There upon the wall were several Helghast. They stood, blindfolded and fearful, dirty rags hanging from the malnourished and bruised bodies. They weren't bound or restrained to where they stood, but he could almost smell the fear on them. They were beaten into fearless hopelessness. They appeared so fragile and brittle to Gorahm, who sat with his brothers, watching this new display.
"Do you see this?" A coarse voice growled out, as a man strode around and in front of the pups. Their eyes were wide and fixed upon the masked fellow who did not bother to return the stares. "These… Men," He said after a pause, debating whether they could even be called as such, "Are your enemies. They may look like you, and talk like you - But they are NOT loyal they are NOT obedient, they are NOT Helghast!"
The room was chilly, and Gorahm's thin limbs soon broke out in goose pimples. His slow breaths were evident in the air.
"There is zero room for weakness in the Helghast! Calling this planet our home is a testament to our durability, our strength; To not wither and die by our diaspora by those who stole Vekta from your father's fathers! Oh, no… Visari made us safe, Visari made us strong, Visari made us ONE!"
He un-holstered his sidearm, twirling it several times around his trigger-finger with a showman's skill, coaxing a small sense wonderment from the boys. "Now. These men before you - These wretched husks of Helghast ideals. They spit in the face of you and the Autarch through their dissent and unwillingness to adhere to the Helghast Triad."
"Duty, Obedience, Loyalty." The boys spoke in a loose chorus. These words and their meanings had been heavily drilled into every citizen and soldier.
"That's right, boys, excellent! The duty for every able Helghast to work for a free Helghan! The obedience everyone must show to work and survive together. And the loyalty all Helghast must give to their government! We are NOTHING if we do not follow this creed."
"These men before you? They have forsaken the triad, they have forsaken their families, their honor, and least of all, their lives." His hand danced gingerly across the row of boys before he picked several, Winrik, Ledkir, and himself surprisingly among the few. Seven boys, seven dissenters.
"Take this, boy." He knelt down, placing the cool steel grip in the tiny hands of Ledkir, who used both to adequately hold the sidearm. "One shot, head or heart." He murmured into his ear before stepping back.
Gorahm could momentarily see a look of fear in Ledkir's eyes, but he did not hesitate with everyone's stare upon him. He squeezed the trigger, and one man fell lifelessly. The remaining 'criminals' grew rigid, yet did not run. They knew they were already dead men.
"Here." The man snatched the smoking gun from Led's hands, pressing them into Winrik's. Winrick was a bit older and more physically developed than his brothers, and with one hand he aimed it at the next dissenter in line and squeezed the trigger without a shred of hesitation. This man crumpled down upon the other corpse. His display brought a subtle smirk to the towering man's face. Oh yes, Winrik was a fine specimen of the Helghast. His strength and utter loyalty would be an inspiration and example for his younger brothers. This young pup might go on to great things.
"Now you, son." Gorahm heard as his finger curled around the gun pressed into his hands. He stared down at the scuffed, worn weapon, then up at his target. The sights shook in his grasp, but he would not miss from so close.
Gorahm lay sprawled across the backseat of the hover, his head resting on the barrel of the VC-sniper rifle as he cradled it to his chest. His focus still held within his slumbering subconscious.
Allison offered another glance back towards him, then back up to Suhjik who had been piloting the hover for the past few hours, well into mid-day.
"I never thought I'd say it, but he looks peaceful." Allison spoke with a smirk. "Only when he's sleeping though."
"We all look peaceful when we're asleep."
"Well, maybe he looks more so than most. Probably because he can't relax while he's awake."
"He can, just not as easy around, well, you." He replied, politely.
"Me? It shouldn't be impossible, I mean, you seem pretty even-keeled around me… And you haven't shot at me yet, so I think that makes you the first Helghast ambassador to Vekta."
This time he laughed. "Thank you, but I'll have to decline. Call me an anomaly. I'm an old hound, girl. I've done a lot of biting and lost a lot of teeth along the way. That's calmed my anger down a bit."
He then jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "Him? He's younger, and has all his teeth. Not to mention a life-time of training telling him who to bite and why. I sometimes think if I wasn't around to influence him, he'd have fallen in completely to propaganda and servitude."
"Why him though?"
"Why try to save him?" She said, curious. What made the young grunt any different to Suhjik than any of the other rank and file eluded her. The older warrior meant to keep it that way.
"I just noticed a more.. Independent flare to him." He lied casually. "I trained him, got to know him, became close. If my cover was blown, I didn't want to leave him to be burned at the stake for simply being known as a friend of mine."
"Ah, I see." She said, falling silent for a few moments longer. It felt too quiet for her again, and she had to probe a little deeper. "So why help the ISA? God knows, you could fill a dictionary on what you hate about us."
"… I help… For my own reasons, and they are my own and no others. And your God has no say on what happens on this planet." He said, with an equal amount of serious and smug.
"Now that I find very curious."
"-Your- God. You said that, right? Belief has always followed humanity. You do not have a God?"
The old hound laughed genuinely now. "Is there a -God- worth praying to in this place? Living on this planet is proof that there is no higher power. We do have belief, though."
"Is it any different? It's all belief in the end, no? Can you look up in that sky, and see how… Limitless it all is. People have always had a God."
"I disagree.. Okay, let me explain it all, if I've researched your texts well enough." He cleared his throat. "You believe God created you, -"
"Not personally, but yes many d-."
"Fine, fine. God created Man. Man created Helghast. Our kind suffered, heavily. Children dying right out of the womb, after their first few breaths. Hopelessness. Madness. We were broken, and you Vektans enjoyed the spoils of your crimes. A fair God indeed." Allison folded her arms, quick to bite her lip, lest she interrupt to argue about these 'crimes'.
He paused only for a moment, before continuing. "Now, Visari comes and rallies us. A prophet not of human salvation, but of Helghast. Stripped or torn away, we have lost all of what it is to be from where we once were. No longer human, no longer weak. Our God is ourselves, together and unified we could bring greater miracles than any book or preacher had ever proselytized. We would be our own saviors, smiting our enemies with our own two hands. We worship not what we can't see but what you see all around you. Industry, forges, machinery, mobilization. A culture all our own, and a war machine created to stamp out any aggressors to the Helghast right to exist and prosper." He took a deep breath. He really wasn't used to talking so much.
