Briefing, for all its potential, had proven long and excruciatingly pointless. History. Standard tactics. Arsenal review. Certainly the data could have been summarized.
Flame throwers, gas bombs, visible laser, rockets, EDD. It was all old news. And the target? Another dilapidated warehouse.
John West had never been a professional soldier. He was unfamiliar with broad scope strategies and fine combat training and techniques. John was a civilian. Minute Man. Militia.
He had been selected through testing. Technological testing at that. His training was limited to the rigid, explicit in-services for the task force.
Truthfully, only a few remnants of man had ever served in a genuine military. Colonel Ford, for instance, had been an authentic soldier once. But now his qualifications only merited that he be squad leader. His years of active duty were immaterial. Simply put, standard tactics and stratagems were useless in the modern world.
John sat back and pretended to examine his assigned clipboard and folder. That he should need any reminders from his notes was laughable. In a point of fact, he had memorized every detail of the latest undertaking.
He always did. Being briefed over the same information nearly ten times had that effect on him. Rifling through his papers was merely a show to obscure the grotesque nature of this monotony.
Perhaps the taskforce leadership was justified in their apparent concern. The entire concept had been a civilian project after all.
Scientists had studied the organisms. They understood the xenofauna, at least to the extent that a human could. They had been the ones to break new ground. Befriend sentient species. Autopsy the lethal breeds.
And the taskforce had been designed to combat the “aggressive” xenofauna plague that sprang out of each successive portal storm to torment humanity.
Then again, some rumors held that those same scientists had been responsible for the portal storms in the first place. Looking back in his memory, John felt an inkling of concern.
Only a few years previous, Doctor Breen and his colleagues had been a suspect crowd. Yet, with xenofauna roaming into small towns and devouring helpless victims, they had been given the benefit of the doubt.
John could remember the stories of people bathing only to have a bullsquid join them. Or the man that drove to work only to find the hulking gargantua smashing everything that drew near. And the woman that fled her apartment in fear of her zombified boyfriend, only to walk into the waiting maw of an alien foot soldier.
There had been plenty of fear. Plenty of support for Breen and his council when they recommended fortification of and relocation to the major cities. Still there had been those, like John, who suspected an underlying agenda.
When the Citadels appeared and suppression of humanity began, that agenda became clear. After a mere seven hours of fighting, Doctor Breen’s council recommended and then negotiated surrender on behalf of mankind. Maybe the war couldn’t have been won… but… the world had never been given the chance to try.
Casualties were high in those seven hours, to be sure. But civilization was far from finished. The outcome would have probably been the same, but at least humanity would have been defeated in earnest.
John stifled a self-scrutinized chuckle. He knew the mind-set of the world at large all too well. Most nations would never have accepted the devastation of such war. Maybe the world needed to experience oppression… to live the torment of life beneath a combine boot… before its people would be willing to give so severely with their lives.
Of course, the Combine would always insist that they were not, in fact, oppressing anyone. They were just protecting humanity from its collective mistakes.
John could picture it in his mind. A council of twenty or thirty slugs sitting around one of those weird little tele-screen’s of theirs thinking to each other about men and women. Those poor dumb apes. He scowled reflexively.
After the Combine appointed themselves rulers of earth and declared all humanity to be their surfs, a band of scientists became “separatists”. Some people said that they were former colleagues of Breen. Others believed that they were “real” scientists and thus rejected Breen and his council for being scientific heretics.
Whatever the reason it was the scientists, not the militaries of the world, that founded the resistance. That rebelled against tyranny.
Even so, John had a few issues with the eggheads. Everything, to them, was planning and calculations. They were waiting and stocking away supplies. They told stories of heroes from Black Mesa and then hid in garages and bunkers.
For John’s experience, re-supply raids were the norm. Meanwhile, Doctor Breen established the office of the Governor and the Civil Protection Commission and its mandated police force.
While John’s team used their machines to attack small camps and requisition shipments, men and women were taken into the Citadel network. And only stalkers and trans-human militants ever emerged from the fortified depths.
And the xenofauna kept appearing. The portal storms seemed to conveniently appear over the outskirts of cities or near suspect refugee safe houses. Someone had to stop the carnage. That’s why John volunteered for his testing. To fight the outrageous evils he knew had taken firm hold on earth.
The civilian plans seemed true and steadfast. The brain-trust had studied the xenians and developed weapons to counter them. They wished to cut back on casualties for the early raids, so they tried to implement remote controlled systems.
