|Presence of the Predator
Author: Katzilla PM
This short story takes places after ALIENS. So, Hicks is still alive... but the Aliens are, too!Rated: Fiction M - English - Sci-Fi - Words: 16,872 - Reviews: 23 - Favs: 8 - Published: 07-07-01 - id: 345089
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Rating: R for language and violence
Disclaimer: Hicks, Hudson and all other characters mentioned from Aliens don't belong to me, but to James Cameron and probably Twentieth Century Fox - I'm just playing with them. Too bad though... Alien 3 would certainly have been vastly different! Anyway, this story does not intend to infringe on any copyright, and I sure as hell won't make any profit from it
Comments: This is my first try at an English fic (my native language being German), and I beg you to please be patient with me...! Thanks a bunch to Jesse for moral support G and all the hard proofreading! In my private universe, Alien 3 and 4 don't exist. Hicks is alive. Too bad though... the aliens are, too!.
Presence of the Predator
A summer night in Elysium, almost unbearably wonderful. Something that the people who never dared to leave Earth to find the paradise they were longing for in the cold blackness of space only knew from hearsay, or two-dimensional holo-transmissions at the very best.
Yet it existed, a small planet circling around a bright yellow sun in the far reaches of the Epsilon quadrant, a planet whose creator - had there been one - had everything done right, from the mild climate to the endless resources or it's overwhelming flora and fauna, not to mention it's breathtaking beauty. Naturally, Elysium was one of the oldest colonies.
When man on his voyages had first stumbled over this beautiful place, it had seemed almost too good to be true. Nothing here to endanger the settlers, not even the brave, first ones who didn't know anything about the place they had come to. No dangerous indigenous life. Olympus, the prospering capitol, was with it's towering buildings, clean and safe streets and bristling 2.5 million inhabitants proof that this was in fact the place mankind had been dreaming of for centuries. Usually.
Usually people were still out in the street in the middle of these nights, which showed none of the stellar constellations known to the earthlings, enjoying the mild summer climate and cultural festivities of the month. But not so today. The steep artificial fjords were empty, depleted of any sign of life, but smelling of the aftermath that such a high population would inevitably leave at any place. An eerie feeling that must have resembled the one people must have felt who had witnessed firsthand the famous vanishings during the 20th century back on Earth. As if every living thing in this vast city was waiting just around the corner, hiding from the spectator's eye; but ready to burst out in the open again once the threat was over. Yes. There was the feeling of a threat hanging over this paradise. A danger none of the inhabitants of this beautiful town knew about.
All they knew was, that the military had taken control of the urban life. Everybody had been ordered to stay at home, to close the doors. To wait, while soldiers, police and virtually every kind of security filled the streets, armed to the teeth, taking their position at the various entrances of the city's underground transportation system, which had been shut off. The atmosphere had at first been one of curiosity, quickly changing into annoyance and - finally- fear. What was going on that requested the presence of two massive warships in this peaceful planet's orbit? Where was the enemy? It was a silent night, and full of anticipation...
Steps. Heavy boots on treated stone. They were clearly audible on the naked floor and appeared to be closing, although Hicks could also hear that his visitors tried to make the least sound possible. Clearly human sounds. He relaxed slightly as he turned around and secured his pulse rifle, recognizing the two Marines who had been ordered to form this team with him.
Corporal Steeler and PFC Duncan had plenty of experience to offer, and the prospect of an unknown danger was nothing new to them. Neither daredevil medal hunters nor nervous rookies he would have to protect from themselves. Two men he could count on... if they would indeed be the ones who found the bastard in this endless underground labyrinth... a chance of one in a thousand, roughly estimated.
"How are things topside?" He pointed to the ceiling, meaning the rest of the platoon, who were assigned to guard all possible ways in and out of the tunnels. Steeler gave him a little, confident smile.
"Nothing leaves this labyrinth without getting fried, Sarge. Everybody up there wants to be the one to grease it. They're all real gung-ho about this shit."
"Really?" Hicks thought for a second about a comment to this last remark, but decided otherwise. They didn't know, right? They had never encountered these bastards. They hadn't lost their whole platoon to them.
Command had been clear here: There was only one alien. At least Weyland Yutani officials said so. One alone couldn't pose such a great danger to the city. One specimen, which had escaped from their lab complex. Which had been believed to be impossible, but Hicks was not surprised.
WY was so full of itself, they hardly ever listened to people who didn't work for them. Less so to an insignificant, dirty grunt like him. They had heard his report, but they didn't understand, neither his words, nor the videos from the Sulaco. All data the headsets of the entire platoon had collected during the fight in the atmosphere processor, everything had been transmitted to the warship's computers and conserved, but still they didn't understand what they were dealing with here.Instead, they had immediately sent a team to LV 426- all androids - to bring them their specimen - and this was where it had gotten them all. The devil had entered paradise, and it was on them to face him.
Hicks shook his head to himself, provoking a reaction by his other teammate Duncan.
"Is everything alright, Sir?"
He smiled thinly.
"Nothing is alright, Private. But let's go anyway. I take it you two have studied our part of the complex and know your way around here blind?"
"Sure... it's just... it's a mighty big complex for a 3-men team, Sir," Steeler said and followed him into a narrower sideway. "Even if we find it, how will we capture it? There are too many fucking junctions down here, and rumor has it some of these ducts are not even listed. Two or three men more would be much better."
"I didn't do the planning," Hicks replied without stopping. "But you're right, of course." He shrugged. "Nothing we can do about it. Duncan?"
The young marine checked his tracker.
"Operations? This is Team 4. We just started our sweep. What's the status? Over." Static crackled in his ears through the headset. The tunnels weren't communication-friendly.
"Team 4? This is Operations. Two false reports so far from the riverbank area, but nothing on our 'client.' We got you on our trackers and keep you updated. Gotta warn you though: There's a lot of interference messing up our signals. I wouldn't entirely rely on our information alone...Over and out."
"Over and out." He exchanged looks with Duncan and Steeler. Alright, nobody said this would be easy, right? He nodded slightly in the direction they had to take. "Gentlemen..."
A sharp beep from the young private's tracker made them jump in the semi-darkness. Heads snapped towards Duncan, who hastily checked the readouts.
"Way back in section C. It's hardly even there. Possibly more towards D section." He looked further. "It's steady, though. Doesn't move."
"Okay." Hicks could literally see the expectant faces of everybody in Operations in front of his inner eye, when he reported: "Operations? Team 4 again. We got a signal in section C, probably around the Kitano park. Anyone of us? Over."
"Negative, Team 4. The park's your playground. Go investigate. Keep your safety on, though. They found some derelicts in A and B section who screwed up the trackers and almost got themselves torched. Could be one of those. You don't wanna fry up the city's losers. They've had it bad enough."
"We'll see. Over and out." He looked around. "You heard the man. Let's saddle up."
"Derelicts?" Duncan shook his head as he followed his two teammates through the sparsely lit corridor. Their heavy steps echoed hollowly. "I didn't know they had them in Olympus. Thought this was the perfect society - at least they always boast about it."
"Damn, Bryan, haven't you learned it yet?" Steeler didn't slow down or even turn his head. "For every guy that gets filthy rich here, there are a hundred losers. To make this kind of money, you have to pull it out of someone else's pockets. It doesn't grow on trees. Not even here."
"Hey, I know that," Duncan replied. Another quick glance at the readout. No change. They were gaining on the bastard. "I just thought with this being paradise and stuff, the usual regs wouldn't apply. Too bad. I seriously considered moving here."
"Don't think they'd let your ugly face settle here permanently."
"What's the readout?" There was a definite edge to Hicks' voice when he stopped and turned to face the other men briefly. We've got a mission to fulfill. Let's can the shit and concentrate on that. He didn't have to say it, but his tone was enough to stop the two. It was his first command after the promotion to sergeant, but he knew what was necessary. Duncan even sounded a bit embarrassed when he answered.
"Unchanged, Sir. It hasn't moved. Around 300 meters north."
"Maybe it's sleeping," Steeler hoped. "We could take it by surprise. No big deal."
Hicks' brow showed deep furrows.
"Don't count on it, Corporal. We've got to stay sharp, or this thing will have us for supper." He turned and continued through the empty service corridor, thus missing the look his two teammates exchanged behind his back. Damn, it was creepy down here. Silent with the exception of the main generators' constant hum and their own hollow-sounding steps. As if they were the only living things in this labyrinth of steel for miles and miles. And it was hot. He felt sweat trickling down the back of his neck and further down between his shoulder blades.
Despite of the air exchange system down here, which blew air from the surface down into these tunnels. But the air outside was hot, too, and didn't bring any refreshment. The fact that they were wearing complete fighting gear also didn't help. Sweat ran into his eyes and stung, and he wiped it away automatically, blew air over his face and found to his surprise that his heart was beating against his rip cage at a crazy rate. His stomach though felt like a solid block of ice. Hicks swallowed. Must be the heat. It was hot there, too...
