Men of ethereal powers are the last line of defense against the invading X...
“I suppose I’ll be dying first, then,” the beautiful girl sitting across the table muttered, a mirthless sneer parting her lips.
She looked him straight in the eye and exhaled a cloud of poisonous smoke before putting out her cigarette in the filthy ash tray. In the neon gloom of the room she looked every bit the fallen angel, an ethereal being of pure perfection cast down from the Heavens. If only she were that lucky. Even fallen angels got a second chance.
The worn-out quarter felt heavy in his hand, as though the weight of the world resided in his palm. Chance was, next time it was coming down tails.
“You can’t change destiny, Mike, no matter how much you try,” she said. She smiled and lit another cigarette with the slow deliberate motion of a guilty pleasure, as if the mayhem outside was but a dreadful daydream happening a galaxy away. She exhaled slowly. Her pale jade eyes wandered away from him and down to the old oak table, a subtle sign of her vulnerability most would have missed.
Michael smiled back. For him she was perfect, but even perfection could succumb to the hopelessness around them. For the rest of mankind, she personified hope for her soul’s illuminating light was not yet dimmed by the constant assault of painful memories from a world already dead. He extended an arm, his gentle, affectionate touch wiping away her silent tears.
Her hand met his for a moment he wished would last for eternity. Her warm touch spoke clearer than a thousand words. It begged him to stay, to offer her heart a shelter from the downpour of death and suffering.
The life of an angel offered little respite. In the end, the voices always won. No angel escaped their sorrowful wails for long. She would be no exception. Both of them knew the simple truth.
Perfection demanded a steep price -- the angel’s soul.
Michael sighed as his eyes rested upon his worn out Glock on the table. If not for Maggie, he would have pulled the trigger already.
If I only had the balls…
Angels usually died by the bullet. Their own. Walkers, crawlers, and flyers were enemies the protectors of humanity faced and lived. Six billion souls weeping in unison in the angel's conscience was a different matter altogether. The voices, much like ocean waves, beat against the sand castle protecting the angel’s sanity and soul. Surrendering to the madness was a matter of ‘when’ not ‘if’.
He knew. He was one of the few who heard the voices none the worse.
The girl’s delicate features hardened, determination replacing the despair in her look. She hesitated for a heartbeat and pushed his hand away. He had offered his strength. She had refused his help.
It was not only her decision to make. Not any more.
“We’ll be dying together, Maggie,” Michael said levelly, emptying his glass of scotch down his throat. It burned but he could no longer survive without the warmth of his malt companion. He poured himself another. Some coped with the voices better than others. Alcohol usually came first. Most pressed on to more potent stuff before long. Scotch worked for him. For now.
Maggie never drank. “If you die, I’ve nothing left to live for,” Michael said.
She smiled but her sad eyes told the true story. She was the one who reached across that time. Her gentle grip on his hand tightened. “I’m sure you’ll find another pretty face to keep you company, Mike,” she said half-jokingly. “Though if I live, I’ll have to teach that little bitch some manners for stealing my man.”
“Never,” he whispered in anger.
“Promise me,” Maggie said. “Promise me, you’ll live on.”
He frowned. “I’ve earned another shot at death, Maggie. Why must you perish while I live? Why can’t I come out and fight at your side? Why can’t we die in each other’s arms?”
“You are Michael,” Maggie said, as though that simple statement explained all. Michael wished it did not, but she spoke right, as always. “You’re not only my soulmate, my lover,” she whispered. “Our hope dies with you. You must live.”
The voices drilled into his conscience. He closed his eyes and grinded his teeth. He held onto Maggie’s hand, his last bridge to the dream there could be life after Armageddon.
The fires of destruction descended upon his conscience fast and furious. The bridge in his mind blazed in scarlet and gold, the green pastures on its far side forever lost amidst the fog of war. Maggie was his keystone, holding up his world against all odds. Now, she was ordered to die so that humanity could live. No one showed him the same courtesy.
Michael stood up abruptly and drank his glass dry again. “Heads, I come with you and the hell with the Council; the hell with everybody!”
The quarter spun into the air. Chance is all. Who lives and who dies.
Maggie reached into the air and caught the coin with speed the eye could not follow. She looked down.
“Tails,” she said angrily, slamming the quarter on the table in front of him. “Promise me.”
He glanced down as well.
The ground shook violently underneath them. He was out of time.
“Promise me,” she insisted.
“I promise,” he said.
Maggie picked up her SCAR H rifle, before putting on her headset.
Michael followed suit. The all too familiar sounds of death spilled out from the Satcom--the screams of the wounded, the wails of the dying, the hiss of deathrays cutting through flesh with utmost ease.
She walked over to him, and grabbed his collar. Her breath stunk of cigarettes yet her passionate kiss was sweeter than any other; sweeter than their first, sweeter than the ones when they made love for the first time. He grabbed her waist with inhuman strength and refused to let her go. He was not ready to let go.
Not now, not ever.
She pulled back ever so slightly and rested her head on his shoulder. Maggie hugged him with all the emotion she had left. He stroked her hair for one last time.
His eyes watered.
“I have to go, baby,” she whispered softly in his ear.
Michael let go. She put on a brave face but her tears came regardless.
“Good bye,” she said walking past him and towards the door. “Bravo company, on me!”
