- "That mission cost us, but in the end, it was worth it."
- — Sgt. Briggs' inner thoughts.
Setting Out Edit
Jacinto Med. Edit
"You okay, rook?" The hulking giant known as Wilfred asked. He was leaning against the framework of the entranceway, effectively blocking it off.
Gary Henderson, the target of Wilfred's concern, lay in a hospital bed with several bandages wrapped around his head, right shoulder and chest area. He had sustained injuries during the evacuation of Midnight Squad during Operation: Midnight a little while back. Stray fire had hit their inbound Raven, puncturing the young privates’ right shoulder. He had concussed himself falling from his seat and had only managed to stay in the Raven because of the giant inquiring after his health. Gary was a relatively tall young man for his late teenage years and sported a Mohawk-style haircut colored black, with the sides shaved. Right now he wore nothing more than a hospital robe.
"I've been cleared for duty. Looks like I'll be joining you boys for the next offensive." Gary replied with a raised thumb which caused him to wince in pain because of his shoulder. "Shoulda used the other arm..." He complained internally.
"Ha! Lookin' forward to it, but don't push you' ass, eh? Enough young bloods been spilled." With that Wilfred left, disappearing out the door and down the corridor outside.
"Geez, I thought he'd never leave!" A voice echoed from the corridor. "Damn, Gray, you've seen better days." The voice belonged to Dean Quisling - one of Gary's childhood friends. They had coined the nickname Gray sometime ago. "We heard you got injured out there. You had us worried, you ass."
Dean was only sixteen years old and was ready to complete his training any day now - probably why he was in Jacinto Med. in the first place. He had dirty, shoulder length blond hair and wore the regulation COG armor, complete with Hammerburst Assault Rifle clutched in his right hand. Was he coming back from drills?
"Take more than a few grubs to take this Henderson down." Gray joked with a slight smile playing across his lips. "But even I gotta admit that was close."
"When's your next assignment?" Another voice sounded. Max Quisling, twin brother of Dean and Gary's best friend stepped into the room and took a seat on the nearby stool.
Max, being Dean's twin, was identical to his brother with the exception of their eyes and hair shade. Max's hair was a light shade of brown while his eyes were crystalline blue, completely unlike Dean's light grey. He also wore the same armor with a Longshot strapped to his back. The hair and eyes usually were the only way to tell the two apart most times.
"Tomorrow morning. We leave for Timgad Valley to scout the area." Gary said in reply, using his left arm and hand to deliver a high-five. "COG's planning a big offensive that'll hopefully end the war and we - plus a few other squads - are being sent to scout out possible locations." The details of this proposed future offensive were still a little sketchy at best, though it was the best chance they'd had since the failed Battle of Ephyra some four years ago.
From the corridor walked in a young woman with brown-coloured hair and a white medical coat. Gray's eyes went straight to her chest, then promptly to her ass as she turned to fill in his medical report. He and Max made eyes and nodded, guessing the others thoughts, while Dean shook his head absently as though in disapproval.
"You're free to go, private." She said somewhat coldly.
"Ah, come on, Anne. Don't give me the cold shoulder." Gray winked to Max. "You saw me naked. I only asked you to return the favour and, for reason unknown to me, you slap me."
"I should have strangled you," Anne replied with a shake of her head. "Is he always like this?" She asked of Dean.
"Since he first looked in the mirror and learned what a tit was."
"Hey!" Gary exclaimed angrily. "Haven't you heard its frowned upon to taunt the sickly?"
Anne jabbed his shoulder then, causing Gary to rebound away from her with a look of pain and fury etched across his face. "That hurt, damn it!"
"It was meant to!"
"Try that again!"
"I'll hit you with something harder next time!"
"Come on then!"
Dean and Max moved their heads to and fro each time a new comment was made until a sharp clap silenced both parties!
"What the hell is this!?" The balding man known as Sgt. Briggs demanded sharply. "Gear and nurse going at it like cat and dog while people are dying around you? You-" he gestured to the nurse "-get back to your rounds. And you-" He fixed Gary with a look that would make a Boomer flinch "-if your well enough to goose the hospital staff, your well enough to be about. I want you on that Raven tomorrow morning, soldier!"
"Sir yes sir!" Gary intoned.
When Briggs left, Gary, Max and Dean all shared a sigh of relieve before each young man got to their feet and walked out. Anne dropped a set of clothing on the bed before leaving with a little grin on her face, which Gary returned with a wink. And people thought they didn’t get along?
“I think I need a drink...” Gary said finally as he and the Quisling brothers walked away to begin their own preparations.
Next Morning's Ride Edit
- "They say waitings the worst part... and I'm starting to agree with the others. At least on the battlefield with bullets grazing your asshole you don't think about time. Or waiting. Every-thing's so quiet. Deathly so. I don't like it."
