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This article, Gears of War: Haunted Echoes, was written by Croswynd. Please do not edit this fiction without the writer's permission.

WARNING and DISCLAIMER: Please note that this is a fanfic and that I do not preside over the existing characters that are implied in this story, nor the Gears of War elements and its franchise. Any details, titles, names that may be similar to that of other fiction or fanfiction, (unless cited) is strictly coincidental. This story is Rated M for Violence, Crude Language, and Adult Situations.

Synopsis Edit

Set seven years after the Locust burst from the underground, humanity is worn to the few cities and shanty towns on Jacinto and the surrounding wastelands. The war has been grinding on far too long for the peoples of Sera, but the Gears bravely fight on against impossible odds, looking toward the ever dwindling hope of survival.

Haunted Echoes stars a group of soldiers, Echo Three, on a journey through the outskirts of Jacinto and failing city of Ephyra. Psychological trauma associated with war and the constantly present memories that follow these Gears brings even more burdens to these warriors as they suffer constant physical hardship in their mission to retake a vital fuel factory in the possession of former COG personnel.

Act I: Journey Edit

Memoir I: "So Where Were You on E-day?” Edit

The question, seven years later, is just starting to pick up popularity among the ranks. Where were you during Emergence Day? The day the Boogeyman came to life, bursting forth from the ground like moles, sharp teeth and ugliness combining with intelligence and modern weaponry. When twenty five percent of Sera’s population was wiped out in a blink of an eye. Where were you? Having dinner with your family or your friends, celebrating an end of war; peace we’ve never known?

Peace. Sometimes, on days when I’m not out there fighting for your survival, I think I feel peace. I feel it like a warm blanket every time I go into the Mess Hall and see my buddies and squad mates having a good time over a few drinks or cards. I feel it when I get into the locker room after a particularly hard engagement and get to laugh and trade jokes with my friends. Then I see the empty seats, empty chairs, empty lockers and my warm blanket gets splashed with cold water and shocks me into realizing peace doesn’t exist. It never existed in my lifetime, at least.

Sera hadn’t known peace in well over a hundred years. Ever since I was born, I would hear reports of nations battling over pathetic piles of fuel, land, or just be-fucking-cause. Shit that doesn’t even matter anymore, not really. Now, we just fight to see the next day, for survival; because we, the human race, are facing extinction.

It really hits you, sometimes, during the quiet moment right before the ground erupts in monsters and the shells start flying. Extinction. We’re an endangered species now; women being used to breed the next generation of soldiers. What kind of sick fucking joke would that have been ten years ago? We’re turning into animals on the streets, fighting over water and food because of the Locust Horde and those damn laser satellites they call the Hammer of Dawn.

Shit, we’re probably screwed no matter what happens from here on out. But I’ll keep fighting, because I remember where I was on E-day. I remember the cease-fire with the Indies, those states of the Coalition of Organized Governments who didn’t want to be COG citizens anymore. I remember going home to my family and just sitting on the couch, talking. Making up for lost time, you know? Then I lost even that; time, family, whatever. Everything.

I remember where I was, and I want it back. I want those damn Locusts to regret ever coming up to my home, to the surface. I’m going to fight to shove those fuckers back underground and get back what I had; what we all had.
I remember. So I'll fight.
- Memoirs of Sergeant Joseph Nyvar

Chapter 1: Out of Control Edit

These men are going to be severely traumatized by the end of this war, even if we survive; who knows how they’d react with no outlet for their frustration. I predict an inevitable slide into insanity we can’t control, even if we still had the pharmaceuticals we did before Emergence Day. No sane individual can watch his friends and family slaughtered, face death so many times, and get through it with their mind intact. They’ll be the lucky ones, though, if it ends the way some of the others are predicting it will. Losing one's mind would be a mercy compared to the horrors of watching humanity collapse like a house of cards.

- Dr. Kristine Belova, on the mindset of the current generation’s soldiers.

Crimson Crustacean, south Jacinto City, Emergence Day;

1200 hours.

"Guess that’s the end of that, huh Sarge?”

Joseph Nyvar stared at his wife, snapping back into reality with a start. Fais? He cocked his head, confused for a moment, watching her thick, red lips reach upwards into a smile. She must have known he had been lost in thought for a few seconds, staring at him with her gorgeous green eyes as she was now.


“I said, ‘Guess that’s the end of that conversation’,” she repeated, her mouth quirked in a half-grin, half-pout that caused his legs to feel like pudding and his heart to beat ten times faster. She’d always had that effect on him, her beauty captivating him until he couldn’t handle the feelings inside anymore. He'd finally asked her to dinner one night when they were younger, so quick to please and fumbling foolishly over his words.

“Sorry. Just a little distracted, I guess. Never really thought I’d be able to have dinner like this again, after everything,” the ex-soldier replied, waving his hands to encompass the surroundings. The Pendulum Wars had just ended, after over seventy years of fighting, it was done, just like that. He leaned back in his chair to a more comfortable position, resting his calloused hands on the table. The seats in the outdoor portion of the restaurant were infuriatingly undersized for his bulky frame.

The trees started rustling slightly, a serene sound if he had ever heard one; autumn colored leaves tumbling around in the air to alight on the cloth covered table or the surrounding flagstones, only to be once again lifted into the air for another twist or spin. The aroma of the outdoors and other customer’s food mingled together to create a mouthwatering fragrance. Kathryn’s hair fluttered in the breeze, dark red strands gently waving about her face, caught in a graceful ballet with the wandering leaves. She gave up her half-pout, morphing it into another dazzling smile that set his face aflame.

“You earned it, though,” she said tenderly, reaching across the table to take his big hands in her dainty ones, stroking them affectionately with her fingers. “Now forget about the war, love. I’ve waited patiently for a day like this ever since you left.”

“Yeah,” Nyvar said, smiling in spite of himself, forcing his body to loosen up and his mind to focus at the task at hand. It had been a long time since he’d taken his wife out to dinner with no deadline or recall a pall hanging over their heads. He changed the subject, eager to please. “How’s Jason been doing lately?”

“A little miffed,” she replied through a giggle, bringing a hand to her mouth. “He’s been missing his father as much as I have. You should talk to him after we finish here.” She rested her hand back on his, sighing and closing her eyes with a contented expression on her face.

“I will. Bet he’s grown a lot since last time I got leave.” Nyvar picked at his food with a fork, piercing a lump of some kind of beef and bringing it to his mouth. Spices and flavoring roared across taste buds accustomed to the blandness of army rations, causing him to close his eyes and savor it. “Mmm. Haven’t had anything like this in a long time.”

“You never will.” Joseph looked up quickly, staring across the table with his eyes wide open. His wife’s hair was slowly shrinking into pallid, gray hide with a wicked maw filled with jagged teeth taking the place of the luscious lips. Kathryn’s petite, slim body started bursting into a massive, sinister frame, neck thickening and eyes drawing back into their sockets like little beetles. The hands holding his twisted into claws, their black, razor sharp nails cutting into his skin as he ripped his hands away. The stomach churning smell of blood burned his nose as he looked at his wounds, already festering and mutating into a gray hide.

The wind whistled through dead boughs as leaves started flying from the tree, the flagstones cracking and falling into pits of darkness. Menacing, glowing eyes stared up out of the holes, wicked sharp hooks and claws beckoning him to join their ranks. Screaming started somewhere, shrill and panicked, and he turned around, ignoring the transformation his wife was undertaking and the horrible blackness staring at him with millions of pinprick-sized eyes. His face lost its color as he saw his son on the sidewalk, running away from a huge, slavering brute, a chain around its gigantic neck. The thing tore toward his son, overtaking him in seconds and hoisting the boy above its head with its paw-like hands, a roar shaking the loose stones around it. It's huge maw dripped saliva as it held the boy, sockets where eyes were supposed to be. It looked like someone had stretched muscle across a skull and forgot to add the rest of the pieces.

“No!” Nyvar yelled, reaching down at his waist to his pistol. His hand grabbed empty air and he stared down at his dinner clothes. Another cry abruptly cut off and he looked back up to see Jason, his boy, torn in two, entrails hanging out of his body, red blood oozing out onto the monster’s malevolently gleeful face. A crack sounded, loud and sudden, as the building above the thing came crashing down and wiped the sight from his blurry eyes.

An ache formed in his chest as explosions sounded out like drums played by some offbeat performer. The infection in his hands had made its way up to his chest, his muscles expanding under the pasty, off-white membrane. He felt something touch his mutated shoulder and whipped around, eyes blazing with hatred, wanting to tear everything apart with his bare hands after the horrible atrocity he had just been privy to.

“Hey, hey, now!” Marov said, backing up quickly to avoid his punch. “You alright?”

Joseph Nyvar looked at his friend, the man’s salt and pepper mustache the only hair on the Gear’s worried face. Joseph let his face drop down into his hands as he sank to the ground with his back up against the bullet strewn wall. It had been a dream, and only seconds had passed in the real world. He was losing all control over his sanity. The dream had been haunting him for the last seven years since E-Day.

“It’s Jason,” Nyvar said simply, looking over at the body of a seventeen year old torn to pieces, a look of horror plain on the corpse’s face. Glassy, gray eyes stared up into the sky, as if wanting to escape where the Locust couldn’t get to the soul. Marov’s armored form moved in between Nyvar’s eyes and the body, squatting down and resting his elbows on his knees, hands clasped together.

“No, man, that ain’t Jason,” Syval Marov said, his voice all understanding and full of grief. “It’s just some kid, alright? Jason’s back in Jacinto with the recruits at boot, remember? Calm down, man.”

Joseph leaned his head back against the wall, closing his eyes and wishing it all went away. He wished for the dream to take him again, so he could just relive those few precious minutes with his wife again. When he opened his eyes a few seconds later, the street was still in disrepair and his squad was still milling around the battlefield collecting weapons. Damn.

“Yeah. Just give me a second,” Joseph said, standing up slowly and putting his cobalt colored helmet in the crook of his arm, the COG symbol visible on the top of it. The death’s head surrounded by a gear seemed suddenly more an omen for him than intimidation against the Locust. He closed his eyes again and mentally braced himself, wanting to look at the body and understand why he was still fighting. “Go help Ven and Ty. We need to salvage whatever we can.”

“You sure?”

“I’m sure.”

“Alright.” Marov moved off, heavy boots crunching across gravel and broken glass to the street where the grub bodies lay. Tyler Fais waved in greeting, eagerly showing a couple of grenades he’d picked up to Nyvar’s second in command, his face hidden by a standard issue helmet. Marov just grinned, the waning sunlight reflecting off the goggles on top of the man’s head and dully shining doo-rag under them.

The body of the boy was still lying there, broken and sightless, though the eyes were now closed thanks to Syval. There were no dog tags to take, but there was some kind of bracelet on the kid’s wrist, so he took that and put it in one of his empty ammo pockets. It wasn’t stealing, just something to remember the kid by. Maybe one of the Stranded, people left to die when the Hammer of Dawn came down and destroyed ninety percent of Sera with its pinpoint laser strikes, back at the camp would know whose it was; he’d check.

“The sun is setting, my friend,” a quiet, yet strong, voice said from behind him. Nyvar didn’t turn around, knowing it was Ven Salora; one of the South Islander Gears on his team. The man always took life as it gave, feeling anything that happened was meant to. “The Kryll will no doubt be upon us soon. I recommend making our way back to the Stranded encampment for the night.”

“Alright. Gather the others up and get them moving to the camp,” Nyvar said, blowing out a breath and letting his shoulders drop. “I have to do something, first.”

“I understand.” The clip clop of heavy combat boots sounded as the man walked away, calling to the others; Ty, Marov, and some Stranded who’d helped them out. The sounds of joking and jeering faded as they left, until Nyvar was alone with his thoughts and memories.

After a time, he squatted down next to the body, scooping the pieces into a pile and setting a few dislodged stones around it. Grabbing a metal canteen off a chain around his neck, he poured its contents onto the makeshift pyre, re-stoppering the flask and replacing it. Next, he reached into his back belt pouch and pulled out a small, metal lighter with his initials carved into it.

Joseph flicked the top open and clicked the flame on, watching as its light danced off the metal casing, casting shadows in the tiny scratches of J. and N. The flame was mesmerizing, dancing in apparent glee as it flickered and bobbled, then grew as he set it on the fuel-drenched body. Heat caressed his face, feeling as if his skin was tightening just from being close to it. He backed away, watching the body burn, the fire quickly consuming the clothing, skin, and blood.

He left before the bones started to crack under the heat, glad that the boy was in a better place, away from the uncontrollable hell Sera had become.

COG Training Grounds, Lower Jacinto, two days later;

1305 hours.

“Alright, folks, look alive. You’ve just been conscripted into the COG army and I’m here to teach you how not to die when you look a grub in the eye,” a Drill Sergeant barked at the assembled people standing in disorganized lines, their new armor scuffed and crafted from any kind of metal there was to scavenge outside Jacinto’s perimeter. When one of the Stranded in the crowd guffawed at the rhyme, he got a face full of spittle and yelling as the drill Sergeant went off about military protocol.

“You really think these Stranded can make real Gears, Marov?” Nyvar asked as he watched the proceedings, doubt plain in his tone. Only a few of the more muscled ones in the crowd even looked like they could handle themselves in a fight against a grub, and then only because he’d been there when they did.

“I don’t know, ‘Seph. Maybe. If nothing else, they’ll be able to serve as meat shields for us real soldiers,” Marov said, his arms crossed across his off-duty fatigues, a frown showing out under his facial hair. He let his arms drop and patted his bone-hilt snub pistol resting in a holster on his right hip, which was attached to his tool-filled belt. Nyvar didn't know whether he did it because he was proving he was a real soldier or becuase he was itching to shoot the Stranded. Marov didn't seem like the Stranded all that much.

Grease stained the man’s dark, blue denim pants, tiny spots of black and holes here and there in the fabric. He’d just come out from the garage, fixing up a puncture a Torque Bow’s explosive arrow had torn in a Centaur’s undercarriage. It was a miracle the tank had even gotten back to base, let alone navigated its way through a busy battlefield.

“I’d rather them live. Our species is small enough as it is without losing more because they were poorly trained.”

“They’re Stranded, though; barely even human anymore.”

“Bartch’ll straighten ‘em human again,” Nyvar replied, referring to the Drill Sergeant demonstrating a Lancer’s chainsaw attachment, the buzzing noise causing those in the front to hold their hands to their ears. The smell of smoke drifted over to where he was, causing his nose to crinkle. “Besides, they helped us during that firefight a couple of days ago. Gotta count for something.”

“I don’t think even Bartch can work mira-“

“Sirs,” Tyler interrupted, his youthful green eyes contrasting with the dark blue and black COG armor, “Matheison asked for you. He’s in the CIC. Now, I need to go find Ven.” The younger man ran off down toward the barracks, almost all traces of the clumsy recruit gone from him. Years of battling the same damn things they’d found in Nemaria had hardened the kid, turned him into a real Gear.

Nyvar looked over at Marov, noticing the slight furrowing of his brow. The other man nodded, confirming that he was thinking the same thing. Nemaria. One of the first times the COG had made contact with the Locust, only a couple of months before they’d exploded onto the surface, covering the world like their namesakes would a farmer’s field.

The two men started walking to the building Matheison, their taskmaster as they liked to call him, resided in. A cool breeze blew by, bringing the first hints of Frost, causing Nyvar to pull the collar of his black, leather jacket up higher on his neck. The leather rustled as he messed with it, causing the front of his jacket to open, revealing a loose brown shirt underneath. His boots clicked along with Marov’s, not quite as heavy as their combat rig, but enough to keep the cold out.

“Those Stranded are in for a lovely, cold day today, aren’t they?” Marov asked rhetorically. The man smiled again, letting his arms, covered in a long sleeve gray sweatshirt, dangle at his sides.

“Nothing they won’t have to deal with out in the field. They better get used to it,” Joseph replied, pushing open a heavy metal door to get inside. Heat instantly assailed him as he walked inside, a side effect of the building’s air conditioning going wonky again.

“Why can’t they keep this building to a reasonable temperature?” Marov groused, rolling up the sleeves on his shirt to the elbows. “Always hot in the summer and cold in the winter. Where’s Baird when you need him?” He dodged sideways as a woman with blond hair came around a corner, clad in the gray skirt and blouse of an intelligence officer.

“Out on patrol, unfortunately,” Anya said as she walked back the way they’d come. “I’ll ask him to check it out when he gets back.” The woman’s voice grew fainter as she exited the building, the door banging open with a dull clack-thud.

“She looks tired,” Marov commented as they walked down the corridor and turned left into another hallway.

“She’s been pulling twelve hour shifts, same as Matheison. I heard the other guy came down with something.”

“Yeah, a case of death. Dude was out taking a piss when some grub with a Longshot ruined his day.”

“Damn. What was a grub doing so close to Command?” The things were like rats, scurrying around broken buildings to find that perfect hidey hole. Marov shrugged in response and opened the door to organized chaos. Aides were running around carrying notes scribbled hastily on parchment or laptops closed under their arms, the lights blinking in standby mode.

Nyvar and Marov moved up to the center of the room, their boots falling soundlessly on the massive rug that suddenly took over the floor a couple of meters away from a desk. They stopped and saluted, their muscled arms not trembling a bit, close to a huge console showing images of combat engagements or patrols through the eyes of bots. A map lit up as they approached, red dots slowly pulsating to represent Locust incursions onto Jacinto Plateau. A couple of blue dots, Gears, overtook a red one and the crimson light winked off.

Matheison sat down in a wheelchair in front of one of the desks, a headset on his head, tasking at least six or seven squads of soldiers himself. A couple of assistants were on computers on a wall near him, their monitors showing much the same Matheison’s was, though the teams were split between the two.

“Gentlemen,” Matheison said, turning his chair around by grabbing the wheels and twisting them opposing directions. “Hoffman’s asked me to task your team with a mission. We’re out of Gear teams at the moment, and you’ve had a couple days rest.” He saluted them quickly, almost irritatingly, and they placed their arms behind their back and clasped them together.

“We’re ready to go, sir. Bartch was going to have us train the recruits, but we can always do that some other day. What’s the mission?”

“Prescott,” the crippled man began, lacing the man’s name with acid, “recently divulged some new information about an Imulsion plant right on the outskirts of Ephyra. Apparently, the plant has been reclaimed by a group of Gears who decided the COG wasn’t their cup of tea. They’re cranking out fuel at a steady rate and we want the facility before the Locust find out its working and overrun the place.”

The man wheeled over to the central console and tapped a button on the display. A schematic of the plant, the Lethia Imulsion Facility as it was named at the top, sprang up on the table. Matheison pointed to a place somewhere in the center of the Facility.

“This is where you’ll be headed, the control room. Your goal is to arrest the ex-soldiers who are running the place and, if worst comes to worst, defend it from any Locust incursions. Make no mistake, gentlemen, this facility is a dire need by the COG, so don’t blow anything up we might need to use later. Questions?”

“Guess we can’t take the Centaur I just fixed, then?” Marov replied, wiping his hands on his pants as if grease were still on them.

“No, take an APC. I’ll be monitoring your progress from here via your bot, Sparks. Dismissed.”

“Yes, sir,” Nyvar said, snapping off a quick salute and turning away to the door. The man in the wheelchair twisted himself around and went back to his desk as the two Gears walked out of the room. The doors clacked open and shut with a muted click as they strode into the hallway.

“I think I’d rather have the tank than an armored car if we’re going up against former Gears. Who knows what kind of weaponry they’ve managed to scrounge up,” Marov said, reaching his arms behind his back in a stretch that ended with a popping sound.

“We’ll have to make do,” Joseph replied, reaching up to his ear to turn on the radio transmitter tucked into the cavity. “Ven, Ty, meet us at the hangar. We’re going out for a ride.”

“I could definitely use a change of scenery, my friend,” came the reply, the Islander’s tones suggesting a bemused expression. “As safe as these gray walls are, they do turn one’s surroundings monotonous.”

“Roger that. See you there.” the transmission ended with a tap to Nyvar’s ear, the man turning to the other beside him. “Let’s suit up. Gotta dress up nice for the deserters.”

Chapter 2: Road to Hell Edit

“Yeah, I know how hard it is to fix these things, and yes, I know how hard it is to replace them if we break them. I’m the one that’s been doing the fixing! So, give me a little time to myself, and maybe I’ll come help you with the ‘bots. Right now, though, I’m freezing my ass off in the beginning of winter, so I’m going to get these A/C units working before my goggles start cracking. Five more minutes! That’s all I ask!”
– Damon Baird, when asked by Matheison on help with repairing some damaged COG material.

Outskirts of Jacinto;

2030 hours.

The Armadillo APC had been moving along through the twisted and broken down portions of the city fairly well, rocking them back and forth whenever they came to a scalable slab of debris. They had all rode mostly in quiet as Nyvar drove the armored car out to the western outskirts of Ephyra, with, surprisingly, no sign of the Locust. The city was starting to be left behind, huge towers in the distance giving way to small, suburban architecture. Most of the houses were still pretty well intact, being made of stone or other hard materials, with the wooden parts caved in or charred to a blackish gray.

“This silence is making me nervous,” the rookie, Fais, said, rubbing the back of his neck and breaking the silence. The kid’s eyes had been alternating between open and closed for the past thirty minutes, his fingers drumming on the hard, metal plate covering his left knee. Its surface was pale in the little lighting provided, the Death’s Head emblem covered in a soft sheen of white light.

“Ah, but the silence is the best part. It gives one a chance to mentally prepare for whatever will come next,” Ven replied with a slight smile on his tattooed face, his eyes closed as he reclined against the bulkhead, a position he’d taken since they had left the hangar. The man’s Lancer was in his lap, one hand draped over the handle and the other in the handhold right above the chainsaw attachment. The chainsaw’s blades were ever so softly scratching across the man’s thigh plate, just below hearing range to be considered a feel rather than a sound. His Gnasher Shotgun was clipped to his back, the man's favorite weapon.

“Besides, Fais, with our luck, we’ll probably be seeing some action soon. And if we don’t, we will when we get to the Facility,” said Marov, who was grimacing, both elbows resting on his knees with his hands dangling over the Lancer between his lower legs. The weapon was gently rattling against the man’s armor as the car bounced over the ashy landscape.

“How far away are we Sarge?” Tyler asked, grabbing his left shoulder with his right hand across his armored chest. The movement was awkward, with the chest plate’s bulging design, but he managed it; used to years of practice in the suits. After stretching it out by swinging it in a small arc, he set it back down, satisfied.

Instead of answering, Nyvar slowed the car down, staring out of the dinged and scratched window to the path ahead. Dusk was just beginning to set in, piles of trash and debris casting long shadows over the road and gloomy, dusty ground. As he peered through the small screen, he saw one of the shadows move, detaching itself and ghosting across the street.

“Somethin’s movin out there,” Nyvar whispered, even though there was no way anyone outside the ‘Dill could hear him. More shadows were starting to move away from the debris, pausing every now and then, practically blending in with the ground. “Ven, Marov. Go check it out. Ty, hop up on the gun and cover them.”

“Shit, let’s hope it’s just some Stranded playin’ games with us,” Marov muttered stood up and palmed the hatch button. A hydraulic hiss broke into the silence, wind gusting in tiny bits of dust on the ramp as it lowered. Ven brought his gun up, scanning from one end of his field of vision to the other, his eyes staring out into the growing darkness with a silent determination.

Nothing but the chilling moan of the wind greeted them as they disembarked from the car. Their heavy combat boots made little noise on the sand covered concrete, puffs of dust rising up with every step. They made their way around to the front of the APC after closing the hatch again, each going around opposite sides, scanning the small ditch and the surrounding suburbs. A few tall business buildings and broken down homes were the only things they saw, their forlorn forms looking lonely so far away from the main city. A few cars, rusted and crushed by who knew what crouched by the curb, their rubber wheels melted into the concrete.

Marov tapped on the ‘Dill’s chassis and Nyvar quickly switched on the heavy lights on the front of the armored car, bathing the road in front of it in bright, blue-tinged radiance. Marov and Ven moved up into view in his screen, slowly walking forward with their guns aimed directly in front of them. A creak sounded from above him as Tyler readied the main chain-gun, moving it around in a 180 degree motion. The radio crackled on, in time with Marov putting a hand against his head and activating the mic.

“Don’t see anything. You sure it wasn’t just some loose weeds or something?”

“It is clear on my side, as well, Sergeant,” Ven said, a hand up to his ear as well. They stopped ten meters away on either side of the street near some gutted houses, letting their Lancers lower to their chests, relaxed, yet ready to bring it up and fire in a moment’s notice. The two men continued walking ahead, checking in cracked windows to see if there was anything dangerous.

Another shadow, in the corner of his eye, moved across a roof; a familiar movement from years spent fighting the nightmarish Locust Horde. As soon as he looked at it, however, it disappeared into thin air. Nyvar shook his head, slapping himself slightly with his heavy, gloved hand.

The motion of his hand across his face rubbed across the stubble growing on the bottom of his chin, reminding him of his need to shave again. He snorted, amused with such thoughts playing out in his head at a time like this. He raised his eyes back to the viewport and watched as Ven and Marov moved further and further out of the light’s radiance. He pushed the button to activate the radio, a red light popping up cheerfully, proclaiming the channel’s readiness.

“Alright, pack it in, guys. I need to sleep a couple hundred more hours.”

“Yeah, you and me both, man,” Marov said as he turned around, looking right and left every now and then. He cut across what could have been a well maintained yard but was now a jungle of weeds and vaulted a worn down, chain-link fence with a grunt. Ven just waltzed down the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street as if nothing was wrong in the world, a slight smile on the man’s face distinguishable by the white of his teeth against the tan skin.


Nyvar whipped around in his seat, his hand already moving toward the snub pistol at his side. What greeted his sight scared the shit out of him, but he let out a breath as Sparks’ “head” cocked a little to the right, the cameras that represented his eyes gleaming in the APC’s dim lighting. It floated above the ground high enough for the small antenna to bend slightly against the roof of the armored car.

“Damn it, you bucket of bolts, don’t do that,” he said, blowing a breath out and chuckling at himself. A burst of static cut his amusement short, hissing at him like a Wretch, the blind and dumb “hounds” of the Locust army. It wasn’t a pleasant analogy to think about.

“Sergeant,” a voice replied from the speaker on the floating robot’s front, “you need to move, now. Satellites have detected a sizable force of Locust heading your way.” The bot swiveled in the air, Matheison looking through the bot’s camera at the close back end. “Also, there’s some kind of interference where you are on the logistics map. It’s nowhere near what a Seeder would put out, but it’s enough to make me worry.” Nyvar sighed, remembering the countless times the “Seeders” had blocked communications with some sort of weird, natural jamming equipment.

“Yes, sir. Ven and Marov just went out and looked arou-," A burst of Lancer fire crackled out, stopping his sentence cold and causing him to turn about and look out through the viewport. The ‘bot was forgotten, his vision totally focused on finding both Marov and Ven.

“Contact,” Marov yelled into his mic, firing at something outside the field of light the armored car put out. “Looks like some kind of Wretch, but I can’t see it well enough to confirm!”

“Ty, shine the gun’s light on Sy’s location, now!” The gears clanked softly as Tyler Fais swiveled the gun, the light passing over Ven first, and then Marov, who was firing into an alleyway from the left side of a burned down house.

“Moving to engage, Sergeant,” Ven said, sounding calm and composed at the prospect of a firefight. The man ran from the other end of the street’s sidewalk, bouncing slightly as he fell from the short curb to the street itself. A few Gnasher shots rang out, ineffective at that range, but enough to draw some attention.

The light lit up the alley near Marov, throwing up shadows on the far wall of a gray building set against two houses perpendicularly. Hunched over, little things with something strapped to their lumpy backs as they scurried around, unable to find purchase on the surrounding walls. The Wretches started gushing out sparks as the light hit them, their outlines coming into focus and their hideous maws open in a hissing, clicking sound.

“What the hell?” Nyvar heard from behind him as he turned the Armadillo APC to face the area in between two houses, Fais moving the gun to keep the alley in his sights.

“Ty, open fire,” Nyvar commanded, bringing the armored car to a stop right before the curb, the alleyway only eight or ten meters ahead. Marov had crouched down, putting his gun around the corner and spraying off a few shots without looking. One of the shadows fell to the ground, still, while others were punched back. The surviving ones reacted to the attack with a simultaneous hiss, suddenly focused on destroying whatever was threatening them.

“Yes, sir!” Ty replied as he filled the dark alcove with seething, bright bullets. The Wretches started falling down, but a few got through and most were soundly cut down by Marov’s chainsaw bayonet and a few quick shots of Ven’s shotgun.

Something suddenly exploded in the alleyway, blowing Marov back into a trashed and looted car with a rush of fire and superheated air. The old car buckled under the impact of a Gear in full armor, wedging the man in the passenger’s seat. One of the few Wretches not already put down suddenly disappeared, its outline wavering in the light and then vanishing as it passed outside the radiance.

“Aaugh,” Marov cried out, a sound of anger and pain vying for supremacy, as something smashed into him. Fortunately, anger won out as he loosened himself from the wreckage enough to grab his gun and start the chainsaw, bringing it down in front of him where blood started spraying out from thin air. Nyvar could hear a keening wail followed by a sudden crackling sound in Marov’s earpiece through the open circuit as the Wretch once again appeared, in two bloody pieces.

Marov was covered in gore and other less savory things, putting his gun down and trying to remove his lower half from the wreckage when Ven walked over to give him a hand, grabbing onto the other man’s left shoulder.

“Arrgh! Stop!” grated Marov’s voice through gritted teeth, clearly in pain as the South Islander let go of his arm. “I think that thing dislocated my arm!”

“Ven, pop it back in place, and hurry. Radar’s showing incoming,” Nyvar said through the radio, watching as Ven grabbed onto Marov’s arm and heaved, muscles bulging slightly. A sharp cry of pain came over the speakers before being clamped down into a hiss as the shoulder went back in its socket. Ven worked quickly, extricating Marov from the ruined car and pulling him to his feet.

“What the fuck exploded?” Marov gritted out as they looked down at the pieces of what was once a Wretch. Nyvar wished they’d hurry it up and get back in the vehicle. The red dots were flashing closer and closer to their location, one of them altogether too big.

“Looks like the Locust have been repurposing more than our weapons technology,” Ven said with a tranquil voice, tinged with the smallest amount of nervousness that ruined the intended effect. He stood up, turning around and facing the APC and stumbled slightly as a vibration ran through the ground. Marov looked up and over the APC’s back end at something behind the row of houses out of Nyvar’s field of vision.

“Marov, Ven, get back in the APC!” Nyvar yelled into the radio, backing up into the street and turning around to face the back end to the two men. A bellowing roar shook the surrounding area as explosions lit the sky with yellow and orange. “Brumak!”

Marov started running toward the back of the armored car, Ven following close behind, his indicator lights bobbing up and down with a pale, blue light as he ran. Fais dropped down from the main gun and rushed to the back of the armored car and slammed his fist into the button that opened the back end, jumping to the side and falling into a chair as the two other men stumbled up the ramp. They instantly turned around and started firing around the corner of the APC, into the street where a few Grubs were taking cover behind damaged cars, their pale, leathery hides visible in the small amount of sunlight left. Nyvar stepped on the gas, trying to get them out of there, getting back on the road.

Returning fire pinged and peppered the inside of the APC, one of the bullets flashing by both Marov and Ven and hitting Sparks’ directly in the side. Bright, yellow sparks sputtered out as the ‘bot lost altitude, crashing to the floor with a clang, its lights dying out, filling the air with the stink of melted plastic.

“Close the goddamned door!” Nyvar yelled as he moved forward slowly, the ramp dragging against the pavement with a screeching sound. “The ramp’s slowing us down! Aw, shit!” Nyvar looked up to see a Brumak looking straight at him through the viewport through a helmet that made it seem like it had a hundred tiny pinpricks of eyes. One of its scaly hands were holding onto a house, its claws crushing into the roofing with ease as it steadied itself and bowed slightly. A loud hiss sounded out as someone behind him closed the ramp, causing status lights to blink green and the APC to jump ahead, forcing Nyvar back into the chair’s cushion.

“Hold on!” Nyvar yelled back at his team as he swerved to the right, straight at the Brumak as it fired, the rockets flying directly over the viewport, rocking the armored car hard enough to make it come up on two wheels before falling back down to earth.

Curses flew behind Nyvar as he pushed his foot down on the gas; afterimages wavering in front of his face as the car rocketed forward, crushing a small, melted motorcycle. They were moving forward, fire still peppering the back end, sounding like little pings, while flashes danced every now and then from behind Nyvar, casting his shadow across the front of the viewport and panels in sharp relief.

The street ahead of him held a few Grubs and some normal Wretches, hiding behind an overturned truck, but he just kept going straight, nailing the truck head on with the armored front grill, crushing the fleeing bastards underneath the weight of two vehicles. They ramped over the remains of the truck and came down again with a heavy jolt, causing more curses from behind.

The fire started lessening as they flew down the street, away from the Brumak and gathered Locust, one last roar from the huge beast following them as they left the neighborhood. Suburbs gave way to country quickly, only the lights of the APC letting them see the road ahead, since the sun had sunk beneath the horizon. Nyvar slowed down a little bit after a few minutes.

“Report. You guys alright back there?” Nyvar asked, his eyes still on the road, hoping to hear them say they were all okay. He blinked slowly; waiting for a response as the terrain slowly gave way to scattered bushes and dirt. Losing a member of his team would feel like losing his family all over again; not a feeling he wanted to experience again.

“I’m alright, Sarge,” Tyler said, his voice a welcome sound. “Sparks is down, though. I don’t know if we’ll be able to fix him in the field.” Nyvar’s slight smile slowly transformed into a grimace at the news, knowing they needed the ‘bot for a number of things. Guess they’d have to do things the old fashioned way.

“Me and Ven,” Marov said, sounding strained, “are okay, too. Left shoulder’s a bit weak and I caught a little fire in my left side. Bruises are all I’ll get from it, though.” He sounded frustrated with himself for getting even minutely injured and clanged down into a seat.

Ven followed suit and they all fell silent as the flat landscape passed them by, catching their breath and looking over their equipment for damage. A poorly maintained Lancer could malfunction at a critical moment and cause loss of life or limb, especially these days, when they’d been active since before E-Day. Time passed quickly, slowed down, and reverted to normal as their adrenaline gave way to exhaustion. Nyvar looked up at the digital clock up on the right hand side of his panel and noted forty minutes had gone by since they’d left the firefight behind.

“Alright, give me a sitrep. What was that business about the Locust stealing something…?” Nyvar asked as the APC bumped over small ruts and pieces of broken granite. The engine was starting to sound high pitched, so he slowed down even more, looking around in the field of light provided. It looked like there was a small, ruined gas station a couple miles ahead.

“They attached our ‘bot’s cloaking mechanism to those Wretches,” Ven replied, his tone showing he thought the idea was a frightening one. The cloaking generators were one of their most valuable assets and a terrible blow to their efforts if they learned how to attach it to anything bigger.

“Doesn’t exactly bode well for us, ‘Seph,” Marov continued, his eyes closed as Nyvar sneaked a peak behind him. The man looked tired and dirty, red blood flecked in his hair and all down the front of his armor. A few stretches of red where he’d tried to wipe the blood off of his face shown against his pale skin.

“Agreed,” Nyvar replied, slowing down as he turned into the gas station’s driveway. The station’s roof extended from the store part of it to the actual pumps. It’d give them a little protection if it started razor hailing, at least. He pulled up to the front of the store, the lights shining off what was left of the broken windows and illuminating the crushed shelves and burned out register. He shut off the armored car quickly, killing the growl of the Armadillo’s engine, leaving the interior quiet except for the minute sound of breathing. As Nyvar turned around, an acrid stench wafted across his nose, no doubt from the bits of flesh and gore coating Marov’s body.

“Alright, this is where we’re stopping for tonight. Me and Ven will scout out the inside of the store while you and Marov fix up a campsite. See if you can do anything with Sparks when you’re done,” Nyvar ordered, standing up and grabbing his gun from a nearby rack, moving to the back of the vehicle. He palmed the hatch button and moseyed down the ramp, looking side to side at the new bullet holes in the back of the APC’s chassis.

He sighed and motioned for Ven to follow him as he stalked over to the side of the store, grabbed onto the metal handle, and slowly walked in, his gun leading. His shadow stretched into the main room, dark against the pale, white light of the APC. Nothing moved or made a sound as he quietly clomped in with his heavy boots on broken up tile. He sniffed slightly, smelling the smallest hint of smoke from a day old fire pit.

“Looks like someone had the same idea we did,” Ven whispered, the noise sounding loud in the silence. The silence was broken as Marov and Ty walked down the ramp together, clanging loudly with Sparks’ “body” held in between them. Nyvar sighed, shaking his head and gave up being stealthy, checking each row carefully while the South Islander looked into the back bathroom.

Nyvar walked back around to the broken windows, watching as Marov started pouring a can of fuel onto a few desiccated pieces of wood and dried dung. He leaned against the window sill, looking further out into the night; glad the Kryll didn’t come this far out of the city much. Still, the fire would keep them away from the area, even if it gave his team’s location away for miles around.

The APC’s lights went out and a few moments later, Ty came out with a portable stool and a case full of tools. He set the stool up a few feet away from the fire that suddenly sprang to life, and dropped his armored form onto the dented metal seat, Marov rummaging around in the tools Ty brought as Nyvar turned away, looking back to where Ven had disappeared to.

“Ven, where you at?” Nyvar asked, curiously, unconcerned. "Ah...shit."

He got an answer back quickly as he turned the corner into the bathroom, where a woman’s body hung from the ceiling, attached to a loop of metal wiring around her neck. Ven was bowing his head, muttering under his breath, his shoulders sagging. A few moments later, he reached up and sliced the wiring with his pocket knife and caught the woman on the way down in his arms. He gently laid her down in a corner, putting her hands in her lap, muttering a few more moments before standing up and turning around. He started slightly when he looked at Nyvar leaning against the doorframe, then closed his eyes and moved passed him and into the main room. Nyvar followed, closing the door behind him quietly.

Nyvar caught up to Ven outside, where he was leaning against the APC, staring up into the sky, looking at the pinpricks of light in the heavens. Nyvar looked, too, for a moment, before looking down again; the lights reminding him of the Brumak’s helmet. He patted Ven on the shoulder and just stood there with him, staring off into the night.

Chapter 3: Good Intentions Edit

“You know what? You can take this shit and shove it. If you guys aren’t going to help these people, then I will. If they do that good on their own, just think how much help a Gear would be. Hell, not like the COG thinks of anything but its own skin. So fuck you, I quit. Just try and stop me.”

- Unnamed former Gear’s journal, found a day after desertion.

Abandoned Convenience Store, Outskirts of Ephyra;

2250 hours.

The evening passed without any sign of Locusts, aside from the shrill cry of Kryll way out in the darkness. Ven had volunteered for first watch, leaning against the APC like a statue, staring off into the distance with his Lancer across his massive, armored chest, occasionally moving around the store’s perimeter to stay awake. Nyvar had stayed with him a few minutes before he made the first patrol. After the man had left, he settled down against a wall near the fire and removed his armor in preparation for sleep. Little pops and curses floated over from where Ty was tinkering with Spark’s damaged chassis, while Marov washed off the gore and blood as best he could with a rag he had found in the APC’s cargo hold.

Nyvar was just removing the last piece of his leg armor when Marov finished cleaning off and sat down next to him, his standard-issue COG plating already in a pile next to the APC’s massive wheel. Firelight reflected off the man’s face, streaked with sweat, grime, and oil from the old rag he’d used. The man’s mustache still had a bit of dried blood stuck in it, unavoidable when one used a chainsaw on a live target.

“What’re we doin’ out here, ‘Seph?” Marov said, leaning his head back against the wall and closing his eyes, wrinkles showing out in the flickering light. Marov’s mouth barely seemed to move under his facial hair, the voice sounding tired and tinged with a bitter sadness at all the horrible atrocities witnessed. “We’re getting too old for this, and even if you’re not, I certainly am. I don’t know how many more years I can take.”

“We’re only in our forties. We’ve still got about twenty years left in us,” Nyvar replied after he stretched, realizing all the aches and pains that had slowly appeared after all the hard years of fighting for his life. He yawned then, bringing his hand up to scratch his stubble-ridden chin. “Just try not to break a hip and you’ll do alright, old man.”

Marov smiled a bit, the tell tale curling up of his mustache the only evidence of the action. The man opened his eyes and looked up at the overhanging roof, glistening slightly where there wasn’t patches of rust and grime coating the light peach tile.

“Yeah.” They went silent after that, Nyvar content with the peace and silent camaraderie. He cleaned his gear, taking the chain out and making sure no bone shards or bloodspots were clogging it, even though he hadn’t used it since the day before yesterday. It always paid to make sure about the things.

Slowly, after reassembling his gun, Nyvar drifted off to sleep while laying his head back against the wall, his gun cradled in his arms. Soft, kind words filled his dreams, surrounded by the warmth of his wife’s body. Blissfully, his dreams stayed that way and gave him a respite from the usual horrors that haunted the night.

The next morning;

1040 hours.

“Sarge,” someone’s voice called out, quickly followed by a shake.

“Sarge, wake up.”

Groggily, Nyvar looked up to see Ty’s face contorted in a grimace – never a good sign, especially so soon after waking up. His thought processes started to kick back into gear rapidly, assessing the situation in a glance; Marov was gearing up a few yards away to the right, pulling on the massive thigh armor over his leg, buckling and strapping things with a whizzing sound. Looking to his left as he stood up and starting pulling on his armor as well, he saw Ven already dressed and ready to go, dark circles under his eyes, staring off into the east with a haunted look – a look that said he wanted to move, now.

“Report,” Nyvar snapped quickly as he buckled on the belt with his snub pistol resting in the holster, “what’s goin on?”

“Dust to the east, Sarge. Looks like a Stranded caravan,” Ty replied, starting as a Hammerburst round went off in the distance.

“Shit, looks like Locust. Serves the bastards right, runnin around on their own,” Marov gritted out, his tone icy, no hint of mercy in it. Stranded were the only thing the man hated more than the grubs – they’d killed one of his two remaining daughters a couple of years ago for food. Nyvar knew not all of the former COG citizens went as low as that, but Marov seemed not to even care.

“Save the hatred for the grubs, Marov,” Nyvar ordered, pulling on his gloves as he moved toward the APC and opened the ramp with a dull thud as his fist impacted the button. Maybe the Stranded would have some parts to fix Sparks – even if they didn’t, they were humans being attacked by monsters, a fate Nyvar wouldn’t wish on anyone. He’d seen the disgusting things the Horde did, stringing entrails across fences and mutilating the living as much as possible before their frail forms gave up on life. “Hop in, Gears. Time to go say good morning to the Locust.”

Nyvar heard a chorus of yes sir’s, Marov’s a little less than enthusiastic – that’d be a problem later, if they lived through the next few minutes. Their footsteps echoed against the heavy metal plate floor as they walked in, Ven and Ty hauling Sparks’ dead weight between them. They dropped it, Ven moving to shut the hatch and Ty moving up into the Gunner’s nest.

“Marov, you drive,” Nyvar said, sitting down across from Ven, checking his Lancer and slotting a cartridge of bullets into the waiting chamber, hoping Marov wouldn't take the command as Nyvar's way of giving him a rest after the injuries he'd sustained yesterday - because that's exactly what it was. With a grunt for an answer, Marov kicked the engine on and they started moving, the viewport shining with the glow of the morning sun, blinding them slightly.

“Damn sun, always gotta be in the way,” Marov muttered loud enough for them all to hear. Nyvar smiled, remembering all the times the ‘sun had gotten in the way’ of a kill for the other man, even on an overcast day. His smile faded as he broke out of his reverie, looking out the viewport again and trying to get a feel for the situation.

“Looks like a couple of Bloodmounts, guys. Ty, open up as soon as we get in range, those are your first targets,” Nyvar ordered, his hand looped through a handhold near the door as he stood up, rocking back and forth as they bounced over the rough terrain.

“Yes sir,” Ty replied, pausing for a breath. “Firing.”

The loud report of the APC’s main gun boomed out, rattling everyone inside with the noise. Nyvar saw one of the Bloodmounts drop, the handler falling directly in front of the other, live animal. Blood splattered across the ashy ground as the thing turned on the fallen Locust, ripping into the corpse with gusto, the handler on top trying to gain control over the beast. Too late, the handler leaped off right into a hail of high velocity slugs, torn to shreds instantly – almost exploding into a shower of blood. The other grubs turned toward the new threat, no longer interested in tormenting the Stranded caravan – their mistake. As soon as they turned around, two of the beasties fell to the ground; both victims of a sniper round.

They pulled in, sliding around in the dirt, Nyvar hitting the button to open the hatch. He fired as soon as he had a clear shot, Lancer rounds digging deep holes in the first Locust that fell into his field of fire. Hammerburst rounds instantly filled the small space, forcing Nyvar and Ven to roll out into the open. Nyvar heard a curse from Marov and a hydraulic hiss as the hatch returned to its shut position, spraying gravel as it fishtailed and flew off to the left, ramming the only remaining Bloodmount and turning it into chunks on the way out.

A ragged chorus of cheers came from the general area of the Caravan, where a couple of burned out Junkers were being used as cover. The stuttering report of Lancer fire from somewhere on the other side of the caravan came to Nyvar’s ears, evidence that the Stranded weren’t being attacked on just one side.

“Ven, two on the left. Throwing a grenade to the right,” Nyvar said, grasping the chain on his belt and starting to swing it around in a steady circle, the spiked and heavy explosive tip whirring through the air. He let it go at just the right moment, seeing it fly directly into a group grubs and a Bolter runner firing into the caravan from behind an exploded vehicle. The detonation turned the Locust forces into bloody lumps that flew into the air, splattering Nyvar with blood and rocks as he held up a hand against the debris - small regret at eschewing the traditional COG helmet flowed through his mind. Two shots from a Gnasher shotgun drew his attention back to his comrade.

When he looked over to the left, he saw Ven had taken care of the two grubs, the South Islander forced to roll to the right behind a front half of an old APC as return fire peppered his position. Somewhere behind the Caravan, Nyvar heard the armored car’s main gun still hammering out a steady tempo, even if he couldn’t see the devastation accompanying the sound. A few yards away back to his right, the ground suddenly heaved and buckled into the earth, giving way to a dark hole filled with evil, yellow pinpricks of light.

“Aw, shit,” Nyvar said, readying another grenade to throw into the hole. Only one grub managed to climb out before the explosion rocked the foundations, collapsing the tunnel and burying the rest of the Locust underneath rock and sand. Seeing as how it was too close to get his Lancer back into position for a kill shot, Nyvar yelled out as he ran toward the Locust Drone, its grotesque, white flesh surrounding disturbing, yellow eyes. He impacted the thing with his shoulder, trying to knock it back to the ground as it tried to pick itself back up. It felt like he hit a brick wall, his shoulder popping painfully as they fell in a heap.

Something impacted Nyvar’s head as he tried to get up, knocking him off the bastard and forcing his body to roll across the dirt. Coughing and spitting out the blood that was accumulating in his mouth, he rolled onto his hands and knees just in time for the grub to bring a knee right into his side, forcing him back to the ground. Pain ripped through his scalp as the thing dug its thick, meaty fingers into his hair and pulled him up until he was staring at the barrel of its Hammerburst Rifle. It growled at him with a coughing laugh, a smile forming a horrific facsimile of glee - wicked, yellow teeth drooling with anticipation at the bloodletting about to take place.

A shot rang out in the air, heat blasting over Nyvar’s shoulder. At first, he thought the grub had taken the shot and missed – but he was proven wrong when he saw the ragged hole of a pin-point sniper shot in the thing’s upper chest. It fell to the ashy dirt, its fingers releasing their hold on Nyvar’s hair. He crawled on his hands and knees over to the Lancer he’d dropped earlier, grabbing it and turning around to see the thing – not only not dead, but picking itself up, as well. This one was tough, he thought, but hopefully not tough enough to stand up against his Lancer’s melee alternative.

