Entropy

MantaManta Join Date: 2005-01-12 Member: 35056Posts: 255Members
edited December 2006 in Fan-Fiction Forum
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ENTROPY (1)

Bullets are cheap. It takes less than two ounces of nano-sludge to make one. Ask any TSA scientist. They'll tell you, practically radiating pride.

They're very cost-effective. For less than the cost of a day's rations, we can pack a military-grade six-by-eight crate full of bullets. The crate's made of the same stuff, of course.

Everything's efficient. Nanites build nanites that build nanites upon nanites. Half of these end up recycled, anyhow.

It's weird to think about it. The LMG in my hand may once have been some moonside farmer's tiller. Or just another soldier's weapon, buffered from the place he dropped it and recreated in the same form when death took him in its cold embrace.

I don't like to think about that possibility, though. I mean, under all the armor and the tech, I'm still only human. And such thoughts remind me of that fact.

We're all only human, and I don't think anyone else sitting in this composite steel and nanite crate has delusions to the contrary. That's what the dropship is. A flying crate. And we're the bullets, packed and loaded, whether we're ready or not.

The TSA's gotten desperate since our war started three generations ago. High mortality rates mean more active recruiting - jobs after service, provisions for families, and an ad campaign above and beyond the likes of any other. I guess it's worked, because I'm looking at plenty of nervous faces around me.

That's not to say I'm not shaking a little, myself. The whole reason for higher recruitment rates is the constant, urgent need for more fresh meat. As a result, we're pumped out of training in droves, and while our training is as good as - if not better than - that of the Frontiersmen before us, combat experience is a scarce resource. I think it's taken away some of our confidence, even though we've been given the best training around.

The dropship is descending into the atmosphere, so I guess we're almost there. I know, because I start to float above the seat a little, almost hovering. The weightlessness is only a fleeting sensation. The gravity regulators kick in before I feel anything more.

Across from me is the commander. He's got his hand on his communicator, and I can just make out the dulcet but clear voice of Arienne, the cute operator, probably updating him on planetside conditions.

Sometimes I think about her. I bet a lot of the guys here do. Only in passing, though. She probably doesn't know who's who. Once the armor goes on, we're all the same grunt to anyone on the outside.

The engines start singing a one-note hymn all around us. It sings to me, and I've paid enough attention in training to know that they're just warming up, and that when the engines really kick in, we'll either be speeding up or stopping.

The whine of the regulators powering up next tells me we're going faster. And that's fine by me, because the sooner I get out of this ship, the better I'll feel. I'm getting sick just looking at the bay door with its emotionless, steel face, mouth perpetually on the brink of a yawn that'll suck all of us into the unknown.

There's a loud thud that comes from nowhere and suddenly, the singing and the whining is cut short and replaced by groaning and creaking, a sound that cuts to the bone like nails on a chalkboard. It's the worst kind of noise you can hear on a dropship. It could be an impact, a loose part, or hull damage. Whatever it is, we're not going to be flying for much longer.

I know the next move. Two months of cargo hauling before the Frontiersmen might finally pay off as I grab the hand braces situated on the slanted wall above me, expecting the hard one-fifty turn.

It's a standard emergency technique. Pull a one-fifty-degree turn and fire the jets to stabilize the ship's spin and slow down the crash because once the ship starts turning like that, you know it's going to crash, and any pilot worth his wings knows that a head-on crash landing into anything but perfectly flat land will be a short one.

I won't lie. I'm nervous even as I reach for the brace, and it just so happens that our flight has ended before the pilots can pull off the turn. Everything's shot to hell in an instant, and the steady roar of our descent turns into a single, thundering crack. I know we've crashed into something hard, but I expect the regulators to keep running, even as I hold onto the brace.

They don't.

I prop my legs against the seat while I can, holding myself in position while the several soldiers who didn't catch on surge out of their seats. Something slams into my back and white-hot fire courses through my wrist as my body moves forward while my hand is still wrapped around the brace. By the time I get my bearings, I'm on my back, looking up at the red caution light mounted by the bay door.

How the hell did I get over here?