A bad deja-vu. Acheron. C-Level. The first encounter with the aliens, and almost his last. "Hot as hell in here!" His friends voice, Frost. "Yeah man, but it's a dry heat!" Hudson's way of dealing with the pressure. Dry jokes that sometimes got on everybody's nerves, but now he missed the voice. They were dead. Both. No, all. Apone, Vasquez, Drake... He was the only one left of his outfit... and they had promoted him for it. Hell... he had given up on trying to understand life a long time ago. His lips became a thin, bloodless line, and he swallowed to get rid of the stale taste that suddenly occupied his mouth. All his data - blood pressure, heart rate, everything - could be seen in Operations above. What would they think of him? Damn, pull yourself together! It's only one. - At least that's what WY says. - Since when does WY tell the truth?- Shut up! He clamped down on his inner discourse, took a deep breath. Concentrate; dammit. You'll be gone in a sec if you don't concentrate!
They passed a row of service tunnels, but merely gave them a quick glance. They seemed too narrow to accommodate something as massive as a grown alien. Hicks doubted that even they - with their bulky armors and pulse rifles - would have fit in there.
"One hundred meters, Sir. It's still not moving." The self-assured cockiness had left Duncan's voice, much to Hicks' satisfaction. His tone was all concentration now.
They grouped around the young private, eyeing the bright red spot on the display for themselves. Steeler compared the readout with his memories.
"Looks like the main service station." A thin smile formed on his face. "Could be an advantage. Pretty open space. Less opportunity for the bastard to sneak up on us. What?" He noticed Hicks slowly shaking his head to himself, as if he couldn't believe what the instrument told him.
"I don't know. It's strange it would choose such a place." He looked up and eyed the junction ahead of them. The interconnecting tunnel would take them directly there. "They are usually smarter than that. They avoid open spaces." Another quick exchange between his teammates. This time he saw it. "Anything, Corporal?"
Steeler still didn't look at him.
"Sir, I don't know. You are talking like it's... human. But it's an animal, right? Just an animal. It surely can't -"
"You wanna tell me what it can or can't do, Corporal? I'm listening." Nothing came. Hicks didn't raise his voice, but his tone was full of intensity and anger. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but you haven't seen these things in action. I lost my entire platoon to them, and I guarantee you, this is not your average big game hunting trip. We're not shooting lions here. This thing is smart, probably as smart as you, and if you don't wake up to this fact right now we'll all be in big trouble. Get this in your system, Corporal!" His green eyes pierced his teammates and found a satisfying result. Steeler cast his look down, avoiding eye contact for a moment, before he looked up again, giving him the little nod which told Hicks his admonition hadn't been in vain.
"Yes, Sir. I'm sorry, Sir. I know it must be hard to -"
"It's okay, Steeler. It's hard to believe, I know. We ran into them with the same attitude at first, and we got our asses kicked. I'm not going to make the same mistake twice... and you two should be smart enough to learn from other people's mistakes. Don't underestimate it. " The two stared at him, a notion of uneasiness creeping onto their faces.
"Damn, now you're actually getting me scared." Duncan tried to laugh it off, but it was obvious his words weren't just meant as a joke. Hicks nodded. "Good. Might save your life." He blinked, then turned his attention to the Private's tracker. "What's it saying?"
The young Marine instantly became all business again. "Still the same. Didn't move at all. Maybe it's really sleeping."
"And maybe it's waiting for us." A nod towards Duncan's pulse rifle. "No matter what they told us - keep the safety off. It's our butts down here, not theirs." He stepped forward to throw a long uncomfortable look into the crossing service tunnel. "This way?"
"Yeah. Seventy meters. I'm pretty sure it's in the Kitano maintenance station."
"Could be good for us," Steeler chimed in. "Easy to oversee. Not a lot of hiding places."
Hicks' gaze was locked on the semi-darkness ahead of him and stayed there. "Just remember, these things got great camouflage. They are able to blend seamlessly into all the machines there. You might not see it even when you're standing right in front of it. And it won't show up on infrared either." They moved on, all senses tuned in on the possible threat before them, taking in their atmosphere to the tiniest detail. The humidity, the underground sounds like the constant hum of generators and the air condition. Looking for signs of the otherworldly, unwelcome guest in this city that knew nothing about it yet. Signs like corroded metal, blood, torn grating. Nothing. A sharp beep cut through the leaden atmosphere, made the three men jump. \
"Thirty meters." Duncan's words were barely a whisper. "Right ahead." He turned the acoustic signal off.
"'kay." Hicks motioned them to take position to his right and left, then proceeded, muscles tensed, his heart drumming away like it was about to burst his ribs.
Up ahead, the corridor opened up to form the big northern maintenance station. Twenty meters. Eighteen. Another deja vu: Hudsons' voice in operations, counting down the rapidly dwindling distance between the attacking aliens and them, not believing what the instrument told him.
He swallowed hard, trying to push the memory out of his thoughts, but finding it impossible. Fifteen meters. Now they could see part of the station. Moving in unison, the three men moved on soundlessly. Twelve meters.
Hicks held up his hand, motioned his comrades to slow down. A sudden dizziness blurred his vision, and he was surprised to find that he had been holding his breath. A deep breath filled his lungs, and his eyes refocused. A quick check on Steeler and Duncan. Confirmation in their faces. They were ready. Okay, bastard. Think you can take it up against three of us? We'll find out real soon! The last few steps, then a sudden noise from the left. The sound of something heavy getting up.
They entered the station running, jumped into position, pulse rifles ready. A shadow moving towards them. Wrong! Not 'It'! Hicks acted on reflex, before he knew what he was doing, hitting Steeler to his right with a massive body check and yelled: "Don't shoot!" His voice was drowned out by the pulse burst from Duncan's rifle, the muzzle fire illuminating the scene. The private's shot went high and hit some technical gizmo in the back with a sharp clang. The figure in front of them hit the floor.
"What?" Anger in both Duncan's and Steeler's voices.
"It's a guy." Hicks stepped closer and to his relief saw the silhouette on the floor shiver. He lowered his own rifle and knelt down in front of the man dressed in rags. Rancid stench greeted him. Alcohol, dirt and hell knew what else. He didn't want to know. "Are you okay, Sir?" Unintelligible muttering. "Are you hurt?"
Behind him, he could hear Duncan filling in Operations on the current events. Third false alarm. Very encouraging. How many more of these guys would they find before they finally stumbled over the real thing? All these false alarms could prove fatal sooner or later. Everybody had been sharp and intend on getting the alien when the search began. But with each further false signal, everybody's attention would inevitably sink, and if they really were to encounter this ugly aberration at the end of the night, nobody would be ready for it.
"Hell, you almost killed me!" The guy seemed to have finally figured it was safe for him to get up. He brushed over his dirt-stained pants and jacket, as if it would make any difference, then raised his head to glare angrily at Hicks. "Did you hear me, idiot? You almost -"
"Yeah, I heard you alright. You were damn lucky. Of course, you shouldn't be down here in the first place. This ain't a public place, you know?" He turned to look over his shoulder at Duncan. "Topside's informed?"
"Yeah. They're sending someone down to escort him out." He looked up. A vertical shaft led into the station from the surface three levels above them. "Might take a few minutes." He looked around, checked on the tracker again, but the instrument was silent.
"Fuck you! You can't do that! I live here!" The man brushed off Hicks' grip on his sleeve with a wild gesture and tried to pass him, only to find the Marine stepping into his way again.
"It's for your own good."
"For my own good my ass! It's those fuckers up there! First they strip you off everything, make you live in their shit, and then they won't even let you do that anymore. What am I supposed to do, man, die?"
"Well, you will if you stay here," Steeler commented dryly from his position further in the back. The derelict turned his head.
"Why? Are they gassing the tunnels again?"
"Gassing the tunnels?" Hicks' brow furrowed. "What makes you think that?"
"'cause they did it before." It sounded like a question, but suddenly there was definite fear in the man's face. "Are they?" The three marines exchanged an uncomfortable look. Hicks shook his head.
"Not to our knowledge. Why did they do that? Do you know?" The man looked at him like he had just asked the most naive question in the world.
"To keep 'em clean, of course. Clean of us losers. They don't want us in this fine city. We're not part of the system anymore, so we may as well go to hell. Easy enough. Nobody gives a shit They say they just wanna clean out the rats, but I know. Everybody knows." He stared at Hicks for a long moment, then turned his back on him with a gesture of resignation.
They waited, silently, not knowing what to say. It seemed like an eternity until the escort arrived to guide their luckless find out of the underground. Hicks watched them climbing up the vertical shaft, until the heavy hatch closed over his head. He grimaced.
"Paradise, huh? I don't know..." He checked his chronometer. Only one hour had passed since the start of their sweep, but it seemed to him as if they had already spent half of the night down here. "Let's move on. We've still got a lot of ground to cover, and we lost some precious time." With a last look around, he sped up his steps and left the station, hearing his two comrades follow him close behind.
"Bunch of fucking hypocrites! -You still wanna live here, Duncan?" Steeler spit on the floor. The young man looked a bit pale.
"I don't know, I ... I think... shouldn't somebody check on this?"
"Do what you want, Duncan, but do it after this. Right now we've got to concentrate on saving everybody's asses, including the rich stinkers'. Including our own."
Hicks went over the blueprints in his memory once again. "Let's check on D section first, since we're already here. Anything, Private?"
Duncan didn't have to look. "Nothing. Not even a rat." They looked at each other. This could become a real long night...