The injured Locust Drone picked itself up just in time to receive a chest full of chainsaw bayonet. Nyvar yelled out as blood and bone clinked against his armor, the thing’s maw opening in a great bellow that almost matched his own. Nyvar’s arms bulged as he struggled to bring the chainsaw down, shredding through the ribcage with practiced effort. The weapon skipped a few times as Nyvar brought the saw down to the left, slicing through the backbone, knowing it was overkill. The grub twitched and fell, sliding off in two pieces, its entrails and other bodily organs gushing out onto the ground.

Nyvar breathed hard, letting his Lancer drop to his side, the adrenaline wearing off as the battle neared its end on his side of the field. Pain filled his jaw and side, forcing him to hiss in pain and grab the injured areas. He spat out another wad of blood to the ground as sweat dripped down his forehead, landing in the sand and instantly evaporating next to the glob of red. A buzzing filled his ears; an after effect of the chainsaw’s obnoxious whirring – the smell hit him a few seconds later, the dead Drone’s insides smelling like rotted meat and shit. Ignoring the pain as best he could, he brought his hand to his ear, pressing down on the earpiece resting in the canal. It crackled as the channel came online.

“Marov, Ven, report. All clear over on the west side of the caravan,” Nyvar said, gasping slightly as he regained his breath.

“Situation resolved on the south end, Sergeant,” Ven’s voice said, not even out of breath.

“Got a couple of stragglers here on the north end, ‘Seph. Ty’s mowin em down, though. We’ll be good in a minu- ah, nevermind. Clear here, Sarge,” Marov replied, the booming report of the main gun finally quitting its unending rhythm.

“Roger. Stay out a ways, don’t wanna go scaring the civvies. I’ll let you know when you can come in – I’m gonna go have a talk with the Stranded.”

“Talking with the Stranded? Shit, better you than me, Sarge. Roger, will wait for further orders,” Marov’s voice came back, bitter with a tinge of anger.

“Ven, on me. Let’s go be neighborly.”

“Yes, sir.”

Ven’s heavy footfalls thudded against the sand as Nyvar walked toward the Caravan, seeing a few Stranded walking out from a beat up, old Junker. They were carrying weapons, the man in the middle seeming relaxed while his two underlings had their weapons raised and ready to fire. Nyvar cleared his throat, dropping his Lancer to his side in a non-threatening motion.

“Mornin’. Looks like you guys ran into a little trouble. Need any help?” Nyvar asked, stopping three meters from the three people who moved up to meet them. The man was resting a sawed off double barreled shotgun on his shoulder, his armor scuffed, but still recognizable as Gear-issued armor, albeit a little newer than his underlings’. He was clearly the leader, while the two others – a man and a woman – kept their weapons trained on Nyvar and Ven.

The man on the left side of the leader carried an old style, Pendulum era Lancer, knife bayonet and all, its exterior shining and taken care of. He had dark, stringy, brown hair down to his shoulders covered by a beat up, straw cowboy hat. He wore some modified Gear armor with extra scrap metal screwed in on random places, giving him a patchwork appearance. Deserters then, Nyvar thought, chewing on his lip.

On the other side of the guy with the shotgun, the woman held the Longshot that had taken out the two drones at the beginning of the battle as well as the grub that had almost killed Nyvar at the end. Her face was covered by a white bandanna, a stark contrast to her raven colored hair and brown skin. Rags covered the woman, a little cleaner than most Stranded but still enough dirt to mark her as one. Striking blue eyes gazed out with all the ice the color implied; Nyvar would be surprised if she even batted an eye as he lost his head in an explosion of gore, even though she’d helped him in the heat of battle. He winked at her, hoping she’d take it as thanks and not as an insult. However, the man with the patchwork armor noticed the action, too, and responded with jealousy evident in his tone.

“We don’t need no stinkin’ help from a bunch of facist assh-“

“Shut the fuck up, Riddley,” the leader admonished, instantly silencing the other man who was staring at Nyvar with utter contempt. The leader’s bald head gleamed in the morning light, a brown, scraggly beard covering his face. “Name’s Parker, Gearhead. What’ve you got? We don’t need any trouble.”

“Nah, no trouble. Just a couple spare rations and some protection on your way,” Nyvar replied, unaffected by the implied insult in the man’s tone. At least they hadn’t shot him or Ven, yet.

“Aw, shit, really, Sarge? Why do we need to work with these fucking animals?” Marov asked through the radio, anger in his tone at the thought of protecting people like those who had killed his daughter. Nyvar grimaced inwardly, forgetting that the channel was still open, ignoring Marov’s protests. He wished he could reach up and shut the channel off, but that would just destroy any chance of peaceful resolution here.

“Awful nice of ya. What’s in it for you?” Parker asked suspiciously, stroking his beard with the hand not holding the shotgun against his shoulder.

“We caught a bit of a firefight yesterday and our ‘bot got shot up. I reckon we could find some parts to fix it, if you’ve got any.”

“Parts?” The man asked, standing there, stroking his beard, his dark, bushy brows beetled over his eyes. After a moment of deliberation, Parker lowered his weapon and put his hand on the woman’s rifle, lowering that as well. The patchwork armored gear lowered his weapon, too, glaring suspiciously at the two soldiers. “You got yourself a deal, partner. Go ahead and bring your APC in line behind the others. You can soak up the bullets the Locust shoot at our asses.”

“Alright, then. Gimmie a second, I’ll radio them. That fine?”

“Sure,” Parker said, turning around and heading toward one of the Junkers near the middle of the formation, digging around in the trunk. Nyvar watched him for a second before reaching up to his ear, pretending to initiate the connection.

“You hear that, Marov?” Nyvar whispered, holding his hand up in the air and swinging it around in a circle motion. Ven nodded and went to secure the perimeter, smiling benevolently at the Stranded that looked at him with hope and anger battling in their eyes. Surprisingly, one of the children who were staring out of a viewport waved at Ven, causing the South Islander’s grin to stretch even further.

“Yeah, I got it. Just keep those animals away from me. I don’t feel like catching any diseases this week,” Marov griped, shutting off the channel and starting the engine. Nyvar heard it somewhere to his left as he walked toward where Parker was still rummaging around.

“So, where y’all headed?” Nyvar asked, looking around and noting what weapons the civilians had obtained. Lancers, for the most part with a couple of Gnashers and Hammerbursts mixed in here and there. A couple of the more adventurous Stranded were even now ranging about the battlefield, picking up Boltok Pistols and a few more Hammerburst Rifles from downed Locust.

“Small outpost half a day or so away. We’d try to make it ourselves, but that last attack you mopped up scared some of the women and children. Figured you guys’d be the lesser of two evils,” Parker said, his moderately muscled arms covered in a thin sheen of sweat.

“Shit, women and children? What’re y’all doin out here instead of in Jacinto? Least there you have some safety.”

“I’d keep off that topic round here if I were you. Not a lot of people here are happy with the way the COG has been treating its citizens, in case you hadn’t noticed,” Parker replied, turning around and coming up with some machinery and tools Nyvar didn’t recognize. “Here, this should fix your bot for you.”

“You sure?”

“Positive. I used to build the things before I went Stranded,” Parker paused, staring at Nyvar with his beady eyes. “Don’t ask.”

“Alright, sure,” Nyvar said, not sure how to deal with the situation. Normally, he’d be obligated to arrest the man and bring him in for questioning, especially since he carried the knowledge of one of the COG’s main assets. However, it didn’t look like he’d have a chance to even get his pistol out, the way everyone was looking at him.

“I know what you’re thinking. Ain’t goin to happen, buddy. Now, why don’t you take these and go join the rest of your squad. I want you in the convoy, but I don’t necessarily want you next to me. Scoot, Gearhead.”

Nyvar sighed as he grabbed the proffered tools and parts, turning around and heading to the shiny APC at the end of the line. When he looked at his own vehicle, he noticed how minute the rust stains and bullet holes were compared to the rest of the caravan. They’d been through hell and back.

The women he could see were all covered in rags that barely concealed their almost skeletal forms, their eyes only flickering with the bare minimum of human emotions. The children that sat in their laps were not much better – no laughter rang out, no joy was screamed in their high pitched voices. It was as if they had lost any kind of the pure, wholesome childhood they deserved. Only the kid that had waved at Ven before made any show of grinning as Nyvar walked by the window – he smiled back at the boy as he passed, letting it drop as the rest just looked at him with fear or awe.

Nyvar tried to ignore their stares, shrugging up his shoulders and looking at the ashy ground; this is why he fought even after all the years of punishment and pain. Just to allow the children a decent few years like they’d had before the Locust Horde had erupted from the catacombs of Sera’s earthen prison. It reminded him of his own son, drilling and preparing to become just like his father - a Gear, a cog in the machine, probably doomed to live a horribly scarred life even if they won the war and he survived.

When he got to the APC, the door was already open and waiting, Ven leaning calmly against the frame, looking out into the ashy desert, the imprint of a box next to his feet in the soil. A few wrappers littered the area, their crimson color standing out against the kahki-gray ground.

“We’ve given all we may spare, my friend. I only wish we had more to offer them,” Ven rumbled, a sad look on his face. “The women are so thin and broken looking, they look like they’re about to fall apart. And the children. . .” he trailed off.

“I know buddy. All we can do is win this war for them, even if they don’t want our help with anything else,” Nyvar commented bitterly. He changed the subject before the mood grew even gloomier. “C’mon, let’s get in a good meal and plan out the next few days – and help me get out of this armor. ‘Caught a bit more action than I really wanted, today.”

The other man nodded, stepping into the armored car behind Nyvar, hammering the hatch button with his hand a bit harder than was necessary. Nyvar shook his head, sighing slightly and trying to put his Sergeant’s face back on. Marov was lounging in the driver’s seat, his feet propped up on one of the many troop-seats near him, a disapproving look on his face. Nyvar just shook his head again, this time as a warning for Marov to keep his mouth shut about this. Ty was sitting in one of the seats, concentrating intensely on removing one of the plates from Spark’s chassis. Nyvar smiled, glad someone was doing alright.

“Ty, I brought some presents…maybe Marov can help you put that scrap of metal back together.”

Chapter 4: Downside Up Edit

Hey sis, it’s Ty. Thought I’d write you a letter from the field, just in case, you know, something happens. Never been big on long goodbyes, you should know. Remember when we moved from Landown to Jacinto and we left all our friends? Yeah. Anyway, I’ve been thinking really hard about everything, like what’s going to happen after we win. Yeah, I’m not worried about losing at all – we’ll win, no doubt at all in my mind. I just want you to know I love you and Michael if I’m not there when it ends. Just be happy, alright? Oh, and one more thing, I never told you, but I read your diary when we were twelve. Sorry.

Love to you both,

Tyler D. Fais

– Unsent letter in Private Tyler Fais’ possession.

Border of Ephyra, Stranded Convoy;

1745 hours.

Marov cursed again, sparks flying into the air as he worked on repairing the ‘bot with the parts Parker had given them earlier. The constant, unsteady motion of the APC’s tires running over loose stones and bushes was causing the man to scorch the skinny, yet armored, mechanical gloves he wore for the delicate task. Ty watched as he held out tools and parts for the senior member of Echo-Three.

The young recruit’s frame was a little smaller and less muscled than the rest of the squad, but he made up for it in quickness. His hair was a rich, dark brown, a little longer than regulation length – though it wasn’t like regulation mattered that much anymore with humanity caught on the brink of extinction. Yet, the young man kept a positive attitude through it all, a far cry from the nervous recruit he had been when they’d sacked Nemaria seven years before. Nyvar had promised Ty’s only living relative that he’d keep the man as safe as he could.

Ty had a twin sister, whom Nyvar only met once when he made the promise. She’d been a thin little thing, then, with a small tell-tale hint of a curve on her abdomen, her face radiant against the long, brown hair that framed it. Ty always made time for his twin and nephew these days, returning happier and more cheerful after each meeting. Nyvar was glad the man had kin to fight for – most Gears only had each other, like Ven. Still, the squad tried to provide as much a family to each other whenever they were out on a mission.

“Damn it, Ven, would you stop running over every rock in the goddamned desert?” Marov asked with frustration evident in his tone. Nyvar grinned at his friend, glad Marov was back to normal as could be expected, given the circumstances. They were currently following a Stranded caravan destined for some refuge over the border – and as an added bonus, the camp was only a couple of hours away from the Imulsion Factory they had been sent to capture.

Nyvar looked over to Ven, seeing the man unaffected by his team member’s harsh tone, staring out of the viewport with a little more sadness than what usually graced the tanned, sanguine face. The man’s wealth of tattoos seemed to markedly add to the emotion coloring his face; specifically the two curved triangles pointing downward from both ends of his lips seeming to reinforce his miserable mood. Typically, they only made the man more fierce looking – as if the man had fangs ready to tear into any enemies in his way. Nyvar had always seen it that way, at least, but now he questioned if that was really the purpose of the two tattoos.

Shrugging, he looked back to the two on the floor of the APC, trying to repair Sparks’ damaged insides with the parts they’d traded for with Parker, the leader of the Stranded Caravan. Nyvar didn’t know what to think of the man – on one hand, he was looking out for his people and doing what he could to help them. On the other, however, he was still a tremendous liability to leave out here in the middle of nowhere and a possible asset to the COG if he could be persuaded to rejoin.

“Here, hold the bot a second, Ty,” Marov said, drawing Nyvar’s attention back to the task at hand. “Right there, good. Let me just get this thing in there and. . .” a small electric pop sounded as Marov stuck a pair of pliers into the bot’s insides. Static hissed from the speakers, blue lights flickering on and off Sparks’ screens, one of its “eyes” cracked and broken.

“Alright, set him down, Ty, and give him some room. Let’s see if his repulsorlift works right,” Marov said, backing up to sit in one of the chairs that lined the APC’s interior, Ty doing the same thing and watching the bot with hope in his eyes. The man’s green eyes looked up to meet Nyvar’s, smiling around a scar on his lip he’d picked up in one of their many engagements. The other man’s face was blocked as Sparks rose into their line of sight, clunking against the ceiling and losing a bit of altitude. It seemed to almost shake itself off as it did this, its front facing camera lenses no longer flickering.

“Hey, Sparks, glad to see you working again!” Ty said from across the tiny room. Sparks chassis hovered in the air, moving in an arc to the sound of the voice, its head cocking quizzically when it looked at the young recruit. A buzz of static and beeping sounded out from the speakers, as if it was greeting Ty in return. Marov stood up then, moving to the ‘bot’s side and pressing a few buttons, one of the lights slowly pulsing red while the rest cheerfully stayed green.

“Well, ‘Seph, looks like the transponder’s working. Matheison knows where we are if he’s still looking,” Marov said, stroking his beard slightly, an expression of thought on the man’s face.

“What about communications? Can we radio Matheison?” Nyvar asked, wishing he could report the Wretches with cloaking fields attached to them.

“We have limited communications, at the moment. I don’t think we’ll get anything better than short-range radio.”

“Good enough,” Nyvar grunted, moderately pleased by the news. If Matheison sent a Raven like Nyvar thought he would, they’d be able to report the threat and send it back with the message.

“I still don’t . . . trust those Gearheads, Parker. They’re . . . bring more Locust to us!” a voice whispered out of Sparks’ speakers, static interrupting the sentences. Nyvar looked quizzically over at Marov, who shrugged, a look of annoyance mixed with surprise on his bearded face.

“Riddley . . . hell up. I know what I’m . . . them, for now. Just follow my lead . . . pie hole shut.” Parker’s voice, Nyvar thought, wondering what was going on as the static vanished.

“What was that?” Ty asked, walking around the bot, gripping the handholds so he didn’t fall down as Ven guided them into another dip in the road.

“Looks like Sparks, here, has been hiding some capabilities,” Marov replied with a gleeful tone, his annoyance at hearing Stranded no doubt outweighed by the new discovery. “I’d heard some Black Ops ‘bots had been rigged with communication intrusion software, but I thought they’d all been destroyed after the Pendulum Wars ended.”

“Officially, they were,” Nyvar replied, a grimace on his face as he leaned his head back against the cool metal of the APC’s chassis, trying to remember something from years ago. “I saw some papers on Hoffman’s desk a couple of years back when I requisitioned a ‘bot for our team. He put them away as soon as he noticed me looking at them, but I noticed the same emblem Dom has on his knife as well as a few serial numbers.” He got up and traced the numbers on the side of Sparks’ frame, remembering the numbers from the papers. “Haven’t connected the dots til now.”

“So we can listen to the Stranded conversations? What good is that?” Ty asked, disappointment written on his wrinkle-free face.

“At the moment, not much, but it always pays to make sure your allies are really your allies. They don’t know we’re listening in on their communications. Maybe we’ll hear something they’d rather keep secret – or at the very least, we’d be prepared if they decided to betray us,” Nyvar replied, sitting back down and looking at the Imulsion plant’s schematics, trying to plan out the assault on the factory. There didn’t seem to be too many entrances and most of those were probably going to be heavily defended given that the occupying forces were former Gears. The twisted screech of metal on metal skittered across Nyvar’s eardrums all of a sudden, causing him to grab his Lancer instinctively.


“Parker,” a female voice said quickly, “we’ve got an emergence hole in the back end of the convoy, two cars ahead of our new friends!”

“Shit.” A clicking sound followed soon after Parker’s words. “All cars, we’ve got possible Locust contacts near the end of the Convoy. All cars ahead of the emergence hole move to the side of the road as best you can. Naleena, grab some weapons and try to see what the problem is!”

“Alright guys, let’s move. Marov, Ty, you’re with me. Ven, get as close to the E-hole as possible and hop in the gun,” Nyvar said, palming the hatch button and moving out into a canyon of some sort, high cliff walls towering over him. He hadn’t realized the scenery had changed so dramatically. A slight smell of humidity caused him to look up to see dark, forboding clouds roiling in the sky – it was going to rain soon. When he looked back down, he saw Sparks obediently following the three Gears out of the APC, cloaking as soon as he looked around at the surroundings.

“Yes sir. What about the Gears?” the female voice said from thin air, Sparks’ speakers still picking up the signal.

“I bet they’re already moving, Naleena,” Parker replied, his breath coming in fast over the radio, as if he were running. Another pop echoed over the radio, Parker probably trying to contact them with an all range band signal. “Hey, Gearhead, we’ve got some trouble a few cars ahead of ya. Make yourself useful, would ya?”

“Roger that, Parker. We’re already on our way,” Nyvar replied, his fingers pressing against the small comm nestled in his ear canal. He let go, turning the radio off and looked to Marov. “Hey, any chance you could turn that tin can’s software off? We don’t want them to get suspicious and start shooting.”

“I’d like to see ‘em try,” the other man mumbled to himself, looking around and holding his Lancer at his side in a relaxed manner. “Sparks, uncloak for a second. I need to see you.”

A bubbling hiss of static and mechanical beeps sounded as the ‘bot uncloaked, directly over Ty’s head, losing altitude and waiting for Marov to walk over and press a few buttons. Sparks booped sadly as the Gear touched a button on its side panel, turning off the communication intrusion software.

“Done, let’s move. Gotta go save some rabid animals,” Marov griped, shrugging slightly as he pulled his Lancer to his chest and started running to the source of the trouble.

Nyvar shook his head, following the path Ty had taken past one of the Junkers pulled over on the side of the road. The people inside, from what he could see, were huddled together, frighteningly staring outside the armored windows.

“Damn,” Ty said slowly, dropping his Lancer to his side and staring at the back end of a Junker sticking out of the ground. He turned as Nyvar came up, gesturing with his Lancer at the hole in the ground. “Doesn’t look like there’s any Locust activity, sir. Might be an old tunnel that just caved in from the weight.”

Nyvar nodded as he walked up to the hole, staring down – it wasn’t particularly deep, but it was enough to take most of the Junker down into the earth. There were a few people already dropping down into the hole to pull out some Stranded with small rivulets of blood running down the side of their heads or other places. He looked up then, watching as Parker and the dark-skinned woman with the Longshot came to a stop on the other side of the crater.

“Alright, Ty, you come with me. Marov, tell Ven to drive up here so you can get the winch and tow the thing out. I’m going to go talk with Parker,” Nyvar ordered. Marov nodded, his eyes blazing with hatred as he glared at the opposite end of the hole where Parker was talking with the woman.

The hole was about the length of an APC long, so it didn’t take but a few seconds to reach the other side, Ty following him, his heavy boots clumping against the gravel. As they reached the two Stranded, they slowed down, Parker looking up and holding his shotgun to his chest in a two handed grip.

“Shit, Locust’re taking us out without even being here,” the Stranded man said angrily, kicking a small rock into the hole. “Junker’s probably busted with our luck and we don’t have anything to take it out with!”

“We’ve got a winch. I told my team to try to tow it out,” Nyvar replied, letting his Lancer drop down to his chest, his gloved hands fitting through the grove between the chainsaw and the main part of the gun. Parker looked at him and nodded, digging around in one of the many pouches lining his belt, and pulled out a cigarette. Naleena, strapping her Longshot around her shoulder, quickly came up and lit a beat up lighter for the Stranded leader. Parker leaned down to get the end to combust, puffing appreciatively, the fire quickly igniting almost a quarter of the cigarette. Nyvar noticed Ty wrinkling his nose at the smell when the smoke wafted near him.

“Do it. We need to move, quickly. I don’t like stopping out here, especially if the Locust get smart and start dropping rocks down in the gorge,” Parker said around the cigarette, grabbing it between two fingers and letting out a long line of smoke as he took it away from his lips. His dark, gray eyes peered up to the top of the cliffs, darting from ledge to ledge, as if he expected something to come crashing down on them.

Nyvar nodded, turning around to watch Marov hooking the winch clip to the exposed end of the mobile trash bucket, turning around and waving to the APC Ven was driving. The ‘Dill moved back slowly at first, until the line became taunt enough for the Junker in the crater to start groaning as the tortured metal was pulled in an unnatural direction - Nyvar was surprised it didn’t fall apart right there. Ven sped the vehicle up, fishtailing a little bit as it tried to get traction on the rocky ground, moving forward slowly and pulling half of the Junker out.

A white flash lit the area, which was growing darker by the second, followed quickly by a peal of thunder. Nyvar saw Ty’s normally cheerful face frown a bit as the first bits of rain pattered down onto his armor – the kid never did like the rain much.

“Fuck…it just keeps getting better,” Parker said as the rain hit his bald head and dribbled down into his face. The man grabbed the cigarette again with his left hand and wiped the moisture off of his face with the dark, leather glove he wore on the right.

“At least it isn’t razor hailing, yet,” Ty replied, staring at the Junker’s crushed front end as Ven finally pulled it out of the hole. Clumps of dirt and small rocks fell from the face of the grill, the axles underneath the chassis bent at odd angles.

“Don’t say that, son. Tis bad luck,” Parker said, putting the cigarette back into his mouth and moving over to the other side of the crater, followed closely by the girl, Naleena, Nyvar thought he heard. He gestured at Ty and waltzed toward the broken Junker in the comical pace the armor forced him to take in order to move, looking up into the sky and wishing it would just go away. When he looked back down, Nyvar noticed Marov hadn’t moved very far away from the Junker, just starting to turn around. That wasn’t good.

Nyvar’s best friend stood in the way of the Stranded for a moment, his hand balling into a fist as Parker said something to him, his voice inaudible over the patter of the rain. Marov replied too quiet for Nyvar to hear, his jaw clenched and his face coloring to red – and then, surprisingly, Marov unclenched his fist and moved aside to let them go by. The girl glanced at him sideways as they passed, a suspicious look on her face.

“You okay, man?” Ty said worriedly, reaching up to grab Marov’s shoulder. The other man shrugged it off, muttering under his breath a quick ‘yeah’ and walking away toward the ‘Dill. Ty looked after him with a frown on his face, his dark hair plastered to his forehead, and started to move before Nyvar grabbed his shoulder and pulled him back, shaking his head.

“Leave him alone, Ty. He’s got a lot on his plate,” Nyvar said with a tired tone in his voice that matched his drooping shoulders. A long moment passed by as Ty stared through the thickening rain at his squad mate, the rain running down the light teal-green colored armor. The death’s head emblem suddenly seemed to brighten, as if it knew misery was about and delighted in it.

“Yes sir,” Ty said slowly, sighing and dropping his Lancer to his side in a frustrated manner, annoyed at not being able to help someone in distress. Nyvar knew it was one of the reasons the man was a Gear – to help people who couldn’t help themselves; specifically those like his sister and nephew.

“Come on; let’s go see what the damage is,” Nyvar ordered, trying to get the lad’s mind off of Marov’s predicament.

Nyvar moseyed over to where Parker was kneeling in the thickening mud, his second-in-command hovering like a shadow over him, handing him tools from the heavy belt that hung from around her shapely waist. He glanced sideways at Ty, noticing the younger man’s eyes linger a bit longer than necessary on the woman’s waist, and smiled when his face flushed a little red.

“What’s the word on the old girl?” Nyvar asked when the two Gears reached their destination, his heavy boot splashing into a puddle that had just recently formed.

“Not good at all. Axle’s all fucked up. Don’t think she’ll be going anywhere,” Parker replied, running a hand across his bald head as he stood up, shaking out the water that clung to his glove after he did so. With his other hand, he flicked his finished cigarette to the ground and stepped on it, squishing it into the mud with a soft squelching sound.

“How many people were riding in it?” Nyvar asked, looking to the left side to stare at the small crowd that had gathered under a small overhang on the side of the gorge, huddled together, a few of the children staring out from behind their mother’s dirty rags.

“Eight, plus some possessions. We’ll have to space them out across the rest of the convoy,” Parker replied, kicking the damaged Junker’s tire in frustration. “I hate to ask, but d’ya think you can fit a few in your car?”

“I think we could cart them all around; we have enough space.”

“Nah, I don’t trust you that much. Me and Naleena plus a couple others’ll ride with you. I’d like to keep the civilians away from yours as much as possible,” Parker said, squinting in the rain at Nyvar and gripping his shotgun. “Just in case you get any ideas, we’ll all be armed, Gearhead.”

“That’s fine. None of you will be hurt. I don’t go back on my word.”

“Hurt’s not what I’m worried about,” Parker replied cryptically, walking away to the group that was destined to be spread out amongst the remaining vehicles. Naleena, for once, did not follow him – instead, she stood next to Ty, staring at him up and down, her face uncovered now. The now sodden white bandana she had been wearing earlier was around her neck, dripping slightly into her cleavage.

“Eyes up, fossil,” she said, forcing Nyvar to meet her cold, blue eyes; flecks of silver scattered around the pupil.

“Unless you’d like another hole in your head to stare out of,” she continued, patting the Longshot sniper rifle slung across her back. He shook his head with a grunt of bemusement, turning around and heading toward the APC. Nyvar heard Ty snickering behind him as the boy followed his mentor, but he ignored it – there wasn’t much to laugh about these days.

When they reached the APC, which had by then had its winch pulled back into the casing, Nyvar turned around to see Ty and Naleena slowly come to a stop in front of him, silent. The rain was getting stronger, turning the ground into a soupy mess – they needed to move before it became too swampy to even drive around in the heavy vehicles.

“Naleena, I need you to warn you, keep away from Marov as much as you can. He’s got a few,” Nyvar paused, considering his words with care, “issues with Stranded.”

“If he’s got issues he can deal with them. Not all Stranded are animals,” she said violently, glaring at Nyvar, who stared at her back steadily, before looking away her expression softening.

“But I will do as you say,” she finished, shouldering past him, not even wincing as she impacted his tough armored form, and striding up the open ramp. Hearing no sound of gunfire or explosions after a few seconds, Nyvar assumed she did as she was told. Glancing at Ty, who just stared at the ramp with a confused expression on his face, Nyvar blew out a heavy breath.

“You keep your distance from her, too, Ty. She’s not your type,” Nyvar admonished, grinning as the boy’s face flushed with embarrassment, getting him back for the earlier snicker. He strode up the ramp, noticing Marov sitting on the left, looking everywhere but at the woman who was sitting across the small space. At least he was behaving himself so far, Nyvar thought, though it’ll probably be strained when the rest of ‘em show up.

“Ven, Marov, we’re going to be entertaining some passengers for the rest of the way. Be nice,” he said, noticing Ven’s expression back to its normal, serene form. The two Gears nodded their assent, the South Islander turning around and starting the APC’s motor while Marov set about cleaning the tools he’d laid out earlier to fix Sparks. As if summoned by his thoughts, the ‘bot decloaked and stared at the woman who widened her eyes in surprise and reached for her side-arm.

“No, no, he’s a friend,” Nyvar said, stepping quickly to Naleena and putting his big hand on her small, slender ones, keeping her from drawing her gun the rest of the way. “Naleena, this is Sparks. Sparks, Naleena. Say hi.”

Sparks booped cheerfully, unaware how close to destruction he had come, turning away and sliding into the slot in the APC’s wall to recharge itself. As it powered down, Nyvar let go of Naleena’s hand and watched as she angrily thrusted it back into its holster – he didn’t know if she was mad because she’d been surprised or because he had laid a hand on hers.

“. . . in here for the rest of the trip, alright boys? Behave yourselves. We’ll be done with them soon enough,” Parker’s voice drifted through the rain into the small compartment as Nyvar and Ty sat themselves down on either side of Marov.

“Glad you could make it, Parker,” Nyvar said, gesturing to the seat across from him, right next to Naleena. “Take a load off.”

“Shit, I don’t see why we have to make nice with these bastards, ‘Seph,” Marov muttered angrily, shaking as he tried to keep himself under control.

“Just go to sleep. We’ll be there in a couple of hours,” Nyvar replied, settling himself in as comfortably as he could, with the armor. The smell hit him first; the stomach churning odor of several unwashed bodies, rust, and dirty cloth causing his nose to quirk in disgust. However, he quickly masked the reaction with a fake cough, bringing his hand to his face. Riddley, the ugly man in the cowboy hat and patchwork armor, noticed the action and grinned, like he was glad the Gears had to suffer the stench. It was going to be a long ride.

Chapter 5: Tactical Sacrifice Edit

“The world isn’t black and white; as I’m sure you’ve seen and heard, sir. Shades of gray mix in with the two obvious choices, causing a whole lotta confusion during a combat situation. Of course, can you really blame a soldier for making snap decisions like that? I sure as hell can’t and you shouldn’t either. We’ve made too many decisions like that to damn them without damning ourselves, too. Still, I hope the choices my Gears make will never be as terrible as our own.”

- Colonel Hoffman, talking with Chairman Prescott about moral ethics on the battlefield

Over the border of Ephyra, Stranded Convoy, Arriving at Stranded Shantytown;

2140 hours.

The ride to the Stranded Camp was uneventful, surprisingly, given the passengers that shared the small space of the APC. The smell had been a problem at first, making Nyvar’s eyes water, but eventually his nose got used to the smell, even if it felt like there was a lining of trash covering his throat.

Slowly and without any rush or alarm, Nyvar felt the APC first slow and then come to a complete stop. Nyvar looked over to the Stranded that sat across from him, giving a questioning look toward Parker. The man brought his wrist up to his mouth and pressed a button on the small device strapped to it.

“Parker here. Why are we stopping?”

A buzz of static washed across the channel in lieu of response, causing Parker’s face to redden in anger.

“Hank? You there? Answer your god damned comlink,” the Stranded leader said, frustration evident in his tone. Receiving nothing but the hiss of static back, he sighed, looking like he was trying to calm himself. “Mind driving our asses up to the front, Gearhead?”

“Sure thing,” Nyvar replied, patting Ven on the shoulder. The South Islander Gear grunted and shifted the APC into drive and moved around the car in front of them. Looking through the windshield to try to get his mind off of the smell inside the small compartment, Nyvar saw a line of red lights in the thickening rain. Thunder rumbled somewhere over their heads, rattling anything loose on the inside of the ‘Dill.

“I hate rain,” Marov muttered, looking down at his shoes to avoid meeting the gaze of the woman across from him.

“I dunno, Marov,” Ty replied with forced cheer, a grin plastered on his face. “The rain’s relaxing, ya know?”

“What about the rain is relaxing? Can’t see but two feet in front of you, it’s cold, and most of all it’s wet,” Nyvar’s second in command said, sighing as he looked dolefully out of the window. “Damn rain. Rustin’ my gear and shit.”

Nyvar just smiled, glad Marov was taking out his frustrations on something other than those near him. The men across from them were also grumbling in dismay at the sound of water pattering on the roof of the vehicle – Nyvar thought he heard the words “annual bath” somewhere in the mumbling dialogue, but he couldn’t be sure.

Another rumble of thunder drew his attention back out into the rain washed landscape outside their car. Every now and then the APC fishtailed as it ran through a particularly slippery puddle of mud, but the massive treaded tires were more than up to the job.

Presently, they sallied up to the front of the line, coming to a stop parallel to the lead vehicle, a rusted hulk of metal with a bit more scrap bolted to its front than the others in the convoy. Nyvar nodded in respect, glad Parker was able to drill some sense into the feral humans – protection on the lead vehicle was vital, especially across Locust infested land.

“Try ‘em now, Parker?” Nyvar asked, his eyes scanning across the huge hunk of metal that served as a gate in the small canyon. The hinges were covered in a reddish-orange color, rivulets of the same color running down the side of the gate reminding him of blood. He had a bad feeling about this place.

“Hank? You there, boy?” Parker asked, bringing his wrist back to his bearded mouth. Nyvar noticed the man’s other hand was drifting down to the side-arm pistol belted at his waist. So it wasn’t just him that was having an uneasy feeling about this business. “Damnit, boy, if this is a joke; I’m gonna skin the hide off your ass when I get in that overloaded piece of shit you’ve been driving in my convoy.”

Grunting with annoyance, Parker unlatched his seatbelt and drew his sidearm as soon as he got up. A click sounded to Nyvar’s right and he looked over to see Marov with his Lancer aimed directly at the Stranded leader. A dozen more clicks sounded out in the small space as Ty and the Stranded in the APC also drew their weapons. Out of the corner of his eye, Nyvar noticed Ven slowly reaching for the Gnasher shotgun clipped to the side of his seat, out of line of sight to the non-COG personnel.

“Boy, you better put that gun down if you wanna live another day on this hellhole,” Parker said, his face turning red as he stood motionless, his pistol dangling from his hand, pointed at the ground.

“You first, old man,” Marov replied, steel in his voice, not even seeming to notice that they were outnumbered by the Stranded.

“Marov, stand down. You are out of line,” Nyvar said calmly, a bead of sweat trickling down between his shoulder blades. He didn’t want this to end up in a firefight they’d only lose. Ty obediently lowered his weapon – Nyvar was glad someone in here trusted him.

“Listen to your Sergeant, boy. Your behavior’s startin’ to test the limits of my civility,” Parker said dangerously, his eyes glinting in the light provided by the Dill’s interior.

“Stand down,” Nyvar said through clenched teeth, resting his hand on Marov’s gun and pushing it down slowly. His second in command only minutely resisted, the vein in his throat throbbing as he bit down on his anger. “Now we’re all friends here, alright?”

At a twitch of a finger from Parker, the Stranded, including Naleena, lowered their weapons, their demeanors suggesting they were prepared to bring them up and fire at will if they were given the chance. The same hatred Nyvar had glimpsed in Marov’s eyes was echoed in three or four of the Stranded’s.

“I’m gonna go over and press the hatch button, alright?” Nyvar said slowly, unbuckling himself and hauling his armored form out of the seat. He crab walked over to the button and hit it, the hydraulic hiss accompanying the intensifying sound of rain. The bottom ramp plopped into a mud puddle, the end of it disappearing into the soupy earth.

Without a word, Parker and the rest of his goons filed out of the APC and into the rain, gathering in a semi-circle around the scrap metal reinforced Junker. Nyvar heard some banging and harsh words before he ducked back inside the ‘Dill and motioned for Ty to join him out in the rain.

“Hope you get some relaxation out there, rookie,” Marov jeered, his mood already uplifted by the absence of Stranded in his proximity. Nyvar looked away as Ty returned the comment with a one fingered salute and waltzed down the ramp. Ty’s boots sank a few inches into the muddy ground as he stepped outside, yet even that small fact did not seem to diminish the playful smile on his face.

“Marov’s in a better mood, huh Sarge?” Ty asked, his Lancer held against his chest in a relaxed manner. The status lights flickered as particles of rain smashed through them, their blue light eerie in the dark, rain swept landscape.

Nyvar just grunted in response, gesturing for the kid – no, a man, now – to follow him over to the other APC, where Parker was yelling inside the cabin at an unfortunate soul. As he strolled up, a few of the Stranded looked at him with their hands hovering near their side arms, mindful of what had transpired only a few minutes ago.

“What do you mean the radio isn’t workin’, boy? It was workin’ fine a few minutes ago when Johnson was chattering away with some floozy on my command channel!” Parker yelled, spittle flying from his lips, some getting caught in his scraggly beard.

“There’s just static, Parker, nothing I can do. I’ve tried to raise the camp, but they won’t answer!” the Stranded, Hank, replied with a petulant tone of voice.

“Well have you tried getting out and knocking? Or are you afraid of a little rain, Hank?”

“Uh, no. I haven’t tried that yet,” the man replied, his eyes darting to the radar. The bar of light was circling, but there was only a static-esque feature to it. Nyvar’s eyes widened as he saw that, remembering where he’d seen it before. Before he could mention anything, Parker kicked Hank down the ramp and forced him to walk over to the gate.

The massive doors loomed over the man, the rusty orange near the hinges glistening with what seemed to be sick delight. Thunder rumbled, drowning out the first knock Hank performed – at least, it drowned it out to human ears, anyway.

A long screeching howl rang up as soon as the thunder faded, joined quickly by dozens more of the same noises. The sound echoed in the small canyon they were in, sending a ripple of gasps and yells through the forces outside the APC. They all brought their guns up, scanning the sides of the canyon, looking for any traces of the Wretches that were making the awful noise.

Nyvar, however, was looking at the Stranded’s makeshift gate when the battle started. Hank, his ratty clothes offering no protection against anything deadly, was standing at the gate, his eyes wide with fear. The man’s body was paralyzed, like a deer in headlights.

“Run, you idiot!” Nyvar bellowed with growing anxiety, bringing his gun up to scan the ground. Did he spy a flicker to the left? He brought his gun there quickly, lining up his shot and pulling the trigger. Light sputtered and died, the corpse of a Wretch appearing out of thin air. The rest of the Stranded surrounding him started panicking, randomly firing at the canyon walls.

“Shit, fuck, shit, where are they?” one of the Stranded cried in terror, dropping his weapon into the mud in his horror.

Another flicker drew Nyvar’s attention to the canyon wall to the far left. He fired, his bullets just sparking off of the stone. When he looked back to Hank, he watched as a flicker of movement appeared in between the man’s legs. Seconds later, the man was ripped open, long gore covered claws materializing in front of the man’s chest. Hank looked down and screamed with whatever air was left in his chest, silenced instantly as a bullet blew a hole in his head and ended his misery. Another bullet quickly followed, leaving another Wretch corpse in the muddy ground. Nyvar looked over to Parker, whose pistol was smoking with the shots he had fired. Nodding with respect, Nyvar ran over to the Stranded leader.

“These Wretches got their hands on our ‘bot tech, Parker. Light seems to work at shorting their cloaking fields,” Nyvar yelled over the din of the battle and the rain, firing the rest of his clip into another of the flickering shadows dusting over the mucky terrain. He noticed Naleena was closer to Ty than Parker, her Longshot echoing again and again as she picked off the Wretches.

“Light? That doesn’t make any sense, the ‘bots don’t flicker out when they get into the light!” Parker replied, his brows drawn down in consternation, reloading his pistol quickly and bringing it back up to shoot another shadow that was close to killing one of his soldiers. A petrifying scream rang out over the sounds of death all around them, chilling Nyvar to his soul.

“The women and children!” Parker yelled out with a hoarse voice, his eyes widening in fear. His face quickly filled up with red as he grew angrier, belting out a battle cry as he pulled out his shotgun and disappeared into the rain further down the convoy.

“Ty!” Nyvar yelled, looking around for the youngest member of Echo Three. “Ty, where the hell are you?”

“Over here Sarge,” Ty’s voice replied over the sound of a Longshot going off.

“The Wretches are after the convoy. Get down there and secure the area. We can’t let them get the kids!”

“Shit. Yes, sir!” Ty said, his heavily armored form turning and running towards where Parker had vanished. Nyvar grunted as Naleena whipped past him, her eyes murderous, following Ty and her Stranded commander.

“Ven!” Nyvar yelled as he ran toward the APC, the main gun swinging back and forth looking for targets. When he ran up the ramp and into the APC, he saw Marov up the small ladder, his body twisting around with the big chaingun. “Ven, move us back down the Convoy. The Locust are hitting us hard down there!”

“But there’s only kids down there!” Marov yelled, his hatred of the Stranded momentarily forgotten in lieu of the situation. No doubt he was remembering his own daughters. Nyvar hit the hatch button, the rain somewhat muted.

Ven didn’t reply with words, but his hands quickly found the gear stick and shoved it into reverse, slamming the back end of the APC into the canyon wall in his haste. Shifting it back into drive, the APC fishtailed and started moving quickly down the line. Nyvar was hanging by one of the hand holds as the ‘Dill jumped and slid, his heart hammering in his throat.

Nyvar was staring out of the viewport, peering into the darkening gloom when the world went white. The armored car they were in skidded and flipped as Ven brought a hand up to his face to ward away the sudden light. Nyvar held onto his handle for dear life, his eyes squeezed shut as the APC flipped back onto its wheels, as if it knew it was needed for a future date and did not want to fail its occupants. His armor protected him from the worst of the tumble, his head a little dizzy when he’d smacked it against one of the seats.

When he opened his eyes, Marov was on the floor, his eyes closed and a thickening red splotch staining the man’s doo rag. Nyvar rushed over, yelling something incomprehensible, hearing the chatter of automatic weapons outside the APC. He brought his fingers to the man’s throat, checking to see if he was still alive. He felt a pulse and worked quickly to stem the bleeding – he reached up for the First Aid kit that was still latched against the wall, but Ven’s hand got there first.

Nyvar looked up at the man’s face, noticing nothing but a bleeding lip was wrong with him and held out his hand. Ven held pressure against the man’s head with a gauze after removing the doo rag while Nyvar wrapped a bandage around his best friends head, muttering ‘c’mon, man’ over and over.

Another explosion sounded out in the background, lifting their car on two wheels and causing Nyvar to fall over, catching himself on the seat beside him. Recovering, he looked up to Ven and the South Islander nodded.

"Go. Sparks and I will tend to Marov," the man said, his eyes reinforcing the message, leaving Nyvar the ability go back out into the field.

Pulling his Lancer from behind his back, Nyvar ran to the end of the APC and waited as the ramp fell into the mud. As soon as he could, he ran back into the rain, his eyes widening with a horrible display. Two of the Junkers carrying civilians were burning, small bodies lying around it, some of them still aflame. He tore his eyes from the display, tears streaming down his face and mixing with the rain, and looked up. A comet of green was careening directly at them, hitting another of the convoy’s Junkers. Seeders.

Sickening screams sounded out as a teenager jumped out, his body covered in flames, flailing around and yelling. Nyvar knew there was nothing he could do for the boy, so he turned and scanned the battlefield, bile rising in his throat. That could have been his own son.

“Ty!” Nyvar yelled, running through the wreckage toward the muzzle flashes and five silhouettes he saw in the distance. Everything seemed to move in slow motion as he jumped over a piece of scrap metal that once had belonged to one of the Junkers. The fires all around him were glistening, hissing with a savage delight at the carnage around them.

Nyvar stepped over a body of small child, its features unrecognizable aside from the expression of sheer agony evident on it. A charred dress attested that the child had been a female. Shuddering with disgust and empathy, Nyvar continued, another explosion lighting up the area where the muzzle flashes were taking place, followed by a thundering secondary detonation as gas exploded in a spectacular display.

Screams ripped through the night again, competing with the sounds of rain and the whistling of the Seeder’s rounds. As he raced toward the scene, he noticed only three of the five shadows were still standing, hiding behind an overturned Junker. With relief, he saw that one of them was Ty, the man’s normally jolly face turned ugly by the angry yell that was accompanying every burst of his Lancer, ducking down as returning fire peppered the position. Naleena, her eyes devoid of any emotion, dealt out death quickly and methodically. Looking over the defenses, Nyvar watched as Drones disengaged themselves from an Emergence Hole, their countenances hideous in the firelight.

A stray shot pinged off Nyvar’s shoulder, leaving an already swelling bruise as he ducked and slammed his armored form into the cover, throwing one of his bolo grenades over his shoulder blindly. Something splattered against the Junker as the explosion went off – Nyvar hoped it was grub blood. Parker broke cover and fired his shotgun into the stew of flesh and mud, popping back down as soon as Hammerburst rounds returned his ‘hello’.

“We need to get out of here, Parker!” Nyvar yelled over the din, blindly firing his Lancer over the cover.

“Fuck you, Gearhead, I’m not leaving my convoy. I swore to protect these people!”

“Well right now, what good are you doing them? They can’t move, in case you hadn’t noticed,” Nyvar replied, looking down the line. He and the other three were at the end of the convoy, the last Junker nothing but slag. “They’re sitting ducks. We need to cut our losses and leave. This isn’t a battle we can win!”

“God dammit,” Parker replied, breaking cover and running into a hail of bullets as Nyvar peeked over the Junker’s frame. Miraculously, none penetrated the Stranded leader’s armor or his uncovered head, Hammerburst rounds pinging off the COG-issued breastplate. The man was akin to a fiery angel of death, running over to a grub and hitting it in the face with the butt of his shotgun. The drone’s head kicked back, giving Parker enough time to turn his shotgun around and blow holes in his enemy’s chest.

Cursing, Nyvar took down a grub that was rushing in from behind the man, catching it in the leg and forcing it down to a crawl. Parker turned at the noise and swung his shotgun like a golf club, turning the drone’s head into paste, blood splattering his face. Fury danced in his eyes as he looked over to the remaining enemy, its mouth open wide as it spoke!

“Die, groundwal- urrk.”

A sniper shot to its shoulder spun it around, its gun falling into the mud beside it. Quickly, Naleena reloaded and stepped into the open, coldly shooting the Drone in the other shoulder, bone splintering and ripping out with the bullet through its back. She reloaded again, her face starting to betray her, an angry expression dancing across her face. If Parker was the angel of death, Naleena’s face turned her into an avenging goddess, white hot wrath dancing in her cold, blue eyes.

Another shot, this time in the thing’s throat. Blood gurgled out of the hole as it tried to speak, the thing’s yellow eyes widening as Naleena drew closer. It fell to the ground, staring up at her with very real fear evident in its corpse-white face. Naleena screamed at it, dropping her Longshot into the mud and bringing her foot up, a heavy boot coming down and smashing the drone’s head into the puddle, blood and brain thickening the muddy water. She choked on her sobs as she brought her boot down again and again.

Another explosion turned one of the Junkers near the gate into slag, forcing them all to turn around and look. Of the convoy, only a few cars remained, their wheels melted due to the heat all around them. Women and children tried to run out of the stationary vehicles only to be cut down by the approaching drones.

“We need to go, Parker! There’s nothing left we can do here!” Nyvar yelled, running to the man and tugging on his arm. The man just looked at him with shock on his face, nodding, his bald head reflecting the flickering fires all around them. “Ty, grab Naleena and let’s get back to our APC. It’s under a ledge over here,” Nyvar ordered, running back the way he’d come earlier.

A drone sprang from the wreckage, a Gnasher shotgun coming up to take an unfortunate down. Nyvar just yelled and shoulder charged the thing, hitting it and slamming it into a twisted hunk of what was a Junker. When he brought his Lancer up, he noticed the thing was already dead, a rod of steel puncturing its eye. Its hand twitched, as if even in death it wanted to kill and maim.

They made it to the APC without further incident, another Junker going up in flames and a crowd of refugees being slaughtered by a crossfire in the distance. Naleena seemed like she wanted to run and try to do something to help, but Ty held her in an iron grip as he pulled her toward the APC, his face conveying his concern over his charge. Tears were mingling with the rain running down the woman's face as she looked away and put her head on Ty's arm. Nyvar knew the woman probably did not have any family aside from the Stranded falling around her.

