“3 minutes and we’ll see them,” Udaloy whispered, looking at his watch.
“Are they always that precise?” Elena whispered back, looking along the road.
Udaloy nodded. “The cans are always well-coordinated. It’s only been different for the past few days; their activities have gone up. For the road here, they’re still slowly working on it, but where it’s going, we haven’t found out yet.”
“By the way, why do you call them ‘cans’ and not ‘E.L.K.s?’ “
“‘Cause no one can say where ‘E.L.K.’ came from. Easier to think of them as tin cans. That’s what they really are, anyways.”
Elena nodded. “I figured as much. But no one has ever found out what ‘E.L.K.’ means?”
Udaloy shook his head. “It’s been lost to history. Everyone called them that and it stuck for everyone who wasn’t a Fighter. To us, they’re not something to be feared, but to be destroyed.”
Elena checked her firearm, the icon in her vision lighting up as she did so. She hoped that she could appropriate more magazines for it, since all she had to back it up was the tomahawk that Susanne had given her. She looked to her right and saw the heavy weapon the other fighters had set up, using improvised camouflage to mask it. To her left was a similar weapon, though with a larger bore — she had been told it was a grenade launcher but they would only use it to cover their retreat; the ammunition it used was far too difficult to acquire to use it regularly.
Elena had barely slept at all the night before; she kept second guessing herself, feeling anxious about the upcoming battle, yet still mystified over what, exactly, had happened to bring her to this odd place. Susanne would not elaborate on her relationship to the Commander, save for cautioning Elena against telling him her full story. Susanne did at least apologize for not being entirely forthcoming about what being a “Prospect” meant — though Elena posed the very difficult question of what would happen if she became a Breeder, given her current condition. Susanne had simply shuddered, which was enough of an answer for Elena.
I know who I am, Elena thought, yet at the same time, I’m not sure what I am. If this is all a dream, it’s a very surreal one. Despite that, I kinda want to see where it goes — where it ends. There could be a very deep message here that I’ll need to remember when I wake up. If I wake up.
“There they are,” Udaloy whispered, interrupting Elena’s thoughts. He carefully pointed to the end of the road, where a small column of E.L.K.s were marching, along with a pair of vehicles. They seemed to be considerably advanced compared to what the Fighters had.
“Wonderful,” Elena mumbled, readying her pistol. “Wait til the big guns open up, then charge in. Nothing hard about that.”
“Only way to fight, Prospect. At longer ranges, they can shoot better than we can — ignoring the advantage their armor gives them.”
A familiar pop in Elena’s right ear cued her to an incoming communication again, though she wasn’t sure if it would be the female or someone — or something — else.
“Unit DCL5656xeb,” an unfamiliar voice began, the tone feminine with robotic undertones, “nearing previous work site. Construction of route 48x-122 to continue per previous update.”
“Unit WFS092xfa. Potential contacts detected. Request sweep,” a masculine voice said, apparently part of the group that Elena was watching. Elena’s heart dropped as she realized they must have spotted her group. Who do they see?! We’re all under cover here!
Elena looked around, then spotted a man fumbling with a rifle. She tried to carefully get his attention, but he was still trying to do something with his rifle.
“Psst!” Elena tersely whispered. “Stop moving!” The man still didn’t hear Elena, focused entirely on his weapon. Udaloy frowned at Elena, then looked at the man. His eyes widened when he, too, realized what he was doing.
“Partisan!” Udaloy barely whispered, trying to keep silent while loud enough that the man could hear him. The man looked over at Udaloy and opened his hands. Udaloy shook his head, then pressed his hand down, telling the man to get down.
“Unit WFS092xfa. Hostile contact detected. Armed individual bearing 234.45 degrees,” the masculine voice said. Elena’s eyes widened and she looked at the column, seeing several E.L.K.s break off and begin to march in her direction. This is not gonna be pretty!
Udaloy, realizing what Elena was, looked over to the crew on the heavy weapon and waved his hand toward the E.L.K.s. The crew threw off their camouflage and began firing, spraying rounds off into the distance at the E.L.K.s. The machine gun thundered out, its large caliber rounds splashing into the E.L.K.s with devastating force. One E.L.K. lost an entire leg and fell down, dropping the rifle it carried; another took a round to the chest and keeled over backwards, completely lifeless. The remainder quickly moved to cover, getting down and returning fire.
“Partisans! Attack!” Udaloy shouted, standing up and leading the charge. Elena gritted her teeth and shot up, following him down the small hill they had been hiding behind. As the others rose up and followed, the sound of smaller weapons began to pepper the air, as the E.L.K.s returned fire against their attackers while the Fighters tried to pick off the E.L.K.s.
