A Day in the Life Of: Stratton
“There’re some times when the odds are so stacked against you that you just think to yourself, ‘damn, this is it - this is where my fight ends’. Those moments are too damned many for my taste, but as long as I have brothers to pull me out of the fire, that’s just another complaint to send the Locust via frag. The only thing I’m worried about is failing to return the favor.” – Jace Stratton, in his yearly psych evaluation.
ON PATROL AT EDGE OF COALITION HELD TERRITORY:
TWO WEEKS AFTER LIGHTMASS BOMBING, 14 A.E.
It was one of those moments again; one of those crisp, clear
moments where you can hear, see, feel, and even smell everything going on around you. The steady ping
of empty shell casings littering the shattered concrete like a field of brass flowers was loud in my ears, nearly deafened by the roar of the Lancer as I sent hot death at any target I could make out.
Slow motion, it feels like, giving you time to think in between those muzzle flashes, blood pumping through your veins with the speed of the bullets whizzing by your ear. I can feel the burn in my muscles as I fight to keep the assault rifle leveled, gritting my teeth against the kickback. The acrid stench of burning bodies fills the air, a smell that would have leveled me when I was a kid, puking my guts out on the sidewalk. But now, all of that is just too familiar. It’s all just…part of my life.
Then reality snapped back in with sharp focus, time speeding back to normal. I slammed my shoulder against a column, twisting my frame enough so that the rounds grinding my cover away didn’t find purchase in my body. It was always nerve wracking, getting into cover, not knowing if some part of you was protruding out just enough to let in that one fatal shot. Of course, the only way to tell was if you kept counting the beats of your heart. If it kept pumping, you kept killing.
“Dom!” I yelled, wincing away from a shot that ricocheted off the pillar. “Dom, you got a line on that sniper?”
“Hell, you know the answer to that, Jace! If I could, it wouldn’t still be taking potshots at us,” the former commando replied over the ruckus of the battlefield, taking cover behind a rusted hulk of a car in the middle of the avenue.
I grimaced at his evaluation of the situation, knowing it was true. No one was deadlier than Dominic Santiago in the middle of a firefight and if he had a clear shot, they’d be hosing down the rest of the grubs already. “Any ideas?”
“You could always play bait,” Dom answered, pausing to send a hail of bullets toward the sniper’s position. “But fortunately for you, I’ve got a better idea. You see that ladder over there in the alley, about ten meters down the road?”
I risked a glance around the pillar, catching sight of the alley in question. It wasn’t five meters from where a few grubs were entrenched. “Yeah, I see it. Also see those assholes right by it.”
“Beggars can’t be choosers, Jace.”
I nodded grimly at that, taking a deep breath to psych myself up for what I was about to do. Running into enemy fire was counter to pretty much everything I’d picked up since joining the COG army. It was drilled into us to find cover, make cover, cover, cover, cover. But sometimes, you just had to improvise.
Dom’s voice came over the channel. “Alright, on my mark, I’ll pop up and give you some covering fire, but keep your head down.
“Got it.” I drew in another deep breath and cradled my weapon to my chest.
” he started, the sound of a reload coming in through the channel. “Two
.” I closed my eyes and let the breath out, my mouth as dry as a desert. “One. Mark!
I burst into action, rounding the pillar and running straight ahead. Gravel kicked up under my boots, loose glass cracking underneath my weight. I vaulted over a mannequin before I even registered it in my brain, the stuttering beat of Dom’s Lancer sending the grubs in front of me into cover. That left me open to only the sniper and I could already feel the bead of the Longshot’s crosshairs against my forehead.
My body obeyed instinctively, dropping to its knees. I checked my fall with an outstretched arm, just in time for a cracking frwoom
to slice through the air directly over my head. Shock rushed through my brain as that familiar ringing started in my ears, but I was already up and running again. There was only a three or four second window before the sniper reloaded and lined up another shot.
A few seconds later, I was in the shaded cover of the alleyway. It was cool there, the sun no longer beating down directly on my armored form. I caught my breath, careful to keep my rifle pointed at the alley’s mouth in case an overcurious grub decided to check in on me. Thankfully, nothing came. I realized I hadn’t heard from Dom, so I reached up to my ear and initiated the circuit.