- — Extract from Gary "Gray" Henderson's Journal.
"Listen greenhorn, I’ll be fucked by a Boomer before I let myself be held up accommodating you, so get going. NOW! Move it, or I'll rip your balls off so you can't contaminate the rest of the COG!" Yelled Briggs in his curse-laden welcome to Pvt. Gary Henderson, who ducked beneath the giant sergeants arm to take his seat beside other members of Dawn Squad within the waiting King Raven gunship. Imagine that for being on time. It was the rest of the others, Wilfred and Bridgett namely, holding up the show. But Gary didn’t voice that thought. He knew better after all.
Opposite him cleaning his MK.2 Lancer was Corporal John Hastings, who, like Sergeant Briggs and Private Wilfred were in Dawn since its early formation following Emergence Day. Combat to them was like a walk in the park with sunshine overhead and not a cloud to be seen. Battle was in their blood. They breathed it everyday of their lives and were some of the hardest men Gary knew.
John was a balding man with the first spots of grey growing in at the sides with a wrinkled face and green pupils staring out of heavy laden eyes. Calling him a man whose dreams kept him up at night would be an understatement. Some even reckoned he was a danger to everyone around him, though Gary knew those rumours to be far from the truth. He was a simple man with a simple-minded approach to the war – he pointed his gun were someone said shoot. He generally left the thinking up to others. Gary tried to talk to the fellow a few times but came to accept that he was a man who disliked rookies. Didn’t mean he didn’t look out for them in the field, it just meant he didn’t converse with them: At all. Gary got blanked more times than sense. It was just like Anne before they warmed to one another.
“Hey sweetie,” Said a female voice Gary recognized as Bridgette McMillan.
Bridgett was a woman of roughly forty years with skin texture like leather and eyes like dull metal. Her black hair fell about her shoulders in ringlets, giving an indication of the beauty she once possessed; though was now a distant memory. She sat herself down beside Gary with a stifled groan. Apparently her back had been acting up again. Tall and strong for a woman, Bridgett was a surrogate-mother figure for most of the recruits fresh out of basic and always had a shoulder for the rooks to cry on back at Jacinto and a willing ear to their problems. Gary had made use of that shoulder more than once when he began his military career two years ago and welcomed her with a big, fool grin and a high-five besides.
“Hey honey,” He replied.
It was their thing. She called him sweetie, baby or some other fool name and he called her honey and, on occasion, crazy lady depending on the time and place. Today she wore the summer variation of COG armor that left her arms exposed to the free air. On the right arm Gary spied a tattoo of a gear with the name “David” written in the centre – her dead husband. Life hadn’t been easy for Bridgett following E-day. Initially a Stranded, she left that life after a certain incident which resulted in her husband’s death, her daughter being dragged off to one of Galangi’s birthing farms and her own rape. But instead of giving up or grieving she joined the military and vented her rage on the Locust as cruelly as she could – the reason for Gary’s coining of crazy lady.
“That everyone accounted for?” Briggs asked of the team and only when five heads nodded did he signal the pilots to depart. Gary hadn’t even seen Wilfred or Malcolm enter the Raven. They were sat beside John on the opposite side of the cargo area. Malcolm was working through the crossword he had copied from an old newspaper the night before quietly in the corner, while Wilfred was talking quietly with John who nodded occasionally to show he was listening, if somewhat absently.
“You know the drill, folks. The COG is planning an offensive in the future using their latest weapon – the Lightmass Bomb to destroy the Locust stronghold. If we pull this off it could end the war, so I don’t think I need to tell you how important this mission is.” He stopped to take a fresh breathe before fixing Gary with a firm look. “We’re here to scout, not fight, but if the enemy engages us we will fight back. No heroics though. You’re only out of the sick bed, Henderson. Next time it could be a box.” With his piece on the matter said, Sgt. Briggs took his seat beside Malcolm, with the two friends working their way through the crossword as the Raven made its way to Timgad Valley.
“You aren’t nervous are you, sweetie?” Bridgett asked with a light jab in the ribs.
Gary groaned more out of habit than pain. The armor absorbed the impact after all. “Only my second outing and my shoulder’s still bandaged, so yeah, a little.” He could’ve lied but with Bridgett it never washed. Like the mother-figure she was she could see through most attempts at a lie with great skill. She might be an angel, but at times she was a bitch too.
“You’ll manage.” She said in reply. “But do the usual exercises, eh? Just so we’re on the safe side, eh, sweetie?”
Gary did as he was told and took several deep breaths of air, held and then exhaled ten times. His head was clearer for it and he even felt more alert. The six gears conversed among one another for the remainder of the trip until Briggs announced their arrival and their boots finally touched down on the hard, cold earth of Timgad Valley. Taking a final deep breath, Gary walked forward with his MK.1 Lancer primed for fire, Bridgett flanking him with the massive frame of Wilfred leading on.