I crane my neck and feel something pop. The commander's still in his seat, shouting something. I can't hear it. A couple other soldiers are still in their seats, but more have joined me on the floor. Imad's sprawled next to me, partially slumped against the door, bent at a painful angle with my arm under him. If his helmet hadn't been on, he would've been gone.

If there's any man in the squad I can call a friend, it's him. And I'm worried as hell for him, but the searing in my wrist won't shut up and let me think.

It hurts. It's bearable, but Imad in his armor weighs more than I do, and he's lying on top of my whole damn arm. I can't move it without shifting my dislocated wrist. At least, I hope it's dislocated. It could be fractured, or worse, shattered.

"Imad. Wake up. Get off my arm, man." That's what I want to say. Instead, I can only manage a choked grunt.

I've been in difficult places before, but nothing as unescapable as this. I hate it. I hate being trapped.

So frustration floods through my veins in place of pain - probably an effect of whatever chermical cocktail my armor's pumping into me. I clench my teeth and, against all the promises I made to myself, I start thinking about how much easier life would've been if I hadn't signed up for this. I start thinking about home.
Post edited by Unknown User on

Comments

  • BadMouthBadMouth It ceases to be exclusive when you can have a custom member titl Join Date: 2004-05-21 Member: 28815Posts: 1,018Members
    Great piece of work. I really liked it from beginning to end. the language used was superb and I liked the analogy used in the first part of the story. A lot of the story shows what the character is thinking, which is pretty good since that builds the character pretty well. The tension in the ship was done pretty well too. Hope to see more coming.
    From the Shadows...
  • Soul_RiderSoul_Rider Mod Bean Join Date: 2004-06-19 Member: 29388Posts: 3,234Members, Constellation, Squad Five Blue
    Very nice, very well written, and really makes you think about the character and what he is going through. I like.
  • MantaManta Join Date: 2005-01-12 Member: 35056Posts: 255Members
    ENTROPY (2)

    In an instant, I'm waking up to the sharp odor of combusting nanites and smoke when I was just thinking about home and life. My mind races, but I hold onto my training and start looking around, thinking and feeling, reaching out with all my senses.

    The caution light's green now, and the bay door is open wide, giving me a sideways view of a jungle sky and steel cavern - the line between the collapsed wall of a building and the surrounding forest.

    That answers the question of where.

    I check to my side. Imad's still there, like he was last time I checked. So are most of the others. The commander's gone. By the looks of it, I can guess that he's left the ship with any soldiers who weren't knocked out - or worse - in the impact of the crash. Like me.

    And that's the how.

    So why did they leave me and the others just lying here? And how much time has passed?

    It can't have been that long. My equipment's still untouched, and had they been operating in the field for long enough, they would've come back for reinforcements or extra equipment. I can only guess that I passed out. Something must've screwed up the armor. Usually, a mix of adrenaline and seratonin is delivered straight to the bloodstream to keep us conscious. I guess it failed.

    Reaching my free and uninjured arm around, I start pushing at Imad's prone body. Slowly at first. I have to be careful not to pull myself in by my other arm.

    I rock him back and forth like a pendulum to give him enough momentum to roll off of me. Every time he rocks back, it feels like someone's stabbing me in the wrist, but I manage to move him off eventually.

    Instantly and almost unconsciously, I cradle my injured right arm against my chest, feeling helpless in my condition.

    That's another thing I hate. Before the TSA, I had been a pilot and an aspiring student. I wanted to study art, if you can believe that. I had always been good with my hands. Instead, I got caught up in a distant war in a dark sector of space, and now I'm wondering if I'll even keep full use of my hand.

    I try to get to my feet and stumble on the first two tries, even with my good arm on the seat or support. I look around the bay and see why that is: the dropship has crashed and folded at the midsection like a crumpled can. I figure the cockpit's angled towards the sky by the way some of the others' bodies have shifted. The butt of the dropship is actually pointed downwards a little. The dirt encroaching upon the scuffed metal floor tells me that the ship landed backwards and plowed down into the ground after the collision.

    I know I need a medpack soon. The sooner, the better. It'll heal quicker. I need to find the commander. In my state, though, I know I won't be able to hold my own for long in a fight.