“Get us out of here, Ven,” Nyvar said brokenly as they entered the ‘Dill. His eyes flicked over to the right side of the APC, most of the seats taken by Marov’s form. Above him, floating gently on his repulsorlifts was Sparks, a bloodstained gauze in it's metal appendages. The machine's 'eyes' focused on Nyvar and it booped softly, a long, mournful note. Marov waved groggily, a grim expression on his face.

“What about survivors, sir?” Ven asked, his eyes looking toward the last remaining Junker, able to see a kid cradled in his mother’s arms looking out of the window. The display vanished in a white explosion, the whistling sound of the Seeder round ripping through the air a death knell.

“There are no survivors,” Nyvar whispered as Ven slammed his heavy boot into the pedal, the ‘Dill racing away from the carnage. The sound of screams followed them, even through the metal plating.

Chapter 6: I Flew Too Close to the Sun Edit

“Flying a King Raven requires a touch of bravery, a pinch of skill, and a whole lotta insanity. Luckily, our pilots have the insanity part down.”

- Corporal Damon Baird discussing the mentality of a pilot to a new recruit moments away from liftoff

On the Border of Ephyra;

0915 hours

The Armored Personnel Carrier had traveled through the entire night, trying to get as far away as possible from the devastating genocide that had just been committed. None of them spoke, their very souls exhausted by what happened. Nyvar had tried to get some sleep during the long journey, but every time he slumbered; soft echoes of the screams woke him up.

Eventually, the morning light peaked in on the occupants through the trees they were driving parallel with, the compartment shaking every now and then as Ven ran over a pothole or a rock. Marov was still lying down, fast asleep – he had been spared the gruesome sights the rest had experienced. Sparks was no longer active and tending to Marov; the ‘bots frame was tucked into the wall near the hatch, his status lights dark. Nyvar’s eyes shifted over to the two seats next to his second in command, alighting on Ty and Naleena.

The dark skinned woman’s eyes were closed, pink and puffy from the sorrowful night; leaning on Ty’s armored shoulder as best she could with the harness she was buckled in. Nyvar doubted she was asleep, but he hoped just the same that she was. Ty had one of his gloved hands on the girl’s thigh, slowly stroking it back and forth unconsciously, his eyes facing down toward his boots. The man had been melancholy since they left, not even speaking a word to the rest of them.

Sitting beside Nyvar, Parker was looking out into the viewport with a blank expression, his shotgun in his lap. A filthy rag he’d pulled out of his pocket was running the length of the weapon absentmindedly, just an excuse to avoid conversation. Everyone was in shock, aside from Nyvar and Ven.

They had seen much worse during their tours during the Pendulum Wars, gruesome sights as mankind thought up increasingly terrible ways to kill each other. Whole villages with bombed out buildings and bodies littering the ground had greeted the Gears as they strode into ‘conquered’ towns. Any survivors were quickly rounded up and sent to the medics, given fair treatment, food, and water. However, there were rarely survivors.

“We’re almost out of fuel, my friend,” Ven’s voice broke the quiet, almost a whisper. Nyvar looked over to the big man, sighing and grabbing a hand hold to stand himself up. He peered down at the driver’s display and noticed the slowly blinking ‘E’. Turning around, he spoke to Parker with a soft voice, handing the man a map of the area, pointing toward where they were on it.

“Any chance you have some fuel caches out here, man?”

Parker looked up at him, his hand now motionless, the rag clutched in it tightly. A few seconds passed by as he scrunched up his forehead and ran a hand through his scraggly beard, staring at the map. He pointed one dirty finger at an area a couple of miles away, near the edge of the forest.

“Got a cache there, Gearhead. Take it. Not like I’m going to need it anymore,” the man said, staring at Naleena with an almost soft expression on his face. “Naleena’s all I got left out of all of ‘em. I need to get her someplace safe and-‘”

“Hell no, Parker,” Naleena said, her eyes opening with the same fire from last night still in her eyes. She brushed Ty’s hand off her thigh and crossed her arms. “I’m going to kill those Locust bastards for what they did.” Nyvar was surprised when the girl turned her eyes on him. “I want to join the COG.”

“What?” Both Parker and Marov said at the same time, anger and surprise warring across their bearded faces. Nyvar looked over to his second in command and raised an eyebrow that said ‘how long have you been awake?’ Marov just shrugged and shook his head, letting Nyvar know the man’s opinion.

“Girl, you don’t know what those monsters do to women like you, do you?” Parker said before anyone else could get a word in, his arms up in the air and his face livid. “They put you on a farm and keep you pregnant until you can’t bear anymore children! I’m not gonna’ to let you make that mistake!”

“That won’t happen to me. Not if I’m barren,” Naleena replied hotly, her eyes falling to the ground and her face darkening with embarrassment. She looked back up at Nyvar with the anger still in her eyes and continued, “Am I right?”

“Yeah,” Nyvar said, returning the woman’s blue eyed stare with his one of his own. “They’ll check you out to make sure before you join up, but if it’s true, you’ll be put through training just like anyone else.”

“It’s true,” she insisted, wistfully, sitting back down to lean back against the metal wall. She crossed her arms and glared at Parker. “And if you cared about any of us you’d be joining with me. Your flock is gone; you’ve got no other excuse to delay it.”

“It’s because of these assholes they’re dead! Can’t you see that you blind, little bitch?” Parker yelled, unbuckling himself to stand up and point at Sparks’ frame. “They were here for that thing!”

“What?” Naleena said, surprised, her eyes wide. “How do you know what the Locust are thinking?”

“Didn’t you see those invisible Wretches we littered across the damn canyon back there? Where else would they get a cloaking device except from the COG?” Parker said, the man’s eyes’ glancing down at the deck in what Nyvar assumed was his way of calming himself down. When he glanced back up at the girl, he sneered, his yellow teeth showing through his messy beard.

“The COG aren’t to be trusted with our lives, girl. They’ve already shown they’re prepared to sacrifice the lot of us.”

Ty had sat through all of this quiet and controlled, his face turning red whenever Parker had started yelling at Naleena, but now he seemed no longer able to control himself. He stood up and swung his fist, impacting Parker’s chin enough to knock the man’s head back.

“I’ve had enough of you, old man. The COG is trying to save lives, or hadn’t you noticed?”

The Stranded fell against the wall and into a seat, rising back up swinging his own punch, hitting Ty in the gut, knocking the wind out of the kid even through the armor. By then, Nyvar was in between them, pushing them as far apart in the small APC as he could.

“Enough! We have enough lost lives on Sera to add two more fighting amongst each other. Save it for the goddamned Locust. Ty, stand down,” Nyvar yelled, feeling both of the men shaking with rage and almost straining against his arms. He didn’t know if he could hold them off if they decided to keep swinging – they were both younger than he was.

Abruptly, the ‘Dill crashed into something and throwing all three men forward, forestalling Parker’s reply. Nyvar didn’t see where Parker or Ty landed as he flailed around looking for purchase, but judging from the sounds, they landed on top of each other. His hands grasped the edge of the chair Ven was sitting in, hearing and feeling it clang off of his armor dully. Ven had a hand up to his head trying to stem another cut that appeared on his forehead.

“What the hell did we hit?” Nyvar started before looking out through the viewport. In front of them was what they had run into, the early morning light showing the Beserker in all of its horrible glory, looking like a skinned gorilla. It was on the ground, trying to pick itself up, obviously stunned. It recovered quickly, its muscles bulging and its head sniffing the air around it. “Shit. Hit it again, Ven. Step on it!”

The APC moved forward, skidding slightly as Ven stepped down hard on the accelerator. The Berserker had, by then, managed to stand up and bring its shoulder down and charge directly to them. Nyvar spent one second cursing how stupid the Locust could be before the APC hit the Berserker and stopped, the back end flipping into the air, sending Nyvar into the ceiling as they came down hard, glass shattering and metal groaning in protest. He must have blacked out, because when he came to, Ty was over him, shaking him hard enough to bring the dead back to life. Nyvar thought he heard incoming fire pinging against the hull.

“Sarge! Get up, dammit!”

“Report,” Nyvar said, coughing as dust rushed into his lungs, filling his body with pain. He felt like one big bruise as he picked himself up slowly. He tested out his limbs, not feeling anything broken.

“We’re under attack. Ven and Parker are outside giving the Locust something to think about. Nal’s with Marov over there,” Ty said, pointing over to the relatively undamaged section of the APC, the back hatch open with Ven in view firing a Longshot. Marov was lying on the ground, his eyes closed, with Naleena and Sparks tending to him. When Nyvar looked back toward the front, all he saw was a massive hole and blood covering everything; he hoped the Berserker was dead.

“Let’s get out there then,” Nyvar replied, spying his Lancer, picking it up off the ground, and rushing past Marov and Naleena to get outside. When he ducked through the hole, coming up into air filled with bullets, he noticed the forest they’d been running parallel to off to the side. If worst came to worst, it offered a good retreating position.

“’Bout time you showed up, Gearhead,” Parker yelled over his own Lancer fire, blood dripping from a cut on the side of his head. Ven moved to the far side of the APC’s back end to make room for Nyvar, looking around the corner and cracking off a shot of his sniper rifle.

“I figured I’d take a nap, seeing how well you did in the last engagement! What’s the situation?”

“Fucked. We’ve got around five Drones and a Theron taking cover behind some rocks,” the man paused, aiming and firing at a drone that had poked its head out too far. The thing’s face blew away in a cloud of red, its body falling from the rocks. Parker continued on as he fell back into cover. “I think the Berserker’s still alive, too, seeing as how I don’t see it lying on the ground anywhere.”

“Holy shit, do those things ever die?” said a voice from behind Nyvar. He looked over to see Ty crouched and blind firing his Lancer around the APC’s frame at the rocks. Return fire started peppering his side and riddling the ground with holes.

“Fucking hell, I think I see it,” Nyvar replied, his eyes picking out a massive form far behind them throw off a piece of the APC’s plating and stand up, blood running from dozens of cuts. One of its arms was slashed to the elbow, thick blood falling to the ground as it flailed around in an insane rage. Suddenly, it faced them, its nose sniffing up into the air – Nyvar didn’t like that at all.

“Aw, shit, shit, shit. It’s going to smell us,” Ty said, his Lancer aimed at the thing. His words seemed to have an effect on the monster, causing it to roar and start to move toward them, picking up speed.

“Echo, focus fire on the Berserker! We need to take it down before it charges the APC!” Nyvar yelled, aiming and firing at the Berserker with his Lancer, hoping against hope the thing would drop dead before it hit them. A Longshot round rang out, a yellow line following the slug as it flew toward the charging behemoth and blew a hole in its head. However, even that only seemed to slow it down, the creature’s body not even knowing it was already dead.

“Where’s the Hammer when you need it?” Nyvar said, reloading his Lancer as it clicked empty. He slammed a clip into it, but something caught inside it and cost him precious time as he fought to fix it before the thing got any closer. Next to him, Ty clicked empty, too, slamming a cartridge in and letting loose another burst without any difficulty. Before Nyvar could finish his reload, a crackle of static burst into his ear, causing him to wince.

“This is KR Two-Three. Sergeant Nyvar, is that you down there?” Nyvar faintly heard the chop-chop-chop of the Raven’s blades over the battlefield’s din.

“Affirmative. We’ve got a Berserker right on top of us! Take it down!”

“Roger that, firing!”

The sound of a chain-gun going off pierced the air, streaks of fire slicing the air in half as it opened up on the Berserker walking toward them haphazardly. The monster roared once before the bullets cut it in half, spraying the surrounding ashy dirt with gore.

“Whoo!” Ty cheered loud enough to hurt Nyvar’s ears, a grin on his young face. “Now that’s what I’m talking about!”

“Anything else you need help mopping up, Sergeant? I’ve got a team of Gears in here itching to riddle some grubs with holes,” the pilot said in Nyvar’s ear with a debonair tone. A burst of fire sparked off the Raven, coming from the rocks. “Oh, I guess so.”

Before it could unleash another batch of withering chain-gun fire, something green and nasty flew by it, the slipstream it brought with it causing the chopper to spin toward the ground. The pilot managed to right the Raven before it crashed, but it didn’t look like they were going to get anymore air support.

“Ah, shit. Nemacysts! Hang on back there!” the pilot yelled into his mic, probably to the Gears loaded in the hold.

Nyvar grimaced as the chopper roared over them toward the forest, followed quickly by five Nemacysts, green, flying suicide bombers made especially for taking down choppers. Nyvar fired at one with his Lancer as it whizzed by, hitting it and causing it to explode in a green cloud. Another fell out of the sky as Parker filled the air with bullets, the thing detonating when it hit one of the trees. The tree it had hit fell down a few yards away from the APC, its huge trunk almost completely devoid of branches.

“That’s our ticket out of here, Echo!” Nyvar said, pointing at the tree. “Ty, get Naleena and help her carry Marov. Parker, you go with him. Ven, you and I will give them some covering fire! Go!”

As Parker and Ty ducked into the APC to follow his orders, Nyvar moved over to Ty’s previous position and crouched, his back against the ‘Dill’s massive wheel. He peeked out to the rocks, spotting the tell-tale yellow of a Torque Bow’s arrow glowing amidst the rocks. Nyvar lined up his sights and fired, knowing if the bow hit them it could possibly blow a hole in the APC and harm the people inside.

His bullets rammed home into the Theron’s armor, knocking the arrow off course and into the rock next to it. The thing scrambled away as fast as it could, but one of the Drones next to it was not paying attention. When the arrow exploded, the grub went with it, showering the rest of the hostiles with its blood and organs.

The Locust all ducked back into cover, leaving an opening for Ty, Naleena, and Parker to carry Marov toward the forest, a shimmer in the air behind them floating above the ground – Sparks. Nyvar was glad the ‘bot was still functioning; it had probably been the only reason the Raven had even found their position.

The brief lull in fire fell away as more bullets flew through the air, directly at the four running for cover in the trees. They all took cover as best they could, but not before one of the bullets hit Ty in the shoulder. He went down, dropping Marov’s legs into the dirt and forcing Parker to drag the unconscious man by himself. Before Nyvar looked away and started firing another burst at the grubs in the rocks, he noticed Naleena next to Ty, checking his pulse.

Nyvar hoped the kid was okay, but he could not worry about it at the moment. Returning fire peppered his position as he crouched back against the wheel, blind firing his Lancer around it. His weapon clicked empty again, so he clacked in his second to last clip, this time perfectly and without any problems. When he looked back over to Ty, he saw the man crawling behind the big trunk with Naleena leading him by the hand. Parker had already managed to bring Marov far enough into the woods, so he was crouched behind a tree, firing into the rocks.

Another drone fell from a Longshot round, the rock behind it covered in bits of brain. Two left, plus a Theron. Nyvar didn’t like the odds, especially with the grub’s superior position. They’d have to make a run for it in the forest. He patted Ven on the shoulder, pointing to the woods.

“Go, I’ll be right behind you!”

“I will hold you to that, my friend,” Ven replied, tiredly, bags under his eyes. Nyvar remembered the man had been up for almost two days already, driving the APC. He felt suddenly ashamed for sleeping while one of his Gears went without, but he pushed it aside for later and nodded, firing into the rocks while Ven ran toward the forest. A crackle of static sounded in his ear again as the Raven made contact again, the pilot’s voice harried.

“I don’t think I’ll be able to drop off these Gears without going down, Sergeant. There’s too many-,” the man grunted as something exploded in the background. “Aw, hell, the tail’s on fire.”

Sounds of the pilot struggling with the controls over the open line were almost drowned out as a Torque Bow blew up one of the tires above Nyvar’s head, his hand up to his ear and yelling over the sound.

“Try to set her down, pilot. We’ll come get you!”

“We’re going down, I repeat, we are going down. We’re about twenty clicks northeast from your position, Sergeant,” the man said, his voice strangely calm as his bird fell apart around him. “Fuck, jump for it, jump!”

The line went dead, just a buzz of static in his earpiece. He clicked it off, standing up and running toward the forest. Parker and Ven were ahead of him, firing into the rocks to cover him; even so, a few bullets ricocheted off the bark of the tree and flew past him by centimeters. He raised his hand in the air and brought it down several times in a swiping motion.

“Go, go, go! We need to get out of here! The Raven went down and we need to see if there’s any survivors, get some reinforcements.”

They nodded, Ven grabbing Marov around the middle and hoisting him onto his back, leaving Parker free to help Naleena carry Ty into the forest. Nyvar ran with them, firing behind them with the rest of his clip. They ran as quickly as possible with two injured being carried, Nyvar covering them from behind while Ven lead them with one hand holding his Lancer out in front of him.

Pulling his last grenade from his belt, Nyvar started swinging it, gathering momentum until he let it go. It sailed into the air and stuck to a tree, detonating a second later with enough force to bowl over one of the grubs chasing them. The tree tipped over and smashed the Drone as it struggled to get up, sending blood splattering into the undergrowth. With a screech whistle, the Theron yelled out as it retreated, the remaining grub following it. Nyvar sighed with relief as the things left, glad they now outnumbered the Locust forces enough to stop a pursuit from occuring.

“Echo Three, this is KR Two-Three’s pilot. Do you copy?” A voice said in Nyvar’s ear, wheezing and coughing, fire crackling in the background.

“This is Sergeant Nyvar, I read you. What’s the situation?”

“Bad, sir. We landed in one piece but a Boomer and a couple of Drones took us by surprise. Two of the Gears are dead, but we fought ‘em off. I don’t know how long we can last if another attack comes.”

“Alright, sit tight. We’ll be there soon. Who’s the ranking officer over there?”

“Sergeant Hemmins was, but he’s dead, sir,” a new, familiar voice came over the comm.

“Who is this? What’s your name soldier?” Nyvar said, fear clawing into his throat, hoping it was not who he thought it was.

“Private Jason Nyvar, sir.”

“Shit,” Joseph Nyvar muttered; worry bringing bile up into his throat, his chest going cold. It did not sound like his son knew who was on the other end of the line. “Hold position. We’re on our way, son.”

Chapter 7: Frostbitten Edit

“We survive as long as we can and protect the people we care about. Dad always did that for us. He was what a Gear stands for, strong and honest in his virtues. He will be missed more than I can possibly set into words. Be at peace, dad. You earned it.”

- Tyler Fais, the last part of a eulogy at his father’s funeral

In the forest, 9 kilometers away from downed Raven;

1150 hours

“How’re you holding up, Ven?” Nyvar asked, his eyes staring into the forest with his gun sweeping back and forth. He was anxious to reunite with his son, but he understood the risks of letting his soldiers tire themselves out before battle.

“I will be fine, my friend. I have faced more hardship than this before.”

“At least let me carry Marov. You need a break,” Nyvar replied.

“Please. This walking tank is bouncing me around so much I feel like I’m going to be sick,” Marov said weakly as Ven slowly laid him on the ground. Nyvar smiled at his friend, glad he was in higher spirits; almost like himself again, grumpy and disapproving.

“The sickness might be coming from your head wound, Sy’. You lost a lot of blood,” Nyvar said, looking over as Naleena and Parker gently helped Ty sit down against a tree, his breath coming in strained gasps. The man had been rattled by the shots he’d had inflicted on him. One of his ribs were cracked from the force of the bullets and a small gash where a slug had grazed him as it went through the armor were the extent of his injuries. However, it was enough to slow the kid down, even with a numbing injection they had stuck in his side.

“Who needs blood, anyway? I’ll just make some more. What happened, by the way? One moment I’m watching a fight erupt and the next I’m being lugged around by Ven the South Islander giant through a forest.”

Nyvar recounted the events that had landed them in the forest, citing the Berserker as the reason they were walking and a downed chopper as their next destination. He hesitated when Marov asked who all survived the Raven’s crash, but figured his best friend should know.

“The pilot’s alive, as are two Gears. Corporal William Banner and . . . Jason.”

“Jason? As in your son, Jason?” Marov replied, his eyes widening as he tried to pick himself up. “Well, shit, Nyvar, what are we waiting here for? Let’s get the kid, now!”

“As much as I want to, we all need a break. We’ve been moving as fast as we can for the last two hours trying to get to the chopper,” Nyvar said, a bitter tone in his voice and his muscles itching to move, to find his son and keep him safe. “I’m going to check on Ty. Ven, try to rest while you can. We’ll move in ten.”

Nyvar did not wait for a reply as he moved over to the youngest member of the squad, the man’s sharp, green eyes filled with pain. Naleena was by his side, rubbing his arms and cooing softly to try to make him comfortable as she probed his side.

“Hey. How you doin’, man?”

“Not –ow- too good, sir. But I can still fight if you need –errgh- me to,” the man replied, laughing in pain at himself as he finished. “I’m so pathetic.”

“Naw, man. I know how bad this shit hurts, but you’ll make it through. Just take it easy. Parker and ‘Leena can take over for you and Marov for now.”

“Yes, sir,” Ty replied, smiling through the pain in his ever cheerful mood. Nyvar smiled too, shaking his head and gently patting the man on his good shoulder. He shifted his gaze over to the woman tending to him, noticing her bandanna was back on her face, the white cloth contrasting greatly with her dark skin. He wondered vaguely why she was wearing it, but an answer came to him after he breathed in through his nose. They stank; all of them. None of them had had a bath for days. Aside from her, Nyvar thought, remembering how clean she had looked when they first met.

“We need to move soon, Gearhead,” Parker said, looking intently back the way they had come. Nyvar walked over to where the man was, far enough away from the others to keep their conversation private. “I think I hear the Locust crashin’ through the forest.”

“Yeah, I’ve been hearing it, too. Nothing we can do about it but find a defensible position after we get the survivors from the Raven.”

“Waste of time. We need to find cover, now,” Parker replied, causing Nyvar to narrow his eyes in annoyance. Plainly the man held no kindness in his heart for the COG forces, aside from working with them to save his own skin.

“Hell, if you have a problem, Parker, now’s the time to say it. Fuck, man, if you don’t wanna stick around, no one’s stopping you!” Nyvar said, angrily, spreading his arms out to encompass the group, his Lancer pointing toward the ground. Parker whirled around, his cheek still blue from the hit he had received from Ty earlier, irritation in his eyes.

“I’m not staying here for you, asshole,” Parker said acidly, pointing at Naleena. “I’m doing this for her. Not you, not your little band of misfits, and definitely not for the COG. And I’ve had it with your self-justified bullshit; the Coalition only looks out for itself. They burned half of Sera to the ground to keep themselves safe, leaving the survivors to die!”

Nyvar ignored everyone’s stares as they noticed the yelling, gritting his teeth, trying to keep a lid on his anger. He knew his son being in trouble was just ramping up his temper, but until they reached the Raven, he had to control himself. He closed his eyes, unclenching his fist; he had not even noticed the action.

“Fine. After we reach the Raven, Naleena can decide to leave with you or join the COG. I know you’ll try your damndest to keep that from happening, but until then, you deal with this shit like a grown man and follow my orders. You were a Gear once, you know what’s at stake here – we don’t have time to bellow at each other all day.”

“Whatever, Gearhead. Just keep your COG propaganda to yourself,” Parker said, his eyes flashing dangerously as he hefted his Lancer to his chest.

Nyvar did not like what he saw in the man’s eyes, but he had to trust the man, for now. All of their lives depended on their working together. He stared into the man’s eyes until Parker looked away, kicking at a rock and sending it into a tree stump with a loud thump. Nyvar looked down at his wrist, pulling back the black sleeve to uncover the watch; it was time to move out.

He passed Naleena and Ty, motioning to them that it was time to go, not trusting himself to speak at the moment. When he arrived at Marov’s location, he bent down and picked the man up with a grunt, his knees almost buckling under him – plainly he was not as fit as he used to be when he was younger.

“You weigh a god damned ton, Sy’,” Nyvar gritted out, shaking his head as Ven moved closer to help. He would do this himself. “What’ve you been eating? Rocks?”

“Hell, rations sure taste like ‘em,” Marov said, his breath hot on Nyvar’s neck as he settled himself in. “So what was that all about back there?”

“Don’t wanna talk about it.”

“C’mon, man, I need to know these things in case you ever get yourself knocked out. Like the time Kathryn hit you in the head with the frying pan. Remember that?”

“Aw, screw you,” Nyvar said, glad Marov could not see his smile at the mention of his late wife. Back before Emergence Day, Nyvar had just gotten home after the Pendulum Wars ended and snuck up on his wife to surprise her. Unfortunately, she had been in the process of washing the dishes and she reacted badly, slamming the pan directly into Nyvar’s forehead. The blow had knocked him out, momentarily. Marov had been there, luckily, and they revived him quickly. Marov was laughing when he came to, while Kathryn was slapping him, scolding him for scaring her and saying how sorry she was for what she had done.

“Just sayin’ man. So are we all a big, happy family with the Stranded again or do we need to watch the animals?”

“Parker’s willing to help us until we get to the Raven. Then, all bets are off,” Nyvar replied as they started moving, Ven leading them and Parker bringing up the rear.

“Perfect. Well, I suppose it coul-,” Marov started, sounding cheerful for once.

“Don’t finish that sentence, please,” Nyvar complained, grunting as they trudged up a hill. Things could always get worse.

They traveled as quickly as they could, the trees giving way to small clearings now and again. They skirted them, however, preferring not to be spotted by any passing Reavers. The flying, squid-looking monsters the Locust used to get around were deadly to ground forces, able to either strafe from the sky or land and spear soldiers with their sharp, sword-like ‘feet’.

Presently, static whispered over the radio, warning Nyvar that an incoming transmission was coming through his earpiece. He held onto Marov with one hand, reaching the other up to his ear and connecting his side of the communication line.

“Uh, Sergeant, you better be getting here fast. We’re seeing a hell of a lot of Reavers flying around over the wreckage,” the pilot’s voice said, sounding tired and worn. “We’ve managed to take cover in a formation of rocks, but I don’t know how long we’re going to remain undetected. Any chance you could hurry it up a little?”

“Nyvar here. Just defend that position; we’re about 4 klicks away from your position, now.”

“Roger that. Oh, one more thing. When we were up in the air, I spotted a wall of clouds heading our direction. Looks like Frost is ready to kick our ass with a snowstorm, sir.”

“Aw, hell,” Nyvar replied, glancing up at the sky through the trees. He could not see any sign of the storm, but he noticed the wind was starting to pick up. “Did you spot any signs of caves in the mountains or anything?”

“No, sir. I was a little busy trying to dodge the green explody things trying to take down my bird,” the pilot’s reply came, filled with sarcasm. He did not blame the man for resorting to the tone, especially in the current situation, so he let it slide this time.

“Copy that. We’ll be there soon, Nyvar out.” He took his hand off his earpiece, breaking the circuit.

“That didn’t sound good,” Marov said, his voice sounding stronger. “Things getting worse?”

“Unforunately,” Nyvar replied, chewing on his lips as he tried to think. “Reavers are swarming the crash site and there’s a snowstorm blowing in our direction.”

“Fuck, I knew it was getting colder.”

“Yeah. Do you think you can walk yet, Sy’? I need to have a word with our Stranded friend.”

“I’ll try,” Marov said as Nyvar set him down, leaning on Ven as the South Islander came over and offered a shoulder. Nyvar dropped back as the two moved forward, letting Ty and Naleena know the situation.

“We’ve got a problem,” Nyvar started, walking beside Ty and letting the man lean on him for awhile, giving the girl a break. “We’ve got snow coming in within the hour and no shelter. Any chance you or Parker would know somewhere we could hole up?”

Naleena pulled the bandanna off of her face, frowning as she looked back at Parker and thought about the question. Nyvar saw Ty looking at her with a soft expression on his youthful face and sighed. The man was still a kid when it came to women, regardless of Nyvar’s orders.

“Parker never really told me anything about this forest,” she began, her lips moving almost hypnotically. Nyvar could see why Ty was smitten with the girl, at least. “But, I once heard him talking to Riddley about a series of caves near here. I think it’s that way, somewhere.”

Nyvar looked over at where she was pointing, seeing the giant form of some unnamed mountain rising out of the trees perpendicular from their position. He mentally marked it and nodded, steadying Ty as he tripped over a root.

“Alright, that’s our best bet, then. Thank you.”

“Its fine,” she replied, shaking her head and making her hair sashay across her face. A determined look appeared on her face as she took Ty back from Nyvar, whispering, “And when the time comes, I’m sticking with you. Parker won’t be able to sway me otherwise.”

Ty smiled weakly at her; Nyvar could tell the man was happy with the announcement, though it would probably cause trouble later on down the road. He put it aside for now, though, as he ran to catch up with Marov and Ven. The two men were just cresting a small hill, Ven helping Marov up a ledge by pulling him up with his massive arms. Nyvar forgot just how strong the South Islander was, even with lack of sleep – he was glad the man was on their side.

As soon as he heaved himself up the ledge, he heard a Hammerburst’s distinctive sound, quickly followed by static once again almost deafening him. He reached up to his ear, idly wondering if he should switch it to the other to relieve his hearing.

“Sarge, this is Private Nyvar. The Corporal is dead and we’re being surrounded by drones,” his son’s voice said, sending adrenaline through his veins.

“Yeah, and I think I can see come Boomers coming in, too. Lucky us. Damn it all, I didn’t sign up to be a ground pounder!” the pilot’s voice complained, snub pistol shots echoing as he returned fire.

“I see you. Sit tight, we’re going to flank ‘em,” Nyvar said, taking his hand off the earpiece. “Marov, you stay here, and tell Ty to sit this one out, too. ‘Leena can give us some covering fire with that Longshot of hers while Parker defends this position. Ven, you’re with me. Let’s go rescue us some Gears.”

They both replied with ‘yes sirs’, Ven following Nyvar as he ran to the left flank of the Locust firing into the rocks. They both took cover behind a tree, looking out onto the battlefield. One of the drone’s heads exploded in a shower of gore as the pilot got a lucky shot.

“Yeah, take that you pale faced sons of bitches! Can’t handle th- oh shit!” the pilot’s voice rang out. Nyvar watched as the man hopped back into cover as the Locust shifted their fire on his rock, chipping away at the improvised cover. Jason burst out of cover when that happened, throwing a frag in between two drones. One of them managed to scramble away from the device, but the other erupted in a display of blood and dirt, body parts flinging into the sky.

With a smile on his face at Jason’s kill, Nyvar motioned for Ven to circle around and flank them from the other side. He looked around the tree he was standing behind, analyzing the forces arrayed against them. Six drones were scattered behind trees and a bunch of rocks, firing at the stones and roaring unintelligible epithets at the Gears there. There was a Theron directing them and hissing as it motioned forward to something out of Nyvar’s view. What came next caused his heart to skip a few beats.

“BOOM!” a deep, growling voice yelled, echoing into the forest. Seconds later, there was a whistling sound as the massive Boomer shot its weapon. An explosion tore a tree in half to the side of Jason’s location; Nyvar was glad the trees were interfering with the thing’s aim. With a hand to his ear, he tried to raise Ven.

“Ven, we’ve got a Boomer in business. That’s the first priority. Do you read me?”

“Yes, sir. I am in position to make the Locust one with their gods,” Ven replied mystically, his voice overlaid with the strange resonance he had when in battle. The voice still gave Nyvar the creeps, but he shook it off.

“Alright. Hit it!”

Nyvar belted out a battle cry, taking aim at the Boomer and firing his Lancer at it, bullets whizzing through the air to impact the thing’s heavy armor. It listed to the side as the slugs hit it, catching it by surprise. It tried to turn, but Ven opened fire at that moment with his Gnasher shotgun, blowing the giant Locust into slightly less giant pieces. The Theron cried out in a slithering whisper, trying to get the drones to respond to the new threat. However, his face turned into a spray of red as a Longshot round went off, bone and brain spewing out of the back of the things helmet.

“Alright! The cavalry has arrived!” The pilot’s reedy voice echoed into the forest, quickly changing from jubilation to a caustic overtone. “Granted, they’re a little late, but they’ve arrived!”

“Good to see you, sir,” Jason said over the comlink, stepping out from behind a rock and firing down into the now confused drones. One of the Locust spun as the projectiles bit into its shoulder, falling to the ground and weakly crawling for cover. Nyvar had other plans, however, and burst from cover, raining Lancer rounds down on it, putting it out of its misery.

The rest of the drones went down quickly under their combined fire, Ven making short work of the two closest to him with his shotgun. Thick, dark blood stained the green forest. A cheer went up from the rocks as the last drone fell, quickly silenced as an explosion blew one of the rocks to rubble.


“Aw, shit, another one?” Nyvar said incredulously.

“I thought you took care of it already! What the hell, man? I said Boomers earlier, as in plural!” the pilot complained, anger in his voice at most of his cover being demolished.

“Can it. We’ll take care of it!” Nyvar said, gritting his teeth and trying to find out where the Boomshots were coming from. Another whistling sound warned him just in time, the rocket blowing a tree into splinters next to him. He grunted as pain filled his face, his hands coming away with blood. He would feel that later.

“Ven, do you see it? I can’t get a location,” Nyvar yelled, his face tingling.

“Yes, sir. Taking care of it,” Ven replied, Gnasher shots resounding through the air. Nyvar directed his gaze to where it was coming from, watching with mounting trepidation as Ven roared and charged the Boomer. The thing stood its ground with its yellow teeth bared, trying to reload its weapon before the South Islander could get to it.

“Ven! What the fuck! Get the hell out of the way!” Nyvar yelled, watching the tableau unfold before him, horror and panic warring in his chest. What happened next would haunt him forever. He heard the sound of the Boomshot reloading quite clearly, the ‘chak’ as the rocket slid into the chamber hammering in his ears as time slowed down.

Nyvar watched Ven’s face morph from a savage expression to one of complete and utter serenity. Flashes of memories roared through Nyvar’s brain as he saw that face, watching the expression repeatedly cropping up at multiple occasions through the years they had known each other. He dimly could hear himself yelling something as the whistle of a rocket leaving its chamber screamed in his ears.


Ven kept going, bringing his shotgun up and firing off two rounds before the rocket hit him and exploded, sending the man flying back into a tree, pieces of armor ripping through trees around him. Nyvar shouted, tears mingling with the blood on his face as he fired an entire clip into the Boomer, watching it fall, already weakened by Ven’s Gnasher blasts.

Nyvar had no more ammunition, so he flung his gun to the side and ran toward where his friend lay, his head down against his chest, skin blackened and his hair smoking. He fell to his knees next to the man, reaching out a hand to check for a pulse. There was nothing. Everything stopped for him as he kneeled by one of his best friends, completely stunned. There was no way this could happen, not to Ven. The massive Gear could not be gone without even a word of goodbye. Distantly, Nyvar felt hands grab him and pull him away from the sight, Marov limping with Naleena as they worked to resuscitate the Gear. Marov was beating on the man’s chest, trying to start the heart back up again, but Nyvar knew it was not going to be.

The air grew colder as a shadow glided across the scene. He looked up, still kneeling there, not hearing anything, just watching as dark clouds roiled in the heavens. Thick, white flakes fell, dancing in the wind, the first signs of Frost ushering in the season of sorrow. A savage howl screeched through the silence of the forest; Wretches were on their way.

“Grab his tags. We need to move,” Nyvar heard Marov say through a broken voice from far, far away. “Jason, grab your father. He’s in shock right now, so don’t worry. He’ll be fine. Move out!”

Chapter 8: Rising Son Edit

“Being a Gear is about protecting people, son, helping people who can’t help themselves, and that includes the Stranded when they let us. Never let anyone tell you different. We’re the only thing standing in the way of humankind’s annihilation. I know you’ll make me proud when you get into the field. Just be careful. Your mother’d come back to haunt me if anything happened to you.”

- Joseph Nyvar to his son, a day before Boot Camp.

En route to a cave for shelter from snowstorm;

1343 hours

“C’mon, dad,” a familiar voice said accompanied by a tug on Nyvar’s arm. He looked up, seeing but not seeing the face of his son, slight fuzz dusting the young man’s chin. His son was here, something he was unable to focus on; why were the final moments of his best friend the only thing whistling through his mind? He was numb, just following his son in the blistering cold forest, reliving the memory over and over.

“Am I losing it?” Nyvar whispered to himself, raising his hand to his face and staring at the blood on it. He had seen friends killed before, in the worst ways possible. His own wife had died before his eyes. Kathryn.

He smelled her hair on the cool breeze, the forest and snow flurries disappearing as the memory came to him, blotting out the real world. The sound of gunfire and mortars punctured the air around him, but he did not even notice. Kathryn was lying in his arms, a hole the size of his fist in her stomach. Blood was being leeched into the ground as her eyes fluttered, her pale hand reaching for his face as she smiled. The soft touch of her hand stroking his rough beard sent a thrill through him, quickly followed by an almost soul crushing feeling. He pulled her to him, knowing she was not going to make it. What was he going to tell his son? He didn’t know what to do other than hold her. She hugged him weakly, her warm breath brushing his ear, stuttering in slight pain despite the numbing agent Nyvar had injected her with.

“I love you, Joe,” she said, coughing, “but I gotta go, ya know?”

Nyvar could picture the smile on her face as she said those words, a ritual they had performed since they had married. He had always been the one to say them, his duties to the COG forcing him away from his family time and again. She had always smiled and replied with a cheerfulness that had no real base besides love.

“Yeah, I know, Kat. We’ll be back together sooner or later. Can’t get rid of me forever,” Nyvar said, holding her tighter. He closed his eyes, his soul too worn to even cry as her grip grew slack. It felt like there was a void in his chest, sucking away all the light and emotions, leaving him numb. Minutes passed by like an eternity, Kathryn’s pulse slowly fading into stillness.

He laid her body gently on the ground, feeling nothing as he picked up his gun and looked out of the small store he had hidden in. Marov and Ty were taking cover behind a couple of supporting pillars, trading fire with the grubs in the courtyard. Ven was next to him in the only available cover, calmly firing off round after round of the Longshot. When the South Islander drew back to reload, he looked up at Nyvar; there was a deep sorrow in the man’s eyes, tears running down his face.

Something twisted inside Nyvar’s chest at the sight, the world seeming strange and suddenly surreal. He felt his breath coming in gasps as his eyes widened, a slight tug of a smile on his face. He jumped over the counter and waded into the courtyard, his gun flashing before him as he laughed hysterically, uncaring about the returning fire hammering into his armor.


Nyvar broke out of his memories, his heart racing and small clouds of his breath puffing into the air with rapidity. His face felt pinched and stretched in the cold air, its temperature combined with his son’s voice suddenly shocking him back into his right mind. He looked at his bloody hand, collapsed into the snow, and blacked out.

Two days later, somewhere in the mountains 1906 hours

The first thing he felt as he swam back to consciousness was warmth. As he came to, he heard voices at the edge of his hearing, their voices seeming to be heated. He struggled to open an eye, succeeding and seeing nothing but a ceiling with spikes hanging from it. A smoky smell and the crackling of burning wood told him that there was a fire in the cave; the source of the heat he felt.

When he tried to move a lance of pain shot through his left side; it felt like someone was stabbing him with a white-hot poker. Nyvar closed his eyes again, grunting deep in his throat against the pain. Resigned to being forced not to move for the moment, he took stock with his limited senses.

His armor was no longer covering his body, for one, though the black bodysuit he wore in armor was still there. When he moved his hand up his left side, he noticed a soft bulge around where he was hurting. Logically, that told Nyvar that he had suffered some sort of injury, but if it was during the battle or after it, he couldn’t tell.

The feelings of malice and despair that had been at the back of his mind flooded to the fore as he thought of the end of the battle, and Ven. However, Nyvar pushed them back with a practiced ease; the affliction was something he was used to after losing someone, even if it still hurt in his chest. At first, the emotions would win out in his mind, but eventually he would overpower them and return to his right mind. He didn’t like feeling like a prisoner in his own body, so it never lasted long.

Sighing with the not insignificant effort of regaining himself, Nyvar tried to listen closer to the voices in the distance. Luckily, they seemed to be getting louder, so it was less difficult than before.

“I don’t understand,” said a young voice; Jason, Nyvar thought. He sounded worried – Nyvar felt like getting up to grab his son and never let him go, but knew that was impossible at the moment.

“He’s got a few problems, Jason,” Marov’s voice replied, carefully modulated to a neutral pitch. “I think Ven might have reminded your father of the way your mother. . .” He trailed off.

“Oh,” came the response, Jason’s voice thick. Nyvar could just imagine his son’s head bowing down for a moment before setting his shoulders and looking forward. Jason had always been stronger with the emotional side of trauma; Nyvar was glad of it.

“He’ll be alright, though that chunk of shrapnel we removed from his side might cause a few problems,” Marov continued, revealing the reason for the bandage. Adrenaline was amazing, sometimes; Nyvar hadn’t even felt it happen. Figuring it was time to get a report on the situation, Nyvar grunted and called out.

“I’m awake, son.”

“Dad?” Jason, his armor covered in grub blood, rushed over. Kneeling down and staring at him with concern, he continued. “You okay?” Nyvar shifted his eyes to the side and grunted again, embarrassed.

“Yeah, I’m good. Can’t move with this wound in my side, though.”

“That’s because you had a tree shoved into your ribcage, ‘Seph,” Marov said, smiling through his bushy mustache. “You should be fine in a day or so. Sparks’ pretty good with that surgical stuff.”

Nyvar nodded, looking at Jason again. The kid had grown since he last saw him, three months ago. He looked tougher, a new scar on his lip and his eternally messy brown hair shorn short. Muscle he hadn’t had before had bulked up the rest of his body; it seemed like the armor was just a hair too small for him.

“How long’ve I been out? And what’s the situation?” Nyvar asked, curious to know what had gone on during his recovery. Marov sat down on a stone and leaned back against a stalagmite, crossing his arms. Jason followed his example and sat on the floor next to his father.

“Well, you’ve been sleeping for a couple of days, so we’re way off schedule for attacking the facility,” Marov said, looking up at the ceiling. “Grubs’ve been scouting out our location. This is the third cave we’ve had to move to. Took out a couple of patrols, but there’s always more. Surprisingly, there haven’t been any more of those invisible wretches, as far as we can tell, but who knows. They aren’t known for their stealth, but this breed could be silent.”

“Not something I’d like to imagine,” Nyvar said, closing his eyes and willing his body to heal. He hated being useless and just sitting here doing nothing while his team risked their lives. “What about Ty and our Stranded friends?”

Marov looked to the side, avoiding his gaze, causing Nyvar to think the worst. After a moment of excruciating silence, Marov continued.

“Parker’s missing. He left out on patrol with Jason and me, told us he wanted to check something out. Haven’t heard from him since; personally I hope he’s dead.” He paused, blowing out a breath. “Ty’s fine and Naleena seems to have no inclination to leave with Parker. The girl’s got a good head on her shoulders, for a Stranded. Follows orders well enough, seems to mesh well with Ty and Jason.” Marov smirked and looked over at Jason, who blushed slightly at the words. “The pilot, Jonesy, is out with Ty and Naleena at the moment, trying to see if there’s any supplies left at the Raven. For a flyboy, he’s a pretty good shot with a pistol.”

Nyvar nodded, his eyes closed as he absorbed all the information. The pilot would be a risk to bring with them, having no armor. Still, they weren’t going to just leave him here. Jason seemed to be having the same trouble with Naleena as Ty did, which wasn’t a good thing. With all the battles and adrenaline, emotions would be heightened. Nyvar didn’t feel like seeing Ty or Jason’s heart break; he’d have a talk with the three, separately. With a goal in his mind for the moment, he opened his eyes.

“Good work, Sy’,” Nyvar said, smiling at his best friend. “Let me know if the situation changes. Jason, you mind staying here for a second?”

Marov got up, patting Jason on the shoulder as he left. The boy looked at his father questioningly, but stayed quiet. Nyvar stared at the ceiling for a second before starting.

“So, Naleena,” Nyvar said, awkwardly.

“She’s cool, I guess,” Jason replied, scratching his neck as he looked to the side. Nyvar noticed a slight red coloring as he said it. Nyvar knew he was probably suffering from the same thing, but carried on regardless.

“She’s going to be a Gear,” Nyvar rumbled, “so there’s certain rules we have to follo-,” Jason cut him off.

“I get it, dad, stay away from her,” Jason said sadly. “It’s just. . .”

“I just don’t wanna see you get your heart broken, son.”

“Yeah. Yeah, I get it.” Jason sighed, standing up. “I’ll go help Marov with the food. Ty and the others should be back in an hour or so.”

“I love you, you know,” Nyvar said, uncertainly. Jason paused, not turning around.

“You too, dad. Thanks for saving me.”

Nyvar watched as his son walked away and out of sight, sighing and closing his eyes for a moment. The smell of meat being cooked danced around the cave, causing his stomach to rumble hungrily. When was the last time he ate? Nyvar shrugged and went over the Imulsion Facility’s schematics in his head as he waited for the food to be finished.

Presently, he heard more voices coming from the left, Ty’s laidback tone resonating with Naleena’s playful one. The pilot’s voice rang out suddenly, something sarcastic Nyvar couldn’t make out, causing the others to laugh. These people were his family. Nyvar smiled and fell back asleep, confident someone would wake him up when the food was done. As he headed back toward dreamland, he thought of Ven and his wife, and the pain returned. However, he could deal with it as long as he had his family around him.

Chapter 9: As Quiet as a Whirlwind Edit

“My Gears aren’t made for stealth missions, Chairman, but they’ll do their best. We still have a few old recon suits from back in the Pendulum Wars. Send them with the Raven; I’m sure they’ll be happy to see it. After all, Nyvar and his boys are old pros with the suits - more than I can say for some squads.”

- Colonel Hoffman to Chairman Prescott, when informed of Nyvar’s ‘bot’s signal being picked up.

Somewhere in the mountains,

2006 hours.

Nyvar awoke to the smell of cooked meat – what exactly it was, his stomach didn’t care. When he opened his eyes, Naleena was holding a plate, an actual plate, with a few slices of meat. Her dark skin flickered with the fire’s light, making her somehow more beautiful than usual. Nyvar could see why the two boys were attracted to her. Her deep raven hair went extremely well with the color of her skin, her luminous eyes like stars against the night sky.

“What is it?” Nyvar asked as he took the plate, glad to have something to take his eyes off the woman. He thought of Kathryn as he carefully maneuvered himself to a sitting position; while Naleena looked nothing like her, they had somewhat of the same personality. The one where they could get what they want just by using their feminine wiles – the thought caused Nyvar to smile slightly.

“Venison,” Naleena replied, standing back up and leaning against the wall. “The grumpy one said you wanted to see me?”

Nyvar almost choked on his meat at the description of Marov, chuckling slightly at the mental image it conveyed. His best friend in the rain, looking miserable and irritable, complaining about something, as usual. When he finished chewing, he looked up at the woman, wondering slightly at how Marov knew to send her to him. The man must have noticed the same thing Nyvar did.

“Yeah. It’s about Ty. . .and my son,” he said neutrally, watching for a reaction. Unfortunately, she only shrugged and stared straight into his own eyes.

“I haven’t been leading them on, if that’s what you think,” Naleena said, frowning slightly and turning her expression into a slight pout.

“Regardless, if you want to become a Gear, there’s certain procedures ya gotta follow.”

“Like?” Naleena replied, arching an eyebrow. Nyvar frowned slightly, wondering if the woman knew where this was going already; however, he was already in, so he might as well finish.

“Like fraternization, for instance, dating someone in the ranks. A punishable offense, for good reasons.”

“Uh huh.”

“Well,” Nyvar paused, suddenly unsure of himself. “I just want you to be careful with the boys. Practice distancing yourself for the military.”

“I get what you mean, Gearhead,” Naleena said, using Parker’s nickname for Nyvar, “but my private life is my own business. And I don’t think I’ll get court marshaled and drummed out of service when the COG needs every soldier it can get.”

Nyvar had to admit the woman made a good point, even if he didn’t like it. The war wasn’t going well for the COG; they were losing soldiers left and right. Still, if he was going to keep control of the situation, he had to stick to his guns.