Two dozen somber-looking soldiers, less than a third the original strength of the company, picked up their weapons and followed Maggie to the bloodbath outside. The repetitive sound of safeties switched to full auto echoed in the gloomy evening air. The soldiers saluted him as they passed by, much like the ancient gladiators paying their final respect to the Roman Emperor before facing death with steel in hand.
We who are about to die salute you!
They were walking straight into a death trap and few harbored the illusion they would escape with their lives. Their sacrifice was meant to buy time. No more, no less.
As Bravo company exited the premise in haste, Michael looked around at the remainder of soldiers still sitting on the bar stools in what had been a fairly trashy pub before the Fall.
George, Sergey, Udoke, Jia, and Martin.
He nodded and his soldiers picked up their weapons as well. His team wore determination on their faces like a badge of honor. They had every reason to. They had survived... against all odds. They'd lived through droughts, plagues, and wars. They'd survived the X. They've survived my kind. They've survived me. Long odds indeed.
His detail's journey was far from over, however. They would get their fair chance at death, just like their brothers and sisters from Bravo.
Just not today.
Michael turned his nano-suit on, establishing a direct link with Central Command. He closed his visor, and switched his HUD to the tactical map of New Hope. He cursed under his breath. The situation appeared anything but rosy.
Michael strode to the back exit in haste. His small entourage followed.
“Good to have you back, Michael,” his earpiece rang.
“Good to be back,” Michael lied. “Where do we stand, Eagle?”
“Be advised Freedom has been overrun, Sir,” the operator replied in a thick Russian accent. “You have enemy crawlers and heavy walkers advancing on the evac site in force. Delta and Gamma are fighting in the streets but they will not last long, Sir.”
“Raphael?” Michael asked.
“M.I.A., Sir,” the operator said with thinly veiled distress.
Darn it, only three of us left. Out of fuckin' thirty... funny we always end up M.I.A. We never die. Ever. If Maggie perishes, I’ll only have that stuck up old fart of a Brit Gabriel to keep me company. Talk about odds. Curious how they'd spin it if I blow my head off...
He understood the reasoning behind the United World Government's propaganda, especially when morale stood on the edge of a steep bottomless abyss. Hell, bottomless is an understatement. Black Hole, rather. Once we plunge, we'll be sucked into the void of despair forever. There'll be no getting out. Hope died here tonight. For all of us...
Still, he cringed at the amount of information sewage spewing out of the delusional men and women who somehow believed that a lie told often enough became reality. He outright detested their cold detachment in sending Maggie to die while blasting the speakers with 'Every Single Life Matters!'. Well, the end was nearing and nothing those sociopaths and power junkies could do about it. The X would come knocking on their submerged gates soon enough.
He cussed in anger.
Sometimes he wondered if people would be better off with the truth. The UWG had painted its angels as the best humanity had to offer, both physically and morally, an ideal to look up to. While the former could be argued with some conviction, the latter represented quite a stretch, if not an outright lie.
Not that it mattered to the UWG and CenComm. The angels, what was left of them, personified humanity's best virtues, all in the name of not just survival but an ultimate victory over the X. Anybody who argued otherwise was shut up one way or another, more often than not with a bullet or three.
Michael frowned. Victory over the X? Even CenComm knew that to be a pipe dream. He considered impolitely informing the UWG that they can go screw themselves, and run out after Maggie. He had always been protected, from the moment he slew a Guardian, but he had let himself be protected. He had somebody worth living for. Now, his superiors had thrown her in the grinder, just like the rest.
The voices kept drilling further.
Michael growled. Not today...
“Eagle, be advised Magdalene is on her way with Bravo towards Blockade Point Tango,” Michael said.
“Sir, we suggest you hurry to the evac point. The skies are getting too hot for our birds.”
“How many birds are coming back?”
“About a dozen, sir,” Eagle replied. “All the birds we could scramble.”
“Negative, Sir,” the operator said. “We hardly have enough room for the refugees as is. We cannot afford losing any birds in raids on the X. You are on your own. I would advise urgency, Sir. If point Tango is overrun in quick order, the evac site will be fully compromised.”
“Understood. Michael out.”
He looked at his men.
Maybe we will get a chance at Death after all…
He kicked the back door out and rushed outside into the back alley. The setting sun had colored the evening sky in scarlet and purple. The twilight enveloped what was left of New Hope, the last rays of light surrendering to the shadow of the majestic mountain in the distance. Last hope, rather. Nowhere to run now.
A chilly wind came down from the slopes, a harbinger of an autumn most would not live through. The wind carried the fresh scent of pine, washing away the stench of war and death.
The fall of our civilization is at hand… and few of us will see the rebirth of spring. He looked back at the scene of his final farewell and savored the memory for one brief, precious moment.
“Move out!” he commanded.
His soldiers fanned out, assault rifles in hand. He lifted his visor and let his senses soak in the environment. Technology helped, but his psionic skills would be the difference between life and death, if they came across some X on the way to the evacuation point. His ethereal wings extended free in the air, an exercise that came to him just as naturally now as stretching before a game of hoops. His simple life as a mere mortal before the Fall seemed a lifetime away.
Sensing the imminent danger, the voices halted their assault on his mind. The irony was not lost on him. He could only find inner peace when facing death.
I’ll see you again, Maggie. Even death will not keep us apart.
* * *