    Out of options, I decide to head alone into the building exposed by our crash. It's that or the jungle, and chances are that the ones who made it through the crash are inside. I sling my LMG and replace it with my pistol. I've only got my left hand to work with.

    I happen to be right-handed.

    The sharp echo of my footsteps bounds into the the artificial berth. There is no other sound. The hole in the wall opens up into the side of a sloping corridor, the polished gullet of some monstrous concrete beast. The beams supporting the unusually high, angled walls glint in the wall-mounted lighting like teeth.

    Why would anyone build the walls so high? I run through my memory of all the buildings I've stopped at in my past job as a cargo pilot. No reason for this kind of construction comes to mind.

    The corridor is wide enough for two men to walk side by side. The walls are bare of any adornment, save the evenly spaced lights and a single, blue stripe running horizontally on each wall. I figure the stripe is some sort of guide, so I start to follow it down the slope.

    The lights are odd, but I can't place a finger on it. They look almost like they're flickering, but my shadow is the same as always. I stare hard.

    There it is. The faint, grainy wisp of nanites floating around and diffracting light. Relief floods through my system, replacing the anxiety. That means the commander has a network set up. I key in on my suit, activating the TSA soldier recognition system. The HUD on my helmet comes alive in a flash, filling my vision with an inhuman speed and thoroughness, letting me know everything the scientists programmed it to detect.

    Well, almost. My status and ammo count show up fine - armor's 95%, health is worse off, and ammo's full - but the building layout map is unreadable. A circle extending five meters around me is mapped out, as well as the hole in the wall where the dropship crashed, but everything else is fuzzy or scrambled. Must be a glitch.

    I look up and see that the hall ends in a small alcove. In the center is a circular platform that stands to knee height. My guess is that it's an elevator. Inscribed around the platform is a name: Attica Research Group.

    I know the name. It was our mission in the first place. They had reported a possible Kharaa presence a week ago, so the TSA sent a squad in a dropship. But it seems too lucky that we would just happen to crash into the building we were headed towards anyway, so I figure that we were already within sight of the building when we made contact with something. It could have been anything: a tall tree, a very dense cloud, some sort of bird.

    Or maybe a Kharaa. The commander - one of the few Frontiersmen onboard who had combat experience - told us the flyers looked like bats from hell crossed with Junosian lizards. I didn't doubt him.

    I check my map. This room actually shows up, albeit a bit less clearly than the circle around myself.

    Think. What does it mean?

    I look around. On the ceiling, directly above the platform, is a single light. I smile to myself as I see the nanites dancing in the beam. Of course. Whatever's scrambling our network pervades the whole facility, but our armor maintains a flow of military nanites. Wherever we go, we leave traces as we cut through the interference.

    I'm seeing nano-footprints. They had to have gone this way.

    I step onto the platform and palm the controls. The panel lights up, as expected. That means the network is functioning with the building's systems.

    The base of the platform lights up, and a containment field suddenly shoots up around me, extending to the ceiling. A seam forms around the light above the platform. Before I can react, the elevator starts lifting me through a shaft devoid of all light except the one above me.

    But the footprints don't continue up the shaft. It's as pitch-dark on my tac map as it is around me. I instantly feel unsafe, but there's no turning back right now.
  • ScytheScythe Join Date: 2002-01-25 Member: 46Posts: 4,371NS1 Playtester, Forum Moderators, Constellation, Reinforced - Silver mod
    Damn good. Well written, not overly verbose, economic use of adjectives.

    Keep it up!

    --Scythe--
    image
    "Show me an operation that is running smoothly and I'll show you someone who's covering up mistakes. Real boats rock." - Frank Herbert
    image PAPT
  • MantaManta Join Date: 2005-01-12 Member: 35056Posts: 255Members
    edited November 2006
    ENTROPY (3)

    I had always wanted to study art. I was a cargo pilot operating out of dingy planet covered in urban sprawl, but that was all I'd ever wanted. I guess it's because my dad had been an artist before settling down on Juno.

