Act One: Lines of Inquiry, Chapter One: AlbescenceEdit

Sergeant Marcus Fenix frowned at the snow darkening his windshield. Grumbling, he jabbed a button with his finger and lifted his foot off the accelerator. The Centaur crawled valiantly through the blizzard as the wipers tried to clear his vision. Marcus rubbed his cheek, fingers tracing the scar that cut down to his jaw. A sigh broke from his lips.

After several minutes and fewer inches, Marcus gritted his teeth and stomped on the pedal. The Centaur jumped and began shuddering along at the pace of a tired jogger. Groaning, the sergeant smacked his head on the steering wheel.

"Damn!" Private Augustus Cole shouted from the back. "This thing is slower than my grandma!"

Marcus spared a glance at Cole. The black, clean-shaven gear had crammed himself into a seat intended for someone of Baird's physique. Although most anyone would have found that spacious, the massive ex-Thrashball player hunched over awkwardly, wearing an expression commonly associated with constipation. Slumped somewhat more comfortably in a neighboring seat, Dom asked with a friendly smile, "When she was dead or alive?"

Cole grinned. "Both."

Marcus shifted his attention back to the struggling windshield wipers. Gruffly, he asked, "Locust get her?"

Cole's smile flickered. "Nah. Alzheimer's."

Dom squeezed Cole's arm affably as they rolled over a bump.

Shaking his head, Marcus studied the scenery through the windshield. Nearly horizontal snow shot past the Centaur, occasionally clinging to the exterior. The tires crunched as they struggled forward; the engine whined. Mechanisms whirred and clicked rhythmically in the dashboard. Pressing his lips together, the sergeant drummed a quiet tune on the steering wheel, the speedometer wavering like a metronome between the second and fifth tick marks.

In the distance, Marcus could barely make out the outline of a building - what had once been a vacationer's cabin, perhaps. Crooked rock formations broke sporadically through the white terrain, forcing the Centaur to weave around them or bump over rough outcroppings. One such uneven patch nearly jostled him from his seat, and his grip tightened on the wheel. Subconsciously, his hand freed itself and drifted to his seatbelt, drawing reassurance from the taut fabric, the secure clip.

"Marcus! Did you go deaf or something?"

Starting slightly, the sergeant turned to see Dom leaning towards the front, elbows on his knees and a grin on his face. Cole's mouth was sucked inwards uncomfortably, but his eyes sparkled. Marcus frowned at them. "What?"

"I've been talking to you for the past five minutes," Dom chastised mockingly. His smile widened.

"Oh. Sorry. What-" Marcus cut himself off to glare at Cole, whose face was turning white with exertion. "What's your problem?"

A muffled grunt escaped Cole's mouth. His lips quirked into a tight smile. He spluttered, choked, then exploded into raucous laughter, loud enough to damage the ear drums of anyone within a mile radius. Guffawing, he doubled over in his seat. Marcus blinked at him, then narrowed his eyes at Dom, who only raised his hands innocently.

"I may have called you some names to try to get your attention."

Marcus stared at Cole, who trembled with another onslaught of laughter. "Like what?"

The corporal shrugged, a picture of nonchalance. "Oh, you know... moron, dipshit, jerkass, honeybuns. The good stuff." He glanced at Cole, who stifled his giggles so Dom could add, "But seriously, we were talking about New Hope."

Marcus cocked a brow, but only replied, "You mean how you still expect a turret to pop up and shoot you every time you turn a corner?"

Cole chortled. "Aw, you guys are a bunch of pussies. You know they disabled all that shit when they made New Hope our base."

"Still don't like it," Marcus grumbled.

"I'm just glad we have fresh water," the corporal interjected.

Cole beamed. "And real showers, baby! Shower stalls!"

Marcus snorted. "Yeah, no more group showers. Definitely my least favorite part of the military."

Dom grinned, flashing straight white teeth. "Why? Dropped the soap one too many times?"

The sergeant shot him a glare as Cole burst into another round of laughter. Between hoots, the black gear sputtered, "Man! Dom! That- that was awesome, baby!"

Marcus felt the corner of his lip twitch, and words popped free: "Well, Dom does know a lot about bending over."

