Gears of War: Bloodlines
On the 79th year of the Pendulum Wars – The Battle of Gatka Ridge will define the legacy of Lieutenant Colonel Gabriel Diaz and shape the future of his daughter, Kait Diaz.
New York Times Best Selling author Jason M. Hough continues the Gears of War lore with this latest novel that bridges Gears 5 and Gears Tactics. Read an early preview below!
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Pre-order Gears of War: Bloodlines ahead of its release on April 21, 2020.
COALITION OF ORDERED GOVERNMENTS
DEPARTMENT OF THE ARMY—
184729-H55R9-LM (DIAZ, GABRIEL)
And then, stamped below:
Kait swallowed. Her fingers trembled slightly. What the hell was this? And why was it marked secret? Then she saw the yellow square stuck to the lower right corner. She read it aloud, whispering.
“Knowledge is the best weapon. Read up. H.”
Hoffman. Had to be. Kait glanced back out the window, her eyes unfocused. She wondered what rules—no, what laws—she’d break by opening this. What kind of trouble Hoffman would be in if anyone found out. He was pushing ninety, though, so perhaps he didn’t really give a shit.
She could see him now, wandering around the basement of Government House, making friends with the staff in Records. Making himself a fixture. Becoming someone that no one need bother paying attention to. The man knew his craft. Getting a file out would have been child’s play for him.
Kait broke her gaze away from the tortured road ahead of her, shifting her focus instead to the past.
She opened the folder, and started reading.
Right away she knew something was very, very wrong.
79TH YEAR OF THE PENDULUM WARS
1: NO EIGHTY
Lieutenant Colonel Gabriel Diaz broke into a sprint. Sand under his toes, the sun just peeking above the eastern horizon, he counted off the seconds as he raced toward the sign.
It had been planted in the sand and surrounded with barbed wire, and it faced away from him. On the far side was a pictographic warning to the civilian population telling them they were entering a restricted area. Land mines and death! Keep out! All bullshit, but so far it had worked.
The sign was exactly five hundred yards out from the last bit of grass that marked the true edge of Vectes Naval Base. Gabe always sprinted this stretch, counting the seconds, trying to improve. For the last three weeks he’d barely shaved a second off his best, though, and yesterday he’d actually lost a second for the first time in… well, since arriving here a few months back.
He pushed. His lungs burned. The sign was ahead.
And then he was past it. Gabe swore. He’d lost two seconds, but at least this time it wasn’t his fault. He’d been distracted.
Because between yesterday and today someone had painted a message on the back of the metal sign:
It was a message appearing all over the place, lately. Chanted in the canteen, written on mirrors or bathroom stalls, scrawled on the sides of patrol boats, or muttered over the comm as a greeting or even a goodbye. Gabe was already tired of it, but hadn’t yet summoned the energy to crack down on those who were using it.
Truth was, he agreed in principal.
No Eighty. No eightieth year of war. The conflict had gone on way too long—only an idiot or a psychopath would argue against that. The problem was, none of the superpowers were going to give up. Not until they controlled the Imulsion. And the slogan didn’t identify a specific outcome, just “no more war.” Win, lose, draw? Were these meatheads suggesting the COG surrender on the last day of the seventy-ninth, or unleash one last epic offensive, just to accomplish the end of the conflict?
Perhaps, Gabe mused, all they would accomplish with this graffiti was to knock another second off his time.
Slowing to a jog, he got his breath back under control. The tide was in. Cool water splashed under his bare feet. The regular group of locals were here, fishing. They waved at him as he passed, and as always Gabe waved back.
He jogged another mile, until the sand became a rocky shore of teeming tide pools. Here he rested, studying the life forms that lived in the tiny temporary ponds.
The sun was over the horizon now. Another dawn in the Lesser Islands, another day at Vectes Naval Base. A reward posting, one Gabe was supposed to be grateful for.
Part of him was. Filling his lungs with the brisk, heavy ocean air, Gabe Diaz knew things could be much, much worse. He’d been there, after all. Fought in the mud and flame, been ordered to kill, and then later, ordered others to kill. They had, in great number. And many of them had died.
Victorious or not, the guilt he’d amassed with each Gear that perished under his orders weighed him down like a chain and anchor in the deep ocean. Which is why he’d been given a medal— for “showing tactical prowess in the face of overwhelming odds”— and a posting here in this backwater corner of Sera. His reward for winning a great battle, despite the losses that had come with it.
