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This is a transcript of Screennameless's Gears fanfiction, Reconnoiter, originally posted here on FanFiction.net. She would prefer that you read it at its original location as this is merely a copy of the chapters. The original not only has a lot of bonus content and author's notes but also may have revisions that came after the transcription. Additionally, FF.net has an easily accessible visitor tracking system. When you read it here, Screennameless gets a less accurate measure of the story's traffic.
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PLEASE KEEP IN MIND! Reconnoiter is rated M for extremely coarse language, graphic violence, nudity, and mild sexual themes. If any of these offend you, for the love of all that's sacred, what are you doing on a Gears of War fansite?
Reconnoiter occurs immediately following the events of Gears of War 2.
There is now a Gears of War:Reconnoiter/Q&A, if you're interested. Warning: May contain spoilers.
Private Damon Baird silently shut the door behind him and flipped the light switch. A single naked bulb on the ceiling flickered to life, illuminating what might as well have been a converted water closet. The private scowled at the aged metal bed frame and thin mattress that were the sole furniture. "Oh, sure, Delta squad gets it so good." Baird kicked the frame. It screeched across the floor and thudded on the back wall. "Yeah, we get a whole one night of sleep after blowing up a fucking lambent Brumak! And we get to ship out at five in the morning to go blow up a lambent Corpser, or whatever the hell will be next."
He wiped off a grimy wall mirror and mock-saluted his reflection, blue eyes glinting in the dim light. "Thank you, Colonel Hoffman, sir, for appreciating your big damn heroes with a whole night of rest! It's such a privilege to receive this luxurious reprieve, sir!" Baird snorted and tossed his hip bag onto the cot. It sagged under the weight, and he ran a hand through his short, blonde hair in frustration. "I love my life."
Popping his Lancer off his back, he checked the barrel for blockage, then propped the gun against the wall. He unclipped his thigh holster, Boltok within, and laid it beside the rifle. Moving to the middle of his converted water closet, Baird carefully loosened the straps and buckles on his armor. The heavy pieces fell to the metal floor with obnoxious bangs and thuds for the people on the level below. With a grunt, the private shoved the armor under the bed before finally peeling off the black undersuit he wore to prevent chafing.
Stripped down to a dirty white tank top and grey shorts, he sank onto the cot. It buckled beneath him but held. Sighing, he reached for his bag. "I've got about eight hours before we ship. That should be enough to get the gist of these..." Tugging free a sheaf of Locust documents, he flung the bag aside. "Let's see... that's 'queen' right there..."
The bulb died. Baird tossed his arms skyward in the darkness. "Oh, come on!"
Someone chuckled. Narrowing his eyes, the blonde turned towards the door. Corporal Dominic Santiago grinned at him, apparently having just returned from the showers. His dark hair was black from wet, and his skin was the healthy, raw pink of the recently scrubbed. "It's just me, man," the Latino teased, flipping the switch a few times. The light sputtered on and off.
Baird glowered at him. "Great. To what do I owe the pleasure?"
Shrugging, Dom quietly entered the room. He shut the door behind him and rubbed the tattoo on his arm as if it were sore. "Yourself. Seriously, man, dropping all your shit on the floor? Not cool."
"Oh, come on, you weren't even sleeping," the blonde complained.
"No, I was washing my back," Dom retorted, "and the noise surprised me so much that I slipped and almost knocked myself out on the shower wall."
Baird raised his hands in surrender. "Okay, okay. Loud noises equal bad. Duly noted. Can you go now?"
Dom winced as he sat on the edge of the bed. "Well... there's this one other little thing."
"Oh, fantastic. Please, enlighten me; I am all ears."
The corporal scratched his head uncomfortably. Rolling his eyes, Baird laid back on his cot.
"Hello? Before I die of old age?"
Dom gave the private a withering stare. "Alright, fine. Geez. Marcus orders you to actually sleep for once instead of working on your translations."
Baird bolted upright. "Are you shitting me?"
"Come on, man, would I do that to you?"
The blonde cocked a brow at him.
"Okay, yeah, maybe. But seriously, Marcus's orders." Dom smiled sheepishly. "Don't shoot the messenger?"
Baird scowled at him for a moment, then leapt to his feet, seething. "This is bullshit! He can't regulate my fucking downtime!" The blonde whirled on Dom, accusing him with a glare. "You're seriously just going to sit there?!"
Dom held his hands up. "Hey, man, it's not my call-"
"It's not his call, either! And it's not like I'm shitting away my time touching myself! I'm actually working on important crap here that no one will give me any fucking time for!" The private waved the pages in front of Dom's face. "These could save lives, maybe even our lives. Doesn't that matter to you?"
"Of course it matters to me," the corporal replied calmly, ignoring the guilt card. "But last time you did this you were up until three in the morning, and we shipped out at four. You're no good to anyone if you're falling asleep on the battlefield."
"Oh, fuck you," Baird growled. "Like I could fall asleep with that kind of adrenaline pumping through me."
"I'm not here to argue with you," Dom continued evenly. "I'm just delivering the message."
"Message received. Response: go to hell. Anything else you need?" Baird snapped as he flopped onto the cot. He snapped the papers in front of him, blocking Dom from view. After a moment, his hand groped for something on the mattress. Dom picked a pen off the floor and passed to him. With a quick grunt of acknowledgement, the blonde circled a few recurring groups of symbols.
Dom glanced at the door, then back to Baird. "Look, man, I'm not asking here. Marcus told me to take the papers away from you if necessary."
Baird cocked a brow. "If you think you can, try it."
"I have no doubt in my mind that trying to take those from you is the equivalent of someone trying to take my picture of Maria from me." Dom offered him a tentative grin. "And I don't feel like losing any of my teeth today."
The private smirked but kept his eyes on his work. "Smart move."
They sat in silence for a moment. "My other order was to knock you out so you'd have to sleep," Dom added, glancing back at the door.
Baird snorted and flipped a page. "Sure, man. Keep 'em coming."
There was no reply. The blonde looked up to see Dom smirking at him deviously. Baird had time to widen his eyes before something heavy connected with the back of his head.
Sergeant Marcus Fenix frowned at the snow darkening his windshield. Grumbling, he jabbed a button with his finger and lightened up on the Imulsion pedal. The Centaur crawled valiantly through the blizzard as the wipers tried to clear his vision. Marcus scratched his head through his black bandana and stomped on the pedal. The tank gave a jump and began rolling 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. Instead, the massive ex-Thrashball player hunched over awkwardly, wearing an expression most people associated with constipation. Chuckling, Marcus shifted his eyes back to the vain efforts of the windshield wipers. "When she was dead or alive?"
"Both," Cole grinned.
"Locust get her?"
After the sinking of Jacinto, the COG had moved their base of operations to the (appropriately named) New Hope Research Facility. Army personnel cleared out the research and cloistered it in the mostly intact labs for study, while gears and Jacinto evacuees cleaned and repaired the facility as necessary. If nothing else, New Hope (or 'Last Hope', as some of the cynics called it) had access to fresh water. One of the new buildings added to the facility was a water purification plant, which had greatly improved morale. Everyone could finally wash away Locust reek.
Of course, another of the immediately completed "projects" was to tag the main entrance with the phrase "DON'T PANIC" in large, friendly letters. Rumors were that it was the work of Alpha Squad, but when Marcus confronted its leader, Jace Stratton, he evaded the question. Chairman Prescott was furious, but Colonel Hoffman called it "the best advice that could be given to humanity" and insisted it be left alone. Marcus snorted. "Didn't know the bastard had a sense of humor."
"What?" Cole asked.
"Nothin'." The sergeant scowled. "Fuckin' snow... weather's really gone to shit." Just yesterday, razorhail had nearly torn apart the new Control building, which hadn't yet finished renovations. At least the barracks and dorms had been completed soundly, but the thudding of ice on the metal roof did little for his nerves.
The Centaur ground through a particularly large snowdrift. Marcus rubbed the scar on his face tiredly. "How's sleeping beauty?"
Cole blinked at the sergeant. Slowly, he turned to gaze at Baird, who was propped up in the corner of the tank. The blonde was still clad only in his underwear, although he did have his goggles on his forehead. A purplish bruise marred his cheek - he had become well-acquainted with the floor after being knocked out. Cole winced guiltily. "Sleepin'."
Marcus cocked a brow at him. Shifting gears, he turned back to the front, blue eyes searching through the foggy windshield. "Hey, Cole."
The black gear's enthusiasm returned. "Whassup, baby?"
"It looks like we have to drive off some rocks up ahead."
Cole blinked at the sergeant's back. "So?"
Marcus smirked roguishly. "Wanna make it a little more interesting?"
Grinning, the former Thrashball star clomped to the front of the Centaur and clapped a meaty black hand on the back of Marcus's chair. "Whatchu got?"
Marcus dropped an armored foot on the brake. The Centaur shuddered to a stop, and the sergeant shifted into park. Expression flat, he pointed through the windshield. "Alright, see that cabin out in the distance?"
Cocking a brow, Cole peered out the window. After a moment, he turned to Marcus, mouth open in a comical O. "Man, you are not goin' where I think you goin'."
Marcus tugged on his goatee with gloved fingers. "Bet you I can jump the Centaur off the rocks all the way to that cabin." Cole blinked at the sergeant. He glanced out the window again, regarded Marcus's serious expression once more, then guffawed loudly. "Bitch, you crazy."
A hatch above them swung open, thudding loudly on the ceiling. Warily, Dom poked his head in upside-down. "What's up? Why'd we stop?"
Cole let out a rumbling laugh. "Man, Marcus thinks he can jump the Centaur some crazy ass distance and is willin' to bet money on it. From some rocks to a lil' hut waaay out there."
Dom widened his eyes at them. "A bet?"
"Yeah, Dom, a bet." Marcus allowed them a tiny, crooked grin. "So?"
Frowning for a moment, the corporal replied, "Let me hop down so I can think without the vertigo."
With a roll of his eyes, Marcus replied, "Sure. What about you, Cole?"
"You know the Cole Train's gettin' in on this action! There ain't no way you'll make that jump!"
Standing beside them, Dom gazed over Marcus's bandana through the windshield. "I'm going with Cole on this one. You cannot make it from these rocks to that shack."
With a grunt of acknowledgement, Marcus reached for the shift. Suddenly, he paused and smirked. "What about Baird? We could bet with his money."
Cole and Dom exchanged surprised looks. Finally, the ex-Thrashball player murmured, "Come on, Marcus. We done enough to him lately, y'know?"
"You just feel bad because you almost killed him with a revolver butt," Dom teased, stretching out his back. "It's Baird, man. He'll get better. Besides, usually you're chomping at the bit to piss him off."
"You didn't have to hit him that hard," Marcus chastised, although his amusement was clear.
"Hey, man! That shit is not funny! I didn't think he'd go down so easy!" Pouting, Cole crossed muscled arms and grumbled, "Shit, I beat on alien monster Locust motherfuckers with heads made of iron. My sense of force is all outta whack..."
Dom relented, if only because the black gear had been screaming in horror about "killing" his best friend the night before. "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."
Cole glanced uncomfortably at the blonde, who chose that moment to grumble something about promotions in his sleep. "Yeah, sure..."
Marcus let out a snort, shifting the Centaur back into drive and slamming his foot on the gas pedal. "I still say we should've written 'dickwad' across his forehead."
"Not helping, man," Dom retorted. He grabbed a strap on the ceiling as the tank rolled over a bump.
"Watch the road, baby!" Cole exclaimed, flailing for another of the handholds.
"There is no road!" Marcus retorted as he struggled through another snowdrift. The Centaur jolted again, but Dom caught Cole and guided him to a strap.
"Just hang on to the 'oh shit' handles and we should all survive!" Dom shouted over the grind of the engine, grinning in spite of himself. Marcus flipped him off good-naturedly.
"The whats?!" Cole responded.
Dom hesitated, then smiled fondly. "Carlos used to call these 'oh shit' handles because-"
"Would you shut the fuck up, please?!" Marcus interrupted. He swerved sharply, activated the booster, and hit the rocks, catapulting the Centaur into the air. Cole and Dom clung to the ceiling straps as their feet lifted slightly off the floor.
"Oh, shit, I'm gonna be sick!" Cole bellowed.
The corporal grinned. "Yeah, that's why!"
"Hang on tight!" Marcus commanded, bracing himself on the steering wheel. "We're coming in for a landing!"
Careful to maintain his grip on the strap, Dom peered through the windshield. "Hah! The house is still way the hell ahead of us!"
With a loud whumph, the Centaur plummeted into a pile of snow. The fresher, looser flakes clouded the air around them like a smoke grenade.
"Shit, Marcus," Dom laughed, staggering over to the driver's seat. "Where the hell did you learn to drive?"
"You're just jealous that I always get the keys," the sergeant replied as Cole fell to his knees, a hand clapped over his mouth.
Whacking Marcus on the shoulder, Dom turned back to the former Thrashball star, who gagged into his fist. The corporal took a careful step closer. "You okay, Cole Train?"
There was a moment of silence. Finally, Cole swallowed and replied, "Yeah, baby, the Cole Train never gets benched." Suddenly, his eyes widened, and he shot upwards. "Oh, shit! Baird!"
A moan met their ears. "What?" the blonde groaned, rubbing his jaw. He was tangled around a chair and bruised along his legs and arms, but otherwise fine.
Cole guffawed and bounded over 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. Wincing, 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 back of my head!"
"Baird-" Marcus repeated, more irritably.
" 'Look at me; I'm the Cole Train! I like to crack my friends heads 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 Centaur's not responding."
Baird rolled his eyes. "No shit! Have you tried not burying the engine in a snow drift?"
Teeth gritted, Marcus moved towards the blonde menacingly, but Dom stepped between them. "Can you fix it?" the corporal asked quietly.
With a sigh, Baird scratched his neck and muttered, "Of course I can fuckin' fix it. But there's not a lot I can do if we're buried under snow. 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.
"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? I'm a mechanic, not a medic."
Dom cooed at them obnoxiously. Marcus laughed and commented, "Like two assholes on their first date, right, Dom?"
"Yeah, yeah, laugh it up," Baird retorted. Under his breath, he added, "We all know you two are gay for each other anyways."
"Hey now!" Dom protested. "Everyone knows Marcus-"
Marcus's eyes narrowed. "Dom-"
The corporal was grinning now. "-totally has it for-"
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 blond woman. "Delta, this is Control; are you there?" 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."
Marcus and Dom grinned at each other. "Just a little engine trouble. Baird should have us moving again in no time."
Anya cocked a skeptical brow. "Engine trouble?"
"Snow's a bitch," Dom commented idly.
"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 muffled a laugh as Anya 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. They've got excess supplies stockpiled, too - once you've secured the location, we're going to drop in a few more Centaurs, then you'll escort them back up here with the equipment."
"Basically, from now on 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 shook his head. "I'm good. 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.
Anya blinked at them, but quickly gave up and merely shook her head. "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! Don't panic out there! Despite all appearances, the snow will not hurt you!"
"Go to hell!"
"Aww, come on, man, that's the best advice you can give to humanity!" the corporal teased as the hatch closed. He turned back to the others with a cheeky grin. "Am I right?"
Chuckling, Cole added, "You know it! The guy who tagged that door definitely had it right."
"No shit," Marcus snorted.
Dom tapped his chin thoughtfully. "Yeah, how many times has a mission fubared because some rookie lost it?"
"I don't like to think about it," the sergeant replied, shaking his head.
Cole chuckled. "Yeah, you gotta stay cool, baby."
"Like Tai," Marcus murmured suddenly. "Or Carlos. Calm in the face of danger."
Dom rested a hand on his friend's shoulder. "Soldiers to the end."
They fell into a reverent silence.
Gunshots outside drew their attention. Marcus, Dom, and Cole exchanged horrified stares before bolting for the door. "BAIRD!" Cole screamed, leaping through the hatch before it was even fully opened.
"Shit!" was the blonde's muffled answer.
"Where the hell is he?!" Marcus snapped, firing his Lancer at a Locust.
"Baird!" Cole bellowed frantically.
"Found him!" Dom shouted, dragging the blonde out of the snow. A bullet pinged off the Centaur near their heads.
"Don't just stand here, shithead!" Baird managed, voice hoarse. "There's Locust everywhere!"
"Dom! Get Baird inside!" Marcus bellowed, reloading his Lancer. More quietly, he asked, "Cole? You want to do the honors?"
Mouth set in a grim line, Cole revved his chainsaw bayonet. "You know it, baby."
As gunfire echoed behind him, Dom half-dragged Baird to the back of the Centaur. Tossing the blonde inside, Dom began checking for wounds. "Man, you're just being shit on this week, huh?"
Grimacing, Baird spat blood onto the floor and replied, "I took a sniper shot to the shoulder. I don't think it hit anything horribly vital, unless it clipped my lung, which would suck." He spat again. "Right when I opened the panel to restart the engine, I realized the hissing sound I kept hearing wasn't from the blizzard-force winds."
Outside, Cole tore a Theron Guard in half with his Lancer. "Ahh, chainsaw! The great communicator, baby!" He tagged another Guard with a bolo grenade and dove for cover as the Locust exploded into a pile of ludicrous gibs. Half a dozen Drones charged the black gear, who merely shouted, "YOU GRUBS ARE STUPID! AND YOU'RE GONNA BE STUPID AND DEAD!" Switching to the Gnasher, Cole quickly shot down three of the Locust. One came too close, and he beat it back before shooting a hole in its chest. As he began to advance on the remaining Drones, something jumped onto his back and clawed his head. "Wretches!" Cole called, ripping said enemy off him and throwing it at a Grub.
"Roger that, Cole!" Marcus replied, curb-stomping a Bolter. He grabbed the dead Locust's pistol and fired off several rounds. The Wretches dropped like flies against Marcus's new Boltok.
"HEY!" the black gear bellowed suddenly. Surprised, Marcus glanced the private's way to see the remaining Grubs fleeing through the snow. "WHAT DO YOU THINK YO' DOIN', RUNNIN' LIKE SOME PANSY-ASS-"
"Cole!" the sergeant shouted. "Forget it! We can't go through this weather! Let's go check on Baird!"
Groaning, Cole holstered his gun and trudged back to the Centaur. As he and Marcus climbed in the back, Baird coughed and asked, "Did you kill 'em all?"
Cole sulkily plopped on the floor 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. "He'll be fine."
"Good to hear," Marcus replied gruffly, "but we're still stuck here until he recovers enough to fix the Centaur."
"Actually, I think I may have cleared enough snow and debris out of the engine before I got shot," Baird interjected, closing his eyes. "I didn't bother trying to shoot the bastards through that blizzard; just kept working until I got hit."
Marcus blinked at him, then shook his head. "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 work on my research." Baird opened his eyes to glare at the sergeant. "That is, if you brought it."
Dom pulled a sheaf of papers from his hip bag. "Here."
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?"
"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. "What now?"
"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 rolled his eyes. "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. He parked the tank atop the hill. "Looks more like a city than a town, Anya. Lots of tall apartment complexes and a bunch of big government-style buildings. Please advise on how to proceed."
Static reached his ears. Anya attempted valiantly to direct him: "Marcus-- Don't-- 'Round-- Time is-- Need to reach-- Can you hear--" Finally, the connection cut out. Jack beeped at the sergeant.
Sighing, Marcus glanced back at the rest of Delta squad, who watched the fuzzy screen with wide eyes. "Change of plans. Looks like we're investigating a ghost town." The sergeant shifted back into drive and began their descent. "Oh, and remember: Don't panic."
The sign had been edited sloppily, its revisions slapped on in bright, chunky blue paint. "Welcome to BIG TOWN Population: (several crossed out numbers) FUCK IT"
Delta squad stared at the sign with expressions of mixed surprise, confusion, and disappointment. Finally, Baird muttered, "Well. Someone's got an appreciation for irony."
"Hey, they almost hit double digits, baby!" Cole interrupted, for once forcing his enthusiasm. "That's gotta count for somethin', right?"
Dom swiped his hand along the fat blue letters. "Looks like the letters beneath 'big town' used to say 'Vradina'. Paint's not fresh, but it's certainly not old. You think they're still alive, Marcus?"
The sergeant frowned, gazing up at the cracked buildings and overgrown pavement. Withering ivy decorated what were once modest white townhouses, and a gigantic hole marred the wall of what had presumably been the local post office. Windows were busted and boarded up, decaying garbage littered the streets, and an intact windchime tinkled faintly in the distance. A collapsed, charred building blocked the main road with a nearly vertical wall of debris. The sulfuric stench of Locust tortured his nose, and the sergeant sneezed into his glove. Flicking his hand in disgust, he crouched and picked up a bullet casing from the ground. "Can't say," Marcus murmured. "But something's blocking our radio signal, and it's either a Seeder or an old jammer from the Pendulum Wars." He dropped the casing. "For their sake, let's hope it’s the latter."
"Oh, come on," Baird retorted. "That few people holding out against however many waves of Locust? It's not gonna happen."
Marcus cocked a brow at him.
"We don't count. We're trained for this shit."
Shaking his head, Dom interrupted, "Are we going to look for them?"
Marcus locked eyes with his friend. The sergeant knew Dom was thinking about the picture tucked inside his armor, about the other gears with photographs hidden under their chestplates.
Cole intervened. "Shit yeah we gonna look for 'em! They gotta know what's jammin' the signal!"
Rolling his eyes, Baird retorted, "Well, you certainly wouldn't."
"Hell no!" Cole replied gleefully. "I just kill Grubs! Don't need to think, just react! That's how I roll, baby!"
"Good thing you don't need to think, or you'd probably be dead right now," Baird muttered.
With a quick glance back at Dom, Marcus commanded, "Alright, then, you know the drill."
"Yeah, yeah, stay and guard the vehicle. We got it," the blonde gear interrupted, waving away the order. "Don't hurry back."
"We should still be able to contact you at short range," Dom added. "We'll keep you posted on anything we find."
"You got it!" Cole bellowed, grabbing Baird's arm.
"Son of a bitch, Cole, you're going to dislocate my fucking shoulder!"
Marcus and Dom stared at them as a heartily laughing Cole dragged Baird back to the Centaur. "Well," the corporal interjected brightly. "Baird's going to get raped."
Shaking his head, Marcus stepped onto the crumbling street. "See a way in?"
"Not yet." Dom clicked his tongue. "They really wanted to keep people out, didn't they? It'd take a Corpser to plow through this wreckage."
Marcus swiped a finger along the rubble, lifting ash off what had once been some kind of parking structure. "You don't think a Brumak could take it?"
"It's taller than a Brumak, Marcus."
"Brumak's taller than a tank, and a Centaur can still shoot one down." Marcus wiped his hand on his pants. "There has to be a way in. If there's people in there and they're even semi-intelligent, they'd have a way out in each direction, just in case."
Furrowing his brow in thought, Dom charged an intact oak door and bashed it with his shoulder. "Ow! Son of a bitch!"
Clutching his upper arm, the corporal cursed again and complained, "It's blocked from the inside, probably with a refrigerator or an armoire." He released his injured arm, wincing. "Any other doors around?"
With a roll of his eyes, Marcus pointed to one of the townhouses, a tan one with blue shutters. "Looks like that one still has a door to break our shoulders against."
Smirking, the sergeant walked up to the door and casually kicked it. It flew open and smacked against the wall loudly. "Ladies first."
"Show-off," Dom muttered, ducking under a low-hanging beam. The stale air in the building sent a wave of nausea through him, but military instincts killed it quickly. He squinted and felt for a light. "Shit, it's dark in here."
"Jack, give us a light," Marcus commanded. The robot decloaked and quickly illuminated the small room, beeping at them quizzically. Blinking to help his eyes adjust, the sergeant muttered, "Looks like this place has been picked clean. No furniture, or lights... there's a broken television in that corner, though. Locust wouldn't take the stuff."
Shaking his head, Dom murmured, "Let's just get through here quickly."
Keeping close to the wall, the pair crept through the old house past the staircase, from which the sickly sweet smell of rotting meat flowed. Dom gagged and covered his mouth. Marcus shook his head somberly as they stole into the kitchen. "That's one we were too late for."
Dropping his hand back to his gun for reassurance, Dom murmured, "If it reeks like that, then it had to be pretty recent."
"Which means everyone else who was here is dead," Marcus cocked his gun, "or there's still people alive, hiding somewhere new. And they took the food with them." The cabinets were all open and empty, the counter and appliances impeccably clean. Curious, Marcus tried the stove. "No fuel..." He turned the sink on. Dirty, rank water splashed into the basin. "I guess that counts."
"Marcus!" Dom called from a walk-in pantry. The sergeant approached the door to see Dom standing in a small, grimy alley, shards of wood by his feet. Grinning, the corporal revved his chainsaw to indicate what had happened to the back wall. "Looks like we've found our way in."
Marcus stepped through slowly, gazing around. "How'd you figure to saw here?"
"You won't believe this," Dom replied as he began to walk briskly down the passage. "Blue paint - the same as the stuff on the sign - splattered on the wall. When I looked closer, I realized the blue boards were loose and could be pulled aside, but that wasn't as fun as chainsawing them."
"Huh." Marcus stopped abruptly in the tight alley. "Dom."
Pausing, the corporal glanced over his shoulder. "Yeah, Marcus?"
"The house had blue shutters."
Dom nodded pensively. "So we look for blue."
"Yeah..." Marcus pressed a finger to his ear. "Cole, Baird, you there?"
