Chapter 17:


From Nowhere to Sender

While it was true that Nocks had been brooding on and off since the first visit, he felt the reason for his discontent may be being misconstrued. The others seemed to be under the impression that his being caught so unaware was the main culprit, that in addition to the new hole in his calf. But even his calf didn't bother him so much at this point, more of a dull ache than anything after cleaning it. What little pain remained became lost as he refocused his efforts on thwarting the previous two visits and replaying the first one over and over again in his head.

And after careful recollection, Nocks had a working theory that the gas from earlier, Pipe Down or whatever it'd been referred to as, wasn't actually being exploited through the use of canisters. Not during that first visit at least. The canister they'd recovered had contained the gas at one point, but its contents had long been expelled prior to their arrival. A strategic feint by whoever left the canister on the route, part of a plan to make the convoy believe the two were related.

The clue that guided Nocks to this point had come just before he'd be shot. The flagpole. More specifically the direction the flag atop the flagpole had been blowing during the time of the attack, perpendicular to the convoy. From West to East. According to Cade the convoy had been heading down one long steady decline since the third checkpoint. A product of this regions considerable mountainous terrain. Something made obvious by the map of the routes topography. Further examination of said map, located in the bridge, confirmed the existence of another steady decline to the immediate West of their first battleground with the anti-faith faction. Bringing him to his theory.

Hypothetically, what if Quiet Murn took advantage of the gas's properties, specifically its density, and released it atop the decline west of the convoy. By making use of the decline and wind direction they could all but guarantee the convoy would feel its effects. Albeit no one witnessed the gas being released according to the first round of reports, but accounting for foliage it would have been difficult to spot even if they'd known where to look.

If this was the case then the real reason Evan and Tristler hadn't been affected by the gas would've been because the Crusader acted as a barrier from the wind that pushed it along. Where as Lux could have been just out in front enough to avoid it or been shielded by the same foliage that the party members took advantage of to conceal they're strategy. The fact that the anti-faith faction hadn't been coordinating verbally or crying out during their attack supported this theory. Especially since at least half of the security officers made it a point to injure instead of kill. The injured simply couldn't produce any pained cries because the gas was still present.

Assuming all of this was true, admittedly a big if, how might the raiding party exploit the misunderstanding they created regarding the gas dispersal method? LCF countermeasures for the use of canisters called for locating them as quickly as possible and discarding them overboard, before raiders could capitalize on their effects. This meant briefly handling the canister. It also took the crew a moment to locate where the thrown canister had ended up. Not hard, just follow the billowing smoke cloud. But Pipe Down was colorless, its odor being its only identifiable quality. Locating it may take a moment longer as a result.

Think Nocks...they must be trying to take advantage of both the delay and the discarding method, but how? We're there any projectiles that required evasion rather than immediate handling? If there was they'd be screwed.

As if the universe decided to test his long winded theory, Nocks watched as what appeared to be a canister bounced through the doorway he happened to be facing and into the corridor. Simultaneously a call rang out from outside, warning of the gases deployment. Time ground to a halt as his mind finally conjured the image of a projectile that could meet the criteria with a few choice modifications to its appearance. And it just so happened to resemble the object currently rolling to a standstill before him.

His training kicked in. Instantaneously Nocks shut both eyes tightly, covered his ears and threw himself behind cover for the second time that day. In this case he propelled himself through the corridor leading to the cargo bay. The nature of the corridor meant his hearing wouldn't make it through unscathed, but that would be inconsequential as long as his vision remained intact. The detonation of the stun grenade would serve as the signal for the raiding party to begin its approach, and he needed to return to the weak side platform asap if he wanted to disrupt their timing and momentum. Something that would prove difficult blind.

As expected the faux gas canister detonated inside the corridor, the volume of which payed little heed to his meagre attempt at covering his ears. While Nocks knew that covering his ears had saved his hearing considerably, it did not feel like it in the moment. Following detonation the hearing loss was immediate and his balance proved a bit shaky as he stood, the fluid in his ears disturbed by the blast. Knowing he couldn't afford to waste time Nocks got his feet back under him and made for the doorway leading to the weak side platform.

Upon reaching it he was met by the surprised eyes of a male and female volt who'd been among the first escorted up to the Crusader and been preparing to board. He fired three shots, two of which met their marks before return fire had him ducking back into the doorway. He'd managed to shoot both the driver and volt of the closest bike while the other volt had managed to shake their surprise in time to raise their buckler, deflecting the third shot in the process. With any luck the now driverless bike would further disrupt the approach attempt.

Soon after the sounds of boots landing on the metal platform prompted Nocks to poke his rifle through the doorway and fire the remaining five shots of his magazine blindly. He thought he could make out the sound of the bullets deflecting off another buckler and potentially a pained gasp but his hearing hadn't recovered enough to be reliable.

As Nocks pulled a fresh mag and reloaded, his eyes drifted in the direction of the adjoining corridor where the ladder was. He knew he couldn't fend off the entire boarding party himself at such a close range and the help he needed could reach him quickest from the ladder way. He contemplated falling back to the corridor junction for the time being, but that move could prove costly since it allowed the raiders a better chance at reaching the engine room. And if they were going to trouble of boarding at all then the plan must be to destroy the cargo, cripple the Crusader or both. Yet another reason reinforcements were needed on this level.

But if too many concerned themselves with the situation down below, that would leave them fewer forces to deal with the rocketeer above whenever they showed up. Just then the form of Tristler peeked the weak side doorway from the junction and made eye contact with him. He signaled for Nocks to join him and he happily complied, aware that the platform could very easily be swarmed at this point. As he began to sprint over one of his legs abruptly gave way. Right. He'd been shot earlier, but now of all times!? He could feel multiple presences approaching the doorway from behind as Tristler ran out in an effort to grab him and pull him the rest of the way. The corridor promptly erupted into chaos...