-Behind the Mask-


A/N: Hey there! Thought I'd try my hand at a one shot to kind of jog the memory for ideas, since I'm trying to keep my main fic "Shephard's Epic" fresh and clean. I wrote this on a complete whim, in three hours, but I think it has potential. Any comments, grammatical, canonical, or otherwise are always welcomed!

The drop ship loomed overhead, bobbing and twisting so uncharacteristically of any modern aircraft that the casual observer would have been amazed. Too bad there were no more casual observers.

The cloudless noonday sun hung high aloft in the graying sky, the Combine air processors choking the Earth's atmosphere and changing the hue of the air from horizon to horizon. The drop ship, previously seeming to have to destination, straightened up from its last looking course and the blue lights propelling it forward grew brighter, pushing it ahead in earnest.

Down, below on the surface of the scorched and decaying planet, the lumbering forms of two metallic Armored personal carriers sat parked in front of a decrepit farmhouse. The surrounding land, once green with prosperity and produce, now lay desolate and untilled.

As the drop ship closed in on the position of the old building, dust and dirt, left unanchored by the heat and lack of vegetation, whipped around the APCs and it crew of four metrocops, who leaned up against the shaded side of the vehicles, trying to evade the ever-watchful sol.

With the arrival of the drop ship, and its important crew, the four man team quickly jumped from their relaxed positions and took up guard around the house, as if their quick call to action would cover up for their lack of interest. More dust and debris was kicked up as the drop ship finally closed in on the farm house, settling down on the ancient gravel driveway, it's anti-gravity propulsion drives powering down, and finally becoming silent.

The two metro cops manning the mounted plasma rifles atop the APCs exchanged worried glances. As the door of the drop ship slowly opened on the hydraulic joints, their fears were confirmed. A tall body, clad in white armor, jumped out of the troop carrier and landed with a soft thud on the gravel. Overwatch Pulse rifle slung across his back, the Combine Elite surveyed the nondescript farm with his single red ocular sensor.

Just like all the rest, nests for the rats. Gamma three-seven thought to himself. Behind him three more Combine soldiers, garbed in the blue and brown camouflage denoting their lower rank, joined him in the sun. One of the three soldiers dropped into step with him as they made their way up the driveway, the other two falling in behind them, in perfect unison.

Perfect, just like they were trained.

The soldier next to G37, his direct subordinate Gamma number 17, shouldered his pulse rifle. "That's the target?" His voice was grated, distorted by the Combine transmitter.

The Elite nodded, "An informer notified Overwatch Nexus that it is being used as a way point station for terrorist activity."

The Gamma 17 made a face under his mask, informers made him sick. They were weak, traitors to their own people, but they were necessary for the will of their benefactors to be done. "When was the last activity recorded out here?" It had to have been recent, since their unit, under special orders of Dr. Breen himself, had been recalled from recreation to participate in this particular mission.

"Four hours ago. Civil Protection planted a tracking device on the informer, who's now with the terrorists. His transponder signal puts him in the vicinity of the building." The four soldiers, part of the Combine's Elite Special Operations group, were assigned mainly duties requiring them to put down insurrection and take out key terrorist targets and personnel, this mission would be no different, Gamma 17 thought.

The two civil protection units manning the plasma guns hopped down from the APCs and approached Gamma 37, saluting him.

"Sir." His metallic, coin crunching voice stuttered, thought not because of the radio, but out of fear. "There's been no activity since the terrorists took refuge inside. It is assumed that the building is part of the 'Under ground railroad', they've constructed, leading out of City 17."

"I know all about the tunnel network." He cut the cop off curtly. "I've been given authorization for a full sweep and sterilization of the affected area." He handed the metrocop a small holodisk with the authorization code straight from Dr. Breen and Overwatch command. The CP unit inserted it into the data port on his vest and the appropriate information was displayed on his HUD.

The cop nodded, of course they had the highest authorization. "Authorization acknowledged. Approved." He went through the motions and regulations, but the soldiers were already filling past him and into the house.

"Of course you half-brain." Gamma 37 retorted. He clamered up onto the rotting wooden porch and turned to his men. "Time to play exterminator. Gamma 13, Gamma 5, cover the back entrance." He turned to G17 and he could feel the commander's smile, that is if his face still had enough muscles to do so.

