Floor 5, Tower 27 [Formerly known as Evergreen Point Resort and Spa], North Medina
Nicole awoke in the old hotel room to her Ghost tapping her visor. She had slept in her armor since there was no way she would sleep on this mattress until she had cleaned it. Taking a glance at her mission clock, she noted that she had only slept five hours; not much but enough she hoped.
“Wake up, Guardian. It’s almost midday, and that Fallen is waiting outside the door.” Her Ghost nudged her visor again.
“Alright, I’m up,” Nicole yawned and sat up. The armor was not the most comfortable thing to sleep in; she lifted her arms into the air and stretched with a yawn. Popping off her helmet, she ran her fingers through her hair and rubbed her forehead. Her eyes were covered suddenly with dark brown almost black hair; Nicole brushed them out of the way and then glanced down at her helmet. The visor reflected her face back at her. “Oh… so that’s what a Human looks like.” She blinked, and her green eyes blinked back.
“Well… yes.” Her Ghost blinked. “You okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine…” She placed her helmet back on and grabbed her rifle from the wall. “Let’s get out there then.”
Nicole pulled open the door and walked out to the corridor beyond the room. Rykis was sitting on the ledge with what looked like a notebook; he was sketching something in the atrium. There was something familiar feeling about his act of sketching; perhaps she had done some in her past life.
He must have heard her open the door; he packed up his sketchpad and stood up from the ledge. “Good morning Guardian. The patrol is assembling on the old highway; a runner came by less than an hour ago.” Rykis nodded towards the stairwell. “We should be going.”
“Yep, that’s why I’m up; lead the way.” Nicole started down the stairs.
“Of course, Human,” Rykis nodded and followed her down. Once they reached the roadway the Vandal took the lead, drawing her through the overgrown streets once again.
The ruins were different during the day; the faded color of the building behind the green moss was a beautiful combination. The old asphalt was buried beneath layers of soil, and then covered in a thick layer of ferns, and grass where the sun shone commonly. There were ruts in the dirt, like something was still using the roads. It was a surreal feeling, like this was all wrong, but she knew no other image of the world around her.
Further into the city, she saw smaller Fallen playing in the streets, with others watching from the windows in the buildings; women and children she guessed. Rykis took her away from the occupied areas, opting for the less busy alleys and roads.
They came to a wide open area, sunken beneath the rest of the land around it. Large portions of grey concrete were still exposed, peeking through the grass and plants. This was a highway, or use to be one. Rykis stopped and pointed down at an onramp that passed through a tunnel. “That way is where we’re meeting them.”
“Well alright,” Nicole hopped down over the side of a crumbling embankment, taking the lead again. The asphalt here was long buried, and a small stream flowed down the gulley. A flock of birds took off from inside the old tunnel’s supports. She walked through the tunnel at the end, but before she could reach the exit, a coughing, puttering sound wafted from down the tunnel, before a sharp, whistling whine sounded alongside it, spooling up. As she neared the exit, a deep rumble echoed down the passage, and vibrated in her chest. She recognized that it was not a natural rumble, but nothing was coming to mind.
She quickened her pace out of curiosity and was met with an unexpected sight. It was a large, rather boxy tracked vehicle, with a large, thick barreled cannon spouting from an angled metal box. The word popped into her head; Tank. It rumbled and roared with a whistling whine as a burst of black exhaust emerged from back end. Its tracks began to turn and it moved forward ahead of another trio of smaller vehicles. They hovered and matched the Fallen design she had seen during her time so far in this place. But that Tank… it was undeniably Human.
Plates of tan metal were welded to the side, adding additional armor or maybe patching holes. She glanced back “What… is that?”
Rykis walked up beside her and nodded to the vehicle “Ah, that. It is one of your kind’s ancient vehicles of war… the engineering group fixed…” He looked down at his hands, counting out on all four of them, and then holding up all but one finger. “…Eleven before I was born.”
“You got those to run?” Nicole asked again. “Does the gun work?”