“Dom?” My voice sounded weak and tinny, my eardrums still damaged from that close shot. “I made it.”
His voice came back the same way. “I told you to keep your head down, man. If I hadn’t seen the light reflecting off of that Longshot…
“Yeah, I owe you one. Thanks.”
I heard him grunt faintly in reply. “More than one, Jace. Now get up that ladder and take out the sniper. I’ve had enough of these bastards.
“Won’t get any argument from me,” I muttered as I signed off. Glancing up at the ladder, I grabbed the first rung and pulled myself up one handed. The other held my Lancer, still pointed at the entrance to the alley. I wasn’t about to be flanked climbing up a damn building.
When I got to the roof, I ducked down behind an old air conditioner unit. Peeking out, I tried to see if I could find the sniper. The building at the end of the street was where I’d last seen it, but Locust were smart. It might have changed its location to throw me off, showing an intelligence I didn’t really enjoy thinking about. It was easier to imagine them mindless fodder, but it also made it easier for you to underestimate them and get yourself killed.
I couldn’t see anything from my position, so I moved up and took cover behind the entrance to the apartment complex I was standing on. Sweat dripped down my face from the intensity of the heat and battle, my armor doing its best to keep me cool. Unfortunately, it wasn’t working as far as I could tell.
“Jace? Anytime now would be good. Those grubs are moving up and I think I hear some tremors coming from my four o' clock.
” Dom’s voice caused me to jump. It was tense, playing cat and mouse with a sniper. One false move and you were toast, especially if the only weapon you had was something with less range. The rattle of Hammerbursts below continued intermittently, trading off with Lancer rounds.
I stole a glance around the side of the threshold, hesitating slightly. Still nothing. I brought my hand up to my ear and responded in a whisper. “Can’t find him. Any clues or should I just try and take out our friends in the street from here?”
“No, sniper first. Too risky to draw attention to yourself up there. Wait one.
I tapped a nervous rhythm on my Lancer with my fingertips, nodding my head slightly as I waited. This was the worst part of an engagement - knowing your partner was in trouble and there wasn’t anything you could do about it until they called in.
A Longshot round tore through the air, freezing the blood in my veins. I resisted the impulse to get a status report; instead, I stepped into the open with my Lancer leading. My eyes scanned the rooftops, searching for the elusive Drone, aware of the time passing by. Any moment more could mean a bullet between my eyes. I could hear my heart beating an unsteady rhythm in my ears.
Movement in the shadow of a rooftop sniper nest.
“Gotcha.” I pulled the trigger with a feral grin on my face. Blood misted the air as one of my rounds found the grub’s chest, then neck, then head. It splattered against the nest’s opposite wall, painting it with a sinister crimson. “Tango down.”
“Nice shot. Grab the Longshot and take out the rest of these from behind. They won’t know what hit them
,” Dom said fiercely through the channel. A groaning roar came from below a moment later, the death rattle of a grub.
I grinned, feeling the tension from before evaporating a bit. “Save some for me, willya?”
I rushed across the rooftop until I hit the alley between my building and the next, looking down. The gap wasn't large, thankfully, so I took a few steps back, cradled my weapon, and ran forward. Jumping in heavy armor is a bit more difficult than in fatigues, but I'd been training in the rig for enough years to know my limits.
My boots hit the pavement of the roof with a solid thunk and I stumbled slightly as something cracked beneath me. I glanced down with ice suddenly shooting through my veins, not moving a muscle. The building grumbled with my weight, the firefight in the streets below me falling away under the sound of the creaking support structure.
Seconds passed like minutes until the groaning stopped and the building settled itself. The world came snapping back as I let loose a pent up breath I hadn't even known I was holding in. I shifted my weight to either side, waiting for anymore complaints from the failing architecture. Nothing.
"Uh, Jace? Little help here?
" Dom's voice intruded in my ear over Hammerburst fire, tight with worry.
I cursed, glancing into the street to see the grubs beginning to move up toward my partner's position. "Building's a little shaky, yo. Don't know if I can make it to the Longshot. I'll fire from here."
"Roger that. Engage.
