For four years, the Gears of Ion Squad have beaten the odds and survived the onslaught of the Locust on humanity's front lines. Only two months ago, the Lightmass Bomb was deployed, and for a moment it seemed like the threat had passed. But now, as the city of Montevado burns to the ground, the squad has to flee the resurgence of their enemy, into the unexplored wilderness of Sera. Their journey will take them across some of the harshest parts of Sera's surface, and into the depths below it. While Locust stalk their every move, they will have allies in their fight for survival. Their squad leader now must hold together his soldiers, as forces physical and emotional strain the bonds they have forged in fire. Time is of the essence, autumn is slipping by and winter closes fast.
- Coalition Gears
- William Kulm – A four-year veteran of the war against the Locust, Will grew up into the aristocratic upper echelon of Jacinto. After forsaking his family’s ingratious ways, he became one of very few Gears by choice. The CO of Iota-Nine, Ion Squad, he hopes he can live up to the father figure that was their old Sergeant.
- Kloe Kaliso – Sibling of both Tai and Rias Kaliso, Kloe joined the COG Army against the express wishes of her family. A fierce and skilled warrior, Kloe has accepted that her feats in battle will go unnoticed by superior officers. But she has both the capability and desire for greatness, and an opportunity may be fast approaching.
- James Reid – Despite fighting against the Locust Horde for three years in Ion Squad, Reid has never fully adapted to life as a soldier. It may be simply a reaction, that having less to fight for makes him seek something worth his life.
- Wayne Ogle – Wayne is a man who has survived more than he believes he has right to. First taking up a rifle in the Pendulum Wars, he was believed dead during the Hammer of Dawn Offensive and lived among the Stranded for close to a decade. In his time with Ion Squad, though, he has proven several times over that he hasn’t lost a step.
- The Feral
- Brown Cloak and Green Cloak – Mysterious warrior women, few have ever had contact with their kind and lived to tell about it. This pair travels in the same direction as Ion Squad, and both parties claim safety in numbers. For now, they seem unthreatening to the soldiers of the squad, but with the Feral, circumstances can change in the blink of an eye.
- ‘Tampering’ Tom Anderson – A former Gear himself, Tom is delighted to make acquaintances with those still fighting for humanity’s existence. He is a skilled weaponsmith and always looking for something new to meddle with, but his allegiances must ultimately lie with Deacon McCarrick and his men.
Act 1:Pillars of Smoke, Pillars of AutumnEdit
Coals of MontevadoEdit
One of the Coalition’s last strongholds was in flames. The Locust had emerged once again, and now what Gears were left in the city were fighting for their lives. Boomers outfitted with flamethrowers had set fire to the buildings, and columns of smoke were rising into the night sky. In the burning urban sprawl, bands of roving Locust Drones led by snarling Grenadiers and Theron Guards occupied the streets. Asphalt split and cracked as the ground was shifted by foul, colossal creatures underneath the earth. And one last band of Gears fled while they could.
A corner building creaked under its own weight as burning beams were eaten away by the blaze. Out of its shadow and the smoke flooding from it stumbled a man in heavy plates of metal armor. His helmet shone two beams of blue light, looking for a vantage point.
Gear Sergeant William Kulm climbed atop a pile of rubble, trying to get a better view of the road ahead. It was hard for him to see in the haze, but his helmet’s systems aided him. Sweeping the road ahead with his Longshot, he motioned for the other Gears to move up with him. “Not much farther, Ion, keep going. Wayne, take point.”
Will jumped down from the pile, landing next to a grizzled old man with a shotgun. He was the only one of the squad without a helmet, wearing a bandana over his hair to keep out ash that choked the air. He waited to take the lead until Will was down and able to assist the pair of soldiers behind him, then moved up with sharp eyes scanning for enemies.
The squad medic, Tim Atkins, was doing his best to keep up under the weight of Private Matthew Victor, who had several lead shots embedded in his torso. Both were covered head to foot with Coalition All-Purpose armor. Atkins had his comrade’s arm over his left shoulder, and held a pistol in his right. Will took Victor’s other side, and they hurried forward.
Kloe Kaliso and James Reid were walking rearguard. They fired their Lancers back the way they had come, cutting down a trio of Drones that stumbled out of the flames. Kloe automatically reloaded, the combat training hard-wired into her mind. The tattoos of a South Islander showed through the gaps in her armor plating. Reid covered her, anxiously gripping his Lancer and waiting to catch up with the others. As she pulled back the handle on the gun’s muzzle, locking in the clip and putting the first round into place, the pair turned and ran after their comrades.
William heard a far-off growl, and his head immediately snapped up. From the blackened sky, a Reaver came into view overhead. He turned to his squad. “Get down, everyone down now!”
Ion got off the street, hiding behind parked cars as it flew over. They had their weapons pointed up, ready to open fire if it saw them. Fortunately, it moved on without taking notice, and the Gears moved back out into the street. Just as Will was going to get them moving again, a Hammerburst round flew over his head.
“Take cover! Move!”
A Locust squad had been tailing them for some time, and now the creatures were catching up, firing an assortment of stolen or scratchbuilt weaponry. Will’s Longshot claimed a victim, the Drone falling to the ground with its skull split. As Kloe engaged a charging Cyclops, chainsaws rumbling, Will slid behind a pile of rocks with Reid. “Atkins!” he shouted at the medic, “Get Victor to the Raven!”
Atkins nodded, and with Wayne firing to protect them, began to fall back along the street. The ground began to tremble under them, and the road cracked as a Corpser broke the surface. Their footing cracked into plates, and the one with Victor and Atkins slanted down towards the tunnels. Atkins managed to grab the top of the plate, hanging on by one hand, but Victor slid screaming into the darkness below.
The Corpser roared, and struck with one of its legs at Atkins. The Gear rolled sideways, covering his head as some of the concrete near him shattered into dust. As it recoiled for another attack, a Longshot round hit the giant spider’s belly, making it roar in pain and turn to seek the annoyance.
“Tim, run!” Will yelled, forcing another round into the sniper rifle’s chamber. The medic complied, and pulled himself up over the slope of roadwork, out of sight. The rest of Ion kept firing at the enemy squad, trapped between Locust Drones and an angry giant, with both closing in.
Wayne had been just about to release an arrow from the Torque Bow he carried when the ground shook under the Corpser’s thrashing, throwing off his shot. The arrow dug into the ground a few meters behind his target and exploded inconsequentially. The old Gear spun around and scowled at the beast, sliding home another arrow. It was trying to get a clawhold on the surface to pull itself up and attack the human soldiers.
Looking about, he quickly spied an opportunity in the form of a burning balcony above them. The top floor had collapsed in on itself and now an array of heavy, smoldering beams hung over the street. The Gear raised his weapon and held down the trigger.
Both armatures of his bow strained backwards as its internal motor wound up cables to create incredible tension. Immulsion in the arrow’s tip glowed hot as its fuse was ignited and the projectile became a time bomb. When the arms folded back almost to touching the stock, Wayne released the trigger and the appendages sprung forward, launching the arrow in a high arc and leaving behind a fading, golden trail.
It thudded into a burning beam, and for a moment sat hissing spitefully. As the sound abruptly stopped, the area where it had embedded itself flashed and a small clap of thunder echoed off the buildings.
