"Vile and ingrate! too late thou shalt repent
The base Injustice thou hast done my Love.
Yes, thou shalt know, spite of thy past Distress,
And all those Ills, which thou so long hast mourn'd;
Heav'n has no Rage, like Love to Hatred turn'd,
Nor Hell a Fury, like a Woman scorn'd."
-The Mourning Bride, William Congreve, 1697
(And Tomorrow, and Tomorrow...)
By: Matthew "BlueWay" N.
Seattle - Risen I
We'd all seen her, and we wouldn't forget her. How could we?
On that day of all days? I remember every single ward had gathered in the lobby, all of us glued to the TVs, watching those images being beamed out of the South Pacific. Not that we needed it. We had heard it all the way over here in Seattle. We all felt it in our bones. They tell me the shockwave alone wiped out the populations of every island between Sydney and Hawaii, the death toll starting at the low several hundred million but quickly ballooning to billions. That's when the orbital debris started coming down, mainly in Asia and here in North America. We've all seen the pictures, the paneling especially that survived reentry: they stick up from the ground like markers. The debris, that cascading effect, it was more than just physical, however, I think. The real shockwave was something that we couldn't see roll over us, all of the world.
It got to us when she came, five minutes after the colony fell.
She had been visibly pregnant, no more than thirteen weeks, we had found out. There had been mania in her eyes. She was young. No older than my own daughter even, and yet even I as a doctor had not the responsibilities on her form as she did.
Those eyes of her roamed as she almost crashed through the sliding doors into the lobby, darting every which way, the security guard behind her stopping just short of holding her back until he saw something we hadn't.
Her eyes found mine, in that sea of people, out of pure chance.
Her eyes found mine, and I saw the blood pooling beneath her, running down her leg.
They say that eyes were windows into the soul. I was a doctor at the time, and I'd seen the eyes of my patients in their most vulnerable moments, even as they passed, and I never quite believed that statement. In my almost two decades of practice since that day, I've started to see perhaps into that looking glass that the eyes provide us; however, it is not something I take lightly. Because I saw into her eyes that day, and I saw perhaps the most cruelty that could be levied against another soul that day: to see another dissolve, like ash in the wind.
She was an otherwise healthy woman, twenty years old, of Palestinian origin; cleared for a career in the colonies before two years prior, she returned to the Earth, over extenuating circumstances. A bit young for motherhood, which of course, has its own issues, but I don't think it was a factor.
Had it not been for… everything that happened in the months and year following that day, maybe we would've better understood what had happened to her in a way that I can explain medically. But I never had that luxury.
I wanted to give her an answer as she was interred into our care because she spent every single moment there trying to find one. She wanted to know why her baby had died.
But the way I've reckoned in the nearly twenty years since what happened to her is not an answer I think she would take or any of my peers would accept, save for, perhaps, a man whose name a space empire inherited:
I believe when Zeon dropped Iffish on the Earth, all the pain, all the anguish- the violence of it had to be taken by all those that lived on. Some had to take more than their fair share. We see these types of individuals in the aftermaths of all the old wars and tragedies: they shamble among the living, their hearts and souls so at hazard that they die, leaving nothing but the walking dead.
I left Seattle before the invasion, and I spent the next few years traveling, providing medical aid to the refugees of the War, but one day a war photographer who had spent most of 0079 in North America showed me his collection.
There she was when he turned to his time in Seattle: A photo of that same woman I had seen distraught, questioning, despondent in my hospital, in the middle of a battle; rifle held at her hip and a pistol in her other hand as she ran from one cover to another, trying to find the answer to her pain in between gunfire.
I saw that rage on her face, unmistakable. A fever that I've never seen more justified in my life.
Char Aznable said he fought on behalf of all Spacenoids for the future of Humanity, but I never believed that after I saw that woman and learned what she had done in the years since Zeon's invasion.
I know she's real. I've had the blood of her child on my hands as we healed her.
And I think a leader who represents the future of Humanity would have to reconcile with the avatar of pain, even if it kills him. There is a true and living prophet of retribution walking with us right now, and I don't know if Char, or someone like Char, could take it within themselves to face her.
I wonder, in the nightmares of all those leaders in the stars, they see her: the mother of blood.
I know I do.
They called her Ghoul.
Those that came from space had hardly seen a woman like her: dark, dusky skin, hair like silk, flowing beneath a hat made for hunters of woodland not so far away from there. In that year of the Universal Century, the sky fell upon the Earth, and the greatest war of all history was waged beneath the dirt beneath her to the stars above.
For all Mankind, she came from nowhere and fought back.
She wasn't alone, however. What was one woman to do against a platoon? An APC? A unified invasion force backed up by the might of metal giants?
The war for the Pacific North West was part of a larger conflict; too big of a picture to zoom in to the day-to-day, street to street, building to building, bullet to bullet engagement that was fought over blood and soil. Guerillas and resistance fighters like her had taken to a single banner, occasionally supplied by the Earth Federation Forces, all for the trade of pounds of flesh and blood from those who invaded on behalf of a sovereign, a theory, and an empire called the Principality of Zeon.
It was a war, made and won, from Spring to the callings of Winter, and in the end, ancient Cascadia had been laid to waste. No one won, everyone lost, and the survivors were left behind in a world forever changed.
It had been silent for months now, and the only gunfire remaining had been those that had rung out in the early morning hour: survivors like her, hunting for game that had wandered into Seattle's ruins. War still raged across the whole Earth, but only in its wake had corrupted peace finally come to used battlefields and broken frontlines.
She, and people like her, drove the invaders out of the Cascadian region of North America, but for their efforts, Zeon left nothing behind for them to claim as their own. The Earth Federation saw nothing of value for all the blood spilled, and they fought the war elsewhere. So one by one, the fighters all left, fleeing for refugee camps across North America and beyond, the bitterness of a pyrrhic victory in their wake.
Apparently, the Federation considered Seattle back in the hands of Zeon, but no one in Seattle seemed to notice.
Seattle itself had become a graveyard: tombstones being the buildings that had once been its legendary skyline toppled over on its side, strewn about, crushing the land below. A single monument: a tower, pointing at the stars above accusingly, stood on.
Those that remained, the Ghoul included, thought the war had left them alone finally.
Decay, however, was an extant form of life, and she had seen what happens when a bloated corpse pops.
The world was on fire again, the air around her and even in her lungs sucked out of her body by the explosions that threatened to collapse the ruins around her. All she could do was wrap herself up in her own arms, ball herself up, and sit on the floor and wait to die.
When the world around her failed to do that, she finally opened her eyes to the dark corner she stuffed herself into during that round of bombing and affirmed to herself that, yes, perhaps regrettably, she lived. She lived, and the only comfort she availed herself was to lean her head into the nearest solid object and try to shut it all out.
The residual secondary explosions rocked in the distance as she opened her eyes, reminding her that no bombings ever stopped so simply, her teeth down to her own jaw sick of the vibrations she could feel through her bones, to her blood and soul.
There hadn't been proper sunlight in that godforsaken city for days, the smear of shadow and grey dimming even her own senses, tearing them back to the full breadth of their capability unkindly; nails against a chalkboard, bullets through teeth, broken bone and the way it shatters onto concrete, that is what the Ghoul thinks of when she thinks of what could compare to what is happening now.
Back and forth, back and forth, again and again, bombs rained from above and, just for solace, she thought, this had only been a fraction of what it had been like the first day Zeon had come to Earth.
Back then, she hadn't been a soldier. Back then, she was just a bystander, confused and alone in her own right, stuck to a bed in a hospital.
Was it better now?
She didn't know. All she did know was that she knew how to run from cover to cover beneath bombs.
Tracking the echoes as they bounced through the ruins, the bombing had been getting increasingly further away. If there was a time to move, it'd be now.
She rose from her corner in that destroyed video store; the black tape of movies and shows that were frozen in time, made before the world went to hell, had been scattered along with her, the crinkling sound that sounded too much like disturbed barbed wire shifting with her boots as the dust that peppered her in her fetal position drifted off her form to the carpet below.
The Ghoul had shaken once, the gray-green poncho on her shoulders like a ghost, a shadow of herself pulsing out and then down to the ground as she moved through shattered shelves and counters, over the body of a dead man, his leather jacket covering a long-desiccated corpse.
Up above, head poked out of the shattered street-facing window display where a TV had once been placed, the formation that had come down from the northeast remained: escort fighters in their chevron formation providing combat air patrol around a single, gargantuan flying fortress against a deep, gooey black sky. Not even the stars wanted to share the sky with Zeon.
A Gaw, she knew. Command carrier plane. Relatively new design adapted in years prior but only brought out of theory now. Zeon needed no Gaws in Side 3.
She had never seen one so out of battle; however, that is, outside of a larger scale operation.
The shadow of it circled around Seattle, again and again, and each time it would let loose another flurry of bombs that shook the city of its dust, reminding it that it was not yet done dying.
She hadn't been dead yet herself.
There was a radio attached to her belt, fed up to a push-to-talk unit on her harness beneath her poncho, and then further up into her ear. It cackled, the white noise buzz of someone trying to use it on her frequency noted, but nothing:
Damn, she whispered. Minovsky particle interference on a scale that was far stronger than anything she was used to. Even with the ruins inhibiting some radio signals naturally, even when mobile suits used to ravage the city like a playground, short-range comms, especially out to where she thought she was receiving from, was possible.
With nothing immediate stopping her, she looked back into her impromptu shelter. She checked her Casio: ten minutes. Before that video store, it had been a pub, and before that, a cobbler. Even after over a year, she always found new places, new locales, in a city she never would truly live in again.
Maybe she'd die here, as was her thought, but asides, she had a place to be heading, a mission that had been put upon her that night before all hell broke loose.
When she ran for the next conceivable piece of cover from above, she ran with a Russian-bolt action rifle in her right hand. It was a rifle with ancient history but an antique design, responsible for making her right shoulder black and blue all over for the first month of fighting. It was a rifle given to her by an old collector of war memorabilia. He had been there the first hour of the invasion: drove his truck down to the center of the city and gave out as many of the old rifles of wood and steel as he could before going back to his home and doing the journey half a dozen times. He was old and fat, but his heart had been in the right place. He studied war and knew that he would not survive this next one.
The least he could do was give the people around him a fighting chance.
This rifle killed fascists, he told her, by her bedside, leaving it laying against her bed in the hospital ward.
US Magazine Rifle, 7.62mm, Model of 1916.
Wood and steel with a three times magnification scope and that was all she was given. In the end, it was all she needed: this rifle from a different century.
It shot straight, true. Five-inch groups out to a thousand yards and a bit more if she prayed hard enough. God only answered her if she was killing, she found out.
When she dove into what had been a pharmacy she had been in before, several months back, it had been about how she remembered it: half burnt to a crisp and the other half ravaged by gunfire from a Zeon APC. Nothing changed except any number of natural disturbances ranging from storms to wildlife.
It was wildlife, this time.
It stared back at her in the night.
