Today was the day she stepped over that threshold of the mundane, crossing over into a world teetering on the brink of chaos, disorder that somehow seemed organized, death that was anything but usual and with more explosions than the fourth of July. Today was the day she stopped existing and started living, leaving behind whatever name she had: good or bad, and adopted a new persona under the crisp gold and red emblem of the fire-starter. Today, and for every day after that, she was the Pyro.
For two and a half hours now she had been sitting there, baking in the hot summer sun shaded only by an unfinished overhang. The train station, if it could be called that, had long since been abandoned. It was more a piece of history now, left only to serve as a reminder of the glory it had once been, perhaps the first train station in this area, or perhaps to demolish it would be too expensive. Old wood held it above the sea of sand, boiled by the sun's heat the planks that made its flooring had warped and bent. The rich barnyard red veneer had peeled from its surface leaving the station splotched with the splintering innards of wood. The tin roofing was missing panels and its once spotless metallic body was caked with a thick layer of dirt and sand. The old and decrepit platform creaked precariously with every step and with every breath of the wind would sway from side to side. Out here though, breezes were few and far between and when one rolled in on the waves of the sands, it was thick and heavy, like a gulp of molasses that congealed about her nostrils, caressing her cheek with sticky fingertips.
The new recruit was an average girl of average height with an average face. Her short red hair pulled back into some sort of imitation of a ponytail, just resting at the nape of her neck in some pathetic attempt to cool her overheating body. Short wisps of bangs fluttered about her pale face where flecks of freckles dotted her cheeks, sticking to the sweat that glistened on her face. For the hundredth time she withdrew the folded piece of paper that had brought her here, scanning over the finely printed letters soaked into its fibers.
It had been a week since she had been handed the blank envelope, peeled open its contents and discovered her recruitment onto the Reliable Excavation and Demolition Team. Covered within was every string of detail associated with the manner of business she would be getting herself into, of course this detailed paragraph was about as long and as unnerving as reading the hazards and risks associated with every bottle of medicine lined up at the drug store. In fact, according to this letter, it was pretty much a guarantee that she would die. Now, with odds like that most people, most sane people, would had tossed the letter to the side with a scoff "Who would be so stupid to do that?" The answer was simple – her. Sure the risks were numerous, and quite varied amazingly enough, but there was something incredibly tantalizing about the offered rate of pay. Even with all the risks associated with this organization, all those zeroes would look quite attractive in her bank account. Plus, it was a demolitions company, hazards such as explosions and flying debris were to be expected, perhaps their recent loss of an employee was subject to ignorance rather than an extremely dangerous environment.
According to its contents, she was to be the R.E.D's replacement for their late Pyrotechnician, whom had passed away due to some unfortunate, unidentified work related accident. The details were nothing she had come to be concerned with, what most intrigued her was that, of all the people in the world better suited to the job, it had been her that received this letter. She had doubted herself the proper respondent for she had never before worked within a Demolitions or Excavation company. The pyro part she had down pact, any idiot could start a fire, but the most excavation she had ever gotten herself into was digging a hole in the ground. Despite the evidence stacked against her and her obvious ignorance of the job, the letter left no room for doubt: her name was on it, her address, even her phone number, there was no denying the fact this envelope was meant for her and only her.
Despite its seeming authenticity, as the minutes crawled by with no sign of transport, she began to worry and fear that perhaps not. Maybe it were just some elaborate prank, concocted by a team of bored out of their mind college kids to drag some poor unsuspecting soul out into the middle of the desert to a train station that is no longer in commission. Nothing harmful in body or bank, but it sure was a waste of time.