But building something capable of going toe to toe with a tank-like gargantua or even a combine strider… that was a different matter entirely. They scaled the equipment to needed size and used scraps of armor, molded around the combat chassis.
The result was a thundering mechanical contraption that stood close to eight feet tall. Weapons were mounted on extensible “arms” or built into the casing of each leg. Even the machine itself was designed with a self-repairing micro-function, nano-technology in its most primitive state.
Of course, rumors leaked of the progress occasionally. And without any hard facts regarding the project’s research, the office of the Governor had deemed it illegal.
John lay his briefing documents open to a technical schematic. Pensively, he ran his finger along the smooth lines and the lettering below. MCRD. Mechanical Combat and Reconnaissance Drone. John and the other “pilots” hated that name. It was too cold, too “science and technology guru”.
The task force operators simply referred to them as robo-gargs. They were after all designed based on the gargantua, but at a smaller, more maneuverable size.
John had piloted three missions with his machine, which he nicknamed “Headgame”. He liked to believe that the machine would confound his enemies. Perhaps they did. All three prior undertakings had been successes. But they had been targeting considerably smaller alien nests. They had been tests. He doubted the combine had even taken notice.
John scanned the room and the faces of his comrades. Colonel Ford, a forty-something black man. He seemed as disinterested in the briefing as John himself. Sydney, the delicate little woman with black hair was the only female pilot.
The six-foot five inch giant at the back of the room was Harold. And dwarfed beside him, the child like Alexander was sternly sitting at attention. Beside him, Victor, a typical impatient teenager and the noted runt of the squad.
Absent from the briefing, Tripman and Blare had been grounded until their machines could be repaired. John had mixed feelings about that detail. They were decidedly the weakest pilots. Both men were good… indeed excellent pilots… but they were considerably less talented then Johns present company.
Just the same, the first real raid would have been less challenging with the extra firepower.
Standing at the front of the room and droning incessantly was a white-haired scientist, Doctor Gerhardt. The doctor stumbled through his instructions. Then he paused and waited for the boyish currier that had entered the chamber from the rear. The kid was the youngest of the remaining children in the resistance, but even he was into his early teens.
He approached the doctor and with his message delivered, hurried away. Confidential briefing and all that nonsense. After the boy had gone, the scientist addressed the team once more using a subtle and indistinguishable accent.
“Okay, the transport truck has arrived at the canyon. Report to your control stations and form loose ranks near the transport once offloaded,” he ordered. “But before I dismiss you, I am finally able to inform you of one last detail.”
The aged scientist grinned and indicated an old map. “As you already know, your target will be an unimpressive, older warehouse facility built into the canyon wall. This site is actually located on the outskirts of the old Black Mesa Research Facility.
“We believe that the warehouse survived the disaster intact. Assuming this to be true, then the cache of weapons which had been stockpiled there by ill-fated security officers will be ripe for harvest. And crates of other miscellaneous supplies will also be present.
“These were the objectives we have already made clear. But we didn’t tell you that one of the base’s old warheads is also safely housed within. The warhead is the primary objective.
“The scouts have already secured it and the needed access points. One of you will deliver it to the base itself and bypass the rendezvous. Colonel Ford, you will choose the carrier and one escort at such a time.”
Without hearing any protests or questions, the old scientist then dismissed the pilots and quickly scurried out of the room. John watched him exit with such distaste.
He sank into his rickety wooden chair and nearly dropped his briefing documents. A nuke? All the way to the camp? Only three robo-gargs would remain to collect supplies and the warhead would be an appealing target for any enemy.
As visions of mushroom clouds flashed across the expanse of John’s suddenly vacant mind, Colonel Ford slapped him across the shoulder. “Let’s go West. No doomsday dream’n. Understood?”
“Yes sir,” John blurted out due to trained habit rather then agreement.
John sat on the edge of the long flatbed truck. Around him, scattered dome-tents and the occasional lean-to created the expansive rebel camp. Across from the truck, near the center of the camp was the crumbling ruin of an old farm-house, the makeshift command center and site of his briefing.
A line of old and largely burned-out automobiles formed an evacuation column that pointed to the east. A small assortment of four-wheel-drive trucks were parked defensively around the convoy. Their veritable arsenal of mounted weapons were aimed toward the sky. Waiting in silence.