She dove into the pharmacy as the bombs started falling again, barely keeping to her feet, boots on glass pushing asides and newly wettened by blood.
Split-second questions and realizations were answered by the glowing eyes, staring back at her in the dark as the world again began to collapse around them. Focus, she sucked in her own breath, let her mind take in what she really saw, heard, knew: The labored breathing of something dying was a sound she knew by heart.
The original kingdom of life had returned to Seattle slowly and then all at once. Even concrete jungles had their animals, and she was very familiar with the deer population that had, maybe by instinct, feeling that Mankind's time was up, moved into the ruined city. This one, like her, had been in the wrong place, at the wrong time: it was still smoking, the hind legs chewed up and in tendon, fur burnt toward its back that hid nothing as to what happened to it. It was too far away from a bomb to kill it but just close enough to die slowly from it. What a bomb does to living flesh is by way of returning that matter to material that seemed so far from being alive; it disconnects the very idea that it once used to be that concept of alive.
The Ghoul knew this well.
The deer, a doe, having collapsed, half on top of a turned-over aisle shelf, bled its way through down it after a long, adrenaline-fueled sprint from where it got hit to wherever its brain and body would tell it it was safe.
It was all for nothing, however, for a woman with a rifle showed up in the end, its lung giving out from whatever pressure damage it had sustained.
Still, the beast looked at the Ghoul, wild black eyes almost luminous in the dark.
She needed to kill it immediately. For its own sake.
The bombing around her, the distant oppressive drone of combat jets in the distance, it all faded out to her as she pulled back the bolt safety of her rifle, barely letting the rifle into her vision as she habitually checked its chamber to see golden brass in it.
The beast breathed in pain, and it was a useless pain.
She rose the rifle into her hands, the burlap she had wrapped around the length of its stock muting the sound of her handling it, softening as she rose it to her cheek, peering below the scope and through the iron sights instead at the profile of the slumped over animal. It looked at her right back, teeth-gnashing and dirty and bloody, speaking in tongues.
A bomb had gone off, she estimated five blocks over, and the doe squealed again in the sensitivity of pain and the world. It squealed no more as the shockwave rocked the building, and the Ghoul pressed the pad of her finger into the trigger.
The rifle bucked in her hand, and the distance between them, the bullet took no time at all as it cut right through below its neck, into its heart, and out the other side as its body jerked once. It wheezed and cried a single yelp, and then it went stiff on the ground.
She spent the next hour as the bombs dropped around her keeping busy, keeping sane, taking her blade to skin and flesh as the world broke down around her, one more time.
The bombs eventually stop falling, and by that time, the doe has been skinned, reduced to a resource. She almost doesn't know that the bombs have stopped, for her mind is on the simple tasks that have kept her alive and breathing and on autopilot against her best wishes. Her life now was just one task to another task and what she had to do to sustain herself, with no long-term goal in mind or cared for.
Too proud to put the gun in her mouth and still too useful to those that needed help.
The Conclave would appreciate getting the deer back to soothe the bad news.
In another life, the pilot of the red giant would've crushed her with a sweep of its leg, and that was that: just another life on the way to his final revenge against the stars themselves.
Char Aznable instead looks down through the cameras of his Zaku-II and sees a woman in the shadow of a building he had just rounded. Her age, if he had to guess: was hardly around twenty. The resolution of his sensors isn't the most conducive in the micro, so her face remains a relative blur to him, though he thinks he can make out the dark tone of her skin, the darker hair that peeks out from beneath a military boonie hat. She's like a figurine that the generals above him use to represent entire units and companies in their campaigns on the Earth, a dark green rain poncho covering the rest of her form.
In one hand, her fingers curl around a wooden rifle by a sling, while the broad of her back carries the carcass of a deer tied up on it.
In any other context, this was the crossing of two travelers, off on the way to their lives, star-crossed, with no note to it.
The exemplary part of it was the fact that she was not in a Mobile Suit, and he was a man who had killed for less than she had ever done for.
In another life, she died here: She saw the great beast before her and saw not the Zaku-II, cloaked in red as a hallmark, but rather what she wanted.
That was the difference that counted.
It counted in the way that rifle, and the deer, dropped to her side, and she looked up at the Red Comet. It counted in the way she slid the hat off her head, held it in her hand, and opened her arms to the one that would kill her. A full-frontal gesture, arms wide, eyes closed, and perhaps even beckoning. All that she was to Char at that moment, for all her existence to him as he stalked those ruined streets, trying to find that trojan horse, was an ant he could step on by virtue of the fact that HE had the power.
She died with a simple sweep of one of the Zaku's legs, her body left to rot beneath the ruins of Seattle like a hundred thousand others, only to be uncovered almost a century later during the time of the Zanscare Empire's own invasion of the Earth. She accepted death, and for the first time, Char Aznable found someone who didn't mind. The death of the Ghoul, of this woman, was an appetizer for what he would do later, and she would thank him for it. He would never know it and then never think of her again as he went on to live out the rest of his tragedy.
In this life, however, whether by whim or reaction, she rejected this:
She panicked and yelled as she saw the Zaku inch toward her, almost dropped her catch of the day, and jerked to get out of range of the red giant. Char, as was his claim to fame, would not be outpaced and made to move to collapse the building she made to cut through.
He was going to kill her.
An ancient belief, however, was presented: Someone's true nature is revealed when they're about to die.
A force, a snap, in his fingers stops Char at that moment. A force stronger than Gravity, faster than light, striking across his mind and freezing him. It is given sound, after the crack and echo: from the stars, sweet as silk, graceful like air against white wings, whispered in a voice he knows and trusts and loves.
When the Ghoul looked back, the giant had gone, and she wondered if her brain, assuming she was going to die, simply spared her senses the input that would've given her that split second of dread. But the giant had been there: Zakus, and indeed all mobile suits, tended to leave behind their great metal prints on the world, and she saw cleanly where that Zaku went: out of her sight.
She wouldn't dare question or ask what had happened, she, as she had for the last year, simply just continued on with what she considered her life, picking back up what she had dropped, the fur coat of the deer brushed off momentarily before she slung it across her shoulders again and continued on.
(When Char Aznable asks Lalah Sune what she meant by her suggestion after he returns to space, chasing after the White Base and all of its devils, Lalah has no idea what her captain is referring to.)
The woman had crossed back into the ruined building blocks of downtown Seattle fast after that, ignoring the sound of distant mobile suits, of a battle that had been brewing that had returned very abruptly to those lands. Those sounds, although they might have been unique that day, had long since become part of the ambient white noise for her and people like her. She did it odd, however, in two parts:
A Zaku had been so far disconnected from any of its own support, removed from the air cover above.
And it had been red.
A red, lighter than blood, but darker than any color occurring naturally in nature. It was a red hot red.
An ace, perhaps, she thought, trying not to think about how easily she might've been killed there.
It was a thought that had occurred to her thousands and thousands of times at this point. That had just been the mental headspace of war that she had bounced around in her head, giving her damage far beyond a concussion.
When she was dead, she had long since made peace with herself; it wouldn't be her problem.
But she wasn't dead yet, and she was in no particular rush to see the mechanism of how she'd get there.
This particular instance lingered with her, however. That mobile suit had her dead to rights, and yet, her life was still her own.
She'd made the mistake once, and only once, of doing what that Zaku did to her.
Again, her radio buzzed in its white noise: like breath in the wind, it fades and fades. The Conclave, she imagined, wanting a status update about the war brought back to them. Distantly she heard the mobile suits and their distinctive gargantuan steps, echoing through the streets that barely fit them, and then the destruction of when they hadn't.
Blinding light from above: her head down was exposed to her shadow, blinding against the beams, as she immediately ducked back into one, the dark sky above replaced with the searing artificial suns. Illumination flares from the Gaw, no doubt. She waited long for it to burn out and the world to return to its dark grey state, the weight of the doe on her back barely there.
This wasn't a typical deployment. They were looking for something, someone. Otherwise, she would've heard a battlefield.
It took her forty more minutes to cross through the ruins again to the east of Seattle, having spent the day and then the evening prior to when Zeon returned along the coast of Elliot Bay. The Port had its host of squatters and traders, and the Conclave always needed specialized supplies like the deer she was hauling over.
She didn't want to say she had known Seattle by heart, based on the way she had gotten onto the main road even in the dark, crisscrossing between tipped over buildings and vehicle wreckage, but this particular area of Seattle had been the beating heart of its medical industry before the invasion. Perhaps it still had been, and that had been worth its weight in gold.
Closer still, and Zeon above had not left.
Her radio buzzed, and words came out. She was finally close enough to break through all the Minovsky particles, but it didn't help that she had been in sight and several blocks down from her intended destination. "10 Pavilion to all on this net, I repeat, return to the Conclave immediately. Comms blackout immediate."
Heads down, lights out, no need to draw attention. She understood what the operator was calling out on the frequencies. She hadn't been one of the Conclave's own, but she had been on the frequency anyway, surrogate scout as she was.
She hiked on in the cover of destroyed APCs until she was before the looming tower of the last stronghold of any medically competent civilization in the entire state.
Past the Cathedral, which had been blown open by an errant artillery strike long ago, had been hospital row: Multiple hospitals, facilities, different organizations that had been built along one of Seattle's main roads but unified when the war came to Earth to treat the innocent and to harbor them. Of all the rules of war that were respected, the rules regarding hospitals perhaps were among the most regarded. They were not wholly leveled like the skylines around them but not left untouched, far from it. Her feet had led her almost a year ago, her body begging her to move when her mind could not comprehend. She had stumbled into it, and when her mind returned to her, she had lost it all.
The Conclave was the offhand name, at least for the guerilla fighters such as her, about that one safe space that anyone who had taken a bullet in the name of resistance was brought to. She had spent many sleepless nights overlooking its perimeter, making sure those invading soldiers never came too close, making sure that the blood spilled here was in the name of life, not in violence itself.
The Ghoul had come down the road in the way she was supposed to, hands up but all too comfortable. She could feel the beady eyes in the dark of the guards on watch on the perimeter buildings of the block. She watched them out of the corner of her gaze until she rounded the driveway of the Conclave, the great white hospital in the middle of Seattle's medical district beaming out by its paint alone in the dark. The proper circular driveway of the Conclave had long since not played host to any of its ambulances in a long time, and indeed, any entry to it had been pushed out to a block-wide perimeter of security fences and barricades. She had seen the Federation and the local authorities put them up from the inside out, but they were built up over time: what had been once neat chain fences were boarded up, sandbagged, and bullet-proofed over the necessity of safety. There were entryways, and she was always welcome as the silhouette of patrol guards, former staff, former patients peered over those barricades and saw her:
It's her, they said, and they understood. She ducked into the swinging metal door welded into the fence, awkwardly pushing the deer past.
Every guard, every rifle the Conclave had was up and out tonight. By her mark, as she stepped into the security of the compound: over two dozen on the street, maybe another two dozen in the perimeter buildings.