    No, not "had been." He was always an artist. If he were still alive today, he'd still be painting, brightening up our old apartment and the view of the polluted city skyline with faint canvas rays of sunlight.

    It was my dad who gave me a passion for art. Against the dark, monochrome backdrop of the city, his creations reminded me that there was a whole universe out there. He painted the night sky as he remembered it from his days before the city - the pollution all but blocked out the sky - and took photos of space with the only thing of real value that we had: a compact infrared telescope given to him by my grandmother. He poured his memories and imagination on canvas, wood, paper, and anything else we didn't use, showing me what he had seen and what he imagined the scenery of space would look like.

    My dad had always been the kind to work with his hands. He was an engineer after an artist, and was always working odd jobs when he wasn't painting. He showed me how to fly my first magline and how to repair it.

    He also taught me to be practical. Strange thing, coming from an artist, but I think he had always been secretly disappointed with his life. He didn't want me to go the same way as he had.

    But it was my mom who really kept me going. I wanted to listen to my dad, but she told me to hold onto the art I'd been given. It was in my blood, she said.

    So I did. I worked as a pilot, just hoping to save enough money to study art and maybe move off of that sunken pit of a planet.

    That was when the TSA came in. They had promised substantial pay and the chance to really venture out into space. I thought of the nebulae and stars my dad had painted so many years ago, and I couldn't resist. I convinced myself that it was the best option. I was good with my hands, like my dad, and they were paying well. Why the hell not?

    Now, here I am, eight months later, with no combat experience in what could be a hostile situation, completely alone and injured. I'm wondering if maybe I should've held onto my old job. I could've had patience, could've saved up. Instead, I took a risk. No regrets, I tell myself. I can only hold onto the TSA's promises.

    The elevator soars up noiselessly. White streaks start passing me by in the dark shaft. I must be getting close.

    With a soft hiss, the elevator stops moving, and the containment field dissipates, leaving me on top of a platform in a room almost identical to the room at the bottom of the shaft.

    Except that there are deep gouges along the walls, some short, some long. The floor and ceiling are dotted with small pits. Most ominously, streaks of dark, red blood trail down from the gouges, pooling in dried splotches on the otherwise immaculate floor.

    It's like the paintings my dad used to make. Amorphous streaks of color that somehow have meaning and color, the blood-red supernovae of dying soldiers.

    "F---," I utter aloud. I hope nobody's around to hear it.

    I hold my right arm forward, bracing my left hand against it, being careful to avoid the wrist. I've never fired with left before, but now's as good a time to start as any. The empty silence greets me, beckoning me towards the door. I answer grimly, leading with my handgun ready.

    It seems like forever as I walk towards that door because there could be anything on the other side, but I'm still face-to-face with the empty hallway. They never prepare you for this in training. They don't tell you what it's like to walk up to what may very well be your own death. They don't tell you that every step is like that feeling. Like fear. Like fate itself come to claim its due.

    The commander, bless his scarred, icy heart, always gave us advice he thought we could use. He reminded me of my dad when he did that. This time, he had said, "Always look up. Always."

    And that pops into my head as I step within a foot of the door. I steel myself, because I'm going to do it. I'm going to look up. I don't know what to expect, but I have to look up.

    I hop through the doorway and pivot on my heel, pointing the handgun up.

    There's nothing there. Nothing but shadows. I shake my head and keep moving. I feel kind of stupid, even though none of the others will fault me for it.

    At the edge of my hearing, there's a tick tick tick. I know that sound. They played it to us in training. Instantly, my brain makes the connection and I turn around to hear a soft thhp, followed by a sharp stinging on my chest. I slap my good hand to my armor reflexively.

    Stupid mistake. As I look up to the shadows, I see a dirty, off-white blade-like shape disappear, seemingly into the wall. The vents. Of course, I should've known. I raise the pistol and fire, but it's too late.

    Angrily, I back up and continue the way I was going. The hall looks almost identical to the one below, except that the walls stand completely vertical, rather than sloping inwards towards the top. I tell myself to be more cautious, checking my surroundings every few steps. I can't help but think that I must look like I've got a nervous twitch. Then I laugh a little, despite the circumstances, because that's really what it amounts to.