She turned her wrist over, glancing once more at the time as if every look were to coax it along faster. No such luck. With a heavy sigh she hung her head, "Ugh, I knew this was a bad idea," she groaned recalling the most prominent phrase of the ages 'if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.' Just as she was reaching the edge of her patience, the sound of a train whistle floated in on that nonexistent breeze. It snapped the new employee up and to attention, craning her head to look down those rickety old tracks where she spied the fast approaching image of her forthcoming ride. It was a dusty old steam engine, pulled directly from the age of cowboys and bandits, chimney exhaling clouds of deep black smoke that tumbled down along its back, metal arms embraced its wheels, turning them over and over, ushering the train along those unsteady tracks. At one point in time, probably amongst the era when that aged train station had been in its prime, the locomotive had been painted a retro red, a color that had long since been faded by the sun, worn away by the pelting of the sand and dust of the desert it crossed through. The whistle sounded once more, signaling its arrival as those metal bars laced along the wheels slowed it to a stop. Metal slid along metal, coaxing forth a high pitched squeal from its tracks before the vehicle came to a sound stop.
It was shocking, to say the least, to see such an old train pull up to retrieve her, more shocking to see that when its doors slid open, the inner compartments were far more sophisticated than most any transportation system out there. Stepping over the gap between station and train was like crossing over from John Wayne to the Jetsons. Beauty really was only skin deep, for that terribly antiqued exterior did not apply to this finely renovated interior. The seats looked brand new, as if they'd just been installed the day before, decorated with deep red cushioning. The grooved flooring had been picked clean of dust and crumbs, not even a bug could find a succulent patch of floor to graze off of. The inside glass paneling had been recently wiped, the faint aroma of Windex still lingering about its surface, despite the cleanliness however, the outside panels still remained specked with sand, caught onto its exterior during its trek through the harsh environment, the only bit of apparent filth that was visible. In finale, at either end of the car, nuzzled into the far corner of the ceiling, sat installed a state of the art speaker set, linked to some unseen conductor's panel where the man in charge could relay each and every stop to its traveler's.
The public address system came to life, three differently tuned bells chiming out to the cabin, followed by a cheerful automated system, "Hello and welcome to the Reliable Excavation and Demolition Transport System. If you are not a Reliable Excavation and Demolition recruit, please say so now." A loud buzzer sounded, followed by a set of three clicks. At the end of the mechanical countdown, the same buzzer sounded. "Welcome. CLASS TITLE HERE. To the Reliable Excavation and Demolition transport system! Please stand clear of the doors as they will be closing nooow," the processor added a joyful inflection to the concluding word and just as it had informed, the metal doors slid back into place, securely locking the woman inside the cabin. There was no turning back now. "If you have brought any personal belongings on board, please deposit all personal belongings into the Mann Co. Personal Belonging Receptacle at this time. This includes: wallets, watches, rings, necklaces, handbags, cell phones, personal identifications, carry on items, hair brushes, mirrors, fruit, sandwiches, pet bugs, babies, snakes, hats, prosthetic devices, flip flops, safety blankets, stuffed octopuses, gum, gum on the soles of your shoes, paperclips, pencils, hopes, dreams and desire to liiive."
The red headed woman cocked an eyebrow to the request. Either someone had a cosmic sense of humor, or they were dreadfully compulsive. She turned her head from left to right, scouring the train's interior for the directed storage bin. Her eyes fell upon a cylindrical bin nestled inbetween the doors and starting panel of seating. Around its sleek body read 'Mann Co. Personal Belonging Receptacle,' thick black lettering pressed neatly onto its body distinguishing it as one of Mann Co.'s many products. That computerized system repeated its request in the woman's hesitation, "Please deposit all personal belongings into the Mann Co. Personal Belonging Receptacle." The woman approached the bin, peeking over its open top to take a gander at what may lie within. Apparently, all the trash from the trips before had been deposited within: napkins, cups and food items. "Any personal belongings that are not deposited into the Mann Co. Personal Belonging Receptacle will be removed from you on your arrival at BASE TITLE HERE." A quick inventory of her surroundings produced no other possible storage containers and the repetitive command was quickly finding its way beneath her skin. Begrudgingly, the woman swung the strap of the bag over her head, hoisting it up and into the designated bin, dropping it down onto a cushion of crumpled tissues, wrappers and empty bottles, next came her watch, cell phone, wallet and all other indicated pieces of personal matter. "Thank you. Your personal items will be returned to you" the recording skipped and the voice dropped down an octave sounding much more mechanical, "at your funeral." The tone of voice quickly reeled itself back up into its normal pitch, "Please have a seat as the train will be departing shortly." The train whistle sounded and the locomotive began its crawl away from the station, machinery pumping away as it worked itself up to full steam as the young woman carried herself down the empty aisle of seats.
