand.
With brilliant lights and sounds, the flashbangs popped into small fireballs dissipating into the air.
As loud as Lisa was while she ran towards the truck, the ringing in the four pair of ears was louder. Their deafness cost them any warnings from Hina and sounds of hollering soldiers, smashing sand with every footstep in black, hardened leather boots. It also cost them the sight of the earlier armored truck pulling up near the little girl, too young to know the difference between high-explosives and flashbangs, between men and monsters.
The last Soldat of the first squad got out of his truck. As his order to contain any prisoners echoed in his head, he grabbed Lisa's arm, pulling her to his chest. Lisa tried to wriggle herself out of the iron grip, screaming and beating at his kevlar to no avail.
Hina resurfaced only seeing the pistol the Soldat raised up towards the smoke surrounding the truck. The dust obscured her view of the four men, but she knew Eli was among them and one of those bullets was bound to hit her partner. She flung her rifle, her scope still blurring from the movement. Only a second had passed before a bullet hit the rocks beneath Hina, causing her and her trigger finger to flinch.
She fired just as the smoke cleared. The skin, muscle, and kevlar of a Soldat was an easy challenge against a .308 Winchester round. The skull of a child just beyond those three layers was even easier.
Loyd raised his head just as a confusing blast of blood erupted from the Soldat and Lisa. As the ringing in Loyd's ears faded out, realization set in.
Loyd started screaming.
Gabriel grabbed the back of Loyd's shirt just as he shoved Cethic off of himself. Cethic began pulling him back as well.
"Loyd! Loyd, stop!" Gabriel shouted. "You're gonna get yourself killed!"
Words did little to stop Loyd's struggling. It was a perfect enough distraction for the five Soldats to ambush them, until a triplet of bullets rang out in rapid succession, knocking one of the charging Soldats back into the ground. They all turned towards the direction of the shots, seeing the long overdue jeep approaching them from the city.
"Keep it steady, Ivo! I missed two of my shots!" The gunner was sticking his body out of the side of the jeep as he stared down his scope.
"We're driving through the middle of the desert, Aidan!" Ivo shouted back. "Adriel! Cover him!"
The sudden entrance of the two rifles was overwhelming enough to turnone of the daring Soldats standing his ground into a swiss-cheesed mess. The remaining three, exposed from their previous gamble, leapt behind the front of the shipping truck. They fully expected the jeep to push forward. Instead, Adriel and Aidan had jumped out as Ivo slowed down by Eli and the others before driving off.
Wordlessly, Adriel threw a pin out of his pocket as his teammate scaled up the back of the truck. Aidan ran across the truck's shipping container as Adriel's grenade arced in the air and landed in the middle of the trio of Soldats.
The Soldat's warning was the signal the two fighters were looking for. One of the soldiers jumped off to the side and out of cover, right into Adriel's crosshairs. Three rounds hit the airborne Soldat in rapid succession.
The last two jumped backwards, just in time for the explosion that should have happened. They only had a few seconds to wonder what was happening before Aidan appeared from the top of the truck, blasting their heads with swift, methodical shots. As the dust settled, Aidan hopped off the truck's roof, picking up the foam grenade.
"I still can't believe that trick of yours works," Adriel said as Aidan walked towards him. "It's going to get you killed one of these days."
"You just gotta scare 'em real good first so they'd believe anything. Still, that was some serious gear these guys were lugging around." Aidan tossed it back to his partner before turning to Eli. "What the hell happened here?"
The sight of Loyd running off once Gabriel and Cethic loosened their grips kept Eli quiet. Aidan sighed.
"Look… Eli, was it? I know we're not on the best of terms ever since the Chamber shitfest. But if you're not gonna say thanks, the least you could do is introduce us to these new friends of yours, right?"
Eli brushed past Aidan as Loyd shoved the Soldat over Lisa off like debris, revealing her crimson canvas in the sand. With shaking hands, Loyd pressed the small body towards his chest as Eli neared him.
"Stay back!" Loyd's voice quivered, still not turning around as Eli stopped in his tracks. "Stay the fuck back, or I swear to God, I'll kill you and that bitch!"
The sounds of the other prisoners, Loyd's sobs, and far off vomiting on the cliffside filled the desert. Everyone and everything else went still as the sun rose.
"I see." Margaret's voice didn't retain the vitality it had at the start of the debriefing. Her eyes moved from the table to Eli's mask. "Is there anything else regarding the mission worth noting?"
"Then you are dismissed."