Landing at Timgad Edit
- "Looking back on it all... we should've seen it coming. We knew, beforehand, but didn't listen to our gut. Another lesson I learned: If you've got a gut feeling, go with it."
- — Extract from Gary "Gray" Henderson's journal.
Timgad Valley was everything Gary was told it would be. Made up of craggy rock formations and open landscape, the place was truly desolate and a suicide mission for anyone crossing it on foot. Thankfully he and his squad-mates weren’t in the area he was looking at. Eastern Timgad was the location of their arrival and departure, which was a city near former COG capital Ephyra with an unknown number of Stranded scattered throughout the city. A river split the city in two with a large draw bride bridging the water. It also had running trains, though few were using them nowadays because of the Locust.
“Welcome Sgt. Briggs.” A patrolling Gear said as he walked forward. Behind him sat three others, probably fellow squad-members if Gary’s guess was right. He was sporting a Mohawk hair-style similar to Gary’s own, coloured blonde, the only difference being the hair colour and the fact the advancing Gear had hair on the sides. His armour was shined and well maintained with a MK.2 Lancer Assault Rifle resting in his right hand.
“Cpl. Harding,” Briggs greeted, shaking the man’s extended hand. Gary picked up a level of warmth and respect in the gesture. Perhaps the two men had a history? Sgt. Briggs wasn’t very forthcoming with information about his past exploits or missions. Few of the Gears were. Some said it was too painful remembering, what with the death of their friends and all.
“You’ll leave here with me and Pvt. Ogilvy-” The named man got to his feet “-and proceed to Timgad Station to observe the proposed launch site. We’ve been stationed here for the last week so we’ll guide you through. Ogilvy, let’s move out!”
“They’re from Spear Squad 01,” Bridgett whispered. “Real hardcore vets from the Pendulum Wars so watch ‘em closely, sweetie. You might learn something.”
Gary nodded, falling in behind Sgt. Briggs and Cpl. Harding. The two men were discussing the mission all the way to Timgad Station. The discussion involved several points about the target zone, recent Locust activity and general info. Gary breathed a little easier when he overhead Cpl. Harding mention the Locust hadn’t reared their head in any great number since before they arrived.
“Keep sharp,” Wilfred said with a heavy sigh that sounded like a mountain rumbling.
Even now, standing beside him, Gary couldn’t fathom how huge the big bastard was! He’d seen a Boomer once and heard stories besides, yet Wilfred was described as being just slightly shorter and just as wide. He was a walking brute! And you wouldn’t think it to look at the man, but off-duty he was a gentle giant who always needed to be aware of were he planted his feet for fear of breaking something or someone.
“… Gonna kill those fucking Locust bastards…” The usually quiet John whispered behind Gary.
Turning to look at him alongside Bridgett they both saw the slight gleam in his eye. It was the look of a madman. Apparently the rumours about his mental state were nearer hand the mark than Gary, or even Bridgett, had originally thought. Even Wilfred was eyeing John sideways now. His mutterings continued and became less and less audible until they ceased just as quickly as they started.
“Gary, we’ll cover the rear.” It marked one of the first times Bridgett had called him by his name, which served to hit home just how serious she was. Gary obliged and fell back to the rear of the group alongside Bridgett, who was watching John just as much as the surroundings around her.
“I want you to stay away from John.” She whispered in warning, tone edged with the worry etched across her face. “The human mind can only take so much before it snaps… and truthfully, John’s been tinkering on the edge for a couple of weeks now. He told us he got medication and counseling.” She kicked the ground then in frustration. "You know he doesn't like new recruits, so stay with me or Wilfred. Sgt. Briggs is too busy focusing on the mission to watch John's every move. Heck even those two guys from Spear Squad would do. Just don't leave yourself alone with him."
“Guess he lied about that little fact? I’ll watch myself, but you better be careful, too.” Genuine concern filled Gary’s voice.
“Worried, sweetie? About little old me? Don’t be.” She lightly jabbed his ribs again. “I can handle myself. What is it you call me?”
“Crazy lady… which is half the reason I said what I said.” Gary replied solemnly.
So the Gears pushed onto Timgad Station, for the moment free of Locust resistance but a worrying development in light of John’s mad ramblings to occupy their thoughts. As the team approached the hub that contained the waiting mag-lev train that would take them to their destination, Gary found that it wasn't the surrounding hills he had his sights honed in on. The only obstacle he could see to his and his squad-mates continued safety was walking in front of him.