The train ride was long, snaking its way through the stark desert landscape, avoiding any compilation of life. There wasn't much for the woman to do now but watch the world pass her by. Cactuses and tumbleweeds rolled on by, dotting the barren terrain, surviving on what little water the harsh environment had to offer. Soon though, she found that at one point, even the desert plant life refused to grow, and the proverbial ballet of hungry vultures had stopped. All that remained was the sand and the sun. Heat waves crashed down into the landscape, drawing out the familiar mirage of water just over the horizon, splitting the earth from sky in a faded blur, dancing just as the waves would beneath the sun. For a long time that scene remained static, causing the woman to question whether they were really moving at all. Every so often the train would shift from side to side and alleviate that worry, but still, the scene remained the same. A quick change in scenery occurred but once as a slow moving sign passed alongside the body of the train. A high standing white sign, belmished with bullets and thick printed letters, bordered by two bright yellow biohazard stamps: "RADIATION HAZARD" read the top line, "You are now entering the 2Fort Testing Site NO TRESPASSING by order of TF Industries." Before she could begin to worry, that friendly robot chimed back in on the PA System.
"Welcome CLASS TITLE HERE to BASE TITLE HERE," a set of buildings drew into site, breaking up the repetitive scenery with their outlandish appearance. The first was a modernized block, looking like your most typical factory, a grey blue coloring over its exterior joined with a line of high rising drums filled with who knows what. Opposing the factory was an old weathered barn, roofing completely absent in choice parts of the building, lost to the many years it had endured, paint faded from its once lavish barnyard red to a deep brown. It showed signs of obvious repair, fresh paint stood out like a sore thumb, incomplete patches marking up its exterior. Whoever had been working the job had finished only one piece of the building, a good chunk of the bottom level and given up by the time he, or she, had made it to the high rising central tower. Between the two stood a covered bridge, its rusted roof missing several sheets of sheltering, dotting the shadowed walkway with patches of sunlight. Silhouetted specks made their ways between the two buildings, the sounds of shouts and jeers barely making themselves heard over the loud clacking of metal against track, muddled somewhere within was the soft popping of gunfire, gone inadvertently unnoticed by the woman on board. "There are several bases belonging to the Reliable Excavation and Demolition team, this is just one of the many. Don't be fooled by the outside, our facilities are equipped with the latest technologies and the most sophisticated surveillance systems. It is one hundred percent bullet proof, bomb proof, fire proof, dinosaur proof, bandit proof, apocalypse proof, rain proof, tornado proof, baby proof and alien proof, it isn't, however, bug proof," it feigned humor. This train ride was quickly becoming a tour of Disney World as the computer automated voice introduced her to her work site, blissfully drawing her attention to each and every landmark in that humanly forged imitation of hospitality. "You've probably noticed the other building on site. That would be the Builders League United post. As a R.E.D it is your job to infiltrate that base and recover the enemy intelligence. Much easier said than done, those B.L.U.'s will be fighting you the whole way. If stealing the intel was easy you wouldn't be sitting here right now." The woman's jaw fell open, all those reservations she had bottled up, bubbling over as her robotic guide happily educated her on the gravity of the situation she had ignorantly walked into. The most she could do now was blink, breath and listen. "But before you do that, you're going to need some new clothes. Please follow the emergency floor lights to the back of the transport system."