Gearten Possai had greeted her, a Federation-issue Colt rifle in his hand, the bullpup rifle held by its carry handle as his gear sat on him haphazardly: a battle belt with a large bag at its end hanging off his hip. He was from the great north, his beard and built arms testament to that if the accent didn't give it away. Breathing problems had brought him down from Vancouver Island and his uncomplicated life in order to get treatment before the war. He was chained to this hospital now and had fought and bled for it the entire time Zeon had been there. He would do so again now that they returned above.
Like her, he hadn't been a soldier. Just someone in the wrong place at the wrong time.
"Ghoul." He greeted her, and she shook her head. It had been a habit at that point. "ISR has nothing." He stood an easy foot above her. "And I don't want to push an inquiry."
"Then don't." The Ghoul spoke up to him, not in any rush to remind the Federation they existed. "Got dinner. Is Candy in?" Her voice was foreign from that land, the twinge of Arabic dancing around the words of English. Deep and warm, husky in its own right, but all so easily falling into a rough and sharp edge.
"Still out in the suburbs." Gearten had motioned over to two younger guards, them relieving Ghoul of her load, the stain of blood along her back left behind as the deer was brought elsewhere. "Were you able to get our initial?"
It was a year of working with the Federation and trying to conform to their radio brevity that, long after they had left, they still spoke in those fast and short tongues that no one in the real world ever did. It was a language she was more intimately familiar with, but for everyone else who remained, who had fought as Gearten did, half a hospital's scrubs on him, combat pants matching, it stuck glued. To give it up was to mean that the war, whatever they were calling it at this point, was over.
One look up dissuaded any notion of that.
Ghoul shook her head, taking a glance again up at the Zeon formation in the sky. "Four through seven Pavilion I checked out on the way back up, before I got the comms. Unless their situation has changed in the last hour they should still be there. Three though…"
The Conclave, before things went to shit that night, asked her to check its petrol stations. It was a mission-important now especially.
"Three…" Gearten dragged on, seeing what the Ghoul didn't need to say. "Yeah, we saw the initial strikes from here."
The other patrol and outposts of the Conclave had bunkered down by now if the situation wasn't abundantly clear that, once again, Zeon was dropping hellfire. Three Pavilion had just so happened to be beneath the Gaw early on in the night-long bombing. The Ghoul had passed by earlier, a request from one scout, an older man who had stayed behind in Seattle and had survived the active combat of months prior, the same combat that drove Zeon from that city, still fresh in her mind: Fresh fish if she could grab some.
He was most likely dead now.
Ghoul's words betrayed her stone face, body half-turned to go back out the way she came, barely in. The echoes of more bombs dropping and the burning white glow of flares out in the distance toward the south. "I could go out for Candy."
"Doctor Candy's fine." Gearten had told himself to believe, eyes still trained above. "Have you got any idea what this is?"
She had been asked something like that, because of who she was, for the greater part of a year, and it had gotten old before Zeon landed any troops on the Earth.
She shook her head; eyes also trained up. "Feds haven't moved anything into the city when we weren't looking? Early warning radar?"
Gearten shook his head, turning back around to the hospital that the survivors of the war had been quick to call the Conclave. She followed, and the old steps came back. Once before, she had once taken a breath, paused, and felt her blood go cold at the very prospect of crossing over those long non-working automatic doors, but she had no time to deal with any of that as the world came down around her. She wasn't even that type of person anymore.
Inside: the remains of a field hospital that had done nearly a year of triage and medical work that it, even as Seattle's once, now only, hospital couldn't handle. Those floors, which were once like marble, shining from the lights above, had become muted, and the outlines of the dead were etched into them. The hallways and lobbies became treatment centers by themselves, and only now, as the city was drained and only the most stubborn remained for the sake of remaining, had the Conclave turned from shelter to some sort of remnant community.
Nurses, dressed in clothing that could be more described as rags, degraded from whatever could be scavenged in Seattle at that point, had been escorting the last of the remaining population of the Conclave back into the basement. Hundreds of times, this had happened in the last year, several times a day even, with artillery and explosions sometimes landing within the perimeter. The tiredness of those that had once called this location a workplace was plainly seen even in the dark. There had been no power remaining from even the emergency generators.
These were truly the dark ages.
The Ghoul knew where Gearten was taking her, and the Conclave, as they passed, saw her again. She was a ghost in those halls, and yet, even she was welcome as young children looked for her face beneath the shadow of her boonie's brim.
"They've got mobile suits on the ground." She told him, no one was in earshot as they climbed the stairs slowly. It was for Gearten's benefit, the way his chest heaved up and down.
She nodded. "Not in combat formation. It's almost like they're patrolling, down below the Kingdome."
As they rose in the building more and more, the Kingdome had been totally in view. It was a testament to the engineering and the scale of some of Seattle's buildings that even when they had fallen over or been ruins, they still created something of a skyline. The Space Needle remained too, but no one had trusted its structural integrity enough to climb it, despite the vast rumors of their being a supply of well-needed liquor all the way up there.
They arrived at the top floor of the hospital, corner facing south: the hospital administrator's office. What had been once cushy had turned into a fighting position. More specifically, it had been the Ghoul's spot when she was serving the Conclave. The windows had been taken out, the chill of October sweeping all of them over as the door to the office shut behind them.
"You said you were below the Kingdome?" Gearten thumbed over into the dark at the round shape in the distance: Seattle's main sports stadium. How it had remained standing itself was a question, but it too had been abandoned.
"Yeah, Little Saigon to Beacon Hill abouts where I saw a Zaku." She clarified the area. Anywhere further south than that was all dead as far as anyone knew, at least as far as the surface was concerned.
"Yeah. Not an assault force. I don't think."
"What the hell are the Zeeks looking for that require them going out in suits?"
She kept back the specific details. He trusted her anyway. That entire Conclave did.
Worry had kept rising in her, her leg bouncing in anxiety as she habitually pulled up her wooden chair to lean by the window, rifle poised out, distant echoes of thunder in the distance with the constant jet engines above.
"Quit your fidgeting, woman." Gearten had taken to leaning on his elbows, peering out, a pair of binoculars up and out in the direction of the south. "All activity has been down there anyway. Candy's in the opposite direction. Hell, he's almost out of the city. He knows what he's doing."
"Mm." The growl in her voice was all she could say to that. Her eyes darted to the north, toward the skyscrapers that had remained of Seattle's downtown. The Zeon air cover above hadn't seemed so heavily concentrated over that, but there was still a presence. "Mind I stay here tonight?"
"Yeah that seems like a good idea, doesn't it?"
"Something like that."
"Right. Thanks for the deer. You holler if you start seeing anything moving. I don't want to go back to war but I guess it came back to us."
They didn't quite have a friendship. Respect, of course, after that long, and no personal animosity or a moral quandary with the other. However, the war had its way of making barriers between people as much as it made brothers and sisters of some.
Gearten had left her soon after that, and with the hospital cleared of its population down to its basement, it left a very quiet night for Ghoul, but not for the rest of the city.
She spent many long nights like this on the behest of the Conclave: that hospital at the end of the world that was trying its very best to operate upon its baseline ideal. She owed this hospital so much, but she could not stay here. She made her home on the ruins not more than half an hour away from there, but tonight she wouldn't risk the final hop over. Her rifle had been let down by the moment to her feet, binoculars of a stronger magnification in her hand instead as she looked down toward the south and the Kingdome. Minovsky particle interference had been strongest in that area, she recalled, just by the shrill of her radio, a force not often caused by just a handful of mobile suits. She had seen them still, using their jets to jump over the ruins, finding their footing, like fireflies lost in the night. Hours went by, the night flowing over them like water. She checked her watch at thirty-minute intervals. Sleep wouldn't be for her tonight, for, by the time she had considered that sleep might've done her good, it was just shy of daybreak, the glow of orange streaks already trying to break through the sky.
That's when the fighting started shortly after: the tenor and deeper booming thocks of explosives and gunfire that could only be another mobile suit's. This city had been a dowsing rod now, absorbing all of the sounds of warfare, and what she could not see in the dark, she could hear. She could hear the Zaku cannons miss their mark and then the hiss of a beam saber through metal. She could hear the air cover above wind ever closer and closer to the ground, definitely trying to find something among the ruins.
It found them first.
She remembered her education of ancient battlefields: Baghdad in particular, put upon by the country that used to claim domain over this continent. The United States of America had become the main pillar of the Earth Federation in exchange for the total control of its domestic domain; a problem only exacerbated when half of its leaders were blown up at the advent of that new century on space station Laplace. The frontier always returned home, and tonight, Seattle looked like Baghdad again, as it had for the first half of that year.
The Gaw and its escorts had circled around, going from north to south over the heart of the city, going low as if they were leaving, and her eyes tracked their silhouettes against the dark sky as the smoke from their bombardment joined that messy cloud layer.
It was unmistakable: the AA fire that erupted from the Kingdome as it passed over. All at once, the city had been more alive than it had been in months.
The Ghoul sat up straight; eyes squinted out into the dark as AA fire had popped the escort of the Gaw like gnats, the Gaw itself becoming alight.
AA fire like that had been the reason why many of Seattle's towers had been knocked down in the first place.
The question tonight had been who?
The Gaw had been ambushed from below, and, given the power and range of whatever had been shooting it, there was no escape. Surely flying directly over Seattle had been a lesson learned very early on when MANPADs and AA guns were still in common supply with the original Federation defenders? Apparently, it was a lesson forgotten as more and more the Gaw became an aspect of the sun itself, glowing brightly in the sky as it banked back toward the Kingdome where the fire had originated.
She could see some of the Conclave's defenders emerge from their firing positions, going up on the surrounding roofs, looking out to the same battle that had been playing out and the apparent victor. Their thoughts had mostly been unified: Would Zeon come back to avenge this loss?
Would Zeon do something about this command ship that was quickly being stripped of its wings, dragged back down to Earth and-
Rising up from Seattle, a ship: A white ship, meant for space, but yet here in the atmosphere.
How did anyone miss that?
It rose up from the Kingdome, its colors revealed in the burning morning light as its guns laid into the Gaw, heading right for it. From so far off, the inevitable was not in question: She looked away before the Gaw went critical, far and away aware of its powerplant as in the basking dawn of a new day, it became high noon. A thunderous explosion echoed throughout all the sky and down into the dirt, and a specter of debris, falling to the Earth, was all that was left where the Gaw had been last aimed at the white ship. Great smoke arose from the south, the rumblings of ammunition not fired detonating beneath as the Gaw finally hit the ground, and it seemed another chunk of the city upturned, thrown up, and blown up.
She had been there hours before, and if she hunkered down, the Ghoul knew she would've been caught up in that completely, to a permanent end.
The engines of that white ship dazed out west above Seattle, lone victor, long after the secondaries from the battle cooked off as if shadows of the battle itself. They were a marker then, for the woman, she decided. Going back to her current residence would wait a bit longer, but for now, she would take a nap. If Zeon had been coming for them, it wouldn't be then and there.
