He chipped away at the rubble to no avail. The acrid smoke swamped his senses; his eyes watered. Half-blinded, he pawed at the shattered concrete, yanking away the fragments his hands found—like trying to kill a giant by ripping away scabs.
The fortress shuddered, disintegrating by degrees. He was the only one who'd thought to take shelter beforehand. He was the only one who'd known there would be bombs in the first place. A hell of a lot of good that did him now, though. They'd blown up the corridors. Blocked off escape paths. If he had thought of that he would have prepared himself. If he had Shovel right now, he could dig his way out, or if nothing else derive some comfort from her presence. He missed the familiar feel of her in his hand, the clang of her blade on his helmet. Shovel was gone. She would never come back.
He wondered whether any of his teammates might have survived. God help them, he thought, if they had.
"Your contract is to be terminated," began the notice that each of them received over breakfast that morning, handed out by him. "You are to turn in your weapons and leave within 72 hours." A couple of pages of condolences and legal mumbo-jumbo rambled on after that, but the opening hit the nail on the head.
The Scout did a spit-take. "What the hell? What is this crap?"
"Is this," said the Medic, wiping the displaced orange juice from his brow, "your idea of a joke, Herr Soldier?"
He tried to wear an appropriate stern, yet solemn expression. "This is not a joke, men."
"Hell's bells." The Engineer shook his head. "After all I put into this cotton-pickin' company. I—I sold 'em the patent for my dispenser, fer Pete's sake! I oughta—just—"
"It is sad day to be BLU," said the Heavy. The Pyro voiced his indignation, but as usual, nobody could make out what the hell he was saying.
"'Tis a bloody outrage!" the Demoman roared.
"What I'm gonna do," said the Scout, "is bust some serious heads. Who's with me?"
"Da, this is good plan."
The clattering voices roused in too-energetic agreement. It grated on him.
"LISTEN UP, YOU FECKLESS FRUITCAKES!" That shut them up.
"Do you think your outrage is significant?" he barked. "Do you think your precious little feelings matter to the BLU higher-ups? You, you sad, sorry excuses for fighters, are not entitled to question orders! Your feelings are irrelevant! Do you understand me?" The team grumbled, but agreed. He slumped down in his seat. He felt weary—his tirade had worn him out. He wanted to chalk this feeling up to weariness, at least.
"S'pose there's not much we can do, at any rate," he heard the Sniper mutter through a mouthful of eggs.
Nobody else noticed, but that was when the black ball began to form in the pit of his stomach. He had kept his face on, but he'd known. He could have warned them. Now the black ball had come up into his throat, and choked him. It tasted of death.
His hands came upon a vast slab of intact concrete. Gripping the rough edges, he strained to yank it from its place. The fibers of his arms tightened and groaned, close to snapping. If he had his rocket launcher, he could blast the thing to chunks. Even Shovel would have come in handy here. He kept forgetting he didn't have her anymore. How he'd come to rely on her. He could only pull and tug at the stone, which refused to budge. He slumped against the pile of debris, resting his cheek on rough rock. Deep breaths of hot, bitter air filled his lungs.
He remembered his teammates crying out, when the first explosions rocked the base. Some of them yelled, "Demo, this isn't funny!" And he had heard them far above himself, stuffed in a locker, like someone's laundry. Somewhere in the distance, the Demoman protested that he "didna do it".
"Then who did?" they cried back. It panged at his callused heart. He knew who had done this to them—well, not quite who, but at least why. Vaguely. Enough to make that black ball begin to bubble up. Why did the flavor of leather haunt him in his final hours? Three days ago, he could not have imagined himself in such a sorry state. Three days ago he would have spat on his present self.
Shame and smoke stung at the corners of his eyes—what a dog he was. He wished he'd that the remains of the base would give way already and fall down on top of him, smashing him into a thin layer of reddish jam. The idea of such scum as himself remaining alive sickened him. He was a maggot—a maggot of maggots. A grub that gnawed on the filthy corpses of grubs that gnawed on filthy corpses. Sun Tzu would have retched at the sight of such a sorry failure of a Soldier.
War is based on deception. Sun Tzu had said that.
The foundation murmured. The sound triggered the deep instinct inside all creatures, the fear of death. He was a soldier—he should not have been afraid. What a joke he was, not even a funny joke. The fear spurred his body to stand, and his muscles complied. It spilled over his muscles and tightened his hands about his obstacle. Sweat roved down the channels of his face. The stony mass started to slip aside. He licked the sweat from his lip. He heard the scraping growl of stone grinding against stone, and stepped back to survey his handiwork. The door on the other side gaped open.
The way forward was as hellish as the way back. Every flammable surface burned; those that weren't ablaze wilted with the heat. Far beneath the scorching earth, he could sense—feel, just under his palm—a pulsing heartbeat. No, not a heartbeat, explosives. They weren't satisfied to just set off one round; they had to finish the job. He smelled fire and metal. But he was close—the exit was right there. Run, get out, his inner maggot screamed. All you have to do is jump down, scale the fence and you're home free, baby. He couldn't. He ran—back, deep into the fortress, into the sounds of it breaking and snapping on all sides. Into his grave.
