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mikkeneko

Countdown Till Dawn


Light flared in the darkness, and someone off to his left hissed a warning. Hastily, Sergeant Major Havoc cupped his hand around the match, angling the cigarette between his teeth to light the end of it, and then shook the match out. The smoke spiraled away into the air, invisible in the blackness, and he kept his hand up to shield the dim red glow as he took his first drag.

Lights, of any kind, were strictly a no-go on this kind of posting, except for the standard-issue flares which they had all been dragged over the coals about, in briefing, about what would happen to you if you were caught fooling around with one, or wasting one. The theory was, as far as Havoc understood it, that lights would ruin your night vision; so you stood in the darkness and waited for your eyes to adjust.

That was the sort of thing, Havoc thought, staring into the blackness, that people came up with who'd never stood watch at night in Ishvar, where the nights were dark as sin. There was no saving your night vision because there was no light out here to adjust to.

Of course, there were other, better, unofficial reasons to avoid lights on the post. When you were standing a watch like this, the last thing you wanted to do was to send out any kind of signal that you were here. When night fell in Ishvar, night vision or no vision, flares or no flares, there was nothing you wanted to do less than draw attention to yourself.

But, god dammit, he had traded away six consecutive night watches for these cigarettes, and the light was barely noticeable; the faint ambient light from the compound behind them was just as bad. Havoc took another drag of his cigarette, feeling the ever-present tension and terror in his gut begin to unwind—just a little bit—and reflected on the craziness of army supply logistics.

He had no doubt whatsoever that in the supply bay behind them, whose entrance they were guarding, were crates and crates of cigarettes shipped out from the inlands. But without the proper paperworked signed, without the right requisitions and applications, without the whim of whatever stuffed up supply quartermaster was posted out from the inlands this week, they would just keep on sitting there, and it was more than any man's career was worth in this army to go purloining supplies.

He went over the drill captain's speech in his mind, lips quirking slightly at the memory of his sing-song phrases. Any officer found guilty of misappropriation of supplies would be subject at once, without appeal, and with extreme military prejudice to the greatest extent of the penal code... including brig time, docking of pay, reduced rations, additional and unpleasant duties—and, of course, extension of the service tour.

The grin faded, and invisible smoke spiraled upwards past unseeing eyes, as he shifted his grip on the rifle and leaned back against the hard concrete wall. And that was the big one, wasn't it? Threats of discharge, honorable or dishonorable, had been unknown in the Amestris army for the last seven years; to be replaced with the involuntary extension of the tour. Otherwise, Havoc thought dryly, there'd be a stampede as men—and officers, to be honest—rushed to compete for petty offenses, in hopes of being sent home.

There was faint shuffling of cloth from either side of him, occasional raspy breaths or coughs, but if not for that, he almost might have thought himself alone. There was none of the usual conversation here, no easy friendly bantering or game-playing to pass a long boring watch. Just the darkness, and the sloughing wind, the tension, and the quiet. This tour, this war, it was different from the usual ones—every man jack in this army knew it, although most were too scared to say it out loud, too scared to speak it to the officers in charge, for all the good that would have done.

He wondered, distantly, how much of this was getting told in the newspapers, on the radio, back home. How much did they know? Surely not even the best efforts of the brass could keep this insanity quiet for this long. Besides, some soldiers had gone home, Havoc knew it—the lucky few whose service tours had expired, the unlucky many whose injuries had exceeded the capacity—or the interest—of the medos here to fix them. Had they all been silenced somehow? Bribery, threats—or was it, Havoc thought, just that they were afraid to tell what they'd seen, because people would think they were insane.

"And, hell, they'd probably be right," Havoc muttered. Another sharp hiss, this time from the other side; but Havoc pushed to his feet, and glared into the darkness. Caution was one thing, but this was just ridiculous. "Hey, heads up, you lazy buggers. Breda—are you even still there, or'd you run off in the night? You'd better not be sleeping on duty over there, Simonson—"

Not that Simonson was likely to be sleeping, really—not that anyone could sleep out here, outside of the thick concrete bunker walls and the lights and the security, however slight, that someone else was on watch. But he had to get them alive again, shake them out of this stupor they were falling into, half-glazed with terror.