So she sat there, in her vantage point as a grey morning replaced the dark night, rifle cradled in her hand, pistol within arm's reach.
When she dreams, she dreams of the stars and the moon. She dreams that maybe home is there, and she wants to go there.
Though she has no home, nor no homeland.
When she realizes this, she awakes.
(She dreams this dream often.)
It's noon when Gearten walks into her room, and her body seizes up at once: She wakes as a woman of action always does. There is no confusion as to where she is or the fact her hand so readily holds a pistol even before her mind gets there.
"Helluva fight. Wasn't quite expecting that." That was how he greeted her.
"Yep. Right." She coaxed herself out into full wakeness; grogginess ripped off like a scab.
"Still have no idea what that whole thing was. Minovsky particles cleared up this morning though and the other Pavilions are calling in. Apparently, some Fed ship was trying to make its way undetected. Important cargo maybe." He reported to her naturally, falling back into the old habit.
When the Federation lost its fight here initially, it assigned responsibilities for an underground guerilla war to those who wanted to fight. The Ghoul alone had stepped up.
She was his captain- the initial captain for most of the resistance fighters that stayed behind as Zeon gained territory and the Federation receded into itself. Eventually, when the Federation counter-attacked, she was the one that organized the various cells that had emerged out of Seattle.
No one argued with her; no one doubted her after she showed she meant business. She once was something else.
Her eyes leveled out again to a more daylight grey drab; she smelled that heavy air, seeing the smoke still remaining from the battle last night. Eventually, her vision drifted up to those clouds.
"Weather's about to be bad. Think about a day or two." She said, tipping her boonie hat up to the sky. To the sky and beyond that, she saw lingering twinkles. Perhaps, among those stars, she saw those space colonies.
There, children are born, raised, and, as she knew so well, die.
She didn't want to spend a moment longer in that hospital, her feet telling her to take flight as she stood up for the morning.
She never got what she wanted, however, and she was done fighting that fact of her life.
Her hand had been cramped, she falling asleep half grasping her rifle. Straightening out her raincoat, clamped beneath her combat harness, she was as ready, seconds after waking up, to go.
"Day or two?" Gearten made sure.
She nodded once. "Yeah." Looking down south again by the Kingdome, it drew her attention. "I'm gonna head back down south, see what all that was. Got any anti-rad pills still?"
Knowledge she alone would know: "Those type of planes, they got nuclear powerplants, that's what I remember that is."
She was never one to waste. Gearten nodded sharply. "Ah. Yeah, sure, think we got a few pills. Go swing by the pharmacy."
She wanted to ask him about another subject, one that also took him from this place, but she didn't want to bother the man. He had been busy and almost out of breath toward the last.
The halls of the hospital had become part residences, and where she walked, they all bowed their heads to her: the old, the too young, the just born, and the injured. In those halls of the Conclave walked life resurgent and waiting for a new world, and they all had given their nods and waves to the Ghoul as she walked down those halls where rooms had become homes and still did double time as operating rooms or treatment centers. She smiled, she always did, for those that fell victim to the war but were not taken completely.
The oldest patients and the remaining hospital staff that had survived this long into 0079 remembered her fondly, and it was then that she dropped the façade of a smile.
Bo Tale is one such woman. She was a beautiful woman, curly hair and skin that had been a fair few shades lighter than the Ghoul's, no older as well. She wore the visage of a woman more at home in her native Puerto Rico than the dreariness of Seattle, though she didn't have a choice. She was a pharmacy tech before the war and then a nurse during out of necessity. Her face, once smoothened over with youth, had lines beaten into them beneath her eyes.
"Don't call me that." Ghoul greeted her back as she ducked into the hospital's basement where the pharmacy was, Bo in her kiosk idly rolling bandages. It was still being cleaned by other hands available, the underground doubling as a bomb shelter, the many dirty boot prints of those that hid down here still remaining after last night. "Gearten says we got anti-rad pills still down here?"
There hadn't been a fresh delivery of medication in almost a year, but Bo had been an improviser to a near-impossible degree- her pharmacy had become a storehouse with her knowledge, and she had derived great joy from the domestic revisitation of what she might've been: just a young professional handing out medication to those in need. She knew immediately, several silver-lined packets of tablets were pushed over, no questions asked.
"Thank you, Bo." Automatically the Ghoul clocked the Zeonic machine pistol off to the side, laying across a crate of Bo's in her pharmacy. The crate itself had in Bo's curly handwriting proclaimed: baby formula for migration.
The Ghoul poked her head into the kiosk, peering further into the back, and, habitually, Bo had picked away, straightening the Ghoul's hair. Idle moments waiting in that bomb shelter below had made this a habit of proximity and comfortableness between them. "That still the plan?" She had shaken Bo's hand off before she truly began. It'd been a long time since the Ghoul had a close friend, but Bo had been close.
There had been many of those that "had been close."
Bo nodded, her own eyes tired, probably having not slept last night due to the issue of whatever the Gaw had been doing. "We're about ready for it. We're waiting for Miss Kino to give birth and a few days after that. She's about two months out."
"Mm. Maybe I'll move in."
"You should come with us." It hurt the Ghoul almost how fast Bo had said that, concern in her voice for the woman that had been as old as her but wore the weight of her years that had been as burdening as Gravity.
Ghoul looked down upon her hands and the tablets within them, pocketing all of them into one of her battle belt's pouches. "Don't know. See you." The woman didn't move fast enough to escape the sound of Bo giving a heavy sigh, but it was usually how it went when it came to discussions about the Conclave's long-term plan: to leave, just like how the rest of those that survived the Zeonic offensive did. Seattle was a ghost town, and all those that had fought for it had gone elsewhere on the continent.
Many who had called the Ghoul captain asked her to follow them.
She stayed still.
Gearten had intercepted her before she left the Conclave, out in the driveway, a plastic bag in his hand, black strips of meat within it. "For the road. This was from the last buck you brought in last week."
"Mm." Was the affirmative grunt to that, she pocketing the jerky to her battle belt the same as the pills. "This whole thing, that Gaw, was probably nothing. Wrong time wrong place. That sorta shit."
Gearten had gone to comment but instead found no words and no breath. Tiredly the bag at his back was flapped open, and a mouthpiece, a long synthetic tube attached to it, was drawn and placed upon his face. For a few moments, the machine breathed with him as he took in large, drawn breaths, and the world paused for him respectfully. Even the Ghoul did as she waited for him to follow up and respond. "Well, hah- let's hope it was then. I don't think any of us can take another fight."
Not when most of the fighters had left, and those that remained remained to the Conclave because they owed it their lives.
The Ghoul hoped so too.
She would be back at least a few times before the Conclave had made its move to wherever it was going, leaving her behind in her graveyard kingdom. Today, however, she would go out to the location of the troubles last night and see if it had been worth it.
Racking the bolt of her rifle back once to confirm again she had a round, she left the Conclave, those in her wake watching the woman who had saved them all once disappear into a battlefield she seemed to never want to leave.
The Earth was still on fire.
Through her boots, she felt the warmth of debris and shrapnel that had revisited that cold, dead city. She was a long way from anything that could be considered home, and, beneath soot and ash, she thinks of distant sands.
A piece of a building, having fallen onto a parking garage, covers her form from the light with its umbral shadow. The sun had hardly begun to make its east-westerly journey as she had emerged out of her vantage point, far, far away from the battle less than five hours ago. Hellfire had returned to Cascadia as if the empire from space had invaded again, and she wasn't quite sure she had it within herself to wage another guerilla war for her life: the machine giants and a lone ship, turning asides the gravestones of Seattle for cover in a battle that had been won before the first shot had even fired.
She knew the technique that the white ship had done as she worked it out in her head: lying in wait, hiding amongst the dead, coming out and attacking when the enemy had been close enough that they could breathe down the very neck they were slitting.
That is, if that was what happened.
What had happened was more kinetic than that, more AA guns and explosions than the warfare she knew, but it had been the same principle.
Once, long ago, it felt like she had been one of those charged to study war and its nuances. The life she lived had taught her more than she ever could by instruction and wargame.
Zeon had done that to her.
The Kingdome had been a sports stadium before the war and then a too obvious target during it. Even the Earth Federation Forces garrison in Cascadia had been wise not to use it as a rallying point during the first hours of the invasion, and, because of that, outside of the residual damage from the original bombing campaigns, it stood even now. She had come from its north end, its curve eclipsing the sun as the smell of explosives and gunfire remained. Fuel as well, in the way it burned her nostrils. Try as she might, waving away the ambient fumes from her face with her boonie hat, she knew it would do nothing as she approached closer and closer to the site of the fighting.
The city had been dead otherwise still, she herself avoiding the Conclave's patrol sites, and in the wake of such a fight, any who would still be there was probably very far away.
They all had been rats once, and it had still been a very easy way to survive.
The positives of having so many of its buildings knocked over was that they were a relatively easy, if not ill-advised, climb for height advantage. The closest building had been a community center, knocked onto its side at an angle that had created a hill for the Ghoul to climb up and over, glass windows kicked in, a world turned over: glimpses of classrooms and recreational areas for a youth that would never again experience it. Children's drawings all, by Gravity, filtered down to the wall-turned floor below, and she walked along the sides of the brick building carefully, binoculars in hand. She had been wise not to entirely silhouette up there, weaving with the building's fire escape to her back to distort her figure, but she wasn't expecting anyone to take a shot at her. If they had a shot at her, then they had magnified optics, and if they had magnified optics, they'd be able to see who she was, and if they missed, they knew she had been of the pedigree that she wouldn't.
The Gaw's remains in its fiery explosion had been cast over at least a mile radius, but the main mass of it had fallen short of the Kingdome to its south, the Kingdome itself open with a gaping mouth, the burn marks of a ship's thrusters evident. In that ground zero, buildings and rubble had made a mini-disaster scene that potmarked Seattle up and down, the deep-colored metals of the Gaw identifiable over the concrete of the city and its own ruins.
She sat there on top of that overturned building for at least an hour, looking down, observing what details she could see before moving in. At a certain point, she stopped looking with the binoculars at all, her bolt action rifle heavy around her neck by its paracord sling. She just watched, looking at the locations of billowing smoke where machinery or pieces of the Gaw that had caught on fire continued to smolder.
Nothing else moved but the wind and the smoke, but above that? Some movement.
Black. Crows may be, circling around and around. Waiting. Their wings did not flap, not as much as the wind from her own poncho.
Beneath her, painted on the walls of that community center, had been a mural of children, stick figures, whimsical and full of personality and color. She tried not to look down.
When she finally approached, she unhooked her rifle from around her body and held it at high ready out of habit, not for Zeeks, but for the wrong type of curious.
Her type of curious was morbid yet innocent.
Attached to her kit, she heard the tell-tale crack of an implement deeper in her pockets. She had immediately dry swallowed two tablets that Bo had given over to her and thought nothing more of it as she drew out the reactive silver badge that detected dangerous radioactivity and tossed it asides.
