Tracy's worked like crazy on the form before her. Squeezing the heart. Pushing water free of the lungs. Warming the temperature back up to something close to normal. The whole time her corona labored, she shouted at him, a mix of cajoling and threatening and begging. "C'mon, Woodrow! Work those lungs for me! Old man, you love the damn water. Ten laps every morning, remember? Just take a breath. Beat your heart. Please."
Spencer knelt nearby on her knees, sobbing in great gasps as Joe squatted beside her. Mike couldn't understand a single word coming out of the woman, but based on the way Joe assured her that no one could have done anything better, she was saying the things Mike himself wanted to.
Woodrow was dead.
Tracy may not be ready to admit as much, but the fact remained. Mike stood nearby, silent. His mind spun in a chaotic cyclone. He should get in touch with Smith. He should search for more of these terrorists and make them beg for mercy he could refuse them. He should call back to HQ. He should contact Woodrow's children -- tell them how much of a hero their father had been and what pieces of shit they were for mistreating the man. In the end, he did nothing but stand there.
He had failed his people by playing at being something he wasn't.
A man had died for his arrogance. He had never been an officer for real. His highest rank in the National Guard had been Sergeant, the entry level NCO position. An entry level leader of part time soldiers. And he had thought himself capable of raising up a professional army from scratch, training troops, creating new warfare tactics, and leading battles.
Mike noticed Tracy standing beside him, her resuscitation efforts abandoned. Tear tracks marked her cheeks, but she looked far more stable than the rest of them. "Fucking terrorists," she said.
"I shouldn't have brought any of you," Mike said.
Tracy pushed him without warning, sending Mike stumbling for his footing. "Don't you start on that 'my fault' bullshit too. This ain't on you. It ain't on Erica. It's on some skinhead neo-nazi motherfuckers who wanted to be domestic terrorists. Give a man power and see who he really is. These bunch were evil, hateful creatures. And I'm sure there's more out there just waiting on their chance to get superpowers so they can try burning the world down. Nuh-uh. I am going to be there every time. And I'm going to actually kill one of them next chance I get."
Mike clenched his fists. "How did it happen?"
Tracy deflated. "We went after the helicopter to help out and these psychos came at us in a pincer movement, so Erica split us up. Three went to ground level to provide medical assistance. Me, Erica, Joe, and Woodrow stayed in the air to fight. We got pushed to the waterline, then another two terrorists came up from behind us and we were surrounded. We couldn't retreat and their coronas were stronger than ours. They coming at us from all sides and up top, too. The only direction we were free was straight down into the water."
"So they dragged Woodrow into the water."
"Hell no," Tracy said. "Woodrow rammed the closest one with his head and dragged him into the water." She shook her head. "I don't know what he was thinking. The guy weighed as much as two Woodrows."
"I should never have let someone his age onto the operations team," Mike said.
Tracy looked away into the distance. Joe, still squatting beside Spencer, glared up at him with sudden hostility. "That's bullshit. I know Woodrow told you about his life -- he told everyone about his history. Before Marius he was just waiting around until it was time to die. He swam laps in the morning at a YMCA in walking distance of his nursing home and convinced some senile woman who lived there to go day drinking with him a few times a week. That was the entirety of his life before the EDA."
Joe hopped to his feet and stomped forward to get in Mike's face. "Being part of our group meant everything to him. In all the time he spent with us, he called home exactly one time to tell his son off and brag about what he was doing. The call was on speaker phone, so I heard every word. You know how it ended? His boy said 'you are going to get killed by terrorists' and Woodrow said 'I would rather go out a hero than fade away as a nobody'. You don't have a monopoly on being a warrior. You can't just park the team somewhere safe and run off to do all the fighting yourself. We're the Earth Defense Army, not the Earth Defense Mike. And all of us signed up to give our lives in service to our planet. I won't let you take that away from me. I definitely won't let you take it away from Woodrow."
A muscle on Mike's cheek twitched. "Get the fuck out of my face, Joe."
"Or what? You beat the shit out of me? Your own soldier? Is that what we should expect from you as a leader?"