Semi-Mandatory Disclaimer: I do not own either Gate or Gears of War. If I did, Rory would look more grown up and Ben Carmine would've survived until at least the end of Act III.

Author's Notes: I don't even know why I bother continuing to try and write sometimes. (sigh) Anyway, I'm going entirely off of the anime series, but I've heard a thing or two about the manga that I'd like to incorporate in some way. This story will revolve around a team of OC Gears; sorry to anyone who was expecting Delta Squad, but their personalities and motivations just wouldn't mesh well with the atmosphere. Additionally, the focus of the story won't revolve around any one person in particular – each main character will have their day in the limelight at some point or another.

Now then, without further ado, bring on the carnage.

(Jacinto City, two weeks after Lightmass Offensive)

"Daddy, why do you have to join the army? You said you hated the COG for abandoning us…"

Outside a recruiting center in one of Jacinto's poorer districts, a young girl tugged on her father's sleeve when it looked like he hadn't paid any attention to her question. The line of people stretched well beyond the front door; the chances of the small family finishing up their business here any time soon grew smaller by the minute.

The girl's father sighed in resignation, reaching down to tousle her long raven hair. She was a skinny thing, dressed in a tattered blue sweatshirt and old trousers held together by patchwork and prayers. His wife, equally disheveled in appearance, crossed her arms and glared daggers at the sign over the recruiting center. It seemed like she still hadn't forgiven him for what he was about to do. He didn't blame her.

"We've been over this before, Isabel. If Daddy becomes a Gear, then you and your mother will have plenty of food and a place to live. Besides," he smiled reassuringly at his daughter, "now that the monsters are gone, nothing bad will happen to me whenever I get deployed. You don't have to worry."

Isabel nodded, not quite convinced, but not objecting either. She averted her gaze to look out into the street.

The girl's father sighed again, then checked to see if the line had progressed much. It hadn't.

Like it or not, Operation Lifeboat was the best and only chance for many of the Stranded families lucky enough to make it to Jacinto; there just wasn't enough food and housing left in the city to accommodate the basic needs of everyone living there. Gears, he'd heard, received extra rations both for themselves and their loved ones. And it was still a better option than squatting in the ruins of Ephyra – even if the Kryll were now supposedly extinct. If his family's survival depended on him joining Prescott's army of fascist scum, then so be it.

As her father stewed in his thoughts, he completely missed how Isabel's attention was now fixated on something else. Something was materializing out of thin air further down the street. Something very big…

"I can't believe that after all that's happened recently, I'm still stuck on the same monotonous patrol route." Chief Warrant Officer Akira Yanagida griped as he made his way down one of Jacinto's many alleyways. "You'd think that after the bombing, the Chairman would've made more of an effort to permanently secure Ephyra, but no! Instead of sending us to do something worthwhile, we're right back where we started! Ugh, of all the ignorant- Dalton, are you even listening?!"

Private Alec Dalton stopped humming to himself and nodded to his patrol partner. "Yeah, I get what you're saying. Maybe you could ask for a transfer? I'm sure High Command wouldn't mind if you said you'd rather be out killing stray grubs."

Much had changed for the human race in the weeks following the now-famous Lightmass Offensive. For the first time in the fourteen years since Emergence Day, the Coalition of Ordered Governments led their Gears on a successful mission to deliver a bomb of unimaginable power to the doorstep of the dreaded Locust Horde. While nobody had the exact numbers, the casualties inflicted on the subterranean monsters and their beasts of war must have been astronomical, since few confirmed Locust sightings were reported over the next several days. The only thing resembling an organized counterattack had been an assault on the agricultural depot at North Gate one week ago; even then, the Locust failed to cause much damage.

However, instead of capitalizing on their victory by driving out the remaining Locust, the COG had withdrawn most of their army back to the safety of Jacinto, along with many of their land and air vehicles for refuel and repair. Personally, Alec had his doubts about that decision – but hey, he was only a private. Who was he to argue with the ones in charge?

Apparently Yanagida shared those same doubts. The two Gears were deployed to a quieter front of Ephyra during the battle; sure, guarding an evacuation route for wounded soldiers and rescued civilians was important, but the Locust seemed content to leave that part of the city alone for whatever reason. Now that most of the former capital was just as deserted, what was stopping the COG from doing more?

Yanagida snorted under his helmet as they rounded a corner. "What, and risk getting torn apart by a surviving Berserker? No thank you. I'd be much happier using my smarts and giving out orders than being sent to the frontlines."

"I don't think I'd be able to handle that kind of responsibility," Alec admitted. "Me personally, I just wish I could've done more to help, you know? I was kind of expecting more from my first deployment. Instead I can count the number of grubs I killed on one hand."

The pair of soldiers were approaching a small market area in one of the city's former commercial districts, now mostly repurposed as a residential area for refugees from all across Sera. As they made their way over to a sandwich shop, Yanagida pulled his helmet off and wiped the sweat from his brow.

"Ugh… I don't understand how anyone can stand wearing these things for more than an hour. Dalton, would you mind finishing up the route? You know nothing ever happens on these patrols, and I could really use a glass of iced tea right about now."

The younger Gear shrugged. "Only if I get to stop by the comic book store along the way."

"Hmph. Fine, but don't get caught up in your little fantasy world for too long." Yanagida gave him a brief nod before disappearing inside the store, leaving Dalton to continue down the street alone.

He didn't mind, if he had to be honest. For all his intelligence, the warrant officer was a very vocal complainer, and this wasn't the first time they'd had this particular conversation while on patrol. Dalton wished Yanagida would get the promotion he dreamed of sometime soon. Maybe then he'd be partnered up with someone a bit more positive.

The private shook his head, pausing for a moment to check the safety on his Lancer assault rifle. Enough thinking about that. The comic book store was only a few blocks away, and he really, really hoped that Skeeter finally managed to acquire Issue #28 of Ice Angel.

I know it's hard to get new comics these days, but c'mon! I HAVE to find out what happens in the long-awaited confrontation with Gurp the Living Toxin! Dalton thought giddily.

Ever since he was a child, Alec Dalton had a huge love of comic books. The colorful pictures and plentiful action captivated him instantly; during recess at preschool, while the other kids played out in the yard, Alec would contentedly sit in a corner, watching with rapt attention as superheroes fought evil villains for control of the planet. In fact, he'd learned to read fluently by the time he was five simply because he wanted to better understand what was happening in each issue he collected.

Even now, as a twenty-two-year-old Gear in the Coalition of Ordered Governments Army, his obsession hadn't diminished in the slightest. He was more than willing to trade a few ration bars for whatever new reading material the store owner could get his hands on.

