Chapter 2

There wasn’t a noise in the universe that compared to the sickening sound of a head shot.

For a long moment, Alex could only stare at the fresh corpse collapsed beside him – the only person aside from himself who had been left on his side of the front lines. Everyone else was either dead or injured or gone in some other way. They were completely incapacitated on the right flank. The center and left flank hadn’t gotten as far forward as the right, and as soon as the Humans they were fighting had noticed, they’d swarmed to one side to stop the Warghans from advancing. And as far as he knew, no one was actually aware of how bad things had gotten on his side of the battlefield.

The whole situation was a mess. He didn’t have a clue where Raf was, or what had happened to him, or if he was even still alive. He knew that he’d been assigned the the center of the formation, and while that wasn’t particularly far away, Alex didn’t think there was any backup coming any time soon. They’d managed to take out a lot of the enemy combatants, but Alex didn’t know exactly how many of them there were left, and he was sure they’d have backup coming soon. If he didn’t do something, they were going to advance forward and blitz the center before anyone knew what was going on.

His heart was hammering away in his throat, and it was making it exceedingly difficult to breathe. He didn’t think he had any other allies left, but he couldn’t be sure. He knew he’d just seen three of them go down. There had been two dozen Warghans alongside him when he’d first gotten to the front lines, he was relatively sure. Or had there been more? Or less? He couldn’t remember.

The half-Warghan swallowed hard, breathing heavily. He’d already taken a bullet about an inch and a half above his hip. It wasn’t bleeding too bad. He’d last a little while before he actually passed out from the blood loss. He didn’t know what to do. There was a deep tremor that seemed to stem from his bones, and his stomach was doing back flips. The concept of dying didn’t bother him. It was the noises all around him (screaming, gunfire, explosions, head shots), the horrible stench of blood and charred flesh that left a terrible taste in his mouth, that was overwhelming him. Too much to process, not enough time to figure any of it out.

He didn’t know what to do. No one else was standing up around him to open fire. He’d been sitting with his back against the wall, hiding for nearly twenty minutes, unable to summon the courage to shoot at much of anyone. He had excellent aim, but he couldn’t get himself to pull the trigger half the time. If he couldn’t pull the trigger, he wouldn’t be able to so much as defend himself. Humans were relatively well-known for being a pack of psychos and sadists. He couldn’t be sure that they’d just kill him if they found that he was too scared to pull the trigger on them.

He took in another shaky breath, trying to listen for the sound of approaching footsteps past the pounding of his heart in his ears. They seemed to be waiting for something. Backup? He wouldn’t have thought they’d need it, unless their numbers had dwindled more than he’d thought, or they thought there were more Warghans inbound.

If anyone had called for backup, it would’ve gotten to there by now.

What do I do?

He had a hand pressed over the wound above his hip, staunching the bleeding as much as he could without the use of gauze or any other kind of cloth. He wanted to draw his knees to his chest and otherwise curl up and continue to hide, but he knew that if he stayed put too long, they would eventually find him. Would they kill him right away, or would they try to get information out of him? He was a cadet, he didn’t know much of anything aside from the battlefield strategies that the Warghans employed. He supposed that was reasonably valuable knowledge.

The tremor in his bones was making his hip hurt a lot. His eyes were watering and he was having difficulty regulating his breathing. He felt like he was going to hyperventilate. What would he do? He couldn’t just sit there and wait for them to kill him or capture him or whatever. He couldn’t run. There was no way he could get away without being spotted and sniped from behind.

The sound of the shot piercing the skull of the cadet laying dead beside him was still fresh in his mind. It was an awful sound. No one else had been hit that close to him. It kept repeating in his head over and over and over. He felt sick. Had it hurt? Did they feel pain in the instant they died? Was it a terrible pain, or was it so fast that it was barely noticeable? He didn’t want to die in pain. Dying he was okay with. Dying in agony was something he absolutely did not want.

In his current situation, though, it looked like he wasn’t going to have a whole lot of choice in the matter.

Useless.

No, there has to be something I can do.

He closed his eyes for a moment, taking in several deep breaths. He needed to calm down. He was terrified, yes, but he couldn’t let that fear rule him. He just needed to pretend it was a training exercise or something. He could come up with “brilliant” (according to Sergeant Landau) strategies during the thinking parts of basic training. He could come up with one or two now. He just needed to calm down. He could get himself out of the mess he’d dragged himself into. He just needed to think.

There was a strong breeze, which made long-distance aim difficult. The enemies on the other side of the short cement wall he was hiding behind weren’t far enough away for their aim to be affected by the wind, but it meant that snipers would be that much more likely to miss vital points.

They were fighting around the ruins of a village, most buildings not even having four walls. Most of those singular walls weren’t any higher than his waist, so retreating to a slightly more advantageous position wasn’t going to happen. If he was going to do anything useful, he was going to have to do it where he already was, and he was going to have to do it quickly. Only seconds had passed since the cadet beside him had been killed. If he held still much longer, they would assume there weren’t any of them left and would try to advance.

