Half-Life Series: Chapter 7, Part 1

Vortigaunt_mines

[This is part of an ongoing series. See my ‘Half-Life Story‘ page for more information.]

CHAPTER 7 – BACKWOODS

I awoke in a panic. Unable to breath I floundered off my back and spewed out a lungful of warm, salty water. Gasping, I noticed a pair of green three-toed feet standing next to me.

The creature they belonged to spoke, “Ahhh, the Shepherd has awoken.”

I gave a few more coughs before I could look up at the Vortigant before me and reply.

“You, you pulled me out of the river?”

“True. I de-submerged you from the water’s fury.”

“Um, right. Well, thank you. You saved my life.”

“Grievous your demise would be. Yet, endure you shall on this side of the Vortessence.”

Geez, they sure did have a funny way of communicating. Then it all came back to me.

“Wait, where are the Combine? Did you see anyone else? There was someone else with me!”

The Vortigant shook his head in a way that reminded me of a horse shaking flies off his face. “The oppressors have moved on. Of those who took the plunge, there were none but you.”

“Dammit! I let her die!” I exclaimed with as much anguish as I felt. “Why do so many have to die!” I continued, punctuating each word with a fist to the pebbly shoreline.

“Ahhh, death, the momentary transition between this world and the plane beyond.” The humanoid said the last word in a peculiar drawl before ending with a click of his tongue.

Yes, Ciril had a point about these fellows. It did nothing to placate me, though, nor prevent me from crushing innocent crustaceans under foot on the shore’s edge. After every nearby shell had felt the brunt of my frustration I noticed the Vortigant remained in his original position, patiently waiting for my attention. Presently, I returned to his side, furiously rubbing my chin with one hand and my hair with the other, trying to figure out in which direction I should take my next step.

“Whom’s passing is the subject of your lament?” my new companion asked.

“I’m not actually sure. She was with me on the bridge. We were escaping together. I—I didn’t even know her name…” I trailed off weakly as the pain of guilt resurfaced.
The Vortigaunt closed his cluster of red eyes and shook his head in that particular way again, muttering under his breath.

“Ahh…mmmm…” he mused. Such mannerisms baffled me. What was he doing? As if hearing my unspoken question he murmured, “I sense no recent cutting of the cords which bind us to this existence. No.” That last word poignantly finalized the statement in a surprisingly guttural sound that resembled the muffler of our oldest buggy.
He left no room for question, yet I was clueless as to what he meant. I decided to change the subject, as I didn’t have much time for conversation.

“Say, how did you know my name?”

“The titles of those who will go before us are plain for us to see.”

Well, that wasn’t helpful. “Right. Well, I have to meet up with the rest of my group from Station 8. I have no idea what’s become of them as they fled the Combine attack. Did you want to come with me? I could certainly use your help.”

Its central eye opened wide at the prospect, “The honor bestowed me with such an undertaking is commensurate to that belonging to the one I’d follow.”

“Is that a yes?”

“Indeeeeed. If the Shepherd would follow this way, there exists a secluded track traversable by us bipedals through the wilderness.”

I was about to question if he knew where to go, but when he began loping off at a surprising pace I decided I’d better follow before he disappeared into the forestry.

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Half-Life Series: Chapter 6

Chepito2

[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.

“Colonel Shepherd?”

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 > >

< < Chapter 5, Pt. 2

Half-Life Series: Chapter 5, Part 2

hl2_wallpaper_003[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 > >

< < Chapter 5, Pt. 1

Half-Life Series: Chapter 5, Part 1

hl2_shot15

[This is part of an ongoing series. See my ‘Half-Life Story‘ page for more information.]

CHAPTER 5 – DISCOVERED

“What in the resonance cascade is happening? Where is Ciril?” I demanded as I flew into the communications office.

A panicked Alvertis was manning the alarm controls. “Trouble…bloody trouble…Combine ‘ere…from the e’st…barely time…” he sputtered between lunges for certain controls. A woman’s voice calmly spoke evacuation procedures over the compound speakerphones in-between the blaring of sirens:

‘Prepare for immediate evacuation. Combine approaching. Perform lockdown protocol in your sector immediately.’

Brice entered the comm room and stood by my side.

This was horrible. Of all things I hated most was a situation like this. I took a deep, shaky breath. “Alright. Just keep it up. Keep a watch out as long as possible. Try to keep everyone updated with anything urgent on the loudspeaker,” I breathlessly rambled to Alvertis.

I turned to Brice as we were leaving, “Have you never performed a rescue operation before?” I asked rather loudly. “You should always check stolen goods and hostages for bugs! ALWAYS!”

