Sgt. William Mathios peered through the window of a small, deserted store on a lonely, deserted street in the middle of a deserted town. Nothing. No one. Just empty shelves. Not that he had expected to find anything. All the stranded had left this town. They did that sometimes. Probably moving closer to the COG supply lines so they could cash in on scraps… Or moving away from the Locust.

     Echo squad had been sent out here to this small town to see what the stranded were up to. By the time they had gotten here, the stranded had been gone. William had decided that they could at least search around a bit. Maybe the moochers had left something useful. If they were “lucky”, they might run into a small Locust patrol to kill. Always fun. He glanced over at the rest of his to see what they were up to.

     Echo squad was a rarity amongst the Gears. The person who made it that way was staring forlornly down the street, balancing her Lancer Assault Rifle on her shoulder: Corporal Jamie Deniston, one of the only female fighters in the COG. Most women weren't allowed to join the Gears, and those who did weren't put on the front lines. It wasn't a sexist thing. The reason for it was simple: The human race was on the brink of extinction. When you were this close to being wiped out, you couldn't take chances with your women.

     Jamie was an exception. when she had been a little girl, she'd been told that, due to a genetic defect, her body wouldn't be able to produce children, so she had decided to try to make the world safer for other women to have kids. There was only one way to do that: Sign on with the COG and kill some grubs. And kill she did. Being a woman, she felt the need to prove herself alongside the men. Despite the Locust blood William had seen her covered in, her blond hair, which she kept tied back in a ponytail, never seemed to get any blood on it.

     Julien Peragus, one of the two Gears on Echo who wore a helmet, was poking around inside a sparsely furnished house whose street-ward wall was a collapsed mess of brick and wood. Unlike most Gears, he preferred the grub's Hammerburst rifle to the Lancer. He had painted it grey and blue, so it looked more like a COG weapon. Presently, it was attached to his back, right next to his shotgun, by the set of magnets that every suit of Gear armor had.

     Timothy Wyver, the other helmet wearer, was leaning against a wall chatting with him, balancing his Longshot sniper rifle on its stock. Around his neck he wore a pair of orange sniping goggles he had scavenged from a locust sniper. He bent over and picked something up to look at it, then tossed it to Julien. Julien gave it a quick look-over, and stuck it in a small pouch on his chest.

     The last man in the squad, Rick Zane, the team medic, was standing next to Jamie, speaking quietly to her, holding his Lancer with one hand. There were rumors that something was going on between them. Well, not really rumors, since Jamie had been caught rolling out of Rick’s bunk on several occasions. William didn’t like it, but in this day and age there wasn’t much to look forward to, so he had let it slide.

     “Echo! Form up.” William said, loud enough for everyone to hear, and started to walk down the street. Without looking he knew his Gears would be falling in behind him. “Tim, what’d you and Julien find a second ago?” He called over his shoulder.

     “I don’t know, really. Some kinda’ Locust symbol.” He called back. “We’ll give it to Baird when we get back to base. He loves that kinda’ shit. What really worries me about it is what it means.”

     “It means the Locust have been here. Recently. Probably why the Stranded left.” William heard Jamie say. She had a sweet, smooth voice which completely contrasted how she did in combat. Almost as if to confirm what she had just said, on the side street around the next corner was a closed Emergence hole, with a few dead drones sprawled around it.

     “I thought I smelled dead grub” Julien said, disgust clear in his voice. He stooped to pick up a Hammerburst clip that had skittered away from one of the drones when it had fallen. Stuffing the ammunition into one of his belt pouches, he instinctively unslung his rifle. Following his example, the other Gears of Echo began unholstering and checking their weapons. Jamie checked the breach on her Lancer, and then let the lever go with a satisfying click. Tim was checking the barrel of his Longshot for any kind of blockage. Rick was checking his kit to make sure he had sufficient ammo and medical supplies.

     William gave them a few more seconds before saying “Ok. Stay alert. Let’s move out. Julien, you’re on point. We’re heading for the center of town.” The squad started moving, Julien in front with his finger on the trigger. As they walked, William fiddled with his Tac/Com to see if he could get in touch with control. After about a minute, and plenty of static, Lt. Jonsohn’s voice came through.

     “Control, this is Echo. Tomas, the whole place is deserted.” William said to him, hoping his voice got through the static in the background.

     “Deserted? Well, have you found anything of interest?” Tomas replied, sounding as cool and collected as he usually did.

