The door seemed to push back against me when we finally returned. I felt tired, and I shouldn’t – I’d actually been sleeping more than a few hours a night for once. I didn’t have all that pent up worry about Beth. Well, not about anything serious. She wasn’t stuck in that hospital bed anymore.
I wasn’t fighting tooth and nail to try keep myself alive anymore. This was different. Slow. Calculated. We were careful to only start something we could win. I had friends at my side, Mike had some cash to start restocking on decent equipment. Sure, I was left shaking with adrenaline after a fight. I still got that buzz, but it never quite… satisfied me.
“Nice Idea,” Mike said, pulling the black mask off his head. “With the whole knife thing, I mean.”
“We need some kind of mark.” I replied. It was hard to keep track of who we’d already threatened. Scars were a good sign that we’d already issued our demands. Also – I resisted the urge to touch my own – the cause was hard to forget when it stared back at you every time you looked in the mirror.
“No, it works for more than that.” He opened the fridge and pulled out a beer, raising his eyebrows at me. I shook my head, never liked the taste of the stuff.
He threw it to Danni without even asking her. She snatched it out of the air and snapped the top, joining our conversation, “It’s a symbol, something for people to remember, to recognise.”
I glanced up at her in time to catch her rubbing the tattoo above her eyebrow. A tattoo identical to those I’d rather crudely dissected.
“A show,” Mike added. “One people will remember.”
Mike was right, of course. We were putting on a show. We needed to make people pay attention. I couldn’t help but think he wasn’t taking things seriously enough though. We weren’t playing games here. However careful I was, it would be naïve to think that people weren’t going to get hurt, killed. I had to make sure as hell that it wasn’t going to be my friends. I’m not sure it would feel so much like a show when things start getting ugly.
“Whatever,” I said, and broke off from the conversation using physical means, via the door. Now the thrill had worn off I was left with a queasy feeling in the bottom of my stomach. I was familiar with the layout of the building enough to find myself at the door to my room without really concentrating on where I was putting my feet.
I stopped with my hand resting on the door-handle. Our room, not mine.
I depressed the handle with great care. Too fast and the mechanism was prone to catching, resulting in an audible click.
Noise was successfully avoided. Next problem: light. I hit the push-switch in the hall before leaning into the door. It soon became clear that neither action was necessary. The room was already lit. Beth was awake?
“You’re back.” She was curled up on the mattress, face to the wall. I could see the curve of her back, her bare feet, and a mess of black hair.
“Yeah,” I hadn’t told her we were going. She was sleeping, and I hadn’t been keen to wake her up. She must have woken naturally, tried to find me only to discover the place empty.
I turned my back to her and unbuckled my helmet, for the second time that day, and threw it into a pile of unwashed clothes delicately piled up in the corner of the room. It was soft enough for it to land silently.
“Again?” Her voice was louder, no longer edged with that harsh echo of the concrete wall. She’d turned around, on to her back maybe?
“Again.” I pulled the straps holding my vest tight to my chest. I didn’t need to look, I’d done it enough, but I did. I wasn’t sure where else to place my eyes. It offered me a reasonable excuse to focus my attention.
Shoulders, waist, each strap released a bit of tension of ballistic armour pulling on my chest. Increased freedom, reduced protection. That always seemed to be the trade-off.
I slipped it over my head, pulling my shirt down as it caught, threatening to take both off at once. Do. Not. Want.
The thigh pads next. Annoying things, rubbed when you walked. New addition, using the last remaining material I had. I’d need to get some more, get some armour for Danni and Mike too. No reason for them to go un-protected. Mike had enough money, I was sure.
I’d run out of things to do, which meant I had to actually talk to Beth.
With strictly mental deep-breath, I turned to face her, and her questions.
Her worried look.
She held her hand out to me, an invitation? I was still unused to… our relationship. It had seemed so simple. Hell, we’d got along so well before.
But things had changed after our kiss. Oh, it had been wonderful. The memory still sent a shiver down my spine. But… after that night, after the kiss, things had gotten more complicated.
Nothing had been fixed.
All the problems, they were still just the same. Beth had still just lost her father. She, as far my ability to tell, wasn’t coping particularly well.
She spent most of the day lying in bed. Sleeping, maybe. I didn’t know what to do. She’d been hurt, how much sleep was a good amount?
This was the first time she’d seeked out… me.