Alex glanced to each side, ignoring his racing heart. The sun was low enough behind him to cast a very good shadow that told him exactly when the ones on his left and right poked their heads over their respective hiding places. The ones directly behind the other side of the wall would prove a greater challenge to kill. He was going to have to time things perfectly if he wanted to avoid dying before he’d killed all of them.

The Humans on the left and right hadn’t looked over their walls yet. They had to be waiting for backup to arrive, and they probably didn’t think there were any Warghans left. If he had anyone to worry about, it’d be the Humans who’s shadows he couldn’t see. He gritted his teeth. He needed them all to duck and then come up separately. The best way to achieve that was to open fire over the wall with his assault rifle. If he could get them to empty their clips, they would probably take different amounts of time to reload, and then he could take them out one or two at a time from there.

He gritted his teeth. He was asking for a lot of luck, but he supposed that if he died trying, it’d be slightly better than waiting to bleed out.

Just pull the trigger. Pull the trigger. Pull the trigger. Pull the trigger. Pull the trigger. Pull the trigger…

He repeated the mantra in his head over and over. He couldn’t mess up. Absolutely not. A split second of hesitation would cost him his life. He needed to remain calm. Shut off the emotional response. Turn on the mechanical side of his brain. He could do it. He kind of had to.

His grip on his rifle was extremely tight as he adjusted his position so that he’d be easiest able to take approximate aim. The jostling of his wound was excruciating, and it was taking every bit of self-discipline he had to hold back any sound. He didn’t exactly have time to consider how much pain he was in.

The green-haired cadet checked the sides once more to make sure no one was approaching before lifting the rifle up both swiftly and fluidly and pulling the trigger. It was significantly harder to hold it steady and aim it correctly, but the sound of the gunfire would get them to drop down. After a couple seconds of firing upon them, he ceased fire and straightened up to look over the wall.

Sure enough, seconds later, several Humans appeared over their respective hiding places, guns at the ready. He counted eight (three behind that wall on the left, two behind that car, three behind the wall on the right) before he was forced to drop back down as they unloaded their magazines at the wall he was tucked behind.

Eight of them. That was a lot for one person to deal with. He swallowed hard, noticing once again just how fast and hard his heart was beating. It was difficult to maintain his collected train of thought in such an overwhelming situation. He took several deep, shuddering breaths, clenching his fists as tightly as he could until they stopped trembling. If he was going to go out fighting, he was less likely to be in horrible pain when he did finally get killed. He was alright with death. It wasn’t like it was the worst thing that could happen to him.

He gritted his teeth and concentrated on the problem at hand. The Humans wouldn’t have reloaded if they’d thought there was no one left, and Alex would’ve heard the sound of it if they had, so he was willing to bet when the last round of gunfire suddenly stopped that they had unloaded their entire clips. Humans had fun weaponry, but they weren’t particularly smart and they hadn’t advanced enough in their warfare that they didn’t have to occasionally reload. They could still open fire for an annoyingly long time before they had to change out their clip, but the fact that they had to at all was an advantage he could exploit simply because he was smarter than them.

Alex drew his pistols, counted to three (pull the trigger, pull the trigger, pull the trigger, pull the trigger) , and stood up. It took less than a second before the first two appeared. His heart rate immediately skyrocketed, and he had to consciously think to pull the triggers of his pistols before he was able to shoot them both in the head. He couldn’t hear the sound of it, which relieved him. If he had, he didn’t think he’d have been able to shoot any more of them.

Another Human appeared as the first two fell, and Alex swiftly took aim and shot him before he could open fire. There was a brief pause, which made him a little nervous, but he held out (I can do this, I can do this, I can do this). Alex hadn’t expected his very ridiculous plan to actually work, but if the other five did exactly what the first three did, he’d be able to get rid of all of them without a hitch.

As if to spite him, three appeared at once, though he managed to kill two of them before he had to duck down to avoid a round of gunfire. He took a moment to catch his breath, which he’d lost the moment he’d seen that Human pull the trigger on his assault rifle. He’d killed the two that had been positioned behind the vehicle, as well as two from the left side. Only four remaining, three on the right, one on the left.

He looked at the shadows on his left and right again, swallowing hard. The one on the left hadn’t ducked down yet. He had to be waiting for Alex to reveal himself again. The other three would probably appear the instant their comrade either opened fire or was shot. He needed to find a different way to kill the remaining four. If he attempted his original strategy again, he was almost positive that they’d be smart enough to wait until they were all ready before showing themselves again. He had excellent aim, but he didn’t have four arms.

Alex gnawed on his lower lip. The Human waiting for him to appear again would likely be looking for him over the top of the wall. If he peaked around the side, he might be able to avoid getting spotted long enough to get a shot. At that point, the three still crouched would jump up, and he’d probably be able to kill at least one before they figured out where he was shooting from. And if he got their numbers down to two, he could wait for them to appear again and head shot them both at the same time.