Brice shook his head.

“Now we have to relocate to an alternative site,” I vented as we strode down the hallway.

Brice said something.

“What?” I demanded.

“I checked for bugs. There was nothing. I checked.” He was barely audible. But I was frantic. We were found. We were in a highly dangerous and particularly inconvenient situation.

“Then how else? How else would they have found us at this time?”

“Not from bugs,” he said firmly.

“THAT’S NOT HELPFUL!”

I glared at him, then softened, suddenly aware of how angry I was. I looked in his eyes a moment longer, taking a deep breath.

“Okay then. Fine. Lets…um, assemble a defensive line while the rest evacuate the essentials and personnel.” Brice nodded and took off.

I turned around a corner and up some stairs towards the landing pads. A rumble harassed the tunnels. The calm procedures were replaced with a man’s voice, “Bagh! Golly, the chopper’s gone. A jolly scoutin’ Strider. Oh, bless my stars. Our rocket men got t’ ’em.” With a click the procedures commenced.

Drat. There goes plan A.

I turned around and ran toward the mechanic shop to find Marco. She was fueling up the buggies: a selection of old car frames and four wheelers converted into multi-terrain vehicles. They are the resistance’s high powered, albeit minimalistic, method of ground transportation.

“Marco! Marco! Are these bare bones ready to ride?”

She threw an empty gasoline jug aside. “Ay! We’ve got five operational vehicles.”

“Good. I want you to radio the lab and get our scientists out of here right away. No one but the scientists, their work, and plenty of guards use them. Got it?”

“Yes sir.”

“Brice and I are working on a defensive line to draw their attention away. They are coming from the east. Make sure they go straight for Beacon Hill. Once all the cars are out safely go help man the RPG’s. We need them for as long as possible.”

The hallways were chaos when I reentered the fray. I very much hoped it was organized chaos. It took me five whole minutes to get back to the communications room. But in that time I was able to recruit ten men.

“Aha, Ciril. You’ve decided to join us.”

“Y’ can’t blame me mate, when ‘ol Johnny boy comes a callin’…”

“No matter. Alvertis, time for another announcement. Quick.”

Several more shakes threatened everyone’s balance. The pressure was building.

“Great, just great. Another Strider! Where do they come from?!” someone squeaked.

“Hush man. That was us. Internal detonations to cover our tracks. Part of protocol,” I said without looking at who it was.

“Announce that I have a team going up front to buy us some time. We need several other teams to cover the sides, the rear, and the top, if possible. The rest need to exit away from the Combine advance. Go west or northeast. West will shake them easier, but northeast is more direct toward the wilderness and an outpost. We’ll try to regroup at the outpost.”

Ciril started to say that we should stick together but I interrupted him again.

“Splitting up will be the best chance to divert their attention and escape,” I turned to leave. “Lets go take a chunk out of some Combine ass!”

Chapter 5, Pt. 2 > >

< < Chapter 4, Pt. 2

Half-Life Series: Chapter 4, Part 2

images[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.

Chapter 5, Pt. 1 > >

< < Chapter 4, Pt. 1

Half-Life Series: Chapter 4, Part 1

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[This is part of an ongoing series. See my ‘Half-Life Story‘ page for more information.]

CHAPTER 4 – THE STATION

When I entered Elliott’s small room he was reading a book. He was deeply engrossed and didn’t notice me yet. I took the time to peer at the cover. Interesting. Elliott had picked up The One Man Stand by Eli Vance.

Of the few survivors of the Black Mesa incident, and of the fewer still who saw Gordon Freeman, Dr. Vance knew him the best. After those terrible first days had passed and the survivors of Black Mesa regrouped, Eli decided to write a biography of sorts. He wanted to inform the resistance of the man who saved the survivors, and to tell of his valiant efforts to stave the invasion. Although the timeline is a bit spotty, Dr. Vance successfully gathered a rough approximation of Gordon Freeman’s travails through camera recordings, computer logs and eyewitness accounts of other Black Mesa survivors.

The title is indeed appropriate. Gordon Freeman was a hero unto himself by surviving that worst case scenario. In addition, he took on the strange invading aliens, marauding militants intent on wiping the slate clean of all biological intel, and a station that was falling apart. How he did it, apart from a higher power, was anyone’s guess. To people everywhere Freeman is known as the One Free Man.

Elliott gave a start when he became aware of my presence, “Colonel Shepherd, I didn’t see you come in.”

“Thats quite alright. I’ve come to give you a tour, if you’d like one.”

“Uh, sure.” He put the book down and threw on a loose hoodie.

