“Come on, you rodder!”
Bernadette Mataki roared at the beast in front of her, squatting down in a fighting stance as it stared at her, weaponless. The rain falling around them turned her hair into a mushy mess, strands of it covering her face from their last clash, the day’s fading light tinting it a shade of orange. Her body felt sore where the grub had pounded into her armor, denting the metal and leaving a smear of blood and skin. Its cruel, yellow eyes glared from pitted, pale skin, baring its teeth at her with mist coming from every breath of the massive frame. Wounds covered the Drone’s body - multiple lacerations and a leaking stab wound in its upper chest where her knife was lodged. Thus far, it had deigned to leave the weapon there. Whether it was able to take it out or if it even wanted to were the last things on her mind.
It roared back at her, charging with wild abandon like some schoolyard bully, as if it were confident in its superior strength despite the beating she had given it previously. The bloody things never learned
, though she wasn’t about to complain over the intelligence level it showed. She darted to the side as it swung a bleeding fist, the muscles in its arm bulging under the thick hide. Counterattacking the Drone proved difficult, even with its wild swing throwing it off balance. Before she could get in a quick punch to the the neck or a kick to the back of its legs, it swatted its other arm in an arc quicker than she was expecting. Bernie threw up her arms, realizing her mistake too late as the blow sent her flying into the mud. Rubbing her arm across her face to get the mud and hair out of her vision, she rolled to the side as her opponent brought a boot down hard into the roiling mixture of dirt and water, splashing it everywhere.
Acting quickly, she twisted in the mud, kicking her foot into the thing’s massive, armored leg right between the joints of armor at the back of the knee. It growled in surprise at the blow, falling to its other knee involuntarily and holding itself up with one of its arms. Using the momentarily relapse to her favor, Bernie jumped onto her feet, slipping slightly in the mud, and leaped on the Drone’s back. She caught it in a headlock, not even attempting to try to break the massively muscled neck, but instead focusing on crushing its windpipe. Even if it was a hell-spawned monster, it still had to draw breath in order to live. Growling with the effort, she pulled back hard, wincing as the Drone’s hands clamped onto the arm holding its throat.
She could feel it pulling on her painfully, her arm almost feeling like it were about to break in half. Changing tactics, she let go before her bones could snap. The Drone, still pulling, brought her bodily over its shoulder. It roared in victory, rain and spittle flying into her face. She grimaced in disgust and grabbed for her knife with her free hand, ripping it out in a burst of blood and used both hands to ram it right back down into the thing’s throat, cutting off its roar into a gurgle. With pain flaring through the Locust soldier’s nerves, it reacted by wrenching hard on her arm and throwing her into the mud, letting go as she fell on her shoulders. She tucked her head in to avoid injuring it but even so, the fall hurt. Age has a way of doing that to a gal
, she thought grimly.
Moving away in a roll, she sprang to her feet and readied herself for the next round, back into her crouched fighting posture. Her breath misted into the air as she breathed hard, the rain washing off the mud she had picked up in the scuffle. She needn’t have even bothered returning to her stance, as the thing fell heavily to its knees a moment later, reaching up to almost, but not quite, grasp the protrusion she had shoved into its trachea. It gurgled again, dark blood running down that impossibly tough skin and staining it a pleasant red. Finally, it fell to its side in the mud and reached toward her menacingly, still not giving up. Bernie grinned at it fiercely, almost animalistically, stalking toward it like a cat cornering its prey. She thought she saw fear in its soulless eyes as the rain showered down loudly in her ears.
“How do you like that, you rotten piece of sh*t,” she growled, stamping as hard as she could on the outstretched hand. Another gurgle answered her, weaker than the previous ones and filled with pain. She grabbed the knife and twisted it, shoving it in deeper and ripping it out in one smooth motion, killing it as quickly as she would any animal.
“More than you deserve.”