Once again, it was a pretty terrible plan, but it wasn’t like he had a whole lot of options. He’d make it work or he’d die trying. Not a big deal. Though the fact that he had to keep reminding himself that it wasn’t a big deal was beginning to make it seem like it actually was a big deal.

The half-Warghan moved over to the far right side of the wall. His side was still extremely painful, but he pushed down the knowledge of the pain and concentrated on the task at hand. If he could get the last four, he could retreat, call for backup, and do something about his wound. He might even be able to avoid ending up on the front lines again because he was already injured.

He peered around the side, noting immediately that the tipped over vehicle was blocking his line of sight. He’d have to go from the left side of the wall after all. He shoved the corpse of the cadet (the sickening sound of a head shot) out of his way and pushed up against the wall, thanking the military for hiding his bright green hair with their uniform.

The half-Warghan stayed close to the ground, peeking around the wall. He could see his target. The Human wasn’t looking in his direction, so he hadn’t been noticed yet. If he moved as carefully and slowly as possible, he could get the shot without being spotted. From his position, he would also be able to hit at least one of the Humans on the right side while the other two couldn’t see him.

He barely moved his head as he took excruciatingly careful aim, eyes narrowing as he chewed his lip with more vigor. Once he was absolutely certain he had the shot (can’t mess this up, can’t mess this up), he pulled the trigger. In less than a split second, there was a hole through the guy’s forehead, and he collapsed (the sickening sound of a head shot). As Alex had suspected, the three on the right jumped to their feet and opened fire, and he quickly took aim and shot the one he could see before they realized that he wasn’t standing over the top of the wall.

The gunfire ceased suddenly, and he threw himself back behind the wall, effectively hiding. The shadows on the right had disappeared, meaning that they had crouched back down. All he had to do was stand up and wait for them to rise again. That was all. He could take them both out easily, and then he could retreat. It’d be alright. He could do it.

There was a very interesting sound approaching, and for a moment he wasn’t sure what it was. Then, Alex realized in dismay that it had to be a tank. His heart leaped into his throat, and he had to swallow several times to keep himself from dry heaving.

Calm down. Calm down. Where is it?

It wasn’t too close, if he was placing it’s position correctly. He would estimate that it was a few yards to his left and maybe fifty to seventy-five meters further back than the walls the enemy combatants were hiding behind.

I have time to kill them.

It wouldn’t fire because it couldn’t see him, and by the time it could, it would be too close to get the shot. The projectile would go right over his head and land too far away to do any damage to him. Tanks just couldn’t aim low enough to be useful in such close-quarters, and they wouldn’t waste ammo on one person like that. They had to be bringing the tanks through the right flank so they could blitz the center and wipe out the left.

Suddenly, Alex felt extremely responsible for the situation. It didn’t help the anxiety eating away at his stomach at all.

Why did I sign up for this?

The shadows of the two remaining humans hadn’t reappeared yet. If he was going to do anything, he needed to hurry up and do it. He took a deep breath, shifted back into a crouch, looked at the shadows again to be sure, and stood up, firing a few times at the wall they were hiding behind. Sure enough, the two of them appeared at the same time, though on either sides of their wall. Before they could raise their guns, he took aim and fired, killing them both instantly.

The half-Warghan lowered his pistols as he searched around for the incoming tank, heaving as though he’d just sprinted for miles. He spotted large, armored vehicle approaching from almost exactly where he’d suspected it was, and saw two more another hundred meters back that were accompanied by a large platoon of Humans. He shifted his weight so that he wasn’t standing on his injured side. He needed to fall back and let the rest of everyone who was left know that-…

Abruptly, what felt like less than a second after he’d moved, something hit him and pain erupted just below his left collarbone. Alex dropped to the ground instantly, turning on the way down and pushing his back up against the wall. His eyes were wide and already starting to water, blood streaming out of the fresh wound and pain shooting across his chest.

He sat there for a long time, gasping and biting his tongue to hold in the need to vocalize his agony. The shaking in his bones was back, and it only made the pain worse. What had hit him? He hadn’t seen anymore Humans standing nearby enough to have shot him. Who or what could’ve…

Snipers.

He’d forgotten there was a sniper nearby.

Stupid mistake.

He had shifted his weight less than a second before he’d been hit. They must have been waiting for him to let his guard down. If they missed the first hit, they had to know that he wouldn’t show himself again. He was just lucky that they’d missed. Or rather, the Warghans were lucky, because if that sniper hadn’t missed his heart, he wouldn’t have been able to even attempt to inform the others of the mess on the right flank.

He clenched his jaw tightly against the pain, unable to hold in the whimper that made its way out of his mouth. That shot had gone through bone, and it hurt a lot more than the one in his side. He pressed his hand over the wound. It was bleeding profusely; much, much worse than the one in his side had been. He was going to bleed to death because he didn’t have anything that would stop the bleeding. Panic was beginning to set in again as he leaned his head against the wall, shaking all over.