“Yes, however the ammunition is scarce, we use them mainly at sentry posts… this must be because of the ambush last night,” Rykis said. “Baron Acskis must feel that this patrol needs the boost… hmmm, not a good sign.”
The tank came to a stop and a Vandal carried a large belt fed gun up to the top, attaching it to the roof. Smaller Fallen emerged from inside the vehicle and collected large cannon shells as long as her leg, and attached a hose from a barrel to a port on the tank.
“I still can’t get past the fact that they managed to fix this up.” Nicole avoided stepping across the hose, and went around the barrel. “I have no memory of these things but I’m impressed.”
Her Ghost appeared between her and Rykis. “As am I, it looks in good repair, despite its age.”
“I would not know.” Rykis replied. “That is done by Baroness Tansis’ crew, in the south.”
“They must be skilled.” The Ghost said.
“Indeed, they are responsible for most of the maintenance and new machinery here. But enough of that… they are almost finished fueling and our Captain has arrived.” Rykis pointed to one of the tall Fallen approaching from up the road. “He will be in our Skiff support.”
The larger Fallen walked over to the assembled patrol group. The other Fallen stopped what they were doing when he made a grunt. The Captain pointed to the crew on the tank and said something before moving his attention to the riders of smaller bike like vehicles.
She really liked the look of them for some reason, they looked sleek and cool. Maybe she would try to get one someday.
Nicole shook her head and looked to Rykis, who was happy to fill her in with what the Captain was saying. “He is telling them what route to take, ‘follow this four-oh-five and then onto road ninety.’ We’re apparently heading into the mountains for an overnight patrol.”
Glancing up at a faded highway sign, Nicole noted that the road names corresponded to the way they had been numbered in the past. “So you’re going off the old names for them?” She asked.
“It is convenient. All those signs your people placed make navigation simple.” Rykis waved his upper right arm at the very sign Nicole was referencing earlier.
“Hmmm… makes sense I guess,” she responded as the Captain continued to issue orders for the bike riders.
Rykis explained that the bikes, which they called ‘Pikes’, were to scout ahead of the tank, to warn of any Devil ambushes. The leader of the Pikes chittered back to the Captain in affirmative, before turning to its own. With a few words that Rykis didn’t bother to translate, the riders mounted their vehicles Rykis nodded to the Tank, as a Vandal wheeled away the bundle of empty fuel barrels that had been emptied into the tank, and the heavy vehicle’s crew buttoned up hatches and got into position. With another grunt from the Vandal on top of the Tank, the others of the patrol climbed aboard, mostly atop its turret, as they settled in for the long ride to the mountains.
He climbed up the Tank’s rear, and held out one of his gloved hands to Nicole. “We ride,” he explained, as she took his hand and climbed onto the massive metal vehicle. The tank’s huge motor rumbled loudly beneath them, roaring and whistling sharply as it lurched and the heavy tracks clanking as they set off on the patrol.
The engine was too loud to speak to Rykis about anything while the Tank made its steady progress. They had only been on the road for a couple minutes when they came across the interchange with Highway 90. Many of the bridges for the junction were damaged and crumbling, but there was a ramp down to the other road that was intact.
The tank rumbled down the ruined highway, all around them were the rusting bodies of vehicles. Most were facing the same direction, as if they were fleeing some disaster happening in the cities. By all means, they probably had been; something wiped out humanity oh so long ago. Nicole glanced at the Fallen that surrounded her; this species seemed completely incapable of being the cause of that scale of destruction. It had to have been something else instead, something that was no longer around.
This portion of highway jutted east, directly away from the cities and water. It was not long before they had left the urban decay and ended up deep in the miles of rotting suburban neighborhoods. Though the only hint Nicole could see that there had been anything there was the occasional house sticking out from the trees. Nature had almost completely reclaimed the land.
However, there were only so many trees she could watch, the Fallen around her had been talking in their native tongue the entire trip. The hard metal was not kind to her rear either. She shifted her seating and got on to her knees. The armor her Ghost had created had come with knee pads built in, to which she was thankful for. “So Rykis…” Nicole thought for a second, she hoped she had pronounced his name right.