She could deal with sterility, not the painfully long process otherwise. Coughing, forcing the pills down, she decided that had been enough.
The slow cackle of a fire somewhere faded into the white noise as she walked upon destroyed, uneven Earth, ornament trees put up by the city there the first fleck of green she had seen month, crushed by the wreckage that could not be identified as a Gaw's save for the fact she knew it came from one. Mangled steel buried into brick and buildings, and she had walked as if on grass: Her feet had been too used to it now.
She had mentally identified some areas of note: The first area, a pile of anti-aircraft gun casings. Federation-standard for ships and SPAAGs. That area had been closer to the Kingdome, probably fired off from the white ship. On the ground, giant treads, the like she had never seen before, had always been present, the tell-tale searing of energy weapons hinting perhaps that the white ship's complement had been special: special enough to cause Seattle to be bombed again, at least. The casings had fallen near a fast food joint meant to capitalize on the Kingdome, but it had long been emptied of anything useful; even a cursory look in revealed the ketchup pump had been drained dry.
She'd be lying if she had said she'd never been hungry during the war, but adrenaline was able to mask many feelings that would otherwise cripple her.
The second location: a piece of the Gaw's engine, stuck on the third floor of a walkup building, turbofans intruding into the geometry like an abstract art piece. Zeonic metal was always high quality, especially from the asteroid belt, beaten only by the metals from Luna. Her father had been that technical type, but only by adjacent proximity with his colleagues. Her father's science had dealt more with the weather above and how to capture that slice of heaven for the Sides. Still, even then, she recognized herself that the Gaw had taken a beating beyond words and was still able to fly for a while.
It fell in the end, but it went magnificently.
The third location had been immediately forgotten by her as she made her way to it, scanning the environment habitually for threats that once were.
It was at first glance she knew, and she had fought with all her life to prevent herself from getting a second and a third glance. If she didn't look, she wouldn't know it was true. She could simply move on, go away, and not reckon with the fact that out of the corner of her eye, she saw a flash of gold and purple.
She knew whose body it was before she even could breathe after that thought.
It scared her more than any Zaku could, red-eye burning into her as it promised death. It scared her more than napalm or a building collapsing on her.
It scared her because it meant that she was going to be the one to be witness to the final fate of Zeon's beloved princeling.
She knew who it was because of a past that was taken from her, and here it was: dug out, chewed up, and spat before her feet. It could've been across miles or as close as inches; she could not mistake the sleek eyes, the unmistakable shade, and the face of a man who had been in every other propaganda leaflet floated down from Zeon during the invasion.
Unmistakable, incorrigible, and unfortunate.
Her feet moved for her again, and the least she could do was white-knuckle grip her rifle as she moved before what had been a debris pile of ground-up concrete and metal parts from a great machine suffering from great anti-aircraft fire. Unmistakable as part of the Gaw, spindly and twisted, but what it was exactly beyond anyone now. It cast shade over the body of a man, half-buried, one side sticking out to lay upon the slopes of fine debris while the other seemed to meld into it. His head laid atop, almost as if he had been victim to beachside hijinks, but this was no joke.
She had done her fair share of triage in this war, and if she had seen the body before her, she would've written them off. There was no chance for them.
In her mind: less than twenty-four hours ago, a deer bucks as half of its body is blown off.
Yes, it had been who she thought it was. No denial can leave her now about that immutable fact.
The appointed commander from the Zabis themselves, the very people who led Zeon to invade the Earth, was dead at her chest level in the debris. She climbed up the slope, shifting the fine debris by her boots until the body was below her.
Had that white ship executed a plan to kill him? Had that white ship been so important that he himself went out to hunt them?
So many questions and no answers to be given.
Garma Zabi had answered for what he had done here, in Seattle, and then across the whole Earth.
Garma Zabi was here.
Garma Zabi had lived.
Garma Zabi had died.
The feeling inside of her was a feeling that she could not put into words and belonged to a language that went far beyond Human capability. It was a primal, feral, intrinsic emotion that had come from a place that she did not know she had.
This was the man, if nothing else, bore the greater burden of putting upon her the greatest tragedy.
Who else would make that decision to drop a colony on Earth other than one of the Zabis?
Rage, the rage she identified, understood.
Her teeth had felt like they cracked- it was the only reason she felt how tight her jaw had been. That cracking feeling had gone down to the tips of her fingers, her hands, and suddenly she remembered that in the rules of war and the apocalypse, it was finder's keepers, and this body was hers.
Finally, maybe, life itself had given her a peace offering for the whole of her life.
Her mind goes back, to the bombings, to the deer, and the way her knife cuts through the membranes of flesh and guts. She has wished nothing but violence and retribution upon all those who fly the flag of the Principality, and, perhaps finally, she can articulate and manifest it in a way that she wanted: On the corpse of a Zabi.
The bile in her stomach, the acid in her breath, it takes her, it fills her, and she remembers every blown open head or bled out soldier she was responsible for.
For her, death, killing, of invading Spacenoids was a reconciliation paid by pounds of flesh. There was a reason she was called Ghoul, after all.
It would never be enough.
But Garma might've tipped those scales to something more amenable.
She wanted to eat him alive, but dead would do.
The body was looking up at her, and before she realized it had been, she realized those eyes were tracking her own.
The monster of her inner machinations drained out, scared back into the woods as she stumbled out and yelped, rifle immediately levied at her hip downward.
This was more than just a body.
Eyes, she looked down into his eyes, and those eyes looked back at her, just as surprised as her as her adrenaline peaked and then slowed. His mouth had opened slightly as if to ask properly, but then it remembered what body it was attached to, where it was, what had happened to it, so his jaw clenched tight, and there was a wince of pain that reverberated through his entire body. His eyes were closed, and in between the lid of his right eye, blood had dripped out and down. The eye, the Ghoul noticed now, was a milky white.
He was struggling to breathe, the rise of his visible chest, up and down; she fixated on in that moment that felt like years: discovering that Garma Zabi was alive.
The details of his body, the full recognition that she, a half-baked but fully realized sniper, could've easily made out lost to her as the magnitude of this person reached out to her and held her down.
She wanted to do nothing else but look at his chest, rising and falling, confirming that horrible fact of his survival for now.
He, for his part, played the role of a silent corpse: looking up at her, waiting, not sure of what to do.
Eventually, she closed the distance, an inch at a time, until her boot laid upon his chest, and she pushed down:
It was the first sound he made, a choke in pain, ragged and dry, his eyes once again wincing. A balloon, already losing its airs, being sped along its promised path.
She wondered if his burnt flesh, crusted, would be ground up beneath her heel, so she did it, and the man cried out in a breathless, soundless groan.
She wanted to kill him, and Garma knew that this woman wanted him dead.
Did he know that he was living on borrowed time? A technicality of circumstance and explosive reaction that threw him away from being totally disintegrated? Had he turned his body over and tried to shield himself from inevitability, and for that foolishness, he was granted this extra pain? Questions between the both of them, none that could be answered as she let him breathe one last time before she held the rifle at her hip, barrel pointed down at him.
He did not react; his arms laid there limp, as the wood and steel rifle that had killed fascists for centuries was now poised toward his heart.
The gift of life had cursed him with knowledge: He knew what it was like now to die; she could plainly see the look on his broken face of a man that had just been through that mental experience. There was more than that, however, written in his lines: He was wondering, confused, and then, finally, resolute. He took in one last breath and looked at her, eyes focused and defiant.
She didn't know if he said it, but his mouth moved in its dry, bloody, craggily line, and the touch of malice in it was made by his eyes alone:
"Not like this."
Her boot against his chest, how even as he dies, the slow rise and fall rises her, up and down.
He does not beg, he does not whimper; with one clear eye and one milky red run one, he looks up at her and sees, she thinks, the rest of his life. Whatever that means.
She's known this rifle aimed down at him by heart; she could pull the lug to disengage the safety in less than a quarter second and then another quarter second to fire off a shot. Muscle memory had broken into her very being, and at every angle, every position, she knew the manual of arms for her gun. She hadn't even known what it was, model name, or anything remotely close to specifications outside of what she could observe. Even the ammo it used took trial and error in the first week of the invasion, scrimped cartridges and misfires by the dozen until the lucky number was .300. The collector had neglected to tell her this rifle was rechambered.
She wondered if the reason she was waiting, considering, was the fact of ammo and logistics. .300 Magnum was not a service issue round by any measure- maybe the ten-millimeter automatic she had in her holster would've been more efficient. She lowered her rifle, and with the crisp sound of metal on Kydex, she had instead pointed her tan combat pistol at him.
Still nothing. Nothing lifted from the blockage.
Maybe it was half an hour, no more than that, at least in her mind, as she stood over the slowly dying form of Garma Zabi, half-buried in the wreckage. No action, no movement, nothing said from him. It would've been easier if the prince had been an active combatant, a soldier; she had no problem shooting people in the back before- Zeonic FOBs never considered the sniper shooting from a skyscraper in the distance, with nearly a hundred different places she could be shooting from it.
The only thing constant was Garma's breathing, and in time, his matched hers, and that was enough.
Her thumb reengaged the safety, and then her pistol was holstered again, taking the time to look around her to remind herself where she was finally.
"Yeah." Spoken on the air, half to herself, some of it to him, the rest to whatever cosmic force set her up like this. She reached down, combat gloves touching upon his uniform, royal and red and gold along his collar, half of it baked with his own blood and flesh along his right side. He was severely burnt, that much she could tell even standing above him, but kneeling in, the grey dirt and debris matter had intertwined with the open gashes and red openings of his skin that seemed to have been ripped from his side like a peel, or just outright evaporated. His right arm had been buried beneath the rubble still, fine and grainy but heavy and dense, but she could easily see the raw red flesh through the holes in his uniform, running all the way up his right side, up his neck, all the way through his face, a quarter of it and then some past his eye marred forever. The eye itself: bloodily framed, but white now, milky. His left side was better well off, burns in patches as opposed to the norm. His gloves, or at least the glove on his left hand, lying limply over where his stomach would be beneath the rubble he was buried under, had been melted in its ivory whiteness into his palm.
He was beautiful, she admitted.
Perhaps not physically, not with the clumps of his own red fluids all over himself running down from his mouth and nose, his purple shades of hair both missing in some places or clumped with his own matter, burnt flesh swelling like bubbles, but rather he was beautiful in what he represented:
That was enough for her as her hand touched his exposed shoulder, the golden tassel of his pauldron easily yanked off as his blank expression winced at the shake that came with it.
Tucking the keepsake into one of her utility pouches on her battle belt, that had been that, turning away from Garma Zabi, son of Degwin Zabi, responsible in so many ways for the war that came to Earth and the suffering of all Humanity.
He did not call out to her as she left, did not move. All that he was was simply battle debris, the same as the dozens of other bodies that came with him and the wreckage of the Gaw that had lodged itself into the Earth.