Skirmish amidst Doubts Edit
- "I had a bad feeling the minute our feet first touched the steel floor of that platform at Timgad. I've heard some of the Gears say you develop a sixth sense for danger after a while. Maybe it was that manifesting in me? But whatever it was, it felt like cross-hairs aimed at my back and I didn't like it. Not one bit..."
- — Extract from Gary "Gray" Henderson's journal.
“I don’t like this,” Gary whispered to Bridgett.
“It is quiet.” She said in reply.
It was too quiet now that she mentioned it. Not even the wind was howling through the platforms bare rafters or the debris of blown up cars which littered the station. Out of instinct more than actual experience, Gary dropped into cover behind a metal box lying atop the stations platform that gave him a good view of their back trail and the littered car park just before the station. His chosen cover had probably been discarded cargo long abandoned following E-Day, but its value to a Gear in a fire fight was invaluable. Apparently his actions didn’t go unnoticed, either.
“Jumpy little kid, ain’tcha,” The man earlier called Pvt. Ogilvy said, laughing afterwards.
“What’s wrong with being safe?” Bridgett said, jumping to Gary’s defence. “Golden Rule of the Gears state: find cover or die.”
There was little the man could say in reply. His grunt and quick turn away from Gary and Bridgett was sign enough of that. Bridgett sealed the ending of the conversation with a victorious wink to her little sweetheart, earning not only a smile from Gary but a chuckle from the mountain that was Wilfred.
The station was rather open, Gary realized upon a quick inspection. Rectangular in shape, a thin, somewhat damaged concrete wall ran along the platforms edges. The tops were chipped with bullet holes visible, indicating it had been used as defensible position some time in the past. Some of these bullet holes even seemed recent, which helped ease Gary’s anxiety some. Set in the centre was a type of control booth with the glass long since blown out. It was still scattered around the small room’s interior. To their backs were the train tracks. If Locust were to attack them now in a pincer formation from front and back they’d find themselves overrun surprisingly quickly.
“The train’s scheduled to pass through shortly.” Cpl. Harding revealed.
Sgt. Briggs merely nodded in reply. With a sharp gesture which consisted of a clenched fist and bent elbow the remaining members of Dawn Squad fell into defensible locations with ample cover. Only John, still muttering to himself like the madman Gary was beginning to think him in truth did not. Sgt. Briggs looked at him briefly before Malcolm, quiet until now, whispered the situation to his commanding officer. Apparently Malcolm had been watching to.
“Pvt. Hastings.” Briggs said finally, face even more a thunderhead than usual. Veins were beginning to rise on his forehead as if to show his anger. “John!” Only when Briggs shouted did John turn, his movements deliberately slow. “Come with me.”
Gary looked to Bridgett first and then Wilfred, finally to Malcolm and then back to Bridgett. His eyes and features shouted the question he left unsaid: “What’s he doing?”
Bridgett made more room at the wall were she had found some cover, leaving just enough room for Gary and herself without being cramped. “Briggs and John go way back, Gary… all the way back to E-Day. The two survived together even when their families did not. They’re practically brothers. If Briggs can’t get something out of him, none of us will.”
Time, like usual when it involved waiting, passed slowly to Gary’s senses. The people around him were quiet and hardly moving. The station was as quiet as a tomb. The only fear Gary had was that it would soon be theirs.
Wilfred’s booming voice echoed in time with the initial sound of gunfire. “Contact, we’ve got Locust contact!”
Briggs and John were positioned behind a nearby car off to the stations right-hand flank, which would prevent the Locust circling in from that side.
“Come on, follow me!” Bridgett took him by the hand and, while keeping their heads down behind the wall, made their way to the left-hand side to accomplish the same purpose Briggs was providing on the opposite side. “You see movement, you shoot. Okay, Gray? Deep breathes.”
Gary loved her. Crazy lady she might be but her heart was true. He did as he was told. His still injured shoulder provided initial difficulty in firing the MK.1 Lancer he favoured. After all, the guns recoil could dislocate your shoulder if you weren’t careful. But in exchange its stopping power was fierce. Gary had even heard rumours that it could stop a truck on its own and while Locust may not be trucks, the bullets did a good job punching through their thick hides – even at mid-to-long-range.
Bridgett emptied the magazine of her Lancer into two approaching Drones while Gary closed an emergence hole by shooting a nearby propane tank that caught his eye – it had probably been left behind accidentally by the local Stranded. The resulting explosion flipped a nearby car onto its back, crushing the Drone that had been standing there seconds prior. It was amazing. It was frightening and it was maddening. Gary felt his mouth go dry and his heart rate increase. His palms were sweaty and his brow was slicked with sweat – all from the effects of adrenaline. He even felt sick, though adrenaline only played a small factor in that feeling. Everywhere the Locust attackers were dying. Arms and legs severed by Lancer fire, chests collapsed by Gnasher rounds and heads removed by Longshots and Boltok pistols alike. The worst came from the fragmentation grenades though. They sent Locust body parts flying in a spray of blood, guts and gore that finally made Gary hurl.
