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       Alpha, p.14

           Daniel Schmidt
 

  Chapter 14

  Sergeant Barnes’s condition had worsened in the time we had been away. His skin looked ashy and pale and his voice sounded weak. I put the squad into a circular perimeter around him and instructed them to alternate with a buddy – eating, drinking water, and resting. Christine roamed the perimeter, stopping at each man, checking for wounds and offering words of encouragement. I was surprised by her bravery and strength. Denise, who still showed no signs of fatigue, crouched with me next to Sergeant Barnes. She looked so young, so clean and unafraid, and so out of place.

  Sergeant Barnes sat with his back against a tree. His jacket wrapped around him, his entire body still shook from the cold. Denise quickly pulled her jacket off and wrapped it around him and then fished out a wool hat from her bag. He objected, but she pulled the wool hat down onto his head anyway.

  “Everyone make it back?” Sergeant Barnes asked weakly.

  “Yes, we got everyone.”

  Sergeant Barnes looked at Denise. “These men are here to protect you until we can get you to somewhere safer. Now, I need a word with Paul alone.”

  Denise nodded her head and then went to where Christine was helping someone wrap a bandage around a hand.

  “You know what you have to do?” Sergeant Barnes asked.

  “Get over to rally point Black and refit, and we should find guidance on what to do next.”

  Sergeant Barnes nodded his head. “If you have time, I want you to check something out. I noticed it when all the distress signals started going out.” He pointed to the smart phone in my hand and I gave it too him. He pulled up a map and tapped the screen. “It’s the location of one of the distress signals, and it’s not far from here. Maybe someone survived, check it out.”

  I nodded. “Maybe our sister squad? It’s pretty close to the rally point.”

  “Possibly,” Barnes said.

  “Anyone else?” I asked.

  “No one that’s close. You’re on your own for now.”

  I nodded my head and Sergeant Barnes continued, “The Alvar are going to do good things for this world, make sure you protect them.”

  “I’ll do what I can,” I said.

  I could tell he was in a lot of pain and his health was worsening by the minute. “Sarg, we need to get you to a hospital.”

  He shook his head. “The Legion would find me there; I’m just going to stay here. I don’t have much longer.”

  I didn’t try to convince him otherwise – we both knew he was dying.

  “Is there anything I can do for you?” I asked.

  “Don’t fail these men,” he said, and I felt my chest tighten and tingle in pain. I had heard that before and had not delivered. I just nodded my head.

  Sergeant Barnes let out another grunt of pain. “Paul, call the squad in one at a time. I want to say goodbye.”

  I turned to leave, but Sergeant Barnes grabbed my arm. “Son, you haven’t been here very long but you have done well. Keep it up. Look after these men, protect that Alvar, and take care of Christine.”

  “Thank you for your confidence,” I said. Those were the last words I spoke to Sergeant Barnes.

  I walked around the perimeter and sent the men in, one at a time, to say goodbye to their leader. I stopped with Carlos and noticed he had the picture of his two girls out. He stared at the picture and his hand shook and shook. I put my hand on his shoulder and he quickly stuffed the picture away.

  “Sorry, I just have to remind myself the reasons I do this,” Carlos said.

  I paused for a second and then said “Why do you do this?”

  Carlos shrugged his shoulders. “I’ll probably never see my daughters again for a lot of reasons. I won’t be able to do anything for them. But I believe the Alvar will. I have faith in them, that they will make this world a better place. I don’t know, it’s my way of helping my little girls.”

  “How are your boys doing?” I asked, referring to his men.

  “They’re pretty upset about Anton and Smith,” he said, referring to the two team leaders who had been killed in the ambush, “but they’re hanging in there.” Carlos took a deep breath. “That Alpha really frays the nerves. I thought we finally killed that bastard back there but then he got up again.”

  I let out a long breath. “We’ll find a way to kill him.”

  Carlos nodded his head and I slapped him on the back.

  “Keep up the hard work,” I said.

  Carlos nodded and I stood up to leave. After a few steps I looked back and saw Carlos holding the crucifix that was around his neck. He mumbled a few words, kissed it, and then stuffed it back under his shirt.

  I walked over to David next and found him on both knees behind a tree, staring blankly off in the direction of the two deceased team leaders. He was hunched over and he looked pale. The lack of sleep, fear, and exertion seemed to be hitting him hard. I told him what the plan was and showed him where we were going on the map. He just nodded and then moved his blank stare into the forest.

  I moved to Walter. He glanced at Sergeant Barnes and then looked back at me and said, “He’s not going to make it, is he?”

  I shook my head and Walter cursed. He looked at me and punched me in the arm; the force of it nearly knocked me over. He then gripped my shoulder. He stared off into the forest, held my shoulder for a few seconds, and then let go.

  I slapped him on the back and continued checking on the men. Most of them didn’t speak a single word, their minds lost in anger, fear, and remorse.

  Sergeant Barnes spoke to Christine last and they talked for several minutes. I couldn’t hear what they were saying but both were emotional. They embraced each other and a few minutes later Sergeant Barnes passed.

  We laid Sergeant Barnes, the two team leaders Smith and Anton, and the dead Alvar man alongside each other. The squad piled wood over the four men and placed rifles on their chests. Carlos said a prayer and everyone stood in solemn silence for several minutes. I saw tears running down the angry faces of several men. David couldn’t even stand up, falling to his knees and dropping his head into his hands. Emotion welled up inside me.

  I looked over at Denise, the Alvar, and wondered why these men had fought so hard for her, died for her. Everyone said she was special, but all I saw was a young, fragile woman. Walter finally walked over to me, patted me on the back a few times and then walked away.

  Carlos took out a thermite grenade, pulled the pin, and placed it on top of the wood. The grenade ignited a few seconds later and started burning, catching the wood on fire quickly. As the flames started to consume the bodies, we moved out.

  As soon as we were out of sight of the flames, I felt an overwhelming fear come over me. I looked around and sensed it in everyone else as well. I saw it in the men’s faces and the way they looked at each other, the way they looked out into the forest. We all feared the Alpha would appear suddenly from behind a tree and charge in to kill us all. Every sound and movement around us, imagined and real, brought breathless moments until we determined its source. I could still hear the Alpha’s guttural yell, and its featureless mask flashed in my mind. It was like living in a nightmare.

  I looked behind me at Denise, the Alvar we had just rescued. Her hands were on the straps of her backpack. She looked a little too calm. Her eyes came up to meet mine and I was reminded of how captivating the Alvars’ bright purple eyes were. She did not smile or nod. Instead she held my gaze for a few seconds and then looked down at the ground again.

  David walked behind Denise and he looked ill, his face white. He stared straight ahead, almost in a trance. Christine was behind David and I slowed to walk beside her. Tears streamed down her face and she remained silent. I slowed and let her pass.

  I went to Carlos, and after a few tense words about the Alpha, I stopped and let the men pass me. I urged them on the best I could, offering a few words here, a pat on the back there. No one said anything in return; their m
inds were lost in fear, remorse, anger, or a potent combination of everything.

  As the last man passed me, I stopped and watched them walk. I was responsible for all these men now. It made me feel overwhelmed. I didn’t want the responsibility, but I was in no better place to guide men and events to where I wanted them, where I needed them to go. I still had a job to do, even if I didn’t want to do it.

 
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