Chapter 5 - Part II
En Route to Corren
Baird's attitude didn't improve much along the ride to Corren. Kurt tried to engage him in conversation several times but the blond gear just kept his eyes closed and ignored him. Clay seemed to find it amusing as Kurt caught him grinning like an idiot every time his lips tightened in annoyance, one eye twitching. He felt like Baird was a lot more well known that Kurt first thought. His arrogance would suggest as much. Who knew?
So he turned his attentions elsewhere around the cramped interior of the Armadillo. Grayson, Arndell and Samsun all had their heads bowed, lancers clamped between their legs. It concerned Kurt, they used to be energetic and full of life. They never missed an opportunity to make a wise-crack or mess around off duty... it was one of the reasons that he and Darrius had become such close friends with them. Now they seemed almost empty, as if they war had sapped their soul away until nothing remained apart from the mechanical drive to survive and kill. Still considered young yet they carried themselves like twenty year veterans. The fact they kept their helmets on said it all. Guarded, withdrawn, changed almost beyond all recognition. In contrast, Clay hadn't changed much. The most emotion his face ever revealed was an almost thoughtful look, as though he was trying to understand the way the world worked with every blink. Never far from a grin, he embodied the sort of men that would pull mankind away from extinction. He was somebody who could weather the storm, most certainly. Kurt glanced at Baird beside him and admitted grudgingly that he, too, was one of those people.
The Armadillo jolted on the road and the occupants grumbled. They couldn't be far now.
“So, what's so important about this mission?” Kurt said. “Hoffman mentioned a few things, like the water treatment facility I holed up in during the strikes.”
“Just a simple recon,” Clay said, itching his chin. “We just need to check a few locations. That treatment facility is one. There is also a power station and an emergency bunker too. Baird is here so he can have a look at some of the systems. See if we can't establish some sort of foothold here. Reclaiming the cities would be a big step.”
“Do we have the man power?”
“I don't know,” Clay shrugged. “I'm not the one who runs the numbers each day. Enough of that, we'll discuss the plan once we get there. We have more important things to discuss.”
“Such-,” Kurt was cut off as the 'Dill shunted violently to the left, causing him to hit his head rather hard on the panel behind him. The driver waved his apologies from the front cabin and mumbled something about potholes. Kurt rubbed the back of his head in annoyance before continuing. “Such as?”
“Naturally I read your psych report, Kurt... so you could say I lied earlier. I was the one who personally requested you and I need to know if you are … able,” Clay said. Kurt knew where this conversation was going but he realised it was necessary and stayed silent. “So. Do you still blame yourself?”
Kurt chewed the inside of his lip and rested his chin on the thumbs of his clasped hands.
“No... Yes... I don't know,” He said eventually. “The pain is there but it's not as... uh... crippling as it first was.”
“I understand, he was my... our friend too,” Clay said, nodding towards the rest of the squad. Baird stayed mainly silent but made a quiet 'hmph!' noise which thankfully went unnoticed. The driver chose the brief silence to signal that they'd be arriving shortly. Clay acknowledged the driver with a slight hand shake before returning to the conversation. “Kurt. You need to understand that there was nothing you could have done to save him. He chose that path. He always knew it might end up that way, especially when he decided to sneak off and try and save everyone. Just because you were right there when he died doesn't mean it automatically becomes your fault. He was a hero. Everyone accepts that much of him, don't make him a victim in your mind instead. He deserves better than that.”
It made sense, Kurt had to agree. He'd never thought of it that way. With nothing to say to that, he simply smiled, feeling more assured with himself. He noticed Grayson nodding slightly as though he agreed with the sentiment. Baird, on the other hand, snorted.
“Got something to add, Baird?” Clay said without looking him. He kept his eyes firmly in Kurt's direction. The slight shake of the head was easily translated to as cool it, Kurt.
“I was just never one for all of this sentimental crap,” He said, itching his chin. “Just do yourself a favour and put it behind you. Don't see you talking about all the other people who died. He wasn't even a real hero. Do you know how many lives he put at risk? Yeah, don't give me that look. I heard his name floating around, all the stunts he pulled. He was reckless and died because of it.”