She spat on the corpse and crouched down to reach for its belt, moving aside a heavy hand and rolling the body over. The grub was already beginning to smell, but she rummaged through the pouches anyway. Ammo for its fallen Hammerburst and some kind of dark jerky were all that she found immediately, but she grabbed it all and stuffed it in her own pack. After another few moments of searching, she found a short knife strapped to the Drone’s leg, pulling it out and adding it to her piles of treasure. She’d see if the meat was worth eating later, since she’d run out of provisions and there weren’t many animals that she could find in this port city or its surrounding suburbs. Usually there was at least a few wild dogs or cats she could hunt down, but the area was abnormally vacant of any life. Now she knew why; even animals knew when to stay away from grubs.
Her grisly business done, Bernie jogged over to the Hammerburst rifle that the Drone had dropped at the beginning of their fight, checking its unfamiliar design and unsuccessfully swiping her matted hair out of her face. She’d seen the gun's like several times in the last year on her journey from Galangi, her island home, unfortunate as that was. The grubs, as the mainlanders called them, were crawling over all of Sera. They had been the ones that had cut off her island from the rest of the world. One of the last broadcasts from Tyrus - she watched the news reports from there after she’d been shipped out even then - had called them The Locust. It was a fitting name, she'd acknowledged as she walked through abandoned cities, seeing almost everything of use stripped away.
Of course, then there were the Hammer of Dawn's effects. She’d been sailing toward the mainland a couple of kilometers off the coast when the lasers first fell. Bright, white light had pierced the peaceful night at sea, the rumbling echo of devastation following the swell of a decent sized tsunami that had wrecked the boat she’d been sailing on. She had been lucky to survive that, clinging for dear life to the broken superstructure and making her way to shore shortly after that. Washing up on the following morning had been like waking up in hell. Where there had once been trees were now nothing but the blasted skeletons of a forest, roots grasping in the air as they had tried to hold the trunk against the shockwave. Even though there hadn’t been a city for days in any direction, the destruction had reached that far, she remembered thinking half in awe and half in numb realization that humanity had done this. It was a sobering thought, the point where she knew for sure things were going down the drain.
Yet even with that, here she was, a year later, still traveling toward Ephyra to see if the COG stood against the Locust. A thankless task in response to a faint radio broadcast issuing a recall to the city Jacinto. Lifting the Locust Hammerburst up experimentally, she held it against her shoulder and fired a shot at a can lying a few meters away to clear her head and check its aim. The kick surprised her, throwing her back a few paces. Bernie frowned at the weapon, pressing a button on the side to eject the clip. It was jammed. Cursing, she tucked it under her arm and stood up, knowing she didn’t have time to mess with it now. Not with who knew how many grubs there were crawling through the ruins. Or worse, since the sun was just about to sink below the horizon, Kryll. She had to get back to the boat before dark or she’d be so much sliced meat.
With that pleasant thought in mind, she limped in the direction of the port, breathing heavy under the weight of her pack, the Hammerburst, and her injuries. The pitter patter of the rain on the rooftops around her and the chill running through her body were reminding her that any sensible person would be inside. Smiling humorlessly, she turned down a street where a bell tower had fallen into the square, counting the landmark off of her mental list. Straight ahead, turn left at a clothing store repurposed to be a bunker, straight for two blocks, and then right to hit the waterfront. It felt like miles away to her but she kept going, alert for any Locust prowling about. The rain started lessening as she went and shifted into a light drizzle. She stuck to the shadows, ducking low to keep as much out of sight as possible, her old Pendulum War era armor jiggling loosely on her frame - a little more loosely than she remembered. Bernie frowned at how much muscle mass she had lost after being discharged from the army.