She spent the next hour combing through the ground zero, the shadow of the stadium eventually reaching out to her as she gathered up salvageable components and useful implements: a fire extinguisher that had been a part of the Gaw had perhaps been the largest gain today as she stalked those simmering grounds, paying great heed not to look in the way of a body, not yet done dying.
He did not beg for her attention; he did not go loudly; he simply was there and, perceivably, where he would remain for the rest of his life.
She hadn't even looked over one last time as she left back to what she considered safety.
Garma Zabi lived.
She used to live adjacent to a greenhouse on 8th Avenue on her own. That wasn't where she was going, however. 8th Avenue, and about everything north of that for several miles, had been where the Federation tried to organize a defensive and then, promptly, were bombarded by Zeon. That greenhouse, and most buildings that way, were no more existent than any town after a tornado, right through its heart.
Now, however, the way she went home was a little bit further past the church, out toward Fall Street, and then left down University Road. Past the bombed-out campus, past the tilted-over American Dynasty building, and into West Gardens Square. Overlooking the highway had been a piece of real estate that had been as out of reach to her before the war as it had been out of reach for anyone that meant her harm now.
It might've been a common inconvenience that the Elysium Condos, at least where she had set up, was sixty stories tall, and up towards the top, a large chunk of it was taken out facing west, toward the Pacific Ocean, but the room she had was on the twenty-fifth floor and had avoided its windows getting blown out in the months of fighting. No one knew where she lived, and she wanted to keep it that way.
In order to go to Elysium, she had to take a rather round-about way of it:
There had been ground access, of course, a cut in the security shutters that she had long burned through herself, but that had only been for the most hectic days where she needed to get inside fast. Otherwise, she went down.
There had been numerous blown-out craters exposing the Seattle underground, either the sewers or the light rail metro that crossed beneath the city like veins. It was a sprawling system, one that had been, only months before, the lifeline of fighters like her as Zeon owned the surface and the skies. She had lived entire weeks at a time not seeing the sun, coming out with her fighters only during the night to disrupt and destroy Zeon's operations. Now, however, the times had turned, and in the dark beneath, the rats that never returned to being Human remain.
Her slice of the underground was purposefully presumed to be hers: her entrance, going into the most sprawling section of maintenance corridors that all connected the downtown areas. For her habits and the assumption she would continue her habits past the active war, those who wanted to find the Ghoul assumed she was in some deep, forgotten section of the underground to rest herself.
They would be wrong.
The crater, about two blocks away from the Elysium Condos, had exposed a juncture for telephone and internet lines for Seattle, a redundant left-behind, kept it in case of the more advanced systems going down. With those lines, she had followed as she had in the last two months to her home: emerging through cramped concrete buckled hallways beneath the light lines to the own basements of the Elysium Condos. From there, it was a simple matter of emerging out to the lobby and going up the stairs as if she had lived there herself before the war.
Her room had been facing south, behind a door rigged with five different locks and, if she was really feeling paranoid, a claymore anti-personnel mine.
It was a two-bedroom affair, once dreamed of during a more civilian life for her, and now an ironic monkey paw curling result of the life that had turned out for her. There had been no power here, hadn't been power for eight months. The powerplants and reactors were the first to go during the invasion.
The modern and sharply designed apartment had been still relatively clean at a glance, but the stove and oven had been turned into cabinets, all the same, the woman not wanting to risk running the probably still somewhat active gas lines in that building. The fridge had remained in its somewhat intended usage, the sealed steel monolith containing with it, despite its non-power, bags of MREs, canned foods, and jerky of various meats.
She made her first stop at the living room, depositing her pockets and ammo first in neat lines before her rifle joined them on the table, followed by her take for the day. Her pistol always remained on her.
The living room had been turned over, made for a different type of living that was different from leisure. Tables had been set up in every corner, workbenches, and storage space for every conceivable item that a woman at war might've needed. There was hardly a cushion there save for the one in the single chair she had used and moved around the room as needed.
There had been, due to the room's position in the building, enough ambient light through the windows without curtains; the glass had been of that one-way design out of privacy, and for her, that meant everything.
Originally, she came to be here as she manned a forward scouting post in the latter half of the battle of Cascadia. She had been as far down as San Francisco's Presidia in the war, but all roads led home in the end as the final battles for the region were here. When the Federation came to coordinate the offensive with irregulars like her, she had been put on the sidelines and told to support instead. It meant that she had, with her sniper scope, called out targets and movements as opposed to following up with the information and shooting.
That scouting post had eventually, in the course of the final month, bit by bit, became her home after the war had left, if only because all of her worldly positions, mostly gear, had already been up there with her. In the after, the long cool down and then eventual abandoning of the city, what was once an annoyance: the several dozen flights of stairs she had to climb, instead became a safety barrier.
If the city was truly abandoned, she wouldn't be there by the definition of it, and she had known otherwise how wrong that statement really was.
There had been running water in her apartment, albeit unheated. However, any pressure at all did her well after months without a proper shower. She needed that cold-biting feeling now, however, as she, one by one, stripped off her layers until the last to come off had been her battle belt and then her underwear. It had been about three weeks since laundry day: the day of the bucket and clothes lining her garments in the open gash of the building to dry out; however, she figured she would lay the clothes she had just worn out to sleep in again.
The showers and its glass walls did little to hide her as she stepped and let the water down onto her, seeping into her bone as, eventually, the scrub of her fingers stilled, and instead, her head leaned against the porcelain wall.
She stayed like that for an hour, feeling the room temperature water beat against her back until she was sick of it. When she emerged, it had been truly dark, and so the candles were lit as she dried herself down with a towel of dubious cleanliness.
She had easily nearly one hundred heating pads that both the Zeon and Federation forces had used as standard in their MREs, so she ignited the flameless solution beneath a kettle borrowed from the long-missing residents of her neighbor's apartment. This one came particularly unfurnished and unlived in prior, as did most of the building, she had observed sourly. However, bits and pieces of those that had actually made that building their home had all coalesced inside her room.
Today's table she would end her day on was her usual one, the mindless one: Her bolt action rifle was not her only long gun. There had been a smattering of firearms leaned against a crate she had been left within the dying days of the active warfare. Apparently, someone had misinterpreted both herself and her supply request, and she had ended up with enough firearms for a small element. All of them had been "liberated" Zeon supplies.
Side 3's reproductions of firearms that had been outside of their copyright protection phase had been the preferred designs as far as infantry weapons went, as so she had been, in the Universal Century 0079, two centuries removed from their design, working through maintenance of a Maschinenpistole 40 and a Sturmgewehr 44 used by a military that came from space and used giant walking machines as their heavy hitters.
The kettle had almost rang before she had taken it off the pad, habitually pouring it into a ceramic cup with some benign slogan on it. A cutesy slogan, at least about living and loving. The teabag had been chamomile, and the tea had gone down her gullet with some unceremonious slabs of jerky.
Her hands, her body, moved on itself without aim or goal as she had racked the charging handle of the storm rifle back and forth several times, and again, for another hour as her eyes focused in and out until she decided she should've gone to bed that hour ago.
No heating or AC meant up there in her apartment, it got cold, the king mattress that was a privilege she didn't deserve wrapped up with sheets that hadn't been cleaned for as long as the power hadn't been on. If there was a smell to them, she didn't notice, and if she did, she was out cold into sleep long before it bothered her.
She never had any issues going to sleep; most days, exhaustion did her in before she let idle thoughts take her to a limbo of her own mind. Tonight was different.
When she woke, it was 1:15 AM, her digital watch on a bedside table with her pistol reading true as she looked out to the Seattle graveyard, dark shapes in the night poking out from the ground like hellish grass in prairies without moonlight.
The moon tonight shone brightly, right into her bedroom, full of life, not disturbed by the millions that lived there on its surface now. It'd been years since she had been to Grenada, but it was funny to think to her that probably, Grenada, Von Braun City, looked more earthlike now than this city on Earth.
She had only recently recovered a sane sleep schedule: one where she spent nights asleep as opposed to stalking through the city engaging Zeon patrols, but now, the tingle in her legs had reminded her that tonight, those midnight missions weren't so long ago.
She stared up at the plain white ceiling above, trying to will her eyes back to tiredness, but when 1:40 came and went, she knew it was a battle she was not going to win, and as a good guerilla fighter that she was, she knew best when to leave a losing battle.
"Are you dead out there Garma?" She spoke out to the ceiling, beyond it.
Incidentally, not the only time she had ever said those words.
She once was something else, so long ago.
Memories of a different life remind her of what Garma might've been to her: and all those memories are highlighted by a feeling that she had forgotten but longed for.
Her thoughts return to the prince from Side 3, and she decides that, no, he probably wasn't dead.
With half a swear on her breath, she had rolled out of bed and snapped her battle belt on along with a pair of jeans and compression shirt, redoing the binding around her breasts before she went out to the living room and habitually gathered up her assault pack. Medicine and water. First aid. A shovel.
When she had gone into the kitchen to fill up two canteens, remains from when she had been making Molotov cocktails looked up at her from one of the cabinets. A bottle came with her because whatever Garma had been through, the option might've been appreciated.
At the vaguest fringes of her memory, she tries to remember what Garma really looked like. She had been taller than him, by a head, if she remembered correctly. His weight? Probably around her own. She remembers him out of the corner of her eye and not in her sphere. She could carry him, she decided, opting out of bringing a shopping cart she imagined.
On a normal day, in a normal life, where war did not come to the Earth, she could've made it to Garma in about forty minutes by foot. In fact, she could see where she found him from that very building, looking out to the southwest towards the Kingdome, its upper curve poking out from the remaining skyline between it and her. She stood there before her windows and looked out for a very long time.
When she went back to getting her pack and kit ready, plate carrier and all, her rifle was the last thing she worried about. On one of the rifle's bands, metal loops that kept the barrel to the stock tight, she had welded on a tactical rail section, the small laser unit she had kept for the nights put on and tightened. Night fighting tended to necessitate the technology to reach out and point.
Was she expecting a fight tonight?
That was Zeon's beloved prince, the commander of the attack force that came to Earth.
Someone would come looking for him, or, at least, his body. Several someones maybe. If it was Feds, she wouldn't do anything and instead disappear into the night, come back home, go to sleep, let her conscious settle.
Zeeks? Target practice at best, a cascading engagement at worst that gets her killed.
Someone else? She'd play it by ear.
Why she was gearing up heavy, she couldn't quite articulate, but it was best to be prepared. Prepared so much that she had exchanged out her boonie hat for a combat helmet, Earth Federation spec: attached to a mount point on its front like a horn: a singular monocular. A night vision device. Gifted to her by the Federation Manhunters and then promptly forgotten about.
By the time she had been fully set out to make the trek back to the Gaw ground zero, it had been 2:00AM, and if all was well, she'd be back by sunrise. She knew that, whatever happened, time always moved forward, no matter the gravity of life. It ran through even the darkest days for her, she knew, cruel and unopposed.