If the team managed to claim the nuclear warhead, evacuation would be unavoidable. Should that circumstance arise, the 18-wheeled behemoth on which John sat would only join the column after the entire squad had regrouped at the rendezvous. Until that time the escort and carrier machines would act as guards.
John shrugged off thoughts of an attack on his effectively unarmed cockpit. The controls for each robo-garg were mounted inside bulky, immobile metal chambers that were strapped tightly to the flatbed. If the mission was a complete success, he would not have time to clamber out of his cockpit. He and the others would have to ride quietly inside the metal chambers while the truck made a careful series of turns and sped away on an old highway.
Slightly more concerned, John tried to shift his thoughts to other matters. Anything was better then picturing himself trapped in a big metal lump while a gunship or strider pounded it with pulse fire.
He carefully removed his denim shirt and sighed. He had never cared for the idea of civilian uniforms. Thus, naturally the Combine had insisted. There was no choice for garments. Just blue denim. Any custom clothes were worn at risk, and had to be salvaged from mostly destroyed old houses or rubbish heaps.
Looking down at his chest, John saw that the muddled patches of hair had thinned under the rubbing and wear of his denim shirt. He grinned a little. He was fit, trained to remain physically agile and fed hearty meals compared to the rest of the camp. And his thinned chest hair made him look a bit like a power trainer.
His time spent preparing for the cockpit of the war machines had given him bronze skin. After all, the controls required near-perfect synchronization between man and machine. Thus, sensors had to be pasted to the skin. And, John had to admit, the equipment had a tendency to… warm up.
He supposed it made sense to train accordingly, using the heat of a desert afternoon to build resistance. The cockpits were cooled, but said cooling was provided for the equipment and consoles. The pilot only ever felt the wash from burdened heat-syncs.
At first, John had been fairly timid about the very public training with next to nothing for coverings. But delicate personal image had to be abandoned for him to function as a robo-garg pilot. There would never be time to worry about a little bare skin and waves of humility while fighting a battle.
With time he had adapted. Even so, he was more impressed by Sydney’s ability to compensate. She remained the only woman on the active team and subject to the same requirements as the men. That meant training in open fields nearly naked for the world to see on a daily schedule.
Even at that moment, she sat with her shirt in her hands and showed no sign of the delicate sensibilities John had been accustomed to once.
Her bare skin had turned more red-orange in the sun then the tan John and the others possessed. Her arms were visibly muscular and toned. So too was her abdomen. Her breasts were fairly average in size, but hardened pecks had given them a more stretched shape.
A firm hand slapped a sensor onto John’s chest. “Oh I see how it is,” the feminine voice declared, “you’re into those body build’n chicks eh?”
John had not intended to stare. He turned back to face a sinister grin. The face of a twenty-nine year-old brunette. Her brown-green eyes studied him tauntingly. Lacy, his attendant and the armed guard that would sit behind his control capsule throughout the mission.
He could feel the flush of warmth in his cheeks. He sat in awkward silence, suddenly frozen in embarrassed panic.
Even so, Lacy had been softly chuckling. She applied the next sensor with a much more delicate and surprisingly soft hand. There was an almost unspoken trust between the two. It was no secret that they had developed a muted emotional tie. And he knew full well that Lacy would use her observation to torment him indefinitely.
“You know,” she grinned and mashed another sensor into place, “I’ve been work’n out. I could take ‘er.”
John finally smiled in spite of the growing intensity of his humiliation. “I’ll bet,” he answered.
“You don’t believe me?” Lacy flexed a denim wrapped arm and insisted John touch the bicep. Her muscle was indeed firm.
John began to feel cold sweat on his brow. His face practically burned in protest. His heart was pounding. He could not remember ever feeling so mortified.
Then he feared Lacy was moving in for the kill. She leaned close to his ear and whispered. “Try not to look so frightened. I won’t hurt ya… much.”
Another sensor and another whispered jab. “I’m not being serious, you can stop trembling now.”
John had not realized that he had been shaking frightfully.
Lacy moved closer as to whisper again. Her lips met his cheek instead. Then she said, “You’re awfully easy to scare for a battle hardened pilot.”
John could feel his blush fading. He looked back into those dazzling, sparkling brown-green eyes. “You just caught me off guard is all.”
She grinned and placed a sensor on his back. “Oh is that it?” She began to work more rapidly now. “Well, you’re just gunna have to be more careful then, aren’t ya?”