Gabe scanned the horizon, unable to keep from contrasting this tranquil place with the horrors he’d witnessed in the frigid steppe north of Meschov. Yes, there was that part of him that felt grateful. But there was another part, too. The one that felt time was slipping away from him. Time, and the war itself.
He turned around, toward Vectes, and did his morning run again in reverse.
By the time he saw the walls of the base, the sun was well above the horizon, eroding the morning’s chilly salt breeze. The fishermen had gone, their work for the day already done. Gabe half-heartedly considered going into town and buying a fishing pole of his own. Setting up next to them some morning and learning about their lives.
He considered that as he passed the sign warning of explosives hidden in the sand. “NO80” had been painted on this side, too. He found his usual gap in the barbed wire and wove through, unconcerned if anyone saw him do it. The passage wasn’t exactly a secret, and anyway, there were no Union of Independent Republics personnel for a hundred miles to note the hole in the base’s defense. The enemy stayed at their end of the island chain, way to the north, and the COG stayed at this end in the south. That was how it worked. For as long as Gabe had been stationed here, anyway. Perhaps neither side wanted to ruin a good thing. Reward posting, indeed.
The beach gave way to a solid wall. A narrow access stairwell had been built into the side, leading up to a walkway that ringed the entire base. Usually by the time he was halfway from the warning sign to the wall he could see at least one Gear on patrol. This time, though, no one was up there.
Gabe took the steps two at a time, ready to dress down whatever Gear had pulled wall duty this morning.
“But the Indies never come here! What’s the point!?” He could hear some private saying it even now, after being accused of being lax in their duty.
“They don’t come here,” Gabe would reply, “because they know we’re ready and waiting.”
And they’d grumble and mutter their yessirs and fuck off up to the wall. Later they’d come find him in the mess. Buy him a drink, maybe indulge him in a round of Fractured Lands. That would make the whole thing worth it, Gabe thought. Fewer and fewer challengers played the game against him lately because it required more tactical thought than most here cared to exercise. For Gabe, it was as important as his morning jog.
At the top of the stairs he realized he’d been wrong. It wasn’t that there was no one on patrol, it was that they were all down at the seawall on the southern edge. Four Gears stood down there, all facing the ocean, each with an arm up to fight off the rhythmic spray of saltwater that crashed against that barrier. They were looking at something in the ocean.
Gabe jogged up behind them, slowing as he arrived.
There was no need to ask what had captured their collective attention, or why it merited ignoring the rest of the perimeter. Half a mile out to sea a ship was at anchor. Gray and sleek, definitely COG, but not a type Gabe had seen before. Not in person, anyway. The vessel was low slung, built for speed.
“Bus?” one of the men beside him said, a slang term for the Landing Craft, or LCU, class of ship.
“That’s my guess,” another replied, “but I’m no fish-head.”
Gabe found he agreed with the guess, but waited to see all the same. The ship was in profile, and had no markings at all. No name, no number, not even a COG flag above its conning tower, but there was something about its lines that implied Landing Craft class. Maybe not of the utility variety, but the purpose seemed the same.
“Starting to get a bad feeling about this,” he said, despite himself. The Gears beside him turned. They hadn’t noticed him arrive, and at the sight of their commanding officer they suddenly found other things to do. Like, for example, their duty.
“Lieutenant Colonel,” they said in turn, as they went back to their patrol routes. Routes that seemed to suddenly require a very slow and careful trek along the southern sea wall, with full attention on the ship anchored out there. Gabe started to doubt his initial guess. The vessel seemed too small.
After a few minutes, the bow of the mystery ship rotated open, splashing into the water.
So, an LCU after all. Not going to be many tanks that could fit in that hold, though, and even if they could, they wouldn’t deploy a half-mile out. So what were they landing from it?
The answer came immediately. As the forward ramp touched the waves, several small inflatable craft powered out from the mothership and turned toward shore. They came in fast, each carrying a full complement of six Gears. There was a moment, though brief, where Gabe had a flash of panic that this was some kind of UIR trick. One of their own boats disguised as an LCU, delivering squads wearing stolen COG armor. A dawn raid that would mark the day the Lesser Islands north of Tyrus were finally thrust into the war.
But it wasn’t that. He knew with certainty because—as the boats approached the narrow harbor entrance—Gabe Diaz recognized the man sitting front and center in the first craft.
“Well, shit,” he muttered into the breeze. Suddenly the lack of markings made sense. “This’ll be interesting.” Quickly he clomped down the inner set of stairs, heading toward the shipyard.