"What are you doing, woman?" She stood in front of the door to her apartment, rifle held by her, thinking about what it's gonna look like if she put the barrel of it against the prince's head and pulled the trigger. This was too much effort to do that, however. "Where are you going?" She asked herself, head against the wall, blocked by the poking out of her night vision.
She knew what she was doing. She knew where she was going. What she didn't know was why.
Originally, vehicle transport in the city during the first days of the occupation was the norm, up until Zeon, and perhaps the Federation as well, started blowing up any running vehicle at range. Too many hit-and-run attacks.
All movement for her at least was on foot, and her legs had grown strong and used to the traversal of ruined Seattle; its streets, once flat, turned into entire expeditions with crates, wrecks, and toppled over buildings.
But the destruction provided her better landmarks than any street sign could.
A few hundred yards down from the destroyed Federation APC, but before the Zeon propaganda mural that was hurriedly lasered into the side of an ancient brick building, she took a right to avoid the void filled crater where a Zaku had exploded, taking a Federation tank division and a chunk of the city with it. Further down the street toward the shore from that had been where she had shot that deer the other day and encountered the red Zaku. Left down market street toward the stadium, the rest of the way was easy: always walking along with the shadows, one step at a time, listening to the night.
A green-tinted world was perhaps livelier than the daylight grey, and that had only meant more danger. Residual feelings from a more active war.
Moonlight spread out through the streets before her, and by 3:50AM, she had returned, downing another two anti-radiation pills.
This place had been as she left it, as she had approached from the same direction as last time, down the same street.
The ground had finally settled to the ambient temperature, and the Gaw's remains had come and joined the rest of the world in its stillness. Garma had been in the center of it all, thrown forward and among the most central debris pile beneath the shadow of a building. It had only occurred to her that he had found himself among a local community bank, or, at least, the remains of one. The shadow of the Kingdome hovered above all like a black moon, fighting against Luna.
Ground zero had been as she left it, her shadow company that even she had thought unwelcome beneath the glow of her night vision.
She turned slowly beneath the moonlight, holding along the sidewalks as she moved toward where she had last seen Garma. In her gear, ceramic armor plate over her chest, and a helmet on, there was a little more confidence in her stride, even if she was wielding just a bolt action rifle and her pistol. Still, people hadn't died for being too careful.
The waning moon had almost made it so she didn't require the night vision she had; however, the advantages were still plain as day as she turned the block over to the street where she had found him. Without the night vision, after all, she wouldn't have made out the shapes of four men before that pile of debris.
She was caught in-between breaths and almost coughed in surprise, but she had beat it down and instead ducked into the shadow of a bakery's inlet door, looking toward the other side of the street, several buildings away, flashlights in each of their hand revealing that same blurry flash of purple and flesh.
The only ones that remained in Seattle were those that had seen it as a battlefield their entire life.
White armbands, a half-moon crescent drawn and painted in some way onto them on their shoulders. Rats of the highest degree.
Gangsters at the top of their world, and here they were down the street from her.
Of all the guerilla "cells" that she had worked with in the months following, it had been the coalition, and now formalized, group of the Seattle street gangs that now bore the emblem of the reaper's scythe after the possibility of slinging dope and dollars had been cast away by the Zeon invasion. Seattle was now their kingdom, with no one left to oppose. Even she had cast a wide berth of them after the war left, but she knew what they had been doing to those like her that stayed behind. They subsisted in the underground and safety there; no reason for them to come out into the light.
They had been given their share of supplies by the Federation in exchange for fighting the war on their behalf here on those streets they knew like the back of their hands; and now, as was forever the case, the Federation's lack of foresight had only made her life even better.
She had pressed back the chamber of her rifle once, making sure she was loaded for a fight. In her plate carrier: stripper clips of more rounds. She didn't come for a fight, but she could finish one.
Her helmet had come with earpro, amplifying the noise, so she held her breath, crouched down into the shadows, trying to hear them, anything, any word.
She heard a stream of water.
The resolution of the night vision betrayed her first impressions, these were remnant gang members, loose-fitting clothing beneath chest rigs and combat boots, and they had known exactly who they had found: pissing in his face, taking turns.
The stream eventually stopped, followed by a round of laughter, all highlighted by, at once, weak breaths and wheezing.
She knew the animosity as was happening; she felt it in her bones so much what they were doing. She had seen it, time and time again from these "ground troops" that the Federation sanctioned against Zeon, defiling corpses after the battle had been won in the worst ways. The wish for the dignified dead perhaps fell deaf in this less than dignified war, and, in many ways, in this moment and before, the woman wonders if there was something deserved in all of the suffering.
Did Garma Zabi deserve to be pissed in his face, at least, for what he had done?
But she thinks no longer on that subject before she focuses on the now.
If this was the first time, she would perhaps have reservations.
But it wasn't. Not when they sometimes attacked her with a recent catch or just out of the Hell of it. Her kill count for these gang bangers in the last two months had been twelve, and no reprisal yet from the gangbangers. Perhaps it was because no one had been left standing but her. She wasn't going to question it, nor was she going to make amends. Maybe one day, her actions would force her to join the huddled masses going elsewhere in the continent for relief from the violence, but that day was not today, and in the meantime, she would be ready.
For the second time in her life, she would kill for Garma Zabi, pulling the safety on her rifle.
She thanked God she had found these rounds at a sporting goods store that had been looted but not thoroughly searched. She thanked God that the world had given her prime practice with her rifle because of the possibility of catching anything behind her targets if she was untrue with her aim. She thanked God that Garma was alive. She thanked God because he was hers to decide.
God did not listen as she rose from her crouch down to the middle of the road closer to them, and turned on the laser on her rifle that she could only see with her night vision, zeroed perfectly.
She held her breath and raised her rifle at an angle, aiming with that line of a laser until it landed square on the back of one of the gangsters. The crunch of some debris beneath her foot made said man turn around to see what he had heard, barely half a block down. He saw nothing but the shape of a specter before he saw nothing at all for the rest of time.
A slug had gone in through his armpit out the other end in a punch of a shot, chewing up anything in between, but not before he could depress his finger around the trigger of his submachine gun, wildly the gun shooting off until it fell onto the ground. A single bullet careened by her left foot, but she was unphased as the final body fell to the street, and she instead dropped her rifle to hang on its sling, drawing her sidearm with one hand and pushing up to them.
She had no qualms about killing these people. They betrayed their common cause, and she had killed for less.
Gunfire through the streets erupted at that early hour in a five-second span, for that's how long she needed to rack five rounds down range into four men as they stood, broad silhouettes given to her, their bodies crumpling to the ground below one by one until the last one, given just enough time, tried to whip around.
Even death twitches justified double taps, her pistol rhythmically pointed down and popping off two rounds before the quiet night continued.
Their flashlights had all gone down onto the ground as well, illuminating odd angles and unintentionally subjects: a storefront, a mailbox, the sky above, and then finally, unkindly, Garma Zabi.
He was still as he was, baked into the debris he was buried beneath, but his face had been drizzled wet with further human fluid, contorted into a shrewd, painful visage of a man still alive and perhaps begging for something else. Because of the recent slickness of his face, the red that had just been splattered on him had rolled off easily.
She wondered if he was alive by the way his eyes were empty, landing on her. She wondered if, looking at him now, she should've just shot him there and then. Maybe that's why she came out: she wanted to be the one to really kill him.
She could use her hands, wrap his fingers around his neck and watch the man agonizingly lose his life. She could make it so that no casket could be opened for his funeral. She could do a thousand things to this man, trapped beneath the Earth, and she felt like it would be enough.
She didn't do any of that.
Helmets hadn't often fit the best on her, so she padded them out with rags. One rag had come out from beneath her helmet in a tug as finally, she returned to Zeon's prince, remarkedly different. If Garma recognized her, she wasn't sure, nor did she care as she carefully wiped his face down and then discarded the rag. He winced further whenever those hard fibers crossed near his burns, but at least it was a reaction.
He seized up, gone rigid when her hand had gone to her pack but had settled as two items came out: a canteen, and then a vodka bottle. She gestured with her hands: one or the other.
He sucked in another breath, his form basically vibrating until sharply he tilted his head at the bottle:
She cracked the cap, the snap loud between them as, before she had lifted the bottle to his mouth, she swung it back to her own and took a burning slug of it.
She was once an adherent to a faith that forbade, but here, on Earth, Allah seemed to have left her behind. No Gods ever answered her.
Before it stopped burning in her throat, she had levied it to Garma's mouth, sending down a bulb of it that he had fought to keep down. He did, eventually, in the end, a dry and yet burning breath of his own coming out of his mouth as she was already there with a chaser of water. He agreed with a nod, and he had been more amenable to the water, sucking it down and almost, a desperate whine from his mouth, unconscious, as she drew it away but stopped. His hand, his left, had moved for the first time, moving up, weakly grasping her wrist. She couldn't have been stopped if he tried, but she let the touch linger on her sleeve, barely there.
He looked up at her through whatever haze fell over him and spoke with his bloodied mouth. "Are you here to kill me?" It came out, barely like a whisper. The swelling on his burns had only gotten redder, more intense, bulging out from his skin. The miracle that he was alive was compounded by the miracle he had still been to this moment. She couldn't catch his eye:
"Hm." He grunted lowly, a pain to even get that out.
She went back into her pack, a roll of bandages unfurled, syringes, tins, packs of medicinal solution all wrapped into it. First things first: what she thought he could handle. Her combat gloves came off, pills in her palm as she turned back to Garma.
"Modafinil, paracetamol and betadine. Some tetracycline too." She went on. "High dosage on the painkillers and anti-infectants, and the modafinil is to make sure you don't fall asleep on me. If you go out, don't know if you're gonna wake up."
"Special forces?" Garma asked her instead, eyes tracing along her gear, her face, the ways she stood, and the rifle beside her. "You're not one of Captain M'Quve's monuments men, are you?'
She lived near a museum now and frequented it weekly. She had heard reports of Zeon special forces wading into Seattle almost in conflict with the Zeon regulars, extracting crates and crates of art and artifacts.
She shook her head, palming the pills in her hand with the canteen in the other.
Garma had decided that that wasn't quite it, so he had pulled his head back, trying to look at the whole of her.
"Are you my enemy?"
She paused then and there; a furrow with her brow was her answer to him.
"Take the pills."
"…No. Not until you tell me who you are." Even while dying, defiant. Even while bloody, he exuded that certain trait that made his family the royalty of an empire. "If you are of the Federation, just kill me now and be done with it." It was his longest speaking yet, and it had obviously hurt him based on the way he had hacked at the end of it, like a period.
If only he knew.
If only he remembered.
Her hand returned to his this time, holding the canteen to it, pushing it up as the pills were up to his face. "Take the damn pills. I didn't kill four men and get some shitty sleep for this."
"But why?" The canteen was at his chest, and he seemed almost willing to drink, but he wanted something else, though: an answer.