The hours came, lingered on endlessly, and then went by only to be replaced by the next one, uneventful, even boring. It soon became impossible to keep up the keen alertness they had been practicing all these hours, the readiness to act on the first sign of danger. Their attention began to slip, and - even worse - they became tired. Mentally as well as physically. All these hours they had been covering mile for mile, squeezing themselves into narrow service ways, sometimes even on hands and knees to make sure they didn't miss anything, and yet they had nothing to show for it.
There had been two more false alarms in the western and middle district, but the alien stayed hidden. The tracker remained silent during all these long hours, so that Duncan finally decided to test it on his comrades in front of him to see whether it was still working, the shrill alarm causing them to jump and almost shoot him.
They moved on, tired and riled, working themselves through another hour of routine reports to the surface, listening to other teams' uneventful routine reports, another hour in this humid, hardly breathable air and semi-darkness that only made it even harder to stay awake. It got to a point where Hicks almost felt like walking through a hypnotized trance, when an unexpected noise from behind made him flinch, then turn on his heels, angry.
The youth's eyes were big.
"It's not me. Not this time. See?" He raised the instrument, holding up the display for them. A doubtful exchange between his two comrades. "200 meters northwest. Steady." He tried for a better readout, but couldn't get it.
"How come you're picking it up only now?" Steeler demanded, eyeing the display. "This baby's got a much wider range. Were you sleeping?" He stepped aside when Hicks passed him to have a look himself. Duncan glared at him.
"Fuck you, Walt! You know how these things react to air movement. With this much interference, I'm surprised it's even working. I don't need this shit from you, okay?"
Hicks heard the noise around him, but let it pass right through. This signal... his gut turned to ice, and to his surprise he felt the tiny hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. Staring at the bright red spot on the display as if daring it to change it's form into the bizarre xenomorph's silhouette, he went over the plans in his head. 200 meters northwest. Close to the harbor, the old center of Olympus. Underground storage rooms, uncharted passageways and service tunnels... an ideal place. A place he himself would have chosen. Of course, it could also be another derelict, but...
He continued to stare at the signal for another long moment, asking himself whether he was going nuts or simply a victim of exhaustion after this long night, but yet there was this certain something telling him that this was for real. That this was what they came here looking for. He knew this feeling. He knew his instincts, and he knew he could usually rely on them.
"Sergeant Hicks?" Steeler's voice, louder. Impatient. He looked up, and some afterglow of his sinister thoughts had to be visible on his face, because the corporal jerked back. "You look like you've seen a ghost, Sir. Do you know something that we don't?"
The signal... still not moving. He licked his lips.
"Not really. It's... just a feeling."
"A bad feeling, I can tell." Steeler nodded in the direction that would take them towards the signal. "You think that's it?" They moved on, Duncan's eyes glued to the display.
"It's in the harbor area. Think of all the storage rooms - it wouldn't even have to kill. Plenty of food. More escape routes than it could wish for. Harbor's a regular labyrinth." He let out a heavy breath. "Yeah, I think this is it. It would be a smart choice." He turned on his headset. "Operations? This is Team 4. We got another signal in the harbor area, about 200 meters northwest from our current position. We're on our way to check it out. Do you read me? Over."
"Operations here, Team 4. We'll wait for your report. Over." Short and anything but excited. They didn't believe in it. Hicks shrugged. He couldn't quite explain it to himself either. There was only this feeling of a thousand ants wandering up and down his spine...
"This way." Duncan appeared to be all concentration again. Did he feel it too? Or did he just put his trust in his superior? A fresh burst of air blew into their faces. "Shit! Lost it! No, wait -"
"It's the fucking air condition. Tell them to turn it off, it's screwing up the readouts! - Wait - I got it back! Same position. It hasn't moved."
"Okay, then let's hurry up before we lose it again."
They jogged down the maintenance way, not quite as soundlessly as before. Duncan counting down the distance.
"Stop." They came to a halt.
"We're moving away again. Gotta go back." He retraced his steps, carefully looking at the display, then at the wall in front of him. The glowing numbers came to a halt at '50'. "Here." His hand touched the grating over a narrow opening. "Must be this way."
"Are you kidding?" Steeler eyed the opening skeptically. Hicks knelt down beside him and threw a look into the massive blackness behind the steel bars. "This ain't a 'way', this is a rat hole."
"It's also the most direct way toward the signal," Duncan insisted, eyeing the miniature blue print on his display. Of course it was a simplified image, but still accurate enough to help. "As far as I remember, this service way we're on goes on for at least another 300 meters before it hits a junction. And this junction turns east. It's not going to get us there."
"He's right." Hicks kept staring into the blackness, while at the same time listening to his inner voice. It was as if he felt a gentle pull towards that black hole. His outstretched hand touched the grating.
"Excuse me, Sir, but I don't see how the three of us -"
"Not the three of us." Hicks came to his feet again, and it sounded as if he had come to a decision. "Only me. You two stay here and keep me updated." He began to open the clamps of his armor. The corporal's eyes turned into narrow slits.
"This is crazy. You won't even be able to take your rifle with you."
"That's why you're going to give me your 38, Corporal Steeler." The intensity of Hicks' gaze could mean only one thing. Steeler paused, his hand on his gun.
"You know I don't use standard ammunition?"
"I wouldn't ask for it if I didn't." The tiniest hint of a smile. It didn't even reach Hicks' eyes.
"May I ask how?" Steeler handed him the weapon. A quick check by it's receiver. Hicks shook his head when he discovered the slit bullet point, before he let it slide back into the magazine.
"Damn you, Steeler. This could get you in serious trouble." He looked up.
"Yeah. But right now I'm rather happy about your lack of respect for Corps regulations." His helmet came off, and he ruffled his hair with the free hand before he readjusted the headset. A ghostly smile. He was trying to be funny, but still felt as if the entire joke was on him. Steeler nodded, then, after a short moment of consideration, handed him another magazine.
"Here. In case you need it."
Hicks looked down, then raised his hand and let the magazine slide into his pocket. "Thanks." A loud hiss interrupted him, combined with a brilliant green-yellow flare. Duncan had already begun to cut through the grating. The thin steel bars hardly offered any resistance, and it was not even a minute later when the private lifted them off and placed them on the side, looking up at Hicks, who knew that it was on him now to act. Not liking it, but hell... a man had to do what a man had to do, right?
"Sir, really -" Steeler sounded unhappy. "I don't like this."
"Neither do I, Steeler. Neither do I." He got down on his knees again, unhooked the little lamp from his armor and carefully probed the smooth metal floor of the pipe-like duct with his hands. There seemed to be enough space for him, and the surface appeared to be even. He wouldn't fall like a comet into the city's deeper intestines as soon as he cleared the opening. He nodded to himself, taking a deep breath. "Okay, Gentlemen. Wish me luck!" And with the next movement, he was gone.
"You okay in there, Sir? Enough room for you?" Steeler's voice was hardly audible over Hicks' headset, as he continued to crawl through the pathetically narrow air duct. From one second to the next, he felt totally alone. He was back on Acheron, but this time he would be the hunter! He wasn't running into this blindly, like the first time. He knew what was waiting for him. This was no tiger hunt from the back of an elephant; no. This was deep night, and he was running around in the jungle all by himself, his opponent only waiting for a chance to stalk and sneak up on him. An opponent whose senses he couldn't even begin to understand. Could it hear him/ smell him/ see him yet or sense him with some other means like sonar or even telepathy? It could lurk everywhere, ready for the final jump.
"Hicks!" It was Duncan's voice that cut through the leaden silence and caused him to jump and hit his head on the low ceiling. "35 meters to go. You doing okay?"
"Yeah." He hardly whispered the word. If he wanted surprise to be on his side, he had to be quiet now. Even more so, as his metal surrounding carried every little noise through the darkness endlessly. Sweat stung in his eyes. Hicks cursed silently. It was too fucking dark in here, and the small lamp from his armor didn't shed a lot of light. Just hardly enough to let him see the next 3 meters of his way.
A black hole to the right, just ahead of him. Another junction. Could the signal be coming from there? Was it waiting there for him? Hicks came to his knees, back bend in an extremely awkward position, the right hand with the 38 pointed ahead of him. A quick turn, the weapon now covering the darkness of the new duct. Nothing. Emptiness. He remained tense, his muscles a tight knot.
"Duncan? How far?"
"Twenty-five meters. No change. I got you both on the tracker. It must be directly ahead of you."
"'kay." A sharp click. Safety was off now. He took a deep breath, wiped his brow with the free hand and came down again to continue his way on hands and legs. "I'm moving on. Keep quiet, unless it moves:" He continued down the corridor, closing in on the signal yard after yard, his own breath sounding treacherously loud in his ears. He held it.
Red light ahead of him. He froze, then quickly switched off the lamp. All silence wouldn't help if it could see him coming! And if it's smelling you? - Shut up! His eyes adjusted to the new situation. The red light had to come from the service station. It was hardly there and didn't illuminate the scenery much. Hicks tried to recall the blueprints of the section. No more than a little niche with a few instruments, if he remembered correctly. Accessible only through a vertical shaft from the above level, and secured with steel bars to keep out unwanted occupants. A good place for a nest. Enough room for resting and plenty of possible escape routes. Are you resting now, bastard? Or are you just waiting for me to stick my head out, so you can rip it off?