Careful to move slowly, I knelt down at the corner of the building and rested the hand holding my Lancer on the raised sill, sighting one of the Locust with smoothness from years of experience. I drew in a deep breath, checked my clip, and nodded with satisfaction. The Drone's head exploded in a shower of gore, but I didn't stay to watch the show.
The other one ducked out of sight behind a burnt out car, roaring in frustration at being flanked from what had once been a secure overwatch position. I smiled with grim pleasure as I sent a burst into the side of the car. Glass shattered as the windshields exploded from contact with the slugs.
In response, the grub sent a stream of Hammerburst rounds up at me in a blind burst. I ducked behind the masonry, feeling the heat of a near miss burning on my neck. My hand came up to check it but, aside from the pain, nothing came away. Less than a second later, the bullets stopped thumping into my cover.
Taking the opportunity in the break of fire, I grabbed one of the grenades hanging against my leg and chucked it at the grub's last known location. A gutteral roar came from behind the rusted hulk and white craggy skin showed itself as the grub dove away.
I took the shot without thinking, tracer fire leading the way to the Drone's grisly end. A moment later, a blast of air and smoke ripped through the air near the car.
My radio crackled on with Dom's voice and I could sense the smile in it. "Smart thinking, Jace.
"Doesn't take much with these things," I replied in kind, relief from the end of the battle making its way through my system. I stood up to full height and let my Lancer drop to my sides, staring straight up into that smoke-choked sky. A small line of blue stood out against the constant burning clouds, just the barest hint of the past looking down into the future.
I glanced down again at the brown and gray streets speckled with the red of blood and rust. This was my world now - not the vibrant colors of life and peace, but the dull whitewashed grip of death. Eventually I'd be the one in the street down there, choking on my own blood. As if in answer to my thoughts, the building below me rumbled ominously.
"What was that?" I muttered and glanced around nervously.
A second later, my body was thrown against the short wall I'd used as cover earlier. Street and sidewalk appeared in my vision as I started to fall over the sill face forward. I instinctively held onto my Lancer - I wasn't going to let it out of my hands as long as I was still alive. With my free hand, I scrabbled for any kind of purchase I could find.
"Jace! Hold on!
The building heaved again, sending me sliding even further. Now the armor was beginning to work against me, its weight dragging me over the side. Thankfully, some strap or plate on my armor caught on something, halting my forward movement. A grinding crack ripped through the air and everything settled for one dreadful second.
I knew what was coming next - a nightmare becoming reality.
The ground in the middle of the street exploded in multiple spots. Suddenly there were too many legs coming out of the ground for my taste, at least five of the man-sized Corpsers shimmying into daylight. They screeched balefully at the sun, scuttling around confusedly. One of them leaped atop a broken car while two others dug into the Locusts I'd downed earlier.
I held my breath, hanging perilously over the side of a building. If one of those monsters looked up, they'd climb the building with those piercing claws and that'd be the end. I couldn't even pull myself back up for fear of making a noise. Sh*t, sh*t, sh*t
My radio crackled on and it took all of my willpower not to cry out in surprise. Dom was whispering, still in his original position from what I could see. "Jace? Are you alright, man? If you can hear me, nod your head.
" I complied, a tense knot forming in my stomach as one of the Corpsers tore an arm from the dead Drone. "Okay, now this is what we're going to do. Turn your head to the right. You see the building next to you? The digging those things did sent your building tilting toward it. I need you to get on that building and jump to where the Longshot is. Nod if you understand.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw what he meant. The corner of my roof was slanting diagonally into the corner of the office space in the next building. I could jump to the other roof and pull myself onto it with a straight shot at the sniper nest. But all that depended on my being able to get back on my feet. I nodded anyway.
"As soon as I start shooting, you get yourself up there.
This time I shook my head, feeling my arm start to tremble from the effort of holding myself up.
There was a smile in his voice now. "Look, I'm not trying to sacrifice myself here. I need you to get that Longshot and start hitting them from behind. Otherwise, neither of us are going to get out of here. Get ready. Firing in three.
I prepared myself, drawing in a slow, careful breath. The Corpsers below were beginning to get agitated, fighting amongst each other and making motions like they were sniffing the air. Hell, did they even have noses? Dom's voice counted down in my ear, anxiety ramping up with each descending number.