"So you worship… War?"
"No, no. Well, it must seem like that, right? But no, Miss Petit. Tell me, did you learn any history of the Helghast when you were younger."
"Sure, but more in the Vektan term of history."
"Well, you do know that we owned Vekta? All those years ago."
"She was actually named after the Helghan corporation CEO, Philip Vekta. Helghan corporation bought her from the UCN, when the official colonization fleet went dark en route."
"I didn't know that part about the CEO, but yes, yes, colossal debt forced the UCN to bid the Alpha Centauri system colonization rights."
"Exactly. Spent the last of their riches buying those rights. They arrived, set up colonies and it was an economic boon. A good age…"
"Jealousy, anger. The UCN didn't enjoy the privileges earned by the Helghan corporation. They took both planets back at the barrel of a gun after selling them to us."
"That's a little simplified, don't you think?"
"That's what I see when I think of that time, girl." Suhjik muttered, sourly. "Regardless. We were stripped of our planets, funds, resources. And exiled. They scraped together what little money they had left and mounted a patchwork fleet of ships to escape persecution. They land on Helghan… And well, the rest is history."
"Was there a moral to this history lesson, teacher?" She asked smugly, shrugging down in her seat.
"Worship, remember? We were dying and we came back with a murderous vengeance. The next time you curse us for taking away your brothers, sons and loved ones - Remember that we are only a product of your crimes, and the only wrong thing we did by your standards was survive long enough to come back and bite your ass."
She pursed her lips stubbornly. Her mind was still somewhat jolted from the first brushes with death she had experienced over the last couple of days. It must have muddled her thought process as she could not summon a snappy rebuttal this time.
He leaned closer to the Vektan now, one ghostly brow raised in question. "Do they tell you we are irradiated, insane mutants who live to feast on the entrails of little Vektan children?"
She laughed in response. "You'd be surprised, really. The UCN only wants peace with the Helghast."
"Then who brought those warships to the party? And all of those friendly fellows with the guns and tanks."
She blinked. "Hey, we're all flawed. You can't expect us to offer our hands out in peace, when you're all mobilized for war. It takes two to tango, and Lord knows the Helghast are passed dancing with us."
The next hour or so was silence. Rocky crags and swirling red dust was all that could be seen on the planets visage. It was little in the terms of conversation starters. Yigohr slowed the speeder to a full stop and hopped out, bringing a questioning look from Allison, who was roused from her half-sleep.
"What're you doing?"
"Thirsty, and my shift's over." He nudged Gorahm's head, who had moved little in his sleep. "Wake up."
"Nngh." He sounded off, through his rebreather and quickly began to stir, energy in his voice. "Why are we stopped, sir?"
"Shift change. I'm going to sleep. Miss Petit, if you'll take the helm."
"Sure," She crawled over into the driver's seat. "I just follow the marked coordinates, right?"
"Yeah. And Gorahm, keep an eye out."
"Yessir." He sounded off with a nod and jumped over into the front seat, making himself comfortable as he cradled the VC-32 in his arms.
"Good. Onward then, minions." He said with a jesting, regal air as he reclined in the backseat. "We're nearly out of water," He muttered, more to himself. It took only a minute before his light snores were barely heard over the whirring engine.
Allison kept her eyes trained upon the path ahead, careful for any hidden crags or rocky outcroppings that might pop up on their fast trek through the wasteland. Occasionally she would spare a glance in Gorahm's direction, who seemed almost stone-like in his seat. He leaned back against it, watching the ruddy, red earth fly past him like one long blur.
She had a budding enjoyment of the older soldier's company. He was smart and level-headed, and at least mildly sociable. The younger one, though, was an un-nerving mystery to her. Witnessing him execute a dying soldier before her eyes was a horrifying sight, perhaps one she would never forget. It might have also been because half the time they had known each other, he'd been her abusive captor.
She was fiery-tempered, and possessed a very strong will, but it took her a few attempts to work up the nerve to talk to the Helghast riding shotgun.
"So, how d-
"Thank you." He interrupted, his tone expressed a calmness that she couldn't see on his face, beneath his mask.
"Huh?" She replied, carefully. It was the last thing she would have expected him to say, and it certainly caught her off-guard.
"For saving me from that heavy," He answered, his hand climbing up to rub at the nape of his neck tenderly. She was certain his neck was still bruised but the motion appeared more embarrassed than sore.
She smiled beneath her mask, letting it hide a light flush to her cheeks. It was due to his praise, but even more from general relief His current disposition seemed so docile, which made it all the more disarming.
"I was happy to. Guess you could say we're even now."
"I- Oh, yes, that. Well, I suppose I was happy to do it, if you were happy to as well." Gorahm mentally kicked himself. If his words were a person, they'd be awkward, stumbling and drunk. "I was told to keep an eye on you, heh, despite your keen ability at getting into trouble."
A playful smile now played across dry lips. "Well look at that, a Helghast that attempts humor. Is this real?"
Gorahm fired back his own playful comment. "Of course not, Helghast don't know what humor is. If we smile or skip in gardens, our faces may melt off." She could see Gorahm had a much more youthful zeal than he let on.
She laughed this time, weaving the hover through a pair of jagged boulders. "I'd say you're the funniest one I've met, though the rest tend to just shoot at me, so your competition isn't the stiffest."
"Humor is not a prized trait in my people," He quipped. Though, that was quite an understatement. Free-expression and creativity were quite void from most Helghast. "How far until the evac zone?"
Allison pursed her lips, wondering the same thing herself. "I'm wondering that myself," She murmured as she brought the hover to a slow halt. "See the path that's been marked out?" She asked, her slender finger connecting the zig-zagging coordinates. "If we follow this route exactly, we'll arrive by dawn next morning."