The issue that Elena saw was that they had to cover far more distance than they had originally planned on. The E.L.K.s were not flinching from the fire coming their way; instead, they were standing their ground and taking precise shots where they could, while those carrying heavier weapons attempted to use suppressing fire to push the Fighters away. All around her, fighters began to fall as they took hits — she was certain some of them were dead the moment they hit the ground. If this keeps up, we’re all going to be dead!
“Keep going! Forward!” Udaloy shouted, waving his arm. He closed the distance to an E.L.K., running right up to it and firing a burst from his short rifle into its chest. The E.L.K. shuddered from the hits, but rose up to try and grab Udaloy. He growled and stopped, taking careful aim at the E.L.K., then fired one round into its unprotected throat. The E.L.K. stopped and fell over, its limbs twitching as blood began to pool around the wound.
“I’m… Free…” a man whispered into Elena’s right ear.
“Sector 48x-122. Hostile contacts detected,” the familiar strictly-robotic voice said. “Light resistance. Standing by for support requests.”
Crap! Not what I wanted to hear! Elena slid down next to the E.L.K. that Udaloy had killed, grabbing for the short rifle it had left behind. As she picked it up, a new icon came up on her vision, indicating she had just picked up a “SMG-01k” with 19 rounds. She looked over the weapon and felt a strange knowledge of it pulse into her mind, cuing her to remove the magazine, pull back the charging handle and ensure the chamber was loaded, then slip the magazine back in.
“Udaloy!” Elena shouted, getting back up and trying to catch up with Udaloy. “We need to move quickly! They’re onto us!”
“Thanks, Prospect!” Udaloy growled back as he dove behind a log. “I don’t know where we’d be without you!”
Elena crashed down next to Udaloy, panting as she caught her breath. “I’m just saying!”
“Say less, kill more!” Udaloy twisted up and fired a few rounds, hitting what looked like a much heavier and bulkier E.L.K.. His rounds ricocheted off the E.L.K.’s armor, getting its attention — as well as the massive weapon it carried. Elena’s eyes widened as it began to fire, the rate of fire of the weapon sounding like a buzzsaw. Crap! Crap! Crap! What the hell is that thing?!
Udaloy ducked down as tracers soared over his head and rounds impacted the log and dirt around it. He cursed as he looked around and saw fighters falling down left and right.
“This is not going the way I expected it to!” Elena exclaimed, tightening her grip on her new weapon.
“It never does, Prospect!” Udaloy shouted in reply, the heavy E.L.K.’s onslaught briefly stopping. He carefully stuck his head over the log, causing the E.L.K. to resume firing. “Damn!” he growled, dropping the magazine from his rifle and inserting a fresh one.
“Unit GVN309xaa,” Elena heard a masculine robotic voice say in her right ear, “two hostile contacts suppressed. Requesting units to flank and capture.”
“They’re gonna flank us!” Elena shouted, rising up and firing a few rounds at the heavy E.L.K.. Like Udaloy’s before, they simply ricocheted off its armor. Damn! We need that heavy gun to take this thing out!
“Its armor is too strong for our weapons!” Udaloy shouted, pulling Elena down. “We gotta get the big guns on it!”
Elena nodded and glanced to her right, seeing a smaller E.L.K. moving to flank them. She lined up the weapon’s sights on it when she saw a new piece of symbology appear in her vision: a red crosshair. What the… Oh! For the weapon! Great! She grinned and lined the crosshair on the E.L.K. and fired a single round. Unlike the heavy E.L.K., the lighter one’s armor did not hold up and it took a couple steps, then fell down from Elena’s hit.
“I got him! I got him!” Elena excitedly shouted, looking back to Udaloy.
“Good! Now get more of them!” Udaloy shouted back, the withering fire from the heavy E.L.K.’s weapon drowning out his voice.
OK, enough of this, Elena thought, grasping her weapon and spinning around. She closed her eyes and tried to calm her mind. Faster. Need to go faster. Need to be as fast as I’ve ever been. Reflex enhancement… On! Her feelings driving her body, she felt the world slow around herself, cuing her to open her eyes and rise up. Instead of seeing things slowly, everything had stopped — she could see tracers in the air, Udaloy’s face frozen in surprise, fighters frozen mid-run, and E.L.K.s firing wildly. She looked around with wonder, trying to understand what had just happened. A yellow exclamation mark in her vision broke up her wonder as she realized her reflex enhancement only worked for so long. Right! Need to take advantage of it while I still can!