Now he was alone. It wasn't the first time he'd been alone. He'd fought alone, in the wintry heart of the Nazi motherland, waging a one-man war for eight years. He'd been a young boy then, and eager. He had ached to wet his hands in the blood of godless dogs. He fought his way there, even before the real fighting began, huddled in the back of a supply plane, living on corrugated cardboard. He survived, found his destination. And then he slaughtered. Blood rained over his body, colored his vision. Baptized in red, he found himself shivering in the snow—alone. Freezing to death didn't sound like such a bad idea right now.
Then, like now, his heart stuttered with the feverish prayer of a soldier who had begun to know death. But now, he realized he had no right to pray. A dog had no right to prayer.
He staggered. Amid the wreckage, he saw, were corpses.
One, two—he counted three bodies, and only one in a state that might be called intact. One had been blown to meaty gibs—unrecognizable except for the gas mask that lay at his feet. He knew the bright yellow hard hat of the second, now without a lower body. The Engineer, he realized, would not have been killed right away—at least a few minutes of agonized life would have remained in him, as his shredded guts spilled out in a pulpy pile. Sprawled over the Engineer's body was the Scout. The blood that painted the ground belonged chiefly to him. His body was torn and studded with shrapnel. It wasn't anything he'd never seen before. That wasn't what made the bile rise in his throat, though. He had done this—as responsible as if he had laid the bombs himself.
He stepped among the pieces of his comrades. His feet desecrated this burial ground, treading on spilled blood while his blood swam in his veins. If nothing else, the blood on the ground should have been his.
He looked down, and saw the Scout's limp corpse. The boy lay in a pool of his own gore, and the Soldier knelt beside him. The Scout clung to the Engineer like a child clings to a broken toy, burying his face in the latter's shoulder. Blood colored the blue of his shirt a sickening shade between crimson and violet. His skin took on the color of wax. The Soldier wanted to believe he had a shred of dignity or manliness left in himself, and that the burning and blurring in his eyes was just from smoke.
Yet through a teary haze, he saw—or believed he saw—the Scout stir.
He let his hand graze the Scout's shoulder. It was warm. More than that—the Scout seemed to respond to touch. Yes, his arm loosened around the Engineer's body, fingers groping at the dead man's shirt. Yes, his head rose. The kid was alive. Somehow.
"Son of a bitch," he found himself marveling.
The Scout's eyes wandered, not seeing. "… bastard," he muttered, "took ya long enough to come back here… finish the job… didn't it." His voice crackled like old film.
"Get a hold of yourself," he told him.
The kid's eyes focused. "S-Solly?" he said. "You're still alive…? Jesus fuck…"
"Listen," he half-growled, "Even if we had the time to sit around and chat and have a frilly little tea party, I wouldn't. But right now we don't have the time, because this whole goddamned fort is going to come down on top of us and we have to get out."
"Heh, heh. You mean it ain't already?" Being at death's door had not taken the slightest edge off the Scout's lip.
"I don't need that kind of talk from you, maggot." He gathered the Scout in his arms and began to backtrack.
Saving one would not atone for the deaths of seven; he understood that. But it could count for something. One redeeming stroke on a crimson canvas. His own life was worthless—but the Scout's wasn't.
"Man, they… they shot Hard-Hat," said the Scout, out of nowhere.
They? The Soldier halted in his steps. Of course there was a they, there had to be, but the Soldier hadn't assumed they would show their faces. The Scout must be delirious. "You're talking nonsense, son."
"They shot him! They came up and shot 'im… only he woulda died anyway… and man, they didn't want nobody left alive. So they shot him. Just to make sure, I guess. I saw 'em shoot him… right in the heart."
"Get a grip, maggot!"
"And man… they woulda shot me too, if I hadn't been playin' possum…" The Scout raved now. "He… he was strong enough to talk, he looked up at 'em and he said… 'Who are you people?' They didn't say nothin'. Just shot… him… shit." The Scout went limp.
"Easy," he told the boy, "easy. Whoever the hell you're talking about, I didn't see 'em."
"Just…" he rasped, "just be careful."
"I don't take orders from you."
"It was a suggestion, hardass."
He paused. "I know."
In spite of the blazing flames, silence pressed against him. A fortress, like a living being, should have moaned as it died. The absence of sound slammed his eardrums, thrummed in his chest. The base, or what remained of it, seemed to hold its last breath. Underneath, the heartbeat of bombs knocked on his brain. Death waited under every footfall, its reddened maw not satisfied. He would not give it the pleasure of tasting his teammate's blood if he could help it. Evading his own death seemed to be the one thing he was good at; he could handle a brat like the Scout. Kicking the debris from his path, he descended.