With clouds of embers swirling off it, the balcony tore from its anchoring and plunged to the street below. With a crash, the Corpser was suddenly pinned by the debris. It let loose a long, loud bellow as the smoldering beams seared a pattern of burns into its flesh. Shrieking, the monster's simple mind became oblivious to the Gears as it desperately retreated from the pain and backed into the Hollow.
Wayne cracked a gnarled grin, satisfied with letting the creature crawl away to lick its wounds, then pulled the shotgun off his back to resume firing at the Drones.
As Wayne slid into cover next to him, Will realized the Corpser’s emergence had left a chasm across the entire breadth of the street, cutting off their escape. The squad didn’t have the time or ammo for a prolonged firefight; they would have to take an alley and skirt the city wall to get to their extraction point.
He saw their chance, a side street across the block on their right, and beyond that the cover of night and the deep forest. Keeping his head down, he yelled through his voice filter, “We’re taking a detour! Go by twos; Wayne, Reid, get ready!”
The Gears nodded, and set to sprint through the open distance to the alley. As soon as Will and Kloe started firing, they broke cover and ran, keeping their heads down. The braver Locust risked a few potshots at them, but most were suppressed by fire from the humans.
Reid made it first, and readied his Lancer. Wayne joined him, taking cover at the corner of the building. He gave a signal to Will and Kloe, and fired a round of buckshot in the direction of their enemies. They ran as the others had, while glowing hot lead buzzed by through the smoke. A bullet pinged off of Will’s armor, and he sped up as adrenaline kicked in.
He felt the shadow of the building engulf him as a wave of relief, keeping him safe from the Locust line of fire. He looked over his shoulder to see Reid and Wayne still firing back, and Kloe catching her breath. It was time to get out of here. “Fall back, we’ll use the forest as cover and try to circle around to the choppers.”
Reid and Wayne sent parting shots on their way as they followed back through the alley. Youngest and fastest, Reid quickly outpaced his squad, with Kloe not far behind. This left Will and Wayne to duck suddenly as a car they were passing exploded, its immulsion tank ignited by a Locust round. Their Gnasher and Longshot spun around to put a salvo of rounds in a Bolter running after them.
More Locust were on their way, and Will tapped the older Gear’s shoulder. “Go! I’ll catch up with you!”
Wayne hesitated, but the tone in his Sergeant’s voice said that if he didn’t go now, he’d make it an order. Reluctantly lowering the shotgun, Wayne high-tailed it after the others.
Will started sliding another cartridge into the sniper rifle, only to have the damn thing get wedged against the back of the chamber. He cursed out his bad luck in a long-dead language and ducked behind the automobile’s burning hulk as Hammerburst rounds flew by.
Still trying to push the round into his weapon, Will was unable to stop a trio of Drones from running up the alley after him and his squad. Switching tactics, he scraped at the round with his nails to dislodge it and pull it out, when the ground rumbled under him.
“Oh, bleep, it’s the Corpser.” Will muttered to himself, loudly over the noise. He still fumbling with the rifle as a heavy cloud of dust was shaken from the buildings on either side of him.
Asphalt cracked as the beast tunneled directly below. Fortunately for the lone Gear, it was still intent licking wounds over seeking revenge, and didn’t break the surface. It passed oblivious to the firefight above it, but its very presence had an effect.
Beams and walls burning, the building next to Will started to buckle and send showers of ashes, signs that it was about to collapse. A cloud of dust and embers descending over him made him look up, and become suddenly aware of the danger. Without a thought of the Locust behind him, he broke cover and sprinted for the end of the alley, praying he’d make it clear before the structure came down.
Incognizant of their imminent doom, a handful of Locust soldiers aimed at the Gear and sprayed bullets at him through a haze of smoke, dust, and floating embers. They missed him by miles as chunks of mortar began to hit the ground.
William cleared the alley, but didn’t slow, instead breaking for the trees. At the same time, the Locust screamed in horrified realization. Its framework burned away, the bricks of the antiquated high-rise fell to earth en masse, while the Locust caught in the street could do little to escape a crushing death. Some called out, some ran, and a few took last shots in the direction the Gear had been running.
Thunder sounded behind Will as tons of stone collapsed inwards, a massive wave of debris obscuring the ground as it fell. Bricks and stone flew from the chaos. The rapidly expanding dust cloud overtook the retreating Gear, chunks of rubble falling to earth everywhere. Will was almost to the trees when something bounced up off the ground behind him and smacked into the rear of his helm with a resounding crack.
He hit the ground hard, seeing stars ignite and collapse in the dark field of his vision. Throbbing pain came from the back of his head, and he had to struggle to stay conscious. Will moved his hand into blurry view, sliding it over the dead pine needles of the forest floor. The last of the building’s debris thudded and rolled around him, coming to rest on the edge of the treeline. Just beyond him, he saw his Longshot, and tried to reach for the weapon. As soon as he laid a hand on it, he heard a scream.
In the settling dust, one lone figure stumbled from the wreckage, a Locust Cyclops, with Lancer rifle cradled in its claws. A golden beam shone from the lamp in its helmet, scanning for any sign of the fleeing Gear.
Will crawled hurriedly into the underbrush, hiding behind a dead log. He reached to his belt for another cartridge when the Locust’s heavy breathing reached his ears. He froze, waiting as the Cyclops approached. Heavy hide boots snapped twigs under the drone's weight, and vapor streamed from its maw in the cold air. The monster twisted its head back and forth, scanning for him. Will held his breath as the drone passed him by, unaware of how close the two came.
It walked onwards, its back turned to the Gear, and Will immediately took advantage of the Locust’s blunder. Grasping the barrel of his Longshot in both hands, he silently stood and walked after the oblivious savage. Nearing it, Will raised his rifle.
Just as he was about to strike, a blackbird flapped through the trees behind him, causing the Cyclops to whirl around. It snarled, and quickly brought up its Lancer to strike him. Will’s helmet was thrown loose as the latent chainsaw glanced off it, and he was knocked on his back by the solid force.
The Cyclops revved up its Lancer’s bayonet, and swung the weapon over its head at him. Will raised his Longshot to hold it back, and felt the rifle vibrate as the Locust pressed down. Sparks flew off of the contact, and he shut his eyes to protect them. The pressure lifted, and he found that the Locust had cut the weapon into two pieces, the shorn ends slagged and glowing slightly.
He dropped the pieces, looking up at the Cyclops. It barked a laugh and raised the weapon to its shoulder, lining the sights on Will’s head. In defiance, Will kicked at its leg and heard a sharp crack as his metal boot connected with the kneecap.
Growling in pain and surprise, the Locust fell next to him, and William quickly scrambled on top of it, pinning it down under its own weapon. He yelled, throwing a punch to its temple. The Locust’s helmet rolled away as the Gear landed another blow with his left hand, and then a third. A crack sounded from under the Locust's skin, and it lay still.
Will rolled off of it, panting heavily. For a long minute, he lay catching his breath beside the corpse of his enemy, among the forest shadows cast by Montevado's coals. As he caught his breath, he became aware of the world around him again, and he pushed himself to his feet.