Steeling herself, Elena jumped over the log and ducked underneath the frozen bullets fired by the heavy E.L.K.’s gun, closing the distance and getting behind it. She saw the rear of the E.L.K. was relatively unprotected, giving her an avenue of attack. OK, let’s do this! Enhancement off!
The world sped up and Elena gasped as she felt everything shift and the physical feelings of the world return. She steadied herself, feeling her mind twisting as she tried to find her balance. In front of her, the heavy E.L.K. continued to fire.
“Prospect?! Elena?! Where are you?!” Udaloy shouted, his voice barely audible over all the weapons firing.
“Taking care of this bastard!” Elena shouted back grabbing her tomahawk and slamming the sharp end into the back of the heavy E.L.K.’s neck with all her might. It sunk into the relatively unprotected flesh, almost completely cleaving through the E.L.K.’s spine.
“U-u-u-n. It. G. V-v-v. N. 309. X-x-x. A. A. F-f-fault,” Elena heard the masculine voice of the E.L.K. defeated in front of her stutter, then shift, as she had heard before. “I’m… Going… Home!” a relieved man exclaimed, then the E.L.K. fell over. Elena panted and fell to her knees, feeling her body shake from adrenaline.
“Unit DCL5656xeb. Weapons unit down. Request retreat,” the feminine robotic voice echoed in Elena’s right ear. Elena looked up and growled, seeing that the action was still going on all around her. She looked behind her at the pair of vehicles, apparently remaining static despite all the action. Time to turn the tables in this battle!
Elena shoved the heavy E.L.K.’s body aside and picked up the belt-fed heavy weapon, grunting with exertion as she felt herself barely able to lift it. C’mon! Gimme strength enhancement! Now! As she desired, an indicator in her vision showed “StrEn ACT” as well as “MMG-01b,” allowing her to swing the weapon up and bring it to bear on one of the vehicles. She mashed the trigger and the weapon roared, flames bursting out of the muzzle and the sound of metal tearing as she peppered her target with fire.
“My turn, you tin cans!” Elena growled, feeling her heart pump as she put all of her anger into the machine gun. Sparks began to fly and a fire started on the vehicle she was shooting, but she continued to hold down the trigger. As more rounds went into the vehicle, a small explosion rocked it and the vehicle’s hood flew off, causing a larger fire to begin to rage on it.
“Unit DCL5656xeb. Secondary vehicle destroyed. Request retreat,” the feminine robotic voice said.
“Elena! Elena!” Udaloy shouted, grabbing Elena’s arm. “Stop!”
Elena released the trigger and looked over to Udaloy, gritting her teeth. The sound of sporadic weapon fire still echoed over her ears, snapping her back to reality.
“What?!” Elena tersely replied.
Udaloy gently put his hands on the machine gun. “We’ve won. We need to retreat,” he whispered.
Elena looked around, seeing fighters finishing off E.L.K.s and tending to the dead and wounded. She closed her eyes and let out a deep breath, then the “StrEn ACT” in her vision disappeared and she felt the weight of the machine gun in her arms again. She grunted and set the weapon down, feeling her whole body shivering.
“Oh… I don’t… Feel so… Good,” Elena mumbled, falling down next to the weapon. Shit. Just like before. Cold… Feelings. She tried to focus on her breathing, attempting to avoid vomiting as she had the day before. Udaloy hovered over her, placing a hand on her back.
“Are you hit?” Udaloy asked.
Elena shook her head. “No… Just… Cold… Not used to… Weight.”
“I’ll say. The damn thing probably weighs 30 pounds.”
Elena looked up and narrowed her eyes at the surviving vehicle. She forced herself to get up, stumbling closer to the vehicle.
“Elena! No! We’ve got to run!” Udaloy shouted, trying to pull Elena back, but she jerked her arm to herself.
“Fuck… Walking… Back,” Elena grumbled, slamming her hands on the vehicle. She felt around, seeing the lines for doors, but no handles.
“We have to! The longer we wait, the closer their reinforcements get!”
“Open! Open, damn it!” Elena shouted, slamming a fist on the door.
“Unit DCL5656xeb. Hostile contacts on vehicle. Support requested,” the feminine robotic voice said.
Elena let out a deep breath and placed her hands on the vehicle. I know this will work. It has to work! So… Unit DCL5656xeb: open the doors.
“Unit DCL5656xeb. State your designation,” the E.L.K. that Elena assumed was inside the vehicle said.
Elena narrowed her eyes at the tinted window. Unit ELK00. Open. The. Doors.
“Error. Error. Err- Objection. Override code required.”
I know the code. I know it. It’s… Yes. I feel it. 69-6d-6e-6f-74-61-6d-61-63-68-69-6e-65.
