Author's Notes: Hoooly crap, it has been a long time since I last updated this story. And by long I mean almost seven months. That's actually a rather significant portion of my life.
I don't really have a compelling story to tell about what's happened in the intervening time, and to be honest I'm still wondering how that much time managed to pass so quickly. Suffice to say that school was and remains incredibly stressful, even more so because in less than a year it's going to be all over, and I'll have reached the culmination of over twelve years of my life. Won't it be grand?
But let's be honest, you just came here for the story. So without further ado, here it is: just over 8,000 words of pure quality. (Hint hint super ego.) And if I hadn't seen sense and decided to split the chapter, it would have been even longer. Enjoy!
He'd been completely aware of the risks, of the consequences that his decision would entail for both himself and those that he was responsible for. It was the same burden that he'd willingly shouldered for his whole life, being given the power to make these decisions, and possessing the resolution to do so.
Despite never quite knowing if he was truly making the right choice, or even what the right choice should be, he carried on because it was what he had committed his life to.
And throughout that life, the results of his decisions had only served to strengthen that resolution. With that, he knew that he had done the best he could for himself and his people, the people his family had ruled and served for centuries past.
But there were always others, even greater men and women than him, who disagreed with the ideals that had defined his life. Time and time again they would make their displeasure known, which for the most part he could simply brush off. Because nothing was more important than himself and his people.
The message from his superior, the one man who even he was completely vulnerable to, made him wonder if he had really made the right choice.
Disappointed in the evacuation decision.
Consequences will be dire.
That is all.
In Hans' experience, the lack of detail and emotive language was just another method of the trademark emotional manipulation that the Overseer employed. After so many years as a politician, Hans was painfully aware of just how effective it could be, even on somebody of his mental stature. He'd often wondered why he never seemed to be affected by the Overseer's mental intimidation; or whether he actually was, and didn't know it. But then, he always reflected, the insane man never questioned his sanity, because to be insane was to have a corrupted definition of being sane. If he could ask himself whether he was still his own man, then he must be.
There was, however, no questioning of the Overseer's physical power over people. Even Hans didn't know exactly where he was located in the Earth Government's food chain; only that it had to be near the top, given his constant consumption of the people at the bottom. It was no secret what happened to people who failed to toe the line, or even think about doing so; he'd even been responsible for it many times, a distasteful duty that he carried out to avoid the same fate.
Knowing that the day might come when the Overseer would finally lose his patience with Hans' stubborn refusal to be cowed, he had gradually taken precautions over the years to keep his position secure. Ever since he had taken on his duty as the Director of Titan Station, he had worked hard to bring the Sprawl out of the economic downturn it had sunken into after years of EarthGov's oppressive policies. He had provided incentives to encourage free enterprise, reduced taxes by two percent (he needed the rest of the Sprawl's tax revenue to implement his changes, but nobody could say no to paying less tax), and subsidized the medical industry to make it accessible to everyone – and most importantly, he had reconstructed the Sprawl's police and security forces in the face of his gradual economic changes.
Before, Titan Station's security officers had just been more of EarthGov's jacked-up trigger-happy goons, who were given a suit and a weapon without the proper training to use them. Hans had effectively torn down the Academy and started it over from scratch, drilling into the cadets the responsibilities of law enforcement, the respect they had to have for their community even if they had to treat them harshly, how nothing excused the loss of life under any circumstances. Basically, he had taught them how to behave like police officers.
Eventually, they had accepted his policies and graduated from the Academy, beginning to perform their duties, and the extraordinary happened: the crime rate dropped for the first time in over a decade, much to the horror of the previous contingent of security officers. After that, the majority of them had drifted away from the Sprawl, either from Hans firing them or getting a transfer to somewhere else to exercise their brute-force practices.
The result was a community and security force that was loyal to him, and Titan Station, not EarthGov. Even if the Overseer tried to subvert the officers themselves, they wouldn't obey without asking at least one question. That hesitation might allow Hans to respond before anything could happen to him.
In any case, he still had something to bargain with. The Marker that EarthGov's science division had built over three years with the codes from Isaac Clarke's demented mind had produced invaluable research, all of which was stored in secure memory cores deep in the government sector, completely isolated from the outside universe. If the Overseer wanted that data, as he had indicated on more than one occasion, he would have to deal with Hans to get it.
The only complication was, ironically, the Marker itself. It had taken him a long time to notice, but shortly after its construction had been completed the residents of the Sprawl had experienced a large degree of unrest, culminating in the Unitologist riot only a month ago.
And then, of course, the Necromorphs had appeared. And suddenly his position was a lot more precarious. Even if they didn't reach Government Sector, Hans and his staff couldn't remain there indefinitely. They would have to evacuate themselves when EarthGov "assistance" arrived, and Hans was certain the Overseer would have a lovely reception party waiting for him in Earth orbit.
Today was only going to get worse.