“LC,” a Gear said as he passed. There were more, and the greeting was repeated by each of them in turn. Gabe responded with their ranks, despite knowing all their names. Names were for personal connection, or the need to get someone’s attention. Using a name meant showing you cared, that you were deadly serious, or both, and that was a resource to be spent wisely.
He only used it for those who’d earned it. And if there were ever any combat on these shores, he’d use their names then, too.
The bark of his boss. Gabe winced slightly and turned. “Captain,” he said. “We have visitors. Four inflatables—”
“I’m well aware,” the stout woman replied. She marched over and looked him up and down. Though Captain Phillips knew of his morning routine, she had no compunction about pretending his lack of uniform was an issue, at least when she needed it to be.
Their relationship was complicated.
She was COG Navy, not Army, for one thing. The overall commander of Vectes Base. Gabe, being Army, was responsible for all the Gears stationed here, and answered only to her. But he also answered to the Army, whose views and priorities didn’t always line up with the Naval side of the Coalition. Compounding the problem, Phillips was new here—only a few months in the Islands, barely more than him. As her first stint in command, so far she’d been quite keen to prove Vectes was a Naval installation first, and the Gears were merely guests. But more than that, she also seemed hell-bent on keeping the place quiet and, as a result, off the radar of their leadership.
Gabe opened his mouth, but was quickly cut off.
“Who they are and why they’re here is none of your goddamn business,” she said. He hadn’t asked, but decided not to point that out. Asking had, after all, been exactly what he was about to do.
Phillips went on. “Get down there and make sure they have whatever supplies they need. Don’t ask them questions. Don’t even fucking look at them unless you have to. Get ’em their stuff, and get ’em out of here A-SAP. Clear?”
“Good.” She nodded. “Dismissed.”
Gabe saluted and marched off, weaving through the barracks and the maze of cargo containers that stood just beyond. All the evidence was in place now, he thought. As if the unmarked boat, or the sight of Wyatt, hadn’t been enough, the demand of cooperation and discretion sealed it.
A spec-ops team had just landed at Vectes.
“Ho-lee-shiiiit. Gabriel Fucking Diaz, as I live and breathe.” “The hell are you doing here, Wyatt?” He embraced his younger brother for the first time in… “How long has it been?”
“Three years, I think,” Wyatt replied. “Wait, shit, that was Oscar I saw then. Four years!”
“Four? Damn. Too long, brother.” He realized suddenly that both the spec-ops squad and his own people were all standing around, waiting for the love-in to end so they could get to work.
“Forget my question, by the way,” Gabe said. “Not supposed to ask what you’re doing here.”
Wyatt shrugged. “Doesn’t bother me. It’s no secret. We’re here to do a bit of this and a bit of that.” The Ghosts behind him all laughed, practically in unison, at the no-doubt familiar line.
Wyatt turned to them and hiked a thumb toward Gabe. “This is my brother. Won a big battle so they sent him here to drink rum on the beach.”
“Must be nice,” one of the Ghosts quipped.
Gabe ignored all this. He wanted to ask his brother a load of other questions. Like what he’d been up to since they’d last seen each other, or more to the point, how Wyatt had got mixed up in Special Forces. But he had his orders, and Wyatt surely did, too.
“Cap said you need some supplies.”
In answer, Wyatt snapped his fingers. A woman behind him slapped a laminated piece of paper into his hand. Wyatt in turn handed it to Gabe.
“Just a few things, then we’ll be out of your hair.”
“Guess we’ll have to catch up another time,” Gabe said, scanning the list. Rations, fuel, ammo. The usual stuff. Except for the last two items.
“Yellow paint… and… you’re taking all our beer?”
Instantly the Vectes regulars at Gabe’s back started to grumble. “No, ’course not,” Wyatt said. “Read it literally. We just need the kegs. Doesn’t say they need to have anything in them.” “I don’t understand.”
“And you can’t ask for an explanation. So it goes, eh, bro?”
Gabe grunted, his brain kicking into overdrive. True, he couldn’t ask questions, but the need for kegs was going to be an issue. The latest shipment had just arrived. Emptying them sounded fun and all, but the sun had barely come up. Last thing he needed was a bunch of sauced-up enlisted stumbling around all day. Then he tried to imagine what a spec-ops team needed with twenty empty beer kegs. Nothing leapt to mind.
“Problem?” Wyatt asked.
