The Deployable Weapon has been revealed. In this Alternate Universe version of Gears of War 2 from ACT 2: Denizens, what will this mean for the two races of Sera?
Gears of War: Deployable WeaponEdit
“Hope can sometimes come out of the shadows. We never knew when, and we didn‘t know how… until now.”
ACT 2: DenizensEdit
The Locust Foot Soldier fell; just crumpled in a heap. Even as it was being filled with a myriad of Lancer powered bullets, the Boomer froze mid reload before he too seemed to lose all muscle control, knees collapsing out from beneath, out cold, one hundred percent sure to be dead. Another Drone further back, this one carrying the standard Gnasher Shotgun, and without there being any visible reason why, keeled over as well, followed by another, and another. The three wretches that’d made it out of the Emergence Hole, their lopsided gait suddenly ceased and desisted, the ‘monkey-dogs’ toppling over, still, lifeless, gone. Behind them, the Grub Hole closed, yet not one of the Gears had deployed a grenade, nor underground, as they were, could the Hammer of Dawn be made use of either.
To the human side of this 15-year-long war, using natural rock formations and the toppled over or still standing Grindlifts for cover, it was a moment that caused the first lot of confusion. The second came when a voice from behind asked a question, the enquiry itself not the reason for the deepest form of shock to be represented within every contour of his fellow Gears’ faces. No, it was the previously witnessed fact that the Private was supposed to be dead; taken out by the Boomer, with a gaping hole in his chest! The wound was no longer there. The soldier was absolutely fine. They all were. Even the fatigue from travelling and fighting to make it, to stay alive, all the way from Jacinto to Landown was gone.
So, the question was a blatantly obvious one, what the hell was going on?!
“Control, this is Alpha-Seven, do you read?” the Corporal spoke into the COG issued earpiece. “Something... Control?” he had to make sure the signal was being received before even bothering to continue.
“Alpha-Seven, Jace, this is Delta. Fenix here. There is a Seeder blocking any transmission to the surface. Alpha-One already has it in their sights,” a familiar voice informed him, the plateau Delta stood upon looking out over the recent Grindlift deployment of more Gears, this time, and highly coincidental, Alpha-Two.
“Well… Marcus, that isn’t what I wanted to here. Means we are not going to get the answers we need right now.”
“Answers to what?” Marcus asked, exchanging a glance with his closest friend; Dominic, or Dom, following suit in raising an eyebrow. It was plainly obvious by the mere tone of their once fellow teammate’s voice that something major was going on.
“Let’s see, where do I start...” Jace’s pause lasted for about half a second. “Grindlift deployment went smoothly,” the hint of humor in the infection literally emanating relatively speaking, since no Grindlift ride was ever really smooth. “Ambush came even before we were all out! Lost Jennings almost straight away, damn Boomer came out of nowhere! Returned fire…”
To Delta-One, comprising of Sergeant Marcus Fenix; Corporal Dominic ‘Dom’ Santiago; Corporal Damon Baird; and Private Augustus ‘Gus’ Cole, these events were nothing new. They happened all the time, Baird rolling his eyes, on the verge of abruptly telling Jace to hurry the heck up and get on with it already!
“Then they just started falling. I’m talking freezing damn half way through whatever they were doing at the time and just, well, dying! Grub Hole closed up on its own too! That’s…” and this is where Jace’s eyes went to the Private that should have been dead, even though those on the other side of the comms device couldn’t see him doing it. “That’s not the most shocking thing though! Jennings, he’s not… dead anymore. Freaking gaping hole in his chest is just gone, like it healed up instantly or something…”
“Seriously man, what are you on?!” Baird interrupted disbelief palpable.
“He’s telling the truth, Corporal Baird,” another voice on the opposite end spoke up; Jennings himself. “I felt… okay, look, I was dead, nothing, then this warmth, like something was rushing through me…”
“Damn! I felt that too!” another Alpha team member interjected. “Almost like some sort of invisible energy wave, or… or…” he clicked his fingers, trying to remember, the sound heard but probably not understood as to what it indicated over the line. “Pulse! That’s it! An energy pulse!”
“Exactly,” Jace continued again. “Marcus, could Command or Control have put some type of deployable weapon out here and we just don’t know about it?”
“Ain’t got a clue , but it’s possible,” Marcus said, the usual gruffness of his voice holding no hint of emotion, nothing to give away that no matter how unreal Alpha-Seven’s story sounded, they were all reporting in with the same thing, or similar. Every one of them knew if this was some sort of Locust trick, there was no way Jace would have been ordered to contact Control, not initially anyway. No, it was more than likely he’d have been forced to ask any nearby COG teams to come and check it out first, the Horde learning long ago there was no true way for their enemy to be able to tell if the distress call was genuine, not until it was far too late.
Then there was the other undeniable fact, the higher ups liked to do all kinds of things all the time, without actually informing the ones out in the field and risking their lives. Had something to do with them enjoying the term Classified far too much.
“Well, whatever it was,” Jace began, still very stunned, yet, he couldn’t help it, the modulation of his voice held a sense of pleasant surprise to it as well. “Let’s hope it wasn’t a one off, coz I thought we we’re goners for sure.”
“C’mon Baby, we all know you’re better than that!” Cole put in. “Ain’t no way yer’d have been taken out of the game by just one Grub hole!” to some, the large man’s over-the-top enthusiasm for, well, just about everything, was a complete turn off.
For Corporal Jayson 'Jace' Stratton, once working side by side with the ex-Thrashball player, Cole's very personality, along with the rest of Delta, was just one of the many reasons he'd managed to make it this far, fighting a war for so many years that'd seen even the best of them crack under a pressure none of them had ever experienced before. He owed his life many times over to the four men he was now informing of this very strange and confusing event.
“Thanks Cole,” Jace answered. “Not really sure what to do about this now, though?”
“Ain’t much you can do with the comms down,” Marcus began. “Just keep moving and make sure you let us know…” there was a sudden and extremely loud screeching sound, drowning out anything and everything around them, immediately bringing the four Gears to attention.
“Wretches!” Dom yelled.
“Fenix, OUT!” he emphasized, Stratton not even needing that to know there would be no more talking.
“Contact!” came from Marcus even as they were already filling the approaching wretches with various sized holes.
“Oh great! This is what happens when we waste time listening to fantasy stories!” Damon yelled over the battle, finding himself face to face with a wretch as he broke cover briefly to return fire on one of the Drones.
“You don’t believe him?!” Dom voiced, right beside him and sounding rather incredulous, bearing in mind what they knew about their friend.
Baird didn’t get a chance to answer, the wretch pack closing in too fast. Raising the butt of his rifle to hit the one now flanking him over the head, he winced as it managed to rake its claws along his side once before a second blow put it down for good. “No,” he finally got the chance to respond. “I think Jace is messin’ with our heads, and his whole team are in on it…” and that was the end of it, because a growl from Marcus snapped both men’s attention to their team leader and friend.
Chainsaw bayonet duel. Lancer to Lancer. Truly something to behold from a man who always seemed to know just what the hell he was doing! Problem was, for all his training, experience, and sheer determination, Sergeant Marcus Fenix could not watch every angle, could not possibly impede all that was coming at him at once, especially when it came to a melee, one on one confrontation like this. And that was why there were four of them, Dom hesitating none in performing a forward body roll in full gear, the momentum carrying him to a stand right behind the other drone coming at his friend from the side. There was no avoiding the chainsaw teeth making contact with its back, because the Grub never saw it coming!
By the time Dom had finished, so had Marcus, the latter turning around, catching his best mate’s gaze and simply nodding. His eyes depicted the gratitude only those that knew him could read.
“Hello! A little help here?!” Baird. Typical, the guy had rushed headlong into another personal battle of his own and found two additional wretches that had not been there when he’d initially made that decision.
“I’ve got yer back, Baby!” Cole’s voice rang out, as did the sound of Lancer on Wretch once again.
“Bout time!” Baird criticized, only really half joking, because that was just who he was. A brilliant technician, a skilled soldier, held back from receiving and holding a promotion any higher than Corporal by just one thing… a very big mouth!
“Here comes some more!” Marcus’ warning carried to all of them.
“Oh c’mon!” Baird yelled. “Hasn’t someone dealt with you already?” the question was essentially a rhetorical one, since by now his Longshot scope was focused in. Two sniper round shots to the massive grub’s head were all that were needed. One to knock off the thing’s helmet and two, after ducking back behind the natural rock formation for cover whilst reloading, to bring it down. It fell as he pulled the trigger, the round hitting something in the far distance. “Well, that was a waste of ammo,” regardless, even Damon Baird knew when to rein in that mouth. The grinder was dead, no matter whom or what had finally achieved it.
“I told you I had yer back, Baby!” it was like déjà vu all over again, the huge smirk on Cole’s face saying it all.
“Nice,” the blond haired Tech said, almost shrugging it off, like it meant nothing when deep down, all of Delta knew it meant a great deal. “That it?” he further inquired, blue eyes scanning the area briefly, before moving forward to collect some Lancer rounds and see what else he could scrounge.
“Looks like it,” Fenix answered, in the process of bending at the knees to relieve the nearest drone of the shotgun in its hands. He already had one just like it magnetically held to the armour upon his back, nevertheless, the rounds were what he was really after.
Getting their hands on anything and everything while out in the field had become nigh near invaluable the more the years since E-Day had passed. It wasn’t like there were workable factories, or a corner gun shop they could just walk on into and gather up everything they needed whenever they needed it, after all. At least, not ones heavily guarded and built in an area that made it very hard for the Locust to emerge into, and even harder for the COG soldiers to make regular use of.
“Better keep moving then,” Damon just managed to finish saying, before another familiar voice came over the Tac-Com and they were reminded yet again that this transient victory was just another in a long line of numerous successes prior and, with the survival of the human race depending on it, hopefully many more to come.
“Sarge? Sarge, can you hear me?!”
“Carmine. What’s your position?”
“Not really sure, sir. I think my lift went off course.”
“Is Tai with you?”
“No. He jumped out before launch to face… to face that new Locust, did you see him?!”
“Yeah, we saw It,” although no sentiment showed on Marcus’ face, it could be heard in his articulation, Dom especially understanding how hard it’d been for the both of them to watch Tai and Dizzy move to face this new and obviously very skilled adversary and neither of them being able to do anything about it. No matter how hard they’d tried to lift up the harness, to get out of what had fast become a place they no longer wished to be, despite the fact getting to that point had been their sole mission in the first place, the two friends had been stuck there, powerless to stop their Grindlift from closing completely and proceeding to cut through the bowls of the very earth that made up Sera.
“We saw the new guy too,” Baird added in. “Didn’t see... Tai... damnit,” for once there was no sarcastic comment. Now they knew for sure their South Islander friend had not been with his jump mate, Damon was just as worried as the rest of them.
“I see another lift up ahead,” the interlude of brief silence filled with Carmine’s proclamation.
“Okay, head that way,” Marcus began. “But don’t engage the enemy, just defend your position.”
“Wilco Sarge. Wish me luck!”
“Hang in there, rook. We’ll be there soon,” Fenix finished, releasing the Comlink. Gazes swapped between them all, blue eyes landing on brown for a few extra moments.
“Let’s go find Carmine,” Marcus finally said, bringing each and every focus on something other than the apprehensive thoughts running through their heads. That undeniable feeling they may never see Tai Kaliso, their squad mate, and friend, ever again.
If they’d been there for any other reason they may have appreciated their surroundings for what they were – one word – beautiful. Their Grindlift landing and subsequent travels had seen them traversing over rocky terrain untouched by human or Locust additions, aglow with various sized mushrooms and flying insects, rock minerals and a red fruit none of them had ever seen before. There were even trees beneath the surface, their large and bulging roots pushing up, down and through sections of the rocks, becoming a part of the walls or ground; the area heavily armored booted feet stepped upon and sometimes, just sometimes, tripped over too, if eyes were not looking at the ground in front of the person to whom they belonged.
Moss, Vines, air plants, cob webs, some sort of pulsing fungi, distant caves, nearby openings, sheer cliff face drops into the river even deeper below them and off to a side the curiosity of each member of Delta could not help but occasionally go near to investigate; ALL of it made up a planet that had not seen its inhabitants at peace for a very long time. If it wasn’t the thus far 15-year-long confrontation between the human race and an enemy representing bipedal, sentient beings, yet, in no other way similar to those which they destroyed without mercy, it was the 80 years of fighting each other before that over who had the right to the Imulsion and the fuel it created.
Not everything below the surface of Sera was a cause for fear and terror.
~Just a shame the Grubs have tainted this place,~ Marcus thought, usual single-minded focus pushed aside for a time. Replaced with images; dreams, of a better time, when he and Dom may have been enjoying where they were, instead of always on constant alert, ready for anything, at any time.
“Yo, Marcus,” Dom broke through his best mate’s reverie. “Which way?”
A quick glance at the ‘fork in the road’ and Fenix’s brain had calculated their next course of action, closing off anything and everything, including the instability and noise every so often announcing the onset of another incoming Grindlift. “We’ll find Carmine quicker if we split up. Search by twos. Dom, take Baird right. Cole, you’re with me.”
“Aww no! No! Damnit, NO!” the panic-filled voice filled their ears.
Marcus paused mid-jog, standing up stock straight and hitting his Com. “Keep it together, rook!” he began, tone instantly demanding attention.
“They’re dead… they’re all dead , Sarge. It’s just me!”
“Dom, Baird, double time!” and without any further order needed, all four members fell into instant Roadie Runs, slowed slightly by the fact they were travelling up an incline, and broken only once they reached Carmine’s position.
Through the vines covering the geological gap in the rock wall, they could see, they could hear, and now they were being shot at by the drones and grenadiers bent on finishing what they’d started. Marcus lifted his chainsaw bayonet at the same time Cole did, both hacking until they made it through. Taking quick stock of the situation easily filled the two men in on the fact Dom and Baird had undergone the exact same thing, and if they didn’t take cover immediately...
“Whoa!” Dom yelled, sideways roll momentum clearing him of the Hammerburst rounds at point blank range, the secondary manoeuvre of returning fire completed without thought, automatic pilot and a lot of instinct kicking in. It prepared him; saw him ready for the slightly wounded Locust to continue in its pursuit until either he was dead or it was. Fortunately, it was caught in the crossfire currently hurtling from more than just the previous solitary position, enabling the one still standing to without hesitation turn his attention elsewhere.
“Carmine!” the Ephyra-born native called, eyes widening at the sight of a grenade hurtling in-between the last two remaining Locust and exploding with an almost pinpoint accuracy. “Nice throw!” Dom called out, his approval replacing the need to check in and make sure their fellow teammate was still in one piece.
Maybe referring to him as a rookie really wasn’t appropriate anymore. What he’d just achieved was in stark contrast to the short training session he’d been run through by Dom and Marcus earlier that morning. He’d panicked then and thrown a grenade without properly lining it up first, almost resulting in a Casevac for all three of them. Evidently, more forethought had been given before doing so this time around and it would never cease to amaze Dominic Santiago how the switch from rookie kid to true soldier was so easily flicked in the heat of battle.
Private Benjamin ‘Ben’ Carmine was still a little too shaken to respond to the Corporal’s praise, the flood of relief he’d felt at seeing the veteran soldiers enter the large cave and begin to assist him in engaging the enemy hidden behind the helmet he always wore out in the field. “Sarge,” he began, voice filled with a different kind of shakiness this time. “Sarge, I, ah, I made it!”
“Rook, you did good,” genuine commendation, when it was truly deserved, was not something even the stoic Marcus Fenix held back from. “Gears, we’ve got Carmine, but it looks like Echo-Five is down. We’re heading deeper into the Hollow.”
“But Sir, there’s a wall there,” Carmine pointed out.
Dom’s gaze was just one among the four now looking around, searching for another answer. Going back the way they’d come was not an option; there was no way to get where they wanted to go without… “What about the Grindlift?” Dom suggested, Baird already rushing forward with renewed enthusiasm. Machines were his specialty after all.
“I think it’s busted, Sir,” Ben informed their team leader.
“JACK, see what you can…”
“Hang on a minute,” Baird interrupted, giving Marcus one of those Hello, I’m here and more qualified than a stupid machine kind of looks. Rather ironic considering he loved the damn things in the first place. “I can do it,” said in a way that suggested JACK better just keep his robotic ass out of it.
Marcus said nothing, just grunted, leaving the smart mouthed Tech to it, considering it really didn’t matter who fixed the thing, as long as it was done, and sooner rather than later. The shaking the ground was presently doing was in no way due to incoming Grindlifts. “Hurry the hell up, Baird!” Fenix hissed, just moments before a Grub hole opened on the other side of the cave, and Ben verified what they’d already known was coming.
“Aww, more Locusts.”
“Hold ’em off so Baird can fix the lift!” well, that order was obvious, but still.
“Like Marcus said, hurry up, baby!” Cole reiterated, moving to follow the rest of the team forward. He paused for a second, looking over his shoulder, grinning from ear to ear, and quickly adding, “Nah, no rush, I’ve got me some locust to kill! WHOO!” and he was gone, sliding into cover beside Dom, pulling out a grenade and lobbying it towards the Grub hole, which, in turn enabled him to see the second one opening up to the right of their almost perfect, upper hand position.
~Hurry up, Baird, don’t hurry up! Which one is it?!~ Damon thought to himself, even as he was tinkering with the lift’s control panel. ~And fancy telling Jack to do this when I’m right here!~ incredulousness accompanied inner thoughts bordering on anger. ~What am I, invisible?!~ frowning a little, he glanced towards what was undoubtedly a rather unattractive robot. “Yeah, well, you are helpful, but I’m better at this!” he scowled at him. JACK’s response: a couple of beeps that Baird could’ve sworn meant “You just keep telling yourself that, my friend.”
The sound of something hitting his armour snapped the Tech’s attention away from arguing with the Geobot. “Hey, what's goin’ on, you’re supposed to be protecting me, remember!” he yelled, not really caring if his comment was ignored, because for all intents and purposes... “Hah! Fixed! Thanks to me. You’re welcome!” he quite happily rubbed in, instantaneously proceeding to reach around to pull his sniper rifle forward and find his own ideal location.
Cole’s grenade had bounced once, before sliding into the initial grub hole, achieving the purpose for which it was sent effectively, efficiently, and almost before anything could emerge. Conversely, trying to pull off the same manoeuvre with the second E-Hole had become impossible, the sound ominous, getting closer, and sending all four men already in battle rolling backwards, sideways, anywhere other than where they had been originally. The fifth team member joined them, the mumbled, “Damn Tickers!” heard coming from Marcus as Damon used the butt of his rifle on par with a kind of baseball bat, sending the kamikaze mine flying over their heads, where it would hopefully land near some of its own kind before exploding.
No such luck. It detonated in mid air. Least there was no longer any danger… from that one at least. Two sniper rounds went off almost in sync, Carmine’s hitting another Ticker he could see in the distance, Baird’s hitting the one crawling around and almost tripping over one of the drones. With a loud boom, both went off, the latter taking the drone with it and severely hurting another in the vicinity. “Now, I’d like to see that again. I would,” Damon muttered, the comment meant for no one in particular, since he was already focusing in on his next target.
“Incoming!” Dom’s voice rose as loudly as he could manage, and it was enough, two soldiers hightailing it back in the general direction of the Grindlift, a vastly different kind of explosion going off behind them seconds later signalling they were clear.
Cole’s dark eyes turned to search for where the grenade had landed finding the resultant black scorch mark it had created in the surface of the rocky ground exactly where they’d just been. “Damn, that was a close one, Baby!” he exclaimed, the two men exchanging glances with each other, even as they were getting back into the action.
“Close that hole!” Dom yelled. “I have no grenades left, or I’d do it myself!’
“Already on it, Dom,” Marcus said, over the… comlink?
“Marcus, what the hell?!”
Four heads popped up all bar simultaneously, opening fire on anything that moved, except for the Gear they could see hugging the right side of the cave. The only thing Fenix encountered was another Ticker, before his grenade fell into the hole, various sounds of a painful death heard from the Locust still trying to emerge from it.
With the area now clear, Marcus moved, not back up towards the rest of his team already in the process of coming down to meet him, but over to the nearest weapon, this time, a Lancer, once again relieving it of its rounds. Even if he hadn’t currently been busy, he still would have been completely oblivious to the glare he was getting from Dom.
~Damn him sometimes. Why does he always do that? Put himself in harm’s way and not tell us until its already too late!~ it was true, Dominic Santiago fully understood his best mate was quite capable of taking care of himself. Regardless, to lose Marcus would be like losing Carlos all over again, the last person on the planet, aside from his Maria, who knew him both inside and out. No matter how much Dom tried to tell himself it was unlikely to happen, there was that part of him that would always, always hold the fear of one day watching the only family he had left die.
“Let’s keep moving,” the order came pretty much right on cue, Dom taking the opportunity to pillage some more grenades from the nearest drone.
“I fixed it!” came the revelation… again.
“Yeah, heard you the first time, Baird,” Marcus answered.
“Oh, really? Because I didn’t hear any thank you then, and I’m not hearing it now, either,” Damon shot back.
“Just get up there and press the button,” Marcus’ tone once again brooking no argument, and classic really, how easily the Sergeant could brush off one of the most irritating people on the planet.
“This is Omega-One. We’re about to be overrun,” stuck between a rock and… another rock or two. Their Grindlifts had mercifully landed on solid ground, surrounded by the water flowing through naturally occurring ducts in the ground beneath from the river a sheer cliff face drop a short distance behind them. Even the large tree in the middle of what could tentatively be called a path was encircled by one of the elements that really did seem to define the underground structure of Sera. It was intensely unfortunate the only way any of them could go turned out to be a defensive line built by the Locust and now in full use.
More Grindlifts landed on the other side of the river, opposite the cliff face, Gamma-Three having absolutely no way of reaching fellow Gears that needed it the most. Not before the fears of the remaining members of Omega-One were well and truly realized.
“Alpha-Seven, Locust spotted, could use some assistance,” Jace’s voice again. Fully refreshed from whatever it had been that‘d aided them after deployment, his team was working their way through the Locust encountered from another direction Omega-One had no idea was even there, a direction that was effectively going backwards. Had he known he was about to come across them, Stratton wouldn’t have announced the need of backing at all, the narrow path they were following opening out, allowing him to see what had already ended the lives of several members of the regiment for good, with at least two others severely wounded.
“There we go! Hit ’em hard men! Move!” Jace gave the order the moment all of his squad had slid into position, turning the odds now far more in the COG’s favour.
“Delta, this is Control. Surface Comm. re-established thanks to Alpha-One.”
“Good to hear, Control,” Sergeant Fenix answered, breaking contact immediately.
“Okay Delta, let’s get down there!” although the order was given, none of them adhered to it straight away.
The repaired Grindlift had cut through the rock wall without hindrance, the short and very dusty tunnel opening out into another vast expanse. Delta had emerged just in time to witness a couple Reavers fly by dropping rockets upon the human side of the battle already taking place below, quickly figuring out they were yet again strategically placed on the high ground. There was just one problem; one that soon saw all five men immediately drop down, and, for the most part, use their elbows to crawl forwards on their stomachs to the very edge.
“There’s no cover from up here, Marcus!” Cole pointed out the obvious over the sound of his Lancer fulfilling what it had been made for.
“Drop as many as you can, and watch out for those Reavers!” Fenix‘s command preceded the swapping of his Lancer to the upgraded version of the Hammerburst rifle upon his back.
“Delta’s here! Let’s hit ’em hard!” they’d been spotted by the remaining members of a team that’d been in dire straits only moments before, the arrival of Alpha-Seven, and now Delta-One, ensuring their determination to survive this was irrefutably renewed.
“Ah, Sir?” Ben suddenly said.
“What is it, Car…” Marcus’ question was cut short by something very large and extremely dangerous flying over their heads, the sound reminiscent of wind cutting through a very narrow tunnel. The projectile exploded as it hit the roof at an angle several meters above and behind them. In the space of half a second, Marcus glanced at it then over at Carmine, before he yelled, “Boomer! Move!” not a single one of them the slightest bit stupid enough to even have to wait for that order.
They back-crawled until it was safe enough to stand up into crouched runs that saw them carried downhill and around to join fellow COG soldiers and better cover. There was no time to stop and think about the dead lying around, or the wounded already being attended to; only instance to gather what discarded ammo they could during a descent that would bring the ground beneath their feet level to the water all around it. After they dealt with the Locust they would then be able to take better care of their own.
Ignoring the water now all bar lapping at his boots, Marcus took up cover behind one of the Grindlifts, parallel to the right, duel upper pathway the Locust defensive line seemed to be protecting. He could see where one of the Boomers, or maybe both, had first used the Boomshot grenades to open the wall they were far too large and cumbersome to even think they could’ve ever gotten over. He sidestepped, watching another round fly past him, out of the corner of his eye seeing Dom take up position almost directly beside the lift behind what was this time an unnatural rock formation. Cole was behind the one on the opposite side of the path, and Baird…
Where the hell was Damon?
Blue eyes took in the area as the Sergeant poked his head around, noting the position of the blond haired Tech, along with Carmine, only a short distance ahead of them; perfect sniper position. The point was proven when a drone fell before it’d even jumped down, and a ticker exploded in mid transference from the upper path to the lower. They kept coming though, more and more of them, only two Boomers, but plenty of smaller Grubs, and Tickers.
“Reload, damnit, reload!” Baird hissed, the barrel of his Longshot jamming for a few moments. Long enough for the drone he’d been focusing in on to make his way closer, while another the Tech hadn’t even seen moved off to the side, using its knowledge of the area to come around from a direction it was hoping would not become clear to its quarry until it was upon him. At the same time, a Ticker scurried forward and tried to take both him and Carmine out, Baird side rolling, the shockwave sending him sprawling, losing the balance he’d been trying to prepare to regain.
As he moved to get back up, he saw Cole in a full on Lancer duel with a Cyclops, and the Reavers…
“Oh great,” was about all the Corporal had time to say before he was sent flying backwards by the shock wave of the missile impact, wondering for a moment how many others had been caught in that. He landed hard, feeling the excruciating pain as his back took the brunt of the sharp rock beneath, registering the instant feeling of cold, adrenaline the only thing keeping him awake and alert enough to click that he’d landed in a very shallow part of the water. He wasted no time in moving again, crawling forward, towards the weapon he’d dropped on solid, waterless ground, and instantly understanding the rough grip that was proceeding to enclose around his arm to flip him over was not one of his friends… it wasn’t even human.
“BAIRD!” he heard someone yell. Was that Marcus? Since when had he really cared?
“I’m comin’ baby!” that was Cole, but his voice sounded so distant, Damon looking up at the boot, so very much like his own, moving at a dreadfully fast pace down towards his face. Somehow he thought to lift his arms, hands gripping to try and push with equal, adrenaline-filled force. The effort was futile, he knew. He was disorientated, winded, hurt in areas he was only now beginning to register. The strength was fast fading from his arms, and he thought he could feel the wetness of blood from where the rock had pierced the material between his armour, and of course, the less resistant flesh it had been protecting.
Then again, it could’ve just been water…
~Fantasy stories,~ his mind told him. ~I was right. Where’s your make believe deployable weapon now, Jace? I‘m…~
He really didn’t have any idea when it happened, or how, or why, just the overwhelming feeling of absolute relief when all pressure from the booted foot was suddenly torn away. Turning only his head, because it was all he could manage to do at this time, unique blue eyes tried their hardest to focus properly, tracking the form of the locust flying sideways through the air seemingly on its own, where it proceeded to land even harder upon its back on the rocky surface of the ground. Further observance saw it convulse for a few seconds, maybe minutes, Damon really hadn’t the mindset right now to decipher, before it went limp, merely moments prior to him feeling the same energy Jennings had tried to tell them about pass through his entire body.
It was then, and only then that he started to look past the current events happening to him, fast coming to the comprehension whatever this energy was it was also spreading through the area. He could see it, but hadn’t Stratton said they couldn’t see it?
His back arched, and Damon could literally feel the wound from the rock collision closing on its own. The shrapnel burns, grazes and cuts, the small piece of sharp debris that’d embedded itself into his arm; he felt it, saw it being pushed out, watched as it fell to the ground and the wound disappeared.
“Damon baby, you alright?” the Tech looked up, taking advantage of Cole’s proffered hand to get him back on to his feet again. He didn’t answer him straight away, said nothing. He was taking in the sight of every last locust down for the count, and the two Gears he’d known were mortally wounded now walking down to meet them, completely healed, no trace of the wounds that he was sure had been lethal. The looks on their faces pretty much mirrored his own, although, if asked, the blond haired mechanic would simply brush it off as nothing.
Undeniable proof had just walked up and slapped Damon Baird in the face, and all he could think about was why the hell Jennings, who had apparently been dead, was now alive, while the other members of Omega-One that’d met the same end were, in spite of everything, lying there still dead on the ground.
“So, Baird,” it was Dom’s voice, all of Delta very close by; Alpha-Seven, Omega-One, everyone converging. “Where are your fantasy stories now?”
Damon glared at him, “Shut up man, just shut up!” he said, turning away. “I don’t want to hear it,” this sounding about as convincing as trying to hold on to his previously thought belief Jace and all of Alpha-Seven had been messing with their heads.
“Control, are you seeing this?” Fenix asked, hand held firmly against his ear.
“Affirming that, Marcus...” Lieutenant Anya Stroud’s face appeared upon the long-range up-link viewing screen that lowered from beneath the team’s personal Geobot. Through an unusual amount of interference, even so deep down below the surface of Sera, the look upon her face could barely be seen. Regardless, there was absolutely no denying she too was having a hard time accepting what had just occurred. “I saw some of it, not all. The reception seems to have deteriorated even further.”
“Yeah, seein’ that on this end too, baby,” Cole confirmed for her.
“Let me guess, started to get worse just before my life...” Baird let the sentence trail off, was saved thought but not spoken.
“Yes,” Anya replied, relieved. “I have no... no answers either,” it was clear she was just as confused as the rest of them. “Although...” again, she paused, this time making a point of looking past Marcus to Dom standing just behind and to the right of the Sergeant. “This might confirm... no, it does confirm the reports of mass exoduses of captive Stranded and Civilians from underground. From what we could gather all of them were apparently reporting, well, this!” she affirmed. “What we’ve just seen, and because their stories sounded so...”
“Impossible,” Stratton finished for her, his gaze moving to glance at Omega-One, the team once minus five members now only minus the three.
Anya nodded. “There was no way to verify their stories. The majority refused to speak to us,” the revelation came as no surprise to any of them, since it was well known how most of the Stranded felt about the Coalition of Ordered Governments, especially the Gears powering that machine. “That is, until now. Dom, Maria... she could be among them,” the look of hope upon the Lieutenant’s face was nothing compared to how Santiago reacted.
Brown eyes lit up as his posture instantly became straighter. It didn’t matter he’d just been a spectator of the unfeasible himself, because, until that moment, it had in no way been made relevant to his own and very personal search for his best friend. His childhood sweetheart, his other half, the woman he’d known, loved and adored since he was a kid. Maria was everything to him. No matter how much time had gone by he’d never given up hope in someday finding her, and he never would in the future either.
“Now that this has happened, you’re going to have another look into it, right?" Dom all bar implored. “I mean, look!” and he pointed to the men he knew had been dead just moments before, palpably beyond himself with a renewed sense of exhilaration.
“I will, Dom, I promise,” Anya reassured him. “Our top priority overall though,” and this was the part of her position she didn’t like, overriding what was clearly important to her friend and replacing it with what was, in this case, the obvious. “We need to try and corroborate what exactly is going on down there.”
“Since when do Locust take captives,” Fenix stated, picking up the conversation once again, sliding in another facet that’d been on his mind since they’d exited the Grindlifts. “Any word from Tai or Dizzy?”
“No. Sorry Marcus, drillzone went dark. We’re still trying to confirm what happened there too.”
“Copy that, Anya. Delta out,” and it went without saying they wanted to be kept in the loop.
“Marcus, we’ll stay here, help mop up. Maybe...” Jace glanced at the two healed Gears for a moment. “See if we can locate any clues that might aid Control in finding out what is going on.”
“Good idea,” the Sergeant said, nodding once. “Delta, let’s keep moving.”
Thanks to the Boomers, their way was no longer blocked, the men long ago growing accustom to completely ignoring the dead carcasses of the enemy even when it was necessary to pass right on by them. The stench was an entirely different thing however, and for Carmine, he couldn’t help but mumble something incoherent under his breath.
For Dom, on the other hand, his thoughts were far from anything to do with death right at this moment. ~This is awesome!~ he thought to himself, not even caring for the fact little light was able to penetrate the area they were now entering. ~Maybe whatever this is has already found you, Maria...~
“Look out!” Marcus suddenly yelled, Dom snapping to and quickly becoming aware of the vibrations now all around him. “Yeah, well, we won’t be going back that way,” he said, brown eyes breaking from where the walls and ceiling had since caved in, right where they’d only moments ago been passing through. “I don’t think this place is stable.”
“Oh really, Dom,” Baird snapped. “What gave that away to you?”
“Baird,” Marcus warned. “This much instability ain’t comin’ from incoming Grindlifts and this area is too narrow and open for Grub holes, so somethin’ else must be goin’ on. Keep movin’,” it was kind of a mute point considering none of them had actually stopped.
“What’s with these glowy things?” Ben asked.
“I don’t know, Carmine, what do I look like...”
“Delta, can you still hear me?” Anya’s voice again, overriding whatever else Fenix was about to say.
“Yeah but I think the static’s even worse now though,” the Sergeant explained.
“Copy that. We are picking up massive seismic activity beneath Ilima City. Recommend you investigate when you can.”
“Wilco, Control. I think we might’ve just experienced some of it. Will look into it if we can.”
“Thanks Delta. We’ll keep trying to confirm things on this end as well,” she reassured them.
“Wretches!” Dom said, now returning the favor, the silhouettes of which his team could just see approaching.
That was until the light Jack had automatically turned on the moment things had gotten dark shone ahead, illuminating the ‘monkey dogs’, Cole the first to rapidly learn the animals were climbing up onto the path from below, in front and behind. “Can’t stop the Train, baby!” he cried out with clear delight, chainsaw bayonet making contact, there really no true time to enjoy it before he was attacked from a different angle.
“Oh yeah, I could do this all day!” Dom exclaimed, a little further up ahead, shaking the now deceased wretch off the end of his Gnasher. “Still amuses me how they manage to fall like that,” he commented, taking a quick look at the weapon to make sure innards weren’t blocking the barrel.
“Jack, light it up!” the Geobot spinning around slowly at Marcus’ order.
“We’re done,” Fenix verified, minutes later.
“Yeah, but that shaking isn’t,” Dom pointed out, the team’s movements taking them closer to the indicator of an exit.
“I’ve got this one, baby!” Cole announced, pushing his Lancer forward and cutting through the vines.
“Whoa! What IS that thing?” Carmine exclaimed, all eyes moving to stare at the strange creature crawling out from the tunnel it’d obviously created.
“Control, you have any info on this thing? Looks like a big snake, or a worm made of stone.”
“Copy that, Marcus. Recent Intel lists it as a Rockworm. Not sure if it’s dangerous...”
“It isn’t!” Carmine interrupted, rather beside himself with intrigue. “Look, I’m touching it and it doesn’t even care.”
“We do know it’s an indigenous cave creature that feeds off plants,” Anya continued.
“Glowing plants?” Dominic asked.
“Yes,” Anya answered.
“”Well, there you go...” Ben spoke up again. “Hey! Can that thing get all the way up there?” of course, even as he motioned to the fruit hanging from the ceiling he didn’t expect any of his fellow Delta-One team members to know the answer.
“We’ve been told it is nearly indestructible,” Anya continued. “Apparently gunfire doesn’t affect them at all.”
Baird smiled. In fact, they all did, Marcus’ more of sneer than an actual smile, because what would any normal person with a gun do when they were told that? Yes, all five men proceeded to test that theory, opening fire on the oblivious animal, although Carmine was a bit hesitant to shoot it with a Longshot round.
“She’s right!” Dom verified. “That thing’s not even paying any attention to us!”
Another round went off then, this time from a Boltok Pistol, the fruit Benjamin had pointed out falling with a distinct splat to the ground. Almost instantly the Rockworm paid attention, letting out an apparent sound of interest as it turned its entire body, crawling quickly to retrieve it. Well aware he was being observed closely Marcus ducked down beside the rocky armour plated creature then mantled over to what was in actual fact the Rockworm version of cover.
“Oh yeah, we’re totally using that!” Damon agreed, the others mimicking Fenix’s moves somewhat, testing it, prior to them moving on.
“Marcus, you think Tai and Dizzy made it up there?”
“Don’t know, Dom. Tai is tough as a Brumak though, so if anyone can make it, it’d be him.”
“Why the hell are these two still dead?!” Baird’s voice rose several octaves, the two friends clueless as to what he was talking about until they walked through more already cleared vines, into what looked like a cave from the front, but turned out merely to be a blocked off extension of the path they’d just been following. “Just like the other guys back in Omega-One, yet Jennings...” Damon shook his head. “I don’t get it.”