They reached the sewers, and he slipped into the tunnels. He almost laughed at himself. Skulking around like a rat, or a Spy, in his own goddamned base. Funny the lows he could find himself sinking to in the span of less than an hour. But what did his dignity matter, when his right to exist had been revoked?
She—the all-enforcing she—had stared down her dagger-sharp nose at him and told him so herself.
"BLU no longer exists," she said. "As a company and as a legal and military entity, it ceases to function."
He had to struggle to pick up his jaw, which had fallen clean off. "What?"
Bars of light painted themselves across a face as cold as iron. "Neither RED nor BLU are recognized as companies any longer," she repeated. She didn't say by whom. "They do not exist. The war between RED and BLU does not exist. All those associated with either company no longer exist. Starting two days, sixteen hours from now, they will never have existed in the first place. Is that clear, Mr. Doe?"
No. Not clear at all. She'd given him a death sentence—a vague one, typical of her, but he could interpret the gist of it. What she hadn't given him was why. He wanted answers. He wanted a safety net to catch his falling stomach.
"Ma'am. With all due respect… what is going on?"
Her sour mouth soured more. "Have you, after all this time, failed to understand that it is not your place to question orders? It is your place to obey them."
"N-no, ma'am," he stuttered. "I mean, yes ma'am. I never meant otherwise, ma'am."
"Your feelings are irrelevant. That is specifically stipulated in your contract." Her brevity blistered him.
"I am aware of that, ma'am."
"Good." She leaned back. "Mr. Doe."
"Hand over that shovel of yours. Now."
The demand froze him—he did not know how she could ask such a thing of him. Shovel, his sole companion for years, perhaps the only thing in this nest of spineless worms he could rely on. This because she had been by his side for decades. He had met her on his way to Europe, slim and sparkling and new. Since those years she had been his rock; loyal as a blood brother, kind and understanding as a wife.
Of course she, the Administrator, could not appreciate that kind of loyalty. She did not understand friendship, and did not tolerate it. He had learned this the hard way. He couldn't stand to think of the man whom he'd betrayed, whom he'd murdered over and over—been murdered by over and over. He learned too late he'd been tricked; the damage remained, and he could never look the man in the eye again. Such loyalty she could split in two like a heart beneath a frozen knife. And all for what? A pair of gussied-up boots. He ought to throw those back at her—and he knew damn well why he couldn't.
Now he ran his hand over the wood graining he knew by heart, the blade caked with dried blood and rust. He wanted to commit the textures to his memory. Her impatient foot clacked against the tile floor. Sweat trickled down the back of his neck.
"I'm waiting, Mr. Doe."
He bit back his shame, and handed Shovel over to her.
She smirked with a thin, violet mouth. "Mr. Doe. It disgusts me to say this, but I like you. In a twisted way. You seem to be the only one who comprehends what it means to be part of BLU."
"Thank you, ma'am," he said, his head lowered.
She leaned towards him, and the expression in her eyes altered. "Take shelter," she said, "when the time comes." In her mouth the words became a threat. "You alone—the rest of your teammates must die. That is also an order."
"To tell the truth," she said, leaning back again, "I doubt you'll live. But I would like to see you put forth the effort."
"And one more thing, Mr. Doe."
Her leg slid out from behind the desk and came to rest upon it. "Lick this boot."
He loathed himself so much. "Yes, ma'am."
He leaned forward and gripped her narrow ankle. As her perverse grin radiated from her, beating upon his neck, he dragged his tongue across the immaculate designer leather. The pungent flavor battered at his senses. "Yes," she crooned, almost whispered, "yes." Repulsion brewed in the depths of him, and he stifled it. His feelings were irrelevant.
As he twisted his head away, he noticed the cyanide pills on her desk, lying beneath the unlit lamp.
"Who the hell did this to us, Solly…?" The Scout's murmur echoed in the tunnel.
His heart flailed. Jesus Christ, what could he tell him?
Water sloshed up and around his boots. His eyes probed the bland grey tunnels and turned up nothing out of the ordinary. He shivered with the feeling of something building up, of hellfire's heartbeat beneath the earth. It was a peculiar sixth sense that only worked sometimes—in brighter days it had served him well. Now it made him act like a scared little child. Or maybe it was the other way round, enlightening him to his weakness.
He halted in his steps, and water continued to slosh.
The apparition showed first its head from around the corner, bonelike and inhuman. The rest of it followed, heavily armored. It had a gun. He didn't.
Dear God, the kid hadn't been lying.
It took a split second for it to sight him—but by then he was in motion. It raised its pistol; the muzzle of it pushed against him. Then his helmet connected with his enemy's face. It fell. Its gun fired; the bullet zinged past him, tearing the cloth of his jacket. He glowered over its sprawled form, and planted his boot in its face. It struggled. He stomped harder, and red gushed beneath his heel. It diffused into the water. The enemy ceased to struggle. He swiped its gun, and ran faster.