The cigarette flared, struggling briefly against the filter, and he took one last drag before he took it out and dropped it to the sand, grinding it with his heel. He forced himself to walk from one end of the post to the other, eyes straining against the darkness to pick out the dark shapes of the men's bodies. Rogers, another gunman like himself... Simonson, who was in charge of the flares... Davies, their comm connection... he stopped in front of Breda, at the far end of the posting, and the two of them stared out into the darkness.

Most of the men were strangers to him, since he'd traded onto this duty, but he'd served together with Heymans Breda once before, briefly. A faint spill of light from the bay doors angled onto them, here, just enough to make out the man's familiar paunchy figure and strained grin, although his red hair was bleached to gray in the dimness. "Quiet night, eh, Sir?" Breda said, upbeat as always.

"Just the way we like it, Sergeant," Havoc replied. Briefly, he longed for another cigarette, but he only had ten and they had to last him until Friday, so he quashed the idea. "So, who'd you piss off to get on guard duty?"

"Sir, I'm wounded," Breda protested, but then chuckled lowly, teeth glinting white in the dimness. "But as it just so happens, Colonel Halcrow don't take too well to losing at chess. Thinks it reflects on his strategic prowess, or something."

Havoc chuckled back, equally quietly, and punched the shorter man in the shoulder. "Someday, Sergeant, you'll learn the art of losing to ranking officers to flatter'em," he said.

He was about to go on, when something caught the edge of his hearing; a low, long sound, like the mournful howl of a dog. But there were no dogs left alive around this base for miles...

Adrenaline flared in his system, and he tried to push down the fear that surged with it, telling himself firmly that he was probably overreacting, it might just have been the wind. But when he looked back at his companion, Breda had also stiffened up, turning his thick neck this way and that as he stared into the darkness.

"Did you just hear something?" Havoc breathed, softly as falling snow.

"Couldn't swear on it," the reply came, barely audible. "But I thought I heard—hard to say, sir—some kind of voice—"

Behind him, he heard more low muttering, shifting as Simonson and Davies began to creep closer to them. "Quiet!" he said, voice cracking over them like a whip. "Stay where you are."

For a moment they all stood stock still, hardly even breathing; the loudest sound was the sloughing of the wind over sand, a constant background noise out here in the desert. Havoc's eyes strained into the darkness, to no avail. The cold Ishvar air pricked his skin, burned his eyes; hard to say if that was an effect of the blowing sand below, or the burning ash and smoke above. Nothing. All quiet, all still.

Then—another noise, from the same direction as the first. A low "uh!" sound, followed by a thud, like a duffel bag hitting the sand. Breathing a curse, Havoc turned on his heel and strode back down the line to Simonson.

"Give me those flares," he said, and the boy clutched at it, uncertainly.

"Sir, we're not supposed to—" he said, voice wavery and weak.

"Give it to me, Private!" he snapped, and didn't wait for assent, yanking the heavy long box out of his hands. Turned and took two steps forward, into the blanketing dark; with shaking hands fumbled out another of his matches, holding the book in his teeth as he lit the flare, and then fired it into the air.

It flared white at once, arcing up into the air, lighting the night sky like an aster, a poor replacement for the hidden stars above. Up in a perfect parabola, hardly seeming to move away from them, and then down again, and bursting into bright fire when it hit the sand.

The blackness turned to white, immediately illuminating the dozen or so slowly, torturously shuffling figures making their way towards them, out of the vastness of the desert. Eerily silent, in their approach, except for there—off in the distance, two of them had become entangled, and were struggling against each other, the source of the low noises and sounds that had alerted them. In the incandescent light, another figure fell on them, two joining in to grapple against one; the others continued their slow, steady approach. The closest one was not a dozen meters away.

Havoc let the empty flare case fall from numb hands, and ripped his rifle off his shoulders. "Form up!" he screamed, all thoughts of quiet, of calm, burned away. "Fire!"

Gunfire ripped out, stuttering bursts of muzzle flare and hammering roar. The closest body to him jerked as the bullets struck it in the chest, spinning it around and slamming it to the ground in a burst of gore. Havoc flipped his gun muzzle around, searching for the next target; but the first body kept on twitching, until it managed to drag itself over, leaving dark wet stains on the sand, and began to drag its way forward once more.

