Chapter 3: Good Intentions
Abandoned Gas Station, Outskirts of Ephyra;
“You know what? You can take this sh*t 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. Sh*t, not like the COG thinks of anything but its own skin. So f*ck you, I quit. Just try and stop me.”
-Unnamed former Gear’s journal, found a day after desertion.
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. The man was 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 stood with him a few minutes before the Islander made the first patrol. After Ven had left, Nyvar 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. Marov washed off the gore and blood from earlier as best he could with a rag he had found in the APC’s cargo hold. It didn't seem to help all that much.
Nyvar was just removing the last piece of his leg armor when Marov finished cleaning off and sat down next to him. His friend's standard-issue COG plating was already stacked in a neat 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 began, leaning his head back against the wall and closing his eyes. Wrinkles showed out in the flickering light, making the man seem older than he was. 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 to 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 weren’t patches of rust or grime coating the light peach tile.
They went quiet 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 blood spots 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 with his head laying 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 remained that way and gave him a respite from the usual horrors that haunted the night.
The next morning;
“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. He wondered if the man had slept at all.
“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, holding a pair of binoculars. The kid started as a Hammerburst round went off in the distance, lending credence to his claims.
“Sh*t, looks like Locust. Serves the bastards right, runnin' around on their own,” Marov gritted out, his tone icy, no hint of pity 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. He opened the ramp with a dull thud as his fist impacted the button. Maybe the Stranded would have some parts to fix Sparks
, Nyvar thought as he chewed on his lip. Even if they didn’t, they were humans being attacked by monsters without mercy. That was 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 with a clang, Ven moving to shut the hatch and Ty moving up to take over the machine gun on top.
“Marov, you drive,” Nyvar said, sitting down across from Ven, checking his Lancer and slotting a cartridge of bullets into the waiting chamber. He hoped 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 was shining with the glow of the morning sun, blinding them slightly.
“Damn sun, always gotta be in the way,” Marov muttered loud enough for everyone 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 to try and 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 and 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 beasts fell to the ground, both victims of a sniper round. Nyvar nodded in respect at that, hoping the sniper would hold their fire against COG forces.
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. One ricocheted off of his shoulder pauldron, digging a gouge in the material. Nyvar heard a curse from Marov and a hydraulic hiss as the hatch returned to its shut position, spraying gravel as it 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. A grub with a Boltok was firing into the caravan from behind an exploded vehicle next to them. The detonation turned the Locust forces into bloody lumps. The viscera flew into the air, splattering Nyvar with blood and rocks as he held up a hand against the debris, feeling a small amount of regret at eschewing the traditional COG helmet. 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 the 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, hell,” Nyvar grunted, readying another grenade to throw into the hole. He threw it, watching it fly and fall to the ground a few inches from the edge. The large hand of a grub happened to come out and try to pull itself up, grasping the grenade and falling back down. Lucky
, Nyvar thought.
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 evil, yellow eyes. He impacted the thing with his shoulder, trying to knock it back to the ground. It felt like hitting a brick wall, his shoulder popping painfully as they fell in a heap.
Something impacted Nyvar’s head as he tried to return to his feet, 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 heavy boot 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 drooled 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. He was proven wrong a moment later 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 is tough
, he thought grimly, but hopefully not tough enough to stand up against this.
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 was wearing off as the battle neared its end on his side of the field. Nerves started firing normally again, pain filling his jaw and side, forcing him to hiss and grab the injured areas. He spat out another wad of blood as sweat dripped down his forehead. It landed in the sand and instantly evaporated next to the glob of red. Even this close to Frost, it was hot as hell.
A buzzing filled his ears as he recovered, an after effect of the chainsaw’s obnoxious whirring. The smell hit him a few seconds later, the dead Drone’s insides reeking of rotted meat and waste. 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 returned, 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 stopping its unending rhythm.
“Roger. Stay out a ways. Don’t wanna go scaring the civvies more than they already are. I’ll let you know when you can come in. Gonna go have a talk with the Stranded.”
“Talking with the Stranded
? Sh*t, better you than me, 'Seph. Roger that, will wait for further orders,” Marov’s voice came back bitterly.
“Ven, on me. Let’s go be neighborly.”
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 a few meters from the three people who moved up to meet them. The man in the center was resting a sawed off, double barreled shotgun on his shoulder. His armor was scuffed, but still recognizable as Gear-issued. 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 was shining and taken care of, a sharp contrast to the man himself. He had stringy, brown hair down to his shoulders covered by a beat up, straw cowboy hat. Some modified Gear armor with extra scrap metal screwed in on random places completed the ensemble, giving him a patchwork appearance. Deserters then
, Nyvar thought, chewing on his lip. Are they with the ones at Lethia or is it just a coincidence?
On the other side of the guy with the shotgun, the woman stood, holding the Longshot that had taken out the two drones at the beginning of the battle as well as, Nyvar guessed, the grub that had almost killed him 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 f*ck up, Riddley,” the leader admonished, instantly silencing the man. Riddely was staring at Nyvar with utter contempt, mouthing obscenities. 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, sh*t, really, Sarge? Why do we need to work with these f*cking 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. His eyes went from Nyvar to the Islander and back again, looking worried.
“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 shrugged, turning around and heading toward one of the Junkers near the middle of the formation. The man started digging around in the trunk, sending glances over at them every now and then. 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 Hammerburst Rifles 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 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 replied with a sigh, his moderately muscled arms covered in a thin sheen of sweat.
“Sh*t, 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 said sharply, turning around and coming up with some machinery and tools Nyvar didn’t recognize. “Here, this should fix your bot for you.”
“Positive. I used to build the things before I went Stranded,” Parker paused, staring at Nyvar with his beady eyes, the look of worry returning. “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 had been through hell and back.
The women he could see were all covered in rags that barely concealed their almost skeletal forms, eyes 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 being yelled out 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 the expression 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, patting the Islander on the shoulder pad in false cheer. 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 the situation. 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.”