As if it was just another of the innumerable practice drills he'd gone through on his way to get through graduation and eventually here, Scott leaped through the open doorway; facing the left, legs bent, rifle raised, finger on the trigger. Beside him, Yvonne leaned out to cover the right of the corridor, her shotgun's flashlight pointing into the darkness, loaded with shredder rounds that had been specially requisitioned from the store. Now that the group had another effective weapon between them, the sarcastic schoolgirl had decided she wanted to be closer to the combat and the possibility of blasting those freaky monsters to bits. Scott had made a token protest, but Beth had been happy to retire to the rear for the time being, presumably shaken from their last encounter.
With his flashlight beam he swept his side of the corridor, searching for hostiles, vents and supplies. Apart from the usual pieces of luggage and debris strewn over the floor, Scott couldn't see anything threatening. "Sector clear, two vents," he reported to the others.
"Nothing over here, either," Yvonne added, stepping out into the middle of the corridor. After a second, she let the shotgun hang from the shoulder strap she'd added to it. At Tyler's suggestion, she'd gone on a small shopping spree with his store account earlier, having requisitioned numerous spare magazines of shotgun shells that she was now carrying on a torso harness. She'd wanted grenades as well, but even Tyler had refused, joking that she was dangerous enough a girl already. Scott had remarked that she resembled a mercenary with all the straps she was wearing, to which she'd grinned and replied "That's the point."
Beth and Tyler entered the hallway behind them, both with their weapons lowered but ready. "Which way, Scott?" Beth asked, turning to pull Lauren along.
"To the left," he replied, taking a moment to check the schematic and pathfinder again. "Only three hundred metres to go. We can get there in five minutes and get the hell out of here."
"Amen to that," Tyler muttered, looking around the corridor as if he didn't trust Scott's assessment. "Alright, let's go."
Before any of them started moving, Lauren suddenly spoke without warning. "Do you hear it?" she asked, in a small whisper that nonetheless managed to carry clearly through the air.
Everybody turned to face her, surprised at the sound of her voice. Their surprise intensified when they saw the expression on her face; somehow, despite displaying all the appearances of a traumatized victim of the horror that was all around them, despite having experienced the blood and death first-hand, she was smiling. A blissful smile. As if she'd just found inner peace with herself.
Maybe she had.
Scott spoke first, voicing the question they all had. "What are you talking about, Lauren?" he questioned calmly; but even as he did so, his hands unconsciously started to grip his pulse rifle harder.
"Can't you hear it?" she said, in that same breathy voice. "It's calling us. To our salvation, and beyond." She let out a tiny giggle, one that chilled them all to the core.
"The hell are you on about?" Tyler repeated, his voice betraying his gradually rising agitation. "What salvation?" A thought struck him, and he added "You're not talking about that Uni crap, are you?"
As if she had heard him, Lauren answered. "Salvation is what awaits all of us," she whispered. "It is the fate all will attain at the end of their life's journey. For life is but a transition from the light of the universe to the dark of the void. Salvation frees us." She paused, for a moment, and finished "Salvation makes us whole," before smiling blissfully again.
There was silence after that, enough for Scott to be able to hear the Sprawl's background environmental noises, until Beth spoke. "She's really gone, isn't she?" she murmured sadly.
"Yeah," Tyler agreed, lowering his gaze. "She's gone off the deep end for sure. I'm really sorry. She seemed like a good person."
Scott nodded morosely, but he knew they couldn't afford to stand around and commiserate while those monsters found another way to get the drop on them. He'd heard plenty of suspicious noises in the air vents and behind doors that had been auto-quarantined and locked, and while the group hadn't had any further encounters yet, he knew that just meant that the monsters were biding their time, able to sit back and make the first move at their own discretion.
"We have to keep moving," he stated bluntly, "This way, let's go." He nudged Yvonne with his elbow, reminding her to follow him, but kept walking without giving any of them the chance to object, forcing them to scurry to keep up.
Beth continued to pull Lauren along, as usual, but she couldn't just ignore what was happening to one of her friends – or at least, the person who used to be her friend. She glanced at her friend's face, which was still wearing that unbelievable happy smile that stood out against her pale white skin, and the small red splotches of blood that had splattered onto her clothes.
"Hey, Darrell?" she entreated, keeping one hand holding Lauren's and the other holding her plasma cutter at all times.
"Yeah, Beth?" Tyler replied, turning slightly to keep an eye on the corridor behind them.
"Shouldn't we do something for Lauren? Like, put her to sleep, or something like that?"
A groan escaped Tyler's lips, thankfully not finding its way through the helmet speaker, as he tried to think of what to say to reassure the clearly stressed schoolgirl. And to think he'd been joking around with these same girls with a cocky grin on his face just an hour or two ago. "Well…no, I don't think that'd be a really good idea," he answered slowly. "For one, she can still walk on her own, even if we have to drag her along." A rogue chuckle nearly left him, but he suppressed the impulse. "I've got some sedatives I could give her, but then we'd have to carry her, and that would slow us down even more, plus it would be harder to babysit her in combat. As long as she doesn't turn dangerous on us, it's better to keep her awake. For now, at least."
"Yeah, I guess you're right," Beth replied, looking down at her feet momentarily. "I just– I just wish I could do something for her, you know? I hate seeing her like this. It's just…not right, you know?"
