Chapter 5 - Part I
1 Month and 3 Days since Hammer of Dawn Deployment.
The world carried on as always, despite mankind's best attempts at burning well over three quarters of it. The plan had failed in the end. The COG had incinerated billions to end a threat that was hell bent on wiping out everything on the surface; only for the problem to still be there the next day. Most of the cities outside Ephyra had remained untouched in the month since the Hammer was dropped, certainly no human had set foot in one for the fear of contamination. An incalculable amount of toxic waste and chemicals had been thrown up into the surrounding atmosphere and water supplies preventing anything helpful from being salvaged or reclaimed. Even the Locust, according to satellite feeds, hadn't spent much time picking through the mass-graveyards; now they knew their target were all holed up in one place, waiting for the end.
Waiting for the inevitable.
It was coming.
None the less, like the world, mankind carried on, though, unlike the world, not with the safe certainty of always being there. Immortality is always a blessing, even for a planet; but despite it's bleeding, puckered skin, it did not dream. It did not have nightmares. It didn't awake sweating and crying out into the night at spectres that only ever existed in the mind.
Kurt did though. Every night for the past month and three days. Always the same. In fact, he was no longer surprised when he found himself blinking tears out of his eyes, groggily letting the world slip into focus as his consciousness brought him back to reality. He was surprised, however, to find the room's light switched on and someone standing near the foot of his bed. Young, clean shaven and standing tall, he was dressed in a simple officer's garb but had several stripes and a star down one shoulder, which meant this was probably going to be important.
“A little creepy, don't you think?” Kurt said, rubbing his face. “Still, beats a Locust any day.”
“I'm sorry to wake you, Mr Mason,” The officer said, ignoring the comment. “Colonel Hoffman requests your presence in the Intel room right away.”
“Please... call me Kurt... or 'sir' or even just 'soldier',” Kurt shook his head and pulled away his sheets. “Hoffman, eh? I imagine this is important? Chuck me that shirt over, will ya?”
The officer glanced over at the chest by the end of the bed and pointed at the creased blue shirt draped over it. Kurt nodded and the man threw it over.
“Of course, anything Hoffman says is probably important,” The officer replied, shrugging. “He didn't go into detail but I figure it has something to do with sending teams out to the dead cities. Fenix senior seems to think toxic levels have abated somewhat.”
“You do know I've been on leave for the past two weeks, right?” Kurt said, yanking the top over his head and reaching down for the fatigues piled at his feet. “I'd have thought I'd be given some simple sh*t first to rub a bit of rust off.”
“If we let our soldiers have leave as long as they wanted or hell, as long as they needed, we'd be long dead. I'm sorry. In an ideal world, as in pre-Emergence Day, you'd be out for as long as the doctors say,” The officer crossed his arms. “but we need soldiers and you are one of our best young prospects.”
“I feel so honoured,” Kurt said dryly, pulling on his trousers and then his boots. He made sure to grab his holstered Snub Pistol hanging from his bed frame as he stood. He nodded his head towards the door, indicating that the officer should lead the way.
Jacinto's main military complex was located right in the middle of the most heavily defended part of the entire city. Jacinto Plateau. Situated on a massive bedrock of granite, it was unreachable via underground tunnelling of any kind. The sort of refuge mankind needed most and the most logical place to base their entire operations. It also had a nice view. The young officer led Kurt through the packed hallways as Gears and orderlies moved to and fro in an effort to complete their duties. The few remaining JACK bots floated aimlessly behind them as if they didn't have a care in the world, medics sprinted down the halls as new casualties were brought in and occasionally, every now and again, you'd half glimpse a Gear or two sitting in silence in alcoves and to the side of stairwells, trying to escape the horrors of the never ending war they were fighting.
Even rarer was seeing someone surrounded by their visiting family. Others usually looked on with a mixture of envy and resentment; all except Gears. They never saw scenes like this just as a reminder of what they had lost but rather, a reminder of what they were fighting for. The future.
Kurt didn't often think of the future because with the way things were going with the war, it was going to be a hollow one if his species survived the coming months. There was no point dwelling on something that wasn't going to change. Tomorrow he'll still be fighting and shooting and staying alive, his family will still be trying to do the best they can with limited rations, his friends will still be dying and those that already had would never be coming back. The present was where his attentions were best kept and even then, he tried to limit just how much he opened his mind to everything; for his sanity's sake.
You really are starting to sound like Darrius now, Kurt.