There was a brief moment of static. "Yo, baby, what's up?!" Cole chuckled, causing the others to wince. "Baird's busy with somethin'. Whatchu need?"
"I need you to keep a lookout for anything blue. It seems like the way whoever or whatever is here signals where to go."
Cole's voice crackled through skeptically. "Anythin' blue? 'Cause, y'know, Baird's blue, and some lights are kinda blue..."
"Shutters and doors on houses, blue paint spattered on anything, that kind of stuff," Dom interrupted, giving Marcus the 'be patient' smile.
"A'ight. Cole out." The radio fizzled out.
The corporal grinned at a scowling Marcus. "Shall we move on?"
Rolling his eyes, Marcus motioned with his Lancer. "Just get going, asshole."
With a quick salute, Dom jogged briskly down the alleyway. Shaking his head, Marcus followed close behind.
"Hey, I see grass ahead!" Dom called.
"Great," Marcus replied. "I'm starting to get claustrophobic in here."
"It's not that bad."
"I don't see your shoulders scraping against the alley walls every four seconds."
The two gears spilled out into an open side street lined with houses. Apart from the peeling siding and destroyed front doors, the buildings were almost completely intact. A child's swing set creaked as it swayed in a miniscule breeze. Shutters whacked against the broken, blackened windows. A lawnmower lay tangled in foot-high weeds. There were even a few civilian cars that looked like they might run again with a little help. Marcus whistled, slowing to a walk.
"Man!" Dom whispered as they continued down the street. "This is a lot of perfectly useable property here. Why hasn't the COG discovered this and converted it to something?"
Marcus snorted. "Same reason New Hope wasn't declassified until a few days ago. That 'misfile' Anya mentioned is a load of bullshit. Someone didn't want this place found."
The windchime they had heard earlier tinkled again, and Marcus finally spotted it hanging beside a torn-off front door from a broken support beam. He paused to watch it sway as Dom continued onward. "But what's so special about some average-sized town named Vradina?" the corporal asked, poking a dented mailbox with the butt of his Lancer. "I've never heard of it; you?"
"Nope. Which is probably the point."
They walked on in silence, surveying the deserted street. A flash of red at his feet caught Marcus's eye. Frowning, he crouched by a manhole cover and tugged free a doll trapped between the lid and the pavement. Gingerly, he dangled it in front of him by its neck, watching the stuffing ooze out. "This place has seen war at its worst."
"Shit," Dom muttered, causing Marcus to glance up. "Road's blocked. Another collapsed building. And the blue is just past it, see?" He pointed to a building with navy roof tiles. "Something must've happened to make them block this exit."
Marcus seated the doll beside the curb. "Think there was some kind of big fire here?"
"They're too far apart for just one fire. Maybe the Locust have turned to arson?"
"This place would be a pile of ash if the Locust had turned to arson," the sergeant replied, blocking the sun with his hand and looking around. The empty, almost unmarred houses sent a chill down his spine.
Dom kicked the rubble irritably. "Well, what are we going to do now?"
Frowning, Marcus scanned the street with his eyes.
The sergeant held up a finger for silence. After a moment, he growled, "I see it."
Dom blinked at him. "Huh?"
"Right there." Eyes narrowed, Marcus pointed at a small colonial two properties back the way they came. "That one's got a blue fence going around it. A medium sort of blue, too. Like... shit. What was that shade on the color wheel?"
Dom frowned thoughtfully. "Teal?"
"No, that was sort of greenish."
Marcus nodded as if different names for colors were something of gravity. "Yeah, that was it."
Dom furrowed his brow in thought. "So it's a specific shade of blue?"
"Dom. Compare this blue with the blue on the sign and the blue on the roof."
Dom stared at the fence for a good ten seconds. "Okay, yeah, they're really different," Dom finally admitted. "But I'm gonna bust it down first!" He cackled exaggeratedly and bolted for the fence.
With a shake of his head, Marcus jogged after him. Dom tore apart the rotting boards, tossing wood shards aside gleefully. "Hey, look, Marcus, I'm Cole! Ahem... 'Whoo! Yeah! Cole Train's in yo' house, biznitch! How you like bein' splinters?! Ha! Ha!' " The corporal grinned. "How was that?"
"Don't quit your day job," Marcus answered dryly.
Dom let the chainsaw wind down as he bowed exaggeratedly. "After you, my good man."
Rolling his eyes, the sergeant shoved aside the broken fence. "You do know there was a gate?"
"Where's the fun in using the gate?"
Marcus waved away the comment as they stepped into a waist-high grass. A massive brick building stood before them, complete with open-air balconies and several fire escapes. Barely distinguishable from the overgrown lawn were a few cement patios and a handful of plastic chairs. The glass sliding doors were all smashed, the rooms beyond as empty as the townhouse had been. "Looks like we just found an apartment complex."
"And if this is the back of the complex, there must be a front," Dom answered.
"There's a walkway up ahead. Let's get moving."
Silently, they followed the cracked path around the edge of the complex. Just when Marcus was about to round the corner of the building, Dom grabbed his arm. "Stop, man. You smell that?"
Cocking a brow, the sergeant sniffed the air. His face instantly darkened. "Copper."
"Blood," Dom replied. Nodding grimly, Marcus reloaded his Lancer and motioned for them to continue. Guns at ready, they crept to the front gate. Hesitantly, Dom peered out. He took in a spacious avenue, framed by what had been the town hall in one direction and continuing on for several blocks in the other. "Holy shit," the corporal murmured, eyes wide.
The dark liquid literally covered the shattered road. Pools of it collected in the depressions and potholes, and red streaks were smeared obscenely on the crumbling, cracked walls. Bullet holes marked every available surface, and casings littered the ground, gleaming in the mid-afternoon sunlight. Marcus and Dom stared in shock. Finally, the sergeant managed, "I don't think I've seen so much blood in one place since the Riftworm."
Dom jerked away. "Hey! We all agreed to never discuss that again!"
Shaking his head, Marcus stepped out into the street. He carefully avoided walking in anything wet. "God, that smell..." He paused in the middle of the battlefield and simply stared, at a loss for words.
"This has to be the work of Locust," Dom growled, clutching his gun tighter as he followed behind. "It just... it has to be. All this blood... they must've murdered the entire town."
Stooping, Marcus nudged a puddle with the barrel of his Boltok. It rippled outward, lapping at his boots. "No, that's not right. There are, or at least were, people here. And this blood is all fresh. I'm not an expert, but I don't think a handful of people can bleed this much." Marcus rose warily. "And besides that, there are no bodies. Somebody at least cleaned that much, and we all know the Locust sure wouldn't bother."
Sickened, Dom closed his eyes against the carnage. "What happened here?"
The Tac/Com's short range radio fizzled in Marcus's ear. "Hey, baby, how's it goin'?!" Cole cheered, the words crackling with static.
"Cole!" Marcus barked, clutching his head. Dom groaned something about migraines.
"Ooh, sorry." The black gear dropped his voice to a whisper. "How's it goin'?"
Sighing, Marcus took another look at the blood-spattered, bullet-peppered buildings. "Not good."
"Not good how? Like fightin' how?" Cole's tone turned slightly frantic. "Are you guys a'ight? 'Cause the COLE TRAIN can-"
"Cole! Volume!" the sergeant snapped.
There was no response but a quiet 'hey!'. "Copy, Marcus, this is Baird. I stole Cole's Tac/Com. What's up?"
Dom chuckled as Cole's muffled voice demanded, "Gimme that back!"
"Don't give him it back," Marcus ordered as he rubbed his temple.
"Waaay ahead of you," Baird droned, voice buzzing slightly through the radio. "Cole, stop trying to get the Tac/Com and focus on driving."
"Driving?" Dom asked.
"Yeah, Cole decided to drive around the outside looking for a blue entrance where we can fit the Centaur. An absolutely brilliant plan. So! You guys find anything yet?"
Letting out a slow breath, Marcus approached a nauseatingly bright red smear on the wall. "Lotta blood. Most of it's new." "Any bodies or tags?"
The sergeant glanced at Dom, who swiftly joined the conversation. "Nah, man. Just... blood. And casings." Dom sighed. "Lots of casings."
Baird made a noise that might've been 'hmm' if the radio hadn't chosen to sputter loudly. "Can you tell what kind of blood it is?"
"How the fuck should I know?" Marcus snarled.
"Okay, okay, geez. Just trying to help figure out what went down."
"It's cool, man," Dom intervened, gazing at the wreckage. "Just... there's a lot of blood."
The radio fell silent for a moment as Marcus and Dom picked their way around dark red pools. Suddenly, it crackled to life again. "You said no bodies, right?"
Marcus peered through a grimy window. "What'd you find, Baird?"
A sigh rattled the sergeant's eardrum. "Well, ah, I'm pretty sure whatever's out here is still alive."
"Because?" Marcus growled impatiently.
"Oh, just that the whole place is rigged to explode."
"What?!" Dom and Marcus shouted in unison.
"Holy mother of fuck, my ear!" Baird exclaimed. "Shit, if you'd just let me finish!"
"Baird, I swear-" Dom began, but he was cut off.
"I said 'rigged' to explode. I didn't mean the place was going to start blowing up around you. Shit. My fucking ear... Anyway, I've been checking around. Every building I've seen so far has at least one bomb attached to it. I can't see any wires or timers, so I'm assuming there's a wireless detonator. Or rather, a wireless detonator for each bomb. They're numbered. I pried off one and took it with us in the tank."
Marcus and Dom exchanged bleak looks. Cocking his Lancer, the sergeant demanded, "Can you give us an estimate of how many there are?"
"Right now, I'm looking at number two-sixty-two."
"Shit," Marcus muttered.
"So you're saying," Dom interrupted, "that someone or something could blow up any of these buildings whenever they wanted?" "That's the gist of it, yeah." Baird grunted like he was trying to move a heavy object. "With the amount of them, though, I think there has to be a kill-all - a master switch carried on the person who planted these. Or Grub. Whichever." The blonde gear huffed again. "I won't be able to tell much until I pull off the cover and get a look at its insides."
"Anything you can tell me now?" Marcus growled, searching the deserted avenue with his eyes. The street that the town hall actually sat on was blocked on both sides by destroyed buildings. Silently, he motioned for Dom to examine the rubble.
"Well, whoever or whatever planted these left them as a last resort. If something really big comes along, they can explode a building or two near it and take it out. And if things really go to shit, they can just blow everything up and hopefully take out enough of the enemy to compensate for their own death."
Baird let out another grunt, and Marcus used the pause to volunteer, "It seems like they're knocking down buildings to keep things out, too. Most of the wreckage is too heavy to be moved by anything but a Corpser or something similar."
"The ground's still susceptible to emergence holes," Baird pointed out.
"To funnel the enemy into specific areas, then."
"Mm. Maybe." There was a brief moment of nothing but static and the sound of snapping metal. "Ah, here we go. Anyway, since there's still buildings standing, I think they're still alive - if they were dying, they would've flattened the place. And that mentality's a real military-style thing, if that's significant to you. Alright, these are pretty simple explosives, nowhere near up to my level."
"Of course not," Dom chuckled through the radio.
"I'll take that as a compliment. Basically, the maker went for heat, confusing it with power. In fact, the main component is thermite."
"That doesn't mean anything to me, Baird," Marcus replied irritably.
A sigh crackled through. "Alright, look, asswipe: Thermite is an agent used to create small bursts of intense heat, like in welding torches. Well, actually, was is more appropriate; Imulsion made thermite obsolete. Anyway, it is not, in and of itself, an explosive, though it can ignite the explosive materials in a bomb. But instead of using it to trigger the reaction, the maker made it the main component. These thermite-bombs get you a small, quick blast - maybe enough to knock down a severely weakened shack if you're lucky - but more importantly, you'll get some spectacular flames, enough to melt the most temperature-resistant of metals. We're talking the kind of fire that can engulf buildings in a matter of minutes."
"I thought you said this shit wasn't powerful," Dom interrupted. "Make up your damn mind."
"It's not powerful - at least, not in terms of explosivity. This is the showy sort of stuff actors would walk away from in a movie. Not to say you shouldn't keep your distance - this stuff gets ridiculously hot even in small quantities." Baird whistled. "And there's a lot of thermite packed in these."
"Got it. Anything else?" Marcus asked.
"Holy shit!" Dom shouted, causing the sergeant to whirl towards the town hall.
"And there went my hearing again," Baird complained.
"Dom, what's wrong?!" Marcus demanded. "Dom?!"
The corporal slowly touched his fingers to his Tac/Com. "I think I found what's jamming our signal."
"Get to the point, Dom," Baird growled, the radio sputtering.
"I'm looking at a Seeder buried beneath a collapsed, charred building. But the thing is - it's still alive. It's just pinned." Dom's voice shook slightly. "These things can have flaming masses of rock and metal fall on top of them and still survive."
"Shit," Marcus hissed, jogging towards the corporal. "Baird! Is there anything else?"
"My best guess is that the bombs are spanning out from some kind of central point, like they were planted from within moving outward. That central point's where you'll find your culprit."
Dom glanced at Marcus, wide-eyed. "Central point?" the corporal repeated.
"Yeah, some kind of defensible building in the middle of town."
"Like a town hall?" the sergeant asked, eyes locked with Dom's.
Marcus readied his Lancer. "We'll get back to you, Baird."
"Uh... alright, then. Catch you later."
They listened to the radio cut out. Finally, Marcus growled, "We don't know who the hell is in there. For all we know, this could be some kind of ridiculous trap. So be on guard, and be cautious."
Mouth set in a grim line, Dom nodded and reloaded his Snub. "Let's go." He turned around, screamed, "Shit!", and promptly fired three frantic bullets at the door.
"Dom!" Marcus shouted.
"Son of a bitch, man!" Dom screamed. "Don't scare me like that!"
Finally realizing that the corporal was talking to someone else, Marcus followed his gaze to the front steps of the town hall. A blue-eyed man with dark, curly blonde hair smiled awkwardly at them, a few smoking bullet holes in the pillar beside his head. But what caught Marcus's attention was the full set of COG armor with an azure version of the Crimson Omen painted on the chestplate.
"Sorry, man," the blonde called, his voice a deep bass. Marcus studied his face as he approached - the strange Gear somehow maintained a youthful, cherubic appearance that was countered only by deep-set lines about his eyes and a neatly clipped goatee. "Didn't mean to startle you. I just heard human voices out here and figured I'd give it a look."
Dom sighed. "It's alright, it's just..."
The man finally reached them, a friendly grin lightening his features. He was bigger than Dom all-around but just shy of Marcus's height. "I know, you turn around and spot a pair of eyes and fire on instinct. I've almost killed my men like that before; no hard feelings."
Marcus cocked a brow. "Your men? So this is a Gear holdout?"
The blonde stared at him for a moment. Finally, he stuck out a hand. "The name's Gabe. Why don't you come inside, and we can talk?"
Removing his fingers from his Tac/Com, Baird pulled the thermite from the bomb casing. He affixed the cover to the empty box and set it aside before picking up the chemicals again. Carefully, he dangled the pack in front of him. "I don't like this place."
Chuckling, Cole spun the steering wheel. The Centaur careened wildly to the right, forcing Baird to cling to the metal floor. "You don't like anything, baby!" the black gear laughed as they veered around a collapsed building.
Coughing, the blonde sat up and tossed the empty case at Cole. It bounced off the black gear's head harmlessly. Baird scowled. "Bullshit. I like plenty of things."
"I say bullshit. You always got somethin' to bitch about."
"Sure. That doesn't mean I don't like it." Baird tucked the thermite into a secure compartment in the tank. He activated the keypad lock, then reached for his translation work. "For instance, you're a total pain in my ass, and I complain about you, what, at least seven times a day? But you're still my friend."
Pouting exaggeratedly, the black gear focused on driving again. "Well, what about Locust? You always bitch about Locust."
Baird gave Cole a tired look.
"Okay, forget that. But what about the Stranded?" Cole shrugged, grinning. "Ain't nothin' wrong with the Stranded, baby!"
Baird rolled his eyes at his notes. "Oh, sure, there's absolutely nothing wrong with people who are totally ungrateful to us for saving their sorry asses! I love being verbally attacked by grubby little idiots that would probably cannibalize themselves if they got desperate enough!" Snorting, Baird underlined a sentence of unfamiliar symbols and translated the following line into a nonsensical mishmash. With a frown, he erased his work and began again. "I'll like the Stranded when they learn to bathe regularly."
Cole cocked a brow and switched gears, causing the engine to grind slightly. "You know most Stranded can't even get runnin' water, right?"
"Bullshit," Baird scoffed, flipping through his pages. "The human body can survive two days - two days - without drinking water. If they aren't dead, then they've got enough water to at least wash their goddamn privates."
Silence filled the Centaur, occasionally interrupted by Baird's pen scratching across the paper. Suddenly, Cole exploded into laughter.
Baird jumped. "What?! What is so fuckin' funny?!"
"You a Stranded-phobe, man!" Cole guffawed, somehow managing to drive the Centaur even as he turned to taunt his friend.
"What?! That's not even a word, you dipshit!"
"You scared of Stranded!" teased Cole as Baird dropped his things and lunged for the driver's seat. "If a harem of hot Stranded hunnies went up to you, you would run away screaming like a little bitch!"
"That is bullshit!" Baird shouted in Cole's ear, seizing what little hair the black gear had and bending him sideways at the neck.
The ex-Thrashball star grinned up at the blonde. "Oh, really?"
"Yes!" Baird snapped.
Baird blinked at Cole, who shifted calmly into the next gear despite being twisted at an angle. Finally, the blonde asked, "What 'what'?"
Cole's lips curled into a wry smile. "What would you do?"
The Centaur was silent but for the rumbling of the engine. Finally, Baird muttered something under his breath.
Still driving, Cole cupped a hand to his ear. "Whassat? Can't hear you, baby!"
Sighing, Baird released his friend and mumbled, "I'd tell them to fuck off."
" 'CAUSE YOU SCARED OF 'EM!" Cole bellowed triumphantly.
"BECAUSE THEY'D PROBABLY HAVE VENEREAL DISEASES!" Baird responded with equal volume.
"Man, what the hell is that shit?" Cole snorted, driving noisily over a rock. "You say the same crap every time: 'Ooh, I'm Damon Baird, and I use big scientific-y words to hide that I'm a Stranded-phobe'-"
"INFECTIONS! ON YOUR JUNK!" Baird shouted.
The two of them stared at each other. "Okay, that's maybe a good reason," Cole relented.
With a snort, Baird slumped against the wall near the cockpit, scratching his ear. "No shit." He sighed and peered out the windshield. "Seen anything blue yet?"
Cole pouted. "No."
Baird let out another sigh. "I think Marcus and Dom were bullshitting us."
"Why would they do that?" Cole asked, swerving around some debris.
"Oh, come on, Cole. Blue. It's so obvious it's retarded. They're probably squatting in some old records building laughing about how we're driving around like morons."
"And lettin' us waste all this juice?" Cole replied. "No way, baby!"
"I wouldn't put it past them," the blonde grumbled as he cracked his back.
Shaking his head, Cole responded, "You got a fucked up mind, Baird."
"Yeah, well, I still say it's bullshit," Baird muttered. Sighing, he glanced absently out the windshield. His eyes widened. "Cole, stop the tank."
Cole cocked a brow. "Say what?"
"SWEET MOTHER OF FUCK, COLE, STOP THE TANK!" Baird screamed, slamming his own foot on the brake. The Centaur skidded to a stop inches from striking the girl who had stepped in from of it. Gasping and cursing incoherently, Baird seized the microphone. "WHAT THE FUCK IS YOUR FUCKING PROBLEM?!" he demanded through the Centaur's speaker, causing the girl to jump. "DIDN'T YOUR MOTHER EVER TEACH YOU TO LOOK BOTH FUCKING WAYS?! YOU ALMOST GAVE ME A FUCKING HEART ATTACK JUMPING OUT LIKE THAT!"
Composing himself, Cole peeked out the window. "Hey, Baird-"
"DO YOU HAVE SOME FUCKING DEATHWISH, YOU FUCKING STRANDED CUNT?!"
The blonde rounded on his friend. "WHAT THE FUCK DO YOU WANT, COLE?!" he shouted, the microphone screeching with feedback.
Cole pointed out the window cheerily. "She's blue!"
Baird stared at him, then quietly hung the microphone back on its hook. "Cole?"
The black Gear grinned at him. "Yeah?"
"What the fuck are you talking about?"
Beaming, Cole gestured toward the windshield. "Just look at her, baby!"
With a groan, Baird glared out the window. The 'girl', as it turned out, was actually a petite woman perhaps in her late twenties or early thirties. He had mistaken her for younger due to her height - he estimated her to be five foot three at most. She was dressed simply in a grungy brown sweatshirt, khakis, and old-fashioned combat boots. Her sole claim to distinctiveness (besides apparently having suicidal tendencies) was her close-cropped azure hair, which Baird hadn't noticed in his panic over nearly flattening someone. Rolling his eyes, the blonde turned back to Cole. "Alright, so she's a freak. Your point?"
"But she's blue!" Cole exclaimed, pointing out the windshield again.
"Yeah, I got that! So?"
"So she probably knows the way in!"
Baird slapped himself in the face. "Ugh, Cole-"
"Hear me out for a second," the ex-Thrashball player whispered. "What if whatever she uses to paint her hair is what she used to paint the sign?"
"Okay, first, you don't 'paint' your hair, dipshit; you dye it. Second," Baird continued, counting on his fingers for emphasis, "blue hair dye would not hold up as paint."
"But dye is designed to stain stuff!" Cole protested. "It could work!"
"Maybe she touches it up!"
Baird threw his hands in the air and turned away. "I can't argue with an idiot. Fine. Why don't you go talk to the freaky blue-haired Stranded chick? Maybe she'll give you gonorrhea if you ask nicely."
When he looked back, Cole was already halfway out the Centaur's door. "I will!" the black gear replied, laughing smugly.
"Hey! I was joking! Get back in here!" Baird shouted, but Cole had rounded the tank and approached the girl. Scowling, the blonde watched them through the windshield. Cole greeted her with a mock-formal salute; she laughed at his antics and offered her hand. Cole shook it - cringing, Baird made a mental note to have the black gear wash with antibacterial soap.
Cole asked her something; she nodded and pointed to her hair. The black gear turned to give Baird a smug grin before inquiring again. Once more, she nodded, but this time she motioned vaguely to the wreckage. Cole thumbed at the Centaur. "No!" Baird shouted, slamming his hands on the dashboard and accidentally honking a horn. Cole and the girl jumped, then both started laughing. Baird smacked himself in the face.
Turning back towards the wreckage, the blue-haired girl beckoned to someone. A small boy - about nine or ten, Baird estimated - tumbled out of the ruins to cling to her hips. He was a scrawny kid, with suntanned skin and downy tufts of brown hair sticking out in all directions. The girl - maybe his adoptive mother? - smoothed down his dirty white t-shirt and adjusted his shorts. Baird noted absently that the child had no shoes.
Smiling, Cole crouched down to the boy's level and offered him a palm. The boy peeked out from behind the girl's hip then, with her encouragement, slapped the black gear's hand in a high five. Cole let out a laugh and motioned for them to follow him. Jauntily, he strolled to the back of the tank and opened the hatch.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?!" Baird demanded as the ex-Thrashball star climbed in.
"Chill, baby! The Cole Train has it all under control," Cole replied, making his way to the driver's seat.
"Oh, yeah, this looks under control to me!" the blonde hissed. "You're just letting some random Stranded into our tank?!"
Cole held up a finger to silence him. "Not just random Stranded! She and the lil' man are from Big Town, and she promised to guide us in. And guess what?"
Baird cocked a brow. "She doesn't have gonorrhea?"
"She did paint the sign and most of the other blue stuff with her hair dye. So in yo' face, baby!" Cole plopped into the driver's seat and switched into gear.
Sighing, Baird turned towards the back, where the girl was helping the boy into a seat. "Fine. Whatever. But you're the one cleaning the tank after this." He slapped the door switch, and the hatch whirred to a close. "We're good, Cole."
"Alright! Let's get this train rollin'!" Cole bellowed, rotating to face the newcomers. "You a'ight back there, lil' man?"
The boy blinked hazel eyes at him. "Yes."
"Cool," Cole beamed. "And you, lil' lady?"
Nodding, the girl buckled the boy into his seat. "Yes, I'm fine, thank you."
Leaning on the back wall, Baird snorted, "Great to hear. Don't suppose you've got a name?"
Straightening, she cocked a brow at him. "Are you always so polite?"
"Only to people I like," he replied sarcastically. To his surprise, she smiled warmly and offered a hand.
"My name is Nell."
He stared at her hand like it was an animal carcass. Finally, he glanced back at her face. "You do know I wasn't being literal, right?"
Crossing her arms, she tilted her head to the side curiously. "I'm aware."
Cole turned in his seat. "So! Which way?"
"Hold up, Cole, I want to ask something," Baird interrupted, narrowing his eyes at the girl. "Where the hell-"
"Hey!" shouted the boy.
"What?!" Baird retorted.
Cole exploded into laughter. Smiling sheepishly, Nell explained, "I've been trying to teach him good habits." She ruffled the boy's hair. "Liam, be quiet now, okay? This is important." Nell shrugged. "Sorry."
Shaking his head, Baird replied, "Whatever; I don't care. Anyway: Where the heck did you get blue hair dye?"