He looked up from some sort of book he was looking through and closed it. “Yes, Guardian?”
“Well first of all, call me Nicole please. I don’t really associate with Guardian yet.” She shrugged; it was true however, at least Nicole seemed right to be her actual name.
“Very well, Neh-cole.” Rykis nodded and smiled under his mask, at least she thought he did. His cheek bones moved in a fashion her human mind interpreted as one.
“So what kind of patrol just goes in a straight line?” she asked.
“Ah not really, the Pikes are quite a bit faster than the Tank. They are the one patrolling in a grid pattern around our position, traveling well beyond our sight range. We are just their support in case they make contact with the Devils,” he replied.
Nicole glanced back to him, “If they’re so much faster, what happens if the patrol gets hit far away?”
“The Skiff holds a small first response group. They will go while we make our way there for immediate support.”
“Oh,” Nicole nodded. “That’s a really good system.”
“Yes, we’re not a stupid people.” Rykis laughed, though it sounded like a low key chittering.
“That’s not what I meant by that,” Nicole clarified. The last thing she wanted to do was offend the one Alien that spoke her language.
Rykis laughed again, “Yes, I know.”
Nicole just smirked. “Okay, another question then; how come you can speak my language so well?”
“Oh that one is simple,” Rykis said. “I am an interpreter at the trading post, someone with an in depth knowledge of your language is needed nearby, though it has been quite a while since I have seen humans personally.”
“Ah, so how’d you learn?” Thankfully this worked to speed up the passage of time marginally, but a little was better than not at all.
“I was taught by the Archon, though I am not sure where he learned English though…” Rykis scratched his head. He looked like he was going to continue, but then he set his hands back down to his lap.
“Well… that’s… cool,” That draw off was a bit awkward, Nicole was not sure why Rykis did that, but she decided to drop the conversation. “That’s all for now, I guess, got to get to know the person I’m going to be spending the most time with.”
“Indeed,” Rykis agreed. He went quiet again for a bit, and then began a conversation with another Vandal across the tank. She shrugged and went back to watching the scenery pass.
As the mountains rose around them, the air quickly cooled and snow covered the world. It muted everything; even the rumbling engine beneath her seemed to be quieter. The view evoked another flash of disconnected scenes in her head; mighty mountains and frozen rivers, snow and ice with miles of white trees all around them. It was sort of like where she was now, just a little different. She knew snow was supposed to be peaceful for some reason, no clue why.
The sun was disappearing beyond the distant horizon when Rykis poked her shoulder. “Is it true that the risen do not have any memories of their past?”
“Ah… yes that appears to be true…” Nicole said.
“So asking questions about yours is useless, right?” Rykis replied.
“That’s right; I’m a mystery even to myself. I’m still learning my tastes.” That last word kicked up a feeling in her stomach, it growled rather loudly; however it was still quieter than the tank. “Speaking of tastes… do you have any food? I haven’t eaten in… Well, ever I guess,” she laughed.
Rykis nodded and looked into one of his pouches. “Yes, I brought some along for patrol. I was not sure if you Guardians had to eat but I brought extra for you.” He pulled out a small package and handed it over to her. “Fish… and I have some dipping if you would like.”
Nicole took the package and unwrapped it ravenously. The fish inside was pink, with a bit of darkened grill marks across the top. She held it up to her mouth and took a bite. The taste triggered images again, flashes of water and sand and the very definition of the term fishy. “Huh… it’s Salmon.” She muttered, the wording coming to her.
The Eliksni looked over to her and nodded. “That’s right… I thought you said you do not have any memories?”
“That’s true, though certain things cause flashes of memory, though they’re usually devoid of any identifying features or human life. They seem to be just basic images of what things are… like forests and water, things like that.” Nicole elaborated. “It’s like just barely knowing what someone’s talking about when they say ocean… I think… I’m guessing since I don’t know how society works but then again I do know… does. Does that make sense?”
