"We were all at once terribly alone; and alone we must see it through."
- Erich Maria Remarque, "All Quiet on the Western Front"
For the first three nights the Resistance stayed in the tundra, she had a recurring dream that her father begged her to speak.
He hadn't come all at once. That would have been too obvious. Survivor's grief entailed consequences they thought natural enough, in her insomnia easily explained as overcompensation for his absence. And he retained too subtle a presence, too careful a distance, to make the distinction clear.
Her dreams fooled her into thinking he awaited her at the lip of the cave. That he watched her intently as she sat up, frost encrusted on her cheek.
She let herself believe for a few moments. Come here, she wanted to say. You'll freeze. Sit over by the fire.
He would shake his head and sink to a kneel beside her. Misfiring neurons made the facsimile of his metal knee scraping stone sound more real than her slipshod memory permitted. She could almost feel his fingers dig into her shoulders as he grasped them, depressing the down in her coat. Please, Alyx. Those words mean everything.
No matter how he implored her, whether through emotion or reason or absurd, jagged flashes of images, she could only fuel his terrified expression with more despair. Though she could open her jaws with a concentrated effort, silence continued to squeeze through her clenched teeth.
Try, baby. You have to try.
Anger ignited in her—a flash in the pan.
(I have to try?)
Her gloved hands tightened over his, prying his grip.
(you waited twenty years; a little longer won't hurt anyone)
(and in case you haven't noticed, Dad)
(I'm not the one who lied)
The weariness weighing down his shoulders, the fire glistening in his downcast eyes, almost real but not quite; that was the distinction he'd tried to conceal from her even now, locked in the throes of her mind. The dream wavered when she tried to argue. Fighting back pushed him further into the recesses; he'd vanish whenever she lunged for his own shoulders. When her cracked lips at last found their purchase to speak, what answered was the howling wind that tore through the tent flaps, dragging her back awake.
On the fourth morning, Alyx uncapped a bottle of caffeine pills and marched their outfit through twenty miles of hard, stinging hail. Pellets the size of golf balls assaulted the hoods of their terrain vehicles. People bitched, as people usually do, but they survived nonetheless.
They found another cave. Built another fire. Ate more rations tasting like ground-up chalk. Precipitation beat so wrathfully on the crumbled ceiling no one in their right mind wanted to stand watch. At least the Combine were getting banged the hell up out there, too, they consoled themselves while massaging their sore shoulders. I know I am.
The sleep that arrived that night was dark and silent. Over time, the hail quieted. As did Eli.
The Resistance spoke plenty enough. Vance, they said, take a look at these coordinates. Munitions wants to bend your ear when you're done. No, it's not urgent. Where should we park the snowmobiles? There, really? All right.
Her father was something of an illusionist when it came to this particular business. He could make anyone believe they captured his full attention. In reality, rebellion's ceaseless demands pulled him several different directions.
He used to tell her no grievance was trivial. A man with a reasonable bone to pick deserved the same degree of respect as the bleeding man crying out for a medic. Minute you start making a distinction, playing favorites, that's when the cracks start to form.
How did he stand that, she thought, claiming with a straight face all those the Resistance protected measured equal in importance, so long as they sought refuge in the lambda? How could he have slept through the night knowing he'd been guaranteed what he'd wanted at the cost of every other loss?
She countered her uncomfortable thoughts with one that she was being unfair. It wasn't a senseless idea to try to take everyone's needs into account. Only way they were getting through this was together.
Seventeen men, women, and Vortigaunts inhabited this cave, scraping about, fixing their transports, discussing their plans in low tones during the day. At night they shared coffee and tissues, complaining of ubiquitous cold. Away from the elements they'd formed a small tight-knit ecosystem: radio operators, gunners, mechanics, medics, scouts, ground support, all of them crammed together in whatever pockets of shelter the tundra offered them.
Even now, vengeful, flesh-harrowing winds bashed themselves against the entrance, forcing them to burrow deeper in the cave's icy bowels. When the rare beam of sun broke horizon, the warmth it generated was scarcely enough to tingle the skin.