John bowed his head in defeat. It served him right. He had been allowing his mind to drift and he was about to engage in a battle that was beyond the skill of most.
He forced himself to focus as Colonel Ford leapt from his seat and turned to face the squad. His dark skin was glistening with a thin sweat. He was possibly the most muscular man John had ever seen.
The hum of the electronics was steady by now. With the cooling fans active, the machine was a bit noisy. And looking at the various system monitors, it seemed as though the control capsule might launch into space.
John looked over his control read-outs one last time and double-checked his battle harness. He was strapped into a smooth liner that held him snuggly to his seat.
The control panel and pilot seat was effectively a large articulated rig, designed to mimic data returned by its lumbering counterpart. Master controls rested beneath John’s palms. A panoramic display half-encircled him. And a useless legacy keyboard extended over his lap. Emergency back-up.
A peddle under John’s right foot had once acted as an accelerator. However, with new designs and technology it was now the trigger for an experimental new weapon system.
He tried to ignore the wires that dangled over his head and out of his console. Lacy’s smirking face glimmered down through the open hatch. “Screw this up,” she said, “and I’ll shoot ya myself.” The hatch closed with a ruff thump and the pressure locks hissed with laughter.
John shook his head and grinned. Then, he pressed his hands on the controls. A subtle shudder beneath the seat indicated successful start-up. As the software loaded, John activated the local systems.
Communications of course. And the motion feedback system as well. His body suit’s health monitor and the air recirculation systems too. The idea of suffocating in the metal box was not very welcome.
Finally, as the display brightened, he switched the cockpit light off.
“Up and at ’em,” Spitfire said. The voice was distorted to protect her identity. Every squad member spoke with the same metallic voice.
The computer printed her call sign on the main display along with a rough text read-out of the message. Naturally, the system was not perfect. It read, “Spitfire: uptin Adams”. But the idea was to conceal the pilot identities from eavesdroppers.
While John entered his call sign, a simple heads-up display appeared before him. Ammunition counters. Power displays. The target system. Everything was in working order.
John quickly brought up a listing of his team-mates. Knight, Spitfire, Lumber Jack, Overdrive, and Impulse. The name “TrapDoor” was listed at the bottom and highlighted to indicate John’s ownership.
Call signs had originally been chosen by each pilot. But policies changed mid training. The team had been required to choose new names for each individual pilot. Only Colonel Ford had been allowed to keep his self-appointed name.
Fortunately, the squad had been kind and chosen names that properly reflected each member’s personal traits.
“TrapDoor, form up,” the colonel barked.
John felt a sudden shudder as his robo-garg’s sensors began full transmission. Before him, an apparent canyon stretched out of sight.
His squad was impressive. Each machine was an eight foot beast with thick armor curving over any weak spot. Bipedal. A miniature arsenal was mounted on two “arms”.
John could see walls to either side of his machine, and a roof above. He guessed that his robo-garg had been transported in an old freight container. They were relatively inconspicuous and could hold several machines each.
Stepping forward, he felt the heavy jolt of the machine’s weight stomping across hard gravel. There was almost a rhythmic bass rumble as he walked forward. He tested his motor controls and soon found his reactions matched smoothly by the battle drone. It followed his every whim.
Looking back, John found the freight container accompanied by a sister unit. Other machines were exiting each rusted red metal box. For some reason, the old Black Mesa logo was still emblazoned on the side.
The transport truck stood parked a short distance away, partially hidden amidst the boulders of a recent rock fall.
“Come on Impulse. Move it,” Ford demanded.
The rest of the team was forming an organized cluster in a small level patch of terrain. But Victor had held back. He seemed to be studying the inside of the container.
“I’m commin’ I’m commin’,” the boy responded as he stepped into the open.
“Stop right there kid! This is a serious mission and I won’t have your cavalier attitude interfere!”
“Oh please. You know I’m da best pilot on the team. You need me.”
“Don’t test me boy. Overdrive, take point. Lumber Jack, six o’clock.”
As the squad moved away, Victor gave no further protest. That was a tiny detail, but one that worried John. The kid was called “Impulse” due to his tendency to take unnecessary risks or to follow his own flagrant whims. Leaving him alone was about as dangerous has having him follow.
And he was right about being the best pilot. He seemed almost built into the machine he controlled. He would have been desperately helpful in a firefight, assuming he remained focused.
But it was his silence that truly added to John’s dread. Impulse must be up to some ill-conceived ploy.