"You say this as though you have a… different suggestion." Gorahm murmured, watching the path she drew with her fingertip.
"I do.. If we forget about the next four checkpoints, and simply take this path through the quarry ridge -here-, we can arrive at the evac zone by nightfall."
Gorahm chewed nervously on the inside of his mouth. This shortcut would shave valuable time off their trip, and the quarry might offer better cover from roaming Helghast patrols… Or funnel them right into a trap, a dead-end, or worse if one could imagine. "It's a gamble, Petit."
"Nothing ventured, nothing gained." She spoke under her breathe, her gaze slipping between the map screen and the landmarks. "There." She said, pointing. "Do you see it?"
Gorahm followed where she pointed until he spotted a craggy split in the earth, as if some behemoth had dug his fingers into the planet's crust and split it down the middle. The large crack in the earth was one of many that daunted the ravaged, dry earth. "I see it, but I don't know if we should divert our course. I'll consult Suhjik."
The young Vikar had barely turned to rouse his uncle before Allison stopped him fervently. "No, no. He'll tell us not to take the detour."
"Then that's what we should do," Gorahm replied back at her. Following orders was easy and comfortable for him. Allison now made him even more antsy with her penchant for walking her own path, both metaphorical and literal.
She sighed, throwing her head back against the seat with an exasperated sigh. "You're being difficult and stubborn."
"I'm being difficult?" Gorahm asked in shock, his tone lowering to a quiet growl so as not to wake his superior. "Look who's talking! All I want to do is follow orders, you're the one who's coming up with your own fucking plans and theories and-"
"Well, you'll just have to trust me on this, you owe me that at least. Please?" She spoke firmly to him, but her final word ended in a melodic, feminine tone. It seemed to frustrate him, the way she asked feeling almost torturous. "When we get there I'll bring you a tall canteen of water."
Gorahm sighed, slumping into his seat. He didn't know why, but he nodded with a tired sigh. "Just be careful, and take it slo-woah!" He barely had time to finish before she throttled the hover and it shot like an arrow forward. He peered back behind his shoulder at Suhjik who hardly stirred from his slumber. Perhaps it was best that he wasn't awake for this detour.
"You're the best." She said, now aware that he had a slight weakness for her female charms. Fortuitous for her that most Helghast troopers were never raised and trained around females their own age. Gorahm was a perfect example of this fact.
The deep, rigid crags of the valley pass grew more narrow as they ventured further into it. Gorahm once again felt an odd, claustrophobic feeling seize in his chest. "Slow down, slow down, I'm going to lose my lunch…" He gripped his stomach as Allison begrudgingly slowed the hover down. "That is if I'd even had a lunch to lose."
The path ahead grew more narrow, its tall walls smooth from eons of wind and sandstorms. Allison was careful as she took the hover down the rocky, winding path. She hoped the route didn't grow any more narrow, or she'd be liable to get the machine stuck against the rocks. "Don't even get me started on food, Gorahm," She said with a longing moan, "I'd kill for -anything-.. A sandwich, a cookie… A good ol' hamburger with lettuce and pickles and a bit of ketchup.." She seemed to grow lost in her fantasies, though Gorahm merely blinked at her, completely lost as to what she spoke of.
Allison peered over at him, taking his silence correctly, as confusion. "Oh, c'mon, you've never even heard of these foods?"
"Nope," He replied curtly.
"A hamburger.. It's made from cow meat."
"Oh, cows. Yes, we have something similar. My father worked in a slaughterhouse."
"So you have eaten cow, yes?"
"No. Keeping anything alive on this planet is a costly task," He motioned at himself, a Helghast as an example. "Cows and livestock were reserved for the upper class and our superiors." His father had once mentioned stories of workers in the slaughterhouse who tried to sneak out meat to their families, and their immediate liquidation.
"So, you've never had cow… Okay, chicken?"
"Nevermind. Apples, bananas, avocado?"
The young Vikar's optics merely continued to blankly stare at her, and she immediately dismissed the question. She should have known better, nothing edible ever grew on this rock. "Okay, I give up. What -do- you eat?"
"Whatever I am given." He answered, honestly. In truth, his culinary tastes only depended on what gruel was presented to him that day.
"No fair, that's not an answer."
"Well, I don't know what else I'm supposed to say. I sit, I eat what's presented to me. The end."
She pouted stubbornly beneath her mask, green eyes focused on the narrow road ahead. "Well, does it taste good?"
"It tastes… Good. Like food." He said, unsure of how he cold phrase this. He'd eaten bland slop his entire life, stale bread and water that tasted heavily of lead and iron. Certainly his taste buds had not experienced the most diverse foods in this world.
"That's a whole hell of a lot of information. I'm making you a hamburger once we get back to the evac zone, and you're going to love it." She claimed as though it weren't his decision whether or not he'd enjoy it.
"As long as your Vektan food doesn't burn my innards out," He murmured coyly in the mechanical hum, though even the rebreather couldn't completely disguise his trepidation of consuming Vektan food.
The next hour went by slowly, the tall walls of stone blocking out the vicious sun's rays.
"So..," Allison began slowly. She certainly didn't want to press her luck after cracking Gorahm's cold shell, but she knew the only way to test her boundaries was to push them.
"What do you do for fun?" She asked. Unlike the withdrawn Helghast, Allison hated long silences. The urge to socialize and talk had been with her throughout her entire life.
"What do you mean?" He asked.
"What?" She rolled her eyes and sighed. "F. U. N. What do you do for entertainment, enjoyment. Do they turn you guys off and plug you into the nearest outlet when you return to base?"
He shrugged off her thinly veiled yarn, slumping in his seat. "I don't know," He'd never been asked such a question, and thinking about it more, he never really asked himself what he did for fun. "I- .. I like following orders."
He wasn't lying completely at least, but she shook her head. Allison did not buy his answer in the slightest.
"And?" She asked, the hover slowing to a crawl as she inched through a particularly thin stretch of the smooth, rocky path.
"Well, I used to have an interest in old Vektan films. I'll admit it, your species knows how to weave an extravagant story."