"Maybe I should check and see if Rudy's favorite manga is in stock," Dalton thought out loud. He received a few odd stares from passing civilians, but the young soldier didn't pay them any mind. "Or does he even have a favorite? All manga looks the same to me. Should probably ask Skeeter for a recommendation."

He approached a busier intersection in the direction of downtown Jacinto, checking for traffic before crossing the street ahead. Morale had greatly improved for the city's residents in the aftermath of the Lightmass Offensive, he'd noticed. With the Locust defeated, at least temporarily, the COG turned its focus on getting the human race back on its feet – a few new farms had sprung up on the route between Jacinto and Ephyra, and there were reports that some of the Stranded gangs inhabiting the ruins of Tyrus' former capital were offering to trade supplies as a show of gratitude for driving the grubs away.

For the first time in over fourteen years, there was hope for the people of Sera. They no longer felt the need to run away whenever the Locust Horde made their presence known. The bombing at Timgad was proof that the COG held a chance of winning this war; that the human race wasn't fighting until the end, but fighting to see a tomorrow.

As Dalton neared the alley leading to the comic store, he reflected on how life, at least for the moment, was pretty good.

Isabel held her mother's hand tightly, her wide brown eyes transfixed on the mysterious, monumental structure occupying what had once been a deserted four-way intersection. All around her, Stranded and COG citizens alike pointed and spoke in hushed, awed whispers; each of them wondering just what this structure was and where it came from.

It was massive in height – at least three stories tall – and bore an eerily odd resemblance to the entrance of a mausoleum. Pillars of chiseled marble supported by lengths of blue crystal held the roof of the structure aloft. Most notably, an ominous, pitch black void led into the yawning chasm of the interior – only a tiny sliver of light could be seen at the other end.

It reminded her of the light at the end of the tunnel her mother claimed people saw when they died and went to Heaven. Maybe this led to Heaven? Would she be able to see her other family again?

Isabel listened closer to hear some of the adults' whispered voices.

"That wasn't there a second ago, was it?"

"Is this some kind of E-Hole? Is it a Locust trick?"

"How is that light reaching so far back?"

"None of this makes any sense!"

A shrill, high-pitched shriek from inside the structure turned the onlookers' focus back to the darkness. Suddenly, without any further warning, a massive winged reptile erupted forth from the gate.

Isabel screamed.

Alec Dalton once again found himself humming as his destination came into view. He'd been hoping to decide what to get by now in case Issue #28 still wasn't in stock, but came up blank. Maybe today would just be a browsing sort of day.

He began to reach for the shop's door handle when an absolutely inhuman cry pierced the air around him.

Back at the site of the mausoleum-like structure, the citizens of Jacinto City stared in total shock at what had come from beyond the veil of darkness within the gate.

An army of human men, dressed in red tunics and heavy plate armor reminiscent of the kind dating back to the Silver Era, gazed at the assembled crowd with unreadable expressions. Most of them were armed with equally archaic weaponry: longswords, spears, and large tower shields; archers and cavalrymen mounted atop armored horses were also visible within their ranks. A few of the mysterious soldiers carried banners displaying unfamiliar insignias.

What startled the crowd the most, however, were the non-humans. Many dark-skinned creatures of varying ugliness stood between the citizens and the foreigners, armed with crude swords, clubs, and axes. Several of them growled and bared pointed teeth at the onlookers, as if daring them to attack. Beyond even that, more of those strange draconic animals continued to swoop up out of the gate and into the open sky, ridden by humans equipped with gigantic lances.

For a few seconds, both groups simply stared at one another.

Someone in the foreign army blew what sounded like a horn, and with a loud battle cry from the medieval soldiers, the massacre began.

"What the-?" Private Dalton looked up just in time to catch a glimpse of an unfamiliar winged creature passing overhead, right before it disappeared behind a nearby rooftop. Seconds later, more unfamiliar roars and bellows echoed down the empty alley he was in, soon accompanied by the most chilling sound he'd ever heard: the screams of panicked civilians.

The young Gear's eyes dilated under his helmet. For a brief moment, memories of Emergence Day, delicately locked away in the years since the incident, flooded to the surface of his mind:

Fire/Smoke/Blood/Screams/What's happening/Where's dad/Hide in the cellar, Alec/They won't get you/I won't let them/I love you-

Alec bolted down the worn pavement, Lancer already in hand.

Had it happened? Had the Locust finally breached the granite under Jacinto? If they did, then the remaining human population of Sera was in very, very big trouble.

But that couldn't be the case, could it? The Lightmass bomb had crippled the grubs severely; they couldn't have reorganized in such a short amount of time! If they hadn't, then what the hell was happening?!

Alec emerged onto the open street… and immediately got his answer.

Everywhere he looked were humanoid monsters. It was obvious at first glance that they weren't Locust; if he had to make an assumption, he thought they looked more like goblins and trolls from some of the few fantasy-themed comics he owned.

The creatures relentlessly chased after fleeing civilians – smashing, hacking, and utterly eviscerating every helpless person within melee range. He even saw a pig-like monster curl up and crash into an unsuspecting woman like an out-of-control pinball.

What made the scene even stranger was that they were backed up by – Alec blinked twice to confirm what he was seeing – human beings with swords, shields, and metal armor. He rapidly ducked back into the alleyway after watching a man get skewered by an arrow.

Oh SHIT! Oh shit oh shit oh shit, what the actual FUCK is happening right now?! It's like E-Day all over again, but… but these aren't Locust! Dalton took some deep breaths to try and calm himself down. I… I don't know what to do. I have no idea how to handle this! I don't know how I should- Oh shit! Yanagida!

As if by coincidence, Yanagida's voice suddenly crackled to life over Dalton's comm system, causing the Gear to yelp and nearly have a heart attack.

"Dalton! Private Dalton, do you read me? Alec, pick up!" the warrant officer's voice shouted directly into his ear.

"I read you, Yanagida!" Dalton responded. "What the hell is this? Who or what is attacking us?!"

Akira's voice remained composed, even over the sound of distant gunfire on his end. "I don't know, but right now that's not important. What IS important is getting everyone we can to safety! Command has ordered all available Gears to escort civilians to Wrightman Base while they figure out how to push this enemy back! Do you copy, Private?"

"W-Wilco, sir." God, he hated himself for stuttering just then. "Is there anything else you can tell me about the enemy? Anything I should watch out for?"

"How the hell should I know?" his superior snapped at him. "If I were you, I'd try to avoid the flying ones if I could. Other than that, show them as much mercy as they're showing us. Don't make us look bad, Dalton. Yanagida out."

The line disconnected. The private let out a long, slow breath as he prepared to venture back out onto the streets, giving his Lancer one final check to make sure it was primed and ready.

Innocent people getting slaughtered by unknown monsters… It really was E-Day all over again. Alec vowed that the outcome would end differently this time.