The sound of heavy boots crunching across broken glass broke her out of the reverie, her eyes instantly spotting the source. Another massive, pale body holding a Lancer, the knife bayonette gleaming in the last of the sun’s light. It was standing in the middle of the street, only a few meters from her. Bernie cursed at her own carelessness and stood stock still. The thing hadn’t seen her yet. It sniffed the air and looked to the opposite side of the street from her, unconcerned. Bernie moved slowly into the store next to her, ducking under what had previously been a glass door with its handle across the middle, careful to keep her head and armor from clanging against anything.
She examined her surroundings, constantly returning her head to keep an eye on the Locust in the street. The insides of an old style diner stared back at her, a broken picture frame on the wall of a man grilling something over a stove with a smile on his face. Bernie was surprised it stayed there, despite the invasion and Hammer strikes. Faded red stools next to a bar that had been broken in half by the roof that had caved in, the same color booths ripped and strewn to bullets, and finally, a swinging door holding on by one hinge completed her investigation. The door had to lead into the back, she guessed, where she could step into the alleyway and avoid the monster standing outside.
Eager to leave the city behind and return to the safety of her boat, she passed through the doorway carefully, gingerly stepping over the glass in an effort to not make any noise. While Bernie winced with every step at the sound it made, the Drone didn’t appear to be as observant of its surroundings. One last look saw it walking away, out of her line of sight, snuffling loudly to itself. With relief, she grabbed the door handle to the back alley and opened it silently, gratefully letting the shadows embrace her once more. Looking to the right to make sure nothing was coming, she turned to the left and started walking, wishing she had someone on her tail to keep watch. It was nerve wracking to have to constantly crane her neck back and forth. Walking down the nearly flooded alleyway, she rummaged through her pack and pulled out a rectangular, black device and clicked it on.
“Manny, get the boat ready. I’ll be there in a few minutes,” Bernie said into her primitive walkie talkie, holding it close to her mouth with her free hand. The effort of carrying the Hammerburst under her arm was starting to annoy her, so she set it on her feet for a few moments, looking out of the alley to see the home stretch. No movement. A faint crackle followed by her boat driver’s voice came over the speaker, loud even at the minimum volume in the silent city.
“Gotcha, ma’am. Sun’s about to set. I ain’t stayin’ here any longer after that, so you better get your sweet can movin’. Wheelhouse ain’t exactly defendable against the locals, 'specially when I paint them such a bright target.
Manny’s grouchy tone made her smile grimly, knowing the man would keep his promise of leaving before the Kryll came out. Still, Bernie knew the man cared for her enough to wait until the last moment, which she might just be using. The thought spurred her on, grabbing the grub’s weapon under her arm again and setting off in a steady jog, ignoring the dull pain in her leg. The shells of former buildings began to look seedier as she went, even with the damage they had sustained. Whorehouses and bars hadn’t changed much since the people of Sera took to water, always located in easy enough reach for sailors coming into port.
Bernie smiled as she remembered the first time she ever left her island to join the COG’s army. The sight of the hookers on every street corner and signs boasting the best strip clubs had been shock to her system then when she’d reached Tyrus. Men and even women hadn’t been shy to come up to her and ask if she wanted a good time, their shirts undone to almost show their varying chests. She had turned so red then, so innocent despite her age. Sex wasn’t a big deal to her, but seeing the openness of the mainlanders was something else entirely.
Shaking her head to relieve her mind of its cobwebs, Bernie stopped at a four way intersection, looking all around the square for enemy movement. The sun pouring in from the right was but a sliver of what it had been, shadows deepening in readiness for the evening. Nothing moved as far as she could see, even scanning the rooftops for snipers. Her training picked out several perfect spots to set up an overwatch position, but it appeared the grubs weren’t exactly on war footing here on the other side of the world from Jacinto Plateau.
Confident in her security, she ghosted across the square, passing a shattered window that warped her reflection. She stared into the windows in her peripherals, making use of them to keep an eye on the other end of the street, just in case. It never paid to let any pursuers know you saw they were after you. Her radio crackled suddenly, causing her to start and almost drop the Hammerburst, fumbling for a few seconds to bring the radio to her ear.