“None of us do, baby,” Cole reminded him, it not missed at all that his friend had just openly admitted he had no answers, not even a surmise, Baird-style.
“Yet,” Marcus said.
To lean down and effectively raid fellow Gears for anything of use was not something any one of them could honestly say they were morally fine with, not even in the slightest. Yet in spite of how uncomfortable it made them feel, it had to be done. Aside from replenishing damaged armour, weapons and collecting additional ammo, there were also the food rations or water they may have been carrying. As much as it could turn the stomach, persons still living to continue the fight against the Horde had to take from those who no longer needed it.
"Dom, Baird, you take the Rook right. Cole, we’ll take the highroad left."
“On it,” Dom said, three sets of booted feet already moving them forward, disappearing out of sight once they past the first rock formation carved out for cover.
“Dependin’ on what we’re gonna be up against, and if we’re close enough, got a better chance of makin’ these work from up high,” Marcus explained, kneeling down beside the men that’d barely made it out of the Grindlift, securing two of their four grenades to his belt, thus doubling his own supply. With his other hand, he slipped the retrieved COG tags into another section of his armour. “You shoot, I throw,” he said, ducking into a run and sliding into cover at the top of the hill the instant he realized they’d already been spotted.
What felt like merely seconds later the Locust manning the Troika went flying backwards, taken out by the next grenade that’d been lobbed at a better angle, making it past the sandbag barrier where the first one had merely rebounded off. Marcus and Cole rose from a position now level with the staging area, the two taking advantage of the appearance of another Rockworm, rapid pulse and heavy hitting rifle rounds drowning out everything else.
Baird broke cover, dashing forward and barrelling into one of the two remaining Locust, hand reaching for the knife it was a requirement every single Gear carried with them. He sliced the weapon neatly across its throat, pressing harder to make it through the tougher skin. Behind him, Carmine smacked another drone with his Longshot, feeling the same reciprocated, the irrefutable extra strength the enemy possessed compensating for the use of a smaller weapon. By then, the Rook had managed to reload, and at point blank range there was no argument as to which came off better.
“Man, I thought there would have been a base here or something,” Dom spoke up, eyeing the duel ladders many of the Grubs they’d just killed had descended from.
“Just some type of staging area, base must be down deeper,” Marcus said, a gloved hand reaching up to grab one of the rungs.
“Sarge?” the youngest amongst them asked.
“Yeah?” Fenix acknowledged him without a pause in his upward climb.
“Do you think we’re ever gonna see the surface again?”
“Yeah... yeah kid, I do.”
“Tickers!” Baird warned, one exploding beneath his feet at the bottom of the ladder.
“Up here too, I’ll be back baby,” and without even getting an a-okay from any of them, Cole ran left to check out the area he’d spotted from below.
“Seismic activity is getting stronger, Delta, have you got a visual yet?”
“Negative, Control,” Marcus answered, still moving forward, glancing over his shoulder in time to see Cole catch up, moments before a familiar shaking joined that which they were not sure of just yet. “Grub hole,” Fenix announced, back soon flush against the nearest cover.
With the pathway now narrowing, it was far easier to close the E-Hole this time, therefore allowing only four to make it out, taken care of by five Lancers. With the rapid fire of the COG’s standard rifle, it didn’t leave much room for survival, unless their enemy had turned tail to run, and if anything had been learned over the many years of this war, unless severely outnumbered as they had been outside the hospital in Jacinto that morning, the Locust had never been the type to flee.
“Damn, not again,” Damon groaned, the team coming around the corner and finding a new Grindlift with more dead soldiers. “I’m starting to think we must be getting closer,” he said.
Dom nodded. “You and Carmine better keep an eye out, there might be snipers in the area...” no sooner had he said that, and a round flew past him, the Locust up ahead at another Grindlift seeing them just moments before they saw him. Fortunately for Dom, the Grub was far too interested in making it further down the path to backup than really making sure his aim had been straight.
Of course, none of Delta knew that until they rounded the bend and saw the sheer drop-offs on each side of a tapered walkway, ducking for cover as the Troika rounds came flying from across the way. Another staging area, Dom had been right; this one was efficiently being used as a snipers nest.
“Fruit!” Ben enthusiastically announced, pointing upwards.
“Ain’t takin’ the chance,” Marcus said, the Longshot he’d just salvaged focused in on a target already. “We can take ’em out from here.”
“Rather well too,” Baird said smugly, at the same time one of the Grubs fell.
“Hey, where the hell...” it was Dom, ahead of them a little, behind another carved out rock formation. Marcus moved his rifle slightly, catching sight of what had caused his best friend to make that statement.
The Locust they’d quickly taken care of before hadn’t been the only one on this path, the Sniper Drone right there, on the opposite side of the low wall, so close to Dom it was easy for the thing to just pop up, aim down and fire. The fact it suddenly fell forward, body hanging limp and what was left of its head not a pretty sight to behold, a clear indicator someone had been watching his back or, front, in this case.
“That was close...” the Latino whispered to himself. “Not sure what to hope for, maybe whatever’s been helping us would’ve...” his words trailed off. The entire situation was strange at best, but to begin to rely on the expectation of some sort of all powerful deployable weapon was just asking for trouble.
“Ain’t seein’ anymore,” Cole said.
“Me neither,” Damon backed him up.
Tentatively, Marcus stepped away from the ‘Golden Rule’ and began moving onward along the path, the rest of the team hesitating none in bringing up the rear. Eyes never broke from watching the nest carefully, weapons ready.
“Is that what I think it is?” Baird suddenly asked.
“Yeah, looks like it,” Fenix answered, pausing only long enough to pick up on what the Tech had spotted through his own sniper scope.
The sound of the round was far more noticeable in the silence, hitting the yellow explosives container. The flame shot up instantly, the entire thing exploding a mere second later, enough damage caused to ensure the end of that ambush plateau for good.
They continued on, the entire decision of which route to take fast becoming repetitive, the team realizing just how intricate an area the underground surface of Sera really was. It must’ve taken years for the Locust to figure out what was accessible and what wasn’t; to decide where to continue the pathways and where to simply leave as dead ends.
“Hey Marcus, look down there,” Dom informed his friend via the comlink. “Freaking sitting ducks!”
“Anyone need some sniper practice?” Fenix asked, the smirk only seen by Baird.
“Nah, but I’ll take the opportunity anyway,” the Tech answered.
Between Damon and Marcus on the upper path, and Carmine, from a different angle until he’d lost sight of them, the eight-team drone squad in the distance fell one after the other. Each member of Delta reacted in their individual ways, most notably, Cole’s “WHOO!” heard over the Tac-Com and even through the rock walls separating them.
“Dead ducks baby!” he exclaimed, laughing heartedly.
With the exhilaration still flowing through them in waves, seconds later Dom paused to lift his hand back to his ear. “Marcus, we’ve got a ladder up ahead,” he said.
“Baird and me got sandbags. Eyes open Delta,” Marcus warned, pushing his back flush against the form of defence, Baird following suit, the two of them forced to lower into a crouch the further up they travelled.
Splitting up could sometimes prove to be a bad idea. The moment Dom appeared at the top of the ladder, the gravelly-voiced warning of, “Hostiles!” reached his ears, and Troika rounds began their fast-paced trajectory towards him. “Damn!” he yelled, glancing back over his shoulder. “Stay down til I draw his fire!” he warned Carmine and Cole.
It took barely half a minute for that to happen, the Corporal moving from the crate trailer he’d found initially to a random sandbag formation further on. With the Troika drone concentrating on Santiago, Carmine slipped one arm around the topmost rung of the ladder, using it to support his weight, as he slipped the Longshot beneath it and leaned forward slightly to take the shot. He was spotted by more of the drones, yet not before he’d pulled the trigger, with the first shot taking out the wielder of the heavy weapon. Without hesitation he climbed up, pursued by Cole, both men rushing forward, Gus maintaining steady Lancer fire while Carmine reloaded and found another target, their top priority, making sure none of the other Grubs remanned the turret.
Coming around to rejoin them, Baird had already disposed of the Locust at a second Troika, successfully rendering the nest it had been a part of rather useless, except for the few remaining enemy still breathing. Popping them off was rather easy, almost too easy, and it wasn’t long before it became clear why precisely that was.
Foot-bound Locust weren’t the only ones in the area, the Reaver caught sight of by Dom first, another word of warning yelled out, eyes following the creature’s flight path, deducing where it would land, and firing upon it even before its eight legs touched the rock spire. It headed straight for Marcus, obviously the first of the ‘Hominids’ spotted, the veteran Gear running forward, then rolling to avoid being skewered. His momentum brought him to a stand right beneath the animal, Lancer rounds emptied directly into its exposed underside, there no way for it to try and use its powerful legs against him again, or for the two Grubs upon its back to find a successful target for their weapons.
“Nice,” Dom commended, with a grin, thankful Marcus had the sense to get some distance between the Reaver and himself the moment it’d fallen, their tendency to explode after being killed often the end of any sort of celebration that had possibly been taking place in defeating it. He kicked at some shrapnel, eyes taking in what was left of one of the legs as he bent down to retrieve some shotgun rounds nearby.
“Look at that door, it’s huge, could fit a Brumak through it!” Cole exclaimed. “Hang on, I’m guessin’ that’s the point. How long has this been down here for, this is creepy man. Those stories about the Boogeyman definitely ain’t stories no more.”
“You’ve got that right,” Baird agreed, intent on taking in as much as he could of the evident Locust architecture before they had to keep moving again. How exactly they were going to get that door open was a question in itself.
Turned out he didn’t have to worry. From the other side their enemy already had it covered.
“Someone man that Troika!” Dom called out, Cole already thinking of it, since his gaze had happened to fall on the one closest to the barrier.
“BOOM!” accompanied the sound of three Grenadier Elites running past their larger comrades and wretches taking point, heightened olfactory senses blocking out the scent of the dead and honing in on the living.
One ran directly for Cole in the process of opening fire on one of the Boomers, very soon falling, not from Troika fire, but Boltok Pistol ammo, a carefully placed aim from a team member in cover behind him. The big man realized he wasn’t going to be able to take out the second Boomer before it succeeded in getting a clear shot at him, letting go of the Troika and rolling backwards as the round hit the frontal shield. He was on his feet and back at the weapon in an instant, only to see the remaining Boomer, the three Grenadiers, and the last two wretches suddenly freeze, then fall.
“Where’s the energy?” Baird clicked as to what was going on immediately.
“None of us need healin’,” Marcus hazarded a guess.
“We could’ve handled that!” Damon added.
“Let’s just keep moving,” Fenix said, briefly looking around as he jogged forward.
“Maybe it’s an internal thing?” Carmine suggested, the team passing through the door and traversing the path beyond, angling down once again, and to the left. “What’s happening to them, I mean.”
“Yeah, right!” Baird retorted, with a roll of his eyes.
“What? It’d explain why we can’t see whatever is causing it,” the Rook protested, narrowing his eyes at his blond haired superior officer, in part due to the fact his helmet hid his face and therefore he knew the guy wouldn’t even know he was doing it.
“Doesn’t explain that energy wave though,” Dom pointed out, quickly stepping in, trying to avoid the inevitable smart mouth reply from Baird.
“Mayday, mayday, this is Alpha-Two, we’re under heavy mortar fire.”
“Roger that, Alpha-Two, this is Delta, we’re almost on them. We’ll take ’em out from here!” Marcus answered, the team making several different turns, still travelling downwards, coming up quickly on another lookout.
Marcus felt a Hammerburst bullet rebound off his armour from the side as he ran straight for the Grub on the Troika, Lancer held up and ready, Dom and Cole watching his back. Baird and Carmine stayed behind cover, picking off the stragglers, including the Locust in charge of one of the mortars Santiago hadn’t already taken care of.
“Okay, that’s it! Who’s up next?!” the Sergeant’s mixed feelings of angry triumph and anticipation leaving his mouth as a challenge even before the noise from the chainsaw had fully faded.
With the Troika now free and two mortars lying there for the taking Marcus glanced out over the lower expanse, taking stock of Alpha-Two’s situation in the distance and the Grubs pinning them down. There was little cover and far too many back up enemy soldiers now approaching from the opposite direction. Without a word, Fenix opened fire with the Troika, Cole and Dom took a hold of a mortar each, while Baird and Carmine focused in with their snipers.
Joining them were the Lancer rounds from the team they were trying to aid, the leader of which soon announced, “That’s it, Alpha-Two, we’ve got ’em on the run, let’s move!” Delta-One witnessing them break cover and rush the enemy, seconds later taking the last one out.
“Thanks for the assist, Delta. We’re...” the intermediate shaking felt by all of them unexpectedly became far more apparent, signalling they were much closer to the source. “Terrain seems unstable. We’re gonna try to regroup with Alpha-One. Alpha-Two out...” Marcus didn’t get a chance to answer, all eyes fixed upon the opposite wall.
It was moving, crawling to the right. What they’d thought was a natural inanimate part of the terrain was now revealing itself to be very much alive!
“What the hell is that thing?!” Carmine cried.
“That ain’t good. Well I guess we’ve found our seismic activity,” Marcus said, his tone in complete contrast to Benjamin’s need to start freaking out. As his team moved back into following the path, the Sergeant tried to contact Control, the effort futile.
"Now there’s nothing? Figures," Baird said, hanging back a little.
Marcus just shrugged. “It’s not like we haven’t been on our own before. Let’s just keep goin’, figure this out later,” he ordered, one last look given to the gaping hole left in the oversized Rockworm’s wake.
Around a couple corners they entered a shallow creek cutting through the middle of an open-sided cave, Cole slowing down for a moment at the sight of the glowing plants rising above the surface. “You know, this could be called pretty if we we’re down here for reasons other than killing Locust,” Cole informed them. “Even before the Grubs came up, aboveground looked pretty average compared to this.”
His observation was cut short by an unexpected gurgled growl in the distance. Well, it sounded like a growl, could’ve been a chant. Whatever it was it brought Carmine standing up stock straight and asking, “What am I hearing?”
Marcus’ answer was simple, “Down here, somethin’ else to shoot,” just moments before they reached the other side.
“Stairs?” Ben asked.
“Guess this dispels any doubts as to where they come from,” Dom began, his surprise interrupted by another growl, or chant, or, “What the hell are these guys?!” he cried, the team rushing up the steps to the cover several metres away from another set of large double doors, this time flanked by closed in niches with smaller access points in the main walls.
“I don’t know Dom, just shut ’em up!” Marcus yelled back. “Use the Rockworms for cover!”
His order was soon followed by the unusual Locust up the top screaming at them after Baird emptied a sniper round into its neck. It didn’t seem to bother it all that much though, so that wasn’t the reason for the screech.
“That thing just called those Tickers!” Fenix stated, catching sight of them through his scope.
“Great!” Baird interjected, clearly not happy. “It won’t stay still, jumping all around the place, must be elite, haven’t seen any of ’em move like this or that fast,” the Tech relayed, pulling the trigger and watching as the creature fell. Of course, trying to figure out exactly what it was would have to come later; the double doors were starting to open.
One, two, three; it was the fourth sniper round from Carmine’s rifle that finally dropped the second unknown, indisputably proving it was certainly higher up in the ranks. More skilled, more resilient and very closely resembling the strange Locust Tai and Dizzy had moved to face as Marcus and Dom’s lift buried itself into the ground. There was a call of retreat from the drones still standing, Dom trying to finish one off as it ran back through the smaller doorways and vanished from sight.
Damon didn’t miss the chance to head over and kneel down to take a closer look. “Going to need time to decipher what those markings mean,” he said.
“Jack, scan the bodies,” Marcus ordered, attention averting to the Geobot’s appearance on his immediate right. “Get those markings back to Control.”
“Okay, so it’s pretty obvious we’ve found the base,” Dom voiced, looking around and taking in the strategic positioning of it over various water tunnels passing beneath, surrounded by solid rock walls, therefore leaving only the one direction of which to approach it from. “We’re near Ilima City, right? Not liking this one bit,” he added, head turning to watch Cole, Baird and Carmine take a ladder up to higher ground.
“Yeah, no kiddin’,” Marcus agreed, and there was no resistance at first, nothing, he and Dom walking carefully forward through a narrow area and around a couple of bends.
“Whoa!” Dom suddenly motioned, the first to spot the Troika nests. “Ah, might have to use that Rockworm for cover.”
“If we can get the damn thing to move,” Marcus said, the heavy machine gun rounds now flying over their heads. “Cole, Baird, Carmine, see any of that glowing fruit from up there?”
“Actually, yeah,” Damon’s voice came back.
“Shoot it down, see if this thing reacts like that last time,” Fenix ordered.
Seconds later, with both men watching for it, they saw the food source fall, preparing themselves for what they hoped was coming, and they weren’t disappointed. The worm began crawling forwards, and all the two on the lower ground had to do was keep up with it until they were out of the range and sight of the Troikas. Now the lives of the Grubs manning them could be ended without the fear of being mowed down in the process.
On the higher ground, wretch after wretch appeared from an opening in the wall, the three sent up the ladder having come to a dead end, of sorts. There was a lever to pull, but doing so did absolutely nothing to open the door Cole had assumed it was meant for, and trying to figure out why was interrupted with the sudden need to defend their lives from the pack of ‘monkey dogs’.
The majority were hit over the head, smacked so hard a few times they fell without wasting ammo; others were cut through with the chainsaw. The last few, stupidly sitting there and doing nothing before all of a sudden realizing they better start attacking, were shot point blank with the pistol Baird had siphoned off that chanting Locust.
“Yo, Marcus, it’s all clear up here. We’re at a door that won’t open, even though there’s a lever in front of it. Any chance it’s the same set up down there?” Cole asked.
“Explains that then,” Marcus answered. “Might be some sort of synchronization. Ready?” he paused.
“Yeah, got it,” Cole verified for him.
“One, two, three!” and the two men pulled the levers towards them, the doors immediately splitting down the middle and swinging open.
“That worked,” Marcus muttered, relieved Gus held back from his usual and very loud form of exhilaration considering where exactly they were right now. After a quick scan of what lay ahead, he added, “I’m thinkin’ we might be about to meet up again... not sure... will keep you posted.”
“Copy that, Marcus,” Cole answered, following Baird and Carmine around another corner and taking cover the moment he spotted the Troika situated at the edge of the opposite rock shelf.
“There’s no one on that Troika,” Damon stated, eyebrow raised in Cole’s direction.
“Might be because there’s a dead Locust up here,” came Marcus’ voice over the comms. “Keep moving. We need to determine what exactly is going on before jumping to conclusions.”
On the side in question, up high and closer than the other three, it took the team of two less time to find out the reason why there was no more resistance. “Looks like we’ve been beaten to it,” Fenix said, spotting Baird, Cole and Carmine running down the pathway that came around to meet what lay below them. They slowed up a little as they saw the drones, grenadiers, and wretches in the course of falling down in a heap, another of the unknowns encountered earlier seemingly flung backwards, the lifeless body strewn out over the low rock formation behind it.
“Take cover!” Marcus yelled, there no indication the doors were about to open until they just did, revealing, like back at the first set, two Boomers and a few more of drones. “There’s a Troika down there, I’m going to make a run for it!”
“Whatever is helping us is here somewhere, we can let it...” Dom’s words trailed off. “This is insane!” he yelled. “Go, I’ll try and draw their fire.”
When the Boomers finally fell, it became obvious there was no more Grubs coming through those doors, Delta-One regrouping, briefly revaluating, and making the decision to simply move on. Ilima City was on the other side of a now open barrier, the team ready for another attack; a possible finding of something they really wished they hadn’t seen, or maybe something they wished they had.
What they did witness was beyond anything any of them could’ve imagined, alerted to the presence of a flying creature that closely resembled a much larger Reaver, and the very same Elite Locust they’d glimpsed aboveground infiltrating the Drillzone perched atop it. Up until this point Carmine had managed to control his need to freak out, but witnessing the Riftworm come sliding after the oversized Reaver and its rider was enough for him to begin repeating the same phrase of disbelief over and over.
The rest of Delta looked on, eyes widening, mouths hanging open. Not even Marcus could hide his reaction to this one, because moments later, the geographical formation of this part of Sera’s underneath, mere metres in front of where they were hiding, began to crumble, disintegrate, collapse and plummet downwards, leaving in its wake a gaping hole!
“Control, do you read? Are you seeing this?!” Marcus asked.
“Copy that, Delta. We’ve just had topside confirmation that Ilima... Ilima City has been sunk right at your location!” Anya reported, her voice breaking a little as the full meaning of that statement hit her.
"Anya, it's a giant worm!” Marcus yelled. “They're sinking cities with a giant worm!"
“Mayday! Mayday! This is KR-Five Four…” even as their Tac-Coms crackled to life, Delta caught visual confirmation one of their birds was in trouble, sideways spinning in a fast descent, smoke billowing from its rotors. “… we’ve been hit. We’re goin down! Mayday! Mayday!”
“KR-Five Four, this is Delta. We have you in our sights, and are on our way,” Marcus confirmed. “Control, we’re heading to the crash zone. Delta, let’s get in there!”
“Copy that, Marcus. Ilima City was evacuated but watch out for any remaining Stranded…” Anya’s update was interrupted and coincidentally backed up by the appearance of a disheveled and terror-filled man running in the opposite direction. His warning about Bloodmounts sent shivers of justifiable fear and anticipation up and down their spines.
“Yeah, great,” Baird mumbled, eyes soon widening as he focused solely on what was chasing another stranded civvie up ahead.
Almost on him and about to strike it seemed someone then decided to press the pause button, the Bloodmount freezing in midair for a few seconds before falling sideways in a big heap, its rider also gone. Of course, the visibly shocked and relieved Stranded wasted no time in stumbling back to his feet and rushing in the same direction as his friend.
“Sweet,” Dom exclaimed.
While Delta fell into the familiar routine of fighting the various foot-bound drones, the majority of them Grenadier Elites, the growls of one of the most formidable smaller animals known among the Locust Horde came closer and closer. Even above the scents of the burning city they could smell the living human flesh; their riders could hear the gunfire, and between the two they were fast honing in.
“Watch out for their reach, Delta!” Marcus reminded them.
“As if we wouldn’t!” Baird instantly shot back with a roll of his eyes.
“Baird, watch your back!” Damon didn’t wonder why Dom had shouted that at him, he simply reacted pushing away from the burnt-out shell of the vehicle he’d been using for cover and turning around.
He looked up in time to see the animal in question mount the old car, merely using it as leverage to jump straight at the blond haired Tech, what looked like hooked arms – in actual fact its legs – outstretched and aimed for his chest. Baird’s backward roll took him far enough away and out of its reach, filling the thing with bullets from the weapon he’d started pulling the trigger of the moment the beast had been spotted. The Bloodmount toppled forward as it landed, Cole on the beast’s rider before he could even rise from where the momentum had sent him sprawling.
“Whoa, watch out! Building’s coming down!” it was both awe-inspiring and appalling all at the same time; what had once been a skyscraper apartment complex now reduced to nothing as it fast fell into the gaping hole at its edge. ~Please let there have been no one in there,~ Dom thought to himself.
Up ahead, the Bloodmount making a beeline around one of the main Emergence Holes, parts of Ilima City further collapsing into it, all of a sudden went flying sideways, powerful arms and hooked legs scrabbling for purchase on thin air. If they could’ve seen its face behind the helmet it was wearing, the Gears would’ve caught sight of its look of complete confusion, as both it and the Grenadier upon its back plunged downwards, the mount’s roar cut short by the broken off piece of water pipe skewering through its chest. Cole glanced over into the precipice, shotgun aimed, trigger pulled, and said Beast Rider’s ascent stopped before it’d even begun.
“Yeah baby!” he exclaimed. “Think we can rightly say whatever’s helpin’ is still around!” the large black man didn’t expect an answer, nor did he get one, their sole focus right now driving them through the remains of the city, a stark reminder of how Tollen and Montevado had looked after the same thing had happened to them. Least they knew what was behind it all now.
The only one among them that hadn’t said a thing since witnessing the freakishly impossible was Ben, the youngest Gear on the Squad just focusing on staying alive, while his mind went over and over the question: What the hell was normal about any of this?! Normalcy had flown out the window the moment the Boogeyman had become all too real, and with Delta, he’d become privy to ground combat he’d never experienced before. Add to that the strangeness of being abetted by something they couldn’t see, and it was a wonder why his young mind hadn’t well and truly turned to mush by now.
There was no time to dwell on this however, not in the middle of battle. They had to continue, cleanse what had been reduced to a mere shell of a once great city; a memorial of one of the last few remaining human refuges now lost completely. All the while, the very thing on the minds of the members of this team was: How efficient and how close was this giant worm to sinking Jacinto? Could it break through the solid granite base of the Plateau when none of the known Horde could? The thought was astounding, terrifying, and incomprehensible all rolled into one! Stopping the thing became the primary focus of Fenix’s mind, the determination for now pushed aside by the objective they had to achieve now.
“There’s the smoke flair, Delta!” he announced. “We’re close,” and of course it was almost as if the Locust were listening, the roar of the Corpser opening the way ahead of them followed by the sound of the very gears in the mechanism of the makeshift bridge on wheels grinding over. With a thump, it allowed the Locust access from the higher ground down to just above where they were going.
“We’re don’t have time for this!” Marcus snarled, knowing for certain they had purposely been waiting for them to appear. The Grubs were just as aware of where they were heading, the very reason why it was so important they finished them off quickly and got over there! This time the Sergeant welcomed and was even waiting for whatever that energy wave was, but when it didn’t come, he knew they were on their own!
“Reaver!” Ben and Dom’s voice rose in unison over the sound of the confrontation.
“It’s blockin’ our way, take it out!” Marcus yelled, clearly ticked off. “Carmine! Baird! Finish off the drones!” the Sergeant ordered, circling round for some cover with a clearer line of fire.
It was Cole who first saw the beams and support struts begin to give way beneath what was left of the Grub’s vantage point, leaning the entire floor precariously to one side. “Yo Marcus, we need to drive the horsey over there,” and he motioned to the now obvious weakness.
“I’ll lure it,” the matter of fact statement from the Sergeant came as no surprise, and made more than the average amount of sense as well.
Maybe it was because they knew Fenix was the leader of this particular enemy squad, or perhaps it just had everything to do with the fact he’d made himself a prime target. Either way, the strategy worked, the Sergeant taking refuge in the nook of some random concrete debris, as the eight-legged creature exploded. The drones had mere seconds to realize what was happening before their foothold literally fell out from beneath them… maybe now they would get some idea of how it felt…
“Move Delta!” Marcus growled, and if anyone dared to argue, Carmine was sure they’d have been introduced to that different kind of chainsaw training the older Gear had threatened him with earlier that morning.
The flames licked at any surface still intact, and continued the fast consumption of any surface that wasn’t; gaping holes and massive splinters in the wooden beams booted feet ran over. The door they entered was the beginning of a small hallway, whatever this building had once been now a burnt-out, on fire, smashed to pieces shell of its former self. Walking into the open space beyond the doorway all urgency to get there was instantly replaced by the falling of shoulders and that feeling of, “Damnit, we’re too late!” Dom exclaimed.
“Control, this is Delta, KR-Five Four and Charlie-Nine are all KIA, we’re gonna have to…” it was then Marcus thought of something, and when he glanced around at the rest of the team, it seemed the same notion was starting to dawn on them as well. The voice of the KR Pilot they’d heard the second time on their way here… was it setting up the trap, bait so the Locust could lure them exactly to this point, with little cover, only the one exit that they could see and far too much high ground around them?
“Get back into the hallway, Delta! We’re sittin’ ducks out here!” Marcus advised, not that it really did afford them much protection, especially from above.
The inevitable was announced with a roar from the first onslaught, Delta spotting them streaming in and around the upper balcony from the opposite side. One hand began to aim and fire his Lancer, while the other shot up to hit his Tac-Com, “Mayday! Mayday! This is Delta One,” Marcus looked behind them at the door they’d come through, in time to see the van suddenly pushed into position to block it, Cole’s back hitting the vehicle seconds later as he’d already taken the initiative to try and get out back the way they’d come.
“KR-Five Four’s crash zone has been used to lure us into an ambush. Are there any teams in the vicinity? Repeat, we’re in the middle of an ambush in the middle of Ilima City, are there any squads in the area?” the Sergeant had no choice but to go silent then, focusing his attention on keeping both himself and the rest of his squad alive.
Baird leant sideways to avoid being shot in the shoulder, the momentum sending him back hard into the wall behind him, ignoring the pain to refocus his Longshot in once again. Down another one fell, and after reloading, another, and another, but they just kept on coming. Lancer fire streamed across the gap, and, after they’d succeeded in finishing off several of the Grubs daring to come so close as to be almost above them, Marcus noticed no more decided to take the chance… the odds of terminating the humans from a distance were far better. Within the Team Leader’s heart, he knew the likelihood of all of them surviving this was stacked very high against them.
They were deep within the Locust Horde’s very own territory; this amount of Grubs so quickly, and the tools they’d witnessed them using…
“Mayday! Mayday!” Marcus repeated. “This is Delta One, are there any squads in the area, we need assistance ASAP!”
“Where the hell is that invisible Deployable Weapon now? What is going on?!” Dom hissed, glancing around briefly, seeing nothing… except… he blinked a little, and the shimmering he’d caught sight of on the support pole diagonally to the right across from them was gone. Trick of the light, the heat from the flames beneath rising. He turned his head, catching his best mate’s gaze… was this it? No, it couldn’t be it! They’d come so far, achieved so much, how could they possibly end up dying like this?!
And then it happened, what they had all been waiting for, and what they welcomed without any hesitation whatsoever this time. The yellowish-green energy spread throughout the entire upper area of the building, visible to the five Gears in the hallway cover, and even more so when the familiar scene of the Grubs just freezing midway through whatever they were doing began to occur. Some dropped their weapons, knees collapsing out from the beneath them; others had their Hammerburst and Gnashers still in their hands as they then proceeded to drop out cold over the side of the balcony, hitting the floor several meters below.
Dom smiled wide. “I’m still askin’ what’s going on?” he said, pleasantly relieved he was no longer on the verge of accepting the inevitable.
It was Marcus falling to his knees that alerted the Latino to something being wrong first, and it was all he could do to reach over and try to steady his best mate quick enough. “What the hell? Marcus?” he asked, brown eyes moving over him, looking for…
“No… damnit! It’s going to be okay, Marcus, just lie down…” of course, the Sergeant would have nothing of it, even though trying to get back up was not only excruciatingly painful, but causing a great amount of nausea as well. “Marcus!” Dom insisted, glancing briefly at the others, signaling for them to help keep him down, which Cole hesitated none in doing, considering there was blood literally spilling from the area between Fenix’s shoulder and the nape of his neck.
“Hammerburst round made it through, baby,” he said, although not as enthusiastically as he normally would have.
“I’ll be fine, let me up,” Marcus insisted, but knew any effort to fight the hands trying to make sure he did nothing but the complete opposite was futile.
“Hey!” Dom suddenly called, looking around them. “Whatever it is you’re using, get it over here! Help him!” in Santiago’s mind the weapon had to be wielded by someone, whether indirectly or directly, and it made more sense to him that it was some sort of robotic device. Hence the reason why it could do exactly what Jack was capable of, stay incognito for extended periods of time.
“Who the hell is that?” Fenix’s question brought Dom’s attention back to his friend, and only then did he notice Carmine, Cole, and Baird were also stock still and staring at something… no, not something, someone, leaning over Marcus, right there between him and Damon.
The form was shimmering… like the pole? Dom went silent, his initial reaction to reach out and grab this person, but even as his eyes followed where the stranger’s hand was now resting, he could see that same yellowish-green energy glow. As it past into Marcus, closing the wound and pushing the bullet back out, whoever it was seemingly shifted properly back into sight, then proceeded to head straight for the van blocking the doorway, climbing up, over and through the relatively small gap to disappear once again.
~Don’t follow me! Don’t follow me! Don’t follow me!~ the mantra ran over and over in her head, begging the five Gears to just move on, not try and backtrack to locate what they now no doubt knew was this ‘Deployable Weapon’ they’d been talking about. Funny thing about that was they were right on the mark, that is exactly what she had been called… what they’d planned to use her and every other person showing signs of ‘Imulsion Change’ in the facility for. ~Stupid idiot!~ the long, dark haired woman yelled at herself. ~You knew you were using too much; depleting the reserve, but no, you HAD to keep going, you HAD to help them.~
~What else was I supposed to do, let the Sergeant die?~ even while the argument raged on in her head, she was removing one of the Torque Bow arrows from the pack on the right side of her hip, spinning it around and literally plunging it into the medial cubical vein of her right arm, absorbing the Imulsion in its tip. “Yeah, no, not an option, Mana, considering they’re the team that’s been kicking locust butt all this time,” she said softly.
Up until saving the sarcastic one’s life, she’d never seen them in person before; only heard about them via her own Tac-Com ‘relieved’ from a Gear she hadn’t been in the vicinity to save at the time. She knew they were the ones that needed her help the most, at least up until a point because there were other Gears; other teams, like that Corporal Jace Stratton’s… Alpha-Seven, and so many others… but she’d had to decide, she couldn’t help them all.
Now it seemed she was about to pay for a decision she’d only made within the hour before deciding to help any of them…
~It’s not enough!~ she told herself, removing the arrow from a wound already closing, cleaning it off, then placing it back in with the others. Even with no Imulsion in it and therefore losing the energy needed to explode on contact, it was still a formidable weapon. ~I know it’s not enough, but it’ll have to do ’til I can get the time to use the kit…~ brown eyes looked out through the gap in the wall of what was left of the corner of the gas station the team had passed on their way to the crash zone. There was no movement… maybe they weren’t looking for her…
But someone else was causing her to quickly shimmer down further. Where Delta had never seen or heard hind nor hair of her before, it seemed the Theron had, even though the young woman acted the complete opposite, already pulling the Torque Bow off her back and reloading it. She didn’t have to pull the trigger though; the Guard by now alerted to the presence of other incoming enemy, its attention turning back to focus on finding cover, hiding until the chance to attack was perfect.
Mana wasn’t about to let the red-armored Grub succeed in its ambush, but… they were coming back to look for her, she could see the Gears now, and if she shot the Torque, they’d deduce the angle and know where she was!
~This is frustrating!~ she hissed at herself. ~Enough of this… I can’t just let them walk into a trap!~ and that was in part the reason why she’d even started helping them at all.
The Theron’s head snapped around as it heard the sound of its own weapon of choice powering up, looking down to see the crosshair appear on its chest, and deciding to climb up and over to the other side of the cover it was behind just that little bit too late. At the new angle, the arrow hit its right arm embedding in deeply before exploding, literally ripping the appendage off, the elite Locust’s howl of pain alerting the five other humans in the area. Mana heard the booted feet running heavily in the general direction, while she herself backed away, ducked low and started to run away further.
“Right arm,” Marcus informed the others, after he’d finished it off. Remaining crouched, he looked around, “Over there,” and the team followed.
She didn’t look over her shoulder, just stuck to the various forms of concealment the best she could, trying to put distance between herself and the ones she knew had every right to be following her. Coming around the front of another burnt out vehicle, only then did she see what hadn’t be there before – on her way to the crash site the massive gaping hole, full of various debris, broken water mains and sewage pipes had been to one side, the burning building opposite, with an unstable path through the middle. Now they were strewn together, the structure collapsing in an unrecognizable heap across the path.
Mana crouched, eyes taking in her options. She could go down through the hole and up again; on the other hand, there was up and over what remained of the once thriving 3-storey café too. Yet, could she achieve this without too much difficulty, and most important, could she make it before the Gears caught up or she was spotted by more Locust? The 29-year-old sighed; she knew the answer the moment she’d seen it and backtracking to find another way around would only end up seeing her run right into Delta. There was no longer enough Imulsion running through her veins to trigger the camouflage. She had to face it… the day she’d dreaded had finally come, and all because she simply couldn’t stand watching the Gears on the outskirts of the Hollow fall, when she had the power to make sure that didn’t happen.
~To some of them,~ she thought, already able to hear the questioning voices getting closer, the mention of “This way,” “No, she went this way,” reaching her ears. With another sigh, she rose, lifting the Torque Bow back into position, coming back around the car and aiming the weapon, her finger just centimeters from pulling the trigger.
“Whoa, Baby, calm down!” Cole immediately said, holding up his hands, palms out, shotgun clasped between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand. The other members of Delta had their Lancers at the ready, but, considering all that she had thus far done for them and so many of their fellow squad mates, they were hesitant to point the barrels right at her.
“Turn it off,” she said, Marcus noticing the Torque was not aimed at them, blue eyes following the angle to the team’s Geobot hovering inches above and slightly to the left side of his head. “I said, turn it off!” and this time there was no missing the inflection of her tone; she was dead serious!
“Hey… hey, please calm down,” it was Anya’s voice via the personal video uplink, the screen folding down from beneath Jack, the reception of which was even more absolutely shocking than normal. “I can’t see you anyway,” the Lieutenant assured her.
Although Mana lowered the Torque, it was clear she wasn’t going to relax it completely anytime soon.
