This is my first NCF piece on GoW. It can also be found on http://www.fanfiction.net/s/5154390/1/A_Grievous_Redemption. I have not yet uploaded all of my chapters to this site, but chapters 1-8 can be found if you click on the link above. Please note that this is a work in progress, and that my chapters can be absurdly long at times. In other words, perhaps this is a story for the more masochistic among you.
The chronology in this story diverges from that of Karen Traviss' books, and varies from the plot found in Jacinto's Remnant (in other words, I do not adhere to the canon timeline), so you have my sincere apologies for any discrepancies, and I only ask that you bear with with me should you choose to read this. The reasons for the above being that I enjoy creative freedom, and primarily because I began writing the story before Jacinto's Remnant came out.
I'm pretty new to this format and the website's regulations, so I'm going to ask that if anyone wishes to edit this piece, please contact me for permission. I'm also a shabby writer, so again, please put up with me if you decide to read this! Critiques (excluding colourful language) are welcome.
In writing this, I am attempting to tie into the collectibles found in playing Gears of War 2 to the main storyline, and am trying to interconnect the past and the present - in order to explore the reasons behind E-Day and its aftermath.
RATING: According to the ratings guidelines on http://www.fanfiction.net, this story is rated T. There's mild/moderate swearing (determination of quantity and severity is entirely subjective. The best I can do is to caution the reader), and graphic (in the reading realm anyway) violence.
This story takes place shortly after the flooding of the Locust hollow and the end of the second game. The COG, together with some survivors, have relocated to Orsorum (Orsa) Island.
Chairman Prescott believes that they have effectively eliminated the Locust, and is reluctant to believe otherwise. Colonel Hoffman maintains his doubt. Marcus Fenix shares similar concerns with Hoffman and is also facing daemons of his own. The conversation he had had with the Locust Queen before the destruction of Jacinto plagues him still, as he tries to come to terms with the possibility that his father may have played a significant role in the Human-Locust war.
Chapter 1 Edit
My life, my love, my death, my sweet
All this I give to you
But when borne of clay
All life, all love, all death, my dear
Their end I could not see
So blindly valiant, on Evil’s road I stumbled
Jagged paths told my heart, you must be humble
But I refused to comprehend
For I thought I was the one to mend
Man’s wayward, noxious fumbles
At that abandoned precipice
The air blew plumes of unease
Yet it struck me little grievance
Until I made His mad acquaintance
For more than life he sought to seize
But then He led me by the hand
To a threshold on which He did command
Where roved my wandering eye
On afflictions I despised
A monarchy of pain, appointed there to stand
Their caliber of merry-making
Set off a fearful quaking
My intent had little credence
No time left for penance
My soul nearer to the taking
Abandon it to me, He begged
Your Essence has been tainted,
But another dawn emerged anew
Steadfast was its defiance
For within me lay your breath, and there it will abide.
Kubrick Clinics and Laboratories
“Dr. Wright? Dr. Wright?” called out the woman from the doorway.
She grabbed attention from the middle-aged man at his desk; his head turning towards her. Jesus, he looked older than she remembered, she thought. And given that the hiatus lasted a mere month – that was saying something. But it wasn’t simply his hair that had aged – that was the one constant that had remained since the beginning of the project – the gray replacing the black had noticeably spread; akin to a web of silvery roots growing and expanding along his head. His eyes appeared listless, and his cheeks; sunken in and hollow.
“It’s not as all bad as that, is it?” chirped the man, slightly irked that she found him so adversely noticeable. He couldn’t quite label her steady gaze as impertinence, but her wordless insinuations were sufficient to warrant annoyance – at least on his part.
She shook her head – glasses nearly falling off the bridge of her nose – flustered and embarrassed. “Oh...no, sir. Of course not.”
“You couldn’t lie to save your life, Eliza.”
She shut her eyes, abashed and a trifle mortified. Dr. Wright waved a dismissive hand in the air. “Never mind, never mind. I’ve just been more preoccupied lately. Too much to worry about without having to think about good looks and all.”
“I’m sorry to hear about your wife, doctor.” said Eliza; extending an invisible olive branch to appease her superior’s temper. “I – well, I never thought they would re-take Hyrme. The city had some pretty good defenses.”
“Apparently they weren’t good enough.”
“Yes sir – of course. But I am sorry nonetheless.”
Dr. Wright grinded his teeth. He had no reason to be agitated by her words, but he felt particularly cantankerous today. A nasty little habit he was seeping himself in as time wore on. He nodded – the only acknowledgement he could think of to give the discomposed woman. Sympathies aside, there were other matters to attend to. “Why are you here?”
“I’ve finished the sequence analysis and comparisons.”
“On what? The rat cell lines? I told you to have it analyzed in the embryonic tissue – didn’t I?”
“Yes, sir. I managed to get the homologous sequences together – they lined up quite well.”
“And the gene insertions?” questioned Wright. “Was there any evidence of uptake? Did they reject them?”
“Yes, sir. I mean – no. We’re saw cell differentiation, proliferation. Basically, the samples exhibited the same processes as the control blastocysts. The cell lines developed normally.”
At this, a gleam of hope, curiousity and interest played across Wright’s eyes. The same eagerness carried through to his voice as well. “And what about the live samples? The rats?”
Eliza smiled, pleased and relieved to see him happy – if only for a brief moment. “All grown into adulthood without any marked genetic defects, except for – ”
“– except for what?” interrupted Wright, unable to contain himself.
“They are especially aggressive. We can’t keep the males in the same cage. We first thought that they were in heat or something, but not anymore. The females aren’t as docile either – but they’re not nearly as bad as the males. We also observed rapid hair growth. Basically everything that is keratin-based; the hair, claws...show a remarkable rate of development.”
“You don’t say...” murmured Wright, grinning. He had anticipated such an outcome, but was obviously pleased at its nature.
“Well, the reason I came down here, sir...and mind you, I didn’t want to have disturb you in the middle of your work, but it couldn’t be helped. You didn’t respond to our messages and calls, so we had to pause before we proceed to stage three. We need you to give us the go-ahead.”
“Human trials,” muttered Wright. He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. Ten years ago – this kind of trial would never have been possible. There would be protests among the ethicists in the scientific community, organizations of repute would have withdrawn any funding for the project – and it would have come to a deadening halt. All their speculations and plans would be for naught; his unfinished work would have left him hanging – with what-if scenarios plaguing him for the rest of his natural life.
But the Pendulum Wars had changed all of that.
Their victory-starved military were desperate. And, like all desperate men, they would try just about anything. Even if it meant looking to the masochistic ways of exploitation. Even if it meant that the ones being exploited were human beings. Eagerly and voraciously, they sought to nullify what they believed to be the asinine and dogmatic morals that surrounded science. Impositions that ethicists – both past and present – had put into place were just that. Obstacles that prevented them from winning their war. They set about removing such road blocks, followed by the propagation of several projects conjured by very capable think-tanks. There no longer was any red tape. No pending approvals. If it meant a successful conquest – then governmental councils asked no questions. Just get back there and get it done. This was no time to contemplate matters of conscience.
And get it done, is what he did. Well not quite yet, mused Wright. There was one last thing on their agenda.
“You have my complete approval, Eliza.” he said.
She took in a heavy breath. “We have a limited supply of cryogenic embryos, sir. We can do one round of experiments, but in order for us to have reproducible results – in order for us to make certain we have some positive data, we’ll need a larger stock.”
Unfazed, Wright thumped his fist on his knee. “Leave that to me, my dear. Go ahead and get this underway. You shouldn’t have to be worrying about your supplies – that’s my job. The task ahead isn’t going to be easy, so you’d better get started. I will find you some new embryos.”
She nodded, smiling, and walked away.
An hour later, Wright sat in the same chair, staring at the computer screen. A lengthy list gazed back at him. He reached out for a pen and paper inside his drawer and began to copy down something from the list. Upon finishing, he read out quietly to himself. “Rachel Leeves, Susan Treicel, this is not a world fit to bring a child into. But I’m working on that. Consider this a favour – a favour to your unborn children. They’ll never have to see this nasty mess we made. Never.”
Fifteen years later
New Hope Research Facility
Her breath came in short, ragged gasps. The nurse, although she preferred to call him the reaper, helped her lean against the soft pillow, and then placed an oxygen mask over her nose and mouth. He was alright, really, unassuming and quite gentle. But her interactions with him were almost always confined to her illness. There was no inane chit chat about life, about boys, about nothing. There were just her diseased spasms, and his attending to them. She was certain then, that no matter how long fate kept her weak heart thumping, that when her time came, his would be the last face she would look upon.
After adjusting the elastic that held it in place, he stood upright again and smiled kindly down at her.
“Give it a few moments,” her reaper said. “Try to think of something soothing – like a waterfall.”
Now when was the last time she had ever seen a waterfall? she thought, annoyed. She scowled, the expression invisible under the mask. Never, she replied to herself. And she had doubts that she ever would.
Her reaper gently stroked her thinning hair and cooed something that chafed her demeanor even more, before walking away to attend to other matters. With a hiss-click, the door shut behind him and she was left alone again with her thoughts. But her thoughts today had become hackneyed and dulled. She had learned from a young age that dependence on the others here for entertainment, and even answers to puzzling questions, was futile. Therefore, she had become her own interrogator, and in turn, the only person around to give her answers.
Some days it was enough to make her scream from boredom. And other days, she was simply too exhausted to be cathartic. At this moment, her eyelids grew steadily heavier, and soon, her mind wandered into the ever-changing realm of dreams.
This was one of those days.
She awoke with a start, yanking her mask off. Almost immediately, her door opened, and her reaper stumbled in, alarmed. Damn, she thought angrily. I must have screamed again.
“Ruth? No, no, don’t pull off your mask. Settle down. Settle down....” he said, coming to her side.
And then without warning, she lashed out with her feet – still entangled in the bed clothes – kicking him in his stomach. The blow must have been quite powerful, for he was pushed a good several yards from the bed. The mask was on the floor now, and with determined strides she came near him.
Her reaper lay on his back, too disoriented to push her away again. She took advantage of his vulnerable position and pinned him to the floor with her weight. She struck him hard on his right cheek - bone hitting bone, and then, without pausing, she did the same to his left – but with her opposite hand. She maintained the violent pattern of blows, until she felt herself being dragged away by powerful hands.
She had no fear, no remorse. No shame, that is, until she saw the bloodied man before her – lying unconscious on the floor. Words began to make sense again, and everything around her seemed to quiet down into normalcy.
Until she felt a biting jab on her arm before everything went black, and silent.
Six months later
New Hope Research Facility
His forehead lay pressed onto the cold window pane, and his eyes were closed. He remained standing in this fashion for several moments. Opening his eyes, he saw past the steady rivulets of water running down the glass outside, and into turbulent thoughts.
His mind saw what his eyes could not, and he felt himself relive the children’s suffering once again. He'd imagined that after several years, all matters of empathy and morality would be nothing but blunt instruments to be discarded lightly. But it was just the opposite. He felt the emotional repercussions multiply tenfold; it had weakened his resolve considerably. It was not his will to do so, because sometimes he believed that his conscience was beyond his control. It demanded his attention to deeds he should never have been party to. If there are such things as ghosts, he thought, I can believe that now. He supposed that he had unwittingly resurrected them himself. And from then onwards, their daemons plagued him incessantly.
Many of their voices were eerily distinct, but mostly, it was their sickness, and the sounds thereof that haunted him. Subjects one through twelve and – no, he reminded himself – they had names. Joshua and the others had often experienced heavy, laboured breathing. Their weakened immune systems had given way to sporadic bouts of lung infections. He could hear their raspings for air in his head; often due to the development of chronic bronchitis or tuberculosis caused by different mycobacterial strains – as little hollow intakes of air. Like unplayable, deformed wind instruments.
And the breathing difficulties were only the beginning.
The hair loss began around five to six years of age; they looked like veteran cancer patients who had undergone several treatments of chemotherapy. But of course, it wasn’t cancer that was killing them. It was themselves. And he had helped bring about that self-destruction. He, and the other scientists – past and present. They had wrought something that he was now certain that nature would not let them get away with.
He remembered the skin discoloration as well. Melanin production – the pigment found in mammalian tissues – was dangerously low. The children could not risk going outside. Exposure to the harmful UV rays of the sun without sufficient melanin could result in mutations, skin cancers. He recalled many a day where one of them would gaze longingly through tinted windows, rub their aching joints unconsciously, and ask to go outside.
No, you can’t, the orderly would answer, not unkindly. You know what will happen if you do.
Some of them insisted on it, one short day in the sunshine could surpass a lifetime spent within closed doors, they believed. But they weren’t making decisions. They weren’t calling the shots.
We were, he realized. Because we knew what was best. Because father always knows best.
Turning his eyes away from the window, he stared at the framed photograph on his desk. He picked it up and looked at it; obvious tenderness in his eyes. In it, he was smiling, his arm around a young disheveled boy of around twelve. The boy’s blue eyes were striking – discernable even within a photograph, and it held all the hopes, dreams and anticipation that youth could bring. He was wearing his uniform, with badges impeccably pinned to his suit, boots shiny and new, a clean-shaven face – everything in place except his hair.
The man laughed quietly, and ran his hands through his own unkempt, dark hair, briefly musing on such similarities. He was trying to search for the good in this boy, the man he would become – his son – something to mirror his own. But he couldn’t help but feel that for all his efforts, his son remained the better man. He wouldn’t have made the same mistakes. He couldn’t. He would see to it that the sins of the father would not be passed down to the son.
Putting the photograph down, he picked up a small tape recorder on his desk and turned it on.
“Marcus, I don’t know where to begin. If you were here, you would tell me to begin at the start. But you see, it’s more complicated than that. It all came about from noble intentions. Or so we were told, I suppose. A very simple goal. War is horrible. And the only thing that could overshadow war would be if we brought it on ourselves.” He paused; too many thoughts trafficked through his mind. His words sounded muddled and tumultuous. He breathed in, trying to regain his composure. After a moment, he sat down in his chair and continued.
“When Helen Cooper refined the lightmass process – I was ecstatic. Well, more relieved than ecstatic. I thought that this – a renewable source of energy – not nuclear, not cold fusion – was our saving grace. You must understand, son, that it was a virtuous act, another deed that stemmed from benevolence. It was meant for progression and not for destruction. But I suppose altruism – for all of its benefits – is not immune to corruption.
"I never could understand why Sera didn’t work with our developing neighbours. If we took that imperative first step – we would have been the perfect model for our compatriots. We would have shared, and shared alike. But, you see, Marcus, near-sightedness was our undoing. Self-preservation demanded that we stockpile imulsion; I believe we coveted it unlike any other limited resource in the past. We also underestimated the smaller nations. We were too busy basking in the rays of this new discovery to recognize what we had deprived them of. We did not foresee how desperate they would become, how they would band together to take us down.
"And take us down...they almost did. I suppose desperation begets desperation, and this is where my work comes in. We needed something greater than imulsion, greater than lightmass bombs to squash our enemies.
"I...hope you can forgive me for what I did...for what I’m about to tell you. And coward that I am, I also hope that when you hear this, I will not be with you. I cannot bear to see your face. You will rightfully be ashamed of your fool of a father. We tampered with nature, Marcus. We were...are...playing god. And we were arrogant enough to believe that we would be successful.
"It sounded good at the start – just like I said before. To my credit, I suppose I wasn’t told the whole truth, but I had my suspicions. And I should have acted on them. I should have turned my back on it all. But I was too ambitious and too full of myself to resist the opportunity to do this kind of work.
"Dr. Samson told us that it was time for an era of peace. And that something drastic had to be done, and that we were the only individuals courageous enough for the undertaking. He told us that our children’s children would never know the hardships of war if we were successful. But we had to sacrifice in order to achieve this. It would be a worthy sacrifice, of course...but painful nonetheless.
"We ate into his lies greedily. We were given the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to prove our mettle. We wanted...we – oh, God, what have we done, Marcus? What have we done?"
His voice broke down, and he paused the tape. How could he tell his only son that he had helped destroy his future? How could he bear the shame of it?
Tomorrow, he told himself. I can finish this tomorrow. I haven’t the nerve for this anymore.
Chapter 2 Edit
1 week later
He brought in the platter of food as silently as he could. Glancing sideways at the solitary window, he noted that the first rays of dawn were already prying their way inside the room. Amber-glowing light was cast upon a heavily stocked bookshelf, and was expanding further inwards – just touching the foot of the occupied bed. He laid the platter to rest on a small end table, and drew the dark curtains across – abruptly shutting out the light. A momentary spasm of thought or conscience roused him; he remembered how the other rooms weren’t even allowed the luxury of curtains – the windows were framed by cold, rigid steel shutters. But she was an exception to the rule. Come to think of it, he wondered sadly, she was an exception to a lot of rules.
“Ruth?” he called out softly, as he began to open a small carton of milk, pouring it into a glass. “You awake?”
A voice – small yet firm – came out from under the bed covers. “I’m sorry, Carl.”
Her reaper sighed. “We’ve been through this already, kiddo. You just needed to vent your anger. Water under the bridge. Come on now, sit up like a good girl and eat your breakfast.”