We traversed from hallway to hallway, making sure to note important causeways, such as the kitchen, bathrooms, entrances and exits, the garage, and the munitions room. There was no point in bothering him with the heady places, so I merely mentioned the labs, tech room, and communications room as we ambulated by. But as we passed the communications room a conversation from within caught my attention.

“Course ‘ave seen ‘un. Ugly as ‘ell I tell ya,” blustered one voice.

“If you’d seen one then you’d agree that they are calm and intelligent critters.”

“Calm n’ ‘telligent? They critters sure, but they ain’t nuthin’ on makin’ sense. I’m tellin’ you, their gibbrin’ aches me head!”

“So says Ciril the orator.”

“Oho! You get right out then ya mouthy weasel.”

The other only laughed in response. I had chuckled as well, catching their attention.

“Blimey! Wrong decade tah go sneaky behind blokes like us capt’n. I’m all a shakes oft enough as things be,” growled the first voice.

That only made me laugh afresh, though Elliott remained silent behind me, eying the two scruffy men of uncertain English origin within.

Every opportunity to trip up Ciril was a privilege. “I am afraid Alvertis is correct Ciril, you belong to a select few who offer quality entertainment during everyday chatter.”

Ciril muttered something what sounded like curses from the black lagoon, and after we laughed again, he retreated to observe some monitors across the room.

“So what creature is under his scrutiny this time?” I asked. “Bullsquids?”

A ‘Hardy-Har’ drifted from where the monitors glowed.

Alvertis shook his head, “No. No. No. Are your ears damaged by Bass Hounds? I was defending the creature’s intelligence for crying out loud, and you come up with bullsquids?”

I was conjuring a witty reply to defend my joke when Elliott spoke up.

“Bassett Hound?”

“Eh?” Both Alvertis and I turned toward Elliott.

“You meant to say Bassett hound, right?” he asked.

Alvertis stared at Elliott for a moment with a blank face. Then a slow grin emerged from his stubbly jowls and grew into a laugh, “Ha! Skinny mans trying to pull one on me. Aren’t ya skinny?”

“Er, no. I…”

Then it dawned on me. “You haven’t been out much, like, out of the city, have you Elliott?”

“I, um, no. I’ve lived within the walls my whole life.”

“Well slap a grenade on me forehead. You’re a greenie if ever I seen one!” Alvertis exclaimed. “You ain’t even seen them Bass Hounds, ‘ave ya?”

Elliot displayed a cherry hue as Ciril interjected from across the room, “Speakin’ o’ green. It was them dang crazy Vorts this man was all teary eyed fer.”

Alvertis let the hyperbole slide, though he followed along with the change of topic.

“So he says, so it is. We still can’t make ‘eads or tails of ‘em.”

“Not that they got much of a tail,” Ciril added.

Elliott’s new shade and newly confounded look combined to make him look more boyish than ever. He must not have a clue as to what’s actually out there.

“Indeed,” I agreed, “seeing that they are closer to human than anything else.”

“Human you say?” asked Alvertis. “Hoho. If you subtract the green toad-skin and red cyclops eye, you might have a hunchback at best. But even then, you’d need to conjure excuses for the wee eyes ’round the first, and extra arm thingy they have abreast.

“I stand corrected. Humaniod then. The Vortigaunts are humaniod.”

“Fine, fine. They’re dandy humaniods then. But to as I was a-sayin,’ these Vorts sure have the smarts. I, for one, am glad they be allies.” Alvertis nodded as he shot a glance at Ciril.

Elliott looked troubled, “But, by your description of these creatures, these are the same ones in the novel I was reading.”

“Novel?” I asked. “Elliott, that wasn’t a novel. It’s a biography.”

The cherries returned with a vengeance.

Alvertis and Ciril gawked at the poor man for a moment, looked at each other, looked at Elliott again, then returned their gaze to each other with a huge grin.

“Where’dga find this ‘un Capt’n?” one asked.

“No matter, what’ll we do with ‘m?” asked the other.

“Now guys, hold up. We just brought him in, I’m still showing him around -”

“Me thinks he needs a swig!” they both cheered at once, wheeling around to find their bottles.

Before long the four of us were hunkered on the floor of the comm room passing several bottles of uncertain alcoholic content around. Elliott took timid sips, apparently unsure why he remained, though probably stayed by curiosity as the two strange men retold their tales.

“- n’ they would bunch up oot o nowhere, making their entrance by a volatile bridge betwixt the two worlds,” Alvertis was saying.

Ciril continued, “Be they kind dearies? No sur. Blastin the ‘ell oot of ya ‘s their first action. Slaves they be.”

“Slaves o the Combine!” Alvertis interjected.