Closer. His hand landed in something wet. Saliva? His fast-working mind created the unwanted image of the opening alien jaws in front of his inner eyes: a mouth full of shining deadly metal stalactites and stalagmites, saliva dripping out on both sides, the protruding fanged tongue opening. He pushed it away, smelled at his fingers. Blood? Hard to determine. It stank down here, and the little droplet of whatever that was on his fingertip didn't give off enough odor. Reflexively, he wiped it off on the fabric of his pants. And cursed again. It was too damn dark in here. Yeah, this was indeed a great place for his biomechanic opponent, who already possessed infinitely better-developed senses than his hunter. But in addition to that the darkness eliminated most of the tiny chance he had going up one against one - eyesight. With that gone, only instinct remained. Although Hicks knew that he could usually count on his instincts in a fight against a human enemy, going up against a powerful, intelligent, deadly foe like the alien was an entirely different story. It became increasingly hard not to feel more and more like the goat tied to the tree to lure the tiger out of the forest, rather than the hunter stalking his prey. Plus there was no one here to shot the tiger when he stepped out in the open. 'Alright, you knew this before you got your sorry ass into this,' he snapped angrily at himself. 'Now quit whining and concentrate, soldier!'
Quiet, keep quiet! The tiniest sound will give you away! Duncan's whispering in his ears. "15 meters." He held his breath. Closer, inch by inch. Now he could see the first pipes ahead in the red light. Bright displays on the instruments. A bigger room ahead of him. And - his left hand found a hole in the floor, letting him loose his balance for a second, and his right hand with the weapon crashed against the steel with a thunderous bang! 'Fuck!' An ice-cold tidal wave washed over him, froze him where he was, unable to catch his breath! It's coming! It must have heard me! It must! It's coming! The muzzle of the .38 pointed into the direction from where he expected the attack, he came to his knees, ready for anything. But nothing jumped at him, although he could make out the tiniest movement in the red light, together with a new sound that cut through the thunderous roar of the blood in his veins.: "No! No! Help me! Help me, please! Please!" The panicked-sounding words melted into an unintelligible mash of sobbing, half-uttered screams and syllables. He took a deep breath, then left the duct with three fast movements and came to his feet in a tiny niche crammed with instruments, tubes and pipes leading every possible way. Hicks spun around, taking the place in a matter of seconds. The room was approximately 5 x 3 meters big. He could stand, but barely so. The grating of the shaft over his head and in front of his feet was gone, and what was left of it didn't leave any place for doubt about who had removed it. The service room ended in three ducts only slightly larger than the one that lay behind him, each one going off into a different direction. And there, crammed into a niche, laying on the bare cold steel floor, was the source the signal.
Hicks knelt down at the man's side to check his pulse. Large, frightened eyes watched him.
"Steeler, Duncan? How far -"
"You're right there, Sir!" Duncan's voice clearly transmitted the young man's excitement. "Can you see it?"
The man wanted to tell him something, that much was clear. But his voice betrayed him. Excitement that someone had finally come to help him? Fear?
"Yeah. It's not the alien though." His hand found a dark puncture mark at the man's neck. He nodded to himself. Okay, it was clear what happened here. "It's the guy they said it grabbed before they closed down the trains. He's still alive, but paralyzed."
"So this must be its nest," Steeler sounded very nervous. "It must be around. Damn, Hicks, be careful."
"Anything else on the tracker?" Hicks came to his feet again, carefully eyeing the shaft over his head. If it decided to attack him from there, it would land directly on top of him. There wasn't an awful lot of place to avoid it. Better to get out of here as soon as possible. "Duncan?" The youth was taking awfully long for his reply.
"I'm not sure."
An alarm sounded off in Hicks' head. "What do you mean?" Another endless pause.
"Duncan, dammit -"
"We've got an inconclusive signal here, Sarge." Steeler's voice now. Edgy. Hicks' blood pressure went up another notch. "Must be from the air conditioning or so. We're picking up a lot of interference suddenly."
"But you've got a signal."
"Yeah... whatever it is. About 100 meters to the north from your position."
"Direction?" An even longer pause. Hicks looked down into a mask of fear. The guy clearly understood the situation. He knew the demon would return for him sooner or later. He had hoped for help. Miraculously, help had arrived. But now they both were trapped here with nothing but a lousy 38 to protect them with. Duncan again, VERY uneasy. "Your way. It's moving faster now."
"It's coming back! It's coming! Get me out of here, please! Get -"
"Shut up, dammit!" This was definitely the wrong time for the guy to rediscover his voice. Hicks had missed the rest of Duncan's report. "Come again! Duncan?" Hicks looked around frantically, instinctively looking for the best possible cover, while at the same time trying to combine his teammates' data with the memories of the blueprints in his head and determine where exactly the alien would come from.
"-very fast now! Fifty meters and closing. Get out of there!"
"I can't." No use in trying to ran away from it.
"Thirty meters! It's heading directly for you!"
North! Which way was north down here? The three ducts ahead of him? Was it even on his level, or would it come from below or above? Hicks backed away towards the wall. With the exception of the way he came, he would have a free field of fire from here - at least for the tenth of a second. If he didn't hit anything vital with the first two shots though, he'd be a goner. It would strike him and rip him apart in the blink of an eye. A noise in the darkness before him. No telling from which of the ducts. A small cry from the alien's victim. Then a short moment of breathless silence.
"It's coming! It's coming!" It was barely a whisper the man uttered, as if his throat was too tight for any louder sounds. Hicks closed his eyes, took a deep breath. Reopened them. Despite the tidal wave of adrenaline flooding his body, a great calmness came over him. He raised the 38.
"Twenty meters! It's almost there!"
More sounds now, more distinct. The screeching of biomechanical claws on steel. The notion of something massive moving in the darkness before him, as if the blackness pulled itself together to spit out the worst nightmare he could possibly envision. Pieces of a prayer uttered by the victim, Duncan's voice counting down the distance. Too much noise! He ripped down his headset. Pointed the gun - to the right duct. The middle. Left! A reflection of red light on a smooth surface. Jumping at him! From the right! He whirled around, catching the notion of a massive dark silhouette, glistening jaws wide open to tear into his flesh! Lightning, then the buckling of the 38 in his hands, the thunderous shots drowning out everything else. Once, twice! Again! An ear-piercing high-pitched scream. Another flash, and another! A sharp hiss, and suddenly acid vapor made him cough, bit into his throat and eyes. He emptied the magazine, kept on shooting even when he heard the click of the hammer on the empty chambers. ' Move it!' He had the spare magazine ready in the blink of an eye, gun ready to spit death again, but even those tenths of a second would have been too much had the alien really launched itself through the biting vapor at him. Nothing came, though. Nothing his watering eyes could see at least.
Hicks swallowed, his ears still ringing from the thunderous shots and unable to hear anything, not even whether the alien's victim was still alive. His heart seemed stuck in his throat, for he could feel it's beat like an earthquake throughout his body. The moment stretched, and still nothing happened. Another deep breath made him cough again, and he held it, wiping the tears from his burning eyes, and finally got down on his knees to get his head beneath the still rising corrosive vapor that - as he could now see, came from a big hole in front of the right duct. No further sign of the alien, but damn - he got the bastard big time! Ignoring the fact that the acid hole was only four meters away from his position and the logical explanation that he would be dead by now if he hadn't, Hicks almost smiled. His body reacted, sending endorphins through his veins and rewarding him with an unexpected, albeit short high. He had made it! He had survived the bastard's point-blank attack, and not only that - he had made it turn around and run - from him!
Another skeptical look up. The air seemed breathable again. He straightened out of his battle crouch, finally daring to let the hands with the still ready 38 sink to his sides. Violent coughing came through the buzzing in his ears, and his eyes found the alien's victim, still laying in his niche, still alive - but very close to the gaping acid hole, and there was no doubt he had at least gotten a lung full of the aggressive gas. Some other noise, raising from his feet. He looked down. His headset. A mishmash of at least three voices yelling at him. Duncan and Steeler, crazy with concern. Another voice, probably Operations. He knelt down and picked it up, looking around, trying to peer into the massive blackness in the tunnel the alien had used to escape. Nothing.
"This is Hicks. I -"
"Sarge! Sarge! Are you okay? What happened?" Duncan and Steeler, simultaneously. The Operations guy close behind.
"Sergeant Hicks? Sound off! Quiet, Team 4! What's your status?"
"Status is, I'm okay." He stepped over to the man, whose red face and continued hard coughing told him he needed medical attention. "The alien's gone, but I got it. Pretty bad, by the looks of it." He shook his head to himself surveying the gaping hole again. How did the bastard survive such a massive injury? "It lost a lot of blood. Actually, I wouldn't be surprised if it crawled somewhere to die." He made up his mind. "I'm going after it. Got anything on the trackers?"
A small pause, then Duncan, faster than Operations.
"Nothing. Disappeared like a greased lightning. But if you hurt it really this badly, maybe it's already dead. Tracker wouldn't pick it up then."
"We'll know soon enough." Topside again. "We're redirecting the other teams towards the harbor area right now and seal off every possible way out of this complex in a range of 3 clicks. Do you need reinforcement, or -"
"Negative. It would only confuse the trackers - and me. It'll be easier to find this son of a bitch if I'm the only one going after it. Just make sure it can't make it out of the perimeter."