"Yeah, I know what you mean," Tyler said, letting out a sigh as he briefly let go of his rifle to stretch his arms out. "Don't worry. As soon as we get to the transport hub, we can get her looked at by some proper medics. They'll know what to do about her."
"I suppose," Beth agreed, but still seemed to be about to say something else when Scott suddenly ordered "Stop. Do you hear that?"
Everyone halted and started scanning the walls with their weapons, trying to hear what Scott had heard. It wasn't difficult; within moments of focusing their attention, they could all discern the strange, rasping sounds that seemed to be issuing from somewhere they couldn't see. But it had to be somewhere very close.
"It's gotta be behind the door," Tyler said after a couple of seconds. "But fuck if I know what it is."
"Agreed," Scott nodded. "We couldn't hear it from further down the hallway. I can't tell what it is, but it's not normal, and it can't be a coincidence."
"Which means those things are probably waiting for us," finished Tyler. "Damnit."
"Crap," Yvonne muttered. "Can't we just take another route around? There always have to be multiple ways to get somewhere."
"Yeah, that always sounds good in the classroom," Tyler replied, "but it doesn't always work like that. There's only one other route to get to the transport hub from here, and that's a thirty minute detour in a fucking maze. And somehow I doubt they'll wait that long for us to arrive."
As if to confirm Tyler's statement, Scott's RIG sounded to inform him of an incoming transmission. "Patrol Team Six, this is Lieutenant Karder. Acknowledge."
He immediately recognized her as the Captain's assistant officer, and responded accordingly. "Acknowledged, Lieutenant."
"Nice to hear your voice again, Karder," Tyler remarked, causing Scott to shoot him a look that went unseen.
"Give me a status report, Sergeant," Karder went on, ignoring the sarcasm. "How far away are you from the transport hub?"
"We're within five minutes' walking distance, but we think we're about to encounter an unknown obstacle, likely hostile. We don't know how much that'll add to the travel time."
"Roger that," came Karder's stern reply. "I would suggest you make haste regardless of what you encounter. The evacuation is already underway from here, and the last tram will leave in less than fifteen minutes. Our position hasn't come under attack yet, but it's only a matter of time, and anyone who doesn't get here in time will be left behind. Understood, Sergeant?"
"Understood, Lieutenant," Scott answered smoothly.
"Good. You mentioned before that you were escorting civilian survivors. How many have you got with you?"
"Just the three of them. Two are in good condition, and the third…" Scott hesitated, unsure how to describe it, and eventually said "Well, we can't really tell. She's mobile, though, so we should have no problems."
"Acknowledged. I'll see you when you arrive at the transport hub. Remember, Sergeant, fifteen minutes. Karder out."
As soon as Scott's RIG flashed to indicate the end of the transmission, Yvonne chuckled and remarked "What a bitch."
Beth couldn't resist using the typical response. "Coming from you, that says a lot," she giggled.
"What? Oh, fuck you!"
"Stop that!" Scott ordered as the ill-tempered girl started to raise her shotgun in a threatening manner, in a strict tone that he found unusual but necessary. "We know what we have to do, and there'll be plenty of time to kick around and relax when we're on a tram out of here. But not before. Understand?"
"Sorry, Scott," Beth replied in a low voice.
"Yeah, okay," Yvonne muttered. "Let's go already. I wanna kill shit."
Scott considered responding to that comment, but in truth found it hard to disagree with her. He gestured with his arm and commanded "Okay, stack up on the door. Same formation as last time, but this time we do it slowly. We don't want to give whatever's on the other side a good shot at us."
"Damn right," Tyler muttered, even as he braced himself against the wall to aim his rifle down the corridor behind them, while Beth took the other side.
"I'm ready, Scott," Yvonne said, checking her shotgun one more time.
"Then let's do it," Scott ordered. He waved his hand in front of the Open? holograph on the door, then ducked back to the side while its servos were still building up pressure to open it. He had enough time for one last glance to make sure his rifle was full and ready to fire.
The door slid open, and everyone tensed, waiting to fill whatever came out full of holes. But although the strange rasping noises were louder, and clearer now, nothing came out of the doorway.
"Go," Scott said, and moved without waiting for Yvonne's acknowledgement. He swept into the next hallway, hugging the doorway as he did so, and aimed his rifle into it, finger on the trigger. Tension was making him breathe heavily, and he tried to control it, managing some success. With no monsters barrelling down the corridor at him, or popping out of any vents, he allowed himself to relax a little, and started to scan the walls for any threats.
"Jeez, what the hell is all that shit?" Yvonne said, making him turn to face her. "It's fucking everywhere! Just look at this, you guys!"
Scott gulped instinctively, and took a step backwards, as he realized what she was talking about. Being so focused on monsters charging at them with roars and razor-sharp blades, he hadn't noticed that nearly the entire corridor was covered in some sort of…shit, he decided, was the only word for it. It was everywhere, mostly on the walls, but there were large patches on the floor and ceiling, smothering all the straight lines and edges. It looked distinctly like slabs of rotting meat, and, as he inhaled some of the air around him, stank like it too. He hurriedly engaged his suit's air filters, though they couldn't eliminate the stench entirely.
