Green Fields #8 - Catharsis
Bree’s list of priorities:
Survive the next hour.
Survive the next day.
Survive the next week.
Hold down solid food.
Relearn how to walk. How to run. How to hold a gun. How to fight.
Make Bucky Hamilton rue the day we met, and met again.
And find out what the f*ck we are looking for in Europe.
“You look like death warmed over.”
I squinted at Burns, trying very hard to think of a witty reply, but came up blank. Every single cell in my body hurt—some more, some less; some that weren’t even attached to me any longer. The harsh sunlight did a number on my already mushy brain, even though my eyes stung somewhat less than I was used to. That was one small reprieve, compared to…
I forced that train of thought to grind to a halt and focused on the most important thing: to not just stand there like a brain-dead zombie. I’d managed to get through the brief ride on the truck. I hadn’t screamed my head off when I’d slid out into the snow, my feet having to bear my entire weight again. I was not going to let this get me down now.
“Gee, you say the sweetest things,” I finally replied. The words came out just a little garbled, although the cold had helped bring down the swelling in my jaws. Nate gave me a cautious, sidelong glance, but remained silent.
Jason and Charlie were still busy eyeing the truck behind us with distrust, while Tanner stepped up to Burns, Gita hot on his heels. All of them looked beat up from the fight with the wolves and zombies, but hypothermia seemed the greater concern. I had a solution for that either way. Maybe.
“Just telling it like it is,” Burns pointed out. “We’re between a rock and a hard place again, aren’t we?”
I would have shrugged under different circumstances, but simply cocking my head to the side was hard enough. “What gave it away? Our little entourage, or the fact that they didn’t give us our weapons back?” To be honest, I had my Beretta back in its sheath on my right thigh, all the good that it did me without ammunition—among other issues. I was still surprised that Red—Lt. Richards to those bothering to remember names—had only brought ten soldiers with him on our little trip outside the heavily reinforced fence of the base. Apparently, my ability to simply take off running into the snow-covered hills had been deemed nonexistent, and they knew that Nate would never leave without me. For once, I could have done with more of that usual underestimating of me going on, but that assessment was sadly very accurate.
“Some things never change,” I offered, feeling the irony of that statement bite all the sharper. “We’re heading to Europe.”
Burns’s eyes widened infinitesimally, but he took it in stride. The others, not so much, but after another round of staring at the soldiers no one spoke up.
Exhaling forcefully—and my, didn’t that cause some nice spikes where my right kidney used to be… and half of my liver… and gallbladder… and other things—I went on, speaking in low, hushed tones now, trying not to make my voice carry back to our entourage.
“I should tell you that this is goodbye. We’re caught up in this, but you’re all free to go. And you should. Just turn around, hunker down for the winter, maybe pray for us if that’s your thing.” No one laughed. I hadn’t really expected them to. “Fact is, I can’t. We desperately need some backup because this is going to devolve into the shit storm of the ages. And I’m very likely going to be the one stirring it up. Even without that, I have a feeling it won’t be pretty and will resemble a suicide mission more than anything else. They wouldn’t be recruiting the heavy hitters if it wasn’t.”
Burns didn’t bat an eyelash. “When are we leaving?”
I hesitated after opening my mouth to reply, having to shift onto my right leg to keep the pain in the left from becoming too overwhelming. A frown crossed his forehead, but Burns did a good job ignoring my obvious… issues. “Today.”
“Where exactly in Europe?” A pause. “And how.”
“Plane. Ship. Need to know, and we don’t.” My cut-off response clearly conveyed both my annoyance with the latter, and the fact that any further questions were futile. If not for the agony pushing away every other sentiment, I would have choked on my frustration.
Burns gave another nod, understanding. “I’m good to go.”
I glanced at the others, not bothering to ask. Every word I didn’t need to enunciate was a small blessing right now. Gita looked scared—smart girl—yet tried to hide it. The guys, mostly determined. “You’re not getting rid of us again,” Jason said, clearly speaking for the lot of them.