“Good. Open your mouth again for reasons other than the mission and I'll shut it for you, got it?”
“Yeah I got it, asshole
,” Baird said, indifferently, making sure to mutter the last word before crossing his arms and closing his eyes.
“Anyway, Kurt,” Clay said, giving Baird a seconds glare before turning to his friend. “I can't have your emotions get in the way of this mission. You might ask why I requested you knowing it could happen... well... you are a good soldier and an even better friend. This will be a good opportunity to get you back on your feet. We need people like you.”
“Shucks, you're the third person today to say as much,” Kurt said in mock embarrassment. “Okay, I won't be f*cking anything up. You have my word on that. Now, details of the mission. What's the course of action?”
“It's quite simple,” Clay said, reaching into a back pouch and extracting a neatly folded map of the city. He unfolded it carefully and spread it across his knees. “You see the hospital you stationed up in? Well, underneath it is an emergency military bunker which houses a communications network and various other medical and storage facilities, from here we can-.”
“What!?” Kurt blurted. “There was a damn military bunker beneath our feet? F*ck...”
“I'm sorry Kurt, I didn't know about this until my own briefing. It was on a 'need to know basis
',” Clay said with a disgusted tone. “As I was saying, we'll check the bunker first and let Baird tinker around with some of the systems, hell, we may even find survivors... Then, from there, we'll head to the water treatment facility you hid in and from there...Can you see where I'm pointing? We can come up here at the power plant. It shouldn't take us more than a couple of hours without any hitches.”
“Seems simple enough,” Kurt agreed, he glanced at the rest of the squad. “Did you guys catch that?”
“We know already,” Grayson said, nodding. “I'm just hoping intel was right when they said the Locust were gone.”
“I doubt it,” Baird said. Clay rolled his eyes but otherwise ignored him and folded the map back up and returned it to his back pouch.
“We're here, Sergeant,” The driver called from the cab. The APC squealed to a halt and after a slight jolt, came to a complete stop.
“Right, everyone. Helmet's on now. There's a lot of crap in the air and we're unsure whether it's deadly or not. I'm not taking chances,” Clay said, pulling his helmet down over his head. Kurt and Baird did likewise, instantly dulling the sounds of everything bar their own breathing. Kurt tapped the part of his helmet around his ear and breathed a sigh of relief as the small sparks of static indicated his radio was working. The visor tinted everything with a slight shade of blue but it was manageable, even in the darkened interior of the 'Dill. Clay pulled on a backpack and shouldered his rifle. “Okay, check your equipment men. Driver? Sorry, I didn't catch your name.”
“Private Joseph Bell, sir!” He said, slightly surprised that his commanding officer cared enough to want to know his name.
“Okay, Private Bell, you remember your instructions? The moment our boots touch the ground, you park up and meet us in the bunker, okay? Samsun will be here with you, so don't fret and radio in if you run into any trouble... which you shouldn't do.”
“Yes sir,” The private nodded and checked his side arm.
“Good lad,” Clay said, slapping the driver on his shoulder. “Okay, Arndell? Hit it.”
Arndell held his Lancer in one hand and yanked the door release lever downwards. With a slight hiss, the hatch dropped downwards and everyone bundled out onto the desolate streets. The moment Kurt hit the ground, he was assailed by dust laden wind, which caused pieces of tiny debris to bounce off his visor. Even with the filters making sure he didn't breath any of it in, he could smell it... the smell of death. Everything was coated in this... dust. Kurt didn't have to examine it to know it was a mixture of dirt and ash. All that had been incinerated now coated the city in it's remains. The hospital was down the street, to the south but Kurt couldn't see it. Everything was shrouded in a semi-gloom with the breeze preventing anything from settling. There were no words to describe it. He felt like an ant in a mausoleum. The worst part of it was the silence, even with the APC grumbling next to him, the lack of anything making noise was almost oppressive in nature. He almost expected to see phantoms and ghosts of the damned lining the empty windows and rooftops, glaring at the people who survived whilst they did not. He shook his head and kept his rifle at the ready. He felt so uneasy, he almost climbed back in the APC.