"Also - you should get someone down here and get the guy out. Alien's paralyzed him, and he got a lung full of corrosive fumes. He'll need some medical attention."
"On their way."
"Good." Hicks looked around one last time. "Do you want me to wait here until they arrive, or-"
"Negative. They'll be there in a couple of minutes. Get this thing. That's what counts."
"Alright, then. I'm going after it now. I'm taking the right duct. Keep me updated, o.k.? Hicks, over and out." He knelt down at the victim's side, touching his hand reassuringly. "They'll be here any minute, and the alien's not around, or they would see it. You'll be out of here before you know it."
The guy kept his eyes closed, but gave him a slight nod in between two violent cough attacks. Seemed like the alien's poison was starting to wear off. Good for the man.
Hicks turned towards the duct. It appeared to be a little bigger than the one that had led him here, but still, crawling through it on hands and knees again wouldn't be much fun. A curious look into the burn hole. It went deep. Very deep. Looked like it had eaten through at least three levels. Good. If it wasn't dead, the injury should at least have slowed down.
He got down on all fours, the safety of Steeler's 38 still off. Switched on the little lamp again, secretly hoping to see the bizarre, unmoving silhouette laying directly before him, but no such luck. At least not within the 5 meters he could see. What he could see, though, was a corroded line on the floor, the metal eaten away by the alien's blood where droplets had created an encouraging pattern as if the duct had been hit by a storm of tiny asteroids.
He followed it into the narrow blackness, eyes glued to his immediate surroundings, and all ears for any sign that would give the bastard away. Still nothing.
Silent as a grave in here. - Yeah, your grave if you don't concentrate, dammit! He shook his head, angry with himself, because he could still hear this optimistic voice in the back of his head, telling him he had already killed it, that the danger was over. It was dangerous to think like that, he knew! And as hard as he tried, he just couldn't banish the thought.
Until it stopped - the line stopped. No more little meteor marks on the metal. He came to a halt, craned his neck to look back to where he could still see the red light of the service station. Probably eight meters... and it had already stopped bleeding! As welcome as the discovery was to burst his optimistic bubble, it was bad news.
Someone's voice from of his memories crept into his mind, a female voice. Ellen's.
"They heal rapidly. If you don't kill it right away, it will be back for you before you know it." From the disc Apone had given them before they had landed on LV-426.
Due to the massive artillery they had been carrying, whatever alien they had hit had stayed dead. There hadn't been an event involving an injured alien healing up right before their eyes and getting at them again. No experiences from which to tell how fast they really healed. And how complete. Would it become as good as new? Within five minutes? Six hours? A day? Or would it stay crippled, but still be able to give a headache to them all?
Oh yeah, his bubble had burst for good, and fear was creeping back into his thoughts again, the walls closing in on him. Here he was, all alone, the next possible help almost 100 meters away in one of the main shafts, with nothing to protect himself with than only eight rounds of 38mm caliber, illegally changed to dum-dum projectiles for the worst possible effect, but still... he had only this one spare magazine.
Another junction. Hicks sat back on his heels and shortly checked each of the three ways open to him for the continuation of his mission. Not the slightest hint as to which one his opponent had taken.
"Duncan? Do you read me?"
"Roger." Heavy static turned the Private's reply into a guessing game. "... transmission's ... lousy .... getting worse. Must ... air movement and ... down here. Interference's ... worse all the time."
"But ... not even the worst news.-" Hicks groaned to himself. Now what? "With ... other teams regrouping, I've got - get this! - over ... signals on .....-cker now! And I don't ... where they got -ose guys, but a ... of them are not even ... -ped with PDTs! I've ... signals over signals here; and ...st no telling which one's human and ... one's not! I can ... which one ... are because you're so isolated ...-ere! And -"
"Don't give me any further 'ands', Duncan," Hicks groaned. "You mean that's still not all the bad news?"
"Sorry, ...-arge. Remember that I lost ...-gnal shortly before we came across ... duct you're now in?"
"It's ...-pening again. The signals are on and ...-ff every couple of minutes. And ...- same with the other teams. Don't know what ...nd of fucked-up technology ... used here, but our ...-ckers ... just not equipped to ...-dle it.... Sarge?"
Hicks didn't reply. Sitting there in the darkness in the middle of the two crossing ducts, he couldn't help but feel like the idiot of the month. Looked as if everything he depended upon to come out of this nightmare alive was letting him down. Laughing at him, in fact. Damn, and he always believed he wasn't the type for suicide missions. Now what? Should he proceed despite of the fact that his chances of winning this one had just completely vaporized?
They haven't! You hurt the bastard. You almost killed it! No matter how much of this regeneration crap is true, it must be slower! It's not invincible! It never was, and in it's current condition, it's probably much less! You've still got the best chance now. If you leave and return later, the problems will still be the same - but the thing will have recovered, and - who knows - it might come for you with a vengeance! - Who says I would be the one to climb into the tunnels again when we break this up now? - Oh yeah. Like you would trust anyone else with it. Anyone without any prior experience. You know damn well that you've got to see it dead with your own eyes to believe the threat is over. Who do you want to kid here?
"Hicks, ...- you copy?" Duncan's concerned voice made him surface from the blackness of his thoughts "Come in!"
"I'm here. I'm here." He lifted the 38, his lips becoming a thin, bloodless line. One magazine. Just one. Eight shots. To finish off a half-dead beast. More than enough.
"What do ... - say? You wanna continue?"
"Yeah... I guess." He could almost see his two comrades' unbelieving faces. Hell, he was happy he didn't have to look into his own eyes right now. But then, he didn't have to. His voice sounded uncertain enough. You know damn well this is crazy, soldier.
"Hicks -" Steeler's voice. Soothing. Like trying to explain something to a small child. "Please, think a-... it. You've got a choice here - topside's not forcing ...- to do this. With the trackers ... - up like this, there's no guarantee ...- see it before it finds you. Even if you ... it - hurt animals are the most ...-gerous! ...- out of there."
"And then what?"
"They could ...-as the entire tunnel system from above. Like ...- said. No need to put yourself ...-nd of danger."
"We don't know whether nerve gas will effect it. It won't solve the problem. And the problem with the trackers will be the same if we continue tomorrow. It's got a weak spot now, and we cannot afford to let this opportunity pass." Hicks shook his head to himself. "I don't see any other way but continue right now." Was that a sigh over the earphones? " So, even if you've got trouble with the trackers, let me know everything you see, 'kay?"
"'kay." Steeler didn't sound happy. And how come Operations didn't just close the issue with a simple, clear order? Were they really counting on a lowly grunt to come to the right decision all by himself?
"You can help me with one thing, though..." Hicks eyed his surroundings again, getting ready to move further. "I'm at a junction here, about 30 meters behind the service station. Where does the connecting duct lead to, and where does the one I'm in end? It's kind of impossible to keep a sense of direction in here."
"Hang on..." Duncan called up a tiny version of the underground system on his tracker. "-kay. The one you're using ....-ow runs for about 800 meters ...-head to the main cooling ...-stem. The ...-ssing one..." he adjusted the display, " To the left side it runs straight ...-arbor for about 3....- klicks and ends in ...- main corridors connecting the storage ...-artments. To the ...-t side...it goes down deeper towards the ...-thern generator room on ...-level 6. That's the ...-est level. It connects with at least three ...-tical shafts that will take ...- there. The duct itself ... -a dead end under the harbor terminals."
"The main generators..." Hicks tried to recall a mental image of the huge subterraneous power station. "It's warm there, right?"
"Hot would be a ....- word. Tropical."
He nodded to himself, then turned to the right. It seemed like the logical choice. From what he knew, the aliens preferred warmth He got on all four again, the cool metal surface of the pipe he was in gently humming under his hands.
"Okay, I'll try my luck with the generators. I'm moving on now. - Oh, just one more thing: Don't send anyone else into this maze. After those great info you had for me, I'll shoot at any sound now. I won't wait until I see what or who's causing it."
"Don't worry." Well, seemed like Operations was still manned after all. "You're the only one in there. All others are at their positions at the outlets into the main tunnels. You got the whole ballpark for yourself, Sergeant."
"Glad to hear that:"
"Happy to oblige. And hey - good luck! Operations, over and out."
Okay, marine. Here you go. Make it count.
He proceeded into the right tunnel, trying to catch a glimpse into the darkness behind the 5m radius the lamp allowed him to see, but it seemed almost solid. An extension of his enemy, working against him. Also, something else called for his attention. It wasn't important yet, certainly something he could neglect at this time, but beyond the adrenaline that flooded through his veins and pushed his body forward, he could sense it's lurking presence: He was getting tired! Determination had brought him thus far, and it would last for a while longer, but the hours and hours of acute alertness, false alarms, crawling through narrow pipes which were never thought of as a means of transportation for what seemed more and more like an eternity and the stress of the attack were taking their toll on him, whether he liked it or not. His back and neck felt sore, and there was no denying that the continued tension of the situation had exhausted him both mentally and physically.