“Yeah, we never claimed to be very smart about this,” Charlie agreed, trying for levity but failing.
I offered the most infinitesimal shrug I could manage, likely lost in the heap of winter clothes I was bundled up in. “Like attracts like.” Glancing back toward the truck, I couldn’t keep from adding, “And we’ll be in stellar company.”
Red didn’t sneer back at me as I had hoped, still seeming way too relaxed about his babysitting duty. “Are you done being a drama queen yet?” he asked, his tone level. “We still need to select and pack your gear. The longer you spend standing around here uselessly, the less time you have for that.”
There was no recognition in Burns’s gaze, and bless him for the neutral look he regarded Red with. “He in charge?” he presumed.
I shook my head, hard-pressed to keep down the half-hysteric laugh that wanted to escape me. “Nope.”
“Someone we know?” Burns asked, a hint of caution sneaking into his tone. The way Nate tensed next to me likely already gave the answer away.
“Who?” Bless him, but Burns wasn’t yet tired of my singular answers.
“Bucky.” No need to expand on that. They all knew who I was talking about.
The fact that Burns didn’t react at all told me that he could easily read the clues right off Nate and me, no further explanation needed. The others didn’t know us quite that well—and likely lacked a lot of background knowledge that even I hadn’t been privy to until very recently—so their obvious confusion was only understandable.
“Why would you want to work with that damn bastard?” Gita voiced her obvious objection.
My snort came out wryer than I’d aimed for, my voice dipping into almost toneless territory. “Trust me, I really don’t want to.” That much had been true even before we’d reached the base. Now, it was like a creed, set in stone. Gita’s mouth snapped open, obviously to ask why we still were, but I cut her off before our conversation could dip into dangerous territory. “I won’t hold it against you if you’d rather not stay. You’re still free to leave. All of you.”
“We stay,” Tanner insisted before anyone could say otherwise, his quiet confidence lending me a hint of hope. “We’re in this together. You can explain the details later.”
“You’re not getting rid of us,” Gita insisted, switching course. “You know that you’ll need me. Us,” she quickly corrected. The blank look on Tanner’s face underlined that her slip was just that. My tongue burned with the need to question her about what exactly she knew, which, of course, was just another way of asking what Gabriel Greene had known when he’d deliberately sent her with us. I knew that her fangirl act wasn’t just that, an act, but she might as well have proclaimed her mission statement right there. Instead, I nodded, the idea of having at least a hint of an extra security net in place a strangely comforting one. That was settled then, or so I’d thought.
“Actually, we’re not done yet.” Nate’s voice was hard, raspy, and it took me hearing him say that to realize those were his first words since we’d left that conference room. His expression gave nothing away, but his body was singing with tension—never a good thing, but considering that I still remembered all too well how he’d shut down when they’d shot him up with that changed version of the serum, I’d take quietly stewing any day.
Of course, I always preferred no-nonsense, no-bullshit Nate to Broody McBroodface. The corner of my mouth twitched at that thought, sending pangs of pain up to my temple and all along my jaw. Still, worth it.
Once he was sure he had everyone’s attention, Nate turned to Jason and Charlie. “You’re not coming with us.”
“Like hell we won’t,” Jason started to object immediately, but the look he cast my way was cautious rather than annoyed. Not quite sure where Nate was going with this, all I could do was stare back neutrally.
Nate grimaced, but his tone was far from apologetic. “I’m asking you not to, actually. I have a favor to ask of you. We struck a deal with them, for their head surgeon to try to help Martinez. They will try to get him up here as soon as possible. I would be much obliged if you would tag along and make sure that everything happens according to plan.”
Jason looked mostly confused while a dash of hope crossed Charlie’s face, but was quickly replaced by a frown. “From what he told me, that strut went right through his spine. Even before the shit hit the fan, that was usually a sentence for life. Their surgeons may be good, but that good?”