"Point?" Gamma 17 volunteered, though he knew it was already predetermined. Swinging his pulse rifle out in front of him, he cautiously pushed open the creaky door. The rusted metal hinges cried out in the utter silence of the small house, and Gamma 17 inched his way inside.

The house was nearly pitch black, the windows boarded up and covered in burlap. This wasn't to keep us out. He thought, it was to keep the monsters that roamed the plains out. There were creatures far deadlier and many times more gruesome than the Combine roaming the unprotected wastelands. Tapping the side of his helmet, the dark interior jumped into view, brought to life in a blueish hue. His heavy combat boots pounded on the old wood as he made his way from the antechamber at the front of the house, though the empty living room, and into the kitchen.

The soldier searched the kitchen and adjacent bedroom, but came up with the same lack of life. What had happened to the terrorists that Central was so sure had been hidden here? Gamma 17 stood alone, still as a stone pillar in the middle of the kitchen, wondering what he had missed.

Gamma 17, what's your status? The harsh voice of his commander filled his helmet. Gamma 17 sighed and looked to the ceiling, feeling defeated as he tapped his headset.

"This is Gamma 17, all…" But he was cut short as something caught his eye. The waterlogged ceiling, which seemed to hang low in the middle, most unsupported area, glowed dimly, but his night vision couldn't pick up the luminescence. "Just a second." He finished his sentence. Switching off his night vision he finally got it.

"Clever, clever bastards." He said aloud. The ceiling sported a faintly green glowing lambda symbol, that swastika of their age. The luminescence paint didn't register on any Combine night vision, which made it a very neatly disguised sign that they were on the right track.

Gamma 17! Report! He was ripped from his moment of triumph again by the reverberating voice of Gamma 37. Tapping his comset again, he relayed what he had found.

"Well this is new." His Commander said, staring up at the symbol. "Those bastards thought they could put one over on us. Well they were wrong, dead wrong!" He slammed a fist on the counter, smashing tile with his augmented strength.

"What does it mean?" Gamma 13 inquired.

"It means we're standing on an entrance to the terrorist tunnel network!" Gamma 37 barked. Pulling a small PDA from his vest pocket, he tapped it several times. "The informer's signal is still strong in this area." He looked down at the floor directly under the lambda sign. "Break it open."

The explosive charge decimated the kitchen floor, exposing the blown out secret cellar door beneath. Gamma 5 was on top of it before the smoke even began to abate with several flash grenades, lobbing them down in the depths below.

"Shit! Overwatch!" A female voice screamed as the flash grenades blinded them, sending several to their knees, clutching their eyes. The four-man team quickly descended the stairs, weapons drawn and plasma splattering the walls.

Immediately they were met with return fire from the mouths of several submachine guns. Gamma 5, first one through the door, fell forward, the back of his helmet blown out by one of the slugs.

"Fan out! Base of fire to the left!" The Combine Elite yelled through the smoke. As the battle raged in the small cellar room, the smoke finally cleared, revealing several bodies with holes smoking. As the last shot finally rang out, the three Combine found themselves in an empty room. Gamma 37 could hear the rapid boot steps of the enemy as they fled through a tunnel at the end of the brick and limestone cellar, seemingly dug into the wall.

"Jesus! Station 24 just went offline, can anyone confirm a combine presence?" An old CB radio on the table next to Gamma 17 erupted with sound, breaking the calm. But before anymore of the message could get through, the Elite took aim and blew hot plasma through it's circuits, silencing it.

"Come on, we've got a job to do. Hunt them down, like the vermin they are." Gamma 37 hissed as he reached for his comset to inform Central Command of the mission status. This would be a perfect opportunity to see where the tunnel's lead, how deep the rabbit hole went.

Their Gestapo type boots splashing through the stagnant pools of water sent echoes far down the corridor of the makeshift hallway, whose destination completely eluded the three soldiers.

"Come on! Oh god, move! Move!" Gamma 17 could hear the screams of the criminals down the hall. Gamma 13 lifted his weapon and discharged a round down the hall, eliciting a scream. There was another one down, he thought, it was like a game, it always had been.