“Get moving, Private Bell,” Clay said over the radio, his mere voice reassuring Kurt. The 'Dill roared into life and sped off into the shroud. “The rest of you on me, we'll head towards the hospital.”
“This place looks so
inviting,” Baird muttered, throwing glances up at the surrounding buildings, which loomed down upon them. Kurt could understand the sentiment. As they spread out down the street in a loose formation, he found himself aiming his rifle at imagined figures in the windows and alleyways, the howling, buffeting wind doing nothing to make him feel any less paranoid.
“Sir?” Bell's voice piped up in their ears. “The entrance to the bunker... well, it isn't there. It's sunk.”
“Okay soldier, you and Samsun hold your position with the APC and- hold on. Okay, you stay with the APC, I'll give you your new orders in a moment. Squad? Hold position,” Clay said, crouching down by a lamp post leaning dangerously close to toppling over. Everyone else slunk into cover with Baird and Arndell ducking into an alleyway and Kurt and Grayson moving low by an overturned and rusty van. “Kurt, we're nearing the hospital. Was there an emergence hole nearby?”
“Yeah, it opened up as we were moving to the sewers,” Kurt said. He realised he was whispering and wasn't sure why.
“Oh thank f*ck for that,” Clay sighed. “I thought for a moment we were about to stumble on some Grubs. Everyone on me, this could come in handy.”
Moments later the squad stood staring precariously over the edge of the E-hole and into the darkness below. Clay crouched tentatively by the lip and peered down. He looked about his feet before flicking a sizeable pebble into the tunnel. A second or so passed before a dull thunk echoed back towards them.
“As I suspected,” Clay muttered. He took a few steps back and beckoned them closer. “This grub pipe passes through one of the ventilation systems connected to the bunker.” He reached into a back pouch and tugged out another folded map, which he opened up with some difficulty as it threatened to wrench itself free from his grasp and fly off in the dust. It appeared to be a building plan for the bunker. “Look, we could climb down and enter through the vent.”
“Oh yeah, that seems like a brilliant
f*cking idea,” Baird said sarcastically. “Let's all jump down a Grub hole to get a place we aren't sure exists. It will never work.”
“Ever jumped down a grub hole before?” Clay asked.
“Of course not,” Baird retorted.
“Then shut the f*ck up. If we had the resources, we'd simply carry on to the water treatment facility and then the power plant... let command take care of the bunker,” Clay said. “But we don't have the resources or time to do that so I'm going to rappel down there and check because if we can get the bunker's systems online, we can see if we even need to go to the other two objectives. Simple, enough for you?”
“Well, I'm not the one going down,” Baird said, shaking his head and turning away from the group muttering insults under his breath. Kurt merely leaned over the edge and squinted. He could almost make out a section of the vent sticking out of the side of the tunnel. At least, he thought he could. The dust was really starting to piss him off. In any case, if his helmeted eyes weren't deceiving him then the plan wasn't as insane as Baird made out.
When no one else objected, Clay knelt down, slipped the rucksack off his back and started unpacking several dozen feet of climbing rope. Grayson and Arndell kept a wary eye on their surroundings, tracking ghosts only they could see. Kurt tried not to take in his surroundings. It was here that Darrius had bought them enough time to escape down the sewers. It was here that he had died, shot twice by the pursuing Grubs. It was here that Darrius had saved them all. A horrible sinking sensation in his stomach threatened to overwhelm him as he imagined his best friend's last moments. What did he do in those seconds he lay bleeding in the middle of the road, seconds before he was wiped clean off the face of Sera? Did the Grub's reach him?
“Kurt?” Clay's voice brought him out of his reverie. The rest of the team were staring at him and he realised they had been talking to him.
“Huh? Sorry, was lost in my thoughts...,” He trailed off and shrugged.
“This is hardly a normal experience,” Clay said simply. “Anyway, go tie this around that lamp post.”