His fellow gears stared at him outright. Cole coughed, spit slightly, then abandoned his efforts at restraint and doubled over, shaking with mirth. Peals of laughter echoed through the tank. "Holy shit! Marcus, I forget you have a sense of humor!"

The sergeant felt his mouth set again, but a slow smile spread Dom's face. "Yeah," the corporal added. "Me too."

Marcus glanced back at them, but quickly returned to the windshield. He shifted gears, his feet fidgeting on the pedals. "Fuckin' snow... weather's really gone to shit this winter. Hope it doesn't turn to razorhail."

As if on cue, the Centaur ground through a particularly large snowdrift. They all clutched at their armrests, listened to the soft clicks of the belts locking. After a moment, the path smoothed, and the tank returned to its previous state of borderline immobility.

Still beaming, Dom refocused on Cole. "So how's sleeping beauty?"

Cole blinked at the corporal for a moment. Slowly, the black gear turned towards Baird, who was propped in the corner of the tank. The blonde was clad only in his underwear, although his goggles still rested on his forehead. A purplish bruise marred his left cheekbone and temple, and a freshly stitched scar split his nearby hairline. Even in unconsciousness, his lips twisted downward, his brow furrowed tightly. Cole winced. "Sleepin'."

Frowning, Dom murmured, "Hey, it's Baird, man. He'll get better. I mean, you only clipped him with that revolver, so he'll be fine." His tone turned jovial, and he clapped a hand to Cole's shoulder. "Besides, usually you're chomping at the bit to piss him off."

"You didn't have to hit him," Marcus interrupted.

"Hey, man! I was just goin' along with the plan!" Cole protested. "The plan was, 'Baird's not gonna go to sleep, so we gotta knock him out'! We never worked out any sort of plan B for if Baird gave in!"

Dom frowned, mulling that over, then turned towards Marcus. "You know, he's right. We really should have made a hand signal or something."

Marcus rolled his eyes and retorted gruffly, "Yeah, I'll just make a couple bird calls and growl like a bear, and that'll be our universal 'Baird's actually cooperating for once; don't club him in the head' signal."

Dom slapped a hand over his mouth, but a chortle escaped.

"Hey! That shit is not funny! I didn't think he'd go down so easy!" Pouting, Cole crossed muscled arms and grumbled at the floor, "My sense of force is all outta whack..."

Dom relented. "Look, Cole, it's mostly Marcus's and my fault for even suggesting that knocking Baird out to make him sleep was a good idea. When he wakes up, he'll bitch a little extra and then it'll be fine."

"Yeah," Marcus added, adjusting the gearshift as he plowed through the snow. "We're stuck with him no matter what anyway."

Cole glanced uncomfortably at the blonde, who chose that moment to grumble something about promotions in his sleep. "Yeah, sure..."

Silence settled over them. The engine rasped. Snow crunched.

"I hope Baird wakes up soon," Cole blurted.

Marcus let out a grunt. "I still say we should've written 'dickwad' across his forehead."

"Not helping, man," Dom retorted.

Marcus opened his mouth to answer, but the engine shrieked. Gears crashed, pistons screamed. A squealing wail rose from some malfunctioning part, followed by a hiss. The Centaur jerked, gasped forward for numerous seconds, then suddenly lunged into the blizzard at a speed never previously attained in its mechanical life. Dom clapped his hands to his ears as the shrieking continued, louder now, as Cole jumped up, shouting something. The windshield began to cloud with thick white-gray smoke, and condensation beaded on the pane. Eyes wide, Marcus slammed his foot on the brake. The tank shuddered, then collapsed like a tired-out horse. Cole lurched forward, smacked into the sergeant's chair, then sank to the floor.

Warily, Dom peeled his hands away from his head. "What the hell happened?"

Cole groaned, massaging his ribcage. Marcus glanced at him briefly to confirm his health, then glared at the windshield, now made inscrutable by fog and water droplets. "Good question," the sergeant muttered.

Another loud moan escaped Cole's mouth.

"You okay, Cole Train?" Dom asked, half-worried and half-amused. "I saw your belt snap."

Wincing, Cole wobbled to his feet. "Those chairs are hard!"