John shook the fears from his mind. With the team down to four, the risks had increased.
The machines formed a single sweeping line as the target. A small ridge in the base of the canyon had been formed from years of rock falls. Looking up at the cliff face ahead, they could see the concrete wall that remained exposed by time and poor maintenance.
The warehouse was really more of a bunker. Its entrance and exits were all hidden by distance and a poor viewable angle. But the simplest backdoor had been discovered by the early scouting parties.
An old drainage pipe gaped at the team from the cliff’s base. Its metal screen had been rusted and started to degrade with age. Beyond was a dark hole with no sign of an exit.
A portion of the metal screen had been cut away, large enough for a human scout and mysterious amber light appeared at the end of the tunnel.
“TrapDoor, you do the honors.”
John shook his head with amusement and took a deep breath. Then, he flipped a control switch with his right thumb and selected his weapon. The green laser’s sighting reticule appeared on his HUD and as quickly, he began firing small bursts.
The metal grate rang in protest. Blast after blast cut through the metal. Then advancing slowly, John reared his left arm and swatted the grating away.
“Overdrive. You’re still point. Proceed.”
John stepped aside and watched the machine charge into the poorly illuminated passage. Then Colonel Ford and Sydney. John followed along and Harold’s machine backed into the opening to cover their exit.
The sound of a high-pitched whine cut at John’s ears. An engine somewhere near-by was overburdened. Rounding the bend in the old drainage pipe, John found the source.
The pipe made a sharp ninety-degree turn… strait up. The scouts had come prepared of course. They had assembled a scrapped together lift platform and Alexander’s machine was already mid-ascension. A dim wall mounted lantern provided a little necessary illumination.
The little motor was screaming with strain as it heaved the bulky robo-garg higher. And John winced, both from painful eardrums and dread. Surely any foe within the compound would hear the racket.
In confirmation, a rattling burst swept down the tunnel. But with some relief John realized that it was Harold at the exit.
“Scratch two grunts,” the distorted computer voice muttered.
“Anything else?” Ford asked.
“There’s a few controllers and a couple more grunts. Probably investigating the noise.”
The lift suddenly fell silent. Then, after a few seconds of delay, it began to shriek as the empty platform all but fell back into position.
The colonel gestured in a broad sweep to indicate that John should go next. He pushed passed the two remaining machines and stepped onto the platform. Then, he watched Ford step onto a weight sensitive floor plate beside the main lift motor.
And the lift shot upward. John strained to see as the light faded to near darkness. As he reached the top, he stepped off the lift and hobbled forward. Ahead, he could make out a grey glow of distant light.
Overdrive was standing near the center of the tunnel, silhouetted stoically. As John approached, Alexander shifted to the side. They stood with weapons ready until the other two machines arrived. Harold would remain at the base, ready to send the lift back up should the need arise.
“Okay. All that racket. There’s no good way to do this,” the colonel declared. “Clear the pipe and take defensive position in the reservoir room. But try not to fall in.”
Fall in? John did not like the sound of that.
The squad shambled out of the pipe and found themselves face to face with a deep, slime coated vat. An overflow waste reservoir. Oddly, there were no signs of an alien presence. Even the fungus-like growth that accompanied most xenian incursions was absent. Aside from an occasion or crack or scorch on the concrete walls, the room was preserved completely.
To the left of the reservoir, a control room and small observation window stood guard. To the right, an open passage lay just beyond a small access ramp. Long pipes ran down into the reservoir and disappeared in the murky waters below. The pool was deep. Deep enough to forever trap a hapless mech should it tumble under the flow.
Colonel Ford turned back to the right and thundered up to the control room. “You three get inside the warehouse. I’m behind you.”
There was a rumble and whoosh of flame inside the small room. It was enough to crack and then shatter the observation window. The roar of the flame thrower filled the chamber. The occasional burst of a gas filled tube or pocket within the equipment was a popping rhythm beneath the blaze.
John followed his comrades with Alexander in the lead. The trio of machines rumbled up the access ramp and through an open lock gate. There were better lights near the next hall juncture. For all appearances, the scouts had restored at least partial power to the warehouse complex.
The hallway juncture was a t-shaped intersection. One warehouse was back to the left. And the other was back to the right. Turning with a bit of a gamble, the team drove toward the first warehouse. The passage was filled with ninety degree turns, intended to limit blast damage between compounds should a weapon detonate.