Gabe motioned for his brother to join him off to the side. They walked fifteen feet from the others and turned their backs slightly. “Were it anyone else asking, I’d just follow my orders and give you what you need, but… Wyatt, c’mon, all our kegs? Emptied or full, doesn’t matter. I’ll have a riot.”
“We can help you quell a riot.” That grin that Gabe knew so well crept onto the younger man’s face. He’d seen it a hundred times. It usually led to Gabe and Oscar having to step in and save Wyatt from yet another scrape.
“You know, I’d hoped you’d mature a little once you reached adulthood,” Gabe said. “If you reached adulthood, that is.”
The man shrugged. “Never asked for you and Oscar to take me under your wings.”
“You would have died if we hadn’t.”
“True,” Wyatt admitted. “I’m grateful for that. Seriously, I am.
But the fact remains…”
Gabe looked at the man beside him. No matter how hard he tried, he still saw him as the scrawny, sickly, awkward boy who was in the process of being kicked to death when Oscar and Gabe had stepped in and chased off the gang of idiots picking on the weakling. That had been their first day at the orphanage, and the boy called Wyatt rarely left Oscar’s or Gabe’s side in the years that followed. They came to think of him as their little brother. For better or worse.
“Felt like all Oscar and I did at Mercy School was watch your back.”
“And look at me now,” Wyatt said, spreading his arms. “All grown up.”
At that Wyatt just grinned. “Your clearance level means I can’t share details, but I’m pretty sure it’s me protecting you now, brother.”
Gabe shook his head. The arrogance of Ghost Squad was legendary, and only made worse by the fact that they’d earned it.
“Look, about your list… you said you just need the kegs, not the beer.”
“Would something else do in their place? I can’t ask what you need them for, but what about… hmm… we’ve got a palette of air tanks left from a year back. The dry dock pump failed, so for about three months the fish-heads had to dive to fix scrapes on the hulls. Now they’re just collecting dust. The tanks, not the sailors.” Wyatt rubbed his chin, deep in thought. Finally he glanced up.
An hour later the four landing craft began making trips back and forth to the LCU, taking loads of the old unused diving tanks, along with the rest of the supplies the Ghosts had requested. When the tedium of loading began, Gabe ordered those of his men who had duty to get to it. The spectators drifted off soon after. Show over.
It was only when the last boat was loaded, and Wyatt came over to say goodbye, that Captain Phillips strode up and took in the scene.
“Get everything you need?” she asked. “Yes, ma’am,” Wyatt replied.
“Good. I want you to relay a message to your captain for me.” “Comms down?”
“No, comms are fine, thank you very much. I need something impressed upon him, and that means someone needs to say it to his face.”
“Fair enough.” There was that grin again.
Phillips stepped up to the young man and stared up into his eyes for a moment. She was as stocky as they came. Twice as wide as Wyatt and all of it was muscle. A cast-iron wall of a woman. Yet there was something about the way Wyatt held himself that made Gabe wonder which of them would win in a scrape. The boy Gabe had first saved in that orphanage bathroom had been as useless as a sack of hammers, but you didn’t survive a childhood like that without learning how to survive, and Gabe and Oscar had taught him plenty. The rest had been sheer willpower and— if Gabe was totally honest—a penchant for deviousness that rivaled anyone.
“Do you find something funny?” Captain Phillips asked. Under any other circumstances she would have tacked a rank onto that, just to show it was lower than hers, but none of the Ghosts’ armor had ranks displayed, or names for that matter.
“No ma’am,” he replied, looking into the middle distance instead of her face, which was only inches away.
“Good. Now here’s the message.”
Please don’t take out a notepad and pen, Gabe thought, willing the advice to reach his brother through sheer mental force.
Wyatt stood still. Waiting. Playing the game.
“Nothing interesting ever happens in these islands,” Phillips said, “and I like it that way. We have our base, the Gorasni have theirs. All the rocks in between are just that. Rocks. Useless rocks.”
She stepped on his interruption with all the considerable force her rank and stature allowed.
“Useless is good, Ghost. Useless is better than a mountain of body bags. Do you understand?”
“Good. Doesn’t matter if you understand, though. Impress it upon Captain Deevers.”
“Then you’re dismissed.”
Wyatt saluted. It was, Gabe thought, the perfect salute to give someone you didn’t think deserved it. Just an inch on the respectful side so as not to be called out on it, and nothing more.
The conversation over, Wyatt turned on his heel. In the process he met Gabe’s eyes. It was only the briefest of instants, but Gabe had known Wyatt through the toughest years of their lives, and had a deep knowledge of all the looks the man could give and what they meant.