Holding the side of his head, Will stood up and looked around. The halves of his Longshot still lay on the ground, their jagged edges still glowing faintly. He spied his helmet laying a few feet away, and walked over to pick it up. A pained expression crossed his features as he noticed one of the eyepieces was cracked and dim. He stared at it a moment before throwing the useless equipment away.
The only thing he had left was his snub pistol, and that wouldn't be enough for a pack of Locust scavengers. His eyes caught on the Lancer still lying on top of its former owner. He hesitated for a moment, then took the weapon, and headed off to catch up with his squad.
By Moon and FirelightEdit
For the first time in perhaps too long, Will felt the chill of Sera's night air against his face as he charged through the undergrowth. With the light of Montevado’s fires behind him and his helmet gone, he had trouble seeing anything in the dark forest, but the trail left by three Gears in full armor was hard to miss. His breath rushed out of him to join the wind pushing through his liberated brown hair, slowed by the clanking, gleaming Coalition armor. The few shafts of moonlight penetrating the thick canopy illuminated him silver and blue for moments before rejoining uniform shadows.
He followed the signs of broken branches and kicked-up leaves as fast as he could under exhaustion and the weight of his suit. Part of his upper lip he realized felt numb where the helmet had been smashed against his face, and he could taste blood seeping from it. Voices up ahead caught his attention, and recognizing Reid’s voice, he knew it had to be his squad. Trampling over already bent ferns, he emerged in the circle of light cast by a smouldering King Raven, into the middle of a standoff.
Flames crackled and climbed over the helicopter’s blackened frame, and James Reid stood with his back to the downed chopper, its light outlining his bulky silhouette. Behind him stood a lean figure obscured by a full-body cloak, and hood hanging down to just above her eyes. A distinctly human woman had the Gear pulled back off-balance, and a Gorgon heavy pistol held against Reid’s exposed neck.
Kloe and Wayne stood motionless next to each other, the former on one knee and Lancer pointed toward the woman and her hostage. Unreadable behind the helmet, her steady nerves held the rifle motionless and on target. Wayne stood back-to-back with her, the profile of his eyes down to dark pupils, sighted down his shotgun at a fifth figure.
Like the other newcomer, it was a woman garbed in a long cloak and hood, this one standing in the open, obviously caught by Wayne, and unable to move fast enough to escape should he decide to fire. Though they noticed his presence, none dared take their eyes away long enough to look at him.
William was caught completely off-guard by the situation. He managed to mutter, “Someone want to fill me in a little bit . . .?”
Before any reply came, a loud howl sounded from the distant hills behind them. Will decided the noise wasn’t far away enough for his comfort. “Look,” he said to the woman holding Reid hostage, “any other day, I’d love to hear just what it was that Reid did to piss you off, but right now, we have bigger problems.”
More roars answered the first, unmistakably those of Bloodmount packs, but the stalemate held. The situation was becoming more tense by the moment, and grips tightened on weapons. It was then when Wayne decided to be the adult, and took the first step, putting up his shotgun and leaving the woman open to escape. The one holding Reid pushed him forward and sent him stumbling towards the other Gears, then turned and fled with her companion, vanishing beyond the ring of light and into the dark forest. As suddenly as Will had become aware of them, they had disappeared. But he didn’t have time to dwell on their existence; the Locust were still out there.
Noticing Reid’s Lancer by his feet, Will picked it up and tossed the weapon to its owner. “Any survivors in the KR?”
“No.” Kloe answered, getting up from her couch. “Mercifully, they seem to have been killed on impact.”
“Then let’s move out. Looks like we’re cut off from the city. Wayne, you know a way to throw off Bloodmounts?”
“I’ll havta hurry, but I know one thing that kin help . . .” With a heavy clank, Wayne locked his Gnasher onto the back of his armor, and snapped off a bough from one of the pine trees. As the sounds of their pursuers became louder, he lifted it out over the fire engulfing the Raven, and the dry needles immediately caught fire. Wayne then hurried over to the trees and lifted it up into the lower branches.
An inferno swiftly climbed for the open stars above, flames running across the trees like they were burning a hole in a sheet of parchment paper. Thick, black smoke carried the scent of burning evergreen wood down to the ground, choking the soil below. It would be hard for the Locust to track them by smell now.
Coughing, Will ushered on the three Gears that he had left, pushing them before him into the darkness, away from the rapidly spreading wildfire. He followed, taking a last look back to see the dim beacon of lights mounted on a Bloodmount’s head charging into the other side of the clearing they were leaving behind.
“So, who were they?” Will asked as they fled the crash site. Reid and Kloe were once again in the lead as their group pressed uphill, while he held back to keep Wayne company. As they got further and further from Montevado’s ashes, it became clear that they wouldn’t be going back. The screams of Bloodmounts had faded away, but weren’t completely out of earshot yet.
The old Gear huffed and pulled his legs up over another step in the bedrock and made a reply. “Not ezactly sure ‘bout that. But I gotta hunch, tho’.” He accepted Will’s arm to help get on top of the next rock. “They’re called the Feral, group’a warrior women types, got t’gether after some petic’larly hard times in the Pendulum Wars. They keep t’themselves, mostly, like Stranded . . .but more organized. An’ more dangerous, usually.”
“What is our plan?” Kloe asked from up ahead where she and Reid were standing. Her voice sounded odd, a South Island accent distorted by her helmet’s voice filter. Will had to look around. For a while now, he had just been moving in the same direction they were. He needed to make a decision . . .
“Montevado’s gone. We’ll try and find an outpost, get evac’d from there.” He said, just as the sound of Bloodmount roars returned. The Gears spun around, looking down towards the source.
In the valley below them, bursts of light and sound revealed weapons being fired between two moving sides, one giving chase to the other. It went on for a few seconds before they caught sight of the combatants. In the open for only a few seconds were the two cloaked women they had encountered before, one firing an oversized Gorgon pistol and the other a Hammerburst.
Closing behind them was a pack of a half dozen of the bipedal animals being spurred on by Locust riders. The rifles that the Drones carried weren’t proving a threat to the pair, missing their targets wildly, but the hungry jaws of the Bloodmounts were catching up.
“Hey, it’s dinner and a show!” Reid said, standing on an outcropping above the rest. Will strained to get a good view of exactly what was happening, but the trees were blocking them out. He looked around to find a better vantage point, and realized that there were only three of them on the ridge.
“Where’s Kloe . . ?” Will asked. Wayne pointed, and he followed the aim to see the back of a suit of Gear armor headed down hill, to head off the chase.
Wayne turned and looked at him, waiting for him to give the word. Will stared after her for a moment, but he knew she wasn’t going to come back.
“Dammit . . . Ion Squad, lock and load!”
Raven KR-157 swung back and forth in the airspace above Montevado, dodging columns of thick, black smoke rising from the city. Firelight cast a bloody red glow on the chopper’s exterior, changing its blue and silver paint to a coat of orange.
Private Tim Atkins was standing in the troop bay, hand grasping a strap on the ceiling to keep from falling out of the bird. His helmet was under the other arm, letting the light glisten off the sweat covering his face. A hard-set jaw outlined his dark hair and skin, and eyes that scanned the streets below for his squadmates.
