“No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good.”
1. fa·tigue |fəˈtēg|
1. extreme tiredness, typically resulting from mental or physical exertion or illness.
2. weakness in materials, esp. metal, caused by repeated variations of stress.
The only warning they got as they barreled into RED territory was the faintest whiff of rubber and sulfur, and something red hanging in the corners. The moment the smell curled up to his brain the Engineer threw himself back out the door and into the snow, raising his toolbox like a shield. The Pyro, blinkered by lenses and nose-dead to anything but smoke and asbestos, had no such luck.
There was a blinding flash of light as the sticky-bombs went off, and the Engineer heard a muffled scream and a thump. He cussed, scuttled back behind the chain-link fence that formed a short corridor outside the RED base, and threw down his toolbox. By the time the RED demolitions expert came trotting out to look for him, there was a sentry waiting.
Hunkered down behind his machine, the BLU engineer—one Dell Conagher, forty-three years old and without so much as a gray hair to show for it—watched as the demoman backpedaled. The sentry tracked his movements, beeping in alarm and spitting bullets, but it only ran a spray of holes up the wall as it chased him back into the building.
Dell bit his lip, rubbing his gloved hands together. His breath was coming out in silvery puffs of heat, and just pulling his sentry up had taken him a full three seconds longer than usual. This new station had them parked in the middle of Alaska somewhere, or maybe even Canada, he wasn’t sure. Either way, it was cold, and that wasn’t something his machines were built for. Neither was he.
In the distance, he could hear the shouting and screaming that came standard with any day on his job. The rest of the BLU mercenaries had stayed behind to hold the middle territory they’d only just taken. It had been the Pyro’s idea for them to go ahead and try to push the RED team back further.
(Alright, no. What the Pyro had really done was manage was find a damn butterfly in the snow. An honest-to-God butterfly. She had chased it along its path toward the RED base, and Dell tailed her.)
So now he was alone, his nearest teammate probably caught up in the jaws of the respawn system. Dell rubbed at his arms through the thin fabric of his coat and looked around. Would he have a better chance if he pulled out his shotgun now, or should he distill its ammo down into the sentry?
The decision was made for him when the sentry spun around entirely, beeping up a riot. Dell scrambled out of its line of fire half a second before it started shooting. Behind him, and he must have come out through the other end of the building, the RED demoman was edging around a corner. The nose of that all-too-familiar grenade launcher stuck out at an angle just right to roll its payload into his flimsy shelter.
Dell cussed and fumbled for his shotgun, fingers numb and stupid. Damn the cold, he wouldn’t be able to make it clear of the blast like this if he tried. Kicking up snow, he scrambled away until his back hit cement and chain-link, and covered his head.
Shrapnel ripped into him as the sentry went to pieces. He tasted blood. When his ears stopped ringing he could hear the demoman was hooting with laughter. Had he remembered to reload his gun after emptying it on the enemy spy, just before the Pyro had taken off? No time to check. The demoman rounded the corner, wielding not his usual shattered whiskey bottle but a nine-iron that shone hard and cold in the winter sunlight.
The RED raised the nine-iron with a vicious grin. Dell lifted his gun.
A dark shape materialized behind the demoman. The demoman stepped forward.
The shape lifted its arms and swung down the sledgehammer in its hands.
Dell had always heard about desensitization to violence, and had found it by and large to be true. Ten years in the oil fields had done that for him well enough to start. Working for the Builder’s League United had only cemented it, ensuring he and all his teammates all saw dozens of sickening deaths every day. Once his own sentry’s rockets had misfired on impact and he was rewarded with a blow-back of gore that painted him so red his team had shot at him—another time he’d had his own wrench crammed entirely down his throat. He still had nightmares about that.
In spite of all of that, he still winced when the demoman’s head caved in.
The RED dropped. The Pyro slammed the sledgehammer into his neck again, blood and spinal fluid spraying into the air and splattering the snow. Relaxing her grip on the hammer, she tilted her head to one side, then nudged him with the toe of her boot. When he didn’t move she made a disappointed sort of sound, slinging the weapon back into her belt.
Dell let out the breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. He popped open the shotgun’s barrel and looked inside: empty.
He didn’t even get to look up before the Pyro rushed into him, catching him up in a blood-splattered hug. The gun fell from his hands. An instant later she was off again, investigating the remains of the sentry. Dell shook himself and tried to flick off some of the brain she’d gotten on his overalls before picking the gun back up. “Thanks, Smoky.”
He got a vague noise in response. She didn’t look much worse for the wear, despite catching the brunt of the blast. There was a tear on the back of her chemsuit, and a dangerous-looking dent in her oxygen tank, neither of which he had the means to do anything about out here. Instead he knelt and started picking through the scrap of his sentry for salvageable parts. The Pyro looked over her shoulder toward the RED base, having lost interest. “Hhrs HHD?” Where’s RED?