No, no, no, I was going to do something about this mess. Assuming Raf’s still alive, he’ll probably get killed if they manage to blitz the center. Fuck.

He didn’t have much time. He needed to think fast of what he was going to do, and he needed to act accordingly with equal speed.

The cadet took off his gloves, gingerly using his finger to measure the size of the hole, hissing from the pain all the while. The bullet had only been about the width of his middle finger, and it’d gone all the way through. Fairly small rounds that moved at higher-than-usual velocity. Probably best suited for tearing a hole in the heart or lungs. There were only a couple of different sniper rifles that used rounds as small as the one that had just gone through him. Two of those types took about six seconds to reload, but they held only two shots. The other three took about ten seconds to reload, and held eight shots.

But only one Human-made rifle would have the accuracy and power to hit him from a distance of more than a thousand meters with the current wind velocity, and it was one of the ones that only held two rounds. He couldn’t actually be sure just how far away that sniper was, but he hadn’t noticed them at any point before, so they couldn’t be very close. The eight shot rifles had accuracy up to only five hundred meters or so, because they were made for power over accuracy. He would’ve seen someone that close, and they would’ve tried to take a shot before.

Alex was willing to stake his life on his deductive reasoning. If he died, he died. There were worse things in life, and he would keep reminding himself of that fact until he actually died. He just needed to get that sniper to use up the second shot on something that wasn’t his body. He took in a shaky breath, swallowing hard and glancing at the corpse beside him. He was in excruciating pain, and he was losing blood fairly fast. He didn’t really have enough time to contemplate whether or not he wanted to try. He would die pointlessly if he waited.

He pulled off the dead cadet’s mask, glancing to see where the front-running tank was. It was close to parallel with him, but not close or parallel enough for them to have spotted him. The barrel was pointed towards the center of the formation. They wouldn’t see him coming if he made a run for it. He didn’t know how fast he’d be able to move, but he had to at least try.

Alex carefully lifted the mask up until the eyes of it were over the wall, turning it back and forth just a little to imitate head movement. Two seconds after he’d lifted it up, it was knocked out of his hand by another shot. He didn’t waste so much as an instant, jumping to his feet and taking off. Excruciating pain shot up his side and his eyes started to water, but he pushed through it, forcing his legs to keep moving. The first vestiges of lightheadedness were beginning to creep into his awareness. He needed to be moving faster, so he forced his legs to pump harder.

He reached the tank, not slowing down as he jumped onto the tank threads and then up onto the turret. The hatch was closed but not latched, so he threw it open and, after drawing the military-issued blade he was required to carry, dropped inside. The landing sent a shock of pain through him again, but he gritted his teeth and didn’t react to it.

There were only two Humans inside the tank. For just an instant, he couldn’t stop himself from panicking and hesitating, but he mastered himself almost as quickly as he’d lost control. One of the Humans was in the process of drawing a pistol when Alex swung out hard and fast with his dominant, uninjured arm, slitting his throat with ease. Blood spurted out of the wound, some of the red stuff splattering onto his hand. His stomach did a back flip as the man dropped to the ground, but he swallowed down the nausea. The driver was getting up, and this time he didn’t hesitate. Alex jammed his knife into his chest before he had even reached for his gun. The half-Warghan’s heart was hammering away in his throat.

They had thought no one else was on the right flank, then. Otherwise, they would’ve been ready for someone to at least try that. Alex stepped over the bodies to the control panel and sat down in the driver’s seat. He eyed the monitors and buttons and ignored his nausea and increased dizziness, instead taking a brief moment to pull one of the gloves he’d stuffed into his pocket out and press it against the wound under his collarbone, gritting his teeth against the pain. At least until he was firing at the Humans, he needed to staunch the bleeding as much as possible. It wouldn’t do for him to die en route.

The interior was almost the exact same as the tanks they’d practiced on in training, and it was still moving, which was good. He wanted to get closer to the center of the formation to let them know what’d happened. He didn’t think that the Humans’ radios would reach the Warghans’ channel if he was too far away from the nearest receiver.

Aside from that, if he headed for the center of the formation, he could also rest relatively assured that the Humans would think that their tank hadn’t been taken. If any of them had seen him jump into it, they would assume that their comrades had killed him. Their guard would be down, and once they were closer to the center, he’d be able to get any backup he might need should the Humans try swarming his newly acquired tank.

Once they realized that one of their tanks had been taken, and that the other two were gone, they’d signal for a retreat. The number of them that he could see coming his way was large enough to indicate that probably a majority of them were going to attempt their blitz. The rest would be fighting normally, making it seem like they were still valiantly trying to push directly forward. If Alex could take out a lot of them, the Warghans would be home free.

Alex looked over the auto-pilot coordinates, making sure that the tank was headed in the right direction, and that he didn’t need to do anything to keep it on course. He knew that it would only take the tank (which was moving much faster than he could walk) a few minutes – if that – to reach his approximate destination.