The two men stepped out onto a catwalk that briefly led outside along the edge of a particular cluster of buildings and Kurt was greeted by blinding rays of sunlight as they stretched over Jacinto City, reflecting off of mirrored surfaces and the multitude of unbroken windows lining the sides of high rise office buildings. It was sunrise and the city was asleep for the most parts. A few vehicles moved around in the distance but the streets were deserted. The city might have been asleep but very few people slept full nights any more; those who still had homes huddled within fearing for the next day. Several areas had been demolished to make room for refugee camps, a sea of tents and supply trucks ringed by chain linked fences erected to keep out thieves more than the Locust. Kurt remembered a time when going to Jacinto was something to be excited about... It made him feel infinitely sad.
“Through here, Kurt,” The officer said, turning right and down a set of stairs. Kurt pulled himself out of his reverie and followed him through a set a key-card secured door, which the officer dutifully opened. A hiss and a small bleep and the doors slid inwards. The Intel room was dark and oppressive with the only light source coming from the wall mounted flat screens and the central table with a built in LCD display. Currently, the screens scrolled with data that Kurt couldn't make out but every now and again, a snap shot of a particular place in Sera blinked across the text and he guessed it had something to do with satellite feeds... or something. Kurt was never that smart with computers, or science, or anything like his best friend had been. There was a reason he had signed up straight away without any other prospect for his future.
Hoffman sat directly opposite Kurt. He was imposing in an almost intimidating way. Whereas the Cole Train was physically imposing and Marcus was a deadly mystery, Hoffman emanated authority. He may have been pushing fifty but his broad shoulders and bull neck did much to dissuade back chat and rash actions. The colonel swept his cap off his head, ran a gloved hand over his bald skin and gestured to an empty seat in front of him as the officer saluted and left the room.
“Take a seat, son,” he said quietly. Kurt did so. “I'm going to keep this brief. I have an office full of reports to sift through and not enough time to go through 'em all.”
Kurt simply nodded.
“To put this simply, the Hammer of Dawn was not the success we had originally anticipated. We had hoped to wipe most of them out and push them far away enough that we could regroup and reclaim,” Hoffman said with a slight trace of bitterness. I'd be bitter, too, if I was the one that turned that key, Kurt thought to himself. “We don't need to go into much detail here. Time is of the essence. Once this conversation is over, you'll go prep and then be on your way.”
“Okay... so what's the mission?” Kurt asked.
“I know you've been on a short leave. Doctor's reports indicate some psychological damage that needed sorting. Nothing serious, a couple weeks of rest but we can't afford to have our soldiers off the front line now... Not when we have so little left,” Hoffman said. He scratched at his chin for second, thinking intently. “You were stationed in Corren?”
“I'm sure my files say as much.”
“They do. According to your own account, you were one of the last surviving Gears there. You'll know the layout of the city better than anyone we could send into that zone. I'm not going to send a damn civvie in with you. Waste of life. Anyway, you and some other Gears are going to head to Corren. It's going to be a general recon mission. Once we know the city is safe, we'll ship more units to you. Fenix seems to think toxicity levels have reduced enough that we can get some simple systems back online like the water purification facility you holed up in when we dropped the Hammer. Maybe the city's power grid. If we can get some forward bases in a couple of cities, we might be able to regain some valuable ground.”
“It makes sense,” Kurt agreed, crossing his arms and leaning back slightly in his chair. “You mentioned Fenix, do you mean Marcus is going to be attending this mission?”
“No, son, Marcus is needed elsewhere,” Hoffman said. “His father, as you should know, is one of our top engineering scientists and has been keeping an eye on the effects of the Hammer Strike but... that's on a need to know basis. Now, go get your kit and head to the vehicle depot. Your squad will be deployed in less than an hour. You'll meet them there and be filled in with the extra details along the way. Dismissed.”
“Thank you sir,” Kurt stood, saluted and made to leave but not before Hoffman had something else to say.
“One other thing, soldier,” he said, his voice dropping to an ominous growl causing Kurt's hair to stand up on end. He turned to see the colonel's narrowed eyes boring into his own.
“Did you have anything to do with Gale's little deserting act?”
The question hit him like a slap in the face. In that infinitely small instant, his mind threatened to not only unravel, but undo all the healing the last two weeks had allowed him to do. However, he kept a straight face and looked the intimidating colonel in the face.
“No,” Kurt said. “Ask Marcus about that. I knew nothing about it.”
“I already did. I wanted to know if you had anything to do with it,” Hoffman nodded, his voice softening. “Gale may have gotten the job done but he still was reckless and deserted his post. I can't afford that kind of crap now. I just hope you don't... follow his example to the letter. I know you two were good friends.”
“No sir,” Kurt replied, taking a deep breath. “I was never one for playing the hero.”
“Good to know, son,” Hoffman said. He waved his hand towards the door. “Now get moving. The others have been briefed and will be awaiting your arrival.”