“Plannin’ their counterattack, I reckon. Dunno what the demo was thinkin’, comin’ after both of us like that. C’mon, let’s get while the gettin’s good.”
“Hh hwanna fhind thmm.” She squared her shoulders and stomped her foot, glaring at him. At least he figured it was a glare. Time was that’d bring him kind of a smile, a hope, seeing some of her old attitude crop up. Right now—with the cold and his broken sentry and with no sign of backup on the way—it was just irritating.
“You wanna go get yourself killed, be my guest,” he snapped, stuffing the metal parts into his now-dented toolbox. One sliced his hand clean through the glove, and his temper flared. He cussed, ripped off the glove, and stuck the bleeding edge of his palm in his mouth for a few seconds. The cold nipped at his fingertips. “Don’t know why I followed you in the first place,” he said when he pulled his hand out again. “Sure, go. I’m sure their pyro ain’t got enough to do without you lightin’ his team on fire. Or, or go—go give their sniper some damn target practice, he needs it.” His voice had gotten loud enough it surprised even him. “I don’t know why I even bother talking to you like you’re a person anymore. You ain’t got a clue what I’m sayin’, do you?”
As he slammed the toolbox shut and turned to head back for the middle control point, he made the mistake of looking at her. She stood there with her hands curled in front of her, picking at the rubber of her gloves. Slack-shouldered, knees touching, head to one side—she looked like a bewildered child.
“Hhenhgneer?” she said, soft, as he stormed past. “Hhenghy?”
He was too angry to take it back, even though he knew he wouldn’t get to apologize. By the time he’d have cooled off, she would have already forgotten.
The mess quieted a little when Dell walked in, ten minutes late for dinner. It bounced back almost at once as he fetched food and a beer. When he took his place by the Pyro she paid him no attention, too busy building a tipi out of stolen forks. “So,” he said, popping the lid off his bottle with the table’s edge and looking around at his teammates, “no progress.”
“Almost had it this morning,” Scout said around a mouthful of corn. “Heck, I did have it, I was like twenty seconds off gettin’ fourth once, back-cap y’know, then the freakin’ medic pops his stupid head out up on the stairs with his dumb crossbow. The medic!” He slammed his fist on the table. The Pyro’s fork tipi teetered dangerously. “I dunno how he even got me with the stupid thing, lucky shot or something, can you freakin’ believe that crap?”
“Sure can,” Sniper said, smirking into his coffee. “You were standing there makin’ faces at the man, you were.” Scout just rolled his eyes and shoved more food into his mouth. “S’alright, I got him after.”
“Whebn’d you sho’up?”
“Just a bit before he got you in the eye.”
Scout winced, screwing up his face at the thought. He swallowed. “Ugh, not while I’m freakin’ eatin’, alright, gimme a break, don’t think I needed to know that. I like my respawn amnesia.”
“Still,” Dell continued, “no progress. Holding middle—barely—but we’ve been holding it for a month now. Month and a week, even.” He glanced around at his teammates. “Y’all look about as tired as I am. We got to get us a new strategy.”
“Hey I didn’t see you helpin’ us none, where were you?” Scout pointed his fork at Dell, one eyebrow raised. “Coulda used that damn sentry when their heavy came down off the cliff, yeah?”
“CORRECT!” bellowed Soldier, slamming both palms flat on the table and leaning forward. The whole team flinched. The coffee in Sniper’s mug leapt, and the Pyro’s tipi jumped apart, forks clattering to the floor. She made a distressed noise and dove down after them, leaving Dell on his own. “Where were you, soldier?” Soldier demanded, his helmet far up enough for him to glare at Dell from under it. “Cowering in respawn? Fraternizing with the enemy?! Deserting the line of duty?! UNACCEPTABLE BEHAVIOR—”
Heavy reached across the table and slid the helmet down over Soldier’s eyes. Soldier kept yelling, but the gunman’s bass rumble drowned it out. “Engineer and Pyro, I have seen them advancing toward the RED base. Calm down.”
He glanced over at Dell, who had pushed up his goggles to rub at one eye. A headache was creeping in at the edge of his senses. “Passed you on the way back, yeah. Me an’ Pyro went ahead, thought we’d see what their reinforcements were lookin’ like.” Heavy nodded, slow and ponderous, and lightly pushed Soldier back toward his seat. He fell into it with a thump, the helmet’s straps flying. “Had a run-in with their demoman, but Pyro took care of it.”