Military Bunker Storage Room
The climb went far more smoothly than anticipated. Clay easily descended to the vent entrance, confirmed it was there and then scrambled through the vent to the other side. Kurt waited until last before he followed, all the while resisting the urge to kick Baird up the backside as he bent down to pick up the rope. Kurt was thankful that he didn't spend long in the emergence hole. Something about it unnerved him even more than the dead city above him. Pushing the thought to the back of his mind, he crawled through the vent shaft and out into what appeared to be a storage room. Everything appeared to be neatly stacked though there was evidence of some containers having been opened. Grayson stood near the closed door, keeping a finger on the trigger, Arndell rummaged through a nearby box, only pausing to examine something of interest, Baird sat on an overturned metal crate with a small mechanical device in his hands, turning it over and over in morbid fascination and Clay crouched in the centre of the room, his rifle on the ground next to him, running his fingers across something along the floor.
“Hey, Kurt,” Clay said. “Does this look like blood to you?”
Kurt crouched beside him. The rust coloured stains were very faint but it was indeed blood. They were small splatters and nothing to indicate whoever bled here died but the stains did continue across the floor and out the door.
“I'd say it was. Couple of weeks old judging by the colour and... flakiness,” Kurt said.
“Hmm. Okay, well, we won't find out anything till we explore the rest of this place,” Clay said, standing up. He pointed towards the door. “Grayson, Arndell, scout ahead. Room by room, be thorough and don't miss anything. Radio in regularly, especially if you find anything. Baird? You're with Kurt, hopefully you can find yourselves a terminal or something for you to play with.”
,” Baird said, watching Grayson and Arndell step out of the door. He threw the device he'd been looking at over his shoulder. “It doesn't take five people to look around here, you know.”
“It takes one to shut you up though,” Clay said, gesturing for Kurt to follow him. “Start following this blood trail. I'm certain it will lead us to what happened here.”
“What, are we detectives now? Just find me a terminal so we can finish this mission and get out of here,” Baird objected.
Clay stepped up to the soldier and placed both hand's firmly on Baird's shoulders.
“Quit whining like a b*tch,” He said. “I need to wait here and direct Private Bell and Samsun. I don't want to leave them up there alone so stay in radio contact and keep an eye on the other two. This place can be pretty confusing.”
“On it, sir,” Kurt said, pulling Baird towards the door. “Come on, sooner we start, sooner we're done.”
Out in the hallway, the corridor stretched onwards into the flickering on and off darkness caused by a faulty light fitting. Several doors lined either side and the blood trail seemed to lead through several doors, as though the injured person had staggered about. Perhaps looking for someone?
“Grayson here. Nothing to report. Some signs of recent activity but nothing major. Certainly nothing Locust related, anyway.”
“How recent?” Clay asked. Kurt and Baird listened tentatively during the exchange, rifles held loosely by their sides, fingers on ear pieces. Their mission partially forgotten in the moment. Could they really find survivors?
“Hard to say, Sarge,” Grayson said. “Maybe a week or two? There's a journal entry here dating back that far.”
“Who wrote it? What does it say?” Clay asked, excitedly.
“Nothing much. Pen started to run out,” He replied. “Though there is a name; Lilith Sanders.”
“Never heard of her,” Clay said.
“I have,” Kurt said, tugging Baird on the arm and walking down the corridor. “Spoke to her once or twice.”
“Damn, no other information?” said Clay.
“All that's on here is a date, her name and a few lines saying they've had no contact since the Strike.”
“Damn,” Clay repeated again. His voice turned to an almost thoughtful tone. “I wonder who “they
” are? Bah! Keep looking.”
“Well that was useful,” Baird muttered.
“Do you ever shut up?” Kurt snapped, pausing at a door to his left. He levelled his Lancer at it as he edged closer with Baird taking the opposite side of the doorway. Pressing the button to open the door, Kurt ducked into a crouch, swiftly entering the room. Baird covered him, his rifle sweeping the darkness before him.
When no monster made itself apparent, Baird joined him in the room and slapped the switch for the lights, which flickered on with no trouble. It was a simple room, with a bed on one side, a book case on another and a desk mounted computer system by the wall nearest the door. A table had been placed in the centre of the room. The signs that it had recently been occupied were obvious. The bed sheets were crumpled and scrunched, the table was skewed slightly, blood splattered its otherwise unblemished surface and several damaged body armour plates had been dumped on the computer desk. Baird ran a gloved finger along the centre table, scrapping some of the blood off. He rubbed the substance between a forefinger and a thumb and screwed his face at it.
