Colonel Matthew Hendricks dryly gave his last orders and climbed in threes the steps separating his office from the rest of the camp. He turned and quickly scanned the panorama. In the distance, he could see the columns of smoke, the distant exploding bombs and the attenuated burst of firearms.
They were running out of time.
Three days ago, war had broken out in that forgotten corner of the world, that jungle end of Sri Lanka. Not really peaceful before -hence the presence of the Legion there- but this time everything had gone to hell. The rebels had risen up in arms, the government was passive, and as usual, the UN was reluctant to get involved. Without international approval reinforcements couldn't be sent, and at that time they lacked logistics to face the threat. They had to skedaddle and leave the base to its fate.
What the fuck they were doing there. Three years of skirmishes with local guerrilla and that disgusting jungle, to end up fleeing like cowards.
He gave a last glance at the truckloads of soldiers leaving the camp and hurried into his office. He had spent the last hours burning documents, not just because there was so much to hide, but also because it was impossible to take them away. He just needed to get his stuff and...
A muddy jeep stopped in front of the bunkhouse with a violent halt. That caught Kendrick's attention, who immediately picked up the rifle and walked toward the door. What on earth was going on? He'd been very clear when ordering to evacuate the camp.
“What the...!?” He felt shocked when recognizing the man jumping down the seat and striding toward him. “I'll be damn...!”
Suddenly a bomb exploded just a few meters from the camps' entrance and blew up another bunkhouse. Kendrick swore and staggered. The newcomer held him, grabbing him by the collar of his jacket, and dragged him into the office.
“Holy crap!” Said the colonel, cheerful, as if the world wasn't collapsing around them, and patted his arm enthusiastically. “Kurtis fucking Trent! The hell are you doing here?”
As if being at home, the ex-legionnaire strode to the rifles closet, he opened the door with a yank, pulled out an AK-47 and started loading it at full speed.
“I need a helicopter.” He said in reply.
Kendrick blinked, stunned.
“You're kidding, right?” He ran his hand through his short hair. “How many years have passed? Ten, fifteen?”
“Twenty.” He dryly replied, and he slung the Kalashnikov over his shoulder. He was dressed in camouflage and had a huge gun holstered under his armpit. Then he put again his hand in the closet and began pulling grenades.
“Twenty years! You disappeared without a trace. Desertion! You could have been executed for that. In fact”, he scratched his ear, distracted, “I thought you were dead, actually. What have you been into? And that haircut?”
“Can you give me that bloody helicopter or not?” Kurtis muttered, still ransacking the ammo closet as if his own. “No time for chit-chat, Matt!”
“Colonel Kendrick, asshole.” Matt pointed the insignia at his jacket, annoyed. “I've risen pretty much since you went AWOL. And what the hell you think you're doing? You can't arrive here and steal weapons and transport!”
His former regiment mate turned on his heel and brandished a large knife before him.
“Kabul, 1996. You owe me one.”
“Yeah, you saved my ass. Those Taliban were gonna fuck me. But letting you to sweep weapons and a helicopter from a camp can end with me at the firing squad.”
“What about destroying files?” Kurtis brandished the knife toward the sooty black metal barrel full of ashes. “This is an evacuation. Nobody is doing inventory now.”
Another explosion sounded in the distance. The colonel sighed.
“Okay. Tell me why you want the helicopter.”
The ex-legionnaire took a map of the island, unfolded it with a slap and, without further explanation, sticked the knife at the north end. Kendrick snorted.
“Impossible to land there. It's all jungle, the ground isn't visible.”
“I can. I'm the best pilot you've ever had.”
“I forgot you're a cocky bastard. What for? There are only ruins, temples, tombs and dead, so many dead.”
“That's where I'm going. Extraction of two civilians.”
He'd continued arming himself to the teeth while talking with short, dry and fast sentences. He looked like Rambo with ants in his pants.
“Two civilians? All this fuss for two civilians? Are you nuts?”
“I've always been a softie.”
Now he was being sarcastic.
“Tell me the truth and I'll help, I promise.”