The five Gears hadn’t known how to really react when they couldn’t see what had been helping them, now that they could, that was even more plainly obvious. How were they supposed to respond to the sight of someone, and not just any someone, a girl… woman, leaning over to heal Marcus, the same one who had no doubt done the same thing to Jennings, and Baird? And that energy wave… did it come from her and, if so, how?
These questions and many more ran through the minds of Delta even as they regarded the young woman, took in the sight of the same pistol wielded by that unknown Locus attached to her belt extended down and resting upon her right leg; the Torque Bow in her hands, the ammo for both no doubt in one of the various pouches on her hip, and they were pretty sure, evidenced by what she’d done to that Theron, she already knew how to wield both weapons very effectively. Brown eyes, black hair tied back, clothes they’d have expected to see on any Stranded, with the difference being hers were not as unkempt, or dirty, the original colors showing through, like she actually still cared for her hygiene and appearance.
“Who are you?” it was Marcus that finally broke the unspoken examining silence.
“My name is Mana,” was all she said.
“Just Mana?” Dom asked.
“Just Mana,” she reiterated, her eyes going straight to him, there no doubt she was not going to elaborate as to why that was any further.
“Well… ah, thanks, for that back there,” Marcus said, still finding it very difficult to believe this woman somehow managed to completely reverse the wound the Hammerburst bullet had made.
“So?” Baird interjected then.
“So, what?” she asked the blond haired mechanic.
“So, where’s the tech you’re using?” and he hesitated none in covering the distance between them, completely oblivious to the body of the girl stiffen almost instantly, finger hovering closer to the trigger of the Torque Bow.
“Baird,” Dom called. “Get…” and just as suddenly he went silent again. “Was… was it you that helped the captives Anya mentioned?” he asked. This was possibly the very thing he’d been hoping for, right there in front of them. “Have you ever helped anyone named Maria?”
“I don’t have any tech,” she told them.
“Whoa baby!” came Cole’s exclamation for a far different reason this time. “Am I seein’ this right? Her eyes are glowin’,” he inquired of Marcus right beside him, referring to the lines of yellowish-green energy following the natural blood flow of her irises.
“Oh, that’s… that’s just wrong, in so many ways… what is going on?” Carmine decided to chip in then, the first to comment on that same glow evident throughout the veins on the bare areas of skin not covered by her clothing, including her face and hands; most palpably, that of the main arteries in her neck.
“I am the tech,” Mana finally said.
“That’s Lambent,” Damon announced. “You’re freakin’ Lambent,” he accused. “But, Lambent don’t heal…”
“I’m not going back,” Mana interrupted, so matter-of-factly it was hard not to shut up and focus solely on what she’d just said.
“Back where?” Marcus immediately asked.
“I suggest you keep moving,” she replied. “That Theron isn’t the only one out there still looking…” and Mana stepped back, it more than obvious to the members of Delta she had no intention of going the same way as them.
“Hang on a second, you can’t do that!” Baird basically ordered. “You’ve got some whole weapon thing goin’ on, you should be openly helping the COG, where have you been all this time? Why did you save me and Jennings and leave others to die! Hey…” and, being the closest, and also the most completely insensitive, he reached out and grabbed her arm. “You can’t walk away now,” he went on. “You’ve got work to do! How long have you been out there and not using whatever…” and he motioned to her, “this is?”
“Damnit, Damon!” Dom yelled, but Baird wasn’t finished yet.
“What the hell is this?!” he almost hissed at the woman. “You’ve got this ability to heal and help and we have no idea about you until now. If we didn’t see you would you have even shown yourself?!” his tone was full of an incredulous accusing, bordering on malice. “How dare you keep this from us!” he opened his mouth to speak again, only then noticing the lambent glow in her eyes was more apparent now, and before he could get out what he next wanted to say, she grabbed his hand hard and pushed it away.
“Just what exactly do you think the COG would do to me if they found me again!” she said, her pitch rising. “I’m a Deployable Weapon in human form, Corporal! My freedom would mean nothing to them. I’m not human, I’m not Lambent, I’m not Locust, I’m something else in-between, and I’m female!” she elaborated for him.
In the background, Marcus lifted his hand to his Tac-Com, “Anya, anyone else seen… heard what’s goin’ on?” he asked her.
“Fortunately, no Marcus,” she answered.
“Good, keep it that way,” the Sergeant said, and it was left unsaid that it would only be for now.
The woman didn’t need to expand any further on what she had said for them to understand exactly what she was trying to tell them but there would be no hiding her revealed existence from the COG forever. At the same time though, the combination of the Government using her however they so wished out in the field, along with trying to replicate exactly what she was by several different means, sent a shiver of foreboding and disgust up and down even the most stoic of the men before her.
All except Baird…
“That’s not for you to decide! Not now, not when we need all the help we can get…” maybe it’d just taken longer for the connotations to sink in, or maybe the Tech just realized he was about to get a more physical reaction from the girl who could heal – the Healer – because she was now stepping back further and lifting the Torque Bow…
“Back off!” she warned him. “I mean it! Get out of my face! I am NOT going back, you try to make me and I’ll do whatever it takes…” and not one of them thought for a moment she would not hesitate to follow through with some form of her threat.
Baird finally threw up his hands, although it was clear on his face he wasn’t the least bit happy with her attitude towards all this. “The COG could help you, you know… you could…”
“Baird, shut the hell up!” Marcus growled at him, Damon following the order, but giving Mana a disapproving look all the same.
“YOU get down off that high horse of yours for five seconds and stand in the shoes of others that’ve been nothing but a tool to the means of an end for the government you hold in such high regards,” Mana suddenly shot back at Baird. “I wasn’t born like this!”
“Hey,” it was Dom that stepped forward then, hands still held out to the side, Lancer pointed in another direction. “Don’t listen to him, Baird can’t help himself sometimes. Lower the Torque, we won’t make you go back,” he promised, wherever back was, obviously not as clear to them. When she looked at him, he tried his best to show his honesty by holding steady her gaze. “We’ve seen what you can do, and we don’t want that to be abused, we know what… they could do to you…” and Dom trailed off, the team now just watching her, waiting.
“Show us where they keep the captives,” Marcus said, the sentence not meant to sound like an order, but it was important.
Mana’s eyes past between each Gear in turn, studying them, lingering for a few extra moments on Baird, where they narrowed, another silent warning given, before she at last lowered the Torque Bow. “I have helped many Maria’s, Corporal Santiago,” now answering the Latino’s earlier question. “You will have to be more specific as to the one you are talking about,” she informed him.
Dom immediately reached into the pocket where he kept the one remaining picture he had of the woman he loved, taken on a day long before they’d even heard of the Locust. Later given to him by Maria herself as a way for him to always remember and think of her whenever his duty to the COG took him away from their family. He held it up… Mana looked at it… and by doing so caught sight of what was closing in on their position from behind them.
“Reaver!” she yelled, breaking for cover, giving the photo she hadn’t been able to look at properly only the smallest of considerations as she slid flush against the nearest burnt out car. By the way the Corporal’s face had looked so utterly hopeful, Mana had a feeling whoever his Maria was, she was someone who meant a lot to him.
Lancer fire broke the relative silence, and in the very near distance they heard the sounds of more Locust on foot closing in. “Use your energy wave, baby!” Cole urged.
“I can’t,” Mana said. “It’s depleted.”
“What? How could it be…” Damon began.
“Just shut your trap and keep firin’!” Marcus yelled, out of the corner of his eye seeing the visual evidence of the sound indicating that the female was focusing the chosen weapon of the Theron.
When the arrow shot through the air and embedded into the Reaver as it landed, it was only then that he was suddenly very relieved she was on their side. She could’ve easily been reaping the revenge against the atrocities that’d no doubt happened to her, either by taking all of them out as one over time, or, instead of aiding them, she could’ve been working the other way around – taking the COG out, Gears, civilians, high ranking officials, showing absolutely no distinction – in reverse, helping the Locust!
~I don’t know what’s happened to you, kid,~ the Sergeant thought to himself, ~but I am wonderin’ why you’re even botherin’ with all this.~
At around the same time, and in-between breaking cover to fire at the Reaver until it finally fell and exploded, his focus then on those on the ground, Cole was observing the young woman, thinking the one thing that maybe hadn’t crossed the minds of his fellow teammates yet.
If their government was responsible for what she was now, and as such, if they ever got their hands on her to end up picking up right from where they’d left off in using her as a means to their own ends…
What about the Locust?
“I am not seeing this,” Dom murmured, his words barely audible, hit with the sudden onset of imagining Maria possibly still in one of the metal prison sarcophagi strewn throughout the area, some propped up against each other, lying on their sides on the ground, or leaning back adjacent to the walls of a tunnel left in the Riftworm’s wake. “Is there someone in every one of these?”
The Latino started looking through the slot of each and every coffin he passed, unable to help but feel the need to free anyone that may have been inside. He soon realized when he couldn’t see in it was because there was a metal slot over the window, a hand reaching up to slide it across, preparing himself for what he might’ve been about to witness behind it.
“How long have they been doing this?” Marcus spoke up, visibly shaken. “And why haven’t we heard about this before?”
“Because the Locust didn’t want their main enemy finding out about their weakness,” this came from the new face among the team, all eyes turning to her, even while the other members of Delta were also checking the cells. They couldn’t just walk right on past them, although, if their proved to be any survivors, how exactly would they get all of them out of here in one piece?
~Mana did it,~ Dom thought. ~We can too.~
“Is this what you saw when you helped those Stranded and Civilians, baby?” Cole asked, the answer coming in the form of a solemn nod.
“And, what weakness? What… hang on, main enemy?” Baird suddenly chimed in.
Mana just looked at him then motioned ahead to what was left of the deceased Gear lying in front of one of the many coffins lining a large makeshift cage with a wooden plank floor. “I can’t help him. He’s too far gone,” she explained, just seconds before Cole was the first to look at her with expectation in his eyes.
“Too far gone... what?!” Damon exclaimed. “Explain to me how he’s too far gone, but you could bring Jennings back from the dead?”
“Because Jennings was technically still alive when I helped him, Corporal,” Mana replied. “His brain function wasn’t completely gone, there were still the pulses I could latch onto, and thus heal him,” it was so straightforward for her. She’d been capable of using the Imulsion in such a way for so long now. “And it was either help those already dead, or save… you, directly,” she finished.
To those who knew Baird, it wasn’t a surprise when he came out with, “Right, so you’re tellin’ me you have basically a ten minute window before there’s just no chance,” it was almost as if he was sliding right past the fact this woman he’d been yelling at and, on some level, accusing of being a selfish traitor was the very same one that’d saved his life from having his face smashed in. “Okay, that makes sense,” he said, the scientific part of his mind accepting that explanation, wigged out more by just how weird this was and, maybe somewhere in there, actually grateful for the fact he was still alive because of it.
“In other words, you were obviously very close to Alpha-Seven when their Grindlifts landed, right?” Carmine asked.
Mana nodded, looking at the youngest member on the team. “Yes, thankfully,” was all she said, at least for now unaware Marcus had taken note of yet another attempt to change the subject. “There’s no one here,” she went on, just verifying within the Gear’s mind there were parts of her past she was refusing to revisit. “They’ve already loaded who they were able to and finished off the rest,” and it was the way Mana said it and the look in her eyes that made it come across as a tactic she’d seen in play before.
“Loaded them onto what?” Fenix asked.
“The Beast Barges,” she said, motioning onward and taking point before any one of them could ask her to clarify what those were.
She led them back underground into an area that had not been made completely unstable. ~Right under our noses. This whole time…~ Dom thought, brown eyes falling briefly on yet another torch chasing away the shadows, the fire on its top doing absolutely nothing to quell the eeriness, or the feeling that what they were seeing was only the half of it.
“There,” Mana said, as they passed through a narrower section of the tunnel, lit by more torches on each side and opening out to reveal a more condensed amount of sarcophagi and discarded crates.
When Dominic’s gaze fell on where she was pointing and saw the biomechanical type creature hanging from the ceiling, crawling towards a loading ramp, he couldn’t hold in his gasp. “”Tell me Maria was never on one of those!” he exclaimed, briefly looking at Mana, before Marcus’ order to just get the hell up there already took precedent over anything further.
The Grinder on the elevator not only gave away the answer of how exactly to properly board the barge, in addition, stuck inside it, with no room to move meant felling the oversized drone took no effort at all. Mana squeezed in with Dom and Marcus, refusing to allow Fenix’s glare to deter her from being one of the first to arrive where only she’d been before, the fact she rushed out and pulled the lever to open the doors yet again proving she knew far more than she was telling them. Not only that, but how could this girl, although showing signs of a type of Lambency never seen before, know so much about Locust strategy, whereas the all powerful COG up until now didn’t seem to have a clue about any of it?!
“Empty,” she said, rushing straight towards one of the ramps at the end of the floor, disappearing out of sight, and almost instantly being fired upon by the Grubs on the level the squad she was with were now viewing with their own eyes in an effort to keep up with her.
“Damnit kid, slow the hell down!” Fenix growled at her, before they fell into the usual action of returning fire, Damon dropping two of the drones in the time it took to load and reload his Longshot.
“Whoo, yeah baby! You ain’t got no skills in this game!” the largest man on the team yelled as he barreled into another of the Grubs just moments after filling it with a shotgun shell. When he caught sight of the barge’s legs beginning to move out of the corner of his eye and felt the motion of the platform like structure surging forward, Cole looked around, yelling, “Where we goin, an’ how do we steer this thing?” the grin plastered on his face.
“Damn Reavers again!” Carmine’s voice rose over the last remaining sounds of the enemy being finished off. “Troika!” and even though they couldn’t see him, that exclamation had been filled with just a little bit too much excitement for them not to think he was smiling behind his helmet.
“We’re heading for the next barge, Private,” Mana said to Cole. “These things have a set path they travel each day so they know where they’re going,” while she was speaking, several Reavers fell out of the sky, leaving more than just a few of them thinking the same thing Dom had thought when Carmine had dropped that well placed Bolo Grenade in the middle of those Locust earlier.
“Okay, first things first, baby, call me Cole,” the ex-Thrashball player told her.
“Ah, right, okay Cole, second thing… watch out!” and Mana slid into the cover beside her, Cole vaulting over the crate to take up a flanking position as the evidence of more Grubs being present on the other barge came in the form of Troika and Hammerburst rounds.
The temporary sixth member of Delta didn’t stick to that crate however. The moment the Grub on the Troika was no more and the others were being distracted by trying to fend off all bar her own return fire, Mana hunkered low and ran, using various forms of cover until she was crossing the threshold onto the other barge and heading straight for ramps identical to the ones they’d come up from below on this one.
There was a growl from Marcus as he caught Cole’s attention, “Go after her, we’ll cover you!” and Gus didn’t need any further prompting.
“Baby, yer gotta stop doin’ that, yer gonna give Marcus some sort of hemorrhage,” he warned, managing to fall in step beside her about half way down the ramp.
The smirk curled the corner of Mana’s lips, but she was too focused on getting to the lever that’d open the doors to care for actually answering that quip. When the drone stepped out from behind the column in the middle of the prison level, the Healer stepped straight in front of Cole regardless of the fact that even though she was solid, she was still female, and thus much smaller than the dark skinned Gear. Of course, Cole didn’t let her do that for long, reaching over to yank her behind him, but before either of them could raise a weapon to fire, the Grenadier was shot dead from another direction by a sniper round.
“Now we’re even,” Baird said, with a smug smile, catching Mana’s gaze from the other ramp, followed down by Dom and Marcus, while Carmine was now behind her and Cole.
“You run ahead like that again and I’ll shoot you myself,” Fenix reprimanded. “You’re not on your own anymore!”
Mana narrowed her eyes a little, it clear she didn’t like to be ordered around and was no longer used to it either. However, she could see his point and didn’t feel it was the right time to point out to Marcus that not only could she heal others, but her own wounds healed at a far greater rate because of the energy now so much a part of her. So, it would all depend on where exactly he shot her as to whether it’d really make that much of a difference.
“There’s someone in there!” the sudden proclamation from Carmine broke any tenseness between the Sergeant and Mana, the latter rushing over to have a look.
“Pull the lever!” she cried, stepping back as the door swung open. The man that stepped out was even more massive than the Private… than Cole, and when she looked up at him, she could see something so familiar in eyes trying to focus on his surroundings, but finding it very difficult. “No, no,” she whispered.
“Tai?!” Marcus exclaimed. “Is that you?” and without waiting for an answer, he threw his Gnasher over to him, turning around and giving the order for Baird and Carmine to take point upstairs while Cole and Dom kept an eye on the elevator.
~They know him…~ Mana thought, before her eyes widened, and she saw another recognizable look in the Islander’s eyes: he’d been through too much, they’d broken him, there was nothing else, nothing left, only the need to stop the pain any way he could. As he turned the shotgun around she slipped her hand over the end of the barrel, between the 12-gauge round that’d burst from it and the chin the gun was now up against.
Marcus heard the sound of the weapon cocking, turning back around, the realization hitting him all at once, and only stopped when he saw what the woman he’d just been so angry with was now doing. Brown eyes crisscrossed with Imulsion were focused directly on Tai’s, staring into them, looking through him almost, and he was looking right back at her, a faint glow of energy passing into him.
It was just enough to show him there was something else, there was a new hope, and in her mind she begged him, over and over, to listen, to hear, to feel… to respond… to lower the weapon and not be another of the many who hadn’t wanted or been able to accept her help. ~Don’t do it, please, don’t let them win. I’m here, I can help. Don’t do it, please!~ eventually the exact words were said out loud, and all Dom, Marcus, Baird, Cole and Carmine could do was look between the two of them. They couldn’t move! They couldn’t do a thing! How could they even begin to know how to react to something like this!
With no other indication beforehand, Tai nodded, just once, lowered the weapon, and sunk to his knees. Without hesitation Mana’s gaze broke to Marcus, reaching down to take a hold of the shotgun and pass it back to him. “Watch us! I need time. Go!” and Fenix fell into Sergeant mode so quickly and fluidly it was like he was working on automatic pilot alone.
Mana kneeled down beside the tattooed Gear, feeling the urgency of his situation even more than normal because it was obvious Delta were in some way close to him. Taking out the black cloth kit she carried in the hip pack on the leg opposite where she kept the her pistol, Mana unraveled it to reveal not various tools, but distinctly different sized vials and a few needles.
“What the hell is that, kid?” Marcus asked, sending the others to keep an eye out while he stayed and observed what was about to happen.
Holding up one of the vials, she plunged the needle into it, extracting the palpable liquid within. “Raw Imulsion,” she glanced over at him. “It’s like a drug to me, Marcus, I can’t live without it. If I don’t inject or absorb it to keep me going, especially when I’m low, not only can I not even begin to heal Tai, but I would eventually grow very weak and well, die,” and with nothing further, she found the vein on her arm and inserted the needle with all the fluency of a trained medical officer.
Wasting no more time afterwards, she concentrated, catching Tai’s gaze again, holding it the entire time her hand was clasped in his. The energy Marcus had seen heal so many already was soon doing the exact same thing to someone who’d only moments before been about to kill himself.
There was just one main difference, and it was a huge one that Mana later explained as her needing far more Imulsion in her system to be able to heal Tai Kaliso completely. Instead, they needed to get him out of there and when Fenix suggested back to base, Mana shook her head, “I’m not going back there, if you take him back to the COG I won’t be able to finish what I’ve started,” and there was no time to explain further, because Tai stood up.
“I go where there is light,” he said, looking straight at Mana.
“We just need to get the hell out of here,” Marcus muttered, blue eyes breaking from the round thick-metal rings that he’d seen fall away from his friend’s back, vivid pictures of exactly what they might’ve been used for running through his mind. Regaining his composure, even though no one saw him lose it in the first place, he motioned for them to follow him, hitting his Tac-Com on the way back to the elevator. “Control, we’ve found Tai aboard one of these Beast Barges, he’s been tortured, but he’s okay thanks…” he paused, looking at Mana. “Thanks to whatever’s been helpin’ us out here. Request immediate Evac,” he finished.
“Copy that, Marcus,” Anya’s said. “Deploying a Raven now.”
“Make it two, Anya,” Marcus clarified. “We need to get Tai out of here first.”
“Affirming that, Sergeant, closest landing point is atop one of the buildings in another section of sunken Ilima. Request you make your way there and pop a smoke flare for a clearer L.Z.”
“Thanks Control, Delta out.”
“You stay with him,” Marcus said, for the fourth time on the trek that’d begun after they’d all stepped off the elevator, leaving the Torture Barges far behind. Tai didn’t like the idea of being the weaker link, the one holding back their progress, but after pushing himself to join in the thus far three confrontations on the way to the coordinates Control had given them, he was experiencing the nausea of overexertion and pain on a body that still needed a heck of a lot of healing.
“I’m sorry Tai,” Mana whispered to him, again.
“Everything happens for a reason,” he said, his smile belying just what his eyes were screaming to anyone who looked into them. “I do not understand your existence, but you exist.”
“All clear,” Dom’s voice called back to them, and Mana helped Tai back to his feet, joined by Marcus offering his assistance, only to have Kaliso raise his hand and shake his head.
“I can walk, my friend,” he said, and as if to emphasize the point, he kept going unperturbed, while Marcus exchanged a glance with Dom, then looked straight at the woman responsible for Tai still being with them.
“Keep an eye on him…” he told her, showing a form of trust he hadn’t quite been willing to extend before, until he’d witnessed exactly what Mana was willing to do even after explaining the possible repercussions.
“There it is!” Damon yelled, motioning upwards at the building with his Lancer, the body of the now deceased drone kicked aside as a renewed vigor to arrive at the Landing Zone flowed through him.
Although the building was still relatively intact, just like before, various parts of it were being consumed by fire, large chunks of it missing. Yet, thankfully, to all their relief, reaching what’d certainly been one of the various floors of the place, they could see it was safe for the birds to land.
“There, smoke flare is up,” Baird announced.
“I hope our people see it before the Locust do,” Carmine voiced his concerns out loud.
“Oh, c’mon man, don’t jinx us!” Damon remarked at him.
With Tai safely secured in a section of the floor with at least three angles of cover, Mana moved over the weakened floorboards, spotting another entrance into the building, eyes widening at the sight of several drones making their way towards it. She fell to one knee, pulling out the kit again, this time showing every member of Delta what she had to rely on to survive. She heard Baird say something about her being a damn junkie, letting it slide right off as she injected one of the larger vials directly into her bloodstream.
“Enemy spotted,” she called back to them, before the first one appeared close enough, and she thrust out her hand, that same energy she used to heal now sending the drone hurtling straight back into the one behind it, out cold. “I can’t kill with this little in me,” she warned whoever was nearest her, the sound of the Torque Bow then powering up, thankful for the ammo Cole had acquired for her from the Theron’s they’d come across and dealt with on the way.
She heard a grunt from Marcus, and then there was nothing, the team of Gears and… something else entirely caught in the middle of another bout of overwhelming odds, somewhere in there managing to get Tai into the first Raven, although the pilot hadn’t fully landed to avoid possibly being overtaken by Locust. When the shaking she knew far too well began, it was Marcus that clicked as to what it was first, turning to see the giant worm break the surface in the near distance, the remains of buildings and other hints at what had once been Illima swallowed as it pushed its whole body forward and towards them.
The Sergeant’s renewed contact with the pilot of the second King Raven was filled with just that little bit more urgency; Delta immediately piling in the moment the aircraft was low enough. It took a warning from Cole for Carmine to hurry the heck up and do the same; then it was Mana’s turn, and she yelled over her shoulder that she couldn’t come with them. Not only because of what the COG would do to her if they got their hands on her, but also because there were others teams still out there that needed her help. If anyone could understand the sheer truthfulness of those words, it was the only five Gears who had thus far glimpsed her face.
As the helicopter lifted off, Mana looked up briefly, catching sight of those closest to her side looking down, one of them Marcus, the other, Cole, and in-between them, Carmine, on the floor, where he’d been dragged in last minute. She felt a deep sense of sadness, and it merely turned to a real sense of worry when she noted Carmine slip out and fall… straight down into the gaping wide mouth of the worm! She didn’t here Marcus yell his name over the sound of the Raven and the rounds still being shot in the helicopter’s direction, her heart jumping into her throat, because there was no way to get in there to help him.
From where she was standing she could tell Delta’s transport wouldn’t be able to climb high enough in time, the animal’s propulsion upwards helped by its ability to reach high speeds underground. Everything she’d just been trying to tell the men on that chopper no longer mattered. The moment the mouth enclosed around the Raven, Mana started to run, a clear path only made possible by the usage of more energy and the occasional melee battle she really didn’t want to have to pause momentarily for on the way.
Reaching the edge of the building, she re-sheathed her Torque and jumped…
The short distance to land on the side of the Riftworm, where she proceeded to find handholds in its rocky scale-like skin, slide down in-between what could invariably be described as a crevice, and make herself comfortable for the rough ride that lay ahead.
“They stole my Past. They will not steal my Future.”
ACT 3: Dirty Little SecretEdit
Irony of a TitleEdit
The floor was white, spotless, almost to the point that it was blinding, and for some of the residents of the facility, the ones that had yet to learn how to control the enhanced eyesight their own exposure to the Imulsion had caused, they couldn’t look at it, at all. It was horrible to watch them staggering around, only a few given some form of eye protection because most of them were no longer worth the time and effort it took to see if their mutations were going to go anywhere. From the moment the head Scientist and Director of the facility dubbed one of the patients ‘a lost cause’ no one was allowed to help them anymore. They were basically shifted to the outer cells and forgotten, until the process of the inevitable breaking down of their vital organs was complete, the bodies burnt so absolutely no trace was ever left behind. Many times she could’ve reached out and ended the life of one Dr. Niles Samson, but she didn’t, she couldn’t... she was just a baby herself, just a child... how could she justify doing such a thing?
The sound of the door opening brought brown eyes up from staring at the floor beneath feet covered in white slippers, alerting her to the return of her one dearest friend, Damien. That’s all he was known by beyond what the staff called them... well, most of them. Some still actually had a conscious, still realized their patients were basically just kids. Subject D was Damien’s designation; Subject M was hers, although Niles still called her Mana because she was apparently so very ‘special’ to him, the very epitome of what they’d been working towards for so long now, the perfect outcome of a work he so adamantly and stubbornly believed in. Their last names and their very families meant nothing to them here, they’d been told over and over to forget about them. New Hope was their home now; the doctors, nurses and handlers... their family.
Yeah, some family, Damien’s handlers basically shoving him into the room and not even flinching when he lost his balance and hit the floor hard. They didn’t react in any way when Mana rose from the bed and slid in beside him almost immediately.
“Hey!” she cried, glaring at them.
“Silence, Subject M,” the order came from one of the worst of them. “Subject D’s deterioration is beyond reverse, therefore he is of no use to us anymore,” and with that, the man, and the two nurses with him, all dressed in white, pristine and clean, the maintaining of the hygiene around this place an insatiable obsession for the facility’s Director, left the room.
“Damien,” she whispered, leaning down to help him up and back over to the cot where she’d just been sitting.
Like her, he’d started out fine, showing so much promise, the male version of what she was herself, only for the visible signs of mutation to begin shortly after he’d turned thirteen and a half. His nails were the first, they started getting longer, harder, more claw-like, his hair seeming to no longer be growing at all, if anything it was reseeding. Then, all over his body came the patches of toughened skin, akin to that of a lizard or snake, just without the scales. At least, at first, they were developing now within those same patches that’d only continued to grow since then. His strength too, it was even more than her own Imulsion induced change had given her, accelerated by numerous experimentation and further forced exposure to the element that was the one key similarity between every single patient at a facility hiding behind the facade of a COG outpost known outwardly only as Jameson Depot.
She watched him very uncomfortably try to position his upper body against the wall adjacent to the cot. He was in so much pain; a pain she could take away, if every time she’d tried in the past hadn’t been interrupted by them tearing her from him and putting her through various forms of training, punishment for daring to go against one of the very laws of this so called family home of theirs. From what she remembered of her life before she’d convinced her parents to ‘do the right thing’ according to the decrees of the Coalition of Ordered Governments, New Hope was no home, it was no family... the irony was in the title, because a place of Hope was far from what it would ever be!
Damien leaned forward and, despite a strength that far outweighed her own, gently but firmly gripped the arm of his best friend, hazel eyes catching and holding her own. “You have to get out of here,” he urged her, and not for the first time. “I’m dying Mana, you know that, you have no reason to stay.”
“You aren’t dying! I won’t let them let you die!”
“You won’t have a choice. They’re already talking about how best to utilise your new ability. That energy wave could be used to infiltrate and kill anyone they wanted,” his gaze depicted the understanding and knowing that came along with what he said next. “I know you, you won’t be able to handle it; you’ll fall apart. They’ll use you until there is nothing left and even then they won’t care how it affects you, they’ll find a way to make sure you can never stop them!” he finished, octaves rising in the urgency he was trying to portray. “You have to get out of here!”
“I can’t... I can’t... leave you, Damien. I just can’t, it’s not an option...”
Air... there was so much air. Before there’d hardly been enough to sustain her, which was why she’d allowed her body to shut down just enough to get her through a ride that was proving to be something no normal person would ever have been able to handle. Suffocation would’ve caught up with them miles back, probably soon after the worm had dived back underground, travelling at a pace that not even the fastest Corpser would’ve been able to keep up with.
Why was there all of a sudden so much air?
Her eyes snapped open, and, quickly wiping away anything that might’ve been blocking her nose, she took a deep breath in, keeping her mouth locked tightly shut, her past recollections – the thoughts on what had been – now long forgotten as she saw why there was a sudden influx of oxygen. No longer was there just earth beyond what she could see tucked into the crevice on the side of the creature, but blue sky, green trees, most of them pines, and the very sudden realization that the Riftworm had for some reason broken the surface again, hovering in one spot, swaying from side to side.
It was only when she moved a little, trying to get a better view that she saw the ground fast coming up to meet her! The oversized worm was falling and Mana didn’t bother wasting any time pondering how exactly that was even possible. Like so many times before she simply reacted, scampering up and over out of her hiding place, reaching what was technically the other side of the animal, now in fact the top of it as it hit the ground, the reverberation almost knocking her away from it completely.
“Wow! That was fun! Not!” she murmured to herself. Just a split second too long and she could’ve been trapped beneath the bulk of something not even all her extra abilities would’ve been able to free her from. “How?” she looked around, but the worm was kilometres long, its head lost far within the distance. Even above ground, it’d been moving so fast by the time she’d reached it back at the L.Z. point, she figured she was now more than half way along its body, probably closer to the tail than the other end.
She stood there for a few moments, wondering what to do next. The worm was obviously dead, why else would it have just fallen like that and now not be moving at all? And, which way was the head? That eluded her too, since from here it all looked the same. Although...
She focused her attention back on what’d once been her hiding place. It wasn’t all that hard to figure out which direction the animal had plummeted to the ground in, finding the walk along its side almost like traversing small hills and potholes. It would've probably been easier and quicker down on the ground. Nah, this was actually quite fun, in some weird, twisted way that wasn’t about to be repeated again anytime soon. The Healer grinned at that, shaking her head, taking in what most left for granted, the fresh air.
It’d been a while since she’d been out in the wilderness side of Sera, let alone the areas that seemed to be as yet untouched by the war going on around it for years now. Unfortunately, all that was about to change, a dead and soon-to-be rotting corpse of a Riftworm was going to affect this locale for quite some time to come.
The sardonic smirk that crossed her face then belied her true nature really; still, it spoke volumes for just how unsympathetic towards the Locust she was about their precious deity being killed by Delta. Had to be Delta, just had to be...
“Oh, this is just wrong. I’m coughing up blood that ain’t mine!” Baird managed between trying to dislodge the stuff.
“Control, Delta here. We just, ah...” Fenix paused, shaking his head a little and collapsing into the blood still gushing around them. “Oh, I don’t even know where to begin, but... ah, just get us the hell outta here,” the Sergeant finally conceded.
“Inside a damn worm!” Baird’s voice rose further, the Tech making it clear to anyone listening he was not the least bit happy right now. All he’d just experienced was so extremely against everything he believed in when it came to hygiene, especially his own. “I’m going to be cleaning this muck off me for months... years!” he threw up his hands, almost slipping over as he tried to climb back to his feet.
“At least we’re still alive, baby!” Cole voiced, there a semblance of sadness to his otherwise fervent tone.
Damon just looked at him briefly before casting his eyes away. It was a stark reminder that five of them had gone into the worm, one albeit slightly before the rest of them, and only four had made it out.
“Marcus?” Dom asked, following his best mate’s gaze. “What's up?”
“Not sure, but somethin’s movin’ up there,” and he pointed further along the worm.
“Probably just an animal that’s already figured out the worm is dead...” Dom suggested.
“Mmm,” he grunted, motioning to Baird. “Still got your scope?”
“Yeah, but it’s full of blood, Marcus,” Damon shuddered. “That’s going to take me months to clean out too!”
The Sergeant just looked at him until the blond haired mechanic handed it over. Lifting the Longshot to his right eye helped only to remind Marcus what he was trying to distinguish was flanked by the sun beaming down on them. Because of that he couldn’t see a thing!
“Damn,” he muttered, “Can’t make it out.”
“Does it matter?” Dom inquired.
“Yeah, might be a problem soon, since it’s comin’ this way,” Marcus said.
“Then, like I said, it’s probably just an animal drawn to the blood we’ve just... okay, I see your point, we’re covered in the stuff too,” Dominic said, grinning as he patted the side of his Lancer. “Least we’re armed, can take down any pending attacks from something that wants to eat us.”
“Unless it’s a Brumak or a Corpser, cos anything along those lines, we’re screwed,” Baird pointed out.
“It’s human,” Marcus said, and the surety of that statement brought all eyes staring straight at him. It was rare for Fenix to allow anyone to see when he was humoured by something; this time however, his smirk was palpable.
“No freakin’ way!” Dom suddenly said, gaping as the form finally came close enough for them to make out who it was properly. “How in the world?”
“Yeah, been askin’ myself that a lot lately,” Marcus agreed.
The woman paused briefly just to the right and above them, taking in the sight of the gaping hole in the side of the worm, obviously the work of their Lancers, and the blood absolutely everywhere. It wasn’t hard to see why the small smile split her lips as she watched the poor guys still trying their absolute best to wipe or remove it from skin, armour and additional accessories alike.
“Well, seems I was wrong,” she said, jumping back down to the ground and walking right on up to them. “Thought riding the thing on the outside was bad... guess that’s got nothing on what I now see you guys have been through.”
“Where the hell did you come from?” Baird almost sneered. “Wait... you were riding the thing?!”
“Didn’t I just say that?” she asked, glaring at him for a few moments. “When I saw your helicopter disappear into its mouth, I decided to follow, not that I could’ve helped, unless I travelled up and climbed into its mouth as well,” she visibly shuddered then, and for a moment Baird actually smiled. Least he had that in common with her.
“Welcome back to Delta, kid,” Marcus said. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why he’d said that. She’d already saved the lives of Baird, Jennings, the rest of Alpha-7 and helped him out a great deal as well.
Notwithstanding the edge of uncertainty, Mana would’ve smiled at that had she not noticed something wasn’t right. Someone was missing... “Where’s Carmine?” she asked, looking rather pointedly at the leader of this particular team.
The look Marcus gave her was all she really needed and it was the same look she saw on each face as she went through the rest of Delta in turn. He was gone, and had she been inside the worm she could’ve prevented that! A mixture of anger and grief flashed across her face in the form of streaks of Imulsion running through her eyes, at the same time the logical part of her brain reminded her she couldn’t be everywhere all the time. It was a benefit to everyone around her right then that she had long ago learnt how to better control the reactions her emotions caused to the energy within, reigning in the need to take out her frustration on something long before even thinking of following through with it.
“Raven’s comin’, Marcus,” Cole announced, all present now alerted to the fast approaching sound of an aircraft that so very often lifted the spirits of the Gears heeding it inbound. There was nothing like the arsenal backup a King Raven brought with it, or the fact in a sticky situation, its ability to airlift out the wounded or the trapped meant the difference between actually surviving to see another sunset again.
Mana moved closer to the side of the worm, hoping its bulk would conceal her from view, for again, she was pretty sure their intentions were to head back to base. She looked up as the chopper past over, slowing to a stop, frowning at the fact there was an Centaur dangling from beneath, held secure by the cables wrapped around it.
“Look out below, Delta. Incoming Centaur,” the pilot said, the cables then released and the vehicle falling the short distance to the ground.
“Control, I requested a pick-up not a drop-off,” Fenix immediately said into his Tac-Com.
“Delta, this is Command. You’ve got new orders, Fenix,” and the voice of Colonel Victor Hoffman instantly made the men stand to attention, the video up-link once again lowering from beneath the Geobot. “Don’t know how much of it you can see since that damn interference is still occurring... Operation Hollow Storm continues but we had insufficient Intel on the Locust stronghold,” all the while he was speaking, the images flashed on the screen, becoming clearer on this end because the reason for the static and snowy reception wanted to see exactly what was going on herself.