"Everybody, run! Evacuate to Wrightman Base! I'll hold them off!"

Bursts of rifle fire in the enemy's direction punctuated Alec's statement.

Half an hour had passed since he'd joined the urban firefight in humanity's last bastion. The streets of Jacinto presented a scene of utter chaos: over two dozen of the invaders' fresh corpses were intermingled with the bodies of civilians, courtesy of his Lancer, though it did little to stave off the current assault. Behind him, a few civvies who knew the location of the base took advantage of Dalton's distraction to help guide other survivors away from the carnage.

He ejected the spent magazine from his rifle, wasting no time before inserting a fresh one and continuing to fire, all the while making a steady retreat to a nearby three-way intersection. Five more of the goblin-things fell screaming under a hail of gunfire.

The human soldiers in their ranks shouted something in an unfamiliar language and raised their shields in an attempt to defend themselves; unfortunately for them, they were also cut down shortly after, their shields and armor reduced to Swiss cheese by a plethora of bullet holes.

What was once a force of more than three dozen invaders had been reduced to eight in only a couple of minutes. Out of desperation, the remaining troops bunched close together and let out a spirited war cry, charging at Dalton as one with their weapons raised. Thinking quickly, the private unclipped a bolo grenade from his belt, tossed it in their direction with a light underhand throw, then ran the opposite way before the boom went off.

Sure enough, a deafening BOOM accompanied by lots of screaming confirmed that the grenade did its job. Alec took a quick look back and grimaced under his helmet. It seemed like the invaders had been right on top of the explosive when it went off. Of the eight attackers, two of them survived, but with multiple limbs blown off; their faces were contorted in agony, crying out as blood spurted from the severed stumps. Nothing was left of the other six except gory piles of meat.

Truth be told, this enemy wasn't really all that hard to fight. They may have had the element of surprise on their side, along with a supplementary force of non-humans, but apparently there was little they could do when pitted against an armed Gear.

There was another street below the intersection he was at. It was only a short drop, so rather than waste time finding stairs, Private Dalton vaulted over the railing, then ducked into a roll to reduce the shock of the landing.

Heh, Yanagida would've yelled at him for doing that.

He briefly analyzed his surroundings, taking in everything he saw. The road ahead was mostly deserted, save for a single female Gear several meters away guarding a small bunch of civvies, along with a single hostile soldier armed with a longsword. He immediately noticed that this Gear was different from most of the others – she was up there in age, probably pushing sixty, with long gray hair tied back in a braided ponytail. Intricate tribal tattoos ran along the length of her bare forearms. She also wore tight black gloves over her hands, which carried an MX8 Snub pistol.

"Back the hell off, you fucking barbarian!" she shouted, aiming her bulky pistol at the foreign soldier. Alec recognized her accent as hailing from the Northern immigrants of the South Islands. "Or else I'll blow yer guts out of your arse!"

The invader either didn't understand her threat or didn't care. He charged at her with a yell, sword raised, but two quick shots from the Snub were enough to incapacitate him. Satisfied that the man was dead, the woman finally seemed to notice Dalton's presence as she holstered her pistol.

Her sharp blue eyes locked onto him, like a hawk eyeing its prey. She regarded him closely for a few seconds, as if she was sizing him up, before turning her back to him to speak with the terrified civilians she'd been protecting.

Which also meant that she didn't notice when the invader she'd shot earlier slowly staggered back to his feet, bleeding from his torso and clearly in a great amount of pain, but still very much alive. He picked up his discarded longsword and once more ran forward to attack, his furious bellow startling everyone in the small group. The elder Gear made to reach for her Snub again, but it was too late – the sword was already coming down in a diagonal arc.


Vroooom… CLANG!

The enemy's face widened in shock when Dalton's chainsaw bayonet met his sword head-on.

The sharp teeth of the Lancer's chainsaw threw up angry sparks as it bit into the foreign weapon. Confused and panicking, the warrior adjusted his grip on the longsword, grasping the handle with one hand while the other held onto the sharpened blade itself. It was ultimately a futile attempt to block, however, as proven two seconds later when the chainsaw first cleaved the sword in two – followed by the man's body right afterwards.

Ignoring the blood now coating his armor, Alec turned to face his comrade, panting lightly from the adrenaline in his system. "Are you all right?"

"I am, thanks to you. That was a ballsy move you just pulled off there, kid." The woman grabbed his hand and roughly shook it. For an old lady, she still had quite a bit of spunk left in her. "Much appreciated. I'm Sergeant Bernadette Mataki, but everyone calls me Bernie. You got a name?"

"Private Alec Dalton, ma'am!" The younger Gear instinctually saluted in the presence of a superior. "The district I was patrolling earlier seems to have been successfully evacuated, so I was heading to Wrightman Base to see if my partner also made it. What about you?"

"Same. This is the last bunch of people I was able to find," Bernie answered, gesturing to the now slightly less terrified civilians. "I say we hoof it to base before these fuckwits playin' knight send in reinforcements. Stick close to us, Private."

"Yes, ma'am!" Dalton replied, following along as Bernie and the others began moving down the street.

Located deep in the heart of Jacinto City, Wrightman Base was originally one of the Coalition's largest hospitals, but was reconverted into a command center shortly after the Locust Horde initially overran the COG's previous headquarters in Ephyra. It was as well-equipped and defended as one could hope for: massive concrete walls surrounded the perimeter of the base, with chain gun turrets placed strategically on the exterior of the hospital's walls to cover any potential vulnerable spots. Inside the walls, hundreds of Gears scurried to their posts; some grabbed weapons and positioned themselves around defended spots in preparation for an enemy advance, others rushed to waiting King Raven helicopters to provide air support and extraction for any survivors left outside, and still others provided security for the lines of civilians trickling into safety.

The lines, Alec noted grimly as he and Sergeant Mataki made their way to the entrance, were moving far too slowly. They'd left the collected refugees at the back of one line, promising that their safety was assured, though deep down the private feared those words might soon become a lie. At this rate, the hostiles would arrive long before the last of the civvies got inside.

"I don't know about you, but I don't think this is the right time for anyone to be moving along in an 'orderly fashion'." He voiced his thoughts out loud to his companion. Bernie, jogging a few paces ahead of him, grunted in agreement.

"The COG loves to keep things organized, even in times of crisis. Fuckin' horseshit if you ask me… Seems like some things haven't changed at all while I was away." The elder Gear grumbled.

When the duo approached the front gate from the side of the lines, they saw a helmetless and irate-looking Gear arguing with one of the guards.

"I don't care what your orders are! We don't have enough time to follow standard evac procedures before the enemy gets here!" Akira Yanagida hollered, his normally pale face red with anger.