"Christ, that stinks," Beth complained as she came through the door, letting go of Lauren to fan her face with her hand. "It's worse than when the ventilation broke down in our section. And I thought that was bad."
"I know, right?" Yvonne replied. "And we have to walk through that shit. Fuck."
Ignoring the stench as best as he could, Scott continued to look around the hallway, trying to locate the source of the rasping sounds. While he couldn't directly see anything, he noticed that there were distinct blobs amongst the growth, that seemed to pulse up and down in time with the rasping. They put him in mind of pustules, or cysts, that he'd briefly seen during his mandatory first-aid course. The blobs looked similar, and certainly had to be dangerous in some way.
"Well, this is still the only way to the transport hub," Tyler said as he came up behind them, covering the rear corridor. "So I guess we'll just have to grin and –"
"Lauren! What the hell are you doing?!" Yvonne demanded loudly, causing everybody to spin and look.
Scott turned just in time to see Lauren skipping past him, in a way that completely and utterly defied any form of sanity that could be found in a situation like this. Not only was she skipping directly down the unsecured corridor that was full of weird biomass and cyst-like objects, but she was laughing whilst doing it.
"The path to salvation is near," she said in that whisper, seeming to echo between the walls of the corridor. "All will embark on it in time, and be made whole."
"Lauren! Get back here!" Yvonne shouted, raising her shotgun and starting to run after the insane schoolgirl.
"No! Stay back!" Scott ordered; but even as Beth lunged forward to grab her back, he knew there wasn't enough time. In sickening slow motion, he watched as the nearest cyst spat out an equally small globule, glowing a sinister yellow, towards Yvonne and Beth. In a second, it would make contact with the pair of them and, undoubtedly, even if he was somehow able to aim at and shoot it in time, it would explode in some manner. It would be totally lethal at point-blank range, and the two schoolgirls would likely die a horribly, messy death.
So he did the only thing that he could think of: he thrust his left hand towards the bomb, and activated his kinesis module.
The localized gravity field locked on to the globule, and exerted its own force to nullify the bomb's inertia, a scant few centimetres before it would have struck.
With the bomb's motion under control, Scott held it several metres away from his face, the only distance he considered acceptably safe. Realizing he'd just narrowly saved the lives of those he was sworn to protect, he took several deep breaths, trying to calm his body's errant nervous and adrenal systems.
If he hadn't seen the danger, if he hadn't reacted in time, if he'd been just a second slower–
"Shit, what the hell was that?" Yvonne demanded, only now starting to realize the danger she'd put herself in. "Fuck, I could have died! This is just fucked up!"
"One of those cyst things launched some kind of bomb," Scott answered calmly, knowing it was the best way to get Yvonne to get over the shock, and being extremely careful not to accidentally drop what he was still holding. "It seemed to trigger when you and Beth stepped near it. We got lucky this time, and we're all thankful for that, but we have to be very, very careful with these things. Alright?" He looked at the biological bomb again, and shuddered. The thing was wriggling, like it was alive in some way. He wasn't really surprised, considering the other monsters they'd already encountered, but it still disgusted him on some primitive level. Something like that just shouldn't be alive.
"You're fucking telling me," Yvonne seethed, aiming down the corridor where Lauren had disappeared out of sight. "Why didn't they go off when Lauren went nuts? What the hell is wrong with her anyways?"
"Hell if I know," Tyler muttered darkly, glancing nervously around the corridor with his flashlight.
Yvonne growled, and swung back towards the cysts. She took aim at one on the wall with her shotgun, and, before Scott could warn her against it, fired.
The shredder shot punctured the cyst, causing it to squirt jets of some weird liquid, and it let out a loud squeal. Then it launched another of those bombs, which impacted against the opposite wall and exploded, blowing a hole out of the biomass that covered it.
Everyone exhaled as nothing else seemed to happen, then Tyler piped up "Well, that was underwhelming."
"At least we know how to get rid of them now," Scott replied, wondering exactly what he should say to Yvonne about her impulsive behaviour and apparent temper problems. Like Lauren had, she could easily become a liability if he wasn't careful how he handled her.
Before he could decide, there was a crashing sound behind them, and he whipped around to see a puker stumbling through the doorway they had just come through.
"Shit!" Tyler cursed, and fired his rifle at the puker. The bullets made it stumble, briefly, but it still roared and put its head back.
With one hand still holding the cyst bomb in the air, Scott couldn't aim and fire his rifle properly; but the puker was still about to vomit acid onto Tyler at close range, and he was failing to damage the creature significantly even with limb shots. Realizing the bomb was becoming a danger to himself and the others, he reversed the direction of the kinesis field and launched it at the wall behind the puker, his hands moving to aim his rifle and assist Tyler.
The bomb's arc was lower than he'd expected, and it landed just near the puker's feet. It exploded, and the blast tore the puker apart in a spray of gore and acid that coated the walls.
Scott stared at the carnage, still clutching his rifle, not believing that he'd caused it.
Then Tyler yelled out in pain, and Scott immediately rushed over to help him, forgetting all about making sure the area was secure. "Shit, Tyler, what the hell happened? Are you okay?" His teammate's RIG physiological monitor was showing yellow, which while not critical was most definitely a concern, both tactically and personally.
