Gabriel woke up.
That in itself was a surprise. Bleary eyed he tried to sit up, but only managed a few inches before pain overwhelmed his senses and he immediately passed out, falling back against the bedding. When he woke again a few minutes later he remained absolutely still and focused on simply staying conscious. It was a feat that took considerable effort as each breath, no matter how shallow, sent tendrils of blistering pain shooting through his chest.
It took some time but his eyes finally cleared and he stared up at the dull metallic ceiling. After a few minutes he realized that ceiling was wavering ever so slightly. At first he was sure it was his eyes failing him but no, there was definite movement. The bedding under him was vibrating as well. The movement was minuscule, but it was there.
He was on some sort of transport, but it wasn’t Novan, of that he was sure. If it had been, he would have been isolated, and while he couldn’t yet work up the effort to look around the room, he knew there were other people around him. He could hear them. Some were talking in low voices, saying words that he couldn’t quite make out. Others moaned in agony, wordlessly begging for some sort of reprieve. Gabriel knew that noise well. He had heard it from injured Novan soldiers. The cursed men and women who wavered between life and death as they desperately clung to every breath.
He chanced moving his arm, half expecting to find himself chained in place, but his arm moved with no resistance, lifting up weakly before flopping back to his side. He felt a needle in his arm shift uncomfortably and he let out a soft groan.
Suddenly someone was leaning over him. A young woman in ELA fatigues. Her light brown eyes staring down into his and her eyes crinkled into a relieved smile. “Thank God. You’re awake!”
She placed her hand on his forehead. Her hand was cool against his feverish skin. She pulled back and frowned. “Your fever still hasn’t broken. Here, you need to drink something.”
Her hand reached outside of Gabriel’s range of vision before returning with a bottle of water. Gabriel hadn’t realized how thirsty he was until the first drop of the cold liquid touched his tongue. Tilting his head up he tried to greedily guzzle down the water, but his caregiver put a gentle hand on his shoulder and pushed him back down to the bed.
“Not so fast, you’ll make yourself sick,” she chided gently before tipping the bottle back to his lips. Gabriel sipped the water, more calmly now. The cool liquid helping to clear his mind. “Do you feel well enough to speak? Breathing might hurt still. I’m pretty sure at least four of your ribs are broken, maybe more. Can’t be sure without an x-ray and we can’t do that any time soon.”
Gabriel blinked. He was completely unsure what to do in the situation. He knew he needed to gain information, but he couldn’t risk allowing anyone to know who he was. Being discovered as a Novan would be bad enough. Still, he would have to risk it.
“Yes,” said Gabriel.
The voice that came out of his mouth was barely recognizable to his ears. It was raspy, like dried leaves being crunched beneath a boot. The girl had been right as well. Even the slight breath he had used to speak the word sent pain racing through his chest and his hands found purchase in the sheet, twisting the fabric with a white knuckled grip as he waited for the pain to subside. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the woman reach out and touch something. He felt a tingling in his arm where the needle had been shoved into his skin. After a few moments the pain lessened to a dull ache. His fingers relaxed and he sank into the bed.
She reached forward and propped open his eyelids, a penlight appearing in her other hand.
“Follow the light.” Gabriel winced against the brightness but did as he was told, his eyes slowly following the light side to side and up and down. She flicked the light off. “Good, you don’t seem to have a concussion. You had a pretty nasty lump on the side of your head. It’s going to be tender for a while.”
“What is your name,” she asked.
“Gabriel,” said Gabriel before he could even think to lie. It took him a few moments to realize she had injected him with some kind of muscle relaxer. A haze fell over his mind and he mentally shook himself as he tried to fight it off.
“Nice to meet you Gabriel, I’m Charlotte,” she introduced.
“Everyone calls me Charlie though. Normally I would shake your hand, but under the circumstances I think it would be better if you just didn’t move.”
Gabriel nodded, or tried to. In the end he only managed to tilt his chin up and down slightly before his body refused to move any further.
“How old are you?” she asked.
“Seventeen,” Gabriel saw no point in lying. He was actually having a hard time seeing a point in anything at the moment.
“Okay Gabriel,” Charlie’s face grew grim and she leaned down closer, her voice dropping to almost a whisper. “I know this might be hard for you, but do you know if your family is still alive? We can try to contact them and let them know you’re okay.”