He nodded, the helmet on his head shifting slightly. “Yes, I think it does.” Rykis settled back into the tank’s netting as they continued the route into the mountains.
The highway took them into a steep valley, so much so that the Pikes had grouped back together and continued ahead on the only road that was out here. The route split around a gorge, in the dim evening light Nicole could see a frozen waterfall down below. A sudden flick of movement on the cliff side caught her eye; it climbed up the vertical rock face and disappeared into the forest. Whatever it had been was too far to properly identify, and she dismissed it as some sort of wild animal.
The trip had been rather calm, apart from the constant rumbling from the tank; however even that became a sort of background noise. Nicole glanced up at the craft flying overhead, Rykis had called it a Skiff and it blended in fairly well with the dull grey sky.
Nicole closed her eyes and flicked open the air vents on her helmet to let in some of the crisp cold air. But all of a sudden an explosion echoed off the rock, followed by rapid gunfire. She shot upwards and grabbed her rifle, but there was nothing coming towards the tank; the fighting was further up the highway… where the Pikes were.
Shouting came from the crew on the tank and the entire vehicle lurched forward as it began to gain speed. The engine whined and the tracks tore through the snow and ice, scoring the ancient pavement below.
As they roared around the corner of the gorge, Nicole saw that up ahead all lanes of the old interstate were blocked. The surviving Pike pilots were behind an overturned van, there were not many left. Their vehicles were flaming wrecks across the snow. The roadblock was occupied by the Devils; she could recognize their colors in the dark.
The electricity based weapons zipped around, glowing brightly through the night. The Vandal on the Tank’s mounted gun opened fire, while the Fallen on the Tank rolled off the side; she followed their lead. They stacked up behind the vehicle for cover and it slowly began to roll towards the blockade.
Almost at once, Rykis and the other Vandals dashed out from cover and made for the trees along the side of the road, leaving her alone behind the vehicle. She glanced around and lost sight of them in the dark; then she spotted on of the other Vandals with his hands covering the sides of his head. “What the-”
The Tank suddenly lurched back, letting loose a deafening boom. Something attached to the back slammed into her helmet, knocking her to the ground. An explosion lit up the valley from the checkpoint, and a small fraction of incoming fire ceased.
Nicole was still recovering from the blast, and shook head in a pointless effort to clear the ringing. It took a few seconds, but she picked herself off the ground, and the ringing began to fade. Over the rumble from the Tank, she could hear her Ghost coming through her helmet speakers. “Guardian? …guardian? Can you hear me?”
“Ye-Yeah I can.” She replied, stumbling out and moving towards the snow covered guard rail. She fell and flopped over the side, hoping that this was going to provide adequate cover. “Fuck that hurt…” The swear came from the deep end of her mind, completely naturally.
“You will survive,” the Ghost replied. “I’m sorry; I apparently forgot to put in proper sound dampening when I created your helmet.”
“Good going there,” She muttered.
“I will rectify this issue when you secure more glimmer for parts and repairs.” The Ghost said. “For now, I’d recommend that you move further away from this vehicle. There’s not enough space on this side of the road for you.”
“Got it, just give me a minute,” she rolled out of the snow and back over the guardrail. Stumbling through the gunfire, she finally shook her head clear and made it into the trees.
There was a flash of light from the blockade and some machine walked over the barrier. It was metallic, and had multiple lights across its bulbous head. On its back was a large cannon, which twitched and shifted to aim at House Mist’s tank. On its chin, a rotary gun spun up and opened fire at the Pike survivors. Its main gun fired, though it was much quieter than the old Human tank.
The shot flew across the roadway and smacked into the side of the turret, detonating. The Tank rocked, but once the explosion cleared there was only a gouge in the side of the armor, no penetration.
Mist’s tank fired back with his main gun, letting out another deafening boom. The shell tore through the armor of the strange walking tank and detonated in its core. The alien tank blew apart in a massive fireball and stumbled towards the cliff. It almost looked like it was alive. One of the walker’s legs caught the guardrail and it careened over the side of the mountain.