“Listen here, missy. You stay away from Ty and my son for the rest of the mission. I don’t want them to get distracted and try doing something stupid to save you. That could get them killed. Do you want that for them?”

Naleena frowned even further, her eyebrows coming down and wrinkling her forehead. Then she turned and left. Nyvar hoped the former Stranded got the message. Now the only one left was Ty to talk to. He wasn’t looking forward to that conversation, as it seemed the boy was extremely attached already. Nyvar sighed – they didn’t have time for all this angst.

“Reminds me of Kathryn,” said a voice from the side. Nyvar looked over to see Marov leaning against a stalagmite, his arms crossed. “She called me grumpy, too.”

Nyvar smiled at the joke, nodding and digging into his food as a wave of sadness washed over him. He didn’t think he’d ever get over losing his wife.

“Got some good news, if you’re feeling better, ‘Seph,” Marov continued, standing up. “The pilot happened to bring a few of the old recon suits. You know; the ones we wore when we took down those Indies back in the Pendulum wars.”

Nyvar stopped chewing for a moment, thinking back to the previous war. It seemed so long ago and so stupid now that he thought of it again. The human race had been fighting for a hundred years while the grubs plotted under the ground, waiting to unleash hell on Sera. Still, the war was probably one of the reasons the COG had survived as long as it did; peacetime military was never as organized as a wartime one. As well, all the weapons would never have been developed; the Hammer of Dawn, for instance.

“Yeah, I remember,” Nyvar replied, swallowing the meat down with a swig of water. “That’s where you got that hilt, right?” He pointed at Marov’s sidearm, the custom bone hilt etched with markings.

“Yeah, that’s right,” Marov said, guardedly, “how’d you know?”

“Just figured it out now, to be honest,” Nyvar said, shrugging and returning to his meal. He ate for a few moments before he noticed Marov had stopped talking. “Hey, Sera to Sy’. How many suits do we have?”

“Oh, uh, three,” Marov replied, seeming to break out of a trance. Nyvar frowned slightly, then an idea came to him that might cheer Marov up.

“Feel like seeing if we still got the skills to use ‘em, Sy?” Nyvar said playfully, standing up and wincing slightly. His wound was better than it had been a few hours before, even if it still hurt like hell. It kind of reminded him of the time Marov had mentioned; he’d been injured then, too. Marov looked up, the darkness gone from his face, his mustache tilting up in a tell tale smile.

“We aren’t that old. Let’s hit it.”

In the forest, en route to the Lethia Imulsion Factory;

2030 hours.


“Quiet!” Naleena whispered, frowning at Nyvar. He just responded with a soft sigh, placing his feet more carefully. He felt Marov prod him from behind, a clear message that said “yeah, be quiet, old man”. Grumbling in his thoughts, Nyvar continued after Naleena, the woman’s form encased in a recon variety of standard Gear armor. It was much smaller than the regular gear armor, more gaps in between the plates of armor. All of it was covered in a dark camouflage that blended well with the surroundings, a cloth of the same color forming a sort of cloak that draped over their shoulders and head. It reminded Nyvar of ancient times; back when men had used bows and arrows instead of guns and bullets. Still, if they got themselves in a firefight, they weren’t doing their job right.

The suit Naleena was a little too big for her, since they were built for more muscled individuals, but she hardly made a noise even with the extra room. Nyvar and Marov, on the other hand, were not up to her standards, plainly, as the woman kept shushing them. Unfortunately, Nyvar had been the subject of them than Marov, to his best friend’s enjoyment.

Suddenly, Naleena held up a fist - the signal to freeze. Nyvar stopped where he was, concentrating on making his breathing quieter and trusting the suit to keep him hidden in the dark forest. Slowly, Naleena reached around for her borrowed Lancer, bringing it up to her chest.

“I smell oomanz,” a gritty voice said, the sound of sniffing audible in the cold air. Nyvar looked to his left where the voice came from, seeing a group of three grubs standing below them, beneath the ridge his team was on.

“Liar. I don’t smell oomanz. You just hungry,” another equally rough voice replied, slapping the other grub in the head. The third made a sound that Nyvar thought was a laugh, but filled with more malice than a normal laugh would hold.

Nyvar would have thought it comedic had they been anything but Locust. With exaggerated slowness, he pulled a knife out of his boot, the matte black blade seeming to absorb all light. He signaled to Marov, pointing at the left grub. The man pulled out a similar knife from his belt, nodding, slowly creeping forward to the edge of the ridge. Naleena, understanding what they were doing, put away her gun and pulled out a knife from somewhere, Nyvar couldn’t tell where, and knelt down by the ridge. She pointed out the one on the rightmost side and Nyvar nodded.

Holding up three fingers with the hand not holding the knife, he looked to each of them and counted down. When he reached zero, he leapt in the air on a collision course with the grub in the middle. He brought his knife down in the drone’s neck as he hit it, his momentum forcing the grub to the ground. Nyvar pulled the thing’s head up out of the leaf-strewn ground and brought his blade across the thing’s throat. There was a lot of resistance, so Nyvar had to saw the blade back and forth a few times before it broke the skin. The whole time, the thing was trying to resist, trying to push off the ground, but Nyvar just held on, hissing in pain as the drone’s elbow hit him in his injured side. Blood started gushing out as the knife bit deep into the thing’s throat, Nyvar only stopping when it quit thrashing.

Suddenly, a heavy weight hit him from the right side, forcing him off the dead grub and landing in a heap with Naleena on top of him. The grub she had been supposed to take care of stood with a knife sticking out of its shoulder, an angry expression on its face. It reached for the sidearm at its side and pulled it out, aiming it at Nyvar and Naleena.

He thought it was the end right there, Ty’s girlfriend on top of him and his knife lost somewhere in the brush. Not the most heroic way to die, by any means. He pushed Naleena off of him, hoping she’d at least dodge the bullet. However, he needn’t have bothered.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw motion and turned to look, the grub following his gaze. Marov stood up from his kill, grabbed his knife by the blade and threw it at the pistol-wielding grub, burying the weapon to its hilt in the thing’s eye.

It cried in surprise, falling back and squeezing off a shot into the air. The pistol’s discharge was loud in the silence of the night. Before the thing could recover, Marov pulled out his own sidearm and pointed it at the drone’s head, pulling the trigger. A wet gurgle accompanied the sound, slowly dwindling into silence.

“Thanks for that,” Naleena said, breaking the quiet.

“No problem, missy,” Marov replied, smiling and spinning his pistol before slamming into his holster like some hero in an action movie. Nyvar rolled his eyes at the action, standing up and looking for his knife. He spotted it underneath a root and reached for it, putting it back into his boot.

“I wasn’t talking to you, showoff,” Naleena replied, standing up and dusting herself off. “I was talking to the asshole who threw me into the dirt. But thanks for that, too.”

Nyvar looked up at her words, an angry expression on his face and a retort on his lips. However, a smile and an arched brow met his gaze, cooling down Nyvar’s temperature. He didn’t realize the former Stranded knew how to joke.

“I’ll remember that next time I try to save you from a bullet between the eyes, little lady,” Nyvar replied with a grin, watching as Marov tried to pull his knife out of the grub’s eye. “What happened, anyway?”

At those words, Naleena looked down and her smile disappeared, turning into a frown. She muttered something quietly, holding her left arm and massaging it.

“What?” Nyvar said, grinning even wider. “I couldn’t hear that.”

“I was too weak to hold it, okay?” Naleena said, turning around and grabbing her own blade from beneath the grub’s weight, Marov holding it up for her. She ripped it out with a sniff and wiped it off in the grass. “We need to move before more show up.”

“Yeah, yeah, change the subject,” Marov said, Nyvar’s grin infecting him. Naleena glared at them for a moment before moving off into the dark forest. Marov followed her, with Nyvar bringing up the rear.

They traveled for a few hours through the cold forest, pausing every now and then as Naleena held up a fist. Each time it turned out to be nothing more than a passing animal; still, it paid to be sure. The hike through the forest was compounded by the snow that had recently fallen, Nyvar’s boots getting wet and soaking through to his socks. Marov grumbled a few times, so Nyvar figured his friend was having the same problems.

It was going well until they ran into an obstruction on the way to the factory. They were at the foot of one of the mountains when they saw lights off to their left and below them, as well as the clinking of chains. Nyvar crept up behind a tree, staring around it and looking down at the horrifying scene.

People, humans, were clustered in groups, chained together and being led out of an opening in the side of the mountain. Following them were a group of five grubs, their weapons held to their chest in a relaxed manner, kicking a few of the slaves when they wouldn’t move fast enough. Nyvar looked over to see Naleena’s face darkening with what he thought was rage – the quickening of her breath was another clue. He put a hand on her shoulder and she whipped her head around to him, her eyes wide.

“They’re Stranded, Nyvar,” she hissed, pointing down at a group pushing a cart of stones out of the tunnel. “I recognize them! They’re from the outpost we were heading to when we got attacked!”

“Are you sure?” Nyvar asked, whispering quietly so none of the grubs below them could hear.

“Yes! That’s one of my friends, Teresa. And there- oh, no,” Naleena stopped midsentence, her jaw dropping and then clenching with rage. Nyvar followed her gaze to see what could cause the reaction and sucked in a breath when he saw it. A gasp from his left told him that Marov saw it too.

Parker stood next to some kind of tall, cloth wrapped Locust, a cigarette in his mouth glowing red. He took it out and turned to the skinny thing next to him, saying something Nyvar couldn’t make out. With a look to his side, Nyvar saw Marov mouthing something underneath his bushy mustache, his eyes widening with anger as Parker finished speaking. A raspy voice clearly audible to the three on the ridge replied to the man’s words, the sound skittering across Nyvar’s mind with an uncomfortable feeling.

“These humans were not where you said,” the thing hissed, sounding angry. “They take out many patrols!”

Parker frowned and spoke to the thing with a wheedling tone, his words too faint to hear. The Locust seemed to buy whatever he said, turning and heading into the tunnel, pulling out a pistol and shooting one of the humans that got in its way with a three round burst. Blood flew into the air, the sound causing Nyvar to flinch as someone was murdered before his eyes. Parker seemed a little startled, too, bringing the cigarette back to his mouth and drawing in almost a quarter of the thing.

“That fucking bastard,” Naleena said loudly, reaching for the Longshot and taking aim. Before Nyvar could stop her, she pulled the trigger. Nyvar followed the bullet, a grub stepping in front of it just before it hit Parker. The report of the weapon caused the grubs all around to raise their weapons and look around, yelling in their horrible language. The Locust that had entered the mine ran back out with a weapon in it's hand, looking around. Parker was hiding behind a mine cart, the fainest line of his bald scalp peeking over it.

“Find them! Kill them!” the robed Locust screeched, pointing vaguely in Nyvar’s direction. The grubs hastened to obey, crawling up the mountain with startling speed.

“Shit,” Marov said, grabbing for Naleena and pulling her back as a bullet whizzed into the place she had been. Nyvar looked up where the shot had come from; a sniper was nestled somewhere in the darkness.

“Let’s get out of here and back into the woods! There’s a sniper!” Nyvar said, forcing the others ahead and chucking a grenade down the cliff. It exploded as he ran; the cry of a grub dying music to his ears. However, the shots whipping by his ears were not – he ran harder, his side aching. What happened to stealth, he thought as he caught up to the other two, running away from the veritable army of grubs chasing after them.

Chapter 10: Covert Exposure Edit

“Alright, now look, maybe I’m not the quietest guy around, okay? But I can get the job done. I never fail, in case you hadn’t noticed. Huh? That time Cole beat me in an arm wrestle? That doesn’t count, have you seen that guy’s muscles? They’re like the size of my frikkin’ head!”

- Baird to a member of the squad he just saved

In the forest, retreating from Locust forces;

2250 hours.

Bullets were whizzing by Nyvar’s ear with an alarming frequency, his breath coming in gasps and his side feeling like it was about to explode. The recon suit had less armor to it, so there was less weight, but right now, Nyvar wasn’t sure if he wanted the speed he had now or the protection his other suit had.

Marov was starting to pull ahead of Nyvar, Naleena far out in the lead. Suddenly the woman turned around and fired a shot, the bullet flying past Marov’s head. Nyvar’s best friend cursed and flinched to the side, tripping over a root and falling to the ground.

“Aw, shit,” Nyvar muttered, catching up to the man on the ground and pulling him behind a tree. A few shots thudded into the wood, the vibration traveling through to Nyvar’s armor. He cursed in his head silently, pressing a hand down on Marov’s back to keep him on the ground. They had to hide, now, and trust that the armor they wore could keep them that way. Nyvar looked up to try and find Naleena, but the woman had disappeared.

A few seconds passed before the first grub ran past, the heavy crunching of its boots on the snow more than enough warning for Nyvar. Trying to be as quiet as he could, Nyvar closed his eyes and stopped moving, breathing in shallow breaths. With all the racket the Locust were making, hopefully they wouldn’t spot the two forms by the tree.

The second and third ran past, as well, shooting into the darkness seemingly at random, their grisly laughs filling the night. Nyvar hoped the cold air would play havoc with their sense of smell, like it had earlier. Luckily, that seemed to be the case, as another four ran by after the others, not even pausing to look around.

When there were no more sounds of footsteps echoing from behind the tree, Nyvar felt safe enough to breathe deeply, the expansion setting his side to a dull pain. Marov picked himself up, his face hidden by the cloak that came with the armor. Pulling it back, Nyvar’s friend looked at him questioningly, his hand on the sidearm at his waist.

“I think they’re gone,” Nyvar whispered, looking around the tree at where the grubs had come from. He didn’t see anything, and breathed a sigh of relief, standing up. He put out a hand to help Marov up, heaving the man to his feet with a grunt.

“That was close, huh?” Marov whispered with a grin evident in his tone. “Reminds me of old times, you know?”

“Yeah, I know. Of course, none of the old times were good times,” Nyvar replied, remembering the last time they wore the suits.



Nyvar ducked, pulling his Lancer from his back, peering into the darkness, Marov following his example. Something had made that noise and Nyvar didn’t think it was anything friendly. He moved slowly and deliberately, trusting his armor to keep him blended long enough to spot the enemy before they could find him. Nothing jumped out at him from the darkness, though he could feel something’s eyes on him, setting the hair on his neck up.

He looked around again, nearly having a heart attack when he did so. A few meters away, a grub with a Longshot was crouched by a tree, sweeping the weapon back and forth. Nyvar raised his weapon, taking aim at the grub with a conical helmet. His finger tightened on the trigger just as a heavy weight impacted him from behind. With a trained response, his finger left the trigger guard as he fell, twisting around so he landed on his uninjured side. A guttural yell rang out as Nyvar looked up, his best friend fighting with another grub, the thing already having grabbed both of Marov’s wrists. Nyvar saw the knife in Marov’s hand just as the grub kicked him in the chest, sending the knife flying and Marov backwards.

Reflex took over as Nyvar brought up his weapon and fired a burst from his Lancer, catching the grub attacking Marov full in the chest. It roared at him as it weathered the hail of bullets, finally falling as Nyvar’s clip clicked dry. Nyvar ejected the spent clip and leapt to his feet, sliding in the next cartridge with practiced ease. A shot rang out, pain lancing Nyvar’s shoulder as a bullet grazed him and impacted a tree behind him. The grub with the Longshot finally found his prey.

There was no time to run over there before the grub reloaded and this time, Nyvar knew it wouldn’t miss, so he dove to the side and came up behind a tree closer to the grubs position. He blind fired his rifle in the general direction of the grub, hoping a bullet would find its mark.

No such luck. Another Longshot round went off, tearing a hole through the tree Nyvar was hiding behind. He cursed and turned around the tree, running up to the Locust while he was busy reloading. The chainsaw on his Lancer roared to life as he brought it down on the unfortunate grub, the metal spikes ripping through the thing’s hide much easier than his knife. A few seconds later, it was dead.

“Damn, why does it always have to smell when you do that?” Marov’s voice came from the left, coughing as he tried to regain his breath.

“Hell if I know, but we need to get outta here. All that noise is bound to attract more of the things,” Nyvar said quickly, grabbing Marov by the front and hauling him to his feet. “Stop falling down, old man. You’ll break a hip.”

“Aw, shut it,” Marov replied as they ran through the forest, in an arc around where the grubs had gone, just in case they doubled back to check out the brouhaha. They had almost reached their campsite cave when they heard the sound of Hammerburst rifles in the distance. They double timed it, running through the snowy forest as quick as they could. Nyvar slipped and almost fell over a few times as they ran, but somehow kept his feet under him.

When they finally arrived, they saw an group of about twenty Locust assaulting the cave from downhill. Ty, Jason, and the pilot were defending themselves well, judging by the bodies rolling back down the slope. A Longshot round rang out from near their position, causing a grub to fall over with smoke rising from its head. Naleena must have made it.

“’Leena, you out there?” Nyvar yelled, giving up all pretense of stealth. Not like the grubs could hear him over the din of the battle anyway.

“Over here, Nyvar,” her voice said sharply, followed by another round of her gun. “I’m running low on ammo.”

Nyvar checked his own ammunition and found only a few clips left. He looked at Marov and saw him shake his head. Damn. They were outgunned and outnumbered; never a good combination. Nyvar and Marov found Naleena kneeling with her rifle on top of a rock, steadying it better than she could holding it in her hands. As they ducked behind the rocks next to her, she fell backwards, cursing as rounds ripped through the air where her head had been.

“How’re we going to get them out?” Naleena asked, picking herself up off the ground and ducking behind a rock next to Marov. Nyvar looked around and tried to come up with something. Suddenly, with a boop, Sparks’ materialized out of thin air, his ‘eyes’ quirking to the right as he looked at Nyvar.

“Sparks!” Nyvar said, glad to see the little robot. Then an idea came to him. “Sparks, I’m going to need you to do something for me.”

It beeped an affirmative, bobbing in the air, almost looking inquisitive. Nyvar regretted what he was about to ask, but he didn’t have any other ideas on how to get out of the pickle they were in.

“I need you to try to drop a few of these on them,” Nyvar said, pulling out the last of his bolo grenades. “Maybe they’ll think it’s a bombardment and run away. At the very least, it’ll get rid of a few of them.”

The little robot booped, rising into the air and disappearing. Nyvar felt a little guilty as the robot obeyed him unquestioningly, even though there was a strong likelihood Sparks’ might get shot and destroyed for good this time. Still, maybe there was something he could do to distract the grubs from the grenades dropping.

He stood up and brought his Lancer to his chest, steadying it and firing into the horde of Locust. A few bullets hit their mark before the return fire peppered his position, but there were still eighteen of the bastards still out there. Nyvar reached up to his ear and initiated a circuit, breaking the radio silence he and his recon team had been under.

“Ty, this is Nyvar. Do you read?” The reply came back quickly, Ty sounding like he was out of breath.

“Yes, sir, loud and clear. Is Naleena with you?”

“She’s fine, son,” Nyvar said, looking down at Naleena with a “see what I mean?” expression on his face before replying. “Listen, Sparks is about to drop a few grenades on the grubs. You got any explosives with you?”

“No. Well, sort of, sir. We have a barrel of fuel Jonesy siphoned from the downed Raven,” Ty said, pausing to take a shot. “We could roll that down the hill with a frag attached to it.”

“Roger that. Do it now, before Sparks drops the bombs,” Nyvar said, breaking the circuit and leaning out to take another shot. One of the grubs dropped under a hail of Lancer fire, his buddy falling next to him as Marov opened up with his own Lancer. Sixteen left.

Suddenly the group of grubs nearest the cave lit up in flames, the Locust flailing around in a macabre dance as the fire consumed them.

“C’mon, Sparks, now would be a good time,” Nyvar said as he ducked back behind the rock, trying to count in his head how many had been lit on fire. Five or so, he thought he counted, so about eleven left. He breathed in, inhaling smoke and the smell of burnt flesh, almost causing him to throw up.

Two bangs, quieter compared to the barrel igniting, disturbed the battle, silencing the Hammerbursts for the moment. Nyvar risked a look out, seeing chunks of grubs littering the area. He aimed and fired at one of the figures still moving, grunting in satisfaction as it dropped back to the ground. Under their combined fire, the battle was over quickly. The grubs, whittled down to just a group of four, ran away, firing behind them as they retreated. Nyvar was glad they were leaving; he’d run out of ammo a few minutes ago and knew Marov was suffering the same problem judging by the amount of cursing coming from him.

“Yeah, bitches, run. Can’t take none of his flyboy,” Jonesy’s voice rang out after the grubs, the man pissing away ammo at the retreating grubs.

“Jonesy,” Nyvar yelled over the mic, “quit wasting your damn ammo. We need that for later!”

“Yeah, yeah, alright,” Jonesy’s reply came. The man fired off one more shot and his form disappeared back into the cave. “I see why you ground pounders are always coming back with the most stories. You run into some stupid shit down here.”

“Just be glad you lived through it, pilot,” Nyvar replied, sighing and resting back against the rock for a moment. Then, gathering himself, he and the rest of his recon team slid down the ridge they’d been firing from, going straight back up to join Ty and the others at the cave.

“Report,” Nyvar said, collapsing to the ground in exhaustion and leaning back against one of the stalagmites.

“Well, we’re out of fucking fuel, thanks to your brilliant idea. Not that I’m complaining,” Jonesy said, adding the last part quickly as Nyvar opened his eyes and glared at him. “Other than that, I think we’re good.”

Ty shook his head at the words, handing Nyvar a bottle of water. He took it gratefully, twisting the cap off and chugging down half of it, passing it to Marov when he was done. Jason handed another bottle to Naleena, smiling slightly at her. The woman smiled back, thanking him, catching her breath before she took a sip of the water.

“We need to move, sir,” Ty said, his tone somewhat irritable as he watched Jason and Naleena, “The grubs know our position.”

“You’re right,” Nyvar replied, not looking forward to the hike to find a new hidey hole. “We’ll move out in ten.”

“So what’s the plan, sir?” Jason asked, leaning back against the wall to clean his gun.

“We need to rescue those people,” Naleena started, but Marov cut her off.

“They’re just Stranded,” Marov said, earning a glare from Naleena. “What? They are. Still, I wouldn’t mind slotting Parker.”

“Rescue? Parker?” Jonesy asked, suddenly interested, his face in a frown. “What, did the guy get himself captured?”

Nyvar shook his head, sneering with disgust at the depths the Stranded would plunge. Selling out his own people, for what? “No. The bastard’s chummy with the Locust.”

“What?!” Ty, Jonesy, and Jason said incredulously all at once.

“Parker’s made a deal or something with the Locust. He’s sitting around while my friends are tortured and forced to work in some kind of mine,” Naleena said hotly, setting down the water bottle and jumping to her feet. “That. That little.” She couldn’t finish her sentence, so overcome with fury.

“Calm down, Naleena,” Nyvar said, standing up himself. “You need to learn some discipline. You almost got us killed out there. I didn’t give you an order to fire!”

Naleena looked shocked as Nyvar yelled at her. Then she looked down, deflated.

“You’re right. I just. I. . .” she trailed off, tears in her eyes. However, none of them fell down her face. The girl was strong. Nyvar looked away, not wanting to see the results of his yelling. His gaze came to rest on Jason, who was looking outside with a furrowed brow.

“You think of something, son?” Nyvar asked, curiously. Jason started, looking at his father; he nodded.

“Yeah, you mentioned mines, right?”

“That’s right,” Marov said, replying before Nyvar could. “Why?”

“I think I remember something about these hills being filled with some kind of metal. Something important,” Jason said, biting his lip and closing his eyes like he was trying to remember.

Sparks suddenly materialized, booping and beeping, surprising them all. Nyvar cursed under his breath; the ‘bot seemed to enjoy scaring him.

“Sparks, I’m glad you’re okay,” Marov said, glad to have something to distract himself with. “Looks like you have a little graze on you. Here, I’ll fix you up.” He motioned the robot to the back of the cave, where his toolkit was.

“The JACK!” Jason said quickly, his eyes wide. “You said the wretches have our ‘bot tech attached to them, right?”

Nyvar frowned, wondering where his son was going with this. Then he understood, nodding to himself.

“Yeah, that’s right. You don’t think that the metal they’re mining is-.”

“The same metal they use to build the JACKs. Some kind of special alloy that allows the cloaking field to actually work,” Jason said excitedly, putting the pieces together.

“Oh, shit,” Nyvar said, remembering something Parker had said, days ago. “That fucking idiot, he better not have done that.”

“What?” Naleena said, looking up with her puffy red eyes.

“Parker said he used to build the ‘bots back when he was still part of the COG. He must be building the generators for those new wretches!” Nyvar slammed his fist into a wall, angry beyond words. The bastard was supplying the enemy with tech that could kill the COG!

Act II: Rescue Edit

Memoir II: "So Who Are You Fighting For?” Edit

"You ever seen the assholes out on the streets, rummaging around in the garbage for food? Seeing them scurry over a COG wreck to scavenge supplies? Those are the good ones, if any of the Stranded could be “good”. That’s who we’re fighting for? People who don’t even care about anything but themselves? I mean, they might be thieving bastards, but they’re still people, right? Right?

Yeah, right. Tell that to my daughter. Those animals stole her away during transit to a breeding ground and now she’s gone, forever. Damn Stranded aren’t going to have any mercy from me. Wish I could get my hand on the Hammer and finish the job the COG started when they roasted most of the planet to stop the Locust. Anyway, since I can’t do that, I’ll settle for shooting the bastards when Nyvar lets me. There’s enough reason to shoot on sight, already, in my opinion, but ‘Seph keeps talking about the future, making things safe for the children by keeping the population up. I wonder if what he thinks of the “baby farms”. He doesn’t have a daughter, so he wouldn’t understand about certain things, but I won’t hold it against him. He’s my best friend.

As much as I don’t really approve of sending my girls to a fucking farm, where women have nothing to do but make new babies for the “war effort”, that’s better than the alternative. Dying to a grub bullet or boot as the things ravage Sera like a bunch of, well, locust. Heh, I’m still keeping my humor, even after all this? I must not be right in the head – ‘course, who could be after seeing their daughter. . .

I’m not going to go there, not now. Gotta keep my wall up or I’ll break down. ‘Seph needs me, so does the rook, Ty. I don’t know what Ven needs, but I’ll stick around for him, too, the lug. My family. Couldn’t ask for a better one out in the field, or, hell, even back at the barracks. Gotta look after my own family, too - Caroline and Rene. Rene seems almost a twin of her mother, mischievous and sneaky. Then there’s ‘Seph’s boy; Jason. And everyone here at base, including all those poor souls pumping out children at a steady rate. Heh, I gotta lot of people to protect, huh? Guess I’ll keep it up and do my best. That’s all anyone can ask of a Gear, right?

People need me. So I’ll fight."

- Memoirs of Corporal Syval Marov

Chapter 11: Oscar Mike Edit

“So, did you hear about Echo Three? I heard they lost their ‘bot four days ago. No one knows if any of them are still alive. Hoffman sent another team after them, but they haven’t come back either. I hope they’re okay. We’ve lost too many in this war already.”

– Dom Santiago on the subject of Echo Three’s disappearance

Somewhere in the forest, 20 km from the Stranded Slave Mine;

0734 hours.

“I like this armor.”

Syval Marov concealed a grin as he noticed his best friend, Joseph Nyvar, reach up and pinch the bridge of his nose. It had been a long, exhausting night. They had been trekking through the wilderness to find a new place to hide, as their previous location had been compromised. Unfortunately, the pilot, Jonesy “Psycho” Breen, hadn’t shut up about the “new digs” he’d been given.

Nyvar was back in his own COG standard issue, the bulky armor seeming more normal for the man than civilian clothes. Marov had to admit the he missed his own plates, but his commander needed him for “special reconnaissance”, so he kept the less protected recon armor. It was fashioned with a several plates on the chest and back, leaving the sides open to allow more maneuverability. The groin and sides of the hips held another few plates, with shin and thigh guards strapped around the leg, leaving the rest to the camouflaged underlay. Luckily for him, all that meant he didn’t have to put up with the clown the entire night, being forced to scout around with much less effort than a fully armored Gear.

“I’m so. . .glad for you, Jonesy,” Nyvar ground out. Marov’s grin grew even wider as he looked back toward the rest of the group. Jonesy, with Nyvar’s own set of recon armor, was strutting across the rocky ground with all the bluster of a kid with a new toy. The man’s pistol was strapped to his chest, under the camouflage cloak that hung down to the man’s waist; Marov thought that was a stupid place to put the weapon, but Jonesy was undeterred. The armor was meant for larger men and women, so the pilot’s lanky frame reinforced the kid metaphor in Marov’s mind.

“Just wish I could have one of those sniper rifles the lady has back there,” Jonesy complained. That was the seventh time he had “wished” for one of their weapons.

“I’d quit while you’re ahead,” Marov said, watching Nyvar slowly start to redden in the face. “You might get one of those weapons turned on you if you’re not careful. And I’m not sure I could stop Nyvar, even if I wanted to.”

Jonesy just returned the comment with a cheesy smile, playing it off. Marov marveled at that; the man was deserving of his nickname, to be certain. Of course, all the pilots had to be insane to fly through the Nemacyst infested skyways to drop off their Gear squads.

Behind the grounded pilot with the goofy expression and oversized armor were the rest of the team, all lined up in single file. Tyler Fais, bringing up a hand to his face to cover a yawn, had bags under his eyes from staying up and cataloguing the amount of ammo they had before they left the cave, which wasn’t much. His brown hair was tousled and gleamed in the early morning sun, the light steadily rising over the horizon. Ty was the newest member of Echo Three, joining their squad shortly before E-Day; still the younger man was in his late twenties and a veteran as much as anyone else on the team.

Next in line was Jason Nyvar, ‘Seph’s kid, at the tender age of nineteen. He was attentive to his surroundings, his eyes darting from one direction to another like he was expecting a Locust at any moment. Marov didn’t blame the kid - even though Jason had grown up with the Locust knocking at the doors of Jacinto, this was still his first mission. Although shorter than Ty, Jason made the difference up with a more muscled frame, taking after his father. His new COG armor suffered from a few scratches and dents, mute evidence of the action he’d already survived these past couple of days.

Marov knew the armor was going to pick up quite a bit more before they finished the mission, whatever that was at the moment. It seemed to have shifted somewhere during the course of the night, after Marov, Nyvar, and Naleena Viscar found the pit of Stranded slaves and their traitorous asshole of a leader, Parker.

As soon as he thought of Naleena, Marov frowned in her direction. He didn’t want to like her. She was Stranded, just as much as the animals who’d gotten his daughter had been. However, the woman was also skilled with a rifle and seemed to be loyal to Nyvar and the others. What was worse, Marov had found himself actually enjoying her company; she had a sharp mind and was an excellent scout, almost as good as he was. He snorted at the admission, wiping the frown off his face and stared at her, willing himself to feel something other than the affection he actually felt.

Naleena had her white bandana up around her face again, at odds with the few-sizes-too-big recon armor she was wearing and her raven colored hair. The now off-white cloth obscured all of her features aside from her focused, sky colored eyes. Marov idly wondered if she wore the bandana as a fashion statement or because they all stank like a dead grub fresh out of the sewers. He shrugged, assuming it was the latter and turned to Nyvar, a question forming on his lips.

“Why are we doing this again?”

“Because,” Nyvar replied, looking straight ahead with his unreadable face on, “they’re people, too, Marov. I don’t care what you think of them.”

“They’re Stranded, ‘Seph. Let ‘em die like the sorry bastards they are,” Marov scoffed.

“We’ve had this conversation already.”

“Yeah, I know. Maybe this time you’ll listen to me so we can complete the mission we were supposed to about three days ago,” Marov said heatedly, wishing Nyvar would forget about the Stranded slaves.

“Not a chance, Sy’. Humanity’s too far gone to just forget a bunch of people being held by the Locust. They’ll die if we don’t help them and in case you hadn’t noticed, there were women and children at that mine, too.”

In fact, Marov had noticed; he had just been trying to forget the sight of the little kids picking up rocks to load into carts for their mothers and sisters to push them around. It hit too close to home and he didn’t want to think about it. They were Stranded; they deserved what they got. At least, that’s what he kept telling himself.

“Besides, Parker was there, too,” Nyvar continued, looking worried. “He’s got too much information stuck in his head to leave him alive. I don’t want to have to fight invisible Wretches the rest of this damned war. Hell, if we gave him enough time, he’d probably come up with a way to cloak a Brumak.”

Marov shuddered, not liking that thought at all. It was bad enough they’d already run into Wretches, little monkey-esque beasts the Locust used like dogs, with cloaking fields. The things fizzled out in the light, the stealth generators not seeming to be able to cloak something bigger than the ‘bot’s the device was made for. That and the little shimmer they made as they moved were the only reasons Marov could see them at all.

“Fine,” Marov said, sighing and resigning himself to the inevitable, “but I want to kill Parker myself. I need some kind of fun after being shot at, betrayed, and almost ripped apart by a Berserker.”

He saw Nyvar smile slightly as his best friend turned back to the path. A smile tugged on the edge of Marov’s lips, too, glad he was still able to cheer up the dour Sergeant.

“Why don’t you go run around a bit, then? Maybe you’ll find a drone to poke with a stick or something,” Nyvar dryly replied, holding up his hand and swinging two fingers in a circle, the signal to check their surroundings. Marov nodded and looked back to see Naleena had already noticed and was moving up the side of the mountain next to them. Not to be outdone by some floozy who thought she was Gear material, Marov ran after her, only slightly out of breath as he ran up the slope after her. He hated aging almost as much as he hated Stranded.

“Still angry with Nyvar’s decision?” Naleena asked as Marov strode up beside her. He gave her a questioning glance, wondering if she knew what he had just been talking about. With a shake of his head, knowing he would never get a straight answer, Marov replied.

“No, this is my normal attitude. I just want to get out of this freezing cold forest and back to base, which requires us actually completing the mission we were given.”

“I can sympathize with that,” Naleena chuckled; the crinkling of her eyes accompanying the smile her bandana was covering. It faded as she continued. “But so can the women and children in that mine.”

“Not like anyone could let me forget,” Marov groused, reaching up to pull his goggles down over his eyes. The sun was shining directly in their direction, in between a layer of clouds and the horizon. It would disappear sooner or later, but until then, he’d keep the goggles on. “I guess they’re worth saving, if I get to make Parker’s head my new hood ornament.”

“I’m glad you’re being so reasonable about this,” she replied sarcastically. Sobering up, she kneeled down to examine something. Marov looked over her shoulder and noticed it was the imprint of a hoof; there were a lot of wild deer out here, which was surprising given the Hammer strikes destroying most of the planet. Suddenly, Naleena continued her previous thought with a more serious tone in her voice. “Actually, I really am surprised you’re this okay with it, though. I thought you hated Stranded, like me.”

“I do hate Stranded,” Marov said honestly, returning her candor with his own, puffing a bit as they went uphill, his breath misting the air in front of him. “But you’re not like them. You, I have to live with, soon as we get outta here and get you through Boot. Most of those bastards wouldn’t even try to do anything but steal and blame us for everything.”

Naleena didn’t reply to Marov’s dodging of the real question, falling silent and scanning the forest for Locust or signs the grubs had passed through. They didn’t spot anything aside from a rabbit dashing through the small drifts of snow and fallen leaves, causing a soft rustle. Marov breathed in through his nose, smelling the sharp bite of the cold air and the heady scent of the forest. He’d always enjoyed camping with his father, back before E-day.

“Why do you hate us?” Naleena whispered wistfully, surprising Marov from his memories. He shrugged in response, not wanting to think of his daughter or the unfortunate fate that had befallen her. He could almost hear her screams on the Frost’s air, the miserable season forever seeking to rob his warmth and chill his soul.

“I used to hate the COG,” Naleena said. Marov sighed, feeling a touchy feely moment coming on; not his favorite thing to endure in the middle of an enemy infested forest. Still, there didn’t seem like any way out. “They took my mother. Forced her into those breeding camps.”

“The Farm’s not all that bad,” Marov replied, thinking of the accommodations the women were given. Comfortable furniture and plenty of things to do as they waited out their pregnancies. “Got all the comforts of home and at least they’re safe. My own daughter’s in one of them. She’s expecting a girl in a month or so.”

“Doubtless fathered by some unknown soldier,” Naleena scoffed, sounding angry. “How old is she?”

“She’s twenty three.”

“At least she’s not a young girl forced to start early, then, like some of them have had to,” Naleena said heatedly, referring to the drugs the COG was giving the women to start their breeding cycles earlier and earlier. Marov was forced to admit that his opinions on the matter were much the same as Naleena’s, but he didn’t see any other way around it. They needed what little remained of humanity to grow.

“I don’t like what they’re doing either, darlin’,” Marov replied, looking down the slope at the rest of the team far behind them. “But it’s not like we have a choice. We’re an endangered species these days, case you’ve been living under a rock the last seven years.”

“So we sacrifice our humanity in the process? The procedures are monstrous.” Naleena paused and Marov heard her sigh. He was just about to retort that Stranded acted even worse, resorting to cannibalism like they did, when Naleena continued. “But, as you say, we don’t have much of a choice. Which is why I’m choosing to stay with you and the others instead of going off with Parker.”

“Oh, yeah, that would have been a bad idea, huh?” Marov sneered. “Your own leader would’ve led you right into a bunch of grubs as thanks for all your hard work. Seems like he’s holding to those wholesome Stranded values. Too bad you couldn’t make that shot last night.”

“Too bad,” she reiterated, the corners of her eyes crinkling in what looked like anger. “Not all Stranded are like him. Some of us are just trying to survive.”

“Look how well that’s done you,” Marov said quickly, regretting the words as soon as he uttered them. Naleena glared at him, pulling ahead and leaving him behind. Marov watched her form slowly become indistinct as the camouflage blended in with the deciduous trees all around them. He wasn’t so good at this PR bull.

Marov grumbled under his breath, moving quicker to catch up to the young woman, intent on apologizing. However, Naleena held her hand up in a fist, the signal to stop all movement, slowly reaching for the Longshot on her back as she crouched behind a tree. Marov’s eyes darted around as he tried to look around, not moving his head in case something saw him in the open. The key to remaining unseen was to act as though one belonged where they were; people saw what they expected to see more often than not, and movement would just alert them. Marov just hoped the fact was the same for grubs.

There. A single grub with a Longshot of its own lay between two bushes. He’d mistaken the thing’s pale white skin as another snow drift before. Luckily he had Naleena’s sharp, young eyes with him. The woman had finally pulled her weapon around and sighted through the scope at the Locust’s conical helmet. A moment later, the shell flew through the air with a sharp cracking retort, showering the grub’s immediate proximity with blood, brains, and pieces of the helmet.

“Report,” Nyvar’s voice came over Marov’s comm. He turned toward where the rest of the group was and reached up to tap the device, initiating the circuit and responding quickly.

“Got a sniper, ‘Seph. Naleena took care of him, but there might be m-,” before he could finish the sentence, another round cracked through the air, followed by an exclamation of pain in a female voice. Marov twisted around as fast as he could, watching Naleena fall to the ground in what seemed like slow motion. He cursed, breaking off the circuit and rushed over to the fallen woman, pulling her behind a tree where he thought the sniper couldn’t find them. Another shot ripped through the cold air into the tree above him, confirming his thoughts.

“Sy? Answer me, Sy. Was that another of your shots?”

“Negative,” Marov said, initiating the circuit again, warning his friends before they fell under sniper fire. “We have enemy snipers in the hills and Naleena’s down. I’m going to see what I can do to fix her up.”

“Shit. Roger. We’ll go hunting. Sending Sparks over to assist you.”

“Copy. Marov out.”

“Nal,” Marov said worriedly, looking at the wound. There was a hole the size of a half dollar just above her left breast and right under the clavicle, the Longshot round having penetrated the thin underlay of the armor with all the ease of a hot knife through butter. Blood was starting to sluggishly leak out of the wound and Marov didn’t know exactly what to do. Ven had been their medic, the rest of them only had the very basic first aid skills. Still, if he could fix machines, maybe people weren’t that different. He reached for her neck to feel her pulse as he spoke calmly to her.

“Listen to me. Do you hear me?” She nodded, grimacing in pain as she writhed. Good, she wasn’t in shock, yet. “Can you move your hands and feet?” Naleena did so, demonstrating that her spinal cord was still intact.

“Okay, I need you to stop moving. Stop moving, understand?” Another nod and she stopped moving aside from a twitch every now and then. He pulled out his combat knife and started cutting through the flexible underlay that held all the plates of the armor together, pulling it to the side when he had ripped it enough. The black bodysuit underneath the armor came apart faster, his knife making a large square around the wound, not wanting to totally destroy the suit.

As it opened to the cold air, Naleena shivered, causing another moan to escape her clenched teeth, her breathing starting to come faster and more insistent. He could hear air hissing in and out of the wound and knew that wasn’t the best thing in the world to deal with. The bullet must have penetrated her lung.

Marov saw her wince as he pulled out a bandage and push it on the wound, his fingers trailing blood on her dark skin. He started taping three of the sides as best he could, stabilizing her breathing somewhat as the airtight bandage did its work.

“You’re doing fine, Nal,” Marov said soothingly, watching as Naleena closed her eyes and breathed in a shuddering breath. “Just try to stay awake, okay?”

He reached around her and felt along her back in between the plates. Another, larger hole, the exit wound, was also leaking a steady stream of blood. He hoped the bullet not being in her was a good thing, but he knew he had to do something about it, pronto.

A beeping noise came from behind him, causing Marov to turn around. There, in mid-air, was Sparks, Echo Three’s JACK ‘bot. Marov was glad to have the little guy here, motioning it over before the sniper could take a shot at it and break it. Again.

“Hey, Sparks, she’s got an entry wound right here,” he said quickly, pointing at the bandage, “and an exit wound in her back. I’m not sure what I can do for her.”

Sparks bobbed in the air, moving over and holding out his appendages. He started by examining the bandage on her chest, booping with satisfaction at it. It looked up at him with one of its eyes cracked and held out an appendage. Marov pulled out all his medical supplies, the ‘bot taking it and applying bandages to the exit wound, beeping in what he thought was a worried tone. Minutes passed, sweat beading Naleena’s head as the ‘bot worked on her. Marov helped where he could, but Sparks seemed to have things in hand, so he reached up for his earpiece and contacted Nyvar.

“’Seph, this is Marov. You read me?”

“Roger that, Sy. Is she ready to move yet?” Nyvar said, sounding out of breath.

“No sir, not for at least another,” he paused, looking up at Sparks, who helpfully supplied a countdown on his screen. “Twenty minutes, safest. But she’s in bad shape, man. She needs a hospital.”

“Shit,” Nyvar said, sighing heavily over the mic. “Twenty minutes is going to be a problem. We’ve got a squad of grubs moving along the road a few miles back. Do what you can for her; we’ll try to keep ‘em off you.”

“Roger that. Good luck, ‘Seph,” Marov said as the circuit closed. “Fuckin’ hell. This isn’t what we need right now. Why can’t anything go right out here?”

He turned back to the ‘bot and Naleena, looking down at the young woman with trepidation. This reminded him too much of the way Nyvar’s wife had died. Growling, Marov kneeled down to the ground to squeeze Naleena’s hand. He wasn’t going to lose another member of his family to these grubs!

Chapter 12: Grave Edit

“I never liked being underground. My mom and dad used to take me down into deep caves, but I could never go very far. Something about that much weight over my head, I feel like it’s pressing down on me. I just want to get out, out of the dark. It’s pressing in all around, all the time. That’s where the monsters are.”

– Naleena Viscar’s Diary, written thirteen years ago.

Somewhere in the forest;

0843 hours.

They were running out of time. Marov looked around, trying to spy the grubs that were swarming their little area of forest. Nyvar had said a few of the Locust had gotten past their barricade, which wasn’t surprising with the vast amount of wood. Still, that meant Marov had to keep on his toes in case they tried to sneak around him to Naleena.

He was leaning his back against a tree, the hard bark biting into his back where the armor was not covering. Breathing hard, he squeezed his eyes shut and tried to control his breathing, sweat pouring down his face and into his beard. Even with the cold temperature, he was perspiring enough to fill a pool. Something sounded off to his left, a slight crack of a twig. He opened his eyes and felt an icy hot sensation fill his body.

Time seemed to almost stop around him, leaves falling to the ground buffeted by the snow flurries in slow motion. The mist of his breath came in tiny puffs; out, pause, in, pause. His adrenaline fueled eyes seemed to dart around, taking in every detail of the forest as he swung around the tree, Lancer leading. A flash of white ahead of him and to the left warned him of the grub. Marov smiled, pulling the trigger, the Lancer kicking back against him in what seemed a semi-automatic rate.

Blood misted into the frozen air as the Locust twitched against each bullet, the pale hide blossoming into red. It fell to the ground, but Marov was already twisting to the right to catch a normal Wretch in the brain pan. The thing’s head exploded in a shower of gore, its grating cry cut short as the bullet tore through. It crumpled in a heap in front of him, brain splashing onto his heavy combat boots. He kicked it away as he ran to the nearest tree, bullets ripping through the air next to him, heat blasting past his skin at the near misses. Just as he flung himself into a summersault, a bullet dug into his lower leg, eliciting a cry of pain.

“Shit,” Marov yelled, dropping one hand to his injured appendage, feeling for the wound as he stared toward the rocks he’d dragged Naleena behind. The slightest hint of Sparks’ flank was exposed, bobbing up in down as he worked on the woman. Marov hoped she was doing alright. The sound of scrabbling came from just around the tree; another Wretch, he thought. With a quick move, he pulled out his knife with his left hand and stabbed out to the side, catching the second Wretch in the throat. It gurgled as its claws came up, scrapping across Marov’s gauntlets.

“Die, you piece of shit,” Marov muttered, twisting the knife and ripping it out with a spray of blood. The thing twitched and fell to the ground, blood leaking into the snow and causing steam to rise.

“Guess I gotta make sure Sparks has enough time to make her alright,” he said as he put his knife away, the stinging sensation in his leg momentarily gone as he distracted himself with talk. “Damn grubs’ve shot me full of enough holes as is this week.”

With that, he clenched his teeth and roared as he put weight on the leg, barely holding him up as he stood. He leaned against the tree for support, firing his Lancer at an approaching Drone. It rolled to the side as he fired, his bullets missing their mark. Marov cursed as he swung around the other side of the tree, bullets thudding into his cover and shaking more leaves to the ground. The Drone was behind a tree, its thick arms not able to be completely hidden by the trunk, so Marov aimed and fired directly at him.

It snarled in pain and fell forward, catching itself before it tumbled to the ground. Then more bullets slammed into its back, Marov taking full advantage of the thing’s momentary weakness and drilling it to the ground.

“Get back in your damn hole,” Marov yelled over his Lancer’s chatter. Suddenly, his weapon started clicking, no longer expelling bullets from its sturdy frame. “Aw, hell, not now!”

Reaching for his side to grab some more ammo, Marov came up with nothing. He looked down to see his ammo belt empty – he hadn’t realized he’d exhausted the rest of his clips. Gunfire forced him to lean back into cover, making sure to avoid the grub’s mistake and tucking his arms in. Without any ammo, Marov wasn’t too happy about his chances at living through the next few minutes.

“Shit, who needs bullets anyway?” Marov asked loudly into the air, peeking around his cover to see a grub with a Lancer of its own. Knowing the amount of bullets in a clip, he waited until he was sure the thing ran dry and burst from cover. He roared in fury and pain as he ran toward the grub, who was baring its teeth while it tried to reload. Marov knew it was going to be close, but he thumbed his Lancer’s chainsaw attachment and ran faster. The grub gave up trying to reload; opting to resort to its own melee equivalent, the whirring of two chainsaw bayonets dulled in Marov’s ringing ears.

They met in a clash of sparks, Marov gritting his teeth as he brought his weapon down, surprised at the amount of resistance the grub offered. The skittering of the chainsaw’s teeth was hurting his ears, as if someone were drilling into Marov’s head. His muscles bulged as he used all his tremendous strength to deflect his opponent’s Lancer to the side, the grub swinging to the left from overexertion. Marov knew he had the Locust.