He directed his attention to the radio once he was sure it was on auto-pilot and wouldn’t require his attention, using one hand to punch in the channel number for the main command in the center formation. He waited for only a couple of seconds for the radio to figure out what he’d told it to find before the channel came to life.

…-got a tank inbound! Right flank, what is your status, over?!

His eyes widened at the sound of Raf’s voice (you’re alive, thank god) and he dropped the glove he’d been using to staunch his bleeding wound in his haste to grab the radio receiver. It slipped in his bloodied fingers twice before he was able to get a solid grip on it. His allies were going to start shooting at him if he didn’t answer them quickly, and that could prove to be problematic. It wasn’t as though the Warghans were lacking in fun weaponry of their own.

“Faust! It’s Grimminger! Don’t shoot the tank, I’m in it, over!” He practically shouted into the radio receiver, noticing for the first time just how dry his throat was.

Alex!? Where the hell is everyone!?” His friend answered after a beat, sounding extremely stressed out. He’d never heard Raf sound like that. “I’ve been trying to get in touch with the right for-…

“Raf!” The injured cadet interrupted, and Raf immediately fell silent. He reached over for the auto-pilot, turning it off and stopping the tanks movement completely, “The right flank is gone. There’s two more tanks coming; they’re going to try and blitz the center.” He paused, beginning to become concerned with how out of breath he was. He was losing way too much blood. “I’m gonna turn around and open fire on them, over.”

We’re on our way to give you backup, out!” Was all Raf said, and Alex didn’t bother replying. The fingers on his left hand were beginning to tingle. He needed to get his act together.

He turned the turret back to face other two steadily approaching tanks. They were far enough back and close enough together they he ought to be able to take them both out with one shot. After that, he just needed to open fire on the unprotected Humans. He could faintly hear yelling from outside the tank, but he ignored it, directing all his attention to his task.

He took aim and fired twice, hitting a spot between the closely traveling tanks. The resulting explosion caused both of them to burst, which created an even large area of effect. Now that they were gone, all he really needed to do was point and shoot.

Alex lined the front of the approaching platoon with explosions until the tank was out of rounds. He waited for the smoke to clear – if they were already retreating, he wouldn’t have to get up and reload. He wasn’t sure he would be able to get up and reload. The edges of his vision were fuzzy and gray, his breathing was labored, and his heart was racing way too fast. His hands and feet were tingling, and he felt even more sick than he had a few minutes ago. He had lost too much blood. He didn’t think he would be able to hold onto his consciousness much longer.

It took the smoke almost thirty seconds to clear. When it finally did, past the haziness of his vision, Alex could see what few Humans were left retreating as fast as they could move. And almost as soon as his sluggish, tired brain had finished processing that information, he could hear the sound of his fellow soldiers erupting into cheers. He almost wanted to join their celebration, but he couldn’t get up. He couldn’t move.

Alex sank into the seat he was occupying, his vision going in and out of focus as he lowered his head. His eyes were slipping shut, his breathing was shallow and uneven, and he had absolutely no energy left to maintain his consciousness. He could distantly hear footsteps striding across the top of the tank, closely followed by a familiar voice calling his name.

I guess that’s it.

“Alex…? Holy-… Hey, I need a medic! Now!!”

He had known exactly what had happened the moment he’d opened the front door.

“Are you Alex Grimminger?” An older man in full uniform had asked, blue eyes darkened with burdens beyond his comprehension. Alex remembered that he’d been frozen solid, heart hammering and throat dry, as he’d slowly nodded. The man had looked at him with a grim expression, and had given him the news before he was ready to hear it.

“Your mother, Kaelyn Grimminger, has been killed in action.”

Why would you do this to me?

“I’m Jack,” the boy introduced himself with a smile that was just as malicious and fake as Mrs. Hawthorne’s. He was crushing Alex’s hand in his iron grip. He tried to retract his hand, but Jack wouldn’t let go.

The older boy’s expression darkened, his grip tightening even further, and Alex was sure his bones were cracking under the pressure. “Welcome to Kneller’s.”

You left me here. I hate you.

The first thing he noticed was how impossibly dry his mouth and throat were. He could hardly swallow. After that, there was brightness, distant voices and beeps, the stench of an excessive amount of sterilization, and a peculiar tingling sensation that spread warmth through his whole body.

Aside from that, his head felt like it was full of air, there was a faint throbbing just under his collarbone, and a generalized sore spot around his hip. He didn’t know where he was, nor did he quite recall what had happened, but he supposed he had woken up in worse shape at various points in his life.

Alex slowly cracked his eyes open, testing his fingers. Moving them was pretty difficult. He swallowed to wet his throat a little (it didn’t help much) and scanned the room through hooded eyes. Hospital. Why was he in the hospital?

He turned his head slightly, intending to glance out the window to get a feel for the time of day, and spotted Raf sitting in a chair beside his bed. His eyes were closed, but he didn’t look relaxed enough to be sleeping. He faintly wondered how long the guy had been sitting there, considering that it was dark outside.