The Mist Vandals in the trees began to open fire now that the largest threat had been dealt with. Nicole moved up the hillside, and found a clearing above the Devil’s position. She opened fire from her position, taking out one of the Devil’s Dregs. She could see that the gunfire from the blockade was focusing solely on the Tank. Nothing was even looking up at her.
“Guardian, I have movement right behind you. Something big!” The Ghost alerted her.
She twisted around and glanced up the cliff face behind her. “How could there be anything there.” She thought.
In the dim light given off by her helmet light, she could see the snow rising and falling off of something emerging from the ice. The red lights of another one of the spider tanks stared at her through the falling snow.
The walker’s chin gun spun up and opened fire on her; the bullets launching all kinds of material into the air as they struck the ground. Nicole dove out of the way and rolled behind an outcropping of rocks, just in time. The rock cracked and chips rained down upon her; she did not have any heavy weapons to deal with this thing.
“Ghost, do you have communications with any of the Fallen that are on our side?” she asked.
“No, I don’t… I can try though.” Her Ghost replied. “…I think these are Mist codes…”
After a few fleeting moments, her helmet radio was suddenly lit up with a discord of Fallen voices. She was not sure what they were saying. Hopefully her Ghost did actually connect to the right one. “Uh, Rykis, They’ve got me pinned down with another one of those walking tanks on the mountainside.”
There were a few seconds of continued coordination she did not understand before Rykis came across the radio in her language. “I see it, will have Tank target it.”
Nicole glanced back down at the Tank on the road. It was barely visible outside the spotlights the Devils had set up. There was no way that the Tank could aim this far up. She could see a hint of movement on top, but what it was, she was not sure. But then light flashed from the top. Bullets zinged above her head, peppering the Devil’s Walker across its head. The Walker shuddered as holes began to appear, something inside was giving off a bright red light.
“Neh-cole, we are leaving. Captain is dead, but the Pike riders have been rescued. Tank needs to save ammo and Archon is calling us back,” Rykis called out over the radio. “Return, fast.”
Nicole peeked over the rock again; the Walker was still maneuvering in the snow, though its attention was directed down the slope. The main gun on its back charged and fired, but it seemed to miss. The gunfire continued to pepper the Walker’s hull.
“Okay, I understand.” Nicole replied to Rykis. She dove out from behind the now pummeled rock and made a mad dash for the tree line. The Walker’s turret swiveled to her and fired its coaxial weapon, some sort of slow moving electrical bolts. They followed her through the trees, tracking her down.
“What the fuck!?” One of the bolts struck a tree, and exploded. The tree was blown to splinters, which thankfully triggered the other two. Now that she was in the clear from the Walker, she made a beeline for the Mist Tank. When she emerged from the forest she could see that Rykis and the other Vandals were falling back around the bend, probably over a hundred meters away. Nicole had dropped out where the Pikes had been taken out.
Her exact position was behind an ancient landslide, so she was not under fire from the barricade. However, there was an intact Pike not too far from her position. “Can you tell if that thing is still working, Ghost?” she asked.
“I’ll check.” The Ghost flew out from behind her and dodged the smaller pieces of wreckage. The blue scanning light from his eye flashed across the Pike’s surface. One of the Devils on the wall must have noticed because a volley of gunfire came down range. Thankfully, the Ghost puttered back over to her position. “Yes, it’s in working order.”
“Great, that’s our way out of here.” Nicole reloaded her rifle, and inched closer to the edge of the landslide.
There was movement nearby, the indicator on her HUD showed four hostiles coming closer. They were probably coming down to check the area for any survivors. She shook her head and charged out around the corner. The Devils where far closer that she had realized, Nicole had nearly walked right into a Vandal. She quickly head-butted the Vandal, knocking it back a few steps and she followed up with a burst into its chest. Nicole reached down instinctively for a new magazine, but found something else instead; a knife. Twisting it around in her hand, Nicole brought the blade through the neck of a Dreg. A burst of wet gas sprayed from the wound and coated her helmet.