    Suddenly, the air shimmers and sparkles in front of me and I stop moving. My tac map comes to life. I'm in range of their network. I look up and watch as a medpack appears in the air, dropping to the floor. I pick it up, feeling the medical nanites stitch together my bones and rejuvenate me even as I touch it, before I slide it into my suit.

    The commander's voice crackles unmistakably in my helmet. "Salim, report?"

    That's the commander for you. Straight to the point. Had I walked out of the Juno rifts, he would've been just as laconic.

    "Armor's damaged, but I'm all right. I'm alone, sir," I answer.

    There's a pause. "Well, why the hell did you come alone? We need all the men we can get here, and this is no place for an injured marine to go solo. Report to base immediately."

    I feel his censure sting a little. I wouldn't have done it if I hadn't been injured. It's only made worse by the fact that he's right. I had my back turned and paid for it.

    I shiver as the medical nanites finish their job. I flex my wrist, checking the extent of the healing - or the damage. There's no pain, except for a dull throbbing and a slight tingling sensation. I'm comforted by having the use of my right hand again. It makes me feel whole.

    Activity on my tac map catches my attention. White dots shift around. The others - five of them. I check my course and start following the map to the others.
    Post edited by Unknown User on
  • BadMouthBadMouth It ceases to be exclusive when you can have a custom member titl Join Date: 2004-05-21 Member: 28815Posts: 1,018Members
    really good writing. You managed to capture that feeling of disorientation perfectly in part 2. The tension and fear in part 3 were also very well done. Environment as a whole was done quite vividly, with good uses of expressions. Also like how you incorporated Salim's past into the story, withoutbreaking the flow of the story.

    however, i think the main character's name was introduced a bit too late into the story. It would be nice if the name could have been introduced earlier.
    From the Shadows...
  • MantaManta Join Date: 2005-01-12 Member: 35056Posts: 255Members
    ENTROPY (4)

    The white specks dance on my tac map, uniform snowflakes drifting with purpose. They don't stand still, don't even pause. Something's happening. I start running towards their location because I'll feel safer with them - even in a hostile situation - than I will on my own.

    My helmet's com unit crackles just as I round a corner. My HUD tells me it's on the commander's channel, but everything suddenly fades away when I take that next step. Everything. Comms, the map, even my personal nano-shadow.

    Although the hall's lit up like the Christmas sky over Juno, it's like I'm completely in the dark. I'm blind, deaf, and mute.

    Fortunately, my suspicions about the cause are proven when I take a couple steps back. The map fills out and I can hear the commander's voice in mid-sentence. "-it all, I hate this nano gridlock."

    "Salim reporting. Again."

    "Okay, I guess you've discovered a dark spot in our network. Nano gridlock takes over between your location and, well, everything else. There are a few pockets here and there..."

    "What's causing the gridlock, though?" I ask him, forgetting that I've just cut him off. He continues talking for a bit.

    "...sure exactly why we have bright spots. Probably traces of the former network. Besides that, all we have are our own shadows."

    "Commander?"

    "Ah. The aberrant gridlock's being caused by what I think is some sort of nano-eclipse caused by the bacterium network projection surrounding a hive. In other words, you're in the shadow of a hive's field."

    Great. Last thing I need.

    "Oh, and I'm going to need you to regroup with the others. Contact was sporadic when the others passed through first, so pick up any dropped equipment you find on the way."

    Even better. A blind walk alone. I start to think that maybe I would've been better off back at the crash site. I just consider myself lucky that the others have passed through it already.

    "Hold on, Sal," the commander tells me. "I'm going to give it a quick scan."

    I hesitate before stepping over the threshold and key in, bringing up a larger version of the tac map on my HUD. I hear a distant pinging sound, echoing down the hallway towards me. At the limits of my vision, I see the scanner wave spreading outwards, represented on my screen by a series of blue ripples.

    My map lights up where he scanned. A single red dot appears twenty meters away from myself, represented as a green speck. Both of us are perfectly still in contrast to the constant jittering of the other soldiers.

    "One hostile," I report.

