It was late now and the trolleys were no longer running. On foot it took Gabriel the better part of an hour to reach the nearest launch column. He made no effort to stick to the shadows as he walked. It would draw less attention if he seemed like another citizen, simply taking a late night stroll. Still, he kept his pace brisk. While Charlie would not be waking up any time soon, there was no guarantee that someone else wouldn’t come to her room and discover her.
In the darkened city, the column was still brightly illuminated. Gabriel took in the set up as he walked closer, keeping his face blank and uninterested as he went.
There was only one guard on duty, but guard wasn’t exactly the right word. He was wearing an ELA flight suit and was leaning against the leg of the Kniv. A neural helmet sat by his foot. He was a minuteman; a rapid response soldier in the eventuality that the base was attacked. That meant that he would know exactly how to activate the column, and that he had the necessary launch key for the Kniv.
Gabriel walked past the column and kept going. The soldier paid him no mind, not even glancing his way. Gabriel continued on his way for a few minutes before doubling back, falling off the path and sneaking up to the edge of the illuminated area. He stayed hidden in the darkness as he counted out the steps to the Pilot and drew his pistol. Taking in a deep breath he stepped out into the light and padded forward.
The Pilot was completely oblivious to his approach, his eyes closed and his head resting against the Kniv. He had a wireless earbud in one ear and was listening to music. He didn’t even realize someone else was beside him until Gabriel put the pistol to the side of his head.
“If you move, you die,” Gabriel said calmly as the man jumped.
“Who are you?” he stammered. He flicked his eyes to the side, but did not make any other movements.
Gabriel didn’t answer as he pulled the Pilot’s sidearm free and shoved it into his pocket. He tilted his head towards the column. “How does this work?”
“How does this work?” Gabriel repeated. He cocked back the hammer on the gun when the Pilot hesitated.
“Wait! You just put the Kniv in.”
“That’s all! I swear. It’s automatic.”
“How long does it take to reach the surface?”
“I’m not sure. Maybe like, ten seconds or something?” The Pilot stumbled over his words. “I don’t know. I’ve never used it.”
Ten seconds. It would take the other Pilots at least thirty seconds to a minute to start up their Knivs, then another ten seconds to take the elevator up. Worst case scenario he would have less than sixty seconds to make his escape.
“Give me your launch key,” Gabriel said, holding out his hand. The Pilot’s shoulders slumped and he sucked in an unsteady breath.
“I’m sorry. I… I can’t do that.” the Pilot’s voice shook. “I’m an ELA Pilot. I could never surrender my Kniv!”
“I understand,” said Gabriel.
The Pilot closed his eyes and waited for his impending death. Gabriel pistol-whipped him, cracking him hard on the temple with the handle of the gun. The Pilot let out a soft sigh before collapsing onto the ground in a pile. Gabriel quickly patted down his flight suit and located the launch key. He picked up the Pilot’s helmet and slipped the launch key into a small opening on the side of the helmet. The Kniv shuddered to life and the chest plate slid open to reveal the cockpit. Gabriel pulled on the helmet and climbed inside.
As the Coffin closed, a sense of calm washed over him. ELA or not, a Kniv was a Kniv and he was a Pilot.
The Kniv was a model he didn’t recognize, but it was similar in design to the Renegade. As his sync rose, the HUD informed him it was armed with a chaingun, a plasma knife, and an assortment of grenades. Gabriel ran a quick diagnostic and took an extra moment to make sure the battery was fully charged. When his sync reached twenty percent he forced the Kniv into action. It was far lower than the required battlefield level of fifty percent, but it was enough to walk the Kniv the few meters necessary to reach the elevator. He would let the sync finish on the way to the surface.
A prompt appeared on the HUD, asking if he was prepared for launch. Gabriel nodded and a light winked in acknowledgement. The elevator opened and Gabriel stepped inside. The door closed immediately and a deep rumble sounded off beneath his feet. Gabriel pressed his head against the headrest only moments before the lift activated and he was sent hurtling towards the surface. The speed was not as great as that of a orbital Drop, but Gabriel was still forced against the padding of the Pilot’s seat. His injuries burned in protest at the treatment, but it was not enough to stop his sync from rising up to seventy percent and holding steady. It was lower than his average, but given the circumstance he didn’t have time to worry about that.
An explosion above him informed him he reached the surface as shaped charges blew off the dirt that disguised the exit. The elevator didn’t slow down and Gabriel was abruptly launched a few meters into the air. He landed hard, the thrusters activating after a moment of latency. Gabriel gritted his teeth against the jarring and started to move, setting the thrusters as high as he could without a risk of a burnout. His time was already running short.