“Fall in.” Sgt. Briggs said finally. “Anyone injured?”
Gary hadn’t even realized the battle was over until Bridgett’s hand stroked his face and broke him out of his battlefield trance. “You did good, sweetie. Come on, the trains nearly here.”
Gary didn’t have time to think or even form a sentence until he was hoisted into the air by the large frame of Wilfred as he and Dawn Squad, alongside Cpl. Harding and Pvt. Ogilvy leapt aboard the speeding train. As he hit the ground, darkness overcame him…
Mag-lev Train Edit
Mission Accomplished Edit
- "Today I learned there's nothing glamorous about war. It's dangerous and it's unforgiving... Good men and women die and there's fucking no way to dress that up as a good thing."
- — Extract from Gary "Gray" Henderson's journal.
For Gary, collapsed on the floor of the train as he was, things were blurred and out of focus as he finally came around. It was like he’d taken a very brutal hit to the head, or maybe it was the fact he hadn’t been given proper time to heal from the various injuries he had sustained upon the completion of Operation: Midnight – one of which had been minor concussion. Whatever the reason his head felt like someone had given him a good thorough kicking.
“He’s awake,” He heard someone say, but his senses were that out of it he couldn’t even tell if the speaker was male or female.
“Damn kid,” Another said from nearby, but the words were that illegible to Gary’s ears the speaker may as well have been on the moon for all he heard of it.
“Is he okay?” That one sounded more familiar. Was it Malcolm? Gary wasn’t sure, but either way he recognized the tone.
“Does he look okay?” He’d recognize that venomous tone anywhere: Bridgett.
Gary only knew that the voices he heard were close, but as time passed and his eyes adjusted again he began to pick out subtle details. Skin like leather and eyes with a metal colour told him it was Bridgett standing over him, but beyond that he might as well have been blind. The train’s car in which he was lying was relatively slim and cramped due to what he could only guess were crates or boxes of cargo. Only when his eyesight began to focus more did he find his guess to be right. Above them the skies were mostly clear, though the height of the glaring sun told Gary they wouldn’t have many more hours of natural light left. The wind also didn’t hit him for he was positioned with his back against a wooden box with other pieces of cargo flanking him. He wouldn’t even have known about the wind had it not been howling as the train sped on.
“Bridgett?” He asked in a voice tinged with pain and uncertainty. His shoulder wasn’t moving, he found after she helped him to his feet, but it was throbbing like crazy. It could’ve had its own heartbeat judging by the feeling. “What the hell happened?”
“You blacked out when you hit the floor, sweetie. You were shaking so bad Wilfred had to jump onto the train with you on his back.” Her voice and features were all motherly affection lined with worry. “Apparently the Locust stopped the train from stopping at the station; Thought it would stop us getting on.” Bridgett explained in a deliberately slowed voice.
“Uh… right, speaking of stopping; I can’t move my arm.” This was just brilliant. This operation was only his second proper mission since basic and he was already wracking up more injuries than any one recruit he’d been speaking to since joining up. At this rate he wouldn’t have a body worth a damn when and if they ended the war. Assuming he lived that long.
“I had to knock it back into place,” Wilfred said from the side of a cargo box. He needed to bend his knees so his head wasn’t sticking out over the top. “Guess we shouldn’t have rushed you out of the hospital so quick.”
“Had nothing to do with you,” Gary said in response to the level of regret in Wilfred’s voice. “Blame the bastard who cleared me for duty. Where’s Sgt. Briggs?” Gary asked finally after noticing the officer’s lack of comment and eventually, his lack of presence. “He wasn’t-“ Gary’s eyes went wide in worry. What if Briggs had been killed!?
“He went ahead to get a better look with John and those two from Spear Squad - Harding and Ogilvy. They found what we’re looking for.” Bridgett interjected. “There’s a sinkhole at the bottom of the train tracks which we just past over it not long ago.”
“Here kid,” Malcolm said as he approached.
Malcolm often wore a bandanna instead of the traditional COG helmet that, when tied, reached the base of his back. In his hand was that very same bandanna, which he promptly wrapped around Gary’s arm and neck to make an impromptu sling.
“I’ll be looking that back, you hear. Just make sure you wash it first, eh?” With that Malcolm went back to his crouched position at the entrance to the little enclosed square the cargo boxes made around them. If they were attacked they’d be safe enough, assuming the grubs hadn’t a good grasp on their grenade throws.
“Come in Dawn.2.” Gary heard over his tac/com. It was Briggs and judging from his voice, the grizzled old fool was doing just fine.