She had to make a minute, though not insignificant, concession: the weather's refusal to cooperate masked them from the Combine. It had stormed ever since the chopper touched down in this remote section of the Russian Far North—ladies and gents, Barney griped with his hands tucked under his elbows, welcome to Soviet bumfuck nowhere—and harbored few intentions of relenting. The same hail that broke their radio transmissions also scrambled Combine sensors, rendering them just as blind, just as deaf. Silver linings, she supposed.
Sitting cross-legged on a slab of rock, Alyx bent over a a weathered atlas written in Cyrillic, which was weighed down at the corners by portable halogen lamps. Pencil marks, burned into the grain from being scratched out with a leather-tough eraser, debated her suggestions.
Mossman's last pinged location placed her in an area roughly twenty square miles in diameter. No way to narrow down that swath of unexplored territory. The transmissions they'd sent from the Mil Mi-8 went unanswered. Seven miles east of the perimeter, however, resided a former weather station, status unknown. Alyx had to assume the remnants of her crew would have headed for it when Hunters raided the base.
That was, unless you had the unerring optimism to believe Combine knocked on the door and left politely. The signs Judith hadn't eluded capture proved discouraging. Their readouts returned signatures bereft of vitals. Vortigaunt scouts likewise reported few signs of life lingering in the transmission's point of origin. Extending their senses stretched them so thinly, it seemed cruel to overexert them.
No matter how you diced it, finding Judith would be like searching for a needle in a glacial haystack. Except this needle was by no means guaranteed to be anywhere near its last ping, and most of the work relied on a shaky foundation of estimates.
The scout, a wispy man named Jim, placed a GPS atop the map, letting the thick device obscure stenciled grids. "I was thinking," he said, "we keep at this pace, we won't hit the station till at least noon tomorrow. If we just pushed one more time—"
"How far ahead you think we'd be?"
"Stone's throw. Won't be pretty." He chewed on the pencil. "Some of these routes, they may look safe, but most of 'em got cracked open from portal storms, got crevasses that drop for kilo and kilo. Whoever planned this layout of yours didn't realize how many there are. We're already twenty-some kilo off—" tapping the pencil indicating a projected position; Alyx's projection marked them five kilometers from the weather station, "—I'm just afraid we'll miscalculate the distance and run straight into them."
After a few moments of mulling over the problem Jim slid the pockmarked pencil from his mouth. "Honestly," he said, words strained as if he'd stepped on a nail, "I'd rather circumvent the route. Might be a longer run, but as long as we stay outta sight, there's, you know—" he wheeled his wrist searching for the right word, " …less mess."
As he continued, her attention diverted elsewhere. Out of the corner of her eye she caught Milton heading for them, his boots crushing snow. Milt for short. One of her father's oldest and most ornery mechanics. In his pre-war days he rode with a biker gang called the Kingsmen. The faded crown tattoo encircling his right wrist peeked beneath his glove's ragged hem.
She remembered as a child rearranging lugnuts on the dusty floor of his chop shop while he and her father discussed how best to install a RAM mount on his Harley-Davidson. When Milt strode toward you with something encased in his fist, good news usually didn't follow.
He slammed a piece of black ice square onto the map, letting it ooze water.
"Milt, what the hell?"
"No, thanks." She plucked the chunk off the map before it could stain their sketches and dropped it, wiping her glove on her hip. "Stinks."
"You think Santa's coal stash smells like roses?" he deadpanned. "Henry found that bad boy lodged in Blake's engine." She doubted it. Thing was the size of a baseball; you'd practically have to get on your knees and cram it up the exhaust. "We can't be sloggin' through the shit like this. The Yamahas can't take another flogging. Not like the Berkuts."
Alyx glanced at the bulky white snowmobiles lined under tarps along a gorge in the cave's lee-facing wall. At the lambda painted black on their ribs. Their accompanying cargo transport had bequeathed them half a dozen Yamahas and four military-grade snowmobiles. The latter wielded enough suspension to carry two people in the front cabin and three on the bed. Rebel engineers further rigged the windows with bulletproof glass.
She wished they'd stuck with just one good, solid transport. The Yamahas honestly stood a breath from crumbling as it was, as they'd been repurposed from old sports models that had already survived the Seven Hours and endured two decades of modification since. Were it not for their lack of speed, the Berkuts might not have required the extra cover. The Russian company that originally manufactured them used them to transport personnel across vast Arctic swaths for oil excavation purposes. Although not quick by any means, they could cleave their way through long stretches of snow.