“Got a few grubs coming in to investigate the motor noise, ma’am. I’d appreciate some help with ‘em, if you’re around
,” Manny said, the sound of his boat’s engine burring in the background. Bernie bit her lip and checked her position – she was a block away from the docks.
“I’m right behind them, sweetie. Distract ‘em for a moment while I work my womanly charm,” she replied, turning down an alleyway that would lead to the docks inconspicuously. The safety on her newfound Hammerburst clicked off as she heard Manny putting a few shots out with his old rifle. The sound of grub return fire and their grinding voices lit up the air, giving Bernie the moments she needed. It was just as good a time as any to practice with her new weapon.
“Any time now, missy,
” Manny said over her radio. “Don’t exactly enjoy having Barbara being shot full of holes.
Bernie jogged to the end of the alleyway, ducking behind some broken masonry. Her shoulder slammed into the brick satisfyingly, looking out over the cover for a moment to see two grubs standing in the open, laughing as they shot at a boat on the end of the pier. They were unaware of her presence, thanks to Manny, and she used that to her advantage, sighting up the one closest to her with the Hammerburst’s ironsights. She adjusted her aim to allow for the major recoil and fired two shots as fast as she could pull the trigger, watching with satisfaction at the spray of blood where the Drone’s head had been. It sounded like a wet splash as brain and gore flew into the air, landing on the other Locust’s shoulder. Bernie moved her weapon over to hit the other one, firing off another three shots, center mass.
She didn’t stop to look at her work, crouching back into cover just before return fire peppered her position. The slugs from her opponent’s weapon thunked into her cover alarmingly, leading her to believe it wasn’t as sturdy as she thought. She grabbed the walkie again, yelling over the sound of bullets to her partner.
“One down, but the other bastard’s firing on my position. You got a fix on him?”
“Looks like he’s behind some barrels. Let’s see how he likes an arse full of rifle pellets
,” Manny replied, his old rifle ripping into the night with gusto. The pained scream of a grub was music to Bernie’s ears as she leaped over her cover, running in a crouch over to the barrels. The Drone was on the ground, crawling in an effort to get out of the crossfire it had been in. Bernie sneered and sighted up on the beast, her bullets slamming into its brain.
“Two tossers slotted, courtesy of Galangi,” she muttered into her walkie.
“Awful nice of ya, but we ain’t got time to pat our backs. Sun just went down, toots. Hop in the boat before them swarms start showing up
,” Manny responded worriedly, heavy lights springing up all over his ship. It would give their position away to any grubs on land, but it was better that than being ripped apart. Bernie skipped her customary looting, hopping over the body and running as best she could with her injured leg. Her boots slapped against the wooden pier as she ran, the Hammerburst cradled in her arms protectively.
The Barbara’s Fancy
, Manny’s old sailboat, started moving away from its berth, spurring Bernie to run even harder. She was breathing hard, now, feeling that familiar rush of adrenaline from the small skirmish working its way through her system. Coming alongside the boat, she grabbed the railing and jumped for it just as the boardwalk ran out of board. She collapsed in a heap, her new weapon digging into her stomach painfully. She didn’t care, though, rolling over on her back and picking herself up enough to look at the receding coastline, the boat's engine rumbling reassuringly.
With the last rays of sunlight tainting the clouds an orange, massive black swarms of Kryll exploded out of the ground and buildings. Bernie shuddered as a small portion of a particularly large group peeled off and flitted toward the boat. She didn’t bother wasting bullets on the things, trusting the bright, multicolored lights slung along Barbara. The shrill cry of the Kryll bounced back and forth on either side as they flew around the vehicle, darting in and then screaming louder as the light hit them.