“Dawn.2 here, Sgt. What’s the scoop?” Malcolm answered.
“We ran into the Locust driving this train.” Briggs answered. “John’s dead. Confirmed KIA. He was mauled by wretches falling from the ceiling and detonated some frag to take them, and the driver, with him. We’re making our way back now.”
Wilfred and Bridgett shook their head absently, the silence stretching. Gary couldn’t believe it. Sure, he hadn’t spent a lot of time in John’s company, but he was a squad-mate regardless. He may have been a danger to himself and others near the end, but Gary hadn’t necessarily disliked the man. His death came as a shook and served to drive home the realities of the place he was in. People were dying and there was little he could do about it. For the first time in a long while, Gary felt truly helpless.
“Look after yourselves, Dawn.1. Good luck,” Malcolm whispered, obviously devastated. No one liked loosing a squad-mate regardless of circumstance. “Fuck it all! Those goddamned grubs! His little boy just turned three last month.”
The members all fell into an uneasy silence which Gary shared in without shedding a single tear. Something had changed in the young private. He was sad yes. That was only natural. But he also felt angry, and with good reason. Fourteen years this war had been going on and in those fourteen years the COG, Stranded or humanity in general still didn’t have a fucking clue as to why it had started in the first place! The Locust hordes were as mysterious to them now as they were on E-Day. They killed people on a scale never before seen in the history of Sera without giving a reason. At least during the Pendulum Wars most people knew it was Imulsion and not democracy they were fighting for. With the Locust it simply came down to survival.
“Unbelievable,” Gary whispered finally.
“Believe it, kid.” Malcolm replied. “And remember him.” That went without saying, but Gary took the words to heart as the silence once again stretched…
Shit Hits the Fan Edit
- "Today I find myself writing in this dumb book just to take my mind off everything else. Even writing this I know this will be my last entry. We live in a dark world - one that doesn't forgive mistake or kindness. And yet this shitty world became a darker one today... Because now they've made it personal."
- — Final extract from Gary "Gray" Henderson's discarded journal, written following the Scouting of Timgad Valley.
The trip to the station were the assembled Gears departed their Mag-lev train was completed in a deathly silence that matched the depressing mood that was setting in amongst the Gears. Only the howl of the wind and screech of the train coming to a halt was audible beside the heavy sigh of men and women who’d lost more than a friend. Today they’d lost family and Pvt. Gary Henderson stood shoulder-to-shoulder with his Sergeant, both wearing such fierce expressions disguising their inner feelings that a Boomer would flinch looking at them. Both looked within a hairsbreadth of doing murder.
“Sweetie…” Bridgett attempted, but Gary’s ears were closed to her words.
“Gary?” Wilfred took up, yet he too was blanked.
He wasn’t blaming them. Just like how he couldn’t do anything to save John and neither could they. Not even Briggs was at fault, or those two from Spear Squad. But then the innocence that was still present in Gary couldn’t allow his comrades to suffer in silence worrying about him when he could allay their fears and worries by opening his mouth.
“I’m okay, really.” He assured. “But it’s time we got back to Jacinto. We got what we came for, didn’t we? Let’s move out.” If it looked like he was trying to usurp Briggs’ command then so be it. He was beyond the point of caring today.
“… Well said, boy- Or should I say Gary?” It was the first Briggs had spoken to him without the third degree for his inexperience and Gary had to admit, he liked it. It made him feel truly like one of the team – not some useless recruit who couldn’t wipe his own nose without some form of help. He was a member of Dawn Squad, but he hadn’t always thought so… until today. His father had told him at the ripe age of only four years that some of the best friendships were forged not through childhood experiences, but battles fierceness. Only by growing with your comrades, sharing in the pain and the good, did a friendship find its first spark. Until that moment you were merely another face watching their back. It wasn’t until experience brought you together that the face became known to you.
That was what had just occurred between Gary and Briggs and the young Gear knew he’d found a friend for the remainder of each others days in this blasted war. The two took off towards the EZ were a King Raven would hopefully be waiting to return them to Jacinto, Bridgett, Wilfred and Malcolm following behind at a slower rate. Even Cpl. Harding and Pvt. Ogilvy, hardened veterans of the Pendulum Wars, weren’t moving at the same pace as Briggs and Gary. Maybe that was the sergeant and privates mistake, or maybe it was luck. But Gary’s feet hadn’t even left the stations steel platform before the slight jolt made him and Briggs dive into cover. It was a feeling the two had come to associate with Locust emergence holes and that was just what it was.
“Contact!” Briggs roared, but even his quick warning wasn’t quick enough.