"No! Fucking hell," Tyler gasped, almost doubling over as he tried to steady himself. "That fucker…puked on my leg…" Then he froze. "Shit, that's acid! On my leg!" he barked out frantically. "Get it off, now!"
Scott didn't need to be told twice, and was already frisking his partner's suit pouches for the medical supplies. "Keep an eye out while I take care of Tyler!" he ordered the two now-very worried schoolgirls as he pulled the burns kit out of its designated pouch, breaking it open in his haste.
Recalling the correct procedure for dealing with acid burns, Scott quickly identified the wound on Tyler's right leg and sprayed it down with a can of aerosol. It was mostly water, but the mixture also contained clusters of nano-machines that actively identified and adhered to acid, neutralizing it before it could cause further injury.
When he was satisfied that the wound was clean, Scott grabbed a medium med pack and applied it liberally, making sure to cover the entire wound. The cyan gel was also a blend of chemical and nano-engineering from the EarthGov science division, being an analgesic, clotting and healing agent that had been the standard for paramedics and EMTs throughout human space for over a century. Once the gel sealed the wound to prevent possible infection (unlikely on a mostly-sterile space installation, but never dismissed), the embedded nano-machines began identifying and repairing damaged cells, speeding up healing by an order of magnitude.
It wasn't a substitute for proper medical treatment by qualified professionals, but it had miners and engineers injured in hazardous jobs back at work in days instead of weeks.
Tyler hissed in relief as the content of the med pack did its work. "Shit, man, that was too goddamn close. I don't know how long I can keep this up."
"We're almost there, Tyler," Scott assured his partner as he put the remaining medical supplies away, noting that Tyler's RIG monitor had increased to a stable green. "Just two hundred and fifty metres, and we'll be on a tram out of here. Think you can handle that?"
"I'll do that, but you're buying us all drinks once we're back in GovSec. Even if they're both underage."
Scott chuckled. "Deal. Now let's get the hell out of here." He turned to Yvonne, and directed her to cover the corridor behind them, in case any more monsters decided to jump them, and then turned back to face the cysts blocking their path ahead.
Remembering Yvonne's example, he located the cyst closest to them and fired a short burst into it. As expected, it squealed and launched its bomb. While it was in mid-air, Scott tried using kinesis again to catch it before it hit the wall, barely managing it with the aid of the module's motion compensator.
Making sure to adjust the arc properly this time, Scott aimed at another cyst and let it fly. To his gratification, the bio-bomb struck the second cyst almost dead on target, causing it to also squeal and release its bomb as it died.
"Alright, we can do this," he told the rest of the group, who had been carefully watching his example. "I'll clear these things out so we can move ahead. Yvonne, you keep guarding the rear in case more of those things show up. Tyler, help her out, and Beth, you stay with me and make sure I don't miss any. Everyone got that?"
They all nodded. "Good, let's do it." Scott focused on the corridor ahead, and began sweeping it, using the distinctive rasping of the cysts to locate them.
He'd only managed to clear another four cysts before he heard more roars behind them, followed by the reports of Yvonne's shotgun and Tyler's rifle firing. He glanced back for a moment, seeing a pair of slashers charging at them even as they were gunned down, and more emerging from the corridor behind them.
"You've got to be kidding me," Scott groaned as Tyler fired a grenade into the mass, revealing even more monsters coming at them.
"Status report," Lewis said, for the fourth time in fifteen minutes.
Rina Karder glared at the display in front of her, wondering why the Captain had become so nervous in the past few minutes. It wasn't like him; he was normally a man who was firmly in charge of whatever situation might present itself to the Sprawl's security forces, and he'd indeed proved that in his exemplary handling of the now-infamous Unitologist riot. Even when the front-line officers were being burned alive by incendiaries, and their formation compromised, Captain Lewis had directed the rest of them calmly and precisely, eventually managing to subdue the situation and send those Uni bastards into medical or detention where they belonged. Without Lewis to keep them focused and un-panicked, the situation could have ended a lot worse.
But now, with an invisible and totally unknown threat scratching at the walls and massacring the Sprawl's residents just out of sight, he was becoming twitchier, glancing between the walls every few seconds as if he'd heard something, and checking his sidearm more often than was acceptable or necessary.
And it wasn't just him, either. She'd noticed that other security officers and technicians around her were exhibiting the same strange behaviour, yet all of them claimed that it was nothing when she questioned them. It could have been simply the stresses of the situation none of them knew how to deal with, but she didn't believe that. Something was wrong here, terribly wrong.
Nevertheless, she obediently responded "Nothing significant to report, sir. The evacuation is on schedule, and the latest tram is just pulling out. Patrol Teams Six and Seventeen are still on their way, but have encountered difficulties. No breaches detected."
"Good, good," Lewis acknowledged, drumming his boots nervously on the floor and muttering something under his breath.
Karder turned to glare at the man, not bothering to hide the annoyance on her features. "Are you sure you're alright, sir?" she countered. "You really don't look too good, and the medics are right around the corner."