She laughed. "I stockpiled it after E-day. There's a trunk in my bedroom literally filled with bottles of the crap."
Baird gave Cole an exasperated 'see what you've gotten us into' look. "Why?" the blonde groaned, rubbing his temple.
Smiling wistfully, Nell replied, "I was a rebellious kid. When I got into high school, I dyed my hair blue. My parents were furious." She sighed. "But this was the exact color and cut of my hair the day before E-day, when everything except me was normal." Shaking her head, she murmured, "After E-day, I didn't know if I'd ever see anything look like it did before. I wasn't sure if I'd ever manage to get back to my hometown, and when I did..." She gestured out the windshield. "The blue hair's all I've got left of that life. Stupid, huh?"
Baird resisted the impulse to agree as Cole frowned sympathetically. "What about your family?"
She blinked at him. "Well, you may know my dad, now that I think of it."
Baird glanced at Cole. "Uh... we don't really keep track of Stranded."
Rolling her eyes, Nell droned, "He's a Field Lieutenant. Brandon Rourke."
"Hey, I served with him once!" Cole exclaimed, but his face fell. "But that was a while ago. I don't know if he's still alive." The black gear frowned. "He said his kid was dead, though."
Nodding, she replied, "That's fine. I wouldn't know what to say to him now, anyway."
They stared at each other in awkward silence. Cole smacked his friend on the arm. "Hey, Baird! Tell the lil' lady yo' name!" Nell blinked at them. "Baird?"
Scowling, the blonde replied, "Yes, that's me."
Her eyes widened. "As in 'Damon Baird'?"
He and Cole exchanged surprised and worried glances, but Liam spoke first. "No way!" the child exclaimed, glaring at the blonde gear. "There's no way this jerk is the guy you're looking for!"
"Liam!" she hissed.
"Okay, was I enlisted in some kind of dating service without my knowledge?" Baird demanded, glaring meaningfully at Cole. The ex-Thrashball star grinned at him. "Not by me, baby!"
Baird whirled on Nell. "Explain yourself," he demanded, stepping towards her.
The girl shook her head. "This really isn't the place."
"I think it is," Baird growled, hand drifting to his pistol. "How the fuck-"
"Oh, shut up, kid!" the blonde snapped. "You! How the fuck do you know me and what the fuck do you want?"
"Hey, man-" Cole attempted.
"Not the time!" Baird interrupted, icy eyes locked on Nell. She glared back at him.
"Franklin Tsoko described you to me. He said you can understand the Locust."
Cole grabbed Baird's wrist and guided his hand away from his pistol. Scowling, Baird yanked his arm free. "Fine. That's me. Anything else?"
Nell reached under her sweatshirt and pulled out a stack of papers. She slapped them against his chestplate, brown eyes narrowed at him. "I thought these might help the gears. I'm truly sorry I had no other way to contact you." As Baird grasped at the papers, she turned towards the front and pointed out the window for Cole's benefit. "That large brick building up ahead - the old high school - has a massive hole torn in the wall of the gym. We use it as a parking garage for our Junker. It's covered with sheet metal to disguise it, but it can be moved aside. You can drive in and from there I can walk you to my home."
Uncomfortable, Cole shifted into gear and stepped on the gas. The Centaur lurched forward as Baird stared at the documents between his fingers. "Where did you get these?"
Nell narrowed her eyes at him. "Can you read them?"
"If you tell me where you got them!" the blonde snapped, shaking the papers at her.
"Baird," Cole murmured, keeping his eyes on the windshield. "Chill."
Baird glanced between the black gear and the Stranded, then sighed. "Yes. I can read most of it."
She nodded, crossing to where Liam sat. He fisted his hands in her sweatshirt as she kneeled by his seat, running her fingers through his hair and across a cut on his forehead. "Then I've done my job."
The Centaur rolled along in relative silence. Finally, Cole jabbed Baird in the side with a finger and pointed at Nell. Baird threw his arms out to the side in an irritated shrug. Cole pointed at the girl more urgently. Rolling his eyes, Baird warily crouched beside her. "Listen," he murmured, ignoring Liam's glares, "you need to tell me where you got these."
She gave him a sidelong glance. "All I need is a ride home, thank you."
Baird rubbed his forehead and took a slow breath. "Alright, here's the deal: wherever you got this, there's a lot more. I can tell just by the sheer amount you've already found." He focused on her face. She was pale, though it was well hidden by dirty cheeks and dark shadows under her eyes. "Whatever you can offer would really help me."
Nell cocked her head at him, letting a lock of blue hair obscure her right eye. "You think I'm inclined to help you?"
Baird sighed. "No."
" 'CAUSE HE'S A STRANDED-PHOBE!"
Baird, Nell, and Liam stared at Cole, who grinned sheepishly. Shaking his head, the blonde asked her, "Would you do it for the other gears?"
Nell pressed her forehead against Liam's. "You already know I'm a total sap, don't you?" she murmured, smiling slightly.
"The fact that you're towing around a brat that isn't yours kind of suggested that, yeah," Baird replied, successfully quashing the urge to smirk. Shaking her head, Nell stood and turned away from them. Liam took the opportunity to stick his tongue out at the blonde, who responded in kind.
Finally, Nell glanced back over her shoulder. "How do you know he's not mine?"
Baird stared at her. She grinned.
"I'm just messing with you. He's not my kid." She ruffled Liam's hair. "He is my brat, though."
"Hey!" Liam protested. "I am a good brat!"
A loud crash interrupted them. "WHOO!" Cole bellowed as the Centaur bashed through the sheet metal and skidded to a stop beside a Junker. "THE COLE TRAIN BRINGS THE PAIN, BABY!"
Baird smacked himself in the face. "Yeah, never say that again. So can we get going?"
"Mm," Nell agreed, lifting Liam out of the chair and settling him on her shoulders. Suddenly, he was scooped off the girl.
"THE COLE TRAIN'S GOT THE BALL!" Cole bellowed, hopping out of the tank. Liam shrieked with delight as he was tucked under a giant black arm. "HE RACES DOWN THE FIELD! WHATCHU GON' DO?! WHATCHU GON' DO?! HAHA!"
The boy squealed as Cole charged around the gym, laughing maniacally. Nell hid a smile behind her hand. "Cole!" Baird shouted. "Put the kid down, you dipshit!"
"NO SWEARING, BABY!" Cole guffawed.
"YEAH!" Liam added, making a face at the blonde.
Nell burst into laughter as Baird glared at them. "Can we just get going?" the blonde groaned, tucking the new Locust papers into his hip bag.
Still chuckling, Nell beckoned them towards a set of double doors. "Blue!" Cole exclaimed, pointing at the exit.
Shaking her head, Nell replied, "Our school colors were blue and gold. These have always been this way."
She pushed them open, grimacing at the carnage-coated avenue. "Sorry about the blood. We only burn the bodies so they don't rot in the street; we don't bother with anything else."
Baird toed a puddle. "So this is all Locust guts?"
"Yep." She pointed down the avenue at the town hall. "We've got a lot of guns and a lot of cover. They rarely get past the Seeder."
"Hey, that's right, you've got a Seeder caught here!" Cole grinned, shifting Liam to his shoulders. "How's that work for you?"
Nell shrugged. "His jamming signal's pretty weak now, enough to bust up long-range communications but not short-range. We don't have anything tough enough to kill him for good, but he's not getting back up."
"I named him Spike!" Liam added cheerily.
Nell coughed into her fist. "Yes. You did. But he's not a pet."
"Says you!" the boy retorted, crossing his arms.
Baird cocked his gun. "How many people have you got here?"
"Seven. There's Gabe, Aidan, Lottie, Bill, Liam, and me."
The blonde cocked a brow at her. "That's... that's six."
Wincing, Nell replied, "Well, Howie technically counts. But he's not... he's not all there."
"He's my dad," Liam muttered into the top of Cole's head.
Baird frowned. "He okay?"
Nell sighed and reached for Liam. Cole rested the boy on her shoulders. "Not really. He..." She bit her lip. "Maybe another time. He's harmless, if that's what you're-"
A gunshot rang down the alley from the direction of the town hall. Baird snorted and cocked his gun. "Harmless. Bullshit."
The foyer of the old town hall was a veritable museum of Seran culture. On the right, a cherry red first aid cabinet with a white cross decal decorated the wall. Next to it was an old-fashioned radio, a number of instrument cases, and what Marcus assumed to be covered baby grand piano. A small coin collection sat atop a piece-less chessboard in the back right corner, and a creaky rocking chair swayed beside it. An old, fraying leather couch dominated the back wall, two lamps framing it. Stacked beside and under the sofa were boxes labeled with words like 'light bulbs', 'canned food', and 'toiletries'. Bookcases lined the entire left wall, containing everything from incomplete encyclopedia sets to trashy romance novels. In the center of the back wall, between the couch and the chessboard, was the entrance to a long hallway lined with doors. And hanging on the front wall, beside the front door and the large glassless windows, were guns. Dom stood in the doorway, mouth agape. "You salvaged all this stuff?"
Grinning, Gabe added, "And this is just the rec. room. Yeah, apart from the foyer, this place isn't much, but to us, it's home." He flopped onto the couch with a sigh. "Alright, so here's the deal - for me to tell you about Big Town and its residents, you need to answer a couple of questions first. Alright?"
Marcus and Dom exchanged skeptical expressions. "Fair enough," the sergeant replied, resting a hand on the covered piano.
Gabe smiled affably. "It's pretty simple, so no worries. I just want to know the five 'W's: who are you, where are you from, what are you doing here, why are you doing it, and when did you start doing it?"
Marcus lifted the cover and brushed his fingers across the piano keys. "Dom? You want to start?"
Blinking, the corporal replied, "Uh, sure. My name is Dominic Santiago. I'm a corporal in Delta Squad with the COG army. Um... I'm originally from Ephyra, and..." He trailed off. Gabe held up a hand to stop him.
"It's alright, man. I don't need to know anything like that." The blonde smiled tentatively. "Okay?"
Surprised, Dom nodded mutely, returning the expression.
Marcus sighed as he felt eyes lock on him. Moving to the chessboard, he muttered, "Sergeant Marcus Fenix, Delta Squad. I'm from Ephyra also." He glanced back at Gabe. "Though by 'where are you from', I thought you meant 'where did you come from to get here'."
Gabe shrugged. "I did."
Sneezing a little at the dust, Marcus picked up the coin collection. "In that case, New Hope Military Base."
Gabe's eyebrows shot into his hairline. "The scary research facility to the east?"
"It's been cleaned out and remodeled," Marcus replied dismissively. "As for what we're doing here... we were just sent to reconnoiter the area." Dom cocked a brow at the lie but let Marcus continue, "No one knew there was anything here. We drove in a Centaur."
"And you just deserted it?" Gabe asked incredulously.
"Our other half is driving around in it as we speak," Dom intervened, grinning at the thought of Baird and Cole careening about the city.
"Anyway," Marcus continued, setting the coins back on the chessboard, "we just got the assignment last night and shipped out this morning. When we lost contact with Control, we decided to explore the city."
Nodding, Gabe replied, "Alright, that's fair. It doesn't seem like you're out to get us."
Dom shot a wary look at Marcus. "You guys done something?" the corporal asked cautiously.
With a laugh, Gabe leaned forward in his seat. "Well, Aid and I committed the cardinal sin of the military, you know?"
Dom furrowed his brow in confusion. "Arguing with a superior officer?"
"Dereliction of duty," Marcus growled.
"Yeah, that one," Gabe replied, smirking bitterly. "We're careful about who we tell, not so much because we're worried about being punished but that we're worried about being dragged back." He raised his brows at them. "Will that be a problem?"
Marcus and Dom exchanged baffled looks. "You've really never heard the name Fenix?" the latter asked, surprised.
Shaking his head, Gabe replied, "I deserted two years after E-Day, and before that I'd only really paid attention to things going on in my squad. I remember something about Aspho Fields - you got an Embry Star, right?"
Casually, Marcus examined a box labeled 'cigarette cartons - crate 2 of 7'. "Yeah. I also spent the past four years in prison for abandoning a battle. My dad had set off a distress beacon."
A genuinely sympathetic expression spread across Gabe's face. "Did you get there in time?"
Marcus set the cigarettes back onto the other boxes. "No."
Dom and Gabe watched silently as the sergeant crossed to the bookcase and ran his fingers along the spines. Finally, the blonde ex-gear murmured, "Sorry."
Marcus grunted his acknowledgement. "What about you two? Did you get out in time?"
Gabe chuckled awkwardly. "Well, Aidan didn't desert for anybody but himself. And I didn't find who I was looking for until six years after I deserted. So I guess that's a yes."
" 'Didn't desert for anybody but himself'?" Dom repeated, sinking onto the couch beside the ex-gear.
"He was scared shitless." Gabe's eyes turned somber. "He'll admit it, too. He's not proud of his cowardice, but he knows the only way he can come out of it with any dignity is to face it. He ditched his armor and his tags in a junkyard somewhere, so a lot of people think he's dead."
"But you still wear your armor," Marcus stated, flipping through a bent encyclopedia.
"Superior bullet protection."
"Mm," the sergeant agreed, tucking the book back into the shelf.
Nodding, Gabe returned to a sunny expression. "Anything else you want to know?"
Marcus snorted. "Why the hell do you smile so much?"
The ex-gear laughed. "Because I have a lot to be happy about, believe it or not. It's not like I'm forcing a smile because I have to stay positive for the others here or something. It's really just how I am. Except for a few years back there when I thought I'd never find her, I'm a permanent optimist."
"Who's 'her'?" Dom asked quietly.
Gabe blinked at the corporal, then offered him a sympathetic smile. "Her name is Nell. She's like the baby sister I never had. I ditched to find her. Vradina was our hometown, so I stopped here first. But it was empty." Gabe laughed. "Like I said, I spent six years looking for her. Ran into Aidan along the way... joined up with the Marauders..."
" 'Marauders'?" Marcus asked, pausing in front of a well-kept Scorcher.
"Oh, it's not as bad as it sounds. It's essentially the Stranded military, run by Deacon McCarrick. 'McCarrick's Marauders'." Gabe pointed to a white 'MM' painted on his left shoulderplate. "Big Town is technically an outpost of the Marauders."
"McCarrick... he's in Pithodi, right?" Dom asked.
Surprised, Gabe replied, "Yeah, you know him?"
"Mm... he was a contact of mine. I was..." The corporal sighed. "I was looking for somebody."
The ex-gear clapped a hand to Dom's shoulder in understanding. "I'm sorry, man."
Nodding, Dom muttered, "Yeah, me too."
They were silent for a minute. "So!" Gabe interjected. "Change in topic! What else would you like to know?"
Marcus glanced at Dom, then asked, "You said this Aidan guy deserted because he was scared, right? But don't you guys fight Locust now?"
Gabe shrugged. "Deacon wasn't going to let Aid's military training go to waste. He ran him ragged with drills, psych tests, combat simulation. Eventually he figured out Aidan didn't like being in large groups and squads. Aid and I had been traveling together for a while, so Deacon sent us out as a pair. Aid didn't crack; Deacon nicknamed us the Bash Brothers and set us up as a scout team. When Bill and the Mathesons arrived, Aidan had mostly worked out his issues, so Bill became our support fire. Lottie the Shotty is technically a fourth member, and Nell a fifth, but they can't be Marauders."
Dom cocked a brow. "Sexism?"
"No, lack of training. It's a requirement of the Marauders to be an ex-gear or an honorably discharged veteran." Gabe shrugged. "The Marauders are considered an 'elite group'. There had to be some requirement for membership; it ended up being army training. But there's a lot more to the Marauders than the actual members." Shaking his head, the blonde ex-gear continued, "I'd have to get Deacon to explain it to you."
Marcus tucked a book back into the shelves. "Who's the dead guy in the townhouse?"
Gabe cringed. "That'd be Jacob Walker. I'd rather not talk about him."
Dom jumped in. "How many people are holed up here?"
Frowning thoughtfully, Gabe counted on his fingers. "Uh... there's seven of us: me, Aidan, Lottie the Shotty, Nell, Bill, Howie, and Liam. If we're talking guns, then we've got five. Howie... well, Howie's kind of unstable, and Liam's just hit double digits."
Marcus finally settled himself on the arm of the couch. "If you've got seven people, then where the hell are the other six?" Gabe shrugged. "Well, Nell took Liam out scavenging, and Bill is sitting with Howie." Hesitating, he glanced away. "We always have at least one person sitting with him at a time."
"Comfort?" Dom asked.
"Suicide watch." Suddenly, Gabe turned back to them, his lips twisted into a smirk. "As for Aidan and Lottie the Shotty... I'm really shocked you can't hear them."
Marcus and Dom both fell silent, listening. The sergeant grimaced as Dom replied, eyes wide, "I seriously thought that was some kind of clunky generator."
Gabe laughed. "Yeah, they're kind of obnoxious. But only Bill is allowed to pick on them, and that's because Lottie's like his surrogate daughter." Shrugging, the ex-gear added, "I'm not about to insult someone who manages to find companionship in this day and age, you know? Even if they areannoying and loud and go at it like rabbits." His expression turned sly. "I can interrupt them, if you want. They're both attention whores; they'll like meeting new people."
"I thought you said Aidan didn't like being around a large group," Marcus replied gruffly.
"He doesn't like fighting alongside a large group. Makes him feel pressured. But he is a large ham - he likes to entertain and make people smile. As for Lottie the Shotty... she's more serious than him, but she came from a big family, and quiet's never sat well with her." Standing, Gabe cracked his back and started down the hall. "I'm gonna interrupt them. It's about time I introduced you to these people instead of talking about them, anyway."
"Speaking of, 'Lottie the Shotty'? What kind of name is that?" Dom asked as Gabe approached one of the doors on their left.
Pausing, the ex-gear smirked and replied, "The kind of name you give a shotgun-wielding girl named Charlotte." Promptly, he slammed on the door with his fist.
From within, there came a shriek and a loud thud, followed by scuffling noises. Finally, the door flew open, a short, skinny young man standing in the entrance. He had covered his waist and legs with a blanket he clutched in his right hand, but the scars and healed bullet holes coating his upper body were clearly visible. Despite being naked, he still wore a black ski cap which hid his hair completely. Hazel eyes flashing, he demanded in a rough baritone, "Son of a bitch, Life Partner, what?!"
"We have guests," Gabe replied amusedly, motioning towards Marcus and Dom.
Eyes wide, the man - Aidan - gaped at them, fingers scrabbling at his blanket. Finally, he shook his head. "You are a sick bastard."
"And you're a hyperactive dingbat. Get dressed." Gabe leaned through the doorway. "That goes for you, too, Lottie the Shotty!"
"FUCK YOU, GABE!" replied a woman's contralto.
"Hey!" Aidan snapped, grinning. "You've got me for that! Now find me my pants, woman!"
Lottie emerged in the doorway. Clad in a vaguely purple long sleeve shirt, a striped scarf, and denim short shorts, she was slightly taller than Aidan and a little wider. She had perhaps once been striking, with her long black hair and green eyes. However, her entire right side was marred by awful burn scars that left her skin warped and reddish. Upon seeing Marcus and Dom's shocked expressions, she let her hair fall in front of the right half of her face, hiding the worst of the deformation. Aidan kissed her unscarred left cheek affectionately. "Go get your own pants," Lottie grumbled, shoving him aside and approaching the Delta soldiers. Marcus composed himself as she stuck out her burned hand, but Dom could only stare at her fourth and fifth fingers, which were fused together by incorrectly healed skin. "Hi," she greeted simply.
Marcus glanced at Dom's horrified face before shaking Lottie's hand. "Hi," he replied gruffly.
Noticing Dom's squeamishness, she offered him a gentle smile. "It's okay to be grossed out, you know. It doesn't hurt if it's any consolation."
Cautiously, the corporal took her hand, stammering, "I'm so sorry, it's just-"
"It's alright, really. I know how it looks." She shrugged. "Aidan's a freak, too."
Confused, Dom and Marcus looked back at Aidan, who was now clad in a dirty white t-shirt and baggy cargos. Smiling tentatively, he turned towards them to reveal a defunct stub for a left arm. "Got clipped by a shotgun shell," he clarified, walking up to them. "It had to be amputated. As for Chuck here, she got on the wrong end of a Scorcher."
"Hey, how long have you boys been fighting?" Lottie asked as Aidan slung his arm around her shoulders.
Robotically, Marcus replied, "Nearly twenty years for both of us."
Aidan whistled. "And no major physical scars to show for it? Impressive."
Lottie elbowed him sharply in the stomach. "Aid! Don't insult the guests!"
"Shit, Chuck!" he gasped, clutching his stomach. "I was just saying, I'd love to have fought for some twenty-odd years and have both arms to show for it!"
"Just because they have all their appendages doesn't mean they haven't lost!" Lottie hissed. "You're such a dick!"
He grinned. "All for you, sweetheart."
Lottie slapped Aidan across the face, which sent him into peals of laughter. Chuckling, Gabe mussed her hair. "These two are our comic relief," he explained. "Hey, dumbasses! Introduce yourselves properly to the nice gears!"
Mock-saluting, Aidan shouted, "Ex-Corporal Aidan Foley, SIR! Formerly of Iota squad, SIR! I am proficient in all grenades, explosives, and flamethrowers, SIR!"
With a roll of her eyes, Lottie added, "My name is Charlotte Edwards. I like shotguns. My standard nickname is Lottie, but it seems like everyone has their own nickname for me, so call me whatever you like, I guess."
Marcus nodded. "Good to meet you. I'm Marcus, and this is Dom."
Aidan's brows shot upward. "Of Aspho Fields?"
Gritting his teeth, the sergeant replied, "Yes."
To his astonishment, Aidan clapped him gently on the shoulder with his good hand. "I heard some nasty shit went down, man. I'm sorry for anyone you've lost." The hatted ex-gear let his hand fall. "But you guys did good out there."
Marcus exchanged surprised looks with Dom. "Thanks, actually," the corporal replied quietly, smiling a little. "You're the first person to say something other than 'cool' or 'shit'."
Aidan beamed. "No prob. Oh, hey - Life Partner! You introduce yourself properly, because I know you've forgotten!"
Sighing, Gabe complied: "Ex-Sergeant Gabriel Sheridan, formerly of Gamma squad. I'm a heavy weapons expert, specializing in Mulchers and Mortars."
Aidan poked him in the stomach. "And 'cause you're heavy, fatass!"
As Gabe grabbed the scrawny ex-gear and put him in a headlock, Marcus inquired of Lottie, " 'Life Partner'? Thought Aidan was fucking you. No offense."
"Short for 'Heterosexual Life Partner'," Lottie clarified, rolling her eyes. "Basically, they'd be totally gay for each other if they weren't both straight as boards." Gabe and Aidan promptly hugged each other, grinning at the Delta soldiers cheekily.
Dom smirked. "Got it. But..."
Gabe frowned at him. "But what?"
"You said your name's Sheridan?"
Gabe nodded. "Let me guess: you know my brother, right?"
Dom shook his head. "Only in name."
"Keep it that way." He turned to Marcus. "So these doofs are Lottie and Aidan. Any questions?"
Nodding, Marcus pointed to the girl's collar. "Are those COG tags under your scarf?" he inquired, indicating the chains around her neck.
Lottie blinked at him, then smiled sadly and pulled two sets of tags from beneath her shirt. "These were my brothers'." Dom rested a hand on her unburned shoulder. "I'm so sorry."
She shook her head, tucking the tags back under her collar. "It was a while ago. But it's what got me out here, fighting the Locust on my own terms instead of nursing wounded soldiers in Ephyra."
Beaming, Aidan slung his arm around her neck. "She's our medic!" he chirped.
Dom grinned. "A shotgun-wielding nurse. I've seen everything."
Shrugging, Lottie explained, "I like the Gnasher."
"Makes it more personal, right?" Marcus asked gruffly. The boys stared at him, but Lottie nodded.
"Nell likes to pick 'em off with a sniper rifle, which is fine. She's all about efficiency, too; usually aims for their necks and stuff. But me?" Lottie laughed. "I want to get out there and blow their fucking heads off. I want to watch them explode into ludicrous gibs."
Aidan shook his head. "You're sick, Chuck."
She rolled her eyes. "You love it."
"Yes, I do. That doesn't make you any less sick."
Frowning thoughtfully, Gabe asked, "Hey, don't suppose you knew her brothers? They only died about a year ago."
Dom shrugged at Marcus. "Did they have names?" the sergeant growled.
Aidan and Gabe looked to Lottie, who murmured, "Colin and Mike. They were in Alpha squad."
Dom widened his eyes. "Alpha squad?"
"Shit," Marcus muttered. "I'll bet you anything they were killed the same day Kim was."
"Kim?" Aidan asked.
"Yeah, Field Lieutenant Minh Young Kim," Dom clarified. "We were rescuing Alpha squad and we got ambushed. General RAAM was there, too."
Lottie's eyes widened. "My brothers were killed by RAAM?!"
"No, RAAM went after Kim. Some other Locust got the two other guys. We weren't in Alpha, and we were kind of in a rush, so we didn't find out their names." Marcus shrugged. "You can ask the rest of Delta when they get here."
Gabe nodded, resting a gentle hand on Lottie's shoulder. Aidan coughed conspicuously. "So!" he grinned, tugging on his hat. "Want to hear my story? It's much less sordid."