"Then what do you suggest, Chief Warrant Officer? These rules were designed with safety in mind. Would you prefer it if everyone just trampled over each other trying to get in?" the guard countered.

Alec, happy and relieved to see his partner safe, piped up before he could offer a rebuttal. "Is that you, Yanagida? Hah! I knew you'd make it!"

"Dalton?" Akira spun around in surprise. "You're still alive?... Good. I knew I could count on you."

"Yeah, well, these guys aren't putting up as much of a fight as the grubs, so…"

Bernie, meanwhile, ignored the reunion between the two youngsters and marched straight over to the guard. Scowling, she jabbed a finger into his armored chest.

"Listen here, kiddo, the Warrant Officer there is right! If we don't get everyone inside these walls right fucking now, there's gonna be a bloodbath out there, and I'll cut yer damn balls off myself if you let it happen! Am. I. Clear?!" The old veteran accentuated her last words with three more pokes to the man's chestpiece.

"And see a rampage the likes of which only happens on Black Friday? Get real, lady!" the guard retorted, forcing Bernie's hand away from him. "I have my orders, and I intend to follow them. If you and those two men want to go inside, that's all fine and dandy, but the refugees have to wait until they're individually cleared. End of story."

The sergeant leaned in close, boring through the guard's helmet with an intense gaze she reserved for assholes who really pissed her off.

"Are you familiar with Colonel Hoffman, kid? Hero of the Pendulum Wars, savior of Anvil Gate, and currently the highest-ranking officer left in the Armed Forces? Who am I bloody kidding; of course you are. Well let me tell you something: my name is Bernadette Mataki, and I'm a close friend of his." She leaned even closer, her expression venomous. "Mark my fucking words, junior: As soon as I get into that base, I'm going to find out where he is, march straight up to him, and tell him that some shit nugget guarding the front gate is willing to let innocent people die because – and I quote – 'he intends to follow orders'."

The scene went deathly quiet all of a sudden. Dalton and Yanagida were both staring at her; while the private's helmet made it impossible to judge his facial reaction, Yanagida's jaw looked like it was about to hit the ground.

"Sergeant… Mataki? She… she's rumored to be the best sniper in the entire army…" the warrant officer stuttered in awe.

"Way to tell him, Bernie!" Dalton encouraged her, giving a friendly wave to his new battle buddy.

The guard, for his part, initially stood his ground in the face of the scary old lady threatening him. Then his whole body trembled and he yelled out to the crowd, "People, in light of recent revelations, we're going to be speeding up entry into the base! Get inside as quick as you can, but please be careful!"

The crowd obeyed, rushing through the open gates in as controlled a fashion as they could manage. Bernie pulled away from the guard and smirked nastily.

"Listen to your elders, kid. It might save your life someday."

(Jacinto Administrative District)

"There are structures built of brick and marble here…"

"Uhh… sir?"

Commander Vylus glanced over to his subordinate, then focused his attention back to the towering buildings surrounding them – buildings that rivaled even the Imperial palace in their size and grandeur.

Never could he have imagined ending up in a world such as this. Everyone in the army knew they were taking a big risk invading someplace entirely foreign to them, but they also took comfort in the knowledge that they'd never once been defeated in battle. The Imperial army was the finest amalgamation of trained knights, footmen, and other warriors from across the continent; the corpses scattered across the streets of this alien city were a testament to their sheer might and ruthlessness. They were the best of the best.

Which was why Vylus was concerned to see so many of their own soldiers intermixed with the other dead.

This enemy was also human, that much was obvious. But the similarities ended there – the humans of this world spoke a different language, built their roads out of a smoother material than cobblestone, constructed towers that seemed to touch the sky… and had Blue Golems defending them.

Vylus had received scattered reports mentioning strange, armored golems sighted around the city. If the reports were to be believed, they were extremely deadly, able to take out entire squads of Imperial soldiers single-handedly without even moving. He'd dismissed the perceived danger at first, citing that nothing short of a dragon could withstand the power of their army, but soon grew worried as more and more bodies of their fallen comrades were discovered littering the city streets.

That was where he was now: a street covered in corpses, both foreign and familiar; his prized stallion flanked on both sides by Imperial spearmen. His second-in-command, a bald, oafish yet competent and loyal man by the name of Torgal, was by his side on his own horse.

"The way they're constructed… It relieves me to see something familiar. It reminds me of home." He explained to Torgal.

Vylus heard his subordinate shift on his mount. The commander knew how the man must be feeling right now. He felt the same way.

"Do you not feel uneasy?" he asked slowly. "Do you not wonder where we have found ourselves?"

Or what might happen to us if we stay here…?

(Wrightman Base)

Today was proving to be Emergence Day and his deployment in Ephyra all over again, Alec mused in silent thought. All around the city, the Battle of Jacinto was being waged, and he was once again stuck guarding an evacuation route.

He fired a long burst from his Lancer at a large troll wielding an even larger warhammer. The beast fell dead, but its compatriots were undeterred, charging forward and bellowing even as they were massacred by the base's defenses.

At least he was seeing plenty of action this time. Besides, the helpless people behind the wall were counting on him to defend their lives. As a Gear, it was his sworn duty to protect others, and Private Dalton was happy to serve.



…Bernie was a ton of fun to have around.

The sergeant was on the wall directly above him, the steady boom of her Longshot sniper rifle punctuating every vulgar statement she threw at the enemy. Dalton could see why Yanagida was in awe of her sniping skills; every shot she fired blew a hostile's head open like a ripened watermelon. She was even kind enough to aim for the bigger units first, just to save the Gears below her some trouble.

Speaking of Yanagida, he was firing his own Lancer with a murderous expression, shouting something about earning a promotion to avoid having to fight stupid grunt battles like this one and… Yeah, he was fine.

Dalton's assault rifle was running low on ammo, so he switched it out for his Gnasher shotgun and resumed the onslaught. The enemy's forces were thinning – as long as they didn't suddenly pull something crazy, then Wrightman Base was as good as secure.

Almost as if the universe was giving him the middle finger, a distant roar heralded the arrival of two winged creatures High Command had dubbed "wyverns". The beasts were reported to be as durable as they were fast, easily shrugging off any damage from combined small arms fire. Nothing short of armor-piercing bullets or a shot from a Centaur tank could take one down.

"Control, this is KR-72. I've spotted two aerial hostiles headed towards Wrightman Base and am moving to engage."

"Copy that, KR-72. Fire at will."

"Control, this is KR-39! Don't start the party without me!"

Thankfully for the base's defenders, King Ravens came equipped with a lot of armor-piercing bullets.

It had taken longer than anticipated to get the birds airborne, especially since the invasion came as a total surprise, but nobody could deny that the helicopters were an incredibly valuable asset right now. Armed with frontal machine gun turrets and piloted solely by the craziest of enlisted men and women, the King Ravens were doing a damn good job returning air superiority to the COG.