My body exploded into motion just as Lancer fire chattered away at the Locust. I heaved myself backward, my plates grinding loudly against the sill. For a second, I faltered, a cold void shoot down my back and into my chest like someone had shoved a snowball down my shirt.
"Aaaaarrrraaaagh!" I roared in defiance. A buddy needed my help; Dom was depending on me. I slung my Lancer around in an arc behind me, letting its weight drag me back further until I could push off against the sill.
Another crack sounded deep in the bowels of the support structure holding my building up. I didn't have much time. Clutching my Lancer to my chest, I half ran-half slid toward the other end of the roof. I could hear the ground behind me falling in with each thudding stomp of my combat boots.
I threw my Lancer onto the next building's roof with both hands, leaping into the air and catching the edge just as the apartment complex fell completely in on itself with a roaring clatter. My tiring muscles strained as I swung my feet up and rolled onto my back. I drew in deep breaths, staring up at the sky again.
"Jace! I need you on that gun, man!
Screams from below were starting to compete with Dom's Lancer fire, grating on my nerves. It sounded like someone was dragging their fingernails down an old chalkboard. I coughed, rolling over and pushing myself up with the smell of dust and mortar clinging to the back of my throat. My gloves and arms were streaked with white powder, tinting my skin an ashy grey. The Lancer I picked up didn't look much better.
"Almost there, Dom. Hold on a few more seconds," I yelled into the mic as I ran toward the other building. The gap between the two buildings was less than a meter across and I jumped it without hesitation.
When nothing but the chugging rumble of Lancer fire answered me, I knew I was out of time. Dom needed that back-up now, before those Corpsers overran his position. I scanned the cracked concrete of the roof, searching for the Longshot that Locust had dropped. My heavy breathing was drumming out a dull rhythm in the back of my mind as if counting down the last seconds of my buddy's life.
A glint of metal caught my eye and I rushed toward its source, thanking the sun when only minutes before I'd been cursing its existance. The weapon was laying on its side against the makeshift sniper nest, a bit of blood speckled across its surface and a leather pack with sniper rounds spilling out of it laying next to it. I grabbed them both and ran to the edge of the building, the heavy weight of my own assualt rifle hanging from the strap at my back.
I fell to my knees and sighted up through the bulbous scope and took stock of the situation. A pair of Corpser bodies twitched in the middle of the street, having fallen to Dom's well placed shots before they even realized he was there. The other three were scrabbling over where I'd last seen my partner, the makeshift barrier of slagged car torn to shreds by the animals' sharp claws.
A Lancer lay on the ground next to them.
A pang of icy hot panic lit me up like I'd jammed my finger into an electric socket. Where was Dom? My breathing came in swifter gasps, but I ruthlessly clamped down on the feeling of loss as rage swept through me in a flood of red. That hatred was colder than fear, more searing than any pain. That's what loss feels like when there's the reason behind it sitting in the center of your scope.
The Longshot let loose like the roar of a Centaur tank starting up, the slug ripping through the sound barrier like paper and dragging a line of yellow behind it. The Corpser digging into the car shuddered as the high-impact shot slammed into it, cratering its exoskeleton between three of its demonic yellow eyes.
Its high pitched squeal shattered the remaining windows around it, but I didn't even flinch. Instead, I pulled back the bolt and slotted in another round from the pack I'd found. By the time I looked back down the scope, the other Corpsers had brought up their claws to protect their fragile skulls but the one I'd wounded was skittering around like a Gear after a night at the bar.
I sent the bastard to hell with another round, my teeth gritting in fury. Pull the bolt back, slot in round, sight up, and fire. It became an endless motion as I sent a hail of fire into the fray. After a few shots, the animals finally smartened up and turned their carapace plated claws in my direction. That left only thin slots to guide my bullet through and even I
wasn't that good.
They were out of my line of fire now, below the horizon of the building. I stood up and took a peek over just in time to feel the first tremor. I froze at what I saw. Both of the Corpsers were living up to their descriptions, climbing up the wall like a couple of goddamned spiders
. Their jaws gnashed with a razor sharp hiss and their claws acted like a pick for an ice climber, letting them drag their ungainly weights up in a creepily fluid motion.