Lottie rolled her eyes. "You were born to a hooker in Montevado, bounced through foster homes in Ephyra, and joined the COG as soon as you were able. How is that not sordid?"
"Hey! Nobody important dies in my story!" Aidan protested.
"You burned down one of your foster family's homes!" the girl retorted, hands on her hips.
"But no one died!"
As Lottie and Aidan began to argue loudly, Gabe clarified, "Aidan's been a mild pyromaniac since he was a child, which is why he never got adopted. But the military was a good outlet. Taught him to channel his love of fire into something useful."
Dom blinked at Gabe. "That's... convenient?"
"Mm. Most of the time."
Aidan paused in arguing with Lottie. " 'Most of the time'?! I've saved your ass like a bazillion times, you fat, ungrateful prick!"
"So you're the one who planted all the bombs?" Marcus inquired.
"So you noticed those? Yeah," the hatted ex-gear grinned, "those are mine."
A door burst open in the back. "GABE!" shouted an older man. His ruddy face was lined and cracked from weather and chainsmoking. A lit cigarette hung from his lips, ash dirtying his thick white beard. His receding hairline was hidden beneath a green beret, and his thinning frame was well disguised beneath a heavy jacket and baggy pants.
"BILL!" Gabe and Aidan shouted back. They ran to the older man and hugged him.
"Hey, hey, leave the gay stuff for each other," Bill protested half-heartedly.
The boys pulled away, grinning. "What's up, Bill?" Gabe asked.
"It's your turn to watch Howie," Bill replied, gesturing towards a room with his head.
Gabe glanced at Delta squad and Lottie helplessly. "But... guests..."
Bill blinked at Marcus and Dom. "Oh. Hello there."
"Hey," Dom replied awkwardly.
Bill turned back toward the ex-gears. "More deserters, Gabe?"
Aidan beamed. "Nah, Bill, they're legit! Bonafide scouts for the COG!"
"Huh," Bill muttered, nodding his approval.
Wincing, Gabe asked, "Bill, could you just stay with Howie for a little longer? I'm kind of showing these guys around, you know?"
Bill clicked his tongue. "You know I would, Gabe, but he's starting to get restless. Besides that, my ass hurts like hell, and I really need to take a piss."
"I'll sit with Howie for you, Gabe," Lottie volunteered suddenly. "You're a better host than me."
"Chuck-" Aidan attempted, his brow furrowed with worry. She cut him off.
"My mind's made up. Go introduce Bill, okay?" Lottie turned toward the Delta soldiers, bowing her head slightly. "It was very good to meet you."
"Uh... likewise," Marcus filled in, glancing at Dom. The corporal shrugged as Lottie retreated into Howie's room and locked the door.
Sighing, Bill shook his head and approached the Delta soldiers. "She's probably feeling self-conscious about the burns. Don't blame yourselves." He offered his hand. "Field Lieutenant Bill Underbrook."
Dom gestured for Marcus to introduce them. The sergeant shook Bill's hand, muttering, "Marcus Fenix. This is Dom Santiago. Sergeant and Corporal, respectively."
Bill smirked at Marcus. "Firm grip."
"Thanks." Marcus released his hand, allowing Dom to shake. "No 'ex' in front of your rank?" the sergeant inquired.
"I'm a vet," Bill replied, standing a little straighter. "Honorably discharged when I took some shrapnel to the knee."
Dom inclined his head. "Good to meet you, sir."
The veteran snorted. " 'Sir'. My name is Bill, kid." He took a long drag on his cigarette, then waved it around to indicate the foyer. "So what brings you to Big Town?"
"Reconnaissance," Marcus replied automatically. Dom shook his head, unsure as to why they were lying about their purpose.
Bill shrugged. "Well, there's not much to recon here. You're looking at most of it."
Voices outside caught their attention. Aidan raced to one of the front windows. "Hey! It's Nell and some dudes with Liam!"
Gabe peered out the window over his friend's shoulder. "Fenix. Your guys blonde and black?"
"That's them," Marcus confirmed without looking, instead peering into a toolbox.
Bill joined the others at the window. "Shit," the veteran muttered. "Guy's fuckin' huge..."
Dom chuckled knowingly and took the opportunity to study the instruments some more. "Yeah, Cole has that effect on people."
"We really should've cleaned up the blood," Aidan mused, earning himself a whack on the head from Bill.
"Like we could have known we'd have visitors. We aren't vying for 'Stranded Settlement of the Year', Nancy-boy."
"Whatever, you geezer."
A gunshot rang from the rooms behind them. "Son of a bitch!" Dom reacted automatically, grabbing his Lancer.
"What the hell just happened?!" Marcus demanded as Aidan stared at Howie's door in horror. Cursing, Bill pulled a rifle from the front wall.
"Son of a bitch," the veteran growled, cocking his gun. "If he hurt Carly... Dammit, I knew we should've put him down."
"Bill!" Gabe protested, but Aidan had grabbed a pistol and bolted after the veteran, mouth set in a grim line. Frustrated, the blonde ex-gear turned to Marcus. "Stay here. This is our affair."
"A gun just fired in my vicinity," Marcus snarled, grabbing Gabe's shoulder. "I want to know what the hell is going on."
Gabe shook his head. "Either Lottie's dead, or Howie is. Just please stay here." He grabbed a shotgun and followed the others, leaving Dom and Marcus stunned into silence.
The front door burst open, and the rest of Delta ran through the entrance. Cole readied a Gnasher as Baird jogged up to Marcus. "We heard a shot," the blonde told them. "You guys okay?"
A woman - Nell - tumbled into the foyer. Marcus barely had time to register her blue hair before she gasped, "I know what happened."
Dom shook his head. "Whoa, everyone back up. What the hell is going on?"
"I know what happened," Nell repeated, looking up at him. "She mentioned it once, but I never actually thought... Dammit! I thought I'd talked her down!" The girl let out a bitter laugh, then spat on the ground and shook her head. "What do they call it when you shoot someone who's dead in spirit but not in body? Murder?"
Dom stared at her, horrified. Cole jumped in. "A mercy killing," he murmured. "It's called a mercy killing."
She spat again as if trying to clear her throat. "Hell of a mercy."
Gabe emerged from Howie's room, face ashen. He spotted Nell standing with Delta and slowly made his way to her. "Where's Liam?" he demanded hoarsely.
Nell swallowed. "He's outside the door. We made him wait."
"Shit," the ex-gear muttered. He began to walk out the door, but Nell caught his arm.
"Gabe," she attempted. "Wait a second."
He pinched the bridge of his nose. "Nell, I've kind of got to-"
"Gabe," she insisted. "This is Damon Baird."
Gabe stared at the blonde gear without really registering his face. Finally, he turned to Nell. "You can set up a room for them if you want. I have to go find a place to dig a grave."
"What's going to happen to Lottie?" the girl whispered.
The ex-gear shook his head. "I have to go, Nell."
He strode out, brushing past the Delta soldiers. As soon as he was down the steps, Liam peeked in the foyer fearfully. "Nell?"
She stared at him, and he warily crept in to sit beside her. "Nell? Is my dad okay?"
" 'Dad'?" Dom whispered, but Cole hushed him. Marcus looked on in grim silence as Baird shook his head and turned away.
Slowly, Nell gathered her arms around Liam. "...Yes. He's okay now. He's going home."
Frowning, Baird tapped the Locust papers with his pen. The others had fallen asleep long ago: Marcus's quiet, whistling snores; Dom's slow, steady breathing; and Cole's obnoxiously loud snorts filled the small room Nell had arranged for them. "You'll be next to Aidan and Lottie," she had told them, "but I doubt there'll be much noise tonight." Baird shook his head at the thought. If anything had happened in the next room, it escaped his hearing. Or maybe that was the exhaustion setting in, since it was morning and he could only recall tirelessly scribbling on the Locust documents since they had been ushered in last night. All for nothing, since his handwriting had deteriorated into chicken scratch sometime around three in the morning.
With a sigh, he pushed his work aside and rubbed his eyes, gazing blearily about. He assumed Nell had sacrificed her and Liam's room, seeing as the walls were decorated with crayon drawings. He identified Nell for a scribble of blue above a blob of peach, and from there distinguished Liam, who was nothing more than a set of brown blurs. The rest of the pictures seemed to be more or less the same, lacking the other residents of the so-called town.
Baird's mind drifted back to the dead man in the room across the hall. After Aidan and Bill had confiscated Lottie's pistol and escorted her out, the blonde gear had peeked in at the body. Howie resembled his son, with fine brown hair and the tanned skin of a day laborer. Death had given a grayish cast to his face, with only the blood dripping from his temple for color. Sickened, Baird had immediately sought comfort in his translations. For once, no one had bothered him about sleeping.
He scratched his chest through his tank top and sighed. "Well, time to see if this rat's nest has a working bathroom." Carefully, he eased out of his chair and snuck past the other Delta soldiers, none of whom stirred. He crept down the hall past Aidan and Lottie's locked door, but he paused at the open entrance to Gabe's room. The ex-gear turned fitfully in his sleep, while Bill snored softly in the cot on the opposite side. Baird continued silently to the bathroom but paused to peek into the foyer. Nell slept sitting up on the couch, her head nodded forward. Liam was curled in her lap, his snores quiet and slightly wheezy. Shaking his head, Baird tiptoed into the designated men's bathroom. He shut the door behind him and clicked the lock into place.
"Shit," he whispered as he turned around. The bathroom was spotless. If there was a speck of dirt in the grout, he saw nothing. The mirror was free of cracks; the cabinets and shelves securely fastened. A quick check under the sink revealed a full stock of toiletries and cleaning supplies. And, most importantly, the toilet flushed. "I could hug this thing," he muttered.
After undressing, Baird tested the shower and was shocked to find hot water. He stepped in, washed his hair and vitals with a rough bar of soap, and shut off the water quickly. Hot showers were not something to be wasted.
Feeling almost comfortable, he reached out to grab his shorts but instead found something fluffier and thicker than his flimsy underclothes. Baird peeked around the curtain. A midsize blue towel sat neatly folded atop the toilet. The bathroom door was cracked, a note taped to it. He wrapped his waist with the towel and climbed out of the shower, snatching the note off the door.
Baird- Sorry for sneaking in. Figured you might want a towel; we keep them in a linen closet near the kitchen. We have a washer/dryer back there, too, so I tossed your stuff in. Also, the bathroom doors are all unlockable from the outside for reasons I'd prefer not to go into. -Nell
P.S. I didn't see anything, so calm your nips.
Shaking his head, Baird crumpled the note and tossed it in the trash. He grabbed his goggles off the counter and arranged them on his forehead. "Now what the fuck am I going to do?" He inspected the towel. "I can cover my crotch. That's great. Did she even consider a change of clothes to go with..." Baird's mouth dropped open. "No way. That sneaky blue-haired bitch." He tapped his chin. "Alright. So she wants to embarrass me. How am I going to throw this back in her face?"
Keeping a firm grip on the towel, Baird peered out of the bathroom. Gabe and Bill were still snoring, and Aidan and Lottie still had their door locked. But he could hear chatter from a room at the end of the hall. Taking a steadying breath, he walked into a small but well-lit kitchen. On the left was a walk-in pantry blocked by a fairly large table. A counter ran across the back and right walls, with cupboards above it. Dom, wearing a t-shirt and loose pants, busied himself at a stove while Liam peeked at the food. To the right, Nell stood on tip-toe to dig through a high cabinet. Baird smirked at her black top and red shorts - obviously pajamas. "So what's for breakfast?" he asked, feigning nonchalance.
Dom shrugged without looking at him. "I offered to make eggs."
Baird examined the kitchen table, neatly set for ten. "Nice."
Groaning in frustration, Nell climbed onto the counter and glared into the cupboard. The blonde watched her in silent amusement as she growled, "Dammit! This isn't even the right cabinet!"
Liam blinked at her innocently. "Do you want me to look, Nell?"
She stared at him, then hopped off the counter. "You! You little terror; you moved the coffeepot!"
The boy let out a shriek and dove behind Dom's legs. Chuckling, the corporal pushed him into the open. "Sorry, kid. I'm not putting myself on the line for you."
Grinning, Nell lunged towards Liam, who screamed and ran away. "I'll get... you..." She fell silent, staring at Baird in shock.
Baird cocked a brow at her and innocuously scratched his bare stomach. "What?"
Her face flushed, and she blurted the first thing that came to mind: "HOLY CRAP, MAN, THIS IS A KITCHEN!"
"Son of a bitch!" Dom exclaimed, jumping and turning around. His mouth dropped open. "Dude, put some clothes on!"
Baird smirked, rounding the table. "I would, but she stole them."
Dom stared at Nell. "What?!"
"I didn't steal them!" she protested, covering her eyes. "I put them in our wash! I was going to offer to put all of your clothes in our wash!"
The corporal gazed upwards pensively. "That's actually a pretty sweet deal..."
"Dom!" Baird interrupted. "Focus!"
"I'm focusing on the specks in the ceiling and not you, thanks very much," Dom retorted.
Liam peeked out from his hiding place in the pantry. "Nell? I found the coffeepot again."
Sighing, Nell motioned to the counter vaguely with the hand not blocking her eyes. "Just put it on the counter. Oh, and do us all a favor and reset the washer so it'll be done in half an hour instead of an hour, please." Nodding, the boy padded into a side room.
Rolling his eyes, Baird plugged the coffeepot into an outlet and began rummaging through the cabinets. "Dom, the eggs are going to burn."
Shaking his head, the corporal slowly peeled his eyes from the ceiling and returned to the stove. "Man, that is just creepy."
Baird snorted, tossing some coffee filters onto the kitchen table. "It's not like I'm walking around with my d-"
"God, Baird, visuals!" Dom shouted, smacking the blonde with a spatula.
"I think my brain is melting," Nell whimpered.
"It's your own fault," Baird retorted, locating a small tub of coffee beans and a hand grinder. He tossed a handful of beans in. "You stole my clothes."
"I did not steal your clothes!" she exclaimed.
"Liar. You wanted to see me naked."
"You're disgusting, man," Dom retorted as Liam wandered back in.
Nell looked like she was about to either laugh or cry. "I'm sorry that I forgot most gears don't carry a change of clothes, okay?!" Baird smirked as she took a steadying breath. Slowly, the girl lowered her hand. Looking away from him, she crossed the kitchen, plugged in a toaster, and began slicing bread on a cutting board.
They each worked at their tasks in silence. "Liam?" Dom asked. "Could you bring me one of the plates from the table, please?"
"Aww, aren't you cute, Mr. Mom?" Baird mocked. Liam kicked him in the back of the leg. "OW! Son of a-"
"No swearing," Nell muttered as Liam set the plate on the counter.
Grumbling under his breath, Baird dumped the ground coffee into the filter and sprinkled a few grains of salt in. Lottie shuffled into the kitchen and slumped onto the table. Wordlessly, Nell reached into a small refrigerator and set a glass of milk and a half-eaten chocolate bar beside her. Lottie peered up through unkempt black hair. "Aren't you mad at me?"
Nell nudged the milk closer to the woman. "Not about what you did. Just how you did it."
Lottie watched her for a moment, then pushed her hair away from her scarred face to take a drink. Smiling, Nell returned to the toaster, which let out a cheerful ding. "Hey," Lottie asked Baird, "are you naked?"
"She stole my clothes."
"I DID NOT!"
Dom put all the eggs onto the plate Liam had brought him and gave it back to the child. Handing the boy a spatula, Dom instructed, "Put one of these on each plate, okay?" As Liam nodded and walked to the table, the corporal gazed around the kitchen and asked, "How'd you get all these appliances in here, anyway?"
Lottie answered: "Bill did a lot of odd jobs after he was discharged. His longest one was pulling out old kitchen cabinets and stoves and installing new ones. Apparently, when he first got here, Gabe, Aid, and Nell had been living on canned foods they stored in an old soda machine. So he took the boys on a scavenging trip and they refurbished this room." She shrugged. "It used to be a break lounge or something."
"Most everything in Big Town is still usable or at least reparable," Nell clarified, popping more bread in the toaster. "The question is finding it and getting it to work."
"The fridge is our greatest accomplishment," Lottie joked, sipping her milk through the unburned side of her mouth. She took a bite of the chocolate bar. "So what was all that screaming about earlier, Nell? Never heard you shriek like that when Aidan went streaking."
"Oh, fuck you, Lottie."
"Hey!" Baird interrupted, leaning on the counter. "Why don't you get shushed for swearing?"
Nell turned to Liam, who stuck his tongue out at Baird. "Because she's cooler than you."
"Are you kidding me?!"
"Baird," Dom interrupted, clapping a hand to the blonde's shoulder. "He's a kid. You can't fight with a kid. It just doesn't work."
Baird frowned thoughtfully. "Unless you fight like a kid."
Dom blinked. "What?"
"Hey, kid! So you like Blueberry Brains over here, right?!" Baird called, pushing off the counter.
Liam furrowed his brow. "Yeah, so?"
"You like her like her, don't you?" the blonde grinned.
Eyes widening, Liam stammered, "What?! N-no!"
"Ooh," Lottie commented. "Point to the asshole."
"Liam likes Nell! Liam likes Nell!" Baird sang, laughing to himself.
"I DO NOT!" the child protested loudly. "NELL! LOTTIE! MAKE HIM STOP!"
Bill stumbled in. "Damn it all, what in Sam Hill is going on in here?!" He blinked at Baird. "And why are you naked?"
"The blue-haired bitch stole my clothes."
"STOP SAYING THAT!"
Smacking himself in the face, Bill turned to Dom and demanded, "Am I the only sane one here?"
Dom shook his head. "I don't know, man. Coffee?"
"Please." The veteran poured himself a cup and sipped tentatively. His eyes widened. "Hey!"
Everyone in the kitchen froze. Liam, Baird, and Nell exchanged uncomfortable looks, so Lottie asked, "Yeah, old man?"
"This coffee doesn't taste like watery shit!" Bill sipped at it again to make sure. "Who made this?!"
Dom shrugged, shutting off the stove. "That'd be Baird. Here, I finished the last eggs."
"Eggs and decent coffee!" Bill muttered. "Shit!"
Curious, Nell filled a mug with coffee and took a swig. She smiled at Baird and Dom. "Well, this is a nice treat."
"Treat?" Dom inquired.
Shaking her head, Nell made a smaller cup and poured milk in it until it was nearly white. She gave it to Liam, explaining, "Coffee's hard to come by. We tend to make it really thin to the point that no amount of sugar and cream can save the taste. Eventually we all got used to taking extra bitter black coffee-" She motioned to Lottie. "-unless we never drank coffee in the first place."
"Put salt in," Baird muttered, taking a plate of eggs.
Nell blinked. "Hmm?"
"Salt," Baird repeated. "It counteracts the bitterness a little. It won't help much if you make it too thin, and you can't go past a few grains or it gets too salty, but it works when you make an ordinary cup or pot."
Everyone blinked at him. "Aww," Dom teased, poking Liam in the shoulder. "Wasn't that nice? Baird being all helpful to Blueberry Brains."
"Aww," Lottie echoed as Liam giggled evilly. Baird glared at them and took a large bite of egg. Nell smirked.
Bill joined them at the table. "Leave the man alone. He gave us proper coffee."
Frowning, Dom seated himself. "Shouldn't we wait...?"
"Nah," Bill replied dismissively, shoveling the eggs into his mouth. "Gabe and Aidan are... in talks."
Lottie winced and swigged her milk. Liam frowned sympathetically. After a moment, he slid his toast toward her with a tentative smile. She blinked at it, then tousled his hair with her burned hand. "You're sweet, kiddo."
"WHOO-EE, BABY!" Cole burst into the kitchen, grinning at them. "I SMELL EGGS!"
"COLE!" Marcus shouted groggily from the bedroom. "DO YOU HAVE ANY CONCEPT OF VOLUME CONTROL?!"
The black gear winced. "Sorry!" Lowering his voice, he murmured, "Marcus's got a migraine. I think. Something like that."
Nell turned to Lottie. "Do we have any extra aspirin?"
Nodding, the black-haired woman finished her chocolate bar and stood up. "I'll go get some for him."
Dom blinked as Lottie exited the room. Finally, he told Nell, "Thank you. That's really not necessary."
She shrugged. "You make us eggs and coffee. We give you aspirin." Swallowing the remainder of her coffee, Nell crossed to the door and called, "Hey, Lottie, get a bandage for the bastard's shoulder, would you?"
Nell rolled her eyes. "The naked bastard."
Baird cocked a brow as she sat back down. "I don't appreciate that."
"Just be glad I noticed your shoulder and cared enough to remember, naked boy."
"What?!" Cole spluttered. "Naked?! What?! Where was I when this happened?!"
Baird cocked a brow. "Cole. I'm naked right now."
"But... but you ain't freakin' out about venerewhatsits. You're all calm and shit." Cole leaped up from the table. "OH SHIT! YOU'RE NOT BAIRD, ARE YOU?!"
Dom smacked his head against the table. "I hate my life."
"COLE!" Marcus shouted again. "VOLUME!"
As Cole winced and sat back down, Bill asked suspiciously, "You want to see this guy in his birthday suit?"
"Only to laugh at his skinny white ass. And take blackmail pictures."
Bill nodded and patted Cole on the arm. "You're alright, buddy."
"Thanks!" Cole beamed. "But seriously: I figured you'd get all freaked out that Stranded could see you naked. Think they'd molest you or somethin'."
Baird smirked. "She stole my clothes."
"Look, can we just eat?" Nell snapped over her second cup of coffee.
"Please," Dom groaned.
Shrugging, Baird carried his plate to the sink. Forks clinked awkwardly on cracked dishes. Lottie reentered the room and bandaged Baird's shoulder before he could protest. She sat back down at the table. Cole accidentally elbowed Bill, who elbowed him back. Liam made a face at Dom. Nell slowly chewed a bite of egg.
Baird dropped his dish in the sink with a loud clang. "Okay, I have to ask. What the hell happened last night?"
"Swearing; I got it, kid," he grumbled, interrupting Liam. Nell, Lottie, and Bill exchanged wary glances.
Finally, Nell sighed and asked, "Liam? Would you go play in the foyer, please?"
Shrugging, he hopped off his chair and bounded out of the room. Bill clapped his hands together. "So! Who wants to start?"
"I will," Nell muttered, leaning on the table. "What do you want to know, Baird?"
He shrugged as he sat opposite her. "Whatever you can tell me."
Nell glanced at Lottie and Bill before beginning. "Howie lost everything. Not Liam, of course, but his three other children, his wife, his parents, the entirety of his hometown... He's had the worst of the worst." Dom stared at her. "That's... that's a lot of people."
Bill jumped in. "The Mathesons - Howie's family - and I all came from a small town, Ritheno. When the Locust attacked, Howie's wife Angela had her third baby, Art, on the way, so I decided to help them get out. We left behind everyone else." He paused to collect his thoughts. "We tried to get to the rest of Howie's family in Olufti, but the town had already been ransacked. So from there, we decided to travel to Ephyra."
Bill's voice cracked, so Nell picked up the story again. "Along the way, the second child, a girl named Eve, died of pneumonia." She laid a hand on the veteran's arm. "Bill's never forgiven himself for her death."
Cole patted him on the shoulder. "You can't stop sickness, baby."
"That's not the point," Bill growled, so Lottie moved them along quickly:
"They met me in Ephyra. I was working as a nurse there: conscripted by the COG, if you will." She smiled gently at Bill, who returned the expression in a fatherly way. "We became good friends. Ange gave birth to her fourth child, Liam." She hesitated. "But... the oldest, Oliver, enlisted in the military. Wanted to help. He was... he was killed not long afterward in an ambush."
She bowed her head, and Nell continued the story. "Bill and the Mathesons agreed it was time to move on, bade their goodbyes to Lottie, and set out for a new home. Eventually, they reached Pithodi, where they met Gabe and Aid. Bill and the Mathesons agreed to bolster Big Town's numbers and traveled back with the guys. And things were good here, for a while." She sighed. "Then Ange got pregnant again."
Dom and Cole shrugged at each other, but Baird's eyes widened. "Don't tell me she did what I think she did."
Nell cocked a brow. "Had a complete emotional breakdown and hanged herself with a leather belt because, quote, 'she didn't want to bring any more children into our twisted world', unquote?"
"Shit," the blonde muttered. Cole stared at Nell, speechless.
"That's..." Dom shook his head. "That's insane."
"We've had worse," Nell murmured.
"How can you get worse than that?" Baird interrupted.
Nell glanced at Bill and Lottie. "I'd rather not say. Anyway, after Ange... passed, Howie just cried all the time. Liam was too young to really understand. He just sat with his dad... never left his side. But Art, his older brother..." She sighed shakily. "Art got angry. One day, we woke up. He was gone; a Boomshot was gone. We never saw him again. And Howie just... shriveled up." She shook her head. "That's it for the history, really."
They all sat in reverent silence. Suddenly, Dom inquired, "You said Liam sat with his dad all the time, and that Bill was his protector, and that they knew Lottie. Why's he so attached to you?"
She hesitated, so Lottie jumped in. "Two months ago, we took a vote on what to do about Howie. We all knew he was gone somewhere we couldn't reach him. Gabe and Aid wanted to keep him alive, mostly on principle, I guess. Bill and I wanted to kill him." She shook her head. "He was just in a lot of pain. We hated seeing him suffer."