This look? It meant trouble.
Phillips nodded, then turned on her heel, matching Wyatt’s exit with one of her own.
Gabe caught up with Wyatt as he was climbing aboard his craft.
“She’s serious, by the way,” Gabe said. “I could tell.” Wyatt winked at him. “It… It’s good to see you, Wyatt.”
“’Course it is.” His grin matched the tone. Gabe lowered his voice. “I’m serious, brother.”
At that Wyatt swung his legs back over the side of the boat and approached. He clasped hands with Gabe, then pulled him into a soldier’s embrace.
“I know you are,” Wyatt said. “It’s good to see you, too. I wish Oscar was here. Family reunion, eh?”
“We should arrange that,” Gabe replied. “After… well, after.”
Wyatt’s grin faltered a bit. “One day at a time, eh? But if the stars align and that reunion can happen, first round’s on me.”
“Holding you to that.”
Wyatt saluted. A much less formal version than that he’d given Phillips. Then he was back aboard his boat, and the motor revved.
Gabe watched his brother speed off back to his ship. After a while he realized that Phillips was standing beside him, doing the same thing. When the rafts were all back in the mothership, and the ramp retracted, she turned to him.
“I got the sense,” she said, “that you know that little prick.” Gabe nodded. “Wyatt Callahan. We grew up together.”
“I could look him up, but we both know the file will be restricted. What can you tell me about him?”
“He’s a good man at heart,” Gabe said carefully. “Unfortunately, that heart is buried under a lifetime of shit.” Sprinkled here and there with the best advice and support Oscar and I could give, but I know it wasn’t enough. He left this unsaid.
“Should I be worried?”
A loaded question, and one Gabe wasn’t sure how to answer. He’d only worked with her for a few months, and their relationship was still as rocky as the eastern shore. Gabe was used to giving advice and having it listened to, usually followed. But Phillips seemed to think that discarding his advice—or just not asking for it at all—was the right way to establish the proper pecking order. Navy first, in her base.
“Worried? I don’t think so,” he said. Then he added, “But today might be a good day for a readiness drill.” To her credit, she pondered that. Then she turned and looked at the LCU out at sea. “They could have come a lot closer,” she said, almost to herself.
“A bus like that… could have come right up to shore.”
He remained silent. The reason they’d anchored so far out was obvious. Whatever else they had in their hold, it wasn’t for prying eyes. After a few seconds she turned and marched back to her office.
Ten minutes later, the announcement went out for a readiness drill.
2: CALM WATERS AND CHOPPY SEAS
At 9AM sharp, Gabe walked down to the shipyard and out onto dock number one.
The Gears under his command stood at attention, in a neat line along the old wooden planks of the dock. Opposite them, on the side where the boats were moored, the sailors stood. Three per boat. Pilot, navigator, engineer. Technically they answered to Phillips, not him, but since being promoted Gabe had earned their trust and respect. He couldn’t remember the last time any of them had asked Phillips before following one of his orders.
There were sixteen patrol boats in all. They gleamed in the morning sun.
The Gears stood in full combat loadout. They were a pool from which to be drawn. When a patrol went out, a minimum of two Gears would accompany the sailors. Two was the norm around here, with so little activity on dry ground. A full squad of six could be deployed, though, and in a pinch as many as ten warriors could crowd in.
One hundred and sixty Gears lined the dock.
Gabe walked down the line of soldiers first, inspecting their kit as much as the look in their eyes. “Vacant stare” was what he drilled, and vacant stares were what he saw. As for the kit, things weren’t quite as satisfactory.
“Private Howe!” “Sir!”
“Break that Lancer down and clean it again. I can see grit from here.”
The man stepped out of the line and run-marched back to the armory.
“Corporal Davis!” “Sir!”
“Is that a standard scope on that Longshot?” “No, sir!”
“Well what the hell is it, then?”
“Sir, the scope is from a Pesanga boar rifle. Traded for it when I was—”
“Is it better than ours?”
“Sir, yessir! Their optics are—” “As you were, soldier.”
The woman clapped her jaw shut.
“Adapt and improvise,” Gabe said. “Well done, Davis. Just clear it with me next time, please.”
She smiled, slightly. The smile vanished when Gabe threw an extra glare her way. It was a fine line, he knew. Most of his fellow lieutenants were all about regs. Everything by the book, the COG way was the only way, the COG way was best. Army before Navy. That sort of thing.