“We need to accurately pinpoint the heart of the Hollow and take out their leader. Chairman Prescott just declassified an Intel file that reveals a decommissioned COG outpost near your location. I’ve been told it’ll give us the location of the Locust stronghold and possibly some more Intel on the Locust Queen as well. In addition, there is mention of some sort of Deployable Weapon, Subject M, whatever the hell that is. You and Delta are to check it out ASAP and report any findings to Command.”
“Excuse me, sir,” Marcus spoke up, his tone rather irate by this point, “but what the hell?! Just declassified?! And what’s this about a locust Queen?”
“Everything is on a need-to-know basis, Sergeant, on direct orders from the Chairman. You have your mission, now get to it. Command out.”
To say a strong form of verbal disbelief came from Baird at this point was to say the least, Cole also getting in his own bit of scepticism.
“Yeah,” Dom began, looking at Marcus. “If Hoffman didn’t even know about this, something’s...” Dom’s words trailed off, his mind clicking to the obvious as he turned his attention to their new acquaintance.
As hard as it was to keep her reaction under control, Mana managed to retain the impassive look on her face and stop the Imulsion from reacting harshly to what she was now remembering and experiencing within a mind that recalled every little detail. She stood there, stock still and staring straight ahead, saying nothing. She didn’t even seem to realize the guys were now moving over closer, Marcus first, followed by the rest.
“This the place you were talkin’ about, kid?” Fenix asked her.
“Subject M?” Fenix furthered the urging.
“You know more than you’re letting on, that much is clear. It’s about time your started helpin’ us figure all this out. Hoffman mentioned you, but only by that one name, so clearly Anya has still been able to keep him from finding out we already know who and what that Deployable Weapon is. We have to follow orders, you don’t, but if you know this place and I think you do, you’ve suddenly become even more damn indispensable.”
‘C’mon baby,” Cole said, stepping closer. “We need you for this one.”
Finally Mana focused on them and what she said came as no surprise whatsoever. “Never call me that! Never call me that again!” she said, glaring at Marcus. “I am not going back. “I am not going back. I said I would do anything it took to make sure I would never have to take one step back in that place,” and there was all the verification they needed.
“What happened to you there?” Dom asked.
“I don’t want to talk about it!” she all bar snapped.
“You’re gonna have to,” Marcus immediately countered.
“I don’t have to do anything!”
“Mana,” Dom continued. “Colonel Hoffman is one of the highest ranking officials in the military and he didn’t even know anything about this. Maybe your chance to bring the ones responsible to justice has finally come. Tell the story; make what it was really used for public knowledge.”
“I know what it was used for, I don’t have to go back to find that out. I was one of the used!” she emphasized. “We were all kids! Just kids and a few teenagers, the oldest was 19-years-old,” now it was coming out, and she didn’t even understand why she was allowing it to. “You have no damn idea how much I don’t want to see the inside of that place again. I spent four years there after they told my parents I was dead. Do you get that? My parents thought I was dead!” her voice was cracking.
“If they were failed test subjects they were left to die in their rooms! If they were showing signs of potential they were experimented on over and over, the natural mutations caused by the Imulsion forced to occur at a far quicker rate. The pain for all of us was excruciating, watching my best friend slowly die because he couldn’t handle what they were doing to him...” she stopped then, the tears glistening at the corner of her eyes but refusing to let them fall. “They tried to stop what was happening to him, but when it was clear it wasn’t working they dumped him, told me he was no use to them anymore. Don’t you dare tell me I have to go back there! Don’t you dare,” and she walked away then.
Stunned silence was all that was left in her wake. Kids being experimented on, left to die, their parents thinking they were dead?! Now they understood, maybe not completely, but even Baird could see why she’d stayed hidden, why she hadn’t come forward and started helping earlier. They knew the COG could be responsible for atrocities and decisions that were far from moral, the Breeding Farms a classic example, but this! This was something more along the lines of what the Locust would be capable of, not their own kind, and before E-Day, since she’d said she was just a kid herself, and her parents were still alive when she’d been taken there.
“The Imulsion Law,” Marcus said, glancing sideways at Dom. “Remember it?”
“Yeah Marcus,” was all Dom could manage.
“All Citizens of Sera showing any form of being affected by Imulsion, whether this is due to them working in close proximity or by some other means, need to immediately alert their local emergency services,” Mana recited. “You do the right thing and your government stabs you in the back,” and the truth was it happened all the time, it wasn’t an unfamiliar occurrence, not in the slightest.
“Difference is, this time, we’ve got yer back, baby,” Cole said, the earnestness in his voice making her turn around. “You're far from bein’ that helpless kid anymore, Mana. Yer’ve got more strength than I think is even possible survivin’ something like that.”
“I wasn’t there to save my parents on E-Day because of what they did to me. I could’ve saved them, I could’ve stopped what I found when I went back there to see if they had made it, but I was too scared of being recaptured again.”
“Everyone lost someone that day, kid,” Marcus began. “Everyone spent time blamin’ themselves, some still do. Cole’s right, you could’ve fallen apart but you didn’t. Focus on that,” he finished, stepping forward. “Right here, right now, we need your help. We have no idea what we’re gonna find when we go back there, havin’ someone who knows the place will make achievin’ this mission far easier. No one outside of us knows about you but once we get there and upload whatever files we can find, they will. If you run now, go back into hiding, they won’t stop until they find you. It’s better to face them, lay out all your cards on the table and give them what they know they need on your own terms.”
Mana stared at the Sergeant, eyebrows rising, quite surprised his words were managing to penetrate past the barrier. “I can’t face… I’m not ready to face…” she sighed. “Alright, fine,” she finally said her resolve just a tad bit unconvincing.
“We’ll kick the asses of anyone tryin’ to harm you, baby. Introduce them to a bit of game play Cole Train style,” the big man said, grinning at the woman.
His attempts at trying to break the tension seemed to work, her smile returning. “I could do that myself… now,” she whispered, for the first time realizing the truthfulness of the ex-Thrashball player’s words.
With a nod of acknowledgement, and for anyone who knew what to look for, appreciation as well, Fenix gave the order to move out. Dom’s call of “Shotgun,” made the tentative smile spread even further, the younger woman reminded yet again why exactly it was she had kept going all this time. It was these types of moments, the humor and real emotion, the kind that took the young woman back to a time before her world had been completely and utterly torn apart.
Behind The FaçadeEdit
Baird glanced at the girl by means of the revision mirror for about the fourth time in as many minutes. The Centaur was built to hold a standard four-man team of Gears, not including the driver and passenger in the two front seats, plus a few others. Even then, it was a tight squeeze and for anyone not used to it, a very uncomfortable ride.
"I was thinking, if..."
"Aw, really, did that hurt?" Cole interrupted.
Damon just threw him a glare before he continued, "Ok, so you jumped on the worm and rode it, that much is clear since you’re covered in just as much dirt as we're covered in what we couldn't get off of its innards," the Tech visibly shuddered again. "The thing I want to know is what exactly your plan was? I mean, what if we didn't kill it?"
Sitting at the back of the vehicle to the right of where the gunner would be, and close to the hatch, just in case, Mana looked up and caught the Tech's reflected blue eyes in the mirror. "I... yeah well," the sheepish look crept into features that hadn't taken long to imitate what she was really feeling inside. She knew what was coming, they'd already been driving for about half an hour and it was only inevitable that someone, probably Marcus, would ask her to use the time they had left to fill them in on what they were getting into. For that, she'd have to once again go down a memory road she clearly despised travelling.
"I wasn't exactly thinking about the bigger picture when I did that, okay, just reacted to the sight of a whole helicopter, plus its crew and passengers, swallowed up by one of the Riftworms. Guess I would've eventually figured out you guys were goners and left my hiding place at some point," she finished, shrugging.
"At full strength is that energy wave strong enough to kill the thing?" Fenix asked, for now choosing not to address the reference of there being more than one.
"Not from the outside no," she said, shaking her head.
"What about a Brumak or a Corpser?" Dom asked. "Does it work on those Beast barge things?"
"I don't need to kill Brumaks or Corpsers, or Reavers for that matter. In fact, I prefer not to unless I have no other choice. You notice just how much control the locust have on them. They're like horses, break them in enough, strap or chain them up, and they'll do whatever you ask them to. Free them from those bonds and they'll do even more."
"How the hell do you know that?" Baird asked, sarcasm dripping. "You can't seriously be expecting us to believe you've walked right on up to a Brumak and said, "Hey, let me free you, then when you are free don't kill me work for me instead”? Yeah, right!" he rolled his eyes.
"They're animals, Baird, treat them right they'll return it. Treat them like the Locust do and they'll just mow down everything in their path. Some of them might’ve been bred for that but that is not all they are good for," she reiterated. "As for the Beast Barges... those things only have the one purpose, Dom, once they're free from that they go back to being the peaceful cave creatures they were before the Locust captured and turned them into what you saw for the first time back there."
"If you tell me you don't like to kill Wretches next, I'm seriously going to start thinking you're completely nuts," Damon said.
Mana smirked. "You ever tried reasoning with a wretch?" she more stated than asked. "It's kind of like reasoning with you."
"WHOO! She runs and she scores! Nice work, baby!" Cole exclaimed, throwing her a smile the Healer was fast realizing could so easily lift even the lowest of morale.
"Thanks," she said, while the Tech scowled from the driver's seat. Unfortunately, the frivolity of getting one up on someone who so obviously thought himself to be the most important person in the world quickly faded when her gaze passed over Marcus.
"No," she said, without hesitation.
"Kid, we need to know what to expect and you have the answers. It's time to start fillin’ us in," he said, watching her reactions closely. "I'm guessin’ Hoffman's mention of it being a COG outpost is just a façade?"
"A façade within a façade actually," Mana said, nodding. "It's definitely not a COG outpost at all, outwardly it was known as Jameson Depot, trading and supplying mainly raw materials, such as timber and other forms of landscaping supplies, processed and stored in the warehouse. The main type of transporting was via the railway line that ran through the mountains the place backs out onto, although there were also various logging tracks that could be accessed from the opposite side as well."
There was a snicker from Dom. "Why does that not surprise me," he stated. "I mean, what better way to hide the truth than one of the main routes to the place being through the mountains. Let me guess, only one way to access from that side, right?"
Mana nodded once, staring at him for a moment. "What that train brought in often had nothing to do with the business on the outside,” she continued. “It also made it very hard to escape; on one side there is a vast and extremely high mountain range, on the other, extensive forest, smaller mountains and valleys. To plan an escape had to be done in Bloom because getting lost out there in the middle of Frost..." she trailed off. "Then again, freezing to death would've been better than... what..." she took a deep breath, trying to calm herself down a bit, already the inside of the Centaur was that little bit brighter. "Many tried, many didn't even make it out of the facility... the security, both in staff and automated weapon form, ensured that."
"We gonna encounter any of the latter now the place is abandoned?" Marcus asked.
"Depends on whether the two main scientists left anything of extreme value behind. If we get there, and the security system is still functioning, then, yes, guaranteed they're still trying to protect whatever they don't want anyone to find."
"Alright kid, so beyond the façade, what was really going on?" the Sergeant finally prompted.
Again, Mana just looked at him for a few seconds, her eyes breaking to glance at Cole, Dominic, and briefly towards the front of the vehicle at Baird before she shifted very uncomfortably in her seat. It didn't take long for the distant look to come over her face, which in turn made it seem as if she was staring at nothing at all, the recollections of what lay beyond the bank vault style door running through her mind like someone had pressed fast-forward on a DVD player. When she finally opened her mouth to speak, her first words were full of a pleading she knew she couldn't honestly make them promise to keep, especially if she took Fenix's advice and went back to Jacinto to lay out all her cards on the table.
"Listen carefully, because asking me to go through all this again..."
The weapon in female form leaned forward, elbows resting on her knees, hands clasping together, first against her mouth then moving beneath her chin as she began to put her reminiscing into verbal form. "Before E-Day my Dad used to work in the Lethia Imulsion Facility and every chance I got I was there helping him or at least a child's version of help..." the small smile appeared then."He never put me in any danger. I'd find that on my own, always getting into areas I never should have been anywhere near. I couldn't help it though, I was an explorer, if I wasn't climbing onto something I was crawling through it, over it, under it, didn't matter. I'd find a way to see every little part of the generators, the mine cart tunnels, the very inner and outer workings of the factory. I'd travel down on the elevators beneath the ground and explore the man-made tunnels; I'd watch Dad and the other men heaping the Imulsion into the carts, pushing it back up.
The thought that the element I was always around would become anything more than just something I helped my Dad collect and process never occurred to me. He and Mum often talked about it, but I was just a kid, I was oblivious to the dangers... to me, the Imulsion mines were the fun place I went to after school. At the age of 7 I showed the first signs of what the government had been warning us about for years... the adverse affects of prolonged exposure to the fumes and the energy itself..."
"What were the first signs?" Damon suddenly interrupted, his mind working on overdrive at the very thought he was finally about to get some firsthand input into the downside of what had once been the most relied upon power source on Sera.
"The glow..." Mana informed him, once again catching his gaze via the rear vision mirror. "I basically became my own lighting source, along with the crisscrossing effects of the Imulsion in the veins of my eyes. At first, my parents didn't know what to do, they were afraid to tell anyone their little girl seemed to be showing the affects of prolonged exposure but none of the sickness the Coalition had been warning everyone about. I wasn't sick, in fact, I didn't get sick at all, I was perfectly healthy, just, something else was going on inside in addition to the normal growth of a kid into a teenager..." she paused then, eyes downcast upon the floor. "I was 8 when I hurt myself bad enough for Mum and Dad to realize I was healing far too quickly for it to be normal. They'd noticed the various scratches and scrapes, the bruises all kids get at times... they never seemed to be a problem shortly after the first signs of some sort of change. But it wasn't until I was 9 that, despite being told to stay away from the Imulsion because of what it was doing to me, I was there at the mines to witness one of the gantry levels fall out from beneath my Daddy, and it was from then on my parents knew I was becoming something extraordinary.
Simply put, like you've already seen and experienced," she paused briefly, looking directly at Marcus, "I used the energy of the Imulsion to heal him, every broken bone in his leg reformed, every scratch, every bruise, everything and anything that'd been caused by that accident I completely reversed, and being the naïve child that I was, I somehow got it into my head that if we did what the law said and told the government, I'd be able to help others too. Take away their pain... wounds, diseases, sicknesses, everything. I talked my parents into taking me to the hospital to report what was happening to me. I only realized how much of a mistake that was after I asked if my parents would be able to visit this ‘special’ place they wanted to take me and their answer was, "No, sorry my dear little one, it's not safe for them to be around you anymore".
Without any regard for my family they took me away, told my parents I'd died of the complications that sometimes came along with exposure to Imulsion and that just like they'd said it was too dangerous for them to visit me where I was going, they told my Mum and Dad it was too risky for them to actually be allowed to identify my body," eyes looked up then, straight at each man in turn. "And you know what, my parents believed them, they fell for it because so many others had already died of these so called complications. They grieved for the loss of their only child, they held a funeral, they..." her words trailed off. " Niles and Olivia, but especially Niles made sure I knew all of this as early as possible, his way of making it clear I only had one family now... the Staff, Doctors, Nurses, Scientists, Handlers, Olivia and him, the Director of New Hope."
"The real name behind the front," Dom murmured, disgust literally emanating in the inflection.
"Yeah, and check out the irony in that title!" Mana exclaimed.
From there she went on to tell them about what had occurred from the moment she arrived at New Hope, the experimentation to force more rapid changes beginning after she'd settled in, basically a week or so after she'd been taken there. Two months later, the affects of accelerating innate abilities – the regeneration, the healing of others, the heightened senses, endurance, stamina and strength – was clearly seen and unlike other subjects put through the same thing, there were no outward signs of mutating out of control, no aggression, no slow breakdown of vital organs, and so on.
She told them about Damien being brought in shortly after she'd turned 10, an instant bond of friendship forming between her and the 12-year-old, he too apparently showing no signs of the ill effects extended exposure to Imulsion could often cause. She recollected that it was five to six months after her arrival at New Hope that she was dubbed the female version of the 'Perfect Result', exactly what they had been working towards all this time. No longer was she referred to as 'Subject M' but was from then on known as the Deployable Weapon or… DW, and it was here that she paused in her recollection, looking at each member of Delta and seeing more than just a few raised eyebrows now thrown in her direction.
"Mmm, you guys were right on the mark," she verified for them.
After a moment, she went on, explaining that despite the fact they'd believed Damien to be the perfect male version of what they were trying to achieve, unfortunately for them, at about the age of 13½, her friend's body began to show the outward signs of transformation. Nails turning into claws, skin hardening in places, and his aggression levels spiking.
"At the age of 14, Damien's body began to break down, and that experimentation to fix it I mentioned earlier, it was accelerated beyond anything I've ever seen. I tried to heal him many times, but they wouldn't let me, in fact, they punished me for it!" she all bar spat, the inside of the Centaur now lit up as if there was more than just the windscreen allowing what remained of the daylight in. "It was the night they gave up on him that he tried to convince me to use my new energy wave ability to escape from the facility, but I couldn't… couldn't leave him behind… he was my best friend, all the real family I had in that place. I couldn't and they knew it, they used that part of my very make up to keep some sort of control over me."
Gathering herself again, she went on, remembering that it was 8 months later, and despite the fact the Scientists had ceased trying to stop Damien's deterioration he was still holding on. She related that it was during one of the many times she was with him that she knew her handlers were coming for her with the intent of finally deploying their precious weapon for the first time. "That was when another extension of my abilities kicked in. Somehow the Imulsion triggered some sort of camouflaging technique, blending me into the background of the stark whiteness of the room. They couldn't see me and neither could Damien, but despite his shock he played along, told them they'd just missed me. After they were gone I must've calmed down enough to reappear and that was when Damien's urging for me to escape came with the realization, if he'd been right about what they could achieve with me before, there was absolutely no doubt about it now.
I was just 13 when I used a combination of the energy wave and invisibility to finally escape New Hope after just over 4 years. I spent the year in-between then and Emergence Day in hiding, I did go back home but I didn't… that would've been the first place they looked and my parents thought I was long dead. I don't know if they could've handled the shock of not only finding out I wasn't but… the guilt of just believing the doctors instead of looking into it. So, I just went into hiding and because the Imulsion energy always seemed to interfere with various forms of signals there was never any tracking devices put on my person. I learnt how to control that later on, so I could listen into what I wanted to hear, see what I wanted to see, like back there with what the Colonel was showing you. Seeing the front entrance to my worst nightmare again just…" she shook her head.
"Damn girl, that's just whack! Yer've been alone all this time, baby?" Cole said, taking advantage of the pause.
"Pretty much," she answered, nodding. "Before E-Day I did help where I could, but I made sure I was never seen. After E-Day of course I went back home to see… to see if…" she looked away again and this time it was clear she wasn't going to be able to continue with that train of thought. It didn't matter, she'd already told them about finding her parents dead and they could only ever begin to imagine the various ways in which they may have been slaughtered by the Locust.
"There was a while there I did join one of the Stranded groups but never stayed with them for too long, they were always on the move and I was always watching my back, afraid of being recaptured. It was only in recent years, I think I was 25, nearly 26 maybe when I noticed the Locust were starting to capture people on a far greater scale, keeping them alive in those coffin-like prisons. It took me that long to realize I couldn't just stand back and let this continue to occur when I had the power to make sure it didn't. I started infiltrating Locust camps and freeing civilians, captured Gears, other prisoners, and all the while, I listened into transmissions of various types, picking up on key happenings and learning of various main COG teams," she looked at them pointedly then. "So, yes, I have heard of you guys. Especially after the Lightmass Offensive were your names spoken of often," she tried to smile, but found it just wasn't coming to her right now. "Last year I started infiltrating the stronghold Hoffman mentioned, Nexus, going through as many prison sections as I could and freeing each and every person. Of course, it really does go without saying that I had to kill off numerous Locust in the process, something I had absolutely no problem with."
"That's when those mass exoduses Anya told us about started right?" Dominic asked.
"Yeah," Mana said. "And now, finally, 15 years after E-Day and about 18 years after becoming New Hope's first and, as far as I know, only successful guinea pig, I was there when Alpha Seven's Grindlifts cut through into an open area of the Hollow. I witnessed the taking out of Jennings the moment he exited his lift, saw the rest of the team in trouble, and realized I just couldn't hold back any longer," she finished for them.
"Seriously, you could write a damn book about this," Baird commented from the driver's seat, for once no actual sarcasm present in the delivery. "By the way, if anyone's interested, aside from the fact we're about two clicks out from our destination, it's also starting to rain. It'd be just our luck if it ends up turning into razor hail."
Mana's eyes widened, "Oh goodie, we're almost there! That's great, I'm so excited!" she mocked, this time the one to use cynicism to cover over the fear shooting through her in waves.
“That it?" Marcus asked.
"If you mean, is that all up until this point without going into too much more detail and thus not being anywhere near finished by the time we get there? Yes, it is," she said, looking straight at him.
Fenix studied her for a moment, watched closely as she then sat back and the clear signs she was preparing herself for the next rather unwelcome leg of their journey set in. During the whole story he'd felt many emotions himself, from revulsion to a deep respect for someone who was just a child refusing to leave behind her best friend even though she'd had the ability to get out of there. He put himself in her place for a few moments; saw Dom's face as this Damien she was talking about and realized he would've done the exact same thing. Heck, he knew that regardless of their differences the members of Delta were a team, brothers to the end and even though they'd often felt like leaving the smart mouthed Tech in the heart of enemy territory, actually following through with such a thing would never have happened.
~No it isn't, kid,~ the Sergeant thought to himself, and he wasn't the only one who’d noticed the huge gap in the middle she’d skimmed over.
Home Sweet HorrorEdit
For the Gears, the Centaur smashing through one of the main gates and coming to an abrupt halt half way through provided the signal that it was time for them to disembark and begin the next phase of their mission. For a certain civilian experiment, all it said to her was that she was about to reface the horror she’d vowed and declared she’d never come back to confront. She sat there, frozen to the spot, watching the four men climb out, fighting an overwhelming sense of wanting to lose it.
Night had fallen about ten minutes before they’d arrived, the open exit point now allowing the rain Baird had announced access into the vehicle, both falling and rebounding droplets gently splashing onto her face. As nice a feeling as that was, it did nothing to change her current reaction in any way. In fact, when she glanced back down and through the only other part of the Centaur that gave view to the outside, the sight of the place she hated with a passion, lit up out of the shadows by the occasional flash of lightning, caused hands to roll into fists, squeezing so tightly she broke through the skin of her palms, the wounds unable to heal until she unclasped them again.
“Might have to coax her out, Marcus,” Cole said, glancing back at where they were hoping she would appear without them having to do such a thing. “I mean, we ain’t really got a clue how hard this must be for her.”
The Sergeant nodded just the once, “Yeah, maybe. Gonne give her a few first,” he answered.
The upper half of her body appeared out in the open, the hesitation to get that far merely emphasised by the glow already lighting her up like she was an integrated part of the Centaur’s lighting system. Eyes glared at what they could see of the building – the two upper loading docks still locked tight shut after all this time. If she could blow the place to smithereens the way she was currently feeling it’d have happened in a heartbeat. Climbing all the way out and over the side to jump down behind the Gears, she paid them only the smallest amount of attention as they turned to look at her.
“You alright, kid?” Fenix asked, and the brief look he got in way of an answer was all he needed without her having to say a word.
Mana didn’t stop, not even when the heavy scuffling and obvious sounds of the presence of Wretches reached her ears. Purposeful strides carried her along the left side of the building past the two ground level loading bays and the first lot of the nine open-sided, tin roofed parking spaces she already knew were there, her sole purpose, reaching the main entrance of the supposed depot, the same one in the file so recently declassified by Prescott. She knew that if she paused even for just a minute to take note of the various overturned and abandoned rusted out vehicles or anything else on the way for that matter, there was no way in the world she’d be able to make herself take one more step, let alone actually head inside to face only what she knew was in there.
“Baird, Cole, stay here with the Centaur,” Marcus ordered.
“What’s up with that? You expectin’ an attack on a ghost town?” Damon asked, shaking his head a little.
“These days, Baird, you should be expectin’ anythin’. We’ll keep you posted,” Marcus said, looking after the fast retreating figure of their guide for this next leg of the operation. With a simple nod given towards Dom, the two fell into a steady jog until they’d all bar caught up with her.
“Someone left in a hurry,” Fenix commented, almost at the same time he heard what sounded like a Wretch take off from the industrial garbage bin behind one of the car sheds to their right. “Yeah, not surprisin’ me,” he muttered.
“You talkin’ about the fact there are way too many cars left deserted for us to think whatever happened here was normal, or that it’s pretty much guaranteed at some point we’re gonna run into the Wretches now inhabiting the ruins?” Dom asked.
The Latino just smirked. “Yeah. We’re screwed,” he agreed, before his gaze went to Mana, walking still about a couple meters ahead of them. “She’s not going to stop, is she? Not even to let us catch up properly.”
“No, and I’d be thankful for that if I were you, Dom.”
Eventually the two Gears moved forwards past her into the building, Mana holding back, taking in the sight of what was left of a courtyard she’d been in many times, privileges and allowances extended to her because Niles and Olivia had known there was no way she would’ve tried to escape. Not without Damien.
The evidence of what it’d once represented was still there beneath damage caused by wretches and other animals; the natural weathering of stone bench seats and garden edgings, metal shutters and roofing, walls of masonry and wood, along with the extensively overgrown or died off areas of gardens that’d often served to calm her. Nature took over when there were no longer any human presences interested enough in helping to keep a building and its grounds maintained and, as she quickened her pace a little to join the two men already inside the initial facade of New Hope, she strongly believed its outward appearance now very much suited the hidden atrocities that had once been taking place deeper within its bowels.
“Urgh!’ she hissed, instantly covering her nose and mouth. Apparently, the inside of it now did too.
“Yeah, plumbing’s out,” Dom said, bringing her up to speed. He then glanced between her and the form of his best mate already heading further into the abandoned structure. “Look, I get this is important, but can we stop for a second...” he didn’t actually wait for either of them to respond, simply reached into his pocket and retrieved the photo he tried to show her earlier. “Here, this is my Maria, Mana. She’s my wife, I’ve been looking for her for years now, have you seen her?”
Mana stopped beside one of two floor-to-ceiling support columns, putting her in a position just shy of being able to catch sight of a passage she knew far too well. To say right now she welcomed the distraction Dom was offering was to understate the obvious really, the crisscross of Imulsion in her eyes fading as she took a good look at the well-worn and obviously highly cherished picture of the two. There was no mistaking the Corporal’s wife had once been a clearly beautiful and very happy young woman, noticeably content in the arms of the man that was holding her. What was even more perceptible to Mana was that she knew the face the moment she saw it, but it took a moment for the audible gasp to accompany the raising of her eyes in surprise.
Dom caught the initial reaction, the visible evidence that this temporary member of Delta knew his Maria, because there was no other way to describe the telltale features reflected on her face right now. “You have seen her! When? Where is she? Tell me she’s okay?” the questions tumbled forth from his mouth before the healer could even think of doing anything else. “Mana... please...” and he literally reached over and grabbed her arm, the distinct look of hesitation in the Healer’s eyes something Dominic took in a way that it wasn’t truly meant to be taken, for a moment feeling his whole world, that last bit of hope he’d seen in this woman with the ability to heal, come crashing down on top of him.
“She’s alive, Dom,” Mana began, “but she’s not... she’s... the Locust... she didn’t have the training the COG gives its Gears, no resistance to what they did to her, nothing... I was able to heal the physical side and although her hair is still a lot shorter the wounds, scars, and blindness...” Mana let her words trail off, within the Latino’s eyes catching sight of the reaction of rage mingling with the initial joy at hearing his long-time search for his wife had not been in vain. “Physically, Dom, she’s fine. Mentally...” Mana almost couldn’t say it. “Mentally she just doesn’t seem to be there anymore, but I’m trying and maybe, when she sees you...” she glanced back down at the picture. “I didn’t know who she was. She hasn’t spoken since I freed her. Dom, seeing you might give her more reason to fight through the darkness.”
“Where is she?” he all bar demanded.
Mana looked back up at him again. “Maria was one of those who needed me to be there for them from the moment I found her. She was in no state to make it out of there on her own let alone know what to do once she was aboveground again. Those like Maria and the ones that were able to say they wanted me to further help them I took to places I knew were never frequented by the Locust. Safe havens if you will – natural cave formations, areas of country towns, secluded properties, farm houses of absolutely no interest to anyone anymore, least of all the Grubs. Maria is among a small group currently holed up in one of the latter, I could take you there if you want.”
“After we deal with this first,” Marcus said.
“No way, Marcus, we go now!” his friend exclaimed.
“We can’t go now, Dom, we have our orders.”
“Who the hell cares about orders?! This is what I’ve been fighting for, Marcus! They can court marshal me for all I care! Mana is taking me there now!”
With Dominic now all up in Marcus’ face, each emphasis of his right arm made even more apparent by the fact he had a Lancer held within his hand, Mana stepped back from the confrontation. It wasn’t her place to get involved in the argument they were having, in the decision that needed to be made. Instead, she kept an eye on their surroundings, and an ear open to the extensive sounds of wretch activity growing ever more discernible around them. In her mind’s eye she began to recall what the lobby area of Jameson Depot had once looked like, the memories of the male and female faces of the workers, including the secretaries and security officers that greeted any and all coming through the main entrance on this side of the building.
Quietly, she walked around the overturned metal desk beside where Dom had stopped her, her view of what lay down the hallway no longer blocked, feet carrying the body further towards it even though her mind really did not want to go there. She came to a halt within the initial alcove, brown eyes staring off to the right at what was left of the computer and desk, remembering that it had been a checkpoint of sorts, making sure only genuine Staff of the Depot ever made it past the threshold. Finally, she averted her gaze from the memory, looking at the floor until she began the slow and hesitant process of lifting her head up, eyes taking in nothing but what exactly lay at the end of the hallway...
“How can you tell me to put the COG before the love of my life, Marcus?! At long last I not only know she’s still alive but can actually be taken directly to where she is right now, right in this moment, and you stand there pulling rank on me!”
“Dom, I know this is what you’ve been fighting for, and I know you. You’d throw away everything to see Maria again... I threw away everything to try and save my father and you saw how that worked out,” Marcus countered, in his own way giving voice to his refusal to allow his best mate to ever have to go through what he had experienced himself – the total and utter lack of compassion when it came to the families of the Gears that served the COG. “We’re here now. This is our chance to maybe end this damn war. For you to be reunited with Maria with the prospects of a future we’ve started seein’ as not possible now so damn close. We finish this, then we go,” Marcus reiterated, not the least bit intimidated by the glare Dom had been giving him since this conversation had begun.
“Dom, Maria really is safe,” the interjection came from the very person who knew that better than either of them. “If I was in your shoes, I wouldn’t want to wait another moment either but I’m sorry, if we leave here to go to her now, there’s no way I’m ever going to be able to come back.”
Only then did both men notice for the first time Mana had actually even moved, let alone where exactly she’d moved to. The position of looking intently down the hallway at the bank-vault style door, complete with the nine security monitors of varying sizes that had always been above it, one she hadn’t broken even when interrupting at a moment she’d sensed was needed.
“Damnit! What kind of choice is this?!” Dom hissed, throwing out his arms in frustration. “Fine, we do this now, but the moment it’s over... if anyone even dares to try and stop me!” and he just walked right on past the both of them, shaking his head in disbelief.
When his friend was out of ear shot, Marcus asked, “How bad is she, kid?”
“To be honest, Marcus, I don’t think he’s ready for what he’ll find when we get to the end of this.”
Fenix nodded, reaching up to press his Tac-Com, “Control, this is Delta...” when there was no immediate answer the Sergeant raised an eyebrow, “Control, are you there?”
“Delta, this is Command, have you got something to report?” the distinctly male voice of Colonel Victor Hoffman answered.
“Ah... no, just trying to get in contact with Control,” Marcus affirmed, suspicion levels rising ten-fold.
“Control is offline on this one, Delta. From now on you will be reporting directly to Command,” Hoffman informed him.
“Ah, copy that, Command, Fenix out.”
“And there it the proof to back up your earlier words, Sergeant,” Mana admitted, locking gazes with the Gear briefly. “No way am I ever going to be able to go back into hiding now.”
“Welcome to Jameson Depot, proper identification is required for entry,” it would take a while for Dom to truly move on from what Marcus had just made him choose between. Nevertheless, seeing the face appear on the screens surrounding a door that was definitely meant for only one thing, keeping people out, and hearing they needed clearance, all that did was send off the alarm bells ringing in his head for the umpteenth time since learning about this place from Hoffman.
“You’ve got to be kiddin’ me...” Marcus exclaimed.
“I’m sorry but proper ident...” the definite pause in the words was the first sign there was something noticeably different about this particular security system. The fact the face of the man upon it was now staring at something past both Marcus and Dom sent the hairs on the backs of their necks standing on end. “Mana... my dear child, is that you?” and there was the rest of the evidence needed to make the two Gears exchange glances with each other, silently deciding to hand the floor over to the female member of their little team.
Mana stood in the doorway of one of the Workers quarters off to the side, fiddling with the Boltok Pistol – old, but its ammo still useful – in her hand. A task she did not pause continuing with even in the slightest as she glanced sideways at the larger of the security panels centred above the door. “Hello Niles,” she said, the venom in that greeting making it pretty obvious this was not going to be a pleasant type of family reunion.
“I always knew you would return to me some day and my how you’ve grown into a beautiful young woman. How wonderful it is that you have finally come home,” Niles exclaimed, visibly smiling, overtly very pleased right now.
“This was never my home, Niles,” was Mana’s immediate answer, eyes narrowing dangerously.
“Oh, but you must understand if it wasn’t for me your magnificence would never have been brought to fruition and our future would have been lost. We achieved so much while you were with us and plenty more after you left. Because of you and the other earlier subjects, oh how the children have been saved. Would you like to see?”
~No,~ was the first thought that came to mind. “Are you saying you’re going to just let me in, just like that?” she asked him.
“Well, yes, why wouldn’t I? You are the very epitome of what I was working towards, so special, so perfect... the thing is, it has been so, so very long now, I am wondering just how far you have come...” his words trailed off. “Perhaps a test... yes, I do believe it is time to once again see just what you are capable of. You did leave me before I could experience the next phase of your changes after all. Let’s see, how am I to initiate this one?”
The sound that echoed through the enclosed area could be mistaken for absolutely nothing else! Three heads snapped around to look at the pack of Wretches gathering in the alcove at the opposite end, others now in the process of streaming through the various gaps and areas along the hallway, including the obvious other passageway to their right, or left, depending on which way they were facing.
“Oh, well absolutely perfect timing on their part. That does solve that problem then,” and with a palpably sly smile and a chuckle that spoke volumes for what type of person Dr. Niles Samson really was, the screen went blank.
“We are so screwed!” Dom announced,
“He was stalling! He was waiting for that! The security system knew they were coming!” Mana cried, Torque Bow already in her hands, left side movement seeing the wretch currently in the process of jumping directly at her sliced through and smashed askance against the wall beside the security door. She moved to meet the next one, taking care of those coming from the side hallway, disappearing into it and out of sight of the guys around the next corner, somewhere in the back of her mind knowing she was being watched no matter where she went.
Lancer fire joined the sounds of growling and snapping jaws, moans of pain driven from the monkey dogs sent to the floor dead, while the rest of the pack jumped over them, ran through them, and leaped to try and succeed where their brethren hadn’t. Booted feet lifted off the ground, kicking forward, taking down several while bullets hit and ended the lives of the rest. Dom ducked into the side room Mana had come out of drawing some of them away from his teammates, somewhat cornered, his cries of angry triumph and challenge ringing through the air while his best mate held his ground in front of the security door.
The third and temporary member of the group was driven further and further into the passageway, around the varying corners, not realizing she was being so greatly separated from the others until they opened out into the storage locale and she recognised what the room off to her left really was. She hadn’t meant to get anywhere near here but, providing at least one of the power generators for the depot itself was still working, there was no way she wasn’t going to take advantage of being able to shed some light on the situation.
“Where’d she go?” Dom yelled. “Marcus, where is she?!”
“No friggin’ idea, Dom, a little busy here! Kid’s got a habit of doin’ her own thing!” Marcus answered, chainsaw bayonet making contact rather effectively for the fifth time.
“You shoulda been watchin’ her back!” the Latino shot back, Fenix conscious of where this accusation was really stemming from.
“From what I’ve seen so far, Dom,” and Marcus paused to send another Wretch flying back into the one in mid-leap behind it. “She doesn’t need or want anyone to watch her back!”
“She’s the only one who knows where Maria is, Marcus!” Dom said, it almost sounding as if he was about to lose it. “If anythin’ happens to her...” he didn’t get to finish what he was saying, noticing the lights flicker on as he was in the process of shooting upwards point blank with his shotgun at the Wretch falling towards him from above. “Damn, where...? Think that was her?” Dom asked, backing up and firing again.