"And Nell had to decide the vote?" Dom asked skeptically.
To his surprise, Nell snorted, "Hell no. I refused to choose whether Howie would live or die. That's not my right. Instead, I argued a third option, and Bill, Gabe, and Aid got swayed to my side."
Baird cocked a brow. "Which was?"
"Killing Howie would be too traumatic on Liam. We needed to separate them and then take another vote." She smiled sheepishly. "I like compromise."
"So you got charged with separating them?"
She shook her head. "Bill tried first because he was closest to the family, but he wasn't really in tune with Liam emotionally." Nell shook her head. "After that, Lottie tried, but she gave up quickly. She's not really good with kids."
"More accurately, I like playing with kids but suck at taking care of them," Lottie clarified.
Nell smirked. "Aid was absolutely out of the question, and Gabe was already preoccupied with everything else he has to do here. So it fell to me."
Baird snorted. "So, what, did your magical gift with children just reveal itself?"
She stifled a laugh. "Hardly. It took three weeks before Liam left Howie's side, and almost a month before he stopped going back in the room altogether."
Dom frowned in thought. "So you'd separated Liam and Howie..."
"So I decided now was an okay time to put him out of his misery," Lottie confirmed.
Nell sighed. "Liam's dependent on me, not his father. He'll be okay. But still... I feel so stupid. I shouldn't have tried putting off the inevitable."
They sat in silence for a while. "Do you think..." Dom hesitated. "Nell. Do you think Lottie did the right thing?"
Nell cocked a brow at him as Lottie and Bill exchanged confused glances. Finally, the blue-haired girl laid a gentle hand atop Dom's. "I can't make that judgment. I can only say what I think. And I don't think the way she did it was right." She gave Lottie an apologetic look. "Big Town's a community, with Gabe only as our technical leader. Our decisions are made as a group, for a group. If this kind of thing continues, we'll just start to fall apart." Nell squeezed Dom's hand. "But if I hadn't had Liam to consider... I probably would have volunteered to put the bullet in Howie's head." She shrugged, releasing his hand. "That's my opinion."
Dom nodded slowly as Cole asked, "You really think he should have died?"
Nell sighed. "The way I see it, he was already dead. And he had been for a long time." They all sat in companionable silence. "Feel better?" she asked suddenly, which prompted Baird to smother a laugh.
Dom chuckled. "A little, yeah."
Nodding, the girl explained, "I'm sorry for what I said last night. About murder. I was just... I don't know. I was bothered by how Lottie did it. Sorry, Lottie."
"S'ok," the woman replied quietly. "I'm kind of bothered by how I did it, too."
Everyone fell silent. A moment later, Marcus strolled in, wearing full COG armor. "Well," he drawled. "Ain't this cozy." He frowned suddenly. "Baird, why are you naked?"
"That's a good question, Marcus," the blonde began, grinning evilly, but Nell leaped up from her chair.
"What do you know; the wash is done! I'll go get your nice, clean clothes now, Baird!" She bolted into the laundry room before anyone could respond.
Baird smirked. "She stole my clothes while I was in the shower. Weird, right?"
Marcus gazed at the ceiling thoughtfully. "I don't know. Having your clothes stolen is a small price to pay for clean underwear."
The blonde rolled his eyes. "Just sit down and eat your eggs."
Marcus blinked. "Eggs?"
"I made eggs," Dom explained, gesturing towards an empty plate. "They're kind of cold now, though."
"And Baird made coffee!" Cole added.
"Good coffee," Bill concurred, sipping his own. "Not watery shit."
"Bill, every time you say that, I think of diarrhea," Lottie retorted.
Seating himself, Marcus grabbed a plate of eggs. Nell ran back in the room and threw a wad of clothes at Baird's face. "Here. Now go get fucking dressed."
With a smirk, Baird replied, "I could just put them on here-"
"Get," Dom commanded, shoving him towards the door.
"SON OF A BITCH, MAN, YOU ALMOST MADE ME DROP THE TOWEL!"
"HA!" Cole shouted, jumping up. "I KNEW YOU HAD TO BE FAKIN'! NO WAY BAIRD COULD EVER BE COMFORTABLE BEIN' ALL NAKED AND SHIT!"
"SHUT UP, COLE!" Baird shouted as Nell and Lottie exploded into laughter. Even Bill and Marcus chuckled. Scowling, the blonde snatched up his clothes and strode out of the room. Moments later, he returned fully clothed to find everyone grinning at him expectantly. "Happy?" he snarled.
"Quite," Nell retorted, patting an empty chair for him to sit down.
"I'll stand, thanks," he snapped.
Shaking his head, Marcus pushed away his empty plate. He coughed awkwardly to draw everyone's attention. "Thank you," he muttered, "truly. I can't remember the last time I got to take medicine for a migraine. Or eat food that didn't taste like shit."
Nell smiled knowingly. "You're welcome. But...?"
Marcus smirked. "We need to get back to our mission."
"Thought you were doing recon," Bill replied, lighting a cigarette. "Shouldn't be that urgent."
"I lied," the sergeant admitted. "It's not a habit to share our plans with whoever we come across." He hesitated, then added a gruff, "Sorry."
Lottie waved it off. "It's fine. We get it."
"We could probably help you."
Everyone turned to stare at Gabe, who gazed down at them from the doorway as he continued, "Every Marauder's got a near-perfect memorization of Pithodi and its outposts. We can advise you on the best way to get to your destination; our territory extends west for some distance and you might want to avoid the other Marauders." Gabe glanced at Aidan, who entered the room and sat beside Lottie. "They're not all as friendly as we are."
Ignoring Gabe, Aidan squeezed Lottie's hand and whispered, "I convinced him to let you stay. You're on thin ice, but you won't do anything else like that, right?"
She shook her head fervently. "I just couldn't watch him... wither like that, Aid. It was just that once. It won't happen again."
Coughing awkwardly, Dom nudged Marcus's arm. "You should tell them, Marcus. It's not like they're going to hurt us now."
The sergeant glanced at the faces around the table, then muttered, "Fine. We're supposed to rescue a squad from Fort Jameson."
Gabe stared at him, wide-eyed. "Fort... Fort Jameson?"
Lottie interrupted. "How did you hear about this place?"
Marcus exchanged wary looks with Dom, Cole, and Baird. "Someone radioed a distress call," he finally replied. "Something about a well-supplied but pinned down squad of gears."
"Shit," Bill muttered, rising.
"I'll go prep the Junker," Aidan told them. He exited the kitchen, Bill following him out.
Dom's eyes widened with realization. "Wait, those guys are yours?"
Gabe shook his head. "Those guys are dead. A Marauder would never identify himself as a gear. And we never send out distress signals. If things go to shit, we radio the phrase 'Foxtrot Uniform Charlie Kilo' to Pithodi directly, to let them know they've lost a base."
Marcus snorted. Dom glared at him, so he apologized, "Sorry. It's not funny."
Gabe grinned. "Nah, we like the signal, too. We just pray we never have to use it."
Frowning, Cole asked, "So... some gears killed your guys and took your base?"
Baird smacked the black gear on the head. "More like we're being suckered into a Locust death trap."
An explosion rattled the building. Gabe and Nell crashed to the floor; Dom tumbled from his seat; Cole shrieked for his mother; Marcus and Lottie clutched at the table; Baird clung to the counter. The cupboard doors swung wildly on their hinges as the town hall trembled. Dishes shattered on the floor. Finally, the shaking stopped, and Nell slowly rose to her feet. "Or maybe they're coming to you."
The building rattled again, but this time Nell was prepared. She bolted down the hall, managing to stay upright even as the ground shook violently. "Liam!" She tumbled into the foyer, bracing herself on the arm of the couch. Marcus followed close behind, the rest of Delta on his heels. Gabe and Lottie had ducked into their respective rooms.
"We need armor-" Dom attempted.
"No time!" Marcus bellowed, yanking a Gnasher off the front wall. He tossed it to Cole, who loaded the gun with a grim smile. Shaking his head, Dom grabbed an old-model Lancer and fired out the window.
"Liam!" Nell shouted, starting towards a previously unnoticed door beside the bookcases. Baird grabbed her arm as Marcus let off a volley of Hammerburst rounds.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?!" the blonde demanded. Another explosion rocked the building, and he and Nell seized each others' forearms for balance, wobbling and glaring all the while.
"I'm getting my brat!" she snapped.
"He's probably hiding somewhere safe like any sane kid! We need every gun we've got!" Baird retorted, tightening his hands around her wrists when she tried to jerk away. She winced but made no response, so he continued to slowly squeeze her arms, determined to win.
Gabe ran into the room clad in his full armor. Lottie followed not far behind him, old-style flak jackets draped over her shoulders. "Take your pick, boys," she told Delta as Gabe effortlessly mounted a Mulcher on the windowsill and opened fire. Dom openly stared at the ex-gear, who offered a sheepish smile.
"I'm not the heavy weapons specialist for nothing. I bench an stripped car frame."
Lottie rolled her eyes as she cocked a Gnasher. "Gabe, stop bragging."
"You shut up."
Baird turned slightly towards the bickering Stranded. His grip loosened. Immediately, Nell yanked her arms free. "Hey!" Baird shouted, but she reared back and slammed her fist into his cheek. It barely stung, but it took him off guard. "Fuck!" Nell raced through the door as Baird spit blood onto the tiles and bellowed, "I practically bit my tongue off, you bitch!"
"Baird!" Marcus hauled the blonde up by his arm. "Stop fooling around and get fighting!"
"I just got punched in the fucking face!" Baird snapped, swiping at his mouth. "I am fighting!"
The sergeant shoved a Lancer into his hands. "Less bitching, more shooting!"
"Marcus!" Dom shouted, distracting them both. "We need to move! Aidan and Bill are completely pinned and we're too far away to be much help!"
Gabe let out a loud curse, fed another belt into the Mulcher, and fired into the avenue. "Lottie! The second this belt runs out, you lead the assault! Dom, Cole, Marcus, Baird - you'll follow her!"
Cole grinned and adjusted his flak jacket. "Game time, baby!"
Dom widened his eyes at Gabe, then at his sergeant. "Uh... Marcus?"
Baird was less tactful. "You're going to let him order us around like that?!"
Shaking his head, Marcus released the blonde and cocked a Lancer, his Hammerburst on his back. "We're on his turf! We follow his orders!"
With a brief smile, Dom readied his rifle. Gabe mouthed a quick 'thank you' to Marcus, who nodded. Scowling, Baird threw on a flak jacket.
"Now!" Gabe commanded.
"Let's go!" Lottie bellowed. She kicked open the front door and shot a grub off the steps with her Gnasher. Gabe loaded another belt of ammo.
"WHOO! YEAH! BRING IT ON, BABY!" Cole melee'd three Drones who had tried to rush the door. "DANCE, BONEDADDY!" He blew their heads off with a single shotgun shell. "YEAH BABY! DIG THE PROWESS!" Dom chuckled as the black gear ran ahead slightly, then remembered his place and fell back behind Lottie with a sheepish grin. Rolling his eyes, Marcus fired his Lancer at a group of Locust.
Baird started to follow, but Gabe's voice stopped him. "Actually, Baird," the ex-gear called, "I want you to follow Nell!"
Baird almost dropped his rifle. "Are you kidding me?!"
Another explosion shook the town hall, this time from above rather than below. "Do I look like I'm fucking kidding?!" Gabe demanded.
Groaning, Baird turned and ran down the hall Nell had taken. He skidded through the only door and stopped to stare. The room was filled with gun cabinets and neatly ordered stacks of ammo cases. In the back beside a set of stairs, he spotted a large crucible atop a table, sheets of what he assumed to be solid lead, a pile of bullet molds, and a slag bucket, among other smaller tools. "Shit..." he whispered, eyes wide.
A scream from above caught his attention. Swearing, he raced up the stairs to the left of the table and kicked the door open.
"What the hell were you thinking?!" Nell shrieked at a cowering Liam. It took Baird a moment to realize she was crying, and another moment to realize it had less to do with fear for the boy's safety and more to do with the fresh burns on her back.
"Holy shit, what happened?!" he demanded, hurrying towards her.
"What happened?!" She let out a bitter laugh that matched the staccato rat-a-tat-tat of the guns being fired outside. "Dipshit here decided it would be a good idea to try to throw a grenade out the sniper window!"
"I'm sorry! I was trying to help!" Liam exclaimed, wiping at his dirty face in an effort not to cry.
Nell hesitated guiltily, but Baird was undeterred. "Are you a retard, kid?! Grenades are heavy as fuck! There's no way you could ever throw something that heavy with your little kid arms! You would've blown yourself to pieces!" He poked the child in the chest. "You're lucky she got here, you little shit!"
"No thanks to you!" Nell snapped.
Baird quickly rounded on her. "Oh, fuck you! Maybe if you'd said, 'I'm going to go stop my surrogate child from accidentally committing suicide with a Bolo', I'd have realized the urgency of your situation and you wouldn't have had to punch me in the goddamn teeth!"
A chunky radio on the wall of the small room crackled. "Nell! Where the hell is our cover fire?!" Lottie demanded.
Giving Baird a lingering glare, Nell punched a button on the side of the box. "Keep your panties on, Lottie!" she shouted at the radio.
"Hey! I'll have you know I wear boyshorts!"
Rolling her eyes, Nell grabbed an awkward-looking sniper rifle off a table and aimed out a broken window. She let off five shots in quick succession, then stopped to reload.
"Thank you!" Lottie chirped.
"No problem," Nell replied, pressing her eye to the scope again. The radio fizzled out.
Down below, Lottie popped out of cover and shot a Grenadier in the head. "And that makes nine. Aid better be keeping count..."
"Nice facial!" Dom complimented, rifle-butting a Drone and grabbing it as a meatshield.
Marcus sawed a Locust in half with his Lancer. "Eh. I've seen better."
"No way, man! She took the entire right side of his face off!" Dom shot five grubs with a Boltok, snapped the neck of his meatshield, and dove behind a pillar. "That's talent."
"Sure. But skill-" Marcus grunted as he picked up a Gnasher from the ground, discarding his Hammerburst. "-is taking off-" He leaned around the edge of his cover and fired once. "-the whole thing."
Lottie chuckled as another Grenadier fell to the ground, its face unrecognizable mush. "That was pretty badass, Fenix."
Smirking, Marcus added, "See? Even she agrees."
Dom poked the faceless corpse with the tip of his gun. "Okay, fine, you win. Just compensating for your tiny-"
"WHOO! I'M A MAN AND A HALF, BABY! BERSERKER PACKIN' MAN AND A HALF!"
Pressing her back to a traffic barrier, Lottie watched Cole plunge into a group of Locust and literally shred them to pieces. "Is he always so enthusiastic about everything?"
Dom chuckled, letting his previous comment drop. "He's the Cole Train. He doesn't know how not to be enthusiastic."
"RIP AND TEAR!" Cole laughed as Lottie stared at Dom, her eyes the size of saucers.
"The Cole Train?" she asked. "The Cole Train? Number 83?"
"Yep!" Dom replied, shooting a number of Locust. "Cool, right?"
Rolling his eyes, Marcus opened fire on a Drone who thought hiding behind a narrow lamppost was clever. "Stop baiting her, Dom. There'll be time to be star-struck later."
"Well, sorry, Captain Killjoy. It's not like I was going to run out in the open to ask for his autograph," Lottie droned, blind-firing over the traffic barrier. A Locust howled with pain, and she smiled in self-satisfaction.
Back in the foyer, Gabe reloaded his Mulcher and sprayed bullets about the battlefield. He smiled with pride at Lottie, who kept low simply so he could shoot over her. He adjusted his gun to better avoid Dom's position, as the gear was standing behind cover as opposed to crouching. Keeping a wary eye on Cole, who had no concept of dodging friendly fire, Gabe mowed down a sniper team aiming at Marcus.
The radio on the wall beside him crackled. "Gabe!" Bill shouted.
Grunting, Gabe reloaded his Mulcher. "Bill! Are you alright?!"
Gunshots cracked through the channel. "Yeah, I'm alright! Entry wound in my right arm; nothing serious!"
Wrinkles etched themselves across Gabe's forehead. "Oh, Bill-"
"Quit your pansy-ass worrying! I'll be fine as long as you get us through like usual!" The sound of a clip being loaded echoed through the radio. "Orders?!"
Pinching his eyes shut, Gabe furrowed his brow. "Where's Aidan?!"
"Fairy boy took a hit; he's fine-" Bill insisted as Gabe let out a string of nervous expletives, "-but he's not going to be toasting anyone this round!"
With a quick shake of his head, the ex-sergeant demanded, "Where's Delta and Lottie relative to you?!"
"Couple hundred meters out!" A clunking noise. "Shit!"
"What?!" Gabe shouted. "BILL!"
"I just jammed my gun! Calm down!" Bill retorted, letting off a few more shots.
"I'll be calm when I'm dead!" the ex-sergeant snapped, dropping his Mulcher and nearing the radio. "Here's the plan. Lottie, are you listening?"
Back in the sniper room, Baird had grabbed a traditional Longshot off a wall rack and joined Nell at the window. They took turns firing in silence, Liam sitting in the back corner of the room in a self-imposed time-out. Away from the hectic battle, Baird had time to take in the panel of buttons on the back wall and a broken searchlight in a corner. The table and wall rack were decorated with various models of Longshots, some older than himself, some completely unrecognizable save for the scope.
Finally, while he was reloading, Baird asked, "Can we be civil for a minute?"
Nell sighed and let off a set of shots. "What do you want to know now?"
"The workshop below-"
Baird fired into the avenue. "Really."
"COG recruited me to work in a munitions factory. It was four long years." She reloaded her rifle. "Learned to make bullets, to make guns..." She fired five shots and reloaded again. "I'm not fantastic. But the junk I make works."
"So the customs are yours?" He indicated her bulky sniper rifle with his elbow.
"Mm. I wanted to make a sniper rifle that could shoot a clip instead of a single bullet. It wasn't the greatest tradeoff, though."
"Well, this was my first customization project. I managed it, obviously, but it was only enough to get me a five-bullet clip instead of the fifteen-one I wanted. Plus, I fucked the barrel up a bit. Now it tends to clog up with powder, and you have to know to aim slightly up and to the left."
Baird grunted as he reloaded his Longshot. "So why use it?"
She snorted and shot a Locust between the eyes. "This was all I had before Gabe found me. I got used to it."
Baird paused to study her. "How long were you here by yourself?"
Nell reloaded in silence. "You know," she murmured, "I seem to be suffering temporary amnesia from the grenade blast. What were we talking about?"
Down in the avenue, Bill cursed and shot another Drone in the head with his old Model 29 Boltok. "They just keep coming!" he exclaimed, ducking behind the car frame he and an injured Aidan were using for cover.
"Bill, I can help," Aidan muttered, beginning to lever himself to his feet.
"Stay put!" Bill commanded, firing randomly into a crowd of Grenadiers. "You can barely carry that thing when you aren't shot!"
"Bill, I had Nell customize it for a reason," the scrawny ex-gear retorted. "Besides, if I don't toast some grubs, Lottie will totally rub it in my face until the next raid."
Bill snorted. "As if you don't like what she rubs in your face."
Aidan grinned. "You old horndog! I didn't know you could still think that way at seventy-two!"
"There's a difference?"
Bill ducked behind the car frame to reload. "I hope that bullet hole in your stomach gets infected, you little shit."
"You don't mean that," Aidan cooed, frying a Locust who tried to mantle the car.
"Oh, try me."
On the opposite side of the battlefield, Lottie let off a string of obscenities and ran to join Marcus behind a fallen pillar. "There's no end to them! We need to find where they're coming from!"
"You think I don't know that?!" Marcus snapped, sawing an unwitting Drone in two. He pressed a finger to his Tac/Com. "Dom! What's your status?!"
"Backing up Cole, Marcus! He's plowing through, but they keep filling in behind him!"
"Shit," the sergeant grumbled. "Can you see anything?!"
"Just Grubs, man. Cole!" Dom muttered something that sounded like Spanish expletives. "COLE! You see anything?!"
There was static, then: "HELL NO, BABY! BUT THE COLE TRAIN DON'T NEED TO SEE TO KILL GRUBS! HAHA! MIGHT MAKES LIGHT, BITCHES!"
Marcus smacked himself in the face. "Are they almost to Bill and Aidan?" Lottie asked, clutching the sergeant's arm.
"You guys almost there?" Marcus repeated into his Tac/Com.
"Soon as we are, I'll let you know," Dom replied.
"Roger, Dom. Baird!"
Back in the sniper room, Baird peered through his scope at Marcus and Lottie. "What?!"
"Can you see where the Locust are coming from?"
"I've kind of been focusing on killing them."
"Well take a break and look, smartass!"
Sighing, Baird zoomed in on the avenue. "Hey, Nell?"
She didn't look up as she reloaded her gun. She set the rifle to her shoulder, fired five times, then reloaded again. "Mm?"
"Do you see any sign of recent explosions anywhere? Any flames or fresh rubble?"
Cocking a brow, she gently pulled his Longshot away from his face. "You might want to try looking at a distance for that kind of thing."
Baird scowled at her but set his gun in his lap like she suggested. They scanned the outside in silence. Finally, he spotted a plume of black smoke curling up from a large brick building. "There!" He pointed at it, and she leaned towards him to better follow his gaze. "What's that?!"
Nell stared at the building, wide-eyed. "That's the high school."
"WHOO! COLE TRAIN'S IN THE HOUSE, BABY!" Cole bellowed, leaping over the car frame to join Bill and Aidan.
"Shit, dude!" the scrawny ex-gear laughed. "I almost scorched you!"
"Ladies! Now is not the time to chit-chat!" Bill shouted, firing in the direction the black gear came from. "I have two clips left. How the hell are you going to get us back to safety?!"
Jogging to them, Dom pressed a finger to his Tac/Com. "We're here, Marcus."
Marcus turned to Lottie. "They're in position."
Lottie dragged her microphone to her lips. "Now, Gabe!"
Bill heard the shriek of mortar and watched in awe as fire rained upon the crowd of Locust. From the steps of the town hall, Gabe gave a thumbs-up as he cranked the cannon. Another mortar screamed through the air and descended upon a second wave of Grubs.
"Now! Let's move!" Dom shouted. Cole draped Aidan over his back and charged for Lottie and Marcus's cover. Bill and the corporal followed behind, but Baird and Nell's voices through the radios stopped them short.
"Gabe! It's-!" the girl was drowned out as Baird bellowed,
"They're blowing up the Centaur!"
Marcus's voice crackled through on Delta's end. "What?"
"Nell, repeat," Gabe ordered as Baird shouted,
"The tank, dipshits! There's thermite in the tank! We're going to be stranded out here with these losers unless you go stop them!" There was a loud smack, then muffled rustling.
"Hello?" Nell asked, speaking into Baird's Tac/Com and her radio at the same time.
"We read you, Rourke. What's going on?" Marcus replied before Gabe could.
"The Locust are coming from outside, using the entrance through the old high school. It's where we keep our vehicle and where Cole parked yours."
"Shit!" Dom shouted, turning on his heel.
"Lottie, get Aidan inside and work on his wound," Gabe replied grimly, jogging down the avenue towards the others. He mulched a few straggling Locust as the girl and the cripple passed in the opposite direction. "Delta, Bill. You're with me. Let's finish this."
"YOU KNOW IT, BABY!" Cole shouted, reloading his Gnasher.
"Cole, calm down," Marcus growled as Dom and Bill shot a handful of Drones who tried to approach. He waited until Lottie and Aidan were safely in the town hall before he grabbed Gabe by the collar and demanded, "Why the fuck is this podunk getting attacked like it's a COG base?!"
The radio crackled in his ear. "Put him down," Nell ordered. In the background, Marcus could hear Baird asking what the hell she thought she was doing with that sniper rifle. The sergeant almost chuckled when he heard the click of a safety. Baird's voice rose to a panicked shout; Marcus caught his name, and suddenly the sergeant realized that the blonde wasn't screaming about a gun being pointed at him.
"Nell, there's no need to threaten our guests, least of all Sergeant Fenix," Gabe answered evenly, interrupting Marcus's reverie. "Sir, I promise you this will be explained after we're done being attacked, and that we will do everything we can to help you with your mission. In the meantime, your goals would be best served by letting me do what I do."
Scowling, Marcus set Gabe back on the ground. "Thank you," the ex-gear nodded. "Bill! You lead. Dom, Cole, stay close to him. Fenix and I will bring up the rear."
Dom cocked a brow. "Are you sure that's wise? I mean, Bill's been shot."
Gabe smirked. "The geezer would be offended if I didn't let him lead."
"I resent that," Bill retorted, cocking the Hammerburst he had pulled off the ground. "Let's go."
Back in the sniper room, Nell lowered her rifle. Baird snatched it out of her hands. "What the hell was that?!" he demanded, holding it behind his back.
"Your NCO was threatening my friend, you hypocritical bastard!" she snarled.
" 'Hypocritical bastard'?! What did I do this time?!"
She warily tried to edge around him. "How about 'talked like you wouldn't have shot my friend if he was threatening your NCO'?!"
Baird jerked the rifle out of her reach. "That's different!"
"How?!" Nell grabbed his wrist, and the Longshot clattered to the ground. "Look at your goddamn hand! Does mine look so different to you?!"
He blinked at her, then responded petulantly, "It's smaller and less calloused."