He heard a short static ping in his helmet mic over the chopper’s rotor, and donned the heavy thing as the gunship pilot spoke in her usual bold way. “Private, we’re not getting anything on Ion Squad. Seeders’ve been spotted outside the city, we can’t stay much longer.”
“Can you make another pass?” he asked, having to yell when the door gunner next to him opened up on a Locust band caught in the open.
“Negative. Not without risking Nemecyst.” She responded. “Got one more rally point for fly-over, downtown. Heading out now.”
Atkins’ heart sank in his chest. “Alright. Let’s get out of here.” As he felt the increased gravity of the Raven’s sharp turn, the medic shifted into one of the seats to watch the smoldering city go by. For all the tenacity shown by the city’s defenders, the Locust had surprise and numbers, and now the ashes belonged to them. The raiding parties were falling back underground, as they had already exterminated the survivors in this area. Atkins rested his head against the back of the seat, and listened to the thunder of the chopper’s wings.
Again, the speaker crackled to life. “Evac Station 3-7, this is Captain Alex O’Day, KR One Fifty-Seven, copy. We’re coming in for evac, over.”
The combat medic tried to block out the noise. He ignored his ears, and thinking it had worked for not hearing the evac station’s response, settled into his rest until the gunner muttered, “Oh, God.”
Those words sprung his eyes open, and he looked down out of the dropship.
KR-157 cleared the rooftops and hovered over an open square at the center of which stood the spire of a church. For a quarter mile square, the earth surrounding it was wet with blood. Tens of Gears and hundreds of Drones littered the ground in the aftermath of a hopeless last stand, their armor becoming their caskets. Every Gear had fallen, and the civilians they protected – innocent men, women, and children – every one of them had been murdered.
He understood now why he hadn’t heard a response. There hadn’t been anyone alive to answer.
A few Locust who were looting the bodies looked up and screamed defiantly at them, as Captain O’Day came on radio again in her solemn in her tone. “Command, KR-157. Evac Station 3-7 is gone, bugging out Colonel.”
“Roger that, 157. See you back home.”
Atkins settled in again. So the Lightmass Bomb had been nothing but false hope. Waiting for his own time for a last stand was all he might have left.
Kloe heard her squad decide to chase after her, and kept on going towards the source of the gunfire, now completely in the dark. What little light her armor’s status lights gave off kept her from running headlong into a tree trunk and she relied on sound for direction, and the moment she saw something vaguely hostile, she opened fire.
Lancer rounds blazed low through the ferns, and a yelp let her know she had hit flesh. A Bloodmount turned its head and the searchlight beam shined looking for her, but only gave her a better target. Adjusting aim, the next burst punched out all the creature’s lights. She moved in to kill the incapacitated rider.
Whatever the element of surprise amounted to, she still only had one of six mounted hostiles down. The rest were charging after their first targets, the scrawny women that had shot them several times. The one in the lead was especially determined after having its maw bloodied by their rounds. Not enough to damage it well, but the stinging kept its anger fueled.
Their targets had adopted a cover and retreat tactic, one firing as the other ran to a new spot, and covered her companion. The one with a Boltok revolver had to hold ground now, and took an extra moment, then squeezed the trigger and put one of the shots directly into the nearest Rider’s neck. Clutching the wound as blood flowed through its claws, its weapon dropped and was therefore out of the fight, but the monster charged on.
With ground lost, the woman sprinted for her life only to hit a wall of steel, muscle, and bone headfirst. Dazed, she dropped to the ground, fearful that she was about to see the Bloodmount’s jaws.
For only a moment, Will watched her fall to the ground before slinging his rifle around and punching lead out of its barrel. The creature wheezed, frustrated and angry that its now incapacitated and helpless prey had been replaced by this one. It crashed to the ground, out of strength.
The rider had expected this, and leaped off its back, maw gaping and showing the pointed teeth within, only for its sternum to connect with the keel of his Lancer. Rebounding, and thrown to into the dirt breathless, it was all too easy for William to put a round into the back of its neck.
Shifting forty-five degrees, he lined up a second target. Several large-caliber shots rang out next to him. The woman had grabbed her revolver and added its firepower. But this one was determined, and though its rider was slain it charged on. Will was backpedaling, hoping it would drop, but with a burst of speed it rammed him.
He was thrown up over its head, losing grip of his rifle, and thrown into the dirt behind it as the Bloodmount wheeled on him.
Then Kloe leaped between it and the two prone figures, waving a crimson flare and yelling maniacally in South Islander. The light spooked it, and snarling a few times, backed away until it had enough room to turn and flee.
With the heavy footfalls retreating into the distance, Kloe took a breath and straightened. Putting the rifle over her back, she offered Will a hand up and tossed him the rifle he’d dropped. For the first time in a while, his foolish smile wasn’t hidden by a helmet, and he clapped her on the shoulder.
She shrugged him off. He had the look in his eye that didn’t approve of her actions. But Kloe didn’t particularly care in this instance. They’d driven off the Locust, with no casualties, and saved these two. Then Kloe noticed the brown-cloaked woman, watching her from the ground. Evidently her wild screaming had gotten her attention as much as the Bloodmount’s.
With all the Gears clustering together and facing her, she pointed the revolver at Will but held her fire. The second woman ran up from behind her, with a Hammerburst aimed at her and Reid. They didn’t look like soldiers, but handled the weapons with familiarity of those who’d fought for lifetimes.
As the ranking soldier, Will spoke for his squad. “What the hell are you doing out here? All citizens were ordered to the evac choppers.”
“Our business is our own!” shouted the one that had hit Will, in an accent he didn’t recognize from any of the COG nations. Maybe they were UIR? Or Wayne was right, and they were Feral.
The older Gear stepped forward with his shotgun hanging from one hand at his side. “They ain’t civilians. Sergeant, you are looking at a pair a’ Feral. Nob’dy else would wear Locust equipment.” He pointed out the bandoliers, made of what could only be guessed as being leather from the soft underbelly of a Seeder.
Both women bristled further in response, clearly they didn’t like being recognized.
“Doncha be worried. In my time as a Stranded, we lodged yer scouts on a few occasions.” Wayne said with his usual wide smile. When Wayne smiled at someone like that, it meant he’d accepted someone as a friend, or at least someone who wouldn’t immediately shoot him in the back, which out here counted as a friend.
Will wasn’t so sure yet of their good intentions, but he couldn’t delay any longer. “We have to move. These bodies will give the Locust a heads-up that we’re out here, and there’s probably back-up on its way.” He looked over his shoulder, towards the end of the valley where the monsters were swarming Montevado. “Unless you’d like to try your luck back there, it looks like we’re heading the same way.”
Yet, everyone stayed where they were, with weapons raised and pointed. This time it lasted only a few seconds.
“I don’t have time for this.” Will said, and disregarding the pistol, walked around and started running down the valley. He soon heard the clank of Gears following behind him, and two extra sets of panting breath unmasked by air filters.
Free of Fallout Edit
As light began shining over the horizon, four Gears and two Feral stumbled out of the woods and onto the sandy bank of a river. After escaping the Locust attack, they were too tired to do anything but collapse on the soft beach, lying against the cool grains of sand. Kloe and Reid were the only ones still moving, running to the edge of the water as they tore off their helmets and discarding packs and weapons.