The sight before them was anything but pretty. The woman lay on her stomach, her back heaving with pain and her face a mess of tears, but she wasn't the one they had hit. The form underneath her was so small, they didn't notice it until they were right ontop of the woman.

"Get up!" Gamma 37 screamed as he ripped the woman from the form she was clutching. Dirty blonde hair and an ashen face, covered in messy, salty tears, greeted them with an expression of utter contempt.

"Bastards! You fucking bastards! She was a child!" She screamed reaching for the small one beside her, her fingers grasping for the pink over shirt, stained with blood. But the Elite kicked her back and aimed the rifle at her chest, his gloved finger pulling back the trigger, and spewing her insides against the wall behind her.

"I told you to get up!" He screamed at the dead body, as if it would respond. Gamma 17 stood still, afraid to move, his eye fixed on the desecrated corpse before him. That wasn't part of their orders, she was unarmed. It was SOP to collect unarmed resistors for questioning, deadly force was only authorized for armed suspects. The Elite next to his shoved him hard, knocking him back into the moment. "The orders were to sterilize and contain the situation, I call that bitch sterilized." From behind him Gamma 13 laughed maliciously, and he felt as though he wanted to reach behind him and smack the soldier's mask off. Exposing the ugliness behind.

Exposing the ugliness he had begun to see in himself. Where did that thought come from? He asked himself. But he no time for an answer as Gamma 37 pushed him down the tunnel. The terrorists had the upper hand now, they had gained a fair amount of distance on the pursuing soldiers, but not enough to make a difference, he could still hear their footsteps in the distance.

Gamma 17 had jogged farther ahead than his commander, and was about thirty meters away when a glint caught his eye. He slowed his pace to look at the ceiling of the tunnel, straining to make out the object strapped above…

But the explosion obscured his vision as the satchel charge detonated and brought a section of the tunnel down on top of him, pinning the lower half of his body underneath a large slab of limestone. The blueish HUD fizzeled and finally went dark, his audio receptors whining with feedback, and finally silent.

"Shit! Shit! Outbreak, outbreak!" Gamma 37 screamed over the roar of the explosion. Gamma 17 was down, most likely for good. The rest of the tunnel was effectively sealed for the time being, nothing short of a Strider canon was going to be opening the way up anytime soon.

Pulling an about face, Gamma 37 and Gamma 13 sprinted down the hall. Pulling up the current heading of the tunnel the Combine Elite told the Metrocops stationed outside to find him another entrance. You foul creatures will get what's coming to you, just be patient.


His breathing was harsh inside his helmet, and he could feel claustrophobia coming on. Surprising, since he spent his entire life inside of it. Well that wasn't entirely true. Before the great war that the Combine had won for humanity, he had been nothing but one of the lowly workers among millions, meaning nothing to the world. Overwatch had given him a purpose; all they asked in return was his soul.

The weight nearly cracking his back finally caught his attention and Gamma 17 reached behind himself to gauge it. Not too heavy, he thought, and he moved to slither out from under it. Leaning up against the wall of the tunnel, with only his breath to accompany him, Gamma 17 tapped his helmet, trying to elicit a response. Receiving no response, he did the unthinkable.

Reaching around to the contoured back of his helmet, he felt for the release pins. Normally there would be a message displayed on his HUD, warning him of atmospheric anomalies, and other dangerous fabricated to keep him under the influence, but not this time.

Air hissed as the helmet clicked and fell to the floor, the dank, putrid air assaulting his nose. Smell, he though, I cant remember the last time I ever smelled anything.

The memory of a middle-aged man, his body sore from work in the sun, assaulted his vision. Sitting down to eat, the smell of tomatoes, potatoes, and other wonders from a long ago era crept into his nose.

Memory erasure was the key to moving up in the Transhuman arm of the Overwatch, but sometimes the wipes weren't so neat. Gamma 17 struggled to his feet, rubbing his eyes. The world, or what little of it there was here underground, seemed so much more real, as if the helmet had kept him in a constant haze.

What his naked eyes revealed to him, though, wasn't a pretty sight. A woman, dark skinned and dressed in dirty jeans and an old jacket, stood menacingly over him, an MP7 pointing at his aching head.