“But I’m sorry. I...I feel like it’s not going to go away. Or stop.” She sat up slowly, grunting as she did so. The arthritic-like pain in her joints could not be assuaged in the mornings, she had learned. Each movement her body had to make was conducted delicately. Frequently, she felt like the protagonist in a cheesy action movie – the one who had seconds left to diffuse an explosive device – and more often than not, she felt like she was both the diffuser and the bomb.
Her slow and steady movements did not go unnoticed by her reaper, and he smiled wanly. “You want the cortisone shots? I also have some Valium here...” he reached into his pockets, pulled out a small, translucent bottle of pills, and presented it to her.
Ruth shook her head. “No thanks. I don’t think steroid injections or sedatives are particularly...receptive to my condition.” She sighed. “You know what, though?”
“You’d think that Dr. Doom would have put two and two together already. He administers the shots, and then hours later I have an episode.”
He shrugged nonchalantly, remaining silent, arranging the food on her bed tray.
She continued. “I think he knows. I think he does it deliberately and he keeps count of it; he must be tabulating damn statistical scores...” her voice tapered off into silence. She caught her reaper looking at her patronizingly. “Oh please, Carl,” she said, “I’m not that big of an imbecile. He’s no more trying to cure me than, than – ” Ruth paused to find the appropriate words, “ – than when Dr. Frankenstein thought he was creating blessed life.”
“Dr. Samson isn’t Dr. Doom and he isn’t Dr. Frankenstein, Ruth. He’s trying to help you kids out. The cure for your sickness isn’t something that can be conjured out of thin air. Your medication has to go through numerous rigorous trials – it’s the harsh truth – but it’s the truth nevertheless. They’re working their asses off to help you guys out. Give you a second shot at a normal life.” he explained.
“Like the normal life he gave Adele, you mean?” asked Ruth, looking him squarely in the eyes.
He remained silent, a little at a loss for words. Adele’s death had had a particular impact on Ruth – who had not been close to any of the other children. Carl had surmised that she had taken to Adele’s unassuming nature, given the fact that she had asked nothing from Ruth save for companionship. It was a friendship that was short-lived, however, as complications from her treatments worsened, leading to her eventual death.
“They did what they could,” muttered Carl quietly.
“They did what they wanted, Carl!” exclaimed Ruth, her voice rising. “They kept increasing the dosage even though she was getting sicker! They were studying how her body responded to increased medication even though it was the medication that was killing her!”
Carl sucked in his teeth and let out a breath. “Adele died because her heart was operating at thirty percent of its capacity,” he paused briefly, as if considering something. “Besides, where did you come up with that bullshit conclusion anyway?”
“She told me. She showed me.” Face red from the exertion, Ruth reached over to her bedside table, and despite considerable pain, her hands fumbled around in the drawer, eventually pulling out a modest little notepad. “She was smart, Carl. She wrote down everything whenever she could. And she hid it from Samson. And the other nurses. And then, when she knew that whatever hope she had left in her life had been obliterated by these devils who work here, she gave it to me.”
Carl swallowed. “Why are you showing it to me?”
“Because you have a mite more of a conscience than the others here. Or that’s my hope, at least. Or maybe because I don’t want to end up like she did. I’m sick of being attended to by doctors telling me what’s in my best interest. I want to take charge of my own fate, I want to die the way I choose to die. I want to go out in the sun and feel some real warmth, I want to know what it feels like to be in love, I want to know what it feels like to hit a home run, I want to see waterfalls and I want to eat pepperoni pizza, and I want to run. I want to run away from this place – so badly you have no idea. You know...the worse part of this is...it’s that I feel like this place was meant to be my tomb even before I was born.” With that, she fell back into her pillow – exhausted and spent. As she stared at her food before her, she spoke quietly, and with diminished ardour. In fact, her outburst seemed to have left her feeling dry and hollow. She held out the little notepad towards him.
“Take it. Show it to your Dr. Samson. Burn it or read it or whatever.” She shut her eyes and tried to catch her breath. “Besides, how can I leave this place anyway?” She let out a bitter laugh. “I can’t even walk to that door without falling over.”
Carl stepped out of the small cafeteria and walked out the back door, into the open. He stared at the dumpster to his left and then turned his back on it, pulling out a cigarette from his pocket and lighting it. As he inhaled, he felt the warm smoke spread into his lungs, anticipating the calming lull of the nicotine as it took effect on his frayed nerves.
Because you have a mite more of a conscience than the others here. Her words rang loudly in his mind.
“Come on, Carl,” he told himself aloud. “Get a grip. It’s just work. It’s a job. Put it on the backburner – shift’s gonna be over in a few hours.”
You don’t seriously believe they’re helping these kids, do you? This time it was his voice that he heard. It was his mite of a conscience. I mean, seriously, you’ve gotta be one dumb fuck to be taken in by that.
But I signed a non-disclosure agreement. It’s a binding contract. I do what they tell me to do, I ask no questions, and it pays the bills. You’re party to some twisted shit, Carl. Makes no difference whether you’re the executioner or the doctor taking the dead man’s pulse. Either way, you’re helping them pull the switch.
“Shit.” he muttered aloud. More thought didn’t seem to be required. Angry and nervous now, he yanked the half-burnt cigarette out of his mouth and threw it onto the ground. He stepped on it hard, extinguishing it.
He turned around and made his way back into the building.
5 days later
A voice on the small intercom chirped to life, and the man approached it with a handful of papers.
“Dr. Fenix? There’s an orderly here to see you,” it said.
He put his papers down on his desk and spoke back into the communications device. “Ah hell. Not now, Kelly. I’ve got a lot of paperwork here that needs to be turned in first thing Monday. Besides, tell him to send in his complaints to HR. I can’t do anything about it anyway.”
“He says it’s a private matter, doctor. He’s not going to discuss it with HR.” replied the voice.
“Can’t he discuss it with his shrink? His priest?” asked Fenix, hopefully.
He sighed. Realizing that the back-and-forth banter only served to waste more time, he relented. “Alright. Send him in.”
Carl walked into the room tentatively. His apprehensions did not go unnoticed by the older man, who gestured for Carl to take a seat on a sofa against the wall. His visitor did so, placing his hands on his lap.
“You want something to drink? I have some scotch...” offered Fenix, believing that perhaps a little alcohol would put the man at ease. The younger man shook his head, turning down the offer. Fenix raised his eyebrows questioningly, and smiled. “I’m not going to bite, son. What’s on your mind?”
“It’s not you, doc. Well, I suppose in a way it is. I can’t put what I’m about to ask you in a nicer way, but I need to know something. Is what I say going to stay within this room? Because if it isn’t, I need to know now.”
Fenix sat down in a chair opposite him. “The receptionist said your name is Carl Riviera, right? Can I call you Carl?” The other man nodded. “Now I don’t know the nature of what you’re about to tell me, Carl, but if it has anything to do with the patients, that would be something you would want to inform Dr. Niles Samson about. You see – not many of our staff are aware of this, save for Dr. Samson and some others – but I’m resigning from my post. As of three months from now, I’m not going to be working here anymore.”
“That’s why it has to be you, doctor.”
Fenix shook his head, perplexed. “Me? For what? I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
“Are you going to repeat what I’m about to say to anyone else? I need to know.” insisted Carl.
A beat. Fenix closed his eyes and rubbed the bridge of his nose thoughtfully and tiredly. “I don’t see how I’m better than anyone else here, but...yes, you have my word. Unless this information threatens anyone’s life, then it will not leave this room.”
“What about your receptionist?” questioned Carl nervously. “She knows I came into talk to you.”
“Kelly can be trusted. And I won’t tell her what we talked about anyway. We can always just make something up. But what’s all this about? You caught me at a particularly stressful time...there’s a lot of data I need to organize for the guy who’s replacing me. Is what you have to tell me so important?”
Carl nodded. He’d thought a lot about what he was going to say, how he was going to say it. His envisioning and planning came at the cost of a lot of sleep, and his nerves were not the better for it. He knew about Adam Fenix; the other nurses and orderlies spoke well of him. But Carl had needed more reassurance than what congeniality and modesty had to offer. He needed loyalty and he needed someone who was willing to sacrifice. Their work, well-being, safety and their way of life – these were but a few chips that they would have to place on the table.
The man he had visualized taking into his confidence was certainly not the one he had decided to choose. But things hardly work out as planned, and perhaps his choice would serve to fool others, just as it had fooled him.
He had observed Adam Fenix before – and what he had mistaken for lethargy and inattentiveness, he had now inferred to be pangs of conscience. The doctor no longer administered the prescribed medication to patients himself. He would skip scheduled visits, misplace medical files, and in one instance had even written in incorrect – but markedly reduced – dosages for the terminally ill patients.
No reputable doctor would play his hand so carelessly, unless of course, he had wanted to lose. And Adam Fenix was no blockheaded simpleton. Carl had then concluded that if the man had indeed felt some remorse, an abrupt resignation resulting from that guilt would come under considerable scrutiny and suspicion. He had to be shrewd about it – there was no other alternative. The lack of attention to his work and his patients was but an act. In his charade, Doctor Fenix was not a team-player anymore. And the best thing for him was to resign himself to retirement; give himself a dignified exit. Or that was what his colleagues were made to believe.
Of course, Carl’s deductions could have been dreadfully wrong. And he could present his case to the good doctor only to have him run back to his superiors with this traitorous news. But the past few days of moping and strategizing had finally broken Carl’s threshold of tolerance, and he had to drive on his instincts or throw in the towel entirely.
There was nothing else for it, he guessed. Well, here goes, he told himself.
“The patients...the kids here,” he began, “they’re being tested on.”
“Of course they are. They’re ill.” said Fenix. “We’re here to fix the problem and find a cure.”
Carl noted that the man’s voice lacked conviction. He seemed to be stating something for the purpose of it simply being on the record. The younger man seized this possibility and continued. “What I mean to say is...the people who started this research – and I don’t mean to insinuate that you began it, although you have to admit that both you and I have helped perpetuate it – were never looking for a cure. They’re using the children here as instruments. Or maybe they’re just refining them to be what they want them to be. Do you understand me?”
Adam Fenix stood unnaturally still. It was as if he was dealt a hefty blow. The others feel it too, he realized. Well, some of them anyway. He had believed that leaving this place to its demise – and he was sure that it would come – would close the book on what he had done, what he had seen. But that wasn’t enough, apparently. The coming of this orderly seemed to be an advent of some larger conscience. As if fate was extending him an opportunity to fix things, even if it seemed a little too late.
“Yes, I understand.” he answered quietly.
“Good. I’ve been trying – ever since I started work here – to make out what the hell happened to these kids. I’ve never seen anything like it before. It makes stage IV cancer look like a common cold. I thought it was some kind of hybrid virus. But most viruses are contagious; and as far as I know, no one who’s worked here caught what those kids have. No precautions were even enforced to prevent spreading. If it was just the immunity problems like lung infections and swollen joints, I could accept some bullshit story of a mutated...something. But the random violence – I don’t see and I can’t see how it fits in. One of the doctors tried to tell me the kids were having epileptic seizures. I told him, come on, doc, I’ve been in this business for twelve years now. I know an epileptic seizure when I see one. And this ain’t no muscle spasm. He looked right back at me and told me to just do my job and leave the diagnosing to them.
"Doc, those kids are dangerous. About six months ago, one of them beat me unconscious. I weigh a hundred and eighty pounds, and this kid, she weighs ninety. I work out four days of the week. She’s bed-ridden for a good portion of the day, heck, a good portion of her life. Now you tell me that there’s nothing strange about that."
“What are you saying, Carl?” asked Fenix, with hesitance. “You want to lock these kids up within padded walls?”
Carl leaned forward. “No. I want to help them.”
“Because I have evidence that whatever shit is being done to them, is being done willfully and deliberately. They might be doing testing here, but these tests are the furthest thing from a cure. We have no right to – if you’ll pardon my language – fuck with their lives.”
“Where’d you get the evidence from?”
“Adele. One of the patients who died last year. She kept a journal detailing every symptom, every anomaly. I’ve read it. I have it.”
“She could be hallucinating – some of the stuff we gave them are pretty strong sedatives.” fumbled Fenix.
“You and I both know that’s bullshit. And you know what? I think you know. Maybe you didn’t know all along, but you sure as hell know now. That’s why you’re quitting.”
“But what can I do, Carl? I don’t pull the strings around here. I can’t tell Dr. Samson what to do – I can’t stop the research – ”
“No. No, you can’t. But you could help them get out. There have got to be at least twenty of them taking this torture. And I’m certain that now at least one of them is aware that there is no cure, no hope for something better.”
Fenix rose from his seat. He walked slowly to his desk and absently rearranged a file lying on it. What was the point of doing something now, anyway? We’ve already wrought enough damage, he thought. And he wasn’t the man for this kind of job. Glancing to the right side of his desk, he studied the back of the photo frame of him and his son. He turned it so as to face him, and his shoulders drooped.
“What did they do to them?” came out Carl’s voice from behind him.
“Son,” breathed out Fenix, “you really don’t want to know. In fact, it would be better for you if you didn’t. I can tell you though, that eighteen of those twenty children are not going to make it this year. We can’t save them all.”
“Okay.” acknowledged Carl. If their history had to be kept in the dark for the sake of their future, then so be it. And if eighteen of them would not pull through, then that was all the more reason to save the rest. “If what was done can’t be undone, then we have to do what we can for the two that remain.”
“It’s more complicated than that. They’re the only ones who’re responding positively to the treatment.”
“So...everyone is going to be focusing on them. They’ll be watched more often than not. There will be more tests, more observations. We can’t just say we’re taking them to go to the bathroom and then make a break for it!” responded Fenix, frustrated.
“Then what do you propose we do?”
“We have to point them in another direction. We have to show them what they want to see.” replied Fenix. Schemes and strategies began to come to life and orient themselves in his mind. He sat back down. “But first,” he began, “I need to know everything recorded in that journal. Our patients – children though they may be – are unstable and violent. We need to know what we’re going up against on both sides. If we can’t save the kids from themselves, then this whole plan goes up in smoke.”
Carl leaned back into his seat. “Okay. But I think...I think I’m gonna need that glass of scotch now, doc.”
15 years after E-Day
He moves about the Locust Palace – one of the many homes to the locust Queen – with considerable ease. He knows where he came from and he knows where it is he’s going to. Four drones guarding the entrance to an antechamber acknowledge his arrival and they step aside. He is a stark contrast to the other occupants here; his face is pale and his skin is smooth. Theirs is a mottled gray, the epidermis uneven and tough – like leather.
He smiles at them as he walks by, and they return the gesture with nods. The antechamber could be called cavernous but it is certainly no cave. The ceilings and pillars display ornate engravings; rich in texture and sometimes symbolic. He has little or no concept of the allegoric nature of the carvings, and it makes him all the more eager to discover their origins. But the Queen, let alone the locusts, does not fully trust him yet. They have had many a conversation about battles and wars; the battle at Ephyra is brought up frequently, but when thoughts turn to history and culture, she grows distant and a little impatient.
This time he suspects that she will perhaps talk with him about their previous conversation. The Queen detests the imulsion that surrounds her people and her land. He, on the other hand, does not. He is aware of the dangers, but he has always been successful at quelling the response of fear to ignorance. After all, it was he who had devised the concept of lightmass explosives. Even she couldn’t deny its effectiveness. But she was...
He pauses in mid-thought, as the Queen approaches him through a side entrance, escorted by one of her High Priests and a member of the elite guards, the one she calls Skorge. In the length of time that he has known her, Skorge is a frequent companion – not in the friendly sense of the word, but more as a protective symbol – and yet, he never participates in any discourse with them. Perhaps he doesn’t need to, he realizes.
“Adam,” speaks the Queen, addressing him with the utmost composure.
“Your highness.” Adam bows, before the Queen gestures for him to arise.
“I do not feel like sitting down today.” The tough tendrils emerging from her spine move about slowly in the air, each one akin to a cat twirling its tail. “Would you like to walk with me?”
“It would be my pleasure,” he responds.
“Good. I would like to hear about your son today, Adam. He intrigues me. If he is anything like his father, then he would have my utmost respect.”
Adam nods and moves beside her. They begin to walk, side by side, towards the doorway in the room.
He woke from slumber later than he would have liked, given the nature of his dream, and breathed out slowly. He tried to tell himself that dreams were the stuff of nonsense, that his subconscious was probably working overtime. But their exchange with the Queen back at Nexus so many weeks ago had left him with uneasy and unanswered questions. Her referral to him being Adam Fenix’s son unnerved him. Furthermore, and more frightening, was the manner in which she had spoken of his father. Was that respect in her voice, he wondered?
He shook his head, still drowsy.
Wakeful consciousness brought with it a pounding headache, and a dry feeling at the back of his throat. He swung his legs over the side of the rickety cot and held his head in his hands. It felt like morning, but dawn brought no consequence.
He never did like looking at the time – over the years and the battles, keeping track of ticking minutes and hours only counted for something if there was a goal to be reached. But in between, it never seemed to matter that much. A lot of things didn’t seem to matter that much. War was war and to analyze it and dissect it could leave one feeling breathless and a little crazy, to say the least.