Kurt quickly left the room and found himself pondering the Colonel's words. I just hope you don't follow his example to the letter. So what, only play the hero when it's by the book? It suddenly dawned him that the conversation was less about briefing him and more about evaluating his mental state. Was it he really that worried Darrius would have had that much of an influence on him? He left Jacinto to get away from him! Shaking his head, he hurried back to the barracks.
It didn't take him long to suit up. Kurt almost felt a sliver of his former self rush back through his veins as the reassuring weight of his plates pressed down on his body. The last two weeks had done him some good. He hadn't hallucinated at all since Darrius at his memorial and the pain had abated enough for him to start thinking clearly again. He had made sure to go reconcile with Andy and the rest of the survivors, who he was grateful for putting up with his sh*t. The pain of losing his best friend would never leave but now it drove him onwards rather than drag him under. By the time Kurt had reached the vehicle depot, he knew a confidence he hadn't felt since before Emergence Day.
The depot was characteristically empty, with most vehicles on permanent patrol or peace keeping duties. Only two vehicles remained, one old Jeep sat abandoned by the door Kurt had walked through, half the wheels had been torn off and numerous bullet holes marred the surface. At the opposite end of the parking lot, a single APC was parked by the exit ramp around which a group of Gears stood, obviously waiting for someone; him. Upon noticing him, one of them waved him over and as Kurt strode quickly towards them, he noticed a familiar face among them.
“Clay?” Kurt said, laughing and extending a hand which Clay took and gripped tightly. Clay's face remained smooth and youthful as ever. He hadn't changed a day in the year that he had known him, at least, not on the outside. Kurt was certain Clay had extensive scarring along under his plates since being shot over a month back. He probably hadn't been out of the hospital long but seeing as Kurt had been in Corren at the time, the details were a little sketchy.
“Kurt, man, how are you?” Clay said, grinning. “Hoffman said our final squad member would be someone I should know.”
“I'm glad it's you leading this squad,” Kurt said, taking a quick glance at the other Gears who were helmeted. “Who have we got?”
“Well, you should know Grayson,” Clay said, jerking a thumb at the particular Gear, who tilted his head in acknowledgement. “In fact, you should know everyone here. Arndell and Samsun here are old acquaintances; as is the JACK bot in the back of the 'Dill.”
“Sweet,” Kurt said, his face lighting up. “How you guys been?”
“Eh, the usual. Surviving,” Grayson said, shrugging and the other two nodded in agreement. They may not have said much but their body language said it all... The bowed heads and hunched shoulders; he was our friend too. We are grieving with you
. “Not dying, mainly.”
“Ain't that the way? Anyhoo, we are waiting for one more before we set off,” Clay said, leaning against one of the APC's giant wheels. “I'll fill you in on the major details whilst we are en route. This should be nice and easy with no grub bullsh*t. We haven't had a Locust sighting in weeks.”
“Since when have we ever been able to pull off a mission without any bullsh*t?” Kurt said. “I think I've spent my entire military career dodging sh*t that's hit the fan.”
“This whole war is a giant case of sh*t hitting the fan,” Clay chuckled then winced slightly, pressing a gloved hand to his chest plate. “Man, that last mission really did a number on me.”
“Heh, your telling us,” Samsun piped in, shaking his head. “I'm surprised no one died.”
“Yeah well,” Kurt said. He knew exactly why that mission had succeeded. He'd read the report on it himself. Ignoring the knot forming in his stomach, he purposely changed the subject. “Who's this last guy?”
“He's going to be our technical support. Some engineering prodigy or something-.”
“Name's Baird, jerk off,” a bored voice spoke up suddenly from behind them. Kurt turned to the newcomer who had somehow approached without making a sound. The armoured man was tall, lean, and stood with the sort of pose you'd expect a man to take when confronted by a small, annoying animal. Blond hair matted his head and he wore a pair of blue tinted goggles which sat snugly on his forehead, that matched his blue tinted plates; he sported a jutting jaw, a half smirk and eyes which suggested a measured intelligence within. Kurt was unsure what to make of him, especially with his attitude. Still, any Gear was a brother and he'd tolerate him if it meant completing the mission.
“Baird? I'm Kur-.”
“Yeah, yeah, hugs and kisses,” Baird said, shifting the Lancer slung over his shoulder. He walked past the group and hit the APC's hatch release switch. “Let's just get this over with. I always hated Corren...”
Kurt raised one eyebrow at Clay, who shrugged. “You heard the man, get your equipment and get aboard.”
As the rest of the squad clambered into the Armadillo after Baird, Kurt sighed loudly and shook his head. Clay slapped him on the back sympathetically with a grin on his face.
“You know,” Kurt said quietly to himself, taking one last glance at the empty depot, as though looking for someone. “I'm kind of glad Darrius isn't here.”