Havoc swore; he'd forgotten about that. He took another moment to aim more carefully—his hands shook, but it was practically a point blank shot—and blew the thing's head off. And finally the guns began to bark behind him, Davies and Simonson and Breda getting past their shock and obeying his orders. "The legs, aim for their legs, cripple them," he cried over his shoulder. "Leave the fancy shots to me!"

Another flare shot out, arcing over their heads to land among the monsters, bursting with light, and then another—and now they could see the real extent of the outbreak. A dozen of the monsters in front, but more behind them, and more... and they were following each other, like ants following a trail, leading them right to the base supply bay.

In this new light, more and more details became clear; they could see more than bulky dim forms. Half the monsters shuffling towards them were half blown apart already; one was missing half its chest and had only one shoulder, clothes dangling in shreds down its back like a parody of the military cape. Another dragged itself forward only by its hands, its legs already blown away; its entrails dragged in the sand behind it, but by now it had already stopped bleeding. Havoc took aim, fired. Another monster's head exploded, the body toppling limply to the ground. Two down. Took aim, fired; three down. Took aim, fired; a miss...

Dark skin, brown hair, and red eyes, filmed over with the white of death; exotic, flowing clothes, torn and stained and ripped and shredded. The Ishvarite dead; all they had killed that day, and the day before that, and the day before that... God alone knew how many of them were out there, too many to count, too many to bury, piled in the fields rotting and stinking in the sun, until nightfall. Until nightfall.

And there, just shuffling into the pool of light of the third flare—white skin. Blond hair, stained crusty brown on one side by spilled blood and brains. The familiar black layers of the Amestrian army. Another gun rattled out behind him, and the Amestrian figure stumbled and then fell, as the line of bullets took it across the thighs, creating joints where there should be none.

It fell, and two more of the dark-skinned monsters fell upon it, savagely ripping and tearing. Havoc swallowed nausea, and swallowed terror, and swallowed the need, the urge to charge in and help, save his fellow soldier from the enemy. That was daytime rules. At night, Amestrian and Ishvarite alike fell prey to this—this whatever it was, this dark magic or whatever—that drove them past death to rise to their feet again, to fight and tear with each other with claws and teeth till morning came.

At night, they were all the enemy. All the enemy. As you too would be, if you fell on the field of battle, and your brother-soldiers could not find you in time, could not drag your body back to base to burn you. Because nothing could stop these monsters, nothing could kill them permanently, except fire.

Fire...

He risked a moment, twisted his head back over his shoulder to see the men behind him, backs pressed flat against the wall, firing in stuttering starts at the crawling line of monsters. "Davies, you shit-for-brains, what d'you think you're doing?" he screamed. "Get on the radio, get backup, now! We need help ten minutes ago! We need backup, we need the Major—-"

Startled, the older man dropped his rifle to the ground with a clatter, and began to fumble around his neck and around his waist for the radio connections. They could hardly spare one man's firing, and Havoc returned his attention forward, turning his rifle to automatic for a minute, dropping the accuracy but vastly increasing the firing rate, so that he could try and clear a swath in front of him, give him some room. Two, four, six, ten, a dozen—

Not all these monsters were slow, shuffling things—some of them were almost whole, at least from the waist down, and they made better time, almost loping forward in a grotesque, swinging gait. And more were coming, and more—God only knew how far back that trail went, if it went all the way to the killing fields, gradually drawing every dead man in Ishvar down on them here. They could never hope to stop them all, never.

He switched back to single fire, and wondered briefly if they should retreat, open the bay doors and move behind their cover. The doors would act like a choke point, at least, offering them shelter—but if (when!) they were overwhelmed, would also allow the monsters entry into the base itself, into their supplies, into their barracks. "Get the Major!"

An eerie, sonorous howl broke across the cacophony of gunfire. A handful of shapes, small, low to the ground, flickered into sight along the edge of the sputtering flares. Before Havoc could fix them in his sights, they were gone again, moving rapidly across the darkened sands towards them.

They came to the light of the next flare, and now Havoc could identify them—dogs, five of them, large but low-slinking to the ground. It was impossible to tell, now, whether they'd been working dogs of the military or pets of the Ishvar, and it no longer mattered. Their flesh was shrunken onto the bones, spittle and gore dripped from their jaws, and writhing ends hung down from their bellies.