She moved to slap him, but he was prepared and caught her arm easily. Scowling, she snapped, "We're Stranded. That doesn't make us any less human."
"Doesn't it?" he growled.
Shocked, Nell could only stare at him as he snatched his Tac/Com and released her. Worriedly, Liam crept over and hugged her legs.
Baird put the radio in his ear. "Marcus."
Down in the avenue, the sergeant jogged up to the school entrance with Gabe, Bill, and the rest of Delta. The Locust had stopped pouring out, but Gabe had insisted they remain on high alert. Sighing, Marcus signaled to the others to wait and pressed a finger to his ear. "What, Baird?"
"What's your position?"
The sergeant cocked a brow. "Uh... outside the school. Baird, what's your deal?"
"Nothing's coming out of there?"
"Marcus, run the fuck away from that building."
The sergeant blinked at the town hall, then peered inside the school. The melted remains of their Centaur sat before him; a relatively intact Junker and a closed emergence hole lay past it. He frowned. "Baird, there's nothing here. What's your--"
"Shh!" Gabe interrupted suddenly. "Can you hear that?"
Frowning, Delta looked around. Bill's eyes narrowed. "Gabe-"
"Shut up!" the ex-gear hissed. "You can't hear it? The growling and the stomping?"
Marcus's eyes widened. "Oh, fuck!"
A Berserker crashed through the wall of the gym as they dove for cover. She screamed and thrashed wildly, knocking out a storefront near Dom. Marcus tackled the corporal out of the way and dragged him back to his feet as the rubble collapsed behind them.
Baird's voice echoed in their ears. "Yeah, I told you."
"Stay back!" Gabe commanded them, hefting his mortar. "Bill, get ready!"
"Are you nuts?!" Dom demanded, slowing his pace.
"There ain't no crime in not dyin'!" Cole added, eyes wide.
Gabe snorted. "If you think we haven't handled Berserkers before, you're very mistaken." Crouching, he shot a mortar at the Locust like a cannon. The shell exploded, causing her to howl in pain.
"Sheridan!" Marcus shouted. "That's not going to work!"
Cocking a brow at him, Gabe fired a second mortar. The Berserker staggered forward from the blast, screeching and beating at the wall of a building.
Gabe shot a final shell. The Locust threw her head in the air and screamed. Gabe turned towards the town hall. "Nell!"
Five loud shots cracked down the avenue, and Marcus watched five bullet holes appear in the Berserker's exposed neck. She gurgled, lurching forward. Emerging from behind a melted car, Bill slapped a Bolo onto her back and leaped for cover.
The Berserker exploded and collapsed to the ground, a chunk of her side missing. Gabe let out a shaky sigh as Cole whistled. "Damn! You boys been practicin' or what?!"
Bill laughed nervously. "You could call it that."
"I didn't know you could kill a Berserker without a Hammer," Dom told them, surprised.
"Mm. Intense heat weakens their armor. So-" Gabe shrugged to indicate the mortar.
Marcus scowled. "Alright. Battle's over. What the fuck are Berserkers doing attacking a six-man town?!"
Gabe blinked at him. "Does your voice always echo like that?"
"Answer me!" the sergeant snarled, causing Gabe to raised his hands in surrender.
"Sorry, geez. Look, that was worse than normal, so some of them might have followed you. But for the most part?" Gabe glanced at Bill. "We think they want the papers."
Dom shook his head. "What papers?"
"The papers Nell gave to Baird!" Cole shouted jovially. "Shit! I forgot all about 'em!"
"Cole," Marcus growled, "tell me what the hell you are talking about right now."
"Hey, baby, it's cool! Nell had some Locust papers, and she gave them to Baird because she was looking for someone to read them!"
Dom furrowed his brow. "So that's what she was talking about before? When you gave us the room?"
"Shit," Cole chuckled as Gabe nodded to Dom. "Baird gettin' special treatment from Stranded... it's like those catch-22 things!"
Gabe cocked a brow. "Your man has a problem with Stranded?"
Dom, Marcus, and Cole exchanged uncomfortable glances. "Well, um..." the corporal attempted.
Sighing, Marcus droned, "Problem is putting it lightly."
"We thought you kind of realized-" Dom offered, but Gabe merely cursed quietly and shook his head.
"It's fine. I should've realized, but I figured it was just the normal COG-Stranded mutual aversion bullshit."
Bill shrugged, lighting a cigarette. "Nell's tough. She can handle it."
Gabe glared at the veteran. "Bill, she's been looking for this guy for, what, six-seven years now? She's probably built up some kind of idea of what she'd like him to be. It's hard to come down from expectations like that."
"And I'm saying she'll fall on her metaphorical ass, pick herself back up, and kick the bastard in the balls. It'll be fine," Bill retorted.
Gabe shook his head. "I need a light."
Wordlessly, Bill handed him a pack. Marcus watched Gabe light his cigarette on the tip of Bill's own. "So what do you think these papers say?"
The ex-gear shrugged. "No idea. I tried to get her to throw them away - figured they were just causing trouble. But Nell was convinced that they were important."
"Where'd she get them?" Dom asked.
"Wouldn't say," Bill jumped in, blowing out a cloud of smoke. "We didn't want to push it."
Marcus shook his head. "We don't have time for this. We're going to need to commandeer your Junker and get to Fort Jameson. Baird can work on the papers on his own time."
Widening his eyes, Gabe replied, "Uh, sorry. No. I can't let you take our only mode of transportation. I'd be happy to drive you there and then bring you back."
"Good," Marcus retorted, "because that's what you're going to do."
Gabe frowned, flicking the ashes off his cigarette. "Why so hostile all of a sudden? We were getting along just fine before."
The sergeant gave him a lingering glare. "I don't like being lied to, Sheridan."
The drive to Fort Jameson was both relatively brief and extremely awkward. Gabe never once looked away from the windshield, seemingly ignorant of Marcus and Baird's glares. Dom and Cole sat between the Stranded and the less friendly gears, fidgeting and making uncomfortable attempts at conversation. The two breathed audible sighs of relief when the Junker finally stopped in front of a fenced, unimposing building.
"Fort Jameson," Gabe announced, shifting the Junker into park. He released the hatch and turned towards them with a grim smile. "The first Marauder outpost."
Marcus cocked his Lancer. "Thanks for the ride. We'll meet you back here."
"Whoa, there! Who said I'm not coming with you?" the ex-gear laughed.
Exchanging glances with his squad, Marcus growled, "That's really not necessary."
Gabe hefted his Mulcher. "Don't think I'm doing this for you. I'm assuming your higher-ups heard a human voice on that distress call, so somebody in there got told what to broadcast. And if there's a Marauder alive, he's my responsibility."
Baird narrowed his eyes. "Your responsibility? Dom told me some guy named Deacon was your leader."
"Well, he hasn't heard about this yet, has he?" Gabe hopped out of the Junker and gestured to the fort with his gun. "Shall we?"
Marcus glared at him. "Fine. But we're not in your town anymore. I call the shots."
Shrugging, Gabe adjusted his grip on the Mulcher. "Lead the way."
Cautiously, they passed through a broken gate and approached the building. The fort was only one level, the walls painted a dark olive green. It blended well with the trees around it, not so much camouflaged as it was complemented. The shallow, dark gray roof almost made the complex seem homely. Cole swallowed hard as they climbed the concrete steps to the only obvious entrance. "Somethin's not right."
Baird narrowed his eyes at Gabe. "Maybe that's because it reeks of a set-up."
"Baird, relax," Dom ordered, cocking his rifle. "Cole, that probably has something to do with the emptiness."
Marcus scowled. "Great. Another New Hope."
"It's got no windows," Gabe muttered.
" 'Scuse me?" Marcus growled, casting a sidelong glance at the ex-gear.
"Take a look. Fort Jameson was built without windows," Gabe reiterated. "That's what's throwing you off."
Baird frowned as they reached the top of the steps. "What the hell was going on here that they didn't want any windows?"
Rubbing his forehead, Marcus grumbled, "Great. Fabulous. Anything else we ought to know, like if there's an automated turret system, or if the alarms releases gaseous cyanide-"
"I wouldn't keep anything from you that would endanger you," Gabe retorted as Cole kicked in the door.
Baird snorted on Marcus's behalf. "Sure."
Sighing, Gabe gritted his teeth and replied, "I don't want to cause a problem."
"Your existence is a-"
"Baird!" Dom snapped, walking into the fort. "That's enough!"
Marcus groaned. "Dom-"
"Oh, sure, take the paranoid asshole's side. That's not offensive at all."
Cole's eyes widened at the corporal. "Dom, baby, you okay?"
"Just peachy," Dom muttered, glaring at the blonde gear.
Baird furrowed his brow. "This has to do with the brat, doesn't it?"
Everyone stared at him. "Liam?" Gabe asked.
"No, the old guy. Yes, Liam," Baird snarled, laughing bitterly. "Oh, that makes so much sense! They've got a kid, so they must be good people!"
"Baird," Marcus cautioned, but the blonde had already jabbed a finger into Dom's chestplate.
"If these lying shits screw us over, it's on your ass," Baird hissed, "not mine."
"These 'lying shits' haven't done anything to us," Dom retorted.
"Children!" Marcus demanded. "Can we just shut up and get this over with?!"
Sullenly, the men picked their way through what had once been a screening room. Broken metal detectors and keycard scanners cluttered the floor. "High security," Marcus muttered. "Yours?"
Gabe kicked a dented trash can. "Nah. These must have been Pendulum Wars, maybe earlier."
"Must have been," Baird echoed. Dom opened his mouth, but Gabe spoke first:
"Look, I'm trying my damndest to be civil here. You're Nell's best chance of seeing those papers translated and my best chance of getting anyone who might be alive out of here. I'm not going to argue with you about trust or any other bullshit because frankly, yes, I'm keeping things from you. But I wasn't stationed here. All I know is that there are no windows, and that it was the Marauders' first fort, and that's the truth." Gabe took a deep breath. "I respected your secrets when you lied before about your purpose. Please give me that same courtesy."
Dom nodded, ignoring Marcus's skeptical gaze and Baird's outright glare. "Sure, man."
"Yeah, baby, you know we cool," Cole grinned nervously. "Right?"
Marcus and Baird exchanged agreeing looks. "Sure," the sergeant muttered for both of them.
The next room was reminiscent of a cinema lobby - a trashed service desk dominated the center of the space. Torn motivational posters and potted plants decorated what remained. There were two sets of doors on the opposite wall, a hallway to the left, and two matching doors on the right.
"For a place that's supposed to be overrun by Locust, this is pretty damn deserted," Baird growled, kicking over a plant.
"Baird. Knock it off," Dom insisted.
Marcus peeked into the room on the right. "Got a working toilet here. Anyone need a potty break?"
"No, Mom," Dom teased, kicking open the left set of doors on the back wall. "Looks like a meeting room - round table, big board, the works."
"WHOO! GUESS WHO FOUND THE CAFETERIA, BABY?!" Cole bellowed, busting through the other set. Marcus groaned at the ceiling as Gabe shook his head amusedly.
"There went our element of surprise," Baird muttered. "So! Down the hall?"
"I don't know, smartass. Any other available ways in?" Marcus snarled.
"Cafeteria doesn't go anywhere," Dom replied, dragging Cole behind him.
"Nothing in the service desk to suggest another path," Gabe reported.
"Alright, then. Down the hall," Marcus mocked.
They proceeded down the hall, the lights flickering above them. Furrowing his brow, Baird paused to examine another broken metal detector. "More security."
"This was probably a checkpoint way back when," Gabe replied. "Any further would require special clearance, which is probably what the service desk was for."
Marcus winced. "Ugh. Clearance."
"At least we don't have to blow anything up this time," Dom agreed.
Grinning, Gabe commented, "Explosive clearance. I like it."
Baird allowed a smirk. "You and me both."
"GASP! Something in common?!" Gabe exclaimed, causing Cole and Dom to explode into laughter. Baird scowled.
"Don't push it, asshole."
"Chill, baby!" Cole interrupted, charging ahead through the open doorway. "Whoo! Looks like we got us a lab!"
Dom frowned. "Thought this was a military base."
"This place is getting more like New Hope every second," Marcus growled as they followed Cole.
The laboratory was a mess. Tables were flipped and snapped in half; test tubes and beakers were shattered on the floor, oddly-colored liquids spilling from them. Papers littered the ground, and broken computer monitors marred the linoleum. A hallway branched off to the right, and a jammed door sat opposite them. Cole jogged down the hallway as Dom crouched beside a puddle.
"Hey, what do you think this is?" The corporal began to reach for the liquid, but Baird snapped:
"For fuck's sake, don't touch it!" He snatched some papers off the floor and quickly scanned through them. Gabe watched with interest as Marcus rolled his eyes.
"Well?" the sergeant grumbled.
Baird sighed, flipping the pages with his thumb. "Looks like that's liquid Imulsion you were about to lose your fingers to, buddy."
"Shit!" Dom exclaimed, scrambling backwards. Marcus hoisted him to his feet, growling:
"How has it not burned through the floor yet?"
Gabe frowned. "Well, it can't have been spilled more than a few days ago..." Hefting his Mulcher, he whacked the butt of the gun against the wall. He rubbed the point of contact with his thumb. "Not so much as a scratch. Whatever they built this place with, it's resistant."
Baird flicked through the papers, pacing the lab. "These notes all seem to reference Imulsion - looks like strategies for conserving it, for harvesting it faster, for creating synthetic versions of it..."
"Fascinating," Marcus retorted dryly.
"Where'd Cole go?" Dom asked.
The black gear poked his head out of the hall with a sheepish grin. "Just checkin' down here, baby!"
"Anything?" Marcus inquired as Cole jogged to them.
"Nah, just beds."
"From the looks of it, there's more labs beneath us," Baird called, pocketing the notes. "Sounds like weapons research."
Marcus turned to Gabe. "Your boys?"
The ex-gear shook his head. "We find stuff like that, we leave it alone. Deacon doesn't like Imulsion - makes him nervous." He swiped some dust off a table with his finger. "From what I can tell, Fort Jameson was supposed to be a choke point and a fallback point if necessary. Big Town's kind of the same way, but on the other side."
Dom kicked open the jammed door. "Got an elevator room, Marcus!"
"Any stairs?" Gabe called, earning a glare from the sergeant.
"Yeah, two flights!"
"Perfect." Gabe turned to Marcus. "You don't want to go down an elevator if Locust might be waiting at the bottom. Then you're a sitting duck."
Marcus nodded begrudgingly. "Good thinking."
Baird frowned at the broken computers. "Normally the Locust leave this kind of stuff alone. Why would they trash it now?"
Dom shrugged as they walked into the elevator room. "Maybe they're looking for something?"
"In a language they can't read?" Baird murmured.
Meanwhile, Cole was marveling at the intact elevators. "Sure Grubs came down here?"
Marcus crinkled his nose as the signature Locust reek washed over him. "Positive. Cole, you head down first."
"You know it, baby!" the black gear cheered, thundering down the steps. A spray of bullets zinged past his boots. "OH, YOU'RE GOIN' DOWN, SUCKAS!"
"Cole!" Baird protested as the black gear jumped over the railing with a maniacal laugh.
"Well, don't just stand there!" Gabe exclaimed, clattering down the steps after Cole. The rest of Delta followed suit.
Cole mowed down a set of Theron with his Lancer. "WHOO, BABY, I'M BURNIN' OUT OF CONTROL!"
"Cole!" Baird shouted, sawing through a Cyclops. "Son of a bitch, man, you're going to get yourself killed!"
A loud crack echoed in their ears. Marcus quickly took stock of the room - doors on the left, labeled "offices"; doors diagonally opposite him, unlabelled; and a hallway around a corner to his right, through which the Locust poured. He spotted red, three-eyed goggles behind the mob. "SNIPERS!"
Gabe cursed from behind his cover, another broken metal detector. "GET DOWN!" The humans dropped to the floor as Gabe mounted the Mulcher and fired into the mass of enemies. The Locusts' screams shook the walls.
Dom slowly moved to a crouch as he heard a Grenadier call for a retreat. Then slow, heavy footsteps vibrated through the floor into his legs. "BOOMER!" he screamed, ducking again.
Gabe flattened himself to the floor as an RPG exploded on the wall behind him. The Boomer chuckled and reloaded noisily.
"Get its face!" Marcus bellowed as he and Cole popped out of cover to open fire. The Boomer grunted in discomfort as bullets pinged off his armor and helmet. There was a loud crack; Marcus felt something skim his neck, then wetness dripping down. To his left he heard Baird switch to his Longshot and shoot the enemy sniper.
Delta dropped again, letting another RPG sail over their heads. Laughing outright, the Boomer continued his advance. Grubs began to swarm behind him in larger numbers than before. Chittering caught Marcus's attention. "Oh, fuck," he growled, lurching back to his feet.
"TICKERS!" Baird called, firing at the living bombs.
"YEAH, BABY, THAT'S WHAT THE COLE TRAIN'S TALKIN' ABOUT!" Cole guffawed, pistol whipping a Ticker into the Locust crowd as another RPG exploded behind him.
Gritting his teeth, Gabe emptied his belt and shouted, "There's too many!"
"No shit!" Baird retorted, knocking back a Flame Grenadier and shooting him in the gas tank.
"To hell with this!" Dom bellowed, lobbing a Bolo into the mass. "FRAG OUT!"
The humans ducked behind cover as an explosion rattled the building. Heat seared their faces, then everything grew quiet. Gabe whistled, and Cole laughed. "Shit! We ate those Grubs for breakfast!"
Marcus shook his head. "Well-placed 'nade, Dom."
"Thanks," the corporal muttered, dusting off his pants.
"Where to now?" Baird asked, eyeing the doors.
Sighing, Marcus ordered, "Dom, Cole, you're with me. We'll check the offices. Baird, Sheridan, check out that unlabelled door. We'll meet back in this room in ten."
"Roger, boss-man," Baird droned, picking ammo off the ground. Frowning, Gabe kicked in the door, and he and Baird cautiously entered a second lab. Though significantly less damaged than the first, the lab was a wreck. Papers and ammunition were strewn across the floor, and desks and work tables were torn into shards of wood and plastic. Gabe picked his way through the wreckage as Baird hurried toward what seemed to be an intact computer.
"Why would Fenix pair us together?" Gabe mused. Baird snorted and pressed a few buttons on the console.
"Simple. He hates both of us." The computer let off a ding, and the blonde gear sighed. "Thank God for backup generators."
Gabe cocked a brow as he approached. "Don't call Deacon that. His ego's already enormous."
Rolling his eyes, Baird removed a portable drive from his hip bag. "I wasn't talking about your king or whatever."
"Well, he's the one who installs all the backups. We just maintain them."
Baird paused, inches from plugging in the drive. "They run on thermite?"
Gabe blinked at him. "Uh... yeah."
"Huh." Baird pressed the drive into a port and tapped busily at the keys. "Your man ever work in special effects?"
Gabe shrugged, watching a download bar start to fill on the screen. "Hell if I know. Deacon keeps his past quiet. All we know is that he fought in the Pendulum Wars." The ex-gear paused, assessing the back of Baird's head. Finally, he muttered, "I guess you could ask Iris, but she's careful about how much she gives away."
Baird ejected the drive. "Iris?"
"She's an information dealer," Gabe replied evenly.
Tucking the drive into his bag, Baird cocked a brow and answered, "You mean she's an ex-whore?"
Baird frowned at him. "Why are you telling me this?"
They stared at each other for a moment. Finally, Gabe sighed, "Because I want you to translate the Locust papers for Nell." He shrugged. "So I give you a little information. Get on your good side."
Shaking his head, Baird replied, "Trust me - I will translate them, regardless of my relationship with you all."
"But she's got a right to see it done," Gabe murmured vehemently. "She protected those papers for... for a long time. And if she's ever going to see it translated, then you're going to have to come back to us, because we certainly can't go to you." More quietly, he added, "She's got a right to know the truth. We all do."
As Baird furrowed his brow at the ex-gear, the rest of Delta entered the lab. "Offices were empty," the corporal reported, "so we figured we'd screw the 'meet in ten' and just see what you guys found."
"Just pulled a shitload of data off this console," Baird replied, standing and cracking his back.
"Good. Now did anyone think to check this door?" Marcus grumbled, thumbing towards an unmarked entrance behind him.
Gabe raised his hands in surrender, but Baird merely rolled his eyes and kicked it in. Cole peered around the door frame. "WHOO! WE GOT OURSELVES SOME HAMMERS!"
"What?" Dom asked, eyes widening. "But... the COG didn't develop the Hammer of Dawn!"
Baird picked up one of the guns. "Newsflash - they're not Hammers. It looks like they were intended to fire bullets containing Imulsion."
Marcus dangled a melted gun in front of his face. "Looks like that wasn't going well."
"Should we take some of these as samples?" Dom asked.
Shaking his head, the sergeant replied, "If Jack hadn't been blown up with the tank, I'd have him send pictures back. As it is, we can't waste space carrying these. Let's go down the hall the Locust were coming from."
With a shrug, Gabe peered out of the lab. "Hall's clear."
"Dom, on point," Marcus ordered. Nodding grimly, the corporal led them past another security checkpoint.
"Man, what could possibly need this much security?" he muttered.
"Another door up ahead," Gabe added, lowering his voice instinctually.
Marcus rolled his eyes at Cole. "Go ahead."
Beaming, the black gear kicked the door down and fired into the room. "WHOO! BRING IT ON, BABY!"
"Drones?!" Dom shouted over the gunfire.
An ear-splitting scream answered. "Wretches," Baird replied. "What're you looking at, Cole?!"
" 'Nother lab!" he shouted. "But the place is cleaned out! Not even a piece of paper on the floor! HAHA, TAKE THAT, SUCKA!"
"Any doors?!" Marcus demanded.
"Just one! C'mon! WHOO!"
They followed Cole to the exit, Gabe covering their rear. "Guys, I'm getting low on ammo!" he warned them, whacking a Wretch with the barrel of his Mulcher.
"Seems like they wasted most of their force in that first wave!" Baird replied. "Hang in there!"
Cole and Dom kicked in the door together, and the humans charged down an empty hallway. "I hear hissing!" the corporal whispered.
"Sure that's not the wind?" Marcus growled, blowing apart a final Wretch with his Gnasher.
"Uh, guys?" Baird interrupted. "This plaque here says 'holding cells'. In, y'know. English."
"POWS?" Cole asked.
Gabe narrowed his eyes. "Try 'live experimentation'."
"I can see the scientific journals already: 'Imulsion's Effect on Human Biology: Everyone Gets Really Fugly'," Baird agreed.
"Are you two going to start braiding each other's hair or are we going to finish this while we're young?" Marcus interrupted, motioning to the double doors. With a snort, Dom kicked them open, shot a Theron's face off, and barely dodged a Torque arrow. The others tumbled away from the ensuing blast and fired as efficiently as possible - everyone was running low on ammo. Gabe had taken to crushing his enemies between a wall and his Mulcher while Cole jovially sawed every available Locust in half. Marcus still made liberal use of his bullets, while Baird had mostly resorted to his Longshot to conserve Lancer ammo.
Dom frag-tagged a Theron and dove away. He felt the explosion rather than heard it, and slowly he rose to his feet. Gazing at the bodies scattered about their feet, he murmured, "Well. That was quick."
Marcus nodded. "C'mon. Dom and I will check this half of the block. Baird, you check the other. Cole and Gabe will guard the door."
Nodding, each man quickly assumed their place. Baird began to examine the cells, which always consisted of a soundproofed room, a metal door, and an observing window. He walked down the block warily, pausing in front of one window. Suddenly, a bloodied body slammed on the pane. "Shit!" Baird exclaimed, jumping backward. A beaten, blue-eyed man with a ragged brown ponytail slowly raised his eyes to the blonde gear. His lips moved, but nothing was audible. Baird stared in horror at the blood dripping from his mouth.
"Baird? You oka- son of a bitch!" Cole bellowed. "Hey! Hey, Gabe! This guy your guy?!"
Eyes widening, Gabe jogged to them and stared in horror at the beaten man in the window. "Oh, fuck, Trip, what did they do to you?!" He turned to Baird, who merely stared at him. "You! You're the smart one! Can you get this door open?!"
Shaking his head to rouse himself, Baird approached the keypad lock next to the door. After a moment of study, he tore it out of the wall and watched the security on the door fizzle and spark. "Cole, bust it down."
For once not grinning, Cole kicked the door twice to open it. The bloodied man - Trip - staggered out into Gabe's arms. "Fuck," he whispered hoarsely. "What took you so long?"
"Son of a bitch, Trip," Gabe murmured, squeezing the man. "What happened?"
"We got swarmed. Tried to get off the FUCK signal, but a Seeder had jammed the transmission. Next thing I know, half my charges are dead, the rest are dying, and I'm bleeding out on the floor. I wake up in a cell with a radio in front of me and a Locust guard, who tells me in sloppy English what to say. Then, the torture." Trip shook his head, sagging forward. "But they seemed kind of preoccupied. Went pretty..." He coughed, and blood spattered on the floor. "Pretty easy."
Gabe hugged his friend tightly. "Oh, God, Trip..."
"S'not your fault," Trip muttered, turning his gaze to Cole and Baird. "So. Name's Travis Connor. You lot?"
"Damon Baird," the blonde gear replied reflexively.
The black gear hesitated, then gently helped Gabe and Trip sit down. Joining them on the floor, he answered, "Cole. Augustus Cole."