This was all new to me. I’d had a week for our kiss to sit in my head, stewing. I was very good at that. Working myself up about shit like this.
But, that kiss had felt so right. As far as I could tell… I think it was good for Beth. I could overcome a little nerves for her.
I folded my legs, sitting cross legged on the floor in front of her, and took her hand. Close, there for her, but not intimate. I didn’t want to push it.
“I just don’t want to see you hurt.” Her eyes were firmly fixed on my collar bone. It was disconcerting, having her not look me in the eye.
“We’re being careful.” We were picking the good fights, the easy ones. We had to show how strong we were, we couldn’t afford to appear to lose. But… I knew her concern. However careful, it was dangerous. One slip up, something not even in our control, and we could be dead.
She opened her mouth to protest, but I interrupted.
“I know why you’re worried. I know it’s dangerous… but I can’t just sit by and watch what’s going on around here without at least trying to do something. Besides, I’m already too deep. I can’t really have a life outside the Island. We can’t really have that life. We’re stuck here, I just want to make it a life worth living.”
She nodded. “It’s just…”
“You’re all I have left, I don’t want to lose you too.”
That hit me harder than any punch. I mattered to someone that much.
“If… If we’d got into the military,” I thought back to our plans before they had been destroyed by circumstance. “We’d be facing dangers like this. Pilots are never safe. If Russia kicks off, all hell could break loose up there.”
“But we’d be together.”
“Would we? I’m not so sure. You-” I stopped myself before pointing out she never saw her father because of his work. Not a good idea, this was the most she’d spoken to me for a long time. I didn’t want to put my foot in it now. “We’re together now, aren’t we?” Genuine question.
“I suppose.” Okay, it lacked enthusiasm, but my heart still gave a little tug. Together.
My natural reaction was to reason with her. I knew, deep down, that you couldn’t just reason away feelings. You can’t persuade someone to be happy by telling them all the things they should be happy about any more than you can persuade someone not to be scared of flying by pointing out how statistically safe it is.
But it was the only thing I could do to try help.
“In the army you get proper equipment.” She eyed my discarded armour. “And weapons. Everyone you’re with gets training, you work as a unit. People have your back.”
“I have that now, okay, maybe we could improve the equipment a little, but I’m working on that.” Mental tag: Armour for Danni and Mike top priority. “And we work well together. We’ve been through a fair bit. I trust them.”
She made am uncommitted ‘hmm’, and I wasn’t sure of what it was she was happy with. “I’ve seen those nine millimetres you had. Throw me one.”
I only had one pistol left, and I hadn’t been bringing it with me on our outings. I stood and retrieved it from the pile of un-used equipment in the corner, tossing it to her.
She caught it, but snapped at me “Is it loaded?”
“No!” Did I do something wrong? “I-”
“You didn’t check, would you throw it around like that if it was?” She pulled back the slidey thing and released it with a click.
“No.” Probably not, unless I was in a fight and someone needed a gun real fast…
“First, most important thing with firearms: Always treat them as if they are loaded.” Her eyes were as sharp as her voice. She was actually angry with me. “You didn’t even check if anything was chambered.”
“I-” I wasn’t expecting her to speak to me like this. Not after her… hibernation. “Look, this is why I don’t bother bringing it.”
“I’m glad.” After a brief investigation she sighted down the notches on the top. “This thing is a piece of junk. I would say it was a Nigerian copy, but even they build to a better standard than this. No serial number, and it’s not been filed off. This is a genuine new-manufactured black market copy of a cheap Nigerian copy.”
The Island had a pretty big manufacturing capability, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were people making guns from scratch.
“It’s cheap.” Her fingers poked and pulled at it. I couldn’t see how, but slowly and surely she dismantled it on her lap. “Dirty, doesn’t look like it’s been oiled in months. I’m surprised you can hit anything with it beyond 20 meters.”
“I’m not really a very good shot anyway.” I would blame the gun, but other people seemed to do better. Chances are it’s probably me. “I don’t really like guns.”
“You’ve started a fucking war, Alex. You can’t just opt out and use a stick because you don’t like the weapons everyone else is going to use. They’re still going to use them and you’re going to get killed.”
She re-assembled it, and placed it carefully on its side in front of her. Even self-described as a piece of junk, and she was still careful with it.
“You’re going to have to learn how to shoot.”