A pained grumble reached their ears. "No shit," Baird growled, rubbing his jaw. He was tangled around a seat and bruised along his legs and arms, but otherwise fine.

Suddenly invigorated, Cole guffawed and bounded to the blonde. "Man, did you see that shit?"

"Yeah, I'm lucky I was able to wake up and grab this goddamn thing, or I might've been grub food," Baird grumbled, levering himself to a standing position. Grimacing, he cracked his knuckles, then followed up with his neck and back. "Shit, I'm sore. Couldn't you guys have at least laid me... down... or..." The blonde trailed off. Cole winced as icy blue eyes locked on him. "You!" Baird shouted, jabbing the black gear in the chest with a finger. "You're the one who knocked me out!"

"Baird-" Marcus attempted.

"You could've killed me, you dipshit! I have a welt the size of Mount fucking Kadar on the side of my head!"

"Baird-" Marcus repeated, more irritably.

" 'Look at me; I'm the Cole Train! I like to crack my friends' skulls open for the lulz!' "

"Baird!" Marcus snapped.

"What?!" the blonde shouted back, flinging his arms out to the side.

The sergeant paused to check on Cole, whose face was a mixture of blank stoicism and the expression worn by the recently slapped. Finally, Marcus growled, "The engine's fucked up."

Baird rolled his eyes. "No shit! Have you tried not getting snow in it?"

Teeth gritted, Marcus moved to rise, but Dom stepped in front of him. "Can you fix it?" the corporal asked quietly, blocking the sergeant.

With a sigh, Baird scratched his neck and muttered, "Of course I can fuckin' fix it. Do we have a Scorcher on board?" He glanced downward. "Also, where the hell is my armor?" "We didn't feel the need to dress you," Marcus growled, tossing a duffel bag at him. "Suit up."

"Hey, I'll handle the snow," Cole commented, plucking a flamethrower from the weapons cabinet on the back wall of the tank.

Baird paused in the middle of pulling on his undersuit. "No, that's okay-"

"I said the Cole Train's got it covered," the black gear interrupted. Baird cocked his head, then added quietly,

"Look, man, you don't need to 'make it up to me' or some shit. You didn't kill me, so in a few days my possible concussion will go away, and we can forget it ever happened." The blonde squeezed Cole's arm. "Alright?"

Cole watched his friend carefully. "I ain't gonna feel right, you know? 'Less I do somethin'."

Baird sighed and raised his hands in surrender. "Fine, go melt the snow. Don't get frostbite, alright? 'Cause I can't fix that."

Dom cooed at them obnoxiously. Marcus smirked and echoed, "Like two assholes on their first date."

"Yeah, yeah, laugh it up," Baird retorted, yanking on the suit and reaching for an armor plate. Under his breath, he added, "We all know you two are gay for each other anyways."

"Hey now!" Dom protested, eyes sparkling. "Everyone knows Marcus-"

The sergeant's eyes narrowed. "Dom-"

The corporal was grinning now. "-totally has it for A-"

A hand wrapped around Dom's throat. "Were you saying something?" Marcus growled.

Dom just smiled at him, the toothy, shit-eating grin that the sergeant wanted to blow off with a grenade launcher. Meanwhile, Cole opened the hatch and bounded out the door. He blasted the flamethrower and cackled manically. "YOU WANT SOME O' THIS, SNOW?! BRING IT! THE COLE TRAIN'S IN YO' HOUSE, BITCH! HAHA, HOW YOU LIKE BEIN' MELTED?! WHOO!"

Silenced, Marcus, Dom, and Baird could only stare at the door as it closed behind the black gear. Finally, the blonde asked, "Did he seriously just threaten the weather?"

Jack decloaked, beeping quizzically. A screen folded out from his chest to display a beautiful blonde woman. She was petite, her face delicately sculpted, lips molded in the shape of a strung bow. Her blue eyes swept over them clinically, cataloguing bumps and bruises. Her gaze lingered at Baird's temple. "Delta, this is Control; can you hear me?" First Lieutenant Anya Stroud asked, her tone indicating a hint of worry.

Glancing at Baird and Dom, Marcus approached the screen. "Copy, Control. What's up?"