“Code accepted. Opening doors.” The vehicle’s doors popped open, allowing Elena to pull the right front door open to see an E.L.K. sitting in the left front seat. It looked over to Elena, displaying no panic or urgency.
“What the hell?! What’s going on here?!” Udaloy shouted, grabbing for his weapon. Elena held a hand up.
“I don’t know, Udaloy. But you won’t need that,” Elena said. She tilted her head down at the E.L.K.. Unit DCL5656xeb: Get out.
“Unit DCL5656xeb. Command received,” the robotic voice said, then the E.L.K. pushed the right front door open and got out, moving over and standing next to the hood.
Elena grinned. Unit DCL5656xeb: Hold position. Communication silent.
“Unit DCL5656xeb. Position hold. Communication paused.”
Elena got up into the cab of the vehicle, sliding over to the left seat. She looked around, seeing no controls for the vehicle anywhere.
“Elena,” Udaloy whispered, disbelief in his voice, “how are you doing this?”
Elena shook her head. “I don’t know. But I think I can drive this.”
Udaloy hesitated, looking over the vehicle. After a moment, he gritted his teeth and and pulled himself into the cab, sitting down in the right seat.
“You’ll have a lot of questions to answer when we get back to the camp,” Udaloy grumbled. “But for now, if you can drive this thing, let’s get the wounded into it.”
Elena nodded, looking around. She saw what looked like a hand hold on the center console, so placed her hand there. As she did so, new symbology appeared on her vision: a wireframe of the vehicle, several data readouts on the vehicle’s status, and a slew of other details. Right. OK. So… Close doors?
The doors on the vehicle began to close and Udaloy looked around in surprise. Elena sheepishly smiled, then focused on how she would “drive” the vehicle. Uh… Yeah… Forward? No, there has to be a better way.
“Fifth Letter,” the familiar, compassionate female voice said into Elena’s right ear, “once a connection is established with a vehicle, it can be controlled as you remember.”
Elena nodded and imagined that she was driving a car, the wheel moving and her foot pressing the accelerator. As she did so the vehicle began to move forward, following her thoughts. OK! Now we’re getting somewhere!
Elena felt as if the female voice was smiling at her. “You are learning fast, Fifth Letter. Soon you-” the voice gasped and Elena felt goosebumps ripple across her skin. “Hurry. Hurry!” A pop in Elena’s right ear cut out the voice and the normal feeling of sound returned.
“I won’t complain too much about the ride,” Udaloy remarked, “but you’re going down roads that I don’t think I can follow. No pun intended.”
Elena laughed. “Sorry, Udaloy. I wish I knew where this was all leading to myself, but I’ve got nothing.”
Udaloy pointed to a wounded fighter, leaning against a tree and looking on the vehicle with disbelief. Elena nodded and brought the vehicle to a stop, commanding the doors to open again.
“Hop in the back, Partisan!” Udaloy shouted. The fighter shook his head, then limped over, hopping into the back. He looked at Elena in the front and frowned.
“How is she-” the fighter began to ask, but Udaloy held a hand up.
“We’ll figure that out later,” Udaloy said. “How many did we lose?”
“I saw 5 dead, 10 wounded,” the fighter replied. He looked at Elena again as she moved the vehicle again. “I never believed I would see the legend with my own eyes.”
“The prophesies are ravings of those losing their minds, Partisan,” Udaloy said, looking ahead. “Don’t go spreading false rumors.”
“Do you believe your eyes deceive you, Udaloy?”
Udaloy shook his head. “It is more likely that she is a new can spy, Tim. We’ll bring it up with the Commander when we get back.”
“Guys,” Elena interrupted, “despite appearances, I can hear you. If you’re going to take me out in the woods and shoot me when we get back, then I’ll just leave and find my own way.”
“Shoot you?” Tim said. “No! We have been waiting for you ever since Lucas told us of his dreams. The dark-haired woman who would lead us to finally defeat the cans. When the Commander hears of what you’ve done here, he will know it is time to go on the offensive!”
“If anything,” Udaloy remarked, “she will be a Breeder. You know the rules, Tim.”
“And you know the legends, Udaloy! She is the one we’ve all been waiting for!”
Udaloy held a hand up. “Enough. We’ll discuss more when we get back to camp.”
Elena sighed and continued driving, bringing the vehicle to a stop to allow more wounded to be loaded into the vehicle. The fighters all looked at Elena as if she was some kind of divine figure, causing her to sheepishly smile at them. I had hoped more answers would be forthcoming after this, but all I’ve found are more questions. How can I hear these E.L.K.s? And who is this woman who keeps calling me the “Fifth Letter”? And how the hell is it that I have these enhancements? What am I?!