Trip blinked at him. "No way. The Cole Train?" He poked Gabe in the chest feebly. "Since when did you start hanging out with the Cole fucking Train?"
Cole grinned as Baird rolled his eyes. Crouching beside them, the blonde muttered, "Listen, I'm going to get Marcus and Dom. We got what we came for. Sheridan, are you out of bullets?"
"Yeah," Gabe confirmed, expression flat. Trip poked him again.
"Hey! I said..." He coughed again. "I said no self-blaming!" Turning his eyes to Cole and Baird, Trip clarified, "Stupid fucker thinks he's got to take care of everyone. He's like a mother hen but more metrosexual."
Smirking, Baird repeated, "I'll get Marcus and Dom. Sheridan, if you can carry Connor-"
"Trip," the bloodied man interrupted.
"If you can carry Trip, Cole will act as your bodyguard 'til we get out of here." The blonde cocked a brow. "Alright?"
Gabe frowned at him. "Sure."
Baird returned the expression. "What? Bad plan?"
"No, it's a good plan. Just surprised it came from a private."
Cole guffawed loudly. "Shit! Baird'd be a Lieutenant by now if he weren't such a jackass! Ain't that right, Baird?!"
With a quick roll of his eyes, Baird turned to walk down the hall. Suddenly, a siren began to wail.
"What the-" the blonde attempted, but Cole cut him off:
"Baird! What the hell did you do?!"
"I didn't 'do' anything!" Baird snapped, dragging the black gear to his feet. He hoisted Gabe off the ground and helped get Trip onto the ex-gear's back. "C'mon! We'll meet up with the dipshits on the way out!"
Hurriedly, they made their way back to the cell block's entrance. A tinny recording announced, "Self-demolition will begin in thirty seconds."
Dom and Marcus rushed to the others. "What the fuck did you do?!" the sergeant bellowed.
"Just shut up and run!" Baird retorted as Trip laughed half-heartedly. They raced back through the labs and halls, which were mercifully empty of Locust.
"Self-demolition will begin in fifteen seconds."
Charging up the staircase, they tumbled around the Imulsion spills, past the broken metal detectors, through the lobby, and out the front door. "Hurry it up!" Baird snapped as he skidded to a stop behind the Junker. "C'mon, c'mon!"
"Self-demolition will begin in five seconds."
Cole collapsed to the ground behind the vehicle. Dom and Marcus followed, gasping for breath.
There was a muffled boom, then air rushed past their ears and dust clouded their vision. Coughing and hacking, they clung to the ground and the Junker as the smoke cleared. Marcus saw the fort first. "Shit."
The others followed his gaze in awe. The entire building had collapsed in on itself. All that remained was a shallow crater the fort had pancaked into and bits of escaped rubble. Dom whistled. "I would not have wanted to be in there when the building blew."
Baird frowned at the wreckage as Cole whooped with laughter. "DAMN! We just made it outta there, baby!"
A beating noise drew their attention. The humans quickly turned their eyes upward. "Is that a King Raven?" Dom asked incredulously.
"Sheridan, you should probably get out of here," Marcus growled.
There was no response. The Delta soldiers blinked at their surroundings, counting four COG soldiers and no ex-gears. Cole gaped at the Junker, which he was still resting against, then at the wreckage. Finally, he stammered, "You think they made... they made it out, right, Marcus?"
They all stared at the rubble in silence as the beating noise drew closer, wind whipping at their necks. The helicopter landed, and Anya hopped out in a way so hurried and unladylike that the soldiers almost thought she was someone else. "Marcus! Dom! Oh, thank God!" She rushed over and gave each of the men a hug. "I was so certain..." Her eyes watered, and she smacked Marcus on the arm. "Never scare me like that again!"
As she rubbed her now-sore hand, Cole recovered enough to smile and ask, "What brings you out on the field, baby?"
Shaking her head, Anya muttered, "Seeders only block radio comm. The tracking systems in the vehicles transmit on a different frequency, so we knew when your Centaur vanished that it had been blown up. But..." She hesitated, rubbed her face, then continued, "But I just couldn't believe you were dead. I couldn't. I begged Hoffman to let me look for you. We flew over the place where your signal vanished, but it was empty, so we came to Fort Jameson." She bit her lip. "If we hadn't gotten here with such perfect timing, we might have missed you..."
"Hey," Marcus interrupted gruffly. "Everything's fine now."
She gazed at the collapsed fort. "I guess... Did you find anything?"
Baird spoke first. "I pulled some files off an old computer, but it triggered a self-destruct sequence. We also saw some old COG prototypes for what was basically a wannabe Hammer of Dawn, but we couldn't take any as we were running out. The distress call was phony - probably some recording to lure gears out here for the Locust." He furrowed his brow. "I think... that about covers everything."
As the rest of Delta exchanged surprised looks, Anya asked, "Where are the files?"
Baird patted his hip bag. "I'll give them to you when we get back, after debriefing. Alright?"
Nodding, Anya replied, "Alright, then. Let's get going."
With a quick glance back at Baird, Marcus helped Anya into the Raven and climbed in after her. Dom followed them, but Cole stayed behind to lay a hand on Baird's shoulder. "You okay, baby?"
Baird frowned at the ruins of Fort Jameson. "Yeah. Just peachy."
Baird scowled at the ceiling of his converted water closet. The volume of encrypted data on his portable drive had forced the COG analysts to let a computer program work on it overnight, much to the blonde's frustration. A good portion of what had been decrypted so far was nonsense - the drive had been damaged in the escape from Fort Jameson, or something had corrupted the data on the original console - but there were some intact audio files that looked promising. Stretching across his cot, Baird scoffed, "Of course, we're shipping out to answer another distress call tomorrow, so I won't even get to see any of it!" He snorted. "Bet this one's a trap, too!"
Water plinked into the bucket he had stolen from a janitor's closet. Upon his return to his room after Delta's debriefing, Baird had discovered a razorhail puncture in his roof. Now he laid on his cot, scowling at the ceiling and listening to the plinking of water on tin.
Sighing, Baird sat up and watched the Locust papers flutter from their resting place atop his chest. They landed on the floor among the crumpled remains of his notes. His efforts had been hindered by a group of Locust symbols he didn't know, then halted completely by some phrasing that invalidated the entirety of his translation.
The bucket plinked. Snarling, Baird leapt to his feet and punted it into the wall with a resounding clang. Water splashed across his bare feet. "Fuckin-!" He kicked the wall with the sole of his foot then, wincing, flopped onto his cot again. Rubbing his face, he blew a slow breath at the ceiling. "None of it makes any sense."
The doorknob clicked, and Cole poked his head into the room. "Baird? You okay, baby?"
Baird tossed his hands into the air. "I don't know. Who the hell knows anything anymore?"
Cole blinked. "What?"
Shaking his head, Baird asked, "Look, someone 'misfiled' Vradina, right?"
Cole furrowed his brow. "Yeah..."
"And we go there, and this random chick with blue fucking hair has Locust papers for me." Baird narrowed his eyes. "That's not strange to you?"
Shutting the door, Cole settled himself on the floor beside the cot. "You think somebody was tryin' to hide the papers?"
"Yeah, and I think that somebody set off the alarm at Fort Jameson," Baird muttered. Cole shook his head.
"Man, how would they-"
"I don't know," Baird growled, "but I'm sure that's what it is."
"But Nell was lookin' for you! Isn't that kinda... um..."
"Counterproductive?" Baird suggested, rolling on his side to face Cole. "Maybe."
"The blue-haired bitch doesn't know what the papers say. Maybe they figured she'd never understand it, so she was a safe bet. Maybe they instructed her to protect the papers and didn't account for her curiosity." Furrowing his brow, Baird mused, "Or maybe they lied to her, told her that the papers needed to be translated, and counted on her never being able to do it." He snorted. "Guess they didn't count on the one guy who can read Grub bumping into the one girl who could screw them over."
Cole chuckled. "Well, Franklin's the one who fucked 'em over, then! He told Nell all about you, baby!"
Baird paused. "Then they've got to know Franklin, too."
"Cole. I never told Franklin I could understand Locust." As Cole stared at him, Baird shook his head and murmured, "This whole thing screams government fuck-up, especially whatever was going on when Fort Jameson was still running. And whoever's trying to hide it has both a military connection and a connection to the Stranded, or at least to the Marauders."
Cole frowned as Baird levered himself off the cot. "Well, who do you think it is?"
Silently, the blonde put the bucket back under the leak. The water plinked, and he narrowed his eyes. "Who better than dear old dad?"
Cole gaped at Baird, then scrambled to his feet. As the blonde began to pull on his undersuit, the black gear protested, "Baird, you can't-"
"It makes sense. Not only does he hide his daughter from being shipped off somewhere, but he also covers his own ass. Win-win."
Cole caught his friend's arm. "Baird. I served with this guy. He really thinks she's dead."
Shaking his head, Baird replied, "He could just be lying-"
"No, man, it's everythin' about him. It's like... like there's somethin' heavy in the air around him, or some shit..."
Sighing, Baird stuffed the papers into his hip bag and strapped it to his thigh. "Look, Cole, I won't mention his kid, okay? I'll just ask him about Fort Jameson. I won't even mention Vradina or Big Town. Alright?"
After a moment, Cole nodded slowly. "A'ight, man. But I'm holdin' you to it, you hear me?"
"Yeah, yeah." Clapping the black gear on the shoulder, Baird slipped out of his room and quietly stepped down the hall. Behind him, he heard Cole return to his own room and shut the door loudly. Shaking his head, Baird hurried into the NCOs' ward. He paused to peek in the room Marcus and Dom shared. The two were splayed across their cots, snoring in perfect unison. Baird stifled a snort. Cautiously, he continued down the hall, whispering the names on the door placards. "McCallan... Perez... Ochouno... Rourke." Glancing surreptitiously the way he came, Baird rapped on the door with his knuckles.
There was a soft grumbling from within, then the lock clicked. A bearded, salt-and-pepper-haired man threw the door open and scrutinized Baird with sunken brown eyes. "What?" the man demanded groggily.
Suddenly self-conscious, Baird coughed into his fist. "Uh, Field Lieutenant Rourke?"
"Congratulations, you can read," the man replied, leaning on his door frame. "What do you want?"
Baird coughed again. "Uh, I have some, some questions about Fort Jameson. Sir."
Rourke cocked a brow. "Questions?"
"It's one-thirty. Sir."
The lieutenant smirked. "What's with this 'sir' crap? It's not like you, Private Baird." He tapped the lenses of Baird's goggles patronizingly. "You wear these when you sleep? Or did you get dressed up just to ask me some questions?"
Baird gritted his teeth. "Can we make this quick, sir?"
"Hell, why not?" Rourke chuckled, crossing his arms. "So what's got you kissing my ass?"
Narrowing his eyes, Baird asked, "What do you know about Fort Jameson?"
Rourke cocked a brow.
Grinning, the lieutenant replied, "Absolutely nothing. Never been stationed there."
Baird rubbed his forehead tiredly. "You've got to know something."
With a sigh, Rourke relented, "I know it was a government research facility during the Pendulum Wars. And I know something went wrong, because I remember them pulling all the original researchers and bringing in younger, more eager ones with a shitload more security. And I also know something else went wrong, because they asked my company at the time to watch the fort while they sealed it off and then abandoned it altogether." Rourke shrugged. "That's it."
Nodding, Baird replied, "Okay, I can work with that."
Rourke allowed him a thin smile. "Anything else before I go back to bed?"
Biting the inside of his cheek, Baird muttered, "Well, there's, ah... there's one little thing. Sir."
The lieutenant cocked a brow. "Then by all means, private."
Baird pinched the bridge of his nose, then sighed and blurted, "Why'd you try to hide Vradina?"
They stood in the doorway, staring at each other. Baird watched the lines in Rourke's face become more pronounced. "Vradina was flattened by Prescott's scorched-earth tactics. I don't know what you're talking about."
Shaking his head, Baird told the lieutenant, "Vradina is still intact. The file was wrong." Baird locked eyes with Rourke. "And you and I both know a 'misfile' as specific as Vradina's doesn't just happen."
Narrowing his eyes, Rourke replied, "Even if you're not lying, I had nothing to hide back there."
Baird cocked a brow. "Why would I lie?"
"Why would I?" Rourke retorted, straightening a little. "Look, I know some people think it's funny to tell the old guy his hometown's okay, and you're a wiseass. I know the score. But I've told you everything I know about Fort Jameson. Now I think you ought to leave."
Baird stopped the closing door with his hand. "Listen, I've got a damn good reason why you would lie, so don't bullshit me. Someone tried to hide Vradina, and someone tried to crush me with Fort Jameson, and right now you're the only person connected to both. So, you can see how that might be a little suspicious. Sir."
"And what is this 'damn good reason'?" Rourke snarled. "Because from my standpoint you're connecting two barely related coincidences."
Baird swallowed hard. "I met your daughter in Vradina... and she had papers that came from Fort Jameson."
He forced himself to stare the lieutenant down, to ignore the fact that it was all speculation. Finally, Rourke jerked the door shut, crushing Baird's hand. As the blonde swore quietly, the lieutenant hissed, "My daughter is dead. Now get out of my sight."
Baird cursed as Rourke slammed the door. The blonde bolted back to the safety of his room and jumped into the cot. Moments later, the night watchmen thundered down the hall, then all was silent. The bucket plinked. Baird sighed with relief.
The blonde fell out of his cot. "Dammit, Cole! What?!"
"What the hell did you do?!" the black gear demanded as angrily as he could manage while still keeping quiet.
"Nothing! Just asked a few questions!"
"Oh, yeah, that sounded like 'a few questions'!" Cole hissed, dragging Baird to his feet. "I knew you'd set him off, man! I knew it!"
Baird caved. "Dammit, Cole, some things are worth more than one guy's hurt feelings!" Jerking free, he snapped, "I can't take this shit anymore! Everyone's lying all the fucking time-"
"Yeah, and so are you!"
"Cole, it's not like his kid's alive and I'm telling him she's dead! I gave him good news!" Baird protested.
The black gear threw his arms out to the side. "Oh, sure, he'll believe you even though his daughter's been dead to him since E-Day. Do you even care about how much he's probably hurtin' right now, man?! You just gonna trample all over people-"
"There is something fucking going on here, Cole!" the blonde snapped. "These papers, Fort Jameson - they're the key. But I have nothing to go on, and... you can't trust anyone anymore!"
Cole stepped back. "Yeah. Not even you."
Stunned, Baird stared at him for a split second. Then, scowling, he replied, "Cole, don't start with this shit-"
"You want information, Baird? You really want information?! Then you go to the people who've got information. You go to the Stranded. You go to the Marauders." Cole shook his head. "You don't terrorize some old man."
Baird glared at the black gear, then looked away, watching water drip into the bucket. Cole stared at the blonde for a moment before turning towards the door in disgust.
"Fine. I will."
Cole had time to widen his eyes before Baird clubbed him with a Boltok. The blonde watched guiltily as Cole crumpled to the floor. "Call it payback for last time," Baird muttered.
After a moment, he hesitantly reached for his armor. A plate fell off the stack, and he lunged for it, cursing under his breath. He caught it just before it hit the ground. With a sigh of relief, he stepped forward to balanced himself and sent the bucket clanging into the wall, louder than the first time. Baird froze in horror. The water plinked.
Swearing, the blonde tossed his armor aside, grabbed his Lancer, and ran from the room without bothering to shut the door. He flew through the NCOs' ward, hearing the footsteps of the watchmen far behind him. There was a shout. Someone had found Cole. Forcing his mind away from the thought, Baird burst through the doors at the end of the hall, raced through one of the complex's courtyards, passed the DON'T PANIC door, and tumbled into the garage. Gasping for breath, he dove behind a Centaur and listened.
A single set of footsteps echoed around the vehicles. Cheery whistling suggested a rookie. Cursing, Baird crept around the Centaur and peeked out. The guard was still wearing a helmet. Shaking his head at the rookie, Baird tugged a small wrench from his hip bag and lobbed it around the edge of the tank. It clattered on the ground.
"Who's there?!" the guard demanded. Baird heard a gun being loaded, then footsteps toward the wrench's location. Quickly, the blonde snuck around the other side of the Centaur, pulling a cloth and a bottle from his bag. He heard the footsteps stop. "I know you're in here! You think you can fool me with a stupid wrench?!"
Baird peeked around the tank. He had a clear view of the rookie's back. Shaking his head, Baird stepped out and wrapped an arm around the kid's neck. "Yeah, I do." He tore the struggling guard's helmet off and slapped the rag to his nose and mouth. After a few moments, the grunts and muffled cries for help ceased, and the rookie went limp. Laying him on the floor, Baird muttered, "Never thought I'd actually use that chloroform."
Quietly, Baird approached the wall of keys. All the sets were trapped behind a glass pane that would set off an alarm if broken. Shaking his head, Baird selected a random APC and opened the panel on the side. "I need as much of a head start as I can get."
He froze in the midst of reaching for a wire. "Fuck! The data!" He glanced back the way he came then, scowling, rearranged a few plugs. "Fuckin' moron... too late now," he growled as the hatch popped open.
Climbing in, Baird whacked the button to close the door behind him, then pried the cover off the dashboard and the ignition tumbler. He tugged the "on" positive and negative wires free, stripped each with a pocketknife, and twisted them together. Satisfied, he pulled the starter wires out and touched them together. The engine started, and he allowed himself a smirk as he ripped the tracking dot out of the dash. Seating himself, he slammed his foot on the Imulsion pedal. The APC swerved into the center of the garage and crashed through the doors.
An alarm wailed. Undeterred, Baird floored the engine, and the APC sped away from New Hope. He saw a few watchmen pointing and running for the vehicles, but they were already specks in his rearview mirror. The blonde grinned outright as he careened around a pile of boulders and down the snowy path he and Delta had just traversed earlier. He flew over a ridge, passing a shack and the place he had been shot. In the rearview mirror he saw a cloud of snow preceded by a handful of tiny vehicles, but they stopped at the jump, unsure of whether to go over. Baird let out a whoop and swerved down an obscure path out of their sight. He was free.
Adrenaline pumping through him, he slowly let up on the Imulsion, travelling briskly instead of insanely. He drove up a hill and spotted Big Town's outline appearing over the crest. Suddenly, his arms began to tremble, and he laughed wildly. "What the fuck am I doing?" he chuckled. As if independent of his control, the APC rolled serenely down the hill towards the outpost. He let it pick up speed, then slammed on the brakes, skidding to a stop in front of the welcome sign. He smiled at the fat blue letters in spite of himself.
"Shit. What the fuck am I doing?!" he repeated, hopping out of the APC. "Everything I've ever worked for in the army - right down the toilet." Baird laughed again, finally feeling his heart rate begin to slow. "Fuck."
As he approached the blue, kicked-in door of the townhouse, he began to remember himself. He paused on the steps. "You know, there's other ways to get information... ways that don't involve Stranded." He shook his head at himself. "Fucking moron. Too late again. Besides, I'd just be lying. Cole's right." Baird paused. "For once."
He stared into the shadows of the townhouse. Another chuckle bubbled up from his chest, and then he stepped in.
Grimacing at the reek of copper, Baird stepped into the bloody avenue. He uneasily skirted around the puddles, grumbling, "Can't they ever clean this fucking place? Grubby Stranded... only a monkey-brained retard could live in this kind of filth." His mind drifted to the impeccably clean bathroom he had showered in just the other morning. "Well... they can't get rid of all the germs. Especially if the toilet's the only thing they keep clean."
He paused to gaze at the town hall. The structure was mostly unmarred, surrounded by debris and wreckage rather than damaged by it. A few non-vital pillars had crumbled, and some of the white walls were splotched with yellow-beige stains. Otherwise, it remained markedly intact.
After a moment of consideration, Baird strapped his Lancer to his back with his belt and placed his hands atop his head in a submissive gesture. Slowly, he approached the town hall, growling, "I will not be embarrassed. I'm not..." He paused, then continued forcefully, "I'm not emasculating myself by playing it safe. I've got an injured shoulder. I don't need to be shot again because I look like a Grub in the dark." He frowned, stopping at the foot of the steps. "Of course, the blue-haired bitch'll probably shoot me anyway."
Suspiciously, Baird eyed the sniper room. There was no light or movement in the window. He could hear laughter and chatter coming from the foyer, and a few strained guitar chords trailed out on the night air. Scowling and blushing slightly, he dropped his fists to his sides and jogged up the steps. He hesitated at the door, then slowly moved towards a window to peer into the foyer.
Aidan, Lottie, Bill, and Nell were seated on the floor around a cluster of white pillar candles. The one-armed ex-gear was laughing at Bill, who fumbled with a dented guitar.
"No, you geezer, it's D! D-chord!" Aidan bellowed, amused. "Gimme that; you can't play for shit."
"Listen, crip, I'm playing the guitar! It's whatever chord I say it is!" Bill retorted, pulling the guitar out of Aidan's reach.
"As if you could play one-handed, anyway," Lottie snorted. She took a pull from a brown glass bottle.
"I could, too!' Aidan protested, lurching towards her. "Gimme some more of that beer and I could do just about anything!"
"My beer!" Lottie hissed, pushing him away with her scarred foot.
"Hey, watch the candles!" Nell interrupted. Aidan and Lottie jumped back guiltily. Bill snorted, taking a swig of his own bottle.
"Oh, like you're not sloshed, too, you foger!" Aidan yelled, but he quickly broke into laughter at how he slurred his words.
Nell rubbed her face tiredly. "Why do I have to deal with this?"
" 'Cause you're a teetowhatever?" Lottie volunteered.
"Ha! You said 'tit'!" Aidan guffawed.
"You're a dumbass," Bill muttered.
"Oh, you wanna go, old man? I can take you! I can take fifty of you!"
Sighing, Nell asked, "Look, can we just do one more song? One more song, and then we'll call it a night, please?"
Lottie nodded. "If we don't get to another song or something soon, I'm gonna join the runt back there."
Confused, Baird turned his gaze to the far wall of the foyer. Liam slept on the couch, snoring softly.
Aidan jumped to his feet, staggered, then shouted, "Bill! You know what we gotta do!"
Rolling his eyes, Bill swallowed another mouthful of liquor and asked, "Alright, who's going to whistle?"
"Ooh! Pick me! Pick me!" Aidan beamed.
Grabbing the hem of his shirt, Lottie dragged him back to the floor. "We gotcha covered."
"And since we all know Nell can't whistle for shit," Bill grinned, "guess who gets to sing?"
"I hate you all," Nell retorted. "On three?"
"Wait!" Aidan lurched to his feet again, grabbing a bottle off the floor. He took an enormous drink, then raised a finger to the sky and announced, "I hereby proclaim this night the 'Matheson Memorial Vigil Night Thing'." Baird's eyes widened as Aidan continued obliviously, "May we never have to repeat it and all that good stuff, so help us God. Amen."
"Amen," Lottie echoed softly. Nell patted her on the shoulder.
"Amen," Bill repeated gruffly, shooting a quick glare at the blue-haired girl. She rolled her eyes.
"Secular amen. Now sit your ass down, Aidan." Grunting, she levered herself to her feet and stretched her arms. "On three?"
Bill counted off, then broke into a perfect string of notes that had Baird questioning the man's of inebriation. Nell began shakily:
"Some things in life are bad... They can really make you mad... Other things just make you swear and curse."
She leaned towards the others conspiratorially, her voice strengthening as she gained confidence.
"When you're chewing on life's gristle, don't grumble - give a whistle! And this'll help things turn out for the best, and... always look on the bright side of life!"
Lottie and Aidan whistled back at Nell, who added,
"Always look on the light side of life!"
She did a silly dance that had Baird snorting and Lottie choking on her attempts to whistle. Ignoring them, Nell sang,
"If life seems jolly rotten, there's something you've forgotten, and that's to laugh and smile and dance and sing. When you're feeling in the dumps, don't be silly chumps! Just purse your lips and whistle, that's the thing, and...!"
Even Baird found himself bobbing his head as they all sang raucously,
"Always look on the bright side of life!"
Nell did another dance as Aidan and Lottie whistled.
"Always look on the light side of life!"
The blue-haired girl stopped dancing to continue as a teacher might to a student,
"For life is quite absurd, and death's the final word. You must always face the curtain with a bow."
She bowed deeply, grinning at Aidan and Lottie's laughter.
"Forget about your sin - give the audience a grin! Enjoy it: It's your last chance anyhow!"
Baird froze, starting to actually process the lyrics, as they continued jovially,
"So always look on the bright side of death!"
He felt his jaw drop open as Aidan and Lottie whistled the refrain. They all added even louder than before,
"Just before you draw your terminal breath!"
Baird stared at them in horror. He nearly jumped when Nell sang,
"Life's a piece of shit when you look at it. Life's a laugh and death's a joke, it's true. You'll see it's all a show - keep them laughing as you go! Just remember that the last laugh is on you!"
They broke into the refrain enthusiastically, Baird watching them in scandalized shock. Bill let the guitar trail off as Nell collapsed into giggles. Lottie and Aidan continued whistling without them, bobbing back and forth.
"I love that song," Nell laughed as disgust contorted Baird's face.
"Mm. Always good to end on a fun note," Bill concurred, cracking his neck.
"A 'fun note'?" Baird hissed. "Isn't this a fucking funeral?"
"Alright, guys, song's done. Stop whistling," Nell chuckled. "Bedtime."