"...Well, according to all signals, your Centaur's been behaving rather... erratically. There've been strange readouts on my scanners; it could just be the blizzard interfering-"

Marcus shrugged. "Just a little engine trouble. Baird should have us moving again in no time once Cole clears the snow."

Anya cocked a skeptical brow. "Engine trouble?"

"Engine trouble," Dom echoed.

Anya pursed her lips thoughtfully. "Maybe it's just a bug..."

"Hey, Anya," Baird interrupted, glaring at his superior officers. "Do me a favor and tell me what the hell our mission is, since I was incapacitated during the briefing."

Dom and Marcus both looked away from the private, forcing their eyes to the ceiling, the floor, the walls. A whistled tune eked from the corporal's lips. Anya stared at them, then replied confusedly, "Uh... sure. You're on your way to an old COG base, Fort Jameson. It's under siege by Locust, but there are still a dozen or so gears holding out there. They radioed for help - they heard about the New Hope renovations but are completely pinned down."

"Basically, from now on all our missions will mostly be rescuing other soldiers and collecting as much firepower as we can for a final assault," Marcus summarized.

"Exactly," Anya agreed. "Anything else?"

Baird frowned. "Can I hear the message?"

Dom and Marcus blinked at him, but Anya nodded. "One sec..." She tapped a few keys, and static filled the transmission. Rough audio filtered through, and a hoarse baritone voice reached their ears:

"This is Tr---under attack at Fort---repeat, Fort Jameson---there are-" He broke off, hacking and attempting to clear his throat. He sucked in a rough breath, then continued, "Are some one dozen gears---being wiped out by Drones---require immediate assist---repeat, immediate---wish to regroup at central base-" Garbled screeching echoed through the transmission, and the gear added frantically, "Repeat, Fort Jameson---distress signal foxtrot uniform charlie-" before the sound cut out.

Anya gazed at them apologetically as the static faded. "That's it."

Nodding, Baird replied, "Alright, thanks. I'm all set." He turned to his senior gears. "You bastards got anything to ask?"

"Nope," Dom replied. A grin crept across his face. "I'll bet Marcus has something to ask."

"Go to hell," the sergeant growled.

Bewilderment furrowed Anya's brow, but she quickly dismissed her confusion. "Alright, Delta, over and out." Jack beeped and cloaked again, floating away.

The hatch on the Centaur popped open again. Grinning and breathing out steam, Cole bellowed, "All clear up in here, baby!"

Baird clapped him on the shoulder. "Great. Now stay the hell away from the control panels, alright?" To the others, the blonde called, "I'll have this junk heap rolling in a minute, assuming no one wrecks it again. Sit tight."

As the blonde opened the back door, Dom elbowed Marcus and called, "Hey, Baird! Are you in a good mood today?!"

"Go to hell!"

Marcus blinked at Dom, who chuckled as the hatch shut behind Baird. Finally, the sergeant asked, "Is Baird ever in a good mood?"

Dom frowned at him. "That was the idea. Geez, Marcus, learn to keep up."

"I've seen Baird in a good mood," Cole volunteered.

Genuine interest dawned on Dom's face, but Marcus felt the sarcasm bubble up again. "When? In the group showers?"

This time, Dom and Cole stared at each other before exploding into laughter. The corporal sagged onto the private's shoulder, shaking with mirth.

"Shit, Marcus!" Dom exclaimed between chuckles.

For once, Cole was more articulate. He giggled, then added, "Three jokes in one hour! You're gonna hurt your rep!"

Marcus felt his shoulders stiffen. His jaw locked in place, and warmth rushed to his face. His fingers massaged his scar as he forced his eyes to the windshield, blue with packed snow.

A crack echoed from outside the tank, as if some incautious wanderer had trod upon a dry branch. It was barely audible, struggling beneath the blizzard and Dom and Cole's laughter, but Marcus cocked his head, listening, fresh tension flooding his body.

Another crack, then a loud ping of metal on metal. Dom and Cole fell silent, frozen almost mockingly in positions of amusement.

The last crack came louder, closer. A pop running undercurrent gave it magnitude. It rang through the storm, a noise so familiar that the sergeant could not fathom his earlier lack of recognition. The gears bolted for the hatch in unison. "BAIRD!" Cole screamed, leaping through the door before it was even fully opened.