The open end of the sewer pipe spilled out under a bridge, or rather, over what was left of one. Charred planks and tin roofing littered the ash-stained water. If nothing else, they were being thorough about it. The RED base, viewable from here, crumbled into ruin, coughing smoke up into a black sky. He wondered if his former base looked the same. Probably. He spied more of the strangers milling about what was left of the base on the other side, but they failed to pay him any regard. Was it safe to shoot? The pistol in his hands felt alien—he hadn't used one since 1949. He took aim and fired. Blood colored the walls, red on red. Well, he wasn't too shabby with a pistol after all.
He wondered if he could rocket-jump from here to the lip of the other side, and remembered, with a sensation like a punch in the stomach, that he didn't have his rocket launcher anymore either. That kept tripping him up. His over-reliance on his favored weapons put him at a disadvantage now. He would make an ass of himself, and that would put him one step closer to dying. Standing here like a deer in the headlights was a sure way to guarantee his death and the Scout's, though.
Lukewarm water surged up around them both, and he struggled to keep their heads above water. The boy made no comment about being suddenly drenched. Footsteps rattled above him; maybe they'd taken notice. Of course they had. He'd shot two of them and stomped on one more. He clung to the concrete sides. Their voices murmured above him. It looked like he had no choice but to climb up there and confront them himself. How many of them were there? How many had weapons, and what kind? Know your enemy. Sun Tzu had said that. He didn't know a thing. And he didn't have the time to waste on getting to know them.
A stray scrap of metal floated by that looked like it could slip into the cracks in the concrete. He seized it and jammed it into the gap. A second fragment served a similar purpose, and he clambered up the side with the Scout slung over his shoulder. Gunshots cracked in the distance, and bullet holes dented the ground at his feet. In spite of himself, the cloud hanging over him, mirth jogged at him. Couldn't these sissy-nannies shoot?
He looked up, straight into the barrel of a rifle.
Apparently, only at point-blank range.
The Soldier was up on his feet first, not quite fast enough to dodge the warm pain that blossomed in his shoulder. He angled his head for the man's, or whatever it was's, chest, but the same trick wasn't working twice, and he landed on his face. He felt its gun trained on his spine. With his foot he lashed out and hooked it by the ankles; it toppled over his body. He pushed himself up and shot it in the face.
And he bled—a lot. His blood mingled with the Scout's. They were going to start swarming to him, like sharks. The salt-iron scent of prey was on the air. He would've been lucky to deal with a dozen or so before he got out; now they were all going to descend on him. But he would not die. He would not allow himself to be killed—for the Scout's sake. He held the cards to their fates now. And he would throw himself into a grave he'd dug with his own bare hands before he'd see himself, and his one surviving teammate, murdered by these creeps.
"You still there?" he whispered to the kid slung over his shoulder. He didn't answer, but he breathed. That was good.
The Soldier stood up and yelled out—"Come and get some, you gutless freaks of nature!"
They opened fire, and he returned the favor. The ones that dropped down from the battlements were dead before they hit the ground, and the ones that surged out of the entrance toppled over the bodies to join them. A few took shots at him from the BLU base. He shot them dead. When his ammo was spent, he cast his pistol aside and picked up a rifle. They were still coming, and still dying. A few of their bullets made their mark—glancing blows. He mowed them down like numerous little weeds. If he was a maggot, then these sad-sacks were the corpses on which he fed. He began to scale the fence, one-handed, shooting with the other. It was even easier this way. He could do this all day if he had to.
Soon they were all either dead or had run off, but he didn't get the gentle burst of satisfaction he normally got from such a killing spree. Anxiety pestered him. How much time had he wasted wasting them? When were they planning on blowing up the base, anyway? They wouldn't set off the bombs as long as they still had men in the bases, but did they still have men in the bases? Were they going to—
A blinding pain skewered him in the calf. He faltered, and slipped. His fingers, intertwined with the chain link fencing, kept him dangling there. He hissed, as pain wrought his nerves. Blood burned a trail down his leg. The metal cut into his fingers like wire. The bastards, he thought. Bullets sprayed about him. Another bullet pierced him just below the wrist, and he fell. The fucking sneaking bastards.
His gun hand remained intact. He whipped around and aimed a few bullets in the bastard freak's direction. Each shot missed its mark—one bullet hit the identical pistol in the enemy's hand, knocking it away. It paused. Then it ran at him faster. "Dammit," he said. He grabbed at the fence, and found that his legs did not quite obey him. He became aware of several lead chunks floating inside his muscles. They hurt. And the fence was much harder to scale when he had to try.
Thorny wires cut at him—he slung himself over and landed in mud. The shock jolted into his knees and brought him splashing to the ground. Somewhere along the line, he had forgotten that pain hurt so much. Now he was re-learning, his nerves reawakening after a long period of stunted feeling. He wished he could forget again. The fence rattled behind him. He forced himself to his feet—he could've sworn the Scout wasn't this heavy ten seconds ago. He staggered through the mud and sand. His enemy fell behind him, less hindered by pain.