Gabe Diaz didn’t hate many things, but blind obedience bugged him. There were always other ways to do things. Creative ways to solve problems. It was all in one’s mindset. Thinking not just about results, but of consequences, what to do about them, and the consequences of those actions, too. Initiative and critical thought were as essential as a properly cleaned and oiled Lancer, in his book. On the line of one hundred and sixty Gears, he counted six with fresh “NO80” tattoos. Several more had actually used a torch to emblazon the slogan on their armor. It was time, Gabe thought,
to address the phenomenon directly.
“Private Abbot!” Gabe shouted at the sixth tattoo wearer. The man was near the end of the row, and stiffened at his name being called out.
“Sir!” “Explain that.”
“It’s a tattoo, sir.”
“No shit, Private. What does it mean?”
The man’s posture shifted, suddenly nervous. “I’m sure the LC knows. Sir.”
“I’m asking you.”
“No eighty. No eightieth year of war.” “An end to the war?”
“Yessir.” “This year?”
The man nodded.
“And those of you wearing this, are you aware of some victory plan? Something that I’m not? A final push? A great offensive?”
No one spoke.
“Perhaps you plan to surrender on New Year’s Eve, then?” They grew shifty. The silence remained.
Gabe stood there, staring at them, knowing that Phillips would be watching this from her office. He had to play this right, and wished now he had just ignored it. Phillips hadn’t told him to put an end to the slogan, after all, but he thought it was probably a test, considering she’d said nothing about it as of yet.
“This war, between the Coalition and the UIR,” he said, in his lowest tone that would still carry up the dock, “will end when people way above our pay grade decide it will end. This year, next, or ten more down the road. That’s not our decision. They make the strategy. We carry it out.”
Silence reigned on the line, but something else, too. A tension in the air. That barest hint of defiance or, perhaps, disobedience.
“We all want the war to end, Abbot, but it’s strategy that’s going to win it. That and all of us, doing our part to the best of our ability. It’s most definitely not an arbitrary timeframe chosen because it makes for a good tattoo. Am I understood?”
“So I’m going to work under the assumption,” Gabe went on, “that when I see ‘no eighty’ on your arms and armor, painted on walls and hulls and signs, that what you’re telling me is that you’re going to kick so much UIR ass in the next six months that the Indies’ll surrender out of sheer exhaustion.”
They knew this tone, and what it prompted. A chant erupted from the line, all bellowing the single syllable in unison.
“Good. Gears, dismissed.”
The Gears turned and marched off back to their duties. Gabe turned to the sailors, then, and repeated the process. Their half of the dock included the boats, though, and inspecting all of them took the better part of the afternoon. Whatever reservations they might have held about having someone outside the Navy inspect their boats had vanished a long time ago. Gabe had made sure of it, mainly by studying. He knew as much about their boats and procedures as any Naval officer, and with that knowledge he’d earned a grudging respect. By the time he reached the last boat, the sun was already kissing the horizon. Gabe was invited, as was tradition, then stepped aboard and started with the engines. He’d already noticed that there was oil in the water beneath this craft, and the smell of it was everywhere.
When the engineer lifted the hatch to access the engines, it hit them all like a fist.
“Call me crazy, sailor, but I think we’ve got a leak here.” “Negative, sir.”
Gabe glanced at the woman, ready to argue, but there was a calm in her face that gave him pause. She radiated confidence.
“Care to explain, Petty Officer Gian?”
“This is the CNV Righteous, sir.” She gestured to the twin engines below the deck hatch. Gabe knew the name. The boat had arrived from Merrenat a few weeks before, part of a program to test out changes and improvements to the old, trustworthy ship platform. The engine bay was filthy. Amber liquid, burned black in places, covered nearly every surface. Some of those surfaces weren’t present on the rest of the fleet.
“They’ve added turbos,” he said, more to himself than Gian. “Correct. Fifty percent improvement in raw power, once they’re spooled up.”
He nodded, impressed in spite of himself. “I’ll take your word for it, but that still looks like a leak to me.”
“No, sir,” she said. “The wrenches from Merrenat tell me that’s ‘expected venting of excess lubricant that results from prolonged use of…’ Etcetera, etcetera.”
Gabe frowned. “So we have fifty percent more power, but can’t use it without leaving a nice slick trail for the enemy to follow.”
“Plus it’s stinking up our docks,” Gian added.