“No,” Gabriel said just as softly. The words slipped easily over his lips. After all, it was the true. “No, my parents are dead.”
“I’m sorry.” Charlie swallowed hard and gave a single nod. “Is there anyone else?”
“No one else,” said Gabriel.
“I see,” Charlie went silent for a long time. “How do you feel?”
“Bad.” Gabriel felt the word didn’t properly convey exactly just how terrible he was feeling, but it was the shortest possible way he could think of to answer Charlie’s question.
“Yeah, stupid question... I’m sorry. There isn’t much we can do about your ribs beyond pain medication, but we were able to stop the internal bleeding in your stomach. The stitches are still fresh, so avoid moving as much as you can. We can’t do more yet. Unfortunately we don’t have access to most of our equipment,” Charlie explained.
“How long have I been out?” Gabriel said.
“We left Woodcrest about six hours ago,” said Charlie. “I don’t know how long it was before they brought you in though.”
Gabriel did a quick calculation in his mind. He had been out six hours, maybe seven. By air they could be hundreds of miles away in that time, but Gabriel was relatively sure they weren’t in an air transport. The ride was too smooth. It had to be some kind of ground convoy.
“Where are we going?”
Charlie glanced towards another patient as they wailed in pain before she turned back to Gabriel. “We evacuated all the civilians out of the city and are heading to the nearest base. Only military personnel are staying behind to guard against a possible follow up attack by Nova.”
He was heading to an ELA base. Directly into the belly of the beast. He would be safe though, so long as they thought he was nothing more than a civilian. “How far away is it?”
“By air we could be there within two days, maybe three, but we’re traveling by convoy. The Novan attacks left us without enough air transports to go around. Anything running is being requisitioned by the ELA. It’s probably going to take us two or three weeks, and that’s if we don’t run into any trouble,” Charlie reached over him and returned holding a long syringe. She lifted up his wrist and gave him the shot before he could respond. “Now, you need to sleep. You’re still very weak. I’ll be back to check on you later.”
The sedative struck Gabriel almost immediately. He tried and failed to fight off the darkness that clouded his eyes before falling into a deep, dreamless sleep. He wasn’t sure how long he slept, but when he woke up again the lights in the room were dimmed and the only sound from the other occupants was gentle breathing accompanied by the soft beeping of the few monitors the ELA had managed to salvage.
Carefully Gabriel rolled onto his side, clenching his teeth against the pain, before he managed to push up and into a sitting position. He blinked a few times to help his eyes adjust to the darkness and took his first good look around the room. It was a large, metal rectangle with beds lined up on either side. Cabinets lined the ceiling, many half open displaying the medical contents inside.
Charlie had mentioned they were traveling by road. From the way the room shifted ever so slightly it must be some sort of trailer attachment, balanced on gyroscopes to help keep the injured from moving around too much. It was a primitive version of transportation by Novan standards, but still effective in a pinch. Gabriel counted thirty beds in all, all of them filled save one. No one else seemed to be awake.
His arm itched and Gabriel absentmindedly touched the spot, pausing when he felt the needle under his skin. He considered removing it, but decided against it when a wave of nausea swept over him. He grit his teeth, fighting against the worsening feeling as he swung his legs off the bed and pushed off. His knees buckled instantly and he collapsed to the ground with the soft hiss. Holding the bedding with a tight grip he managed to pull himself back to his feet. Unsteadily he stumbled his way over to one of the open cabinets, carefully dragging his IV along with him.
A loud snore caused him to jerk his head to the side. The rapid movement sent a stab of pain through his skull. Closing his eyes he willed his nerves to settle and returned his attention to the medical supplies. It took only a few minutes of rummaging before he found a bottle filled with clear liquid.
Finding a syringe was easy enough and Gabriel returned to his bed, sitting down carefully as he filled the syringe with the liquid adrenaline. Placing the bottle down beside him he carefully undid the paper-like robe that had been wrapped around his body.
In the dim light it took him a moment of searching to find the small, discolored spot on his chest. It could have easily passed as a scar, but it wasn’t. It was a marker tattooed onto his skin. Sara had insisted on it to make it easier for her. Gabriel had seen no reason to object and was now thankful for that decision as he lined the tip of the needle against the spot and began to press down.