“I imagine someone performed some basic first-aid here,” Baird said, still looking at his fingers. “Probably on the guy who left the trail of blood crumbs from the storage room. I'd even go as far to say it was a medical bot that did it.”
“What makes you say that?” Kurt asked, turning his attentions to the armour plates on the desk. He shouldered his rifle and picked one piece up, turning it over and over in his hands. It was scorched and pockmarked.
“Mainly it's the lack of blood anywhere else. I doubt there were any skilled doctors here,” Baird said, wiping his hands on the side of his legs. “Also because according to the intel for this sh*t hole, it housed a few of those bots. Wouldn't mind getting a look at one of those... What have you got there?”
“This?” Kurt replied, waving the plate for Baird to see. He tossed it over. “Torso plating.”
“Really? Congratulations, detective,” The engineer quipped. “Looks burnt. Could be from an explosion, might be from a flame thrower sort of weapon... though, I doubt the Locust have any of those unless they have some new toys. Could be from the Hammer blast...?”
Baird trailed away into thought as he examined the plate. Kurt doubted the last theory. Nothing could survive the Hammer of Dawn.
“Uh... Sergeant? You need to come and see this,” Grayson hurriedly spoke into the radio. He sounded almost... afraid.
“What's wrong, Private?” Clay replied instantly replied, concerned.
“Best if you see this for yourself,” Grayson said. “Not hard to find us. Just follow the corridor till the end, take a left and follow it around till you reach us.”
“You heard the man, move! On the double!” Clay ordered.
“I swear, if all they've found is a frigging...,” Baird again trailed off as he set off at a jog out the door. Kurt followed, keeping pace. It didn't take them long to reach Grayson's position, which was situated in the middle of the hallway. He and Arndell were crouched over what appeared to be... Kurt's breath caught in his throat and Baird swore loudly.
The grub lay face down on the floor, it's blood splashed all up the walls and spent bullet casings littering the ground like bird seed at a park. The sight brought goosebumps to Kurt's skin. The Locust were back. They'd hadn't even finished one objective and their worst nightmare was confirmed.
Baird pushed his way past Grayson and Arndell and got down on his knees to take a close look.
“This is fairly recent. It's beginning to rot though,” Baird scratched his chin for a few seconds before heaving the Drone over onto it's back, causing the rifle to skitter along the floor noisily. “This one died from a shot to the chest. Right through the sternum too...”
“When did you become a expert on anatomy?” Arndell asked.
“I picked it up from some place I can't care enough about to remember,” Baird responded with a bored tone.
“Okay, what have we got?” Clay said, appearing from around the corner. His reaction was similar to Kurt's and Baird's as he drew closer. “F*ck...”
“Grub corpse, sir,” Grayson said, pointing his rifle in the direction of the Locust body. “Shot quite recently according to doctor Baird here.”
“Screw you, dill hole,” Baird said, standing up. Kurt walked around the corpse and continued down the corridor a bit. He was hoping to find more evidence. A corpse on its own can only tell so much. It hinted that somebody had survived the Hammer strikes but nothing else. Those people could be dead by now. They needed something else. The rest of the squad were showing immense interest in the Locust, understandably, but Kurt couldn't bring himself to look at it. It made him feel sick. He decided to explore a bit. He opened the first door on the left and peered in.
Almost instantly, a hand reached out and grabbed him by the foot causing him to jump loudly, cursing. He caught a glimpse of grey and put two rounds into the Locust as it … it... did nothing. Taking a deep breath and staggering backwards, the hand revealed itself to be attached to another deceased Grub, it's lifeless fingers resting against the floor and the rest of it's body lying in the darkness beyond.
“Kurt!?” Clay shouted, charging towards him with the rest of the squad in tow, rifles at the ready.
“It's okay!” Kurt held one hand up, breathing heavily. Oh god. I'm shaking so much.”I … jumped... Thought it was... alive.”