     “Yeah, Tim found some kinda weird Locust pendant. We also found a collapsed Emergence hole and a few dead drones. Nothing live yet, though.”

     “Roger that, Echo. Thanks for the update. Be careful out there, ok? Control out.” The channel closed with a beep.

     They walked in silence for a while, weapons at the ready for ambushes. Upon rounding the next bend, they were, effectively, in the town square. Though they still found nothing alive, they could see that the square had been turned into a strongpoint, and had been used recently. There were four streets leading in to the square, but two of them were sealed off with rubble from collapsed buildings. It would take a Brumak or a Corpser to get through it quickly.

     In the center of the square was a small platform, with sandbags all the way around its perimeter. Anyone holding that position would ultimately have a controlling firing point from which to hold the square. This was made evident by the myriad locust corpses scattered about the square. It seemed the stranded had been forced to make a stand in this square before they had left the town for good. At the edge of the square, in a small patch of grass, were several graves with crude crosses erected over them.

     Weapons held at the fore, Echo advanced into the square. Julien and Jamie moved around the left side of the square, while Tim and Rick went to the right. William headed straight for the platform, picking his way over Locust corpses. Those stranded gave the grubs a run for their money, William thought as he stepped around a Boomer missing half its head.

     “These bodies are still somewhat fresh”, Rick said.

     William climbed the marble steps to the top of the platform, climbing over the sandbags at the top. Once over, he could see that the sandbags were reinforced by wooden frames, to prevent them from being blown back by, say, a boomshot. As William stood in the center of the square and looked out over the recent battlefield, he suddenly got that feeling that something was about to happen.

     “Ok, guys. Fall in to the center.” He said over the Tac/Com, and watching as his soldiers stopped what they were doing and started walking back, stepping over corpses just as he had.

     As they were making their way to him, William felt something. It was one thing that every COG soldier could recognize. Every COG soldier knew the threat that it represented. The rest of the squad felt it too, and they all broke into a run, bounding over bodies towards the only defendable position in the square.

     The ground started to shake. The Locust were coming.

     “Move, move, move!” William yelled into the Tac/Com. Tim was the first one to reach the sandbags, vaulting over them while pulling his goggles over his eyes, and turning to balance his Longshot on the edge of the bags. Jamie was over next, quickly followed by Julien. Rick leapt over last, and just in time. In the center of the road Echo had come from, a chunk of pavement crumbled and four pale-skinned drones climbed out of the Emergence Hole.

     Tim’s rifle muzzle flashed, and a resounding crack rang out. A split second later, one of the drones’ heads disappeared, and he toppled back into the hole. The other three drones raised their rifles and began shooting back, even as several more pulled themselves out of the hole. Bullets thucked into the sandbags and zinged overhead. William raised his Lancer over his head and blind-fired half his clip, spraying bullets in the direction of the emergence hole. Jamie poked her head up over the edge of the sandbags, sighting along the barrel of her Lancer and pulling the trigger.

     William peeked over and watched a drone pitch forward onto his face, brought down by the fulisade from himself and Jamie. Julien rose from cover, risking the hail of locust bullets, and sighting through his Hammerburst’s scope. He rapidly pulled the trigger three times, and another drone went down, the first shot smacking into his cheek, the second into his chin, and the last blowing off the top of its head. More grubs were climbing up out of the hole, though, and they barely faltered as they were showered with the gore of their comrade.

     Tim’s rifle sounded again, and a drone wielding a Boltok revolver fell onto his back, half his leg missing. By that time, there were ten drones out of the hole and diving for cover. As William watched, two wretches pulled themselves out of the hole, and scattered as bullets chewed up the ground near them. One of them clutched its chest and fell.

     “Kill ‘em all!” William yelled, and aimed his Lancer over the sandbags. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see the rest of Echo aiming their weapons. Julien slammed a new clip into his Hammerburst and rested the barrel of it on the sandbags. Rick turned and raised his rifle for the first time. As one, Echo squad opened fire, bullets chewing into the ground around the Emergence hole. Several drones and the remaining wretch, unfortunate enough to be out of cover, were shredded in the hail of fire. William heard the whoosh-whoosh-whoosh of a bolo grenade being swung, and glanced over his shoulder as Rick let the grenade loose.