Then his injured leg failed him, forcing him to one knee, crying out in pain. However, Marov used the move to his advantage, pivoting in a circle with his Lancer held out in front of him. He felt the hot rush of the grub’s bayonet as it passed over his neck, skipping off of the plate of armor on his back as he turned. The momentum of the turn combined with Marov’s strength as he brought his chainsaw into the back of the grub’s leg, in the seam between boot and leg armor.

“How do you like that, mother fucker?” Marov yelled as blood sprayed into his face, the weapon ripping through the joint in the armor with ease. There was a slight catch as the teeth of the chainsaw caught the grub’s femur, but it recovered and ripped out through the grub’s kneecap with an explosion of blood and bone. With a grunt, Marov shoved his shoulder into the grub with all his might, sending it to the ground, its detached foot still standing.

Pushing the boot aside, Marov crawled toward the Locust, dropping his Lancer to the side. With his leg sending shocks of pain to his brain with every movement, Marov climbed on top of the grub, his knee in between its legs. When it tried to swat at him with the still powered Lancer, Marov just pulled out his knife and stabbed it into the thing’s wrist, pinning the arm to the ground as the grub dropped the gun.

“You don’t mess with the COG, you sonofabitch,” Marov yelled, spittle flying from his lips as he brought his fist around and smacked it into the thing’s face, twisting its head to the side. It reached with its free arm and clawed into Marov’s cheek, dragging down. Fuck, that hurts, Marov thought as he grabbed the clawing arm and put all his weight into pinning to the earth. He hopped around the grub’s body and knelt on the arm with his good knee, putting both his gloved hands up in the air and bringing it down hard on the grubs face.

A dull thud sounded, followed by gurgling wheezes as the thing tried to breathe through its broken nose. Marov brought his hands down again. Another thud, Marov’s breathing digging a stitch in his side, sweat dripping off of his marred face onto the Locust’s armor. With enormous effort, he picked his hands up one more time and, yelling, brought them both down as hard as he could. There was a crack as the grub’s skull caved in, Marov’s hands drenched in blood.

Fighting the urge to vomit as the corpse twitched spasmodically, Marov rolled off the grub, looking into the sky. A leaf landed on his forehead, but he was too weak to even swat it away, just laying there and hoping there wasn’t another grub about to come finish him off. Pain was lancing through his hands, his leg, and his face, but Marov just swallowed and closed his eyes, breathing hard.

“Marov, this is Nyvar. Time’s up, we need to move, now,” Nyvar’s harried voice came over the channel, breaking into the quiet forest. Sighing and wincing as he brought his hand up to his ear, he initiated the connection, responding in between breaths.

“Yeah, okay,” Marov said quickly, stopping and pulling in a shuddering breath as more pain hit him. He grunted as he rolled over onto his stomach, pushing himself up on to his hands and knees, the goggles over his doo rag digging into his forehead. His body seemed extraordinarily heavy as he lurched to his feet, favoring his wounded leg. “What’s going on down there?”

“They’ve got a Corpser causing trouble,” Nyvar said, interrupted by an explosion. “Ty, shoot that damn Grenadier. Jason, pull back. We’re not doing to hot here. Shit!” Static hissed into the channel for a second, causing Marov’s heart to jump into his throat. “Pull back! Marov, we’ll meet you at the caves. Nyvar, out.”

Another explosion sounded over the circuit just before it clicked off, Marov tiredly pulled off the dead grub’s ammo belt and clipping it to his own. He grabbed the thing’s Lancer as an afterthought, clamping it to his back. The world around him was a little fuzzy, but Marov knew he needed to keep moving, keep going, or Naleena and he would be dead. He staggered over to where Naleena was laying, her eyes still lucid as she looked at him.

“You look like you just got in a fight with a Boomer,” Naleena whispered, wincing slightly as Sparks stabbed a needle into her chest. The robot looked up and beeped its agreement, coming at him with a new syringe in its appendage.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Marov said, backing away from the needle, “no need for that, Sparks. We need to go. There’s no time to sedate me.”

Sparks managed to look dejected as it put away the syringe, floating down to grab the first aid kit. When it tucked the kit close to its frame, it looked at him and beeped reproachfully. At least, that’s what Marov thought it sounded like; machines spoke to him all the time like that.

“Hey, now,” Marov started, stopping as a coughing fit came over him. Recovering, he looked into the ‘bot’s eyes as it lifted it’s cracked “eye” up in an imitation of an eyebrow lift. Marov frowned at that, wondering just how intelligent the little machine was. Shaking his head, he bent down and grabbed Naleena’s Longshot and clipped it to his back, too. Stooping down again, he grabbed the wounded Stranded, holding her in front of him shakily with his own weapon across her stomach. However, his foot held beneath him as he moved forward, slowly.

“You weigh a friggin’ ton, girly,” Marov said through clenched teeth as he soldiered on toward the rendezvous. The caves were only ten minutes away, but that was going to prove difficult if he didn’t get some help with his load.

“Not something you,” Naleena started, wincing in pain as he tripped slightly, jarring her. “Say to a lady,” she continued.

“Yeah, well, I’m too old to care right now,” Marov said, feeling his age in his back, as if his spine were twisting with every footfall. “And wounded. And tired. And…”

He rattled on, trying to stay awake as his vision blurred again. Naleena softly tapped him on the face, bringing back everything into sharp reality.

“Thank you,” she whispered. Marov nodded, still moving forward, slowly, thinking of his kids as he held her frail form. He hoped carrying her wasn’t causing her any damage; still, Sparks was a good a surgeon as they had out in the field and Naleena was a survivor, Stranded as she was. The thought drove his mind down darker paths.

“They killed my daughter,” Marov whispered, a tear sliding down his face in a combination of old pain and new stresses. “Ate her like fucking animals. That’s why I hate them. Stranded.”

Naleena looked up at him with compassion in her eyes. Marov tried to ignore it and kept talking, partially intent on keeping them both awake and partially just to have someone to vent to.

“I can’t do anything but hate them,” Marov continued, “even though there might be some strong, sane ones like you out there. But I still want them all to die, painfully, just like she did. I don’t care if they deserve it. Might make me a bad person for thinking that way, but that’s how I feel about your ‘people’. Maybe I’m just too old to forgive, too set in my ways.” He paused, looking into the forest with a determined gleam in his eyes, his walls coming back up. “Whatever. That’s why I hate them. So there you go. Now you know.”

Naleena didn’t reply except to squeeze his arm, which was bruised. Trying not to wince from her good intentions, Marov cursed inwardly. Wishy washy moments weren’t his thing.

Presently, Marov heard the sound of heavy boots thudding into the ground behind him. Using the last failing bit of his energy, he looked back, relieved to see Jason and Jonesy running toward him, followed closely by Nyvar and Ty. They all look harried, dust caked on their skin and bits of blood on their armor.

“You look good,” Jonesy said sarcastically, falling to his knees and catching his breath. “You get a haircut or something?”

“A little off the top, yeah,” Marov returned just as caustically, almost falling over. “Someone mind grabbing her?”

“I’ll get her,” Jason replied, rushing forward, concern etched over his face.

“About damn time,” Marov said, gratefully handing Naleena over to Jason. With a gentleness that belied his heavily armored form, Nyvar’s kid took the girl and spoke with a frown plastered on his face.

“You weigh a ton.”

Marov stared at the kid for a second, and then broke into wheezing laughter at the combination of the sentence and Naleena’s glare in his direction. He dropped to his knees as his laughter turned into a cough, his ribs hurting as the mirth and pain surged through him. As he recovered, Marov felt a hand on his shoulder and turned to look into Nyvar’s worried eyes, his hand pointing down at Marov’s leg.

“You get shot, again?” Nyvar asked seriously. Marov scowled at the ‘again’, but nodded, leaning onto Nyvar’s proffered shoulder.

“Yeah. That happens when you take on five grubs at once,” Marov grumbled, exaggerating only slightly as the air grew colder around them. Nyvar seemed to catch on to the lie, grinning as they all moved toward the caves, more and more snow drifting down.

“Uh huh. Well, we,” he motioned to Ty, Jason, Jonesy, and himself, “faced about six of the damn things and a Corpser and we don’t have any holes in us.”

“A Corpser,” Marov scoffed. “Like that’s a challenge for these younglings. Hell, remember that Khimera we took out that almost toasted you back in the Pendulum Wars?”

“I remember flying and burning,” Nyvar muttered as they surged up a rise. The gaping maw of a cave appeared as they crested the ridge, a welcome sight to Marov. It meant they had cover and shelter from the damn snow, which was picking up in intensity. The powdery white stuff was coming down in an almost impenetrable sheet, now.

“Mmm, burning,” Ty said from behind them, shivering slightly as they slowed down and walked into the cave. “I could use a little of that right now.”

“Me, too,” Marov started to say, but was interrupted as the world started shaking around them. He looked up at the roof of the cave, noticing dust and gravel submitting to gravity. “Oh, come on!”

“Cave’s coming down!” Jason yelled, looking toward the front of the cave. “Must be that damn Corpser!”

“Shit. Alright, everyone move further back into the cave,” Nyvar ordered.

“We’re going farther into the cave?” Jonesy asked incredulously.

“What else are we going to do? If we go outside, we’ll freeze to death or get stomped on by a Corpser. At least this way we might find a more stable cavern.”

The rumbling increased above them, causing Marov to curse as he hopped down the hall with Nyvar’s support. Sparks turned on his lights as they went deeper into the darkness, the wind howling from outside the cave like it was angry they had escaped its wintry fury. Then it cut off, the sound of rock crashing down directly behind them, the light dimming from behind.

Marov pushed Nyvar ahead of him and dove forward as the rocks came down around them. He curled into a ball and prayed he wouldn’t be buried alive, a few medium sized rocks banging into his armor. As suddenly as it started, the shaking and cave-in ceased.

“Everyone okay?” Nyvar’s voice echoed in the cavern.

“Aside from being buried the fuck alive, I think I’m good,” came Jonesy’s caustic reply.

“We’re fine, too,” Jason said, still holding Naleena. In the pale luminescence of Sparks’ lights, Marov spotted blood running down across the kid’s face from a cut on his forehead.

“Ty?” Marov said, coughing. He looked around for the recruit, panicking.

“Over here,” came the young man’s voice, pained. “Got my arm stuck under some rocks.”

Marov staggered over and saw a large boulder on the man’s arm, covering it from the shoulder down. Grunting with effort, Marov leaned into it and picked it up enough to let Ty pull his arm out from under it.

“Ow, ow, ow, ow,” Ty said, rubbing his arm with his good hand. “I’m starting to hate this mission.”

“Just now, huh?” Marov muttered, looking around. The way they had come from was filled with rocks, impassable. The chamber they were in had a few stalactites hanging from the roof, dripping water down on the floor. When he looked down he noticed a steady stream of water furrowing its way across the stone and disappearing into a gap in the far wall. At least they had water.

“How’s Naleena?” Ty asked, wincing as he moved his arm, a tone of concern in his voice.

Sparks booped cheerfully, displaying a thumbs up on his display. Marov privately thought the ‘bot was a bit of an optimist, but good news was good news. They needed it when everything else around them was going to hell in a hand basket.

“I’m going to assume that means she’s fine,” Jonesy supplied with his customary snarky tone, his voice getting more and more panicked as it went on. “But what about us? We’re in a damn cave with no way out. What’re we going to fuckin’ do now?”

“Alright, calm down. Let’s rest, refill our water, and take stock of the situation,” Nyvar calmly stated, spying the small stream Marov had seen. “Ty, check our ammo. Jason, see what kind of food we have.”

“Yes sir,” they said, sluggishly moving to their tasks, their faces both turned in concern to Naleena.

“Marov, keep an eye on Naleena and let Sparks take care of that wound. We move out in ten.”

“Then what?” Marov asked as he slid down a wall, taking off his boot and covering the wound with a bandage Sparks gave him. There was a small hole drilled through the middle of his calf. That sucked, he thought as he closed his eyes and tied the bandage off.

“We go spelunking. Gotta be another exit somewhere.”

Fuck,” Jonesy said; and that about summed up the general mood.

Chapter 13: Keep All Extremities Inside the Light Edit

“You know, I’m not sure why I’m here. I don’t need a fucking psych eval’. We all know I’m crazier than a blood mount on a feeding frenzy. I fly a friggin tin can into enemy fire and exploding squid on a daily basis. Huh? You wanna know why I do it? I do it because I just don’t care anymore; there’s nothin’ left for me to care about. So I’m going to keep going out there and shuttle around those ground pounders until I burst into flame or get shot out of my cockpit by some rookie with an itchy trigger finger. Are we done? Good. Now let me get back to my bird.”

- Jonsey "Psycho" Breen during his yearly evaluation

Outer Hollow, Lethia’s abandoned tunnels

1040 hours.

There was something depressing about being underground, as if the weight of the entire world were resting just overhead. No one was really in a mood to talk, aside from Jonesy, so they’d walked in relative quiet, alert for any sign of Locust. There hadn’t been another quake since they were trapped, but Marov periodically looked up at the ceiling, trying to maneuver himself so he was never underneath a stalactite. Just in case.

“Alright, who shit their pants?”

Marov rolled his eyes at Jonesy’s remark, also smelling the unpleasant odor of Imulsion. The stuff left a sour taste in the back of his mouth, but he was used to the smell, having been around it back when he’d just been an engineer. Leaning on Ty to alleviate the pressure on his wounded foot, Marov took stock of his leg. The pain had receded somewhat; Sparks had injected some kind of cocktail into his ankle. If he didn’t know better, he could have sworn the ‘bot had let out a condescending series of beeps when it had stabbed the needle in. Still, it was a thought for another time, after they got out of the massive complex where ‘dodge the stalactites’ was the main sport.

They had been walking for the past hour, Sparks’ bright, cheery light leading them down the pressing confines of the tunnels. So far, there wasn’t much sign of an exit, which seemed to get Jonesy into an even jitterier talking mood than normal. Marov idly wondered if the man was claustrophobic - a smile worked its way under his bushy mustache as he thought of ways to exploit that.

“Don’t think what your smelling is what your really smelling, Jonesy,” Jason replied to the pilot’s inane remark, his voice falling into a more intellectual format. The kid was holding Naleena’s injured body in his arms, the girl’s legs dangling over one arm and her head lolled against Jason’s breastplate. Ty and Sparks had removed most of her armor as best they could; both to check for any new wounds and to make it easier to carry her.

The woman hadn’t spoken since the cave-in, which worried Marov a bit, knowing the dangers of the wounds that had been inflicted on her body. However, when he had Sparks take a look at her, she seemed fit to be moved. The ‘bot had stabilized the woman as best it could with the resources supplied, but she’d be out of the fight for awhile, if she could get back into it at all. Marov knew Nal’ wouldn’t be eager to hear that. He’d save it until after they were somewhere relatively safe.

“We’re in the Outer Hollow, near the Imsulsion Facility,” Jason continued, breaking into Marov’s mother hen thoughts. “Stands to reason we might be picking up a whiff of the stuff from somewhere further in.”

"Kids these days,” Jonesy sighed, putting a palm to his forehead. “They just can’t see a joke when it walks up and bites them in the ass.”

“Is it safe to be breathin’ that stuff?” Ty worriedly replied, his lightly bearded face falling into a frown. Marov noticed the visual display of emotion, his own face assuming the same expression in response. Not much made the kid frown genuinely; besides, Marov was wondering the same thing.

“Uh, I don’t think we’ll be negatively harmed by it,” Jason said, huffing slightly as he shifted his grip on Naleena. “Though I...”

The kid trailed off as Sparks’ light slowly dimmed, the ‘bot making a melancholy booping noise. Marov closed his eyes and sighed. What else could go wrong? No, wait. Scratch that. Forget I thought anything.

“Marov?” Nyvar asked as he leaned against a wall leading to the next bit of cavern. The man’s voice filled with annoyance at the unsettling display, though Marov knew Nyvar was just as nervous about it as he was.

“Yeah, yeah. C’mere, Sparks, lemme take a look at you,” Marov said nonchalantly, leaving Ty and hopping over to the floating JACK unit. It lost altitude, coming to rest at head height in front of him. With his frown deepening, Marov tapped a button on the side of the ‘bot, bringing up a softly lit screen with indicators and menus staring harshly at him. He pressed another button and waited for the next series of options to pull up. Nothing happened. With a grumble, he banged a fist against the machine, drawing a surprised string of electronic noises from Sparks; however, the screen changed to the location Marov desired.

“Nice. You know what would happen if I treated my Raven like that? She’d probably do a nosedive in revenge,” Jonesy said acidly from Marov’s side. As he turned to look, the pilot continued, “Anyway, what’s the word, my mechanically gifted friend?”

Marov hid a grin, watching the pilot nervously look side to side around the cavern as he sallied up closer to the light. Now would be the perfect time to test the other man’s composure.

“The ‘bot’s taken a lot more damage than I thought. He’s malfunctioning and I’m not sure I can put him back together into a workable format. We might have to make do with feeling our way along,” Marov whispered with a grim frown. The expression on Jonesy’s face almost caused Marov to give it away right there. He turned away, squeezing his nose with one hand as if trying to think, barely holding back a laugh.


“No, pff, not really,” Marov said, turning back, biting one of his gloved fingers to stop from busting out with a loud guffaw. Jonesy glared at him, causing Marov’s stomach to tighten as he went into mirth-inspired convulsions, a slight wheeze escaping him as he laughed. “Sparks’ just, heh heh, running low on power.”

“Fuck you, dude. That just ain’t right,” Jonesy said, the light from the screen showing his face going red with anger and embarrassment. Marov doubled over, his hands on his knees, wheezing with restrained laughter. “Asshole. Next time you ride on my Raven, I’m pushing you out, headfir-.”

“Shh!” Nyvar hissed over their conversation, instantly dispelling the humor. Marov turned toward the sound of the voice, his best friend’s silhouette still hovering by the wall that turned into the next chamber. Marov reached for his side arm, pulling it with a swift, practiced motion, a small amount of adrenaline threading its way through his veins as he became instantly alert. The cool, bone hilt reassured him somewhat, as it always did. His ears strained as he tried to sense what spooked the man.

Then he heard it; a soft, chittering sound, echoing shrilly in the distance. Marov knew what made that noise – it was one of two things that could make his heart freeze with fear.


“Shit,” Nyvar said, his voice carefully modulated, even though Marov knew the man was almost panicking. “Marov, how ‘bout those lights?”

“Sparks’ out of juice, ‘Seph,” Marov replied, returning to the screen to see if he could drain power from something else to the lights. He faintly heard Naleena asking what was going on, but he remained concentrated on his task. “Might be able to turn ‘em back on, but someone’s going to have to carry the ‘bot. Gonna need the power from the repulsorlifts to run it.”

“How long will they stay on? That’s kind of important.”

“Uh, fifteen, maybe twenty minutes,” Marov said, unsure exactly how much power the lights drew from the battery.

“Wonderful. It’ll have to do,” Nyvar grunted, turning to Jason and pointing at the ‘bot. “Hand Naleena to Ty and grab Sparks. Tie it to your back, lights facing up. That should give us enough protection from the Kryll.”

Marov tried to ignore the obvious “I hope” that Nyvar left unsaid as he pressed another bunch of buttons, trying to reroute power through the system menu. However, as became exceedingly apparent to him, that wasn’t something he could do remotely. Sparks had suffered enough damage to keep him locked out of the crucial systems – a failsafe in case a ‘bot was taken out in hostile territory and unable to be recovered.

“Marov?” Nyvar yelled over the growing wall of sound, his Lancer out and pointed down the hall where the Kryll were coming from, opening up on them to stave them off. “Now would be nice.”

“Aw, shit. Shit. Just what we need. Fucking Kryll and we’re in the darkest part of Sera. I think I would’ve stood a better chance with the damned giant spider back there!” Jonesy yelled, hovering close to Marov. Jason came up beside them, holding his hands out under the ‘bot’s heavy, metal form.

Trying to ignore the pathetic mewling from the pilot and the Lancer fire coming from Nyvar, Marov pulled out his tools and unscrewed one of the panels on the side of the ‘bot. A dozen wires, lit by an internal light, crisscrossed about the small space. Marov picked the one connected to the lifts and unhooked it, plugging it into an auxiliary input. When nothing happened, he pushed the wire in a little harder, sweat starting to bead on his brow. The ‘bot dropped like a stone, Jason catching it with a grunt, his expression betraying the surprise of Sparks’ weight. The JACK unit booped reproachfully, its one working eye swiveling to face Marov, as if it didn’t enjoy being cut off from its only source of movement.

“Alright, Sparks’, light us up,” Marov said anxiously, ignoring the machine’s look. The deafening shrieks were getting painful; they were almost out of time. With his eyes glued to the lights, Marov flicked one of the bulbs with a finger. They winked on sluggishly, pale radiance lighting up the small cavern they were in. Just in time, too, Marov thought as the screeching reached a fever pitch, a swarming dark mass bursting into the cavern and hissing as the Kryll reacted to the light. Echo clustered together around Jason, the ‘bot on his back their only shield from the bladelike wings.

“Oh fuck. Is it my damn imagination or are some of those little fuckers glowing?” Jonesy cried as they moved quickly out of the cavern, the dark mass swirling around them. Marov saw what the pilot was talking about, noticing a few of the Kryll pulsing with a sickly, yellow glow. That looked like a whole lotta no fun. It reminded him unsettlingly of Imulsion, which was explosive under the right conditions.

“Uh, when did they start doing that?” Ty questioned, following Jason and Nyvar as the men ran forward into where the Kryll were coming from, trying to find some kind of safe harbor.

“Doesn’t matter. We need to find somewhere safe before Sparks runs out of all available power,” Marov said, raking his brain for a solution. “These are abandoned mines, right? Maybe we can find a way station or something.”

“Yeah, the miners probably knew about these little guys, right?” Jonesy’s voice squeaked out as they ran to stay within the light.

“Actually, no one knew about the Kryll ‘til E-Day,” Jason said in his “know-it-all” voice, seemingly unaffected by the scene around them. It almost sounded like the kid was interested in getting up close and personal with Kryll. Marov was glad the kid knew so much about the Hollow, but he wasn’t sure he liked the fascination with something that could kill the kid in a split second. Of course, with the light in Jason’s possession, it wasn’t too much of a stretch to imagine the kid felt safer than the rest of them.

“Oh, great. So, we just keep running and hope we find somewhere where these flying knives can’t stab us before our light runs out? Fuck that. Maybe this’ll drive ‘em off,” Jonesy yelled over the chittering of the Kryll. The pilot pulled out his pistol and shot into the swarm before Marov could stop him. He suddenly regretted not mentioning his suspicions as the first shot struck one of the glowing bat-things.

A bright light flared from inside the swarm, causing the “flying knives” to shriek even louder. Marov had to hold a hand over his left ear, the sound stunning him into motionlessness. Pain lanced into the hand holding his ear as the light moved away from him, persuading his immobile muscles to unlock. Hissing, he jumped back toward the others, stumbling on his wounded foot and falling to the rocky ground. Something hard banged into his codpiece, sending another sharp pain through his synapses. Great, I’m gonna die in a fetal position clutching my balls. What a way to go, Marov thought angrily.

Luckily, Jason had apparently noticed Marov’s hesitation, as he wasn’t being ripped limb from limb by the mass of ravenous Kryll. However, the relief he felt was short lived; sharp cracks and pops mingled with bright fireworks going off as one glowing Kryll after another exploded in a chain reaction. Then the first rock fell, hitting Marov in the shoulder.

“Another fucking cave in? Really?!” Jonesy yelled, pulling Marov to his feet and holding him up as they all ran faster, dodging rocks as they wended their way down a particularly large cavern. Marov felt his adrenaline spiking as they ran, the pain in his leg and hand fading away. A steady, yellow glow distinguishable from Sparks’ bright light appeared at one of the many exits from the huge space.


“I see it,” Nyvar yelled, running to the corner. The man stopped, shoving his kid in front of him to lead the way as he looked back at his charges. Marov lurched past Jonesy as a rock fell between them, motioning Nyvar to keep moving. The shockwave from the boulder sent Ty into a forward falling motion, but Marov grabbed the man by the massive collar, steadying Ty. Naleena cried out in agony as a rock hit her. They needed to get out of here before they were really buried alive.

“C’mon, Sy’, I can’t have you getting crushed by a rock,” Nyvar quipped, dust and pebbles falling down on him as Marov and Jonesy caught up. Marov just nodded and closed his eyes, coughing as he inhaled dust of his own. When he opened his eyes again, he was around the corner, looking directly at a heavy metal hatch set in a large bunker type of building. A way station, in case of situations just like the one they were in now.

Pumping his legs even harder, Marov ran through the door-frame, closely followed by Jonesy and Nyvar. His forward motion stopped as he slammed into the opposite wall with his shoulder, grunting in pain as the pilot impacted his back, quickly followed by a dreadful thought. Oh, no, Nyvar’s going to-

Another, harder force slammed into him, eliciting a cry from the pilot and pushing the rest of Marov’s air out of his lungs. He fell to the ground, Jonesy and Nyvar landing on top of him in a pile of heavy armor. Marov felt his best friend’s Lancer bayonet scratching one of the places where the recon armor’s plates didn’t cover.

“Close the door! Now!” Nyvar roared over the collapsing tunnel.

A heavy clang sounded as Jason shoved his weight against it, a plume of dust shooting in just as it closed and locked with an audible click. Marov watched as the kid leaned against the door with his chest heaving from exertion. The adrenaline tapered out of Marov’s system as he dropped his head to the cool, metal floor, staring up and trying to get his own breath back. Silence reigned, aside from their breathing and a feminine moaning. Sparks’ lights were still on, illuminating the small space.

“Jason? Ty?” Nyvar barked between breaths, his head somewhere by Marov’s legs. “Everyone alright?”

“No, sir. Nal’s turning pale. I don’t think that dust was good for her,” Ty replied quickly. Marov gritted his teeth, suddenly angry at the universe. Everything was fucking going wrong!

“Dammit. Lay her on that table,” Nyvar ordered as he lifted himself off of Marov’s chest, pulling Jonesy up with him. Marov turned over on his side, trying to keep Ty in sight as the man laid Naleena out on a pull-out bench. When he moved his left hand to pick himself up, he noticed something odd.

He no longer had a ring finger, and his index finger had a deep cut in it. The pain hit him just as he looked at it, his synapses finally registering the loss as the adrenaline ebbed. Clenching his teeth, Marov pulled out a wad of gauze from his belt and stuffed it over the wounds, hissing as the material came in contact. Luckily, his wedding band was on a chain around his neck; he would have hated losing it.

“Jason, bring Sparks over here. Aw, shit,” Marov heard Nyvar mutter. “Her chest wound’s reopened. We need Sparks up and running. Marov? Come ove- What the hell happened?”

Marov grinned, or tried to, holding up his wounded hand as Nyvar turned around and stared in horror.

“Don’t think I’ll be much, errg, help right now. Ty can do it. He’s at least a good a mechanic as I am.”


The younger member of Echo Three started, looking up at them and then nodding.

“Yeah. Yeah, I can do it. Hold on.”

He squeezed Naleena’s hand as he moved over to the ‘bot on Jason’s back, looking at the space where Marov had removed the casing. Blowing out a breath, Ty ran a hand through his sweat stained hair and dug into Sparks’ side.

“We’re going to need some light. Once I turn his repulsors back on, all the power’s going to drain from his bulbs,” Ty said, looking at his Sergeant and then down to Naleena, who was coughing and wheezing.

“Alright. Jason, go find a lantern, a flare. Anything.”

“Yes, sir,” the kid replied, turning away and rummaging through a drawer on the far side. With nothing else to do and in an effort to distract himself from Naleena’s situation, Marov dragged himself over to the wall nearest him and sat against it. His hand had stopped bleeding profusely, but Marov didn’t remove the bandage. Instead, he grabbed some more gauze and covered the blood-soaked ones with it. Removing the original bandage would just yank off the clotting and cause more bleeding.

Something on the floor drew his attention away from his wound. On the floor lay a folded piece of paper, covered in dirt and footprints. Marov picked it up with his unwounded hand, unfolding it as best he could one handed. It ruslted slightly as it opened. His eyes scanned across it in the dim light from Sparks’ bulbs. It looked like a map.

A crackle sounded from where Jason was, causing Marov to look up. The kid was glowing green, a glow stick in his hand. He tossed one near Marov and bent another one, handing it to Ty. The ‘bot’s lights winked off, the glow sticks giving just enough light to see around them.

“Sparks? I need you to take a look at Naleena. I think the dust is aggravating her chest wound,” Nyvar said as soon as Ty reengaged the repulsorlifts. The ‘bot tilted its head and looked down at the girl, hovering over her and blocking Marov’s view. Nyvar, his teeth clenched as he patted the girl’s arm, strode over to where Marov was leaning against the wall, sliding down with his knees up and his head in his hands.

“Hey,” Marov ventured after a minute of silence. Nyvar looked up, a surprised expression on his face, as if he didn’t really believe what was going on around him. Marov had seen that look before.

“I know,” Nyvar replied grudgingly, casting his eyes downward. “Ain’t my fault. Don’t blame myself, yada yada.”

“Exactly. Blame Jonesy, instead. He shot the Kryll,” Marov joked weakly. The pilot looked over from where he had been standing out of the way, uncharacteristically quiet. A sneer popped onto the man’s face as he replied in his customary acidic tone.

“Hey, I got rid of them, didn’t I?”

“Shut it, flyboy,” Marov returned, shooting the man a warning look. Jonesy just rolled his eyes and turned around, muttering under his breath, suddenly finding something interesting about the wall. Naleena half moaned, half coughed again, drawing all their attention to her. She quieted down as Sparks injected her with something. Marov wasn’t sure it was safe getting as many shots as the ‘bot kept administering, but who was he to judge?

“How’s the hand?”

“Well, considering I’m still alive, I can’t really complain of losing a finger,” Marov replied to his friend, wincing at the reminder of his injury. “Still, my wife’s going to kill me. Can’t wear my ring properly.”

Nyvar smiled at that, a little sadly, in Marov’s opinion. Thinking quickly before Nyvar could return to the dark place he had been, Marov passed him the paper he’d found. The man took it, reaching for the glow stick and holding it over the page.

“Found a map. ‘Least we know where we are.”

“Lotta good that does us,” Nyvar replied, setting the glowstick and map down and leaning his head against the wall. “Half our team’s WIA and we have no support or reinforcements. I doubt we could even take a squad of grubs now, let alone a well-defended facility.”

“We’ll think of something. Echo Three’s only failed, what…one mission? And that was because Ven chuked all over Stroud’s uniform,” Marov said he smiled around his pain, remembering the South Islander’s actions costing them the credit of the mission. They’d completed it, but the then Lieutenant Stroud had been so mad she’d blotted out their involvement. Marov didn’t particularly want the credit, though, seeing as how they’d had to take over an innocent village in neutral territory. The Pendulum Wars seemed like forever ago.

“Yeah. Maybe.”

Marov supposed that was as good an answer as he was bound to get.

Haunted Echo I Edit

Mining Way station, Outer Hollow;

1450 hours

Eventually, the glow sticks Jason had found died away, leaving them in darkness. Indicator lights winked hauntingly in the pitch black, bobbing as their owners moved with their hands stretched out in front of them. Marov took the opportunity to get some much needed rest. Leaning his head back against the wall and closing his eyes, he hoped he wasn’t going to wake up with the ceiling falling down on him or Jonesy somehow messing with something to vent all the air. However, with his finger still throbbing painfully despite the blood clotting, he fell into unconsciousness almost immediately.


Almost as immediately, at least to his perception of time, Marov’s eyes opened again, staring into the lightless room. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end as he heard something rustle against the metallic floor. His mouth felt dry as he tried to swallow, knowing deep down in his gut that there was something sinister in the room with him. He stood up with his injured hand braced against the wall, reaching for his sidearm. The hard, bone hilt felt frozen, whispers of pain exuding from it causing him to drop it in surprise. He watched its journey to the floor in what seemed like slow motion, a pale radiance glowing from the pistol.

Somehow the gun went off as it hit the ground, the brilliant flash lighting up the immediate area for a second. Marov saw a small form fall in that fleeting moment of brightness, a cry of pain grating across his eardrums in a familiar voice. No, that couldn’t be right. She was dead.

All logical thought flew out of his head as he heard her whimpering, his body automatically moving to where he had seen the girl fall. He quickly fell to his knees, the heavy knee pads thudding against the ground as he reached out to find his little girl.


“I’m here, darlin’,” Marov choked out, a faint light similar to his pistol illuminating his deceased daughter’s face. “I’m here. Don’t move. I’m here.”

“It hurts,” the girl replied stutteringly, luminescent tears streaming down her pale cheeks. Marov’s chest tightened, a hollow feeling like someone had just torn out his heart occurring. Panic coursed through his body at a breakneck pace, his own eyes moistening with sorrow as he examined the wound. A hole the size of his thumb stood out against his little girl’s stomach, blood soaking her pink, doll-like dress. A gut wound, then, a detached voice said in his mind.

“I know, baby. I know. Just, just don’t move. It’ll be okay, daddy’s here,” Marov said, his throat burning with an acidic, bitter taste. He didn’t waste any more time talking as he tried to figure out a way to save her, his finger already pressing against the wound to stem the bleeding. She yelled out as he did so, almost causing Marov to pull his hand back. However, he just gritted his teeth against the awful task and kept pushing, stroking his daughter’s face with his free hand.

“Stop it! You’re hurting me!” she half cried, half yelled, slapping away his hand from her face. With surprising strength, she pushed him away, tumbling onto his back. Marov looked up confusedly as she somehow stood over him, the blood still streaming from her wound and darkening the dress. Suddenly, his daughter’s skin darkened to a wholesome brown, her clothing shifting into familiar rags.

“You couldn’t save us,” Naleena sneered, Marov’s pistol appearing in her hand. “You had all the tools, all the power to keep us alive and you failed.”

“No, no, I tried,” he croaked out, wincing as the woman standing over him threw her head back and laughed. The mad, cackling sounded like two people, one sad and full of blame while the other was tinged with anger and bitterness.

“You tried?” the woman replied, the strange twin vocals continuing as her face morphed back to his daughter’s fair features, still wearing the rags. “That wasn’t good enough, was it? You couldn’t save your daughter. You couldn’t save me. So we died. Thanks to you.”

His daughter examined the pistol in her hand, stroking the bone as a haunted scream echoed in Marov’s mind. With her face returning to Naleena’s sneer, she pointed the pistol at his face.

“You killed and took this man’s self, to remind you of something. How you failed to protect us the first time, promising yourself what?” Naleena grinned madly, continuing in a piercing tone. “That you wouldn’t let it happen again? And yet, it did.”

Marov laid his head back and stared at the light coming from the ceiling, thoughts of blame and disgust running through his mind. It was his fault. He couldn’t protect anyone. With his beard wet with tears, he closed his eyes and waited for the end.

Chapter 14: Back on Track Edit

"Keep walkin' ahead free of fear,

Long as the streets don't rumble 'n' sheer,

Hide behind cover,

Got lots of it here,

And blow 'em away with a grin 'r a sneer.

And when them grubs look up to peer,

At the ones in the cobalt blue gear,

Well we'll turn 'em to mush,

Keepin' safe the ones we hold dear,

Til we get back to days that're sunny and clear!"

- Excerpt of a Folk song by Nick Beamer, last of the world's great musicians

Abandoned way station, Outer Hollow;

1520 hours.

He awoke to someone shaking his body, the sound of his pistol cracking off a shot lingering in his mind. A bright light caused him to wince as the person's shadow moved out from in front of him. He felt like he'd been hit by a truck after a night of heavy drinking.

"Hey, princess, time to wake up," a sneering voice came. Jonesy, of course. "You're our mechanic and we need lights. Your pet 'bot ain't gonna last forever."

Marov opened his eyes and stared at Jonesy's stubbled visage, his nose picking up a whiff of mint. Was the pilot chewing mints at a time like this? The thought forced a chuckle out of him, the spasm sending a shooting pain into his injured hand. Jonesy looked at him as if he were crazy. Maybe he was.

"Much as I like a little insanity, why don't you go off the deep end after you fix what needs fixin', yeah?"

"Give me a minute, smartass," Marov grumbled, pushing the pilot away as he stretched. A yawn escaped him, his hands coming up to his eyes to rub the last remnants of sleep away. As he stood up, bracing himself against the wall he had been laying against, he noticed someone had turned Spark's light back on. Ty, probably. No one else in this bloody mountain knows anything about machinery, Marov thought uncharitably, ignoring Jonesy's affinity for airborne vehicles.

A series of boops and whistles issued from the ought source, the bot's head turning to partially block out the light. Sparks' turned it's metallic head as best it could, looking cheerful despite it's inability to move, if a little worse for wear.

Marov reached up to scratch the thickening stubble around his previously groomed mustache, looking over at a wall where a screen that looked like it was just about to go out. Ty was hovering over it, no doubt trying to find something useful in the mining database; like a way to get out of the mountain. Marov's eyes nervously took stock of the room, heaving a sigh of relief when he spotted another door on the opposite side of the one they had ran through with a collapsing tunnel on their heels.

With the thought of a way out eating away at his melancholy mood, he went to the table Sparks lay on and began to carefully reapply the bandage around what had been his ring finger. A little stream of blood and a dull pain throbbed in time with his pulse, the wound looking healthy, with no sign of infection setting in. Grunting in approval, he wrapped a cleaner bandage around it.

"If there's one thing we have, it's med supplies," Marov muttered under his breath, continuing sarcastically as he remembered their ammunition predicament. "Maybe we can make a slingshot that shoots our needles."

Once his injury was once again covered, he pulled on the gauntlet he had shed earlier. A line of ripped textile and plastic along his knuckles matched perfectly with the shallow cuts along his other fingers. It was a wonder none of the others had been severed. He flexed his fingers experimentally, grimacing slightly as the movement tugged on the bandage. It would have to do.

With Sparks' pale radiance lighting up the small room, Marov took stock of the surroundings. A hexagonal formation of several gray walls stared back at him without emotion, their color as dreary as the barracks back in Jacinto. He chewed on his lip as he remembered the accommodations he had complained about - what he would give to be back there, sleeping in an actual cot instead of against a wall.

Against the wall opposite of his previously vacated accommodations was the pull out table they had made into a makeshift bed for Naleena. Nyvar and Jason were discussing something in low tones as they changed the former Stranded’s bandages, gesturing back and forth. Marov felt a smile tug at the side of his mouth as he watched the father and son pair, their gestures and postures almost identical.

“So, are we going to get some light, or are you just going to stand there all day?” a sneering voice came from Marov’s right. Jonesy was leaning against the wall with his eyes darting here and there; his tone suggesting he was very uncomfortable in the enclosed space. Marov looked up at the slate-colored ceiling, only a meter or so above their heads with a faint uneasiness; he didn’t blame the pilot for his nervousness.

“Yeah, gimmie a second, asshole,” Marov shot back, flipping the bird at the flyboy. With a chuckle from his object of insult following him, Marov shifted his bulk to the side of the table. The panel he had taken off when they’d entered was hanging loosely off the surface, connected to the ‘bot by a thick, plastic tie. He grabbed is and put it on top of Sparks, tsking at the carelessness absentmindedly.

With a few deft moves, Marov brought the screen online and to the main menu on the ‘bot’s side. A blinking battery indicator in the corner of the screen showed 3% left of Sparks’ power reserves.

“So you’re out of fuel, huh, little buddy?” Marov whispered rhetorically, receiving an answering boop from Sparks anyway. He thought that meant some kind of affirmative, so he nodded and chewed on his lip, racking his brain for an idea. A curse from Ty’s location at the console sparked a possible solution as he looked over.

“Ty?” Marov croaked out, suddenly aware his throat was dry. He took a swig from the canteen on his belt and tried again. “Hey, Ty?

“Yeah, what?” the other Gear growled out in irritation, not even looking up from the low-lit screen.

“That console have a dedicated power supply? Or is it routed through the mining base?”

The younger Gear flicked his eyes irritatingly down to the station, pushing a button and bringing a menu similar to the one displayed on Sparks’ side. After a few minutes of searching, Ty pulled up a schematic of the way station from the database. A few lines reaching down through the rock from their current location confirmed Marov’s suspicions.

“Looks like we’re hooked up directly into the immulsion, sir,” Ty replied, a hand running through his sweat and dust-caked hair. Marov momentarily wondered how he himself looked – probably worse. We’re dirty enough to pass for friggin’ Stranded, he thought with a grimace.

“Good, that’s what I thought. Here, grab Sparks and see if you can hook him up to the power supply. Might be able to recharge him that way,” Marov nodded, motioning toward the ‘bot with his injured hand.

“Me?” Ty asked, a surprised look in his eyes. “Why me?”

“Because I need to talk to our glorious leader about our objectives,” Marov yawned, looking over to see Nyvar pouring over the map he had given his friend earlier. His rough, mustachioed visage twisted into an amused smile as Ty picked the heavy machine off the table. “Plus, you were able to turn the lights on and off. I’m sure you can figure out how to plug the damn thing into a wall.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” the other Gear wryly replied, grinning slightly as Spark’s uttered a series of condescending beeps.

As Marov turned away, he wondered at the chemistry the young man and the ‘bot had. His eyes narrowed as he looked back Ty, idly wondering if the two were developing enough of a rapport to plot something devious. Last thing I need is the twerp and his pet floating trash can tag-teaming me back at base, Marov grumped in his mind.

With his heavy boots banging dully against the floor, he moved around the center island toward his friend, who had laid the map on top of a small, pull out table. There were a couple of indentations on either side of it which Marov guessed were stools, but with their heavy gear on, he doubted they’d handle the weight gracefully.

“Hey,” Nyvar said, not even glancing up at his friend, one gloved finger trailing along a particular section of the map. Marov glanced down to see X’s and O’s cluttering the once clean map; circles marking possible exits while the X’s marked…something.

“Hey,” Marov returned, sidling up to the opposite end of the table and gesturing his uninjured hand at the map. “What’s with the X’s?”

“Locust activity, blocked tunnels, Stranded outposts,” Nyvar replied, finally looking up with tired eyes at his friend. “Ty managed to get us a few of the last updates from the central facility. Turns out the deserters have been keeping the mainframe active.”

“Smart of them, with all the Locust around,” Marov nodded appreciatively at the soldiers’ instincts. Even if they were deserters, they still were a force to be reckoned with. “He find anything else?”

“Unfortunately, no. We got locked out a few seconds after we downloaded the maps. Looks like they have a tech expert with them.”

“Or the Locust could have shredded one of the cables connecting us to the facility,” Marov countered. Nyvar just shrugged, closing his eyes as he reached up to pinch his nose.

“At any rate, we have a couple of options on how to get in. Care to hear them? One involves explosives.”

“I’m all ears,” Marov said, leaning his elbows down on the table and putting on an eager face.

“Smartass,” Nyvar scowled at the reaction, continuing with his Sergeant voice. “We’ve got two ways in. There’s a sort of lift we can gain access to in the tunnels. It requires us traveling for a couple of hours through Locust infested tunnels, but it doesn’t seem to be guarded very heavily. At least, the bottom doesn’t, seeing as the Locust don’t seem to be able to crack the codes. Ty says he can hotwire the thing to bring us up, though. Something about some programs he found in Sparks’ memory. Black Ops stuff.”

Marov nodded, remembering the conversation they had had several days ago, back when the bizarre journey had just started. Suddenly, he was more appreciative of their robotic friend, thinking back on the number of times the loyal machine had saved their asses. It was an embarrassingly high amount, unfortunately.

“And the second option?”

“We can get the hell out of these tunnels and enter in the front like we originally planned. Maybe blow the doors of the base with some dynamite.”

“That doesn’t seem like it should even be counted as an option. Last time I saw, we were getting hit with a blizzard – freezing my ass off isn’t something I’d enjoy. Plus, who knows what kind of shit they have cooked up to keep us out with a frontal assault, even with TNT on our side,” Marov sighed, wondering why Nyvar even brought it up.

“Well, yeah, but I was thinking we could throw the pilot at them. Solve both our problems,” Nyvar replied, looking over to the side. Marov followed his gaze to Jonesy, who was sullenly looking back at them. “But seriously, we still need to rescue those slaves and this seems like the best opt-.”

“Oh, no. No, no, no,” Marov said, cutting his friend off. “They’re dead. No way in hell the Locust care enough about them to bring them inside the nice warm caves. More than likely, they’re corpse-sicles outside the tunnel entrance. Plus, this mission is going to be hard enough without carting around a truck load of stinkin’ refugees through the snow, Locust, and whatever the hell else is out there, even if they were still around!”

“Look, Sy, I know you don’t like Stranded, but they’re people, too. The topic isn’t open for discussion.”


“Why don’t we do both?”

Marov and Nyvar both looked over at Jason, who was sitting next to Naleena with his armored back against the wall. His dark, serious eyes stared back at them, the teenage stubble on his chin reminding Marov exactly how young the younger Nyvar was. Marov was the first to recover from the break in.

“What do you mean?” Marov asked, pulling on one side of his mustache. “We don’t exactly have the people to mount an assault on both sides. Let alone the equipment.”

Jason stood up, shaking his head as he walked over to them, glancing down at Naleena as he moved past her pull-out cot. When he arrived at their tiny stand, he pointed at the tunnel entrance.

“A small team can enter here, sneaking in the back,” he said, the gears in his head almost audible as he continued, his face thoughtful. “Ty said he could do it without throwing out an alert, so we should be fine. Especially if we have someone keeping them busy up at the front.” The kid tapped the entrance on the outside of the network of tunnels with a gloved finger, the impact causing a slight rustling of paper. “We could impersonate a group of Stranded, or even a few Gears with intention of desertion, giving the other team time to do some damage. Those explosives we found would be perfect. Having the facility as a fallback point for the refugees would be a boon either way.”

“One problem is I don’t think they’d be very trusting to a bunch of muscle-bound hulks all of a sudden showing up with a vendetta against the COG,” Nyvar replied, pointing out the obvious flaw in the plan. Marov nodded along with his friend’s assessment, though he had a feeling Jason had thought of that, too. Judging from the way the junior Nyvar grinned, Marov felt confident in his assumption.

“That would be true. However, we have a couple less muscled, and therefore less threatening-looking, people with us.” The kid hitched his thumb back at the pilot, who was glowering over at them as if it was their fault he was stuck miles deep in the ass crack of a mountain. Marov had to admit to himself it probably was, though.

“True,” Marov rumbled out, rubbing his chin as he stared at their wounded compatriot. “Still, Nal’s in bad shape. I don’t think we should leave her here, alone. Because we’ll need everyone we have to do any damage.”

“I thought of that, too,” the too-smart tone of voice retorted as Jason appraised their raven-haired Stranded girl. “With the armor she’s still wearing, she could pass for another Gear. If I carry her and head to the front with Jonesy, she should be able to add some kind of urgency to our situation. After all, even if they’re deserters, they’re still soldiers at heart – we’ve been taught to safeguard women, whenever we can.”

“I don’t know,” Nyvar replied to the plan, rubbing a bicep through the thick mesh sleeves he wore under his armor. “It’s risky. They could just keep you out regardless. Then we’d be without the distraction you mentioned and you’d be out in the cold. I don’t think she’d survive out there long, son.”

A flash of sparks interrupted Marov’s thought processes, causing them all to look over to where Ty was working on the ‘bot. Cursing, the younger member of Echo Three ripped a power cord out of Sparks’ side, stopping the inflammation of their highly expensive machinery.

“What did you do?” Marov asked incredulously as Sparks’ lights went dim, the room plunging into darkness once more. Jonesy started cursing up a storm, quickly followed by a crash as the pilot ran into something and fell.

“I just hooked him up, sir. Hold on,” Ty growled, a bang accompanying his voice. All of a sudden, Sparks started lighting back up, the bulbs blinking on as it started to raise up on its repulsors. “There. All fixed. Right buddy?”