"Move faster, dammit!" he ordered himself, but he was wearing his body to pieces. Another Soldier, from another time, would have sneered at this disgrace—only a maggot would flee from his foe. He knew this and continued to run. The ground disappeared beneath his flying strides. Get out, he told himself, get the kid out, and everything would be okay. Every step made the bullet in his leg explode anew. He imagined the two of them must leave behind a long trail of red.
He tasted the cool night air, a wisp of it penetrating the smoke and heat and mayhem. And, quite suddenly, his feet failed him.
His jaw slammed the ground, and he tasted blood. His blood. He could not recall the last time he'd tasted his own blood. The shock shot straight through his marrow. He struggled to push himself up. Did he dare look behind him? The enemy was there—not twenty yards from him, hunched over like a hungry predator. And behind it, more of them scattered from the fortress in a seeming panic. Of course there'd be more. With guns.
All of the effort he had wasted.
His foe stopped, its feet scratching the earth to come to a halt. It stared down at him. It didn't have much of a face to stare with. He wondered what its expression would be if it did. Would it be disgusted with him? Maybe it was some kind of human robot and didn't care. It raised its foot. He lay down, baring his throat to the impending metallic crush. "Come on," he said. "You want to finish this, don't you? Then do it, you pansy." It seemed to hesitate. Then its foot dropped.
Sayonara, you sons of bitches, he thought.
And he intercepted the blow, his arm smashing against his chest. He felt it snap, his sternum crack.
Why, he wondered, did he just do that?
But what had motivated him didn't matter—the action did. Now he acted again. He grabbed at its foot, bringing his opponent to the ground. Then he was on top of it, wrapping his good hand around its throat. It fought back. It seemed to be made of pure muscle, or something more. His grip had no effect on it. In effortless movement, it flipped him over and jammed its elbow into his throat.
This hurt. It hurt more than it had any right to. He coughed and choked around the heavy limb. Blood dribbled from his mouth. He flailed against the weight of its body, all condensing into that one point. Good God, he couldn't imagine anything more humiliating than this. He couldn't imagine much at all, with his windpipe being crushed and everything.
One quote lingered with him. If thy hand offend thee, cut it off. Sun Tzu had said that. And, drawing logically from that, if thy enemy's elbow offend thee, cut that off too.
Adrenaline burst into him, and he slammed its arm to the ground. The rest of it followed. Dry, smoke-tinged desert air flowed into his lungs. They clawed at each other, side by side. He slammed his knee into its crotch, which didn't quite have the desired effect but worked a bit. It gave him the split second's edge on it. He got up, or tried to—his legs had just plain stopped working. The split second was lost to him. His enemy got up on its feet. He tried to knock it down again and failed.
Its foot met his stomach, and his breath surged out of him. Coughing, he tried to push himself up, only for his foe to stomp him down again, and again, all over him. His bones cracked. His desire to kill was outweighed by the realization that he could not. He tasted arid earth.
"Maggot," he gasped, the worst insult he knew. An appropriate one for one of them, at least. He could not even kill this one goddamn enemy.
Its foot descended on his ruined hand. The pain, good God, the pain. It pulverized his bones into a fine dust. To kill this—monstrosity—would be a far more merciful fate than it deserved. His ability did not even extend this far. He loathed himself, more than he longed to taste its blood.
He tasted his own blood, choking as he tried again to speak. "Why don't you kill me? Just—" He grunted when it kicked at him again. "—finish this, you—disgrace. What kind of man are you, kicking at a downed enemy? Do you even know what honor means? Is—is the word 'honor' even in your—"
It dawned on him that for the past few seconds, it had left him alone.
As he pushed himself up, his vision briefly blacked out. When it returned to him, he saw his foe peering over, not himself, but the sprawled and helpless Scout. A black anticipation seemed to bleed from the seams in its armor.
"You spineless worm," he murmured, astonished by its sadism, its cowardice. What kind of soldier crushed the weakest foe first? What kind of warrior took pleasure in the torture of his enemies? What kind of dog refused to show his face in battle? This was disgusting. He would not allow it. He would not—could not let the Scout die.
A murky kind of strength, or raw fury, crept into his veins. It burned at the corners of his eyes. His muscles acted of their own accord, on one thought—the Gunboats. The steel plating felt like ice, the studs biting into his palm. He tugged the boot off—a fluid improvisation. He brought it back for the throw.
"You… spineless… WORM!"
The heel met the juncture between the skull and the spine, and his enemy fell to the ground. Now, he heard its voice—a low, metallic moan, more of confusion than of pain. It had a voice. He shook the thought from his mind. He'd stunned it. He could finish it off, if he had the strength. The pulverized smear that had been his hand reminded him that he did not.