Kloe cupped her hands into the stream and lifted some of the liquid to her face, sipping the cool water as the younger Reid simply dunked his head beneath the surface, taking in long draughts.
Will was enjoying the sand, lingering on the rough feel against his cheek, but was reluctantly torn from it as his training kicked in. He pushed himself up and brushed the grit from his face, taking stock of the situation. Near him, Wayne lay on his back with a relaxed smile, and the two Feral women lay similarly prone though less tired than the armored soldiers. At the bank, Kloe hauled Reid’s head out of the water and reminded him to breathe.
Picking up his acquired rifle, he started issuing orders to the squad. “Okay, I think we’re camping here until tomorrow morning . . . I’m too tired to run anymore. Kloe, Reid, get some sort of shelters rigged up for the night. Wayne, find some food, would you?.”
His gaze turned to the Feral. After hesitating for a moment, unsure of what to say, he remembered his manners. “Uh . . . you’re welcome to stay with us for a meal, if you like. But if not, I suppose you’ll be on your way.”
The brown-cloaked woman turned her blue eyes on him, her face still shadowed by the hood. “We will stay.”
She said no more than that. As the other Gears began to go about their duties, stringing up lines for tents between trees and looking through the packs, he set his Lancer against the trunk of a tree and started walking down the bank. He had something to do, and hurried as the sun began to peek out over the hills, while the eyes of the brown-cloaked Feral kept on him.
Few words were spoken between any of their troupe during the day. Exhausted from fleeing Montevado, the soldiers went about their tasks with the automated mindlessness of tired beings. After stringing two ropes between different sets of trees and hanging a covering over each for shelter, Kloe and Reid rummaged through their packs and took stock of supplies, dividing up ration bars and ammunition for the Lancers, as Wayne automatically received any shotgun shells they had. Will came back into their camp after a while, and sat down on a driftwood log next to the old man.
To his eyes, the oldest member of their squad didn’t look like the hardened soldier he was once rumored to be. Dented and dusty Coalition All-Purpose armor had been piled up in a heap next to him, and the suit’s wearer was just as ancient, though cleaner. Wayne had done his best to wash the ash from his blue-gray do-rag and white hair and beard. Sitting back against the log, he was smiling, whittling away with a foldout knife at a thick limb.
“What are you planning on with that?” Will asked, nodding at the stick.
Absently, he responded, “Gonna take Reid out in the morning and see if we can’t find some meat.”
Will nodded, and went back to staring between his feet. Only a few strokes of the knife later, he bored of it and stood to look around more.
The first thing he laid eyes on was Private Kloe Kaliso, whom in the years they had known each other, he had paid much more attention to. Like her brothers, Kloe was built strong and had dark, sable hair, cut short over her forehead and blue tattoos running along her body. The grayish body suit covering each squad member hid most of them, but a crescent on her face remained visible. It curved around Kloe’s right eye from her temple, over her thin eyebrows and down her cheek, near a narrow scar cutting across a short length of her skin. Two azure eyes shining like the facet of a gemstone focused on her task of tying their packs together and getting their equipment ready for a long journey. Noticing Will, they turned upwards and her lips twitched upwards in a slight smile. He returned it, only to be taken by surprise when something bumped into his back.
The only one still wearing his full armor and helmet, Private James Reid held up a thick bundle of wood with both arms. “Sorry, Sergeant.” he said through his helmet filter and snapping a salute, only to drop the firewood at he feet. “Er, sorry Sergeant.” He knelt down and began picking up the dry boughs, the plates clanking as he did so.
Reid was no less a veteran than the rest of the squad, four years into his service. Will had seniority on him by only a week of service, but Reid was five years younger. The green eyes and dark hair of the sixteen year old boy were locked in under the Coalition helmet for now, if only because he thought it looked cool. Every other day he considered dismissing Reid for gross incompetence, but the kid had made himself a part of the squad. And he didn’t have a home to go back to, anyway.
“I thought we could use this for firewood.” Reid said through the voice filter. “Ration packs taste better hot. That is, if you don’t think the light will give us away. Sir.”
Will looked up in thought. “Well, trees are pretty thick here. And the clouds are setting in . . . yeah, go ahead. Just wait for it to get dark, first. I don't want to attract any attention.”
Once the skies faded to the crisp dark blue and the stars became visible, though obscured by inland-headed clouds, the six humans clustered around their fire as Wayne displayed an odd talent. Finding a pair of matching sticks, he’d laid out the parts of his armor before him and, like a set of drums, tapped them to create a rhythm. Not the loud bashing that would commonly be associated with a drum set, or for that matter with a suit of armor, but a tinkling like chimes in the wind.
At first, it was sort of awkward as the others huddled alone with the food they had, but Wayne played for his own enjoyment and no other. His infectious good nature eventually found its way around, and Kloe began to hum an Islander’s lullaby that fit the rhythm. Taking up one of the plates, the old man stood and offered Kloe an arm. She smiled and leapt up with him, beginning an impromptu dance around the fire.
Green Cloak began humming along, only for the other Feral to nudge her sharply. She ignored it and watched them dance. Meanwhile, next to Will, he noticed Reid begin to fidget while watching her. Rolling his eyes, he stared back at the paper in his lap while the boy got up, walked over, and with a nervous smile offered Green Cloak an arm. She accepted without looking for approval to Brown Cloak, and joined the other pair in swaying, circling motion.
Quickly, Kloe spun free of Wayne and offered Will a hand up.
“I don’t dance.” Will said, smiling politely and avoiding eye contact. She didn’t say anything, but widened her smile and pushed forward more. Will only shook his head. As Kloe frowned at his stubbornness, Wayne swept her back in again, leaving Will alone again.
He sighed, half regretting his decision, but he just didn’t have the courage enough to make a fool of himself. Locust coming to rip his torso in half, sure, but two or three sets of human eyes watching him jump up and down and he’d bolt.
Instead, he reached into his pack and withdrew a folded paper, along with a compass. Unfolding the map, he started to get a bearing on the compass when another being sat quietly next to him. It was Brown Cloak, who’d likewise shied away from the action.
“What is this?”
“I’m trying to get a bearing on where we are . . . and where we can go from here.” He replied, frustrated that the thing was so poorly drawn. It looked like the printer had let the paper crease when this was made.
“Returning to Jacinto?”
Will nodded an affirmative. He found Montevado, and the mountain valley he guessed they were in by using North and the direction that Montevado’s ruin was in. At least, it was a guess. The foothills weren’t detailed. Damn cheap contract labor.
“They probably have assumed you dead.”
“. . . why go back?”
“Because I took the oath. I’m a soldier, I have a duty to them.” He was irritated more than anything else. “All COG outposts in this sector are abandoned, and no chance of hailing a Navy vessel on the coast. But, if this part is accurate, we can cut through Nassar’s Pass, and we’ve got a straight shot toward Jacinto.”
“Only it’s not accurate.” She said, curling her lip in distaste of the crude ink marks signifying mountains. “This doesn’t even mention the Indus Gap, a ravine straight before it. And that pass fills with snow by this time anyway.”
“How do you know?”
“Our scouts were there a week ago. You won’t get through.” There was a firmness in her voice which indicated it was no opinion. This was a cold, hard fact.
