Trent couldn't get the notion that something was very slightly wrong with Dribs out of his mind. It bugged him as they drove across the frozen wastelands of Plex. He wasn't sure what it was...no, scratch that, he had no idea what it was. Trent had gotten somewhat good at reading people, if there was something he didn't like about a person, he could usually point it out. After another few moments of contemplation, he abruptly realized what it was.
He couldn't read Dribs. It wasn't the armor, and although the fact that his face was hidden certainly didn't help, there was a lot you could pick up about a person from their voice and slight body movements alone. There was something almost...hollow, about Dribs. Trent frowned. What did that mean? Could it have something to do with the alien infection? Trent pulled himself out of his head as he spied something in the distance.
He'd just have to keep a sharp eye on the good Corporal. There was something in the distance all right: a cluster of large, square structures cast in gloomy, frosted metal centered around a landing pad with a control tower attached to it. At the edge of the encampment, Trent spied a Snow Hog and a Mongoose. A great sign. Hopefully those who had driven the vehicles were still alive. Trent and Dribs brought their Mongeese to a slow halt, idling up to the other derelict vehicles. They dismounted and Trent opened up a frequency.
He went through his mantra, trying to get into contact with someone. This time, he actually had something like a conversation. It was incredibly hazy and very broken, but a voice rose from the static. Trent's frustration mounted as he tried to discern genuine meaning from the words, but was at least happy with the result. About thirty seconds after the voice cut off, the doors at the base of the control tower opened up and a pair of men walked out.
One of them wore typical Yellowjacket armor, the other had what was closer to a set of traditional ODST armor: black with a trim of navy blue.
"Dribs? We thought you'd been lost in the storm," the man in black armor said as the came a comfortable proximity to each other.
"I'm afraid that's the case," the Corporal replied sheepishly. The man in black armored turned and looked at Trent.
"And who are you?"
"Specialist Temple, ONI Section Zero."
"Ah! Pleased to meet you, my name is Sergeant Trevor Duvall. Yellowjackets, Delta Squad. Childs said you'd be coming along but...well, to be honest, that stick-up-his-ass Captain was so reluctant to let us go that we didn't really want to stick around long enough for him to change his mind. Come on in out of the cold and I'll introduce you to my squad."
Trent was glad to be out of the shrieking winds. Even with his suit's heating elements, the cold was beginning to get to him. Trent suspected it was more psychological than anything else. He and the others entered into the ground floor of the control tower. It was little more than a place to hang your coat and kick off your boots and a stairwell that led to the second story. A handful of men in industrial yellow armor were clustered around. Trent could hear more moving upstairs.
"All right, introductions all around. Everyone, this is Specialist Temple. This is the guy ONI has sent to help us out." As he spoke, others came down from the second story. Including Dribs, Trent counted eight in all. Trent listened as Duvall introduced them all. There was another Corporal, Garet, who served as their scout. Lance Corporal Alex was their sniper. PFC Meso and Private Tori were the two more technically minded ones. And PFC Martin and Private Steven were their medics. Dribs was apparently their second in command and communications expert.
"I guess it's a good thing I found him," Trent said, upon being told.
Dribs shrugged. "Not really. The communications blackout is pretty total. I'm basically useless right now. Doesn't matter how much we boost our signals, we're cut off," he said, sounding bummed out about it.
"Oh, get over yourselves, Dribs," Duvall replied, not unkindly. "Meso, Tori, get back up there and see what you can see. You get up there too, Dribs. See if you're wrong about the comms." The three of them hurried up the stairwell. The others took to the windows and the door, standing guard, staring out into the constantly shifting snow.
"So," Trent said. "Have you found anything about this infection?"
Duvall sighed, the frustration bleeding through. "Nothing all that solid...but we have run into a problem, it seems. Before we came to the tower, we searched two of those warehouses. Nothing useful, just a few crispy corpses, but there was a terminal in one of the offices that was still active. Someone had scribbled a few notes. Most of it was incoherent, but there was one thing made very, very clear: fire. We need it if we're going to fight the infection."