Maybe it would be smarter to let someone else do this, someone fresh. Someone, who - No! Whether he liked it or not, this was his mission. It was personal. These things had wiped out his outfit. Killed off his friends. The least thing he could do now to get even was - He paused, surprised and repulsed by his own train of thought. Jesus, just what am I trying to do here? Revenge them? Is this why I volunteered for this shit? It was childish. He knew. He'd never have approved this kind of behavior from someone else, so what the heck was he doing? The Corps had ordered him to support this mission as an advisor, something only logical given his experiences. They had - however - never ordered him to become the one to solely go after it. This had been his decision entirely. Out of his sense of duty, he had thought. But you know better, don't you? You want to grease it yourself. You can't stand the thought of someone else killing it. You want to pay it back, soldier. Right? - I-
A shot, impossible to tell where! Not right next to him, but not sounding too far away, either.
"Hicks here! What -"
Indistinct chatter, at least three different voices, some far off.
"Team 8 here! Got a ...-ting in C-district! It ...-ied to get out onto the ...- service way!"
"Did you get it?"
"Nega-...! ...-peared in the duct again! - Got it ...- tracker though! It turned and ...-ding west, towards A-section"
More thunder rolling through the underground, further away.
"This is Team 9! It-...-s here! It ...- to leave the duct! Don't know whether ...- got it!"
Hicks held his breath, listening to the chaos over his headset. Finally - it was making it's move, and the fox hunt had begun for good. They were trying to force it into his direction. He couldn't help but feel excited. This was so much better than sneaking around here, playing hide and seek! At least he knew where it was now! Ignoring his aching muscles, he moved faster. If he got there before it found a way out of the encirclement, it could be over real soon. Move it! Move it, dammit!
"Ken? Where ...- you going?"
"I thought I saw ...-thing. It's - yeah, it's here!"
More gunfire, and he was gaining on it. Faster!
Another shot, and for the first time, a faint echo of a high-pitched, otherworldly scream, not over his headset, but through the tunnel.
"I got it! I got ...-! I - Fuck!"
Another scream, bloodcurdling, long... and human!
"Ken! Ken!" A desperate voice. "Oh my God, ...- got him! It's - Ken!"
"Hold your position, dammit!" Operations, trying to restore some order. "What happened? Where's the alien?"
"Back in the ...-ze! It got McKee! I think he's ...-d!"
"Hicks, where are you?"
He stopped, checking the surrounding walls for hints of his whereabouts. "You should know this better than me. - Not too far away, though. I thought I - wait!" Movement, directly in his path. He couldn't see it as much as sense it through the metal under his hands. Something was coming at him - fast! He sat back on his heels, the 38 aimed into the blackness before him. "Shut up, everybody!" The acoustic chaos came to a sudden halt, turning into deadly silence from one second to the next.
"Hicks, it's heading right at -"
"Shut up, Duncan!" The noise, coming closer. It must have heard me! It knows I'm here! - So? You're ready. You'll never be more ready for it than now. Let it come to you. If only he had more light... Close now, real close. He could feel it's movements under his shins, the thin metal of the floor vibrating under the impact and force of the massive body. Shoot, dammit! If you can see it it'll be to late! - You've got only eight shots! Make 'em count, or you're dead!
A deep breath, the deadly muzzle aimed directly in front of him, ready for action, and then - it just stopped. Nothing but silence from one moment to the next. Nothing but his own thunderous pulse trying to lift off the base of his skull. The roaring cataract of blood in his veins. Son-of-a-bitch knows I'm here! I can't see it, but it sees me! All of a sudden, he felt like the worm on a hook .Oh yeah? Try to swallow this worm, and you'll die! The moment stretched, with Hicks becoming aware of a dozen things at once. The expansion of his lungs, as he took another deep, soundless breath through his mouth. The thick, filtered air, tasting artificial on it's way down. The smooth, hard surface under his shins, starting to make his knees hurt. And slowly but surely, the presence of the predator close by in the massive blackness, just outside of his field of vision, waiting. Indecisive. It knew he was dangerous. And the fact that it didn't jump at him like before made it clear to him - it was hurt, and probably wasn't sure whether it should put up with him again. Shoot it! - Not yet!
"Hicks?" He jerked, startled by Steeler's voice. "What's -"
A movement before him, incredibly quick, the lamp's light reflecting on something in the darkness for the blink of an eye. Then it was gone. He didn't fire. Was afraid to fire. The shot would leave him deaf for at least a minute. With all other senses almost completely eliminated, he couldn't risk this.
"Damn you, Steeler," he muttered under his breath, stretching his right leg under him to ease a cramp that was beginning to form in his calf from the awkward position. He barely dared to whisper into the microphone. "I told you to keep quiet. I almost had it. You scared it away."
"What?" Disbelief in the Corporal's voice. Hicks just didn't have the nerve for a discussion now.
"Just shut up, Corporal! It's still around here somewhere..."
"I ...- it on the tracker..." Duncan's cautious voice, testing his superior's mood. "It's moving north ...-gain from your ...-sition. Not too fast though... but it's signal's ...-ding. ...-sible that it's switching levels. If it ...- any deeper, the instruments won't pick it up ...-more."
"Yeah?" Hicks bit his lip. Interesting. Did it do this on purpose? Couldn't be. Could it? How should it know about trackers? He was about to push the thought away, when he suddenly remembered what Ripley had told him about the queen alien. How it had figured to use the elevator to follow her. Then, Bishop's voice. Stating in this calm way of his that it could have been simply the heat that had attracted the aliens to build their nest next to the reactor. Sure. Only that this had also been the only place which had made a direct attack impossible - if the attackers didn't want to blow up themselves... Now, there was certainly food for thought... and made his presence here even more uncomfortable... not to mention what he was about to do! Again, it was Duncan's voice that interrupted his unpleasant thoughts.
"Hicks? It's moving real slow ...-ow. Thought you ...- know this. It's not very ...-way from you and hardly ...-king progress. ...-k it's hurt! Must have caught one or more s...-ts from the other ...-ams, too."
He didn't answer. It had disappeared incredibly fast when it heard Steeler's voice over his headset... had it? He hadn't really seen it moving, right? It had been more of a ... notion. A reflection almost outside the light's radius. Hard to tell what he saw. If it had indeed been injured further in those fights just a few minutes ago, he HAD to hunt it down now! Right now! He made up his mind.
"Okay, I'm going after it. How far is it, Duncan?"
"I'd say ...more than...ty meters!"
"Come again?" He was already in motion. "You're breaking up!"
"...-d more than thirt-... ters!"
Thirty! He reached the next junction, gun pointed around the corner. Darkness greeted him. And a dark smear on the otherwise stainless metal floor. Ken, huh? A short, sinking feeling in his stomach. Ken wasn't careful enough. He wouldn't make the same mistake. He was armed and ready for the next confrontation. It was running from him, dammit! It was afraid! A new surge of adrenaline swept through his body, giving him new breath, new courage, pushed him along with new energy!
"...-rectly ahead of you!" Duncan, excited. And now he could hear it ahead of him, pulling it's massive body through this artificial maze with undeniable effort. There! One fluent move brought up the 38 - just when the aliens rear haunches cleared the next corner! Cursing under his breath, he proceeded. Careful now. Was it waiting for him? It certainly knew of it's hunter. Would it continue to run, or was it only waiting to come across a spot suitable for an ambush?
"Duncan?" Hardly a whisper. "What is it doing?"
"-...? ..-dly hear ...! ... again?"
"Duncan?" A little louder, as loud as he dared. "Do you copy?" A pause, then, through heavy static, what little he could hear sounding far away: "...breaking up. .-copy? -s! Not hear-...!"
No help. Okay. Had to do it alone, then. Around the corner, fast, gun ready. And the notion of something darker than his surroundings disappearing through the floor directly ahead of him. He bit his lips. Definitely a good place to wait for him. As soon as he would stick his head over the opening, he would be an easy target. It's running from you. It doesn't want another confrontation. It's badly injured and just wants you off it's tail, that's all! Don't go paranoid on me now - and move it! He obeyed, reluctantly giving in to the excitement of the chase. Almost there, soldier! Keep this up for a couple more minutes, and it'll be over! You're this close!
The shaft entrance, so narrow his shoulders would barely fit. Little rungs to take him down to the next sublevel. Crazy! This is crazy! He wouldn't be able to see what was below him once he entered. Also, another level between him and the others would definitely mean an end to all kind of communication. No more directions. Nothing regarding the alien's whereabouts and behavior. He would be entirely on his own. With a half dead beast. You saw how slow it is. You can do this!
Peering into the vertical shaft, he came to a decision, banning the skeptical voice from his mind, shutting it up. Nothing below him. At least the light didn't reveal anything. One foot, the first rung. Nothing grabbed him. The other foot, searching for the next rung. The first step down. Still, nothing. He craned his neck, trying to look down. Solid blackness. He didn't like it. If it waited for him down there, he could climb directly into it's arms without seeing it until the last moment. Until it was too late. As much as he feared what he had to do, it was necessary. He aimed the 38 down the shaft. Fired - simultaneously killing his sense of hearing for the next minute, leaving him with a feeling of complete nakedness. One of his precious eight shots - gone. Seven left.