Kurtis turned, enervated, and pulled the knife of the map.
“I don't need your fucking help! I need a fucking helicopter! Now!”
Another explosion sounded closer. The ceiling lamp ranged and a thin layer of dust fell on them.
Kendrick snapped to attention.
“I'm a damn colonel, and you, a private ex-soldier, a deserter. This is not for you...”
“You wouldn't be colonel right now if killed at Kabul, and you're alive thanks to this private ex-soldier and deserter.” Kurtis pointed at his chest with the knife, challenging. But then he gave up. “I've to pick up a woman and a girl there. Westerners. And I've to do it now.”
The colonel gaped.
“The hell are doing a woman and a g...?” He was interrupted by Kurtis' glare. “It's too late. The north of the island is in rebels' hands. Just a matter of time before they get raped, butchered and thrown into a ditch.”
“Probably, if I'm still here taking your shit!”. The ex-legionnaire banged his fist against the table. “It's my daughter, Matt. And her mother. Give me that fucking helicopter and get the hell outta here!”
Kendrick gaped again. Then he jumped from his chair:
“Damn, you could have said it before.”
He'd always been a bit slow to read between the lines.
Three minutes later, Kurtis jumped on the pilot's seat and frantically lit the controls. Indeed, he'd been one of the Legion's best pilots, but it was twenty years ago Kendrick knew nothing about him and no one in their right mind would even think of landing in the middle of a jungle. Fortunately, in his recent missions he'd been familiar with the most modern models.
Kendrick might have gone with him. Despite shouting, insults and fuss, they had been companions and yeah, he owed Kurtis his life. So he let him do, which in a logical and orderly chain of military command, in any other context that wasn't that havoc, would meant a council of war with bad ending.
“You're totally nuts, y'know?” He shouted from afar, clutching his cap. “And since when you're a family man?”
But he was no longer listening. The sound of the propellers was deafening.
It was wrong. No matter how many times she tried, it was wrong. She clutched the pencil in her hands, then gritted her teeth, and finally threw it on the pile of sketches.
“Fuck!” She muttered. Almost instantly she regretted. She shrugged and looked around quickly. But her mother was not around.
Luckily, since she hated swearing. Lara Croft was very strict about “that legionnaire jaw you've learned from your father" and although she struggled to control it always ended sprouting when she was angry.
There was no way that drawing will come out well. She felt frustrated.
Fidgeting on the wooden bench, Anna put the pencil between her nose and upper lip and made snouts while still examining the sketch. Then she picked up the artifact her mother had recovered from the main temple area two days earlier, and spun it in her hands. A beautiful piece of amber, like a drop, carved with thousands of wavy and zigzag lines. The Teardrop of Brahma.
She'd tried to draw it from every possible angle but it was hopeless. And that was frustrating because she was really good at drawing. Another thing she'd learned from her father, who had an innate talent for it, and it was something that, for a change, her mother didn't complain at.
If only he was there to help her. Anna was dumbfounded whenever Kurtis grabbed a pencil and, with short, quick gestures, created a world in a moment. She was really good for her age, but also dreamed of being like him, someday.
But of course she'll never make it if keeping on with that crap.
She tore the sheet, crumpled it into a ball and threw it over the pile of objects Lara had taken from the temple. Then she fell back on the seat into a squatting position, sulking.
“Waste of time” She muttered through clenched teeth, another inherited bad habit.
Suddenly she heard a rumbling in the distance. She sharpened her ear.
It had vanished. That was odd, it had sounded like a...
There it was. Again. And now there was no doubt.
It was an explosion. A bomb or a landmine.
But... in that place?
She immediately jumped from the bench and ran toward a tree. Almost immediately she turned and went back, grabbed the Teardrop of Brahma, put it into her shoulder bag, slung it over her shoulder, turned to the tree and began to climb.
Among the many things she was learning since, at the age of twelve, she joined her mother on some of her trips, was that never, never an artifact should be left behind, for whatever reason. Most times it was risky enough to retrieve it, to lose it after. In fact, Lara had left it there with her not just for her to practice her drawing by documenting its appearance and details.