Jason cleared his throat before either of us could reply. “And not sure he’d appreciate you dooming yourselves for him.”
Even though it hurt, I allowed myself a mirthless grin. Nate provided the answer, chuffing. “That was the carrot. Don’t ask about the stick.” I didn’t miss how Burns scrutinized our entourage once more. Oh, I was sure that he could take a guess.
“And you trust them?” Jason nodded toward Red. “Not to hold Martinez hostage, or shoot us all the second we’re out of sight?”
“Like hell,” Nate grunted, but shut up when Richards finally abandoned his pretense that he wasn’t listening to our every word and joined us. The difference between him in his perfectly maintained, camo-patterned fatigues and our ragtag assortment of gear couldn’t have been starker.
“You can trust us,” he insisted. He briefly glanced in my direction but continued to talk to Jason. “Contrary to what some may believe, we’ve never had a quarrel with any of the traders or scavengers. You’re from the Utah settlement? If you want my superiors to get on the radio with Minerva to make additional assurances, that can be arranged. Or we can play this via Wilkes at the Silo. Your choice.”
Jason looked at Nate instead, who shrugged. “I believe that he thinks he’s telling the truth. That doesn’t change my assessment in the least.” He and Red did some staring that would otherwise have made me crack up, but my first impulse was to try to silently communicate to Nate to maybe not piss off the one guy who was trying to act diplomatic before we had a chance to get our weapons and ammo back. That offer about new gear had sounded genuine, and way too good to ignore.
Nate seemed to come to a similar conclusion, pretending like it was coincidental that he looked away first, not quiet acquiescence. “Besides, I need someone with Martinez who I can trust to have his best interests at heart. I have a feeling that whatever their first assessment will be, someone will stress that shooting him up with the serum is the best option. If he’s had one objection all these years, it was that he’d never want that to happen. With us gone, that leaves you the perfect person for that.”
Charlie slowly inclined his head, the look on his face solemn. “He mentioned that, once,” he agreed.
Even trying to keep my face straight, my confusion must have been plain for everyone to see, making Nate smirk for a moment. “His faith. He made me promise him a long, long time ago to never elect him for a possible candidate because when it was time to go, he wanted to die only once, for good. Guess how great it must have been for him to come to grips that the entire world had gone to hell and now a single bite or scratch could easily destroy that notion for good.”
I didn’t know what to say, not that it was necessary. Jason still didn’t look happy but finally gave his assent. “We’ll take care that no one gets the chance to screw with his head. Might not hurt to have someone along who can give a firsthand account of what happened up here.”
Red looked suspiciously pleased with that answer, but at least he kept his gloating at bay. “We are happy to either give you a ride with our next troop transport, or help you find other options.”
Jason unabashedly grinned at the line of Humvees parked beyond the base fence. “Those come with heating?”
“I will talk to our quartermaster to make sure you will be provided a vehicle that does well in this climate and will bring you safely to whatever destination you have in mind. Once we’re back inside the base, we can sort out the details,” Red assured.
That was settled then. I didn’t know how to feel about it. Relieved, sure, but I could have done without the dawning sense of just having signed their death warrants. Then again, they were likely a lot safer than the rest of us were about to be.
Nate took pity on me and heaved me back up onto the bed of the truck without having to be prompted. I was too numb with pain to care much, but as I’d feared, being so obviously incapacitated in front of my friends made my ego rear up once more, beaten and bruised as it was. Stupid, really, because if there were any people in the world who I could trust not to abuse my current situation, it was them.
There was a brief holdup when one of the soldiers bristled at the others of course bringing all their weapons with them, not just the packs. “Standard regulations for deserters and scum,” the soldier groused. His name tag read, “Russell.” How convenient that they had those. That one was going to be trouble, I knew it.
