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I swear I thought the place was a museum when I walked in. I mean, it was huge, full of books and old paintings. And deserted, you know? That kind of dead silence that says just shut your mouth and feel the awe of history. And then Marcus’s mom came through the door like she hadn’t seen us, reading some papers she had in her hand, and she says, “Hi sweetheart, you brought some friends home? I’ll catch up with you later.” Then she was gone. I saw the look on Marcus’s face, and knew right then that the guy needed a brother a whole lot more than he needed a library.
(Carlos Santiago, describing his first visit to Marcus Fenix’s family mansion at the age of ten.)
Ephyra, present day–14 A.E.
Dom Santiago decided that there was one good thing about a phantom sniper blowing a Locust’s brains all over his face. It took his mind off worrying how many Locust were still around. His legs were shaking as he moved to the edge of the pit that had opened in the paving and aimed his rifle below, just in case the grubs had backup on the way. The shakes were just the aftershock of the adrenaline, but–
Liar. I nearly shit myself. The grub was choking the life out of me, a round missed my brain by inches. That’s fear. Forget the adrenaline.
No, it never stopped being terrifying. The day it did, he’d really be dead. In the tangle of broken pipes and cables below, nothing stirred beyond the clicking of settling soil and stones. Dom couldn’t feel anything under his boots now except the slight rocking movement of broken paving. The vibrations from deep in the planet had vanished for the time being, and the smell of chargrilled dog had been overwhelmed by shattered bowels and pulverized concrete.
“Hey, smart-ass,” Baird called to the empty street. “Nice shot. Now show yourself.”
“Better shout louder,” Cole said. “He could be a mile away.”
It was always hard to spot a sniper. But in this maze of destruction and shadows, there were a thousand places to lay up and wait for trade. Marcus squatted down and examined what was left of the Locust’s skull again. Then he looked up and gestured in the general direction of the south side of the street.
“No, a lot closer. The round went in near the top of the skull. High angle, and a lot of kinetic energy left.”
Dom looked where Marcus was pointing, trying to work out where the sniper would have had clear line of sight. Marcus backed slowly to the nearest wall and pressed his fingers to his earpiece. Dom listened in.
“Delta to Control, any sniper teams to the south of Embry? Any Gears at all?”
“Negative, Delta.” It was Lieutenant Stroud: Anya Stroud, still on duty after eighteen hours. The woman never seemed to sleep. If Delta Squad was awake–so was she. “Need one?”
“Don’t leave me in suspense, Sergeant...”
“We’ve got a joker loose with an obsolete sniper rifle. He’s helpful now, but he might not stay that way.”
“Thanks for the heads- up. I’ll put out an advisory.”
Cole was still focused on the roofline. Baird lowered his Lancer and started walking again. “Let’s get out. Maybe they got a sudden dose of patriotism and realized they owe us, now the war’s nearly over.”
“Maybe,” Marcus said, “he was aiming at Dom and missed. And it’s not over.”
“Stranded never fire on us. They’re not that dumb.”
“Old rifle. Great shot.” Marcus reloaded, casual and apparently in no hurry. “So I’m curious.”
Baird didn’t look back as he picked his way over fallen masonry. “Plenty of Stranded are good shots. Doesn’t mean we have to go find them and enlist them.”
Baird had a point. As long as nobody was shooting at them, it wasn’t their problem. But if someone had a sniper rifle, Dom knew it was stolen. Obsolete or not, the things were scarce. A handful of factories struggled to produce spares, let alone crank out new weapons. Every operational piece of kit, from Ravens to Armadillos to assault rifles, was a losing battle between maintenance and decay. Like all Gears, Dom cannibalized parts from anything he could grab. Baird was a master at it.
“Yeah, we need to know,” Dom said. “Because if the rifle isn’t stolen, that means the owner’s one of us. A veteran.”
Baird paused to pick up something. When he held it closer to his face to examine it, Dom could see it was a servo part of some kind. “It’s old kit and they’re thieving scum.” Baird pocketed the servo.
“Because no Gear is going to hang around with street vermin if he’s capable of shooting.”
Again, the cocky little bastard was right. Dom wanted to see him proved wrong someday, if only to shut his mouth for a while. Yes, veteran Gears reenlisted after Emergence Day, even some really old guys, because there were two choices for any man worth a damn: fight with the COG forces, any way he could–or rot. The only excuse for not fighting the Locust was being dead.
“Every rifle counts,” Dom called after him. No, the war wasn’t over. “And every man.” He turned to Marcus and gestured toward the likely direction of fire. “Give me ten minutes.”
“You’ve got me curious, too,” Cole said, resting his Lancer against his shoulder. “I think I’ll join you.”
Marcus sighed. “Okay, but keep your comm channels open. Baird? Baird, get your ass back here.”
Half of this city block had been a bank’s headquarters, surrounded by snack and coffee shops that lived off the army of clerks. It was all derelict now. Dom could just about remember how it had looked before E- Day, the ranks of neatly wrapped sandwiches in the window displays, filled with the kind of delicacies nobody could get hold of now. Food in the army was . . . adequate, better than anything that Stranded had. But it wasn’t fun.
Dog. Damn, who’d eat a dog?
The glittering granite façade was just a shell now, with a few hardy plants rooted in cracks in the ashlars. Nothing much grew here. It didn’t get the chance. Dom and Cole edged inside the burned- out bank and looked up to see that there were no floors, and nowhere to hide. It was a big empty box. Everything that could be hauled away and reused–wood, metal, cable, pipes–had been scavenged long before.