"I'm fine, Lieutenant," came the expected reply, the Captain not even looking at her. "Just keep on guard for anything that might happen."
"Yes, sir," she replied, but as soon as she was facing away again she sighed angrily. This sudden twitchiness that was affecting everyone was growing too dangerous for their safety. She was already in the mind to declare Lewis unfit for duty and take over command, but they still hadn't been attacked by anything, and it would be…difficult, to say the least, to account for her actions if nothing happened after all.
Brushing away the shiny brown hair that had made schoolboys swoon a long time ago, Karder scanned the display again for any abnormal occurrences. The loading of residents onto the evacuation trams was proceeding smoothly, and the remainder were still waiting patiently for their turn.
With nothing of significance happening there, Karder shifted her attention to the teams of security officers assigned to guard the transport hub's entrances. They were stretching the limits of their manpower, but she was pleased with the way that they'd been able to secure every approach satisfactorily. If any of those freaky monster things tried to get inside, they'd know about it.
To vent her frustration about the worsening condition of those around her, she started calling up each of the guard teams, demanding their status reports. She privately delighted in their reactions as they scrambled to provide an answer to their commanding officer, being able to influence people in that way.
"Corporal Markson, this is Lieutenant Karder. Acknowledge."
Until she reached Patrol Team Eight, who failed to respond entirely. Instantly suspicious, Karder first checked the connection to them. Her queries were being transmitted perfectly, and she was still receiving the RIG feeds from each of the team members. They just didn't respond to any transmissions.
Infuriated by a further complication to the evacuation, Karder overrode communications protocol and forced open a channel to the insubordinate team members. But when she repeated herself, there was still no response, only the steady, regular echoes of the three officers breathing in their helmets.
She cursed under her breath, and started to designate another security team to investigate when Eight's team leader said something that his communicator picked up.
"Acknowledged, Director. We're moving into the transport hub now and anticipating contact. Markson out. Okay, people, let's move!"
Karder watched in disbelief as the tactical display showed the three errant officers, through their RIG feeds, leaving their assigned post and moving towards the centre of the transport hub.
"What the hell are you doing, Corporal?" she snapped into her computer's pickup, even though she'd already realized it would have no effect. "Return to your assigned post now." When there was still no response, she growled in frustration and opened a channel to a nearby security team that was still functioning properly. "Patrol Team Nine, this is Lieutenant Karder. Acknowledge."
"Reading you loud and clear, Lieutenant," the team leader, Corporal Gencell, answered.
"Corporal Gencell, Patrol Team Eight is exhibiting suspicious behaviour," Karder said. "They have abandoned their post and are making their way inwards. You are to intercept them directly and have them explain themselves. Is that understood?"
"Roger that, Lieutenant. We're moving now. Stand by for contact."
Karder couldn't be bothered to reply, and instead turned to watch the progress of the two teams on the tactical display. As they closed in on each other, she was surprised to note that Markson's wayward team was advancing slowly in a wedge-shaped assault formation, as if they were uncertain of what was ahead. Which was ridiculous, because they surely would know what the rest of the security platoon stationed in the transport hub was doing. Karder herself would have told them a few hours ago, if nothing else.
"Hold up," the point man of Markson's squad suddenly announced. "I think I heard something."
"Okay, possible contact," Markson replied. "Keep it tight, it's probably a patrol."
At the same time, Corporal Gencell contacted Karder again. "Lieutenant, we're coming up on Eight's position. They're in the next hallway."
"Stick to what I told you," Karder ordered, watching the tactical display intently.
"Yes, sir. I see them now." A faint crackle marked Gencell switching his external speaker on to talk to Markson's team. "Jesus, Markson! What the hell do you think you're doing? You can't just leave your post like this! Are you trying to get us all killed, you fucking moron?"
"Hostile contact! Engage!"
"What the fuck–"
Gunshots rattled out of Gencell's RIG feed, causing the entire room to jerk in surprise and glance around nervously, before settling on the tactical display. Abruptly, the RIG of one of his team members flatlined, emitting a toneless beep as User Vital Functions Terminated. flashed up on the display.
"Shit! Eight's gone psycho!" Gencell yelled over the gunfire. "Sanson's down, we need backup here!"
Karder was frozen for a moment, still refusing to believe that one of her own security teams had just gone rogue.
"They're in cover! Fitzandrew, suppressive fire!"
"I'm on it, sir!"
"Chew on this, you rock-headed bastards!"
"Oh fuck, grenade –!"
There was an explosion, and Gencell's RIG transmissions cut off, at the same time that he and his surviving teammate both flatlined.
"Area clear, proceed to the target."
"Roger that, sir."
Almost everybody's eyes were remaining fixed on the tactical display, but Karder was not one of them. Finally snapping out of her disbelief, she immediately set her communicator to broadcast her transmission. "Attention all officers, this is Lieutenant Karder. Patrol Team Eight has gone rogue for unknown reasons; I say again, has gone rogue. They have already killed several officers, and are heading to the tram station.
"All officers are ordered to shoot on sight. Do not allow them to interfere with the evacuation. Karder out."