Such facts gave the team great hope for a successful mission.
The first blow to team confidence came from a warning light on John’s HUD. A cloud of greenish-yellow mist engulfed the narrow passage. John was unaware that his colleagues were suffering the same warning. He simply knew that his robo-garg was taking some form of damage.
John pushed forward, but butted into Sydney. She ignored the impact but seemed to be trying to scrape something off the wall. Looking closer, John noticed small brown spots on her armored hull.
As the spots grew, he realized with some dismay, that he was witnessing an acidic corrosion. The cloud of green smoke was chemically laced.
Sydney was using her machine’s metal arms to brush at a moldy yellow blob on the wall. While she worked, a second puff of smoke erupted with a grotesque belch.
“Forget it,” Alexander called as he moved further. “Get into the warehouse!”
The trio jostled through a narrow old frame and stamped across the remains of a red security door.
The open room before them was expansive. The ceiling was at least two stories high and the rafters were exposed iron beams. Crates lay in stacks around the interior and an office was suspended in one corner, overlooking the room. Beyond a partially sealed steel door, a second warehouse chamber was visible.
And movement swept through the room. Something massive had hurriedly scrambled between old and half-rotten crates. “What was that?”
“Did either of you get a look?”
The blue armored beast attacked with the speed of a coiled serpent. An old crate smashed over John’s hull armor and he lost track of the attacker.
A second blue creature chanced a step into the open and a bright red beam scored a cut across Alexander’s breastplate. A deep guttural roar shook the room.
“God! There must be half-a-dozen at least.”
“Knight, come back.”
“I’m en route. What’s up?”
“We got a whole pack a’ juvy gargs!”
A pop drew John’s attention from the aggressors. Sydney had fired a gas canister at the partially opened door. Seizing the opportunity, John switched his weapon selection. Aiming at the corner of a crate, he fired and the screaming rocket smashed through the wood and erupted in a wall of flames.
Two of the blue beasts staggered into the clear, allowing John to fire several laser bursts. The creatures bellowed with pain and retaliated with…
The blast jarred John’s cockpit. “What the hell?!”
“They shot me.”
“They shot me with a laser. The damn things are shooting hot red beams out of their eyes.”
“That’s not possible.”
A stray blast argued to the contrary.
John ducked behind a crate stack and switched his weapons again. Time to test the new gun. He rushed into the open and turned to the nearest beast with a mechanical whine from his servos. Shifting his balance, he mashed the old accelerator and waited.
He could hear the build up of power. He could feel his machine shift its weight. And with a crack like thunder, his cockpit bashed violently. The blaze of energy sped across the floor with blinding speed and a deafening scream.
One young garg was caught off guard. It seemed to cock its head to one side as it saw the attack approach. Then, it erupted in a fury of violence. Something burst under its chest plating. Its exoskeleton cracked and fire leapt from the wounds. It wailed in pain and tumbled backward, finally fracturing into dozens of fragments.
At the same moment, Alexander unleashed a rocket, pounding the partially closed blast door. Behind him, Sydney practically crashed into one of the xenian beasts, pushing it aside. She dropped her metal shoulders and rammed the alien with both shoulders. With an upward thrust, the creature was cart wheeled, crashing through old stocks of ammo.
A few spare rounds, still wrapped in their air-tight packing, burst under the collision.
Then another thrashing blast was followed by the sprinkling of metal fragments as the door gave way. Enraged, the aliens rallied and charged Alexander’s machine. Yet, John slammed his way through a stack of crates and leveled his dual flame throwers. The shriek of compressed gas produced a blaring clip in his headset.
Enraged, two of the gargantua’s whirled on the new attacker and flipped open their own exoskeletal claws. Blue jets of flame filled John’s view and damage alarms sounded wildly.
“Back off TrapDoor,” Knight declared as he hurdled into the room with oversized bounds.
John staggered back as the first of a pair of rockets burst off the chitin of one of the young aliens. It gave only mute protest as its corpse toppled onto the floor.
“Overdrive, let ’em have it!”
Suddenly, a scream of tracer rounds spat through crates and metal boxes. Sparks ruptured off the alien hides and drew reeling bellows from the beasts.
Alexander’s torso mounted mini-gun was a rarity, even in a well equipped unit. He earned his call-sign by cutting through targets and xeno’s in nearly every test. And to watch his machine now, spewing a stream of metal like a flow of hot magma was to witness massacre incarnate.