“Right, slaves sent t’ kill yon Gord’n Freem’n heself! An’ dese ugly un’s control ‘n ability tah manip’late ‘lectricidy.”

“They can send a bolt atchya, and mess up computer equipment. No foolin’, this be no picnic for our Freeman.”

“But then there’s this see? When yon ‘ero saves the day, ‘e done freed them Vorts.”

“He severed the connection the Combine ‘ad over them.”

“Dem Vorts, bein’ all sorts o’ apparen’ ‘telligence, ceased to blast at us ‘n joined the resist’nce.”

“Good thing too,” I said. “They were crucial in the effort to evacuate the surviving members of the Black Mesa research facility once Gordon was gone and the military continued its aggressive biological cleansing. And beyond that, their help is beyond what I can describe in one sitting.”

Elliott nodded his skinny head, as if understanding what I said, though he had no clue of the possibilities.

I stood up, though a bit uneasily, “Well, it certainly has been a fun, and quite informative, time here in the grand communications room. But I believe we must be going now.”

“Mooch to see ‘n mooch to ponder for yon laddie here,” said Ciril.

“No foolin’,” added Alvertis.
“You guys just, well, you guys just keep doing your thing. Watch for signs of activity, on both the Resistance and the Combine frequencies,” I instructed.

“What else got we to do but snuggle up ‘t speakers n’ monitors?” joked Alvertis.

“You’d snuggie up t’ dem Vorts fer one!” came the snide response from Ciril.

“I’ll remind ya that last I seen um, da blimey blokes bloomin’ bust me last barometer!”

The unintentional alliteration caught him off guard, and we all laughed.

I had to purposefully take a breath before I could ask, “Where did we find you men anyway?”

“It involved socket wrenches, some Combine arse-whoopin’ and a lot o’ blood, I’ll tell you that!” slurred Alvertis with a homemade bottle of scotch half empty in his hand. “Mostly his!” he added, sloshing the bottle in Ciril’s direction.

Chapter 4, Pt. 2 > >

< < Chapter 3, Pt. 2

Half-Life Series: Chapter 3, Part 2

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[This is part of an ongoing series. See my ‘Half-Life Story‘ page for more information.]

We sat silent.  Her excitement from the moments before fizzled out in remembrance of the deadly consequences.

“Still not a day not wrought by sadness profound, nor a night not destitute by regret,” I quoted from a dirge written a month after the Seven Days War.  No use faking a smile.  These were dark days.

She sighed.  I sighed.

She started to say something, but I interrupted with a sudden thought of my own, “You know, let us be thankful then that we are not just putting on an old hat.  We are working with purpose now.  We have this threat, and we are doing everything we can, using every resource available, to protect us from this threat.  Before, everyone was focused on pushing the limits of science.  The businessmen wished to earn competitive monetary support.  The scientists desired acclaim and knowledge.  The government wanted technological supremacy over other countries.  All coveted their aims with recklessness as means by themselves.  And what happened?  Curiosity mortally wounded the cat.  But know that this time we are not just pursuing old curious habits.  We have a choice before us now to serve mankind, to help bandage that mortal wound and repulse the festering infection.”

Had I let her speak, she might have cried.  As it was, though, I believe I raised her spirits, for what she had motioned to speak she now thought it best to let go.

Then I remembered that Dr. Mossman came for a purpose.  “So there are some important developments?”

She enlightened at this thought and put away her solemnity for a moment, answering with enthusiasm, “Oh yes! We certainly do have good news.  As you know, Eli Vance and Isaac Kliner have been experimenting further on teleport technology.  We are very close to a breakthrough.  The new resurrected teleport is almost up and running! While we have been helping people escape the city by foot, we will soon have a much better way.”

“Ironic how a previous preoccupation to enter the larger cities for protection has now reverted to an unconditional need to escape.”

“Indeed.”

“How, may I ask, does it work?”

“The transport technology is one of the most exciting things the resistance has come up with lately, something that the Combine has not yet mastered.  They forgot to calculate the dark energy factor.  The Combine can transport from their world to this one, though at the expense of much energy and in limited quantities, but they cannot teleport locally.  Dr. Kliner compressed the Xen relay far beyond what was previously imagined.  Xen is an unexpressed axis, effectively a dimensional slingshot.  So we can swing around the border world and come back without fully going through their world.  It requires only a fraction of the energy of the old Black Mesa teleport, though it has taken a great deal of fine tuning in order to convert physical organic matter into antimatter and back again without killing or mutilating the organic matter.”

“That’s comforting.”

