"Well, I've reported your evaluation to Control," Barnes offered to Cliff after he climbed back down into the hatch. "You had a few problems in the 'loss of your family' category, but other than that, you checked out under my rules. Chances are they'll put you on probational leadership status for a few weeks but bring you back to being a full commanding officer after you clear a few objectives."

"Let's hope they'll be so kind," muttered Cliff.

"Control to Rho Squadron, priority channel exclusive for Captain Clifford Lawrence, Field Commanding Officer."

"Sounds important," said Cliff, almost sarcastically. "I'll take it outside," he said as he stood and headed for the hatch ladder. 'This old iron ladder is sure getting put through it's paces today...' he thought.

Cliff pressed his the comm. "Go ahead, Control." The signal was isolated to his frequency almost immediately as he began up the ladder and out the hatch. 'Come to think of it, the hatch has been up and down a lot today, too.'

"Cliff, this is Jerry," came a voice familiar to Cliff. "We got a live one for ya today."

"Jerry! Long time, no talk. We had this rookie reporting to us before, and-"

"Cliff! Shut-up! Have you reached the safe zone yet?"

Cliff paused. Didn't he just get told to shut-up? "...Do-do you want me to answer that, or-?"

"You know, you're a pile of fecal matter, Cliff. Just radio me as soon as you make your drop."

"Jerry, you called me."

The comm fell silent. Well, that was a fun conversation.

Cliff looked towards the head of the rig and caught sight of the fortress towards which it was barreling. They'd finally reached Safe House: North, the drop point. No Locust had been seen for miles around this haven. It served as a home for the lost, and a refuge for the weak. It also had the job of training up gears. They rarely lasted long, the gears that came out of these places. Training was literally less than a month, because the COG higher-ups knew shooting wood targets was no kind of practice. I guess bringing them to a training camp to teach them how to use weapons was all they could do, and the real soldiers would prove themselves on the battlefield. Everyone else was expendable.

Didn't matter. They'd brought the women, children, and elderly. None of this group would have to face the horrors of this war. They'd be held here until we'd slaughtered the Locust or driven them back into their holes. True, they'd be here a while, but the contingent of soldiers here, and their ever-regenerating supply of freshly-trained reserve soldiers were enought to make this one of the last places anyone would ever expect to fall.

As the rig inched ever closer to the gates, Cliff hopped back down into the hatch.

"What'd the bigwigs have to say?" asked Corporal Max.

"Get ready to hit the extraction point, Gears," ordered Cliff, ignoring Max.

Max, Cash, Dalton, and Barnes rose to their feet and prepared for the arrival, gathering their weapons and loading their packs. Cliff stepped into the driver's cabin, where he found Hawk massaging Birdy's shoulders as she piloted the rig. They'd been married a few years ago, and they loved one another fiercely. Everything about them seemed to fit together perfectly. Their nicknames were even related. Total coincidence. They shared deep brown hair and fair skin, brown eyes, long hair... They just looked like they should be together. Cliff looked on the innocent display of affection for a moment, appreciating the moment in a way they couldn't know yet.

"...Hey. Lovebirds," Cliff interrupted.

They both jumped a little, Hawk moreso. "Captain! Uh, we-we're coming up on the, uh... The place, er..."

"Cool it with the stuttering cliché, Hawk. I'm not gonna file a PDA report, but I do need you in the back with the passengers, Sergeant," Cliff couldn't help but smile through that whole order.

"Yes, sir," said Jenson, nearly saluting out of his embarassment as he shuffled past Cliff.

Cliff took a seat in the cabin next to Birdy. "You turn him into a Private every time, Byrd, you know that, right?"

"What can I say, Boss?" she quipped. "I'm sexy."

The captain laughed. "Okay, sexy, they're gonna be calling in for a clearance code, you have it loaded?"

"Sure do. Just hit that button when they need it." She motioned to a button near to Cliff. As if on cue, a communication came through to the rig.

"Incoming transport, identify clearance."

Cliff cleared his throat. "Rig D-41, Rho Squad responding. Sending clearance now." He mashed the button he'd been directed to with his thumb.

It took a second, but the communication came back positive, and Rig D-41 was welcomed into the massive wall-gate which housed one of the safest stretches of dirt on all of Sera.