[This is part of an ongoing series. See my ‘Half-Life Story‘ page for more information.]
CHAPTER 6 – ESCAPE
I ordered my troop to seal the front steel doors as much as possible, then to join the evacuation and focus on staying the hell away from the Combine advance. I began a mad dash for my office. The hallways were mostly empty by now, save for a couple of men and women running this way and that with handfuls of stuff.
As I ran I could see that many corridors and rooms were demolished according to procedure; a dire reminder that no matter where we hid, we were not truly safe. My boots echoed loudly while tears silently slid off my face. So much loss, so much waste, so much we had to leave behind. Even so, there were several important items I did not intend to leave behind. As I finally reached my destination, after climbing over a pile of rubble, the faint rumble of battle entered the station an indistinct distance away. The familiar radio chatter of Combine soldiers entered the corridors.
I raced through the entryway, the same room where I met Elliott, skidded into my office, and heaved the door shut, locking every latch I could find. Ducking out of view from the little window I pressed my ear to the door, listening for any sign I was spotted on my way in. Nothing. I realized how long I held by breath only when a sigh finally escaped. Safety was mine for a temporary moment.
Pivoting toward my desk, my mind raced to prioritize what to grab. I hurriedly scanned for the many items flashing in the forefront of my mind. Only the backup batteries provided power at this point, so the dimly lit room hindered my progress. What would I need? The necessity of predicting every possible contingency from this point onward weighed heavily in my mind, and would dictate which of the few belongings I could bring on my person.
First things first: I needed to secure any information that would be a liability for the other Stations of the resistance. If they still existed. For a horrible moment I indulged the thought that this was a whole-scale operation against the Resistance. What if they had been gathering intelligence about all the different stations until they could eliminate the entire Resistance in this province in the flash of a single grenade? I shook my head to focus. I propped open the briefcase of reports and began stuffing in my stack of maps.
I recoiled from the sound with such vigor the map in my hands tore in half. So great was my shock, I had no thought in me to defend myself by pulling out a gun. Good thing too. The source was no threat, but a woman huddled in the dark. I recognized this by her voice, until my eyes could adjust enough in the dark to confirm it.
“Is that you Colonel? I’m sorry. I didn’t know where else to go,” she stammered, still crouched.
“Oh, I see,” was all I could reply at first. I peered at the corner where the voice came from, then realized I should be more assuring. “Yes, it’s me, Shepherd. Colonel Shepherd,” I continued. “You can stand up. Uh, come on over here.”
Without further hesitation she sprang up and hugged me tight. My shirt soaked up a well of pent-up tears as she began to ramble.
“The alarms went off – everything was a mess – I heard fighting – didn’t know what to do…where to go. All I could think of was this office. I hoped you’d be there and you’d know what to do, but you weren’t, and I thought I was left behind and you were Civil Protection…”
The poor woman trailed off, clutching me around the waist as if her life depended on it. In fact, it did. She was utterly alone. She sought safety, was almost entirely deprived of it, and then here I come to fulfill her original hopes just as her worst fears almost came to pass. If utter shock hadn’t injected so much adrenaline that veins throbbed painfully behind my eyes, I would feel heroic. Saving the day for a damsel in distress. Well, minus the minor detail that I found her entirely by accident. Or rather, she found me, and I about keeled over. “It’s okay. It’s alright,” I said just as awkwardly as the pat I gave to her shoulder.
Wow. She was so close. Well, obviously. She wrapped around my torso like she would a pillow after a nightmare. I hadn’t been in such physical proximity with another human being for a very long time. Let alone a woman. I could smell her hair. Was that a hint of conditioner? Yes, cucumber-melon. Not that I had a particularly developed sense of smell, but it stood out in the musk of a post-industrial society. It must linger from a time before the invasion. Such items were long spent these days. Bottles of conditioner were a rare find and considered a luxury, and its rarity only augmented my awareness of its olfactory presence.
This woman who trembled before me, a stranger for all I could tell, suddenly became a symbol of peace, of a time removed from the drudgery of fear and oppression, of a time before death took hold of the world. My arms found the courage to hug her back. A real hug.
We both shuttered as gunfire began in a nearby hallway. She whimpered, but said nothing, having apparently exhausted her loquacious side for the time being.
“Okay, okay,” I whispered, “we gotta go.” The moment, whatever kind of moment it had been, was over. I abandoned her grasp to finish my task. She stood awkwardly, flinching and peering over at the door with each distant crash. I finished stuffing the maps into the briefcase, including the one I tore, and slid the briefcase into a backpack alongside my laptop.