With a jump start, the crackling static from the headset made a dramatic reappearance in his strained senses, all the more startling as his half-whispered attempts to reach the other teams - any team! - proved futile. Nothing. He was all alone down here, insulated from the world up there by layers and layers of steel, electronic interference and moving air. Well...nobody had promised him this would be easy, right? He let out a heavy breath. Even if he didn't know where they were, they would still be able to trace him through his PDT signal. Those suckers were strong. As strong as this shitty maze shielded communication, it wouldn't be able to drown out the military transmitter. So, after a brief moment of hesitation, he finally ripped off his headset, at first letting it dangle loosely around his neck, then - thanks to the enormous thick quietness in the shaft - decided to stuff it into his pocket so it wouldn't irritate him. Okay, time to move on... What are you waiting for, soldier?
He swallowed, trying in vain to shake this feeling of total isolation and impending danger. This is probably the dumbest thing I've ever done in my entire life...
A rustling sound beneath him, echoing in the eternal night of the shaft. Like something with a hard surface dragging itself over the metal floor, desperately trying to avoid any noise! Close! He jerked, turned his head - and saw the opening, one and a half meters below to the right. The rustling again, slowly fading. Go, get it!
Holding his breath, he took the weight off his right foot, searching for the next rung below him, finding it. Soundlessly, he stepped down. Another rung. The opening, now within reach! He peered in - and brought up the 38 in a flash, firing at the silhouette at the last possible moment before it disappeared through another hole in the floor, five meters ahead, thunder crashing through the metal intestines of the city. A quick check - the next opening further down was nowhere to be seen . Looked like he had no other choice than to follow his adversary.
Letting go of his hold on the primitive ladder, he placed his hands in the pipe's opening, pulling himself in with one fluent move, his ears still ringing, eyes glued to the opening through which the alien had disappeared. Did he hit it? The sparse light from his lamp didn't reveal much, but enough to leave him disappointed anyway. No tiny meteor craters on the walls or floor. No holes where the metal had been eaten away by an aggressive acid. A silent curse. It had been in his view for a full second - only to disappear on him again with surprising agility once it knew it had finally been discovered.
A nasty idea began to form in the back of his mind... a very nasty one. He pushed it away. No - it was impossible! Banishing it from his thoughts, he threw a hasty, careful glance through the hole... and frowned. This wasn't a planned junction - the surface was heavily corroded, red with rust and raw to the touch. Looked like it had oxidized decades ago and then simply broken under the weight of something as massive as a grown alien warrior. His stomach turned to ice.
All of a sudden, he knew where he was. The old center. The leftovers from the time Olympus was first built, seventy years ago. A primitive subterraneous world, canalization, old air ducts and whatever else, integrated into the new, hyper-modern system without having been restored. The discovery made his neck tingle. What was it they had been saying about this complex during the briefing? His all-too-accurate memory served up the unsettling information like the waiter in a first-class restaurant: Unknown standard and condition. Uncharted ducts...? Floors and even entire levels not contained in the blue prints? He looked down, licking his lips. He wasn't exactly a feather, either! Would the deteriorating building substance support his own weight?
Some noise from below, stealthy, secretive. Skipping his concerns, he slipped through the opening. One level... another level. His feet touched the ground, and he dropped into a crouch again to see his surroundings. Too fast the movement! The terrible screeching of metal under great stress - the ground breaking under his feet! A lightning-fast reaction, his hands grabbing the ragged edges of the hole. The edges came off, turned to dust right under his fingers! Something cut into his palm, and he fell, hit the next level, crashed through it in a cloud of rust, and smacked into the floor beneath it. Again, an alarming groan directly under him, the metal under his shoulder giving way.
No! He yanked himself backwards, out of reflex, despite of still being stunned by the impact. Darkness. Massive, solid darkness. Breathe... need to breathe...!!! All wind had been knocked out of him, and for the duration of some terrible seconds he lay there, gasping like a fish which had been thrown onto the riverbank by a grizzly. Then it came; the realization. The lamp! Steeler's 38 - where is it?
A sound further down the duct - distinct, nothing stealthy about it any more. Coming at him with frightening speed! The gun , the - He groped around in the darkness, frantic. The ground, shaking underneath him, shaking from the impact of the beast! A bloodcurdling scream. It wanted him to know it was coming. His hands touched something. It slid away, clattering. Fuck!! The walls, the floor quivering, then the sound of corroded steel breaking. It's coming! It's coming! It's coming! A smooth, bulky shape under his fingers- the 38!
He grabbed it, throwing himself on the back and firing down the duct simultaneously, once, twice, seeing the glistening shape of the biomechanic monster in the muzzle fire! A shrill scream, and then the angry hissing he knew by now.
Another shot, at the same time thrusting himself backward, out of the alien's reach. Nothing. Silence again. No, he couldn't hear! He was deaf again - and blind, heart racing like crazy, his blood churning! His hand found something, a small cylinder. The lamp! Broken? His thumb found the switch - and the darkness was replaced by the image of the tunnel... the empty tunnel! No sign of the alien. Still on his back, Hicks took in the information his eyes showed him. The ground before him had all but disappeared, broken off by the alien's weight. Jesus, it had been close! A heartbeat longer, and he would have been history! Where is it?
He sat up, breathing heavily, but soundlessly through his mouth - and hearing himself. At last, his senses had returned. Now what? He had to get out of here, had to - movement... under him! Cursing, he threw himself around, starting into the opposite direction on hands and knees, ignoring the throbbing of the cut on his right palm. The shaft! If he only made it to the shaft - ! The distinct feeling of the floor moving under him! Back, go back! - No, can't turn! Too narrow! Instead, he sped up, squeezing every last ounce of energy left in his body into his muscles and threw himself forward when the floor under his stomach exploded and a big claw was driven through it floor from below, missing him by inches! Despite of the immediate danger, his mind raced. The nasty idea he had had earlier, only this time it had become solid fact!
It's been luring me down here! This is where it wanted me all along! All the time pretending to be half-dead, making me feel confident enough to even follow it down here onto it's own turf! It's turning the tables - and it's still faster than a hungry tiger! A junction, directly ahead. Which way to the shaft? No time to ponder directions. He turned right, following his inner compass. And came to a halt. A dead end! Back, go back!
Again the floor bulged under the impact of the alien's claw crashing against it from below. Left! Turn left! Panic now. Sheer reflex, reacting to the onslaught of the beast. Running from the superior senses and superhuman strength of the predator, ferocity unheard of and agility he had grossly misjudged. It was out to get him, and it was pissed!! Another crossroads ahead, a chance to maybe - a thunderous crash below him!
Thrusting himself forward again, he felt a current of air on his calves - and then a white-hot bolt of fire when long double-claws tore into his knee pit all the way down to the bone! An automatic reaction made him draw up his leg in an attempt to wrench it from the alien's grip before it had him for good - but its grip was iron, and the claws sliced his leg open all the way down to his calf! An explosion of pain wrecked his body, filling out his entire being, catapulting him into a different dimension of reality. A scream cut through the mists clouding his consciousness with sudden clearness, yanking him back into the situation, towards the grim prospects of the alien butchering him from the legs up, the voice vaguely familiar. His own!
Gun! Where's the - There it was, laying in front of him, the only thing on the planet that could safe him now- just out of his reach! He threw his arm forward, stretching every joint, every finger... and touched it with his fingertips. Felt the cold steel - and couldn't grab it! Brutal force slammed him into the wall, catching him off-guard, his head smacking against the steel with a sickening thud. The mist - again, thicker now! Everything slowed down, and he had the bizarre sensation of separating from his body, watching himself struggle from an upward position. Fight, soldier! Fight, dammit! You're dead if you pass out!
Supreme effort made him grab the edges of the crossroads, hang on for dear life to keep his position instead of the alien's brutal attempts to yank him down, slitting his leg further and further in the process. No more strength left for screaming. A tormented groan was all he had left, head sunken to the floor, eyes squeezed shut against the pain. His shoulders were a hurting mess, sinew and muscles vibrating from the constant strain of the alien's pull. His fingers began to slip, and he knew he couldn't hold on much longer. Hissing behind him. The image of the deadly jaws, opening to reveal glistening stalactites and stalagmites in front of his inner eye, clear as day.
He reopened his eyes, saw Steeler's 38 still laying right in front of him, just out of his reach. One last try. One crazy chance he had to take. If this didn't work, he'd be dead. The choice was an easy one - there was none! So he waited, waited for the alien to make its move... and when it came, let go of his hold, sliding against the beast, surprising it. The deadly grip broke, the claws left his leg to get a better grip - the moment of truth!
Hicks thrust himself forward, putting every ounce of strength and hope into it he had left, hand stretched out toward the weapon, touching it, his fingers closing around it!! Rolling to his side, his leg exploded in pain again when the alien grabbed him with an angry scream - and was drowned out by the bellow of the 38, spewing death! Once, twice! Emptying the magazine into his enemy at point-blank range until he felt the clicking of the hammer on the empty chambers, his finger still twitching. Hissing all around him, an all-too-familiar biting stench in the air... Can't... can't breathe...! He passed out....
When he came to, reality had left him for good. Every sense of direction, time or place had deserted him, had left him to rot in this impenetrable blackness. There was only pain. The constant throbbing of his leg, unbearable had the massive shock not tuned his perception way down, kind of put his normal body functions on hold. At least it brought back the memory. The chase. The deadly trick the alien had played on him. And the outcome... Was it dead this time? Or had it just vanished as before? He tried to lift his head, to look back. To make sure. Too heavy. Can't ... can't see... He let his head sink back onto the floor. It was cool. Pleasant. A gentle humming from below made him want to just lay there and lose himself in it. The outcome... wasn't important. If it wasn't dead, there was nothing he could do. Ditto if it came back for him. He had done everything in his power. If it hadn't been enough, then too bad.