Three of them stopped and fell on the twitching carcasses of the monsters, snarling and baying at each other for possession of the choicest bits; two more came straight towards then. Havoc's gunfire followed them, stuttering and throwing up gouts of sand as the bullets drove into the ground, but the angle was bad and the distance too short. He managed to nick one in the back ankle, and the snarling turned to high-pitched yelping.

The two dogs veered, but didn't turn; instead they flashed past him, and the next thing he heard was a scream—a real scream, a man's scream. He couldn't stop, he couldn't turn, he targeted the three remaining, snarling dogs and shot them one by one, and then three more monsters who were barely a few yards away, and the scream turned into a gurgle and he turned around.

Davies was down, the radio wires tangling with shredded flaps of skin as he writhed on the ground, bleeding into the sand. Breda was struggling with the two dogs, hysterically beating at them with the butt of his rifle as they circled and snapped, trying to leap for his throat. Heart pounding in his throat, hands shaking, Havoc struggled to draw a bead on them, as the three bodies struggled and turned in the dimness.

One shot; one dog tumbled to the side, its chest cavity exploded. Breda swung his gun with all his might, like a club, and battered the other dog onto the ground; it twitched, then staggered to its feet, before its head blew apart.

"Sergeant!" The stout man did not look up; Havoc tried his name. "Breda. Breda. Heymans!"

Slowly, Breda looked up; his mouth hung open, his eyes glassy with shock. "Pull yourself together, man!" Havoc told him, and gestured with his free hand towards Davies' whimpering body. "For God's sake, get back on the radio, and help him!"

At the direct order, Breda seemed to shake himself, and a little of the glassiness fell away. With a shaky "Yessir," he stumbled forward and fell to his knees beside Davies, shaking hands reaching for the radio.

With Davies down and Breda on the radio, he was down to just two backup—Simonson and Rogers. Havoc fell back, towards the wall and the doors. Once more he faced the decision: take cover or not? He didn't have any doubt which choice his commanders would want him to make; the security of the base is more important than the lives of a handful of soldiers, they would say. But fuck'em, they weren't here, with an ocean of bodies bearing down on them, brown skins turned drowned-gray by death.

The first of the flares was sputtering, dimming, and the other two would soon follow, and Havoc couldn't spare any of their three guns to shoot another flare, he just couldn't. In the failing, strobing light he saw more and more bodies in the black and blue Amestrian uniforms, and he tried not to look at them, because the worst thing you could do when faced with one of these things was to look into the face of a friend, and then blow it off.

In the dying light of the flare, he could see more scuffles breaking out; the dead Amestrians and the dead Ishvarites turned on each other, and fought in little clumps of twos and threes. God, just let them fight each other, Havoc thought, the same feverish prayer repeated by every soldier in Ishvar, maybe by the Ishvarite survivors themselves.

Thinking of the vast killing fields that used to be cities, farmlands, pastures, turned into endless abattoirs, the dead fighting the dead until they tore each other to pieces finally too small to move. While the living crouched in bunkers, in underground caves, and prayed: Just let them fight each other, and not notice us...

But there was no hope of that now, because for all the dead hated the dead, their hatred of the living was no less unrelenting; and they came in waves, in droves, not like men or even like animals but just staggering, rotting piles of flesh, driven by some black hunger.

"Sir," Breda choked, and he darted a quick glance in his direction; still kneeling next to Davies, his uniform stained black and his hands slick with some liquid. "Sir, I can't get the bleeding stopped, he—"

And if he died, while lying beside them? What then? Havoc clenched his teeth, till his jaws ached. After nightfall, all the dead were the enemy, even if they wore the Amestris uniform. "Just—just get ready," he grated out, and raised his gun again.

At the corner of his hearing, a new noise was starting; a dull, throbbing hum. It was coming from—behind them...? Confused, Havoc glanced back, at the closed doors of the supply bay. The noise grew louder, resolving into a grinding roar, and Havoc realized what he was hearing.

"Open the doors!" he bellowed, and Simonson and Rogers looked at him like he was crazy. "Open the doors, hurry, get them clear!"

They jumped to obey, thankfully; he turned back to the throng and switched to full automatic, aiming for knee level and below. It ate through his ammunition faster than he could possibly maintain, but the first ranks of bodies fell as though scythed, clearing a space before them. Most of those bodies crawled, dragged forward further, but more slowly, and that was all that mattered now. Ten down, twenty, twenty-five...