    "Probably a skulk. I'm going to send Connell to meet you halfway. Watch your back."

    I acknowledge him and get moving, keeping my map up. One of the white dots breaks away from the group. I time myself to make sure both of us reach the Kharaa location at about the same time.

    Nineteen. Eighteen. Seventeen. I count my paces, like I'm getting ready for a duel.

    Suddenly, I'm six meters away, Connell's eight, and the bright spot on the map disappears - the scan's time is up - but not before I catch sight of the red dot spring into action. My helmet's audio booster picks up skulk on the move, given away by its ticking, like some sort of sinister clock.

    Quickly - almost too quickly - the sound ramps up in volume until each tick sounds like a gunshot to my ears. And then I realize that it's because I've got my pistol in my hands, firing unconsciously at the brown blur that emerges from around the corner. Drops of green speck the walls as the blur - "Skulk!" yells a voice in the back of my head - dances on the walls.

    A hollow click stings my ears, and I realize that I'm out of ammo and the skulk hasn't stopped. I duck out of the way, crouching into a roll to my right. The skulk's blades grazes my cheek.

    A sharp, piercing cry comes from behind me, where the skulk landed. I'm on the floor and can only turn my head to watch as it rears up on its hind legs, ready to pounce, wounded though it is.

    Its scream is cut short, drowned out by the deafening report of an LMG and replaced by the soft thud of bullets burrowing into flesh.

    Connell stands where the skulk emerged earlier, a faint wisp of smoke leaving the muzzle of his gun. His armor's a canvas splattered with a sickly mix of green and red and his face a mask of soot and exhaustion.

    But as ragged as he looks, his presence inspires enough confidence in me that I can get up and shake off what just happened.

    He wastes no time. "Come on, Sal. The others are still fighting. We've got multiples, including a lerk. I think there's a gorge, too. They keep coming back, and I could swear I've nearly killed the same lerk twice."

    I follow him back the way he came. Distant gunfire and shouting enters my hearing, but not enough to cover the rapid ticking behind. I snap my head around, and there's nothing but a muddy pool of green where the skulk lay earlier.

    Connell notices too. "God DAMNIT! I am sick of these aliens not dying when I kill them! Give me a break. Please."

    "Negative," replies the commander.

    I force a harsh laugh, despite myself. "How about some ammo, then?"

    A pair of ammo packs materialize in front of us and we pick them up. Then we're on our way, as we were before.
  • Foxtrot_UniformFoxtrot_Uniform Join Date: 2003-06-12 Member: 17328Posts: 454Members
    There is some nice stuff here. Kind of a strange tense you've chosen to write in, though. good descriptions, nice use of vocab. i eagerly await the next installment of Entropy.
  • MantaManta Join Date: 2005-01-12 Member: 35056Posts: 255Members
    edited December 2006
    ENTROPY (5)

    Connell and I pick our paces up to a steady trot, me following closely behind him. The walls are pitted and scratched, marked by the subtle signs of battle. An occasional smear of red or green stands out against the plain white walls. There are no bodies, which eases my mind with regard to the other Frontiersmen, but does nothing to tell me about the condition of the Kharaa.

    As we approach the distant gunfire, however, I start to see the losses they've faced. Below a couple of red streaks on the wall lie two of our men, one propped up in a sitting position and the other slumped sideways on the floor. Connell swears and runs over to the sitting Frontiersman, whose helmet rests cracked and gouged on his lap.

    "Vil. Vil. Stay with me." He picks up the helmet, but sees that it's in bad condition and starts checking manually for signs of life.

    I walk quietly over to the other soldier, who's lying in a dried pool of blood. His helmet is still on, and I get a cold report before I get within three feet of him. His vitals are out. He's long gone.

    I've never seen a dead man before. They don't show us that in training, of course. I can only stare numbly at what was once a warm, breathing human, now only a body in a nanite shell on a cold floor on some desolate planet.

    Connell's boots clink softly against the floor as he gets up. I look at him, and he shakes his head -- both of them are dead. He doesn't seem to be fazed at all. I'm still trying to collect myself.