The dead were the lucky ones, anyway.
“Marcus?” called out a familiar voice from outside the room. “You up?”
His friend came into the room, wiping his wet face on a small towel. “They’re asking us to do some recon tonight. You up for it?”
“Ah hell, Dom, doesn’t really matter if I am or I’m not, does it?”
Dom smiled and threw the towel onto his own bed. “No, guess not.”
Marcus rose from his bunk and pulled out his boots from underneath it. “Any reason why they want us this time? Can’t Hoffman get some others to handle it?”
His friend shrugged. “I’ve learned that asking questions never really puts me at ease anymore. Least of all from Hoffman. All I know is, we have two washed-up reavers on the south beach. I guess he thinks that they’re starting to up the ante now – sending in reavers. Boats are probably more of a target – trying to get to us by air is probably their next move.”
Marcus shook his head. “Fucking locusts.” He rubbed the back of his neck, trying to ease the tension within. “Dumb as hell, but they’re persistent. I’ll give ‘em that.”
Dom rifled through his duffel bag, pulling out some of his body armor – a tattered yet usable Kevlar vest, and started to adjust the blade plates inside. “Look at it this way. We’re somewhere that’s hard to touch. One way in and one way out. At least this way we can see them coming.”
“I don’t enjoy being cornered.” responded Marcus. “That’s all.”
“Who does? But we don’t have much of a choice. To be frank, man, I think this idea of Prescott’s was pretty good – ”
“ – Prescott didn’t think this one up, Dom.” interrupted Marcus. “He’s got too much cotton for brains to think of backup plans unless he’s up for re-election – and that won’t be anytime soon. It was a fallback option the COG must have thought up years ago. Prescott just got handed the uniform and baton from brass that have long since died, and now he’s just in the position to take credit for it.”
Dom sighed and smiled. His friend’s disdain for politics and the people who bent to its manipulations were beneath his contempt, and he wasn’t afraid to voice it. Dom, on the other hand, was more or less immune to political metamorphoses. “Prescott or not, without this island to go to we’d be screwed. Admit it. I mean, where would we go?”
“Elingrad is still standing.” muttered Marcus, unwilling to concede so easily.
“The place is a ghost town. And there, we gotta worry about emergence holes, aerial attacks...it would be Jacinto all over again. No, it would be worse,” corrected Dom, “They could sink Elingrad within a day.”
Marcus grunted and stood up, stretching his arms. “Orsa is no picnic either.”
Dom pulled out another set of armor and threw it towards his companion. “But it’s the only picnic we can have. And I don’t know about you, but I’ll take it.”
Marcus began to strap on his armor and turned to Dom, smiling and relenting for the first time that day. “I never did like settling for less, but I guess it’ll have to do. This isn’t paradise island, but it’s been a long time since I’ve been able to sleep for eight hours straight.” He thumped his comrade on the back. “Come on, Dom, let’s go grab something to eat.”
Chapter 3 Edit
By the time they reached the southern tip of the island, dusk had settled into night. It was cloudless, however, allowing for the moonlight to illuminate paths before them. The flora on the island was a refreshing change from the decrepit and derelict buildings of Jacinto or Montevado. There were no sunken cities, no sporadic fires, no emergence holes, no stranded camps, nothing that could attest to the fact that they had been engaged in a long and bitter war. The island itself seemed like a sanctuary of sorts, a remnant of peace that only aged, battle-hardened men could allude to.
The two soldiers, driving along in silence, took in this tranquility with quiet unease. It was difficult to attune themselves to it, seeing as how it was such a contrast from the turmoil they had been immersed in on the mainland.
Dom felt his muscles tighten whenever something moved, and he frequently caught himself glancing down at his radar screen to ascertain whether they were in danger or not. And each time he did so, he breathed out in relief. It was another false alarm.
His anxieties did not escape his companion, who – without grinning but with humour in his voice – spoke. “You might want to get out your shotgun now. I thought I saw a raccoon to our right.”
Dom heaved out another sigh. “Yeah, yeah. I get it.”
“Just relax, will ya?” encouraged Marcus. “You were harping all this morning about this place. And now that you’re out and about, you’re jumping at rats and squirrels.”
“Hey, you don’t look so thrilled yourself,” Dom nodded over at him.
Marcus grunted in response. True, he did feel as if this little peninsula was destined to be another casualty of war, but it wasn’t that which unnerved him the most. He felt cut off, collared into a corner. Sooner or later, the Locusts would discover their position. And then the situation would present itself as a terrific chance for the Queen to win this war once and for all. Everyone in one place at one time.
It would be like killing hundreds of birds with one stone.
He was dead certain that she would like that. Hell, she would revel in such a fortuitous opportunity.
Marcus turned right along the beaten path and tried to set his concerns aside. At least for the moment, he consoled himself, we only have two dead reavers. It was a step-down from the four damaged boats that had washed ashore three weeks ago. And anyway –
“Can reavers make it this far?” questioned Dom suddenly.
Marcus, disturbed from his sullen reverie, asked, “What?”
“How do you think the reavers made it all the way here? It’s gotta be a hell of a long haul from Jacinto. Or Nexus even.”
Marcus shrugged. “Beats me. Maybe they have stopover flights.”
“Yeah,” chuckled Dom, “At least the Locusts must be getting some good use out of their frequent flier miles.” He wiped some mud off the radar screen. “But seriously though, how can they?”
“I don’t think they could. That’s why they’re dead on the beach.”
“Does this mean that they know where we are?”
“You mean: does the Queen know where we are,” corrected Marcus.
“You don’t seriously think she survived that?” he asked, incredulous.
“She hauled ass out of Nexus fast, Dom. Whether it was in their plans to sink Jacinto or not, she had no intention of going down with the ship. You take my word for it – she’s as alive as you and me.”
Dom found it hard to resign himself to this disturbing concept. But he realized that to dismiss the thought entirely would be foolish. “Okay. So supposing she’s still in charge, do you think she knows where we’re at?”
Marcus shook his head. “Nah. Believe me, if she knew, she’d come at us full force. And she wouldn’t be wasting time. She probably sent out some scouts.”
“Kinda dumb, though, dontcha think?”
“If we flooded the hollow, you’d think that she would give some thought to sending out her reavers and men – knowing that a lot of ‘em probably won’t make it back.” wondered Dom.
“Which can only mean one thing – she’s either pretty frantic about finding us or we only made a little dent in their plans by flooding the hollow.”
Dom frowned. He would hate to think that the truth lay in the latter reason. Jacinto was a costly price to pay, even if they eradicated a good portion of the Locusts. But if the COG were to discover that their hordes had hardly been diminished, all that they had thought they knew about the Locusts would be proven to be false. And all their theorizing and surmising could crumble like a poorly-constructed sand castle.
It was painful just thinking about it.
“Man, I just hope she’s desperate. Least that way, maybe she’ll trip up.” he concluded.
“I hope so too, Dom.” responded Marcus, as he hit the gas harder and drove into the foliage.
“Lovely night for a stroll.” Marcus quipped, a scowl on his face and boltok pistol in hand.
And it was indeed. The moon seemed more radiant than ever, its silvery light dancing off of the water’s surface. The gentle swishing sounds of the waves were rhythmic and soothing. That, coupled with the aroma of distinct salt-tinged air, permeated their senses in a manner through which they had forgotten they possessed.
For a split second, Dom’s memory brought back the acrid smell of charred bodies to the surface, and he hastily submerged this venomous knowledge. Why is it, he wondered, that he couldn’t enjoy brief moments of peaceful solitude without having to rouse memories of darker beasts? Was this just another idiosyncrasy that he should chalk up to human nature? He couldn’t quite respond to such musings, so he continued walking down the stretch of shore, staring up ahead into the distance.
“Command, are you there? This is Delta.” came out the gravel-like voice beside him, a little quieter than usual.
“Affirmative,” came out the tinny voice of the dispatcher.
A small emotion within Marcus had hoped to hear the familiar voice of his friend and guide, Anya Stroud. She had been a constant throughout their missions; the planting of the lightmass bomb and the sinking of Jacinto. Despite the fact that she was physically absent during their battles – big and small – there was a certain strength about so simple a connection, something he realized that he had taken for granted all the while. He couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed to note that she wasn’t on the other end this time. Not to mention that this fashion of self-awareness made him feel slightly more irritated than usual.
“We’re at the site. You got a bead on our location?” he said, eager to get this little excursion over with.
“Affirmative, Sergeant. You want to head about two clicks due...north-east of you. Once you find them, radio in and let us know what you find. Command out.”
Dom, who had paused walking, turned around. “Wish they let us have JACK. I’m about done with having to write reports in triplicate. Makes me feel like I have a desk job.”
“Hey, I’d take a desk job over what we do,” surmised Marcus , as they proceeded to pace forward towards their destination.
Dom laughed, clearly entertained at the idea. “Yeah right! You might be a lot of things, Marcus, but you’re sure as heck not that guy in a cubicle, going at it nine to five.”
“We’ll never know now though, will we?”
Dom shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe a month from now every Locust will die from skin cancer and us COGs will go into retirement.”
Marcus’ face broke into a slight grin. “Don’t have faith that we can pull it off ourselves?” he asked. “Think we’ll have to wait for tumours to finish them off?”
“That...or some kind of plague specific to Locusts.” responded Dom, very aware of the possible irony of his statement. “If Locust numbers haven’t been decimated by now, frankly, I think we’re screwed.”
Marcus glanced at his friend. “You going pessimistic on me?”
“No…I’m going realistic. This place – maybe it only delays the inevitable, know what I mean?” Dom cast his eyes down, some truths were too hard to stomach. “But, we do what we can do, right?”
His companion remained silent. He figured that if words of consolation felt contrived, then more often than not, they were contrived. And then it was better just to keep his trap shut.
Even through the soft glow of the moonlight, the large, dark humps weren’t quite discernible. The mass – which lay several yards away – gave off a distorted silhouette; it was uneven and unearthly. But most importantly, Marcus reminded himself, it remained unmoving, and hopefully – quite dead.
Upon closer inspection, the pair noted the splayed-out legs and tendrils of the huge beasts, their face shields in place, but armor absent. But it was difficult to see anything in this light, so Marcus decided that he ought to start searching for the more obvious and accessible clues amongst the bodies.
“You see anything alive under them?” he asked.
Dom pulled out a small thermal sensor from his bag and bent over, running the device alongside the body closest to him. With negative results from the first, he began a similar procedure on the second. A few minutes later, he looked back up at his companion and shook his head.
“I don’t see anything here, either,” muttered Marcus.
“Armor’s missing.” noted Dom. “Looks like they had no carry-on luggage either,” he said, pointing at the absence of weaponry of any type.
Marcus set his jaw tightly. “These are scouts. I’d bet my life on it.”
Dom paused, the gears of thought running furiously in his mind. Arriving at a conclusion he wasn’t sure he liked, he spoke nonetheless. “Scouts are supposed to report in, aren’t they?”
“Yeah...” began Marcus, starting to see what his friend what getting at.
“Then they should have homing devices,” finished Dom.
“Yeah. They should.”
Dom crinkled his forehead and swore. He suddenly turned to his friend, hopeful. A few weeks before, some gunboats – empty and passenger-less – had washed up ashore. If no devices were on board, then there was a solid chance that they would find nothing here either. “Did we find anything on the boats that came in a couple weeks back?”
“No. But the mines got to the boats before we could. Whatever homing beacons were strapped onto ‘em got blown to bits.”
Dom frowned and sat on his haunches to get a closer look at the face plates on one of the reavers. Marcus stared at one in turn, and then came over to his friend’s side. “Could be anywhere. Hell, it could be in their gut for all we know.”
Dom scrunched his face in disgust. “I thought these things smell bad on the outside...” he began.
“...Nothing for it, Dom. We gotta cut ‘em open. I’m gonna call it in first.”
As Dom stood up and groaned, dreading the loathsome task before them, Marcus started speaking into the radio strapped to his shoulder. Command didn’t seem nonplussed about it – but then again, he thought – they weren’t going to be the ones doing the slicing and dicing. After a few more questions, and much to his relief, however, they concluded that someone more able and knowledgeable about Locust and reaver anatomy would be sent in. On hearing the news, Dom’s concerns were allayed and he cheered up considerably. He zipped his bag shut, and sat on the ground.
“You know, I heard that there’s crabs in these waters,” he said.
“You don’t say.” Marcus sat down on the sand.
“She loved crab,” mused Dom, more to himself than to his companion.
Marcus said nothing, realizing that despite the closure Dom found on Maria’s whereabouts, she was hardly the farthest thing on his mind. Recently, he’d noticed that Dom had difficulties speaking her name, and whenever she was the subject of conversation, it never lasted quite long and seemed more of personal reminiscing than anything else.
“Baird can’t stand seafood, though. Especially crab.” muttered Dom, predictably shifting their discourse elsewhere. “Told me how he’d eaten stuffed crab a while back. We were holed up at this empty bar one time – behind a counter – we had Locusts closing in from one side, and a couple of bullets hit some glass behind us. And then he turns to me and tells me that he’s allergic to crab meat. Told me that it makes him break out in hives – and then says seafood has too much mercury.”
Marcus couldn’t help but laugh.
Dom shook his head in disbelief, chuckling at the memory. “I told him that if he could single-handedly win this war, we’d start a campaign against mercury in seafood. And if he couldn’t, he should just shut up and fight.” He smiled again and looked out into the water, musing.
Moments like those – nightmarish though they seemed – were vivid. Sometimes nauseatingly so. But here...here, everything object was an antithesis of its counterpart on the Locust-savaged mainland. The setting seemed so idyllic that it could only be a dream. That, or it was the calm center to the storm. He gazed at the horizon of the sea as they waited, every now and then looking about himself for the arrival of their locust-expert, but his eyes always returned to the tide before them.
“Dom,” spoke Marcus after a while, disrupting their silence. “You see that?”
Imagining that the man command had sent down had arrived, he turned towards the tree-line behind them. But Marcus was pointing in the opposite direction, out towards the ocean, his gaze fixed on something in the waters. It took Dom a second or two to spot it, but by then it was closer, though hard to distinguish. A lump of something bobbed up and down awkwardly, being carried towards them with the aid of the ocean's current.
Marcus didn’t waste any time. “Wait here.” he instructed, as he ran into the water. The waves sloshed up around his knee-high boots, and he reached and grasped the object, dragging it along the wet sand up and back onto the drier shore.
Dom jogged over to him.
He turned the object onto his back, only to reveal the bloated body of a human, his face swollen and apparently scarred beyond recognition. “Shit.” muttered Marcus.
“One of ours?” asked Dom quietly.
“Don’t think so.” Marcus bent over the body, examining the corpse’s attire carefully. His eyes caught sight of a wet rag tied tightly to the deceased man’s right arm. He untied it with little difficulty and then held it up in the moonlight. “Recognize this?” he asked his comrade.
“Stranded...” mumbled Dom, perceiving the cloth to be something most stranded wore – signifying which group or leader they owed their allegiance to. He took the rag from Marcus, studying it at a closer range. It was pale cream...or yellow. Yes, it was yellow, he decided. He’d seen it quite often, but that was a long time ago.
“It’s Franklin.” said Dom, handing it back, and then corrected himself. “One of Franklin’s, I mean. Gotta be. I’ve seen his guys wear it.”
“They’re using the survivors to get to us.” concluded Marcus. “How many do you think survived?” he asked the question his companion dreaded to put forth.
“I don’t know.”
“Shit. If there are more...”
“Hoffman and Prescott aren’t going to mount a rescue mission for ‘em.”
“They’ll say it isn’t worth the risk,” agreed Dom. “You still wanna call it in?”
Marcus stared at the corpse for what seemed like minutes. Then finally, “Yeah. Let’s call it in.” He jerked his chin at the dead man’s limp body. “Maybe this guy’ll give ‘em a decent enough reason for us to do some scouting of our own.”
“Or maybe they’ll bury him and tell us to shut up.” countered Dom.
Marcus scowled. “We’ll see.”
24 hours later
Orsorum (Orsa) Island
The woman nodded in acknowledgement as her superior handed her some papers. Marcus isn’t going to like this, she thought, troubled. In fact, she didn’t know if she approved of it either. It was one thing to sacrifice their stronghold, Jacinto, in order to flood the hollow and Nexus. It was one thing to bring their own and a few survivors to Orsa without much explanation, to provide them with temporary sanctuary, even if for a brief time. But it was another to blatantly disregard the truth – obvious as it was – and keep it hidden from people who deserved to know.
She had tried ever so hard to place herself in their shoes. To send a large rescue mission over to the mainland, ignorant of the precise location and number of survivors, would prove to be a very foolish deed. They would place Orsa at risk, and would pay a bitter price to those who strove to keep it a hidden sanctuary. But no one had even suggested that a large team should be assembled. In fact, only two COG soldiers – namely, Marcus Fenix and Dominic Santiago – had volunteered for this reconnaissance mission. And in her eyes, it seemed a modest and logical offer. If they weren’t going for the purpose of rescuing survivors, at least they could gather information as to how successful their attempt at flooding the Locust hollow had been.
