The Edge of the Safe Zone
The Northern Shores outpost is not what I expected it to be.
After spending so much time amongst the relative plushness of Accord command centers, the rundown refuge that is the Northern Shores outpost is a stark contrast. Half-broken machinery whirs and rattles as it struggles to keep up with the needs of the war-weary men and women who staff this outpost. These are tired people, each one counting down the days until they’re relieved of this post and can return to the relative comfort of Trans-Hub.
And yet here these same people are, laughing wildly over my flailing, panicked bum-rush to reach the base. Admittedly I know that I looked silly as hell as I scrambled across the beach, trying to look over my shoulder to see what that monstrous freak raising hell behind me was. But none of that matters now – I’m inside the base, hunched over with my hands on my knees as I try to catch my breath. As I steady my breathing, I’m approached by an older soldier – a career man, to be sure. He wears an older-model battleframe, which sounds like aluminum being crumpled when it moves; no doubt the result of years of tinkering and self-repair.
“Welcome to the ass end of humanity,” he says. “That was quite the act you put on out there.” He reaches down, offering a friendly hand. I look up, giving him a slight nod as I take his hand and exchange a friendly shake. “Admittedly I didn’t think you’d actually make it across the pond – nothing personal, of course.”
“None taken,” I say. “What in the hell was that thing?!”
“We call him Brutus. He’s one nasty son of a bitch, don’t you think?”
I nod, unable to articulate in words how massive of an understatement that is. At the same time, I wonder, what sort of hell must these people have gone through where they can write off a giant underground beast like that thing shuffling around out there as ‘nasty’? No matter. After a moment I’m standing upright again, and this heavily-armored soldier, who introduces himself simply as “Bennett,” is walking me through the remnants of the base. He gives me the very basic rundown of things – how Northern Shores is under constant barrage from the Chosen, how the outpost is quite literally falling apart, and how the Accord refuses to abandon it due to it being “the first line of awareness” of a Chosen invasion from the north.
The more Bennett talks, the more aggravated I can tell that he’s becoming. But, being a true professional, he keeps his military bearings about him and gives me the story straight – just the facts. By now we’ve reached the main SIN tower for the region. Unlike the other towers I’ve seen in person and in those horrendous educational propaganda pieces the Accord broadcasts, which look like they came straight out of the box, this one is being held together by sheer force of will. Additional braces prop the thing upright, while two men in lighter Engineer-styled battleframes work feverishly to keep it running at as close to full capacity as possible.
“They’ve been pretty good about keeping us on our toes,” Bennett says of the Chosen. “But so far we’ve fought them off. Because of our location against the rock face, any Chosen advance has to push from the front – they’ll be ready.”
“They,” I ask.
“Yes, sir. You happened to come around at a very opportune time. We’re finally being relieved of our post and sent back to Trans-Hub for some well-earned R&R.” I hear the two mechanics working on the SIN tower grumble an approval – one of them saying “it’s about damn time,” while the other mutters a simple “hell yeah.”
“When is this transport supposed to arrive,” I ask. I admit that I’m a little more hopeful than usual, seeing as that ever since I lost my Chopper my feet have been aching for a break.
“It shouldn’t be too long, actually. We Just got word that they deployed the dropship from Trans not too long ago so it should only be a short while.”
We continued walking as the others at the outpost began packing up their supplies, while also carefully setting aside other items to help the replacement troops settle in. If I were a betting man, I’d say that this was the most excited that these people had been since they were dropped off out here. Understandably so, I guess.
At the far end of the platform, shielded by the wind and debris, is a small garage. Bennett and I make our way inside, where a couple more soldiers are moving boxes out of the garage and towards the dropship pickup point. One item that remains, however, is a massive cargo lifter that stands idly in the corner. It looks like it hasn’t been used in quite some time, but of course it could just be the weathering from the rough environment.
“If you have that thing, why are you moving everything by hand?”
“Brutus,” Bennett says. “That nasty bastard showed up about a month ago – comes and goes as he feels like it. Sometimes we’ll go days without seeing him. Other times we have to burn a Thumper to distract the bastard while we move out.”
“So, wait – you’ve been dealing with that thing for over a month?”
“As best we can, yes. This may come as a surprise to you, but when we reported to Trans that we were fighting off a goddamn sand serpent roughly the size of a skyscraper, they didn’t exactly buy into it.” I tried to think of something witty to say, but I had nothing. Bennett continued.