The noise roared to a climax as light and warm air spilled over him; he glanced behind him to see the bay doors open, Rogers and Simonson on either side. And he barely had time to leap to one side, falling into a clumsy roll on the concrete platform, as a machine leapt out of the light between the opened bay doors, jerked to the side and screamed to a halt in front of them.

The vehicle sat sideways in the bar of light from the supply bay, and from this moment it took Havoc a confused moment to identify it; when he did, he had to choke down a hysterical giggle. It was one of the small, light "golf carts" that the base normally maintained for the older brass to ride around in; narrow enough for corridors, it was for strictly indoor use, since the wheels and chassis couldn't stand up to any kind of terrain.

He didn't recognize the driver, a young, blond—woman, he realized, a little startled; women soldiers weren't all that common on this posting. But her eyes were as hard and her face as grim and her hair as trim and soldierly as his, and she had eyes only for the man climbing out of the car beside her.

Havoc had seen the Major before, of course—the State Alchemist Flame, Major Roy Mustang. There wasn't a man on the base that didn't know his name, or his face, or his famous abilities. But he'd never met him to speak to, never up close, and had never seen him at work. And when the Major climbed down from the passenger's seat of the golf cart and stood, impeccably neat, clean, and straight-backed, and faced the horror without the hint of a flinch on his ice-cold face, Havoc knew why this man was considered a God among the rank and file.

He held out his hand, the white glove oddly incongruous against the dark blue uniform. The first light flare finally sputtered and died, and in the sudden darkness a red glow began to build around his outstretched hand. Nothing seemed to be happening, and Havoc scrambled to his knees, wrenching his gaze across the carpet of living death creeping on them.

The Major snapped; the world caught fire.

The dark desert night was filled with a glare as hot and golden and bright as the noonday sun; for a moment the sand, the building, all the wavering bodies were outlined in it. Then the fire followed the light, and in lines and in ranks the bodies began to burn; first clothes and hair shriveled, then blackened, and then the bodies themselves lit, becoming burning torches of their own to add to the light.

The fire swept outwards from the central source, catching and sweeping everything, everything, in its path. The low, creeping bodies, the half-mangled stragglers, the twitching dogs, the struggling clusters of deathless enemies; they all went, swept away by the cataclysm.

After a moment that seemed like a lifetime, the light went out; the noise of the fire, that Havoc had hardly even registered through his stunned hearing, dropped to a muffled crackle. As if the very power that destroyed them had been all that held him up, the bodies fell, still burning, to the blackened sand. Some were still twitching and struggling, even as they fell, until the very structure of their tissues burned to ash and they collapsed in on themselves. But none of them made a sound.

Stunned, halfway to deaf, Havoc pushed himself up on his knees, then to his feet. The terrible light was gone, but neither was it dark; in the distance, the wave of light still rolled away, then vanished in a red flare. The bodies themselves were still burning, an angry, sooty red color, dimmed and blurred by rolls of choking black smoke coming off them. In the daytime, the smoke would be all that was visible; it would rise into the sky and join the dark, ugly brown clouds that obscured the sun and blackened the nights. But at night, almost all you could see was the fire.

More men were pouring out of the opened bay doors. Some of them were wearing the white armbands of the medics; they pelted up to him, asking questions that he could barely make out; dazedly, he pointed towards the wall, where Third Sergeant Davies was laid out. More men in black uniforms ran out, carrying handguns and powerful flashlights; they organized themselves into a ragged line and began marching outwards, sweeping the ground with their beams.

It seemed there was a practiced procedure for this sort of thing. Havoc stood awkwardly, unsure of where he and his men fit into it. Davies was already being hoisted, carried off inside, without consulting him; a part of him was relieved. They would save him if they could, and if they couldn't, Havoc was damn cold sure, they would take steps to see that he didn't join the ranks of the enemy.

The idea seemed absurdly funny to him; he couldn't stop a brief, almost maniacal giggle from escaping him at the thought. He bit down on it immediately, trying to quell the shakes that seemed to go with it. "Shit, I'm losing my grip," he muttered, and fumbled with trembling hands for his pack of precious cigarettes.

He had one out and between his lips, and was absently patting every pocket on his person (and on this uniform, there were a lot) before he remembered that he'd dropped it, in his first fumbling with the flares. "Shit," he said again, aware that he was repeating himself, but he couldn't seem to think what else to say; the last thing he wanted to do right now was hunt around in the endless sand in the dark for a dropped book of matches. "Shit!"