"Now, hold on a minute. Is this the bullshit kind of 'we need fire' like how everyone said about the Flood? Because I could kill Flood just fine without flamethrowers, no matter how many times I heard people saying that or read it in the files."
"I'm not a hundred percent, but the person writing seemed really, really adamant that an 'infected entity' couldn't be genuinely killed without fire. Now, I typically err on the side of caution. Most of these bases come equipped with compact defoliant class flamethrowers, usually to burn off excess ice. We found a few in storage and I had Martin and Garet load up. The message, coupled with all the fried up bodies we've seen so far well..." he shrugged. "There's gotta be something to it. Other than that? Nothing. No ideas."
Trent sighed, considering the situation. Was there was a way any of them could be infected by this alien virus? What were the symptoms? Trent was getting frustrated. He needed more information. He couldn't keep going on blindly like this. He chatted it up with Duvall for another few moments and was happy to discover that he didn't get that hollow feeling from the Sergeant. In fact, he felt like this was a man he could trust, a man he could rely on. Which was good, because outside of the Survivors, Trent felt like those were drying up.
After another few moments, a dejected Dribs, Tori and Meso came back downstairs to report total failure. The comms array wasn't doing anything and the computers didn't have anything relevant. Duvall turned towards Trent.
"Well, looks like you're the boss now. What do we do?"
Trent considered it. "Well, for the moment, let's finish searching the other two warehouses. Then, I guess we'll head for the next outpost, keep searching," he replied, making a mental note to find a flamethrower. No one seemed to have a problem in the transition of power, for which Trent was grateful, he'd had enough of that shit last time around with Corporal Ryan. They left the control tower behind, moving across the snow-swept landing pad to the pair of warehouses as of yet explored. Trent settled in for the long haul as they began.
The first warehouse proved to be a long, bloody, fruitless search. Nothing but stacks of smaller crates or singular, huge crates that contained god-knew-what. The offices upstairs were abandoned and painted pictures of abrupt abandonment. After a thorough and disheartening search, the squad moved on to the final warehouse, which turned out to not quite be a warehouse at all. It was actually a split-level building.
The bottom floor housed a bit of storage and a huge cargo lift that led to somewhere underground. They left that alone for the moment and explored the top floor, which appeared to be where those who had once inhabited the base had lived. They searched derelict dormitories, empty bathrooms, lonely corridors and mess halls. A bloody infirmary. A static-lit security office. It all spoke of quiet death and bloody violence.
But no survivors. No radio contact. Nothing. The squad reconvened at the cargo elevator.
"Well, from what I've been able to tell from my map, the nearest outpost is one similar to this. A cargo shipping and handling center. This lift leads down to a tunnel that connect the two. The tunnel houses trams, big cargo-running trams. We could theoretically bring our vehicles down there via this lift, then load them up onto a tram. Provided the trams are in order, of course. What do you think?" Duvall asked.
"Any particular reason you wouldn't rather just drive there?" Trent replied.
"Well, the storm's getting worse. Visibility is basically zero. Even with all of our fancy gear, the fact of the matter is that we'd either run the genuine risk of hitting a rock or a hill or a big drop, or waste a hell of a lot of time getting to that next outpost by driving real slow."
Trent nodded. "All right, yeah. That sounds good. Okay...why don't you take Garet, Alex and Tori back out and start driving the vehicles in here? I'll take everyone else down and we'll clear the way." Duvall nodded, round up the others and headed back out into the cold. Trent and the rest of the squad located a secondary entrance downstairs, a stairwell, and headed down it single file. Trent was out first, popping opened the door and stepping into a large room directly below the warehouse. He could see where the lift was supposed to come down.
Besides that, to his right, the room opened up into a kind of loading station where a pair of trams rested. Some of the lights flickered and he spied some pretty hefty bloodstains on the floor, but otherwise the place looked in decent working condition. The group spread out, checking out all the shadowy corners and niches. The loading bay itself was soon cleared and they moved on to the platform chamber.