Her mother was testing her. And Anna had no intention of being a disappointment.
She continued to climb, panting, clinging to the log and moving from branch to branch. Fortunately, the huge jungle trees were easy to climb, full of foliage and easily handles by anyone with a minimum of physical condition.
Unfortunately, the tree was huge, massive, soaring, so she took several minutes to reach the top. She dropped herself, sweating, in the last safe branch, and after checking its safety she peered above the tangle of leaves.
What she saw left her speechless.
“Oh no!” She shouted. A flock of parrots flew shrieking a few meters from her, scared by her voice.
There was a column of smoke rising over the horizon. Black smoke. Burning gasoline, if she guessed right. She also heard something in the distance, dimmed by the natural sounds of the jungle.
Shooting. Shrapnel blasts. And the distant rumble of engines.
Then she saw a shadow approaching. She looked at it carefully. The rattling and muffled sound came to her before she could even distinguish what it was.
A helicopter. And it came toward there.
“Damn it.” She muttered. Well, that was no time to worry about swearing.
She adjusted the shoulder strap around her body and started descending the tree, trying to remember where she had stepped before. But she went down so fast and giddy that soon took a misstep, lost her footing and began to fall uncontrollably, smacking against leaves and branches. Luckily she managed to grab a branch to stop her fall and descended more carefully, mumbling curses under her breath.
Indeed, that wasn't her easy day.
That pilot was really taking his chances. Well, she had made real crazy things not only with helicopters, but also airplanes, motorcycles, cars and all kinds of vehicles. But going down among that mass of soft and unstable foliage covering the top of the jungle was something she was not crazy enough to try.
It was going to crash, no doubt.
Lara shrugged, pulled back her braid with a slap and headed towards the small clearing where they had their camp. She wasn't surprised of not seeing Anna around there. There was no way she could stay still, not for half an hour anyway.
She took a quick look at the drafts and picked up the crumpled paper ball thrown at a distance. She smiled, almost hearing her grumbling, wrinkling her nose as she tried to depict the artifact from different angles, and dropping some occasional soldier curse.
In fact, Lara was hearing her now.
She approached one of the large trees surrounding the clearing in time to see her dropping from the latest branch to the ground, sweaty and red as a tomato. She almost smiled again at seeing her landing with flawless elegance, but then she noticed her face expression.
“Mom!” She shouted, and stopped to catch her breath. Lara frowned. It had been fourteen years... and still she couldn't get used to that word. “There's war out there!”
She'd guessed. So that was the distant havoc inexorably moving toward there.
No, she thought, shuddering. No. This damn place was safe.
It wasn't anymore.
Wordlessly, she entered the tent and ran to the radio. Maybe she could contact the archaeologists who had hired her to recover the Teardrop of Brahma. They had left them up there with their jeep, but taking back it with them. They only had one vehicle... damn cuts to government subsidies.
With microphone in hand, she hesitated. Then she dropped it. No, it was too dangerous. If the rebels had indeed come up in arms -if they'd only waited for some hours- the frequency could be tapped.
So, they were caught in the middle of the jungle, among the ruins, in a real battlefield.
“Great”. Lara sighed. “Just great”.
She took her a moment to realize her daughter standing there, staring at her, covered with dirt, twigs and with scratches on her face, arms and legs. It wasn't usual to see Lara unsure about what to do, and she'd noticed it, still looking at her with her striking blue eyes.
She need something to take care of.
“Pick up our stuff.” Lara said, and the girl nodded frantically. “Just the essentials, you know. Let's go to the base.”
“Everything will be fine. Keep calm.” And then Lara smiled. “You take care of the artifact”.
Anna smiled back and seemed to relax.
“Roger that!” She said, patting her shoulder bag, and started collecting things. She pocketed the paper ball absentmindedly. Not that it was a must, but perhaps she could show it to her father and find out what the hell she was doing wrong.
If they ever saw him again, she thought grimly, but determined to not to be scared. At least for now.