Even so, he found himself half-crawling to confront his downed opponent. The sweat that soaked him mingled with dirt and blood. His hand found the boot that had landed close by. He hoisted it over his enemy's skull and brought it down, over and over, letting the rhythm of his pulse form a tempo to his actions.
Yet the more he pounded at it, the more he understood the futility of his rage. It stirred up more rage, frustration, from deep within him. Why could he not kill this godless monster? Why would it not die? He slammed its head over and over. Why—why—why—why—
It would not die. But it had stilled. He tried to slow his gasping breaths, to calm the fever in his mind. If he got a good head start, he could outrun it, even in this shape. The chance remained; he needed to act on it. But he had to bolt. The creep's little buddies now spilled out of the base en masse.
He made himself stand. He couldn't feel his leg, but he would bunny hop across the desert if he had to. He grasped the Scout's arm. "Move, dammit!" he yelled at one hundred and fifteen pounds of dead weight that felt more like a thousand. "I'm not about to let you die out here, you scrawny good-for-nothing fruit-basket—even if I have to drag your sorry ass all the way to—"
He toppled over on the ground.
"Hell," he said.
Maggots, he supposed, never stopped being maggots. The more he struggled against his true nature, the more he became aware of it. It would have been nice to go on living on the surface of ignorance, but now he'd burrowed in too deep already. He would continue to burrow until he died. He had long passed rock bottom.
A sound like thunder shook the earth. He sat up. "What is that?" he wondered.
The fortress uttered its death knell, and colors he had never seen or even dreamed of blossomed from inside. Its frame lit up blue-gold as fire erupted from its twin hearts; yet even the image of that wavered, dissolving into crumbling earth. The halves, RED and BLU, leaned and meshed into one another before buckling into the gaping earth. They disgorged smoke into the heaving black sky. The vast crater widened.
"Kid, you're missing the fireworks."
The Scout said nothing. He had not said anything for awhile. This was the quietest he'd ever been. The Soldier turned to him. "Answer me, private."
He did not get an answer.
The kid's eyes were halfway open. The gaze that bored into the distance from under the death-weighted lids was that of one conscious of his own death. Into his expression pain had etched itself, and for good reason, but the eyes were devoid of that. They were filled with—bleakness wasn't quite the word. Neither was sorrow. Some combination of those two, and on top of that—the word was slipping from him, even while the irises became crescents, which the ash-white lids began to eclipse.
Panic bubbled up in him. "Kid," he said. "Stay with me. You see that bright light at the end of the tunnel? Do not go into it. You stay the hell away from it."
The Scout let out a long-held, silent breath.
"Who the hell do you think you are?" he bellowed. "You do not have permission to die!" The body that had been leaden seemed so frail now. "Do you understand me?" His hands clasped the bone that floated inside the parchment-like shoulders. "I am ordering you not to die, you maggot!" Pale purple veins ran through the Scout's eyelids. The boy wouldn't be roused. "That is an ORDER, son, do you hear me? Do! Not! DIE!"
A cool wind whirled the dust around them. The body clapped to the ground.
Who was he trying to fool, anyway? Their deaths were marked, and had been from the beginning. He thought one life mattered. Who was he kidding? What fucking pretension. He should've seen that he was useless. Dead was dead. Better to accept the damnation he deserved. To die with the blood on his hands washing off into the earth. Or to be shot. That was what happened to old, sick, rabid dogs.
He had had a dog once. He had been the one to place the barrel between her eyes and squeeze the trigger. In her melting eyes there had been a look of sorrow and bleakness muddled together, colored with acceptance—the subservience of one who understood her fate.
The Soldier threw himself upon the barren ground and roared. "Why," he screamed at the God who wasn't listening, "do you set me up to do stupid shit?"
Because he was weak.
"Do you think I give a flying fuck if I die?" Of course he did. "You make me drag this kid all the way out here all for nothing! To get us both fucking killed!" And he was the one who'd assumed he could cheat death in the first place. "You couldn't even give the goddamn kid a chance! Why? Why—" Because he was a spineless traitor.
Here he was, reduced to pleading with the atmosphere.
"Well—FUCK you!" he growled at it.
Fuck you right back, said God, or his psyche.
His body wasn't even part of him anymore. He was returning to his original maggot form, limbless and senseless. It welled up inside his body, white and foul. It lapped up what little dignity he had left. The sky spat lightning. Between one flash and the next, a shadow appeared at his side, fixing him with a cruel not-quite-eye. It was one of many shadows that haunted the edges of his vision.
"Just—just make it quick," he said.
He didn't see whether the enemy trooper complied.
Somewhere a raven croaked.
He rested against a narrow, bony shoulder. His back felt like a meat slab. He didn't know where he was. He felt a little bit fuzzy around the edges, so he didn't remember how he'd got there, either. The texture under him was rough. Cold air kissed his skin. The smell of cigarette smoke wafted about him. He wasn't sure what he was doing here, but he was pretty sure he was supposed to be dead.