“Yeah maybe, could’ve been Baird...” Fenix shook his head. “No, has to be the woman. She knows this place like the back of her hand, saw that in her eyes the moment she got out of the Centaur.”
“As if the greeting she got at the doorway wasn’t enough to tell us that,” Dom agreed.
Marcus just nodded, ducking down to avoid the Wretch trying to jump at him from the left, lashing out with the side of the Lancer. The additional momentum sent it sprawling into the wall, out cold, then, with another blow to its head just mere seconds later, lifeless even before it hit the floor. Every so often, he caught Dom glancing over to where he knew Mana had gone the pleading look in his friend’s eyes in stark contrast to the sheer exhilaration present every time he took down one of the animals.
“Hang on a second...” he said, gazing briefly in the same direction. “Hey Dom, smell that?”
Dominic smirked wide. “Yeah,” he answered almost immediately. “Damn. It’s a Wretch BBQ,” he said. “Must’ve been a discarded Scorcher lyin’ around or something...” and just as he finished saying that, they caught sight of the end of the flame shooting past the corner. “Oh yeah, I like mine crispy!” he added, the smirk now a very relieved grin as Mana came into view a short time later.
The extremely condensed flame, with a range of approximately ten meters depending on how much the trigger was pulled, engulfed the Wretches still standing in her way of rejoining the Gears completely and it didn’t take long for a few of the monkey dogs to decide it was time to get the heck out of there. Their numbers were already highly depleted; add to that a weapon that could take out four or more of them at once and there were clearly a few not even attempting to attack anymore, just sitting there a short distance away and looking at them. Unfortunately for the slower ones among the pack, a certain healer didn’t stop as she came out, walking past her companions and mopping up the remaining creatures with a look upon her face suggesting to those watching she was rather enjoying it.
“And this is also what happens when people leave in a hurry,” Mana said to them when she finally finished. “That, or, maybe it was discarded by one of the Stranded when they were here... probably dropped it while trying to protect themselves from the Wretches...” she shrugged, averting her gaze from the new weapon in her hand to once again stare at the centre monitor above the security door.
They didn’t have to wait long...
Niles’ face appeared for the second time and it looked as if he had not for one moment stopped smiling; if anything, it had simply gotten wider. “There was never a doubt in my mind, my precious Deployable Weapon, and you didn’t even have to tap into your extraordinary skill set. Do please come in,” the locking system in the very middle of the door spun several times, closely followed by the sound of it releasing. “Oh, and Mana, you will always, always be welcome. Your friends on the other hand...” and again, Dr. Niles Samson went silent.
With Open EnemiesEdit
Distinct blue eyes looked up from taking advantage of the opportunity the rain provided to clean off more of the muck sustained from the inside of the Riftworm. For about the fifth time now, in around half an hour or more, Baird caught his best mate watching him with intended purpose and just like the four times before that the Tech continued what he was doing without a word, seemingly oblivious. Eventually though, the blond haired Corporal just couldn’t stand it any longer.
“Okay Cole, c’mon, out with it,” he urged, inflection emanating both annoyance and expectation. “I can see the wheels turnin’ in there. You’ve got something to say so say it already.”
“Hell yeah I’ve got somethin’ to say! Been tellin’ you for years that mouth of yours is gonna get you taken out of this game for good one day baby!” Lifting up a gloved hand, Cole brought his thumb and forefinger together so they were just shy of touching, “You were this close, man. This close to havin’ yer damn head taken off!”
Damon gave his friend the classic Oh, here we go look complete with the rolling of his eyes and the turning of his body slightly away so he now had to glance at Cole at an angle over his left shoulder. “Yeah whatever man, didn’t happen!” he shot back, pitching his voice even higher to be heard over the weather, now including thunder and lightning that had steadily gotten worse since the other half of Delta, plus one, had disappeared from their sight.
“Only reason why yer still breathin’, Baird, is cos o’ Marcus. He didn’t tell you to back off you woulda just kept on goin.”
“Yeah… and?” Damon asked. “You can’t tell me the thought never crossed your mind too. If a weapon like her had been around earlier this war could’ve been over by now,” he instantly retorted. “Besides,” he shrugged, his voice lowering a little, “She’s not the type, so highly doubt she really would’ve done it.”
Cole just stared at him. “Yeah, okay man, we know that now but back then all I saw was a woman pointin’ a Locust weapon straight at you that she obviously already knew how to use. Even knowin’ that you were still all up in her face,” he pointed out, shaking his head a little. “Ain’t no way we coulda done anythin’ to stop her in time had she actually finished pullin’ the trigger.”
The only member of Delta fully qualified and implicitly trusted to pick apart a machine and put it all back together again knew exactly why his best friend was now having a go at him like this. He’d heard this lecture many times before and always for a different reason or on a different topic. The Cole Train worried, and would probably always worry, because he strongly believed it was only inevitable Damon would reach that one moment in time when his tendency to speak before his brain had actually kicked into gear ended catching up with him permanently.
Still, it hadn’t happened yet and maybe Baird was wrong to feel pretty darn good about that fact. It was after all extremely difficult to change an aspect of his very nature and especially when there had never been any inclination to do so in the first place.
“You’re missin’ the point, Cole,” Baird began. “Didn’t…”
“Baird, what’s your status?”
Saved by the reminder they were still on a mission, no matter the fact they were stuck with the most boring aspect of it, at least for now. The Tech lifted his finger to his comm, hitting the button and responding with, “Coast is still clear, but I’m thinkin’ this weather’s going to get worse before it gets better. We might have to head inside at some point…” he informed the Sergeant.
Marcus glanced back out over the open center courtyard the small group of three had just crossed, taking out a large pack of Wretches coming from the doorway he was now standing in front of in the process. “Roger that, Baird, do whatever’s necessary if it comes to that. We’re already deep within the facility and any doubts we had the kid was tellin’ us the truth got shot to pieces by the greetin’ she got at the main security door earlier.”
“How so?” Baird asked, Cole also listening carefully.
“The security system just let us in after we dealt with the uncanny timin’ of a Wretch pack. Apparently it seems to be semi-sentient, molded after that Niles guy she was tellin’ us about on the trip over. Of course, that just means she’s welcome. Me and Dom on the other hand, not so much,” Fenix informed them, slowly turning back around and heading into the next wing of the building.
“Yeah, just typical, you guys are having all the fun,” Baird quipped.
“Wouldn’t call it that, Baird,” Marcus said. “Especially not for one of us even though the kid’s helpin’ where she can. Girl knows the place off by heart, nothin’ more to say about it, what she’s told us is the truth, Fenix out.”
“Yeah, we’re having fun! So much fun… let’s see how much fun dodging mini motion tracking troikas and flame throwers is to him!” Dom voiced, shaking his head. “He has no idea how good he’s got it out there, unless razor hail hits, but even then…”
“Cool it, Dom,” Marcus warned, as he turned his head towards Mana, a simple nod given to announce it was time to move on.
“Oh look, more mini troikas,” Dom said moments later, exchanging a glance with Marcus. “Fun huh?”
“One of the few areas in this place with good memories attached to it,” Mana said, eyes taking in the signs that the kitchen had been abandoned for a very long time. “Some of the cooks were really nice, then again, most didn’t know what was going on so close nearby…” the forlorn look that crossed the young woman’s face disappeared almost as fast as it came.
At the sound of more incoming Wretches, Marcus ordered them to hang back and, like the other times, take out the ones that managed to dodge the bullets. Mana crouched beside the Sergeant, cut off and therefore safe from the laser slowly sweeping the area on the other side of the preparation bench. Dominic remained standing near the doorway, the first to catch sight of the Wretches making their way around. His smirk spread wide as the laser turned a stark red and the weapon opened fire, downing one, the beam almost instantly hitting another and firing again before it became clear the other three monkey dogs were able to use the distraction of one to avoid the security system altogether. From his position Dom was able to finish one off before it even became visible to the other two, Marcus’ blue eyes tracking a second one as it came around and at him.
“They really are quite stupid,” Mana said, the shotgun blast going off, Fenix silently agreeing with that one as he watched her get back up.
There was no use wasting any more time. Taking in the position of the laser, Mana crossed the short distance then started running, keeping flush alongside the length of benches made up of stoves, sinks and more preparation points in the very middle of the kitchen. Once she reached and stopped at the other end, clear of the first weapon but coming around on the second, she saw the same thing repeated right around the three support pillars with utensil and pot hanging bars in-between.
“Control’s gotta be around here somewhere,” Marcus pointed out.
“Yeah, on the other side of the caved in doorway, rather ironic really, that we had to pass through the kitchen and thus more of the security because normally that hallway runs right through,” Mana explained, watching as Dom made the first move this time, laser on the opposite side of the room as the two of them also began to follow.
“Wow man, I just love the mess hall!” Dom exclaimed voice dripping with sarcasm, brown eyes taking in the caged feel to the two eating wings running lengthways off to each side of the hallway as they came out of the kitchen.
“Provided because of necessity, no comfort needed,” Mana informed him. “Niles and Olivia were all for cutting corners where they could, especially if it meant more money went into the… other side of this place.”
~Which we just happen to be getting closer to,~ she thought.
“Let’s keep movin’,” Marcus urged, the next lot of hallways allowing him to see through the near floor to ceiling windows Baird had not been wrong, the storm outside was definitely getting worse.
It wasn’t until the two Gears reached another turn right though that they realized Mana was starting to hang back and it didn’t take long for either of them to figure out the exact reason why. All they had to do was see what type of room they were about to enter and it all became clear.
“You alright, Mana?” Dom asked.
“Would you please stop asking me that? No, I’m not alright!” she snapped, walking right on past them and pointing at the metal research slab. “Look at that!” she hissed. “Oh, the cleanliness and security of the place was well taken care of, but the comfort to the patients, hah!” her attention averted to two more mini troikas above and just to the side of the table, streaming lasers across the area. “You guys ever see what happens when a child gets hit by one of those things?”
“Yeah, actually, we have,” Marcus said, his voice low, no attempt to hide the emotion that accompanied such a statement this time.
Mana looked at him, silent for a few moments. “I’m sorry,” she finally said, then just kept walking straight ahead, ignoring the three med-beds strewn haphazardly along the walls on each side. Of course they had, they would’ve seen what the actual proper real troikas did to people – family, friends…
“I’m losing it,” she whispered, thankfully by now turning the corner and out of earshot of the two men. She stopped, taking a moment to regain her composure. ~You have to do this,~ she urged herself silently. ~Face the thing you fear the most, retake control of it, don’t let the past ruin your future. Yeah… that’s so easier said than…~
“Sure you’re up to this, kid?”
Well, at least it wasn’t asking if she was alright this time. “You want the honest version or the sugarcoated one?” she asked, without turning, clasping the bridge of her nose with her thumb and forefinger to try and ease the tension headache caused by nerves and fear threatening to overwhelm. “It’s too late to turn back now. Besides, I think if I tried Niles wouldn’t let me.”
“Ah, my dear child, you are so correct,” Niles’ face appeared on the security monitors set at intervals, mostly in the corners and above the metal slab. “You are home now, truly home. Your brothers and sisters await.”
“What the heck does that mean?” Dom asked.
“Keep going and you shall find the answers,” Niles replied, disappearing from sight once again.
“I am really starting to hate that guy,” the Latino voiced.
“Oh, I hit that road running the moment I came here,” Mana said, finally lifting her head back up again and after a moment looking around at Marcus. “Just keep moving, I’ll keep up or catch up, whichever happens,” she managed, catching him nod once at her before he kept on going, heading for the security control button he’d immediately caught sight of when he’d turned the corner.
“Whoa! Wait! Don’t turn it off!” Dom suddenly called. “Wretches!” and even as he said it, his best mate caught heed of the sound of them too.
Mana didn’t help the guys this time. She didn’t need to anyway; since coming into the main facility there had never been enough of the Wretches to overwhelm them before and this time around was no different. That, and well, she doubted whether she was going to be able to take one more step. The more steps she took, the closer she was getting to the area where everything had happened to her. To the room where all of her experimentation, and Damien’s, had taken place; they hadn’t been the only ones, but they were the most successful out of the few. On the other hand though, despite all this, there was still another part of her that literally yearned to get there and it was this side that won out in the end.
“We should wait for her, Marcus,” Dom said, as they reached the bottom of the staircase they’d located leading down to the next level.
“Yeah,” Marcus agreed, “just not sure for how long though. She might not even be able to keep goin’.”
“Can hardly blame…” he suddenly smiled, motioning behind his friend.
Marcus turned, unable to help a slight smirk himself. “Nice to see you again, kid,” he said.
“Oh, what, even in that short amount of time, you missed me?” she asked, the smile genuine, the humor covering over what had threatened to prevent her from getting through this completely. Marcus’ smirk widened a little, watching her move past him into the next hallway. “Oh yes! Would you look at that!” she suddenly exclaimed, the excitement palpable as she stepped over to another lot of double doors on the left, concentrating her strength on the one slightly ajar.
“What? What is it?” Dominic asked.
“Need to get in there…” she pushed again, feeling her muscles burn. “Too weak, could you help?” she asked them both.
“Why?” Dom urged again. “And I thought you had enhanced strength or something?”
Mana looked back at him. “Why? Because this is the main experimentation room, Dom, and I’m running low on the Imulsion that could still be in there… in the tank,” she explained.
“They have a tank full of Imulsion?” the Latino asked, incredulousness outweighed by the fact he really wasn’t surprised at all. By now Marcus was already helping and with Dom’s added strength the door slowly gave way, the three of them noting the large metal office table that’d obviously been toppled onto its side and pushed across it from the inside.
“Well, as I’ve already tried to explain, that’s what this place was about, seeing what affects the Imulsion had on those previously showing signs of exposure to it. I think sometimes they used kids with no prior exposure too, just to see what would happen…” words trailing off again, Mana moved into what was almost an exact replica of the two experimentation rooms they’d past through on the upper level. Difference this time around however was there seemed to be a small rectangular shaped office in the very middle.
“So, what, you run low on this Imulsion and you start to weaken?” Dom pressed. “How much, and if you don’t get some sort of access to it would you… could it eventually kill you?”
“Short answer, yes, long answer, Dom I’d need another 2 hour drive between missions to explain it properly to you,” a thought suddenly occurred to her then. She moved over to one of the computer terminals, again testing to see if it was still working like she’d been doing on and off for Jack since they’d initially been let in.
“Power’s down in here, think Jack could turn it on, or at least try?”
“Yeah kid,” Marcus answered and seconds later, with a couple beeps that could’ve been taken for agreement on his part as well, Jack began to search for a main power terminal.
“Want to take out those things before he manages to succeed?” she more stated than asked, motioning to another similarity to the other room, the four mini troikas positioned above the med-beds, the lasers of which would be able to extend right across the room.
“On it,” Dom said, it a rather comical sight watching a fully armored Gear maneuver the bed so he could eventually climb up on to it to reach and thus dismantle the weapons.
Mana moved back over to the office-like structure, retrieving what looked like a rag from one of her side packs. She used it to clear away the dirt and dust that’d gathered over the windows, her smile lighting up eyes already aglow with the crisscrossing effect when she saw what was on the other side. ~Please let there be what I need left in it. If it’s empty…~ she thought.
“He’s plugged in,” Marcus informed her, “shouldn’t be much longer now.” Mana just nodded, eyes falling on the Geobot briefly before she started walking back over to the computer.
The evidence that Jack had succeeded in restoring the power came in the form of red and white lights flashing lengthways across the front of the various undamaged workstations in the room, the visual sign that accompanied the sound of the mainframes booting up. Yet, it was the entirely different noise and slight reverberation behind him that made Marcus swing around, eyebrows raising as the walls around the vat began to resemble the movement of a bird’s wing at the elbow, rising first up than outwards to reveal the access point to the tank, along with a harness-like structure anchored to the ceiling and hovering about two meters above it.
“That… I don’t like the look of that at all,” Dom said, finding it difficult to avert his gaze from the harness.
“Yeah, feelin’ that too, Dom,” Marcus said.
They watched Mana closely as she made her way from the computer terminal back to the now visible hatch. It wasn’t hard to pick up on her discomfort, her hesitation, memories so obviously running through her head. As the two Gears followed and came closer to the actual contraption itself, it was then they noticed an assortment of hypodermic needles attached to it via long and matching metal tubing. The exchanging of glances with each other covered everything Marcus and Dominic wanted to say without ever even having to utter a word.
“Please, please, please…” Mana begged, pressing in the necessary code on the control panel just below the center access point. Obviously the Centaur-type hatch wasn’t the only means by which to enter, since there was no way the harness above could fit through the gap horizontally or vertically on its own as it was lowered down, let alone with whatever had been strapped into it.
The Healer was so thankful for so many reasons already – that Jack had not only found a power access point but that he’d been able to restore it; that the computers and software for both the main controls and the direct access panels were, even after all this time, still working. But never had she felt such greater relief than when the entire top of the three meter hatch rose enough to allow her to glance over the side and see the beautiful sight of what was left of the Imulsion. As if the look upon her face wasn’t verification enough for the ones she was escorting through New Hope, the addition of the glow they knew so well reflecting off her face made it clear they didn’t even really need to look into the tank themselves to know she’d found what she was looking for.
“So, how are you going to get down there to get it?” Dom asked, looking at the woman intently. He had a feeling whatever was about to happen was going to be one of those rather interesting, if not extremely hard to believe moments she’d already made them privy to since Stratton’s voice had come over the Tac-Com.
“We don’t have time for me to get down into it properly,” she started. “I’ll have to…”
“Wait a second…” Fenix started. “It’s not a damn swimming pool.”
Mana caught and held his gaze again. “It is to me Marcus, where others are afraid of what the harmful effects could do to them, I need it. I could dive in there and all it would do to me is absorb into my bloodstream and replace what I’ve used; fill me back up again, if that is the right way to put it.”
“Like a transfusion, just with Imulsion,” the Sergeant voiced with a slight hint of disgust. “You always been like that, or did they make you even more reliant on the stuff?”
“The latter,” Mana said, concentration going back to the task at hand.
What happened next was something beyond anything Marcus and Dominic had ever seen up to this point. They didn’t think on it at the time, but they were the first two people ever to observe the various ways in which the once greatest energy source of Sera could now be influenced and used by the woman with a back-story so hard to accept. The glow of her skin and eyes was the same as before, the actual flowing upwards of a column of Imulsion towards the palm of the open hand she was holding out over the opening… that was an entirely new visual experience altogether.
“Damn, that is cool!” Dom exclaimed softly.
It felt cool as well, because the moment it hit her hand, whatever process had started the changes in her way back when she was child instantly took over and they watched the raw element absorb into her skin and split off, lighting up her bloodstream as it began to follow the natural flow path. It wasn’t until every vein was aglow that she stopped the progression at its starting point, the column breaking off, yet still not lowering back down just yet.
Mana’s hand retreated, instead now disappearing into the satchel Fenix and Santiago knew held the vial and needle kit. It took not even a minute to manipulate the Imulsion into the vials, refilling the ones she’d already used. With that done, she stepped back, closing her eyes for a moment, relinquishing the control she so palpably had and allowing the Imulsion to fall back down to rejoin the rest of it.
“I’m done,” she announced, opening her eyes again, not the least bit taken aback by the evident shock she could see depicted upon the faces of the men that’d just witnessed all of that.
“Okay,” Dom started, nodding approvingly. “Now we’re having fun.”
Past Future NightmareEdit
They interlaced the passageway to their right, straight across, diagonally up and down. Going under was not an option; going through was definitely out of the question; going over – only if all three of them suddenly developed the ability to fly, the alternative to that – walking on walls like a gecko. At closer inspection, it might have been possible to carefully climb up and grip the metal security screening along the middle of the two routes above the many lasers just waiting for the chance to lock onto a target. Still, the margin for error was far too high; any mistake would’ve meant an extremely painful and almost instant death, it pretty obvious the person who chose to go with the lasers had to have implicit trust in the one turning them off at each terminal in the passage adjacent.
“And the fun just keeps on coming!” Dom exclaimed, shaking his head, brown eyes fixated on the laser hallway of death. “The COG definitely didn’t want anyone getting in here. The security is insane!”
“Oh, I can assure you our security is quite sane,” Nile’s voice came out of nowhere yet again. “It is one of the cornerstones of a functioning society… along with proper hygiene of course.”
Dom just rolled his eyes. “Yeah, whatever you say man,” he said, before looking straight at Marcus. “So, who’s got power down duty?”
“Marcus, Baird here. Razor hail is just about on us, we’re gonna have to head inside.”
“Roger that, get out of the storm. We’ll get back there as soon as we can.”
“Wilco, Baird out.”
“I’ll take the lasers,” Mana said. “Makes more sense, since if something does go wrong I’ve got a better chance of surviving it. Actually, I probably would survive it, just not without a lot of pain,” she tried to say that last bit with a hint of humor in her voice, but it really wasn’t working. Didn’t matter she could heal from injuries and the like; no amount of added help from the Imulsion in that regard ever took away the initial pain felt when they were occurring.
“Normally kid, I’d say you were nuts, but you’ve got a point,” Fenix agreed.
“What?!” Dom broke in, his tone rising. “You’ve got to be kiddin’ me Marcus, she’s… there’s far too much riding on her surviving through to the end of this mission to throw her into…” his words trailed off when he noticed Mana looking at him intently. “What?” he asked.
“Can you honesty tell me that you really want to have to face that?” she asked, pointing down the hallway. “If I misjudge something, or whatever happens to go wrong, I can still run through it, get to the other end and away from the flames before I pass out. Either of you two on the other hand,” and she pointed to each of them in turn, “you’ll both pass out and ah, die before getting much further, even if you’re near the end.”
“How the heck do you know its fire in there, could be those mini troikas again?” Dom just shook his head when she tapped the side of her nose. “Oh, that’s right, you can smell it. Could this day get any weirder?” it was a rhetorical question, ending the exchange right there, the small team turning to tackle the two flanking hallways in front of them.
“Marcus, this is nuts!” Dom said, repeating the same statement for about the third time now, while they watched Mana move to get past yet another lot of lasers the moment Fenix hit the button.
“You’ve gotta stop worryin’ so much and have more faith in her, Dom,” the Sergeant said.
Santiago frowned at him a little. Was that a genuine statement or just a way for his friend to justify sending a woman, extraordinary abilities notwithstanding, into a hallway so heavily covered by security it was amazing they’d gotten this far – about halfway down already – without setting something off.
“I do have faith in her, but this is still nuts!” the Corporal hissed.
Dom almost closed his eyes when she reached the final terminal, praying, begging that nothing went wrong now, that she got…
“Through!” she announced, her relief matching theirs, even though Marcus didn’t show it. “Okay, so we’ve got two big massive vault doors again… took combined effort to get through all that back there, so more synchronization… what do you think Marcus?” she asked, looking through the glass slit in the wall at the two Gears on the other side.
“Yeah, they got a real funhouse down here, don’t they,” he stated, nodding his head at her. “And I’m thinkin’ that. On my mark… 1, 2, 3,” and with that done, they stepped back to avoid being pushed sideways into the wall as the doors opened.
“Whoa, what are those things?!” Dom exclaimed.
“Don’t know, Dom. But they definitely aren’t wretches, must be somethin’…” Marcus stopped speaking when he turned to see if Mana knew anything about them and caught sight of her climbing over the railings, jumping the short distance down into the recess where the stasis tubes were located. “What are you doing kid?” he asked her outright.
“Taking a closer look,” the healer responded.
“Jack,” he motioned, the geobot moving around so that the DW was out of visual range. “Command, this is Delta. Are you seeing this?” he asked, finger to his Tac-Com.
“I see it Fenix,” Hoffman began, “but we’re not pulling up anything on it. It’s like it doesn’t exist. Off the record, you’re in complete confidential territory right now. Your guess is as good as mine.”
“Roger that. Delta out.”
“Marcus, you seeing what I am, those tables are huge… think those things…” Dom shuddered, looking in the direction of the 8 stasis chambers, gaze falling on Mana standing very close to one and seemingly just staring at it.
“Kid… Mana, we’ve gotta keep movin’,” Marcus called out, a little of his Sergeant’s voice lost since the angle further around the observation and experimentation level now afforded him full view of the stricken look all over her face. He exchanged a glance with Dom.
Turning away from the reality of what was inside the tubes, Mana did what she was told this time, or, at least that was how it seemed, this in itself making eyebrows raise in her direction. Didn’t help that her face was suddenly very pale and even when she looked directly at Dom and Marcus she wasn’t really seeing them. The younger woman continued on past without a word, down another short flight of stairs into what could only be described as a storage area, years of neglect causing metal scaffolding to break, stasis chambers falling to one side or over completely, cobwebs growing all over the room. The healer didn’t perceive it, not a thing; all she saw was the familiar features of the one unknown creature in that tube.
She didn’t really react to anything again until Jack plugged into the main terminal within the key observation area of this part of the facility. The moment he restored the power, the shutters lifted on each and every window that had just so previously been covered, throwing a small amount of light upon the interior of the once extremely darkened room. What she saw out past them was more stasis chambers, far more, many more, and she began to understand what Niles had meant when he’d proclaimed her brothers and sisters were waiting.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea…” she finally said. “You’ll wake them up…” but she knew it was already too late, she could smell and hear movement that hadn’t been there before.
“Save the children,” Niles, via the video journal file Jack had managed to call up on the small computer screen. “That’s what they always say. In this case we’re really doing it, or at least we’re giving it our best shot. It started with Subjects M and D, and only continued to develop from there…”
“What is this?” Dom asked.
“Sounds like Niles…”
“It is,” Mana clarified.
“Little less wacko though…” Marcus finished, and considering what they’d just been through and where they were currently standing that wasn’t really saying much at all.
“Mana and Damien, my two most perfect of children until unfortunately the side effects began on the latter. Will be such a shame to lose him as well…” Niles sighed. “Had she not been convinced to escape perhaps things would’ve been different. The trip to Mt. Kadar won’t be an easy one. Not by a long shot. We must go at night, in the snow, and Chairman Munroe won’t even authorize us vehicles to transport the subjects…”
“Subjects…” Dom said, looking around at Mana.
“I will be leaving behind a semi-sentient security system to watch over the facility. I would hate anyone to disturb the sires rest and we would all like the opportunity to study them as they grow. I’m almost embarrassed to admit that the security system is based after my personality…”
“No you’re not,” Mana interrupted.
“…and that if Mana was ever to return he will recognize and welcome her home just as much as I would have had she come back before it came to this. I have no doubt she is still alive and out there somewhere…” and just as suddenly as Jack was able to initially bring the file up, the entire thing went black, sounds of the power source failing all around them.
With the shutters falling back down over the windows once again there was an unmistakable growl far more ominous than even that of the largest wretch pack…
“Let me guess, kid, you had no idea about any of this either?” Marcus more stated than asked, catching and holding her gaze.
“I was never allowed beyond the two checkpoints at the top of the stairs leading down into all that security we had to pass to get in here,” she verified for him. “And, unless under strict watch or escorted directly, nor past a certain point in my wanderings out on the grounds either.”
“There was recognition on your face back there, kid,” and he motioned in the general direction of where they’d just come from. “What’s goin’ on?”
“My brothers and sisters await…” the repeated statement almost a whisper, the look of sudden shock and awareness seen clearly only within Fenix’s gaze, whereas it was unmistakably written all over the entirety of Dom’s face. It was Mana that made the first move towards the staircase leading down into the main stasis area below.
“You telling me these things once used to be human?!” Dom exclaimed. He’d already grasped that truth earlier in the piece, just didn’t want to accept that humankind had done this to their own. All that didn’t matter now though; there was undeniable proof, both in physical form, Mana and these Sires, and the video file, the very thing that actually linked the healer to the New Hope facility.
“Yes,” Mana answered. “Why do you think the Locust act so much like us?”
Both Marcus and Dom stopped walking completely, “What?” almost said in unison.
“Don’t you get it yet?” Mana asked, turning back to them. “This is where they came from, this is what started everything,” but before she could continue, their attention was drawn to the sound of one of the Sires trying to get out of the confines of its growth tube.
“You’ve got more Imulsion in your veins kid, get ready to use that energy wave of yours,” Marcus ordered, everything for now having to be pushed aside in their need to survive whatever was about to come at them. There was no way he would let it go that easily however, her revelation stored within the To Be Discussed Later part of his mind. If what she was saying was the truth, and he had no doubt whatsoever that it was, then the COG was about to get the answers to the questions they had been asking themselves for a very long time.
“You stay back here, we’ll take care of the initial lot while you charge yourself up, or whatever,” Dom told her, not waiting for her to agree with him, just expecting and hoping that she would.
The healer did; she needed the time and the uninterrupted concentration to bring the energy wave to its fullest strength. She didn’t watch what the Gears were doing because she couldn’t bear to see it, the sounds of chainsaw bayonets making contact with flesh, the screams of the sires, some of them children she’d once known, the rest – others she’d never even knew had been there. She would’ve closed her eyes to allow for better focus but she couldn’t risk possibly being set upon by one of the creatures that’d managed to get past. As it was, some of the chambers nearby still contained sires either yet to come out, or, more than likely, among the few already died prior to or as the power had been restored to awaken them.
She was wrong on that last bit, at least for one of them, glass shattering all over the ground to her right, the growl emitted as she swung her entire body around to face the sire now bearing down on her from further up the walkway. She knew who it was just meters out from it reaching her position, by scent alone she’d once catalogued some of the other children held prisoner around her, and despite the fact so much more was intermingled with this one’s scent now, Mana knew… just knew it was…
“Chloe! No, Chloe, it’s me, it’s Mana… Chloe!” she almost pleaded, holding her ground, wincing and clenching her teeth as the creature stopped and began to swing arms longer than any Locust’s she had ever seen, hands and claws much like that of a Wretch. It swiped once, twice, three times at the upper part of her left arm before she stepped back out of its range yet again. “Chloe… stop it, it’s me… what have they done to you?!” she cried.
“Oh, my dear Mana, thanks to you we’ve only made them better,” Niles spoke up then. “Unfortunately they were never supposed to be awakened this early therefore they don’t recognize you as you do them. I suggest you…”
“Mana! Kill it!” Marcus’ voice came from where he could just see her through the gap in-between a set of the stasis tubes. “Whoever you think it was it’s not them anymore!” booted feet carrying Dom and him back around to her position. “Kill it!”
“I can’t…” she whispered, but even as she said it the growing energy inside of her finally reached the point where it could no longer be contained. Chloe… the Sire froze to the spot before it fell in a heap at her feet, all around her the energy wave flowing through the ones still contained and the few in the process of trying to catch up to Dom and Marcus. Tears streamed down her face. She was finally broken, finally letting go of the emotion she’d been trying her hardest to hold within.
Unfortunately, the growl and the unexpected movement of the creature right in front of her took away the luxury of her being able to do that now!
“They’re immune!’ instantly clicked within her mind, the warning yelled out so that the Gears knew to stop and turn to take care of the Sires already climbing to their feet and reacquiring their targets behind them. “I can’t believe this! They’re immune!” she reiterated, rage broiling as she brought the flame thrower around and opened a different kind of fire upon the creature that’d once been one of her friends, a child of about 5 when she’d first been brought in.
“As I said, thanks to you, we have only made them better,” the smugness in the security version of Niles beyond palpable.
Why should she have expected anything less?! Her escape had only marked the next chapter in Dr. Niles Samson’s need to recreate what he had lost yet again; to perfect it even further, refusing to give into any notion that he had failed. Her friends and the other children had suffered to a much greater degree because she’d listened to Damien and gotten out of there when she could!
She turned, moving with purpose to meet back up with the other two members of her team, the growl of fury leaving her mouth as she pushed back the flame thrower and brought forth her torque bow, using the blade to slice through the back of one of the two Sires currently trying to rip its claws through Marcus’ armor. With her help, both were brought down very quickly, glances exchanged between the three of them but not a word spoken.
They continued on into the next room, it becoming clear the unique attachment added to the Lancer and the intensity of the Scorcher’s heat were the best weapons for the job. It explained why there had been so many discarded flame throwers and ammo around the place, the latter found stored in various drawers and cupboards they’d come across on the way. Within the third and last area, Mana watched their back as Fenix and Dom took a hold of the hatch type wheels, a new form of coordination needed to open yet another type of heavily grated, metal security door.
“Mana, move!” Marcus yelled, reaching back and stepping over to grab and drag her with him underneath the Primary, the much thicker shed-like door already beginning to lower the moment the backup one had opened totally. By the time they were on the other side, the Deployable Weapon had turned properly into the crouched run, now standing back upright and beginning to take in her surroundings.
“That nut is definitely controlling the security system,” Marcus said.
“Yeah, and if there’s a way to shut him down then I’m thinking this is where we’ll find it,” Dom decided.
Marucs nodded. “Look for some sort of lever or switch.”
It didn’t take all that long to walk around to find the main core at the end of another hall, but instead of heading towards it, Mana held back a little, then just as abruptly snatched Dom’s lancer right out of his hand and opened fire on the security monitor just above the lever they could see. Her face twisted into one of pure hatred, tears falling as she screamed at Niles, her unintelligible words intermingled with growls and sobbing. Marcus reached up and curled his left arm around her from behind, taking a firm hold just under her throat and pulling her back into him, at the same time re-sheathing his own weapon and reaching out with his now empty hand to take a hold of the woman’s trigger arm at the wrist.
“Waste of ammo, kid, let it go. Let it go,” he said into her ear, nodding once at Dom, who moved up from her right side and placed his hand on top of the weapon, looking at her just as intently as she had so previously done so to him.
Mana couldn’t stand it anymore, her legs were starting to feel so heavy, the tears were falling so hard and sadness was starting to overtake the rage. She looked at Dom at about the same time she stopped pulling the trigger, letting him retake his weapon as she fell back against the Gear still holding her, Fenix allowing her to slide down to the floor. Dom moved forward to pull the lever, Niles last words something about ‘did they deserve what happened to them at Mt. Kadar? Will they listen when the truth comes out… will they listen… listen… listen,” until the security system no longer contained any power.
Marcus finally let go of the woman, who he was surprised had not broken down like this already. “Time to go, kid,” was all he said, with Dom falling into step behind him, making a move for the door Jack was in the process of forcing to open.
“Marcus, we’ve got razor hail!” Baird’s voice suddenly came over the comms, Mana shutting off to whatever was said next, although she did process something about razor hail not being so good for life expectancy, too far gone into a world of past and future nightmares to find that as humorous as she normally would have. Looking to her right, she was just able to see the Gears through the transparent wall making up one side of the now much darker hallway. It was only after they proceeded through and out of her sight that the Healer even looked to make any further effort to try and get back to her feet so she could follow.
When Marcus and Dom reached the top of another staircase and Mana still hadn’t appeared from where they’d left her, Marcus gave a nod to his best mate to stay where he was, while the Sergeant retraced his steps and stuck his head back in, catching sight of her coming down from the recess set to the right just inside the door. He assumed she’d been making any last minute checks to the computer terminals present there. “Come on, let’s go,” he ordered. There would be time enough later for her to talk about what’d just happened, unless she refused to do so that was.
Turning right at the top of the stairs, it opened out into more offices to their left. “Looks like another entrance to the place…” Dom said.
“Yeah, probably the official one…” Fenix acquiesced, gaze turning briefly, making sure Mana was still keeping up with them from the distance of about two meters away she seemed to have chosen since dealing with a side of the facility Niles had made sure she never knew about.
Maybe they should’ve tried to talk to her, said something about what’d just taken place, perhaps given a little bit of open and honest sympathy. Thing was, nothing they said right now would help, not with the trauma so fresh in her mind. The Sergeant knew from past experiences of his own that, even if they were to try to comfort her later, no amount of understanding or compassion was going to amount to much on this one. He didn’t glance away when she caught him looking at her, just held those brown eyes crisscrossed with Imulsion, intent on trying to divert her focus to what she’d mentioned earlier, about New Hope being where the Locust had come from.
Contained by such a closed-in space, the sudden explosion reverberated off the area around them, shaking the floor, and forcing the three-man team to fall into instant defensive mode once again, scrabbling for good cover and visuals of the situation unfolding ahead of them. After popping her head up briefly, Mana must have taken in something Fenix and Santiago had yet to see, and instead of just moving ahead without a word to them, she actually signaled she was heading around, holding up her torque bow to show she would need some cover. Looking straight at her again, Marcus nodded, while Dom fired upon the first Locust coming through the massive hole they’d blown in the wall of the autopsy examination room opposite the centered office.
“What the hell are Locust doing here?!” the Latino exclaimed.
“I don’t know Dom, wanna ask ’em?” Marcus said, tone dripping with sarcasm, even as he was keeping the next one that came through busy so he didn’t see the woman dash across the hallway and into the small security room off to the left, directly opposite where the Grubs were now coming from.
“How many?” Fenix asked.
“Three so… no… make that four,” Dom said.
“We move around and keep…” the sound caught his attention, the Sergeant keeping flush against the lower side of the monitoring station and moving up so he could see the area around the next corner. What he saw just made him smirk… “So that’s what she was aimin’ for,” he said.