It seemed rational enough. They were cut off from the outside world, and given their situation, perhaps a scouting mission would shed some light on circumstances – be they grave or hopeful. It seemed foolish to place blinders on now. In fact, it seemed so foolish that there was something not quite right about Prescott's decision and his adamant refusal. If she had given more thought to the matter, perhaps she would have concluded that a piece to this puzzle was missing, but her time was strained - not to mention her nerves. No, she surmised, he was simply being hard-headed and near-sighted.
And that, she realized, is why she and Prescott never saw eye to eye. A politician and a soldier could never occupy the same room for a good length of time without coming to blows.
Figuratively, at least.
She walked with determined strides out of headquarters and into the live-in bunkers. Most COGs spent their off-duty moments socializing with one another in the grey rooms; playing cards, reading, gambling, doing whatever they could to occupy their minds and readjust to their new surroundings.
Here, she felt a little more as if she belonged. The camaraderie that blossomed between these men and few women were not constructed from favours, bribes or status. In short, the absence of politics was refreshing and welcome. Everyone here had – at one time or another – felt the burning pain of loss, and maybe, she thought, that was what cemented their bonds.
“Anya!” called out a familiar voice from the side.
She turned to see Marcus approach her, but couldn’t tell if he was concerned or just tired. Hard to read as always, she mused.
“What did he say?” he asked, coming to her side.
She shook her head, no.
“You’re kidding right?” he exclaimed, incredulous.
“I’m afraid not. He says it’s too much of a risk. If one of you are caught, it would compromise our location.” And on seeing Marcus’ frown deepen, she continued, “His words, Marcus. Not mine.”
“Does Prescott honestly believe we’re gonna tell the Locusts about Orsa if we’re caught?”
Anya gave him consoling smile. “I don’t know what he thinks. He just doesn’t want to take the risk at this time. I understand how you feel, but right now – he can’t be budged.”
“Anya, there’s a chance we didn’t kill the Queen. A good chance.” he emphasized. “We have to find out what happened. I’m telling you, if his plan is to wait for the Queen to die of old age, then we’re finished.”
She looked down at her boots and then up again. “There’s nothing more I can do. I’m sorry.”
Marcus sighed. “Not your fault. But hell, I thought he might come around. Had to give it a shot anyway.” His shoulders seem to droop.
Anya studied the disappointment in his demeanor – subtle as it was. “There is one thing though,” she pulled Marcus off to a side, and then dropped her voice lower. “The guy who you and Dom brought in? He wasn’t empty-handed when he died.”
Marcus looked at her with a mixture of gravity and curiousity.
She continued. “I got to take a look at the body before the medical examiner got there. It won’t be recorded in the deceased’s inventory, so no one will know it’s missing. He had this hidden inside his boots. It was strapped to his leg.” She pulled a small object out of her coat and handed it to him.
Upon closer inspection, Marcus saw that it was a small recorder, enclosed within a tightly sealed, transparent plastic bag. “What’s on it?” he asked, looking up.
Anya frowned. “I didn’t have time to listen to the entire thing. But I think it’s important that you do. It’s about your father, Marcus. It’s about Adam Fenix.”
Chapter 4 Edit
7 hours later
It turned out that Anya was wrong about a lot of things on the tape; specifically that its contents dealt primarily with his father. It wasn’t Adam Fenix’s voice and he concluded that the voice wasn’t obscure enough for him to mistakenly indentify it. The individual in question wasn’t dictating or narrating texts either. It seemed to be more of a journal, containing would-be plans – plans that appeared to have occurred at the New Hope Research Facility. Marcus did not subscribe to coincidences, although this would be a great time to start, he realized. But, much to his distaste and discomfiture, he couldn’t convince himself that a fluke was all it was. He couldn’t be that lucky.
There were segments of the tape reel that were tarnished by unidentified environmental factors, and the voice often came out garbled and distorted. But fortunately, this did not extend to much of the recording – allowing for most of it to be heard and understood. Portions of it were unclear – not in the sense of lucidity – but more in the sense of relevance. There were random references to subjects, and he guessed that these were medical patients. His father’s name was mentioned once or twice throughout the tape, and then never again. The voice had spoken of one patient, named Ruth, quite often and mid-way through the recording, she too seemed to have been omitted. During the remainder of the tape’s entirety, the individual spoke a lot about his son – with the lack of a name – and another supposed friend, Micus. Was it a play on Marcus, he wondered? But no, this son seemed nothing like him in any way. And the voice on the tape – even if it was deliberately distorted – lacked his father’s character, and his cold heart.
He lay back down on his cot, stared up at the mottled-gray ceiling and hit the play button, hearing the words that had now become familiar to him. It picked up where it had left off.
“I told Ruth today,” it began. The calm voice seemed out of place here – as if it was putting up some kind of front. Perhaps this individual did not want to be overheard, surmised Marcus.
He listened on. “She seemed disturbed and upset. I thought that perhaps she would be happy or more hopeful even. But Ruth was always unpredictable – both in the things she did and her moods, too. She said – and I quote – ‘that our salvation comes too late,’ but I’m chalking this kind of talk up to her medications. Speaking of which, Dr. Doom has upped the dosage.” Marcus paused the tape. Who was Dr. Doom? His name was brought up in almost every entry. Was it one of the doctors heavily involved in the research at the facility? Was it Niles Samson?
“Listening to your voices again?” came a voice from the doorway, slightly startling him.
Marcus propped himself up in his cot, acknowledging his friend. “Dom, sit down – you gotta listen to this. My brain’s been spinning round too much. Maybe you can make some sense out of this shit.”
Dom yawned and stretched. “Man, only thing I can make sense about right now is sleep. You could use some too.” He sat down on the edge of his own bed and began to remove his boots.
“Can’t sleep.” muttered Marcus.
“I thought you said your dad wasn’t on the tape,”
“He isn’t, but he is.”
Dom looked at him quizzically.
“This guy mentions him a couple times and then doesn’t speak about him again. And then he rambles on about his son and this other guy, Micus. And how they’re trying to get Micus out without having some Dr. Doom and his cronies find out.” Marcus shook his head, realizing how ridiculous it all sounded.
Dom smiled. “Are you sure you’re not listening to a B movie plot?”
Marcus looked back at him, his face deadpan.
“Hey,” chuckled Dom, “I’m just trying to make sense of it too, you know? Maybe though,” he nodded towards the small tape recorded, “Maybe this guy was a patient at New Hope. Maybe he was having some therapy sessions that made him keep some kind of audio journal.”
Marcus shook his head. “He’s not a patient. This guy probably worked there – he knows too much about the medication, the treatment rooms...shit like that.”
Dom gazed at his friend, realizing that it was indeed troubling him. And for something to have the power to plague Marcus so was probably something worth taking a second look at. “Alright, man.” He leaned back in his cot and sighed. “I’ve always wanted someone to read to me before bed anyways.”
“I’m glad I came to my son for advice. There is some kind of quiet resilience in him, a quiet strength, if you will. He says he’s shipping out in less than two weeks now, but I need him here. I need him to help me plan. His idea of administering the benzodiazepines was a good one. They’re mixed in with whatever Doom has been giving Micus, and they won’t stand out. At least not yet. I had suggested some barbiturates, but this stuff is much better. At least it will slow down Micus’ and Agna’s heart rate and pulse enough for us to pull us through the first phase.
"But we have a surveillance problem. Just like my son had predicted, Micus and Agna are being watched over – not for security purposes, but for any symptoms. Doom’s henchmen have more or less given up hope on the others. Whatever decency Doom has left in him has made him at least make them comfortable – during their remaining days anyway. My son was right. There is no hope for them now.”
Marcus paused the tape, skipping a part of the dialog he deemed unnecessary. The voice was talking about something unrelated to his musings earlier. In fact, it was so random that Marcus concluded that its arbitrary nature was deliberate, meant to throw anyone who found the tape and who listened to it, off the trail. He hit play again, and closed his eyes.
“My son says it’s wise to make this recording, although I don’t see how. I can’t and I won’t put all my emotions out here on this reel, but I still worry a hell of a lot, knowing that our plans and actions have now been recorded – and that there’s hard evidence of our scheming! I mean, if anyone here were to find this tape, then we’ve had it. And we’d probably seal Micus’ fate, and Agna’s too. It would be tremendously easy to link everything in here to them, and we would have no alibis or false motives to fall back onto. But my son says it’s not so much for peace of mind, but more as a failsafe. Not a very practical one, but something for the future, I think. In case we fail, maybe? Who knows what goes through the mind of the good doctor?
"I wonder if he’s going to turn traitor. And maybe all this is a set-up. But my instinct says no, and frankly, I have a lot more to worry about. It probably can only get worse from here on.
"Today we had a pretty heated argument. I said a lot of things I didn’t mean. And I think he understood that, but he was sticking to his guns. I’m convinced there’s another way to help them, but I can’t find it. And my son pointed that out to me more than once. One of them has to be sacrificed so that the other can live. I didn’t want to accept it, but the more I look at it, the more I find it to be true. Doom and the others aren’t going to let us walk out with fake cadavers. They’ll want to do tests, and then more tests. And by then, the “dead” will walk again, and the jig will be up. But if we use one...if we use one of them for the real thing, then believing that the other has also expired won’t be so difficult.
"But the question remains, which one do we pick?”
Marcus stopped the tape here, and opened his eyes. He glanced over at Dom’s bunk. His friend was fast asleep, with his snores to prove it. Marcus stared enviously at him and then lay back down again.
He listened on.
The following morning
COG Mess Hall
“You look like hell.” spoke the blond man, in between mouthfuls of food. “They ask you to do more recon last night?”
Marcus shook his head. Dom, who in contrast to his friend, had had a considerable amount of sleep the night before spoke instead. “No. He just got caught up in a bedtime story.”
The blond raised his eyebrows but said nothing. He channeled his momentary interest to looking about the cafeteria; peering above the rows of heads. “They had spaghetti on the menu today,” he mumbled to no one in particular. Then he turned his attention back to his companions sitting opposite him. “You seen Cole around?”
“Yeah,” nodded Dom. “Had to train some of the rooks. Said he wouldn’t be done till late afternoon. They have spaghetti, you said?” His friend nodded. “Man, I gotta get myself some of that. Haven’t had spaghetti in ages.” Dom rose from his seat, made his way amidst the other Gears sitting down to breakfast, and towards the serving section.
“So, how’s he holding up?” asked the blond, nodding in Dom’s general direction.
Marcus shrugged, poking around his food with his fork. “Alright, I guess.”
“You think he got some closure? With finding Maria, I mean,”
“Baird, I’m just his friend. Not his shrink. If he wants to tell me something, he will.” Marcus stared at his food, his appetite withdrawn. Truth be told, he had believed that a kind of peace had settled within Dom, and perhaps he had finally found a way to close the book on his search for his wife. It was all too obvious that he missed her tremendously, and that it pained him to speak about her, but perhaps he had found some type of solace with the knowledge that she was in a better place now. But it was really not his place to voice his opinion, and discourse that dealt with emotions was never his forte, anyway.
“Fair enough. So. You haven’t told me about the bedtime stories you’ve been listening to,”
“Nothing that would thrill you,” spoke Marcus.
“Try me.” he responded.
Marcus put his fork down. “Look, it’s not that I don’t wanna share or anything,” his voice almost sounded sarcastic. “It’s just that Dom thinks that it’s a waste of time, and there are moments when I think it is, too.”
Baird seemed impatient now. He furrowed his brow, a little unconvinced. “What is it?”
“Ah hell,” muttered Marcus, too tired to put up an argument. “It’s just a recording from some nut job who worked at New Hope.”
At the mention of the facility, Baird’s eyes lit up, his curiousity piqued. “How’d you get your hands on that? Did Hoffman pull it up?”
Marcus looked back at him, his face expressionless. “Yeah. Because I’m Hoffman’s go-to guy when it comes to that kind of intel. Of course he didn’t give it to me, dumbass.”
“Then what? Did you sneak it out?”
“Anya gave it to him,” spoke Dom, from behind Marcus. His tray was occupied by a single plate, into which was piled on a heaping of spaghetti. He sat down beside Marcus, and in doing so, was careful not to drop his meal.
“Thanks Dom.” said Marcus, with a considerable degree of acrimony.
Dom shrugged. “Well, it’s true. She got it off that dead guy who washed up yesterday.”
“And Hoffman and Prescott don’t know about it?” asked Baird loudly, and in mild bewilderment.
“Say it to the whole world, why don’t you.” growled Marcus.
Baird winced and lowered his voice. “Sorry. But why the hell didn’t you tell me earlier? You think I was gonna blab?”
Dom chewed his food and smiled with a mouthful of spaghetti. Marcus just frowned. “No, I just don’t want to make a big deal out of it. It could be nothing. If the brass found it, they’d have stamped it as classified and we probably never would have heard of it again.”
“True,” agreed Baird. “But you should’ve told me,”
At this, Dom gave out a small chuckle. “Why? Did he hurt your feelings, Baird?”
“It’s not that,” said Baird, annoyed. “I got some of the stuff you brought back from the facility, and a couple things from when we were in Nexus. I’m trying to fit some of it together, you know what I mean?”
“I don’t believe this. You got a scrapbook?” exclaimed Marcus.
Dom nearly choked on his spaghetti. “Are you shittin’ me, Baird? You have Locust memorabilia?”
Baird rolled his eyes and rubbed his forehead, exasperated. “Never mind. Let’s forget it.”
“No, let’s not.” began Marcus. Eccentric as Baird could be, he suddenly realized the importance of these macabre mementos. “What have you got?”
“Look, it’s not really a scrapbook, okay?”
“Whatever you say, Baird. Just tell us what you have.”
“Well, it’s not so much as what I’ve collected. It’s more to do with what I wrote down in my journal – about the Locusts, I mean.”
“Oh, I don’t believe this, most people write to their families...” mumbled Dom. Marcus gestured for him to be quiet.
Baird shot Dom a look before continuing. “I noticed a little thing or two about their religion. Did you know they worship worms? I mean, hell. If they beat us, then we deserve to be extinct, and even if – ”
“Baird.” Marcus interrupted. “Cut out the commentary. What did you find out about the facility?”
“I have some old medical files. Totally unorganized – lots of gaps in documentation. Let’s see...I think I have some memos from a lead researcher – that Niles guy – to his staff. Things like that.”
“Hoffman know you have them?” asked Dom.
“Nope,” said Baird, quite proudly. “And he probably wouldn’t want ‘em either. Prescott would chew his ass out if he knew. The thing is, a lot of the stuff I have, it’s all in bits and pieces. It makes sense, but then again, it doesn’t.”
“Almost like pieces to a puzzle,” said Marcus.
“Exactly.” responded Baird. “Which is why your little recording there makes me curious. Maybe it has some info that’ll make what I have sound sensible. Do you know who made it? Was it that dead guy?”
Marcus shook his head. “Nah. The tape’s old. A good twenty years or so. Our corpse was probably younger than that – and he may have also been a stranded.”
Baird looked away, pensive, and then back again at his companion. “Look. Let me borrow the tape. I might be able to give it a listen and help us both out.”
“For all the good that it’ll do,” groused Marcus, as he finally dug into his cold meal.
The data that flashed down the screen flew by so swiftly that to her, it was a blur. When she grew tired, and her eyes became unfocused, she imagined arbitrary images. Although pointless and often mind-numbing, it was in its own way a form of solace and distraction. The computer program before her was instructed to pick up key words from this disconcertingly large database, saving her the trouble of thousands of hours of manual labour. She selected the “time expired-time remaining” window on her screen, and groaned inwardly. It still had five more hours to go.
Should have brought a book, she thought regretfully.
Truth be told, just like the other Gears stationed on Orsa, she had found it too difficult to resign herself to this kind of peace. Or boredom, more likely, she mused to herself. Part of her felt as if she should be more appreciative of this calm while the other half struggled to contain feelings of dread. She was always the one to yank the band-aid off quickly, rather that pull it off in that painfully slow manner. If there was anything to fear, she’d rather face it sooner than later. And if the Queen had survived, just as Marcus believed, then there was no doubt that she would be more incensed than ever. She would re-double her efforts to exact her revenge, and then heaven help those who stood in her way.
Anya shuddered. Marcus’ descriptions of the Queen had alarmed her more than the grainy images that JACK had recorded. She was surprisingly comely, and Anya was certain at some point in her life, she must have been beautiful. But then Marcus had described the protrusions that seem to have emerged from her back. They were quite animated, and seemed to waver according to the Queen’s emotions. The insect-like appendages coupled to human form seemed foreign and even more alien than the Locust. Perhaps because it mixed the familiar with the unfamiliar, realized Anya. While the Locusts’ textures and features were altogether different from those of humans, the Queen, this stately individual, seemed testament to something terrifying. Almost as if she was the embodiment of macabre deeds that only the human mind could conceive.
Anya let out a breath and stood up. It did her no good to ponder on something that only made her more fearful. She walked to a nearby bookshelf, and browsed through the small collection, gazing at the titles engraved on the books’ spines. A lot of them seemed dusty and untouched. She pulled out one for observation, and in doing so disturbed tiny particles of debris that wafted up into the air. The book itself smelled musty too.