He was tired. He wanted to sleep, sleep for weeks if they'd let him. But first, they had to get him out. Would they even find him down here? Or was there anything he could do to make it easier for them to find him? Like... like... his thoughts drifted apart and were replaced by fundamental exhaustion... and tiredness. They would find him, all he had to do was wait... he could even sleep. He didn't want to know how they'd get him out of this maze. The less he felt, the better.
He started to drift off again, trying to ignore the warning voice in his head, repeating an endless litany, something about his tiredness not being the result of the chase, but rather a symptom of serious blood loss. He tried to make it shut up, but it kept coming back, slowly but surely washing up from the depths of his subconsciousness, until it was sure it had been heard. He twitched. Stretched out his hand, searching for the lamp. He didn't know where it had fallen. Did it matter? There were other ways to check...
His hand found his side, and he prepared for the pain to get worse once he moved his ruined leg - but he couldn't move it. Ice-cold shock washed over him. Was it - A bad moment, a very bad moment went by where he wasn't sure he could feel his leg at all - was it still there??? - then his hand touched his thigh and found the big muscle strained with effort. Seemed as if his body still obeyed him... but why couldn't he - Oh... yeah. A very, very small movement with the other foot, and his boot found the obstacle he had expected. The alien was still there, it's claws closed in a death grip like the iron teeth of a bear trap. Even if it was dead, it wouldn't let him go... at least not easily.
Once again, he lifted his head, tried to get up on his elbows, to check whether it would be possible for him - although he was pretty sure he didn't have enough strength left - to sit up and turn around, to remove the alien's claws from his calf. He didn't even make it halfway, but the effort alone showed him that there simply wasn't enough room. Panic had led him into the narrowest pipe he had been in all night. Still... it sort of had played a part in his immediate survival... had it been any wider, the alien would have crept simply over him to finish him off. So what now? The monster's corpse blocked the shaft behind him, and every hope to escape this maze was futile as long as the bastard had this grip on him. Hicks gritted his teeth, trying to prepare for what he was about to do, head down, his brow touching the ground, sweat burning in his eyes. Gotta do this... no other way... have to... A deep breath. Out... in. Another one. Three... two... one... He yanked his leg upwards in one vigorous move - and passed out again...
"Hicks? Hicks..." A whisper, seeping into his consciousness, not loud, but persistent. Disturbing him.
Let me sleep, dammit....so tired... He tried to sink back into oblivion, but was soon disturbed again by the voice, this time accompanied by a gentle touch on his shoulder, the notion of someone shaking him carefully.
"Hicks, can you hear me? Come on, wake up..."
Damn you, Steeler - He didn't want to wake, wanted to stay in this place he was now in, a pleasant heaviness covering him, shielding him from whatever would await him if he dared to leave it. The pain... exhaustion... cold...
"Damn, Hicks, wake up!" The shaking, more insistent now. Impossible to ignore. Groaning, he opened his eyes, moving his head ever so slightly. There was light in front of him. Directly in front of him. Disturbing him. Also, a silhouette, blocking his view. He turned his head sideways, catching a glimpse of the relieved smile on Steeler's face.
"Leave me alone..."
"Hey, thanks for the nice welcome!" The Corporal moved the light over Hicks' back in an attempt to peer into the darkness behind him, but to no avail. Almost all space was occupied by his superior's unmoving body. "Damn, my fucking knees are bleeding from crawling through this shitty place, looking for you - not to mention my back, and this is your appreciation, huh?" He turned serious again, noting how Hicks didn't react at all to his sarcasm. "Are you ok, Sarge?"
Do I look okay, moron? Is this what 'okay' looks like to you?
"Yeah...could do the training circle after this." Message clear? Again the light, blinding him.
"Where's the son-of-a-bitch?"
"Dead..." he mumbled to the ground, hardly hearing himself. Hardly even knowing what he was saying. "Killed it."
"You sure?" A trace of excitement in Steeler's voice, but still not fully believing him.
Damn, Steeler, why don't you shut up and let me sleep?
"Right behind me..." He paused, trying to keep his thoughts together, then remembered what the heavy thing in his right hand was. He slid it over. "Here... thanks."
"Man...!" The Corporal squinted, then looked back again, obviously satisfied with what he had seen. "Brian? He's here! Thank God for those PDTs! Don't know how he ended up in this shithole!" He turned back to Hicks. "Come on, Hicks, let's get you out, whadda ya say?"
"Can't..." His head was just empty. Jesus, pull yourself together! You can sleep as long as you want when you're out! "Bastard's got my ankle..." Has it... still? He hadn't really tried after his last blackout, had he? Just the tiniest move ... - yeah. Still there. He let out air.
"No problem." Steeler slipped his arms under Hicks' shoulders, locking his hands on his chest. "It'll fall off." Hicks didn't think so, but before he could air his concerns, he was yanked back. He yelled, and - for a period he couldn't define, sank back into a dimension of pain, unable to see, hear or feel anything. "Damn, I'm sorry, Hicks! I thought -"
"Don't think..." He groaned. Man, would this ordeal ever end? Duncan's voice, from somewhere behind Steeler.
"What's the problem?"
"The problem is, the bastard's dead, but it still has a grip on him."
"Can't you wrench him free?"
"I just tried. Didn't move an inch. Is there another way around here? If I came from the other side, I could -"
"Naw." Duncan sounded certain. "Checked that on my way here." He paused, then unhooked something from his belt. "Hicks? Can you hear me?" An affirming sound answered him. He pressed the thing into Hicks' hand. "Here. Cut it off. I'm afraid you'll have to do it yourself. We can't get by you." He opened his eyes again, looking at the thing the PFC had given him. His miniature cutting torch. Despite the massive pain he felt the insane desire to laugh. How the fuck was he supposed to do that? But he wasn't required to answer, as Steeler solved the problem for him, snapping angrily at his colleague.
"Jesus, Brian, that's such a smart idea! He can barely move in there, much less turn around! Even if he wasn't injured -" He interrupted himself. "Hey, what about -" He stretched out his hand. "Give me your gun?"
"What? Why?" Duncan's brow furrowed.
"Sorry. It was a smart idea. But we've got to do it differently. Now give it to me." He took the 38, then turned to Hicks again. "Duncan's right, we've got to cut it off. And he's also right in that you'll have to do it yourself, as we can't get past you. But this will be easier. - Shoot the bastard's hand off." Hicks stared at him, uncomprehending, his ability to grasp the meaning of his teammate's words diminishing with every passing moment. Stared at the gun, which had replaced the cutting torch in his hand. There was something seriously wrong with Steeler's plan, wasn't there? He fought hard to determine what it was that disturbed him... almost had it, but it slipped away again. Oh, yeah... the acid. What about the acid? If he really - All these 'whens" and "ifs" won't get you out of the tunnel, boy! The hard, cold voice of reason. Fuck the acid! If you don't hurry up, you might as well stay here and rot side by side with the thing you fought so hard to escape from. Your decision.
"Hicks...?" Steeler's concerned face hovering in front of him. "Did you hear me?"
He tried to remember how he had to use his tongue to speak.
"Yeah." He swallowed. "Help me... turn around..." His grasp around the 38's handle tightened. "Need... to ... get up."
"Okay..." Steeler's strong hands under his arms, moving him into the right position. "Like this?"
"Little ... higher..." He lifted his hand, despite of the suddenly enormous weight of the weapon. Higher, or he would shoot himself in the leg.
"Got enough light? Can you see it?" Duncan, trying to aim his armor-light past him.
"Yeah..." He gritted his teeth, hissing, pain threatening to overwhelm him. His hand with the gun started to shake violently, his strength failing him.
"Wait..." A strong hand, steadying his own. The corporal's calm voice close behind him. "Better?" He didn't answer. Not a lot of space for him. No room for failure. The muzzle fire would probably hurt him further... but since he didn't have a choice... He pulled the trigger, eyes locked on the alien's elbow, trying to hit the same spot again and again, emptying the entire magazine into it, then sank back., eyes closed. He hardly realized his head touching the floor again.
"Okay? I'll try it again now. Don't flake out on us, okay?" Steeler's voice, his words depleted of any meaning, reduced to simple background noise, coming from a far-off place. He was falling now, deeper and deeper into this endless void... then a last, vigorous move... and he floated away, moved out of the pipe, voices surrounding him, meaningless...
"Jesus... get a tourniquet on that, Brian! Come on....! Get..." Some pressure on his thigh, unpleasant, but no longer painful. A little sting at his arm moved it even further away.
"Hicks? Hicks, do you hear me?" Duncan? Steeler? He didn't know. He didn't care. Let me sleep... "We're moving you out now. You're out of the worst. You'll be up and kickin' again in no time, I promise. Do you hear me?" Someone grabbed his hand. "Squeeze it if you hear me. - Good! Now all you have to do is hang in there, okay? Will you do that for me? Good!" The voice was replaced by the vague notion of being moved... of floating down a river ... a long, peaceful river at night... then sunshine... warmth... the feeling of flying...a dozen different voices buzzing around him... and again, darkness. And finally, oblivion...
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