[This is part of an ongoing series. See my ‘Half-Life Story‘ page for more information.]
Here we stood, guarding the hidden entrance to Station 8, the last stop in the underground road for refugees escaping from City 14. The station was literally underground, virtually undetectable. Yet somehow discovered. Even the emergency helicopter was known to them, despite hiding in the shadow of tarps disguised as foliage hanging in the tree canopy. This was inconvenient indeed.
Vibrations echoed faintly in the midday humidity; evidence that the pods were coming. Whether they were released from midair aboard bio-engineered hovercraft, or launched from ground cannons, we could not tell; but they were coming. I knew the Combine intends to exhaust our ammunition and numbers, perhaps stage a bit of chaos, through their most expendable creatures: the head-hunting crabs Dr. Ladzinski and I had just been discussing.
“Use blunt weaponry on the crabs!” I advised. “Whenever possible, save your ammo.”
My troop was one of only five present in the area. I could count nearly twenty men and women gathered around the entrance now. I had no idea as to the numbers of the other four, or where exactly they were dispersed. I sent Brice to lead one of them, though I didn’t know which. I knew one group was especially equipped with our heavy artillery, led by Marco.
“Careful when swinging, so as to not hit your own. We cannot afford any such mistakes.” I’ve dealt with the Combine enough to know some tricks of the trade, but also to have experienced too many of the common mistakes.
I rubbed my chin, a habit betraying restlessness, scratching along a short brown goatee, interrupted on the right side by a two inch scar.
Everyone carried something, anything, that could easily deliver blunt trauma. Pipes, rods, knives, baseball bats, and whatever else the imagination could scavenge out of the wreckage so widely dispersed these days. I heaved my trusty hatchet from one hand to the next. Sonic booms peppered our ears as the missiles landed headfirst all around the complex, unsettling dust into the air. One burst in mid-air. Personal rocket launchers are a must in this kind of war I mused. Glad to have the heavy guns helping so soon.
“Wait for them!” I shouted, “Stay under cover, don’t be alone, and make the most of them come to us. I’ll bet they’re hungry!”
The missile pods sputtered smoke as the last of their fuel reserves extinguished. Panels slid open, freeing the caged prisoners within. I heard them hiss as they scuttled toward us from all directions. A crab approached on my right and jumped. I ducked beneath its trajectory and swung my hatchet into its soft form, causing it to emit one last hiss before flying into the bushes.
I heard a cry. A headcrab had forced its way onto a man’s head, trying to envelope his skull. I grabbed a crowbar from the hands of another, ran over and wedged the crowbar in-between the monster and the man’s ear, pushing up hard. The crowbar tore into the crab’s midsection, and up through its greedy mouth. It released its grip and made a desperate leap away from the scene, the crowbar still stuck inside. The man, I noticed, had brown hair that was now mottled with slime and blood. He sat down gasping as if emerging from underwater.
Several more entered the clearing and started jumping at me, the jaws of their belly scraping my head as they flew by. My hatchet dispatched a pair. You wouldn’t expect a blob of hairy jaws to move so fast. The yelling and swinging calmed down around me as the last of the creatures were pummeled to death. Good, I thought. The Combine are proceeding with caution. They hope to distract and scare, I mused. What a stroke of luck that these crabs presently give our escapees the precious time needed to retreat. But wait. When have we ever been lucky since the Occupation? Suddenly, a bad feeling punched my glee in the gut.
“Time to pull out the firearms,” I warned, then added, “We’d better get behind cover.” We regrouped and took cover behind metal bunkers disguised as bushes. As we poised ourselves behind cover, the sounds of battle continued some distance away where another group had positioned itself. The hungry hisses and frenzied cries gave way to gunfire. A lot of gunfire.
“Gosh, we should help them!” one man wearing a beat-up Tigers cap exclaimed from behind another bunker.
“No,” I replied in the loudest whisper I could manage, “we must guard the front.”
We squatted in silence as the battle raged on around us. The rumblings of rocket fire entered the fray.
“Man, it sounds pretty bad. We should go help,” cap man said again.
I shook my head and motioned for everyone to stay down and keep their eyes open. The element of silence and surprise is sometimes the only edge Resistance fighters have against the Combine armies, and I did not want to give that up now. The enemy already has the ambush advantage, so all we have left is the hometown advantage, whatever that’s worth.
The cap peeked out to scan past the trees in front of us. “See man, there’s nobody out there. We gotta go now while we can still help.”
“I think he’s right,” another woman added.
I tried to motion for silence, but they were convinced they needed to be heroes. Four of them stood up from the bunker next to mine and made to run toward the sounds of battle. Before I could even look over my shoulder, a loud ringing entered through my ears and bounced around for several seconds. When I finally looked over, my eyes beheld four figures sprawled out on a bed of pine needles.
“Where the hell did that come from?” someone managed to yell.
“Have I ever mentioned that I hate being right?!” I exclaimed to whoever was listening.
I knew the enemy would try to surprise us again. I sincerely desired to avoid that fact. Yet fact it had become. They had not given us extra time through expendable creatures at all; they had tried to distract us while snipers got into position. I glanced down at the splayed figures again. Four more deaths were now added to the registry of those I witnessed.
We periodically shot blind rounds into the trees to distract the snipers. We had to keep them occupied here in the front of the complex so that the others could escape out the back. My only goal was to evacuate and protect, protect and evacuate: pure and simple. I lifted my SMG over my head and released a round of shaky ammunition toward the invisible assailants. Before I could finish my round the barrier I knelt behind jolted from the ballistic power of their return fire. The sudden shudder flung me to my back.
“Okay gang,” I gasped, “I think its time to retreat back inside. There’s nothing more we can do here. They will soon realize they are out of targets and will have to spend even more valuable time relocating. This forest is fairly flat so they had to deploy on ground level, so as long as we back-track to the entrance at a crawl they won’t be able to get a shot at us.”
In actuality, I didn’t know how much height advantage the snipers had on us. But I did have a general idea of the land, and knew that the entryway did slope down. As we sulked back inside, retrieving weaponry from the fallen on our way, I had a hard time suppressing my guilt, as I always do when someone on my side of the war dies. A deep sense of blame registers in my core no matter who was at fault.
Chapter 6, Pt. 1 > >