[This is part of an ongoing series. See my ‘Half-Life Story‘ page for more information.]
As we made our way back to Elliott’s room I explained to him that if you can get beyond the defensive walls built by the Combine that surround every metropolitan civilization, it becomes an entirely different world. Not only is there widespread destruction across the landscape, but there are countless creatures out there running wild. Most, if not all, of these aliens are dangerous.
Take the Bull Squids I had mentioned, for example. They resembled red and brown alligators, but with squid-like appendages for a mouth that can jettison acidic saliva. Very territorial against any other bipedal or quadripedal animals.
Or the Bass Hounds, otherwise called Hound Eyes. The ‘hound’ part of the name originates from the creature’s dog-like body. The ‘bass’ part comes from the creatures head, which, for lack of a better description, is a large, organic speaker. This speaker looks like a large, blue gelatinous eye of a fly, hence the alternative name. When threatened these Bass Hounds can emit a burst of supersonic frequencies ranging both above and below a human’s audible range. The result of close proximity with this burst could be fatal.
If you are going to be outside of the city with us, you should also know about barnacles. They crawl around like slugs in their larval stage, then attach to the ceiling of a favorable spot to pupate. Once mature, they are stationary for life, waiting to capture passing prey.
“H-how do they capture their prey?” Elliott asked, obviously concerned.
“Well, have you heard of the Bolas Spider?”
Elliott shook his head.
A Bolas Spider, I explained, hangs a single thread of silk with a very sticky glob at the end of the line. He holds this across an area where moths frequently traverse. When one gets stuck the spider quickly pulls up the line and eats the moth. A barnacle acts in a very similar fashion, but instead of a web, the line is its tongue. The whole creature is nothing more than tongue, muscles, and teeth.
Even as Elliott shivered at the image of a Barnacle, I felt there was a more dangerous creature I should mention. The Ant Lion. They were the size of a man, resembling short and stout preying mantids. They were nicknamed Ant Lions because their colonies mostly resided in sand dunes after they invaded earth. The name stuck. Their behavior resembles nothing of an actual ant lion, they act more like ants. Any disturbance of their nest, whether its on the beach, in underground tunnels, in abandoned parking garages, and so forth, is met with ferocity. Once alerted of a potential threat, they will swarm out in large quantities. So be very careful and avoid their colonies whenever possible. Otherwise, hope that you have a lot of ammunition.
At this point we had already been sitting in Elliott’s room. I figured this was enough monster talk for one day and bid him good day. The poor guy certainly was green as can be, sheltered, blinded even, from so much of what this world had become.
All this talk about creatures peaked my curiosity. As I left Elliott to continue his reading in peace, I decided it was time to learn more about what I didn’t know, as opposed to talking endlessly about what I already knew. It was time to visit the station biologist Dr. Ladzinski. I descended deeper into the compound where the hallways were nothing but earthen mine-shafts. When I knocked on his lab door I found him adding drops of something into differently labeled beakers.
“Dzien dobry colonel!” he greeted.
“Hey there. Whacha doin’?”
He commenced, in a distinguishable Polish accent, that he was testing a theory concerning the use of certain enzymes to control neurotic activity.
“You mean, to heal crazy people?” I joked.
He looked at me a moment, clearly not getting the joke, and simply clarified that he was testing whether certain enzymes found in headcrabs were able to control aspects of the human nervous system.
“Heh, yeah, right. Clearly. That’s what I was thinking too. And thats very interesting,” I claimed, trying to move around the awkward moment. “That’s actually what I was stopping by for. I was hoping you could tell me a bit of what you know about headcrabs. The only real education I’ve had about headcrabs is to point and shoot and not let them get on my head.”
This question was right up his alley, and it quickly put him at ease. It also opened up his loquacious side. Eager to communicate his knowledge, he set his equipment aside and began.
“Head crabs, as we call them, are nothing more than a furry mouth on four legs. Gluttonous as a PacMan Frog, quick as a degu, legs like a flea. If that were the extent of their danger, they would be a nuisance at worst.”
“Amen!” I chimed.