“That, too.” Gabe swatted a bug behind his ear, not quick enough to avoid a bite though. “Well, give them whatever data they need, and call a leak a leak, will you? I’ll amend it with my feelings on the matter. Which is to say, I think it’s total bullshit in its current state. Useless.”
“In the meantime, run the Righteous at a lower power to prevent this excess venting.”
“Um,” Gian said. “That’s not possible, sir.” “Pardon?”
“Design flaw, I think.” She gestured to the engine bay. “The turbos take up so much room that the engine is no longer sufficiently cooled, even when normally aspirated. We’re getting this, uh, expected venting, no matter how hard we push her.”
“You’d think those idiots would have noticed it before they sent her to us.”
“They did notice,” she said.
“Oh, did they?” he responded. “And what was their advice on the issue?”
She shrugged. “They said they only do engines. Venting and airflow design is run from a team at—”
“‘Not our problem,’ in other words.” “Essentially.”
“Right. I’ll talk to Phillips, see if we can’t sort it out. Thank you, Gian.”
“What do you want us to do in the meantime?” It was the ship’s pilot, Mendez, who’d been standing silently behind them the whole
time. He looked out of his element. Gabe studied the engine for a moment longer, then looked at the two of them in turn.
“Anything preventing us from tinkering a bit?”
Gian smiled. Mendez frowned, clearly not pleased with having to deal with all this untested equipment, and clearly aware that “tinkering” was unlikely to make his life any easier.
“Right,” Gabe said. “Here’s what I want you to do. Go over to the armory, and—”
“Armory’s under renovation,” Mendez said. “Sir,” he added as an afterthought.
“I’m well aware of that, sailor. Go over there and talk to the foreman. See if we can ‘borrow’ two sections of metal grid plating. They’re adding a second story and a catwalk over the warehouse floor, so they should have plenty.”
“Yes, exactly.” He pointed at the deck hatch that covered the engine bay. “We’ll weld the mesh plates together and replace that hatch with it.”
“Allowing the excess heat to vent,” Gian said. “Very good, sir.” “Thank you.”
“Except for all the seawater that will get in there if we’re in choppy seas,” she added. He stared at her for a moment, impressed by her forwardness. The military could use more of that, he thought. “Mendez,” Gabe said, “when was the last time you had choppy seas in the Lesser Islands?”
“Calmest waters on Sera, sir,” the man said, though he still sounded dubious. “Long as you stay clear of the north- facing sandbars.”
“See, Gian? Besides, I’m sure the fine wrenches over at Merrenat want us to test her effectiveness under a flooded-engine-bay scenario.”
“It is on the list,” Gian agreed, coming around to the idea. “Then do it.”
No one argued this time. Gabe finished inspecting the ship, noticing several new pieces of navigation gear as well, but decided he’d given them enough to think about for one day.
By the time he left, Gian was already dismantling the hinges on the deck hatch, her face marred by a smear of grease.
The next morning Gabe repeated his running routine. Out past the razor wire, run along the beach, greet the fishermen and long for the simplicity of their lives, then back to the base and his duty.
When he reached the wall, it was not a patrolling Gear waiting for him, but Captain Phillips.
She eyed him from the top of the stairs, hands clasped behind her back. As Gabe came up the steps he realized he’d never seen the expression she currently wore. There was a moment, when he came to a stop and held up a hand to catch his breath, that he thought she was going to tell him the war had ended. That the no- eighties had got their wish.
“About time you came back,” Phillips said. “What’s happened?”
“That goddamn Ghost team ran into trouble, and now they need evac.”
Wyatt… Gabe tried to keep his immediate emotions in check. There were plenty of Gears out there, not just the one he’d grown up with.
The Captain turned and walked. Gabe fell in beside her.
“Call came in twenty minutes ago,” she said. “Fucking morons.
Coming here and screwing up our stalemate.”
“What happened?” he repeated, forcing more authority into his voice, despite being outranked.
Phillips took a deep breath. “That is currently unclear,” she said. “All we know is they’re at Knifespire.”
“Classified,” she spat. “But that’s where they are, so that’s where you’re going.”
Gabe tried to picture the place. In an island chain of unimportant rocks, Knifespire had to be at the bottom of the barrel. It was small, for starters, and the westernmost island in the chain, a full mile away from the next closest piece of land. It had a rocky shore, save for maybe one or two small coves— he couldn’t really remember, never having had reason to study it. The unforgiving shore gave way to a long and narrow span of rocky terrain called Gatka Ridge, which ended in the island’s namesake, Knifespire. A nearly vertical spar of volcanic rock that rose four hundred feet almost straight up, ending in a sharp tip that resembled a dagger.