"Jesus, you fuckers are ugly without those cans on your heads." She sneered, and took aim. Raising his hands in front of him, he allowed himself several last, unfiltered words.

"Please!" His voice sound foreign even to himself. The woman above him, the lambda symbol emblazoned across her front, lowered the weapon, her angry expression morphing into one of confusion.

That face, he thought. It doesn't look evil, not the terrors he had been trained to believe in the Citadel. She stood there silently for a moment, as if contemplating what to do next. Another set of boots sounded down the hall, and she was met another man dressed in the garb of a resistor, his shotgun held at the ready.

"You gonna waste him, or not? With that kind of a face, I'd ask to be put out of my misery…" But the woman was already swinging her weapon behind her and reaching down to pull him up. She turned to her partner, motioning to his belt, a loop of rubber hose handing from it. "We need to get going, their going to find another way in sooner or later, we need to get to the next station, and blow it, we can't leave a trail, Alyx." The woman, presumably Alyx, finished tying Gamma 17's hands, and turned to her co-conspirator, nodding in agreement. Testing the restraints, the soldier realized as tightly tied as they were, they would snap under his augmented strength, good thing to keep in mind.

But for the time being it would behoove him to cooperate, maybe he could gather some intelligence about their direction and destination before he surprised them with his strength and made an escape. The two rebels lead him down the hallway, finally leading him into a concrete, circular opening. An entrance into the sewer system surrounding the city. Sludge and grime lined the walls, and the trio met up with several forms standing in the shadows, trying with success to look inconspicuous. As they came into the light, they revealed themselves to be nothing more than average citizens of the city, garbed in their blue work suits.

The group joined them without a word, save scowls and looks of surprise, flabbergasted at the sight of an unmasked Combine soldier.

"So, how many people do you have on your ration roll?" He heard the acidic words of the woman guarding him. She must have realized they had been located through an informer. Gamma 17 didn't know to answer her, afraid of her response, so he kept quiet instead. The barrel of the machine gun was jabbed into his back. "How many?" She hissed again.

"Enough." He began, gaining confidence. Who was this woman to question him? She was an enemy of the state, not her superior officer. "Enough to find the infectious disease and root it out." He hissed back.

A hand stopped him and she spun him around, meeting eyes filled with hate. "That little girl back there was an infection? Something to be removed and cauterized? You're sick!" The feeling that she would slam the butt of the weapon across his face was laying heavy in the air, and he waited for her to do so. "These people." She pointed to the escaping citizens of City 17. "They're all real people, not like you. They didn't sell their souls to the benefactors for a few more meals. They haven't forgotten what its like to be human."

"What's human?" He retorted, his own voice surprising himself. "You fight so hard against the Universal Union, when they only want to bring out the best in humanity. If anything you're the one selling yourself to degradation! You're dragging these citizens along with you!" His chest puffed out and his vocal cords, tired from disuse, began to make his voice hoarse. But before he could finish his sentence the woman already had him by the front of his vest, and was dragging down the sewer, towards the light at the end of the tunnel.

This was it, he thought. She was dragging him out to kill him, to leave another message to the rest of his fellow soldiers. But he wouldn't let it happen. As the light grew brighter, and his eminent death nearer, he readied himself to snap the restraints and grab her gun before she could realize she'd made a mistake.

The bright light of the mid after noon sun blinded him momentarily. But that wasn't what kept him from breaking free. The stench did, the rotting stench of decay that burned his senses. His olfactory sense had grown sensitive with the lack of use, and the sight before him explained every bit of it.

Bodies of citizens, everywhere, lay on top of each other, holes pocking their fronts, backs, and heads. They were piled several high, the lowest in the most advanced stages of decay. As his eyes adjusted to the burning sun, and his nose took in the smells, his gag reflex finally came to life. He threw up, long and hard. The vomit, a gray color due to the intravenous diet the Combine kept all their soldiers on, splattered into the water the bodies were floating in.