The young gargantuas reeled and staggered away, crumbling as they fled. Sydney’s rockets then found their backs and tore greater holes in their armor. A few laser blasts dug into the softer underlying flesh and they fell.
Then a dreadful silence filled the chamber.
After a few moments of contemplation, the colonel gave his orders. “Work fast. Get what you can and leave the rest.”
Agreeably, the squad scrambled and wandered through the two warehouse compounds. Very few crates were still intact. Two in fact. Both were military ammo crates. Not a bad find… but everything else was useless.
John began to fear that the operation would prove to be a waste of effort and munitions.
“Knight, I think I found a surface lift.” The voice was Sydney. She was standing alone in the corner of the warehouse, just beyond the old office. Behind her, a heavy blast door and a keypad were waiting patiently.
“Okay, could be good to know. But don’t worry ’bout that right now. Let’s check the other side of this complex.”
Other side? Oh yes, the hall had split. There was a second compound. John and the others reformed their squad ranks and double checked the ammo crates stowed in restraints on Sydney’s back. Then, with a gesture, the colonel led his squad into the narrow corridor once again.
Rushing around several sharp corners and pressing through the passage in a single file line, the squad soon emerged in a new chamber.
The new warehouse was enormous. Three or four stories in height John guessed. Iron and concrete pillars supported the thick concrete ceiling. The room felt nearly empty. Large relics that had once been heavy machinery littered the four corners and an old trailer lay at the heart of the room.
Makeshift guard booths, perched on tripod supports, sat in each corner. And the heavy lift at the center of the room lead up to…
“Damn. They must’ve blown right through.”
Above the center of the room was a square hollow. And within it, an old blast door had once been sealed. The lift platform itself was sheered partially through the old door and chunks of metal littered the floor beneath a gawking hole.
Sunlight fed down through the broken opening. An occasional chunk of rock or small bolder rolled down through the breach. And a shadow danced over the opening.
“Incoming!” Colonel Ford barked. “Search the room. Find the warhead and get the hell out’a here.”
The wave of blue creatures tumbled into the open. Six initially. Then an additional six.
Sydney raced around the old machinery and fired laser blasts as she moved.
Alexander staggered as a pair of red surges slammed into his machine. Smoke began to seep from an opening in the armor.
Colonel Ford ignored several fiery jets that flanked his machine. He pressed onward, even batting one of the beasts aside and charged into the wall of the old trailer. It buckled, but held.
He backed away. The robo-garg reared and then stamped. Shockwaves swept out from beneath the machine and deflected off the rusted metal shipment container. The colonel was quickly surrounded by xenios. In desperation, he ignited his flame throwers and turned their fiery shower on the hull of his obsticle.
The surrounding gargs pushed inward, their own natural throwers casting blue sheets of flame over the machine’s back.
The trailer buckled first and Knight almost pranced into the opening.
John fired a series of rockets and then ducked back into the hallway. He could see Sydney still inching her way around the machines. She would rise, exchange fire, advance, and then duck behind new cover. All the while, her pursuers seemed perplexed by such behavior.
Still, they gave chase.
It was Alexander. His robo-garg was billowing smoke now. The left knee, a vulnerable joint, burst in a spray of sparks and his machine fell.
Seconds later, the garg’s were pouring hot flames onto the wreck.
The fuel cell ruptured. A wave of fire and energy puffed up to the high ceiling and collapsed inward. Then, a white hot wave of energy shot out in all directions, tearing the legs off the nearest of the juvenile gargs.
“Shit,” the colonel declared. “Somebody get them off me. The target is here!”
John sighed and stamped once more. His machine lurched and a surge of energy swept forward. He then ignited his flame throwers and charged.
He crashed through two of the aliens before they even appreciated the threat of attack. Sydney scrambled forward from the opposing wall of the warehouse and the colonel emerged from the trailer. Strapped to a harness on his back was the conical shape of a nuclear warhead.
Expecting an onslaught, John whirled to face his enemies. He smashed onward and drenched the aliens with fire. Ever advancing he battered his way to the exit.
He stopped only when he reached the hallway juncture. There, he turned back and saw the colonel rush past with Sydney covering their escape. As soon as she disappeared back toward the reservoir, John flipped the trigger of a poison gas canister. The metal cylinder bounced into the hall and a puff of grey smoke blocked his view.
Backing away, he readied his flame throwers and checked his fuel supply. He was running dry.