As if on cue, the Pyro clambered back up into her seat, hands full of silverware. She looked around at the table for a moment, at the rest of the team watching her, before raising one fist. “Hhhdhrh!”
“Aye, good on ye, laddie. Sorry boot-lickin’ farce o’ a demolitions man, him,” Demo said with a grin. The Pyro nodded, and Dell felt his mood sour as he looked at her. He’d bet money she didn’t have any idea what had just been said. It was a wonder she got by as well as she did, given she could barely string sentences together anymore.
It got old, was all, when he was the one that had to put up with her all the time. She never wanted to be around anyone else, or at least that was how it felt. When she tried to take his fork straight out of his hand to add to her project a few minutes later, he scarcely kept himself from snapping at her.
The rest of dinner passed without incident, if Dell didn’t include Scout threatening to jam his bat down Spy’s throat for some lewd suggestions about his mother and the RED spy. (He didn’t. That happened on a daily basis.) As kitchen duty fell to Medic and Soldier for the night, Dell was able to slip away, down the aptly-named Coldfront base’s dim hallways. It was a far cry from Teufort, or even Dustbowl or Harvest—the whole complex was frigid, poorly maintained, and dark.
The space he’d claimed for himself and his machines was well on the other end of the base from everything else, and he liked it that way. It was quieter. Of course, that made the electric hum the room’s lights gave off even louder, just loud enough that it was difficult to tune them out. After a month and a half of it he’d gotten used to them as a kind of white noise, but in the late, empty hours he preferred to work in it was jarring at best. They buzzed to life when he flipped the switch, and he made his way to his workbench.
A mess of gears and wires and metal greeted him on the workbench. Dell stared for a second or two before shoving most of it off to one side, suddenly unmotivated. The idea of trying—again—to cold-proof his teleporters wasn’t appealing. Neither was the thought of field-testing them in the snow for the nth time. He flicked a stray wing nut off the scratched wood and cast his gaze around the room.
It was big, at least. Compared to the workshops he had at most of the other bases it was downright spacious. A sturdy wooden workbench stood beneath huge windows that faced southeast and flooded the room with light during the day, and a smaller one on the opposite wall made for a fine place to stow anything he might need it to.
And, perhaps most importantly of all, the door locked.
He glanced back at the workbench, then knelt down to look at the shelves beneath. It took only a moment to find what he sought. He dragged the cardboard box out from under the bench and hefted it onto the top. It tipped over the second he let go of it, the cardboard warped and weak, and out spilled scrap metal that was by now so familiar he could almost tell the pieces apart by touch. For a long ten seconds he just looked at it, then plucked out a jag of metal between his gloved fingers. It gleamed in the humming lights as he turned it over in his hand. With a shake of his head he dropped it and started sweeping all of it back into the box labeled Pyro’s Dispenser.
Bad habit, this was, pulling the damn thing out whenever he couldn’t find anything else to do. It was unhealthy. He was shoving the last piece of blue casing into the box when there came a knock at the door. Dell ignored it, and it came again, more insistent. A muffled “Yo, hardhat!” followed.
Dell heaved a harsh sigh as he stowed the box back under the workbench and went to answer the door. Scout’s inane chatter wasn’t exactly what he had in mind as far as distractions went. In two and a half years the boy had scarcely matured a whit—and he hadn’t hardly grown any, either. At his age, twenty-something, it wasn’t such a big gap in the first place, but respawn had kept him looking almost the same as the day Dell had met him. Not that such couldn’t be said for them all; just on Scout it was most obvious.
The door’s hinges creaked. Scout was tapping his foot, an impatient staccato. “Hey,” he started before it was even open all the way, “Engie, man, c’mon what gives?”
“What’re you talkin’ about?”
He cocked an eyebrow. “Said you’d help me figger out what’s the deal with my gun, said you’d meet me after dinner out in the firin’ range this mornin’, what, you forget?”
“I did say that, didn’t I.” Dell exhaled. His head hurt. “I did forget. Sorry, Scout. Alright. G’wan, get, I’ll be there in a minute.”
Scout grinned and touched the bill of his hat before speeding off. Dell hung in the doorway a moment, watching.
The scattergun felt too cold in his hands. It was dinged and scuffed, too, like everything else Scout owned. Being the youngest of eight sons probably didn’t make one familiar with owning anything worth keeping nice.
Dell turned it over, then reached up to move his goggles from his eyes. “You did unload this thing, right?”
“What, ‘course I did, you think I’m stupid?” Scout said, even as Dell popped the weapon open to check. He gave Dell a smug look when it proved empty. Dell ignored him and lifted his goggles up to his forehead. “See, right like that, sheesh. Wouldn’t even matter, what, so you blow off a couple fingers, you gotta respawn yourself—”
“Which I’d just as soon avoid. So you’re tellin’ me this thing’s misfiring?”