“Well, shit,” Cole said cheerfully. “I had my fortune stashed here.”
Cole had been a pro thrashball star, a rich man in a world long gone. Wealth was measured in skills and barter now. He always treated his worthless millions as a big joke; he could find humor in just about any situation. But there was nothing much left to buy that a Gear needed. Dom decided that when life returned to normal–even after fourteen years, he had to think that it could–he’d follow Cole’s example and treat money as easy come, easy go. People were what mattered. You couldn’t replace them, and they didn’t earn interest. They just slipped away a day at a time, and you had to make the most of every precious moment.
When I find Maria, I won’t take a single minute for granted.
Dom scanned the interior and peered down into a deep crater where the polished marble counter had once been. Nothing moved, but he could see the old vaults, doors blown open. “Yeah, better cancel the order for that yacht.”
“Hey, Dom, you won’t find no snipers down there.” Cole shoved him in the shoulder. “Heads up.”
The back of the bank building was a sloping mound of rubble and debris, like scree that had tumbled down a mountainside. Above the ramp of brick, stone facing, and snapped joists, the rear wall rose like a cliff and the top row of empty window frames formed deep arches. Now that was a good position for a sniper–depending on what was behind the wall, of course. Dom slung his Lancer across his shoulders and scrambled up the slope for a better look.
“Nobody home, Dom.” Cole followed him. “Don’t you get enough exercise?”
“Just want a look- see from the top.” Dom grabbed at a rusted steel bar and hauled himself up the stumps of joists that jutted from the wall. His oversized boots weren’t ideal for climbing and he had to rely on his upper body strength more than momentum from his legs, so getting down again was going to be interesting. “Because he’d have to be at this height to get that shot in.”
Dom heaved himself onto a windowsill and stood with his hands braced against the stone uprights on either side. It was a big solid wall, built like a bastion, and thick enough for him to stand on comfortably even in a Gear’s boots. On the other side, adjacent buildings in various states of collapse provided crude stairs down to ground level. If anyone had been up here, he’d had a relatively easy route down.
“See anything?” Cole called.
“Usual shit.” Dom scanned one- eighty degrees. “Not exactly a postcard to send home. Unless you live in an even bigger cesspit.”
Below, the city still looked like a deserted battlefield, sterile and treeless. Smoke curled upward in thin wisps from domestic fires Dom couldn’t see. There was a visible demarcation between the parts of the city that stood on thick granite–the last COG stronghold–and the outlying areas where fissures and softer rock let the Locust tunnel in. The line lay between a recognizable city, buildings mostly in one piece, and a devastated hinterland. The line itself–well, that was the margin in which most Stranded seemed to live, the unsecured areas where they took their chances.
Their choice. Not ours.
It wasn’t the view Dom was used to from the crew bay of a King Raven chopper. It was static, deceptively peaceful, not racing and rolling beneath him in a sequence of disjointed images. He had a few moments to think. Even after ten years, he found himself trying to visualize where Maria might be now. Then he began wondering how they’d ever rebuild Sera, and the idea was so overwhelming that he did the sensible thing and just thought about how he was going to get through the next few hours alive.
“Dom, stand there much longer, and somebody’s going to shoot your ass off for the hell of it,” Cole called. “Let’s commandeer a vehicle and cover some ground.”
Dom wasn’t so sure the sniper had gone far. It was hard to move fast across terrain like this. You had to crawl, climb, burrow, duck. And that made it perfect to hide in. Whoever he was–Dom was sure he’d hang around.
“He’ll be back.” Dom tried not to think about the drop below. He just turned around and jumped, relying on the give in the loose rock and the thick soles of his boots to cushion the impact. It still shook him to his teeth. “He’s making a point. Not sure what, but...”
But Marcus had news to take his mind off the sniper. “Move it, guys. Echo’s got grubs surfacing three klicks west. Means they might still be moving along the Sovereign Boulevard fissure. We can get there before anyone gets a Raven airborne.”
Marcus’s voice rarely varied from a weary monotone. Even when he had to shout, all he did was turn up the volume. There was seldom any trace of anger or urgency, although Dom knew damn well that it was all still battened down, and there certainly wasn’t any hint of triumph now.
“Numbers?” Dom asked.
“But that means they’re thinning out,” Baird said. He fancied himself as the resident Locust expert, and he was. “Looks like we did it. We bombed the shit out of them.”
Dom prodded Baird in the chest as he passed him, friendly but pointed. “You mean Marcus did it. He’s the one who shoved the Lightmass down their grub throats.”
“Well, maybe Hoffman will hand him back his medals after all . . .”
“Knock it off.” Marcus turned and jogged in the direction of Sovereign. Most patrols were on foot, out of necessity; APCs were in ever shorter supply. “The stragglers could still outnumber us. Do a head count.”
Dom prided himself on hanging in there, just like his dad, just like his brother Carlos. You didn’t lose heart. You didn’t lose hope. Resilience, Carlos called it; a man had to be resilient, and not crumble at the first setback. But after fourteen years of fighting, there were only a few million humans left, and Dom was ready to grab at any prospect of the nightmare coming to an end.
No, it’ll be a different kind of nightmare. Restarting civilization from scratch. But it beats thinking every day will be your last.
The only thing that bothered Dom about dying now was that it would end his hunt for Maria.
“Right behind you,” he said, and ran after Marcus.
From the Trade Paperback edition.