"Shit!" was the blonde's muffled answer, but its source was indeterminable in the blinding snow.

"BAIRD!" Cole roared again, diving through the white. Pops resounded in his ears, and he plunged downward, his panicked breath issuing thick plumes of steam. A few bullets pinged harmlessly off the tank, burying themselves in the drifts around him.

Dom swept aside the soft crystals with meticulous efficiency. He spoke not a word, his brow and lips drawn into grim, focused lines. Shoving at the snow, he formed a path to the front of the Centaur and began searching thoroughly. A gun reported, loud enough to be sniper fire, but the wind threw it off course, and Dom continued his hunt with more fervor.

Meanwhile, Cole plowed through the drifts like a human bulldozer. "BAIRD!" He wiped snow from his face, scanning the blizzard. Crystals stung his eyes, and shots rang in his ears, forcing him back to the relative shelter of the tank. His fingers clung to the metal, flexing in their uselessness and desperation.

Swearing incoherently, Marcus slapped a magazine into his Lancer. "BAIRD!" he bellowed, cocking the rifle. "IF YOU DON'T ANSWER ME RIGHT NOW, I'M FUCKING LEAVING YOU HERE!"

The blizzard howled around them: Dom, still digging through the snow with the determination of a hound on the scent; Cole, clutching at the tank as if he could pry answers from its panels; and Marcus, immovable in the battering force of the storm. Snow and ice stung their faces; wind tore at their limbs. A guttural hiss that may or may not have been snow in the engine taunted their ears. A bullet whizzed past Marcus's ear, and he shot into the blizzard. "BAIRD!" he demanded.

"Go fuck yourself!"

"Found him!" Dom shouted, lurching towards the source of the expletive. Plunging his arms into a shallow bank, he grabbed something solid and hauled Baird out of the snow. Several shots pinged off the Centaur near their heads as the blonde sagged on the corporal. Red marred the white around them.

"Dom! Get Baird inside!" Marcus yelled, reloading his Lancer. Forcing his voice to rise above the wailing wind, he asked, "Cole? You want to do the honors?"

Mouth tightening, Cole stepped away from the Centaur and revved his chainsaw bayonet. "You know it, baby."

As one, the gears waded through the snow, crouched so as to be less visible. After a few minutes, a dark shape loomed ahead of them, and Cole emptied half his magazine into the figure. It held its ground. With a frustrated yell, the private spent the remainder of the clip on the boulder.

"Cole! Don't waste ammo!" Marcus snapped.

"It was pissin' me off! Don't nobody piss off the Cole Train!" the gear retorted, reloading as gunfire echoed from their left. Marcus swiveled and fired a few rounds into the wind. They fell to the snow after no more than a few feet, forced down by the gusts.

A hiss behind Cole caught his attention. Revving his chainsaw, he whirled and swung his arms downward, tearing through a Theron Guard. A smile parted his lips as blood stained the snow. "WHOO!"

Marcus switched to his Gnasher. "Looks like they're as blind as us."

Cole readied his Lancer. A Drone leapt through the snow, and the black gear cleaved its torso neatly from its lower body. A laugh billowed forth. "Ahh, chainsaw! The great communicator, baby!"

A group of Locust surged toward Marcus. A bullet grazed his shoulder, but the sergeant gritted his teeth, waiting. Another shot stung his leg, but he locked his eyes on the approaching figures. He took a second to count - five shadows emerging in his field of vision. With almost inhuman dexterity, he swung the Gnasher upward and fired twice. One Drone fell immediately, three staggered back, but one continued forward, pointing a Boltok. A pop issued from the revolver, and Marcus felt blood stream down his neck, warming his throat. His Gnasher left off another loud explosion, and two more Locust collapsed in the snow. From behind him, he heard machine gun fire. The remaining Drones collapsed, the Bolter's pistol tumbling into the powder.

"You alright, Marcus?" Cole hollered over the wind. Scrapes and scratches marred his arms, but he had suffered no real injury and watched his superior officer with concern.

Marcus's hand found his neck. "I-"

Something leaped on his back, shrieking. The sergeant tumbled face first into the drift, and he felt Cole rip the Wretch off his shoulders.