A flurry of acknowledgements quickly returned, and officers began moving on the tactical display to intercept the rogues.
Karder breathed out heavily, and glanced quickly at Captain Lewis, who was muttering something to himself again.
As she found herself glowering at her commanding officer again, a random piece of trivia popped up in her mind. Just before he blew up Gencell and his teammate with a quasi-grenade, Markson had taunted them. He'd called them rock-heads, a commonplace insult to Unitologists. But none of the security officers in the platoon were at all devoted Unitologists.
So what the hell was that supposed to mean?
"That's enough!" somebody suddenly shouted, and she whirled around to see one of the security officers in the room, Private Demerin, standing near the exit. One hand was held on his forehead, dripping with sweat, while the other clutched at his pulse rifle.
"You think you can just spout all that bullshit, about making us whole, and I'm just gonna nod my head and go along with it? Huh?" Demerin's eyes were filled with hate and anger, even as everyone else in the room started to back away and reach slowly for their weapons.
"Do you think that's fucking funny?" he went on. "Do you? Well, I'll fill you with holes! That'll make you whole! I'll fucking show you!"
He raised his pulse rifle, and clicked off the safeties.
"Shit," Karder swore, and dived behind her terminal as Demerin and everybody else opened fire, filling the air with pulse rounds.
Corporal Jeremy Markson followed behind his point man Private Fitzandrew, with Private Tangiber guarding the rear, making good time as they made their way into the transport hub. Even so, he made sure to keep scanning his surroundings, not trusting that they weren't about to be ambushed somehow. The terrorists probably hadn't yet mustered a response to the loss of their patrol team, but they would soon.
When they did, he and his team would be glad to give them more where that came from.
In some ways he'd always been prepared for this day, knowing that it would come sooner or later. He'd known that those damned Unitologists were nothing but trouble for the Sprawl, and he'd been proven right when an incendiary exploded behind his riot shield a month ago, enflaming his legs, his arms and parts of his torso.
Even though the doctors had given him skin grafts and repaired all the cell damage, putting him back on duty within three weeks, those moments of agony still burned brightly in his mind as a reminder that the rock-headed fanatics couldn't be trusted.
And now, today, he'd been proven right again.
Unitologist terrorists, not content with the harm and disorder they'd caused last time, had launched an outright assault the Sprawl; taking over all the major infrastructure before Titan Station Security had a chance to fight back. Nobody had a clue as to where the Marker-worshipping cult had managed to obtain a plethora of military-grade weaponry and equipment, including spacecraft to support their forces on the station; more evidence of the cult's illegal activities that EarthGov had failed to crack down on.
The terrorists had moved quickly and efficiently by taking control of the important transport hubs, preventing security from being able to move reinforcements to counter-attack. With the whole Sprawl effectively under the terrorists' control, they'd paused to mobilize their assault on the government sector. As the central transport hub was the only way to access Government Sector from the public sector, it was imperative that security re-take the central hub before the terrorists resumed their assault.
Markson and his team were a part of that mission, having been assigned to take back control of Transport Hub B-4 from a small terrorist garrison. Their orders had come directly from Director Tiedemann, telling them that they needed to secure the main tram lines so that security could mobilize to assault the central hub. Markson had at first questioned why only his team had been assigned to this section, but the Director had told him flatly that there were no other security squads nearby to assist, and they had to act immediately before the terrorists could cause any more damage.
Remembering the very reason he had become a security officer, he'd agreed to undertake the necessary duty to defend his home from the terrorists.
"Sir," Private Fitzandrew prompted him, and he noticed that they'd stopped at the end of a long hallway. "We've reached the central tram station. It's right through this door."
"Is it locked down?" Markson questioned. "Can we access the security systems from here?"
"The door's locked," Fitzandrew replied, "but they've only used the standard security protocols for it. We can just use our security override on it. Frankly, I expected better from them, given they seem to be so organized."
"They're terrorists," Markson replied. "Their only cause is to sow anarchy and destruction in our civilization. Even if they're working together, they're still the scum of the universe. Remember that."
"What if they're waiting for us on the other side," Tangiber asked, "and shoot us when we open the door?"
"We don't know if they are or not, but what we do know is we're gonna give them hell whether they're looking or not," Markson growled. "Stack up on the door, standard breach and clear."
The team spent a few seconds shifting into their assigned positions; Fitzandrew and Tangiber would enter first, followed by Markson, and clear the tram station of any hostiles.
"Go on my command. Three, two, one, go!"
Fitzandrew triggered the door's control holograph, and pressed up against the wall as it slid open. When no shots were fired through the open doorway, the two officers spun around the edges to aim into the room. Markson followed into the centre of the formation, rifle high on his shoulder.
His eyes rapidly swept across the room for targets, knowing he only had seconds to decide on his team's course of action.
He quickly identified at least two fireteams of terrorists, entrenched on the left and right of the room, outfitted with suits and weapons marked with Unitology symbols. Then he looked at the centre of the room, and regarded the cluster of unknowns standing there. He'd assumed they might be civilians, but as he looked closer he saw that many of them were wearing Unitology trinkets or jewellery; and more significantly, that all of them were carrying weapons.