Clay nodded and took a look into the room. Once the light was turned on, the scene resolved itself into more clarity. The corpse lay by the door, beyond that, lay its entrails, having been blown out of its stomach by what seemed to be a shotgun shell. Baird confirmed that thought the moment he stepped in and kicked aside the shell's casing. He didn't so much as glance at the corpse this time though; instead, he strode past it towards a computer system sat snugly in a nest of wires on the far side of the room. Grayson and Arndell remained outside whilst Clay crouched by the body.
“The Locust must have got in here somehow...,” Clay almost whispered. “But how...? Who did this?”
Kurt inspected the room. It appeared to be dedicated to communications, judging by several computer systems dotted around the room... or maybe security? Security rooms always featured lots of monitors. Carefully stepping over Grub body bits, he peered over Baird's shoulder.
“What's this?” He asked.
“This, my computer illiterate friend, is going to tell us what happened here, hopefully,” Baird grunted, taping away on the keyboard. Kurt couldn't work out the gibberish that was scrolling across the screen but after a second or two, a large window opened up on the desktop. There was a moment of static and then a picture appeared inside of it.
“Ah crap,” Baird cursed. “No sound and this is the only feed I could access.”
“It will do,” Clay said, walking over to join them. “Show me what we got, Baird.”
Baird tapped a few more keys and the picture started moving.
It showed a hospital wing, from the looks of it. Two men lay on separate bed's with a man and a woman standing to the side of them. From their position and the way their heads were turned, there appeared to be someone else off screen. It didn't help that the resolution was so low but Kurt was sure these men and women were Gears. One of them held a Lancer and the woman wore full plate so they must have been soldiers. After a few seconds of talking, the man and woman suddenly took up alert stances, with the man aiming his rifle at various points around the room. The woman pulled a Snub pistol from her hip and gestured at the mystery off-screen individual. Then the camera started shaking and something dropped down from the ceiling in front of it. Without warning, the camera view almost disappeared completely under a massive splatter of blood that splashed three quarters of the picture.
“Sh*t!” Clay said angrily, gripping his Lancer tightly. “They had to shoot it near the camera...”
“I doubt they gave a rat's ass about how good they look on camera, sir,” Kurt said, staring intently at the screen. Luckily they could still see some of the picture. Granted, it was only the bottom right quarter but it was better than nothing. Bullets whizzed around and came dangerously close to hitting one of the injured soldiers on the bed. A body tumbled into view and slide across the floor; it was the man who held the Lancer, though his rifle was now gone from his hands. A grub stomped into view, strangely weapon-less, and raised it's massive foot. The woman threw herself at the drone but it shouldered her off as it brought it's boot down on the Gear's chest. It reminded Kurt way too much of the time he had tried the same action on E-day... except here, there was no Cole Train to save them. The floored Gear cried out in pain and tried to prize the boot off him but to no avail. Kurt almost wanted to look away but he was enthralled by the struggle of life and death.
Another figure appeared but the blood splattering the lens covered his face completely and the top part of his chest. He didn't charge blindly at the Grub, instead, he reached around and buried a combat knife straight into it's eye and twisted his wrist viciously whilst doing so. The Drone dropped to the side, crashing into the occupied bed, spilling them both to the floor like a pair of drunks. The mystery saviour hauled the Gear to his feet. The Gear pointed at the injured man now lying next to the dead grub. The mystery Gear nodded took a step towards the bodies but reacted to something only he could see, hidden behind the blood. He threw himself out of shot as more bullets flew around the room and then... static.
“We need to find this room,” Clay said as soon as the video was finished. “See if you can save that on disk.”
Baird grumbled but didn't say anything audible enough for the sergeant to hear.
“What about the mission?” Kurt asked, still shaken from the events he had just witnessed.
“The computer terminal we need isn't in this room, is it?” Clay snapped. He appeared to be very angry with what he had just seen. Kurt didn't blame him. They had come close to finding survivors but instead, they were left with the knowledge they were probably dead and the Locust were back in the picture. Command was not going to like this.
“I guess not, sir,” Kurt said, following him out the room.
Who were those people? He'd probably never find out.