“Oh . . .” Will said. Maybe it was wiser to listen to the wild woman. “Where would you suggest?”
Brown Cloak reached into one of the pouches on her belt and withdrew a pen, still with the silver beads from whatever deserted bank she’d found it in, and shouldered her way next to him to get a better view of the map. Almost immediately she began to make marks, and explained as she went. “Firstly, this route doesn’t exist. The two peaks are connected by a near-vertical ridge. There’s one like it a bit farther on, but it doesn’t do you any good as it opens into a gorge which could only take you farther from your destination. The Indus Gap has no crossing and cuts northwest to southeast, and almost meets the coast.”
She sat back, still offended by the map’s accuracy but satisfied for the moment. “And makes any south route a journey taking months. The Frost would arrive before you got halfway.”
Will stared at the new map, still trying to catch up. If what she said was true, there was no way they’d get back to Jacinto until Bloom. “Crap.”
“You could go around the northern side.” Brown Cloak suggested.
He glanced at that section of the map. It was wide open, no natural barriers and not marked as hostile-controlled territory. But there was a reason he’d excluded it. “We’d have to go through the Char. I’m not taking that route, not unless the Locust force me into it themselves.”
“Then there appears to be only one solution.” The woman said, as if giving up.
Will didn’t see what she was talking about. From his view of the map, there was no possible way to Jacinto. His squad was well and truly screwed.
“We will lead you.”
Again, it was a statement of fact. It was so unexpected that Will could only stare blankly at her, waiting for the joke to be over, but she didn’t break into a smile. This was a Feral woman, not a Gear hanging around in the barracks. But the Feral he’d heard about were supposed to be cutthroat scavengers, who’d do you and then rip your guts out – real love ‘em and leave ‘em types – and she might just be offering him a get out of hell free card. Then again, she could just be leading them into Feral territory to slaughter them there. But what choice did he have. He made a mental note to save two bullets in his Lancer beside the one every soldier kept for themselves.
“I guess we have a deal.”
Early that morning, Wayne and Reid peered cautiously over a log far from their campsite. Leaving their heavy armor and weapons behind, they had been in the stand of slim trees since before the sun was up. The two hardened soldiers were locked onto a jackrabbit out in the open that was as yet ignorant of them and nibbling on a tender dandelion.
“Okay, he’s out in the open, if we flank him two ways, we can catch him.” Wayne said quietly.
Reid craned his neck to get a better view. “Why can’t we just shoot the thing already?”
“We’re savin’ ammo. And it’s good for ya anyway. Okay, you sneak around the side of him, and we’ll run ‘im down when I say go.”
“Right!” Reid shouted, jumping up and charging towards the rabbit, leaving Wayne behind.
“No . . .” Wayne groaned with chagrin. He got up and sat on the log, face in palm, to watch Reid run after the hare. With the Gear right on his heels, the rabbit jerked sideways suddenly, making Reid fall forwards as he tried to turn as sharply.
Rolling over and swinging his head around to find it, he scrambled after it on hands and knees, nowhere near fast enough. The rabbit vanished down a small hole, safe and secure in its burrow.
“And there goes breakfast.” Wayne grumbled, getting up. He walked over to Reid, who was still crawling and trying to find where the rabbit went. Wayne pulled him to his feet and started walking back through the woods in the direction they had come from. “C’mon, Reid, we’re headed back to camp.”
“Well, can't we go after it again, I can get it the second time.” Reid moaned, following the older Gear.
“That was your second chance, Reid.”
“Can I have a third chance? Hey, wait up!!”
Just as he had the day before, William stood alone on a secluded bluff overlooking the river. Water flowed by below where he stood, in a small clearing meeting a drop of less than ten feet to the river. The sky was lit by morning colors, reds and oranges and pinks painted on the few clouds, but he had yet to see the sun rise over the mountains. He stood rigidly in his armor, hands behind his back and eyes straight ahead.
The sun was coming closer every minute, the shadow of the west mountains receded down the eastern range. Finally, the first ray of sunlight hit Will’s eye. He breathed out, and recited a string of words he'd memorized, from an ancient language with long, quiet syllables. Afterwards, he spoke the names of people he had known, now with one more added to his list. "Daniel McCormick, Corey Lynch, Matthew Victor.”
With that, he relaxed significantly and slumped a bit.
“That was interesting,” said a voice behind him. Will spun around to see the Brown Cloak standing at the treeline.
“Oh, uh . . . hello.” Will mumbled, unsure of what else to say.
The Feral approached and stood next to him, watching the sun continue to rise. “What was it you were saying?”
Will looked down at his boots for a moment, somewhat embarrassed. He’d have to remember to be more careful not to be followed next time. “It’s a very old Tyran phrase.”
“What does it mean?”
He looked up at her, somewhat surprised that she would care. Gazing back out over the landscape, he explained. “It’s a sort of remembrance for fallen soldiers. Put loosely, it means I knew you, and you'll live forever because I'll remember . . . but if you don’t mind me asking, why do you care?”
She shrugged. “Just curious, I suppose. We both are. You’re curious why I would want to know about you. I’m curious about why a manufactured and brainwashed Gear would know anything other than their common language.”
Will couldn’t help but smile as he realized she was right. He knew after four years how people outside the COG saw him. “Okay then. I wasn’t always planning on being a Gear, and I had a good education. I had to memorize and be able to read and write in three different languages, and that’s from one of them. Old Tyran, from when the country of Tyrus was founded before the Pendulum Wars.”
“If not a Gear, what had you planned on doing in the Coalition?”
He was getting more suspicious than curious why she wanted to know, but found just talking about things besides the war to be refreshing. “Well, nothing was really my choice. It was more . . . expected, of me to become a politician. Which is sort of a laugh, because recently Chairman Prescott has it turned into more of a dictatorship, so I wouldn’t be really doing anything . . . so how about you?”
The woman finally tore her gaze away from the morning. “What?”
Will met her eyes. “I told you some stuff, now you tell me something. Have any family?”
The brown-cloaked woman turned suddenly as if hearing something. A moment after, Will heard the heavy steps of Wayne and Reid walking their way. Before the Feral answered, their conversation ended as the other two Gears came into view.
Kicking up dead leaves and pine needles, the pair walked up side-by-side, looking glum. Wayne’s eyes were more sunken-in than usual, and though Reid’s face was hidden by his helmet, it was pointed downwards between his feet.
“Catch anything?” Will called as they approached.
“Would’ve.” Wayne said, putting hands on hips. “But this kid couldn’t a’ waited for the blasted signal.”
“For the last time, you said ‘go’.” Reid protested.
Clouds collected and the day was overcast as their party broke camp. An occasional thundercrash even echoed through the valleys, but sounded nowhere near the travelers. It was the wind that proved most annoying.
Light undersuits beneath the chilled armor plates did little to take the edge off the cold gusts of air that would come low across the ground and whip at every place least protected against it. The thin garments were pulled farther around necks and wrists, and the backpacks became their best shielding.
Much less affected were the Feral women. Whatever their clothing was made from, it insulated much better than the all-purpose equipment. They seemed not to notice the gale apart from when a stray strand of hair blew into their faces. As he shivered in his heavy armor, feet tired and body cold, William could only look in bitter envy at them, who were keeping a distance from the Gears, farther up the bank. Eventually tiring of giving the evil eye, his thoughts began to wander. Without much else to see, he looked down at the rifle in his hands that he had taken from the Cyclops.