“Catching up on some light reading, lieutenant?”
Anya started, nearly dropping the book. She looked back up into the stern face that was Colonel Hoffman. “Sorry sir, I was just biding some time before the data compilation came through.”
Hoffman walked over to the computer she was at earlier, and folded his arms across his chest. “How much longer?” he asked.
“Last I checked – five hours.”
Hoffman gave off a small whistle. “Thought we were technologically advanced,”
Anya smiled. “We are. It’s just that we’re sifting through a staggering amount of information. The Chairman asked me to go back some thirty years. I have to go through all sorts of reports, whether they’re credible or not.”
“I understand, Stroud. The stuff that Delta found was news to me too. I’m even surprised that – ”
“ – I’m not gathering information on New Hope, sir. I’m trying to get some data on imulsion research. Post-Helen Cooper’s refinement discovery. It’s what I was instructed to do.” explained Anya. She was surprised that the colonel wasn’t privy to such intelligence, but she didn’t show it.
Hoffman scowled and scratched his chin. “Imulsion research?” he asked again. Anya nodded. “What the hell does he think we’re gonna get with imulsion research at this time?”
“I’m not entirely aware, sir. I’m guessing it might have something to do with the rust-lung illnesses people developed after the lightmass bombing. The Chairman also asked me to give him an up-to-date list of anyone documented to have its symptoms.”
Hoffman stared at the busy computer screen for several moments, as if he was pondering something. Finally, after an uncomfortable silence, he spoke. “Lieutenant, I’m going to ask you something that has gotta stay one-hundred percent off the record. And I want an honest answer, you hear me?” said Hoffman, his scowl still plastered to his weathered face.
Anya nodded slowly, not entirely sure whether she liked where this was going.
“Did Prescott ask you to keep this information from me?”
She paused. “No, sir. I was under the impression that you already knew. To the best of my knowledge – ”
“ – How’d you like that.” grumbled Hoffman, unaware that he had cut her off. “He has the balls to tell me one thing and do another,”
Putting two and two together, Anya finally recognized her advantage. Prescott was proud of his Gears – there was no doubt there. But it was Hoffman who was more their patriarch; after all, he had endured scores of battles amidst them, whereas Prescott had served a short while and even then, solely for the benefit of his PR campaign. Hoffman had earned the respect of most Gears that he had worked with, while Prescott merely demanded it. If there was one person she wanted on her side during this war, it was Hoffman.“With all due respect to his abilities and experience, Colonel, he is a politician.” spoke Anya. “Was there ever a time when the COG’s right arm knew what the left was doing?”
Hoffman let out a dry laugh. “No...no, I guess not. He told me he had asked you to put together the data that Delta had gathered from that dump of a facility. You know, where they found those...those giant wretches.”
“The Sires,” corrected Anya.
“Yeah. Those things.” He put his hands on his hips. “Now if you were working on a report on them, I can understand. But this just seems like he’s putting you on some wild goose chase.”
Anya’s brow furrowed. “Beg your pardon, sir, but what can’t you understand?”
“He wanted you off of dispatch duty, so you could work on this little project. I didn’t want to let you go – the men seem to trust you – and like it or not, you’re a whiz at interpreting maps. A handy asset to have around. But he convinced me that your mind was worth more working elsewhere. I believed him.” He gently massaged the bridge of his nose, the surprise still lingering. “Son of a bitch.”
“What is it Colonel?”
“It looks like the right arm still doesn’t know what the left is doing.” He rolled up his sleeves and stared at her, determination in his eyes. “Well, looks like we’ll have to change that now, won’t we?”
2 hours later
Anya stared at her superior in genuine surprise. What he had just told her made sense, and she silently chided herself for not anticipating it earlier. If she had known, at least she could have put both her mind and Marcus’ at ease. But hindsight was irritatingly twenty-twenty, and she felt a fool for doubting Hoffman, and Prescott, even. Not that she didn’t feel chafed at the Chairman’s mistrust towards her, but she was always silently proud of her strength of discernment – a valuable trait passed down to her from her mother. It bruised her ego, to say the very least.
The revelation that the COG had maintained a small military base on the mainland had also left her with an overcoming feeling of relief. She felt as if she could breathe again – that while they had one eye focused on developments at Orsa, they also had another to watch out for anything that threatened them. So it wasn’t as bad as she had formerly believed, and maybe their military had more foresight than she had given them credit for.
She took a deep breath after Hoffman had concluded and shook her head in disbelief. “How long ago did we put people there?” she asked again, still trying to piece together the news.
“Ever since we sunk Jacinto. We had an outpost on Elingrad's outskirts – derelict and abandoned. But the emergency bunkers and even some of the equipment was serviceable. Well, we took what we could get and got it working.” explained Hoffman, his voice a little hoarse now from all the talking.
Arms folded across her chest, Anya leaned forward in her seat. “You could have told me,”
Hoffman frowned. “I thought Prescott would. But it all makes sense now, doesn’t it?”
She nodded, forlornly. The Chairman had taken her off dispatch duty for fear that she would find out about this small outpost. And recognizing her ties and commitment to the soldiers out in the fray, he was afraid that she would inform them as well – in some misguided attempt of conscience. She wouldn’t have, of course, especially if she was instructed not to. But he had not even given her the chance to prove her loyalty, and she felt frustrated, and a little betrayed.
Of course she was able enough to comprehend that this piece of news was not something to broadcast. People, be they Gears, stranded or survivors, could and would have flocked to the location of the base for whatever reason, and easily have given up its position. This in turn would have led the Locusts to Orsa, and the remaining fragments of humanity the COG had tried to preserve could have been destroyed.
“So you see,” said Hoffman, bringing her out of her contemplations, “that’s why we needed to keep it quiet. I was against him keeping it from some of our people – like yourself, lieutenant. But it was just one of those times where I told myself: he’s the chairman, and you’re the colonel. And there are reasons for these distinctions. But I figured he’d tell you eventually. So you can understand my anger when I found out that he’s been lying to you, sending you on projects just to waste your time – makes me wonder where his interests lie.”
Anya bit her lip. “He does care about the Gears,” she said, surprised that she was coming to his defense. “I would hate to think he wanted to place us in harm’s way.”
“No, of course he doesn’t want to do that,” exclaimed Hoffman loudly. “But I’m no psychologist, Stroud. And frankly, I don’t really care about his motives and his interests. All I know is that he’s tried my patience one too many times, and I’m just about done with all this secretive planning. I want things like this out in the open; where they belong. That’s why I told you about the signal from the outpost, Stroud. Or the absence of it, rather.”
She nodded and walked over to the communications console. The controls were so familiar to her that she instinctively reached out to turn a dial before she caught herself, and paused. She looked up at the colonel. “May I, sir?” she asked.
The older man gestured towards the panel, “By all means, Lieutenant. That’s why I brought you down here, after all.”
Following a few moments, she had adjusted the instruments to her liking. Earpiece and mouthpiece attached to the headset she was wearing, she spoke to her superior. “I’m getting a frequency,” she began, “But there’s no response. No emergency signals or anything. You sure this is the correct frequency?”
“As sure as my name’s Hoffman.” he replied, in his usual blunt manner.
“And how often do you have them report in?”
“Every three days. It’s been four, counting today.”
She spoke into the mouthpiece. “Bluebird, this is Rogue. Come in Bluebird, over.”
Nothing. She turned up the volume for Hoffman to hear. He scowled at the sound of the static.
“Ask them to switch to emergency protocols,” instructed the colonel, referring to a series of beeps – not very different from Morse code – that damaged outposts could emit should their equipment fail to function properly.
“Bluebird, please activate your red signals, over.” Anya paused, before repeating herself again. She looked up at Hoffman again. “Did the other dispatcher pick up any emergency signals?”
“Hell, no. Didn’t know jack-shit about distinguishing a safe signal from an emergency one.”
She removed the headset, and set it on the communications panel. “I’m sorry, Colonel, but we’re not making much headway here.”
“Tell me about it.” Hoffman gritted his teeth. He walked towards a window, and then paced back towards her, his face grave and solemn. “This has happened once before. But it only lasted a couple hours – seems like they were having some technical problems. The Chairman – well, the Chairman thinks that’s what happened again. He’s not fretting like I am. But I feel different about this – like something bad churning in my gut. Always got that feeling just before E-holes sprang up.” He rubbed at his eyes slowly, and then looked back at Anya, his brow furrowed with worry. “I don’t like sitting around here, Stroud, doing nothing. Seems like we should be doing something. I have an idea, but...I don’t know how much good it’ll do. But before I say anything, do you have any suggestions as to what we could do next?”
It was always awkward to conceive of plans for people who had more experience than she had in her entire lifetime. On occasions, their requests seemed a little patronizing, and often it led to advice being given rather than taken. But this time, Hoffman’s reliance on her seemed genuine, and because of the request’s gravity, she gave her opinion a little grudgingly. “I would give it a lot of thought, sir. But, if it was up to me, I don’t think I would waste much time in sending in a small team. And I wouldn’t put any fresh Gears on it. I’d have three, four people at the most. Good, capable men – people you’d trust your life with.”
Hoffman sighed. “A recon mission to the mainland isn’t like a recon mission to the south beach, Stroud.”
“I know, sir. Which is why you need some veterans on board. You don’t need any edgy kids getting jittery and blowing things up. It’s not an offensive mission, and it needs to be handled delicately.”
Hoffman grinned slightly. “What you mean is, this is Delta squad’s kind of thing,”
Anya smiled in response. “You said it, sir, not me.”
The training compound saw little activity during this time of day, as the cool breeze wafted through the dense foliage. Newer recruits were trained during the afternoon – the time when the sun’s rays emitted a scorching heat, testing their endurance and trying their stamina. Part of the small facility was located underground, where the signals of mechanized training equipment could be masked, and kept off the radar.
Marcus enjoyed breaking them out in the open – he felt as if it heightened their senses to be out in unfamiliar territory, and it also gave them an excuse to release a lot of pent up energy – a feeling he was all too accustomed to. And also, he had realized, he was grateful to be able to be outdoors, a place that never used to be free from danger – if only for a time.
He watched as the younger recruits walked back into the compound, a little worn out, but with playful camaraderie that he had experienced so many years ago. They had not seen very much of war, but Marcus was certain that they would get their chance in the near future. They ought to enjoy as much freedom as was permitted then, he realized, as he was disconcertingly sure that it wouldn’t last.
He zipped his duffel bag shut, and strapped his unloaded lancer onto his back. He made as if to follow the younger men back into the compound, but an evening breeze brushed against his face gently, and he looked out into the setting sun. A slight walk could do no harm, he recognized. Hell, it might be one of the last few he’d ever take.
“Marcus!” he heard a voice call over to him, as he was just about to begin his small trek.
He turned to see Baird jogging towards him, with something in his hand.
“Marcus, I got it all figured out,” he panted, as he bent over and grasped his knees to catch his breath. “Ran all the way from the bunkers to tell you...Man, I’m outta shape...”
“That’s a long ways,” remarked Marcus. “What did you figure out?”
Baird pointed towards a small bench, still out of breath. The pair walked towards it and sat down.
“Okay, I don’t think I figured it all out – there’s still a lot missing. But you gotta admit, we’ve come a long way from the bits and pieces –”
“Baird, just tell me what you found.”
“You were wrong about a lot of things, man,” grinned Baird. Marcus couldn’t tell if he was just pleased about his discovery or that he had managed to decipher something that his ranked superior couldn’t. “You said that this guy doesn’t talk about your dad, right? Wrong. Your dad was in deep with whatever they were trying to pull off.”
“What do you mean?” asked Marcus. “This guy talks about my father and then decides to confide in his son. It was the both of them that – ”
“No,” interrupted Baird. He gesticulated with his hands. “His son was your father.” And then on seeing Marcus’ perplexed face, “Not in the literal sense of the word. He meant sun, not son. Because sun, when translated from its Latin variant into its English equivalent means phoenix. And in this case, it’s obvious that he’s not referring to the mythical bird, but to Fenix. Your dad’s last name. Very clever, really. Took me a while to figure out. I’d never have figured it out if not for the same thing he did with the other person on the tape.”
“Ruth. My granddad was a professor of ancient languages. He used to tell us about the hidden meanings of words, their derivations, you know – that sort of thing. Some of it was pretty obscene, but anyway – ”
“Baird,” said Marcus, teetering at the edge of patience.
“Okay, okay. Well in ancient Hebrew texts, Ruth means companion. And if you translate companion into Latin, you get Amicus.” explained Baird.
“I’ll be damned. Micus.”
“Exactly. Same for the other person on your tape. Agna means sheep or ewe in Latin, and if we do our hocus-pocus on Latin and convert it to Hebrew, you get Rachel. So now, we have two very real names. Ruth and Rachel. And this guy and your dad, they were dead set on getting them out of the facility.”
“Any clue as to what the hell was going on there?”
“Well, I think it’s safe to say that there was a fair share of experimentation taking place. And it looks like your Ruth and Rachel were subjects.” Baird derived. “I even have a small excerpt from a medical file you and Dom brought back. Here, look,” Baird handed Marcus a piece of paper, yellowed at the edges and a little fragile.
Marcus held it gingerly between his fingers and read the printed words.
Patient Name: Ruth Age: 15
Symptom: Ruth is clearly experiencing extreme swelling in her joints and frequently cries out in pain during the night. She also exhibits rather erratic and unpredictable behavior, though this is quite understandable considering her situation and symptoms. There is a strange discoloration in her eyes, and her breathing often sounds labored. Her nails grow at a faster rate than normal, though her hair grows at a markedly reduced rate. I'll keep trying to find some type of medication to alleviate her pain without adversely affecting our studies.
Dr. Niles Samson
After a few minutes of digesting the material, Marcus handed the paper back to Baird. The progress his friend had made was all well and good. However, it left him with more questions than answers. Why was more attention given to her rather than the other patients at New Hope? Did she exhibit positive symptoms? Were her doctors pleased at the manner in which she responded to their probes and trials?
Almost as if Baird had read his mind, he spoke. “They singled out Ruth, there’s no question about it. But I have a hunch that your dad and his mystery friend were trying to get her and the other girl, Rachel, out. But it must’ve come down to something bad, because they had to pick who they wanted to save. That’s why our friend was talking about sacrifice. They must’ve chosen Ruth.”
“Save her from what, Baird? The research? And what does the research have to do with the Sires Dom and I sliced up?” asked Marcus.
“Apparently not something good,” deduced Baird, stating the obvious. “Too bad Hoffman didn’t let you off of Orsa. You could’ve got more answers if you went back home. Or back to the facility, at least.”
Marcus glowered, unhappy with this outcome. “Yeah. Too bad.”
Chapter 5 Edit
The following day
“This is mutiny. It’s mutiny – is what it is.” The Chairman fixed his gaze on the older man, his brows lowered and his eyes glowering. Uncharacteristically, his voice remained under control and he held his arms behind him, but judging from the rising colour in his cheeks, he seemed on the brink of succumbing to wild gesticulating. “Everything I’ve ever done, Colonel, I’ve done with the best interest of our people in mind. For you to go behind my back, shirk your responsibilities – it’s insulting. It means you’re questioning my intentions and my loyalty.”
Colonel Hoffman didn’t respond. He stood but a few feet away, arms folded against his chest. His temperament was veiled at the moment, which was, in turn, unusual for his nature. There was a time when he had held the Chairman in high regard. Prescott’s service to the COG was limited to a period of eighteen months; and whatever combat he was immersed in was minimal, to say the least. But Prescott did not feign an attraction for the military. He was candid when it came to admitting that his strengths lay in the political arena, and for his truthfulness he had managed to garner some degree of respect. After all, he was a capable bureaucrat, and heaven knows, those were hard to find. Hoffman felt that the Council of Sovereigns – the legislative board that elected members of the Seran government – did well by its people by nominating Prescott to replace Chairman Dalyell. Following his positive referendum and election, Prescott had worked tirelessly to secure some measure of stability within the COG nations. He could not be bought or bribed, and what few people sought to tarnish his reputation with blackmail often found that the roots of these rumours were fruitless and could never be substantiated.
These virtues strengthened Hoffman’s perception of Prescott’s integrity, and he had never questioned his superior’s orders before. Until now, that is, thought Hoffman. Now seeds of doubt were beginning to sprout in his mind, and the Chairman’s deceit towards him and to his Gears were beginning to chip away at his trust.
“We’re not questioning your allegiance, Mr. Chairman,” came out Anya’s voice. She was standing behind Hoffman, watching the scene unfold before her nervously. “We just think you’ve made some bad decisions.”
Almost immediately, Anya winced and wished that she would have bitten back her words. If they were here to win the Chairman’s vote, or have his blessing, or whatever the hell it was – they were certainly not making much progress. And her remarks hadn’t helped either.
Prescott turned his head to her, mockingly curious. He looked back at Hoffman, offended and upset. “Oh, and now you have a spokesman in the Lieutenant, I see? Have you abolished all manner of rank while I was having my breakfast too? Elected a new chairman? If so, might I suggest the mess boy?”
Hoffman shot Anya an irritated look before addressing Prescott. “Chairman, the Lieutenant here just got a little carried away. I’m sorry. Why don’t you have a seat,” he suggested, gesturing towards an arm chair behind a desk.