The wyverns screeched a challenge and flew faster at the choppers, but it was no use. The turrets on each Raven soon reduced the pair of flying lizards to chunky salsa.

"Now that's what I'm talkin' about!" Dalton barely heard Bernie over the roar of the birds' rotors.

As the Gears continued to hold off the invading army, Alec picked up more and more comm chatter over his helmet's radio:

"Be advised, hostile ranks have broken near Pomeroy Depot and are in partial retreat."

"Attention all units: Enemy forces have been cleared from the southeast port district. Requesting 4th Infantry Battalion to help secure the area."

"Control, this is KR-88. The skies are clear of all hostile air support. Moving to provide covering fire for friendly ground units."

"Roger that, KR-88. Have a nice day."

"We can win this…" Dalton whispered to himself. From what he'd heard, the enemy's ranks were beginning to fragment all over Jacinto.

He would continue to fight until city's people could walk the streets without fear once more. He swore it.

(Several Hours Later)

Alec exhaled a long breath, trudging wearily through the mob of civilians still holed up in Wrightman Base's courtyard.

He made it. The battle was over. Every enemy combatant was either dead, captured, or fled back to… wherever the hell they came from. He didn't have a fucking clue, and right now he didn't care. All he knew was that the Coalition of Ordered Governments had emerged victorious over a new, unknown enemy.

Thank god for that. He'd been fighting for what felt like hours; the hostiles sieging their command center had apparently been one of the last enemy forces to break rank and scatter. The young soldier was tired from all the exertion, sore from handling a gun for so long, and really could've used a long nap after everything that transpired today.

But, he couldn't. He still had a job to do. The citizens of Jacinto were safe – for the time being, anyway – but that left High Command with the question of what to do with them now.

With many people either dead or missing in the aftermath of the invasion, their families who made it to shelter risked getting… a little bent out of shape. Dalton's new assignment was to make sure the refugees stayed calm and followed orders.

Nothing particularly noteworthy caught his eye, until he spotted a young, raven-haired girl in a dirty blue sweatshirt standing by herself a few meters away. The girl's brown eyes darted between people in the crowd, and the way she was shaking in place belied her nervousness.

Alec immediately felt sorry for her, deciding that she could use some help. He put his Lancer away and walked over to her.

"What's wrong? Can't find your mom and dad?" he asked gently, kneeling down to face her at eye level.

The girl nodded, blinking back tears.

"What's your name? That way I can ask some of the adults around here if they know your parents."

The girl looked down, clearly discomforted by his questioning. She eventually answered in a tiny voice, "Isabel. M-My name is Isabel…"

"Isabel? That's a pretty name." Alec extended a hand to her. "Tell you what, Isabel. How about you come with me? We can look for your mom and dad together."

Much to his shock, Isabel shook her head and backed away from him.

"I… I can't. You're a Gear, right? That means you work for the COG. Daddy always told me I shouldn't trust anyone from the COG…"

Alec's heart broke more with each word the girl spoke. He'd guessed she was Stranded based on her tattered clothes and skinny frame, but hearing her talk so fearfully about the COG… about him

Even though the Coalition now had a few victories in their name, humanity as a whole still lived in a wretched world.

He though for a minute about how to best approach this before coming to a conclusion.

"Hey, Isabel." He called to her. The little girl met his gaze, but otherwise didn't move. "What if I told you my name? That way you can tattle on me in case I do something bad. I promise I won't, though."

She seemed to contemplate what he said, then nodded again. Good. This was progress.

The private offered his hand once more. "I'm glad to hear that, Isabel. My name is Alec Dalton. It's good to meet you."

He waited patiently as the young girl shyly approached him. Slowly, tentatively, Isabel reached out and took the Gear's hand in her own.

(Three Days Later)

"In the face of this disaster…"

A few days had passed since the attack on Jacinto. Alec had to give the Engineering Corps credit – with the bodies already removed and much of the rubble cleared from the streets, life was steadily returning back to normal. He supposed there was an upside to most of civilization being forced to live in one city: things got done pretty quickly when people put their minds to it.

"…this young man, this proud Gear, was active in the evacuation and rescue efforts…"

Man, he hated having to wear a dress uniform. It felt like wearing a suit made of cardboard. Worse, actually; at least cardboard didn't itch this much!

He fought down a sneeze from the scent of copious amounts of fabric softener. Fabric softener that hadn't worked one damn bit.

"…saving the lives of countless civilians, as well as one Sergeant Bernadette Mataki."

All the cameras flashing in his face didn't help, either. His grandmother said he had a handsome face; his grandfather, on the flipside, called it forgettable enough that no one would be able to identify him if he ever robbed a bank. He didn't know who to believe.

The most defining feature of Alec's face was a tiny scar on the tip of his nose that the family cat gave him when he was four years old. Aside from that, he had dark brown hair kept in a buzz cut, blue eyes, and a clean-shaven jawline.

"If not for his bravery and quick thinking, Sergeant Mataki would not be here with us today to celebrate."

Was it really such a great feat that it was worth an award ceremony? He just did what any good soldier would do; no need waste his entire afternoon giving him a medal. All he wanted right now was to check and see if the comic book store was still open.

He wasn't about to say that out loud in front of Chairman Prescott, however. Maybe Hoffman would've understood, but then again, he was a Colonel in the military and not a politician.

"The brave feats of this man, known as the Hero of Jacinto…"

Now this was just getting ridiculous.

"…are the pride of every citizen in the Coalition of Ordered Governments."

Everyone in the audience, except for a certain warrant officer, burst into applause and cheers. Akira Yanagida's eye twitched as he watched the young private get commended for his efforts.

Prescott pulled a small box out of his breast pocket and opened it for everyone to see. "Private Alec Dalton, in recognition of your outstanding service, I hereby promote you to the rank of Corporal. Congratulations, son."

He presented the box, containing a shiny new corporal's badge, to the newly-dubbed Hero of Jacinto.

Alec eyed the offered badge hesitantly, then looked to the eagerly waiting crowd. All of this was happening much too fast for his liking. His grandfather would no doubt be proud to see his little comic book nerd moving up the ranks, but…

The young soldier gulped before speaking. "Mr. Chairman? I'm honored to be receiving this award, don't get me wrong, but… I think you're giving a promotion to the wrong person."

The audience collectively gasped, exploding into a frenzy of questions and confused murmuring.

He heard at least one person accuse him of being an "ungrateful idiot". Alec closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths to force away the anger rising in the pit of his stomach. He knew his words would get a mixed reaction, but hearing his name get slandered after everything he'd done recently made his blood boil.