Trent stared down the length of tunnel. Anything could be down there. Anything at all. Trent knew that trams like these tended to move at high speeds, and it would take a lot to stop one going full force, but...he'd seen some pretty big bad guys lately. What could be waiting for them here, in this nightmare of a frozen moon?
Once they cleared the platform, Trent had them stand guard, as there was still a side maintenance bay to check out, but he could hear sounds overhead. He hustled back up the stairs and found the others loading up the last of the Mongeese onto the platform. He gave a quick update to Duvall, then worked the controls and began the slow process of lowering the lift. While it did so, he and the others made their way back downstairs via the stairwell. Meso and Tori were already in the process of inspecting the nearest tram.
"What's the word?" Trent asked as Tori came back out.
She shook her head. "The power is drained. We need to find another power cell."
"And you can change it if we do?" Trent replied.
"Yeah. Easy as hell. There should probably be one in the maintenance bay."
"All right. Duvall, Dribs, Garet, you're with me. Everyone else, wait here. Garet, get that flamethrower ready, just in case." They nodded and moved to comply. Trent wasn't sure why, but he kept getting the feeling that they weren't alone. He could feel tension building on the air, like static electricity before a storm.
They moved across the platform to the maintenance bay behind it. Trent took the lead, with Garet right behind him. He hit the access button. The door slid open, revealing a closed-in bay stuffed with tables littered with spare parts and big piles of crates. Not good. Trent hesitated in the doorway, listening intently, straining his ears against the silence. All he could hear was the distant shriek of the winds, overhead.
Finally, he headed inside. The others backed him up, following closely. Trent worked his way slowly, apprehensively through the stacks of supplies and crates. He kept his eye out, hunting fervently for a spare power cell. After several tense-soaked moments of silence, he finally spied a handful of spare power cells stacked on a table across the way. He began making his way across the area of open space.
Trent knew he'd made a mistake when something stepped out from behind a stack of crates and into the light. It was horrid. It was wretched. It was pure nightmare-fuel. This thing that stood before him, no, stood over him, as it was nearly eight feet tall, resembled a man only in the barest, most vaguest terms of the word. Its skin was mottled and decayed, almost seeming to hang off of whatever bizarre bone structure allowed it to remain upright. It had three bulbous black eyes that oozed a disgusting tar-like substance.
One arm ended in a twisted knot of flesh vaguely resembling a blunt weapon, the other ended in crab-like pincers that looked like they could do some real damage. The creature opened its malformed mouth, revealing jagged, bloody teeth and issued a high-pitched shriek. Trent screamed and opened fire with his SAW. The bullets sprayed the creature's black blood all over the place, across every surface, and sent it stumbling backwards.
Its arm was severed, but continued flopping around despite being cut off. Trent soon ran out of ammo and the dry click-click-click filled the air.
"Torch it, Garet!" he screamed, stepping back. It still hadn't gone down. Trent hurried out of the way and Garet stepped forward. He leveled the compact flamethrower at the monster and let loose with a brilliant spray of flame. The monster lit up like a torch. It began shrieking in an even higher pitch, stumbling around for several moments, then it abruptly collapsed. The men all let out a sigh of relief, watching it burn silently.
Then Trent watched in stomach-churning horror as the arm, which had finally become still, start to wriggle around some more. Abruptly, it sprouted tiny legs, like a centipede, and began to crawl quickly away.
"Holy shit!" Trent screamed. Garet torched it, too, and then stepped back in horror as the arm began to shriek. Soon, it was dead, nothing more than a silently burning heap. Shaking slightly, Trent hurried over, past the burning heaps of flesh, and grabbed one of the power cells. He and the others left quickly.
"What the hell happened in there?" Alex asked.
"We ran into one of them," Trent replied, passing the power cell over to Tori, who accepted it.
"And?" Martin asked.
"And it was a goddamn nightmare," Duvall replied grimly. Everyone fell silent. Tori replaced the power cell and the tram came to life. Silently, they loaded the vehicles onto the tram, boarded it and set it into motion.