She smiled beneath her mask, eyes widening in surprise. I never expected that. "You watched movies?"
"Secretly, but yeah, I did." He murmured, briefly reflecting back on the days he could relax and watch the myriad of old movies. He could discuss the characters' inter-drama with Ledkir, or more often poke fun at the plot holes or campy effects. He had seen each one several times before the fateful mission in Pyhrrus. Such distractions helped keep him sane.
"Good, common ground," She felt slightly relieved. The young soldier was not as rigid and stony as he put on, though this new revelation was something she could never have guessed. "Another thing to do once we reach the evac-zone."
"Yeah," Gorahm murmured shyly, though his tone didn't seem to place much faith in that actually happening. "When do you think that'll be?"
"If I had to take a guess I'd say another hour, roughly."
"Good…" Silence once again perforated the hover as it slowly traversed the turns of the thin valley. The young Vikar canted his head upward to stare at the looming stone walls. Copper hued clouds slipped by the narrow window he had of the sky. He shut his eyes, only for a moment. Simply to rest his mind. Just a moment.
Allison continued to guide the hover, and peered over to speak, "Have you ever see-" She cut herself off. The limp way the young Vikar's head bobbed and jostled in his seat told her that he had dozed off. With a small smile, she decided not to wake him. Better to let him sleep, he would receive no berating or chewing out from her for napping on watch. She was no drill sergeant. For now her green eyes focused ahead on the path, determined to reach the end of this winding trench. With any luck, she would be able to wake the two Helghast just as they passed into the evac-zone border.
"Wake up!" Allison's voice roused him, his hand snapping to his knife in a knee-jerk reaction.
"What! What is it?" Her eyes were wide in terror, and her breaths were heavy through the rebreather. Something was very amiss.
She couldn't seem to summon words, and only pointed ahead of the hover. Gorahm stood up as she moved to shake Suhjik from his slumber. Gorahm narrowed his gaze, at the clearing below. He must have dozed off, as they reached the end of Allison's shortcut, but what he saw before him sent his heart plummeting down into his bowels.
The hover was parked at the exit from the narrow pass, it's walls had already begun peeling away from them. Below him stood the evac-zone, though where a ship would have stood was now an empty launch pad and a base in complete silence and abandonment. No.
Allison could feel the warmth drain out of her limbs at the sad, hope-shattering realization. They were gone. The ISA had evacuated without them.
"What the fuck?" Yigohr snarled angrily, snapping to his feet in the back seat. He snatched the VC-32 from Gorahm's grasp and aimed it down into the clearing, scanning it through the powerful scope. As he did so, Allison's gaze moved between the two silent soldiers and the ghost town below. Her mouth was parted, hopelessly attempting to summon some sort of answer or reasoning.
They left us here. We were too late. How? Why?
Suhjik seemed to cement these thoughts as he finally lifted the rifle away, over his shoulder with a long, grating sigh. "Well, there isn't a soul in sight. We may as well go down and scout around. Maybe we can dig up some answers… Or some supplies."
It hadn't occurred to Allison until now of their chances of survival now that the ship had vacated. Her stomach had once again growled and tensed painfully, and she idly placed a hand to her core to no avail. She knew this wasteland would most likely be their grave if nothing could be scavenged from the site.
At Suhjik's word, she sank sadly into the drivers seat and throttled the vehicle down the gradual slope of the trench's exit, her gaze fixed on the evacuation zone as it loomed closer and closer. The barb wired fence rustled gently against the strong wind as they approached, and the watchtowers that flanked each corner were abandoned.
"Curious," Yigohr murmured through his mask, red optics snapping around the compound vigilantly. "Gor, do you see what I see?"
"It's hard not to," He responded, taking note of his surroundings. Bullet holes, scorch marks, and small craters peppered the entire zone. "Looks like a battle took place here."
His superior nodded in agreement, and Allison tightened her grip on the steering vein as she looked around now, un-easy. She surely didn't want to stumble into another fight after high-tailing it out of a previous one. "Are we in danger?" She chimed in.
"I don't think so," The old hound pointed at the earth, "No boot prints of any kind, so whatever the hell happened here must have been a couple days ago. At least long enough for the prints to have blown over. Hold up here, and kill the engine."
Allison brought the machine to a smooth halt, and disengaged the engine. Its whirring hums fell silent in an almost grateful manner to the Vektan, as if the beaten machine needed a long reprieve from the long haul across the desert.
"Alright. We need to secure this place down, and scrounge up anything of use. That's food, water. Weapons if we can. If you find any tech that might be of use, Miss Petit, tell me right away. Everyone understand?"
Allison nodded as Gorahm vaulted out of his seat with an energetic 'Yessir'. He rounded the back of the hover and dug around through the weapons stockpile before picking out an StA-52, his most preferred weapon.
"Give your sidearm to Miss Petit, if you would." Suhjik ordered his nephew calmly, hopping out of the hover and scanning the surrounding once with his sniper rifle. Satisfied momentarily, he slung it across his back and joined Gorahm in outfitting himself with the small arsenal of weaponry. Allison, on the other hand, blinked at their method in mild confusion.
"Wait, I thought this place was abandoned," She asked, her voice diminishing as Gor rounded back to her, placing his Helghast sidearm into her hands. She held it warily, looking back up to Gorahm.
"Assumptions make for dead men, Petit," Vikar responded, pushing the pistol further into her hand along with a spare clip. "Safety's on. Just point and shoot if you have to, and remember: We're the Helghast you -don't- want to kill."
"I know that, I'm not a damn child," She spat back quietly. She had gone through basic training when she enlisted in the ISA, though it was more of a formality as her real expertise was for tech, computer and chemical agents. She assumed the last time she would have to shoot a gun was in the firing range on Vekta.
Swallowing the apprehension in her throat she clutched the pistol tighter, falling in behind the two soldiers.
The small compound looked as if a tornado had run through it, which was very possible. Sandstorms were fairly regular, and there was obviously nobody around any longer to tidy up the place.