"Come on, b*tches! I got enough for both of ya!" I cried out and took aim, careful to keep one knee braced against the sill.
The rifle kicked slightly and my shot went wide, hitting the pavement below the two Corpsers. They screeched in reply and moved even quicker. A few more seconds and they'd be on me. I wasn't used to aiming like this - I'm not sure anyone would be, but I had one, maybe two shots left before they climbed the rim and backed me onto the roof.
I fired again, this time hitting one of them square in that awful, glowing eyehole they peered through. It fell back in surprise, landing with a satisfying squish on the pavement below. Unfortunately, it didn't seem to be dead - only dazed. Meanwhile, the other one was still crawling its way up the building. It'd be on me in seconds.
"Hey! Hey, ugly!" a voice rang out from the street, startling me enough to make me drop my precious reload. The shell fell against the gravel-covered roof with a tink just before the last Corpser skittered up the rim of the wall. The sound of snub pistol rounds ripped through the air, but it was concentrated below and, as far as I was concerned, too far away for me to care at that moment. I fell back cursing and dropping the Longshot in my haste to get away from those wickedly gleaming claws.
It screamed as it crested the sill and brought all eight of its jointed legs down in a rage, snapping the weapon I'd left in three different pieces. I winced, hearing Marcus' voice reprimanding me again for dropping a functioning weapon instead of holding onto it. The man loved his recycling.
"C'mon, you ugly ass b*tch, let's go," I muttered at it, crouching slightly in my heavy armor, my knees bent in preparation for a dodge. I almost reached for my knife but one look at those claws told me I needn't bother - I'd be swiss cheese before I got within a foot of it. Of course, fighting up close and personal with a Corpser wasn't exactly covered in basic.
Still, I had an idea. My Lancer was useless against those plated legs, but I still had a couple of frags handy. They'd probably stun it at the least. At the worst, I knew, the building could collapse. Don't think about it, just move
, I prodded myself inwardly.
As soon as I reached for my belt, the Corpser charged at me. One of its claws slashed forward in a viscous arc, directly at my chest and the impact was enough to knock the breath out of me. I flew back, still surprised at how fast it moved until I hit the first object available - the sniper nest. My body flipped over the chest-high wall and I landed on something hard with a strange squish
. The stench of dead Locust filled my nostrils.
My body went into autopilot at that point, tucking and rolling out of the way just in time for the Corpser to grab the wall I'd tripped over in four it its claws. It screeched again, ripping the blackened wood away in a shower of splinters like it was ripping through toilet paper.
Before I could think further, a grenade was spinning in my hand. I let it fly right at the Corpser, still fighting to take in more air. The animal reacted with that amazing speed again, slapping at the frag with one claw. Luckily it bounced into the sniper nest and stuck there. Three short beeps later, an explosion rocked the makeshift shelter and collapsed in on itself.
I held my arms up against the heat and debris fragments whizzing toward me. A hundred pinpricks of pain hit my right arm where the armor didn't cover it and I knew that'd be a b*tch later. Unfortunately, I wasn't exactly at liberty to deal with the pain.
The Corpser squealed in pain, two of its legs blown clean off at the joint. It swerved side to side and backed out of the remains of the sniper nest, unsteady on just six legs. Most of its helmet was gone, smoke radiating from the crater in its side. Hope that stings, you f*cking bastard.
I unslung my Lancer, its reassuring grip lending me a swift and deadly shift into firing position. The trigger reacted to the pressure of my finger in a satisfying roar, rounds ping
ing off of the creature's hide. It screamed even louder that before and tried to shy away, raising its claws defensively to protect its face again.
"No you don't
, mother f*cker!
" I yelled hoarsely, feelings all the hate I had stored inside for these things unleashing itself with those streaking Lancer rounds. When it clicked dry, I let it fall and bang against my shins, reaching for another frag round. I swung, it arced, the Corpser burned.