Dominic had already caught on, since the beam of the mini troika turned red and pretty much took out the Flame Grenadier straight away, or rather, hit the tank upon its back and gave the Locust a moment to realize its death was imminent. Caught in the crossfire from the troika and the ammo of the Gears’ Lancers, the members of the initial enemy welcoming party were taken down with seeming ease and when it was clear no more were coming through the hole, Mana pressed the security button a second time. She then watched the troika lower back into the floor via the grated metal screening in front of her, extremely grateful the security weapons made no distinction between human or locust targets.
“Nice catch, kid,” Marcus’ voice came from the doorway behind her.
Mana turned, just nodding once and motioning to a nearby storage cupboard. “It’s an official security room, so might be some ammo left behind,” she managed, walking past him out of the room, almost colliding with Dom, last minute changing her direction to avoid him.
“Okay, so those things are fun when they’re working for us,” he said, his grin not quite reaching his eyes, and probably again wouldn’t until they got to the end of this and he could finally go and see Maria.
“No doubt we’ve got more of the Grubs waitin’ for us too,” Marcus said, the trio continuing, the Healer pausing briefly in the autopsy area. She didn’t want to think about what went on in a room with examination tables representing those which were found in a morgue, head rests at one end and sinks adjoining the two at a 90 degree angle in the middle.
Rewind & EraseEdit
Well, at least they weren’t bored anymore.
Because of the Grubs coming up through a recently opened E-Hole beneath the first of the open tin-roofed car parks off to their right, the two Gears were just worried, every so often staring through the razor hail at a vehicle so close, right there, such a short distance across to the back entrance of the Depot façade of New Hope. With Damon managing to get the door open, he and Cole had taken up position just inside the loading dock directly opposite the Centaur. Up until they’d felt the unmistakable tremors beneath their feet, every now and then a few wretches coming from further inside had been their main problem. Nothing they couldn’t have handled easily, and often without even having to get up.
Countless times, during the lulls, Baird had focused on the dark vehicle in the equally as dark night, blue eyes filled with such a yearning it was kind of creepy. Thankfully, the only other person there knew him almost as well as Marcus and Dom knew each other. The Tech actually cringed more times than Cole could count every time he heard the sound of larger pieces of razor sharp ice hit something he must’ve viewed as a rather important component. It was almost like someone was beating up a member of Damon Baird’s family and the funny thing was, machines kind of were his family. He knew them intimately, every part inside and out. There was just one major difference, when he mouthed off to them he never got anything back and that suited the blond haired mechanic just fine.
“Keep them away from my Centaur!” he yelled, just daring the next Grub to make a move for the precious piece of machinery. “Yeah, just you try it…” he hissed, curse words flowing. “C’mon, I dare you!”
“WHOO! Least we ain’t bored now, huh Damon baby!” Cole exclaimed, grinning from ear to ear, opening a burst of Lancer ammo on the first Locust to pop up its head.
“Oh no… no, we’re not bored, just pinned down by the damn weather while trying to protect our only means out of here! They can move faster through the hail, they can actually survive far more hits from it than we can, and… get this…” Baird paused for emphasis, taking the head shot in that moment, one drone down… however many more to come. “They’re closer to it than we are!”
“C’mon man, settle down, ain’t got many of ’em to kill. We can handle it,” Cole said. The Blond wasn’t taking this very well at all, so as an added means of visual reassurance to his words, Gus finished off a fourth Grenadier. “See… now we’ve just got…” another distinct vibration caused him to pause. “Damn…” he muttered.
“Baird, we’re comin’ out of the facility on the other side,” Marcus in his ear. “Encountered a few grubs on the way, got any where you are?”
“Yeah, I’d say we do,” Damon answered, an identifiable edge to his tone. “Damn things are makin’ a beeline for the Centaur, or at least trying to. They know we can’t move from our position in this weather. Razor hail has already given it a hell of a beatin’, grubs get their hands on it, we’re walkin’ home.”
“Copy that, Baird. Just do what you can, hopefully backup will get there in time,” and by backup Fenix meant the other three members of Delta still trying to make their way around to them through various outer buildings and rooms mostly connected by undercover walkways, rail cars on the train tracks running through the middle.
“Screw you!” Damon suddenly said, and so close to just finishing the Tac-Com conversation with Marcus Cole took a double take for a moment, until it dawned on him Baird was talking to the drone he had scoped up for the shot. “My Centaur, get it, mine!” he furthered his tirade after the round successfully took off the majority of its head.
“Yeah, I think they get it baby,” Cole said, smirking at him. “How many more we got?”
“I’m counting seven, but there could be more hiding, others yet to come out, and who knows what’s lurking in the shadows of the various cover out there,” the Tech motioning to the darkness beyond the Centaur. “What’s a bettin’ they’re just waiting for the weather to clear up too?”
~Sighted. Okay, take in the breath. Hold it. Pause until the head is up… now! Pull the trigger. Hell yeah I’m good, Locust is down.~
“Make that six… that I can see,” Damon corrected.
“What the…” Cole began, making sure he didn’t continue until Baird was looking straight at him. “I think the game is changin’ baby,” he said, motioning in the direction of the Grubs closest to the building.
“Ground level loading bay door…” Damon verified via his Longshot scope just moments after the grenade went off. “Damnit, four of ’em so far… they’re trying to circle around behind us from the inside…” the Tech glanced around and then backpedalled to head up one of the staircases leading up to the gantry level he’d spotted when they’d first come inside. “Cole, I’ve got your six, concentrate on keeping the others away from the Centaur,” he ordered, weapon switched for the rapid fire needed to make sure none of them made it around the corner and caught a visual of his friend.
“Yeah! WHOO! Yer like that? How about some more!” the big man cried, breaking from his corner and opening fire on the first drone he could see. He repeated the same sequence several times prior to looking up at one of the few people he trusted the most the next time he swung around to take full advantage of the meter wide wall of cover just beside the doorway. “Thinnin’ ’em out baby, how many yer got left comin’?”
“None…” Damon answered, taking one last sweep before he slowly backed up, still watching for any final attempts. “Think they got the message after the fifth one fell,” he added, with a typical smug smirk as he retook his point on the opposite side of the loading bay.
“Shame the weather ain’t doin’ the same,” Cole voiced, briefly glancing back outside, and getting a volley of lancer rounds flying in his direction for his trouble. He ducked back to reload his magazine and returned the favor seconds later. “Runnin’ out of ammo too.”
“Just… keep him… busy,” Baird said, Longshot raised… “little bit longer…”
Cole’s appearance to fire again caused the oblivious grub to lean out from the burnt out wreck of a car it’d taken up cover behind. That was all Baird needed, just that little bit of…
“There, head’s gone and looks like it’s the last one,” he shrugged at about the same time he noticed the hail was starting to dissipate. “Oh, finally!” and the moment it was just rain once again, the Tech rushed out from his hiding place, jumped off the loading dock and headed straight for his beloved vehicle.
He wasn’t stupid enough not to keep his eyes open however, catching sight of the movement coming from further up the same path he knew the rest of the team had taken earlier. Sliding in underneath the Centaur, he inspected the damage then came back out to climb all over it, taking a moment to use his sniper scope to see exactly who it was moving around in the darkness. He expected to see more of the enemy, finding himself rather surprised by the relief he felt that it was actually Marcus, Dom and Mana…
“Backup’s coming,” he said to Cole, reaching into one of his side satchels to retrieve his tool kit.
“Good to know, cos we’re not the only ones taken advantage of the fact there’s no more razor hail,” Gus informed him, motioning in the general direction of the sky, behind where Baird had just been before he’d slid back down to the ground and was now in the process of crawling slightly back under the tank again. “We’ve got Reavers inbound…”
“Great…” Damon said, shaking his head. “Of course we do,” and they must have been close because Cole lacked the advantage of a Longshot scope or any other means of night vision, other than what he caught glimpse of through the occasional flash of lightning.
Must have been was an understatement, because even as the Tech thought it, he heard Cole’s Lancer let loose once again, hearing the splashes of heavily armored feet moving closer to return the favor of watching his back while he did all he could in the time he had to repair the only thing that was going to get them all the heck out of there.
He didn’t know how long it was before the new sound made it apparent there was now another, more formidable weapon in play. The other three members of the team hadn’t been far from regrouping and Damon broke his attention away from what he was doing for a moment to take a look, catching site of the glow of the torque arrow very close by and watching as the trigger was pulled and it was freed from the mechanism holding it within the bow.
“Oh yeah, Mana’s back baby!” Cole exclaimed, grinning wide.
“Baird, what’s the Centaur’s status?” Marcus asked via the Comms, the rest of Delta previously missing now moving in to make the team whole once again.
“Not as much damage as I thought,” he responded. “Should’t take long… just keep those Reavers off me.”
“Already on it, Baird,” Marcus answered, the Sergeant’s gaze following the flight of one of the creatures, watching it land a short distance away from the cover he had taken near Dom. It took him but a moment to notice that although the second drone rider upon its back was firing in their direction, the other one at the front seemed to be focused on only one thing; the same thing it was now directing the eight-legged flying machine towards. “Dom, it’s going straight for Mana…” and anything else he wanted to say was overtaken by the shock of watching the Healer make a move to get away from the Reaver only to have another two land smack bang right beside her, flanking on each side.
What was even more peculiar was that none of the animals lifted either of their front legs just an arm’s length away to skewer her, Mana looking up as one of the drones said something she recognized but was spoken with too much distortion for Marcus, Cole, Dom or Baird to make out. She glared at it, stared into eyes usually full of nothing but a one-minded determination to see all humans dead… thing was, she wasn’t human, she wasn’t locust or lambent; as she’d tried to explain to the members of Delta when they’d first laid eyes on her, she was something else in-between.
The battle to distract and hopefully take out the Gears she’d hooked up with raged on around her, the Healer searching for a gap among the long appendages, but they weren’t stupid, they’d landed this close and moved into an even tighter formation to ensure that didn’t happen. She was in a prison made up of Reaver legs and a drone in the process of sliding down off one of them to land beside her!
~They still smell… so bad, so much easier to tell now that I’m…~ her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of Cole’s yell of absolute rage, Marcus’ orders to ignore the forth Reaver now also trying to distract them away from what was happening and Dom literally screaming at the Locust to leave his only means by which to ever find his wife again alone!
The drone said something else totally opposite to what they normally did to those they had trapped and just ripe for the kill… a warning for her to come quietly…
Watching the scene unfold Cole’s worst fear was coming true. He’d thought it and now he wished he’d said something to the others straight away or at least during the ride on the way to the facility. The answer to whether the Locust knew about Mana as well was now right there in front of him… they weren’t even attempting to harm her and the recognition on the Grubs’ faces… and hers…
“Mana, get out of there!” he yelled. “Go incognito baby!”
The Healer was already way ahead of him, although it wasn’t going chameleon she was thinking of, she still had enough Imulsion in her system to trigger an energy wave. Problem was, it wasn’t building quick enough, the drone was already leaning down to grab her by the shoulder and pull her to her feet. Delta’s intentions were equally too slow, doing their best to fill the Reavers with Lancer rounds and, in Cole’s case, Gnasher Shotgun shells but it wasn’t enough and the others circling were keeping them busy, two now landing to block any further chance of advance.
The eyes of the Locust widened as the woman he had a hold of suddenly disappeared from his sight. He could still smell her; still feel her, yet the movement she made with her left hand, to bring it around to touch him just above his right temple he couldn’t see until it was far too late. Direct contact, direct release of the energy into its brain, like she’d done to the Grenadier that’d nearly succeeded in mashing Baird’s face into the ground, was all she had right now. Invisibility was far easier to trigger than the energy wave, the use of heightened stamina and strength an instant and automatic part of the improvements the Imulsion had given her.
With the drone now dead at her feet, she crouched, looked up and with a lunge, used the harness upon the nearest Reaver’s face to get the hold she needed to quickly climb up and over it, launching herself off the other side and clear of the makeshift cell before the reaction of the animal she touched alerted the rest of the drones to her position. She hesitated none in continuing to move the second she landed, circling around and making her way towards the Centaur, all the while still letting the Imulsion grow within her.
The prison made of legs no longer needed, the Reavers broke formation and turned their attention to finishing off the targets they could still see. Two of the beasts lifted off to come back around from a better vantage point.
Baird poked his head and upper body out of the Centaur’s hatch, alerting Marcus to the fact everything was good to go. His gaze looked sideways as he heard something he wasn’t able to see; at least until the yellow energy suddenly erupted from what he immediately understood was an invisible Mana right there on the side of the tank. Only when the Reavers and their drone riders still on the ground froze then simply fell over in a heap of dead nothing did the Healer reverse the energy keeping her from visual sight and Damon could then see she was leaning out from one of the outer ledges on the side of the vehicle.
When she looked at him, he couldn’t help himself… “Thought you didn’t like killing Reavers?”
Her face twisted slightly into a silent, Oh, haha, very funny you idiot! She wasn’t in the mood for his stupidity right now. The fact the drones had come straight for her was giving away too much…
“What the hell was that all about kid?” Marcus demanded, the rest of Delta not too far behind finding various handholds in much the same way she had, Baird disappearing back inside and getting them moving before the Reavers still in the sky managed to get a good target on them all again.
“Don’t know…” and that was an outright lie, Fenix could see it in her eyes. “I’ve come out of hiding… maybe they just figured it out and want me too…” she shrugged, holding on tight as the Centaur launched over some rough terrain and disappeared back into the forest from which they’d approached the facility from.
With the reprieve the cover of the trees offered came the chance for all of them to scramble back up and inside, Fenix’s gaze on Mana the moment he was seated. “Don’t damn well lie to us kid!” he said. “There was recognition there too. That drone knew who you were!”
“Fenix, this is Command, are you still receiving?” Hoffman’s voice interrupted.
Without breaking his gaze away from the woman among them, Marcus’s grunt of annoyance preceded him lifting his hand to his Tac-Com. “Yeah, I’m hearin’ you,” he answered.
“We seem to be picking up on some sort of signal coming from the inside of the facility and it looks like it’s counting down to something. Any chance of checking out exactly what it is?”
“Ah, that would be a no, Colonel, we nearly got our asses kicked by a bunch of Reavers on our way out and are only now finding cover for the Centaur in the forest,” Marcus explained, still looking straight at Mana, just to let her know this little interruption in no way meant she was off the hook. “Might be comin’ from the Locust we encountered in there,” he suggested.
“Copy that, Sergeant. Command out,” and the Comms went silent.
As Marcus lowered his hand, he went to say something about what had just happened to Mana only to have Dom lean over and touch him on the arm. “This can wait, you promised me… now we go to Maria,” and it went without saying that revelation caused looks of complete confusion to form on the faces of the two that hadn’t been there when the temporary fifth member of Delta had informed the Latino his wife was among those she was still looking after.
After a moment’s pause, Marcus just nodded. “Yeah, alright…” he started, holding his best friends’ gaze for a few more moments before raising an eyebrow in Mana’s direction. “Where do we go from here, kid?” he asked her, the unspoken look in his eyes speaking volumes for just how unhappy he was with her right now.
“About a couple hours out on the eastern side of Sarfuth,” she told them. “If you haven’t got enough fuel to get us there I can show you where you can get some on the way.”
“Baird…” Marcus said, the Tech catching his gaze via the revision mirror. “That’s our next heading,” and there was an underlying Don’t you dare bother arguin’ with me about it either in there too.
For once in his life, Damon didn’t… Maria… Mana really knew where Maria was… after all this time they were actually going to find the person Dom had been searching for over ten years now. “I can tell you right now we won’t have enough fuel, and what exactly are we going to tell base when they order us back in?”
“We’ll tell them the truth and that I’m not going back there until Maria is with me,” Santiago answered, with a conviction none of them were about to disagree with.
“Fenix, Hoffman here,” their Tac-Coms suddenly crackled to life once again. “That signal is getting stronger. It’s definitely a countdown... just… to what we cannot figure out.”
“Well, we can’t go back there, Colonel, place is Locust territory now. Whatever it is…” his words trailed off, because in glancing around, it only took a brief couple of seconds to realize Mana was silently mouthing something…
7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1…
…and when she reached 0 they felt the vibration begin in the ground, the Healer performing an exploding motion with her hands, a verbal example made around a smirk.
Clicking, Marcus reached up and pushed the hatch open, while Baird turned the tank around so the rest of them could see the fire and rising smoke through the trees. Soon, Damon was slowly inching the vehicle back down the road and closer to the edge of the clearing, where they could get a better view of the facility.
The ground shook again as another explosion ripped through the bowls of New Hope, the fireball spreading through and engulfing the remaining Sires, setting off a domino effect of shattering glass and more flammable material. Niles’ main core lit up the security room in a spectacular detonation, setting off the last of the sequences the young experiment had put in place. With the resultant give in everything underground, the outer façade and the official entrance began to collapse in on itself, falling into the gaps, the blasts still continuing to rip it apart. Fire engulfed the barrels full of fuel as yet to be found by any of the inhabitants after the place had been abandoned, and snaked into electrical conduits and power supplies back in business because of the presence of Delta and the woman who had accompanied them.
“Mana baby, what did you do?” Cole asked. He was shocked, but dare he admit it, he was pretty damn satisfied with the whole spectacle too.
“You didn’t just think I was checking for workable computer terminals for the sake of Jack only were you?” she asked the two that had been inside with her, well aware Cole and Baird would have to be properly filled in on the way to where Maria was to actually know what the heck she was talking about. “I mean, I’ve always wanted to see that place go down and stop anyone else from possibly picking up where Niles and Olivia left off. Only way to ensure that was to reprogram the self destruct mode already present in there, make sure it didn’t go off until we were well and truly clear of the area.”
“And what if we… weren’t clear?” Dom asked.
“Would never have happened… I set that separate security system to make sure it scanned the entire area for human presences once it hit 20 seconds left to go. I made sure it was possible, going off the fact Niles would not have wanted his own self to override the order to destroy all the evidence when it became time to do so.”
“Kid,” Marcus started, lowering back down inside, “once we get to this farmhouse you are talking about, you have a hell of a lot of explainin’ to do.”
“And if I choose not to tell you anymore?” Mana asked, face set dogged and unmovable.
Fenix’s growl said it all. He knew she understood they weren’t the type to force it out of her, and even if they were, she had a way of getting free of them, where she would no doubt just end up going right back into hiding. That was the last thing they wanted. He’d been the one that’d given the advice and now he was confronted with the best chance they ever had to end this war for good already beginning to play her cards extremely well. She knew she had the power to break the endless thus far 15-year-long cycle and, as much as it irritated the hell out of him, to Sergeant Marcus Fenix, that was far more important than having to know every single detail.
"A plan is never truly thwarted, merely interrupted, a brief pause in the whole to work out a better course of action."
ACT 4: Climate of ChangeEdit
It had been like this since the day they’d risen to power. Strategies had come and gone, some had been achieved, while others had failed, forcing them to fall off the radar for an unspecified amount of time. After Mt. Kadar had become their home and the strong were sorted from the weak, they’d begun to build, prepare, train and expand deep into the bowls of Sera. They held off reaping the revenge they so sort, until, spurred on by their Queen, their numbers had grown enough for them to rise upon the ground walkers and destroy until there was nothing left.
Underlying all of that, the revenge, the rage, the need to wipe the humans off the face of the planet, there was something else of primary importance, and if their Queen willed it, it would be done. They searched until they’d found it, brought it back and, under the tutelage of their strongest, the next phase of preparation began; a new and better tactic, one that was sure to give them the advantage. It grew as they grew, learned as they learned, and came to be one of them, until somehow… somewhere along the line the very thing Queen Myrrah had tried to eradicate completely from within had again started to show itself.
“My dear Skorge,” she said, without turning from staring out over the sea of Imulsion below them. “We must reacquire what has been missing for so long.”
The Kantus Elite stood on his Queen’s right side, seven feet tall and towering over her, his mere height and build alluring to the strength and stamina synonymous with those Myrrah chose as her most trusted. He was also looking out past the solid stone railing that ran the length of the wide open porch area at the back of the throne room, his attention upon the distant activity of his fellow brethren. The army he led without question, without mercy, at the beck and call of the older woman who had freed his mind and opened his eyes all those so many years ago.
“Thisss will not be easy, my Queen,” he said, the mutations to his voice box, his tongue long ago splitting in two, giving his Seran a combined distorted and hissing overtone. “Even while in hiding, she chose her ssside.”
Myrrah glanced casually at the manicured and hardened fingernails of her right hand, not perturbed in the slightest. “Then we will remind her who it was that took her from her family and destroyed everything she knew,” she said, finally turning only her head to look at him.
“She hasss already ssseen the truth. We killed that family, did not let her return to it.”
The Queen shrugged, giving a dismissive wave of her hand. “She also knows that was a mistake, something that could not be prevented in the chaos of Emergence Day. Out in that world she is nothing but a woman with a power the humans will only retake and abuse. Here, with us…” Myrrah looked away, the smile of knowing and surety never leaving her face. “We must rise to the standing we deserve and with the Deployable Weapon we will crush our enemies beneath our feet once and for all.”
“Just as she has been doing to usss,” Skorge reminded his Queen.
“Hmm, minor losses in the greater scheme of things. One must look at it this way, had she not chosen a side she would not have shown herself, and we would still be searching. We lose soldiers out in the field every day, but the ones that died at her hand did so knowing it would be reported back to their Queen the primary target had been located and the time for a swift victory was upon us.”
Skorge said nothing. He cared only about his kin to the extent that they needed to maintain their numbers. Otherwise, they were expendable; they fought and died for the Horde as a whole. No one individual was held above the rest unless they’d fought their way to the top or earned the right to be there. As he had, now left with a dead deity and thus no longer able to use it to further the control belief in a god had over them. It wasn’t a problem that could not easily and eventually be overcome, for god or no god, his loyalty and theirs was first and foremost to their Queen.
“Our primary mission hasss changed,” he finally spoke again.
“Yes, indeed it has,” Myrrah agreed with him. “We cannot go through with the sinking of Jacinto without the Riftworm and certainly not now it is inevitable our main asset will end up back there. Many times we have had to step back and rethink our actions, this time is no different…” she paused for a moment, glancing back out at Nexus above them, her meticulous mind going over the new plan already formulating. “We must reacquire her at all costs. Recall the main teams and assemble them where they are able to hear me.”
“As you wish, my Queen,” Skorge immediately said, bowing the once before he turned, long strides carrying him to the bridges connecting this side of the palace to the Reaver hangars. As he walked, the sounds started deep in his throat, the combined growl and shriek a communication of sorts, one that would be heard by the keen senses of a certain creature in particular. By the time he reached the second correlation and security checkpoint, his personal mount was already pulling up, and with a standing jump, Skorge landed upon its back, the Hydra returning the growl in anticipation for what was to come.
Orders were given to the Locust he came across on the way, his intended and final destination the main highway, where the majority of his army was constantly on the move. To each and every section he delivered the message, to prepare for a personal address from the Queen, to spread the word for all teams currently not on a specific mission to begin a recall, and, for those who were, to be informed of what was about to be revealed to them ASAP. Do not hesitate, do not stall, drop everything and listen, their leader and protector wanted to speak with them.
It took a total of fifteen minutes for the heaving mass to cease all advancement along the highway, those who’d already moved out and beyond the threshold turning back around and finding a position where they could hear their beloved Queen via the communication system set up throughout the entirety of the Hive. Within the control room on the floor below where she had given the order, Myrrah watched their progress on the screens around her. This army was hers; she’d designed it, built it, been a part of its beginning and, with an heir to her throne that would see to it the balance would forever be maintained, she was about to bring it to a successful end.
As much as it seemed she did not care about the individual, she wanted to see her children rise from the depths and reclaim what was rightfully theirs.
“It isss done, my Queen,” Skorge announced from behind her, walking up one of the many short staircases onto the raised platform to once again stand at her side.
“Well done, Skorge. With this news I am about to deliver them, all concern surrounding the loss of their god will be allayed. In a sense, they will have a new one to worship… second only to me, as it was meant to be all along.”
She reached for the microphone, flicking on the switch, and with a preemptive sound, Nexus fell silent:
“Do not lose faith, my Children. We will prevail. We will crush the last bastion of human civilization and exterminate the infection that has grown within our very own ranks. Rest assured that your Queen is with you and she knows the sacrifices you have made in the fight for our ultimate freedom. I ask you to continue to stare death in the face and plead with you to remember what it is we are fighting for. I yearn for all of my children to reap the revenge against a race who knows nothing but death and destruction, the ground walkers who have turned their backs on their very own creation.
We looked to another, to a god for our redemption, and it failed. The Riftworm is dead. But I will never fail you, my Children. I will never give in. Never surrender. I will find a way to bring you all out into the light permanently!” Myrrah paused a moment to let that all sink in, a cunning sideways smirk given to her second in Command.
As the sound of triumphant growls and roars began to spread throughout every inch of the temporary home they had built with their very own hands, Myrrah continued, silencing them once again.
“We may have lost one weapon, and, along with it, the plans to sink the hominid’s futile effort at rebuilding. Never fear though, my Children, we have found what we have been looking for… finally, our true redemption can begin!” the cacophony of roars, growls and chants was deafening, rebounding off the stone and rock walls, renewing within their Queen that nothing could ever hurt them. Nothing would ever thwart their plans for long!
“Her mind has been weakened by the humanity still within, but we will crush it by severing the last links she has to that humanity! Go, my Children, find the ones who have taken her from us, use them as bait… make her remember the revenge!”
Myrrah replaced the microphone back in its cradle, the sheer pleasure caused by the response of her army coursing through her body.
“Skorge,” she began, “Now you will begin to organize the Horde. Break them into smaller teams; make sure at least two Therons are leading each of them. Include two of the heavier drones and as many of the smaller ones, plus wretches, as you please. Use the senses the Imulsion initially gave you and I only made better to sniff her out… find her trail and destroy everything! This must be done with a subtlety however. We must not alert the surface dwellers to our plans straight away. Move the slave camps to more assessable areas, see if the need she still has to free them overrides the caution she has always had up until this invasion of the Hollow,” she paused again, looking off to the side, the look of undeniable anticipation clear in every contour of her features.
“When I say everything, there is one exception,” she continued, blue eyes finding pale yellow. “I want this Delta-One brought to me alive.”
They watched the woman get up from where she was sitting, moving her way around the gun turret controls and avoiding the heavily armored feet in the way. Leaning up between the seats at the front of the vehicle, she remained silent, even when Baird looked at her and frowned, first via the revision mirror then, a little while later, actually turning his head. She caught his gaze only the once, her focus mainly on the terrain as they came closer to where she’d told them to go. Once maintained roads had given up the fight against the natural landscape a long time ago; nothing out here had been affected by the Hammer of Dawn Counter Assault years previous nor was there any traffic of any sort anymore.
It meant the going was rough and sometimes inaccessible, Damon having to find another way around and with the Healer’s help, it never took very long. By the time she’d mentioned they were about ten minutes out from the farmhouse, none of them had any doubts whatsoever she hadn’t already been there before. They came around a further bend, Damon slowing the Centaur down as they approached yet another dip with water running across it.
“Farmhouse is on the other side of that hill,” Mana said, motioning ahead of them, reaching her hand up to her Tac-Com and changing the frequency. “SH7, this is DWM requesting lowering of the outer perimeter defenses.”
“Copy that, DWM,” a younger male voice came back. “Give us a couple minutes, and it’s real good to hear your voice, girl!” he added.
“You too, Lucas, just a heads up, if you see a Centaur approaching don’t freak out and start shooting us, okay?” she said, the smile on her face one the members of Delta had yet to experience; genuine, comfortable, at ease.
“Centaur you say… well, can’t say I’ve seen one of those in a while… and us?” he inquired.
“Yeah, I’ve got company… Delta-One.”
“Well, that’s… interesting,” Lucas went quiet for a moment, the distinct change from pleased to cautious in an instant. “You’ve… showed yourself then?” he soon asked.
“Yes, and I’ll tell you about it when I get there,” Mana assured him.
“Okay…” he said back, still unsure of the entire situation. “SH7 out.”
“Sounds like an ex Gear, baby?” Cole immediately put in.
“He is,” Mana verified for him. “One of the few who decided not to return to humanity as a whole, instead, out of obligation to me… I guess…” she paused for a moment, clearly uncomfortable with that term. “Decided to remain and help me protect the rest.”
“Noble of him,” Marcus said, tone and expression giving away nothing, so Mana couldn’t tell if he was being sarcastic or not.
“Yes, it is, because while I’m not around, if there is any danger I know those who are still unable to protect themselves are in good hands.”
“Like Maria,” Dom stated, looking straight at her. “He protects my Maria…”
Catching his gaze, Mana just nodded, her attention then turning to look out through the viewport again. She continued to watch until the hill began to flatten out and the farmhouse building came into sight in the near distance.
“Ah, thought you told ’em the Centaur was a friendly?” Baird asked.
“Then why is it I have a sniper barrel pointed at my face?”
“Because they’re not stupid, Corporal, you would do the same… prepare for the worst until the truth of what you’ve been told is confirmed,” and with that, the Deployable Weapon reached over to unlock and push the hatch open, climbing up so only the top half of her body was showing. Damon breathed a sigh of relief when the guy – or girl, he wasn’t sure – holding the sniper shifted it upwards, whispered something to the man standing nearby then lowered the weapon altogether.
Even whilst it was still slowing down to a full stop, Mana wasted no time dismounting from the vehicle, and, without hesitation, moved to walk into the open arms of the one already heading over to meet her halfway. The Sniper, and another one who’d joined them after the all clear was given, followed, holding back a little.
“Every damn time you leave us I worry you’re never coming back,” Lucas said, hugging Mana close.
“And every time I leave I tell you I am,” the Healer responded.
“So you do,” Lucas answered, the smile genuine and full of relief. His gaze shifted to the fully armored Gears now in the process of walking towards them. “Heard a lot about these guys,” he began, tone lowered so only Mana could hear. “But are you sure they can be trusted?”
“They’re the COG’s elite and I’m still free aren’t I?” it was more a statement than a question, so matter-of-fact Lucas just raised an eyebrow and nodded.
“Guess so,” he acquiesced. “Still, don’t expect me to stop watching your back.”
With a tightening of her arms around him as Delta reached where they were standing, Mana whispered in his ear, “Wouldn’t have it any other way.” She then glanced at Marcus. “Sergeant, this is Corporal Lucas Roan.”
“Just Lucas,” the younger man corrected, holding out his hand.
“Fenix, Marcus,” he pointed to the others in turn, “Dom, Cole and Baird.”
“Yeah, we know who you are,” Lucas said, nodding.
“Oh good, so we can skip all them pleasantries then, huh baby,” Cole put in, grinning. “Nice place yer got here, don’t look like any of them Grubs be steppin’ one foot anywhere near it.”
“And they never will either,” the distinctly older feminine voice of the Sniper cut in. “Name’s Lyn,” was all she said, nodding to the Gears in turn, as she stepped closer to Mana and placed a hand on her shoulder in greeting. “Good to see you safe.”
Mana smiled, and then motioned to the third person they could see still hanging back just a little. Approaching much slower than the other two, it was clear to see the younger boy was a bit nervous. “And this is Tyler…” she caught Marcus’ gaze. “The Locust don’t care how old they are,” verification that he had indeed been held captive at some point. “These are the only three that…”
“Maria, Mana,” Dom interrupted. “Where is she?”
Finding Dom’s dark eyes, Mana held his gaze, a silent exchange passing between them; they were here and it was time. Before Lucas was able to second guess what he could read so clearly, Mana said, “Maria Santiago…” and then turned, heading for the front of the veranda that ran around the entirety of the farmhouse.
With a brief look given towards Marcus, the Latino took up the rear at a steady jog to catch up with the healer, booted feet carrying him up the front stairs and on around to the left. He wanted to run ahead, overtake Mana to get there already, see where she was taking him and to whom exactly she was taking him to. Almost every part of him was tingling with excitement and anticipation, but there was a small area within his mind and heart that was full of a dread not allowing him to get too eager too soon.
~What if it isn’t really Maria?~ ran through his mind as he walked just slightly behind and to the right of the woman who claimed it was. ~What if she’s mistaken her for someone else? What if… what if it is my Maria and…~ his thoughts trailed off, the dark skinned Gear trying to steal himself, suck it up and accept whatever was about to happen.
“Dom,” Mana began, raising a hand to touch his shoulder.
He looked at her and followed that same hand to the chair facing at an angle away from them. He caught sight of dark silken hair at a length too short to how he remembered it, but that didn’t mean anything. His hands free of holding a weapon, Dominic curled them into fists, opening and closing them nervously as he finally took that one step, then two, three… five in total until he was around the other side and facing the lady in the chair.
Then his knees gave way and he was leaning forward engulfing the Latina in his arms, whispers of Maria escaping him over and over… and over. Assurances that he loved her, that he’d been looking for so long, that he couldn’t believe he’d finally found her… that…
He looked up past his Wife’s shoulder at the weapon in female form, caught her gaze and held it. “Thank you, Mana,” he said, the sincerity, relief, and longing causing tears to form in the corner of the Healer’s eyes.
She wanted to tell him that he needed to look closer, he needed to see there was the body, healed and whole once again, but it was just the outer shell. In those eyes there was nothing, maybe only the occasional look or reaction that could be taken as such, when really, it was hopeful thinking. It’d always been hopeful thinking, for Mana and for those who watched over Maria, tried to get through to her, tried to assure her everything was alright and she could come back now.
Dom let his own tears fall and didn’t care who saw him. At some point he realized the arms he had thought moved to hug him back were merely resting around him, there was no true feeling of reciprocation and Maria had yet to say a word. Any word… even the distant kind he’d grown so used to towards the end there, before she’d disappeared out his life for over ten agonizing years. Finally, he pulled back a little, reaching a gloved hand up to clasp the bottom of her chin and bring her eyes in line with his.
“What… Mana, what did they do to her?” he asked, seeing for the first time how… “What did they do?!”
“I don’t know what they did, Dom. I don’t… I never… like the others they worked her until there was nothing left. They took from her everything she was holding on to and forced her into something she wasn’t prepared for. Only the strong survived the years of labor, only…” she paused as the Gear got up and advanced towards her.
“You know more than you’re telling! You’ve known from the beginning… what did they do to her?!”
“Processed… they processed her, to see… to see how far they can be pushed before they break, before the mind is gone. The ones that don’t break, they keep, the others, they either eat or… or do what they did to Maria, labor camps, make them build while they’re busy fighting,” Mana’s voice was starting to quiver.
“How the hell do they do it?!”
“Don’t… don’t ask me… you don’t need to know that. Dom… please… you don’t…” the healer took a step back, the look in her eyes pleading with him not to press any further; don’t make her tell it in detail.
Something clicked within Santiago, shoulders suddenly slumping, the resignation flowing through him in waves. No, he didn’t need to know how they did it. He didn’t want to discern how they’d managed to drain whatever spark of life had been left in his wife’s eyes, the last bit of futile hope Sylvia and Benjamin were still alive out there somewhere, something inside the mind that showed him she was still alive. From the moment E-Day had occurred and they’d learned they’d lost their children Dom understood Maria had started to lose her faith in everything. She hadn’t wanted to live so breaking her beyond that would’ve taken nothing at all.
Dom turned, walking back over to kneel in front of Maria. “I’m so sorry, Baby,” he whispered. “I should’ve looked closer, found you faster… I should’ve…” he leaned his head down into her lap, tears burning and falling once again.
The other woman present on the veranda lost all resolve, legs giving out beneath her as she leaned back against the wall, sliding down to the floor, her tears joining Dom’s own. They were silent and heartfelt, wishing her ability to heal extended beyond the physical and into a place she’d never be able to go. Those tears glistened on Mana’s face when the rest of Delta-Squad walked around and stopped nearby, Cole immediately leaning down beside her. She watched Marcus continue on, placing a hand on Dom’s shoulder from behind, a silent reassurance that he was there for him.
Fenix looked up at Maria, inwardly shuddering at her lack of seeing or acknowledging anything, even though he was standing right in front of her. Mana hadn’t been wrong when she’d mentioned Dom wouldn’t be ready for this and to say his best mate was the only one… Marcus looked away, unable to stand the emptiness he could see in the face of woman who used to be full of such energy, such vitality. She’d been his friend too, and now…
“Dom,” he began. “We’ll take her back to Jacinto, see what they can do,” it was grasping, but what else could he say? What else could he do? They had to try… something… anything.
Dom didn’t answer. He wasn’t quite ready to speak just yet, head rising from where it’d been resting and just looking around at those gathered, for some reason noticing the other residents of the farmhouse weren’t among them. Brown eyes found Mana’s again, and he held them for as long as she’d let him. He hadn’t meant to go off at her; she’d saved Maria from any further abuse and certain death at the hands of the Locust. He went to open his mouth to apologize but there was something in the Healer’s look that told him he didn’t need to.
The Hand That's DealtEdit
From above, it looked like every other locality abandoned since the day something came up from the depths and made the life they’d lived before mean absolutely everything and nothing all at the same time. On approach from the ground the farmhouse didn’t seem to be anything special, just another of the dwellings left without maintenance for too long; uninhabited, unsafe, and non livable. It was only when one was able to move safely past the overgrown greenery surrounding the perimeter of the house yard itself and look beneath the disheveled roofing, they could then come to realize it was far from any of the above.