Locust gunfire flew over their heads before the others could even properly react! Malcolm was down, his lifeless eyes accusing. Between his brows was a bullet hole from a Hammerburst round. Another dead, another family member downed. Yet instead of sadness Gary felt nothing but pain and anger. He and Briggs were moving together, their quick roadie run taking them to the burned out shell of a car.
Bridgett and Wilfred were still on the platform returning fire, while Harding and Ogilvy were in the small car park in front of the platform trying to draw fire so Wilfred and Bridgett could get a clear shot away.
“Flank ‘em,” Gary whispered, to which Briggs quickly nodded.
Gary tossed a smoke grenade. The second it burst amidst the growls of Locust Drones, sergeant and private were moving. A little ahead of them was a portable dumpster roughly the height of their shoulders. The two dropped into cover behind it and opened a full salvo from both their rifles into the closest Drones.
“Eat it!” Gary roared with his face screwed up in anger. He was only using a single arm still, Malcolm’s bandanna still wrapped around the other.
It was a twisted kind of pleasure. The worst kind when he stopped to think, though the thoughts didn’t last long. After all he was relishing in the thought of killing. It scared him half to death knowing he was the type of person, who enjoyed taking another’s life; someone who enjoyed the sickly sweet scent of death and destruction. The rush that accompanied the quick reload was intoxicating. Another Drone fell to Lancer fire before he was once again throwing a smoke grenade to cover his and Briggs’ advance.
Their location was now near the very E-hole Briggs had promptly closed mid-run with a well placed frag throw. The explosion sent Locust limbs flying, yet this time Gary didn’t give it so much as a second thought. It seemed the battles as well as grim reality of war, not to mention the death of two squad-mates, was beginning to affect the young Gear.
“Gary we’ve got another E-hole! To the left! I’m outta frag. What about you?” Briggs warned and subsequently asked over the sound of Lancer fire.
He did. From his back Gary handed his sergeant the Cavalier Assault Rifle he carried, complete with grenade attachment and single grenade already loaded. “I’ve got your cover right here, Sarge!”
Gary blind-fired his MK.1 Lancer across the face of the car park, hoping to make any Locust out of their cover to jump the hell back in again. And it worked like a charm. Briggs popped up like an unholy terror and fired. Seconds following, the Locust growls were replaced with silence of the kind Gary was beginning to like very well.
“Reaver!” It was Wilfred. But Gary could barely hear him over the sound that was like sweet music to his ears. He heard rotors.
“Reavers? Ah fuck!” Briggs exclaimed as he opened fire on the insect-like creature that’s ugliness nearly made Gary brown his trousers. It was fucking massive! It was ugly and it was hungry. Not a nice three-way combination.
“Get to the chopper,” Briggs commanded, pushing Gary away. “We’ll take it out using the Chain guns. GO!”
Gary did as commanded, though the next minute was heart wrenchingly slow to his senses. Everything seemed to pass in slow motion. The station were Bridgett and Wilfred had been holed up in was illuminated in a sea of flames as a single rocket impacted the steel surface. Gary found himself stopping, straining to see, the naivety that they somehow survived leaving him entirely open to fire. Or he should have been. When he came to his senses again he was on the floor close to the King Raven. He didn’t feel pain, so he hadn’t been shot.
“I said move it! Get this bird in the air, damn it.” The last was directed at the pilots who quickly hitched the Raven forward and into the air the second Briggs and Gary were onboard. “Now grab that turret!”
When he took his seat and looked below, Gary finally realized what had knocked him on his ass. Two Corpsers had emerged in the centre of the car park. Their emergence had killed the Reaver, but that didn’t really matter. Both turret and Briggs’ Lancer opened fire. He didn’t known how much he’d pumped into the spider-wanabe, but when both were downed and the EZ clear, the Raven set itself down again.
Cpl. Harding and Pvt. Ogilvy came out from their cover a little worse for wear, but otherwise unscathed. “Thanks for that you two. You saved our ass’s big time.” “Never mind that, what about Bridgett and Wilfred!?” Gary shouted.
“They jumped off the platform, ran down the tracks and disappeared.” Ogilvy supplied, sounding breathless. “They’re not answering on the comms either.” Gary felt hollow all over again. First it was John then Malcolm and now Bridgett and Wilfred too!? They were dropping like fucking flies and for what!? Information? It was ridiculous!
“MIA then?” Briggs asked, shaking his head in dismay. “We don’t see their bodies, or their COG tags. And Wilfred’s built like a tank, so if there’s anyone who could survive… it’d be him. And Bridgett’s the most resourceful woman I know. Together, they’ve got good chances… but-“
“Sarge we need to get out of here.” Gary said finally. “We got the information we needed and if it helps win this war, then that’s what Bridgett would want us to do… Sir.”
Silence greeted Gary’s response. For a time Briggs seemed to war with himself on just what was the right decision to make. Stay and look for his friends, or escape now and potentially help end the war by giving the Lightmass Bomb a possible point of entry to the Hollow?