Prescott held a hand up in the public's direction, instantly silencing their chatter, before focusing on Private Dalton with a stern expression.


"It's just that… well…" Dalton fumbled for words. Richard Prescott didn't have to be an enlisted soldier to be intimidating. "It's just… When the attack first began, I was panicking. I was scared out of my mind, had no plan of action, and didn't know how to react to what was going on. I failed to take any initiative… and for that, I'm deeply sorry."

Prescott's face was unreadable. He cleared his throat before continuing, trying hard not to make eye contact with the audience.

"It wasn't until my partner contacted me and gave me an objective did I begin thinking clearly. If it wasn't for him, I probably wouldn't have been there to save Sergeant Mataki's life. He's the one who deserves a promotion – not me."

Dalton's eyes subtly darted over to Yanagida. He managed to smile slightly; the warrant officer's expression couldn't have been more shocked if someone told him that humans were capable of interbreeding with Brumaks.

Chairman Prescott nodded thoughtfully. "Very well, son. Although I can't claim to fully understand your refusal, if this is what you wish, then I'll take your words into consideration. Who is it that you recommend we give this promotion to?"

"Before I answer that, what's the minimum rank needed to get a desk job?"

(The Next Day)

A copy of the Jacinto Sentinel newspaper slid across the table Alec was sitting at in the mess hall, almost knocking over his bowl of hot soup.

"Alec Dalton, you are the single craziest motherfucker I know. Or maybe the dumbest. Actually, no, you're the craziest and the dumbest… unless you meant to cause such a shit-show. If that's the case, then you're a goddamn genius."

Dalton stopped eating to glance at the paper's headline: "Hero of Jacinto Passes on Promotion After Unknown Enemy Attack".

He sighed, shrugging nonchalantly as his best friend took a seat across from him. "It wasn't my intention to drag this out, Rudy. I'm just not ready for the responsibilities of a corporal, that's all." He paused to spoon in a mouthful of chicken soup. "Besides," he said after swallowing, "we have bigger things to worry about."

"Like the gate?" Rudy asked rhetorically as he slathered butter over his baked potato.

Private Rudolph Gyules was one year Dalton's junior; although the two were similar in age and interests, Alec silently admitted that his fellow soldier was much more gifted when it came to appearances. The combination of blond hair worn in a crew cut, bright green eyes, and a winning smile that melted women's hearts made Rudy an ideal "poster boy" for the Gears.

He was also the biggest (and only) otaku Dalton knew. The guy was into some pretty bizarre things – dragon plushies, translated manga, pillows with questionable drawings on them, and anything else he could get his hands on from the far east that found its way to Jacinto. He wasn't shy about hiding those interests, either; almost everyone on base knew of his hobby, and tended to relocate elsewhere whenever he was around. Indeed, the tables surrounding their own had quickly been vacated when he sat down to join his friend.

Alec labeled them as jerks. Sure, he could be quirky, but Gyules was like a brother to him – even more so after Rudy's own brother died a few weeks ago.

"Yeah. Like the gate." Dalton replied to the earlier question. "I heard the sappers are already busy building a containment dome around it in case those invaders get any more ideas. Where do you think it leads to, anyway?"

"Bro, I have no idea." It was Gyules' turn to shrug. "I mean, we've seen a lot of shit happen over the last fifteen years, y'know? The end of the Pendulum Wars, the rise of the Locust… too much stuff to list off the top of my head. But a big gate appearing out of nowhere in the middle of the city? Science is gonna have a hard time explaining that one."

"Tell me about it. I wouldn't be surprised if Prescott's hair turned gray the next time we see him!"

Both young men shared a laugh at the thought.

"Oh, one more thing I want to mention…" Gyules smiled wickedly. "Remember that requisition order I put in last week?"

"Vaguely," Alec replied, trying to recall what exactly it was his friend was interested in getting. "Something about a Scorcher?"

The younger Gear nodded, grinning wider. "That's right! And guess what? High Command approved it!"

Alec buried his face in his hands and groaned. "Rudy… Listen, I get that you want to avenge Randy, okay? I'd be the first one to help you when the opportunity comes. I miss him, too. But I don't think charging into the Hollows to kill everything inside will end up working."

The death of Randal Gyules had been a touchy subject between the two friends ever since the end of the Lightmass Offensive. Rudy hadn't taken the news well when he found out about it, and his lust for revenge against the Locust only worsened after he learned the details behind his brother's passing. The sick, gory details that left Alec hurling in the restroom for over an hour afterwards.

"Psh." Rudy waved him off. "I'm not going to kill everything, Dalton. Just the Berserkers."

Right. Berserkers – the blind, ten-foot-tall, heavily armored monstrosities of nature that could tear a person apart limb by limb. That had been exactly what happened to Randy Gyules, which inadvertently caused his little brother to develop an unhealthy obsession with eradicating the brutes off the face of Sera.

Dalton heard once that a Berserker's hide was too tough to pierce with ordinary firearms. Only one thing was known to be effective to soften the armor enough for ballistics to work: fire, from any source ranging from makeshift incendiary grenades to a sustained blast from the Hammer of Dawn. The knowledge that his best friend would soon have a freakin' flamethrower, combined with his seething hatred of the blind beasts, was understandably enough to rattle Alec's nerves.

"The Locust have made themselves scarce since the bombing," he stated, attempting to tread carefully around the subject. "And with this whole gate thing going on, I really don't see Command sending us far from the city limits any time soon."

"I know that, Alec." Rudy assured him. He took a bite of potato before he kept talking. "I'm not saying I'm going to wipe them out today; trust me, those damn grubs will get what's coming for them, but you're right about the gate. I'm curious to see how Prescott plans to handle that."

"I might be able to tell you something…" A third voice cut in.

Both privates turned to find Second Lieutenant Yanagida hovering over them, arms crossed and wearing one of those annoying "I'm-going-to-tell-you-something-that-you're-not-going-to-like-but-I-probably-will" smirks.

Dalton blinked. How long had his old partner been standing there? More importantly, how long was he listening?

"The Chairman already has enough problems to deal with as is," Akira told them. "The Locust War, Stranded raids, sustaining the population of Jacinto… You can bet he isn't happy about having yet another enemy to fight against. Word among the higher-ups is that he's pushing to have the army mobilize sometime soon. I'm not sure why exactly, but if I had to guess, I'd say it has something to do with the gate. Our new enemy must've come from somewhere, after all."

"You mean like a counter-offensive? We invade them for invading us?" Rudy asked.

"It's definitely possible. Diminished as it may be, our army is still vastly superior to theirs when it comes to technological prowess. And depending on the total size of their forces, if the COG can secure absolute victory, then we might be able to establish a forward operating base in the other world." Yanagida informed them.