Trying to open his eyes, he found that he could not. Every eyelash weighed a hundred pounds. He groaned. He swore he could puke, if his body wasn't too weak to put forth the effort.
The narrow shoulder shifted. "I see that you are waking," said an accented voice, in a condescending tone. He knew that tone. He knew that accent, that shoulder. That scent.
Mother of God, he must have been booted straight to hell.
He managed to crack one eyelid open. Since when was sunlight so painful? It seared across his vision, and he clamped his eyes closed again. He wished the pounding pain that had erupted in his forehead would stop.
"What a disgrace that, of all the simpletons to be saddled with, I had to end up with you," lamented the Spy. "And that is only a drop in the ocean of my woes. I suppose you and I have no choice but to swim, non?"
"G-get bent, you freakin' spook."
The room was dark. The sky was orange. He learned this by degrees. If he turned his face into the Spy's neck, he could just about stand the rising sun that was beaming in at exactly his eye level. The Spy hissed displeasure—tough nuts to him anyway, the Scout thought. His fingers worked; he flexed them one at a time. The muscles felt creaky. His mind began to unjam its gears. He had almost been killed. What, exactly, had just occurred?
"Ugh. What do you want, you wretch?"
"What the hell just happened, anyway?"
"Are you dense, boy?" The Spy spoke acid. "You and your friend the Soldier tore yourselves apart trying to escape from the base. Or did you forget the part where you were turned into a shrapnel pincushion?"
"No, dumbass," he said. "I meant in general. Why we're getting blown the hell up. Who did this to us. You'd know, right? I mean, you're a freakin' Spy…" Talking exhausted him, but force of habit kept his mouth running.
"Thank you for stating the obvious," said the Spy. The mask resting on his forehead wasn't one the Scout recognized. It looked more like the ones their attackers had worn. And he was wearing similar armor, as well. He took a drag from his cigarette. "I do indeed know a great deal about the circumstances leading up to this event. But I don't think it would be wise to try and explain it to you at this moment. You are very tired. It would most likely fly right over your head."
"Or you just don't wanna tell me 'cause you're a prick."
"Touché." The Spy put on a characteristic smirk. Stuck-up bastard, just like always. But the Scout could sense a trickle of anxiety underneath that. The Spy inhaled from the cigarette, and the whole thing crumbled to ash. He whipped out another. His eyes were narrowed with some emotion.
The Scout began prodding his own body, just to make sure all of the pieces of him were still there, and discovered the rough texture of cloth bandages wrapping his torso, and his legs. They were bleeding through in places. Even so, it was surprising he'd been patched up at all. The room smelled of wood and animals. He wasn't sure, but he would've guessed they were in somebody's hayloft. Why the Spy would throw out his precious dignity and drag them here, of all places, he didn't know. They really had hit rock bottom, hadn't they?
The Soldier lay next to him, similarly bandaged. He didn't move.
"Hey, Solly," the Scout said. "We made it out okay after all."
"Don't bother talking to him," said the Spy. "He's dead."
His blood chilled. "What?"
"It really is… unfortunate." The Spy's nonchalant delivery faltered and recovered. "I did what I could to aid him, but, you see." He gestured with a thick-gloved hand. "I am no Medic, I'm afraid."
"You're lying!" He sat bolt upright, despite the pain ripping through his every nerve. "I don't believe you. He ain't…" He couldn't finish; the moisture had left his mouth. His throat tightened, and his chest seemed to press in on itself. The Soldier's helmet had come off—the Scout had only ever seen his full face once or twice. With an expressionless face, he looked like a stranger. Or… well… dead.
"Are… are you freaking kidding me?" His voice squeaked. "Solly. Don't screw with me, man. You're still there, right? Right?" His fingers reached for the Soldier's neck, searching for a pulse. He could feel nothing under the cold skin. "Right?"
The Spy's sigh rattled. "Scout, you are not going to wake him up."
And he would not. Of course the Soldier was dead. He had been shot to death a long time ago. He had simply kept running in spite of being dead. The Scout had known that—he knew everything about running. He knew the difference between the living man's stride and a dead man's. And he had seen the blood that gushed from the Soldier with every jarring step. The Soldier had been running dead, and was now lying dead. But by those rules, so should he, the Scout, be dead. Why should he have survived?
"You're such a dumbass, Solly," he said.
Was he supposed to give a eulogy or something? What kind of eulogy could he give this guy? Here lies—hell, he didn't even know the man's name—here lies Soldier, a batshit maniac not educated beyond a sixth-grade level, who befriended shovels and never had a kind word to say to anyone. Some eulogy. With tweaking it could have gone for any of his teammates.
That man had been a fighter—that was true enough. The man who was now lifeless should have been up, screaming and barking at him to get his act together. The Soldier was a man of strength, questionable sanity, and relentless resolve. Had been—forcing him out of the present was hard. The Scout's blurring vision kept trying to convince him that there was a spark of movement in the Soldier's fingers, a fluttering of eyelids. But no. There wasn't even a human being there—just a pile of dead matter on the floor.