“Raf?” He internally cringed at how hoarse his voice was. Raf jerked, eyes flying open as he sat up, staring at Alex with wide eyes. It was then that the bedridden cadet noticed just how gaunt his friend’s face was. Something slightly worse than just a broken bone must have happened.

The sound of head shot couldn’t be compared to anything.

“The right flank is gone. There’s two more tanks coming; they’re going to try and blitz the center. I’m gonna turn around and open fire on them, over.”

“Alex….? Holy-… Hey, I need a medic! Now!!”

“You’re-… are you okay?” Raf asked, sounding almost as worn as Alex felt.

He swallowed again, “My throat is dry as hell, but I’m alright, I’m guess.” He lied.

His friend chuckled, sounding as though a load of stress had come off his shoulders. Alex must have been slightly closer to dying than he remembered. “I’ll get you a drink, jackass.”

“Why am I a jackass?” The half-Warghan asked, eyebrows knitting together. “What’d I do?”

Raf laughed, this time more genuinely, as he filled a small plastic cup with water. “You almost died is what you did. Who does that?” He turned back around to Alex, walking over and holding up the water. “Totally not cool.”

Alex frowned. “Sorry. It was an accident.” Lifting his arm to receive the cup of water was slightly harder than it should’ve been. Coordinating his limbs wasn’t usually so difficult. “Am I drugged up on something?”

“Yea, some cocktail of painkillers, I gather.” Raf replied, watching as he gulped down the water. “You got shot twice.”

“I remember that part,” he replied quietly, smiling gratefully as Raf took the empty cup from him and refilled it. “What happened after I passed out?”

“You didn’t get out of the tank right away, and I got a little worried so I went to see what was up and you were sitting in the driver’s seat, unconscious, steadily bleeding to death,” the brunet explained, handing Alex the new cup of water. “I had to yell over a lot of cheering guys to find a medic, but once they realized that something had happened to the guy who saved our asses, I had like three.”

“I saved your asses?” He remembered some of what had happened, but evidently not enough to put the pieces of it all together. He recalled getting shot twice, but he didn’t remember what the exact circumstances had been. He recalled running for the tank, but he didn’t remember why he’d been alone.

Because everyone else was dead, injured, or otherwise gone.

Before he could take the cup from Raf as it was offered to him, he froze, suddenly recalling in vivid detail the bloodshed and noise and yelling, the smell of charred flesh and blood-curdling sound of bullets running through flesh. He’d managed to block out the horror of that battlefield while he’d been there, but now that he couldn’t distract himself with tasks and strategies, it was all at the forefront of his mind. A shudder rolled through him, and he swallowed hard to fight down the nausea trying to creep up his throat. When he finally refocused his gaze again, Raf was staring at him with moderate concern in his eyes.

“Yea,” he was saying slowly. “You got all the Humans to retreat by opening fire on them with one of their own tanks faster than they could retaliate. I thought you’d get a medal of valor or some shit but… well, the brass never makes sense.”

Something about the way Raf lamely ended his statement suggested to Alex that he might have been neglecting to mention something, but the half-Warghan didn’t say anything about it. He took the second cup of water and downed it, handing it back to Raf again so he could throw it away in the trash can that was inconveniently on the other side of the room.

Raf sat back down, leaning back in the chair. “Are you okay, dude?” He asked concernedly. Alex shrugged and regretted it immediately. Excruciating agony shot through him as though he’d been shot again, eliciting a pained gasp. He placed his hand over the origin of the pain, hunching over momentarily as he fought to catch his breath.

“I was,” he hissed in reply. “Until I did that.”

“You want a nurse?” Raf asked, but Alex shook his head as he straightened up.

“No, I’m fine.” He managed to force out after a moment of controlled breathing. “That just sucked a lot. I’m certainly a little more sober now.”

His friend snorted. “Really though, you just had a moment. You’re okay, right? Do you need a token therapist-friend?”

God, stop being so nice all the time.

“I’m alright,” Alex answered, “I’m sure I look terrible, but I’m okay.” At Raf’s disbelieving expression, he continued insistently. “Seriously. I’m fine. Would I lie to you about that?”

Absolutely.

“Nah, I guess you wouldn’t,” Raf agreed, looking a bit more reassured. Alex wasn’t sure if he was really that convincing, or if Raf was just convincing himself. “Well, I hope you wouldn’t.”

“I wouldn’t,” he reiterated. His friend smiled at him, and he managed to return the expression even though he didn’t feel like smiling at all. Raf seemed to buy it though, so he let it lie. “So, how long was I out?”

“Six hours or so. It’s almost midnight,” was the reply he got as the brunet chuckled at some thought or memory. “They were gonna kick me out but I got all pathetic and they felt bad for me.”

Alex snorted, “You can be pretty pathetic when you want to be.”

“Oh, dude, you have no idea.” Raf laughed, “I could make the sergeant cry with my puppy-dog eyes.”