Sparks beeped and booped cheerfully, extending a grasping claw and patting Ty on the head, comically rising and lowering on his repulsors to manage the action. A rumble of laughter from Marov’s side joined with his own as they laughed at Ty’s expression, which was one part proud and one part confused at what had just taken place.

“Looks like he agrees,” Naleena’s soft voice broke through the din, a wan smile on her paler-than-normal face.

“And I think I figured out a way to failsafe my plan, too,” Jason said with a sudden eagerness.

“Let’s hear it then, General,” Jonesy sneered from across the room, his arms folded as he leaned against the wall. Marov had a feeling the pilot knew his part in their plan wouldn't be pleasant, whatever they decided on.

Chapter 15: Hollow Run Edit

“You ever wonder where all these explosives are coming from, man? I mean, someday we’re going to run out of it. That’s a fact. And then where are we going to be? Using friggin’ dynamite? On second thought, I can’t wait!”

– Baird, on the COG’s dwindling military assets.

In the tunnels, Outer Hollow;

1600 hours.

“Bloody, damn assholes,” Jonesy said as he followed Jason and his cargo through the small tunnel they’d been in for the last hour. He wasn’t happy at all about being sent out of the safe waystation, where bats with razors for wings flitted around and rocks had a habit of submitting to gravity far too often for his liking. His zone was the sky, after all, not this ground-pounder shit he’d been dealing with the last however many days. “Damn caves. Damn COG. Damn Hoffman.”

“It’s not Hoffman’s fault you got yourself shot down, Jonesy,” Jason’s sarcastic voice sounded from ahead. Jonesy glowered at the kid, not enjoying being reminded.

“Yeah, well, if I wasn’t such a great pilot, we’d all be dead on touchdown,” Jonesy retorted bitterly, remembering “touchdown” as a maddening series of flashing lights, loud noises, and an extreme amount of heat just before he blacked out. “You know what the life expectancy of flyboys are? It seems like we die faster than you kids on the ground do. I’m surprised there’s as many of us still alive as there are!”

“World’s a crazy place, man. People just happen to roll with the crazy themselves. Some more than others.”

“No shit,” Jonesy sneered, looking down at his feet in an effort to stop stumbling. They had Sparks with them, but the ‘bot was conserving its power by only keeping one bulb on. It’d keep the Kryll away at the least, but it wasn’t so bright that he didn’t keep tripping over every crevasse in the friggin’ mountain. “Speaking of insanity, I’m surprised your dad and his two buddies felt the need to adventure into the mountain with just an old kerosene lamp to keep them company. If that shit runs out in the middle of a Kryll swarm, they’re fucked.”

The kid didn’t reply, leading Jonesy to believe he was ignoring him. The pilot didn’t blame him, though, seeing as how he’d probably be pretty nervous if the last of his family was risking their lives like that. If he had any family still alive. Jonesy quickly moved his thoughts back over to griping to avoid that dark cesspit of thought. It wouldn’t do anyone any good.

With his muttering keeping his attention away from the heavy, almost cloying ceiling above their heads, Jonesy examined his armor. While his scrawny frame barely filled the suit out, it still amazed him how the recon suit rendered his outline almost indistinct. Granted, they were underground, but even when they’d been traveling through the forest on some stupid errand to save a bunch of asswipes in a slave camp filled with a dozen or more Locust, the armor had had that effect.

“Shame we can’t coat our Ravens with this shit,” he whispered sullenly, thinking of his downed bird somewhere in the forest surrounding the mountain. “Still, even if we did, we’d have to work on the sound. Stupid rotors.”

Time passed slowly underground, the surroundings staying the same rocky path after stalagmite after pit of abyss he almost fell into. Occasionally, a red, glowing light gently pulsed from some kind of underground potato or seed. Biology wasn’t high on Jonesy’s list of priorities, so he didn’t do much but look at it as if it were dangerous. Given what things crawled around in the Hollow, he wasn’t prepared to find out either way.

That didn’t stop Jason from calling a break though, directing Jonesy to keep Naleena company while he examined it. Jonesy just shook his head at the kid’s weird brand of crazy and complied, sidling up to the wounded woman and sitting beside her.

“So how’s the chest, lady?” Jonesy asked with his usual tact. The woman frowned slightly with her puffy lips, her eyebrows drawing down and then raising again with the smile that followed. Obviously, she understood his particular behavior.

“I’m coping. It hurts, but I don’t feel like I’m dying. That machine of yours did good work. I can’t even imagine how much it’d help a community of Stranded if we had one.”

“Yeah, well, we kind of need them for the war and stuff. Locust trying to wipe us out. Good a medic as they can be, we try to use them to more for busting down doors or scouting,” Jonesy rattled off sarcastically, leaning his head back against the stone wall. Some kind of insect with too many legs was skittering across his field of vision, disappearing behind a cluster of roots. He shuddered at it, transforming the action into a fake shiver as his companion arched her brow.

“Damn, it’s cold down here,” Jonesy groused loudly, rubbing his arms. Even though he had faked the shiver, it was still chilly. He supposed that meant they were getting closer to an exit, and while that cheered him up, he wasn’t looking forward to wading through hip deep snow for a couple of miles.

“I’ve got a blanket in my pack if the poor, wittle pilot needs one,” Jason’s voice sounded from somewhere around the bend, followed by a chuckle. Jonesy twisted his mouth into a sneer at the words and flipped the bird in the voice’s direction.

“I’m kind of chilly, too,” Naleena whispered softly, scooting closer to Jonesy. The pilot looked over, the woman’s leaning position giving him an almost full view of her shapely cleavage. He looked away quickly, feeling his face burning with embarrassment. Well, at least my cheeks won’t catch frostbite, he thought wryly to himself.

With a grumble, he put an arm around his companion, looking up at the ceiling as she snuggled closer to him. The contact of her small body was almost electrifying, the warmth of their thighs touching and her bosom against his side getting a rise out of him. He cursed silently to himself, hoping she wouldn’t notice his predicament. Dammit, it’s not my fault I haven’t even looked at a woman since the war started, Jonesy groaned inwardly, feeling extremely uncomfortable with the moment.

A few minutes later, he felt her breathing slow, the warmth from her exhales sending goosebumps along his arm as it disturbed the hairs there. Great, she’s asleep. Wait, should she be asleep with this kind of injury? Or was that head wounds? Why do I care this much? A whirlwind of thoughts were rushing through Jonesy’s mind as the crunching of gravel announced Jason’s return. The pilot looked up to see the Gear’s face smirking at him, softening as he looked to Naleena’s sleeping form.

“Fell asleep, huh?”

“Yeah. She’s tired. Hell, we’re all tired,” Jonesy said, trying to gently take his arm out from around her back. When he failed to do so, he gestured with his head toward her at Jason. “Get her, will you? My arms falling asleep.”

“Chivalrous as usual,” Jason wisecracked, kneeling down and pulling the woman forward. Jonesy quickly extricated his arm from behind her, wiping away dirt and gravel from the mesh underlay he was wearing.

“I never claimed to be perfect.”

“Coulda fooled me with your attitude,” Jason chuckled softly as he grabbed the woman under her legs and pulled her up with a grunt into his arms. With that lovely note, they continued their trek through the tunnels. Jonesy idly wondered if the other team was having as much fun as he was.

Marov coughed, tightening the bandana he’d had to tie over his mouth earlier. His eyes were watering from the fumes the Imulsion all around them was giving off, but he soldiered through it, careful where he set down his foot. Earlier, Ty had stepped in the wrong place, his foot breaking down through the crusty ground and entering the fuel for a second before Nyvar reached over and pulled him out. The man’s boot had been eaten almost all the way through; Marov had shuddered at the thought of what the Imulsion would do if it had touched Ty’s skin.

The enormous cavern they were in held slim walkways through a veritable sea of Imulsion. Every now and then, the fuel bubbled and made a gurgling noise as they passed, as if it were alive and matching their progress. That thought didn’t set well with Marov, who was bringing up the rear in their three man convoy. Still, the only redeeming quality of all the Imulsion was they could conserve their lamp's kerosene, since the stuff gave off a lot of sickly, yellow light.

Ty, holding the now extinguished lamp, was in the middle, following Nyvar as they made their way through the cavern. The younger man’s gait was awkward every time he stepped down on his corroded boot, much to his annoyance. Marov tried to fan the fumes from his eyes as they went and failing miserably.

“So, if there was so much damn Imulsion down here, why did we even fight the Pendulum Wars?” Ty asked, his voice muffled through his own makeshift bandana.

“Hell, I don’t know. It was probably just because war’s what we do. We wouldn’t know what to do with peace,” Marov gabbed bitterly, checking his Lancer’s ammunition. He had only two extra clips outside of his full magazine – they couldn’t handle a prolonged firefight. Which was another reason they had to take the facility; the deserters no doubt had a cache of weapons stashed somewhere.

“Politicians,” Nyvar called over his shoulder. “The greedy bastards wanted all the fuel. Doesn’t much matter how much of the shit there is. People like that don’t learn how to share.”

“Prescott doesn’t seem as bad as that. He was in the army, wasn’t he?” Ty replied.

“Yeah, he was in the army alright. Didn’t do much beside send good men to die, but he was in the army. Man never saw frontline combat,” Marov growled, the bandana momentarily sticking to his lips. He reached up to pull it away, letting in a blast of Imulsion flavored oxygen. He almost retched as the smell stuck to the back of his throat.

“Besides, he became Chairman during this war. He didn’t have the time to focus on scrabbling for the Imulsion. Might be the only reason anyone still thinks of him positively,” Nyvar scoffed, marching over a rise. As soon as he did, he stopped and held his hand up in a fist, backing up and falling into a crouch. Marov watched Ty bring his weapon around in a scanning maneuver, crouching down as well in case there were a sniper watching the ridge. For his part, Marov turned and brought his weapon up to cover their rear. Nothing behind them, at least.

“What is it, Sarge?” Ty whispered.

“Bloodmount,” Nyvar hissed back. Marov felt a pat on his back and turned around to see Nyvar gesturing for him to join the two looking over the rise. When his eyes broke the plane, they went automatically to the beast shuffling along beside a Drone. A clinking was audible over the bubbling Imulsion as the chain around the Bloodmount’s neck scratched the ground and lead to the Locust’s clawed hand.

“What’s the plan, ‘Seph?” Marov asked as he checked the safety on his Lancer again.

“Let ‘em pass. Looks like they’re heading for that tunnel,” their leader pointed at a large, dark entrance that looked as though it went deeper into the Hollow. “The Imulsion should mask our scent, at least.”

Marov nodded and resolved to wait awhile, leaning back against a stalagmite that was shooting up from the ground beside their path. His Lancer rested against his chest as he stared up at the ceiling. What he saw nearly paralyzed him with fear.

“We don’t have time to wait, ‘Seph. We need to go, now!” Marov hissed nervously, getting up slowly as he kept his gaze locked on the many eyes of a Corpser slowly unwinding itself from a large hole in the roof. He didn’t know if slow movements would help, but the thing wasn’t dropping on top of them yet, so he continued the motion.

“Wha-? Oh, shit,” Nyvar replied as he followed Marov’s gaze. The Corpser was almost completely out of the hole now, its clawed extremities clutching the roof like the spider it resembled.

“Why isn’t it attacking already? It’s staring right at us,” Ty whispered with fear, slowly rising up to his feet.

“The Imulsion, maybe? How do the things see, anyway?” Marov asked, watching the monster cock its head back and forth at them. A dry, slithery hiss emanated from its cavernous mouth as it sliced through a stalactite hanging from the ceiling directly above them.


Marov wasn’t sure who yelled it, but he immediately jumped out of the way, over the rise. A sound he never wanted to hear in a cave again thundered from behind him, the ground shaking beneath him. He jumped to his feet as quickly as he could and ran after Ty, who was already heading directly at the Bloodmount and its master.

A stream of shots flew over Marov’s shoulder as Nyvar opened fire on the Drone, Ty and Marov doing the same. He heard someone yelling over the sound of Lancer fire and realized it was his own voice, fueled with anger and fear as the Drone twitched in its death throes. The Bloodmount, driven mad by the smell of blood and machine gun fire, dug into the corpse of the Locust, blood flinging everywhere as the thing’s teeth and tiny claws ripped into the body.

They were a few meters from the grisly scene when the ground shook again. Marov looked back to see the Corpser splash into the Imulsion, screeching in pain as it landed in the fuel. It quickly ran forward toward them, the fury in its many eyes directed at them. As one of its claws lifted, Imulsion sloughed off, revealing the tip of its extremity melted off.

“God dammit!” Marov yelled, returning his vision forward as an acid-eaten leg slammed into the ground, narrowly missing him as he jumped to the left. Ty ran past the Bloodmount, jumping in the air as best he could despite the heavy gear as the animal swiped a claw at him. With its fanged mouth ringed with the blood that gave it it’s name, it turned back to Marov and lurched forward toward him. There was no way he had enough time to bring his gun up and kill the thing. Dying to a friggin’ Bloodmount miles underground wasn’t exactly the way I thought I would go, Marov raged in his mind, futilely raising his weapon anyway.

Just as he was about to become the Bloodmount’s next victim, a claw from the Corpser pierced through its body and dug into the ground, pinning the abomination. Marov’s eyes widened as he tried to shift his body to the right, careening off of the claw and tripping to the ground. He threw his Lancer ahead of him right before he hit the ground so he wouldn’t get a face full of chainsaw. The dying screech of the Bloodmount rang in his ears, almost deafening him.

“How many times am I going to have to pick you off your ass?” Nyvar’s voice rang out as a strong hand pulled him to his feet. Marov just grinned despite his leg starting to radiate pain from the bullet wound. All this running wasn’t doing it any good.

“As many times as I have to pull your ass out of a fire,” Marov shot back, scooping up his weapon as he moved toward their destination – a small tunnel the Corpser couldn’t hope to follow them through with its size. Ty was standing there, looking back at them and waving them on. Marov was glad the other Gear had sense enough not to piss away the last of his ammo on the Corpser’s hard carapace.

They ran the last couple of meters into the cave just as the Corpser jumped at them, banging into the wall in impotent rage. Marov took the opportunity to look back just as the thing sent a large claw into the opening. He pushed Ty and Nyvar to opposite ends of the wall and launched himself forward as he did so. Curses filled the air as the other two soldiers tripped and caught themselves on opposite walls.

Marov, on his hands and knees, crawled as fast as he could, feeling the impact of the Corpser’s claw hitting directly behind him. A scream of frustration from their giant adversary caused Marov to roll over and look back, out of range of the madly scrambling digit. His chest rose and fell rapidly as he gulped in air, ripping the bandana from over his mouth. Ty rushed over, quickly followed by Nyvar, their combined strength enough to drag him further away from the monster. Marov felt dizzy, everything starting to go black as fumes filled his throat and the pain in his leg flared.

"Just a little further, man. Elevators are in sight."

Marov nodded as best he could, his vision narrowing to a pinprick as the Corpser's eyes stared at him, it's hellish mouth wide open in a yell.

Chapter 16: Into the Fire Edit

“I made a deal with the devil, literally. I work for them and we stay alive. The rest of the world can fight if they want, and die. Sera’s a right bitch that way.”

– Parker Wilson, talking to his fellow deserter, Tyrel LaBlanc.

Elevator platform beneath Lethia Imulsion Facility;

1710 hours.

“C’mon, Ty, get that elevator down here.”

Marov was leaning against a breaker box, his sight flickering as he fought to stay awake. His labored breathing pulsed in time to the pain shooting up from his injured leg. Nyvar was squatting with his hands trying to rewrap his injuries in a new bandage. Marov growled as Nyvar put too much pressure on the wound, instantly clamping down on an instinctive yell.

“Shit, don’t these things ever give up?” Nyvar yelled over the loud banging coming from the tunnel, looking toward the tunnel that they had just vacated. Dust from the ceiling fell around them as the Corpser futilely pounded against the wall. Damn animal’s probably too stupid to realize it can’t dig anymore, Marov thought, his eyes clenched closed.

“You’re good to go, Sy,” Nyvar said, slapping Marov on the knee plate and standing back up. Marov nodded and reached down to tug his massive boot gently over his foot, hoping he’d be able to stand up. Nyvar offered a hand, which he took, gritting his teeth against the expected pain when he stood on his injured foot. The thing still hurt like hell, but he’d be able to hobble along instead of being carried.

Grimacing, Marov moved over to grab his Lancer, which was laying on the ground next to Ty. With a surprisingly minimal amount of pain, he picked it up off the floor and clutched it to his chest like he would a child. The weapon was precious, and not just because they couldn’t be built in the same numbers they’d been able to before. It had saved his life more often than his friends had.

“Aw, hell. Where’d it go?” Nyvar’s voice asked incredulously, suddenly loud in the silence.

Marov turned to look down the hallway and saw no sign of the giant spider thing. His thoughts went instantly to the roof, quickly followed by his eyes as he scanned the ceiling. No holes like they’d seen in the Imulsion field.

“Ty, get that lift down here, now,” Nyvar ordered, walking over to the edge of a cliff and looking down into the abyss. He shuddered, as if he saw something down there he didn’t like. “I don’t want to stick around to see if it brings back friends.”

“Shit!” Ty hissed as sparks flew from the elevator control panel, the yellow pinpricks of fire dying away as soon as they appeared. “Just a few more seconds.”

“Think they can climb up from that cliff, ‘Seph?” Marov asked, making sure to stay far away from the edge, especially with his unsteady gait.

“Nah, nothin’ but Imulsion down there. Doesn’t look like there’s any room to dig a tunnel, either. I just want to get the hell out from under the mountain. Spent enough time down here.”

“I hear that,” Marov said feverently, glancing back at Ty to see him hold two wires together, a tongue sticking out of his mouth in concentration. That insignificant detail surprised a grin out of Marov, despite their situation. It seemed so out of place.

“Got it.”

A creaking moan sounded from above them as the elevator, causing Marov to wince in pain. The sound felt like it was drilling through his skull. Hopefully no one up top was in listening range, he thought as he looked up the shaft. The platform was slowly clanking its way down to them, the underside scoured with bullet rounds.

“Looks like someone must’ve just escaped the grubs,” Nyvar said softly, coming up to stand next to Marov and hefting his gun up to the cage surrounding the elevator. “Doesn’t look like they made it, though.”

Marov stared at the cage and saw what he meant; a human skull was implanted in the grate, the spine woven in and out of the chain links. Pieces of cloth clustered around the sight, dangling forlornly from the grate. He felt the urge to throw up at that, turning to the side and bracing himself against the stone wall with one hand. It reminded him too much of his daughter’s fate for his liking.

“You alright, Sy?” Nyvar quiered worriedly,

“I’ll hold together ‘til we get this thing done,” Marov replied as a fresh wave of pain hit him as he moved his foot wrong. Nyvar frowned at him, but nodded anyway. Not like there’s much we can do down here, Marov thought.

Trying to put his mind away from the gruesome display and the pain screaming through his leg, he checked his Lancer, noticing the chainsaw’s chain was off its resting place. Working with a practiced ease, he returned it to its rightful place and revved it up, watching as the teeth buzzed around in a satisfying way.

“Alright, our ride’s here,” Nyvar broke in as soon as Marov turned off his bayonet, walking toward the platform. It didn’t look like the safest elevator he had been on, so Marov walked toward the middle, next to the central pillar in the center of the platform. The pillar was flecked with rust and grime, a few scorch marks from unfriendly fire showing through it all. A click from his earpiece followed by Nyvar’s voice caused him to turn around and look at his friend.

“Jason? You read me?” Nyvar asked, a couple of fingers to his right ear as he initiated the circuit.

Nothing but static filled the channel. Nyvar frowned at that, bringing down his hand and looking up the shaft, as if his kid would be waiting up there for him. Marov bumped his friend’s shoulder with his own.

“Kid’s resourceful, ‘Seph. He’ll make it,” Marov whispered softly. Nyvar just grunted, as if he wanted to believe that, turning around and bringing his Lancer up to his chest. He nodded to their new tech expert.

“Take us up, Ty.”

“One second,” Ty replied from the breaker box. A moment later, the platform shuddered and started rising slowly. Ty jogged over to them, jumping on just before the elevator rose into a safety cage. “What would you guys do without me?”

“You did good, Ty,” Nyvar said, patting his younger friend on the shoulder. Ty beamed at the praise, looking up in embarrassment, but Nyvar was already looking into the mid distance and working his jaw in worry.

“Let’s just hope we don’t have a welcoming party up there waiting for us. This thing made a pretty annoying noise when it started heading down,” Marov grumped, letting his weapon drop to his side in a one handed grip. The pain in his leg was starting to go away, shifting into a dull throb that pulsed in time with the blood in his ears.

“According to the schematics I saw before they locked us out, the elevator is deep in the facility, at the end of a mining cart track. No point in watching this end, especially since no one but Locust are in the tunnels. They couldn’t use the controls without the plans Sparks gave us,” Ty replied, bringing his own weapon up to his chest.

“These are Gears, son. There’s always reason to watch an entrance, regardless of possible entry. What I’m confused about is why the Locust just haven’t sent a Corpser up the shaft,” Nyvar wondered aloud.

“Probably because we’re so close to the surface. No room for a Corpser to dig - and the tunnel entrance we just came through is covered in Imulsion. They’d just end up like our friend back there,” the younger Gear responded with confidence, looking up at the top of the shaft again. Marov looked up to and wagered they were almost there, wishing they could just take a few days break to sleep – he was suddenly aware how tired he was. He closed his eyes momentarily, trying to enter a trance that Ven had always been talking about.

Memories of the giant swam through his consciousness, a bemused smile almost always on the South Islander’s face. He smiled faintly as he remembered Ven trying to teach Ty how to cook over an open fire during one of their missions. The kid had burned everything he had been given, looking so serious as he tried to repeat the motions Ven had with a skillet. Still, the big man had just patiently watched and laughed at each attempt, imparting words of questionable wisdom about fate and its dislike of Ty’s cooking.

Damn, I haven’t thought of the lug in awhile, Marov thought, sadness momentarily weighing down on the happy memory. Then a host of new memories combated the melancholy away, washing through his mind. Suddenly, he wasn’t so tired.

When he opened his eyes, he saw Ty squatting on the edge of the platform, looking down through the safety cage and Nyvar grinding his jaw as he watched the younger man with concern. Marov grinned at the picture, despite their situation. Ven would probably say something stupid about ‘rising out of the depths of hell’ or some other mystical bullshit, Marov thought with fondness.

“Alright, check your gear. Be ready just in case we find something up there,” Nyvar commanded, a click sounding from his own weapon as he turned the safety off. “And don’t shoot anything until I give the order.”

“Imulsion fumes, Corpsers, and now an entrance with possible hostiles? We made it this far. Let’s see if we can make three for three today,” Marov scoffed just before his eyes crested the plane, ready to move out.

Outside of the mountain, 1 km from Facility;

1710 hours

White. That was the first thing Jonesy noticed as they came to the tunnel exit of their not-so-friendly mountain. Pure, friggin’ cold, whiteness.

“Did we really have to come out here?” Jonesy whined piteously, already feeling the chill dig through his armor and imbed itself in his bones. He stumbled slightly as gravel and snow shifted beneath him, starting a miniature avalanche down the shallow incline. They were at the foot of the mountain, flakes of snow gently falling to the ground. Jonesy glared at the dancing balls of cold as they swirled around him and wet his mesh underlay.

“Yeah, we kinda did,” Jason replied with a sigh, shrugging under the weight of Naleena and his own weaponry. As treacherous as it was outside, Jonesy had been forced to carry the Stranded woman’s Longshot, which was slung over his shoulder. Though he had wanted to try the weapon out the last time they’d seen the open sky, its weight was rapidly cooling that urge. It felt heavier than anything he’d ever had to carry during Boot.

“How long til we hit the facility? I could use some A/C right about now,” Jonesy asked, blowing into his thinly gloved hands to try and warm them up. He didn’t know how much longer they’d be able to stay out here before they froze to death. The sobering thought clicked with something back in his mind. Shivering, loss of muscle control, sluggish thinking, frostbite, death. Hooray for hypothermia.

“We’re only a kilometer out. We should be able to start seeing the towers soon, over the trees in that direction,” Jason nodded a bit to the left of their heading. Jonesy glared through the white and tried to spy the large, metal Imulsion containers. He thought he saw a faint smudge of gray through the wintry trees, but he couldn’t be sure. Snow really wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

He suddenly wished he could just fly above the clouds and see the crisp, clear daylight. It was a sight that took his breath away each time he flew that high during Frost. When was the last time I even got to do that? Back before the war, probably, when we were fighting each other instead of these damn beasts. Shit, I must be getting old at thirty two, feeling all nostalgic like this.

Jonesy remained wrapped up in his thoughts for awhile, absently putting one foot in front of the other as he followed the slightly taller, younger, and more fit soldier through the icy air. Puffs of his breath fogged his vision every now and then, his nose and cheeks starting to go numb. He was suddenly jealous of Jason, able to get more heat from Naleena’s body and the effort of carrying her. He hated being scrawny, sometimes.

A few minutes later, a sound he’d forgotten existed washed into his consciousness – the sound of the ocean beating against land. That meant they had to be close, since the facility was situated directly alongside the water. He looked around, spotting the towers now that they were close enough to see through the snow.

A flicker of dark brown in between the trees caught his attention from his peripherals. He looked over quickly, freezing with a familiar fear as he saw a familiar face. Make that a familiar face and a couple of soldiers he hadn’t seen before. His fingers itched to hold one of the door guns of his Raven, always torn between piloting her himself or blowing grubs away from above.

“Jason,” Jonesy hissed, looking over to his companion and realizing the man was still going. “Hey, kid,” he said a little louder, moving as slow and quiet as he could. Luckily, Naleena spotted Jonesy waving for their attention, her mouth moving as she looked up at the young Gear.

“What now, Jonesy?” Jason asked, his brows turned down in an expression that made him look just like his dad. Jonesy cringed and held a finger to his lips at the kid’s voice broke through the small tufts of wind, pointing down into the gully he had spotted trouble in.

The kid followed his finger, eyes widening as he saw Parker walking through the gully on a well-traveled path, his ever-present cigarette smoking in the frosty air. Two big men in full Gear regalia, looking more taken care of than Parker’s own set of armor, waltzed behind him, their Lancers held loosely against their chests.

“Shit, what’re we going to do now? He’s heading right for the facility,” Jonesy whispered hysterically, gripping the pistol at his side to comfort him. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem to be working, this time.

“Damn, I should’ve thought of this,” Jason replied quietly, sounding like he was beating himself up about not coming up with the perfect plan. The kid had to learn plans never survived contact with reality. “He’s seen all of us, too. There’s no way we’re getting in without him recognizing us and putting a bullet through our heads.”

Jonesy started to hyperventilate, panic fueling his racing thoughts as he gulped in large amounts of snowflakes. Everything was going down the shitter. They were going to be stuck in the fucking cold or be forced to go back underground, if they could even find the exit they came out of. Jason must have caught on to Jonesy’s very visible panic, because he spoke again with an air of authority about him.

“Calm down, pilot. We just need to think this through.” The kid looked around for a moment before continuing. “Sparks?”

A quizzical beep sounded from midair right next to Jonesy, causing him to jump in fright. His heart was hammering in his chest as the bot uncloaked itself, cocking its “head” at him.

“Sparks, can you establish a channel with my dad? We need to let him know what’s going on up here.”

Sparks floated for a moment, looking toward the facility and cocking its head again. Jonesy shuddered at the motion, the act reminding him too much of a close encounter with a Berserker he had had when the things first burst out of the ground. A drooping series of beeps followed after a few minutes, a clear negative.

“Damn,” Jason said, blowing out a breath and closing his eyes. Jonesy saw Naleena’s lips form a solid line just before she began to speak, as if she were trying to hold in her anger.

“We can just walk in. Parker won’t shoot us if he sees I’m with you,” the dark-skinned Stranded said in a breathy voice; Jonesy remembered her lung had been punctured. It must hurt like hell to breath outside in the cold. “He cares too much about me, even if he doesn’t know it himself.”

“You think we can trust him that far, Nal? He took the people you were leading hom and led them straight to slavery, or worse. What do you think he’s going to do to you?” Jason sneered. Jonesy thought back to the mustachioed Gear filling them in while Jason’s father had been recovering from his injuries. It felt like so long ago that everything had happened, as if almost a year had gone by since he lifted off from Jacinto.

“We don’t have much choice, do we? We’ll freeze if we stay out here,” Naleena returned just as caustically.

“I’m going to have to agree with her,” Jonesy began, instantly quieting down as they both glared at him. He rolled his eyes – so it was going to be a lover’s spat, then. They didn’t have time for all this romantic bullshit. “We’ve gotta hurry if we’re going to do anything. Our genocidal traitor is walking up Lethia Promenade,” Jonesy quipped, jokingly referring to the stretch of concrete surrounded by gray buildings and the ocean on one side.

“Let’s move then,” Jason said without any further ado, apparently resigned to the plan Naleena had given them. Jonesy followed as the younger man half slid half jogged down the last bit of slope leading to the path Parker had just walked down.

They slowed down when they came to the concrete, Jason bravely calling out to the threesome. Unfortunately, that was probably the wrong thing to do at that moment. The two soldiers on either side of Parker quickly turned and opened fire without waiting for an order. Jonesy ran toward the nearest cover, a tank probably filled with something explosive, and ducked behind it. He felt like he was going to piss himself as soon as bullets started pinging into the other side of the tank, knowing at any moment he’d be sent flying, on fire, through the air.

“Hold your damned fire. Hold it. Stop!” Parker’s voice yelled over the sound of gunfire. Instantly the air ceased spewing metal slugs, much to Jonesy’s relief. He looked over to where he had last seen Jason, praying he wouldn’t find two mutilated bodies lying on the ground. However, contrary to his fears, Jason was standing up behind a metal wall with his Lancer in his hands. Naleena was standing, surprisingly, bracing herself against the wall with a pistol in her hand.

“Who the hell are you?” Parker yelled angrily. Jonesy pictured the man’s scraggly beard and red face, but was too chicken to look over and probably get a round between the eyes.

“It’s me, Parker,” Naleena’s voice called out, again a surprise to Jonesy, who thought she was supposed to be near a comatose state. Still, her voice wavered and her face, what he could see behind the white bandanna she wore, was an unhealthy pale. This wasn’t the best environment for her to move around and yell in.

“Naleena? Shit, girl, I thought you were dead, along with those assh- wait. Who's with you? Where's the others?”

“The pilot and one of the Gears you saved from the crash site,” Jason yelled, his voice strong. "We're alone. We got seperated."

“Give me a reason I should believe you,” Parker returned, his voice suddenly filled with malice. “You assholes were sent to capture this facility, weren’t you?”

“Fuck that,” Jonesy yelled, slowly coming out of cover with his hands up. The two Gears tracked him as he moved, but they didn’t open fire. He didn’t know what he was doing or why he was doing it, but it seemed like the best way to get Parker to trust them. “I just wanna live. If that means deserting, I’ll take it.”

Jonesy watched Parker’s face, the man’s eyes glaring over at him as if debating whether to order him into chopped meat or not. The two big men kneeling beside him just stared unblinkingly down their sights, one a big black-skinned man and the other a white guy with a bandanna similar to Naleena’s covering his face. They both looked like they’d take the shot without a twinge of humanity, though that could have just been a façade.

Naleena came out next, supported by Jason, who had clamped his Lancer back to his back to avoid looking like a threat. Jonesy watched as the kid’s jaw clenched at the sight of weapons pointed at him, his eyes flickering between the two and then to Parker.

“Please, Parker,” Naleena begged, wincing as she drew in a breath and falling to her knees. Jonesy would have normally thought the display was overly dramatic had it been in a movie, but right then, it felt all too real to him.

“What happened to you, darlin’?” Parker asked, his face all of a sudden written with concern as he moved forward to them. One of the Gears moved forward with his weapon still aimed at Jason, policing the various weapons he carried. The other, dark-skinned Gear did the same to him, a hint of sympathy in his eyes quickly hardening to a cold stare as Jonesy noticed it. So these guys weren’t totally inhuman.

“Grab her,” Parker directed to the Gear in the bandanna. “Bring her to the med lab. See if Hanson can do anything to help her.” The traitor turned to Jonesy and Jason, now both weaponless and standing next to each other with their hands on the back of their heads. “Throw these two in one of the labs. I’ll decide what to do with them later.”

“Shit. Out of the frying pan,” Jason whispered to Jonesy, receiving a growled “quiet” from their jailor.

“Hey, I’ll take the fire to all this cold stuff,” Jonesy retorted, getting a cuff on his ear from the big black man. Though he was outwardly pleased by the heat they were going to be able to stay in, worry still gnawed him. How were they going to get the message to the others that Parker was here?

Chapter 17: Death’s Roulette Edit

“Understand what you see on the battlefield is reality, my friend. Once you have accustomed yourself to hell, it can only be that much better when you finally fall in battle. Just, if it is within your power, face me to the sky when my soul leaves this shell. I enjoy staring at the clouds and if it is to be my last sight, I would leave gratefully.”

– Ven Salora, in a conversation with Tyler Fais as they look over the cloudscape from the door of a Raven.

Inside the Lethia Imulsion Facility;

1749 hours.

Marov fought hard not to give into the urge to look down, concentrating solely on Ven’s old shotgun clamped across Ty’s back. He had memorized every detail of it in the past five minutes, down to the individual grooves where Ven had carved his initials into the barrel. Since they had stepped out onto a forlorn looking mining cart track in the middle of a cavernous room, Marov had had a hard time breathing. The weight of the Lancer on his back and the way the armor was made forced him to hunch over forward, keeping his diaphragm from drawing the amount of air he wanted. His brain was screaming at him to straighten up and breath in a deep lungful of oxygen, but he squelched the impulse. Being off balance would be fatal.

While he wasn’t especially afraid of heights, normally, walking out over an abyss on a rickety mine track was severely testing the limits of his bravery. The all pervading gloom didn’t help much either. Still, the beat up kerosene lamp was casting a cheery point of fire for them; an acceptable detection risk, given what they were walking on. One wrong step and they’d be kissing grubs.

They stopped suddenly, Marov looking over Ty’s shoulder to see an old mining cart sitting on the track. Nyvar looked back at them and rolled his eyes at the delay, moving to the side of it and grabbing onto the cart’s side, gingerly moving himself across the extremely small amount of rail while practically hanging from the cart itself. Marov kept expecting the cart to tip over and send his friend into the darkness, but it only creaked as Nyvar moved past it to safer ground.

Creaks and moans came from beneath them as the metal shifted under the weight of three full grown men in standard Gear regalia, Ty and Marov quickly following Nyvar’s lead and continuing on their hellish road. They had considered caching their armor back at the ledge, but they didn’t know if they would have the opportunity to come back through here, especially with the mine cart obstacle. The confidence Marov had felt was starting to slowly wane, his heart catching every time Nyvar or Ty tilted a little too far to one side as they tried to keep their balance.

“Could you please walk straight?” Marov hissed, both of his hands out in an attempt to keep his balance. “You’re going to give me a heart attack.”

“You think I’m trying to freak you out? I’m scared shitless right now. Don’t go making it any worse.” Ty retorted angrily through clenched teeth, fear lending itself to the irritation plain in his voice.

“Hey, shut up and kill the light. I think I hear something up ahead,” Nyvar paused, giving Marov the opportunity to bend to one knee and grab on to the relatively solid tracks. However, in doing so, he accidently peaked over the side to see nothing but darkness. Then the lamp’s radiance went out. Shit, shit, shit, I hate this job, Marov cursed silently, squeezing his eyes shut. As soon as he did, he heard what caused Nyvar to stop.

“Nothin’…ere…like I said. Grubs...stupid…work the elevator,” a voice said from the gloom, a shaft of light popping out of a hole in a wall that was to their left, where another track was suspended.

“We need to hide.”

“We can take them,” Ty responded, reaching for his Lancer. Nyvar grabbed the younger man’s wrist, shaking his head.

“Firing off shots in here would be too loud. We’re too close to the main bed of the facility. Indicators off. Marov, get in the mine cart. I’ll try to hide behind it. Ty, since you’re the youngest and most fit, you get to the support under the bridge and hide behind that,” Nyvar quick fire ordered in a whisper, the three man squad instantly following the commands, with a small groan from Ty and being forced to suspend himself over space in his armor.

Marov reached the cart and lifted a leg to get in, grunting as his codpiece hit a little too hard on the cart’s chassis. I’m going to feel that in about three seconds, Marov thought, crouching down until he was completely hidden. He heard Nyvar’s whispered curse as he got into position, the rails creaking under the stress of the combined weight of the cart and the three Gears.

Marov heard the men quietly chatting to themselves, gradually getting louder. His heartbeat was thumping in his ears as the adrenaline coursed through his system, his lower stomach beginning to ache from the abuse he’d just put it through. Echo Three couldn’t be found now, not if they wanted to finish the job here.

The light washed over their hiding place, Marov wincing slightly and crouching lower instinctively. No cries of alarm. Always a good thing, Marov thought, closing his eyes and focusing his hearing on the patrol’s conversation.

“Shit, I hate detailing this part of the factory. Gives me the willies, it does. All that space below us and you can’t even see worth a damn,” a thin, reedy voice complained.

“Maybe if you’d stop dicking around with the doctor, Riddley wouldn’t give you this kind of hell. You know how he’s always eyeing anything with a skirt. Bastard’s awful territorial for such a pansy ass pissbucket,” a deeper, gravelly voice said.

The name sparked something in Marov’s consciousness, but he couldn’t connect it with anything. His eyebrows beetled together as he tried to remember where it sounded familiar from.

“Fuck him. You here me, Rid? Fuck you!” the other yelled into the darkness in response, frustration evident in the tone.

“Real classy, asswipe,” the deep voice said, disgusted. “Maybe if I push you off, Parker’d give me one of those Stranded bitches to play with.”

Parker? Marov’s thoughts raced with the pounding in his blood. He heard a quiet grunt from beside him where Nyvar was, no doubt putting the pieces together, as well. Riddley had been one of the Stranded in the convoy they’d followed. Parker’s convoy.

“Hey, hey, don’t talk about them Stranded like that. We’re here to protect them!”

“Ha!” the deep voice boomed, starting to fade away, the light once more flashing over Marov’s head. “You really believe that? They mine the shit for more Stealth generators and we give em a place to stay. That’s it. They’re tools.”

Marov chewed on a few hairs of his mustache, running the comments through his head. While he agreed that the Stranded were only worth it to be tools at the very most, he didn’t like the idea of what they were being used for. Another thought occurred to him – that Nyvar would probably be working out a way to get the slaves out as well as their own skins. Marov sighed at that, hating his friend’s “save-everyone” attitude, sometimes. Stranded weren’t worth it.

“What’re we building all these damned stealths for, anyway? Not like we have ‘bots to put ‘em on. And where they hell are they going?” the thin voice said, echoing Marov’s thoughts.

“You wanna know? Why don’t you go ask Riddley. I could give a shit, long as Parker keeps the grubs away like he promised.”

“Yeah…it. Damn…ubs….killin’ shit.”

Marov kept crouching, ruminating on the new developments as he waited for Nyvar and Ty to get back on the main platform, first. A flurry of sound as Ty heaved himself up the support accompanied a grunt as Nyvar reached down to help the man up. Marov’s bad leg was starting to throb harder, so he stood up and braced his chestpiece against the rim of the cart to help Ty up the rest of the way.

A click sounded from Marov’s left, a phantom pressure the size a gun barrel would make formed on his temple. He froze where he was, not daring to move. Ty looked up, confused at first, but then looked over and saw who was aiming a gun at Marov’s head.

“Don’t,” a thickly accented voice said as Ty reached quickly for the Lancer on his back. The voice was faintly stirring up memories in Marov’s mind. He’d heard this voice somewhere before. “You stay right there while I give a call to my friends down there.”

“Akun? You’re alive?” Nyvar’s voice ground out, sounding surprised and irritated at once. Marov’s eyes flicked to his left, seeing nothing but the outline of a shaved head and a hooked nose. His drew in a sharp breath, remembering the scout who had helped them find their families back during the Pendulum Wars. But Akun had been listed as KIA when the Hammer came down, along with the rest of his regiment in Barstad in the Ostri Republic.

“You know my name?” Akun replied uncertainly, though his gun did not waver. Marov idly noticed the man’s Tyran had gotten a lot better in the intervening years and thought himself crazy for coming up with such an inane thought while at gunpoint. “Who are you?”

“Joseph Nyvar. Two-Six RTI. We met back in the Pendulum Wars. You helped us-.”

“Track a group of UIR who kidnapped your family. I remember,” Akun said with confidence. “But that is old business.”

“You owe us, Akun,” Marov dared to say, noticing the man’s face turn toward him. “If you remember who we are, you have to remember what you said. That you-.”

“That doesn’t matter anymore. Honor means nothing in this world,” Akun interrupted coldly. “Riddley will want a report, soon.”

“Parker’s working for the grubs,” Marov blurted out, pulling out their trump card.


“I said,” Marov hissed through clenched teeth, calming his voice, “your precious little leader is working for the things that killed most of Sera.”

“Bullshit,” Akun yelled, spittle impacting Marov’s cheek, causing him to wince. “The COG were the ones that destroyed Sera, not the grubs. My whole regiment, the city we were in, we were annihilated by the Dawn satellites. And the COG pulled the trigger. They didn’t even try to save us! Three days was not nearly enough time to get to the safe zone, even if we weren’t pinned down by the Locust!”

“The COG had to save what we could. Asset denial was the only-.”

“I don’t believe that. And I don’t believe you,” Akun said quietly, backing up with his gun still trained on Marov. The outline of his free hand reaching up to his ear was all he saw before the man spoke again. “Riddley? I’ve got three ven’ta scurrying through the back entrance.”

“Locust?” Riddley’s voice replied, as annoying as the man had been ugly when Marov had last seen him.

“COG personnel,” Akun corrected, kicking Nyvar in the side. Ty grunted as the walkway started to squeal, his face white with the effort of holding on so long with heavy armor on his back.

“Bring ‘em in. Parker’s back with a few guests, so- oh, there ya is, Parker! Akun’s on the radio with some Coalition asswi-.” BANG.

Akun recoiled at the gunshot echoing over the comm channel, his gun ever so slightly moving away from his prisoner. With that chance, Marov turned and reached for his sidearm before freezing again as the gun realigned on him. Shit, there goes that, Marov cursed.

“Akun?” Parker’s gravelly voice queried over the radio.

“Yes, sir?” Akun replied without a trace of emotion. Marov knew that meant the man was unnerved. The foreign Gear had done the same thing back when the only monsters were other humans.

“Riddley’s experienced a sudden fatality. You’re my new second in command,” Parker said menacingly. “Now, what do you have for me?”

“Three Gears, sir,” Akun reiterated, still as emotionless. “Old friends from the Pendulum Wars.”

“Friends, huh? I assume you know their names?”

“Nyvar and Marov, I recognize. There’s another with them who’s younger who I do not.”

A chuckle came over the comm channel as Parker heard the news. Marov didn’t like the sound of that, especially since Jason and the others were supposed to be in the facility by now. Were they captured, or worse, killed? Parker would surely recognize the three.

“That’s just damn brilliant,” Parker said, suddenly jubilant. “Bring ‘em to the showers. I’ve got a few guests they might know.”

“Yes, sir,” Akun said, the link clicking off before he could finish the sentence. “Marov, you come here. Nyvar, you can help your friend up. Just don’t try anything. My aim is just as good as it was.”

Marov swallowed, cursing their never-ending bad luck. It was like playing Gorasnayan roulette with this mission, with all the chambers loaded.

Lethia Imulsion Factory;

1810 hours.

Jonesy was frightened as he and his escort waltzed through the dirty halls of the facility, two former Gears looking the worse for wear on either side of him and Jason ahead with the same treatment. It was almost claustrophobic again, with the mountains of men next to him and the malfunctioning lights blinking on and off. But that wasn't the reason he was about to piss his pants; for once, he had something more terrifying than his irrational fear of the underground world.

He didn't know when Parker would just turn around and shoot him; there was something in his gut hauntingly queasy at the fact that at any moment, Parker would snap, just like he had with the greasy haired guy they met when they first came in.

Jonesy had been previously happy with the arrangement as they made their way inside, out of the cold. He had thanked whoever was listening as his hands defrosted into something resembling human temperature, feeling rushing back into his body with the gentle hum of air conditioning. They were captured, but with the plan to draw attention to the front succeeding spectacularly, Jonesy hadn't been all too worried. His mouth started working of it's own accord, making comments about the state of the facility since its occupants arrived and suggesting a few off-color remarks regarding their attire. The big black Gear holding Jonesy smiled a few times at the jokes, cuffing the pilot across the back of the head to keep up appearances.

However, before they could make it to the lab that would serve as their holding prison while Nyvar and his team took over, they had run into a small snag. A Stranded in patchwork Pendulum-era COG regalia strutted up with an almost happy air about him, gleefully speaking into a walkie talkie about capturing some prisoners sneaking in the back way. Three thuggish-looking men flanked him, one leaning against the wall and the other two moving off into a side room with a panicked glance at Parker.

As if that hadn't been enough of a reason for Jonesy's insides to turn into a cold, hollow space, what came next definitely shocked him into silence. Parker calmly walked up to the man in the middle of his speech, pulled out the snub pistol at his side, and blew a hole through the man's throat. The man, Riddley, as Jonesy found out presently, reached up to his throat with his eyes open in surprise. His mouth was shaped in an O as he tried to speak and coughed up blood instead, falling to the ground on his side.

Parker reached down for the walkie talkie on the floor, bringing it up to his mouth and resuming the conversation without another look at the bleeding man on the floor. Jonesy had just stared as Riddley's life spilled out on the floor in a pool of crimson, draining slowly into a crack in the foundation. What the hell? Was all that spun through his mind at the sight, finally taking his eyes off of the body to shoot a worried glance over to Jason.

The kid's face was drained of color, his eyes almost as wide as Riddley's when he had been shot. Then Jason seemed to cough and gag, his hands tied behind his back and his arm held by their other guard, lurching to the side and spewing the small lunch they had eaten before leaving the cave system. Jonesy felt his own gorge rise, but years of experience kept him from hosing the nearest wall with chuke. Parker looked over at the retching noise, saying something about showers before disconnecting and motioning to the two astonished men, who had since come out of the side room, to take care of the body. The third stunned man he told to bring the prisoners to the showers.

And now they were almost there, judging by the architecture. COG buildings had a boring sameness about them, almost all built in a uniform fashion with the showers nearest to a water source. Jonesy's boots started thudding into tile as they burst through a swinging door that had a few old bullet holes in it. The current occupants plainly had cleared the facility with force.

The sound of the ocean was loud in the room, this part of the building no doubt directly on the jetty. Sea spray clouded the small windows, the same overcast sky staring back at him with a dreary exasperation. An intermittent dripping sound reached his ears over the cresting of the waves from somewhere in the shower room, the guards' breathing loud in his ears. His mouth, previously numb with current events, slowly worked itself into vocalizing words.

"Th-this doesn't look like the lab," Jonesy's voice cracked on the last word, betraying his fear at their situation, his joke falling flat.

"Shut up," the big black man said, a frown on his face.

"Or what? You going to shoot me?" Jonesy returned hysterically, a big, crazy smile on his face. Had he finally snapped after all that had happened? Or was his defense mechanism still trying to shield his mind from madness? Regardless, the laughter that followed confused him, realization that it was his own scaring him more than the caves.

"I don't want to, but I've killed Gears before," the man said, pain in his eyes. Jonesy kept laughing. "Look, would you shut that damn mouth of yours? Stop it!"

A massive fist smashed into Jonesy's face, stilling his laughter for a second before his chest started to heave with more giggling. His jaw felt like it was falling apart and his abdominal muscles hurt from the hysteria-fueled mirth, tears dripping down his face and stinging where the black man's gloves had scraped some skin off.

A thud in his side sent a pain through his nerves as the man kicked him, but Jonesy was slowly fading into unconsciousness anyway. With his gibbering resounding in his ears, he fell into a twilight state, watching through bleary eyes as Jason tackled the black man, sending him out of his field of vision. He could faintly hear yelling and then a solid smack, a body falling on top of him and rolling him over. He was staring up at the ceiling, looking out through the windows at the clouds. If only he could soar through them one more time.