“I thought as much.”  She smiled.  “Only a couple of cats have suffered any experimental side-effects…”

“Brave cats.  Perhaps a couple of statutes are in order once this nightmare is over?”

She gave a soft chuckle.  “And you?  Anything to report?”

“Actually, yes.” I pulled out a map of the countryside.  “Over here, just a mile from the former city of Ashland, we found Combine activity.  Our scouts reported many civilian imports, and a good amount of Stalker exports.”

“Oh my God,” Judith gasped.

“It is as we feared.  Civil Protection has been harvesting civilians from these smaller outlying towns, and transporting them to these facilities.  Now this is only a small facility. I suppose it was once a minor emergency care clinic.  Yet security was tough when our men moved in.  This is because, unknown to us, there was a production factory for various Combine machines.  It was apparently important, as they called for a lot of backup.  However, we diverted their attention by blowing the factory, then escaping with our prisoner friend.”

“Only one?”

“Unfortunately, they had already commenced with certain procedures on the rest of the prisoners.  They were not salvageable.”

“Whatever do you mean by ‘not salvageable?'”

I gave a heavy sigh, “Its gruesome.”

“How many of us are ignorant of the macabre at this time in history?”

“True.  True.”

I had read Brice’s file.  It reported all that had taken place and all that had been gleaned from the expedition that saved Elliott.  We learned some distressing things I was not keen to revisit, such as how the Combine prepares their prisoners for becoming a Stalker, but their atrocities must be known if for nothing else but to spur our efforts for the Combine’s demise.

“When they entered the building and cleared the rooms of any threat, they found several bodies laid out on gurneys.  Their hands and feet were cut off, and their eyes removed.  And there were strange nodes stuck into their head and thighs.  They were still alive by some sort of life support.  But the power was connected to the adjacent factory, so the ‘patients’ quickly died when the factory was destroyed.  Only Elliott was yet unharmed in a cell toward the back of the building.  It seems that Stalkers are created by torturing the victims to the point where they are devoid of any humanity, and reassembling them into worker drones for the Combine.”

“That is truly horrible. Those poor men and women.  At least this way they are finally free from tyranny.”

“Amen.”

A perturbed expression suddenly pressed upon her face.

“Are you alright?” I asked.

“Yes.  I suppose.  I cannot help but wonder what it would be like if we had someone like Dr. Freeman around.” She paused to stifle as sniffle.  Her voice became thin and wavering, “If we suffer any more losses from the Black Mesa science team, I don’t know what we would do.  I don’t know what I would do.  These minds are mankind’s best hope of recovering from this modern stone age.”

I felt pity for this poor woman who has suffered so much loss. “Yes, I’ve caught myself daydreaming of such things too, Judith.”

“There must be something I can do.”

This was a surprising thing for her to say, someone so involved with the biggest breakthroughs of the entire Resistance. “What do you mean?  You are doing something. Something big.”

“Its not enough, Winston.  I feel as though we will loose everything.  Unless we can ensure their survival.”

“Whose survival?”

“Eli’s.  And if I could have helped it, Gordon’s.  I wish we had someone to inspire hope.  Someone who inspires progress.  Someone who can create huge breakthroughs for the betterment of what remains of mankind.  Someone who exudes confident defiance no matter the odds.”

“History has the tendency to adore liberally charismatic leaders with a message of hope. But there is always a catch.  Mind you, your description fits Dr. Freeman as much as it does Dr. Breen.  Hope is a good motivator, I must agree.  There is nothing corrupt about hope.  What we need to be wary of is the underlying motivation.  The motivation behind a message of hope can illuminate the good in any given situation.  And I would be glad for it.  But hope can also be used as a glare, like someone’s brights in your rearview mirror, to blind and distract, as a means to hide an ulterior motive.  Often a darker motive.  So please, continue your part in the hope we all share.  But remember that at the tail end of every daydream that doesn’t actually exist is a deception.  It tells us tempting things that we must do in order to obtain that which we hope for most.  But like Abraham begetting Ishmael, getting what we think we need by the wrong way will only deliver strife and regret.  Believe me, I know.”

I suddenly noticed she was giving me a startled look.  I couldn’t tell if she was fed up with my preaching or curious of my past.

“Maybe another time, Judith. Is there anything else we need to discuss?”

She stood up and shook off the quizzical look.  “That is all for now.  If we require any further supplies for the teleport we will certainly notify all outlying stations, especially yours.  And Winston…”

“Yes?”

“I hope you really do know.  I hope you are right.”

“About what, exactly?”

She raised one dimple.  “About what you said,” was all she replied.

Chapter 4, Pt. 1 > >

< < Chapter 3, Pt. 1