“Normally, yeah, we’d be completely off our rockers. But nowadays, when you have things walking into that cloud and coming out… weird…” he shook his head and steered the conversation back on track. “Anyways, we avoid using the loader to keep from making too much noise. If we riled that thing up too much, it wouldn’t be much of a fight.”
“Understandable.” We turn and walk back towards the platform. Just as we start up the ramp, we see the dropship approach from the south. The soldiers at the outpost give out a cheer as the ship approaches, and Bennett and I walk towards the landing site. But as the ship approaches, something in the air feels wrong – as though something was about to go very south very quickly.
Then it happens.
A massive streak of red plasma flies out of the Melding curtain, slamming against the side of the dropship. These ships are heavy, and can take a hell of a punishment, but immediately the soldiers drop everything and rush to ready their weapons. No sooner does that volley of weapons fire emerge do a squad of Chosen – at least a dozen strong – stream out from behind the curtain in a mad dash towards the outpost.
What follows was one of the most intense sequences I’ve had on this trek. Two Accord soldiers, along with Bennett, hunker down behind the SIN tower as Chosen gunfire ricochets off the steel support of the tower. Another couple of Accord soldiers, these ones wearing Assault frames, swing around from behind one of the all-terrain vehicles and lob a volley of plasma fire at the oncoming Chosen.
Another massive explosion rocks the platform, sending us all off-balance. I fall on my back as the soldiers steady themselves, one of the Accord engineers being left out in the open long enough to have a Chosen round pierce his skull. His head jerks back before slumping forward, hanging against the support of the tower as his squadmate grabs him and pulls him behind the makeshift cover.
Bennett stands up, his aged frame sounding like an egg carton being stomped on, and unleashes a volley of ungodly hellfire on the Chosen. A stream of Halloween-orange flame engulfs the three nearest to the platform, and sends the others scattering for cover near the garage.
But it’s too late for them now.
The dropship, a large black scorch mark on the side of it from the impact of the initial volley, swings around with its back hatch open. Two massive Dreadnaught frames stand on the ramp of the dropship, their Heavy Machine Guns whirring to life before spitting a seemingly endless stream of flak that tears through the Chosen’s shields and lays them to waste.
Bennett waves the dropship over, turning and walking past me as he heads to the land zone. The other soldiers move towards the platform as well, the other young Private from the SIN tower carrying his bloodied, almost-certainly dead comrade in his arms. With the ship only a few meters off the ground, soldiers begin to stream out – their jumpjets easing their descent until their feet touch down on the platform.
“Load up,” Bennett shouts to his men, while the fresh grunts set up their perimeter around the drop point. “It’s going to be a tight fit.”
The dropship lowers, the ramp just barely touching the metal platform as the first of the soldiers climb aboard. Their first order of business is to load their fallen comrade, which is done with great care and precision as two men carry him aboard, and lay him down along one of the benches inside. Once his body is secure, they climb aboard, one at a time, each one looking back before jumping on board to ensure that they’re clear. Behind us I hear orders being barked out in-between volleys of gunfire.
From what I can tell, the battle is going in our favor, but I dare not look back as the last of the soldiers climb aboard the transport. As I turn to face Bennett, I feel a heavy hand grab me by the back of the collar and lift me up, pulling me on to the dropship. As I turn, I see Bennett standing on the platform, looking up at me and the other men on the dropship. Like any good leader, he watches out for his men before he thinks of himself.
“Aren’t you coming,” I ask him, shouting to be heard over the dropship engines.
“Once you move your ass out of the way!”
I don’t know what it was. I had expected him to give me some sappy ‘I’ll see you in Trans-Hub’ farewell. So when I heard his rather blunt reply I was a bit taken aback. But of course I move, and climbs aboard the dropship and gives the roof three solid strikes – a signal to the pilot that everyone is accounted for. As the platform begins to rise, I see the sight below me: two dozen well-trained, mentally-refreshed Accord soldiers pushing the fight against the Chosen, growing their perimeter as they take control Northern Shores and assert themselves as the new guardians of the Accord frontier.
As the dropship rumbles along, some of the men around me begin talking about the war effort. They seem ready to jump back into the fray, to push the war to the Chosen’s doorstep. I, however, am looking forward to a hot shower and a cold beer.
Next stop: home.