"You see that? See those bodies? Those were citizens that your great "benefactors" your supreme "Universal Union" figured were traitors to the cause, and look what happened to them. Massacred." She held the machine gun to his head and Gamma 17, still on his knees, stared intently at the dead bodies, the faces that had been frozen in death. All had the same expression, fear, absolute fear. His vision traveled along the water until he found his reflection staring back. The gray, pallid and fleshy skin seemed to hang loosely across a permanently grim expression. His eyes were dark red with the same gray, lost look in them. And the back of his head looked practically necrotic, parts of it replaced with micro processors damaged in the blast.

"My god…" He began to feel a seething hatred burn deep inside, like a small candle that had burned so long, now heated with the power of the sun. His gloved hands covered his face, beating back the tears. A monster, that's what had stared back at him in the water. He brought his hands down and smacked them against the concrete, tears streaming down his face. He ripped the rubber restraints apart and could feel the form of Alyx next to him stand back, her weapon pointed at him. But he didn't care if she pulled the trigger, better yet, she would end all this pain. He ripped the gloves off of his hands and saw the same cold gray skin. Tears obscuring his vision, he shucked off the body armor and pulled open his fatigues, exposing his bare chest. It heaved in and out with his sobs, but te black matter that had become his skin from his abdomen down horrified him.

What had they done to him? What had they to done to everyone?

The pressure on his shoulder, strong, but not threatening, stopped him from wanted to roll into the dirty water and become one of the bodies floating before him.

"Hey, its… its okay. I mean it's not okay, but you know…" Comfort, sincerity, filled the voice next to him. Two emotions he hadn't felt for so long. He turned to see the face of Alyx staring intently back, her normal look of disgust had disappeared. He dragged a leathery hand across his face, wiping the tears, and stood up.

"What do you want from me? Why am I still alive?" He half whined. Alyx was taken aback, unsure of how to answer. Normally, he would have been questioned, then probably fed to the antlions, but now…

He was human, or at least part of him was, behind that mask. So she answered accordingly. "I don't know. Your situation is… obviously different." But before she could finish, the whirl of a drop ships engines blew the water and bodies around as it flew down the canal in their direction.

"My commander will be on that drop ship." He said, matter of factly. Alyx didn't know whether to shot him or let him go, she didn't think she could kill him after what she had just saw.

Thankfully she didn't have to make that decision as her captive pushed her back inside the drainpipe, just as the ground of peppered with plasma fire from the ship. "Lets go!" He cried hoarsely.


What had those vermin done to him? Gamma 37 asked as the drop ships holoscreen played back the scene. Gamma 17 was stripped nearly naked, with most of his augmentation showing. But the even more puzzling question was why had he shoved that terrorist out of the line of fire?

It wouldn't matter, though, he thought to himself. They had found another entrance to the tunnel network, the rest of the job would be cake from here on out…


"What happened out there?" The other armed rebel asked as Alyx and the combine soldier rejoined the group, almost running past them.

"Combine drop ship!" She yelled. Her companion noticed Gamma 13 running next to her, his unrestrained arms pumping him past her at an incredible speed. Alarmed, the rebel took aim, thinking the soldier was after the citizens they were trying to repatriate.

"Alyx get down!" He cried, lining up the sights. Alyx raised her hands and told him not to shoot.

"He's not a threat!" But he didn't have time to ask her why not, as the tunnel was flooded with spitting blue plasma. The light began obscured by the white figure at the end of the pipe, his Pulse rifle unloading into the darkness.

The rebels and their company in tow, followed Gamma 17 down the pipe, fleeing the oncoming fire. At a fork in the system he stopped and waited for the others to make it through.

"Go right!" Alyx screamed from behind, throwing the muzzle of her gun behind her and letting off several bursts of fire. Gamma did as she said and slopped through the goop that had pooled at the bottom of the pipe until it lead them to a wooden door, obviously thrown together after the invasion. But as his pumping, speeding form neared it, he did not slow, there was no time.

Crashing through the wood, splinters and shards crashing and flying off in all directions, Gamma 17 fell to his knees. Regaining his footing, he stood up and waved the rest through. They found themselves in a small room, a man hole cover, poked with holes, shining light down from the surface above. Another pipe went off in a direction perpendicular to the one they'd just entered through.

"We'll put down here. Wait for him to come through, then grease him." Alyx's companion suggested. Alyx nodded in agreement.