“I will not be told when to sit down in my own office, thank you. I’m not senile and I’m quite capable of handling anything you tell me.” Prescott moved a step closer to Hoffman. He was a good head shorter than the Colonel, but stature did not overshadow rank, and he was clearly prepared to demonstrate his convictions.
“Then Chairman,” began Hoffman taking in a heavy breath, “with all due respect, I think you’re making some pretty bad calls here. Your decisions – calculable as they are – are gonna put Orsa, and everyone here, at risk. Now I know it’s difficult to hear bad news – ” At this, the Chairman scoffed, but Hoffman ignored the response and continued, “ – but it has been more than twenty-four hours since we’ve heard from them. They’re not on any alternative frequencies, there are no red signals, there’s nothing, Chairman.”
“You said this before, Hoffman. And it’s happened before.” stated the Chairman.
“That was only for a few hours! They initiated contact within that span of time!”
“Which they will do again, Colonel!” shot back Prescott.
Hoffman narrowed his eyes. “I don’t think they will. And it would be wise of you to consider some other options. Sir.”
Prescott closed his eyes and shook his head. He looked tired. All the while Hoffman had been bracing himself for an explosion of emotion from his superior; evidence of this came from Prescott’s slackening control of his temper. But instead, the Chairman had suddenly grown weary...and within the passing of a few minutes he seemed almost old. The man’s long face seemed lined, the underneath of his eyes – darkened with the loss of sleep and the gain of worry. He walked towards the center of the room, and towards a medium-sized table. Its surface displayed a lighted map; with various routes – past and present – tracked out. He lightly traced a meandering path with the tip of his finger.
“Sir,” spoke the Colonel, using the silence to his advantage, “I believe in the greater good. Sounds like horseshit, but it’s what I believe in anyway. And I understand that the loss of a few is worth the survival of many. I’ve had to make that call many times, Chairman. Never gets any less painful the more you have to do it, but you do what you have to. You roll with the punches and you don’t try to analyze it, and you don’t try to make sense of it. But somewhere along the way, you learn – your gut picks up signals – that sometimes it smells wrong. The trick is, when you get a whiff of bad, you have to know when to act and when to let it alone.”
Prescott looked over to the burly man. “And you smell something bad, of course.”
“It positively reeks, Mr. Chairman.”
“If I send a scouting party to the mainland, the Locust are going to pick them up. They are going to capture them, torture them, and after extracting what information they can from our men, they will then come for us.”
“My Gears would never give us up.” stated Hoffman.
“People can be broken, Colonel. Being a Gear isn’t an exception to the rule, it merely delays the inevitable. I have women and children on this island, and I will not stand by watching them be massacred by those vermin.”
“They wouldn’t give us up.” said Hoffman again.
Prescott left the table-map and walked over to his armchair. He sat down heavily, as if encumbered by an invisible burden. He leaned his head against the seat. “Whatever I’ve done, I’ve done it for us. For our survival. I’ll lie, cheat and steal – anything short of murder – if it keeps us safe. I don’t owe you or the Lieutenant an apology for lying. I did it so that it wouldn’t endanger us. We’ve been blessed with Orsa. With everything our predecessors have built, the supplies, the arsenal, the drop-ships, everything. I want their efforts to be worth something, and I don’t want to squander it on a mad whim.”
Hoffman wrung his hands together. He was no diplomat and he wasn’t particularly verbose. When it came to voicing his opinion, he often told it like it was, and he spoke his mind. Conveying a message should be something less long-winded and more clear cut. It should be simple. Just as his instincts were. He knew his men on the mainland were in danger – and he fervently hoped that whatever ill had befallen them was over. But the situation morphed into something more ominous when he recognized that their link to the outside world had been severed, with the lack of an explanation. It could mean so many things. And in this instance, knowledge was power, and they needed to know. They needed to know what had happened and what was going to happen.
It was that simple.
“I don’t nag, Chairman,” spoke Hoffman softly. “I can’t stand repeating myself. But for the sake of our men and the survivors here, I cannot emphasize how important it is to find our team and to understand why they cannot respond. If we didn’t completely destroy Nexus then we’re wasting precious time sitting here, waiting for the shit to hit the fan. If they’re planning an attack, if they know where Orsa is, we need to be ready for them.”
“And you don’t think we are?” questioned Prescott.
Hoffman shook his head. “We underestimated the separatists during the Pendulum Wars. We underestimated the Locust on emergence day. We cannot withstand another attack just because we’ve become overconfident. You said you don’t want to watch our people die? I have a sure feeling, Chairman, that that’s what we’re setting them up for if we don’t maneuver ourselves defensively. And how can we defend our people if we don’t know what we’re going to be protecting ourselves from?”
Prescott rose from his seat and walked to Anya, who had remained silent during the entire deliberation. He looked at her and smiled, as if to say that whatever differences they had in the past were now forgotten. “Lieutenant, if you don’t mind, the Colonel and I need to speak in private now.” He opened the door to the room, and gestured out into the empty hallway, “Please.” Anya gave one look back at Hoffman, who nodded at her, before walking out.
He shut the door and faced the Colonel once again, his face grim. “I can’t shoulder this responsibility.”
Hoffman studied the Chairman’s face. “Which responsibility, Sir?”
Prescott swallowed. “I can’t take the responsibility of bringing about a death sentence on the people I’m supposed to lead.”
“You’re not, Mr. Chairman. You’re doing what you think is right. As am I. That’s all they can ask of us, and that’s all we have to give.”
The younger man appeared genuinely disturbed. “We’re gambling with a losing hand, Hoffman.”
“At least we’ve got a hand, Sir. Could be much worse.”
Prescott acquiesced, nodding. “Yes, it could. If you send...if you send your men down there, do they understand what lies ahead? Especially if they’re caught? There will be no rescue mission. If we don’t hear from them, they will be presumed dead and they will be left for dead. Are they aware of that?”
“Yes Sir, Mr. Chairman. They are aware.” spoke Hoffman, his voice barely audible.
Later that evening
Anya paced the confined waiting area as best she could. Despite its contents – a worn couch, a dusty coffee table and two end tables which had long since lost their sheen – the distractions the room offered were not strong enough to quiet her apprehensions.
Hoffman’s “consultations” with Chairman Prescott had won them some manner of support, that was true. And despite Marcus’ expressionless demeanor, she knew that he was grateful, and even a little relieved, to discover that he was to get off Orsa. More than anything, it was plain that he needed answers to certain questions that he couldn’t even hope to find on the island.
And I should feel hopeful for him too, she told herself. Except that she didn’t. Right up to the moment where it was decided that Delta squad had been elected to carry out this hazardous mission, she was considerably mollified – on his behalf, of course. He seemed to have a purpose once again, now that the invisible barrier that had prevented him from seeking the truth had been removed.
But then, why did she feel so worried?
“Still here?” said Marcus as he stood in the doorway of Prescott’s office.
She smiled wanly. “Sleep isn’t really my thing anymore, you know how it is,”
“I sure do.”
“So what did Prescott say?” she asked, unable to contain herself any longer.
“Prescott didn’t say anything because he wasn’t there,” said Marcus, as he rubbed the back of his neck. “Hoffman was a one-man show.”
Anya wrinkled her forehead, a little perplexed. “But I thought – ”
“ – looks to me like all he wanted to contribute was to remove his opposition. He doesn’t want to take the fall for this.” Marcus shook his head. “Looks like his PR campaign’s doesn’t expire until he does.”
“He’s not as bad as you think,”
“Yes he is,” he countered.
Anya couldn’t help but smile at his insistence. She knew that Marcus barely tolerated Hoffman outside of the military realm. And as for Prescott, well, he couldn’t even look the man in the eye – which demonstrated the extent of his distaste for politicians. And that was certainly saying something. “Look, he’s just not that bad, okay? I think we need to cut him a break.”
“Why the defection?” asked Marcus, his turn to be curious.
“Let’s just say that some of my...perceptions of him have changed. Long story,” she replied, a little reluctant to delve into details. “So what’s the deal with Elingrad anyway?”
“This is gonna be more than just a recon mission. I mean, it’s important enough as it is, but one of the stops on our destination is going to be New Hope and another sister facility,”
“Looks to me like Prescott’s going to make a career out of declassifying info. You got lucky,” grinned Anya, “You can fill in the gaps on the tape,”
“Well, uh...Prescott doesn’t know.” Anya raised her eyebrows, and he continued, “Look, Hoffman was decent enough to fight for this little excursion. He went up against the Chairman for us. I felt like I needed to level with him, so I told him about the tape and the other crap in Baird’s journal." He saw her eyes widen slightly. "And don’t worry, I didn’t tell him you gave me the tape, I just said that I nicked it off that dead guy when we found him.”
“How high did he soar on the rage-meter?”
“Not very high. I think he must’ve been sedated.”
She chuckled before becoming serious again. “But what about Elingrad? Did he say how you guys are going to get there? I mean, you can’t really rely on covertness when you’re in a Raven. And where in Elingrad is the base? What’re you going to do when you find the team?”
Marcus let out a small chuckle. “One shot at a time, kid. The briefing was...well, brief. He gave me some information to start out, and he said that the rest would follow when he deemed it appropriate. His words.”
“Very poetic,” she quipped. “I suppose it’s the logical thing to do. You can’t really give away info you’re not aware of, now can you?”
“That is, assuming we’re caught and tortured, of course. But let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.”
“Yeah, let’s hope so,” her voice grew quiet and for the briefest of moments, it looked like she had to pull her gaze away from his face, as if she couldn’t bear staring at him. But in a fraction of a second she was composed again, and to anyone who didn’t truly know her, the action could have easily slipped by unnoticed.
But he had caught it. “You alright?” he asked.
She nodded. “Yeah.”
Unsure of what to say next, he did what he thought was best. “I’m going to grab some shut-eye. You could use some too,” He began to walk past her slowly, and towards the exit.
“Marcus,” came out her voice. It was hard not to stop in his tracks; the voice carried an emotion he hadn’t felt in years. “Marcus...just be careful out there, okay?”
“I always am.” he paused, without turning around.
She heaved out a large breath. “Yes, I know. But this time – well, uh...it feels a little like Russian roulette. And I don’t think we’re the ones holding the pistol.”
“Well then. I’ll have to dodge some bullets, won’t I?” he said, his voice lacking the conviction of his words, and walked out.
Two days later
The ride from the soldiers’ quarters or the grunts’ hub, as some of the Gears referred to it as, was a long one. He had not anticipated it to be so – seeing as how they could drive on its circuitous outskirts in no more than two hours. But it was painfully lengthy now, and what little chatter had initiated when they had started out had now dwindled into silence – save for the rattling of their equipment inside the jeep as it drove onwards.
Perhaps silence lengthened time, thought Dom, as he studied his companions. Baird and Marcus had fallen asleep; their heads often drifting slightly from side to side, before the intermittent jarring of their vehicle jerked them to a state of semi-wakefulness. But soon, with the passing of a few moments, sleep would steal over them again, and the little ritual would repeat itself. Cole had found the company of a small journal, and despite their bumpy ride, he seemed content to write his thoughts shakily on paper – glancing up every now and then to see how far they had driven.
Only he was left with nothing substantial to occupy himself, and it was these moments when she had chosen to slide back into memory.
Dom stared into nothing, his mind’s eye focusing on her instead. He could see her in the kitchen now, searching for something in their pantry. Sylvia, their daughter, had spilled something on their living room rug – something Dom’s mother had given to them. Maria had emptied out the contents of the cabinet, looking for the rug cleaner. She called out to Dom, it was one of those rare days when he had been allowed to visit them – if only for a brief time. Where’s the rug cleaner, she had asked? Dom had entered, explaining that he didn’t know where anything was in this house anymore, and had she seen his shaving cream? And then in came Benito, his eyes widened and his face a little red. He gave his father a sheepish glance, and slipped his hand into his mother’s, tugging it gently. Maria had rolled her eyes – those big, beautiful brown eyes – and followed her son, expecting the worst. Benito had led them to the bathroom, where clouds of frothy water emerged from the toilet. On the bathroom counter stood the rug cleaner, and a tipped can of shaving cream.
Dom swallowed, and closed his eyes. The memories were painful, but it was all he had left. How could he let them go?
There were some he could do without. Yes, there certainly were. Her emaciated face, body, the crudely stitched up skin. The soulless eyes. Oh God. A sharp pain cut across his chest, and he grimaced, unable to sustain the emotion.
Almost immediately, Cole looked up from his journal, concerned. He had recognized the pain for what it was, and reached over from across his seat and placed a large hand on his friend’s knee.
“Not worth thinking ‘bout the bad ones, man. Remember them for who they really were. The other stuff? The other stuff is nothing compared to how they lived.” said Cole.
Dom stared at his hefty companion, a little surprised. “How did you – ”
“ – I ain’t no mind reader, baby. But I know that look.” responded Cole, shaking his head. “Man, I know that look.”
Dom sat wordlessly for a few moments. “What do you when it gets a hold of you?” he asked, quietly.
“I write ‘em letters.” He held up his journal.
“But they’re...gone,” said Dom, struggling to complete the sentence.
“Maybe they are, maybe they’re not,” shrugged Cole. “Now, me? I like to believe they’re not. Hell, I know they’re not. They’re in here.” He thumped his chest, the place closest to his heart, with his fist. “They know what I’m saying. They know what I’m feeling.”
Dom felt a tightening in his chest and his throat. He looked away, watching the road fall back behind them as they drove. He felt his eyes burn, and quickly brushed away the oncoming tears.
He just wanted to hold her. That was all. He just wanted her back.
The black jeep came to a sudden stop, raising a cloud of dust at its rear as it did so. Ten or fifteen large brown tents were set up several yards away, and there was a bustle of activity as women and some families walked to and fro about their business. Some had grouped around together, chatting, while young children attended to their own games and goings-on. The others carried and stacked boxes atop one another, while the remainder opened up each crate examining its contents and sorted each item into its appropriate category.
A group of children had noticed the stopped vehicle and clustered around it, curious to see its occupants. A young boy, no more than ten, peered into the back of the jeep. Cole and Dom, followed by a sleepy-eyed Baird, emerged. The boy grinned at the trio and Cole returned the smile, ruffling the boy’s brown hair as he walked by.
“Your friend isn’t gonna get out?” asked the boy, nodding in the direction of Marcus, who remained inside the jeep, still asleep.
“Doesn’t look like it,” replied Dom.
“You guys thirsty?” the youngster asked, eager to be of assistance.
Baird shook his head. “Nah. We’re just here to pick up some things. Won’t be long.”
The boy looked disappointed, and he turned as if to walk away.
“We could use some juice, though,” piped up Cole. “You kids got something like that to drink around here?”
He grinned, and jerked his thumb behind him. “Yes sir, we do. Lemme go see what I can find.” He ran off into a small crowd of people, who had now noted the arrival of the group and were beginning to pay some attention to them.
Baird placed a hand on Cole’s back and spoke quietly into his ear. “Hey, remember, man – they ask any questions, just tell ‘em we’re doing some recon. Standard stuff.”
Cole gave Baird a look and scrunched up his face. “Now you know I ain’t the one who’s gonna blab!” he exclaimed. “You’re the one who moves yo’ mouth before yo’ brain’s in gear.”
The driver of the jeep approached the trio, and spoke as he adjusted his sunglasses. “We just need to get a couple ration packs. Two boxes worth. Once we get that stowed in, we’re good to go.” He turned around and walked towards the crowd.
“Well, let’s just use this time to stretch our legs out, do some yoga,” muttered Baird. “Gonna be a heck of a long ride to where we’re going.”
Dom moved over to the jeep and leaned against it. “We taking a Raven to the site?” he asked.
“Don’t know,” answered Baird.
“Hoffman said something about a stealth craft.” continued Dom, squinting in the afternoon glare.
“Can’t be a Raven, then,” concluded Baird. “Shouldn’t be too hard to pick up a Raven on the radar.”
“Where’d they get a stealth jet from anyway?” questioned Cole.
Dom shrugged. “Beats me. But considering that they pulled Orsa out of their bag of tricks, I wouldn’t be surprised if they also had some fancy air support to go with it.”
“True that,” remarked Cole who seemed glad at the thought.
Just at that moment, the young boy returned, carrying a large metal canteen. He held it up to Cole. “Good old orange juice, sir. The best of the best. You can keep my bottle. If you want anything else, I’m your man.”
Cole couldn’t help but chuckle. He accepted the small gift and bent down, leveling himself to the boy’s height. “My name’s Cole. When this supply’s gone, and when I’m done with work, maybe I’ll come pay you and your family a visit. Your mama around?”
“Yes, sir. And I’m Richard – you can call me Ricky.”
“You’re one of the lucky ones, Ricky. And she’s lucky to have you around. See that it stays that way, got it? And don’t give her no trouble!” He winked at the boy.
Their driver strode back towards them and gave the trio a thumbs-up as he entered the vehicle. They were good to go. Baird stretched his arms out one more time and began to climb into the back, followed by Cole, who gave one last wave to his new friend. Dom put one leg onto the rear of the jeep, and was just about to hoist himself up when he glanced back at the people looking their way.