Gabriel had never done this himself but he had seen Sara do it many times. He realized quickly it was much harder to push a needle into your own chest than it was to stay still while someone else did it. He resisted the urge to vomit as the needle seemed to slide through his entire body. He kept pushing until he finally felt a small resistance. That would be the implant’s thin membrane that protected the adrenaline reservoir. There was no pain as he pushed through it and injected the adrenaline into the hollow, but it was still an uncomfortable feeling. Gabriel pulled the needle from his chest and exhaled deeply.
He was exhausted, in pain, and heading deep into hostile territory, but at least he had some semblance of a trump card now.
With effort he returned the bottle back to the cabinet and dropped the needle into an already overflowing box of medical waste. He doubted anyone would notice anything amiss among the mess.
He had just returned to his bed and started to climb back on when a door at the end trailer slid open. A young girl with long black hair slipped in, her left arm was wrapped in bandages and hung in a sling. She paused when she saw Gabriel, her eyes widening. She lifted up a finger to her lips and quickly scampered to the empty bed and dove under the covers. Almost as soon as the covers settled over her, the door slid open again and Charlie stepped into the room, a stern expression on her face. Not noticing Gabriel, Charlie stormed across the room and pulled the covers back.
“Millie!” Charlie obviously wanted to snap at the girl, but couldn’t raise her voice higher than a whisper. “I told you to stay in bed.”
Millie’s answer was a dramatic snore as she rolled over onto her other side. Charlie stared down at her for a long time before shaking her head and pulling the covers back over her. She turned around and spotted Gabriel. Her eyebrows shot up in surprise and she quickly crossed over to him.
“You shouldn’t be up either.” Charlie lifted a hand to her forehead in exasperation. “You’re worse than Millie. At least she is just a kid.”
Gabriel glanced over Charlie’s shoulder and saw Millie sitting up. She stuck her tongue out at him before settling back down.
“Sorry,” said Gabriel.
Charlie sighed and pressed her hand against his forehead. “Well, your fever broke so I guess you’re getting better.”
Gabriel nodded, though he still wouldn’t describe his current condition as better. At best he was simply alive.
“I have a feeling if I leave you alone in here someone is going to want to talk to you.” Charlie jerked her thumb towards Millie. “So, are you hungry?”
The thought hadn’t occurred to Gabriel, but with the idea fresh in his mind he suddenly felt ravenously hungry. Though with his stomach wound, he wasn’t completely sure he could manage to keep any food down.
“Starving,” Gabriel answered.
“Good, first watch is about to have breakfast. There are some clothes under your bed, I think I got your sizes right, or as close as I could.. I’ll wait for you outside.”
Charlie left the room and Gabriel carefully leaned down to pick up the neatly folded clothes. When he straightened back up Millie was standing on the other side of the bed, staring up at him inquisitively. Gabriel stared at her before dropping the clothes on his bed. He recognized them as ELA fatigues. He hesitated for a moment.
Logically he knew that the clothes were nothing more than that, they were clothes. Still, as he ran his fingers across the fabric it felt strange. If he closed his eyes he wouldn’t have been able to tell a difference between the clothes in front of him and the clothes he would have worn in Nova during academy training drills. But he wasn’t in Nova. He was on Earth, in the care of the ELA, and he was about to put on an ELA uniform.
Millie was still staring at him. He flicked his eye down to her arm. The wound was still fresh, and the way she carried it told him it was still hurting. Judging from the bandages it was probably also some kind of gash. He hadn’t noticed earlier the small cuts that crisscrossed along her face. They were shallow and looked like they would heal soon, but he had no doubt they had been painful.
“You should get back to bed,” Gabriel said as he started to get dressed, pulling on the pants first. They were slightly too big, but they were better than nothing. Gabriel pulled off the robe and started to pull on the grey shirt. Unlike the pants, it was a little bit too tight.
“What happened to your stomach?” said Millie, tilting her head to the side as Gabriel slowly pulled the shirt down, wincing in pain as the movement upset his wounds.
“I got cut,” Gabriel said, pulling on the jacket, relieved to find that it actually did fit.
Gabriel looked down at her. She seemed sincerely interested, leaning forward and waiting.