    He glances back towards the other soldier, then, as if spotting something unusual, kneels down and shifts the body. His LMG. Connell slings it over his shoulder, and I snap out of my reverie and grab the other weapon.

    Connell never forgets orders. He hadn't been promoted as an officer for nothing -- if the stories are true, he carried out an order on Bast that took him and the men with him straight to the heart of a hive, nearly costing all of them their lives. He's no coward, and definitely no idiot, but seems to carry a determination that borders on recklessness.

    If you ask me, it scares me a little. His training and intelligence make him a force to be reckoned with, but the ends justify the means with him.

    "You coming, Salim?"

    I blink in surprise under my helmet's visor. Sometimes I'm glad we wear these things. Some of the guys have crazy eyes, and I get nervous just looking into them. Maybe it's just that I'm so used to looking into other visors instead of making eye contact. "Yeah, right behind you." I nod for emphasis, hopefully giving him the impression that I've got my head firmly attached.

    I catch up to him and we resume our steady pace. Then we hear a noise that shakes the floor and pierces to the bone. We hear a sharp, whining screech followed by a hollow crack that vaguely resembles the opening of a beer can.

    Connell doesn't give it a second thought as he breaks into a dead sprint, and I barely have enough time to react before he reaches a turn in the hallway. I give chase and, soon enough, find myself behind the rest of the Frontiersmen. I count about nine of them, including Connell. A barricade of tables and chairs sits propped up in front of them, a jigsaw of interlocking legs with the occasional hole. The tables lying on their sides rise to shoulder height when they kneel, and the chairs form makeshift crenellations. Judging by the room's bare white and lack of variety in furniture, I guess that it's the cafeteria.

    Kneeling at one end of the barricade, which I notice isn't completely finished, is a tall, broad-shouldered Frontiersman. He has a dwindling pile of chairs and tables on his right, from which he grabs more furniture for the hasty wall.

    That's Duarte Helder. He's one of two engineers who were aboard the dropship, but I don't spot the other one. I stare in fascination for a moment as he assembles the barricade quickly and precisely. My show's cut short, however, as a greenish glob grazes my shoulder plate and splatters on the wall behind me, sizzling and forming a small pit. I scramble for cover next to Duarte.

    Risking a peek over the top of a table, I give the room a quick glance. Squatting in a doorway to the left side of the room is what I recognize as a gorge -- a short, fat alien, currently hucking acid at us. Dents and scorch marks ravage the walls, the shadow of battle. Green bloodstains here and there only add to the carnage. Only a few alien corpses remain, shredded beyond recognition.

    I ask Duarte, "What was that sound just now?"

    "Either the supports holding up the center of the building have come loose, or we have an onos on our hands, my friend," he replies grimly, flashing an ironic smile.

    I lay the barrel of my gun between a pair of chairs jutting out from behind the table and fire a few bursts at the gorge. It shoots a poorly-aimed glob at me and backs into the doorway, growling.

    Without warning, the same screeching sound reaches us from somewhere beyond the walls. In shock, I drop my gun. It falls on the other side of the barricade. As I reach for it, forgetting the extra LMG slung across my body, the wall bursts -- practically peels -- open and an onos emerges, punching through steel like it's paper.

    "SH--!" yells someone next to me. The simultaneous rattling of nine LMGs bursts to life, and I get back behind the table, leaving the weapon.

    Connell keeps his head down and scurries over to me. "The other LMG, Salim. Use it," he orders me, grabbing it from my chest and pushing it into my empty hands. He turns back to the onos, which has been joined by a gorge and a pair of skulks. "Focus fire," he says calmly into the squad comm.

    A part of me thinks, focus fire on what? But I realize that the imposing shape barrelling towards us has drawn everyone's attention, including mine, and I realize that I'm already firing at it.

    Before I can even reload, the onos reaches the barricade and plows through it. I scramble out of the path of its stomping feet, trying to avoid being pulverized. The soldier next to me isn't so lucky. I hear a hard crunch, followed by a sickeningly wet tearing. As I turn over on my back to look, despite my growing panic, I see the onos goring the unlucky soldier with its horn. I also see countless wounds along its unarmored flank oozing its alien blood, which drips down its legs into expanding pools at its feet.