"Allow me," an unfamiliar voice said, from behind him, and Havoc turned to see the Major standing there, glove raised. For a paranoid moment Havoc thought that the Major thought he was a monster and was going to ignite him, before sense kicked in.

"Uh... sure," he mumbled, taking the cigarette from between his lips and holding it out. "Thanks."

The man smiled, a tiny smile that barely bent his lips, and snapped his fingers. A tiny flame jumped between his hand and Havoc's, sending a burst of smoke up into the sky. Havoc brought the cigarette back to his lips and inhaled deeply, reflecting on the absurdity of having The Major offer to light his fags for him. "Want one?" he asked, somewhat belatedly, as some of his composure returned to him with the smoke.

"I would, thank you." Again that small, odd smile, and for all that Havoc had sacrificed to get these cigarettes, he found himself offering one up to the Major without a second thought. The Major put his own cigarette in his mouth before he snapped, apparently completely at ease with the idea of setting his eyebrows on fire, and Havoc felt a momentary, irrational regret that he hadn't had the balls to get his lit that way too.

He took a moment to study the man, while he dragged on his cigarette. Mustang was not quite so impeccable as Havoc had first thought; his black hair was a mess, the white collar of his shirt rumpled beneath the jacket. A faint five o'clock shadow ringed his chin and jaw, hardly distinguishable from the thin layer of soot that smudged the edges of his bones. His eyes, black as his hair, black as the soot, were red-rimmed and swollen, suggesting a lack of sleep. Some instinct prompted Havoc to ask, "So, how many break-ins have you had to deal with so far tonight?"

Mustang glanced up, removed the cigarette for another brief smile, slightly more genuine than the last. "Four. I must apologize for my lateness; there was one going on at the train depot when your call came in."

"No problem, Sir," Havoc said automatically. Everyone knew that the only way to deal with an attack was to call the Major; of all the State Alchemists, of all the soldiers on the base, he was the only one with command of fire, and fire was the only thing that could stop the monsters. But this meant that every attack of monsters, every time, everywhere on the base, had to be dealt with by the Major in person.

On him, and him alone, depended the security of the base, and the lives of every man and woman there. It had never really occurred to Havoc, before, what a strain that must be; and for all the man's Godlike power, Havoc didn't think he would trade places with him for anything.

During the daytime, the Flame Alchemist was just one major among many; one of a dozen alchemists in the service of the state. The soldiers knew how much they owed to him, depended on him, and guarded his sleep in the daytime as zealously as they could. But the upper brass apparently didn't see it that way, and when they called him out to fight, he had to go with the rest of the attack dogs of the military. More killing, more bodies, and come nightfall, more monsters.

Mustang continued, in an oddly cordial tone. "Sergeant Major, I must congratulate you and your men on your fine handling of the situation? Most of the time, by the time I get there, the guard post has already been overwhelmed; I consider myself extremely grateful if I can salvage one or two survivors of the guard each time. Only one casualty, and that not a complete loss, is an extraordinary achievement, and I'll make sure your superiors are informed."

Havoc felt a burst of anger, and in his shaky state, couldn't contain it. "For fuck's sake," he swore, and Mustang looked back at him, hand paused halfway to his mouth. But he couldn't seem to stop it. "For fuck's sake! This is insane! What are we doing here, what are we even doing here, what's so god damned important about this patch of sand and rocks that we have to put up with—this—-" a furiously waved hand took in the holocaust beside them, and the rest of the desert beside.

"What the hell are the brass doing, what the hell are they thinking? Are they even thinking?" he continued, helplessly angry, helplessly powerless. "When is Upstairs HQ going to get their thumbs out of their asses and make a move? Every day we go out, we kill more of the natives, because the poor damn buggers don't have a chance and hell of stopping us, no matter how many guerilla caves they dig—and every night we get more of this! Why?"

After several moments, just time enough for Havoc to really regret his outburst, Mustang looked away; eyes on the ground, he murmured, "The Fuhrer must know about the situation in Ishvar. I'm sure... I'm sure he and the generals here are taking the best action they can to counter it."