“I’m not sure. Last thing I remember is waking up here.” Gabriel lied. He took the momentary lull to change the subject away from himself. “What happened to your arm?”
Millie looked down at her arm. With her one good arm she shrugged. “I got cut.” She looked back up at him with a small grin.
The corner of Gabriel’s mouth quirked up into a smile. “How?”
“The Archangel blew up my apartment,” said Millie, and for a moment her smile faded before she gave another shrug. “The explosion took out our living room and the wall of my bedroom. When I woke up I was bleeding. It doesn’t really hurt though.”
“The Archangel…” Gabriel repeated slowly. His mouth went dry and he took an involuntary step back, his mind flashing to the civilians he had seen trying to escape the district.
There had been children….
“Millie!” Charlie stuck her head through the door. Gabriel flinched and Millie cursed quietly as she scampered back to her bed. Gabriel stared after her before giving himself a small shake and following Charlie out of the trailer and into another. This one was completely filled with unmarked crates.
“Sorry about Millie. She’s just been bored since we left.” Charlie explained.
“It’s fine.” Gabriel glanced back towards the trailer. “Is she going to be okay?”
“She’ll be fine. I’m just holding her for observation. She’s too proud to admit when she is really hurting, and we don’t have access to any x-ray machines or anything. I might be able to let her go back up to the front cars soon, so long as she is able to behave!” Charlie yelled the last word, her voice echoing down the trailer.
“Front cars?” Gabriel said as he stepped over one of the crates that had fallen into the center of the trailer.
“Right, you’ve probably never seen one of these, for good reason,” Charlie made a face. “They’re called Dillos.”
“Yeah, like armadillos. The concept was to create an armed train that could theoretically travel over multiple terrain types and deliver supplies and troops into the battlefield. Like most concepts, it was better in theory than in practice. As it turns out, it isn’t hard to target a giant land train and bomb the hell out of it. The ones that weren’t destroyed got put into storage.”
Gabriel looked around at the metal walls. They certainly did look thick, but Charlie was right, armour only meant so much.
“So why are we on one?” Gabriel said.
Charlie shrugged as they entered a compartment lined with small tables, most of them filled by ELA soldiers. Gabriel did his best to keep his face passive and not stare at any of them for too long. At the far end a buffet had been set up. The smell of bacon reached Gabriel’s nose and his stomach twisted in anticipation.
“We don’t really have a choice, Nova is pressing us hard. We didn’t think they would hit Woodcrest. We didn’t even know they knew about Woodcrest. We either had to bring this big girl out of retirement or tell the injured to start walking.”
It took Gabriel a moment to realize the district must have been called Woodcrest. He would have known if Rachel had been in charge of the operation, but Sani rarely gave more information than was absolutely necessary. Charlie pointed him to an empty table and went to get them food.
“What’s the situation there? In Woodcrest?” Gabriel asked as she returned, sliding a plate in front of him. If Nova had managed to take the district, it meant they would be able to track him, and soon.
“It’s not good.” Charlie shook her head and took a large bite out of a piece of toast. “They’ve got the fires under control, but the munitions factory is going to be burning for a while. Some parts of the district are completely destroyed, most of it civilian housing. But, it doesn’t look like Nova is going to follow up their attack.”
Unsure of what to say Gabriel picked up a piece of bacon and took a bite. It was chewy and undercooked, but in that moment it was most delicious thing he had ever tasted. He reached for another piece as Charlie continued to talk.
“I can’t believe one man could do so much damage.” She shook her head in disgust. “They even knew he was coming… but it doesn’t matter now, the Archangel is dead!”
“The Archangels is dead!”
Gabriel flinched as the cheer rang out throughout the dining hall, multiple soldiers slamming their fists on the table. The cheers rose in intensity, echoing against the walls. Gabriel’s chest grew tight as the noise enveloped him.
“Dead and burning in hell!”
“He’s fuckin’ dead!”
“He’s dead. That bastard is finally dead,” Charlie said softly, her voice bitter and hard. Her eyes turned cold and her hand curled into a fist, so tight her knuckles turned white. “I should have been there to see it happen.”
Gabriel said nothing as he continued to eat, but the food, which had tasted so good only seconds ago, had suddenly lost its flavor.