"Jackass," he said. "Go and get yourself frickin' killed. Why'd you frickin' do that, huh? Waste your life on—on—"
The throbbing in his back reminded him how helpless he had been. How dependent he had been on this man, whose corpse now lay on the rough wood floor, like a man consenting to his own burial.
"On me," he finished, and a gasp shuddered out of him. He couldn't see; colors were smears on his eyes. Everything had come all to pieces. Everyone dead, or killing themselves. Why had he thrown himself away to save him? Why should the weaker one have lived? The Soldier had hated weakness. He hated men who cried. He would've hated him, right now—the knowledge of that didn't stop the tears bubbling on the edge of his vision. "Fuck it, man."
"Scout." The Spy's voice had lost all its venom. The Frenchman meant to say something—the pregnant pause behind his words demanded attention. But his silence gave way to more silence, and there was no sound in the air but the crowing of ravens, and the Scout's hiccupy sobs, painful and relentless, punctuated with expletives.
"Scout," the Spy began again, and the Scout felt his fingers brush against the nape of his neck. "Crying like a petit bébé won't bring him back."
"D'you think I don't know that?" The words erupted from him. "He ain't fuckin' coming back! Nobody is! There—there ain't nothing left for us! Th-that's why—"
When you fought the kind of war they had once fought, you always took for granted the fact that you'd always have your allies beside you—until they weren't.
The Spy paused. "Indeed." The Scout had always assumed Spies to be consistently eloquent—now it was like the man had been hit on the head, he spoke with such hesitation. "It's—a real tragedy," he finished.
"You shit-for-brains Frenchie, you wouldn't know tragedy if it bit you on the ass!"
The gold-white sun parted the morning fog, casting pink and red shadows on the dusty ground outside their sad hideout. The air held a salt tang of death.
"What did you want me to do?" he cried at no one. "What the hell happens next? Where the hell are we supposed to go from here?"
"I really cannot say." The question was supposed to be rhetorical, but the Spy answered anyway. "There are not a lot of safe places for our kind anymore. Or… for anyone, really." Of course. This was bigger than all of them. Bigger than RED or BLU. But the Scout had sort of known that all along.
"Life is not fair, Scout." The Spy's words could have been cold or warm.
"I—I can't take this shit anymore." He must've sounded like an idiot, but he was beyond giving a damn. "This sucks. I just want to go home, man. I miss my mom. I miss my brothers. This is stupid and I want to go home… and see my family…"
All of the ravens had ceased crowing. Smoke trails curled in the air.
"I'm afraid you don't have a family anymore, Scout."
So that was it, then.
"No…" It came out more like a dejected sigh than a word. Not happy to break his body, they had to shoot a fucking hole in his heart too.
He didn't have a damn thing left in the world. And as for the Spy, well, he had probably been chewed up and spat out too. They didn't have a purpose anymore, except to be hunted. He felt cold, so cold. Drained of everything—drained of tears, the wetness of them soaking him to the bone. Drained of purpose.
"You don't have to believe me when I tell you this, Scout," said the Spy, "but I am sorry."
He ran his fingers over the graining in the floor. The roughness cut against his fingertips. "Yeah, I believe you."
How strange, to trust in the word of a Spy. Yet if he couldn't trust this man… well, he had no one at all. Like being between a rock and a hard place, except the rock was a Spy and the hard place was dead. Or something. Good God, the Soldier could not have wanted him to end up like this.
Why, then, had he sacrificed himself?
"Solly," he started over, not really sure what to say. This was a little like stepping off a diving board into the deep end, blindfolded. Thinking about it hurt. The Soldier would never hear this anyway. But something needed to be said. Anything. Just—
"Th-thanks," he said. It was the first word that came to mind.
"For doin' that," he added. "And I mean that." The words scurried out.
The ghost of a satisfied smile clung to the edges of the dead man's mouth.
On the horizon, dust scattered. The pain had begun to abate. The Scout leaned his head back, searching for a speck on the ceiling, not finding one that interested him.
"Well… I guess that's it, huh."
The Spy roused himself from his apparent daze, removing his hand from his eyes. "Were you talking to me that time?"
"Then for the love of God, shut your mouth." He wiped something away from his cheek as he spoke.
They weren't trapped. If they could run, then they ought to run. He knew all about running—and he knew that even running in circles was better than standing still. Even if that was all the future had in store for them, it meant they had a future. They had their lives. He still didn't know what the Soldier had wanted him to do—but he felt certain, at least, that he had wanted him to live. To fight. Life, every day from the moment he had been born, to now and into the coming days, was a fight. He was a fighter, and he would grapple with each day as it came—like it or not. The Soldier would have respected that.
A soothing sensation washed over him, though he still hurt. He felt lighter.
"I really don't know what we're supposed to do, man, but…" He sighed. "We have to go… somewhere."