“Gives me the damn willies, that does,” a rough voice called out from Bernie’s left. She turned to see Manny standing on the door outside the wheelhouse, his bald head gleaming in the glare of the protective lights. He was a stocky man, about the same height as her, but built out in a way only a hardened sailor could be. Short, brown shorts that belonged on no man as old as Manny covered his thighs, and not much else, with the same color boots reaching up to the middle of his lower leg. A flamboyant white shirt open enough to release the giant puff of hair on his chest completed the strange ensemble. She raised an eyebrow at his form of dress, but he simply ignored the look and reached down a hand to help her up. Bernie took it gratefully.
“I can relate,” she growled as the man heaved her to her feet.
“Find any food, by chance?” he asked, scratching his scalp vigorously. Bernie backed up a little, not sure if she wanted the man’s fleas or whatever else was feeding on him. She shook her head and then paused, thoughtfully dug in her pack, remembering her discovery.
“I’m not sure if we can eat it, but I found some kind of jerky in a grub’s belt,” she replied, pulling out the dried, tan meat. It didn’t look anything like any jerky she’d ever seen, but she was willing to try it once. Manny grabbed a piece out of her outstretched hand and tore off a chunk with his teeth, chewing contentedly. Bernie watched his face, wondering if her only way to steer the boat was going to keel over.
“Tastes like sh*t, but I’ll take it,” Manny nodded with satisfaction, taking another bite. Bernie shook her head at the man’s careless attitude, stuffing the remaining slices of jerky back into the pack she carried.
With Manny returning to his place at the helm of the ship, and the Kryll long gone as they sped further out to sea, Bernie examined the weapon she had brought along with her. The weapon was big, almost larger than she was if she had to be honest. The weapon’s clip receiver was damaged, a little dent punched into the side of it stopping the ejection. Grabbing a screwdriver from her pack and sitting back down, she worked the flat tip in between the seam and tried wiggling it around to pop out the cartridge. After a few minutes of messing with it, the clip ejected from the gun.
Bernie blew out a breath as she finished her work, staring at objects in her lap and wondered at the pleasure the simple act of fixing gave. There wasn’t a lot of pleasure left in the world, though, so anything she could get was better than nothing. She shrugged philosophically, working to remove the dent so her other scavenged clips could be slotted in. The sound of the ocean slapping against the old boat accompanied her work, lending a certain peace despite her hatred of the wet stuff.
Eventually, Bernie yawned and stretched, looking around their little boat at the reflection of the lights in the water. It looked as if they were sailing in nothingness, the surroundings black against the glare of the stringed illumination. She wiped her eyes, suddenly realizing how tired she was and stood up, gathering her gear with her. Waving to Manny through the wheelhouse window, she retired to the cabin, almost tripping down the stairs as the boat rocked with the waves.
“Sh*t! Lock me up if I ever get used to this bloody vehicle,” Bernie groused, muttering her annoyance at her surroundings and dropping her stuff beside her bed, catching herself on the wall as the boat rocked again. Un-strapping the armor on her slender body, she let it fall where it may, too tired to worry about taking care of it at the moment, even though she knew she’d have to sooner or later. Sighing with resignation, the former Gear collapsed into the bed, instantly falling asleep.
Bernie awoke to a sharp jolt as something hit the side of the boat, instantly awake as adrenaline ripped through her system. Thoughts of the boat sinking into the waves assailed her, fear clawing at her throat as she jerked upright to look around at the compartment. Manny’s familiar voice came from the other side of the small room, cursing at being woken up so early. As her eyes adjusted to the dark, she could make out the man strapping on his pair of too short shorts, leaving his top half exposed. He must have weighed anchor, which meant they were close to shore. At least, she hoped that she was making the right conclusion.
“What’s up?” Bernie asked, careful to keep the nervousness out of her voice. She wasn’t going to let a little thing like the possibility of drowning bother her, especially if Manny seemed unworried. Surely not.
“Hell if I know, sweets. Maybe we got grazed by a whale or some other flotsam. I’ll go check it out for you, seein’ as how you love being above deck at night,” Manny replied sarcastically, tramping up the stairs loudly, his voice calling down to her as he moved up. She frowned at him as his footsteps thudded above her, the sounds of waves causing her to twitch in anticipation.