"Best action they can? What action? We don't take the time to burn the people we kill, too busy making more—For fuck's sake, they could at least let us have flamethrowers at our guard posts!" Havoc clenched his teeth, feeling old frustrations and resentments bubble up in him. "What action are they taking, except for throwing more and more meat into the grinder here? Do they not know what's going on down here, or do they just not care?"

He saw Mustang watching him; he'd never seen a better poker face in all the card games in his enlistment, and he'd seen a few. When Mustang spoke, his voice was as blank as his face. "It is the considered opinion of General Gran that the situation as it stands is of strategic advantage to us. The monsters will attack our enemies as readily as us, and their fortifications are not nearly so well defended."

Havoc's lips curled, despite himself, on a disgusted sneer. "General Gran. Yeah, it would be General 'Ice Balls Alchemist' Gran who thinks that an army of rotting monsters trying to eat our brains in our sleep is a strategic advantage."

Havoc clutched one hand in his hair. "Does Gran even know what's causing it? Why is it only here, not back home, not anywhere else in the world? Half the men think it's some kind of Ishvarite black magic, except that these monsters eat them as gladly as they'll eat us, if they get the chance. What else could it be? Some kind of alchemy? Does anyone know?"

Mustang stepped back, and for a moment he looked apprehensive; he ran a hand through his hair, mussing it further. After a moment, he sighed. "There is no alchemy that I know of that should be able to cause anything like this," he said, but like his words the moment before, he sounded more trying to convince himself than convince Havoc.

Part of Havoc was shocked and horrified with himself, to be speaking so blasphemously to a senior officer, let alone one of the pets of the State. But in that moment Mustang suddenly seemed very young, and uncertain; he was shorter than Havoc was, he realized, and much more delicate of build. He hardly looked up to handling the fielding of one of the big machine guns, let alone the lives of half of the Amestris army.

Havoc felt a sudden, strangely intense desire to look out for him, watch his back and reassure him, a strange mix of big-brother paternalism like he felt for the young officers like Simonson, and an awed respect. I could follow this man. I would follow him into Hell, if he had to go.

The strange moment between them—of candor, of camaraderie—was suddenly broken, by the crackling of the radio in the car beside the women. Her head whipped around, and she bent down to begin fiddling intensely with it, speaking in sharp clipped tones. After a moment she raised her head, eyes glowing like liquid fire in this light. "Sir, it's the West Vehicle Bay 12," she said, quick and low and urgent. "They're already inside. We have to go!"

Mustang's face snapped back into a hard, grim mask; Havoc hadn't realized how much emotion he'd been showing, before that. Already he was moving back to the cart; already the driver was starting it up. "Sergeant Major, I must leave you to clean this up," the Major ordered, and Havoc snapped to attention. "Tell my squad to follow on as soon as possible, after they've cleared this sector." That last was called out over his shoulder, as the cart scraped between the narrow doors; then there was the roar of an engine, and he was gone.

Havoc stared after him; as the thrum of the engine faded, everything seemed curiously muffled. The last of the flares had died, plunging the outpost back into darkness, pierced only by the beams of the flashlights carried by the Major's clean up squad as they headed back over the field. He turned slightly, and nearly jumped to find Breda at his elbow; the man was still bloody-handed, but standing straight, just like him staring at the departing Major. His other men were sitting over by the wall, huddled over their guns.

"Right," Havoc muttered, then raised his voice. "Excitement's over, boys; guess we're back on duty. Look alive—we'll sit out the rest of the watch, and then have a good long off-shift during the day. I'll "requisition" some brandy from Stores if I have to sign for it in the blood of my firstborn."

With bribes and orders and occasional curses he got them on their feet again; it helped that the Major's squad, before departing, announced this sector "clear of malicious activity" and that they were unlikely to see so much as an insect. Enemy activity, human activity, wasn't even remotely a threat. The Ishvarites huddled in their enclaves, underground caves, as fearfully as they huddled in their bunkers.

Till day came. Day always came, and whatever evil magics were moving these things expired, and they would be free to move about again. Free to go on killing.

Havoc glanced up at the blackened sky, and searched the heavy smoke for the hint of color at one end that would announce the coming dawn. He considered another cigarette, to pass the time, but somehow he thought the taste of smoke would make him sick.

A few dozen, a hundred monsters burned; how many remained unburned? How many more would they make tomorrow? One, two, ten, fifty, a hundred, a thousand?

Havoc clutched at his gun, stared into the seared darkness, and waited for dawn.