“That’s impossible. We both know he doesn’t have emotions.”

“Exactly. Which is why my ability to make him cry is even more amazing,” was the immediate, cunning reply.

Alex smiled at the clever quip, but his heart wasn’t in it. His throbbing wounds were still reminding him constantly of that battlefield. The moment when that cadet who’d been beside him towards the end (I can’t even remember his name) had been shot between the eyes was still fresh in his memory, standing out past every other moment. It wasn’t even about the death itself. It was that sound. It was nauseating to think about, but it wouldn’t go away.

He made a small show of glancing at the clock on the wall by the door, before looking back over at Raf and cocking an eyebrow. “Are you spending the night? Did you bring nail polish?”

The brunet patted his pockets, shaking his head in fake disappointment. “I must’ve forgot it in my other pants. Maybe next time, dude.” The look in his eyes was completely unreadable, and it made Alex slightly uncomfortable, but he didn’t let it show. “You’re right though, I gotta get up stupid early tomorrow, so I’d best head out. You’re probably gonna be on leave for a while, so enjoy your vacation.”

“You know I don’t enjoy things, Raf.” He sighed in mock-irritation.

“Right, right, sorry,” his friend chuckled on his way out of the room. “Enjoyment is for the weak. Have a good night, man.”

“Yea, you too.” He replied. Almost immediately, he sort of regretted sending Raf away. He had wanted to alone time so he didn’t have to keep pretending that he was fine when he absolutely didn’t feel that way, but the emptiness of the room in the wake of his friend’s departure was painfully conspicuous.

He leaned back against the pillows, staring out the window tiredly. He hated hospitals.

“Alex?”

Someone nudged his shoulder, and he groaned in response, pulling his pillow further over his head. He was sure it was close to 11:00, but he absolutely didn’t care. He was still on leave. He didn’t have to get up early for another week or so.

He heard a sigh, and then something pinched his arm rather hard. He groaned slightly louder and pulled his pillow off his head, rolling most of the way onto his back to glare at the offender. Raf looked at him in exasperation, thought Alex could see genuine concern in his amber eyes.

“What?” He grumbled, reaching up to rub at his eyes.

Raf was frowning at him when he lowered his arm. “Dude, it’s almost 13 hours. Are you gonna sleep all day?”

Alex stared at him, disgruntled at being awakened. “Why not?”

“Did you eat at all yet?” The guy wanted to know instead of answering Alex’s question. He had to resist the urge to sigh noisily.

“I dunno,” he muttered disinterestedly. “What day is it?”

“It’s Tuesday. You’ve got three days of vacation left.” The brunet’s eyebrows knitted together. Alex had never been more annoyed with him since the day they’d met. “When’s the last time you got out of bed? I haven’t seen you anywhere but under these blankets in days.”

Does it matter? I’m sleepy. Leave me alone.

“Three days?” He repeated. Raf nodded, and he groaned again. He rested his forearm over his eyes. He didn’t actually know when the last time he’d been out of bed was. He was just so tired, and he didn’t want to deal with anyone, and he didn’t want to move, and he really just wanted the rest of the universe to either disappear or otherwise leave him alone.

“Yea, man,” Raf replied, nudging him again. “C’mon, get up. You should eat something.”

“I don’t want to get up,” Alex protested. Raf pointedly ignored him, grabbing his arm and hauling him upright. He resisted, but not much before he allowed himself to be almost literally dragged out of bed.

“Your opinion is invalid.” Raf replied, ushering him across the half-full dormitory. Alex reached up a hand to rub the rest of the sleep out of his eyes. The back of his head was throbbing and every muscle in his body was sore. He probably had been in bed too long, so he ought to be thanking Raf for waking him up, but he couldn’t bring himself to be thankful in light of the fact that he’d been dragged out of bed, against his will, when he wanted to do nothing but sleep for the rest of eternity.

Raf sat him down in his usual corner of the mess hall, “I’ll be right back, don’t go anywhere.” He said, still sounding worried as he bustled away, likely to get his friend something to eat from the kitchens. Alex sort of wanted to hit him as he watched him walk away, but he squashed the thought as quickly as it came up, knowing full and well that the brunet was only trying to help.

People caring about me is so annoying.

He sort of missed the days when everyone was praying that he’d just die suddenly.

He crossed his arms on the table and rested his forehead on them, closing his eyes. It was noisy in the mess hall, as usual. It was his least favorite place on the entire base, specifically because of the noise level. He didn’t even know why Raf was insisting that he eat. He wasn’t hungry. If he’d been hungry, he would’ve eaten.

There was a distinct sound of a tray being set on the table, and Raf tapped his shoulder. He let out a noisy sigh and straightened up, propping his head up on his arm. The brunet pushed the tray towards him, looking very troubled, and Alex eyed it disdainfully.

“I’m not really hungry,” he muttered, grabbing the fork and prodding at the various articles of food. “I would’ve eaten by now if I was hungry.”