"Wait, 'other world'?" Alec parroted. "Do you mean that…?"

"Yes, Private Dalton, I do. Analysis of captured enemy equipment shows no similarities to what Serans used during the Silver Era and earlier. Interrogated prisoners also spoke in a language that doesn't appear in any of our linguistic records." The lieutenant smirked wryly. "Plus, you know, we don't have trolls and wyverns and things like that on Sera."

"Holy shit, dude…" Gyules muttered.

Alec was at a loss of what to think. A gate in Jacinto that led to another world? A world – he dared to hope – without the Locust horde, where all of humanity was free to live as they pleased? Could they make peace with any rulers on the other side? If so, could the COG immigrate there to protect its citizens?

Dozens of different questions swirled in his mind, and he had the answers for none of them.

"I'm afraid I have to take my leave now, gentlemen." Akira's smooth voice broke him from his thoughts. "There's only an hour for lunch break, and I like to savor my food."

Yanagida made to depart, but not before glancing over his shoulder to smirk at his former partner.

"Thank you again for the promotion, Dalton. I never would've learned that information if it hadn't been for your generosity. The CIC isn't really suited for private conversations…"

The new lieutenant left for the lunch line, whistling a tune.

"Was he being sincere when he said that?" Gyules whispered, watching him go.

Alec's response was a clueless shrug.

Yanagida sat down at one of the officers' tables with his tray minutes later. He stopped before he could take a bite of ramen – the only constant reminder of his home country left – when he noticed the woman frowning next to him out of the corner of his eye.

"What is it, Reynolds?" he sighed wearily.

Some would claim that First Lieutenant Courtney Reynolds was simply given her position due to blood ties, but that wasn't the case. Now at age twenty-six, Reynolds fought tooth and nail against both the Locust and COG enlistment policies to earn her status; she was known by many as one of the only frontline female Gears left to hold an officer's rank. Why she chose to get down and dirty with the grunts instead of any other occupation, Yanagida couldn't figure out.

Some would also claim she was a bombshell. Her slender frame was reinforced with muscle thanks to nearly eight years of constant combat. Her wavy blond hair was cut to shoulder length, and her light blue eyes were a perfect complement to her porcelain skin.

Even when she was frowning at him, Yanagida could admit she was cute.

"I saw you talking with those two." Reynolds subtly pointed to Dalton and Gyules. In contrast to her looks, she had a strict, somewhat forceful tone of voice.

"Who, the rookies? I was just telling them-"

"About our plan with the gate?" the higher-ranked lieutenant cut him off. "Yanagida, I understand you're excited to work with the top brass now, but some things are better kept a secret. My uncle told me yesterday what will happen, and ever since then, I've been stuck worrying about whether we're making the right choice or not."

Yanagida sighed, pushing his ramen aside. He wasn't very hungry all of a sudden.

"I'm doing it to protect them, Reynolds."

Courtney made a quizzical sound, tilting her head in confusion; blond bangs fell into one of her eyes.

"What I'm saying," the Eastern man elaborated slowly, "is that in the time I've known him, I gradually found myself coming to… respect Private Dalton. He may be green, and have no ambition whatsoever, but I still feel the 'Hero of Jacinto' deserves to know his work isn't over yet."

"And the other guy? His friend?" Reynolds listened intently.

Akira exhaled a deep breath. Even he could sympathize with the pain Rudy Gyules must've gone through.

"Private Gyules recently lost a brother to the Locust. From what the official report said, it was… messy." He tried not to conjure any mental images of the scene. He didn't want nightmares for the rest of his life.

"You want to prepare them in advance. Help them stay alive," Reynolds concluded.

Yanagida nodded wordlessly.

"Things are happening that we don't want to happen, Second Lieutenant." She warned him cryptically. "I have faith the COG will see us through, but the truth is, we just don't know the full extent of what lies beyond the gate. Though I think what we all know is…"

"The Gears will be the first to find out," Yanagida finished.

(The Next Day)

Alec relaxed onto his bed and made himself comfortable. He was finally given a day off from patrol duty; with nothing urgent to do on base, it wasn't difficult to get permission to leave the grounds for a while.

The comic book store was closed on Sundays (he wept internally after remembering that), but that left him with plenty more time to visit his grandparents' apartment and chill out in his old room. Once he'd figured out how to get the dusty old TV set working, he was surprised to see Chairman Prescott was delivering a speech, broadcasted over every working channel.

"Naturally, this land does not appear on any map."

Huh, so Akira was right.

"We don't know what lies beyond the gate, or what it is like. Everything about it is a mystery."

As long as there weren't any Locust, he wasn't going to complain about whatever might be there. Nothing could be scarier than the subterranean humanoids and their pet monsters.

"We apprehended many of the attackers in the previous incident. At present, they are no more than criminals who have broken the law, or in other words, terrorists."

Meh. Terrorists or not, they were a lot easier to beat than the Union of Independent Republics. Those guys hadn't surrendered for almost eighty years; it took the development of Imulsion-fueled orbital death lasers to finally turn the tide.

"Destroying the gate will not solve this problem. We fear that it may simply lead to the opening of another gate elsewhere in Tyrus."

Alec wondered how the Locust would react if they saw the medieval invaders. Probably with violence, he reasoned.

"Thus, we have decided to consider the land beyond the gate – the Special Region – a part of Tyrus."

Was that what they were calling it? The 'Special Region'? Dalton thought it sounded unimaginative, but then again, the only ones who knew the true name of the mysterious world were the COG's prisoners of war. And if what Yanagida said about their foreign language was true, it might be some time yet before the correct name was discovered.

"And in order to learn what lies on the other side, as well as to bring any forces there to the negotiation table, we have determined that it is necessary to go beyond the gate… even if it is dangerous."

Alec suddenly had a bad feeling about this…

"For the purpose of investigating the Special Region, apprehending the ringleader of the Jacinto incident, and securing compensation by force, the Coalition of Ordered Governments will dispatch half of its armed forces to the other side of the gate."

"Yanagida was right… about everything," Dalton said quietly, shifting on his bed so he was sitting cross-legged. "We're going to war in a different world…"

Prescott had more to say. "We cannot afford to delay. COG forces are expected to fully mobilize and venture through sometime within the next week. We will dare to go where no man has gone before! We will show this new enemy the might of our brave soldiers! And we will fight until justice has been served!"

Alec turned the TV off and flopped back onto the mattress.

Inspiring as always, Mr. Chairman. We can always rely on you for a pick-me-up, can't we? He thought with a rueful chuckle.

Prescott had a fair point, though – attacking innocent people for no reason was a dick move. If the Coalition wanted answers, and a bit of revenge, they needed to take a bold step forward.

As a Gear in the machine, Alec Dalton would be happy to serve.