And that was when he saw her.
She was younger than how he remembered her, but that face was unmistakable. So was the thick black hair, and the almond-shaped eyes. It had appeared that she had seen him too, but her face looked alarmed, and faster than lightning, she stole away into the nearest tent.
Dom almost stumbled off the jeep. Cole cried out, but Dom couldn’t hear. He ran away from the vehicle and into a group of people, pushing past them. Amidst some loud acclamations, he struggled by resistant shoulders and forms, and into the tent he had seen her enter. His heart beat solidly and quickly. His eyes searched the cloth shelter, scanning the faces that looked back up at him in astonishment.
“Maria!” he cried. “Maria!” He moved further into the tent, turning this way and that, his face plaintive and desperate.
Unaware of much of anything else, it took Dom several moments to acknowledge the presence of his friend, as he grasped Dom firmly by his shoulders, turning the agonized man’s face towards his own. “Take it easy, take it easy...” soothed Cole. “She ain’t here, man.”
Baird, his face alarmed at this new development, stumbled in and walked to Cole’s side. “Dom?”
Dom stared at Baird, his face blank.
“Hey man, this isn’t the time or the place,” muttered Baird, looking around at the many bewildered faces. “Let’s go,”
The pair gently pushed their friend ahead of them and out of the large tent. A few people followed behind at a distance, curious.
Dom tried to turn around. “I saw her...I really did. I saw her,” he mumbled.
“You saw what you wanted to see, Dom. I’m sorry,” explained Baird, concerned.
Cole nodded towards the rear of the jeep. Let’s get him in, he seemed to be suggesting. Baird complied as the two of them helped hoist their confounded friend into the stationary vehicle. Once in, Cole gave two solid thumps onto the metal partition that separated the driver’s section from the passengers’. The engine gunned to life and slowly began to move forward.
“But I saw her,” insisted Dom as he glanced up at Cole, his eyes pained and pleading. He cast his gaze back down to the floor. “I...I thought I saw her.”
“You did,” responded Cole slowly, “but only in here.” he tapped the side of his own temple gently.
Dom lowered his head into his hands and groaned softly. “I wanna get off this place,”
Marcus, who had been sleeping for the duration of their long intermission, remained oblivious to the ongoing commotion as the jeep rumbled on and into the distance.
3 hours later
The small jet traveled through the clear night skies, its engine a silent hum in their ears. It was obviously not built for dogfights, nor was it capable of much combat, but it had four turbo boosting engines located at its tail end, and one on each wing. Its prowess lay in speed, and its sleek design was evidence of it. Each tapering contour of its architecture was made to take advantage of wind shears and jet streams, and its engineers seem to have ensured that it had the capability to outrun any pursuers.
Augustus Cole leaned back into his comfortable seat and glanced out the small window to his right. It was pitch black and there was nothing much to see. But it had been a while since he was given the opportunity to enjoy flight, especially in the absence of anti-aircraft fire and nemacysts, and he was determined to appreciate every minute of it. He caught brief glimpses of wisps of clouds whenever the moonlight broke through, and watched as the plane’s wing sliced through them effortlessly.
His companions had been asleep for an hour now, save for Dom who had remained awake, until he too had finally caved in and shut his eyes. From where Cole was seated, he couldn’t quite tell if he was truly asleep, but even rest was something, recognized Cole.
Dom’s demeanor and claims to have seen his dead wife troubled him. The trauma of not being able to find her, and then having to have discovered her capture and torture at the hands of the Locust were pain enough for him. Cole firmly believed in closure, and he had believed that Dom had found it at Nexus – even if to some extent. It seemed cruelly ironic that Dom’s memory coupled together with someone’s resemblance to Maria had to surface at the same time. It prolonged the agonizing hurt of not knowing, and Cole knew how such emotions could tug at one’s sanity.
But something more than the emotional distress of his friend was on his mind. It was the effects thereof that worried him. He had seen a fair number of his comrades suffer the aftermath of trauma – he remembered this one scrawny kid, Rocco, who had witnessed his father being torn apart by a frag grenade. And seeing as how his father – being newly conscripted into the COG – couldn’t serve anymore, Rocco had to take his place. There were no excuses and no loopholes to exploit – the Gears needed all the men they could get. And from their point of view, tragedy of that sort should beget vengeance, which was all the more reason for young Rocco to pick up his lancer and wield it against the enemy. But Rocco had seen little of warfare, let alone partake of it. To make matters worse, it was obvious that he was enduring the ramifications of post-traumatic stress syndrome. And there were no shrinks or head doctors to recommend recuperative time off. Thrust in the middle of battle, and a part of Cole’s squad during his early days, Cole knew that it would be a matter of time before the boy absorbed some bullets, or triggered a land mine – after all, there were a million and one ways to die a soldier’s death. And die he did. Just the way Cole had imagined it too. Rocco’s death was an indirect result of his mentality at the time – he was careless, unaware, inattentive. But then, who could blame him? Grief was an all-consuming scourge, a persistent wound. Once it took residence in his psyche, it squatted there – its roots strong and deep.
He’d seen it happen to veterans too. A fact which assuaged none of his worries. There was this one Colonel who’d left his post, and who’d braved the fires of Lima City back to Jacinto to see his family once again, only to find them dead, buried under the rubble of a decomposing building. He brought himself back to the war he felt he was now destined to fight, but now it was the fight that had abandoned him. He took greater risks, he defied darker perils, gambling with a life he knew he would lose. Death had not wasted time in claiming him as well.
Cole sighed heavily. Dominic Santiago was a man of strength – both on the inside and on the outside. But his strength lay in his family, and as – one by one – he lost his parents, his brother, his children, and then his wife, the pain chipped away at his convictions and eroded his faith. But he stood up again, as he had found solace amongst his friends, men who he now considered to be his brothers. The search for Maria was over; it was time to turn his back on the past. He was beginning to move on. But seeing that woman shook Dom to his core, and seeing Dom so shaken had trembled Cole’s own resolve. Cole was not prepared to see another brother die.
It couldn’t happen, though. It wouldn’t.
He’ll be okay soon, Cole reassured himself, seeking the comfort of denial. Just like I was. He’ll be okay. I’ll keep an eye on him.
He closed his eyes and slept.
“Hey, wake up,”
Cole jerked, eyes open and instantly alert. He blinked a few times into Dom’s face, and it took him a few moments to assimilate his surroundings. He saw Marcus talking to the pilot in the cockpit’s doorway, one arm against the door frame and the other carrying a medium-sized duffel bag. Cole turned back to see Baird strapping on his holster; adjusting the cords to the contours of his waist.
Dom had begun to ready his equipment to leave as well. “Better get a move on, man,” he said, giving his weapons a quick once-over.
“We there already?” asked Cole, peering out the window. Dawn had broken, and the first rays of light were spreading across the water outside. “Hey man, we’re on the sea...”
Dom smiled, as he packed an ammunition clip onto his holster. “Yeah. We needed to have a water-landing. According to the pilot the engines are way too loud.”
“Say what? We expected to swim to the shore?”
“Yeah, Cole,” said Baird, overhearing. “I packed your floaties, too.”
“Marcus man, tell me it ain’t so,” muttered Cole, not amused, turning his attention to his Sergeant.
Marcus walked past him towards the rear of the aircraft, speaking as he did so. “Can’t be helped, Cole.” He reached into a large crate, and pulled up what initially appeared to be large bag packs. He handed one to Baird, Dom and then finally held one out to Cole.
Cole accepted the item somewhat awkwardly. Upon closer examination, he noticed that it was the furthest thing from a bag pack. The inelegant device had two sides to it; the first was flat and had nylon straps on either side, while the second was curved and contoured. To its end was attached some kind of motor, its blades encased in a mesh-like, metal cage.
“What the fuck is this?” he asked.
“A DPV,” came out the pilot’s voice, as he emerged from his small compartment. “A Diver Propulsion Vehicle. Here,” he held out his hand for Cole to hand him the large article. “You’re going to have to hold on to it like so,” He placed the flat end to his chest and began to adjust the straps and cords around his upper torso, and in a few moments, the strange piece of equipment was attached to him. He looked like someone who’d fastened a bizarre baby-carrier to himself. “See these notches here? You grab a hold of them when you’re on the water. ’Course you’re not going to be standing vertically in the water, you’re going to be moving forward with the help of the motor along a horizontal plane...”
Cole shut his eyes and shook his head. “I am not gonna be doing no diving.”
“What’s the matter, Cole? Afraid of the water?” piped up Baird, thoroughly enjoying the unfolding scene. “I told you I got your favourite floaties, didn’t I? This is it!”
“I ain’t doing no diving,” repeated Cole, a little less confident this time.
Marcus put a hand on the large man’s shoulder. “We’re not going underwater, Cole. We just need to use it to get to shore. Now come on, we’ve got places to be.”
“All I know is,” began Cole, accepting the instrument very reluctantly, “I ain’t never seen no train on water.”
2 hours later
The outskirts of Elingrad
“Come on guys,” said Marcus, “let’s pick up the pace. Kryll or no kryll, I wanna get to the site before sun-down.”
“The train’s runnin’ on time, baby. It’s these other slackers you gotta worry ‘bout,” shouted Cole, a few yards behind Marcus.
Dom said nothing, but surveyed their surroundings in silence and mulled over the last few hours. The flight to Elingrad was uneventful, as was their landing. They picked up nothing noteworthy on their radar; much to everyone’s relief. It was bad enough to be detected, but to be found out right from the start sure would put a proverbial and literal crimp in their plans.
Elingrad itself was deserted, and blotched with the occasional Locust sinkhole. Those were old, however, and partially covered with months...or years even, of rubble and dust. Rusted cars, trucks and vans lined the remaining discernible streets, neglected. It was almost as if time here had come to a standstill. As if tectonic plates had pushed up against one another in fury in a single blinding moment – splitting the earth upwards, creating deep chasms. But if one looked closer, there were discoloured splotches on barriers, vehicles – the ground even. And these stains were dark and old, some sporadically surrounded by the penetrating thrusts of bullet holes.
It wasn’t hard to figure out what had happened. After all, why should it be? Timgad, Lima, Montevado and even parts of Jacinto were testaments to the emergence of the Locust hordes. It wasn’t anything new, and it didn’t demand further examination.
Baird, who had walked by Cole’s side all the way from the landing site, broke his step with his friend and jogged forward towards Marcus.
“Look, I know we didn’t catch anything on the radar, but I think we’re pretty damned conspicuous out here. It’s high noon up there and we’re sitting ducks down here.”
Marcus kept his gaze on their path ahead of them, and spoke. “We’re not gonna wait until dusk to move out, Baird.”
“The kryll aren’t going to get us, you know that,” he protested, “If any of the Locusts have snipers up on those damn rooftops, we’re goners.”
“There are no snipers up on those rooftops because they don’t appear on the scanners,” explained Marcus slowly, as if elucidating something to a child.
“Then what’s the hurry?”
“There might be survivors.” responded Marcus, his face deadpan.
“Well, if they had half a brain,” mused Baird, “they’d get the hell away from this place.”
“Why should they?” came out Dom’s voice, after having overheard the pair’s short conversation. “Elingrad is dead. What better place to hide than a city center that’s already been hit?”
“Guys.” said Marcus suddenly. Sometimes he wasn’t sure if they understood the gravity of the situation – and how different it was from their previous engagements. If anything happened to them now, they could seal Orsa’s fate in one horrible moment. If screw-ups were going to occur, he was dead certain they wouldn’t crop up on his watch. “This isn’t a tour. We’re going to the site – end of story. Now all of you, shut up.”
Elingrad Town Square
“This place must’ve been something else,” murmured Baird, as he looked up at crumbling statues and the scorched marble tiles that had adorned burnt buildings. “Heard people talk about it...but I just chalked it down to cook-ups, you know?”
“Sure was,” agreed Dom, as he stepped over a large chunk of granite rock.
Cole wasn’t in the mood to be aesthetically appreciative. Instead, he looked over at Marcus, who had pulled out an electronic hand-held map. He was gazing at it with considerable interest. Cole walked over to him. “Yo Marcus, whatchu lookin’ at?”
“According to this,” began Marcus, “the outpost should be less than a quarter mile away from the Circle Monument. No wait, it should be a couple yards away,”
“But we’re at the monument,” noted Cole, loosely gesturing towards a broken effigy of some fallen war veteran.
“Yeah I know.” Marcus turned on his communication device, in an attempt to contact his superiors. “Control, this is Delta.”
A brief hiss of static. “You’re coming in loud and clear, Seargent,” came out Anya’s voice – tinged with a hint of relief. “Are you on site?” she asked.
“Yes and no. We followed the coordinates, but the base is missing.”
“Roger that, Delta. Are you in front of the Walden Memorial Statue?”
“Yes,” he sounded worn. Tired.
“There should be an entrance to a subway station somewhere around your location. Within a seven-meter radius. The base is underground.”
Marcus felt like slapping himself. Of course the base had to be underground – it wasn’t a damned parade float. He shook his head and spoke, irritated at his lapse in assessment skills. “Roger that, Control, I see it now. We’ll make our way inside and then report in.”
“Copy that. Use precaution,” she added, as an afterthought.
The signal clicked off, and Marcus walked over to the others. “Alright guys, we got no room for mistakes this time. Baird, you’re with me. Dom, Cole, you two take opposite flanking positions on either side of the subway entrance. We’re going to check out this shithole and get back to you. When we give the all-clear, you guys waste no time in hauling ass underground, you got that?”
Dom and Cole nodded, hands already over their lancers. In the waning light, Cole grinned. As much as he hated the prolonged heat of battle, he had spent far too much time training green recruits on Orsa. He’d had enough of the mulling and the waiting. If something big was going to go down, he wanted to face it with his head held high. He wasn’t about ready to back down from this fight. At least, not yet.
Moments later, Marcus, taking point with Baird close behind, walked slowly down the stairway, the tunnel ahead darkened and ominous. “Keep it tight,” he whispered back to his companion.
If Baird had heard, he didn’t let on. Instead, all his senses seemed to peak, attune to any hint of danger. His muscles tightened, but he kept his index finger loose from his lancer’s trigger. After all, this was no time to be trigger-go-lucky. Fortunately, the sun had almost gone down during the latter half of their trip and it was more or less easy for his eyes to make the transition from surface to underground. He thought he made out several sturdy pillars ahead of them, but beyond that – the darkness enshrouded everything beyond recognition.
“We need light,” whispered Baird.
Might versus light; the phrase came suddenly to Marcus’ mind, as he recalled the words of a dead fellow soldier. What he wouldn’t give to have his old friend by his side now. But circumstance was what it was, and there was no changing it. “No glow-worms tonight,” said Marcus quietly, referring to the possibility that light could attract unwelcome attention.
“Shit,” hissed Baird, more annoyed at their situation than at his Sergeant’s refusal.
At the bottom of the stairs now, their eyes were steadily beginning to adjust to the gaping darkness. A little light from the surface filtered through the subway entrance, casting light on decrepit benches and a kaleidoscope of litter and debris on the station floor.
Marcus let out a breath. He activated his communicator. “Control, this is Delta. We’re in the subway.”
“Copy that, Sergeant. I’m looking at the blueprints right now. You need to get off the platform and onto the tracks. Head south – one click away, there should be a block – ”
“A block?” asked Baird, confused.
“Yes, like a road block – except in a tunnel,” explained Anya. “Some of the obstacles are moveable. You’ll understand when you get there.”
“Uh...yeah, okay.” said Baird, not very sure if he comprehended it fully.
Marcus stayed silent, beckoning for Baird to follow him. He jumped off the platform and onto the undisturbed tracks. He stared into the near-lightless tunnel, and breathed out. His steps were sure and certain, his lancer steady in his hand. The silence was deafening, and he was certain that it was tormenting Baird no end.
And, just as predicted, “See our road-block yet?” Baird asked softly.
“Yes,” said Marcus after several moments. He moved towards large blocks, disordered and randomly stacked atop one another, as if the tunnel had caved in. He glanced upwards and saw a gaping hole in the ceiling. Well, that explains it, he thought. “Control, I see it. Now what?”
“There should be moveable blocks. You need to shift them aside.”
“Okay. Baird, get to work. I’ll watch our backs.”
Baird let out a quiet groan. “Aw man, I didn’t sign up for this kind of manual labour,” But despite his complaints, he stepped forward and tested each small boulder. Some were far too heavy to dislodge, and he looked back at his Sergeant. Marcus nodded his head in the direction of the other boulders. Baird began to test each one systematically until he picked up one solid stone with considerable ease. Following that, the others were easier to find and to identify. Within minutes, he had shifted five of them, thereby creating an aperture sizeable enough for a child to fit through.
Baird straightened his back, grimacing. “All yours, bossman. You wanna jump down the rabbit hole?”
Marcus looked at him and then slung his lancer over his back. “Watch the tunnel.”
With that, he stooped down onto his hands and knees, and crawled forward. He didn’t have far to go because within seconds he was on the other side of the rocky partition. Standing up he said, “Baird. I’m clear, come on through.”