As he ran he accessed the navigation system. Zooming out on the map he could see a number of ELA bases, highlighted in green, along with Novan bases that were marked with red. Gabriel stared at the map for a few seconds, committing the coordinates and heading to memory before he closed the navigation system and brought up the Kniv schematics. He refined his search to the cockpit, specifically the guidance system. It took him a few precious seconds but he was able to figure out where the navigation drive was inside of the Kniv.
He would have to remove it. Though it would be able to lead him back to Nova, it was also a way for the ELA to track him. He didn’t have time to carefully open up the interior of the Kniv and was forced to come up with an alternate plan.
Though it was a rather crude solution he drew his pistol and pressed it against the correct spot on the interior Kniv and pulled the trigger. The damage resulted in a three-point drop in his sync and spike of pain in his temple that made him stumble to the side. An alarm blared for a moment before a message popped up on his HUD informing him of a catastrophic navigation failure. Gabriel shook off the pain and kept moving, giving the thrusters a little more fuel as he corrected his course.
The nearest Novan base would be six hours away at full speed. It was possible he could cut that time down slightly if he ejected the Kniv’s armour and dropped the heavy weaponry it carried, but that was a risk. He wasn’t fully aware what kind of Knivs the ELA had in Freeport. If they had one designed for speed and reconnaissance it would catch up to him sooner or later. If Gabriel wasn’t able to fight back everything he had just done would have been for nothing.
“Jacobsen, come in. Just what in the hell do you think you are doing? Return to base immediately!”
A small video popped up in the corner of Gabriel’s HUD and a red-faced man stared at him. It was clear he had just woken up, both from his red-rimmed eyes and the fact that he wasn’t fully dressed, his shirt half buttoned and rumpled. Gabriel ended the call without saying a word. A few seconds later the man appeared again.
“This is Commander Shepard. I don’t know who this is, but you better return to Freeport this instant. That is a direct order. If you don’t, you will be terminated with extreme prejudice!” he yelled at the screen. Gabriel lowered the volume, but didn’t bother ending the transmission. He knew Shepard would just call again.
“We have locked onto your position,” Shepard continued.
“No, you haven’t,” Gabriel called the Commander’s bluff. If they were locked onto him with some kind of missile, the Kniv would have alerted him, especially since it would be an ELA designed weapon. If they were sending Knivs after him there would be no point in giving him a forewarning.
“What’s your name?” Shepard said. A vein pulsed dangerously in his forehead and he leaned closer to the camera. “Answer me, Soldier .”
“I’m not a soldier ,” Gabriel responded as he checked the radar. He could see a faint blip behind him, but it didn’t seem to be moving closer. Even so, he increased his speed. A notification popped up on his HUD as the thrusters began to overheat. He didn’t reduce the speed. They would hold for a few more minutes at least.
“Then who are you?” Shepard’s eyes narrowed as Gabriel pulled the schematics up again. “Because you’re damn well not a civilian.”
“I don’t know,” said Gabriel before he pressed the pistol to the communication controls and pulled the trigger. The communication died and he was left in silence. His speed had likely been making it hard for the ELA to triangulate his position, but given enough time they would be able to find him.
The next few hours were oddly peaceful as Gabriel fell into a mindless lope, the sun rising over the horizon as day broke. The few blips on the radar had faded away quickly and Gabriel hadn’t seen any other activity since then. Without the navigation system it was impossible for him to tell just exactly how close he was to the Novan base until a sudden alarm rang off on his HUD.
Someone was locked onto him.
Gabriel came to a skidding stop, his feet digging deep ruts into the ground as he fired the forward thrusters to slow his momentum. The alarm continued to blare even after Gabriel tried to silence it.
Another lock on.
Gabriel immediately dropped his Chaingun, letting it fall loudly to the ground at his feet. Putting one hand up, he reached behind himself and drew the plasma knife and let it fall as well, the heavy blade sinking deep into the ground, before he put the hand up. On his radar, blips appeared in front of him and moments later Knivs appeared in his vision, coming out of the morning fog.
Gabriel slumped over in his seat, suddenly exhausted. With a few verbal orders he cut the neural connection and opened the Coffin. The damp morning air filled his lungs as he pulled off the ELA helmet and tossed it to the ground before climbing out himself. He kept his hands up in the air and dropped down to his knees in front of the Kniv as the Kniv’s approached.
He was going back to Nova.