They were built specifically for endurance, an absolute necessity in this merciless terrain. More promisingly, their anterior pintle mounts boasted medium-range machine guns. Even if you shoved a semiautomatic into the hands of every Yamaha rider, the support fire they could provide was negligible at best and a liability at worst. ATVs flipped when shot at. Milt of all people should have known.
"Can't you… Patch them over?"
"With what, Vance? Wishes and duct tape?"
Alyx let slip a mild sigh as she rubbed her brow with the side of her palm. "I'll take a look as soon as we figure out where we're headed."
"Well, that's great, but what would be even better is if you took a look now. Gonna be sitting fucking ducks if we don't keep 'em in running condition."
Teeth flickered from a silver beard. "Actually, I kinda don't think you do."
Jim raised his head, tried to intercede before trouble brewed. "Milt, come on, dude. Leave her alone."
"It's common sense," he told her. "You drive us through twenty miles of icy fuckin' plague, your transports aren't gonna come out the other side mint in the box."
All right, Milt. You're pushing it a little. "Okay," she said, "first off, I can't control the weather."
"Yeah, you would say that."
"Second… " Keep calm. "We're trying to figure out how to keep out of the Combine's sights. It'll take a while. You'll have plenty of time to work on the Yamahas."
"Forget it. Sorry for asking."
"No," she said firmly, stopping him in his tracks. "You have something to say, say it."
Rooted, he folded beefy arms over his chest until his padded chest creaked, shook his head with a low mutter. "Eli wouldn't have given me this horse crap."
Her brows hiked. "Excuse me?"
Milt turned. "Heard that, didja? I said your father would have got right on it. Maybe next time you ought to take a page from his book instead of handing out excuses."
She looked down at Jim—whose ears flushed red and of whom quickly returned his gaze to the map—hardly believing those words just dropped out of his sorry mouth. Most of the time, the Resistance practiced enough tact to avoid mentioning her father, much less compare her failings to his.
(if they knew he'd betrayed them because of her, for her sake)
The last thing Alyx wanted was to force everyone around her to walk on eggshells; the humiliating screaming match she and Barney had engaged in the night of her father's cremation taught her the painful lesson of restraint. And it had sent an even clearer message to those who'd watched. The trust they'd placed in her was inherently tentative, shaken. Few benefited from her stretching that trust even thinner.
That was why she banded them under the lambda. It gave them something more substantial to fight for than the truth. If she couldn't ignore her father's secrets, she'd shut them out long enough to get the job done.
All the Resistance knew was that she might lash out if pushed. She found herself in a vulnerable place, foisted into an even more vulnerable position as the highest priority enemy target now that her father was dead (but not silent) and Gordon out of commission.
What's more, she lacked proper training. Like Gordon, she made decisions on a minute-by-minute basis. On what lay before her, no more and no less. In other circumstances she'd be lying under a creeper squinting at engines along with the other mechanics, not planning where best to launch a search before enemy eyes spotted them.
True, neither had her father possessed the prerequisite experience when he built this Resistance, but he'd spent twenty years growing into his role, learning how to lead them with the savvy they needed. Compared to her meager three days, she felt as though she had much more to catch up on than she could possibly handle.
The combination of these things meant that precise kind of remark smarted more than it should have. Slapping her outright would have done the job just as well. She clenched her eyes shut before snapping them open again with renewed ferocity, one barely held by her eroding veneer of calm.
Of course, having glimpsed them from the fire crackling across the way, Barney would try to run interference. Milt clucked his tongue, and she shielded her face as he stood and tugged his warmed hands back into his leather gloves.
Ignoring him didn't work—he stopped several paces before them and beckoned her with a wave. Kid, c'mere. Her cheeks filled with so much heat she wished they'd just dump her in the snow.
She couldn't. Not now. "Barney, we're busy."
His tightening mouth told her he didn't believe that for a second. "Just be a second." Reaching between them for her arm, he flashed Jim and Milt an affable smile. "'scuse us, fellas." When they wandered just out of range of earshot, he admonished her en sotto. "Hey there, cool your jets. We don't want a hallway part two. Original sucked the first time around."