It was old, but still a working rifle. Under the stubby stock of the weapon was a production number, attesting to real COG workmanship. As the war had gone on, the Locust began producing their own imitation Lancers. They were shoddy and mass-produced, less accurate and prone to breaking down. This one had been made and shipped to some unfortunate Gear, when the Locust Drone had taken possession of it. Small spots of rust were forming where water had accumulated, as the Locust hardly ever knew how to take care of their weapons.
Will smiled inwardly. It was one of the few advantages the COG had, that their soldiers weren’t a dime a dozen and knew how to fight. The Locust seemed to be cranking out cannon fodder as quickly as the Berserkers could breed them. He scraped at one of the rust spots with his fingernail when a hand grabbed his shoulder.
“Watch yerself.” Wayne muttered as he steered the Sergeant clear of a tree. Will thanked him silently and decided to keep his head up and stop looking at the damn gun. That was when he felt a soft tap on the top of his head.
Reaching up to wipe away the raindrop that had hit him, he once again missed his helmet and its protection, both in physical and anonymity. Rubbing the water between his fingers, he thought to look up and noticed that the clouds had begun to really darken.
“Looks like rain.” He mentioned, to no one in particular.
“Looks like a storm, to me.” Kloe responded, suddenly beside him. She still had her helmet. “Perhaps we should consider shelter for the night?”
Will had to admit, it looked like the weather would get worse long before it got better. And he was cold enough without being rained on and getting stuck in wet clothes. Cupping his hands to his mouth, he shouted up their path to the Feral. When they turned around, he pointed at the thunderheads above while walking up to them.
Brown Cloak’s eyes seemed to be trying to pierce the clouds as the soldiers approached, and appeared reach the same conclusion as Kloe had. “Are we stopping to avoid the rain?”
As Will nodded, the older Gear that had been in back spoke up, pointing to an advancing block of clouds that had already begun pouring into the valley behind them. “Not to, uh . . . rain on yer parade . . . but our tents aren’t really that strong’a stuff. We need a more permanent shelter.”
Brown Cloak had an answer ready. “There’s an old Cog complex a ways from here. We can make it if we hurry.”
“Sounds good.” Will said, and once again they went into silence and followed on the Feral’s heels in a direction he saw as random. Dropping back a bit, he murmured to Wayne, “Know about any places out here like what she’s talking about?”
“Jameson Depot.” Wayne huffed. “Three klicks.”
“We better hurry, then.”
Doubling their pace to a jog, and over relatively flat terrain, they made good time to wherever the Feral were leading them, but they couldn’t outrun the rain. Striking suddenly, it beat at them sideways, working with the wind to stop the tired and miserable humans.
Slogging through the mud of a final hill, the six of them crested it and were able to look down over a familiarly concrete building. It was more than just one, six or seven were laid out around pairs of rusted lines in the grass that had once been rail lines. Many glass windows were broken out and inside them only darkness was visible. In the storm it looked anything but inviting, but at least it would be dry.
Green Cloak removed a brass spyglass from a pouch on her belt, surveying it to look for anything resembling an armed Stranded, Locust, or anything that looked hungry. Nodding to the other Feral, she set off down the slope toward it with Kloe and Reid behind.
The other three paused a moment, Brown Cloak only doing so because Will and Wayne had.
“That doesn’t look like a depot to me.” The sergeant stated, looking at the remnants of what had once been several lines of fencing.
Wet and tired, Wayne’s response was a shrug and, “Seems more like it from the front.”
“This is what you worry about?” the Brown-Cloaked Feral interjected. “In the middle of a storm?”
“Just saying.” Will replied, and these three set off downhill after the others.
Will squinted as he looked at the sign above an empty doorframe, rain stinging at his eyes. He reached up and scrubbed some caked-on dirt from the letters, and muttered aloud, “New Hope Research Facility.”
“Researching what?” Reid asked quietly.
Will looked over his shoulder and up at the clouds. Lightning flashed among them, warning of the real storm to come. “Doesn’t matter. We’ll take shelter here tonight, and longer if we need. Everybody inside!”
Each of the others passed by Will, going down the hallway and fading into the gloom of what little light filtered down through broken windows. As Kloe passed him, he followed after, and left the wind and rain behind him.
The shadows seemed to creep up and embrace them while the humans continued downward. A bright light was sparked into existence from the front as Wayne lit a flare, holding it above his head to make the most of it’s aura. Six sets of footsteps echoed against the stone walls. The tunnel finally ended in something of a room. Light from the flare revealed a low ceiling held up by a series of square cement columns. The wall only ran along one side of this ceiling, while the floor went beyond it into the shadows of a much larger space beyond. The Gears and Feral kept their backs turned away from it, watching nervously for something to come charging at them from the darkness.
Will removed his bandoleer, the canteen and spare clips he carried rattling as he set it on the tiles. They listened to water drip into a pool somewhere beyond the torch, and then the Sergeant spoke up. “Okay, might as well settle in.”
The other three Gears set down their packs with heavy clunks. Brown Cloak kept scanning the darkness. “We may not be alone in here.” She pointed out.
“We’ll stay only as long as we need to.” Will assured her. Everyone flinched as the flare Wayne was holding sputtered slightly. It kept going, but the Gears figured it only had about three more minutes in it. The sergeant sighed. “Everyone stay put. Wayne, let’s see if we can find some lights.”
He nodded, and handed the torch off to Kloe along with a spare for when it went out. The two of them stood shoulder to shoulder, facing the gloom in front of them nervously. After a moment of fidgeting, Wayne took point with his shotgun, and they vanished into the dark.
With a last longing look at the light behind them, Will let his eyes acclimatize to the dark. As he peered over Ogle's shoulder, the older man asked, “So d’ya think we got Locust down here?”
Will’s eyes wandered up the walls and across the ceiling. “Well, it’s a deserted COG outpost, it’s dark, and we’re here in the middle of a storm. I guess it’s got the ‘scary’ factor for it . . . so what do you make of the Feral?”
Wayne’s smile faded slightly into a thoughtful look. “Well, that’s a more difficult question than usual. Normally, it’s easy to figure out what a Seran wants. The Coalition wants to defend its citizens, and the Locust want to kill them. The Stranded want one of only a few things, primarily guns, food, or sex, otherwise it’s just t’be left alone. But Feral . . . who can tell? When they’re not outright hostile, it’s hard to know what their motives are, and unpredictability makes them dangerous. We’re just as likely to have an extra pair of guns at our backs as we are to have knives in ‘em.”
Nodding, Will stored that thought for later as he asked, “Hey, got any grenades?”
“Yep.” Two of the chain-and-segments explosives were produced from his side, and were handed over without question. Will stashed them in his own belt. The older man frowned. “Are you planning to use those?”
“No. Just wanted some grenades.” He said, smiling roguishly. Wayne grumbled something and pressed on. Turning a corner in their arbitrarily chosen corridor, a scraping noise stopped them dead. With the safeties already clicked off, the weapons were raised to their shoulders. Nothing was in sight yet, as a door now barred their way.