The veranda was just like all the others the Cole Train remembered from pre-E-Day pictures, the banister he was currently leaning up against bringing memories of a time when there had only been their fellow man to worry about. Now, according to what little Marcus and Dom had gleaned from the Healer inside New Hope, not only did they have their fellow average human to watch their back from, apparently there was also their stronger, faster, mutated cousins as well. Didn’t sit too well with Cole that some of the Locust running around today were descended from the children used and abused in a facility he was more than happy to see go up in flames now.
“I’m thinking she ain’t really checkin’ the perimeter defenses,” Fenix spoke, approaching from the big man’s right and leaning sideways against the balustrade.
“Nah, Mana baby just needed to get away from it all,” Gus agreed, nodding, dark eyes once again returning to the path he’d watched her disappear up earlier that morning, straight after one of the most delicious breakfasts all of Delta had enjoyed in a long while.
“You seemed to have clicked with her pretty well,” the Sergeant coaxed.
“What you talkin’ bout, Marcus? The Cole Train gets on with everyone.”
Fenix managed a smirk, gaze moving out over the gardens. “That may be true on some level, Gus, but clickin’ with a fellow Gear, Civilian or even a Stranded is somethin’ different to earnin’ the trust of someone with her background almost right from the start.”
“Don’t think she trusts me all the way just yet,” Cole corrected the older man. “Don’t think that’s gonna come with any of us for a long while.”
“Can hardly blame her,” Marcus acquiesced, gaze returning to look upon the Private.
“You wanna get to tha point, Marcus,” Cole urged, reaching for the mug of actual and real coffee resting on the table behind him.
“Fact is, she’s more herself around you or at least willin’ to let you closer than the rest of us. Doubt she’d open up to anyone else, at least not anytime soon, and there is so much more we need to know now.”
“You can’t push her, Marcus. Do that, she’ll clam up, and we won’t get anythin’.”
Fenix nodded just the once, eyes giving away how deeply he really did understand that more than he usually did. No matter the strength she’d built up over the years, no matter the determination they had seen in her, he’d been there when the Deployable Weapon had shown she was still just a young woman whose late childhood and teenage years had been stolen from her. To never be able to feel compassion or sympathy towards what he’d glimpsed inside New Hope meant he was no better than the ones behind it all.
“Yeah, I get that,” was all he said, silence between them for a moment as he thought it over some more. “Thing is, we have to look at the bigger picture here…”
“Bigger picture or not, you hurt her and I’ll kill you.”
Marcus and Cole immediately stood up straighter, alert, yet not reaching for any weapons upon or near their person either. The threat came from one of their own… perhaps an ex Gear now but still someone who deserved the kind of respect that stemmed from his need to protect the woman in question in return for what she had done for him.
Lucas was not armed, comfortably dressed down out of the recycled and scavenged armor he’d greeted them in the afternoon before. His tone notwithstanding, it was the look upon his face as the members of Delta turned their attention to him that made it clear he was not joking.
“Ain’t gonna happen, baby,” Cole promised.
“You say that now,” Lucas began, ‘but you still want her to return to Jacinto. Back there she’s got more people who will want her for things out of your control. Out here she has a better chance of escaping their attempts to come for her now it’s inevitable they’ll find out. Jacinto is the heart of the COG, the very thing she’s been hiding from for years now, until you guys showed up that is.”
“We wanted to hurt her we would of done it by now,” Marcus answered, impassiveness now back in all aspects of his demeanor.
“I’m not talking physically, Sergeant,” Lucas answered. “You’ve seen how fragile she is behind the outer barrier she puts up. Behind all of the talk of her being a weapon, a healer, all of that, she’s just a woman. You know as well as I do the higher ups in the GOG won’t care about that, they’ll only see her as an asset, nothing more, nothing less, especially the ones who still have connections to where she came from,” Lucas broke eye contact for a moment as his thoughts went on tangents he didn’t want to think about but knew had to be accepted and discussed all the same.
“She has more than just the abilities they’ll want… maybe if she was male it wouldn’t be so…” the ex Gear paused, desperately trying to quell the need to destroy anyone who’d even dare to think on it, let alone try. “They’ll use her for breeding stock to make a better soldier,” he finally managed to get out, hands curling into fists.
“I pity anyone who tries to take her for that,” Cole said, Lucas glancing back up at him. “Mana baby could stop their hearts with just a single touch and I can’t speak for all of us but I reckon she’s got a few more friends now to watch her back.”
“That may be,” Lucas said. “But none of you can be there to keep an eye on her all the time and if the order comes to give her up, you’ll have no choice.”
Marcus and Cole exchanged a glance. Lucas was right about that… they were Gears, soldiers of the COG, following orders had been drilled into them from the very beginning. No matter what they were, no matter who they came from, as long as it was someone of higher rank they were expected to heed it.
“We’re not talkin’ about an object here, kid,” Marcus spoke up. “She doesn’t belong to them. They come, we’ll stop ’em.”
Lucas gave up trying to get the point across it was a promise they couldn’t keep, instead focused his attention on the way Delta’s Leader had even bothered to make it at all. For some reason, the twenty-five year old found he believed the man. There was something in the look, the tone and how Sergeant Marcus Fenix seemed to carry himself that told Lucas he never made such a statement lightly.
“Marcus, Ravens are three clicks out.”
Finger against his ear, Fenix nodded, “Copy that, Baird,” he answered, glancing at Cole. “Before she left, did she say anythin’ to you about what she wants to do?”
The ex Thrashball player shook his head, Fenix’s gaze briefly passing over Lucas before he pressed the Tac-Com again. “DW, this is Delta Leader, we need Intel on the pick up.”
Mana sighed, ignoring the request for now, instead focusing on finishing the install of a more upgraded version of the tracking device into the sentinel minigun beside her. She had come out to get away from the farmhouse, Delta, the undeniable fact Maria was about to be taken away back to Jacinto; all of the events that’d happened so fast since yesterday, over the course of not even a day and half. She didn’t want to think about them anymore, didn’t want to know, didn’t…
“Mana, it’s Marcus. Kid, we need to know what you want to do,” Fenix’s request not so formal this time.
The Healer narrowed her eyes a little, still refusing to answer. Couldn’t he just get the point she wanted to be left alone? Better yet, wouldn't the fact she hadn’t answered tell him what he wanted to know? They already knew she couldn’t go back to Jacinto with them, nothing that’d happened or anything they’d said last night over dinner or this morning during breakfast had changed that. The option had been put on the table for the other inhabitants of the farmhouse, everyone agreeing Tyler should accompany them, Lyn and Lucas explaining they would only go if the woman who’d saved their lives did.
With that kind of pressure mounting, she’d almost exploded, told Delta where to stick their offer, but left before the lividness had become apparent to any of them. She didn’t want to make a choice that could affect more than just her, even though, in the end, deep down she knew it was safer in the last remaining city for each person she’d freed from the slave camps.
Closing the covering over the motion tracker, she packed up the couple of tools beside her and moved a couple of meters away to sit on a large bolder behind the weapon. Picking up one of the smaller rocks beside it, she threw it over, grinning wide as the target locked on the moment it came into range, the stone smashed into tiny pieces before it’d even hit the ground.
“I’d say you’ve got that one fixed, Mana,” Lyn’s voice came over the walkie-talkie hanging off her belt. “Final weapons check is complete.”
“Copy that, Lyn. Thanks again for the keeping the list. Makes things easier on my end when I get here and when I leave,” the Healer said.
“Is nothing Mana,” the older woman answered. “Just a heads up, the Ravens Delta called for aren’t far out. Tyler is all ready to go, just want to know if Lucas and I should start packing up too.”
“I’ll have to get back to you on that one. Over and out,” and after breaking contact, Mana let the frustrated groan escape her. Why did she have to decide so soon? Was it really necessary any of them return with Delta today, right in the moment the Ravens landed? It wasn’t like they didn’t have the capability of waiting for a bit, or one couldn’t be sent out at a later time to pick them up.
In about that same moment, Mana noted Fenix hadn’t bothered her again. She had to smirk at that. Didn’t take the Sergeant long to get the message after all. She turned her head, staring at the tree line across the creek bed, the what-ifs going over and over in her mind. When she at long last did lift her hand to the Tac-Com, she knew exactly what she wanted to say and wasn't about to beat around the bush regarding it either.
“Fenix, you copy?” she asked.
“Yeah kid, go ahead,” was the almost instant answer.
“What about the others? This isn’t the only safe haven.”
“Sounds to me they’re pretty safe where they are. Only offered it to this lot because we’re here.”
“Nowhere out here is safe for them anymore, Sergeant,” the Healer confessed to him. “To find me, they’ll use them.”
“First card, kid,” Marcus came back with. “Time to play your hand.”
“Thought I was already doing that?” Mana inquired, with a smirk. She heard Cole’s guffaw in the background.
“Different hand, kid,” Marcus said, unable to hide his amusement.
“What if they don’t honor it?”
“That’s a chance yer gonna have to take, baby,” Cole answered this time. “Then again, we can just steal a Raven and go pick ’em up ourselves.”
“They will,” Fenix assured her. “I’ll make sure of it.”
“If they aren’t already listening, tell Lyn and Lucas I’ll co…” words trailed off suddenly, Mana catching movement in the tree line she hadn’t stopped looking at all the while she was in contact with the farmhouse. She instantly shimmied down behind the bolder, focusing in her very own natural form of binoculars.
“Mana, what’s goin’ on?”
Bringing the Tac-Com down out of her ear and closer to her mouth, she whispered, “Something is moving in the tree line across the creek. Need to verify it’s just…” she paused again, eyes widening. “It’s a Wretch!” and there was something in the soft exclamation that made it clear that wasn’t a normal occurrence out here. “Going incognito to check it out.”
On the other end Marcus looked straight at Lucas. “Any problem with them in the past?”
“No, they’ve never bothered scavenging out this far.”
“Start packin’ up then. I’m thinkin’ she’s about to give us visual confirmation of her warning. Baird, Dom, get ready for possible contacts,” the Sergeant ordered via the Comms.
This time of year the creek bed was frozen over, so finding somewhere to cross out of range of the perimeter defenses wasn’t a problem; staying on her feet was a whole different story however. It made the going slow, losing sight of the Wretch in the process, yet, not the scent, picking up on it easily as she came up on the other side and entered the forest. Invisible or not, when she caught sight of the small group moving through the undergrowth a few minutes later, she ducked back behind the nearest tree, a silent deep breath taken to calm her nerves.
~Two Therons… and what are big guys doing out here so far…~ even as she was thinking it, she knew why. They were searching for something.
Closing her eyes, she pushed down the emotions, the consequences of revealing herself now right there, just meters away. The Wretches had picked up on old trails meant to send them in circles or off on routes with no successful end. It may have been a tactic that’d worked in the past with both smaller and larger drones alike but it wouldn’t take long for the smartest among the Locust Horde to realize them for what they were – decoys.
She backtracked towards the house, telling herself to focus, settle down and just deal with this. Out of even the most enhanced of earshot, she hit her Tac-Com, “Delta, make sure the Ravens approach from the North-East, and get them here now!” The moment the warning was out, she lifted the radio from her side, pressing the button, “Lucas, Lyn, they’re on the Western side, enhance the radar boundary to make sure that’s the only group. Pack up the rest of the equipment and prepare for an evacuation. We’re going to have to put the failsafe in place.”
“Already on it, Mana,” Lucas responded. “You just worry about gettin’ your butt back here.”
“What’s the failsafe?” Baird asked.
“Locust come into a one meter radius around the farmhouse, or place one foot on the front or back staircase, boom!” Lucas explained.
The Tech just smirked. “Yeah? Nice. I’m really starting to like this girl’s style,” he commented, before hoisting one of the weapons and ammo crates off the floor and taking it out to load into the Centaur.
Minutes later, Mana pushed open the back door, walking in on a bustle of activity to get what they needed ready. It went without saying they couldn’t take everything and it would hurt all of them to leave behind a place that had essentially become their home, old furniture restored over time, bits and pieces procured, brought to become a part of the atmosphere of the farmhouse. Then there was the vegetable patches, the small crops, some of which Tyler was in the process of gathering as much as he could so not all the food would go to waste. There was a limit as to what the Ravens could carry, and with the request of cables to make sure the tank could also be returned back to Jacinto… they could only load that one up further to a certain degree. Fortunately, none of the full time inhabitants had all that many personal belongings so the main focus was on the food and equipment extremely hard to come by in abundance these days.
“What about the other defense equipment?” Lyn asked, nodding at the minigun and stand the Healer had deactivated to bring with her on the way back. “Seems like a big waste to me, especially after the updates and repairs you made to some of the others.”
“Do we have time?” Mana asked, glancing at Marcus.
“About 25 minutes kid,” he informed her.
Handing the weapon over to the Sergeant, Mana moved over to take a look at the radar. “So far, no more movement anywhere other than in the area I left them and looks like they haven’t figured it out yet either,” she studied the screen a bit longer. “I’ll concentrate from here to here,” and she traced her figure from one side of the farmhouse, around the front, to the other. “Even incognito, I’d rather steer clear of anything else that far out on that side.”
“Copy that, Mana,” Lucas said. “We’ll keep you informed on any changes on the radar.”
“Thanks,” and with another look towards Marcus, and Baird once again appearing behind him, she made her way back out.
“Okay, now they’re changing direction,” Lucas said around twenty minutes later, picking up the radio on the bench beside him. “Mana, Locust have heard the chopper and are now heading this way. Move it!”
“Just a second, last one… there,” came back to him. “I’m on my way now.” Mana could also hear the Ravens in the very near distance, looking up as they passed right on over her, heading for the coordinates they’d been given; the paddock on the left side of the farmhouse.
One landed straight away, the other hovered above the Centaur already in position and waiting, the co-pilot dropping the cables, landing only after Baird and Cole had attached them. Everyone scrambled to get the crates, baskets, boxes and other things loaded, Lucas inside packing up the radar equipment last minute. Now they had no way of telling how close the Locust were getting and they wouldn’t be able to hear when the perimeter weapons still left out there started going off over the sound of the rotors.
“Mana, where the hell are you?!” Lucas said into the radio, after handing over the metal box and climbing up into the Raven himself.
“I’m almost there, Lucas. If one of the Ravens is ready to go, tell it to take off,” she told him.
“Drop whatever you’re carryin’ kid and move it. It’s not important,” Marcus cut in.
“I’m fine, Sergeant, enhanced strength means what I’m carrying feels like nothing, but thanks for the concern.”
Fenix grunted, nodding to Dom in the other chopper to pass on to the Pilot to get going. Seconds later the cables began to rise, stretched taunt and picking up the extra weight of the vehicle they’d driven all this way. His attention moving down from watching it slowly disappear back towards their ultimate destination, he saw what really needed to be taken safely out of here round the few trees in her way, coming into view on the other side of the paddock. Immediately, the Sergeant jumped down from the Raven, followed by Lucas, both falling into a low run towards her.
“What are you doing? I said I was fine,” she reprimanded them, even as both men took some of the burden from her person and she felt the instant relief.
“These aren’t important,” Fenix reiterated.
“You are,” Lucas finished for him.
Eyes on their surroundings they jogged back to the chopper, climbing on board and settling in as the pilot lifted off. Around five minutes later the explosion tore through the farmhouse behind them, entirely obliterating the home itself and the small group of Locust that’d been closing in on it. Although there was some comfort in the latter, it was not something Mana or Lucas had any inclination to maneuver from where they were sitting to see.
The chopper landed with only two people waiting for those on board, Colonel Victor Hoffman looking as if he was about to lose his cool, anger showing in contours years ago ravaged by war. Beside him, Lieutenant Anya Stroud waited nervously, in no due part because she had made a promise she couldn't keep and withholding such information from a superior officer could have seen her stripped of all rank. Fortunately for her, Hoffman had yet to mention any sort of repercussions as a result of what she had done, perhaps because the order had come from someone out in the field closer to the reason why it had been felt necessary. The pretty blond liked to think the Colonel had more of a heart than to just wait for Marcus and the rest of Delta to land before he blew his top completely and started spouting the COG handbook.
She observed his expression carefully as the bodies on the Raven began to disembark, Delta in front of the group of Stran… no, that wasn't right – the group of Rescued civilians and one ex Gear. They'd thought Corporal Lucas Roan was long gone, now he had been safely returned to them, just like Tai… and Maria.
“Where is she?” Victor demanded of Fenix, even while he searched for the face matching the description downloaded from Jack’s databanks.
A sense of relief flowed through Anya when Marcus glanced her way, the reassurance she desperately needed that she wasn't to blame for the Colonel finding out. It was inevitable from the moment the Healer had made the choice to show herself. Delta's leader turned his head slightly back towards the Raven.
"She's here," he verified. "Just give her time," and there was a distinct warning in the Sergeant's tone, eyes locked with Hoffman's.
"You should have told us the moment you knew what the Deployable Weapon was, Sergeant."
"And then be ordered to bring her straight back to base so she could be dragged off. I don't think so, Sir," Fenix answered, deadpan.
"Dragged off where?" Hoffman immediately countered. "That would not have been the intention. An asset such as her is better off here, in the dead heart of the fight," he declared.
Marcus exchanged a glance with the rest of the team, Cole giving him the more pronounced raise of the eyebrow in surprise. An interesting statement indeed coming from the highest ranking official they dealt with directly.
"Problem is, not all of 'em are gonna think that way," Fenix said.
"You're just one higher up in many," Lucas interjected then, stepping forward.
Victor eyed the man, looking him up and down before his attention was drawn to Maria. He felt that undeniable clenching in the pit of his stomach, reminded for a moment how he'd wished he could've done more to get Margaret clear before the Hammers had fallen. Although nothing was said about Santiago’s wife being back with them, Dom saw something of a reaction when his gaze briefly passed over him.
"We must get them all to the infirmary to be checked out. Lieutenant, see to it Maria is escorted to the room we've set up for her ASAP," the Colonel ordered.
Anya had already been informed of the nothingness in Maria's eyes, steeling herself for witnessing it while waiting for the Raven to arrive back at base. In that time, and after she'd been forced to admit she'd already known who and what the DW was, she'd been ordered to find accommodation and the best medical care available for Maria. As for the rest of the rescued… well, that would all depend on them and this elusive Mana.
"Dom, go with her," Marcus told him. "We'll handle the rest."
The Latino nodded, torn between seeing to his wife’s comfort and being there for the woman who’d even made it possible. He knew with the rest of Delta and those from the farmhouse present she’d be alright… still… he looked at Maria then Anya, a light touch coming from neither one of them.
"Marcus is right, go Dom," Mana. "She's more important than anything right now."
When Dom turned his head to try and guess the level of the other woman's eyes, Mana's form shifted into view, the glow of her veins lessening as she drew back the imulsion and its ability to camouflage her. She squeezed the Corporal's shoulder, "Go," she urged again, only the brief glance given towards Anya for now, her focus remaining on them until they'd started their journey towards the medical wing.
Hoffman stood patiently, a quality learned early in his life back before anyone had even heard of the Locust. He cleared his throat to gain her attention only after the trio was finally out of sight. The young woman’s brown eyes found his, so easily holding them, his look of surprise palpable, the added intrigue and thoughts of all the possibilities she presented to be expected from someone in his position. The Colonel felt the tension in those she’d rescued, noticed Roan about ready to jump him if he took even the slightest step wrong. It wasn’t just him however, the remaining members of Delta, Cole in particular. All eyes were on the Colonel’s next move, and where he usually would not have cared one iota what any of them thought… today, this moment, was different.
"It is a pleasure to meet you, Mana," he said, holding out his hand, expecting her not to take it.
Mana stayed fixed on his eyes for a reason; no matter the practice, the time, or who it was, the eyes could not hide what a person was truly feeling. Even just a hint would always be there, and right now she saw nothing but genuineness in the greeting, slowly lifting her own arm to complete the handshake.
"I can't say the same until I know you better."
Hoffman nodded, "Understandable," he agreed, taking a step back once the acknowledgements were over. "There is much we need to talk about. Many things we need to learn from you," he began. "We cannot even begin to fathom what your presence can mean for humanity as a whole… perhaps this is the start of some…"
"Where's Tai?" she interrupted him, Hoffman left standing with his mouth open as his mind quickly changed track to keep up.
"When he was first brought back he was taken to emergency. After a brief check over he said he did not wish to take up one of the rooms when others needed it more. He's instead resting in his quarters."
Marcus let out an amused grunt. "Sounds like Tai."
“I can’t do anything more for Maria, but Tai is different. I want to finish what I started there for him before anything else,” the Healer went on. "That is, after I am satisfied my friends are not going to be hassled for information about who and what I am and your assurance that as soon as we part from this area you will move to send Ravens out to the other safe havens? You will need to either bring back those who want to return or warn the ones who don’t they are not safe there anymore.”
"For the latter I can assure you it is already happening. As you are aware, after it was brought to his attention while en route I knew of your existence, Sergeant Fenix informed me not only the basics of who and what you are, but that there are others who need help. Ravens are already inbound to some of the closer locations you have given us. Due to the late hour we cannot get to them all today, however we will renew our efforts at daybreak," Hoffman explained.
Mana stared at him a moment. Perhaps this man was one of the few higher ups she could trust; perhaps she was allowing her need to want to cloud her judgment so early in this next stage of her life.
"And why would we interrogate any of your friends for information when the source is right here?" Victor finished.
~Yes, my thoughts exactly,~ she said to herself, a small smile forming. "Very well, I will hold you to your word. You break it, I am gone," she warned, finally averting her gaze to Lucas. "Go where they lead you but stay close to them," she told him motioning to Tyler in particular. "Who will be showing them to the infirmary?" she asked.
"We can do it, baby," Cole said, looking at Hoffman. "Right?"
"Yes, you've brought them this far, may as well get them settled in. After she is content there are no ulterior motives you can then escort Mana to Tai's quarters," Hoffman acquiesced, eyes on the Healer the entire time.
With night descending on the city over two hours ago, Hoffman sat at his desk with just the one file in front of him, thinking about all the things they could now achieve, the sheer overwhelming realization that they may actually be that much closer to winning this war. There had always been that hope, for over fifteen years he closed his eyes and prayed the slaughter would one day come to an end. To wake up knowing humanity no longer had to fight for their very own survival, to undo all the Locust had caused them to become. If he was to be honest with himself, that last part would never be achievable, too long had they been caught up in a world of bloodshed for the human race ever to return to 'normal'.
He picked up the file for the umpteenth time, stared at the face, a child's face; so young, taken from her parents, brought into a facility set up for those like her, affected in some way by Imulsion. Had they known then something sinister was to come? Had they thought of the repercussions this testing and experimenting might have had? Did they even care? Hoffman knew the answer to all those questions was the same. No. Because they had been too wrapped up in what they thought they could achieve, the perfect soldier, able to heal at a faster rate, able to endure far more, strength immeasurable, senses heightened, and who knew over time and careful analysis what other abilities the Imulsion could’ve given them!
He let out a sigh, still unable to believe humankind was responsible for its own downfall in such a way. On the other hand, he could easily accept it. What they had been capable of since these creatures had risen from the depths was like nothing he'd ever seen or experienced. The one saving grace he could hold on to knowing what he did now was that there was no longer any humanity left in the enemy.
The knock on his door broke him from his reverie, the Colonel looking up and for a brief moment about to tell whoever it was to go away. Instead, last minute he told them to come in, quite relieved he had done so when he saw who it was.
"Right, so, where is she, hmmm? You must set up a meeting. I have got to see her with my own eyes," dressed down in night fatigues, long dreads still pulled back tightly from her face, Sergeant Bernadette Mataki closed the door behind her and walked over to sit herself in one of the chairs in front of Hoffman's desk with an ease that only a good friend of his ever could.
Victor smiled, amusement showing on his weathered features. "So, word has travelled your way already. Did you come back especially to meet her, or was your patrol actually over?" he asked.
"Well, both, sort of. There is nothing to report, hasn't been since yesterday morning. The Locust activity around the Medical Centre has completely stopped. They're talking about rebuilding but aren't sure if it's worth it. Don't know what is going on, but one moment we're being attacked full strength, another there is nothing. It's like they've retreated back into their holes and are too afraid to come out…" Mataki looked thoughtful for a moment. "It has to have something to do with this Deployable… with Mana, much too coincidental."
"Yes," Hoffman agreed. "I think it does. We will need verification but it makes sense," he glanced back down at the file. "She is something extraordinary, Bernie, a hope we've never had before. Had she been with us from the moment E-Day occurred…" Victor shook his head then handed the file over to one of the few people he trusted the most. "We are going to have to be so careful. Prescott will have to be informed, but how to do so to make sure he sees the benefit of having her here with us, a weapon to be used when we need her."
"A weapon who also happens to be a human being; Lambent version, but still a human being," Bernie pointed out. "Affected by Imulsion but forced by her own kind to become something she may not have had they not interfered," there was a notable edge to the South Islander's tone.
"Yes, and when anyone still connected to this New Hope learns she is back where they can so easily get access to her, they will come."
Bernie read through more of the file, silence falling between the two friends for a few moments, before she flipped the folder closed and passed it back over the desk towards him. "Unfortunately this is true," she began. "They will find a way to override any previous sanctions given by Prescott to retake their 'prize'. I do believe however they will have a few people to go through when that time comes," she started to get up, intent on turning in for the night, she would meet this Mana in the morning.
Hoffman met her gaze once she returned it to him. He knew that look, he knew what was coming when she said,
"I will be one of them."
Stuck In The MiddleEdit
There were 27 cracks in the ceiling, ranging from the tiniest barely visible to the larger ones that told anyone who bothered to think about it years of war did not give as much time to maintain absolutely everything. Close to these cracks, but mainly towards the corners and sides, at least 11 different patches of mold and an immeasurable quantity of other unidentifiable specks were present. She knew this because she'd counted each of them around three times already, sleep, as it always had, not coming easy to her. She was far too used to getting only the smallest amount and even then, with one eye open and an ear alert to any untoward sounds.
This feeling of a soft mattress, with intact, unspoiled blankets to make use of if she needed them, four walls and safety around her was an entirely new experience. Being back amongst the last remaining stronghold of civilization was going to take some getting used to, physically and emotionally. She wanted to believe Hoffman was genuine; she wanted to accept she now had a roof over her head that she didn't have to leave behind to make sure no trace was left in one place for too long. She longed to relax back in the clean bed and let a sleep she'd not known for a very long time overtake her, but, it was too soon, far too soon. Caution override the inner need; experience told her neither Man nor Locust could be trusted.
Apparently she'd been given one of the rooms usually set aside for Sergeants or Colonels, wondering many times over who'd been ousted so they could locate her in the very corner at the end of one of the many hallways, near an exit point into the training yards. Of course, it had come as no surprise they would put her this far in, and not in the women's barracks, no, she had Cole and Baird's room on the left, Lucas, now in with Dom, next to them and Marcus' all bar directly opposite her door. When she'd been informed of this the Healer had outright laughed; figures the roof over her head would be where they could easily keep an eye on her and who better to do that than the squad who'd become privy to her existence right from the start.
She was surprised they hadn't stuck any cameras in her room, or assigned a personal geobot unit to follow her every move; might've had something to do with her warning them of the consequences if they went that far. She was not a woman who enjoyed making threats or demands, but admittedly, there was some satisfaction in having so much sway over ones in high position, considering it was those types who'd been responsible for everything that'd happened to her in the first place.
Sighing, for the umpteenth time since being left alone to get settled in, she rolled onto her side, tucking one arm up beneath the pillow and the other under her cheek, eyes looking at nothing in particular even though enhanced vision meant she could see the darkened room as if it was day. At least here she was close to Tai, it heartbreaking when she'd thought she'd never see him again and be able to further offer her unique assistance. As it was, he'd accepted it to a point but told her there would be no healing of his wounds completely. Some scars were to remain to continue to remind him exactly what it was he was fighting for; why, according to him, he'd followed a different kind of light and not ended his life aboard that Beast Barge.
She wondered what exactly the day ahead would bring, with no timepiece having to go by how long she'd been in here. It was pretty close to the sun coming up already, maybe another four hours, give or take a few. Come to think of it, she hadn't seen many watches or clocks as she'd been taken on the tour of the base. Guess that had a lot to do with the fact there wasn't very many of them left anymore. Was a pretty useless item to have when really, such a thing was irrelevant these days. Just one of the mundane things she often thought about; the little fixations taken for granted before E-Day every person now longed to have back.
... she awoke with a start, sitting bolt upright and bringing her legs around so her feet could touch the floor. Her eyes had eventually closed, not to sleep, just to rest, or so she thought… waking up to the sounds of activity in the hallway signaling that the inhabitants of the base were rising with the sun, the rays of which she could see lighting up her room through the window running the length of the wall up closer to the ceiling. A relief that, considering if it was lower she'd probably have gawkers gazing in once word of her presence spread. Stare moving from looking up there she focused it on the floor of all things… the hesitancy fast starting to raise its ugly head yet again.
In here she was safe from prying eyes and judgment from those who'd no doubt feel exactly the same way as Baird had. Oh yes, he understood why she hadn't shown herself earlier, but there would always be the irrefutable fact so many more lives could've been saved, so much suffering avoided. This was the reality she lived with every day, because in protecting herself, she'd let others die and no one would ever be able to tell her any different.
"Okay, so what? Do I knock on the door or wait until she comes out?" a male voice came from out in the corridor.
"If you knock you might wake her up," another male answered him.
"As if the commotion you lot are making wouldn't have done that already," that one was female, older and, by the reactions of the two men, someone of higher ranking as well.
Sergeant Mataki… although one of them had called her Bernie, interesting, he must've had a closer relationship with her. The Healer got up off the bed, checking herself in the worn mirror above a small desk several meters to the right of the doorway. Retrieving one of the larger packs she'd once had around her waist from the side table beside the cot she returned to the mirror to straighten her hair. Apparently she had managed to sleep a little bit, restless although it was.
"So, can I knock? Obviously you've come to see her too, Sergeant. I have a lot to thank her for and just can't wait to do it already."
"Settle down, Jennings, she's here now, it'll happen."
At some point during making herself look presentable, Mana clicked to whom that voice belonged to, the one they'd called Corporal Jace Stratton. Alpha-Seven's Leader, the very squad that'd been the reason why she'd decided enough was enough and she couldn't stay totally hidden any longer.
Taking a deep breath in, exhaling slowly, then another, and another, her hand clasp the doorknob, unhurriedly turning it and pulling the door open. The first thing she noticed was the now complete and utter silence, the second, the eyes upon her, like she knew they would be, but these ones weren't judging, they were welcoming, especially Jennings, who, after a moments pause, stepped forward and wrapped his arms around her.
"Thanks," he said. "I mean it, thanks for saving my life," what else was he meant to say. She was the weapon; she was the reason why the Boomer had not succeeded in killing him. "I hope I never have to return the favor in such a way, but if you need me, just say it and I'll come running," the slightly taller brown haired Private promised.
No amount of nervousness could ever overpower the feeling of meeting one of those she'd helped face to face and hearing their appreciation. Praise she didn't need because seeing them alive was all the gratitude she could ever want. She returned the smile, maybe not exactly the goofy grin the younger man was giving her, still it did reach her eyes this time.
"Anytime," she said, looking between each member of the team, all of them greeting her with appreciative nods mixed with the occasional curious and awed stare. Was a bit hard to accept she was able to do all these things when, unlike Delta, they weren’t sure of how or why, the men hoping Hoffman never implemented an absolute Gag order.
"Sergeant Bernadette Mataki," Bernie said, holding out her hand. "Welcome to Wrightman Base."
Mana didn't say anything at first, just looked at her, noting, among other things, the lack of armor in comparison to the boys of Alpha-Seven. She did reciprocate the handshake eventually, nodding once, learning from the simple act of studying someone this woman was in the same age group as the Colonel she'd met yesterday, unless the many days of combat just made her look older.
"Mana, but I am sure you already know that," something told the Healer there was less of the surprise at what she was and more the understanding reflected in this Mataki's eyes.
"Corporal Jayson Stratton," Jace took the moment to finally introduce himself and the rest of his team as well, going through their names in turn and mentioning with an amused smirk that he didn't expect her to remember them all, not yet, anyway. "You can just call be Jace, if you want," he added as an afterthought.
With the ability to regenerate came the tendency of a perfect memory, a pure disadvantage when trying to forget the things she didn't want to remember and a wonderful asset in regards to retaining all the things she did. Right now she filed away the names and faces of the men before her, doing the same with the female Sergeant, her focus remaining on Stratton for a further few seconds, until the door to the training yard opened behind them.
"Ravens are on their way to the safe houses, kid. Should get to all of 'em by the end of the day," Marcus told her.
The relief was instantaneous, “Good,” she said. “Just hope more of them decide to come back.”
Marcus nodded, gaze moving to look at the other bodies in the hallway. "Mornin' Jace, Bernie," the rest he just inclined his head towards.
"Mornin'," Bernie said. "Might want to get this one some food."
"Yeah. You hungry?" Marcus asked.
Now that he mentioned it, yes, she was. "Starving actually," Mana confirmed.
"Right, will get you to the Mess Hall then," he said, briefly glancing at Stratton, who shook his head.
"Not this time around, Marcus. Got a training session in about five minutes, can't eat til then," Jayson explained, a few groans coming from the rest of the squad. "Might see you in there later, doubt it though; likely we'll be over an hour."
"Glad it's you and not me. Hate those early mornin' sessions," Fenix said, smirking.
"Yeah yeah, rub it in," Jace answered, returning the smirk and then motioning for the rest of Alpha to get going. "Will see you around," he said, brown eyes lingering on Mana, Fenix stepping aside to let them all through.
"I take it you know him well?" the Healer couldn't help but ask, falling in step beside the two Gears on the way to where the food was. Real food, she hoped, not the scraps she'd had to scrounge together while out on her own.
"Jace… yeah, old friend, goes way back, been a member of Delta a few times as well," Marcus said.
Mana would've asked about Bernie too, but considering the woman was right there…
"Same here," it was as if Mataki was reading her mind. "Go right back to training them all, well, at least Dom more so than the rest of 'em," she verified, with a grin that suggested there were many fond memories to reminisce upon.
Turning another corner the sounds of the Mess Hall began to reach their ears, Mana not really noticing the reactions of the few they'd seen on the way, distracted by becoming acquainted with the two Gears flanking her. Now though, she was picturing how many people it could take to make all that noise, visibly starting to slow down. Glancing back at the Healer, Mataki and Marcus stopped, Bernie giving Fenix a look that told him she would handle this one.
She fell back to match the younger woman’s pace, leaning in to put her hands on her shoulders. "Hold your head up high, Mana. You have nothing to be ashamed of."
She couldn't quite explain exactly why but in that instant Mana saw her mother, memories of Nicole doing similar gestures as this when she was a child, the kind and encouraging words that had always accompanied it. Forcing herself to break the recollection before the tears started to fall Mana turned her head to look at Bernie. She didn't believe that for a second, she never would, at the same time silently thanking her for trying to calm her down and wondering for a moment if Sergeant Bernadette Mataki really was psychic or something.
The silence slowly fell over the area, this the very thing she was afraid of, those who'd already heard the news staring at the Deployable Weapon, the Gears who hadn't doing so after they'd leaned in to their mate beside them to find out what the heck was going on. Eyes, so many eyes, so many minds behind those eyes to deduce she was old enough to have been able to be there to aid them a lot earlier than this. So why hadn't she? Where'd she been all this time?
Mana followed Marcus and Bernie to join Gus and Damon at one of the tables sat closer to the food, no one needing to think too long on why Dom wasn't there. Although Cole noted Mana's discomfort he didn't dwell on it, instead lifted his hand and pointed, "Tray, line, food, table, go for it baby!"
Once again the dark skinned, burly Gear broke through all the layers to make her smile, the Healer nodding once and heading over. It was then the chatter fell back to the norm around them, the subject this time obvious. Enhanced hearing meant she heard it all; enhanced senses meant just by scent alone she could single out the attitudes she wasn't naïve enough to think wouldn't exist.
The majority of those in this room welcomed her presence for the reason that it could mean the eventual turning the tide of the war. Among the rest of them however, the same negative thoughts prevailed – by selfishly hiding her existence for so long she'd stood by while so much pain and misery had already taken place. From their point of view she had no right to be there.
Well, it wasn’t because she didn’t like the food; she’d already downed the pieces of bacon snagged from the serving area and was starting to eat the packet Mash. After a few mouthfuls she stopped, taking a sip of her drink, and then just started picking at what was left of her rations with her fork. At least two of the people around the bench wanted to ask what was wrong, but before they could she unexpectedly took a hold of the plate and stood up, twisting around to bring one leg clear of the seat, the other soon following. Eyes darted from one side of the room to the other before she hung her head, actions indicative of someone who just wanted out of there and the sooner the better.
“Where you goin’, Baby?” Cole asked.