Aidan complained, "But we were putting the 'fun' back in 'funeral'." Baird's eyes widened at the ex-gear's word choice.
"Too bad. Go to bed."
Sighing at Nell, the crippled gear staggered to his feet. "Well! I don't know about you all, but I'm drunk, sleepy, and ordered out of the room by a five-foot-two girl. So I'm going to go have sex with my girlfriend!"
Baird choked on his own spit. "You're at a funeral!" he hissed loudly, then clapped both hands over his mouth as Nell eyed the window suspiciously.
Oblivious, Lottie rolled her eyes and chastised, "You're so lucky you've got a nice butt."
"Don't I know it!" he beamed, pulling her to her feet. "C'mon, Chuck, you know you want to walk funny in the morning."
"As if you're that good," Bill smirked, tuning the guitar.
"At least I don't need Viagra to masturbate, old ma-"
"Okay, that was something I didn't need to hear!" Nell interrupted loudly, covering her ears.
"C'mon, Casanova, Gabe'll kill us if we corrupt his 'baby girl'," Lottie scolded mockingly. Aidan grinned.
"Are you kidding? This girl can swear like a banshee, snipe a target the size of a coin at like 500 meters, and intimidate people by sheer force of personality and hair color. She's already more corrupt than I, the lovable pervert, could ever hope to be!"
"Yeah, yeah, quit soliloquizing," Bill grumbled.
"Aidan, I can't snipe a target the size of a coin at that distance. I think that's basically impossible."
"Oh, you wanna bet, bitch?" he teased. "You wanna go? I'll bet all my money-"
"We don't have a currency," Bill interjected.
"All my money that you can't take me!"
"Okay, we're just going to go now." Lottie grabbed Aidan and dragged him out of the foyer as Bill and Nell hooted obnoxiously. Baird stared at them. Laughing, Nell began to snuff the candles.
"Need help?" Bill asked gruffly.
Nell gather the unlit candles into a box. "Nah, you go to bed. I've got this."
"I can help-"
"You drank an entire bottle of straight bourbon. Go to bed."
Bill watched her expressionlessly. "Nell, you sure giving those papers to that asshole was a good idea?"
Nell blinked at him. "No. But if he can read them, I have to assume they're in good hands."
"Honey, I love you. We all do. But you are hopelessly naïve."
The blue-haired girl smirked. "Is it such a bad thing to believe in providence?"
"You don't even believe in a god!" Sighing, Bill muttered, "If you’d never gone to get those papers in the first place..."
"Bill. Whatever's in those papers is something the COG wanted to hide." She raised the last lit candle as if it were a glass. "Here's praying that it gets out."
Bill watched her for a moment, then sighed and stood up. "Fine. Don't stay up too late."
Nell waited to hear his door slam before rising. She gazed around the room, then walked to the front door. She unlocked it and eased it open, peering out at the bloody avenue. Her eyes found Baird, widened. "It's you."
He let out a slow breath, feeling his confidence leak out of him like air from a balloon. "Yeah. It's me."
She blinked at him then, remembering herself, jerked the door open and stammered, "Uh, here, come inside... can... can I get you something...?"
"No, I'm good." He hesitated in the doorway, then added, "Thanks."
"Oh, sure." She followed him in, shutting the door behind them. "What..." Nell paused to collect her thoughts. "Why are you here?"
Baird stopped in the middle of the foyer, studying the wax left from the candles. "Mind if I sit?"
Still astonished, Nell shook her head. "No, go ahead. Uh, I just hope you don't mind sitting on the floor-"
"It's fine," he replied quietly, settling himself on the tile. She followed suit, placing the candle between them. They watched the shadows dance in the flickering light.
"Why are you here?" she repeated more firmly. His eyes wavered between the candle and her face. After a moment, he smirked.
"Sorry. It's just... it's hitting me now."
She cocked a brow, and he added,
"I want to know more about the papers."
Nell frowned. "That's it?"
Furrowing his brow, Baird replied, "Does there need to be anything else?"
"I just can't believe it's the only reason you're here."
She stared at him. "You called me less than human, for starters."
"Oh." He frowned. "Right."
They sat in awkward silence. Finally, Nell shook her head and asked, "I don't understand. You're alone?"
He stared at her, then chuckled bitterly and looked away. "Yeah. I'm... really alone."
Her eyes widened. "They're not dead, are they?"
"No! God, no. They're back at base."
She gaped at him. "You deserted?"
His tongue felt thick. "Yeah."
"No. You? Deserted. No." She shook her head. "No way. Impossible."
"Don't remind me," Baird grumbled.
Nell watched him avert his eyes. She bit her lip. "So, um... where's Gabe?"
Stricken, Baird stared at her before muttering, "I don't know."
She pursed her lips. " 'You don't know'. Fuck you, 'you don't know'. Where's the last place you saw him?"
Narrowing his eyes, Baird replied curtly, "Fort Jameson. But the place literally pancaked. I don't know if he or Connor made it out."
Nell stared at him again. "Trip was there?"
Baird winced, feeling the barest twinge of guilt at the dread in her eyes. "Yeah... he was in bad shape."
"Fuck," she whispered, rubbing her face. They sat in silence. Finally, she dropped her hand to her lap and asked, "How long were you out there?"
"At Fort Jameson?"
"At the door."
"Oh." He grimaced. "I got to hear you desecrate a funeral?"
She chuckled. "Oh, you heard my lovely singing voice?"
" 'Lovely' is not what I'd call it."
"Yeah, well... we try to keep things light."
Baird narrowed his eyes. " 'Keeping things light' and disrespecting the dead are two different things entirely."
She tilted her head at him. " 'Disrespecting'...?"
"Yeah, disrespecting," he repeated, glaring at her. "You're supposed to honor their memory, not throw a fucking house party."
"You didn't even know Howie."
"Who wants 'remember that the last laugh is on you' sung at their funeral?!"
"You're a freak already. You don't count."
Nell cocked a brow. "Who are you to make that call?" She poked him in the chest. "You're not morally superior, so if you want to learn anything about the papers, you should get that through your head. Hell, you're Stranded now, so the whole 'xenophobia' thing? It was cute when you were with your army buddies, but now you're just a hypocrite."
His face hardened. "I'm not Stranded."
"Oh, sorry. My mistake. I thought you deserted."
"I wouldn't be out here if I felt like I had a choice," he replied irritably.
"You think we choose to be out here?" She laughed. "Choice has nothing to do with it. And you're a fool to think so."
"So you're supposed to be a pillar of intellect?" he snapped.
"At least I know what I am," she retorted.
"Oh, what's that? A blue-haired bitch that laughs when her friends die?"
She narrowed her eyes. "That was low and you know it."
His eyes widened, but his mouth locked into a grim line. Nell watched him for a moment, then shook her head.
"Why are you really here?"
"I told you-" Baird growled, but she cut him off.
"It takes a lot more than curiosity to get a dick like you out here, so why are you here?"
"Why the hell should I tell you?"
"Because if you don't I'll tell you to stuff the papers up your ass!"
They glared at each other, then Baird sighed and dropped his eyes to the floor. "I've been... on that edge for a while."
Nell cocked a brow. "With your Stranded issues, I find that hard to believe."
He narrowed his eyes. "I hate the COG army. I think it's full of corrupt, lazy-ass bullshitters who care more about saving their own skins than doing their jobs. But I wanted..." He trailed off, then chuckled bitterly and finished, "I wanted to fix it. Because I was so good at fixing things."
She furrowed her brow. "And you just gave up?"
"I was always walking the line between giving in and giving up. I got no respect. It was..." He ran a hand through his hair. "...frustrating."
Frowning, Nell prodded, "So what pushed you over?"
"Bullshit. Like you've never wanted information before. Something bigger than that pushed you to leave."
Baird gritted his teeth. "Nobody pushed me anywhere-"
"So it was a person?"
"What's with the third degree?!" he snarled.
"If you want me to help you, I have to know why I should trust you!" she argued. "I already took a gamble just giving you the papers!"
"Well, I'm here now, aren't I?!" he snapped. "I'm in this shithole with the papers, and a Lancer, and no armor, and no goddamned pride, just because I was certain the COG would try to shut me up when they found out more about my translations. The way I see it, you owe me an answer!"
Nell stared at him, then offered, "A question for a question, then."
"Did the papers come from Fort Jameson?"
His lack of hesitation surprised her. "Yes."
Baird sighed with relief. "Then my theory's not crap."
She cocked a brow but let the comment go. "Well?"
Blinking at her, he averted his eyes and muttered, "It was Cole."
She frowned. "But... I thought he was your best-"
"He turned out to be the same as everyone else I've ever known, so you can shove what you thought up your tight little ass!" Baird snapped.
Nell watched him hunch over in the dim light. Biting her lip, she nudged the candle with her foot. "I'm sorry."
He jerked his head up, staring at her with wide eyes. She offered a tiny, sympathetic smile. Finally, he snorted and stood up. "Yeah. Me, too."
Nell gazed at the candle as he walked to the bookcases. "I'm sure he didn't mean to betray you."
Baird stiffened, his fingers lighting on an old, leather-bound novel. After a moment, he replied, "Yeah, well, he did."
She glanced at him guiltily. Finally, she asked, " 'Tight little ass'?"
He blinked. "It's an expression-"
" 'Tight'. 'Little'. 'Ass'." She was grinning now.
"You'd like that, wouldn't you?"
"What the hell are you suggesting?"
"Oh," she purred, rising slowly, "so now I'm suggesting things?"
Baird backed against the wall. "Stay the fuck away from me."
Rolling her eyes, she picked up the candle. "Like I'd do anything with a child in the room."
With a quick glare at her, Baird turned back to the bookcase. He pulled a worn atlas from the shelves and thumbed through the bent pages.
"Hey, would you help me out for a minute?"
He turned around to see Nell offering him the lit candle. He narrowed his eyes. "Why should I?"
"You want a roof over your head tonight, right? C'mon, you've got to earn your keep. At least hold a candle for me."
"Go fuck yourself," he muttered, taking it from her.
Grinning, she scooped Liam into her arms. "I just have to put him to bed, and I can't carry him and a light at the same time."
"He's kind of small for a ten-year-old," Baird commented as they walked down the hall.
"He'll grow eventually," Nell replied dismissively. "I'm half-dreading and half-looking forward to watching him get bigger."
"Well, he won't be half as cute or cuddly then, will he?"
Baird watched a string of drool slide from the child's mouth. "Cute. Right."
Rolling her eyes, Nell pushed her bedroom door open with her foot. She laid Liam on the cot Dom had slept on during their brief stay. Gently, she pulled the blankets to the boy's chin. "Alright. You can stay on the couch, if you'd like. Keep the candle."
With a curt nod, he turned to leave. He had his foot out the door when she muttered casually,
"We laugh to keep the nightmares away."
His eyes widened, but the door shut and locked before he could turn. He stared at the knob, then shook his head and walked down the hall.
"What the hell do you mean, 'no'?!"
Colonel Victor Hoffman sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. Resting his elbows on his desk, he steepled his fingers and fixed Marcus with the most bored, irritated stare he could muster. "I mean 'no', Sergeant."
With a scowl, Marcus paced the small space at the front of the dingy office. He kicked a filing cabinet half-heartedly and growled, "You must be joking. Sir."
"I'm perfectly serious." Hoffman shuffled some papers in an effort to look busy. Marcus slammed a hand upon the stack.
"We can't just let Baird go," he hissed.
Narrowing his eyes, Hoffman retorted, "Get your hands off my desk."
"I can and I will! Now get your hands off my damn desk, Fenix! That's an order!"
Glaring at the colonel, Marcus backed away. "Sir, we need to go after Baird."
Hoffman sighed. "Fenix-"
"He's a good soldier, sir."
"Good soldiers don't desert, Sergeant," the colonel replied sourly. "But I suppose you wouldn't know that."
"Dammit, Hoffman! How many times am I gonna have to save your metaphorical ass before you let that go?!" Marcus demanded.
"A lot of men died for your lapse in judgment, Fenix!" Hoffman shouted. "So I suggest you shut your damn hole!"
"Do you want a list of every time my team and I more or less saved the fucking world?!" Marcus jammed a finger into Hoffman's chest. "I've served my time-"
"You served four years out of forty!"
"Yeah! And you know what I'm doing now, instead of rotting in a cell uselessly?! I'm out there risking my ass for you! I'm getting shot at every other hour, I'm watching my friends die, and I'm being dicked around by that slimy prick of a chairman, all because you needed another damn soldier! That's such an improvement over my previous situation!" He slammed his hands on the desk again. "And regardless of my conduct, Baird is a good soldier! He's a good shot, a good teammate-"
"Do you hear yourself?!" Hoffman exclaimed. " 'Good teammate '! Baird!"
"He's never let Delta down once, 'sir'. He's reliable and efficient, follows orders, and cares about his squadmates. He bitches, yeah, but that's talk. Baird's never 'lapsed' on anything when it comes to the team."
" 'Til now, right?"
Ignoring the comment, Marcus growled, "He's a valuable part of Delta. He's a good shot, he's a good teammate, and he's smart."
Hoffman snorted. "Boy, we're soldiers. Gears. We need to be a lot of things, but smart's not one of 'em."
Marcus cocked a brow. "You sure about that?"
"Oh, sure, you need to know how to flank and how to reload and how to snap someone's neck. But really, after you've done that a few times, it's hard to screw up."
"You're stretching, sir."
"You started it. 'Good teammate'."
Rolling his eyes, Marcus insisted, "Baird can build bombs out of nothing but scrap metal and spare parts, which we've needed on more than a few occasions. He can fix anything - even things he's never seen before. Hell, the Resonator only went off because of Baird."
"You mean the Resonator that didn't work?" Hoffman mocked.
"It wouldn't have gone off at all without him."
Hoffman leaned forward on his desk. "Fenix, I don't need all the shit you just named to do my job. Unlike some people."
"Intelligence isn't a crutch, Colonel."
"He sure as hell uses it like one." Reclining in his chair, Hoffman elaborated, "We're not rocket scientists, Fenix. We don't need to build guns. We just need to shoot 'em."
Marcus shook his head, letting the issue drop. "What about the Locust?"
Cocking a brow, Hoffman folded his hands atop his desk. "What about them?"
"Baird's our best insight into them and you know it. Most of what we know about them is from his observations."
"Like we couldn't have figured out Berserkers were deadly on our own."
Marcus narrowed his eyes. "It's only thanks to Baird that we know about the Kantus and Locust religion. They're the structure in Locust society. Killing the Kantus is like shredding up Locust morale and then lighting it on fire."
"Now you're making assumptions," Hoffman criticized.
"Like you haven't done the same. 'They strap Berserkers down and rape them to mate'?"
"Berserkers are just female Drones-"
"Which you know because of Baird."
Hoffman ignored the smug glint in Marcus's eyes to continue, "It makes logical sense."
"Not really, considering we've got no evidence that their organs are even remotely like ours other than the obvious 'head, two arms, two legs'."
"So where's Baird with that evidence, huh?"
Marcus cocked a brow. "It's a little hard to do dissections on a battlefield."
Shaking his head, Hoffman replied, "At any rate, this isn't Diversity Day. They're Locust. We shoot them. End of story. No cultural knowledge required."
"Dammit, Hoffman, now you're just being a jackass. You know Baird's observations have helped us figure out strategy-"
"Doesn't seem to have changed much to me-"
Marcus pounded a fist on the desk again. "He can read their fucking language! Doesn't that count for anything?!"
Hoffman stared at him, then twirled a finger in the air. "Whoo. Scribbles."
Marcus glared at him. "Colonel-"
"Fenix, none of us read that shit because none of us need to. Locust chicken scratch isn't going to win this war. Maybe if Baird spent less time being a scholar and more time being a soldier-"
Marcus leaned towards Hoffman menacingly. "Baird was onto something with those papers. I don't know what yet, but whatever it was, he felt he couldn't pursue it here. He's trying to uncover something he thinks you'll try to hide - and this bullshit argument of yours is proving him right. So put your penis away and let us go find him."
Hoffman locked eyes with the sergeant. Finally, he growled, "Alright, I've humored your little argument long enough. Now let's get some things straight. First, you are not allowed to talk to me that way, and if it weren't for the obvious extenuating circumstances I would use that insubordination to throw you back in prison. Second, we're stretched too thin and I couldn't spare you even if I wanted to. Finally, I don't like Baird. He thinks he deserves respect without having to earn it."
"Like you?" Marcus grumbled.
"I've earned my damn payroll!" Hoffman snapped. "Maybe he thinks being smarter than the average Joe is a free pass to the top, but this is the goddamn army! We live by seniority rule! So if he thinks he can get away with being a jackass just because his superior officer's not the most polite, he is sorely mistaken!"
"You really think Baird is that stupid?" Marcus retorted. "He knows how the world works-"
"He's just not willing to abide by a system he feels is 'wrong'," the colonel mocked, sinking back in his chair. "Regardless of whether or not he's right, the world isn't going to change for him. If he's not willing to compromise, he should've just offed himself from the start and saved us the trouble."
Marcus stood in front of the desk, speechless. Hoffman rearranged a stack of papers and added, "You were never going to win this battle, Sergeant. Now get out of my office."
Shooting the colonel a final lingering glare, Marcus stalked out of the room in silence. He slammed the door behind him, turned down the hall, and almost smacked into Anya.
"Marcus?" she asked, blue eyes wide. Scowling, the sergeant replied,
"What are you doing here?"
"Delivering a report... is everything alright?" She pressed a gentle hand to his cheek. He pushed it away.
"You haven't heard?"
"About Baird deserting?" Anya furrowed her brow. "So that's what the screaming was about?"
Marcus nodded dully. The lieutenant frowned.
Shaking his head, Marcus sank into a chair outside the office. Anya followed suit as the sergeant muttered, "Fuckin' asshole..."
"Hoffman, or Baird?"
Marcus's eyes widened at her. Finally, he looked away and grumbled, "Both. Neither. I don't fucking know."
Anya laid a hand on his shoulder, offering a sympathetic smile. "Marcus. I'm positive Baird'll be okay."
"I'm not worried about that." Rubbing his temples, Marcus growled, "I just don't know what the fuck he's doing! He knocks out Cole of all people and fucking bolts - no armor, no nothing! Even for the papers - even for a million papers - Baird wouldn't do that. Not if it meant Stranded."
Anya rolled her hand in a circular motion on his back. "Well... clearly it was an impulse decision. Baird wasn't thinking straight."
Marcus shook his head. "But even if he wasn't thinking straight, Baird can't take a dump without planning. He'd plan something."
"Marcus. You're overanalyzing." She turned his face towards hers. "Whatever's going on with Baird, it's literally out of your hands now. There's nothing you can do but hope he'll be alright."
Snorting, the sergeant muttered, "Yeah. You tell that to Cole."
Anya tilted her head. "If you're willing to wait a few minutes while I file this with Hoffman, I can go with you to visit him."
Marcus studied her expressionlessly. "Thanks, but no. You're a part of the team, Anya, but you're not part of the guys."
They sat together silently, each appreciating the other's company. Finally, Anya murmured, "I didn't know you and Baird were so close."
Marcus snorted. "We're not. But... I've gotten used to him."
Anya cocked a brow. "Not so bad?"
"Not so bad." With a sigh, Marcus stood and stretched an arm. "Guess I'd better go break the news to Cole."
Anya nodded. "Sure. You take care of yourself, okay?"
Returning the gesture grimly, Marcus made his way down the hall. He passed a few soldiers who saluted him respectfully without acknowledging them. His boots thumped on the metal tiles and resonated on his eardrums. He winced.
The guards of the sick bay spotted him and stepped aside, eyes wary. Marcus nodded at them and eased the door open. The coughing and gargling of the ill met his ears. Dom turned at the sound of heavy boots and stood up. "Marcus!"
Shutting the door behind himself, the sergeant crossed the floor to Cole's cot. "Hey, dipshit. How're you holding up?"
Grinning, the black gear replied, "Can't keep the Cole Train out of the game, baby!"
Dom rolled his eyes. "In other words, he'll be okay for combat tomorrow morning."
Marcus smiled thinly. "Good to hear.
As Dom frowned, Cole sat up, eyes shining. "So when are we leavin' for Big Town? 'Cause you know that's where he went, man." He laughed before Marcus could get a word in. "Damn, I still can't believe he left. Just up and-" The black gear made a noise vaguely reminiscent of an engine. "Shit. Can't believe he actually listened to me. Baird never listens to me, baby!" He chuckled again. "Guess you want to get him to listen, you got to piss him off first. Right?"
Marcus stared at Cole. Finally, he clenched his fists and muttered, "We're not going anywhere."
Dom's eyes widened. "Marcus-"
Cole's laughter cut him off. "Man, I didn't know you could joke, Marcus! You almost got me!" He grinned. "Seriously, when we leavin'?"
Marcus's throat knotted. "Next week. For the east."
Cole's smile vanished. "But... Big Town's west. Baird's west. You got your directions mixed up?"
Swallowing, Marcus replied, "No, Cole."
Cole furrowed his brow. "Then Hoffman's got his directions mixed up?"
Shaking his head, the black gear responded, "I'm not followin' you, Marcus."
Knuckles white, the sergeant gave Dom a helpless look and explained, "Cole, we're not going after Baird."
Cole blinked at them. "Whatchu mean?"
The corporal stepped in. "He means we've got other things we have to get to, Cole Train. Baird's Stranded."
Silence fell on them heavily. Suddenly, Cole exploded into laughter again. "Baird! Stranded! Damn, you guys are good!" He wiped a tear from his eye. "Man, that was just what I needed, baby! I could take on a shitload of grubs feelin' this good-"
"Cole," Marcus interrupted through gritted teeth. "What is so difficult to understand about this?"
The black gear blinked at him. "W-what?"
"We're not going after Baird, Cole," Dom repeated.
"But... you..." Cole fell silent and sank back in his bed, dumbfounded. Marcus watched him guiltily. Tension stiffened his shoulders, and his mouth tightened.
"I tried," he attempted. "I really did-"
"Marcus," Dom cut him off. "Just... let him be."
The sergeant stared at his friend for a moment, then shook his head and moved to leave. Dom glanced back at Cole. The black gear gazed at his sheets, repeatedly squeezing and releasing the fabric. Biting his lip, the corporal followed Marcus out of the room.
Author's Note (Read Me!)Edit
Hey all! I know I've been gone for a long-ass time, and I'm sorry for the hiatus. For those of you wondering what happened - the first three months, I was grounded (bad grades); the rest, I was lazy/writer's blocked. Yes, I suck.
I promise you all I am still working on Reconnoiter. I am currently editing and revising these first eleven chapters for some minor annoyances and continuity errors that I've noticed; from there the new chapters will continue. You can expect to see the first revised chapters on (mark your calendars) SEPTEMBER 1st.
This original draft will be archived on Gears of War Fanon. The new version will be re-published under this same title, so you won't even have to change your Favorites. You may, however, have to review anonymously. (sweatdrop)
Thank you so much for your continuing support for this story. I am still amazed that I have only had one truly negative review. I'm so proud of my characters, and I'm glad that many of you love them as well! Everytime someone tells me they wish this was canon... it's indescribable. I never believed Reconnoiter would see such success (for lack of a better term).
Apologies again for my terrible vanishing act. Please continue to read and support Reconnoiter and Baird's character development.
SEPTEMBER 1st, 2009: Reconnoiter, v.2.0. Be there or be square!
- The story's old theme song on the Reconnoiter playlist was "Attack" by 30 Seconds to Mars. Screennameless changed it to "Yellow Cat/Red Cat" by Say Anything.
- Reconnoiter was originally anticipated to have 30-plus chapters. It now seems to be on track for 40.
- Screennameless never actually listens to the Reconnoiter playlist while writing. She carefully selected all the music from her personal favorites for applicability to the characters/locations, but actually finds most of it too fast-paced and distracting to write to. Instead, she normally listens to a handful of songs with steady, mid-paced beats - namely, "The Inevitable Return of the Great White Dope", "Mope", and "Uhn Tiss Uhn Tiss Uhn Tiss", all by The Bloodhound Gang. Listen at your own risk.
- The only chapter written to a song from the playlist was Hostile (Chapter 7), which was originally conceived as being a sort of music video to "Down With the Sickness" by Disturbed. Of course, this music video only exists in Screennameless's mind, but hey. For the curious, the Berserker's arrival coincides with the beginning of the rant about "Mommy".
- This was actually the first scene conceived of Reconnoiter as you know it.
- The only chapter written to a song from the playlist was Hostile (Chapter 7), which was originally conceived as being a sort of music video to "Down With the Sickness" by Disturbed. Of course, this music video only exists in Screennameless's mind, but hey. For the curious, the Berserker's arrival coincides with the beginning of the rant about "Mommy".
- The true original draft of Reconnoiter was untitled and never published, as it never got past two pages long. It followed a female Stranded named Quinn Allard. She drove a Junker to the COG base (at the time it was not decided that it would be New Hope) because she had found some Locust papers and could not translate them. Determined to see it translated, she began tagging along with Delta squad, who eventually warmed up to her. This was decided to be typical, boring, and lacking real plot. A number of characters were added as support to Quinn, who then became a supporting character herself to balance her role. A plot was fleshed out with the papers and Baird's character development as the two focal points, and a more "ordinary" name was selected for Quinn. Reconnoiter was born.