A "good work" would have supplemented that phrase in any other context. Eli rose and left the room the same way he had entered it.
"Well." Dutch turned to his squadmates as the door shut closed. "Safe to say any hope of Antithesis and Tertia getting along has gone down the shitter, yeah?"
Uncle Darnell shook his head. "You have one hell of a sense of humor."
"Honestly, I'd like to be joking right now." Dutch leaned back in his chair. "All these little factions popping up across the planet are making manpower a problem. God forbid, one of our Operatives has a violent confrontation with one of 'em. And, as heartwarming as it is to see all those prisoners getting their chains cut, it doesn't help that they're not willing to join us. For obvious reasons."
He turned to Margaret. "What about the sniper? She skipped debriefing."
"If I may, punishment's unnecessary and even nonsensical," Uncle Darnell intervened. "If the lass hasn't learned anything from that mission, then nothing we say would do it."
"You know that's not what I meant."
"I'm certain she already has someone to talk to." Margaret organized the papers in front of her. "I may have been a sniper too, but I'm not a therapist."
Dutch turned back to his front, staring at a wall as he tapped his fingers against the desk.
"You're not gonna be able to think your way back into comfort on this, Dutch. Intel was faulty." Uncle Darnell said. "Had we known better, we would have sent a more experienced duo out. There isn't a right answer, so don't strain yourself."
"If I did it after Quentin, then I can do it over anything else. Don't underestimate my ability to bullshit myself to sleep."
Two knocks on the door. Hina didn't respond, but it opened a few seconds later anyway.
Eli walked in. He saw Hina's feet for a brief moment before the door shut out the light behind him. By memory, he made his way towards the table beside their bunks. The lamp used a sliding switch to alter how strong the light was - a nifty reward Hina had bought for them using the Credits after one of their ancient missions as a squad.
He increased the brightness to a campfire glow. Under this illumination, Eli could tell see her pulling her knees close to her chest, staring at the ground.
"Debriefing went well. They asked about you, but I cleared it up. You don't have to worry."
She didn't budge. There was no need for her to give him an answer, because they both already knew what it would be. Eli sat beside her.
"It's not your fault," he said.
"Could I have done anything in the first place?"
"No. That's why it's not your fault."
She lowered her head.
"Then I want to stop being a sniper."
"Hina. For every blunder, you've probably saved ten lives. Mine included, multiple times."
"You know that's not true." This response from her, unlike the others, was immediate. "I was so excited and everything that I nearly cost you your life, multiple times."
"It was our first mission. We'll do better next time."
"That's not the point!" Hina's voice rose with her head as she stood up. "You just told me that there was nothing I could have done. If that's true, then there can't be a 'better'!"
Hina started pacing around the room while grabbing her hair. "Margaret told me I shouldn't hesitate, so I didn't. I fired as soon as I could, and I shouldn't have. But I was scared. If you got shot or worse I wouldn't have been able to forgive myself, and-"
"Hina, you need to calm down."
"Calm down?! I killed a little girl!" She shuddered at her own words. "I killed her, Eli. And I know at least one person really cared about her until the end and I failed them both."
"How can I be wrong, Eli? And how can you be so callous?"
"You're not listening." Eli stood as well. "I'm talking about you constantly saying 'I failed' and 'my fault.' Every person who had the chance to save her, myself included, failed. You didn't throw her into that truck, you didn't let your guard down or get stunned by flashbangs, and you definitely weren't the Soldat who pulled her into harm's way. You were just the last ring on the chain by shooting her and that's why you're shackling the whole thing onto yourself. Does that sound fair?"
She gulped, taking a deep breath. "I... thought things could be different. I thought we could make all of this different. But no matter how much I cared, nothing's changed. I really cared, Eli. Am I a monster?"
She stared at the ground with the same emptiness she felt in his answer. Her eyes widened as Eli's arms wrapped around her back, pulling her for an embrace.
"Someone told me that we should be worrying about the corners we're cutting when we fight." He spoke in an unusual softness as he held her. "Fuck that. Screw regulations and morals because none of this gave a damn about us. So you shouldn't give a damn either."
A sob escaped Hina's lips as Eli held her in the dark. She squinted her eyes, trying to stop the tears from rolling down her cheeks.
She failed, miserably.
[END OF INTERLOGUE I: NO REGRETS]
Cethic and Loyd by Cethic
Gabriel by Gabriel Barsch
Eli and Hina by Kagami13
(Reviewers' Credits will resume after Interlogues; special thanks to Cethic and Gabriel Barsch for allowing me to use their characters!)