"I see some containers," She murmured, pointing to a small stack of metal crates. The green, flickering lights on the locks told the Vektan that the crates were still in working order. A working crate was much easier to break into than one jammed with sand and dust.
Allison immediately approached, her gaze sweeping around momentarily in a fit of suspicion. She kneeled before the first crate, as her hand fished around in her side pocket. She produced the multi tool she had used in the mining town. What was first a lapse in memory was now a blessing. She had forgotten to return the tool, but now it would make a suitable wedge to pry her way into the box.
Pry back the covering, disconnect the lock inhibitor, and…
As sparks glanced off of the broken wire, the green light flashed once before changing to a bright blue. She made the delicate task look simple.
Her rising hopes were once again shattered as she opened the box, only to find it filled with spare parts and scrap. "Zilch." She muttered in a sigh. Repeating the same actions on the remaining crates, her frustration began to blossom at what could only be described as useless trash and broken parts. "It's all crap, nothing useful."
She pushed herself to her feet, giving one of the open crates an angry kick, in a brief moment of anger. Her hands fell to her hips, noticing now that her two companions had meandered off in different directions. It was hard to tell the pair apart with their masks strapped on, but she knew Suhjik was the one shouldering the sniper rifle around. He busied himself with a pile of refuse, nosing through it with the barrel of his rifle.
Gorahm stood further away from the pair, idling with what he thought was a mobile building of some sort. It was a large cube-shaped building, no more than five or six meters tall and wide, and caked with fine red dust. It had obviously not moved since it was placed here.
She heard the keypad make a beep of denial to the Helghast as he attempted to open the door. After his second attempt ended in the same result he slammed his boot against the corner, growling curses under his breath. Allison blinked in surprise as he suddenly waved her over, apparently needing her help.
She jogged up beside Gorahm, "What's up?"
"What does this say?" He asked pointing at the chipped, yellow symbols painted on the door. It was written in English and it took a moment for the dark-haired girl to remember that the common script for her people was gibberish for him.
"It says supplies, Gor." She said with rapidly growing interest. Though as she spied the keypad, her dark brow arched sharply. "This is odd."
"What?" He asked, trying to follow her gaze.
Allison didn't respond, gently pushing him aside and lowering down to the small computer built into the door. "The lock's been jammed, sealed tight... But from the inside."
Gorahm's form immediately tensed up, his grip tightening on his rifle. He seemed to be expecting to have to use the weapon now, which only worried the Vektan more.
Gorahm yelled over his shoulder for Suhjik, who came jogging up at his call. As she reiterated what she had learned his shoulders bunched up in the same tense manner as his protégé. Where she saw an attempt to possibly save a soul, they only saw a danger to be put down.
"Open it and we can find out if anyone's alive inside… Though if I see a weapon pointed at me, I pull the trigger," Gorahm muttered, much to Allison's chagrin. She looked to Yigohr, hoping he might mediate the younger soldier's crude reasoning. His silence only served as his unspoken agreement to the other Helghast.
"What other options do we have," She whispered to herself. This was probably the best chance they would have of finding sustenance. She only hoped that bloodshed would not come of it. Tool in hand, her slender fingers danced across the pad, attempting several simple algorithms that might reset the computer. Each was met with failure, and she exhaled out of her nose in annoyance, chewing on her lip gently as she began prying the covering off the pad. It was similar to her approach with the locked crate and the further she played with the wires, the tighter Gorahm pressed the rifle into the crook of his shoulder, ready to answer any threat with a spray of death, should civility fail this instance.
"Ow," Allison hissed sharply, pulling her hand away from the exposed wire that jolted her finger. With re-doubled effort, she pressed back to her task. Carefully she stripped the two exposed wires and gently touched them to one another. Several attempts were made, watching the blue electricity lance between the copper threads. This time she would not be denied and with a final, gentle stroke the door responded.
The large lock disengaged and the door slid away into the adjoining wall with a surprising smoothness, given the dreary condition of the structure itself.
"You hig fucks!" A husky voice snarled in defiance and suddenly a figure came careening from the darkness, a pry bar held dangerously in his hands. Had Gorahm been a little slower the first swing would have smashed him across his rebreather, but his honed reflexes made him dip his head just under the arc of his swing. He hopped back, as the metal bar was nearly brought down upon his skull
"Stop! Stop!" Allison yelled in near unison with Gorahm as he barely stayed out of range of another wild swing. The stranger looked bedraggled and dirty, wearing stained, dusty army fatigues and a sleeveless shirt that was probably an immaculate white originally. It was now covered in spatters from dirt, blood and some stains one wouldn't care to guess on. Their words didn't appear to faze him, only a wild and desperate look in his hazel eyes as he relentlessly swung at the young Vikar.
Suhjik knew by now that words wouldn't solve anything as the man made no attempt to listen, and he certainly wouldn't stand idly by as the stranger swung with wild abandon at his nephew. Gorahm brought his rifle up, deflecting a downward strike that would have crushed his collar bone in. Before the Vektan could throw his knee up into Gorahm's exposed side he was knocked off his feet by Yigohr, who barreled into him like a steel ram. The pry bar flew from his grasp and he thrashed under the old hound's weight before a thundering right punch connected with his cheek. Then another and another.
Allison yelled frantically at Suhjik as Gorahm calmly collected himself and checked his rifle for any damage. She grabbed the older Helghast by the shoulders, attempting to pull him from the flailing man or at least deter him from beating his face into oblivion. She now believed his statement of being old as complete bullshit, as she could hardly jar the old warrior from atop the man whom he repeatedly battered. She caught his fist as it cocked back, holding it with all of her might. The old hound finally relaxed, his hand falling to his side as he pushed himself off of the stranger with less than a second glance. It was obvious that the man's state was somewhat weakened before he came charging out of the steel door, and the savage beating he received from the ex-officer was enough to lay him stunned on the ground.