A noise close to his ear caused him to turn his head, the sound of Jason groaning around a bleeding nose and a rapidly swelling eye. Jonesy looked away, unconcerned, as if nothing were wrong in the world. All of a sudden, he felt himself picked up from behind and put on his knees. His muscles weren't under his control, so he fell forward until someone grabbed him by the hair and pulled him upright again. He blinked his eyes as Parker walked in, a bald, tanned man with a facial tattoo leading Nyvar and the rest into the shower.

He closed his eyes, yelling and the sound of a struggle in slow motion rushing into his ears as Nyvar saw his son. Another smack sounded out from his right, his eyes opening to see the Marov on his knees next to him, with his hands behind his head. Jonesy looked away and up as Parker strolled up to him and fell into a squat.

"You hear me, pilot?" Parker asked, his voice sounding distant one second and then too loud the next. Jonesy just nodded, blood dripping from his lip onto the floor. His knees felt cold, looking down to see water running past him and into a drain. It registered dully in his mind, so he just looked back up as Parker slapped his cheek and looked to the side to glare at someone. Probably the guy who beat me up, Jonesy thought dully, surprised at his cognition.

"Don't, Parker! Stop it!" a piercing voice ripped into Jonesy's mind, causing him to squeeze his eyes closed at the sound. It was Naleena's voice. He opened his eyes again to see the woman struggling against the black man's heavily muscled arms. The shriek seemed to clear Jonsey's head, everything rushing back into clarity.

"Stop?" Parker chuckled at that, pulling out his snub and waving it at Jonesy and the others. "Why should I? We've got 'em all, delivered right up to the doorstep. The same COG that got your mother killed by the Locust. What are they to you?"

"They aren't the same people who killed my mom!" Naleena yelled, following the scream up with a bite to the black man's forearm.

"Shit!" the man said, letting go of the injured woman. Another man tackled her, forcing her head into the ground and holding her hands behind her back. Naleena struggled futilely, cursing at Parker.

"You're just like them," Parker said with disgust, leaning down to grab Naleena by the hair and drag her up to look at him. "After everything I did. After I fucking raised you myself!"

"You got my friends enslaved by the Locust! You sat and watched as they worked in that mi-." Parker sneered and slammed the girl's face into the tile savagely, stopping her midsentence.

"You fucking bastard!" Ty yelled, slamming his head into his handler's groin and jumping to his feet. With his hands free, the young man rushed Parker only to be stopped by three rounds to the chestplate. Nyvar screamed in rage, both he and Marov viciously trying to escape. However, their handlers were more careful with them, holding tight. Jonesy looked at Parker's subordinates, watching unease creep into their faces.

"Anyone else wanna try me?" Parker asked, holding his arms out in wide invitation, his eyes seething with rage and blood vessels standing out in his neck. "No? Fuck the theatrics."

Jonesy stared at the barrel of the snub pistol as Parker pointed it at him. Time slowed down as Jonesy remembered everything in his life at once, the hysteria clawing at his throat as he closed his eyes and thought of flying. A gunshot rung out, and he fell into blackness.

Chapter 18: Opening Salvo Edit

“Sir, we’ve got reports of some kind of glowing Corpser out in the woods around Echo Three’s location. We picked it up by satellite; figured you’d ought to know. I just hope it’s a trick of the light and not some kind of new weapon.”

– Aide on task for monitoring Echo team’s location via Sparks’ transponder.

Lethia Imulsion Factory;

1830 hours.

The fading echoes of the gunshot rang out in the confined space, painful enough that Marov had to squeeze his eyes shut against the sound. It didn’t help that the muzzle the bullet had whizzed out came from directly behind him, where Akun had been standing. What was going on?

Marov opened his eyes and watched events play themselves out in slow motion. He instantly turned to the left toward Jonesy to see the pilot fall to the side, making a splashing sound as the body hit the water leaking from one of the shower columns. Jason’s eyes were wide as if he couldn’t believe what was transpiring, Jonesy’s head falling within inches of the kid’s knees.

An ache hit Marov’s stomach like a hammer blow; a fellow soldier dying so close was agonizingly painful. It was especially horrible given the fact that he couldn’t do anything about it; he had failed to protect one of his comrades. His eyes started to sting with suppressed tears.

With the thought of failure echoing through his mind, his eyes moved from the body to Parker’s own form standing a few feet in front of Jonesy, an expression of surprise on the man’s face, quickly turning red with rage. A large dent in the man’s chestplate showed where the bullet had hit, but not penetrated. Marov felt a familiar feeling of hatred at the Stranded, his fingers itching to activate a chainsaw bayonet and rip Parker into pieces.

A three round burst came from somewhere to Marov’s right side as the handler holding Nyvar realized what happened. The shots blasted passed Marov’s head as he ducked down, swinging his tied arms away from the suddenly slackened grip of his own handler and rolling away to the middle of the floor. Gritting his teeth as more bullets started flying through the air, Marov examined the situation.

Akun had taken out Nyvar’s handler and was using the body as a meat shield, rounds chipping away at the rapidly dissolving corpse. The man’s pistol was firing off shot after shot at Parker and two other men hiding behind shower columns that lined the center of the room in a row. The man that had been holding Marov was dead, too, a hole in his forehead and glassy eyes staring at nothing.

A score of rounds impacted the floor beside Marov, so he rolled into cover behind an elongated tile wall, hoping it was sturdy enough to withstand bullets. Breathing hard, Marov looked around for something sharp, spotting Ty’s still form a few inches away from him. Naleena was a few feet away, still within cover, unconscious or dead. The black man that had been holding her captive moments ago was nowhere to be seen.

Marov resolved to check on her as soon as he checked on Ty. Someone had moved the kids out of harm’s way and it hadn’t been any of Echo. Thanking whomever it had been under his breath, Marov crawled over to Ty awkwardly, pushing himself across the slick floor with his legs.

When he reached the body, he jerked himself up to his knees, promptly falling to the side as his leg flared with pain. Shit, where’s that natural painkiller when you need it, Marov griped in his mind as he rolled over until his hand reached the knife at Ty’s waist. Pulling it out quickly, he stared ahead as Akun dropped the body he had been using as a shield and took cover behind a privacy wall for the showers. Nyvar was next to him sitting against the wall, his hands already free and holding a Pendulum era Lancer. Judging by the lessening amount of return fire, Nyvar was making good use of it. Spotting Marov, Nyvar pointed his thumb at Akun and mouthed “friendly”.

Nodding, Marov cut through the plastic ties and slid Ty’s knife into his own empty sheath, turning to check on the kid. He rolled Ty so the man was facing the ceiling, seeing a thin line of blood dripping from the man’s side where the armor was weaker. Two other dents were mute testament to the armor’s capabilities, though the force of the bullets was enough to knock the kid down. Marov remembered Ty hitting his head on the tile; a quick check showed a swelling bump on the back of the younger Gear’s head. A concussion then, Marov thought as he chewed his lip, reaching over to Naleena and rolling her over. Her nose was bleeding, her usually fair face already ballooning into the realm of monstrosity. However, she still had a pulse, so he grabbed her and pulled her closer to Ty.

“Hell, nothing we can do until we’re free. Hold on, Ty, Nal,” Marov said, propping the two against the wall. With that done, he turned back to Nyvar, who was holding up Marov’s pistol. With a quick flick, Nyvar sent the weapon skipping across the tile into the waiting hands of Marov. Armed with at least one weapon, Marov swiftly checked the magazine, saw it was full, and slammed it back in with a clack. The bone on the hilt felt chilled against his hands. While he wasn't a superstitious man, Marov hoped it was from sliding through the water and not something else.

Grunting against the pain, Marov hunkered his armored form against the shower wall, favoring his uninjured leg as he peeked out in a break in the fire. One of Parker’s mates was behind one of the shower columns in the middle of the room, hidden from Nyvar and Akun. Fortunately, the man’s leg was sticking out in Marov’s field of fire. Smiling fiercely, Marov pulled the trigger, feeling the slight kickback of his snub pistol as the bullet exited the chamber and embedded itself into the enemy’s leg with a small shower of blood.

Crying in pain, the man fell completely into the open, Marov’s pistol sight lined up on the man’s head. However, a burst of fire forced him back into cover, tile chipping away into the air as he covered his ears from the sound. Marov growled at the interruption in his kill, waiting until another lull to lean back out. The felled man was laying on the ground, blood oozing into the flowing water; obviously dead. More shots came from Marov’s left as Nyvar and Akun opened fire on Parker’s location. Suddenly, a radio behind Marov squawked on, sending a chill down his spine.

“I need reinforcements in the shower, now! Akun’s gone rogue. Get your asses down here!” Parker’s voice yelled out, accompanied by an echo from the radio.

Marov turned, dropping his pistol to his side and his other hand unsheathing the knife again as he turned, ready to kill something. Sparks’ unnervingly lifelike vid screens stared back at him, one of them still broken from the start of their little journey.

“Don’t do me like that, you damn robot,” Marov growled out loud, glad to see Sparks was still alright despite everything.

“Roger that, Parker. We’re on our way,” the reply came, the robot still picking up on Parker’s comm line. Marov cursed, thinking quickly and waving at Nyvar to watch the door. His best friend nodded, turning his Lancer at the entryway, ready to fire.

“Smoke out!” Akun yelled, a smoke grenade with the chain trailing it flying through the air and out of Marov’s sight. A bang sounded as the device exploded, smoke quickly spreading out in the shower room. Parker and the other man started coughing, Akun opening fire at one of them; Marov wasn’t able to see which.

“That’s it!” Marov cried out, remembering Sparks’ mission in this FUBAR’d diversion. “Sparks, did you plant the dynamite?”

An answering doodle came back, sounding affirmative. A compartment in the bot’s side opened up, a mechanical limb pulling out a detonator and holding it out to him. Marov took it and showed it to Nyvar. The other man shook his head.

“Not yet. I don’t know where Jason is!” Nyvar yelled over a renewed bullet storm. Marov gritted his teeth and nodded an affirmative, looking around his cover to look for Jason. With no one in sight, he motioned to Nyvar.

“Give me some cover fire!”

Akun and Nyvar blind fired their Lancers into the smokescreen, letting Marov rush into the center of the showers. A room to his right caught his attention, so he rolled into it, instantly regretting it as more pain shot through his leg. He fell again, catching himself on the ground with his hands, his eyes drawn to the missing ring finger, covered in a dirty bandage. How am I going to wear my ring, Marov questioned himself despite the situation. Brushing the thought from his mind and breathing hard, Marov crawled to the edge of the wall and peeked out, his gun leading.

A shot slammed into Marov’s shoulder, glancing off the armor and embedding itself into the wall. Marov gasped, falling backwards into cover to avoid anymore fire.

“Shit! Marov?!” Jason’s surprised voice echoed in the small space.

“God dammit, Jason, would you look before you shoot? You almost took my head off!” Marov groused, closing his eyes in relief and against the pain shooting through his leg. More stuttering fire came from the main room.

“Sorry, sir!”

“How’re you doing?” Marov asked, moving around the corner to see Jason with blood running down his head and a pistol in hand. Jonesy was lying on the floor next to the younger Nyvar, surprisingly alive, judging by the rise and fall of the pilot’s chest.

“I’m fine. Jonesy fainted,” Jason said with a straight face, seriously looking down at the pilot. Marov snickered and went back into the small alley-like hallway that connected this room to the main showers.

“Stay here and brace yourself. I’m going to set off our surprise.”

“Yes, sir.”

Marov grunted, limping down the hall and looking for Nyvar. He could see his friend’s legs, Nyvar still sitting against the wall in cover. Marov threw a piece of tile at them, hoping the other man would check where it came from.

“He’s alright. Brace!” Marov yelled as soon as Nyvar investigated the flying shard of tile. Nyvar nodded, so Marov clicked the detonator.


The thundering crack of the explosives lighting up all over the base ripped into the small room with enough force to cause cracks to appear in the ceiling. Dust fell everywhere, Marov’s ears ringing as he took his hands off of his head and looked through the gloom. All the lights that had been cheerily illuminating the area were now off, something sparking and giving off a ghostly flash every now and then. Plainly, Sparks had put one of the explosives near their area; Marov hoped it hadn’t messed with any of the factory’s pipes or tanks, remembering Matheison’s warning.

“Marov?” Nyvar’s voice said from the gloom, worried sounding.

Marov breathed in and coughed as the dust and lingering smoke from the grenade entered his lungs. All the lights save one that was spitting out sparks were dark – the generator must have been hit, which wasn’t good since it was absolute zero outside. Hopefully there was a redundant generator somewhere in the base, or they wouldn’t have the facilities to house the slaves at the mine. Marov didn’t want to go back to the caves, regardless of how warm they might be in the right conditions and he didn’t think the others would disagree with the notion.

“I’m still around. You and Akun?”

“We’re good. Looks like the wall fell in on Parker’s side. We’re going to go check it out.”

“Ty and Nal are in the corner across from you. See how they’re doing. I’ll check Jason. And watch the door; we don’t know how far Parker’s reinforcements were when the TNT went off.”

“Yes, sir,” Nyvar replied sarcastically. Marov grinned at his friend’s joke. With Nyvar and Akun checking things out, Marov heaved himself up and leaned against the wall for a moment, wincing and catching his breath. Trying to ignore the pain in his leg, Marov moved down the hallway into the room where Jason was and called out through the darkness.

“Jason?” Coughing returned his call, followed by a croaking response.

“Yeah, I’m here. I’m good.”

“How about Jonesy?” Marov asked concernedly, hoping the pilot hadn’t died after living through everything else. That’d be another cruel casualty of this stupid war – just the thought of it sent a hopeless wave through him.

“One sec,” Jason replied. A moment later, he continued. “Jonesy’s still out, but he’s breathing. What about my dad?”

“He’s okay. Try to wake the lazy flyboy up. I’m going to check out the situation in the main showers. Meet us there when you get him up,” Marov returned, feeling somewhat better as he moved back down the small alleyway to the main showers. The windows cast eerie rays of light into the room, dust and smoke moving across them in a hypnotizing dance, joining the snowflakes that were making their way through the broken glass. It was starting to get cold in the room.

The sound of the ocean lapping against the pier was the only sound aside from the light that was spitting out sparks like an angry Wretch. Not that there were anything except angry Wretches. Marov checked his magazine again at the thought; six shots left in the clip. They needed to find some ammo, soon.


“Over here,” came the reply. Marov moved toward the voice cautiously, peeking around the corner with his pistol leading. His eyes were starting to adjust to the darkness, Nyvar’s armored form crouched next to the collapsed wall. The wall that had been the end of the shower room was now so much rubble, wiring sticking out here and there. The destruction reminded Marov of the general feel of Jacinto; run down and broken with whom knew how many bodies buried under the destruction. He closed his eyes and pinched his nose, taking the time to pay respects under his breath, regardless of who was underneath. Being buried alive was no way to die.


“Dead, dying, I don’t know. Trapped underneath the wall, at least. We won’t be seeing him again,” Nyvar replied, standing up and stretching. Marov’s friend turned and stared at Akun, who was watching the entryway into the showers. The man’s Lancer was an older model of the chainsaw variant, the teeth all but ground to the chain. Marov frowned, wondering how much Akun had had to use the melee alternative to have that much damage to it.

Nyvar waltzed over to their old foreign comrade, holding out his hand, which was white with loose plaster and dirt from the explosion. “Thanks.”

Akun stared back at Nyvar, looking down; Marov had never noticed how tall the foreigner was, or how threatening the man looked even coated in the white dust. It made the former Gear seem wraith-like, as if he could disappear and ruin someone’s day without letting the victim know he was around. Finally, after a moment, Akun took Nyvar’s hand and shook. Nyvar smiled, and then frowned as he looked at the destruction. The light that was sparking revealed shower stalls broken and tile cracked. Who knew what the rest of the facility looked like.

“Matheison’s not going to be happy about this, Marov.”

“Hey, it was your kid’s plan. We can blame him in the report,” Marov teased, moving away from the wall toward the area where he had left Ty and Naleena, his pistol ready to fire at anything coming through the entryway. Parker’s reinforcements had to be coming any second. “How’re the others?”

“We moved them over there,” Nyvar said, gesturing over at a shower stall, in cover should someone come into the showers. Marov walked over and saw that the two were still unconscious, crouching down and checking their pulses. Ty’s was steady, for now, but Naleena’s was weak. The combined stress of her gunshot wound and the rough treatment from Parker wasn’t good for her. She needed a medic, soon, so he stood up and walked toward the main entrance into the showers, intent on finding the med lab. All COG bases had them; a side-effect of constant war that Marov was suddenly glad of. “Jason?”

“Fine. He’s waking up Jonesy,” Marov whispered, listening intently for any footsteps outside the door as he leaned against the wall next to it. “Naleena’s pulse is weak, man. We need to find the clinic here.”

Without even a gesture, Nyvar kicked open the door and looked left and right, Marov right behind him. Nothing jumped out or fired at them, the silence suddenly seeming sinister.


“Copy that,” Marov said, peering down the hallway to the right, seeing nothing but a dead end a few meters down, a lone light winking on and off at the end. He and Nyvar moved down the left side, moving slowly, their boots crunching on loose gravel. The soundlessness of the hallway made the noise loud in Marov’s ears as they came to a turn. Nyvar motioned over his shoulder to stop, his fist in a ball.

Marov froze in place, listening intently. The sound of a steady scratching came from around the corner. Adrenaline started flushing through his system, seeing everything through a slow motion film as they both turned the corner, Nyvar low and Marov high.

Nothing. The hallway was empty. Marov’s eyes moved this way and that, searching for the scratching sound. It was unnerving to hear a sound with nothing to show for it. They moved further into the hallway, carefully passing by a hole in the wall that led directly for a dip into the ocean.

“Shit, maybe we used too much dynaminte,” Marov said, peering out over the pier, the white froth of the waves at odds with the gray sea. He looked up to see it was still snowing, little flurries of flakes wandering across the lighter gray sky. Everything was a monotone in the Frost.

“You think?” Nyvar whispered back, taking one look before shuddering and continuing down the hallway. “I’m already getting cold. We’ll need to seal off this area somehow, keep the cold out. First things first, though, let’s find that med lab. Nal won’t last long at this rate.”

Marov grunted in reply, tripping over a stone and catching himself on the wall, his Lancer held out in his right hand. His leg was still throbbing and his missing ring finger was starting to do the same. Naleena wasn’t the only one who needed competent medical treatment. Their whole team was one more injury away from breaking down, held together by adrenaline and the will to survive. However, that could only get them so far.

The scratching noise was still present as they reached the end of the hallway that opened up into two different directions. They peaked around the corners, careful to keep as little body outside cover as possible. Just dust and echoes of the scratching sound returned their gazes, the hallways dark – he wished they still had some of those glow sticks. The hackles on the back of Marov’s neck rose up. It felt like something was watching him, butterflies bouncing around in his stomach as they went right, Marov walking backwards to cover their rear.

Their indicator lights threw off a haunting glow as they made their way down the next passage. They passed a few doors, but none of them had the red cross that signified the medical bay. Just labs filled with beakers and broken scientific equipment for who knew what was all they saw as they looked through the windows. Where were all the people?

“’Seph, that scratching noise is getting louder,” Marov whispered, still staring into the darkness behind him. He wished Akun and the others had come with them, now. This freaky facility with no opposition was grating on his nerves.

“Hold it,” Nyvar replied in a low tone, Marov instantly freezing and looking over his shoulder where his friend was pointing. “It’s coming from the room just ahead. Sounds like a chainsaw.”

Marov gulped, the sound finally registering in his consciousness. The whine of a Lancer’s chainsaw had a distinct sound to it, but it was grinding against something and had masked the signature.

“Let’s check it out,” Nyvar continued, moving forward with a deliberately slow pace, careful to avoid any gravel. Marov followed in the same pace, his pistol held pointed to the ground. They reached the edge of the room, Nyvar moving swiftly into the lab. Marov followed and nearly had a heart attack when something in the back of the room fell to the ground.

“Don’t shoot, don’t shoot!” a female voice called out over the whining chainsaw.

“Who are you?” Nyvar replied, keeping his gun focused ahead of him. There was a lamp in the corner of the room throwing up shadows from nearby test tubes and equipment. Marov looked over to the side and saw another collapsed wall with a Lancer sticking out from under the stones, a hand gripped on the chainsaw mechanism. The chainsaw itself was spitting out sparks as it struggled futilely against a thick metal girder that had fallen close by.

“I’m a doctor. Dr. Hanson. Are you with Parker?” the voice replied somewhat shakily.

“Used to be,” Nyvar answered cryptically. “Stand up where we can see you, doctor. Marov, get the Lancer and turn it off.”

“Alright, just don’t shoot me,” Hanson’s voice replied as Marov moved over to the broken wall and holstered his pistol. He gingerly pried the fingers off of the Lancer, wondering on how easy it was to just ignore the hand as if it were so much trash. Seeing bodies every day must have hardened him to it. With the chainsaw attachment switched off, Marov pulled the Lancer out from under the rubble and tried to check the clip. It took a second to eject it, the container dented as it was – half a clip left. Marov sighed, even though he was glad he had a Lancer in hand.

“Alright, Doctor, what are you doing out of your lab?” Nyvar questioned in his Sergeant voice, the gun still trained on the woman. Marov noticed some blood at the corner of the woman’s mouth and a bruise on her cheek, her clothes disheveled and strands of her dark brown hair hanging from a halfway demolished bun. The lab coat she wore looked like it had seen better days, looking stained with old blood and new dust in the light.

“I- I- he- that man tried to…” she started, staring over at the collapsed wall with anger in her eyes. “He tried to rape me. Serves the bastard right that he’s dead. You tell Parker that if he can’t control his men, he better hope the next injection I give him isn’t full of barbiturate and potassium.”

“Parker’s dead, ma’am, or we’d fight you for the privilege,” Marov replied, lowering his gun when he saw both of the doctor’s hand were empty, Nyvar doing the same. “But we’ve got injured and we need your expertise. They’re in a bad way.”

“You’re those COG soldiers everyone was talking about?” Doctor Hanson asked in an unsurprised tone, rummaging around in the pockets of her lab coat. “Bah, I’m too old for these petty rivalries. Just take me to your friends. I have a few pharmaceuticals I carry with me in here, somewhere.”

“Alright, I’ll lead. Doctor, stay between me and Marov at all times,” Nyvar said, gesturing with his rifle toward Marov. “Let’s go before we find any other romantic exchanges in dark labs. And grab that lamp.”

Marov complied, looking for the cord to the lamp before discovering it was battery powered. He raised his brow at that, wondering where the deserters here had found batteries. He turned it off to conserve power and followed Dr. Hanson through the doorway. When he looked to the left to watch their backs, he thought he saw something disappear around the corner. He brought his Lancer up one handed, watching the corner intently as they moved down the hall to the right. A shuffling sound came to his ears over the party of three’s footsteps, instantly setting him on alert. It sounded like a-.

“Wretches!” Nyvar yelled before opening fire. Marov took one look over his shoulder at the doctor, who fell into a crouch and covered her head, before something hit him in the chest. He fell backwards and tripped over Hanson, falling onto his back as something punched his chest, a screeching sound in his ears and nauseating breath filling his nostrils. Dropping his Lancer, Marov grabbed the thing on top of him, his hands holding nothing but air even though he felt the rough skin of a Wretch.

Roaring in anger, he twisted until he was on top and slammed the thing into the ground as hard s he could. A yelp sounded out, loud in the small hallway, so Marov pulled back his fist and punched downward. Pain assaulted his hand a second later as he hit nothing but concrete.

“Shit! Why do these things have to be invisible?” he yelled, his other hand holding what he thought was the thing’s throat. Gritting against the pain and the struggling form underneath him, he grabbed a nearby stone and brought it down with all his might, this time hitting something. Another yelp and he brought the stone down again and again until the thing stopped struggling. He looked up after he finished his grisly job to see Nyvar firing at a very visible Wretch on the ceiling.

“Oh, c’mon, that’s just not fair,” Marov groused, reaching for his Lancer and kicking the Wretch’s body that he had kill to the side so he wouldn’t trip again. He turned down the hallway the invisible Wretch had come from, seeing nothing. “Hell, I can’t see anything!”

“The light, Marov. Use the lamp!”

The lamp? Then Marov remembered what happened when light hit the stealth generators. He reached to his side where he had fastened the lamp to his belt and finding it missing. Then another weight crashed into his chest, forcing him up against the wall. Something scratched across his forehead, screeching across the goggles he had there. Oh, you asshole, you do not scratch my goggles!

He brought his head snapping forward, connecting with something slimy and soft, another yelp of pain echoing into the hallway. Free for the moment, he brought his chainsaw into play, bringing it down in the direction he thought the Wretch was in. For a moment, he thought he had missed before it caught onto something around waist height, blood and sparks flying everywhere as the Wretched turned into so much mincemeat.

“Haha! How do you like that, asshole?” Marov yelled, the generator on the Wretch failing as his chainsaw ripped it in two. Suddenly a bright light came from the other side of the hallway where Hanson had been crouching. Marov brought up a hand to shield his face from the light, seeing the lamp in the doctor’s hands. She held it up for him, but he just shook his head and brought his Lancer up and aimed down the hallway. Sparks flew from three different forms as their stealth generators overloaded, the Wretches becoming all too clear. He opened fire as soon as he saw them, careful not to expend all his ammunition.

“Hell, I liked them better when I couldn’t see their ugly as shit faces,” Marov yelled over the kicking of his Lancer, watching Wretch after Wretch fall to his shots. When all three were dead, he turned back to see Nyvar chainsawing the last Wretch on his side into pieces, yelling and muscles bulging. Marov collapsed as the adrenaline in his system wore off, sliding down the wall as his leg gave out from under him. He leaned back against the wall, breathing hard, swiping weakly at the sweat dripping down his face. He didn’t know how long that fight had taken, maybe a few minutes, but it had felt like he’d gone through a full thirty minutes of sparring. Shit, I’m getting old, Marov thought as he gulped in massive amounts of air.

“You’re an absolute mess, soldier,” a feminine voice came from his side. “How long have you had that injury to your leg? And that hand? Here, take some of this. It’ll keep you going until we get you to the lab.”

Her dainty little hand forced a few pills into his large, gloved hand and Marov brought them to his mouth gratefully, swallowing them down dry. He gasped in more air as soon as they went down, nodding thankfully toward the doctor.

“Thanks, doc,” Marov said breathily, feeling bits of Wretch meat in his mustache. He’d have to clean that later, again or just shave it off and be done with it. “Hell, I don’t even care if it’s poison that you gave me at this point.”

“I’m not so cruel. Besides, I’ve always had a soft spot for soldiers,” she replied, staring at him with a small smile on her face. Everything went dark as the lamp turned off, Marov’s eyes struggling to adjust. A hand appeared in front of him and he took it gladly, Nyvar pulling his friend to his feet.

“You’re married man, stop flirting with the doctor and let’s fix up Nal and the others,” Nyvar said with a bloodstained smile on his face. Marov was too tired to punch the man, so he just nodded and leaned against the wall.

“Nal? You mean Naleena Viscar?” the doctor’s voice asked quizzically.

“Viscar? Dunno ‘bout that, but Naleena’s her name, sure enough,” Nyvar replied, moving down the hallway and kicking the Wretch corpses to the side. “I’m more concerned about all these Wretches. Where’d they come from?”

“Parker and his associates have been experimenting with cloaking technology on small animals and Wretches are stupid enough to capture down in the tunnels. I think he’s trying to find a way to cloak a human, but I was never privy to his plans. They must have escaped from the cells after that giant explosion,” Hanson replied, giving the information away easily. Marov figured the woman didn’t have a high opinion of Parker and the rest.

“And how do you know even that? Pretty large step in logic for a doctor of medicine,” Marov replied with forced skepticality, already knowing exactly what Parker was experimenting for.

“’I hear things, especially from these animals when they’re on the surgery table. Anesthesia is just as good as alcohol when it comes to getting someone to talk.”

“Fair point. But let’s just get back to the others before more of these ‘experiments’ show up to ruin their day,” Nyvar said forcefully, moving with purpose around a corner, retracing their steps perfectly. Marov took one last look around before following the other two, alert for anymore Wretches.

Chapter 19: Simple is Relative Edit

“They’re bringing the Hammer down on us and we’re stuck here. That’s the reality, so deal we’ll with it. We will do what we do best; hide. We’ll find the strongest, deepest hole we can, kick out any grub bastard already living in it and let their asses fry instead. After that…well, the COG is going to regret leaving us out to dry.”

- Special Forces Captain Akun’la’tunad, six hours before the Hammer of Dawn’s asset denial

Lethia Imulsion Facility;

1920 hours.

“Be advised, Akun, we’ve got Wretches loose in the building,” Nyvar said through his radio, one hand up to his head and his finger pressed against the ear canal. Marov looked back to their flank, staring into the darkness. A few shafts of light from where the dynamite had cracked the walls and ceilings were showing through, casting a surreal atmosphere to the scene. The soundless hallways, aside from their footprints, made it seem as though the facility was dead; a withering relic near the sea. It fit perfectly with the rest of Sera, the world and its cities all seeming to be a giant tomb. But was it a tomb for humanity or the Locust? Marov brushed aside the morbid thought as a reply came through the channel.

“Wretches? The experiments got out?” Akun replied through the channel, Marov’s earpiece picking up the signal. He pressed his own ear, to be able to hear better than to actually transmit anything, the space once occupied by his missing finger bizarre to experience.

“Looks like. You know anything about what Parker was doing? The Doctor says he was trying to create a cloaking field for a human…or a Locust,” Nyvar said evenly, Hanson sighing in the background.

Silence came from the other end of the comm, the three of their breathing clearly audible over the subtle wash of the ocean. Marov winced slowly, feeling as if something big were about to happen, adrenaline starting to worm its way through his system again. He kept expecting to hear a keening wail from around a corner, the calling card of Wretches everywhere. Then the moment passed, leaving Marov feeling even more on edge than he had been. He really wanted to leave this facility and all that it implied and just go home to his wife and remaining daughter.

“You recovered Hanson? That’s good; Naleena seems to be getting paler and paler here. Hurry, Nyvar,” Akun said evasively, clicking the mic off and avoiding the question. Marov turned to his best friend and raised an eyebrow, watching the other man chewing on the inside of his cheek.

“You sure we can trust him?” Marov asked in his customary blunt way. Better to get everything out in the open when it came to these decisions – no sugarcoating of the truth was going to help anyone.

“I wouldn’t have left Jason with him if I didn’t. Akun’s honorable and he helped us against Parker. I don’t think he’s as against the COG as he wants us to think. Just got a lot of baggage, like anyone else.”

“Mr. Tunad helped you kill Parker? I always did like the man, even for such a grim personality. Never made a sound when I had to stitch him up after one of the experiments got out, even without any numbing agents,” Hanson interjected as the moved into the hallway that lead to the showers. Marov looked over at her, dust caking her features with sweat rivulets running through the muck; she looked positively Stranded. The comparison wasn’t a flattering one, he had to admit, thinking back to the threadbare women and children they’d failed to rescue back at the convoy.

He sighed, expelling the memories as best he could, looking down at his own arms and noticing a few more rips in the mesh underlay he was wearing under the scout armor. What had once been camouflaged material was now covered in bits of gore and white plaster. His skin itched under the armor and he yearned for one good, hot shower. Scratch that, even a cold shower will do, he thought, closing his eyes for a moment and imagining the water running over his body. When was the last time he had gotten to use so much water recreationally?

“Long as he tells us what’s up when we get there, he can stay as silent as he likes afterwards,” Nyvar grated out, clearly stressed by everything that was going on. Marov figured it was time to make another one of his trademarked witty remarks.

“Used to be such a talker, too. Couldn’t get him to shut up after we found your wife and Clara,” he said jovially, proud of himself for being able to say his deceased daughter’s name without his voice cracking. Nyvar looked at him sharply, the frown on his face grudgingly turning into a half smile. Happy memories were a commodity, one Marov used with deadly accuracy. Ven had been good at that, too, always saying the right thing at the right time.

“Yeah,” Nyvar said simply, turning back to the front as they neared the door. “Akun? We’re coming in. Hold your fire.”

They stepped through the bullet strewn door, Marov holding the door open for the Doctor from behind. She ignored his chivalrous actions, heading straight for the two injured members of their party straight away. Marov just shrugged and decided to let the doctor work, walking over to where Jonesy was sitting against a wall, staring out through the cracked windows at the sky. The man had a peaceful expression on his face, the lines from the constant sneer completely dissipated, though bruises marred the otherwise pale skin. Marov nudged the man with his boot, holding his Lancer across his chest in a relaxed manner, not even feeling pain as he stood on his bad leg. The doc’s medicine seemed to be working.

“How you doin’, man?” Marov said quietly, without the customary acid in his tone, knowing now was not the time for banter. The pilot looked up at him through a blackened eye and smiled humorlessly.

“Fine, I guess. Just feel a little weird. It’s so quiet here, peaceful even,” Jonesy said, leaning back with his hands behind his head and straightening out his legs in front of him, a pack underneath his back supporting him. “The sky looks beautiful from here, man. Nothin’ happening down here’s gonna change her. Maybe I’m just still in shock, but there you go.”

“Yeah? Well, we got ourselves a doc now. A real one, flesh and blood, even if she’s a little less polite than ol’ Sparks. We’ll get her to take a look at you after she’s done with Nal and Ty,” Marov replied, leaning against the wall. The moment felt surreal to him, Jonesy’s words echoing in his mind like something mystical Ven would say. God, he missed the man.

Jonesy didn’t reply, the pilot staring outside at the swiftly moving gray sky. The snow had stopped since Marov had last been in the showers, though the cold had hardly gone away. He left the man to his own devices, walking over to one of the shower heads and taking his doo rag and goggles off. He ran his uninjured hand through his sweat and blood matted hair, taking the opportunity to turn the showerhead on and washing his headwear. Once his effects were reasonably clean, he put his head under the water, feeling the freezing cold spray run along his scalp. The temperature of the water woke him up from the surreal mindset he had been in, everything sharpening into clarity. It was amazing what a little human convenience could do psychologically.

He wouldn’t be able to wear the doo rag until it dried, but the goggles were made of plastic, so he shut off the water and dried his goggles with the inside of his cloak on the stealth armor. Stuffing his doo rag in an empty ammo pocket, Marov popped his neck and stretched a little bit, feeling better. The reminder that he had no more clips of ammunition other than the half full one that was currently in his Lancer followed him as he walked over to where Nyvar was talking with their foreign friend, their heads down and close together. They both looked up as Nyvar caught sight of Marov, ending their conversation.

“Don’t stop on account of little ol’ me, now, boys,” Marov said jovially, fitting his goggles on his forehead and running his gloved hand through his hair once more. Nyvar smiled and waved him over to the top of a privacy stall where a map sat. Marov raised an eyebrow at the piece of parchment, recognizing it as the one they found in the mountain.

“I hope you’re not thinking what I think you’re thinking, ‘Seph.”

“Yes and no,” Nyvar replied, scratching behind an ear and pointing with the other one at an X on the far side of the map’s borders. “We aren’t going back down into the tunnels, but this is where those slaves we found are being held. We need to get them and bring them back here. I sent Sparks to recon the area, already, so he’ll be back in around thirty minutes with some information.”

“Nyvar, they’re dead. If the cold hasn’t killed them already, the Locust definitely have,” Marov replied heatedly, looking to Akun for support. “Right?”

“The Stranded are carted between the mines and here every week. They have temporary housing near their work to shelter in during the nights. Parker escorted them back and forth with a couple of his men at a time. I always told him it was a bad idea, that there were Locust roaming around the hills, but nothing ever came of it. Now, I know why and I’m going to help those poor people if I can,” Akun said, staring into Marov’s eyes with some kind of righteousness in his own. Marov sighed and shook his head, motioning around the area with his Lancer.

“With what army? In case you hadn’t noticed, everyone in our immediate party has been needing a casevac since we got here. There’s no way we can blow through as many Locust as there were guarding the mine last time we were there. I say we try to contact Matheison for reinforcements, hole up, and let some fresh faces take a crack at the mine.”

“Akun reckons he can talk his people into helping us. He’s been on the radio with them while we were gone, trying to calm them down. Turns out, he wasn’t the only one that disagreed with Parker’s leadership. They’re holed up in the med lab, waiting for orders. Plus, they have a Centaur in the garage,” Nyvar teased the last with a grin.

“A Centaur?” Marov asked flatly.


“Does it work?”

“Yes, it runs,” Akun supplied helpfully.

“I’m sure it does. What about the cannon?” Marov asked, feeling the catch coming on with every fiber of his being.

“It works, too,” Akun replied, looking straight at Marov. “…We just don’t have any shells to fire it.”

“Of course not,” Marov sighed, turning around and raising his unencumbered hand in the air, the faint hope that he’d get something out of the pointless side mission disappearing into thin air. He was starting to get irritated. “Just once, I’d like to have something work perfectly on this mission. Just once!”

“Marov, I need you for this op,” Nyvar said, breathing in a deep breath and setting his shoulders as though he was going to go regardless of Marov’s answer. That was never a good look when impossibilities were being bandied about like free candy.

“They’re Stranded,” Marov complained, pointing a finger at Nyvar threateningly to try to talk his friend out of it. “They’re animals. They’ll turn on you as soon as you save them!”

“They’re people, Marov. Just like you and me. Would you leave Naleena there if she were working in the mine? I know you wouldn’t.”

“Naleena’s different. She’s decided to fight,” Marov said bullishly, dark thoughts starting to take hold of him. “They’re just rotten, the lot of them. They deserve whatever the Locust do to them.”

“They’re not the ones who killed Clara,” Nyvar replied heatedly.

“Joseph, stay away from that,” Marov said brokenly, fury and sadness warring across his mind. He clenched his fist, wanting to punch Nyvar in the face for even mentioning her name like that. ‘Seph seemed to notice, taking a step back and then steeling himself, looking back into Marov’s eyes with the same stubbornness he had had throughout life.

“You’re coming with me to save those people, Sy. No one deserves what the Locust do to them. Not even Stranded. They’re women and children, man. This is an order.”

“That how it is?” Marov replied hollowly, staring at his best friend in the whole of Sera. He didn’t want to do this. They’d earned a break after everything, all of them. Their mission was finished, they didn’t need to go gallivanting across Sera and rescue every pocket of humanity that didn’t care enough to stick together. Why couldn’t Nyvar see that? Marov was so tired of all the bullsh*t they had gone through.

“Yeah, that’s how it is,” Nyvar said in return, setting his mouth in a line. “Akun, talk to your people. We’re going to need them to break what Parker started here, save those women and children, and kill every Locust in our way. Simple as that.”

Marov sighed, resigning himself to the inevitable and trying to come up with a plan where they all wouldn’t die. He glanced around at the others, watching Hanson inject Naleena with something and wondering where she’d gotten a syringe and needle. Oh, right, her pockets, Marov thought, moving his gaze to where Jonesy was talking quietly with Jason. The younger Nyvar’s face was as much a mess as the pilot’s was; Marov was surprised that he hadn’t noticed the injuries earlier. One of the kid’s eyes was swollen into obscurity, almost matching Jonesy’s own, while a bit of dried blood stained his nose.

All that was left of their already small party was steadily wearing thin. Everyone had lost something on this mission, be it physical or mental. Marov grimaced as he realized this was Jason’s first combat op; a particularly bad one with his entire squad wiped out. Who knew how that was affecting the kid, even if Jason had kept confident and aware of the situation until now. Right then, he just looked like an exhausted, old man, aged too much by what little war he’d seen. Damn shame.

Marov felt a tap on his elbow and turned around to see Hanson looking up at him, her hair drawn back in a reasonably tidy bun. Her face searched his for a second, as if he were a puzzle to be worked out – he didn’t appreciate the scrutiny.

“Something on your mind, doc?” Marov asked guardedly, backing up to lean against the wall again. His leg wasn’t hurting at the moment, but he figured he should give it as much rest as possible.

“A lot of somethings, unfortunately,” Hanson replied, pointedly looking around the room. “You, most of all. I heard your little argument with your friend and-.”

“Let me stop you right there, miss. I’m not looking for psychological help here, especially not right now.”

“You have a problem with Stranded. That’s fine,” she continued on with her eyebrows drawn down, unperturbed by his steadily increasing glare. “But that’s still not excuse for allowing them to be stuck out in the cold and with those beasts. If I didn’t have to look after your people and maybe even some of my own, I’d be volunteering straight away for this mission, pacifist or not. Those damn grubs don’t deserve no humane treatment, but Stranded do, wild as they are. Hell, even euthanizing them would be a mercy at this point, something I’ve no doubt you can provide cold heartedly.”

“You don’t know what they did,” Marov replied through clenched teeth, resisting the urge to punch her. Why couldn’t people leave well enough alone with all this sh*t? “They killed my daughter.”

“And you’re just going to let more daughters in this world die, just because of your one loss?”

The words stopped the heated reply that was on his lips cold as the temperature outside. His mind went blank at that, at a loss for words to combat the piercing accusation. She poked a finger into his chestplate, ramming her words home with each successful tap. He hardly felt it through the armor, but it had the same effect on him.

“Didn’t think of that, did you? Didn’t think how far you depersonalized Stranded in order to turn a blind eye when people as helpless as your daughter died. When you could have stopped it? Never thought how they feel, how human they were despite how they live? Disgusting. Now’s your chance to do your duty as not just a COG soldier, but a human being, too, and you complain? Save them, Gearhead, or you’re exactly the same as the ones you hate.”

Marov looked down at the doctor’s stern face, his daughter’s face clear in his mind, mixing with memories of Naleena when she’d been shot. Tears blurred his vision as he remembered the faces of the women and children in the convoy, Ven’s words as they passed out their ration bars to the poor sods. The faces of the victims at the mine. They had all seemed faceless to him, then, but now...Hell, he didn’t know what he saw. All the stress that had been building up snapped within him, rushing out. He squeezed his eyes shut and drew in a shuddering breath, gritting his teeth to hold back the sobs.

Sh*t, why did the doctor’s words have to be so right? Those slaves didn’t deserve what was going on against their will, just like everyone was saying. He bit his lip, willing himself to calm down and soldier through his breaking point, just like he’d been taught back in the Pendulum Wars. Damn, it’s as hard now as it was back then, he thought, almost wishing for the old days. Back when the enemy was familiar enough to understand their reasoning for fighting. Nothing was so simple, these days.

“I got it, doctor. I get it,” Marov said, nodding to reinforce his point. Hanson looked at him with sympathy in her once angry, smoldering eyes. She understood what was going on in his head better than he did. “This war…hell, I’d forgotten the Octus Canon. Seems like so long since it even mattered.”

“Good boy,” she smiled, wrinkles showing her age as she patted his cheek, even though she couldn’t have been more than ten years older. Marov started at her touch, the feel of her skin on his reminding him of how much he missed his wife. That thought lead to how the Stranded would feel not being able to experience the sensation of a loved one’s touch if they all died. Humanity needed that simple action, giving them the will to go on – that thought steeled his will.

“Aw, hell,” Nyvar’s voice said aloud, breaking Marov out of his reverie. Those two words never boded well in that tone.

“What?” Jonesy asked, apparently out of his stupor, standing up and walking with Jason over to their little group.

“My men want to make a deal in exchange for their help,” Akun said seriously, not looking pleased at the prospect.

“What could we give them that would be worth anything?” Marov asked incredulously. It wasn’t like they were rolling in valuable possessions at the moment.

“They want a promise that they’ll be able to get out of here before the rest of the COG shows up and brings them in for charges,” Nyvar supplied unenthusiastically. “I just don’t have the authorization for that and we can’t contact Matheison without spending a day on repairs and another day waiting for reinforcements. The Stranded don’t have that long, especially if Parker doesn’t show up like he’s supposed to.”

“So lie to them,” Marov said, coming up with the easiest solution.

“I can’t do that, Sy’,” Nyvar replied, looking down at the ground. He looked angry with himself, as if the problem was his fault alone.

“Then we’ll do it ourselves,” Marov smiled, watching Nyvar’s head come up with a start. “Echo Squad’s not failed a mission yet. Let’s grab their ‘Dill and raid the armory on the way out. Easy enough.”

Nyvar stared at him for a long moment, looking around at the assembled faces. He, Akun, Marov, Jonesy, and Jason were the only non-seriously injured ones able to face this last mission. It was a hell of a team up, Marov had to admit; they’d all proven themselves capable over the last few days.

“Yeah. Easy enough,” Nyvar replied, a smile on his face. It was overtime, now.

Chapter 20: Fading Echoes Edit

“I don’t care if it was within my orders or not, those people needed to be saved. Even if things didn’t turn out like I thought they would, I don’t regret my decision in the slightest. I’m not going to just leave people to those things if I have the power to keep it from happening. That’s why I kept fighting after E-day, after all. That’s why I fought to protect them. We aren’t a bunch of Locust, uncaring how many of our own species die in this war. We’re human, with all that implies. We stick with one another to win this war, or we all die together. Either way, that’s humanity.”

– Sergeant Joseph Nyvar’s closing report

Outbound from Lethia Imulsion Facility, en route to Stranded Slave Mining Camp;

2000 hours.

The Centaur bucked and jumped as Marov floored the accelerator, enjoying the adrenaline pumping sensation of driving a weapon of mass destruction at high speeds through a screaming snowstorm. The turret on top of the giant, wheeled tank bounced around on the roof. The restrainers had long rusted off from lack of care by the occupying forces of the Imulsion facility, turning the cabin into what Marov thought the inside of a drum might sound like. The constant banging of it was irritating but they needed to move quickly in order to complete their volunteer work.

The forest they were rushing through was full of young trees that had only seen a few seasons, instead of the massive oak and pines that had been around before the Hammer strikes. As a result, the massive treads crushed the saplings like toothpicks, much to Marov’s delight. He imagined each one of them to be Parker in all his smug, assholish glory. Damn, I’m glad he’s dead, Marov thought as he ran another tree over, the tank’s bright lights banishing the growing darkness. At least he could be happy one Stranded was dead, even if he was about to save a bunch of other ones.

He glanced back for a moment, looking at the people he’d spent the last week or so traveling across the countryside with, along with the new-old face of Akun. Nyvar was armed to the teeth with a Retro Lancer and Ven’s Gnasher slung across his back, a boltok on one hip, and a snub on the other. His belt was full of knives and a couple of bolo fragmentation grenades, jostling as they ran over another bump in the forest. Lastly, the man had acquired a helmet from the armory they had raided. The blue eye slots stared out at the world with cold impassion that belied the man’s reason for being out here. Some non regulation paint had also been applied to the outside of the helmet, a Death’s Head Emblem in the center of his head seeming to be dripping black blood. Charming, Marov noted as his eyes scanned to the next armored form.

Akun held Naleena’s custom Longshot across his lap, holding it in place with a firm hand while a Hammerburst clung to his own back. Electing to only carry one snub pistol on his hip, the other was strapped with a respectable amount of Ink and Incendiary grenades. He would be the team’s supplier of ammunition, as well, using some of the same netting as Nyvar was wearing to hold clips to each of their weapons on his armored body. A large knife was sheathed in the man’s boots just in case he had to get in close contact with the enemy. Marov had shuddered at the sight of it, remembering the skill with which the man exceeded at close range combat. The flashing and dancing of his knife work was as frightening to behold as it was beautiful. Had they been facing anything but Locust, Marov might even have felt sorry for the enemy. The man’s normally naked scalp was covered with a thick leather hat rimmed with fur as a bastion against the cold, the edge of a couple. A pair of goggles rested on his forehead in preparation for his work.