“When’s the last time you ate?” Raf wanted to know. Alex glanced up at him, and regretted it immediately. His friend hadn’t ever looked at him with such raw concern in his eyes before, and the half-Warghan wanted nothing to do with it. He looked back down at the tray, not replying right away. When was the last time he ate? He didn’t remember.

“What day is it, again?” He asked, frowning.

“Tuesday,” the brunet told him again.

“I don’t remember when I last ate,” he replied quietly. “I… lost four days.”

There was a lapse in the conversation. Alex didn’t want to look up at Raf to find out how he had reacted to that revelation, but as the silence wore on, he found himself unable to resist. When he finally did, Raf was staring at him with slightly wide eyes. He looked even more worried than he had before. Did he think that Alex was sick, or something?

“Are you okay?” Raf asked, his voice lowered somewhat, “Be straight with me, man. You’ve been sleeping almost nonstop for over a week, I gather you’ve given up eating, and you look like hell. I know something’s wrong. It’s kind of hard to miss.”

I didn’t mean to make you worry, so please stop. I’m fine. I’ve been worse, trust me.

“It’s…” He began, cutting himself off with a loud sigh as he noticed a distinct stinging in his eyes. He really was a mess. “I’m fine,” he muttered. “I’m just depressed. I… I get like this a lot.”

His friend was silent for a moment before he slowly said, “You… get this low a lot?”

The halfling nodded, fake yawning and rubbing his eyes again to conceal the fact that they were starting to water. “It’s fine, really. I’m used to it.”

“Dude, I know I’ve said something like this before,” Raf began, and Alex was sure he was about to be lectured. “Just because you’re used to it doesn’t make it okay. People can get use to being beaten and abused, but that doesn’t make it okay.”

Yep. Lecture.

“Oh, no, I was just playing you. Don’t get so upset. You have to look on the bright side, halfling. At least I had fun, right? Other peoples’ happiness is so much more important than yours.”

Alex took in a shaky breath, trying to master himself. “Don’t worry about it, Raf.” He replied as insistently as he could. He was too tired to deal with so much consideration.

Just hate me like everyone else. I’m sure it’s much easier than maintaining a good opinion of me.

“No, I’m gonna worry about it,” Raf stated with finality. “There’s gotta be something I can do, or someone I can find who can make themselves useful. I know everyone on this base, I’m sure someone has something to recommend.”

Alex sighed again, smearing the mashed potatoes evenly across their small square on the tray. He supposed that if Raf wanted to dedicate (waste) his time to finding some way to help, he could. While a depression-free life was more appealing than anything he’d ever known, he wasn’t about to get his hopes up. He knew better than that. Raf would spend a bunch of time looking for something that would help, only to discover that Alex was beyond help, not worth helping, and otherwise irritatingly depressed, and then he’d be done with it.

The halfling had sort of been expecting something along those lines to happen since shortly after they’d met. No one could stand him for long once they learned how low he would get. People got tired of how annoying it was to have to deal with someone who was constantly negative. Everyone got sick of him eventually, and soon the knowledge of how bothersome and impossible he was would spread, and he’d be isolated, alienated, alone.

His eyes were watering again, and he tipped his head forward slightly and pretended that he was just rubbing at an itch, as he had been on and off for the past ten minutes.

“I’ll figure something out for you,” Raf reassured. Alex wasn’t sure who he was trying to convince.

“You don’t have to,” Alex replied quietly, staring at the table between them as he drew spirals in the potatoes. “I know I’m annoying when I’m like this. You don’t have to feel obligated to help, or anything.”

“Obligated?” At the tone of voice Raf had taken, the depressed cadet couldn’t help but look up at him. His friend looked rather insulted. “Dude, I’m not offering because I feel an obligation. I’m offering because I give a shit. And you’re not annoying.”

The sad smile that appeared on Alex’s face had to have been as hollowed out as he felt on the inside, because his friend’s gaze looked slightly stricken. The halfling almost wanted to reassure him, to promise Raf that he would eventually get tired of the depressive episodes, but he didn’t.

“Eat your dinner,” Raf cut into his thought with the command, a frown appearing on his face. Alex raised his eyebrows. “I mean it.”

“I’m really not hungry.” He sighed, looking back at the food he didn’t want. “Really, really not hungry.”

“And I really, really don’t care,” was the obstinate reply. “Eat.”

There was a long pause before Alex rolled his eyes and replied irritably, “Fine.” He scooped up a forkful of the potatoes he’d been playing with for the past ten minutes and stuck it in his mouth. He wasn’t hungry. He felt a little nauseous, and the food didn’t help, but he kept eating anyway. He was sure his friend wouldn’t let him go back to bed until he had eaten at least some of everything.

Part of Alex wanted to believe that Raf would stick around, but the rest of him – the parts of him that vividly remembered the orphanage – knew better than to let such hope corrupt.

Everyone leaves in the end. There’s no reason to think that Raf will be any different.

His eyes were still stinging. He wished they would stop.

Next Chapter

Advertisements