Allison knelt at the man's side, inspecting the fresh bruises and cuts along his face. His mouth and teeth were raw and red and a healthy trickle of blood now came from his nostrils. He peered up at her with one eye, his other had swelled shut from a nasty shiner, and his chest rose and fell in labored breaths, partly from the exertion and partly from the burning atmosphere of Helghan. "Who… Who are you?"
"A friend, just stay still. Rest." She murmured gently. The man attempted to jump to his feet as the two Helghast entered his shelter.
"Stay out of there you Hig motherfuckers!," He protested in a vile tone, though Allison held him down whispering words of calm and comfort into his ear. His panicked eye darted between the trio, as if he were hallucinating the cooperation between Higs and Vektans.
Allison could feel the suspicion and anger radiate from him onto her at her affiliation with the two soldiers who had disappeared inside. He must think I'm some sort of turncoat.
Gorahm visibly recoiled as the smell of human feces assaulted him through his rebreather. 'Ugh' He grunted out before entering, rifle drawn and ready.
"Hey! I think this is food." Gorahm said, emerging with a box in his arms. Inside were several large cans, and he stared at Allison, waiting for her confirmation that he had found something of value. He nodded and placed it on the ground.
"And water," Suhjik called out from the recesses of the supply container. "Gorahm! There's someone else in here, she looks injured."
"Get your dirty fuckin' hands off her, you thieving, Visari rats!" The stranger seemed to have gained a second wind of strength as he threw Allison back. The man nearly sprung to his feet, but he was interrupted with Gorahm's boot, which collided with the man's face, putting him out cold.
"You alright?" He asked, reaching out to help Ms. Petit to her feet. She fixed him with a surprisingly cold expression as she dusted herself off.
"He wasn't armed, you know, you didn't need to kick his face in." She chided him quietly as Suhjik re-emerged from the doorway, a woman held in his arms. A large bloodstain had dried under the bandages wrapped around her abdomen and she seemed to be unconscious given the way she hung limply in the older Helghast's hold.
Gorahm's face might have communicated his offense at her words, but he merely leered at her from behind his mask and blaring goggles. She said nothing more, weaving past him and the blacked-out man to tend to the other survivor.
"She's breathing, but it's shallow," Allison murmured to Suhjik, as she placed the back of her hand to the woman's brow. "No fever - Lie her down over here and see if you can find any blankets."
As Suhjik and Allison saw to the unconscious woman, Gorahm's gaze drifted to the man on the ground, his eyes closed and his face now bloody from the rather savage kick he'd received. It certainly didn't bother the young hound, what he had done, but the way it upset their Vektan companion left a niggling annoyance in his mind.
His thoughts were broken at the sound of Yigohr's call. "Gorahm!" He barked, "Collect some brush and anything you can find that will burn. We're making camp here for the night."
A fire crackled in the pit Gorahm had dug earlier, and everyone was seated around it on the empty containers which made for handy seats. All those except Gorahm who stood at first watch from the abandoned guard tower with the VC32.
Allison, Yigohr and the stranger sat around the healthy flame. The other woman had also regained her bearings, though she had not the strength to move from the makeshift bed they had set her in next to the warm licking of the flames. Allison and Yigohr sat next to each other, just as the man had seated himself beside his compatriot. Two open cans of stew lay discarded at Allison's feet and a makeshift pot hung over the fire on a spit, letting the food cook up before being served.
Yigohr wordlessly stared at the unknown man, who mirrored this. Allison thought he looked like he wanted to shoot white-hot lasers from his eyes. The silent animosity and distrust was thick in the air.
"So," She finally broke the silence. "What's your name?"
The man's gaze snapped sharply to her, his jaw clenching beneath his haggard facial hair. Allison sighed, but pressed on. "Look, you don't have to distrust us. We're here to help you, we're the good guys."
She offered an apologetic glance to Suhjik at the generalization she had used for the ISA, but she knew it was important to gain their trust. If anyone would know what had transpired here it was them.
The man scowled silently at her words, his misgivings still burning strong. Though, they weren't treating him as a prisoner and if they wanted him dead he'd already have been spider-bait. He knew this and after a few moments he cleared his throat. "William Hotchkiss. PFC."
"Who is your friend?"
"Rose Esperanza. She's also a private of sorts."
This was good, Allison thought with her most appreciative smile. He was opening up. "Please, do you know what happened here?"
The man took a deep breath now, glancing at the single Helghast around the fire with obvious mistrust. Even being in his presence felt almost lucid. He had not been closer than thirty feet to a breathing Helghast soldier, and the idea of sitting pleasantly around the camp fire only left a sour taste in his mouth. "We set up a perimeter here after our ship had to make an emergency landing. We were supposed to wait for another week before lifting off, but Helghast raiders got the jump on us…" He swallowed hard, his voice chapped and dry. Allison offered him her canteen, which he took without a word and sipped at calmly.
"Hell broke out, and the ship took off before they could call in air support and permanently ground her," He explained, though his voice held no indigence or anger towards being left behind. He long ago accepted the price of sacrifice for the greater good. "The rest of us were picked off and Esperanza was wounded in the fray. I dragged her into the supply shelter and jammed the door behind me." He let out a small, cynical laugh. "I honestly thought that room would be our grave. The door refused to open after I smashed the lock pad on the inside. We had plenty of food and medical supplies, but I knew it would run out soon." His face became grim at the prospect of a slow and agonizing death in the small confines of human waste and hopelessness.
Allison nodded, raking her fingers through her raven hair with a calm sigh. Things were as bad as she thought then.
"Do you have any idea where they may have gone from here? Anything at all."
"No. As far as I knew, our operation was facilitating the pull-out operations for our forces. Though I don't even know if the ship broke the atmosphere or where it is now. Everything's been chaos since Visari was slain."
Yigohr spoke now, breaking the rather stone-like stance he held while sitting. "You've received no word of where the remnants of your allies have gone? Surely there are still many like you, trapped planet-side."
"I don't know, that's what I said," He growled at Yigohr adamantly. Even if he did know, Allison doubted he'd discuss it with the ex-officer. The idea of revealing any ISA pockets on the planet to a Helghast felt like treason, practically. Allison would be a liar if she said she didn't have the same misgivings in the beginning. "We were attacked, the ship flew off and that's all I know. What do you want me to tell you?"