"What do you want me to do?" she said. "There's so much to figure out before nightfall it's not even funny—"
Barney blocked her from glancing over his shoulder by grasping her own and turning her toward him. "Hey, don't look at him. Look at me. Over here. Aren't I pretty?"
"Pretty what?" she asked. "Pretty scary?"
His expression soured. "Well, shit, you ain't gotta be mean about it." He released her shoulders, tossed a thumb in the transports' direction. "Like it or not, Milt's got a point. Those Yamahas are paper fuckin' thin. Maybe we should've waited 'til the storm cleared a little before we put 'em to work."
"You can't be serious," she said. "Who knows how long that would have been? Hail can go on for hours up here—"
"Not to mention," he continued, pointedly, "we got pretty whipped in that last stretch. Some folks get snippy, say crap they don't mean, well… They kinda got a right to be miffed. Hail hurts, y'know?" Guilt crept into her, and she went silent. His voice softened. "Yeah? Gonna think about sittin' in the bleachers for this one?"
Any protest left in her throat dried. She regarded him with weary caution, hoping to find a grain of affirmation. "I'm sorry that I've been pushing us too hard lately. It's not like I've had a lot of practice with this sort of thing."
"I know," he said, with an empathetic lift of his shoulder. "Look, kiddo, nobody's saying you gotta bust your balls, or ours. I'm just saying it can't hurt once in a while to catch more flies with honey."
She hated it when he sounded reasonable. "Okay." Bit by bit, her taut shoulders relaxed. "If you say so, I'll trust you. But he mentions Dad again—"
"Pickin' his teeth outta the snow. Copy that." He clapped her shoulder, squeezing it once. "One thing at a time there, kiddo."
Milt stared expectantly, and she loosed a tremulous breath before rejoining the group. As Barney left her to work it out, she wondered if he'd talked her father down from similar ledges.
"I'm sorry." She rubbed her arm. "You're right. I just wasn't sure how long the storm would've lasted, and I figured we had to cover as much ground as possible while the hail gave us cover. Looks like that hurt more than it helped, though."
"Well, golly gee. Look who wants to kiss up after her timeout." Turning on his heel, Milt walked toward the transports. "Probably a few more reindeer turds stuck down in there pretty deep. Last one was five inches before you hit the—"
He never received the chance to finish. A synth's high, mournful howl raised their hackles, filling every nook and cranny of their temporary abode.
A blast of light erupted in the deep darkness.
Before she registered another second more, a massive boulder crashed down. Streaks of arterial blood mottled her face. Unthinking, awareness the thickness of a needle, she touched them, saw a corpse crumple in firelight. Flecks of softness in his teeth felt like gray matter.
Screams pierced the air.
Clotted entrails sprouted from the skull and crept upwards into the crushing boulder, threw gray smear against the Yamaha's plastic hood. Jowls and mouth drooped in a frown melted by gravity. One eye, perceiving nothing, fell halfway closed while the other popped wide open, its bulge slightly distended from the socket, its bloodshot iris a cloudy, viscous ring nestled inside a swarm of red. He was dead. He was—
"Oh my God, Milt!"
She swallowed to suppress the wave of bile ramming its way up her throat. Fingers jerking by imperceptible needleprick, she grabbed Jim by the arm and reeled him away from the sight.
Pulse fire pounded the yielding snow just outside the cave's front end, holes vomiting steam from their heated rounds.
Fear flooded her veins with ice. "They're smoking us out," she said, then addressed the stunned group. "Who's got the rocket launcher?" A hand went up. Thomas. Good. "Tom and Blake, grab the missiles. Jim, come with me. The rest of you take the snowmobiles and hug the ridge as low as you can. Stay out of sight. We'll cover you."
Someone asked, "What about the Ya—"
"Take them if they're faster, just get out of here before the cave collapses!" Rocks creaked above them from the open crevice torn by the implosion; blue light poured through thickening drafts of snow and smoke. She stabbed her finger at the transports. "Go, go!"
Everyone scattered. Grabbing the handle of a radar receiver, she forced herself not to let her gaze linger on Milt's corpse.
I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm
Her group dashed outside with the RPG-7 and five ordnances in tow. Planting the receiver firmly in the eddy until snow splashed around its sides, Alyx slid a bulky pair of headphones over her ears and cranked a dial; slowly vague images emerged within the ripples of cocentric rings. Not that they needed to see the threat to sense its presence. Even at this distance, they felt its every step tremble in their bones.