Moving to either side of it, Will tried the knob, and with no resistance, threw it open with his Lancer’s business end pointed inward to deal with any threat.
Utter silence was the only adversary, tense and now somewhat sheepish that he’d been so nervous. Shrugging off the uneasiness, he moved up.
But before he had crept forward an inch, a distorted shape dropped from the ceiling, snarling fiercely at the two soldiers.
Screaming, the two loose a hail of fire into the doorway, tearing the grotesque creature to shreds. Even after blood sprayed from its body and it slid across the floor from the force of subsequent shots, they continued yelling at the top of their lungs until the clips went dry.
Only after hurriedly reloading did they return to silence, holding their breath. A bloody mound was all that was left of the Wretch that had surprised them, filled with its own body weight in lead.
“Guys?! What the hell is going on down there?” Kloe yelled at them over Wayne’s TacCom.
The two of them smiled at each other, still halfway to catching their breath. The older Gear tossed Will the earpiece, and he held it up to the side of his head. “We’re fine, it was just a Wretch . . . scared the crap out of us, though.”
“You scared me by screaming like little girls.” came her reply, suppressing her laugh well. A short ping meant the com line terminated. The pair laughed it off nervously, and then stepped over the carcass and into the room.
Light filtering in from a skylight shaded the room in a grayish-blue tone. Decomposing papers were scattered across the tile floor and there was a slight draft coming through broken windows somewhere, blowing dead pine needles into the corners of the room. Wayne’s metal boot snapped a twig as they moved forward.
At intervals, high curtains shrouded areas like spiteful keepers of old secrets. The Gear sergeant kept a good grip on his rifle, it seemed like the ideal place to jump someone. Will pushed one of the blinds aside and whispered a curse in Old Tyran. A hospital bed was revealed, the dirtied sheets stained with age-old blood. A surgical stand lay on its side in the bed’s shadow, and a number of dull implements with their ends encrusted with curdled blood lay where they had fallen. Will stood viewing the gory scene with mouth hanging open, many questions running through his mind.
Wayne shouldered past him. “Come on. We still gotta find some power.”
He followed wordlessly between more curtained-off areas, afraid what he might find behind the next and the next.
The row of shrouds ended, replaced by larger rooms that were walled-off from the hallway. Steel-laced glass windows offered a view inside. Just like the bed he had seen before, these rooms housed a mattress with leather straps meant to restrain their patients. Tools crusted with dark red lay across the floor, gore everywhere but no bodies to be found.
Will couldn’t stop himself from once again wandering. Wayne left him to his thoughts this time, going off in search of power as William pushed open one of the room doors. One window high in the wall cast some light in, while rain spattered against it and the howl of a muffled wind were the only constant sound. His bootsteps were the only other noise.
Some great force had long ago caused an explosion, throwing things everywhere. The bonds of one bed were snapped. Will’s reverie was broken by his foot hitting something and sending it sliding a few inches across the floor. He leaned down and picked up the chart. Two sheets of paper were clamped to it . . . patient information.
He flipped the pages, scanning for names of patients, doctors, any clues he could glean. “Subject D . . . Subject M . . . what the hell?” Little else was discernable, what information hadn’t been worn away by the paper’s decay were number series and formulas he didn’t understand. Will looked back at the beds, horrified at knowing that whatever painful memories had been inflicted here, they had been committed by humans upon their own kind.
A hand grasped his shoulder, and he spun around to face Wayne. For all the armor and old age that burdened him, it scared Will how stealthy he could be sometimes.
“Found a back-up generator. C’mon, let’s get it workin.”
Wayne guided him down a hall and to a dead end, blocked by a solid steel door. In faded white paint the words ‘STORAGE’ and ‘BACK-UP GEN’ were stenciled onto it.
“Great.” Kulm said, with false enthusiasm. “How do we get it open?”
Examining the plate of steel, Wayne murmured, “Door’s solid, but th’brick here’s old. Maybe we can bust it down.”
Shrugging, they set down the guns and stepped back, readying for a charge.
“Okay, three, two–”
“Oh, for the love a’ . . .”
“I thought you meant on ‘one’,” Will rubbed his sore shoulder. “That thing isn’t coming loose. Any ideas?”
His comrade’s only response was to glance at the grenades on his belt.
One satisfying explosion later, Will and Wayne stepped through the crater they had blown in the wall. Glancing around quickly, Will sighted a large console with pipes leading in and out of it. The thing looked important enough to be a generator.
Looking it over and brushing away some cobwebs, Will quickly located and threw a power switch to the ‘on’ position. The machine’s only response was a pathetic spark.
Wishing he had a tech expert handy, the sergeant got down and looked for something broken. Wayne nudged him aside and threw his armored leg against it, causing the lights to suddenly come on and a somewhat broken screen above them to spring to life.
Horizontal lines of static crossed a vaguely human face that appeared while the dim screen booted up. From somewhere, a human voice was humming louder and louder, until what had been the face’s side profile turned to face the Gears staring up at him.
“Artificial intelligence program, reactivated. Security systems are awaiting activation. Back-up generator is online.” About to string on more sentences, it seemed to notice the Gears and smiled. The voice that emanated from some hidden alcove was very laid back, greeting the armed soldiers warmly. “Oh . . . hello. I’m Niles. Welcome to the New Hope Medical Research Facility. Do you have proper access for further entry?”
Taken aback by the new presence, Will mumbled, “Uh . . . maybe?”
Niles’ tone changed slightly, still welcoming but now with an underlying firmness. “I’m sorry, but proper identification is required for entry. Perhaps you would like a tour of the Jameson Depot facilities?”
Glancing to each other, they just shook their heads. “Just needed some lights on.”
“Very well. I appreciate your reactivating me. Please do return, with your proper identification tags and bands.”
Leaving whatever the thing was to its own devices, they were forced to walk back through the ‘medical’ floor, on their way back to find the others. Will closed his eyes for that part, until he was safely in the light of fluorescent bulbs and in sight of the rest of his squad.
“So, what did you find?” Kloe asked, repeatedly tossing up and catching the burned-out flare as Will and Wayne approached. The two Gears turned their heads and locked eyes. In that moment, a silent, unbreakable pact was made to never speak to anyone else of what they had seen here.
“Just a bunch of cobwebs.” Will said, and began unrolling one of the sleeping bags from their packs.
As the morning came, the sun burned through the clouds and the storm abated. William had relieved Reid of watch midway through the night, and said his oath before heading down to wake up the others. Within a half-hour, everyone was packed and their group moved away from the gloomy buildings. Climbing a ridge overlooking it, they headed once again into the wilderness.
Giving Reid a hand up to the crest of the hill, Will glanced up and stared at the structures, frozen in thought. Wayne noticed him and nudged his shoulder. “You okay?”
“Just . . . what the hell were they doing out here?” Will mused, eyes subconsciously moving over the roofs as his mind viewed the memories of what they had seen under them.
“I don’t know.” Wayne said, turning his back to it. “But sometimes, some things are better left forgotten.”
As the older soldier walked after the others, Will stole one more look at the gray walls. Then he likewise turned his back on the buildings and walked after the rest of them, putting the memories into the farthest possible corner of his mind.