The thought that the terrorists were recruiting and arming the Sprawl's resident rock-head population against EarthGov made his blood burn, and he gripped his pulse rifle tighter. They had to exterminate the threat now, before it could do any more harm to the innocent citizens of the Sprawl.
"Hostiles at ten, twelve and two o'clock!" he barked, as the mass of terrorists began to turn and aim their weapons at his team. "Each take a sector! Grenades, now!"
His officers didn't need to be told twice. As one they all adjusted their aim, compensating for the arc of the quasi-grenades, and fired. Fitzandrew at the left, Tangiber to the right, and Markson at the centre mass.
The blasts reverberated through the air as the three of them broke for cover, tearing apart the terrorists before they could react. The soft, unprotected Unitologists in the middle were simply shredded by the shrapnel, even as they were being pummelled by the shock wave. Within a second, the floor of the transport hub was littered with their pulped bodies, or at least what parts of them were left. It was impossible to see the metal of the floor, painted red as it was with the blood of the dead Marker-heads.
The terrorists wearing armoured suits fared better, however, and they quickly regrouped and opened fire on Markson and his team.
Markson reached a vending machine and flung himself behind it, barely managing to avoid being shot by the hail of pulse rounds. He looked around, seeing Fitzandrew lying prone under a bench, and Tangiber pressed up against a support column. Both of them were under heavy suppressive fire from the terrorists, who had positioned each fireteam at opposite corners to cover the whole room.
There was a break in the fire coming at them, and Markson leaned out carefully, seeing an exposed terrorist out of cover struggling to reload his pulse rifle. Markson aimed for his head and fired a burst, seeing the pulse rounds penetrate the helmet, and hearing the RIG's toneless flatline.
"They're behind the trolleys, eleven o'clock!" Fitzandrew yelled, as the terrorists refocused their fire on Markson's position.
"I see them!" Tangiber answered. "You lay down fire on them, I'll move up and flank them!"
"Roger that!" With fewer rounds being aimed at his position, Fitzandrew was able to crawl slightly to the right so that he could see the terrorists' position. Just as he was aiming, he caught sight of one of the terrorists leaning out of cover, with their pulse rifle angled upwards to launch a grenade. Fitzandrew shot him, and the terrorist's limbs flailed under the pulse rounds, causing the rifle to be pointed towards his comrades' position when he pulled the trigger.
Shoving a new magazine into his rifle, Tangiber saw the explosion and recognized his cue to move. Firing rapid bursts to discourage the terrorists from shooting at him, he advanced quickly towards their position, taking cover when his magazine began to run low.
With the terrorists now thoroughly pinned down by Fitzandrew and Tangiber, Markson broke out of cover and charged their position. Firing another grenade mainly to disorient them, he reached the edge of the trolley just as one of the terrorists stepped out to fire back. He was surprised to see Markson, but still managed to aim his weapon.
Markson dived and rolled forward as the terrorist fired, pulse rounds flying centimetres above his head. Before the terrorist could adjust his aim, Markson reached him and grabbed his gun, forcing it down and away, and swung his rifle into the terrorist's head.
He fired a single shot into the helmet, killing him, and then used the falling body as a shield as another terrorist fired at him with a shotgun. Using his kinesis module, he flung the body at the terrorist, stunning him long enough for Tangiber to shoot him in the back.
The room was silent, with only the hum of air conditioning and the thumps of objects and bodies falling to rest echoing in the empty air.
"No more contacts, sir," Fitzandrew reported.
"Negative over here, sir," Tangiber echoed.
"Good job, team," Markson said, and meant it. He was proud of the way they had accepted their duty to the Sprawl and its residents, and carried it out with the utmost efficiency and determination. He knew that by clearing Transport Hub B-4 of the evil, greedy, insurrectionist Marker-head terrorists, he'd done his part to help his community in its time of need. "Keep it secure, I'm going to report in. Director Tiedemann, this is Corporal Markson. We've cleared the hub's tram station of all hostiles. Awaiting orders."
Thirty seconds later, the reply came. "Well done, Corporal," Tiedemann's magnanimous voice spoke from the RIG's communicator. "You've done Titan Station proud, and our citizens thank you for the effort you've made. Now sit tight and keep the hub secure. Reinforcements are on the way to begin the assault on the central hub. Tiedemann out."
"Thank you, sir. Markson out." He looked around him, taking in the piles of dead Unitologists who had paid for their transgressions with blood. "Alright, let's secure those trams! Double time!"
Author's Notes: Made it all the way here? You are awesome and I love you.
This was a chapter that I was somewhat uncertain about, due mainly to variations in my writing style and plan for the story's future over those seven months. I honestly didn't expect it would be anywhere near this long, but there's something about my writing process which just has to expound on every detail I deem significant, and hopefully portraying my vision accurately and in an enjoyable manner.
Thanks to the people who reviewed on the last chapter, you really do mean a lot to me! (Especially you, Jan Lee, you're special. Teehee.) Feel free to ask me any questions about me or the story in reviews or PMs, or offer any constructive criticism you might have.
That's all for now, folks! See you next time, whenever that might be!