(Five Days Later)


One hundred Gears, organized into two columns of fifty, stood rigid as a booming voice echoed down the street.

Standing directly in front of the gate's entrance, which was now encased in a steel dome with a pair of remote-operated doors allowing access to the interior, the voice's owner watched the assembled soldiers with a hard expression. He was in his early fifties, with sharp eyes the same color blue as his niece's. Instead of a helmet, he wore a tattered gray boonie hat over his graying brown hair.

"My name is Captain Maurice Mayweather, and I'll be your commander during our stay in the Special Region!" he declared. "Now listen up! Advance scouting parties say that the other side of the gate is on top of a hill surrounded by grassland. We've managed to construct rudimentary defenses around the gate, but that won't mean anything if there's nobody there to man them! And that, men, is where we come in!"

Many of the Gears let out whoops and gung-ho cries of approval.

"We have reason to believe that the enemy is waiting for us on the other side. Therefore, you need to be ready for combat to begin the moment we cross over!"

Standing somewhere in the front left column of soldiers, Private Dalton remained quiet while his comrades grew increasingly fired up. He turned his attention to the left, where a makeshift memorial to victims of the Jacinto incident had been built along the side of the street. Dozens of mourners congregated around the length of the memorial; some placed down bouquets of flowers, others cried in overwhelming grief, and a few were content to gift the departed with a quiet prayer.

Dalton felt his breath hitch when he spotted a familiar little girl and her mother, dressed in all black.

Isabel remained silent as her surviving parent wailed in despair. Her wide brown eyes were fixated on the memorial, unblinking, even as tears threatened to leak out at any moment. She didn't detect the lone Gear watching her from behind.

Alec's jaw clenched under his helmet, the grip on his Lancer tightening. Someone was going to pay for tearing this family apart.

"We'll be entering the gate shortly." Captain Mayweather announced. "Godspeed, all of you."

One hour later, Private Dalton's stomach lurched when the APC began moving. The advance party, consisting mainly of Centaur tanks backed up by half a dozen Assault Derricks, had left thirty minutes ago and were presumably busy entrenching themselves on the other side of the gate. Now it was time to deliver the infantry and extra supplies.

Soon, he would leave Sera behind to explore a whole new world. He pondered on whether or not his grandma would be able to send him cookies.

He hoped so. The little peanut butter ones with chocolate on top were his favorite.

Gyules sat next to him, shiny new Scorcher in hand. Alec was glad to have his best friend by his side – Rudy's presence did wonders to help ease his anxiety.

The same couldn't be said about the Gear across from him, though. He was young, probably in his middle to late twenties. The man had black hair with loose bangs, partly covered by a dark green wool hat, and forest green eyes. A Longshot rifle rested casually in his lap.

He grinned at Dalton, revealing slightly yellowed teeth.

"This your first big fight, kid?" the man asked.

"Uh, kinda, yeah. If you don't count the Jacinto incident, that is." Alec was very glad he chose to wear his helmet now. Something about this guy rubbed him the wrong way; almost as if he should recognize his features, as if he should realize who this man was. He didn't want to know how the other Gear would respond if he knew he was talking to the Hero of Jacinto.

"Eh, don't overthink it. Actually, now that I think about it, I can't even say I can call this a real battle."

"Really? What would you call it, then?" Gyules chimed in.

The man patted his rifle. "Target practice."

"Oh… Forget I asked."

"Name's Weaver, by the way." The hat-wearing Gear introduced himself. "Sergeant Weaver. Gotta admit, I'm a little rusty with a gun, but there's no better way to get your skills back than shooting medieval retards, am I right?"

"Vinnie! They aren't retards," another Gear sitting close to him scolded.

This one was female and wore sleeveless armor, though her face was concealed by a stripped-down helmet that bore more of a resemblance to a hockey mask than any piece of protective headgear. Her brown hair was visible, tied back in a short ponytail. Her tanned skin combined with her pronounced accent placed her as Kashkuri in descent.

"You don't know that for sure, Faith," Vinnie argued. "For all we know, they mark their captured territory by spreading feces everywhere."

The woman, Faith, couldn't hold back an amused giggle.

"You two know each other?" Alec tried to keep the conversation going. He felt a steady vibration in his seat as the APC drove further into the darkness of the gate's interior, and it was starting to unsettle him. Any kind of distraction from that would've been welcome.

"Sure do. Corporal O'Nellis here is my spotter." Vinnie smiled at his companion. "I owe her my life, believe it or not – both on and off the battlefield."

Faith twirled a strand of hair in her finger, embarrassed and flattered simultaneously. "Well, I wouldn't put it that way, but…"

Dalton wanted to ask for details, but Gyules apparently chose that precise moment to drag his weird hobbies into their unexpectedly enlightening chat.

"Hey Alec, do you think we'll find any catgirls on the other side of the gate?" he asked excitedly.

Dalton couldn't resist teasing his friend. "I don't know, Rudy. If we do, we'd need to call a medic to treat your dick ASAP."

Both privates heard Weaver snicker loudly. "Heh. Catgirls? Fuckin' weaboo."

"Vinnie! Be nice!" O'Nellis chided.

"Excuse me!" Gyules sat up straight, glaring at the sergeant beneath his helmet. "I'll have you know that I am an otaku, not a weaboo! There's a big difference!"

"Which one worships the titties?"

Gyules didn't have an answer for that.

As the sergeant endured more scolding from O'Nellis, laughing like a hyena all the while, Alec subconsciously clutched his rifle tighter. Everyone else in the APC either didn't notice or didn't point it out, but he could practically feel the raw energy coursing around the vehicle even in its interior.

Soon, they would be on the other side of the gate; pioneers in an uncharted frontier. Those medieval-themed people, whatever their intentions or goals were, had made themselves a powerful enemy.

The COG war machine was in full motion with no hope of stopping it.

And as a Gear in the machine, he was happy to serve.

Holy $#!& this chapter is long. Almost 11,000 words? That has to be a new personal best for me.

Yeah, I kept Yanagida around. He kinda grew on me over time, and I figured that he could be put to good use in this story. It actually felt very natural writing the scenes he was in.

Gonna have to think of something to replace the Hakone Incident later on… I'm thinking "Special Region natives meet the Locust". Hehehehehe…

And in case anyone's curious, Dalton wears the first variant COG helmet, and Gyules wears the second. O'Nellis, I imagine, has a heavily modified custom-made variant.

Hmm, what else… I'm planning to update my profile sometime soon, so there's that. And now that I FINALLY have some time to screw around on my laptop, maybe I can see if my creative spark is still intact. Fingers crossed.

(2/15/18 update: Cleaned the chapter up a little bit. I posted it literally ten minutes before I had to leave for work.)