Red frowned, clearly at odds with his orders and common sense, or maybe he was annoyed that one of his men was acting like a petulant child. Nate turned to him, ignoring the soldier, giving Red a perfectly blank stare. “We’re no good to you unless you arm us, so sooner or later you will have to give us guns with live ammo.” I would have added a few expletives, resulting in immediate denial and subsequent issues. Nate, for once the wiser, clearly had a better grasp on how to navigate the situation. I could tell that Red was glad about that, and could proceed by telling his man to stand down. Russell looked less than pleased about that but followed his orders without objection, much to the smirks of several of his peers.
The others hopped up onto the back of the truck, sitting down in the middle of the benches lining the sides of the truck bed. We ended up wedged between the soldiers, shoulder to shoulder, the packs and weapons bundled up between our knees. I tried to keep my back straight but sagged right into Nate’s side, incidentally giving Tanner a little more space. Burns, opposite us, eyed my every motion critically while keeping a—clearly fake—grin up as he pushed a huge bag toward Nate that I was sure hadn’t been with us when we’d abandoned the wrecked cars. Inside were our sniper rifles—well protected in their cases—Nate’s AK, and a heap of our other backup weapons that Nate had opted to leave behind when we’d set out toward the base, just the two of us… what felt like a million years ago.
Red looked on with vague interest—relaxed enough that I figured he trusted us not to be stupid and try to stir up some shit—but it was one of the other soldiers who couldn’t keep his trap shut. Cole, if my part-time double vision didn’t screw too much with me. “Aren’t two of them a little overkill? Compensating much?”
Still keeping perfect control of his expression but as tense as a guitar string about to snap, Nate finished his brief check before he looked up. “Mine, and hers,” he said, first pointing at the newer model, then the older. “A blood-thirsty rifle for a blood-thirsty gal.”
It wasn’t lost on me that this must have been the first time ever that he acknowledged—finally!—having relinquished ownership of his baby to me. I just couldn’t appreciate it as much as I would have a week ago. Giving a shit about anything right now was hard. But it was something.
The significance was clearly lost on the idiot. “So you passed your old rifle on to your lady? Such a catch.”
I almost laughed when I felt Nate stiffen even more, knowing exactly what part he took issue with.
“That’s not just any old rifle. That’s one of the finest pieces of killing hardware ever created. And it’s seen quite some use.”
Maybe he was just trying to defuse the tension, or jumping at a chance to learn anything from Nate’s—usually tightly locked-away—background, but Jason asked, “Like where?”
Nate shrugged, although he tried to keep the motion small so as not to disturb me too much. He needn’t have bothered; the vibrations of the truck alone were enough to make me want to continuously yip with pain. “Iraq. Iran. Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia. Qatar. Israel. Somalia. Liberia. Côte d’Ivoire. Sudan. Burma. Prague.”
The last got not only my interest piqued. Burns let out a brief chuckle. “When did you off someone in Prague? Don’t remember any official missions in Europe. Or unofficial ones.” I doubted that anything any of the resident grunts had done in the past decade had been officially sanctioned by anyone. They’d probably dunked their mission reports in tar to make the redacting easier.
“Personal matter,” Nate offered, guarded as usual. “Was just Romanoff, Zilinsky, and me.” His tone was final enough, silently stressing that whatever had happened in Prague was staying in Prague. It sounded recent enough that I figured it had been part of preparing his takeover of the Green Fields Biotech building, and thus our not-accidental-at-all meeting. No swooning from being overcome with romantic nostalgia from me.
It was only then that something occurred to me that I probably should have considered much earlier, but I could see where my mind had drawn a blank on it before. “Shit. How am I ever going to shoot a gun again?”
I got a confused look from Burns that I ignored. Nate’s small snort was comforting. “With lots and lots of practice,” he offered, trying for a light tone but it held too much strain to be real. “You had no fucking clue how to hold a gun two years ago, either. We’ll get you there before you need it.” I tried not to, but of course couldn’t help but look down at the thick, padded gloves that kept the bandages on my hands well hidden.
Fuck. Just fuck.
Ready for more? Get Green Fields #8: Catharsis now! Also available in paperback and audio (March 2018).