The train occupant rose to the order, peering down the aisle at the string of white emergency lights at her feet. Her excitement towards her new place of employment had transformed itself into nervousness, causing her to tense, muscles faltering slightly at each step. The lighting system led her to the back of the cab, ushering her to pass over the connecting pathway into the subsequent train car. The separating door opened, allowing her passage onto the precarious platform. Every jerk of the train had her grasping onto whatever she could find to steady herself. Hurriedly she threw herself through the next car at the fear of tumbling down onto the tracks. How humiliating it would be to die before she even reached the station!
Oddly enough, this new train car withheld no official seating area, the only bit of stability offered for the ride being a single bar attached to the right hand side of the ceiling. The light within was supplied fully by electricity, the car completely void of any window to the outside. A set of metal lockers ran down the left side, the empty places of wall overtaken by photographs, posters and long winded pieces of paperwork. "Please locate your CLASS SYMBOL." Her head swiveled up to the ceiling at the voice, locating the set of speakers from which it emanated. Class symbol? Her attention fell back to those lockers, each one donning a different emblem: a target, a medical cross, a helmet, a flame. That must be her. She pressed the body of her index finger into the bar of metal, pushing it up and activating the tumblers within the locker. "From this day forward you will be known only by CLASS TITLE HERE. Wearing of your Reliable Excavation and Demolition required uniform is necessary at all times. Any deviation from the rule will result in immediate ridicule and termination. Within some situations, however, where termination does not occur, you will be further ridiculed. Please put on your Reliable Excavation and Demolition required uniform."
She reached forward, plucking the suit from its hook, the fabric clinging onto the recent scent of a bonfire, mixed together with that of fresh rubber. This was who she was, for the rest of her employment. A faceless operator of this suit of armor, veiled behind a bug faced gasmask, no real name to herself, just a class title and that was all. An expendable replacement to a just as expendable, and wholly deceased, fire-starter – she was the Pyro.
"Please be seated as the Reliable Excavation and Demolition Transport System will be coming to a stop."
Just as she was putting one leg into the suit, the train shifted and slowed abruptly, throwing the poor girl off balance. With little to no grace she fell over herself, planting right into the ground with a hard "WHUMP," one hand still gripping the suit, other curled beneath her in a failed attempt to shield herself from the fall. "Thanks for the warning." She grumbled bitterly.
On the waiting platform stood a formally dressed young woman, left hand folded across her chest, tightly gripping a very official looking clipboard, her right hand fiddling with her cat eye glasses. Her name was Miss Pauling, the Administrator's devoted assistant. Her face lit up as the train pulled into the station, a delightful smile pulling the corners of her lips up. The doors slid open, revealing the flustered Pyro. "Good morning!" She greeted cheerfully, "I'm Miss Pauling," she held out a thin hand, accepted by a rubber clad one of the R.E.D's newest addition, "Uh…Pyro," introduced the other. That smile on Pauling's face widened, "Welcome to 2Fort, Pyro." A solid shake between the two and then each withdrew their own hands.
"It really is a pleasure to have you! The Administrator and I are looking forward to your performance on the Reliable Excavation and Demolition Team. You probably didn't know this, but you're the first woman to join either of the two corporations! It really will be exciting to see how you fare on a exclusively male dominated battlefield. Due to the importance of this test we can't have your teammates finding out you're a girl, it would fizzle our results and we'd have to start all over, so I'm going to have to ask you to put on your gasmask."
With a little effort the red headed fire starter yanked the mask over her face, the acoustics of the world lost behind that thick skin of rubber, faint and muddled, floating about her as if she'd just submerged herself in a tank of water. Apparently, the rest of the suit wasn't unflattering enough, the loose fitting garment leaving much to the imagination, causing anyone to question who exactly lay behind its material. She could see why they picked a woman to start within the rank of a Pyro. Then again, she couldn't be certain the other uniforms were not as unbecoming.
Miss Pauling gave an affable nod, "Come with me, I'll show you around."