"What would you like to hear?" She asked back, and weakly, he breathed through his nose at her; he realized, and she made known, the next step was her forcing the drink down his throat. So he did it on his own terms, the canteen shaking visibly, weakly as he brought it to his lips, and a bulb of it came out and down, half of it splashing outside his mouth as he painfully swallowed.
"You…" He started. "I've been defeated. If you seek to take me prisoner I won't have it." Was there honor there? In the admittance of a defeat? "I won't."
He was the commander of the entire Earth invasion force, and she had, up until that moment, forgotten that he had once been like her: too young for their station, too burdened by the circumstances of their birth. Here that frightening figure that had occupied almost the entire Earth was reduced to a broke man, among a broken war machine, along with his empire of dirt.
The e-tool, the shovel, came out of her assault pack. Even in a land that had been made of concrete, dirt needed to be moved, and a spade found its uses in ways other than just being a tool.
She's seen it once, the way a shovel gets lodged into someone's head and then ripped out. That was fighting at its worst: when it was building to building. She wonders what Garma's face would look like, split in two.
Unconsciously, she hooks her free hand around her pistol, unholstering it.
Her body is on autopilot.
This is what she wants.
The pistol is dropped to Garma, landing on his chest with a thud, and he again winces in pain. Looking down upon him again, as burnt as he is, bubbling flesh, it is a miracle he is not in pieces. Had he not come from the Gaw? In any case, she wants to send him to Hell.
"Go ahead. Do it." Her words are cold; her words are wanting. The cold hunk of steel lays upon the Zeon green of his uniform that remains, contrasting harshly. "Do it, you fucking zeek. Do what you came here to do."
Nearly a year of fighting, where men and women who flew his flag, and fought in his name, had destroyed so, so much of the innocent that none of it remained and left people husks of themselves. She sees the survivors: walking through those streets like the dead, ghosts, life sucked out of them by a people who were supposedly trying to free them.
"Do it!" She yells down at him, and with his broken bones, he feels every reverb. The pain that clouds his head, however crippling as it is, clears up by her voice as it echoes. She wraps both her hands around the length of the tool, "God dammit, don't just let me-!"
Garma's hand does not move to the pistol on his chest. For all his time alive, he, not even in his final moments, takes commands. He was a commander of his station, so he does not. His tongue comes out of his mouth, licking his lips, even with the bitter taste of himself on it. If he really wanted to, he could go for the pistol with his non-dominant hand, left uncovered, but if he moved, she would surely-
"Just do it!"
It's a hard thing to square his shoulders when half of his body is trapped beneath rubble, but he does, and he hides the pain of his body trying to move. "I won't give you a reason. Kill me of your own accord."
"I want you to try." Her eyes, green and fiery, burn hot as the sun. "I want you to try and fail."
"I won't give you that pleasure, whoever you are."
"You'll give me everything I want when you're dead and buried."
"Then what's stopping you?"
She remembers the first time she shot a Zeek that she had dead to rights, no chance to fight back. It was a man older than herself: they had made a camp in some old campus housing, supposedly secured due to the civilian security system installed by the university. The problem was was that some of the guerilla fighters had once been students of that university and still had their access cards. They stormed those dorms where the Zeeks had been housing themselves. Fifteen minutes and two platoons had been shot dead in their beds: She kicked in the door to a double unit, and there had only been one man in it, shirtless, fresh from the shower, half-turned to her.
She shot him dead then and there, and after that, she never thought twice about taking the upper hand or the first shot.
Again and again and again and again for as long as Zeon had come to Seattle.
It was easy.
The growl in her lungs, in her throat, it built, it rose, and the tool in her hand shook as the muscles in her arm tried to heave them back over her head to finally swing down to split Garma Zabi's head flat, or in two, depending on the angle. Though it rose and rose, and it growled like a pressure cooker until all at once she screamed again and sobbed.
The pistol remained untouched on Garma's chest as he looked up, defiant.
It would've been so easy to kill him, and that had been a tragedy.
Her arms rose up, she screamed still out into the city, and Garma closed his eyes, and the shovel came down. Oddly, he was at peace this time with death before him: In his mind's eye, once again, a beautiful woman, gossamer aura about her with golden hair.
Forgive me, Icelina, for not fighting back.
He felt a great weight on him collapse, and he thought that was it. Breath let go: eternity.
Eternity denied him.
The sound of a sharp shovel's blade landing right by his head, and then two hands, balling flesh and burnt uniform over his chest, grabbing tight. He couldn't feel it.
It was her, this woman, the Ghoul, head down, eyes closed.
If he grabbed the pistol now, it would've been a trivial thing to raise it to her form and then blast one shot away. He didn't, however.
No more death.
Suddenly the war had caught up to him, and he realized now more the truth of all those reports he had taken in from his officers on the frontline: that feeling, unable to be put into typed out words, of what it was like to sacrifice one's mortal soul for something as terrible as warfare.
The Ghoul grabbed his clothes, and she pulled him up. Something might've torn, flesh or fabric; she didn't care, but Garma's body heaved up slightly, and the pistol between them tumbled down the slopes. "Not here. Not now. But somewhere, it matters. I'll put you in the God damned ground!"
Through her teeth, her spit touched his face.
His right arm shuffled, he tore it free, and breathlessly he gasped in its pain of sudden movement. His nerves were on fire, and then they were in a coldness he only felt at the barest edges of spacewalks in a normalsuit. His right hand did not know where they wandered, but they rose up slowly and grabbed her neck as well. He could hardly grip, however, not that he could feel at that moment: the pressure around her neck the Ghoul had only felt barely three fingers touch upon her skin. Was he trying to hurt her back? No one there knew, but that contact alone, it was a statement: Here I am.
"What torments you, woman?" His back and the uniform behind it, he felt it moist: something had opened up, and the feeling only evoked the image of gore in his own mind, an ache that kept burrowing through each of his bones resounding.
"No." He spoke up back. He didn't believe that.
She slammed him back down and she was on him, hands still tight on him. "You don't get to say that!"
Down the street, looking for warmth from what residual secondary fires might remain, a buck looks on toward the sound of Man: the Ghoul and Garma. Its eyes glow before the sound of the slam, metal from the debris around creaking, makes it scurry away. Garma screams again, and it joins her echoes.
"You are Garma Zabi! Do you know what- do you know what you've done to all of us!?"
Around them, Seattle looks down upon them all. Even in New York, Garma knows the war that the Federation forced them to fight has ravaged the Earth. A necessary casualty. The buildings rise out of the dirtless ground like dead trees, struck down by lightning strikes from on high.
"Do you know what you've done to me!?"
Garma wonders perhaps that she is a ghost, and he is dead, and this moonlight ruin is Hell, cast here by the whims of a man he had trusted with his whole being. Garma wonders if she is the ghost of everyone his family has wronged.
She wants to grab his heart, take her hand, reach into the fleshy burnt remains of his skin on his chest and tear through, rip out, and feel it die in her hands. Better yet, maybe, she wants to reach in and discover there is no such thing. If this was any other fighter, any other man, woman, or even child who had suffered the indignity of this war, she knew that he would've been dead hours ago when they found him. That aggravation, that failure within her to act, it steals everything from her again as all those voices that are blaming her come from the pews of the dead, and, distantly, from the depths of her heart, she hears the judgment of someone that never was.
She wants to bury him so completely that the world would turn over a thousand times before his body is returned to the devils below.
His breath rises and falls, and soon again, her own breath matches.
Closer, closer, she leans into him, to be as close as she can so that the moment she strikes, no moment is spared, so she approaches, closer and closer until Garma, will and all, meets her in the middle.
Their foreheads touch, lavender, and black hair collide and intermingle with the glue of his blood yet coagulated, and there is now nothing left between them but that point of contact that burns hotter than thermite and gunfire. It burns, and like fire, like the flesh, it drives away impurities until it leaves but one thing:
"You cost me everything. Damn you! Damn you-" Her breath, her tongue, her mind, is not able to catch these words as they fall out of her, breaking down. "Your highness."
Garma Zabi knows what it's like to rule, to be born with cells and fiber that lead him to understand what it is like for people to serve him and for him to be royal. He knows servitude and loyalty and the way people are born into a system that he sits atop. He knows a woman who knew what it was like to be beneath him once by the way she says how he is supposed to be. Despite everything, she was beholden to him.
This woman was a spacenoid.
In her idle thoughts before today:
She wonders if her family on Side 3 was okay.
She wonders if, when all is said and done, there would be a place for her among all the colonies, one more time, with or without the Zabis.
She ground her forehead into his even more, and, with all his remaining strength, he looped his left hand around her head and pulled her in further until he felt their skulls together. Fingers, burnt and bloodied, weaved into her silk black hair, and he held her close.
"Damn you to hell." She said with a fire that smoked out of her lungs.
This anger, he felt it on her tongue, through very being. It was an anger he had expected but from someone else.
Fire red anger, and a red comet is in his own vision. "I am."
And again, and again, and again, until her tears dripped from her face and down onto his, burning as they crossed his burns and scars. She's sobbing now, her breath hitching and catching and not believing that this has happened to her.
"Your name." He says, and she can feel his breath on her face, and it burns her. "I'd like to know the name of the woman who'd kill me." And, with one pause, looking inward himself, there is no more pain for a moment with this realization. She would be the one to kill him. Not Char.
Her name is a name he forgot, but she supposes, however, as this turns out, he deserved to know her name: She says it against his face, head resting on his own.
"My name is Mai."
And her name echoes only in Garma's head into the past as they both lay with each other, in anger and in silence.
It exhausts the both of them, being as they are, and sooner rather than later, Mai knows that if Garma is to die, it is not going to be tonight. They both know that, for better or worse, deserved or not.
Too much to ask, too much to explain, and the night is a temporary cover.
"Take me from this place." He says to her, long after her tears have stopped and she has rolled over, all of them, like the freshly dead beside them, on the ground staring up at dying stars. Distantly, they both think they see a battle off the side of the moon, twinkling stars and fluttering explosions. Further still, even if they were closer: The flap of wings, black objects in the sky.
One by one, their darker-than-the-night shape floats further and further down, and only Mai sees them as they perch above in ruins cracked of both Seattle and the Gaw. To them, they are both the same. They each look down upon her, and the stars are in their eyes as Mai feels them. She feels their judgment. These birds feed upon the dead, and here they must think of her: Why do you deal with someone who must already have died? She owes no answer to them, and for that, they laugh at her:
Caw, caw, caw. Shrill sounds that echo into the night that sounds like metal in imperfect sound that echoes across the Earth.
They know Time. They see it rot away at those living, waiting for their time with strange intelligence not gifted to mortal men.
Who is really dead here, Mai wonders, for they look on at the two of them.
Perhaps they are one and the same.
She feels the back of Garma's free hand rub against her right arm, very faintly, and it is enough for her attention to bring her back from the gaze of crows.
"If I die I want to die closer to the stars."
She can do that, loathe as she is to do so.
Wordlessly she nods, following orders from him like that day in the Academy so long ago, and begins digging around him.
The crows, with each sound of pitched metal against stone, vanish back to the stars above.