“You two keep going. I’m gunn’a try to lead them to the other warehouse.”
“Understood,” Ford responded.
The beasts came into view.
A few turned off, but most charged, their alien mandibles gnashing in anger at John’s machine.
His jets of flame faded and shortened. And with a pop, his supply was extinguished.
He turned and ran. His robo-garg bashed into one wall or the other as it plowed through the narrow corridor. The bulk of metal sheered a chunk of concrete off the door frame as he entered the first warehouse.
Up ahead, he could see the surface lift. Hoping it would function he drilled his right gun arm into the call panel, blowing it apart. Nevertheless, he could hear the bass crawl of the lift as it descended.
All he need accomplish would be to hold off the horde of young gargantuas. He chuckled. ‘Oh is THAT all?’ he thought sarcastically.
The flood of blue chitin swept into the chamber as a wall of armor.
And the rumble of the lift droned on.
The hatch popped with a sharp hiss. John dragged himself into a brilliant afternoon sunlight. It took a few moments for his eyes to adjust.
Back to his right, Alexander was sitting idly atop his own control pod. “They got you too huh?”
John nodded quietly and dragged himself further out of the pod.
Lacy shook her head and smiled. Then leaning forward she whispered, “Well, I’ll just have to break you of that habit.”
John grabbed the back of her head and pulled her up to his face. He kissed her hard, so hard he feared he might hurt the woman. When he let go, she was flabbergasted. Speechless. And blushing ferociously.
John grinned and chuckled and twirled a small black disk on his fingertips.
Around the 18-wheeler, scene was reserved chaos. The motorcade was establishing a new camp further ahead.
Two metal giants stood idle as rebels removed ammo crates and the real prize of a nuclear warhead. And Doctor Gerhardt, along side his fellow scientists, were frantically gesturing for the mechanics to hurry.
Naturally, John had been right to fear a ploy by the young Victor Holms. The boy’s own machine was just arriving via a large flatbed truck. Left to his own devices, he had tried to scale the cliff face and drop in from the original lift access.
His plan might have worked too, were it not for the alien infestation. His machine had crested a high ridge line and been faced with a pack of alien soldiers. A veritable platoon of xenian synths.
Victor had tried to fight, but his machine had been easily toppled backward off the cliff. It was an immobile heap now.
Nevertheless John’s own experience at the surface had been far more fruitful. He knew that his news could be the most important bit of intelligence as yet recovered by the resistance. So he ran, nearly toppling over every hole or tree stump along his path.
He had to admit that he felt a little disoriented after the long ride in the cockpit. Despite that, it was excitement that dizzied his mind now. He was gasping for air when he finally reached Doctor Gerhardt. With a flailing gesture, he produced the disk and insisted that it be watched promptly.
“My mission record,” John gasped. “You’ve gotta look at this.”
Gerhardt appeared confused, but he walked over to the passenger door of an armed four-by-four. Reaching into the passenger compartment, he withdrew a small computer console scrapped together from old lap-tops and modern Combine technology.
Inserting the data-disk, he accessed the files and watched.
“No,” John rasped from over the doctor’s shoulder. “That’s much to… early.”
The doctor scanned further in the time-line and only stopped when he saw the explosion of Alexander’s machine. He groaned audibly.
“No,” John again wheezed. “More.”
The doctor sighed and looked at John in disbelief. Then he advanced the record further.
“There,” John demanded. “Start there.”
The doctor allowed the footage to play. He was watching a horde of juvenile gargantua rush into a warehouse from John’s point of view. They flared blue flames and stamped red energy bursts. They spat balls of something yellow and nasty. One even seemed to zap a red laser beam from his single glowing eye.
John was taking damage rapidly and his machine was staggering, but something changed behind him. He apparently turned to find an open lift platform and entered. He smashed the lift console and the doors sealed. Infuriated, the monsters were smashing at the door, buckling it in. But the lift soared away safely.
Then… at the top… the lift door’s opened. John had charged across a courtyard and into an old building. Out the back and through a drainage system. Then he had meandered into a small alcove.
The doctor was silent with awe. He watched until John’s machine was finally overrun. After a short hesitation, Gerhardt looked at the expectant faces around him.
“We have new plans I think. Prep the back-up machines,” he was almost giddy. “Get every pilot we have. All of them. We’re going to invade the remains of Black Mesa.”
-Enter the Arena-