Jason had decided on a captured Boomshot, a regular Lancer, and a snub pistol on his hip. A helmet of his own was sitting next to him, a twin to his father’s. Much to the boy’s chagrin, he wasn’t trained with anything but the most recent variation of the Lancer and snub, but the Boomshot didn’t take much practice to be good with. All the kid had to do was point it in the general direction of the enemy, pull the trigger, and watch as the area was incinerated. A Gutpuncher attachment to the Lancer was in one of the bandoliers across his chest with the ammo for it taped, strapped, and netted to his body. Jason would be their artillery, such as it was. Of course, that much demolition gear cuts both ways, Marov thought as he chewed on his lip. One stray shot and there’d be nothing but a crater left.

For his part, Marov had stuck with his current batch of weaponry; the Lancer he’d found in the facility and his custom snub pistol belted to his right leg. As the driver, he was the most lightly armored, as well, remaining in the stealth armor they’d taken from the Raven so long ago. As well, since he was the most injured, with his leg all but ready to give out, it didn’t pay to be running around in the snow with the rest of Echo.

The Centaur lurched up the hill with a steady rumble, Marov tightening his grip on the wheel, focused ahead as the end of the mound came into view with perfect clarity. He braked at the apex and cut the tank’s external headlights, the glow from the small settlement of slaves hardly visible through the storm outside.

“We there already?”

Marov looked back at Nyvar’s voice and nodded, not entirely sure what to say. This moment, right before the shells start flying; that’s when it hit him the hardest. There weren’t a lot of humans left, and his best friend was going right into the teeth of an engagement. But maybe that’s what Nyvar was thinking, too. Why he’d dragged them out here to save the Stranded. All those best friends, wives, and children were sitting out there next to the grubs, being killed daily. Even if they were scum, they deserved to have a better chance than being left here. At least, that’s what he kept trying to tell himself.

“Alright. This mission has gone on long enough. Let’s get out there and finish the job,” Nyvar said, standing up in the cramped cabin to open the hatch. The screeching wind that had been buffeting the vehicle blew down inside, almost making Nyvar’s voice inaudible as he continued. Even with the earpiece, Marov strained to listen as the temperature inside dropped to an uncomfortably brass ball freezing level.

“Stick the plan and meet us at the rendezvous, Marov. We’ll see you in forty.”

Marov gave Nyvar a thumbs up, turning back to his console to huddle away from the wind and snow whipping into the compartment. A vibration coursed through the vehicle as Nyvar climbed down the ladder to the ground, Akun and Jason following quickly behind. The sound of the blizzard cut off to a more comfortable pitch as someone closed the hatch. Marov looked back at the empty seats that had just been full of life and hoped it wouldn’t stay that way. He shifted gears and backed his way down the slope, heading for the rendezvous.

The smell was still there. The smell from the helmet he’d scavenged from the armory. Another soldier had worn it; had even decorated it. The faint smell of imulsion, earth, and unwashed hair wafted into his nose every time he breathed in. It felt alien, especially compared to his normal policy of wearing nothing but his thinning hair. But with the cold, it was a necessary evil.

Nyvar wondered if the man who owned it was dead or simply trapped in the cafeteria Marov had locked the outlaws in. That had taken some persuading on Akun’s part, but there was food and the stoves still drew power from the imulsion. They wouldn’t freeze or starve. Of course, they weren’t happy about the deal Nyvar had given them, either. Jonesy or one of the others, would set them free with Sparks before any COG forces showed up and then lock themselves in the armory. Nyvar didn't trust the Stranded soldiers as much as Marov might think.

Another breath as he struggled up a hill, the scent invading his numb nostrils again. Even through the helmet, it was cold. The wind was a chill that cut to the bone where his armor didn’t cover. He expected the others felt the same way, but were too focused on their mission to worry about it overmuch. With luck, they’d be out of the cold within the hour. Nyvar glanced at his watch as he reached the top, shining a small flashlight into its dark screen as he crouched. The watch was solar powered, but being underground and trudging through the overcast sky had almost killed the batteries. 2020 hours, it read, around the glare. He hurriedly shut the flashlight down and stuffed it in his pack. Mentally counting down the time, he grabbed his Lancer from its magnetic clamps and brought it to a rest on his knee.

He could feel the cold metal through his gloves, gladly grasping the softer, less frozen hand holds. Through his helmet, the Lancer looked and ethereal blue, small ice chips coming away when he ran his fingers across the chainsaw. Nyvar hoped the gun wouldn’t cease functioning if he had to use it. With even more luck, he wouldn’t have to.

Ten more seconds until the first phase of their mission started, his ears straining as he listened for the signal. A moment earlier than planned, a red light pierced the gloomy, white landscape to his left. The echoing sound of an explosion came to him half a second behind as he stood up with a grunt and charged down the hill. Slipping in his haste, he tumbled down the last few feet and stood again, shaking off the snow on his Lancer. Embarrassment momentarily brought heat back to his face before being swept away by the night’s chill once more.

The gap of a frozen river, which would have been nothing but a dark field to his naked eyes, lay ahead of him. He turned left at the end of the tree line, jumping to the bank of the river a meter below. The crack of the ice momentarily froze the blood in his veins. No crash or splash heralded his bitter end, so he blew out a breath he hadn’t known he had been holding. At least the wind's dying down, now, he thought grimly. Carefully moving toward his destination, he gulped in a healthy amount of the atmosphere in his helmet. Nyvar was almost getting used to the smell, now. It made him feel less alone in the bitter darkness, if nothing else.

The loud crack of a twig to his right broke the dead, night air. He turned to the noise and crouched, his Lancer leading, cursing himself for not even noticing the wind was totally gone. Fat snowflakes fell lazily to the ground around him, as peaceful as can be. Breathing in deep, slow breaths, Nyvar waited for a hulking form to breach the horizon of the bank. The forest seemed to grow completely quiet, his blood hammering in his ears and his pulse in his neck. Sweat, despite the conditions, trickled down into his eye. He barely blinked, still looking straight at the river’s bank. A flash of grey darted to his left. He turned toward it, swinging his gun around as he tracked it.

A primal fear he didn’t even experience when faced with a Locust anymore took hold of him as he looked at the animal in front of him. Icy, gray eyes fixed his own with a cool stare, freezing his finger on the trigger. Suddenly, the wolf’s ears tilted to the left. Then it snapped its head that direction and snarled. Nyvar flinched back, startled, as the wolf jumped up the bank and tackled something into the bushes on the bank. A single shot from a boltok and a startled yelp came back as reply. Nyvar jumped to his feet, bringing his gun to bear on a Locust.

Fur the color of the dead wolf’s pelt threading through the grub’s armor, looking even more bestial. It chuckled deeply and fired another shot into the still body of the animal, squatting to the ground. A knife appeared out of the drone’s thigh sheath, the serrated edge darkly colored at its edge. Nyvar frowned darkly at that as he brought his gun up, intent on making sure the hunter didn’t add another pelt to its armor. The grub hadn’t seen him yet, so intent on its prey.

Unfortunately for it, another wolf flashed in from out of Nyvar’s field of vision just before he could pull the Lancer’s trigger. The large form slammed into the Locust’s back, knocking them both to the snow strewn ground. The wolf savaging the thing’s back with tooth and claw was a fair sight bigger than the one Nyvar had just met. Black blood stained the snow as the animal’s jaws chewed into the Locust’s tough hide with more than a little difficulty. A deep bellow filled the air as the Locust screamed, twisting on the ground to try and get the wolf off. It succeeded, throwing the poor animal into a tree. A yelp not dissimilar to the one from its mate came from its stained jaws, slaver dripping down into the snow.

Nyvar, free to take his shot now that the wolf was well away, fired a three round burst into the grub’s side. The Locust roared and faced him, reaching to its side first in rage and then in confusion as it realized there was nothing to grab. The pistol must have fallen during the scuffle, Nyvar surmised. He pressed his advantage, pulling the trigger and putting another round through the grub’s face for its efforts.

An echo of the shots faded in the dead air as Nyvar lowered his weapon, a whisper of wind beginning to thread through the trees once more. A flurry blew past him, leaving behind a few pristine flakes that stuck to his metal plates. Wiping them away, Nyvar looked around for the wolf and saw nothing but snow and ghostly blue trees. He shrugged; hope building inside of him at the thought that a few animals had survived the Hammer strikes.

Quickly climbing up the bank to examine the grub’s body, Nyvar checked for anything useful. He was in luck, another grenade and a clip for his shotgun were his prizes. The knife, on the other hand, he twirled back and forth for a moment in thought, chewing on his lip to decide if he should keep it. Noticing again the dark edge and the body of the wolf, he stood up and threw it into the woods as hard as he could with a brief flare of anger.

Drawing in a sharp breath, he pushed the Locust’s dead body into the bank. It thudded noisily as it hit the river, blood running through the rivulets and cracks in the ice. Hiding it as best he could, he moved on down the stream. One dead grub down meant one less running around and killing more wildlife, Nyvar reflected as he jogged, his breathing slow and controlled. Sera would heal, eventually. But first, I have to rescue the human survivors, he thought stolidly. Nyvar ran with renewed vigor to his position, the howl of wolves accompanying the returning wind behind him.

Jason smiled grimly behind his new helmet, pointing his Boomshot at the target in front of him. With a pull of the trigger, he sent destruction hurtling through the air to impact the first of his objectives. What had once been an abandoned Troika turret was now nothing but slag. Snowflakes flurried into the glowing metal, hissing away into steam as the turret groaned and fell with a clatter to the cement beneath it.

That was the signal for the others to go about their own missions. He glanced at his watch, the numbers easily readable in the illumination provided by a portable light that had been set out for the slaves. Twenty one minutes out from eight o’ clock and one defense already destroyed. The Locust would be stirring any minute now.

According to the recon Sparks had conducted a scant hour earlier, there were three different encampments along the perimeter of the mining facility. The huts were directly in the center, surrounded on all sides should some unfortunate soul decide to brave the cold. The few unburied bodies he had seen on the way in were mute testament that some of the slaves had made that decision. Their blue skin and white eyes staring into the wintry chill of eternity had unnerved him.

Jason squeezed the grip of his weapon tighter, his teeth gritting. The Locust had a lot to pay for, and he was happy to return the favor. For a moment, he was tempted to wait there, standing in the snow as Locust swarmed his position. Then, cold logic returned with the wind and reminded him he’d maybe get one shot off before he died. Dying won’t help anyone here, Jason thought morosely, turning away from the destruction to run toward the next encampment. After he finished reducing the next one into a glowing crater, he’d retreat to the rendezvous and wait for everyone else.

With his boots sinking into the snow, he had to crab walk even more, jumping from one foot to the other. With all the gear covering him, he soon slowed, out of breath and sweating. Young as he was, carrying a weapon built for a Boomer was trying. Maybe this is why all the vets have arms as big as my head, Jason speculated dryly, a smirk appearing on his face. Breathing in a deep breath, he traded his Boomshot for a Lancer, the familiar feel of the gun reassuring as he looked around. The two eye slots in his helmet offered less view than he would have liked. Taking it off and clipping it to his belt, he examined his surroundings.

Trees littered the area, mounds of snow building on their limbs and around their trunks. One of the mounds sloughed off a branch to add to the pile beneath it as he watched. The thought occurred to him that he might share that fate if he didn’t keep moving, looking up warily and continuing on. Feeling was already leaving his face, except for where his nose ran. Itchy as hell, Jason growled uncharitably in his mind, running the back of his glove across his nose. Not bothering to look at the residue, he unclipped his helmet at shoved it back on his head.

“Damn buckets,” Jason muttered as he hopped humiliatingly through the forest, glad no one was around to see him.

A few minutes later, he reached his next destination, crouching behind a tree. There was Locust activity veritably buzzing around the encampment. Two sentries stood watch on top of a prefabricated building, goggles shielding their eyes as they scanned the forest. Their silhouettes were almost black against the glare of the portable lights set up around the encampment. Longshots, looking like the toy guns Jason once used to play with back at Jacinto, were cradled in their arms. Fur lined the closest sentry’s armor, rippling in the wind, though the drone’s arms were bare to the cold, from what he could see. If only I had skin that could stop a knife, Jason griped inwardly, I’d be able to take this stupid helmet off in this kind of weather, too.

Three more of the enemy soldiers were rummaging around in the center of the small encampment, stacking boxes of ammunition next to the large Troika mounted against a wall of sandbags. Snow had piled up against the bags, forming a deceptively unstable ramp, as one Locust found out when it walked down. Sinking to its thigh in the snow, it growled and twisted, loosening itself from the icy clutches. Jason could almost hear the deep, evil laughs the creatures made when entertained as they paused and stared at their comrade.

Checking his gun to make sure it hadn’t frozen over, Jason touched the communication device in his ear and clicked it on and off twice. An agonizingly long moment later, an answering click came back over the channel. Akun was in position, then, and ready to fire. Jason’s stomach knotted as he breathed in a couple deep breaths, psyching himself up for what he was about to do. Dad trusts this guy, he thought as he stood and abandoned his cover. That’s good enough for me.

He ran in shooting.

Ensconced on a branch on the other side of the encampment, Akun looked through the modified Longshot’s sniper scope. With a foot braced against a helpful limb and his back against the main trunk of the tree, he was in a perfect support position. Woodcraft sniping, as his old sergeant used to say back in the Pendulum Wars. He smiled faintly at the memory, twisting a knob on the scope’s side to clear up the sight, almost tasting the s’mores the Tyrans had invented.

With his adjustments completed for the moment, Akun brushed his hand against each of the bullets laid out across his belt, counting. Twenty four rounds, with another one slotted in the chamber. Good enough, he thought with a grunt, peering through the scope to watch a grub fall into the snow. His trigger finger itched to pull as he sighted up the drone’s head. With half the target buried in snow and convulsing around as it tried to free itself, a headshot was the best bet. His instructor would have frowned, but nodded at him to take the shot had he been over Akun’s shoulder.

Quickly moving away from the struggling grub, he shifted the scope to one of the sentries patrolling on top of a building. He could see its breath fogging in the air as it moved, ignoring its thrashing companion. An intent enemy is a dangerous enemy, whispered a voice from his past. That one would be his first target. The other sentry was glancing down to the pit where the Troika lay, hardly moving unlike its counterpart. Akun leaned back, sighing and shaking his head as the glass fogged up. He wiped it with his thumb as two clicks came over his headset.

His adrenaline spiked at that noise, his throat drying out as he breathed in quickly in succession. Reaching up to his ear, he returned the click and brought his eye to the scope once more, looking at the battleground. Movement to the left of the encampment drew his eye, the armored form of the Nyvar kid moving in to complete his task. Akun swiftly brought his sights on his first target, slowing down his breathing. The grub noticed the movement in the trees as well, starting to bring its gun up as if in slow motion.

The crack of his shot was masked by Jason’s opening up, blood misting into the air as the sentry’s head exploded into a shower of gore. It splattered the snow, the body falling to its knees and then tumbling into the pit. Cries of anger and disbelief, faint from where he was, but loud enough to hear over the shooting came to his ears as he reloaded.

Pulling back the bolt, he ejected the spent shell, pulled out a new one from his belt, and injected it into place with a click as he put the bolt back into position. The spent shell vanished into the leaves, but Akun’s attention was already back at the battlefield, zooming in on the other sentry. Mere seconds had passed, but the grub was quicker than he looked, both in mind and body and was already searching for his position, crouching to avoid the fire from Jason.

Unfortunately for the grub, Akun wasn’t about to let it find the time to add a new breathing hole to his brain. He sighted up on the grub’s body, cracking off his second shot with practiced ease, the kick from the gun already starting to bruise his shoulder. With the angle he had shot, the bullet slammed through the thick neck, right above the clavicle, blood spurting into the air. The grub dropped, out of commission, if not dead.

The heat of the barrel steamed in the cold as Akun ejected another round and grabbed for his next shell. He pulled a bullet from its sheath in his belt and dropped it with shaking hands. It fell into the night, irretrievable. He cursed at himself, fumbling for another shell as he tried to still his hand. Cold and precise, son, that’s how a sniper works, the voice of his sergeant whispered in his mind. Akun replied darkly in the same fashion, slamming the bullet into the chamber and looking through the scope again. Too much time wasted.

The situation, with the sentries on the roofs gone, was to the kid’s benefit, but the Troika was already being fed and filling the air with bullets. Akun watched as Jason jumped and rolled into cover behind a fallen tree. Bark filled the air as the Troika’s rounds ripped into the flimsy cover, Jason returning fire blindly with his Lancer.

Akun dragged his sights onto the Troika, but a building was in his way, blocking his shot of the operator. Gritting his teeth, he scanned for targets, finding nothing. Shift position. Find a clear angle. Always be moving.

“Yes, sir,” Akun muttered into the air, sliding his weapon across his chest with the sling and starting down the tree. He had to do something before Nyvar’s kid died. Akun wasn’t about to let another of his squad become a casualty. Not after the Hammer.

Cursing into the steadily colder night, Jason crouched lower as another hundred rounds roared through the spot just above his head. His cover wasn’t going to hold much longer, and then, neither would he. Hissing in pain, he moved to the right along the fallen log, using his good hand to fire blindly over his cover. His right arm dangled limply beside him, blood dripping down it from a chunk he was missing on his forearm. The cold had already numbed most of his body, but he could definitely feel the pain as his nerved screamed. It was warm there, steaming a little in the cold as he dropped his weapon to the ground to take a look at it.

Pulling out a strip of cloth from a small pouch on his belt, he wrapped it up, wincing and growling through gritted teeth. Blood soaked through the flimsy bandage, but it stopped leaking down his arm for the moment. He moved the arm slowly, every pulse sending a new pain through it. It worked well enough, if painfully. Dad’s going to have a cow, Jason thought, which naturally lead to what he thought he remembered cow tasted like. It had been awhile since he had eaten beef.

The silence as the Troika stopped firing brought him back to the battle at hand, a worm of worry gnawing his mind. The only reason the Troika would stop firing would be for friendlies to be in its way.

"Shit,” Jason said, just as a grenade bounced off his cover and disappeared into the snow next to him. He leaped to the side just as it exploded, thrown even further by the blast. His body impacted a tree and stopped so suddenly his head snapped back and slammed into the trunk, too. Blood flood his mouth as a stinging pain registered in his lip, falling to his hand and knees. He spat, a headache slamming into his head as forcefully as he had hit the tree. Jason closed his eyes, momentarily blinded by the pain, cold assaulting his face. Where was his helmet?

The sound of a Hammerburst round ripping into the bark behind him set his ears to ringing as his training took over. His body jumped to the right in a roll, the heavy gear on his body rattling and making the jump little more than a hop. More shots impacted the snow around him, one slamming into the Boomshot that was surprisingly still attached to his back. He could hear the clang as it hit the metal and ricocheted into the night.

Jason scrambled on his hands and knees behind a tree that put something in between him and where he thought he fire was coming from. His breath came out in peaceful white puffs, a counterpoint to his ragged breathing. Pain lanced through his arm, his head, and his lip with every movement, more shots thudding into the bark. He was going to die here, in the snow, like the bodies he had seen on the way in. Oh, god, Jason thought frantically, checking himself over for anything that could help him.

His panicked actions unclipped the heavy grenade launcher on his back, the weapon falling to the snow outside of cover. Bullets slammed into it instantly, clanging as it danced in the snow like a marionette. Jason watched it, then grabbed one of the grenades for the Boomshot and threw it around the tree at the hail of bullets. They stopped as the Locust roared. Jason could feel his pulse pounding through his head, making his headache even worse. He had to think of something, anything to get him out of this.

He looked over at the Boomshot, his eyes wide open and his breath coming faster as adrenaline swept away his pain on an icy hot tide. He snatched it up, rolling out from cover and firing it as soon as he saw the Locust stand up from where it had rolled to avoid his fake grenade. It roared again as he pulled the trigger. An explosion lit up the night, forcing his eyes closed as something wet hit his face. When the storm had passed, he opened his eyes and stared. Where the Locust had been was only bloody chunks, an arm missing its hand laying a meter from the crater. Jason laughed.

Tears ran down his face and froze as he doubled over and giggled hysterically, dropping his weapon. The laughter scared him, but he couldn’t stop, the convulsions bringing him to his knees. He laughed so hard he retched into the snow, bile and a digested candy bar from lunch coating the ground and his left glove as he held himself up. Why was it so funny, Jason thought as he looked up at the remnants of the fallen log that had been his cover. A black silhouette against the light from the encampment stood on the log, a Longshot cradled in the man’s arms. A voice in his ear crackled to life.

“This is Akun. We’re heading to the rendezvous.”

Jason looked up and got to his feet shakily, barely able to keep himself up. The headache was back, along with the other pains. Akun grabbed his arm and helped him as they moved to the center of town. Marov would be there soon, and there was still a job to do. His vision was unfocused, but he put one foot in front of the other and kept moving. Two Locust bodies lay in the snow, holes drilled through their bodies in mortal areas. Jason could have sworn they were already turning blue. The thought made him smile through the pain.

Nyvar ducked behind a building as the sound of booted feet smacked against the concrete. The familiar growls of Locust broke through the night as he looked around the corner to see the back of two grubs moving down an alleyway. Clutching his Lancer tighter, Nyvar moved after them, careful to keep quiet as he could with his heavy boots. Thankfully, the sound of explosions and firing were enough to overwrite his muted footfalls.

Snow, which was piling steadily along the sides of the alley, still fell. Boot prints from running drones had turned the alley’s middle into slush, dirt mingling to change it brown. When he looked up, he saw the low clouds burning with an orange glow, a couple of Reavers flashing by. Something was afire nearby. Nyvar feverently hoped it wasn’t his son burning. If everything was going according to plan, they’d meet in the square at the designated time.

Slowing as he came to the end of the alley, Nyvar kneeled to the ground and checked his watch. Frost covered the glass, forcing him to wipe it away with a thumb. Five more minutes until the rendezvous. Hope you’re ready for this, Marov, Nyvar thought grimly. Picking up his Lancer into a two handed grip once more, he looked around the corner into the square. One of the doors to the slave quarters was open, a thin woman with a gaunt face looking out with dead eyes. They lit up when Nyvar waved from the dark alley, the woman bringing a hand to her mouth in surprise. He checked both ways to make sure he was clear before rushing across the well lit square and entering the woman’s doorway and closing it behind him.

A squeal of fright quickly muffled was the first thing that greeted him in the dark room. Light filtered in from the outside through the windows evenly spaced along the side facing the square. Nyvar’s eyes steadily grew accustomed to the gloom, women and children, both boys and girls, staring back at him with fright in their faces. One of them had buried their face in a mother’s skirts. [I]I must look like one of the grubs, big as I am[/I], Nyvar deliberated, disturbed by the thought.

“Why are you here?”

Surprised by the soft voice, Nyvar looked over at the owner and saw his wife standing there.

“Kat…” Nyvar muttered, letting his Lancer fall to his side in a loose one handed grip. He reached toward the woman, pulling back abruptly as she cringed away panic in her eyes. When the light from the window hit her face, he realized his mistake. Her face was similar, but her hair was a deep brown and the scar he’d kissed so many times wasn’t on her cheek. Gripping the handle of his Lancer and balling his other fist, Nyvar fought the wave of self loathing swarming through him. Kat was dead. I know she’s dead, but I’m still hoping and scaring these poor folk. With effort, he calmed himself and looked back up at the woman.

“I’m a Gear. I’ve got a team here and we’re getting you all out.”

Gasps filled the room at his words, frightened voices treating “Gear” with as much fear as they would use “Locust”. One woman spat at him. Nyvar winced, remembering who he was talking to. Stranded, condemned to death just for being outside of Jacinto. They had all the right to be afraid and angry.

“You’ll get us out? And bring us where? To your precious city?” the not Kat asked, heat coating her tone. Nyvar shook his head.

“That’s your choice after we get out of here. Right now, we’re bringing you to Lethia. There’s some Stranded there. Might be some of them are family to you. Any of you like to stay with them, they’ll be leaving to get to the nearest Stranded camp.” Nyvar paused, scanning the room and seeing hope where a moment before had been disgust. He continued, “But if you want to come to Jacinto, I’ll make sure you get there. COG forces are en route to the factory already. You’ll be taken care of. Fed, even. Now, I need to know how many of you are there. Are the other buildings being used as shelter?”

“We’re all that’s left, such as we are,” the woman sneered bitterly. She looked down at her tattered shift and boots, Nyvar’s eyes following hers down. He drew in a sharp breath as he realized she wasn’t wearing boots. Those black things were her feet. When he looked into the crowd, he realized almost every one of the occupants were frostbitten somewhere. A bandaged hand on a child missing three fingers, more dead feet, a little girl missing an ear. Nyvar gritted his teeth in anger, looking back to the woman’s face. She looked back at him with a fierce expression on her face.

“The Locust killed the others,” she said in a low voice, “or might well as have. It’s cold as a bitch’s heart out there. Those who didn’t die from the Frost died from exhaustion. We’re the strong ones. The weak ones never had a chance.”

“No one else is gonna die, ma’am,” Nyvar replied heatedly, just as the door opened behind him. Cursing, he turned around, his Lancer already coming up into firing range. Something hard slammed into his nose, throwing him back into the crowd of children, his Lancer falling to the ground somewhere.

Luckily, the children had managed to get out of the way as his heavily armored body thudded against the floor. Warm blood ran down into his mouth as he reached for his sidearm, ripping the boltok pistol out of its holster. He fired at the massive form, punching a hole into its body and forcing it back. Nyvar fired again, scrambling to his feet with a yell. One more shot ended the grub’s struggles, its wheezing from a punctured lung cut short. Three rounds left, Nyvar thought quickly as another Locust rushed in, shooting.

Screams pierced the air, one of the Hammerburst’s rounds punching into Nyvar’s chest armor with enough force to send him back to the ground. This time, he landed on someone, a sharp crack announcing a newly broken bone thanks to his weight. Nyvar prayed it wasn’t a child, at least as he rolled off, rounds spraying into the air and sending shards of wood to rain down on his head. He returned fire with his Boltok, stopping the hail of bullets for a few seconds. Clicking dry on the pistol, he dropped it smoking beside him and grabbed his snub.

The whine of a chainsaw interrupted the scene, a roaring cry coming from the Locust who had been shooting as blood flew into the air. It crumpled as the Lancer reached the midpoint of its chest and stopped whirring, stuck on a rib. Nyvar wiped the viscera off of his face as Jason’s hand extended to pull him up, Akun cursing as he tried to remove the Lancer from the drone’s body. With a heave and pushing down on the body with his boot, the sniper removed the weapon and dropped it to his side.

“I prefer killing when I don’t have to smell the aftermath,” Akun said, breathing hard. The man looked around, staring at the huddled Stranded in each corner. “My, god.”

“Is everyone alright?” Nyvar asked, nodding at Akun in thanks for the timely rescue.

“As alright as we can be,” the woman who had spoken with him earlier replied, holding his Lancer in her arms with difficulty. She shoved it at him, the weapon thudding into his chest as he grabbed it. She backed away quickly, looking down at the other Stranded. The kids were remarkably quiet, though tears danced in more than a few eyes. Nyvar’s lips tightened as he thought about what that meant.

“How are we getting out of here?” she continued, looking back up at him and brushing hair out of her face.

“Through the tunnels,” Nyvar said, matter of fact.

“You’re insane.”

“Maybe, but you aren’t getting out of here any other way. That mine leads to the facility underground. We don’t have enough vehicles to get you out and I sure as hell aren’t going to ask you to walk through the snow,” Nyvar returned, helping a little boy up and gesturing for the rest of the Stranded to do likewise.

They complied, quietly and without fuss, used to obeying orders. I hope they never have to hear another order like this again, Nyvar thought, knowing it was a futile hope. Sera didn’t work like that these days. He checked his watch, directing Jason and Akun to go outside and make sure it was clear. One minute until the rendezvous. Hopefully Marov was having a better time of it than they were.

The Centaur lurched as Marov spun the wheel and hit the brake. An explosion slammed into the snow in front of him, splattering his windshield with the white stuff. He cursed as the drumming sound of bullets ripped into the back of the armored tank’s chassis. Taking his foot off the break, Marov slammed his foot down on the accelerator, the tires catching and thrusting forward, over a hill and catching some air. Grimacing as his stomach flew into his throat, Marov braced himself as the Centaur came down hard. The seatbelt snapped as his armored form lurched forward and slammed his head into the dash.

“Another goddamned thing I have to thank the Stranded for. Can’t they at least keep their shitin good condition? Fucking Reavers!” Marov roared as he wiped away the blood from a new cut on his forehead, pressing the gas pedal again. The tank bounced around as Marov neared his destination, aiming directly for what should be the last encampment if everyone had done their job correctly.

The Locust must have warned their companions he was coming, because the Troika was already manned and pointing at him. It opened up as soon as he came into range, the bullets a counterpoint to the pinging coming from the Reavers on his back.

“C’mon, baby, hold together,” Marov growled as a round cracked into the thick windshield, sending a spider web through the glass. He shifted gears and hit the boost, topping out at the max speed setting for the Centaur. The Troika stopped firing right before he hit it, the grub smart enough to tuck and roll out of the way. The impact sent Marov’s body forward again, but he kept himself from adding a new bruise and ripped through the encampment, sending boxes of ammunition flying.

He braked quickly, the Centaur coming to an abrupt stop with a squelch of the tires. The Reavers shot over him as he did so, already looping back for another run at him. Now would be a good time to vacate this deathtrap, Marov thought, thoughtlessly unbuckling the ruined seatbelt and grabbing his Lancer as he stood.

The hatch opened with little difficulty, snow falling gently into the vehicle as he made his way out of the top. Marov slipped down a couple of rungs on the frozen ladder as he hurried, dropping down into the snow with a grunt. Gripping the Lancer to his chest, Marov ran toward the entrance of the mine a few meters away. He entered the cave, slipping on the cold ground and steadying himself with one hand. Back underground again, Marov grumbled inwardly.

The sound of a Reaver’s chain gun brought him out of his funk, the bullets slamming into the still running Centaur. Nothing but dents would come of it, but it would serve as the distraction Nyvar planned to make. Marov looked down to a pouch on his belt, opening it to check the detonator inside. Patting it and returning the velcro to its original spot, Marov glanced at his watch. 2040 hours.

“Where are you, ‘Seph,” Marov asked the empty air, looking back down the mineshaft to make sure reinforcements weren’t on their way for the Locust. He didn’t hear any boots or bestial grunts so far, but he kept an ear to the darkness as he looked back outside. The Reavers were coming around for another pass. If they followed the pattern they usually did, they would eventually descend and-

Shit,” Marov muttered, just as a Reaver slammed into the top of the Centaur, screeching through a massive maw filled with rows of sharp teeth. Unthinking, Marov pointed his Lancer at the monster and opened fire, running toward it to get under it and out of its line of fire. Bullets ripped into the snow around him as he ran, the grubs on top reacting to his suicidal charge.

The sound of rushing air warned him a moment before an explosion hit the ground behind him, the other Reaver descending to take part in its mate’s fun. Marov tumbled forward into the snow, sliding under the Centaur and losing his gun in the process. Spitting out the white slush, Marov turned over onto his back, pointing his Snub at the Reaver’s spindly legs and opening fire. He didn’t expect to cause any damage, but damn if it didn’t feel good to shoot it in this hopeless situation. I’m not about to die without a gun in my hand, Marov thought fiercely as the Reaver speared its way across the cement closer to his position.

The screech of metal rending forced Marov to bring his hands to his ears and squeeze his eyes shut. The Reaver on top was punching through the chassis with its razor sharp claws, no doubt. What am I going to do now? I have the only damned detonator, Marov thought swiftly, glancing at his watch. 2042. They should have been there by now.

A scream matching a child scratching a chalkboard added to the cacophony as the chain gun opened up again. Marov looked around confusedly, wondering what the grubs were doing. A moment later, his question was answered as a thunk entered the storm of sound and an explosion shook the Centaur above him, the sharp crack of the blast setting his ears to ringing. That sounded like a Gutpuncher. The Reaver above him screamed in agony.

“Sy, where the hell are you? We’ve got Reavers crawling all over your damn tank,” Nyvar’s voice cut through the ringing as his earpiece crackled. Marov reached up to his ear and responded with a quick bark of laughter tinged with hysteria.

“I’m underneath the Centaur, ‘Seph. Mind telling Jason to let off a few more of those grenades, please? Don’t fancy hanging around down here all night!”

“Underneath the ta-. You know, whatever. Cover yourself,” Nyvar replied, his voice growling an order for Jason to fire again. Another thunk and an explosion rocked the tank, the Reaver giving off one final death screech and falling to Marov’s left off the front of the hood. The smell of charred flesh entered his nostrils. Hell, I’m hungry enough to almost enjoy the smell, Marov contemplated with a weird sort of clarity despite the situation.


Another grenade sailed over the tank and hit the other Reaver broadside. Jason quickly reloaded and moved to cover as a missile cratered the area he had been standing at. Grabbing the last frag in his belt, he made sure it was ready to fire before peeking back out to check his range.

He needn’t have bothered. With a last screech and limbs almost falling off, the Reaver lifted off minus its two riders who had died to a previous round. Blood streamed from it as it went, screaming into the night. Suddenly, it was quiet and peaceful, only the sound of the Centaur’s engine running interrupting the silence.

“Bout time you guys showed up,” Marov said through the comm channel, picking himself up as he scooted out from under the Centaur. Jason noticed the man stood on one leg and leaned against one of the monster wheels. Concern for his father’s best friend urged him forward, seeing Akun leading the Stranded toward the mine out of the corner of his eyes. Nyvar slapped the man on the back as they reunited, Marov wincing in pain, but smiling nonetheless.

“You look like you’re about to fall apart, old man,” Jason replied playfully, his smile widening on his face as the adrenaline drained out of him. He felt sick, broken, and hurt, but with everyone still alive, he also felt perfectly fine. This is what being a Gear is like, he thought as he strode up to the man that was almost like an uncle to him.

“Those the people?” Marov asked, his smile dropping off his face as he saw the pathetic forms of the Stranded.

“All that’s left. Weren’t for us, there’d be more corpses in the snow tonight,” his dad replied.

“I’m glad we could help them then.”

“You have the detonator?”

“Yeah, right here,” Marov returned, patting the pouch that carried their ticket to closing the mineshaft behind them. Locust forces were probably already on their way here from other areas. They needed to keep them off their backs long enough to get to the facility. The grubs could dig through, given time, but Jason figured their party would make it in time.

“Move the vehicle a little closer, then, and we’ll hightail it outta here.”

Jason moved away as Marov grunted in reply and worked himself up into the Centaur again. His father followed him. The last of the Stranded were already making their way into the cave, Akun in the lead with a flashlight and his Lancer ahead of him. Jason jogged forward toward the girl his dad had claimed was the leader and stopped her with a hand on her shoulder.

“Here,” he said, pressing his snub pistol into her hand. She looked at it and expertly checked the chamber and aimed at a rock near the mouth of the cave.

“Thanks, kid,” she replied, smiling at him and moving back to her place in the back of the line. Jason nodded and stared back at the Centaur, which was moving closer to him and the mineshaft. The massive tank came to a halt in front of him with an annoying squeak as the old breaks stopped it, the engine shutting off. Jason noticed the cracked windshield, bullet and claw holes, wondering how the thing was even still moving with such damage. The smell of its exhaust wormed its way into his nose, causing him to crinkle it. The sensation reminded him that his entire head as going numb. He looked forward to going back underground where it was relatively warm.

A scream tore into the night air, louder than any human mouth could make. Jason’s blood froze as he looked around for its source, his gun coming up and pointing into the night. Marov popped out of the hatch with his own Lancer leading, and then dropped it with a clang on the tank’s chassis, his mouth open and eyes wide. That look was never good. Another scream pierced the air, Nyvar rushing toward Jason from one of the houses and dropping crates of food on the ground in his hurry.

A rumble started, similar to the earthquakes he’d experienced for most of his life in Jacinto. He automatically looked down at the ground, and then remembered Marov’s face and looked up just in time for the first boulder to smash into the hood of the Centaur. Marov cursed as more rocks tumbled down over the entrance of the cave, leaping from the hatch and rolling across the cement as more boulders slammed into the tank. Jason made to run forward, but another large rock hit the ground in front of him, forcing him back.

“Get in the cave, Jason! Now! Go with Akun!”

Jason ran, not even replying, yelling at the others to move faster, rocks sealing the way shut behind him. Trapped underground, again.

Nyvar looked up the mountain and saw a nightmare even worse than the ones he dealt with on a daily basis. The avalanche of boulders and snow were bad, as he and Marov quickly backed into the square to avoid, but what had caused it was by far a million times worse. A scream from a throat mutated far beyond what a normal Corpser could make assaulted his eardrums.

What had once been a normal giant spider monster was now a monstrosity of legs and yellow, pulsing flesh. A maw that could swallow a Centaur was open and emitting the horrible, pained screech. Nyvar could only describe the growths that poked out of the Corpser’s legs to be tentacles, spewing yellow liquid that melted huge patches of snow as it came down.

“What the fuck is that?” Marov asked as they ran away from the tide of destruction, boulders slamming into the houses that had once held hundreds of slaves. The timber buildings crackled like so much kindling, sending splinters the size of his hand hurtling through the air. The sound was tremendous.

“Hell if I know,” Nyvar coughed out as dust rippled through the air, the reverberation of death slowing down enough for him to look back at the devastation. The mineshaft was no more than a pile of giant rocks, while the square was filled with rubble. A tree had speared one of the houses that escaped the deluge of earth. The monster that had started it all was nowhere to be seen.

“Is it dead?”

“I doubt it. Nothing ever goes right for us,” Marov replied, falling to his butt on the ground and setting his Lancer to the side. Nyvar was surprised to see that he had kept his own in hand. Instinct was amazing to him, sometimes.

A rumble from the ground knocked Nyvar off of his feet as the haunted scream came from the center of the slave camp. A massive, pale yellow leg pierced the rubble, followed by nine more. Tentacles slithered and waved around the bloated body of the Corpser, splattering more of the liquid on the rocks. The stone hissed and steamed as it melted.

“Shit. I hate being right,” Marov said, pointing his gun at the thing. Nyvar stood back up and helped his friend to his feet, putting an arm around his shoulder. Marov limped on his good leg, supported by Nyvar as they kept running away from the thing. Nyvar didn’t know how they’d be able to fight something so horrible with just their Lancers.

“Uh, ‘Seph. I hate to tell you, but that thing’s looking for something, and I don’t think that something is its hat,” Marov said, stopping and leaning against a tree. Nyvar looked back unhappily and saw his friend was correct. The Corpser was skittering around drunkenly, glaring balefully into the night.

“You still have the detonator?”


“Please use it,” Nyvar said just as the monster found them. He cursed and fired a volley at it, watching the bullets pierce the skin with a sharp popping sound similar to a firework. Nyvar frowned, trying to remember where he’d seen something like that before. Sh*t, that’s just like the Kry-

“Fire in the hole!”

An explosion rocked the mountainside as the rest of the dynamite they’d found in the tunnels blew the Centaur and everything around it sky high. The Corpser thing roared in rage, pustules on its skin exploding outward in a display of goo and light. The rocks that had been launched in the air came down on one of the pustules and then Nyvar found himself flying backward into a tree, gravel pelting his face. Light dazzled his eyes as he fell into the snow, a wave of heat roaring over him and burning his skin where his armor didn’t cover.

Sight and hearing slowly came back to him as he lay there, steam rising all around him. Blurry shapes cleared up into trees and rocks and other debris. Nyvar smelled smoke and an even more acrid smell not unlike imulsion. The stuff clogged the back of his throat and made him hack and cough, a similar sound coming from somewhere to his left. Hadn’t Marov been on his right? Nyvar pushed himself to his hands and knees and then rolled into a sitting position against a tree. It hurt to breath, a gift from his impact with the very foliage he was leaning against. He looked over his body and saw his black underlay ripped and torn, his skin red and blistered.

“Never…volunteering…again,” Marov’s voice coughed out from his left. Nyvar looked over and smiled at the man, whose mustache was singed on one side, rolling his head back and closing his eyes as he relaxed for the first time in days. Static washed into his ear, voices suddenly coming in through the channel.

“Dad? Dad?”

“This is Akun. You alright, Nyvar?"

“Sergeant Nyvar? Do you read? This is KR-80, inbound from the Lethia Imulsion factory. Do you copy?”

Nyvar expended a breath, reached up for his right ear, and pressed down on the device nestled there.

“This is Sergeant Joseph Nyvar. I’m having an absolute blast down here. Please join me.”

“Copy that! KR-80 moving in for pickup.”


Nyvar pulled out the device and let it hang from his shoulder, grabbed a flare from his belt, popped the cap, and flung it as far away as he could from himself. That ended up to be a few meters, but the green smoke and light were where trees had been previously, far enough to where he wouldn't be flattened by the Raven. Nyvar laughed.

“That’s endex.”

Epilogue Edit

Former Locust Slave Camp;

2130 hours.

Ty looked down from the open port of the Raven as they came in for a landing, holding tight to one of the hand holds in the crew bay. Green smoke surrounded by what looked like a blast site billowed into the sky, indicating the LZ. The pilot expertly went in for a landing, only slightly jostling the passengers inside. Ty smelled imulsion on the wind as flurries of snow reached out for a kiss.

“I could have made a better landing than that,” Jonesy said behind him, irritable as ever. Ty couldn’t help but smile at the attitude in the man’s voice. He looked back at the pilot, seeing a delightful combination of insanity and mischief in the man’s eyes. Shaking his head, Ty stepped out of the Raven and went to meet the other two members of his squad. His smile faded as he realized Jason and Akun weren’t there.

“Where’s Jason and-,” Ty started, worried.

“They’re fine,” Nyvar replied, coughing as he helped Marov stand up. The other man winced, half of his glorious mustache singed off. Ty thought it best not to point that fact out to him yet. Instead, he went and put his own shoulder under Marov on the other side. The man tried not to put so much weight on his friends, instead deigning to limp along as best he could.

“I could get used to this kind of service,” Marov grumbled, coughing and then wincing more as he tried to make light of the situation. “Though I definitely don’t want to go through this kind of injury again. Oh, no, you get that thing away from me. Sparks! No!”

Sparks picked that moment to appear out of thin air with a needle in its manipulating arm, prepared to stab it into Marov’s arm. Ty grinned as he held the man still along with Nyvar. Marov howled and complained as the needle pierced his skin, struggling against their combined strength. Once the needle was out, the man gave Ty a black look.

“You traitor. I’ll remember this,” Marov scowled.

“I’d be surprised if you’d want to, Sy’. This adventure has been a little too exciting for me,” Nyvar said, looking old and tired for a moment. Ty frowned at that, wondering if the man was really as tired as he looked. Fear gnawed at his belly at the thought of Nyvar having to retire to behind the line duty. That meant Marov would be in charge if he didn’t shift out, too, and if he did, Ty would have to learn how to lead.

“You’re not that old, Sarge!”

“Not that old, my ass! I’ve been fighting since I was eighteen. That ages a man beyond his years, you know,” Nyvar grumbled as they finally boarded the Raven. They sat down Marov in one of the vacant seats beside Jonesy. Ty sat on the opposite side next to Naleena, who was looking better, if not perfect. She stared at Marov for a second before asking a question.

“Where’s my Longshot?”

“Uh. Akun has it. I think.”

“You think?”

“Yes. I think. Why don’t you ask Nyvar about it. He’s the one who gave it to the man,” Marov groused, closing his eyes as they lifted off. Naleena shifted her attention to Nyvar, who looked at her innocently and waved his hands in front of him.

“Look, I’m injured people. Talk to Ty. He told me to give it to Akun.”

“I was unconscious!” Ty replied skeptically. Naleena raised an eyebrow at the man, who managed to look sheepish.

“I’ll get you a new one. In fact, I’ll get you ten new ones. You get to pick the one you want. Being a Gear has its advantages,” Nyvar said quickly, smiling as he leaned his head back and closed his eyes. Marov was already snoring next to him. Ty smirked at the two as the Raven scanned the area one more time and flew off to the factory to rendezvous with Jason and the others.

“You think they’ll let me fly this thing on the way back? I mean, it’s not like they have the best pilot on this bird or something, right?” Jonesy asked aloud acidly, his perpetual smirk returned.

Keep that up, and you’ll be walking home, you slimy asshole. You know how many Ravens you’ve crashed in the past six months? I’m not about to let you lay a hand on my bird,” a female voice replied over the loudspeakers.

“Gettner?” Jonesy asked, suddenly uneasy.

The one and only, kid. Don’t think I didn’t hear that crack during the landing earlier, either. We’ll be talking privately after we get back to base.

“I look forward to it,” Jonesy replied, rolling his eyes and leaning back in his seat.

I saw that,” Gettner’s voice came again.


Jacinto Hospital, Jacinto;

0800 hours.

“What do you mean, they left?” Marov said from the stretcher back in the Jacinto Hospital. Nyvar walked with him, looking over at Jason and sighing. A doctor came up and ushered them into a waiting room as they took Naleena’s stretcher toward the back of the building. Nyvar hoped the girl would be okay, with both her injuries and her claims to being barren. The thought of her wasting away on a breeding farm wasn't one with which he thought of fondly. Bad enough Marov's girl was there as it was. Other Gears more badly wounded then Echo were being shuffled into the emergency rooms. More empty lockers, Nyvar thought bitterly.

The room they were put in was comfortably furnished, with a couple of chairs against the wall, and a clean counter with only a hint of blood on it. Nyvar almost felt like everything was back the way it was before E-Day as he sniffed in the sterile smell of the hospital. A rumble in the earth dispelled that, another tremor rocking the building. Even though he knew the grubs couldn’t tunnel through the granite under Jacinto, he hated the thought of not having his gun on his person.

“They told me they were going to find their own way home,” Jason replied stoically. “Akun told me to let you know what an honor it was to fight with you one last time, but that he had a job to do. People to protect. The Stranded went with him, both the slaves and the ones from the factory.”

“And none of them wanted to stay and, say, get medical treatment?”

“Not from the COG,” Jason said, looking to the side with an unreadable expression. Nyvar felt for the kid. It was disillusioning when people disagreed with ideas you grew up with. Marov turned that anger right back at them, usually. Lately, though, the tough and gruff façade had been cracking.

“Better for us, then. Less waste of resources,” Marov grumbled, stretching out on the mobile bed as if in response to Nyvar’s thoughts. The man’s left hand was covered in new bandages, replacing the dirty, soiled ones he’d put on in the field. Nyvar was surprised it hadn’t got infected through everything.

“Is that so? I wonder how you’d feel about one of the Stranded being your doctor?” a familiar voice called from the doorway. Nyvar looked back and saw Dr. Hanson standing there in a fresh set of scrubs, a pristine white coat and stethoscope hanging around her neck, looking intimidating as ever. He heard a sharp intake of breath from Marov and patted the man’s hand.

"Tell my wife I love her, because I'm pretty sure I'm about to die," Marov hissed through clenched teeth as Nyvar stood up and moved out of Doc Hanson's way to stand next to his son.

“C’mon, Jason. Miss Hanson’s got some words to say to Sy’, I imagine. Best not to be within earshot. Preferably outside the building,” Nyvar whispered to his kid, smiling as that gained him a smirk. They left the room to Marov’s objections, walking side by side down the corridor. Blood was being mopped up by a tired looking janitor on the tile floor, moans of pain coming from various rooms.

Nyvar pulled a pair of COG tags out of his shirt, taking them off from around his neck. Ven Salora was the name stenciled on the silver disks in precise, neat letters. He sighed, rubbing a finger across a blackened corner. The man’s shotgun was in the barracks leaning against his bed, as clean and taken care of as if Ven himself were still the owner of it. Do not be sad that something is over, but be happy you shared the journey, Ven would say, but it didn't make the knowledge he'd never hear another nugget of supposed wisdom from the man's mouth again any easier to bear.

Invisible Wretches were out of production now that the facility was in COG hands again, the Stranded were saved if not captured, but so many people had died, from the massacre at the convoy to the big Southern Islander himself. Nyvar closed his eyes and sighed again, thinking of how hard his report was going to be to write with all those horrific events splashed over the page. The paper wouldn't do Ven's heroics justice, he was sure.

“You alright, dad?”

“Yeah,” Nyvar replied, clenching the tags in his fist. "Just thinking about empty lockers."

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