My breath came out in strangled gasps as I watched its blackened body twitch and eyes dim, as disturbing in death as it was in life. Finally my exhaustion and pain caught up with me and I fell to my knees. It felt like there was a fire in my lungs and I knew I'd broken at least one rib from the Corpser's first strike. I glanced down at my chest armor to see a groove gouged into the metal, halving the death's head symbol directly down the middle.
The sunlight around me dimmed, a black cloud of smoke obscuring its radiance. I watched the cloud bloom like some kind of weed, streaking across the sky in a greedy swiftness. Wind stirred across the rooftops, my surroundings quiet enough to hear the reports of weapon fire far away in other districts of Jacinto. Sweat slapped against the ground and ran down my face and neck in rivulets, cooling my fevered skin. A heartbeat thrummed through my body, pulsing in an intoxicating rhythm.
I was alive.
"Jace?" Dom's voice called from below.
And so was Dom. Thank God
. I knelt my head and whispered a prayer with a smile tugging on my lips. I'd been there in time. I'd helped out my buddy. I hadn't failed.
"Jace, man, you up?" A touch of despair tinged his tone.
"Ye-," I coughed and stood up, wincing against another wave of pain. I stumbled to the sill and knelt next to it, peeking over to see Dom standing over a Corpser of his own. The man was covered in blood and rust with his snub dangling loosely at his side. "Yeah, I'm here."
Dom's face brightened into a grin with that usual cheerfulness he so often displayed. "Alright! You okay up there?"
"Me? Broke a rib, got perforated with shrapnel. I don't even know what else, man." I laughed, regretting it as soon as I did so. "How about you? What happened?"
The other Gear shrugged and hiked a thumb into the street. "Was underneath that car the Corpser was tearing into. Assholes would've gotten me if you hadn't distracted it."
I shook my head in amazement. "You're one crazy sonofab*tch, you know that? I thought you were dead!"
Dom glanced down at his blood-soaked forearms and shrugged, wiping sweat off his brow. "Nah, man, I got a wife to look for. Can't die yet."
"Yeah," I whispered, thinking of a bond I'd had with my adopted father at the orphanage, my bonds with my squadmates. I can't die yet either. "Well, hell, we're both alive, so how about I buy you a drink after we get back to base?"
"Sounds good to me," Dom replied with a casual salute. "You still got that Longshot up there?"
I glanced down to my left at the remains of the weapon and noticed the leather bag of rounds still intact. "No, but I got at least forty rounds for it all nice and packaged up."
Dom whistled and stopped midway through, his head dropping to the ground. I felt it, too - that subtle vibration. Fear seized my breast. More Locust? We were in a bad way, not much fight for even a Wretch at this point. An engine rumbled from the direction the opposite direction of the tremors and suddenly a 'Dill rolled around the corner at the opposite end of the street. Its side popped open, spilling out two heavily armored Gears - one a mountain of a man and the other a familiar, solid form. Tai and Marcus.
"Dom, Jace, you two alright? We've got seeders blocking the damn comms. Heard you were in the sh*t before that, though," Marcus ground out with a tight scowl across his face - his version of concern.
"Hell, where were you five minutes ago?" I yelled out, smiling despite myself. Things were gonna be alright. Fenix was here and I'd protected his brother successfully. Couldn't get any better than that.
Tai glanced up with raised brows, a slight smile on his round face. "Enjoying a little of the world's last sport. It was a satisfying encounter."
Dom holstered his pistol and walked over to shake hands with Marcus. "Can't be any worse than five Corpsers and a sniper."
"Don't forget the Drones," I called down.
Marcus squinted up at me. "The hell you doin' up there, Jace?"
"Enjoyin' the sights, man. You can see every broken building in Jacinto from here."
"Yeah, well, get down. We've got a line of grubs heading this way and as much as I'd like to say hello, we've got orders to get back to base. Line's fallin' back," Sargeant Fenix growled.
"Yessir!" I replied, sending the pack of Longshot rounds down into Tai's waiting hands. The giant caught them in his two monster hands, slinging it over his shoulder. Then he held his hands up again. "Oh, hell
Tai's face broken into a full smile and he dropped his arms to his sides. "As you wish."
Yeah, my buddies had my back and as I stared out over the smoking city, I realized that we were gonna need that support. As long as our hearts kept beating, we'd keep killing.
That's the world I live in.