"No." Gamma 17 stopped them. "He's worse than you think. He's the cream of the Elite crop, and he takes his job… very personally." He looked down the pipe in the direction of their freedom. "Go. I'll take care of him." He had made up his mind. Alyx's face twisted in an expression of confusion.

"What? By yourself? You don't even have a weapon." The boot steps of Gamma 37 were drawing nearer, they had to decide on a plan soon.

"He doesn't know about me… what I've become. I'll have the element of surprise." He said, his malformed eyes resting confidently on Alyx.

Her shoulders slumped and she sighed in defeat. "Creedie, get these people down the hall. Calhoun's going to meet us at the docks." She turned to Gamma 17, and pulled a package out of her knapsack. "Here… just in case." She handed him the satchel charge and detonator. He took it cautiously, setting in on the floor next to himself.

The two stood there in silence, the boot steps almost around the corner now. "Thank you…" He began, for what? "For helping me… become human, again." He pulled a small cube from his belt, his ident cube. It had all his military information, its circuitry weaving an almost enjoyable design across the front. He pulled it out and handed it to her. She took it by a hanging wire. "So maybe someone will remember…"

"That you weren't a monster?" She said hopefully, tying the cube around her neck like a piece of jewelry. The bootsteps were just down around the turn now. "You could come back with us… we'd take you in." But Gamma 17 was already turning around, away from her, cementing his decision. He would do his part, and rid the world of one more monster before he went down. Alyx's form disappeared, the rapid clicking of her boots the last evidence of her existence.


Gamma 37 rounded the last corner and raised the barrel of his rifle. He lowered it, though, when he saw his comrade standing alone in the small, barricaded room. He slowed his pace to a trot and stood before him, cocking his helmet in confusion.

"Gamma 17 what the hell is going on?" He snarled, his metallic voice making the question sound twice as evil. "What did they do to you?"

"They liberated me…" He said, almost a whisper, his vision squarely lined up with the crimson red sensor.

"Bullshit! I don't know that they did to you, but once we get back to the Citadel, they'll patch you up, now come on." He reached out harshly to grab his shoulder, but Gamma 17 slapped the hand away. His superior recoiled, shocked. "Fine, we'll play it your way, traitor. Looks like I have one more vermin to exterminate." He raised the butt of his rifle to slap Gamma 17 with it, but the man was too switch for him, and caught the weapon, yanking it from his hands and throwing it across the room.

Unarmed, the two soldiers stood facing each other. Gamma 17 assumed the defensive hand-to-hand combat position they had been taught in training, as did the Elite.

Gamma 37 made the first move, roundhouse kicking faster than any other human would have been able to evade. But neither of them were normal humans. Gamma 17 dropped to the deck, pulling the Elite's feet out from under him. The man crashed into the ground, cracking the back of his helmet on the concrete, distorting his vision.

Both jumping to their feet, and Gamma 17 brought his boot up and aimed for the man's center, missing as Gamma 37 manuevered to the side.

"You really believe everything they said? You're really willing to give it all up for those foul, unsavory creatures that call themselves human." He hissed, jabbing left, missing, then jabbing right, and connecting. Gamma 17 flew back several feet and smashed against the wall, leaving a small dent. But before the Elite could follow up, he was on his feet, the redness in his eyes glowing now with the fire of a passion unabated by pain.

"No amount of killing is going to end it, sir. They have the passion, the drive, and the will to defeat you." He brought both hands forward and shattered the man's armor with the force of the punch, sending him sprawling.

The Elite gasped for air, his mechanical insides exposed. Blood and circuitry, entangled in a sick ballet, filled his body. The old saying was true for him, more machine than man. The red ocular sensor looked up at the figure towering before him. A man apart, a man between the worlds, but with a purpose.

And a detonator in his left hand.

The red senor narrowed, taking in the sight of the small device.

"The entire time…" liquids gurgling in his throat causing his voice to be more distorted than it already was. "You…you could have…"

"I could have," Gamma 17 began. "but I needed to do this." He said shoving a boot into the gaping wound eliciting a scream. "For me."

His thumb depressed the button.

The tunnel grew white, then exploded.

But that explosion had set Michael Williams free.

A/N: So? Like it? Yes? No? Just a quick review, it only takes a few seconds, but means a lot to an author!