     It spun through the air once, twice, three times and then hit the ground, bouncing into the Emergence hole. A second later, it went off with a muffle whump and debris flew through the air as the hole collapsed on itself. At that moment, Jamie yelled out “snipers!” and William glanced up at the rooftops and saw the familiar orange goggles of a Locust sharpshooter. Tim had seen it, too, and William heard twin cracks as they both shot at the same time. The grubs head exploded from Tim’s shot, but the grubs own round smashed into the marble in the center of the platform.

     The war cry typical of the Locust echoed around the square as dozens of drones and wretches kicked down doors and jumped out of windows. Echo kept up the stream of bullets pounding into the Locust, and many fall as they came out of their hiding places, but already William could see it wasn’t enough. Ducking back behind the sandbags, Will tried to contact control.

     “Control! Control, come in! This is Echo! We need evac, ASAP!” Will shouted in the Tac/com, and prayed someone was on the other end to hear it.

     “Echo, this is control, what is your situation?” Said Tomas’s reassuring voice.

     Will raised his rifle and blind fired as he shouted back “We’re pinned down in the middle of the town square. Our coordinates should be in the mission dossier. Locust are advancing on our position now, and I don’t know hold long we can hold out! Requesting immediate recovery.”

     “Roger that, Echo. Rerouting KR-34, 28, and 92 to your position. ETA five minutes. Hang in there, Echo. Control out.”

     Five minutes. Too damn long, in William’s opinion, but there was nothing for it but to wait it out, if they could stay alive, and that was a pretty big “if”. William shook his head to clear his thoughts, and focused on the fight at hand. Looking back over the sandbags, he saw that the locust advance had been slowed considerably. Now they were using the bodies of their fallen comrades as cover, and pushing forward slowly. William raised his rifle and fired what was left in the clip, a 15-round burst, and a drone moving between cover-points pitched forward onto his face.

     “King Ravens inbound!” He called to his squad, “Be here in five! Tim, get rid of those snipers. Jamie, Rick, keep up the fire. Julien, pick ‘em off when they move.”

     “Roger that, sarge.” Tim replied, his rifle cracking out another shot. Out of the corner of his eye, William saw a sniper fall from his perch to die on the pavement below.

     The others didn’t respond, choosing instead to keep firing. Locust were dying by the second, but there were so damn many of them. They just kept coming. Another drone fell, his leg chewed off by a sustained lancer burst from Jamie, and Tim ducked down as the last remaining Sniper took a potshot at him. It was the last thing the sniper did, as Tim brought his rifle up from a crouching position. It cracked, and the sniper’s head disappeared in a shower of gore.

     “Sarge, I don’t think we’ll be able to stay here much longer. There’s just to many!” Julien shouted to him as he pumped Hammerburst rounds into a drone’s chest. It twitched and danced as it died, finally tripping over a dead wretch and falling to the ground. He’s right, William thought. There were to many drones, and though the position was good, the square was close to being over-run. He glanced at the street opposite the one they had come from. There were no locust there yet. It could be a viable escape option.

     William looked back at the advancing Horde. He had a matter of seconds to think. They were getting ever closer, despite their losses. He fired his lancer, dropping a wretch who had poked its head out to far. Beside him, Jamie and Rick fired in unison, ripping apart a heavily armored drone with a lancer. Julien took down two drones and a wretch in half a clip, and Tim blew off another drone’s head.

     William was still debating the retreat when he heard a loud bellow from the other end of the square, at the heart of the Locust advance. He spotted a Lancer-wielding Theron commanding the locust troops. At his bellowed order, all the drones in the square broke cover and ran full-tilt towards the platform. At least a dozen fell in their charge,but there were at least a hundred of the creatures, all eager for COG blood.

     “Get back! Retreat! Fall back to the street behind us, now!” William yelled to his team, over the din of fire. He detached a grenade from his belt and pulled the pin, chucking it down the steps without bothering to aim. “Throw smokes, cover us!” He yelled again, and there was a dull whump as his smoke grenade went off. Through the spreading haze, he saw two drones stumble and fall back down the steps, another fly backwards through the air, and a fourth hacking and coughing as it breathed in a lungful of smoke.

     The rest of Echo threw smokes down the steps, and then bolted for the sandbag barrier on the far side of the platform, leaping over as one and practically tripping down the steps in their haste. They could still hear the Horde in disarray on the other side of the platform, but the smoke grenades could only hold them for so long. Soon, the smoke would clear, and they would come. Echo would be able to do little to stop them. William only hoped that the Ravens arrived before the Locust caught up. Of course, he realized, Echo’s fleeing the of the square would bring about its own set of problems.