Thomas, the gunner, whispered, "No way in hell we're getting past that Strider."
Alyx studied the shapes that floated onscreen. A caravan of an APC and several escort units hugged a small area underneath the Strider's cone of protection. A well-timed rocket could send the body crashing down, killing two birds with one stone.
"We can't risk a cave-in." Radio chatter wafted through the airwaves in distant, guttural tones. Heavy pollution reported in grid seven-one-nine. Sweep for endotherms. "They know we're here anyway. We've got to buy the others as much time as we can; we'll meet up with them once everyone's out." She tore off the headphones. "Jim, I need eyes on that Strider. How big's the gap?"
He peered through a battered pair of standard Combine-issue infrared goggles, though he didn't dare engage their penetrating floodlights for fear of giving away their location. "Fifteen klicks south," he said. "Bearing straight."
Dammit. On a collision course. A virtual beeline. How did the Combine know? Was the Mil Mi-8 tracked? Had they caught onto their hailing frequencies?
Well, it wouldn't matter in a few minutes. She opened the targeting system to a velvet-black screen devoid of light.
She jostled the reset keys. Dead pixels refused to spark. "No, no, don't you dare—" Slapped the screen several times in vain. "Shit—"
"Talk to us," Blake demanded. "What's going on up there?"
Alyx snapped her head down. "Targeting system's lagging 'cause of the cold," she shouted. "It's gonna take at least a minute to boot back up!"
Even half-blinded by snow, she sensed their worry. A minute? Offer them up on a silver platter, why don't you?
Another resounding quakegave her an idea. Crazy one, but it was better than leaving themselves to the mercy of a frozen targeting system. "Blake, take my place."
He scrambled to pick up the launcher she dropped. "What?" Breaking a little ways from the group, she swept the snowdrift clean of their footprints, removed her right glove and began to scribble feverishly on the blank slate. "What the hell are you doing?"
Icy air ached in her heaving lungs, hastening the motions of her cold-bitten finger. Don't see it as a clash or crumble of forces. When you break it all down, winning's a matter of wielding the correct numbers. This is just an equation in need of a solution. Manipulate the numbers. Think.
The scout wrenched down his infrared goggles. "Twelve klicks south and hauling ass," he announced over his shoulder. "Whatever you're doing, you'd better hurry."
First, the RPG-7. Express the rocket's parabolic function.
She reached back. The quadratic formula produced a vertex of fifty-five feet. Not much room for margin of error. Striders clocked in at fifty feet, give or take certain fluctuations in height modification; mobile units were usually designed somewhat taller than their urban counterparts to better handle rugged mountain terrain. No way to know its specs unless the fucking thing was lying right on top of them. She had to capitalize on the launcher's thrust to suckerpunch the ordnance directly where it would inflict the most structural damage, the underbelly.
That was assuming it was a clear day, without so much as a breath of wind to nudge the rocket's trajectory. Mother Nature would never be so kind, continuing instead to blast gales in staccato bursts. With the Strider's height and acceleration shifting each step it took, a fragile math began to give a perilous creak.
The warp cannon blinked a bright eye in the horizon. Blue beams shot so close they could smell the crisp reek of ionized particles. Aftershock swam in their guts. Alyx threw herself forward, barred her forearm against a tumbling rush of snow to keep it from erasing her work. She glanced at the shallow score marks and bit her chapped bottom lip so deeply it split, oozing droplets of salty fluid.
Blake's voice rasped with dread. "Vance, come on! Don't make me spit blind in this fucker's eye!"
No doubt things were about to get messy. First branch's upper boughs often claimed she'd had a head better suited for application than theory, which was their snide way of saying she proved more useful with a gun than a greaseboard. Maybe they were right. But while she wasn't as accurate at performing these calculations as her father or Mossman, the encroaching caravan afforded little time to double-check the numbers. This was as certain as she'd have to be. The solution had to hold.
"Aim the launcher ten clicks east," she said, jabbing a finger in that direction. "Everyone else stay low and get as far from the backblast as you can."
"Right into the wind?" Blake asked. "You lost your fucking gourd?"