“… I suspect you’re right, Gary. Let’s go.” And the remnants of Dawn Squad consisting of Sgt. Neville Briggs and Pvt. Gary Henderson, alongside those of Spear Squad, once again boarded their King Raven. As the chopper lurched forward, Gary reached out towards the station.
“… Live.” Was all he said.
Aftermath: The Rusty Nail Edit
The Rusty Nail was quieter than usual, though maybe it was Gary simply blacking or blanking everything out to help deal with everything that made it feel that way. After all, several off-duty Gears were scattered throughout the bar, including one Nash Quisling – the eldest brother of both Gary’s childhood friends, Dean and Max. He was joking quietly with some of his fellow squad-mates, which ultimately made Gary clench his fists in anger. At least Nash still had his squad-mates to laugh and joke with. On any other day he’d be talking to Bridgett about the deaths of his team-mates while making use of her shoulder to cry on like the old times.
It was funny though. Here he was only eighteen years of age with two missions under his belt and he was already thinking about the “old” or “better” days. He was beginning to doubt whether or not they had existed in the first place. Looking back at Seran history, he couldn’t help but notice how destructive his ancestors’ had been. They fought for ideology, fuel and now survival – yet three core principles tied the times together – war, death and destruction. It was sad and a little pathetic, really.
“… Maybe we do deserve to be wiped out…” He whispered sombrely before burying his face in his glass. The alcohol here was good enough and it helped ease the pain, but it wasn’t a solution. And it certainly wasn’t in the same league as Bridgett’s comforting presence or Wilfred’s gentle demeanour.
“You okay, pal?” It was Dean, Max and Joceline Smalling – another of Gary’s childhood friends. It seemed the old gang was back together, but Gary wasn’t ready for this. Not yet anyway.
“Please, leave me be.” Gary shot back a little more venomous than he had really intended. They recoiled from him quickly, which earned an inquisitive glance from Nash who promptly waved his brothers over.
“He needs to be alone with his thoughts, guys. So leave him to it.” It was then the classic Nash Quisling grin settled itself across the older brother’s face. Seeing it even made Gary shake his head in a good way. “Besides-“ Nash continued “-neither of you have the parts for the job. Your chests are too flat, you’re ugly to boot and your legs are too short.”
“What about me!?” Joceline exclaimed. She had apparently got what Nash was alluding to. “I’m a girl!”
“My sweet, sweet Joceline… yes, you are a girl. Which is why you will not do. What Gary needs is a woman with bigger... ahem... cleavage.” Nash spent the rest of the night nursing what would become a black eye while the others simply laughed and included the three newcomers in their conversation.
Time passed again slower than ever to Gary’s senses until…
“No one ever found answers in the bottom of a glass, Gary.” He was only vaguely paying attention, yet the voice was female. Who?
Only when the scraping of chair legs across the floor was heard did Gary lift his head. He had been crying. The tear marks were visible on his cheeks. The woman was Anne – the nurse who’d treated his wounds before he had set out for Timgad Valley. Only she was now minor her white medical coat and the bobble that had kept her brown hair tied back. Instead she wore a plain white shirt and black trousers that were somewhat baggy on her.
“I didn’t find forgiveness either,” Gary replied, setting his glass aside. As he did so he told himself it wasn’t because it tasted like piss.
“And you won’t either.” Gary looked at her hand which was now laid atop his. He couldn’t help but notice how much smaller hers was. “But then it wasn’t your fault, either.”
“… I know that, but I keep thinking. What if, you know? Maybe I could’ve done something.”
“Done something against a Reaver, Gary?” She must’ve heard from Briggs. “No, not even Briggs could’ve done anything in that situation. So come on. Dust yourself down, pick yourself and learn from this experience. You think I haven’t lost people?” She was a medic during the Locust-Human Wars. She bound to have seen more deaths than some Gears had, yet here he was sulking like a big kid when she wasn’t.
“… Thanks Anne,” He rose, took her by the hand and swept her in close. The sound from the crowd around Nash and co. was replaced with cheering and jeering as Gary kissed her.
"See Joceline?" The fool elder Quisling asked. "That's the type of woman Gary needs." To accompany his blackened eye Nash now had sore balls besides.
Gary's doubts weren’t solved though, but he certainly felt better than he had. But regardless, something had changed in Gary. Something had snapped that was beyond repair. The young man who had left Timgad Valley with Sgt. Briggs as one of the sole survivors of Dawn Squad wasn’t the same man who had gone on that mission earlier in the day. His eyes were harder and fiercer than ever and his thoughts regarding the Locust had darkened considerably. One thing was certain. Gary had changed. The war for him was now personnel.