“Regrettably, that is not the case. Headcrabs, second to the Combine army, are the most terrifying contribution to the decimation of the human population. They are not just a bizarre rodent, they are a parasite. More specifically, they are ectoparasites, that is, they live upon the surface of their host. So far, we have only observed headcrabs to exhibit parasitic behavior upon a human host. Utilizing specialized jaws a headcrab will latch upon the head of its victim, initially encompassing down past the ears and nose. For further stabilization, the headcrab will burrow its legs into the back and chest cavity of its host. The host is neutralized within minutes of this interaction as the parasite asphixiates the poor victim and begins to consume the organic fluid flowing through the skull. As the host is no doubt killed by this procedure the headcrab is a nectrotriphic parasite.”
So far, beside the jargon, this was all too familiar. These headcrabs may be non-existent within the city parameters, but outside the walls, where the Resistance had no choice but to reside, they were more numerous than stray cats.
“However, the headcrab is capable of an even more terrifying feat, which defies all previously known parasites. Whilst feeding, headcrabs are very territorial and protective of its host. If threatened, they are able to reanimate their host, even despite years of atrophy and decay, to a point where the host can move, even walk. The human race has toyed with the idea of zombies for centuries. Yet now, in the real world, there are true zombies. And they exist as a dead organism reanimated by a parasite.”
Normally I’d insert a joke to ease a somber discussion, but not even my usual optimism could break freakish reality of this science-fiction. I let the opportunity to say something silly about zombies pass without a word. He continued after a thoughtful pause,
“In essence, the headcrab acts as the head, giving commands to the host body. In this manor, the headcrabs are just as aggressive with a host as without one, though even more physically menacing, as it commands its host to attack and bludgeon almost anything that moves. Apparently, the headcrab preserves the motor cortex and the cerebrum of the host brain and can somehow manipulate its activity. The exact nature of this extremely complex biological feat is unknown to us at present, but we are working very hard to develop a countermeasure that would protect humans from this threat. In fact, the experiment I was working on as you entered is coupled with that endeavor.”
“Wait. Wait.” I interrupted. “Why don’t we just wear protective hats? I’ve always wondered why we haven’t just made a bunch of pointy helmets.”
He shook his head. “It would appear to be a sensible deduction. However, it has been tried, and tried, many times. The headcrabs have overwhelmingly overcome this potential obstacle. Much too many have succumbed to a parasitic fate due to overconfidence in simple protective contraptions. Anything short of full-body armour, such as a complete HEV suit, will leave you vulnerable.”
I grimaced and clicked my tongue. I had a way of speaking too soon sometimes, and feeling like an infant because of it. Perhaps another question will redeem my image,
“That makes sense. Such a tactic has obviously not worked, or else we’d all be wearing pointy helmets by now. But how about the zombies themselves? How do they live so long? I mean, they are still human, with human frailties. Yet all of the sudden it takes forever to take them down, simply because there’s a creature on their head.”
The good doctor continued on, still eager to communicate his thoughts to someone who would listen.
“Yes, that brings us back to my experiment. My theory suggests that the headcrabs inject a particular enzyme into the host bloodstream. This enzyme enables the headcrab to preserve its host so that it may continually consume particulate matter from its host for an extended duration of time without having the nutritious matter decompose. This preservative would work in a similar likeness to polyurethane, sealing in moisture and sealing out decomposing microorganisms, as well as making the host body much more resilient to external trauma, such as blunt objects and projectiles. Besides, the host no longer feels any pain, as far as I can tell. My theory is remarkably similar to Robert Neville’s research about vamperic bacterium in Richard Metheson’s apocalyptic novel ‘I Am Legend.’ I have re-read the book a multitude of times, wondering if a vamperic bacterium truly exists, and if so, if it is somehow participating in a symbiotic relationship with the headcrab species. As you can understand, if this were reality, then the danger of this bacterium mutating in such a way that allowed it to infiltrate a human host without requiring the medium of a symbiotic host is immense. We could be standing on the verge of a pandemic equal to its literary counterpart.”
I interrupted Dr. Ladzinski with a loud “Gosh! That would certainly make even the Combine dictatorship seem less sucky.”
He began his reply, “That is why I wish to isolate the particular enzymes and/or any symbiotic bacterium, that I may test whether they would survive once airborne –“ but he was interrupted yet again. This time by sirens blaring in the halls. Several hearty explicatives followed. I have to admit they came from where I was standing.
“I, uh, thank you for, uh, the conversation. Thank you very much. I gotta go!”
I allowed myself a vocalized “Crap!” and ran up the hallway, leaving a flabbergasted Dr. Ladzinski behind to determine his own course of action.