It was an unforgiving place. Other than the jungle around Gatka Ridge, nothing much grew there. So what the hell was Special Forces’ interest in it?
Nothing good, Gabe imagined.
And now they were in trouble. Which meant…
“Was the UIR already there?” he asked, leaving the implication unvoiced. If they were, it meant the COG had missed something. That the island wasn’t so useless after all. That meant someone screwed up. Possibly Gabe, if a patrol had failed to spot Gorasni activity.
Phillips wheeled on him. “Did you miss the part where I said we don’t know anything? I’ll repeat myself if I have to.”
“Good.” She poked him in the chest with one damned strong finger. “They called for evac, then went silent. That’s all we have to go on. So get out there and bring them home.”
“I want to make it clear, Diaz, that if we lose a spec-ops team, Vectes is going to be crawling with Ghosts by this time next week, and Hoffman will be with them. That’s the last thing I need.” She didn’t wait for an affirmative this time. She simply turned on her heel and stormed away.
Gabe frowned inwardly, watching her go. He wondered if he’d ever have a commanding officer who was looking out for something other than their own career.
“No wonder the pendulum still swings,” he muttered.
He went to the offices for the local Naval Reconnaissance squad first, saluting the staff as he entered. His was a face they’d quickly become accustomed to seeing. Gabe made for the charts room, flipping through the huge papers on the table until he found the one that included Knifespire.
The map was the same one he’d seen several times before. What interested him now was a filing index written in the corner. Gabe memorized it, then went to the cabinets on the wall and ran his index finger along the dozens of drawers until he found the one he wanted.
Knifespire’s folder was thin, but it contained what he needed.
The latest notes Recon had made in their tireless observations of the whole theater. Short on time, Gabe scanned the most recent report, logged three days ago, looking for anything interesting.
“Damn,” he said. The effort seemed a waste of time, as all of the entries were marked with a simple NNR—nothing new to report.
As he closed the folder he noticed one marking, however. Not on Knifespire itself, but the ocean west of it. Gabe studied the comment, and the location, then snapped the folder closed. The tidbit of information might be nothing, but any knowledge was useful knowledge in his view.
He left, heading for the barracks. As he pushed inside, he winced.
It was like any other morning, of course, but he’d hoped after yesterday’s drill that there’d be a bit more wind in everyone’s sails. Gears and sailors alike were in various states of dress, readiness, even consciousness. Only a few had their uniforms on and were in the process of heading out for duty.
“LC on deck!” someone shouted. The transformation was instant, and made him proud. Within seconds the disarray had all but vanished, resulting in two neat lines of men and women on either side of the room, all eyes forward, staring at nothing. Gabe didn’t bother with preliminaries or speeches. They were on the clock now.
“Mendez, Carter, Finn.”
The three sailors glanced his way.
“I want your boats ready to leave in five minutes. Not a drill.
Go, and hop to.”
They stepped out of line, along with their assigned navigators and engineers. The nine sailors rushed past Gabe, no further instructions needed.
“Gian,” he said as the engineer passed him.
She stopped and turned, chin lifted in acknowledgment. “She ready?”
“She’s ready, sir, but not tested.” “Fair enough. Make me proud.”
She nodded and left, sprinting now to catch up to her crewmates.
Gabe turned back to the others. “Blair?” A woman stepped forward, eyes still front. She was the best Gear under his command. Tough, smart, and capable of independent thought. “Get a squad together, whichever Gears have their armor on and their weapons prepped the quickest. Be on the dock in five.”
Gabe turned and left, crossing the yard to his own quarters as the sound of Gears filled the barracks behind him. They were competing to go on the op. He smiled, went inside his room, and pulled his own armor off its stand, determined to be there before any of them.
As he laced up his combat boots, Gabe found himself at eye- level with a framed photograph on his desk. Three boys stared back at him, ages thirteen, eleven, and eight, respectively. He and his brother Oscar were both smiling. Beside them was the scrawny form of Wyatt Callahan. He hadn’t been smiling that day and Gabe couldn’t remember why. The kid was always worried about trouble of one sort or another. Gabe thought that was probably still the case. The difference now was that Wyatt had figured out how to stay above it.
Or bury it.
Gabe hoped he’d get the chance to find out which.
Gears of War: Bloodlines is being published by Titan Books and releases on April 21, 2020. Pre-orders available now.