She kicked the Dreg into another and managed to grab an actual magazine from her belt. Nicole turned and ran for the Pike, picking it back up and climbing aboard. Thankfully, it was still running; she gripped one of the handlebars and the Pike shot forward. Gunfire shot past her as she attempted to ride back down the mountain pass. She looked back and fired at the Fallen with her rifle, just to force them off her trail.
For some reason, she found that driving the Pike just seemed to come naturally. The balance and steering was only slightly different to whatever mental skills she was using. Nicole understood that she would probably never know why it was this way, or why she was instantly competent with a weapon. But she was glad she did.
The Devils appeared not to pursue her any further; she left them behind in the cold snow. Nicole tried to wipe the black droplets from her visor, but they just further smeared across and made it even harder to see. She opted to just remove the helmet all together, clipping it back onto her belt with a free hand. The crisp air and flecks of snow were directed away from her face by the Pikes small windshield, but the wind blew through her hair. It was a good feeling, a relaxing feeling. It triggered another vague memory, trees and blurry shapes flying past as her point of view swung over a road that wound along the edge of a gorge. There was not anything recognizable of it; just the feelings. The worry and fear of combat melted away into the sound of rushing wind.
She was safe again, free. This had to be something from her past life, a happy place. Her happy place.
Nicole rode on, finally coming across her allies from the House of Mist. The Tank was damaged, a bit of darker smoke belched from its exhaust and there were more than a few missing armor panels. Rykis stood from the back and waved to her, calling her closer to the vehicle as it lumbered down the roadway.
“You made it out! Good!” Rykis shouted to her.
Nicole brought the Pike a bit closer so that she could properly respond. “Yeah, but what was that? Those Devils have you boxed in here?”
Rykis shook his head. “Do not know, this is the first time we came across them there.” He looked around at the others. “Kell will have others check other passes. Has been years since a full sweep was done.”
“You doing okay?” She asked. If her interpreter died, she would be… as the word popped back into her head… fucked.
“Yes, I am fine. Are you going to remain on that Pike?”
Nicole nodded and gave its engine a bit more power. “Yeah, I do think I will. This is… calming.”
Rykis’ attention was drawn away to a wounded Vandal on the back of the Tank that had reached up to him. “Very well, keep close.”
She pulled away from the Tank and dodged a line of snow covered vehicles. It was like that all the way back down the highway; the Pike was fast, but the tank was not. Nicole was constantly shooting ahead and then slowing down for them to catch up. Driving the Pike became more and more like second nature the longer she rode, tapping into that forgotten memory. Not long after they left the snow, a Mist Skiff arrived to pick the wounded up and take them somewhere for treatment. The trip back to the old city was as uneventful as the trip up, just far darker.
Nicole followed the Tanks approach into the sunken portion of the highway and back to where they launched. A Vandal waved her over to a different area under the overpass with what looked to be a light stick. There were other Pikes parked with tarps draped over them all over; however there was more than a few open spots. The Vandal had her park in an open spot, she dismounted. He waved to her and said something she did not understand when she started to walk away.
Backing away, Nicole put up her hands. “Sorry, I don’t know what you’re saying.”
The Vandal growled and spoke in a rough accent. “Turn off.”
“Well I don’t know how to do that either,” she replied.
He grumbled again and reached over the handlebars and pressed a switch on the console. The Pike’s engine cycled to a stop. It lowered down and settled on some small studs that might have been some kind of landing gear. “Now know.”
Rykis came around the concrete pillar and called her over. “Baron Acskis wants to know what happened, we have been summoned.”
“Well okay then… you’ll have to lead the way; I still don’t know where places are here.” She replied.
Her Ghost appeared and spun around her head before facing Rykis. “I have footage from this Guardian’s helmet. It should help.”
“That might get us on Acskis’ good side,” Rykis replied. “He was not happy to be woken at this… hour…” With that, Rykis started off back up to the city with Nicole close behind.