    Connell seems to see this on the other side of the onos as well, because he orders us to keep firing. I hear his gun go off across the onos and follow suit. Soon, a few more guns join in, but before we can bring down the onos, it turns around in circles, swinging its massive head. I catch sight of a blur of teal and blue -- a soldier flying through the air, stopping hard against a wall.

    The gunfire slowly dies down as our weapons run dry. Our weapons just aren't enough to kill it in time. I get to my feet when I fire my last bullet and start backing up as I reload. The onos suddenly stops turning around and roars in what I can only assume is a mix of frustration and rage. A soldier clings to its head, holding on for life, or what's left of it. The onos' horn juts through the soldier's armor below his shoulder.

    The onos completely stops moving its body, focusing all its attention on shaking its head, trying to lose the soldier. At that moment, I see a pair of legs emerge from beneath the onos. Connell slides under its belly on its own blood, coming to a stop just past its hind legs, on his back. Duarte helps him to his feet.

    That's when he says the words. Those heavy, fateful words that seal the fate of those still on the other side of the onos. He calls out into the squad comm, "Retreat. Retreat, everyone. We can't win this fight."

    I follow Connell over the unfinished barricade and through the hole in the wall. It doesn't make much sense to me to go the way the Kharaa came -- even more so because I don't know our exact objective here -- but I follow him, because the alternative is facing death. Triumphant screams and vicious snarls fade behind me as the Kharaa finish off the others, but the digital casualty readouts follow me coldly.

    We round a corner and walk through darkness. The onos must have knocked out the lights in its charge. Once we reach the second punctured wall, Connell stops us. "Let's wait for any other survivors," he says.

    A few moments later, irregular footsteps echo down towards us. A lone soldier limps out of the shadows, his helmet missing. Blood drips down the side of his head as he clutches his side.

    "Are you the only one? What's your name?" asks Connell.

    The soldier nods, then grimaces and says hoarsely, "I'm Private Mitchell. And sir, why the hell did we leave them? You saw the onos. You saw the shape it was in. Why?"

    Duarte steps forward and catches him before he falls to the floor. "Easy now. Save your breath. We need to call the commander," he says, helping Mitchell sit down against the wall.

    Connell doesn't reply. Is it out of remorse, or simply because he doesn't think it's worth answering? Is he calculating the possible answers and their outcomes in his head?

    I walk further down the hall, calling out to the commander. Finally, about ten meters away from the others, I pick up his nano-signal.

    "SAL! Where are you? The eclipse is spreading, and I lost contact again."

    "I don't know. I mean, we're out of the cafeteria. It's hot now. We've got one wounded, and we're low on ammo." I motion to the others, who walk over to me.

    Connell gets on the line. "We're exactly two floors above the control room now, sir. There are only four of us, though."

    There's a long pause. We look at each other. Then, a couple of medpacks and several ammo packs materialize, and the commander speaks. "I see. Well, I've got good news and bad. The good news is that several crash survivors made it through. They took the same path Salim did, and we've got a resource flow and a base set up."

    There's another long pause. "The bad news is that we've got holes all over our defense. There are vents all over the place. The schematics show that apparently, they were built into the structure to serve as a defense against a possible outbreak of disease. They all cycle into an incinerator underground. Anyway, a few skulks made it through some vents and came out past our mines as soon as I sent out the others."

    That's what the pauses must have been. "Are they gone?" I ask.

    "Yes. I had to get out a couple times to kill them, but I've laid down a few more mines. Anyway, the other bad news is that the others can't reach your location by the same route that Sal took. They're going to have to come up directly from the lowest floor, and the closest functional elevator is a ways away. So you four are pretty much on your own for now."

    Connell distributes the ammo. We finish reloading, our guns accepting the magazines with a metallic clink, and he says, "Let's get a move on. We've still got some ground to cover before we get to the objective." All business.

    As Mitchell finishes applying the medpacks, he's the first to venture the question we've all been asking to ourselves: "Sir, what exactly is the objective?"
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