"YOU GRUBS ARE STUPID!" the private bellowed into the storm, "AND YOU'RE GONNA BE STUPID AND DEAD!" He punted the wretch into the air, letting the wind carry it off, then yanked Marcus upward. Cole shot the sky twice with a Gnasher, a threat somehow more tangible than audible, but nothing responded. Shaking his head, he lowered the shotgun. "Marcus," he repeated, "you alright?"

Cracking his neck, the sergeant attached his weapons to his back. "I'll survive. Let's go check on Baird."

With a curt nod, Cole holstered his gun and trudged back to the Centaur. As he and Marcus climbed in the back, Dom shut the door behind them. "Shit, Marcus," the corporal murmured, eyes locked on the sergeant's neck.

"It'll be fine," Marcus replied irritably. "It's shallow. I just need to get some pressure on it. How's Baird?"

"Down here." Marcus and Cole both shifted their gazes to the floor. Baird waved at them. "I'm alright. Sniper shot to the right shoulder. Didn't hit anything horribly important." A frown crossed his face. "Did you kill them all?"

Cole sulkily plopped on the ground beside the blonde. "No."

Baird smirked. "Did you kill a lot of 'em?"

"You know it, baby!" Cole cheered.

"Jack pulled the bullet out of his shoulder and patched the armor," Dom explained. "Then I wrapped the wound. So he'll be fine."

"Good to hear," Marcus replied. "In the meantime, we're stuck here."

"Actually, I think I may have cleared enough snow out of the engine before I got shot," Baird interjected, closing his eyes. "There's evidence of sabotage, though. I don't think we'll make it far."

Marcus blinked at him, then grinned. "Have I ever told you that you're bat-shit crazy?"

"Several times. Now if you don't mind, I think I'll use this time to take a nap on this ever so comfortable metal paneling." Baird opened his eyes to glare at Dom and Cole. "Would you two like to assist me again?"

Cole winced, but Dom smiled knowingly and jibed, "I'm sorry. I couldn't hear you. Your head was too far up your ass."

Baird smirked and allowed his eyes to shut once more. "Just making sure you learned your lesson."

Shaking his head, Marcus settled himself in the driver's seat. After a few tries, he managed to turn over the engine. "Baird, you magnificent bastard. Control, this is Delta, do you read?"

Jack decloaked, and Anya's face appeared on the screen. "Marcus? Everything oka-is Baird bleeding on the floor? And are you bleeding from the neck?"

"Just a flesh wound. Anyway, we're moving again. Figured I'd let you know." He shifted into gear and carefully eased the Centaur forward. "Looks like the snow's letting up; we should make up for some lost time."

Anya bit her lip. "Marcus... About the fort..."

He cocked a brow. "Yes?"

"Well, we just received word that there's a large ghost town between your position and Fort Jameson. It seems that our intel that the area had been flattened by Locust attacks and bombings had been misfiled."

Marcus rubbed his jaw. "Great. Do we travel around or through?"

"You should be able to get a visual when you pass over this hill," Anya prompted. "Get a good look at it, tell me what you see, and I'll figure it out."

Flooring the engine, Marcus furrowed his brow as the Centaur shuddered up the incline. Several kilometers ahead lay a network of empty buildings and broken roads, clearly visible despite the persistent (if thinner) snow. Marcus winced when he saw a swath of scarred land slicing the town in half - a clear mark of the Hammer of Dawn. "Looks more like a ruin than a town, Anya. Lots of tall apartment complexes and a bunch of big government-style buildings, most crumbling into each other."

Static reached his ears. Anya attempted valiantly to advise: "Marcus-- Don't-- 'Round-- Time is-- Need to reach-- Can you hear--" Finally, the connection cut out. Jack beeped at the sergeant.

The tank fell silent. "Well," Baird uttered from the floor. "That was ominous."

With a quick roll of his eyes, Marcus stomped on the accelerator. The Centaur crawled forward perhaps half an inch, then shuddered to a stop. Growling, Marcus turned the keys. The engine coughed apologetically.

Sighing, Marcus glanced back at the rest of Delta squad. "Change of plans. Looks like we're investigating a ghost town."

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