The Healer lifted her hand in a general form of motioning, “I just need some air,” she said, not really acknowledging any of them. She didn’t want to catch anyone’s gaze, give them a chance to see the guilt brought up by what none of them could hear.
They watched her exit from the mess hall, Damon just rolling his eyes. “What’s her problem?”
Bernie stared at him, shaking her head a little. “Guess I know which one of us won’t be going after her to find out, huh Blondie?” she said, her gaze shifting to Cole already in the process of getting up. She reached out to place a hand on his arm, “I’ve got this one, Cole Train.”
Mana had tried her best not to let what was being said get to her, to ignore it and get on with what she could achieve now. She knew everything would be about the Deployable Weapon, at least for a while they’d be talking, whispering, surmising and judging. She’d just had absolutely no idea how hard it’d be to let it go over her head or continue to tell herself she’d made the right choices in the end. Her presence among them was bad enough without her making a scene like that.
~Okay, so it wasn’t that bad,~ she thought, eyes taking in the stone staircase only to the point of making sure she didn’t trip over.
There was no real intended destination, aware only that she’d chosen to head up and by the time she reached a dead end of sorts, it soon became clear she was now looking down over the training yards. Even now, subsequent to so many years of war, Jacinto really was a beautiful city, the architecture alone giving credence to a once thriving community. Mana remembered visiting it a few times with her parents, in the years of relative normalcy.
She shifted uneasily. No matter how badly she aimed to focus on the good side of her life, all those years that followed refused to let go, made even harder now by the fact she’d been forced to face everything… no, not forced, she’d chosen to do it. Delta could’ve tried to convince her until they’d turned blue in the face, but if she hadn’t wanted to finally get her life back, there was no way they would’ve succeeded.
“Lancer for your thoughts?” a familiar voice asked, Mana so lost in them she hadn’t heard anyone approaching.
“Oh, yes please,” she said, despite everything rather amused by what had been put in place of the usual saying. She turned only her head, “How did you find me?”
“Saw which way you headed when you left the mess... easy enough to ask on the way.”
~Yes, because everyone is suddenly interested in me. It was easier when I was alone,~ a small part of her mind spoke up. “I don’t like being in the spotlight,” she admitted.
Bernie nodded. “Yeah, kind of got that. Don’t know what they were saying, but I’m guessing that’s the problem?”
“And again!” Mana exclaimed, staring at her closely. “Psychic much?”
Mataki laughed. “No, just been around for a long time,” she pointed out. “Plus, Victor showed me your file.”
“Oh wonderful, well at least I won’t have to go over it anymore... he can just hand the curious everything they need to know.”
“He wouldn’t do that,” Bernie offered, stepping up beside the younger woman. “We go back a long way, Mana… a long way, so you have my word on that.”
Mana sighed, brown eyes moving back out over the training yard. “I’m sorry. I knew they’d find a lot on me once Jack plugged in at New Hope. Whether I’d been there or not, eventually I’d have been found out. Marcus was right, better to be here by choice and free, than to be hunted and forced.”
Mataki smiled. Fenix had a good head on his shoulders and something beyond the exterior that only needed the right moments to come out. “Look, I know we’ve just met, but hell, speaking from experience it’s not easy to spill your guts when surrounded by men. I’m here if you want to talk about anything, even rant… I can definitely say I’ve done my fair share of those.”
“If I started now I would never stop.”
Bernie raised an eyebrow. “That sounds ominous,” she said.
“I have things in my past I’m afraid to tell anyone,” the Healer admitted. “I didn’t tell… haven’t told Delta everything.”
“Neither have I,” Bernie ventured, Mana looking at her again.
“Look Mana, I know it’s about as cliché as it could get but we’ve all got secrets, all done stuff we would never have even dreamed of before the Locust showed up. I’m still getting my head around the proof we have that they used to be human. Was far easier to kill them when we thought they were only monsters…” the South Island born Sergeant let her words trail off for a moment as she too watched some of the activity of below. “Who knows where you’d be right now if you hadn’t escaped that place.”
“That’s the problem... I escaped but chose to stay hidden. I knew who and what the Locust were when they first showed themselves. I know why they are so damn intent on killing every last human on the face of the Sera. I could give Baird a run for his money... I could...” Mana stopped speaking then, the look in her eyes telling Mataki she wanted to continue, but there was something holding her back. “Look me in the face and tell me I’ve done the right thing…” her words were barely audible now. “I stayed back, let my fear keep me from helping. I saw what they were doing, heard it, came across the mutilated and tortured... but I still refused to make myself known.”
There was a movement too swift for Mana to really see until she was suddenly facing Mataki, her shoulders held firmly in the older woman’s grip as she caught her gaze. “Hey, you listen to me,” Bernie started. “That just proves you are human. Your own kind put you through hell and now some of them are expecting you to have ousted yourself earlier? How many people could you have helped in those earlier years? How well did you know what you were capable of, what you could do?”
Mana wanted to break the hold this Sergeant had on her; she didn’t. Maybe she yearned for someone to tell her everything was alright. Maybe she missed having this kind of interaction. It was possible she wasn’t really anything in-between at all. “My ability to disappear only came on just before I escaped... I’m surprised it worked long enough to allow me to get out of there. But, I had training... they gave me combat, weapons and other training at New Hope. I honed those while on my own.”
“Okay, but how old were you?” Bernie asked.
“I rest my damn case!”
“But that was then... this... I’m 29 now. All those years I could’ve...”
“Stop it! Just stop it right now,” Bernie snapped, finally letting go, giving Mana the chance to actually take a step back at the vehemence of the statement. “You are not your own patsy… this war is not your fault. We were fighting each other before the Horde came up from below and only then were choices made that wiped out so much of Sera. I once thought we were fighting for our survival against an unknown enemy, but there is no right side in this now... we made them and now we’re paying the price.”
“You didn’t make anything... they did,” the Healer spat. “Only the ones who knew what was happening, condoned, supported, funded or simply let it continue are responsible for this. It was their choices that led to the each and every one that had to be made thereafter.”
Sergeant Bernadette Mataki’s gradual smirk was very out of place, the seasoned Gear sideways glancing at the woman beside her. “Now we just have to make sure you keep remembering that,” she said, the chuckle coming at Mana’s momentary look of confusion.
“Well…” Mana said, after regaining some composure. “You have been around for a long time.”
“Hey, watch it!” Bernie warned.
“Don’t mention it,” she said, turning her head slightly. “You going to head on back now, finish your breakfast?”
“No, I was actually done… could’ve gone for some more bacon, but don’t want to be marked as getting any special treatment for what I am either,” Mana’s own smirk made it pretty obvious this time she was having a go at herself.
“I’ve got to get on with the day… got some perimeter checking to do. That offer to talk always stands.”
“I’ll add that to the list of things to remember,” the Healer assured, watching Bernie nod and disappear back down the stairs. Speaking of which, she should probably return the plate and fork back to the mess at some point too.
Returning her attention to the movement of the Gears and other base personnel beneath her vantage point she allowed her thoughts to continue on the more positive tangent, wondering for a moment what exactly Hoffman was going to ask her to do around the place. Continuing use of her ability to heal others at the base hospital and probably Jacinto’s other public ones was a given, a done deal, something she would be doing even if she hadn’t already been asked. There had to be other areas she could help out in though… she wouldn’t always have the reserves to heal, and often said mending would have to be done over a certain time period anyway.
Her mind went over skills taught, learned and honed, crossing out those of no use in times like this and highlighting several that were. As she’d told Bernie, military training had been on the agenda while in New Hope, for her, the tactics of infiltration since the skill set she was presenting would mark her as the perfect assassin.
Her reverie was interrupted by a sound she couldn’t get enough of, especially when there was the possibility this was one of the Ravens returning from the safe house mission. Eyes focused in on its landing in the distance, two Gears the first to jump off, turning back to help one of the civilians.
“Terry,” Mana said softly, smiling broadly, until she saw the stretcher that followed the younger red-headed woman’s departure, Terry now leaning down over it and gently stroking the forehead of the patient’s face. Pushing away from the banister, Mana didn’t even flinch when the plate and fork slid off, falling to the ground below.
“What’s the rush baby?” Cole asked, the Healer passing him on the way down the stairs.
“One of the Ravens has returned and there’s injured on board. I’ve got to make sure... I’ve got to help.”
Cole just nodded, falling into a jog behind her. He knew by the urgency in her tone this wasn’t just any Raven, had to be one of those sent to pick up her safe house friends. “Is it bad?”
“Looked bad enough... I thought I saw evidence of a fight on the Gears. I just...” her words trailed off. “Hope they weren’t too late.”
It didn’t take all that long to reach the Raven’s position, although it could’ve been just around the corner and still Mana wouldn't have been able to get to it quick enough. By the time they were able to ask someone what was going on, Terry and the other civvies on board had already disappeared in the direction of the hospital. Mana moved closer to one of the Gears, the fresh burn marks and dents on his armor telling her all his words merely verified in more detail.
“They were already under attack when we got there. Whatever defenses were set up managed to hold them off but the appearance of a couple Bloodmounts gave the Locust the advantage.”
“Bloodmounts?” Cole asked. “That’s a bit excessive. These were just civvies...”
“You reckon?!” the Gear continued on. “I’ve never seen such an array of them in one group like that and they’re intent was clear.”
“I need to help the injured,” Mana said, and it was then that Cole noticed all color had drained from her face.
“You might want to consider accompanying more of us out in the field. You may have been able to save Corron had you been there… Bloodmount claw went straight through his abdomen.”
Mana just looked up at him, nodded once and then shifted her attention towards getting to the hospital. “She’s only one person...” Cole said.
“Yeah, but she’s more than we’ve ever had up until now.”
“You need anythin’ else?” the big man asked.
“Nah, we’re heading back out to another of the safe houses, although this one is a cave. Is more urgent now after what we’ve just witnessed.” His fellow Gear moved back towards the Raven, raising his voice to be heard over the rotors. “This time we’ll be ready for them though!”
This was insane! If those defenses he was talking about weren’t there what chance had these rescued had against contingents like that. The Locust were known for their cruelty and unmerciful strategies, but even this seemed totally out of character for them. A few drones and wretches would’ve done it... why... Cole guessed if he continued thinking about it too much his head would explode. Mana had warned them this would happen, still, what was with the overkill?
“Cole, what’s goin’ on?” Fenix asked from behind him.
Gus slowed down his little less than a jogging pace in the same direction Mana had taken to let Marcus catch up. “One of the choppers returned from landin’ in the middle of a firefight at one of the safe houses. Lost one of ours and Mana’s already helpin’ the others. Thing is, they said there were Bloodmounts. They sent in those things to deal with a few civvies? Don’t make any sense.”
“No, it doesn’t,” Marcus agreed.
“I can understand ’em sendin’ those things in if Mana was there, but... are they tryin’ to send her a message or somethin’?”
“Don’t know,” Marcus admitted. “Might be about time we found out though.”
Cole stopped. “Oh, I get it, by we you mean me, right?”
“Ain’t makin’ any promises.”
“Not expectin’ you to but it’s clear you’re the one she’s warmed to first.”
“Boomer Lady would be better for this.”
Marcus shook his head. “Mana’s just met her. She’s fought side by side with you already.”
Back Against A WallEdit
“That all you can do?” Cole asked her, taking a step back from the side of the cot.
“Yeah, for now, always depends on the injuries sustained as to how long it takes to heal it,” Mana explained, leaving it unspoken the already known fact how much Imulsion she had flowing through her veins had a lot to do with it too.
“Thank you, Mana,” the younger woman whispered, engulfing her in an appreciative embrace that Cole knew went far deeper than he’d ever truly be able to fathom.
“It’s okay, Terry,” the Healer said. “I shouldn’t... this is my fault, it’s the least I could do.”
“You sent someone to get us out of there,” Terry corrected her. “There’s nothing more that you could’ve done or that we could’ve asked of you, not after everything else.”
Mana squeezed her hand, her own gratitude present in eyes still slightly aglow with the energy she’d just been using. Terry moved back to her father’s side, Mana glancing at the only one of the Gears she knew that’d followed her this far. Naturally, a side effect of what she’d just done was hunger and she motioned to Cole that it was time to leave the little family be. Once back out in the hallway of Jacinto Med, a hospital still in the middle of recovering from the Locust attack a couple days ago, Mana headed straight for the nearest water cooler. As she sipped at the cool beverage she stared at the blood stain still present on the wall where one of the overturned beds used to be.
“Okay, someone needs to clean that up,” she said. “Why the heck did they transfer them here? The last thing they need to see is evidence of Locust attacks in the very place that is supposed to be safe.”
“Don’t quote me on this one, baby, but I think everyone’s used to scenes like that by now.”
“Unfortunately, yes, I’d have to agree,” she answered him. “Cole, tell me something... is there more to you following me around while I tended to the wounded?” Pouring herself another drink, she turned and looked at him properly. “Have you been given guard dog duty or something?”
Cole’s guffaw caused a few others in the corridor to jump and turn around, stern looks given the Gear’s way. “Yeah, if that was needed, I’d have been the one they chose. Hah!” he laughed. “You’d have more than likely been given their best an’ most elite... they wouldn’t have trusted anyone else.”
She raised an eyebrow at him, “Ah, you fit that bill, hun, as do the rest of Delta One.”
“Aww, shucks baby, you really know how to lift a man’s spirits an’ make him feel wanted,” he said, his chuckle quieter this time. “Seriously though, I won’t lie an’ say there isn’t another reason but I’m just the messenger, so you gotta promise not to shoot me,” he verified, holding up his hands.
The Healer smiled knowingly at him. “Just shooting you?” she asked, a hint of mischievousness in her eyes.
“Oh... oh no, none of that freaky ass glowing stuff either,” he told her, mock glare broken by the broad smile that accompanied it.
“Can this wait until I’ve been to the Hospital Mess? I’m just going to grab something real quick and keep going,” Mana told him, dropping the plastic cup into the nearest trash bin.
“There is somethin’ wrong about eatin’ from an area that only two days ago had dead bodies lyin’ in some of their servin’ containers,” he’d heard that from Dom.
Mana shrugged. “It’s one of the most important areas of the hospital, wouldn’t have taken them long to deal with cleaning it up. I’m sure by now there are ways to get rid of the smell.”
“An’ here I thought I was morbid,” Gus said, nudging her shoulder with his a little as they fell into step beside each other.
“You were right… we’re all far too used to this.”
The Private was going to at least wait until she had finished her sandwich, nothing worse than thinking about something emotional on an empty stomach; just added more leverage to those butterflies with serrated wing tips. Meantime, he could get his head around how to approach what Marcus wanted from this conversation as they headed up to a more private location, the roof. Open and spacious with little to no way anyone could make a successful attempt to eavesdrop on them.
“Okay, so what?” Mana asked, looking at him expectedly. She’d been going over what this could all be about, several possibilities coming to the fore, one of them...
“You know Marcus has got it in his head that you ain’t told us everythin’ baby... Dom too, heck, we all got the same feelin’.”
... she really didn’t not want to have to go into, but there it was.
“He thinks cos we seem to be gettin’ along so well that you’d be willin’ to open up to me,” he turned fully to her and again held up his hands. “His words baby, not mine, although I am agreein’ with the gettin’ along part. Like I told him, The Cole Train gets along with everybody,” it took him a moment to realize how that sounded, catching her gaze. “Hey, that don’t mean the friendship we got started ain’t special…” he added in.
“I knew what you meant and if that’s all he wants to know, no problem,” there was a distinct malice to that last bit, a sinister edge that suggested there was a very good reason why she’d left so much out.
“So, you aren’t denyin’ there’s more? That’s somethin’ then. I’m happy with that baby, Marcus will just have to be patient.”
Mana stared at him, the anger slowly draining from her features, replaced by an emotion Cole knew all too well. He’d seen that look in Bernie’s eyes, the same apprehension of what others would think if they knew. He watched her turn and take a couple steps away, her back now to him when she spoke again.
“I may as well just pack up my things and leave now,” she said.
“It can’t be that bad, baby. We all got our darker stories.”
“Not like this one,” she divulged, eyes downcast for a moment before she looked back up and faced him. “Look, if I’m finally going to do this, I don’t want to have to repeat it all over again…” Cole interrupted what she was saying by lifting a hand to tap the Tac-Com in his ear.
“It’s why I came prepared baby... just say the word and the rest of Delta will be tunin’ in.”
Mana pictured them all in a room somewhere eagerly waiting for Cole’s go ahead, only for their anticipation to be instantly replaced with something akin to revulsion when what she had to tell them was finally revealed. ~I can’t do this,~ she told herself. ~I just can’t.
They need to know. Better you tell them than they find out some other way and you know they will in that moment they are there to overhear what they call you.~
Her mind raced back to the Theron in Ilima City, the mixed look of intent and awe on his face; the drone that’d slid off the Reaver, triumph that he would be the one to return her to their Queen...
She motioned for him to let the others in on the exchange, even the moment it took to wait for that nearly causing her to concentrate until she quite literally disappeared. “I don’t only know so much about the Locust because I was a more successful part of their beginning. After E-Day, the Horde succeeded in something those at New Hope never could after I escaped… they found me.”
There was a heartbeat’s pause before Cole heard Marcus say they were on their way and to keep the channel open, something Mana didn’t hear because she’d left her comlink back in her room. The dark skinned Gear knew what was coming, it all fit into place so perfectly… why she only carried Locust weapons, why she had been so firm in the statements she had yet to elaborate on. The biggest clue though, the one that made clear why Bloodmounts had been sent in to deal with a mere few civilians... the Locust hadn’t just heard about her like the majority of the COG had, they’d already known.
“I was so young and so angry… Myrrah played on that,” Mana continued, “And I listened because I already knew who she was. Olivia… Niles second, he’d experimented on her too, without her knowledge. Eventually, soon after I left, she succeeded in uniting the other Projects, the attack coming during the long trek up to Mount Kadar; in the dead of night and the freezing cold and those under his control didn’t have a chance. She did what they’d all wanted to and thus ignited their unwavering loyalty. For over two years she also had mine.”
Through the shock, Cole wanted to say something, anything, but he just couldn’t. This was bigger than he thought even Delta’s Leader had imagined and there was no need to wonder why she’d been reluctant to tell them now. In fact, part of him wished she hadn’t. Once word of this got around, the welcome mat would be quickly retracted and she was probably afraid by all, even the new acquaintances and possible friends she had made.
“I wanted revenge for what they had done to Damien, me and so many others, Cole,” Mana said, by now turned away from him again. “Their betrayal of Olivia, a fellow scientist and mind behind the experiments, only fuelled that. For all intents and purposes I was one of them, although Myrrah was careful to keep me from the less appealing side of the army and ‘new race’ she was nurturing. I had a twofold purpose in her plans and she prepared me for it by putting me under the tutelage of the Theron General you were able to kill during the Lightmass Offensive...” tears were now in her eyes because the more she revealed, the more she could feel the believed hatred, the sudden change of mind in all the ones she’d met so far.
“I can’t tell you anymore, not now...” her voice broke, the Healer moving further away from him. She felt weak in the knees but refused to let them give way. “I won’t fight if you decide to lock me away until you know for sure. I was trained for infiltration, but that is not what this is. Still, I could understand if you saw it that way.”
“Doubt even Myrrah, or Olivia, whatever her name is would condone the mass murder of her army or the freein’ of so many humans, many of them fightin’ members of her enemy,” that wasn’t Cole’s voice. Mana had heard them coming and resigned herself to being cornered and dragged off somewhere. “Maybe if we weren’t the ones that’d witnessed what you’ve already done, we might think that way,” Marcus finished.
“Even I’m not that cynical,” Damon put in. “You had your chance to let two of us die, instead, you saved our asses, not to mention all the others. I don’t see the point of that bein’ a part of any sort of attempt at infiltration.”
“Somewhere along the lines you must’ve woken up baby, cos there is a hell of a lot of time between when an order like that coulda been given an’ when you actually followed through with it,” Cole said.
“Me an’ Marcus were inside New Hope with you, Mana,” Dom interjected then. “And you can’t fake the kind of horror or reaction to my wanting to know the exact details of what they’d done to Maria.”
There was no way to really explain the relief that was flooding through her right now… it was all encompassing, almost to the point that she could’ve easily allowed herself to drift into the sweet bliss of unconsciousness. Somewhere behind the feeling she knew others might not be so understanding but right now she didn’t care much about that. The team that’d been there to witness her return to the world she’d started out in was offering her more than she could ever have imagined... their acceptance and lack of holding against her the part of her past that was worse than even anything ever experienced at New Hope.
“Do we keep this between us?” Dom ventured.
“Might be easier,” Fenix said, nodding.
“I don’t know about you, but its one thing acceptin’ she isn’t some sort of spy in front of her and all of you, but to actually be known for doing that by others,” Baird said, glance moving to Mana, “No offence.”
“Oh Damon baby, you’re all heart,” Cole said, Baird noting the lack of teasing in his friend’s tone. “Why don’t we ask her how she feels... Mana?”
Wiping at the tears that’d escaped, she shifted her position, finally allowing her confidence to slowly seep its way back in. “There is no point keeping it a secret. They will need to know what I know… all of it,” brown eyes locked with the blue of Marcus’ at this point. “My suggestion is to fill in Hoffman and maybe Mataki first, since by what I’ve already learned he’d end up telling her anyway…” if she saw the smirk creep into Cole’s features she didn’t make it known. “I want to be the one to tell Alpha-Seven and Lucas…” her words trailed off. “Everyone else will find out eventually and I’ll handle their reactions as they come.”
“We’ll be here for support in any way you need it baby,” Gus began, “Not that you ain’t capable of takin’ care of yourself.”
“What’s this about we?” Baird asked, shaking his head. “I’m not gettin’ in the middle of anything, especially if there’s any sort of mass retaliation thing goin’ on.” He motioned to the woman, “She can fight her own battles, she doesn’t need me gettin’ in the way.”
For once, Mana actually agreed with the less than compassionate side she’d quickly come to know permeated every hidden aspect of Corporal Damon Baird. “If something like that happens, I don’t want any of you making enemies of fellow Gears or what have you just because of me.”
“We’ll deal with it when it comes,” Marcus said, his tone alone pretty much putting an end to the argument.
Classified Top Secret: Intel File 1Edit
Purpose of New Hope Facility
To the Citizens and Gears of the COG,
Following is the personal eyewitness account of the one known survivor of the atrocities that occurred at the New Hope Facility; the one who didn’t decide the entirety of humankind had to pay for what was done to them there. Finally we have the answers to the questions each and every one of us has asked since the very first day our world was turned upside down. It is hoped this information will someday help us win the war, and the presence of this new Deployable Weapon has already given us the edge we have needed for so long. To know the Locust are merely a highly mutated form of humans allays the fears only so far as having a better understanding of where they have come from and why they are doing this. Feeling sorry for them is perhaps within the depths of my soul but letting this give cause to back off from fighting for our own survival will never happen. We cannot let the below information change any of our strategies. It is beyond our control to ever make up for what has happened to them and, as time has proven, beneath the feet of their Queen to ever give us that chance.
– Colonel Victor Hoffman
Mana – Subject M – The Deployable Weapon
Dated: 15 Years after E-Day, 4th Day of Frost
I really do not know where to start. I guess back at the beginning, since this document is supposed to cover as much as possible so I no longer have to face the monotony of repeating myself all the time. I have agreed to its general circulation among the Citizens and Gears of the COG only because anyone connected to New Hope, if they haven’t already, will eventually come to know the return of their precious Deployable Weapon even without it. How Hoffman managed to convince Prescott to declassify this to such a large extent is beyond me. All I hope is that those of you who decide to read it understand the choices I have made, why it has taken so long. Why, with everything I’ve been given and everything that was forced, I couldn’t and never will be able to save everyone.
Alright, here goes:
I grew up in a mining family, Dad used to work in the Lethia Imulsion Facility and every chance I got I was there helping, always getting into areas I never should have been anywhere near. I couldn't help it though, I was an explorer, if I wasn't climbing onto something I was crawling through it, over it, under it, didn't matter. I'd find a way to see every little part of the generators, the mine cart tunnels, the very inner and outer workings of the factory. I'd travel down on the elevators beneath the ground and explore the man-made tunnels; I'd watch and sometimes help Dad and the other men heap the Imulsion into the carts, pushing it over to the lifts. The thought that the element I was always around would become anything more than just something I helped my Dad collect and process never occurred to me. Mum and he often talked about it, but I was just a kid, I was oblivious to the dangers... to me, the Imulsion mines were the fun place I went to after school. At the age of 7 I showed the first signs of what the government had been warning us about for years, the adverse affects of prolonged exposure to the fumes and the energy itself.
Those first signs consisted of the classic Lambent glow – I basically became my own lighting source – along with the crisscrossing effects of the Imulsion in the veins of my eyes. At first, my parents didn't know what to do, they were afraid to tell anyone their little girl seemed to be showing the affects of prolonged exposure but none of the sickness previously mentioned by the Coalition. I wasn't sick, in fact, I didn't get sick at all, I was perfectly healthy, just, something else was going on inside in addition to the normal growth of a kid into a teenager. I was 8 when I hurt myself bad enough for Mum and Dad to realize I was healing far too quickly for it to be normal. They'd noticed the various scratches and scrapes, the bruises all kids get at times... they never seemed to be a problem shortly after the first signs of some sort of change. But it wasn't until I was 9 that, despite being told to stay away from the Imulsion because of what it was doing to me, I was there at the mines to witness one of the gantry levels fall out from beneath my Dad, and it was from then on my parents knew I was becoming something extraordinary.
Like the two members of Delta, Alpha-Seven and many others have already experienced, I used the energy of the Imulsion to heal my Dad. Every broken bone in his leg reformed, every scratch, every bruise, everything and anything that'd been caused by that accident I completely reversed, and being the naïve child that I was, I somehow got it into my head that if we did what the law said and told the government, I'd be able to help others too. Take away their pain... wounds, diseases, sicknesses, everything. I talked my parents into taking me to the hospital to report what was happening to me. I only realized how much of a mistake that was after I asked if my parents would be able to visit this ‘special’ place they wanted to take me and their answer was, “No, sorry my dear little one, it's not safe for them to be around you anymore”.
Without any regard for my family they took me away, told my parents I'd died of the complications that sometimes came along with exposure to Imulsion and, just like they'd said it was too dangerous for them to visit me where I was going, they told my Mum and Dad it was too risky for them to actually be allowed to identify my body. Unfortunately, because so many others had already died of these so called problems my parents believed them, grieving for the loss of their only child, even holding a funeral. How did I know this? Because Niles and Olivia made sure I knew from as early on as possible. Their way of making it clear I only had one family now – the Staff, Doctors, Nurses, Scientists, Handlers, Olivia and him, the Director of New Hope, allowed to continue his work and fully funded by the then Chairman, a man I only ever knew as Munroe.
From the moment I arrived at New Hope, the experimentation to force more rapid changes began. Two months later, the affects of accelerating innate abilities – the regeneration, the healing of others, the heightened senses, endurance, stamina and strength – was clearly seen and unlike other subjects put through the same thing, I had no outward signs of mutating out of control, no aggression, no slow breakdown of vital organs, and so on. The closest and only friend I had in that place was brought in shortly after I turned 10, an instant bond of friendship forming between us. He was two years older and, like me, seemed to be showing none of the adverse effects of the Imulsion change either. My hell continued and his just started. I was dubbed the female version of the ‘Perfect Result’, exactly what they had been working towards all this time, from five to six months later no longer referred to as 'Subject M' but known as the Deployable Weapon or, by the acronym of DW.
Despite the fact they'd believed Damien to be the perfect male version of what they were trying to achieve, unfortunately for them, at about the age of 13½, his body began to show the outward signs of transformation. Nails turning into claws, skin hardening in places, and his aggression levels spiking. At the age of 14, Damien's body began to break down, and the experimentation to fix it was accelerated beyond anything I've ever seen. I tried to heal him many times, but they wouldn't let me, in fact, they punished me for it! It was the night they gave up on him that he tried to convince me to use my new energy wave ability to escape from the facility, but I couldn't… couldn't leave him behind… he was my best friend, all the real family I had in that place. I couldn't and they knew it, they used that part of my very make up to keep some sort of control over me.
8 months later, and despite the fact the Scientists had ceased trying to stop Damien's deterioration he was still holding on. It was during one of the many times I was with him that I knew my handlers were coming for me with the intent of finally deploying their precious weapon for the first time. That was when another extension of my abilities kicked in. Somehow the Imulsion triggered some sort of camouflaging technique, blending me into the background of the stark whiteness of the room. They couldn't see me and neither could Damien, but despite his shock he played along, told them they'd just missed me. After they were gone I must've calmed down enough to reappear and that was when Damien's urging for me to escape came with the realization that, if he'd been right about what they could achieve with me before, there was absolutely no doubt about it now. I was just 13 when I used a combination of the energy wave and invisibility to finally escape New Hope after just over 4 years.
I spent the year in-between then and Emergence Day in hiding, I did go back home but I didn't… that would've been the first place they looked and my parents thought I was long dead. I don't know if they could've handled the shock of not only finding out I wasn't but… the guilt of just believing the doctors instead of looking into it. So, I just went into hiding and because the Imulsion energy always seemed to interfere with various forms of signals there was never any tracking devices put on my person. I learnt how to control that later on, so I could listen into what I wanted to hear, see what I wanted to see. Before E-Day I did help where I could, but I made sure I was never seen. After E-Day of course I went back home to see if my parents had made it… they hadn’t, and there was a while there I did join one of the Stranded groups but never stayed with them for too long. They were always on the move and I was always watching my back, afraid of being recaptured.
The Locust Horde
How can you run from something that has the ability to come from beneath as well as on all sides? The answer to that is simple, if you are not the one they are after, a very long time. If you are, being found is inevitable. I remember that moment like it was only yesterday. I made one fatal mistake; I returned more than once to the same group of Stranded. Although many times I was near them unseen, it was still a routine of sorts, something that could be taken notice of and subsequently tracked. I don’t know how they managed to figure it out because I was always so careful; then again, they were like me, many of them with senses far more advanced.
The telltale shaking woke me up with a start, the derelict building still pretty much intact, eyes looking out from the slit on the side of the second story. I’ll never forget the sounds, the screaming, the growling, and the various forms of weaponry echoing off what was left of the street all around me. It was clear they were searching the industrial estate and at first I’d thought it was just for more people to kill. Little did I know…
14-years-old and stuck on the decision I had to make: Move from where I was and risk being seen, or stay there and risk being trapped? Either way I had to go invisible and in no time I was gone from the usual visual spectrum. Back then I didn’t know how effective my energy wave was on more than the few Locust at a time so I couldn’t risk it. On my hands and knees watching through the small slit I saw the wretches move in and out of the buildings, drones and grenadiers hot on their trail. The sight of Bloodmounts and their riders made my blood curl. There alone were two creatures with the ability to find whatever target their handlers were after and, rather than waste more energy on staying incognito, my young mind decided to lift the veil. There was no point when all it did was hide me from their sight.
Looking back on it now, maybe I shouldn’t have, but I did, rushing down the stairs and trying to sneak out the back way. I was doing a pretty good job of it, until a freaked out Stranded came barreling into me from a side street, knocking me to the ground, as he was ripped apart by the wretches that’d been chasing him. Using my hands and feet I backpedaled, up against a wall when I finally got over the shock enough to climb to my feet and continue running. By then, it was too late… the rumbling started so close that I ended up falling to my knees, turning to face the wretch that came lunging at me, catching it and using the Imulsion to render it lifeless in my grip. Half of the building directly across the street collapsed into the hole now forming. I tried to get into the abandoned warehouse behind me, but the wretches kept me distracted. I didn’t see them closing in until the last wretch finally fell and I was so exhausted I never realized it hadn’t just been me that’d made sure they didn’t succeed in their attempts to end my life.
I saw their reflection in the glass behind me, the Theron General stalking across to take a hold of my neck and swing me around, pinned to the wall. He leaned in closer, checking, actually sniffing, and when a Theron who can smile has cause to do so, it’s not a very pleasant sight. Putting a finger to his ear he told his Queen the Intel had been correct, they had found her, and then he dragged me along beside him, where I was soon surrounded by a sentinel of Theron Guards, Raam not taking his eyes off me until the Reaver landed a short time later. I looked up, watching the figure disembark from it and walk over, the woman so… so… familiar?! I said her name, and she corrected me that it was no longer Olivia anymore. No longer the Scientist I had known. I was to call her Myrrah, and she was now Queen of the Locust Horde.
I stared at her dumbfounded and she took that as a sign to tell me a story, about lies, about deceit, about how sorry she was she had not known the truth about Niles before their one perfect outcome had felt the need to escape. Her vehemence, anger, and honesty were believable, emanating and striking a chord in me that only those who’d been at New Hope could ever have understood. Niles had turned on his Second, his partner in the crimes that had been committing and she, in turn, with the help of many of those who’d been put through the hell he’d been responsible for, turned on him, taking justice into their own hands. Now they fought against the humans bent on destroying their own creation and they needed my help to make sure they did not succeed. I went with them. I went home.
Myrrah became my Mentor, the mother I’d never had. Raam became my new Handler, the training intense but specific. I believed the lies they themselves were feeding me. That all humans deserved to pay for the betrayal of only some and that I could wipe out the infection of the other Lambent, the ones who were nothing like the so-called perfection Olivia saw in me. I would use the abilities I possessed to kill the humans on mass, to drain the Lambent of the Imulsion they had within and, depending on how far gone they were, turn as many of the infected back to normal so they’d come crawling back to their Queen.
For all intents and purposes, down to even the deepest parts, I was a part of the Horde. Until the moment the explorer in me, that little girl now becoming a young teenager allowed herself to take a peek into the areas the Queen had always kept off limits. When one tells a child not to go somewhere, it makes them want to see it even more. When a parent of any sort tells a teenager not to do something, nine times out of ten they will do it anyway. I don’t… I can’t… do I have to do this part? Let’s just say in the two years I was there, because the females began to slowly mutate into something both out of control to the extreme and sterile, the Locust went from breeding like normal, to being made. I saw Myrrah’s continued work in action, the torture, the forced changes; she was no better than Niles. In fact, she was worse because, unlike the deceased Director of New Hope, she hadn’t found the secret to perfecting her technique.
This wasn’t what made me wake up to myself though. At first, I looked upon this as just desserts, much deserved. It was what I had been put through after all.
The thing was I’d never seen the same procedures conducted on children, and I never did either, but there was a child among those they chose to feed to the Bloodmounts on the day I decided to sneak into that area of the palace. I watched the sarcophagi-like prisons open, watched the people come out only to realize where they were. I saw the horror on the little one’s face; the knowing at even such a young age what was about to happen and something clicked. I never rushed in to help them, I couldn’t, I was on the other side of a gate I wouldn’t have been able to get open before it was too late. I saw about two of them fall, stabbed through, their heads… Bloodmounts eat heads okay! That’s it! Plain and simple... before I turned away, stumbling to the opposite wall.
Myrrah went on about how revenge for what had happened was the reason for this war, while behind the scenes she tortured people, changed those that were tough enough and fed children to Bloodmounts! And that was just what I’d learned about them then!
The rage had never been so strong, but it was no longer directed at only the one enemy anymore. Back then I was still furious at mankind and I remained as such for a very long time, but it was the Locust my anger was turned to on that day. They’d stooped beyond the level of those that’d made them. It wasn’t revenge that drove their need; it was bloodlust, power and the sudden realization of the total lack of any humanity left within!
I never gave Myrrah the chance to try and swing this in her favor once she learned of what I had seen. Instead, I returned to my quarters, gathered what I wanted to take with me and moved down to a level safe enough to dive into the Imulsion that surrounded and powered the then very start of a thriving Nexus. I knew where it flowed and where it came out. I disappeared back into hiding and began the process of trying to get over what I had allowed myself to become.
It was only in recent years, I think I was 25, nearly 26, when I noticed the Locust were starting to capture people on a far greater scale, keeping them alive in those coffin-like prisons. It took me that long to realize I couldn't just stand back and let this continue to occur when I had the power to make sure it didn't. I started infiltrating Locust camps and freeing civilians, captured Gears, other prisoners, and all the while, I listened into transmissions of various types, picking up on key happenings and learning of various main COG teams and other major occurrences. Last year I started infiltrating Nexus, going through as many prison sections as I could and freeing each and every person. I killed off numerous Locust in the process, something you can imagine I had absolutely no problem with.
And now, finally, 15 years after E-Day and about 18 years after becoming New Hope's first and, as far as I know, only successful guinea pig, I was there on the first day of Frost when Alpha Seven's Grindlifts cut through into an open area of the Hollow. I witnessed the taking out of Jennings the moment he exited his lift, saw the rest of the team in trouble, and realized I just couldn't hold back any longer. I was born human and the ones responsible for what else I am are a generation far before this one. Myrrah is wrong. Not all of you deserve to pay for what was done to them, to me. I’m here now, and that is what matters, because I promise you there is no longer the need for revenge within me. I have chosen my side. I am a healer, I will protect. Welcome to the life of your Deployable Weapon, because no matter how much I want to avoid that title, that is what I am.
More to Come...