While Baird was making his way, Marcus surveyed the subway’s tunnel. Its path led to darkness, but he quickly made out the unmistakable form of a door, standing to his left, unimposing and solitary. He moved to it, and jiggled the door handle. It was locked. Almost immediately, he checked for a control panel and partially groping the sides of the wall that framed the door, he recognized a square structure with several small protrusions lined up in rows and columns.
“Control, I found the access panel.”
“Copy that, Delta. Hit these numbers in sequence: two-two-seven-oh-four-nine.”
Marcus did as instructed just as Baird came up alongside him. “This isn’t exactly the safest vault in the business,” he noted. “What’s gonna stop anyone from blowing this entrance up?”
“The door’s wired,” explained Marcus, recalling the pieces of information Hoffman had tried to drill into him. Given the short span in which he had tried to process it all, it was a miracle that he’d managed to remember anything. “An explosion here would trigger a chain of linked explosives. The code’s the only thing that turns it off.”
“Oh, of course,” said Baird, his voice sarcastic. And then, as if he had just considered something, “If no one got in – and it looks like no one did – why the hell aren’t they responding?”
“That’s what we’re about to find out,” spoke Marcus, his face grim.
“Dom, Cole, get down here.” came out the slightly muffled, but unmistakable voice of Marcus.
“Yo man, everything cool down there?” spoke Cole softly into his earpiece, as a light wind brushed up against his face.
“For the time being.” responded his Sergeant.
“I don’t think we should set up camp here, though,” said Dom, as he looked back over his shoulder. “Not even down in the subway,”
“I agree,” said Marcus. “We’ll take what we need from here and leave.”
Cole nodded towards Dom, who stood up from his crouched position, and began to descend down the stairway. Cole followed behind.
When the pair had made their way through the barrier of rocks, they found the door that Marcus and Baird had discovered, open. A small light – its source appeared to be a solitary kerosene lamp – illuminated the room. And as Dom stepped in, he noticed that there was an adjoining room behind the first. It was a little larger, but seeing as how the entryway room was quite diminutive, not much could be said for the cramped conditions its former inhabitants had to endure. Other than the fact that they had Dom’s sympathies.
He caught Baird at the far end of the second room, working away in front of several pieces of equipment; a dead computer, some newfangled kind of switchboard and a crude excuse for a two-way radio. The room in which Dom stood seemed to be their main living area. There was a set of four mattresses, a small dead freezer and a portable cooking stove – its burners apparently coated with layers of grime.
“Not exactly the lap of luxury,” muttered Dom, as he made his way further in.
“No, it isn’t.” agreed Marcus. He turned his attention to Cole, who let out a low whistle at the sight of the room. “Cole, we need a lookout on the other side of the door. You’re it.”
The burly man nodded and did as instructed.
Dom looked at Marcus and spoke, “No bodies. You gave Control an update?”
“What’s their verdict?”
“Don’t know. They’re trying to assess the situation.”
“Tell me about it. There are no signs of a struggle, the door wasn’t even forced open. But this place just reeks of wrong,” said Marcus.
“Smells like our Gears were mingling too closely with the stranded,” commented Baird, from his corner.
Dom rolled his eyes. “What’s he doing?”
“Trying to get the radio going.” explained Marcus.
“That piece of junk?” scoffed Dom, jerking his thumb towards the archaic receiver. “Good luck.”
“We all gotta come from somewhere,” interjected Baird, “if we didn’t have her, we’d never have had wireless communication devices. And besides, looks like they hooked up some high tech to low tech – they bridged the circuitry and created a symbiotic bypass,” Baird pointed at the switchboard.
“You lost me there. Layman’s terms, Baird, layman’s terms.” said Dom, irritated and tired, not to mention fearful about this new turn of events.
“Look, you see the transmitter...that matriarch of a radio over there? She’s solid and as dependable as they come. She was built to be stripped, and stripped to be built. A ten-year old could re-assemble one of those. And the switchboard – now that’s pretty new – is just an accessory. It helps her latch on to frequencies better, expands her horizons. And she returns the favour by stabilizing the AC power. You know.”
“You sure do love to anthropomorphosize your gadgets, don’t you?” quipped Dom through his tiredness.
Baird turned his attention to the Corporal briefly. “And you sure are rhetorical today, aren’t you? What, you read a dictionary on our flight here?”
Marcus rubbed his eyes. “Guys, we got work to do. Baird, did you patch things up over there?”
“Not yet, but no sweat. Give me five more minutes.”
“That soon?” questioned Dom, to no one in particular. “You know what that means,”
Marcus nodded. “Yeah. It means that either they were captured elsewhere, or they were tricked into opening the door. If this only takes a couple minutes to repair, and they couldn’t do it, must’ve been something serious to stop ‘em from doing so.”
“I’ll bite. Seems more likely, though, that they were tricked into going out. After all, they couldn’t have all gone out at the same time. Must’ve had someone lure them out. Which reminds me...” Dom’s voice tapered off and he began looking amongst the rooms’ Spartan surroundings.
“What is it?” asked Marcus.
Dom looked up from his bent position, holding a small stack of books in his hand. “They must have kept a log, it seems foolish not to.”
“You mean a journal?” piped up Baird. Dom nodded. “There’s a pile of papers underneath the radio here. I just figured they put it under to keep her from rocking side to side. I hate it when equipment does that.”
Marcus walked over towards the transmitter and gently pulled out the small mass of papers. He scrutinized each one in the dim light of the lamp, when a somewhat large notebook slipped through his grasp and onto the floor. He set the other sheets aside and opened the slightly tattered book.
“Paydirt?” asked Dom, coming to his side, tilting his neck to one side to get a look at it.
Marcus read the unmistakable writing of the day, month and the year at the top of the first page. Following it were somewhat discernible writings – the scrawls not haphazard enough to be illegible, and not organized enough to be neat.
“Paydirt.” replied Marcus.
“Skip to the last entry,” suggested Dom, “we can read the rest later.”
Marcus took Dom’s advice and flipped through the pages quickly, searching for a blank leaf. Finding it, he placed the notebook on a small table – juxtaposing it to the kerosene lamp. He held it open wider with both hands, when both his and Dom’s eyes were drawn to large – and quite legible – writing:
Listen to the radio.
Marcus looked at Dom, his face growing slightly darker with worry. He quickly turned to Baird. “Does the radio work yet?”
“No, no, give me a few more minutes with her, okay?” responded an annoyed Baird.
“No,” Marcus shook his head and reiterated himself. “I mean, can the radio play recordings? Are there any on there?”
Baird scrunched his face up in confusion. “Well yeah. She’s not that old. And I’ve patched her up enough so that some parts of her function okay.” He paused. “But what for? You feeling sentimental?”
Marcus ignored the remark. “Just find whatever recordings you can, and play them.” he instructed.
“Sure thing, bossman.”
An agonizing minute later, the radio crackled to life, the hiss of static the only sound that could be perceived in the small room. The trio crowded around it. Then they heard a crescendo of heavy panting, and a guttural growl in the background followed by something that barely resembled a woman’s sob. Then without much warning, an unearthly wail dominated all other noise for several moments, until the sobs could be heard again. Amidst the painful cacophony, a male voice – there was no doubt it was human – seemed to be muttering mindless drivel. It metamorphosized into a sort of incantation; over and over and over again. The sobs were coming in much louder now, overcoming all else until they broke out into one piercing scream. It was a macabre symphony – and its small audience longed for its finale.
“Turn that damned thing off,” said Dom, saying what his two other companions could not. His mouth was dry, and his heart seemed entrenched, profoundly disturbed. He’d never heard anything like it in his life.
Baird cut the recording short.
“How much more is there...” spoke Marcus, his voice so low it could barely be heard.
“Uh...” Baird paused for several seconds, reclaiming his fragmented composure. “Thirty seconds of it.”
“Thirty seconds of it.” repeated Marcus. “That makes it four and a half minutes long.”
“Fuck me.” muttered Baird.
Just at that minute, Cole had walked into the room, his eyes widened and his lips parted. He’d heard it too. “What the hell...” He pointed at the radio situated in front of Baird, and then stared at Marcus.
“Get back to your post,” said Marcus, suddenly taking charge, issuing orders. This was neither the time nor place to make any conjectures. Confusion wasn’t an option. They needed to organize. “Baird, forget about the radio – take any more recordings you can find with you – including this one. Dom, do a quick search. Grab any journals you can find...” he counted off the items on his fingers, “...tapes, tags, portable drives. Anything you think could link us to their whereabouts.”
“If they’re alive…” mumbled Dom.
“Move fast, guys. I don’t wanna be here any longer than we have to.”
The night had pressed on, the clouds were but wisps – allowing for the moon at its zenith to light up their paths. Emptied and derelict buildings gazed down on them through their hollow windows-for-eyes, a silent, ghostly reminder of the past.
But their thoughts were lost to such admonitions, occupied instead by the cacophony of noises they had subjected themselves to listening to on the tape. They were ghosts of a sort, themselves. The echoing reminders did not stop, and all four of them were quite aware that although time would dull the repetition, it would certainly not dull the memory.
Baird, who could never endure lengthy silences, was particularly tormented by this one, and rightfully so. He felt as if he had to say something. Anything.
“Think the Locust hit the outpost?”
There was silence again.
Finally, Cole spoke up. Good ol’ Cole, thought Baird gratefully; he had picked on Baird’s emotions...or maybe he simply sought some inane chatter as well. Either way, it was very welcome.
“Locust may be the scum of the earth, man, but that...they may be a lot of things, but they ain’t…” said Cole, his voice trailing off.
“...evil.” finished Dom quietly. “That shit was evil.”
“I ain’t gonna argue ‘bout that,” agreed Cole.
“There was a woman on the team, wasn’t there?” asked Baird suddenly.
“Yes.” responded Marcus. “And I know what you’re thinking Baird, so drop it.”
“They were fucking torturing her, man!” said Baird, trying to keep his voice low. “I’ve heard people dying, I’ve heard them scream. She wasn’t dying. She was – ”
Dom stopped in his tracks. He put his hand to his head. “Please, let’s not, okay? Just...don’t go there, Damon.”
Baird shut his eyes and felt like slapping himself. He felt like the biggest prick in the world. “Dom. Man. I’m sorry,”
Dom held up a placating hand. “Look, it’s okay. Just...if you bring it up again, wait till I’m gone, alright? Can you do that?”
Baird nodded. “Not a problem.”
Just then, something shattered through the night, its sound ricocheting about them, reverberating off the building walls. It was the distinct noise of a single shot from a pistol. Instinctively, the four of them hit the ground, seeking cover. Cole and Baird scuttled off behind a mid-sized van while Marcus and Dom ducked into the doorway of an empty store.
“You supposed to keep an eye on the radar, man!” Cole hissed at his friend.
“Me?!” said Baird, his voice a little high-pitched. “How come when something goes wrong it’s always gotta be my fault?”
On the left side of the street and within the door frame, Marcus peered out, Boltok pistol in hand. Dom had readied his sniper rifle and whispered to his friend. “See anything? Ambush?”
Marcus shook his head. He then signaled to Cole who emerged slightly from cover. Marcus pointed his index finger upwards, making small circles in the air. Cole seemed to acknowledge the gesture, because he pulled out the scanner and analyzed it. Marcus braced himself for more shots when Cole signaled back, holding two fingers up in the air. He pointed emphatically out into the street to their left, and then towards the roof of a building behind them.
“We got a sniper.” whispered Marcus.
“Shit,” said Dom.
“We’re gonna have to draw ‘em out.” Marcus spoke into his headpiece. “Baird, Cole, if our sniper changes position, you two are sitting ducks out there. Find better cover. Dom, stay hidden and quiet.”
Marcus watched as his friends crawled out on their elbows and knees, following the path of shadows to a more suitable place of safety. In the meantime, Dom was peering out at the rooftops through his scope, panning left and right – looking for their pursuer.
“Alright guys. I’m going out. Dom, watch the roof. Cole, Baird, you two keep an eye out for that pistol-wielding moron.”
Marcus took a deep breath, and snuck out the doorway. He then raised himself up into a semi-crouch, his head and torso clearly visible by the light of the moon. Being careful is all well and good, Anya, thought Marcus. But dodging bullets is another feat altogether. He thought he saw something move, but before any sense could be made of the fleeting moment, he heard another crack. This time, it came from behind him instead of from the streets.
Either Dom got our sniper, he thought, or the sniper got me.
But then he heard a groan several yards in front of him; inhuman. It was followed by a gurgle that belonged to death, and death alone.
That’s one down.
He looked back, trying to assess what had happened. Dom couldn’t have taken out the shooter in the streets from that angle. It was impossible. But that sound – it was unmistakable. It had come from the barrel of a sniper. He saw Baird hold his lancer tightly. Cole was steadying his aim by placing his own pistol on a chunk of hardened cement. Then who…?
“All clear!” called out a voice. A man’s voice.
The trio were smart enough to remain hidden – they weren’t about to rescind their lives into the hands of whoever the hell that was. Saviour could turn villain in the instance of a second. But Marcus had realized that he’d been spotted; there was nothing for it now. He took his chances and stood up.
“Who the fuck are you?!” he yelled out.
The man stepped into view, his form casting a thin, featureless silhouette in the moonlight. He held up both his hands as if to say wait, and then disappeared from their sight.
A minute later, they heard a swish-bang; the sound of a swinging door from their right. The figure of a man emerged from the shadows, and if not for the noise of the door and the light of the luminescent moon, they never would have known he was there. As he neared them, Marcus tilted his head to one side, studying him, taking in whatever first appearances could betray.
He wasn’t very young – perhaps he was in his late twenties or early thirties. He was clean shaven – he couldn’t have been out here more than three days. His face was handsome, if slightly gaunt, and this hinted at malnutrition. Unless of course, thought Marcus, he was already ill. But his eyes...his eyes seemed eerily reminiscent of a past moment Marcus couldn’t quite recall. They were cold, devoid of emotion but too penetrating for his liking. Almost instantly, Marcus’ guard went up ten-fold. There was something wrong here, something missing. And he wasn’t quite sure what to make of it.
Don’t let on, he told himself. Just sit it out. Just wait.
“Who are you?” he asked. Introductions first.
“Corporal Sebastian Velko.” In one hand he held his sniper, leaving the other free for a handshake. But he didn’t extend it. “Who’re you? The fucking rescue team?”
No warm welcomes, then, mused Marcus. Maybe he could find a thing or two to like about him. “No.” He mentally ran through a checklist of the people stationed at Elingrad’s outpost. The name Velko didn’t ring a bell at all. “What’re you doing out here?”
By then, Dom, Cole and Baird had emerged from the shadows, and had crowded in front of the man, tired yet curious.
“I was Orsa’s lookout.” he explained.
Marcus laughed dryly. “There’s no Sebastian Velko on the list, buddy. Think fast.”
The man shrugged his shoulders, unfazed. “Well maybe there was a Goran Vujacic, then.”
Marcus was surprised – there was a Vujacic on the team. He kept his face bland. “You’re not making any sense.”
The newcomer’s face broke into a smile, and this caught him off guard as well. The expression seemed genuine. “Yeah. You know what does make sense, though? I killed Vujacic, along with Shannon, Dawes and Werbowski. I then assumed Vujacic’s identity, and am now living the rest of my days out hunting Locust. Because I am the enemy that kills my enemy who kills your enemy. Because that makes so much sense.”
Marcus’ eyes went from the man’s face to Dom’s, and then back again. “Stop wasting our time,” he advised, his voice low and a little dangerous.
“Then stop wasting mine.” he said, his smile vanishing instantly. “Either you take me at my word or not. If you don’t, let’s just part here and now and decide never to see each other again.”
“If you killed your team, you asshole – if you’re the one who did those things to them on the tape – you’re going to take a couple bullets with you when you go.”
“You heard the recording, huh?” he asked. “Now that was something else.” Just then, he cast his eyes down, his shoulders drooping slightly.
Suddenly, Cole brought his face up in front of the man, his eyes narrow and angry. “Marcus man, you just say the word and I’ll bust a cap in his ass.”
He raised his eyes to level them with Cole’s, and didn’t blink. “Some rescue team.”
Dom placed an arm on Cole’s shoulder, and pulled it back gently. “Easy, Cole. He didn’t kill them.”
“How can you be so sure?” asked Cole, not taking his eyes off the man.
“Because he just got back from hell.” said Dom, his voice a steady monotone.
Cole reluctantly stepped aside, and for a single moment, Dom locked eyes with the younger man, and it seemed as if some connection – grief identifying grief – was made. He gave Dom a barely perceptible nod, which Dom then returned.
Marcus sighed. Dom always called it as he saw it. And more often than not, he knew that his friend’s emotional intelligence surpassed his own by a milestone. Still slightly averse to giving this individual the benefit of the doubt, he realized that this petulant little council was a waste of time, and more importantly, dangerous. They needed someplace safe for the night. Some other place to do their bickering.
“Velko,” he said addressing the man, “You got a place to go?”
“You mean, do I have a place for you to go, don’t you?” He chuckled to himself. “Yeah. I do. Just follow me.”
With that, he turned and began to walk away, his new companions in tow behind him.
He shook his head and wondered to himself; this was some rescue.