"It's either we find the next ISA presence or we die out here. All of us." Yigohr spoke, calm and curt. He was mostly true. One way or another they wouldn't survive if they couldn't make contact with the ISA.
"Well, I don't know a damn thing," He snapped back, his frustration growing ominously behind his hard stare, "I can't tell you something I don't know, can I? You higs don't fucking listen, do you?"
Yigohr's hands balled into fists at this and he shot to his feet, though Allison followed him and placed a hand upon his shoulder, coaxing him back down to his seat. She stood over the fire between the men. "Dinner should be ready!" She attempted swerving the conversation in a new direction, and keep the status quo of peace. She pulled her sleeves over her hands and picked the bubbling pot off of the spit. "Get your bowls out. It's hot." Please, stuff your mouths. We're two words away from another brawl.
Much like the 'pot', the several bowls were also makeshift, taken from the strewn debris and rubbish for their shape that would hold liquid. She filled each one to the brim with a generous helping. "There's plenty, help yourselves."
Allison's stomach churned in agony. She was so very hungry, but she had to make sure the rest of them were settled and not at each others throats. She took two bowls and knelt before the one called Rose, who seemed to rouse slightly at the smell of food.
"Do you have enough strength to eat?" Allison asked, hoping she did. If not, she would have to feed her, a task that would surely exacerbate her own clawing hunger.
"Yes… I-I think I can manage." She gritted her teeth in pain as she tried to sit up, though it proved too painful and she lowered back down onto her back. Allison sighed inwardly, but fixed the woman with an understanding smile.
"Just relax, I'll help you," One hand cradled her head up as she brought the rim of the bowl to her lips, tipping it only slightly for her to take small sips from the broth and canned meat and veggies. "Does it hurt at all?"
"It smarts, yes," Esperanza responded. It seemed the taste of food had given her enough energy to talk. "But I've walked away from worse, believe me."
Allison refrained from commenting that she hadn't even the strength to sit up, she merely nodded and gave her another small sip. "Well, I'll still need to take a look at your wound before you go to sleep. It might get infected."
The private shook her head gently as she chewed. "I'll be alright," She whispered just under the sound of the crackling flames. "Hotchkiss has been changing my bandages and even managed to remove the bullet. He's looked after me."
Allison nodded, the pleasant smile never leaving her lips. Certainly the rugged-looking man would have been more friendly had her entourage not been comprised of his hated enemy. "Alright, ma'am, if you say so."
The woman seemed to take larger and larger draughts from the bowl. Not by much, but it was a good sign. Allison silently admired her grit and tolerance for what looked like a very painful and almost wound. Esperanza sighed in relief, her head cradled under the old fatigues that were rolled up for a pillow. "I heard you guys talkin' about where to go from here."
Allison blinked, the words snapping her back from her thoughts. "Oh. Yes, we may be stranded out here for all we know. Sure the hover is in working condition, but what? We putter around this wasteland until we starve or get blown to hell?"
Rose's hand slithered out from under the blanket, gently pushing away the bowl as it was offered to her. "No more, thank you." Her hand then weakly trailed up to grab her collar and pull her closer. Allison obliged - the soldier didn't have the physical strength at the moment to feed herself, much less move someone. "I've heard some things."
Petit tilted her head, sweeping her hair behind her ear. "Things? What things?" She pressed closer to the woman as her voice lowered to little more than a whisper. It seemed she too was wary of bringing sensitive information up in front of a Helghast.
"Before- ngh," She stifled her pain as she attempted to shift herself on the blanket laid beneath her. "Before the attack, I got a message from my sister.. She's a communications specialist at the forward command base outside of Pyhrrus. The feed was cut but I remember reading that the ground forces were retreating. Trying to find a rendezvous point."
"Retreating where, ma'am? What was the RP" Allison asked, nibbling on her lower lip. It was a nervous habit.
"Rose. I hate ma'am." The soldier whispered, correcting her. "They were moving south she said, into some region the locals called Kazan - Kaznar. Something like that."
Allison pondered this for a moment as Rose whispered into her ear once more. "I don't know if it will help, she didn't give me many details. I didn't want to say in the… present company, but I thought you should know."
"Thank you, it does help. Very much. Now, rest. We may have to move at first light." Allison responded. The wounded female seemed all too happy to obey and her head sunk even more into her pillow, her eyes sliding completely shut now.
Allison took her bowl and moved silently back to her seat.
This could be it, the clue we needed.
There were no utensils, but she hardly needed them to scarf down the contents in her bowl. It tasted better than any exquisite cuisine she'd partaken of back on Vekta.
Or it could be nothing but the ramblings of a tired soldier who's lost a lot of blood.
She knew this was a lead though, and the only one right now. It deserved a look into.
"Hey," Yigohr rumbled at her, snapping her back from her thoughts once more. He tipped another helping into his bowl and pushed it gently into her hands. "Would you take that to Gorahm?"
Allison looked at the bowl, then to the Helghast, then back. "Oh. Sure, of course," She said politely, having forgotten that the young soldier hadn't been fed yet. She stood up and headed towards the nearest guard tower. She cast a worried glance over her shoulder, hoping that by the time she returned they wouldn't all have killed one another.
"And tell him I'll relieve his watch in an hour!" He called after her, which she nodded to in confirmation.
Gorahm scanned the dark horizon through the scope of the VC32, letting the scope project a lighter hue on the rocky crags and long dusty plains. He imagined this was what an ISA guard was doing right before the veritable shit-storm of fighting fell down upon them. It set a small knot in his stomach.
His concentration was broken as the first of clanging steps began to sound off from beneath him. He set the rifle down as a hand went to his sidearm. He stopped himself though. He had nothing to fear, and besides his holster was empty as Petit still had his pistol.
The steps grew louder until knuckles rapped against the bottom of the floor. Without hesitation he grabbed the door handle and pulled it up, revealing dark tresses and the faint smell of stew. It surprised him, he only expected Suhjik to appear to relieve him.
