Entry 17 – Aftermath
Of the battle itself, not much can be written beyond the fact that we held our own. The fate of the enemy was sealed by the gradual arrival of other Perihelion forces from the camp and less than thirty minutes after the initial encounter, all that remained of the once numerous hostile force was a pile of smoldering wreckage.
That's when things got really weird again.
I was just putting myself together after the fight, leaning against the Mamba, smoking my first (but definitely not last) cig of the day, wishing for some answers, starting with the identity of our recently deceased friends. Espinoza was out now as well, arms folded tight and looking around as if unsure what to do.
"Yo!" I waved at her.
She was stiff and looked really uncomfortable but our eyes met after a split second. Clearly she wasn't looking forward to talking to me and I realized that instant she knew more of the situation than she was letting on.
Since she seemed quite content just standing there looking awkward, I had to make the first step because by then I was just dying to find out what was the last hour had been all about.
Casually strolling towards her, I leaned once again against the cold steel of her Nightsinger, not looking at her but at the sky above, the desire to get to the bottom of the riddle fighting basic human decency of leaving the clearly distraught woman alone. Needless to say, the curiosity won.
Starting a discussion with a lady with a statement spiced by a hint of accusation was hardly gentlemanly, but I didn't really think of myself that way anyway. I am more a lovable rogue type. Yeah, right, who am I kidding – I'm about as lovable as plague.
"So. You know what's happening, don't you."
No reaction apart from a barely perceptible sideways glance. I sighed.
"Look, you need to tell me what's going on. People got hurt here, our people," I pointed towards a burning Jaguar knocked out seconds after its arrival, its shell-shocked, soot-covered crew next to it tending some minor burns.
"I mean," I continued, "you know this makes no sense, right? These... whoever it was," I waved roughly in the direction of the nearest wreck, "they trashed the whole base looking for... whatever. But we take care of them in minutes?"
I shook my head, once again lifting my eyes up towards the stars.
"Either we're the best goddamn outfit on the planet, or the Army REALLY let itself go. And given how half of our own guys are ex-U.S. military, I don't think that's the case."
Espinoza pursed her lips, opened her mouth as if she was going to say something and then closed it again, shaking her head as well, leading to yet another pause before she finally decided what to say.
"Sam... you're a nice guy. I like you. I really do. That's why I am telling you..."
She finally looked me in the eyes with previously unseen intensity to underline the impact of her words. She was practically begging.
"...walk away from this. Get another job. Tell Murdoch to go fuck himself."
Bullshit. I wasn't going to let this go and the red, ugly, bitter furnace of anger inside me was only stoked by her words. I suddenly wanted to rage, to shout at her for even suggesting anything like that but the impulse thankfully passed as quickly as it came with logic taking over. I wasn't about to ruin my chances of having a guide through this rabbit hole slash acid trip by acting as a petulant child. Besides, whoever was to blame for this mess, it clearly wasn't her.
"No. No way am I walking out without any answers. We haven't known each other for long but... I think you know me well enough for that already."
Now the look in her eyes was pure sadness. Not the teary kind, the deep, black kind that no amount of drink would cure.
"I know... I know."
She shook her head and took a deep breath before looking back at me.
"That wreck nearby," she pointed towards a large boxy vehicle with half of its suspension torn off by an explosion. I've never seen such a design in my life, not even at the earlier demonstration.
"It doesn't look burned and one of the hatches is open. Check inside. And don't worry. I'll wait here."
I hesitated for a moment. I wasn't exactly keen on going through some dead, crispy bodies but she waved me off.
Listening to her seemed liked the best course of action and I slowly made my way towards the hulk. One of the hatches on top was indeed open so I carefully climbed one side scored by impact holes from some autocannon rounds and, after checking for unpleasant surprises, wormed my way inside.
When I – dumbfounded as I was – returned, she was still there as she had promised, waiting for me with a canteen of water in her hand, which she offered without saying a single word. I took a big gulp.
"There's nobody inside. The controls are... strange. Some weird language I can't decipher. Doesn't look Asian though... I don't know!" I threw my hands up in despair.
She nodded before looking around.
"A few of the troops just reported in. All of them are empty. No bodies. No dead infantry either. Everything's just... empty. Or gone."
"You knew I'd find nothing? Why?"
Her expression didn't change.
"I didn't know you'd find nothing at all. Just..." she bit her lower lip, "something weird. I don't know either."
She looked so lost, massaging the temples with the thumb and middle finger of her right hand.
But the mystery of missing bodies had to wait. By now, the Army survivors began to emerge from their hideouts and they looked none too happy to see us. I saw Twocrows arguing with some officer before joining us with a worried look on his face. The reason was pretty obvious.
"They think we were involved in this, right?"
"Yes, of course they blame us. They suffered a lot of casualties, nearly all of them fatal. The enemy..." he paused, "left no survivors. Highly unusual."
He was right, of course. In all wars, the wounded far outnumber the dead but this wasn't the case. The enemy clearly wasn't interested in witnesses. Many would hide in the buildings and bunkers around the base though and there would be at least some local surveillance footage... I shuddered to think what the enemy would have done had we not interfered with their plans.
"And seeing we're the only ones walking and talking..."
Espinoza gave me another long, appraising look as if deciding how much on board I was and, more importantly, how much she could trust me. I wasn't sure about my odds but Lady Luck definitely was on my side tonight.
"Jim. Sam. That truck – get a few men and," she pointed towards the transport the enemy was trying to capture before our interruption, "move the boxes they were after to our camp. Whatever was causing the jamming is gone now. The landlines are probably still fucked but I'll try to raise Ferguson or even Murdoch directly through the satellite link. Post some sentries around the stash, nobody, and I mean NOBODY is to touch it without my presence. Not even you, Sam, got it?"
I kept nodding without even realizing it at first. This was a situation where I felt comfortable with her in charge as I still had no idea what was going on, but if getting my hands dirty brought me closer to finding out, so be it. Besides, good old manual labor is the best cure for aching mind, as Miss Pembroke, the shrew that ran the last foster home I'd been in, used to say. Only now, years later, could I appreciate how right she was.