“What in the hell! You can’t just come up on a ship like that, son. It just ain’t prop-.”
Whatever Manny was going to say, he never got the chance. The loud crack of a gunshot echoed from above, setting her combat instincts into overdrive. She forgot her fear of water, reaching for the Hammerburst next to her bed, grabbing a couple of clips for it. Multiple footsteps above her clued her in, so she went to the right of the stairs leading into her sleeping area and held her breath. The stars that she could see shone brightly, an almost eager darkness threatening to completely obliterate the light as it blocked her sight. She fell further back into shadow, pointing her gun up at her target, center mass, just like she’d been taught to in close range. Headshots only worked if you were far enough away not to be noticed.
The first shadow clumped down the stairs, the soft, orange light of a cigarette lighting up the man’s scarred face. Bernie grimaced, knowing how loud the Hammerburst was going to be in the small quarters. Ah well, not like my ears are going to get a chance to recover from all this war
, she thought, pulling the trigger just as the man reached the bottom step. Time stopped as her weapon clicked. Her eyes widened as she realized the Hammerburst was jammed, the man quickly turning toward the sound with anger plain on his ugly face.
Dropping the weapon with a clamor, she threw a right hook at the murderer, feeling it impact satisfyingly against his cheek. The man stumbled backwards and caught himself on the counter next to the sink, clearly surprised by her strength. She rushed forward, intent on keeping her momentum up, feinting a right hook and once again striking flesh as her left fist smacked into the man’s right eye. Before she could continue, a heavy weight drove into her stomach, pushing her back toward the stairs and painfully bashing her tailbone against the second to last step.
She avoided the punch heading straight for her head by dodging to the side and smiling grimly as the man’s fist hit nothing but wood. Using the man’s move against him, she kicked out with both feet, knocking him back into his previous position. Bernie gathered her feet back under her, ready to go again as the man spit out blood. She saw his eyes flick up to the stairs behind her and she looked up. The bottom of a boot appeared in her vision just before pain exploded in her face, tears overwhelming her as she fell, bringing her hands to her no doubt broken nose. She felt blood streaming out. Another kick to her side had her coughing up some of the blood that ran down her throat. F*cking stupid
, she cursed at herself for getting distracted. Before she could regain her feet and get back into the fight, someone grabbed her arms and pinned them painfully behind her back.
“Lookie what we have here, boss. A little old, maybe, but probably still…useful,” a leering voice pierced through the red haze of pain. Bernie didn’t like the tone in the man’s voice at all, but it was lost as a boot from another direction hit her in the head. What little vision she had blurred heavily at the edges, blearily hoping she wasn’t getting brain damage from all the abuse. “What the hell happened to your face, John?”
“B*tch got a lucky shot is all, man. Tie her up while I look around, see if I can find any food or other supplies,” her first assailant growled sharply, cutting off anymore questions in that vein.
“What about the rest?”
Bernie heard a pause as the man, John, rummaged through the pantry, tossing aside cans and other foodstuff.
“Let them have her. Then dump her overboard.”
“Now that’s an order I can get behind, cap’n,” the other voice replied, a cruel glee evident in its tone. Bernie felt herself roughly manhandled as the asshole grabbed her by the hair and threw her on Manny’s bed. Her shins banged painfully against the wood paneling beneath it as she felt her hands being tied behind her. She kicked up with her right leg, feeling it hit the sweet spot and temporarily freeing her. Unfortunately, John had picked that time to stop messing around in the food closet. A rough hand ringed her neck, strong knees holding her legs down to stop her kicking. She was helpless, despite her struggling. Plastic ties Manny usually battened down loose items with dug into her wrist as they finished her imprisonment. Bernie could already feel the circulation in her hands cutting off from the tightness.