"Hope you're hungry," Allison asked, her torso now protruding up from the floor. Apparently he was, judging by the way he tore his goggles and rebreather away and snatched the bowl from her hands. He tipped it up and drained practically the entire bowl down into his open maw. Chewing was for when he felt like his stomach wouldn't eat itself out of starvation, and he licked his lips along with the rim of the bowl.
"Oh shit, this stuff is amazing," Gorahm commented, fascinated by this delicious confection.
"Well, it's not the hamburger I promised, but I'm glad you like it," Allison spoke. She hesitated for a moment before entering completely into the guard tower. "All quiet on the western front?" She asked with a coy smile, leaning on the railing and peering off into the sprawling night sky.
Gorahm obviously didn't understand the allusion, as he'd never read any old earth literature of any kind. "Yeah, it's quiet, but I don't knew whether that's a good thing or horribly, horribly ominous."
"Say it's a good thing, I'll rest easier."
"It's a good thing, everything's fine and we'll all definitely live through the night. Definitely." Gorahm spoke in a monotonous tone.
Allison rolled her eyes with a small fluttering laugh in her chest. "You should do speeches." Her eyes rose to peer up into the sky. It was strange how familiar the stars looked. It almost felt like she were peering up at them from her home on Vekta. She didn't want to look away and see the hellish world around her.
"What are you looking for?" Gorahm asked, leaning up on the railing next to her and peering about. "If you look closely at night you can sometimes see Vekta… There, right there. That little blue dot."
Allison followed his pointing finger, until she saw a tiny blue dot. It looked like a thumbtack hanging motionless on the canvas of stars and moons. "That's Vekta?"
"Mhm. My mother told me that. Also told me that it looked a lot like earth."
"Your mother remembers earth?" She asked, curious.
"No, she never saw earth, but her family brought some pictures with them and told stories about it, when in privacy. She told me the stories and memories helped get her through the bad times."
Allison nodded, though the history of Helghan seemed fraught with 'bad times' as far as she knew. "Have you ever wanted to see Vekta - y'know, not from across space, but planetside."
Gorahm pursed his lips, then slowly shook his head. "No. We were kicked off for a reason, and this is my home now. I could pop over to Vekta for a holiday, though one day." He jested, though it seemed more out of bitterness than good nature.
"Well, you might like it, you never know." Allison argued gently, bumping him lightly with her elbow. She had felt guilty for her reaction earlier when Vikar had lashed his boot into the man's jaw. She could imagine from his perspective he was defending her.
Gorahm frowned slightly, then peered over at her, the intense starlight reflecting sharply from his ghostly skin and bare cranium. His eyes were gray, like steel and sharp as he stared at her. If he had been born on Vekta, Allison suspected he would be quite handsome. He was handsome in a certain way even now. "My father's father fell from grace on that planet decades ago, Allison. Life is hard here and uncaring, but I know it's the only life I'll ever have." He said with some amount of grim resignation.
Allison propped her chin against the palm of her hand. It was wishful thinking to believe it was as simple as she propositioned. "So then why do all of this, how are you going to carve any sort of life here as a traitor to your race?"
Her blunt but true words stung Gorahm, and he had often thought about it himself. "I never said it would be a glorious or long life to carve out. Maybe I just want some justice for the few people I cared about that were taken from me. And this time it wasn't the Vektans who did it."
Allison averted her gaze briefly. She did remember the tearful euthanasia he had given to his comrade, though she dared not bring it up or speak of it. The idea that Helghast even formed deep bonds with others was surprising to her. She had only seen the cold side of the military, who held no regard for casualties sustained on their side or the lives lost. Only the goal of destruction and carnage mattered, no matter the cost. She sucked in a deep breath through her nose, the slight sting of the atmosphere making her slightly nauseous.
"Well, I did find something interesting at least."
"One of the soldiers told me some information, that the remaining forces on Helghan would be moving south into some sector called.. Oh, what the hell did she call it," She muttered to herself. "Kazar or something with Kaz."
He stared at her honestly. "I think she meant to say Kaznan. It's normally called the Kaznan Jungle."
Allison's eyes widened at the mention of a jungle. She had assumed the rocky, dusty wasteland stretched the entire crust of this planet. This was quite a shock to her. "The Kaznan Jungle? Have you ever been there?"
"No, but I've heard stories. Mostly from Suhjik. He was in the expeditionary forces that first mapped out the lands. He said it was pretty brutal, but that's not saying much on this world."
Allison's expression brightened at this. We won't be walking into our graves then if we have someone experienced in traversing the land. I need to talk to him.
"Things are looking up, Gor. Thanks for the talk," She murmured gratefully, bending down to grab the cleaned-out bowl.
The young Vikar watched her as she carefully lowered herself down from the tower's perch. "Oh, and Gorahm."
"Yeah?" He asked, peering down at her attentively.
"Suhjik says he'll be up in an hour to relieve you," She said disappearing beneath the doorway in the floor with clanging footsteps as she descended the steps.
"Right," Gorahm said with a small sigh of disappointment. He sunk down to his rear, leaning back against the railing. Vekta hung in the sky like a blue pearl, and he stared thoughtfully at it in silence. A few moments was all he needed before remembering his duty. He grabbed the VC32 and was vigilant once more.
Okay, I am back! My life has been pretty hectic and I long thought about just setting the story on permanent hold. The third KZ game had set down a multitude of logistical problems and seemed to raise more questions than it answered by the end of it. But I knew it wouldn't be fair to any readers to simply quit, so I churned out this mother of a chapter (Sorry there was no action, I needed to set up some perspective and shift the story in a new direction that coincided with the game.) I promise you action fans will get some blood and gore in the next chapter, which will be taking place a few months from now in a new location, with some information of what happened between sprinkled in :) Please review if you fancy it, and drop me a message with any questions, concerns, thoughts etc and I promise to write back. I like where this story is going too much to let it stagnate now. Huzzah!