His voice echoed in the old barn they had come to call the firing range. It stood some ways out from the base, far enough that its distance made it ideal for muffling gunfire. Frozen bales of forgotten, moldy hay were perfect for target practice, and there were plenty of them. Dell had hoped to avoid the damn place for a while longer than this, though; his sentries had seemed to finally quit gumming up in the cold with his latest adjustments. He was sick of testing them out here.
Scout nodded. Well. He nodded, and leaned forward, and started gesticulating wildly as he explained. “Cuz I mean it’s weird, like, it ain’t ever been a thing before, broke weapons an’ like that, cuz respawn always fixes it somehow? Like I’m thinkin’ maybe it’s the cold? But yeah like two days ago damn thing just quit on me, middle of the point, I was lucky I got outta there cuz their pyro was comin’ at me, shootin’ those stupid flares, got me in the friggin’ leg the little shit, hey, yeah, you was there, I went ‘round the corner there and it was you an’ your stuff.” He stopped for breath, approximately a tenth of a second. “So’s—basically I don’t actually know, y’know I mean if it quit in th’middle of a fight an’ got me killed I ain’t gonna remember none, coulda been doin’ this since we got here, see.”
Dell saw. The observation was more than he expected out of the boy in general. “Right,” he said, inspecting the mechanisms. “Receiver looks fine. The action too. Heck, I don’t see nothin’ wrong with it. You got your ammo?”
“Way ahead’a you,” Scout said, already rolling a pair of shells between his fingers. As Dell took them out of his hand, Scout nudged his messenger bag with a foot, half-stowed under the sawhorses they were using as seats. “I got a bunch, I mean it worked fine this mornin’, it don’t quit all the time. Hey I bet you can’t hit that bottle off that beam, heck, how’d that even get up there? You think Demo’s—”
Dell dropped his goggles back down over his eyes and pulled the trigger. The gun boomed into the quiet of the evening, busting a hay bale two yards away into half its original size. Another squeeze of the trigger and it was smithereens, and so were the next two he aimed for. Dell hummed low in his throat when he ran out of shots, then squatted down to pull more shells from Scout’s bag.
The next few minutes were nothing but the bang of Scout’s gun as Dell tried to replicate the misfire. When he stopped to reload the thing for the third time, Scout said, “Hey so what’s your deal been lately anyway?”
The shells popped into the barrel with a satisfying click. “My deal,” Dell repeated, closing the gun.
“Yeah, your deal,” Scout said. “Damn, man, I mean you ain’t exactly been a friggin’ ray of Texas sunshine, not since we got here.”
“If this is about the thing with the teleporter again, that was on Soldier.”
A breath of disbelieving laughter left Scout’s lips. “Hey, you about made Soldier eat his own helmet cuz he tried to get the RED spy for ya, I mean this is Soldier we’re talkin’ about, he’s a box’a rocks anyway, ain’t seen you so mad since our Spy sapped your sentry on accident that one time at Barnblitz an’ we lost.”
“He ought to know better than to mess with my machines,” said Dell, and he fired off another round into a half-decimated hay bale. “Both of ‘em. That teleporter needed to be workin’ and Soldier went and jammed his shovel inside it. And I don’t even want to know where he got the raccoon. Two and a half years that spy ain’t never disguised himself as a machine and Soldier goes and decides that’s what he’s done anyway.” Another thunder of shotgun shells. “Him standing at the exit waiting to bash people in the head with that damn shovel of his ain’t efficient spychecking, either. I got Pyro for that.”
“Oh yeah cuz he’s real reliable,” Scout snorted. “You been bitin’ his head off too even. In the lockers the other day? With the tie? I thought you was gonna strangle him with it, never figgered I’d see the day, you frickin’ baby the guy.”
“Lay off Pyro.”
The sneer in Scout’s voice cracked the cold air. “‘Lay off Pyro’, sheesh, s’like you’re married to the freak. The hell’d he’d ever do for you even, seems like you get pissy with him more than you do nothin’ else no more.”
Outside, the wind began to howl.
Dell cracked open the weapon again, checked it, then shut it. “Ain’t a damn thing wrong with your gun,” he said, tossing it back to his teammate. “Try reloading it next time.”
An empty field of white awaited him when he reached the barn door. He paused in the threshold and took a moment to damn the snow and whoever came up with the stuff. “Hey!” Scout repeated from behind him. Dell ignored him, which meant Scout kept going. “You don’t gotta take everything so personal, y’know. Shit, used to be wasn’t nothin’ ruffled you. The hell happened?”
Dell’s headache roared back into focus. “I said goodnight,” he answered, and disappeared into the cold.