I grabbed the radio, thought for a moment, and then threw it hard against the cement wall. The woman gasped, but said nothing. I ground my heel into the cracked remains for good measure. No use bringing it along and no use letting them overhear our radio chatter.
Several boxes of ammunition, an extra handgun, and a couple medkits made it into my backpack before a particularly close grenade burst flung shrapnel against the door. It was immediately followed by excited chattering in the entryway. I peered through the door’s window to discover a group of CP’s gathering, their black armor bodysuits meshing eerily with the shadows. A chill coursed through me. The same chill one gets from a sudden cold draft, or involuntary shiver upon the sight of an open wound. These soldiers were once touted as the cream of the crop who would protect mankind from genocide. Now, their presence is synonymous with death and oppression.
I began to back away when a solder dressed in white armor stepped into view. Such outfits were reserved for the elite supersoldiers. They were the guardians of Civil Protection Headquarters and Citadel Stations. Why would one be here? That meant this was no routine sting operation. His gas mask hood was off, hanging idly in a bulky fist. In the other hand he gripped an Overwatch plasma rifle, still smoking from recent use. All chatter in the room ceased. The elite soldier walked to the center of the room, surveying each corner. A coffee table sat on its side in his path, the very coffee table that sat between me and Elliott during our first heated conversation. It must have been flung aside from the grenade blast. Without so much as a glance downward the man swung a heavy boot and kicked it clear in half, showering the room in splinters.
“You sure this is the place?” I could hear him grunt through a thick, baritone lisp.
I backed away quickly. Who was this man? And what was he looking for? It was as if he knew the schematics of this place. The CP may have given me the chills, but this strange man evoked something worse – panic. I turned toward the woman and said in a hoarse whisper, “Grab the bucket of 606 cleaning solution in the corner and dump it over everything!” When she did nothing more than glance over her shoulder I added, “NOW!”
Even if I had thought of what else to bring I had no more options now. It was simple enough to light up the office once the cleaning solution was dispersed. We were now running as fast as possible while hunching down in the shoulder-high dirt tunnel. It was an escape route that connected my office to the forest beyond. It came up not too far from an old winding road. Less than a mile away was a bridge that would lead us across a gorge and into the thick northeastern wilderness. This was our quickest shot at concealing our escape. Sure, we were only two people. But lighting that fire in my office will sure get their attention. And if I know anything about the Combine, they will follow any lead, and follow it with brute force.
We gave as much distance between us and the base as possible within the span of ten frenzied minutes. We stopped to rest for a moment and catch our breath. The woman had carried herself remarkably well through the forestry. Her previous temperament persuaded me that our flight might have been far more difficult. Yet as soon as we emerged from the tunnel, and into the cloudy afternoon, her temperament solidified and she masked fear beneath a resoluteness that followed me without a word. Honestly, I was thankful. I was glad she managed to maintain her wits after all that had just transpired.
“We don’t have much farther to go before we reach a bridge. We have to cross it before the Combine do. They are no doubt trying to follow our escape route. With any luck, they will have divided their forces to follow the two groups, and will have spent time enough dividing up to allow us all to escape without more trouble.” The woman nodded understanding, still catching her breath as silently as she could manage.
“Say,” I mused, “how come I don’t recognize you? I can’t think of your name.”
She was about to reply when the drone of a Combine dropship stopped her short. Momentarily it flew overhead and disappeared.
“It’s going for the bridge!” I gasped. “Move!”
Our flight continued until we approached the edge of the road. I could see the bridge only twenty yards away. I looked in the other direction. The dropship had landed about 50 yards down the road, unloading a group of fully-armed soldiers. “They intend to cut us, or any other stragglers of our group, off from the bridge, assuming that we would take the road farther up. That’s lucky for us. We need to creep up to the very edge of the bridge and sneak across.”
We only made it a few running steps onto the bridge before gunfire began peppering the bridge around us. It was fortunate for us that their SMGs were very inaccurate at this distance. Yet our escape was far from guaranteed.
“We have to aim for the forestry on the right. It will offer thicker cover and they won’t be able to follow us in very far,” I shouted over a second wave of fire.
A bullet grazed my shoulder and I reflexively glanced back just in time to see a grenade launch from a soldier’s SMG. At first I thought it would fall short, but before I could shout a warning or calculate which direction to turn it erupted to our right.
I saw nothing but a blur as I flew through the air. An eerie ringing followed my free-fall until I hit the river below. I remember a moment of blue water before it dissolved into blackness.
Chapter 7, Pt. 1 > >