The eye blinked again.
"Not now, Blake, punch it!"
They tucked and covered as he hurled a rocket into the white. A horrible moment of stillness ensued, not knowing whether the projectile had skimmed its target; a distant boom rattled their teeth in their gums, lit the snow like a candle sweeping behind a curtain.
"What?" Her heart slammed in her throat. "What happened?"
He whirled around. "Rocket made contact," he shouted, "Strider's crippled! We—"
A retaliative beam lashed through the crag, cruelly smothering him. Blake had no time to scream and neither had anyone else—the Strider's warp cannon cleaved the cornice in half, steaming rocks on both sides. Caught in its sights, he dissolved into a burning mist seconds before his charred corpse hit the snow.
Alyx's hands shook as he released his grip on the launcher handle. Shock and revulsion flashed through her, completing the circuit with pulse-pounding rage.
Grabbing the launcher, she ducked at the shuddering hiss of a plasma rifle preparing to discharge its alternate fire.
"Get out of there," yelled Thomas between tearing off rounds from his SMG. "You're gonna get yourself killed!"
Not until everyone made it out. Most had, but a few struggled to haul their transports out of the cavern into the shielding snow. Already the boys ordered extra muscle. "Hammer Zero requesting inoculation. Infection risks breaching quarantine."
The Strider swam into existence, mosquito's silhouette drawing closer.
She called for another ordnance and, when they hesitated, applied more heat to her command and received one. The second rocket twisted and torqued as it swept the Strider's underside, passed through and exploded. The synth bent at an oblique angle, one of its jointed legs stooped lower than the others, ambling due to its compromised knee. Regardless, turquoise fire pulsed hot from the primary cannon. Melted snow spat flecks and rocks beside her like shrapnel.
She wrenched out of their path, ducking beneath a snowdrift that felt about as protective a cover as drywall. Shuddering breath filled the air seconds before an energy ball whisked past. She swore it nearly shaved the fur from her hood.
Charge delay muted the Strider's continuous fire, thank God. She seized on the reprieve to jam in the third rocket, hoping this would be the charm.
Wind snatched the hood from her head, exposing her to merciless subzero temperatures that dropped more quickly than her hope did when the ordnance diverted toward a patch of icy land just behind the carrier. Its pointed tail smoked and hissed in the white swarm. Growing thin. Narrow. Diving too fast toward the ground.
Her heart skipped a beat when she heard the detonation crackle behind the carrier, overturning it, blossoming into a gaseous storm. The Strider emerged from the flames, never once breaking pace.
Her molars ground down to the nerve. The next missile orbited the Strider like a hornet seeking its nest, closing in—come on—come on, damn it—
Direct hit. Broken casing emitted an ungodly screech as it careened off the main structure and landed in the snow. Black smoke belched from a sparking carapace. With its balance now skewed, it swayed heavily to one side and anchored its surviving legs to the ground to keep from toppling over. Gravity would soon have its way, however.
Vindication curved her smirk. The Strider was running half-mad at this point, its brain exposed in the circuitry, which she could blow with the fifth shot and send the rest of this bitch crashing to earth.
Meanwhile, stragglers fled the burning APC. "Avian has derailed transporter. Envoys disperse and displace. Expunge outbreak."
Her retinue passed her the next missile and got low. The rocket ejected from her shoulder with a fuel-propelled scream, sending her reeling a bit.
The Strider released a garbled electronic wail, hobbled. It coughed a blazing sputter out its anterior port and collapsed in a smoking heap, crushing the carrier underneath. Units scattered from the conflagration like insects.
"Strider down, repeat, Strider down—"
Alyx and the others evaded a gauntlet of pulse fire, the RPG's warm weight banging against her shoulder socket. Plasma fire smacked the ridge just inches above their heads. Melted snow slithered down her coat.
Panting in greedy snatches, they huddled under the cornice for shelter; there, she risked an appraising glimpse over the jagged ridge. Her nostrils pricked from the greasy fumes rising from the Strider's carcass. A dozen units crept toward the cave in a loose phalanx, their coherence separated by the rocket.
"Overwatch, request Winder dispatch."
She judged their ET around three minutes. Assuming those 'paper fuckin'-thin' Yamahas rode decently, the last of the seventeen rebels would miss the reach of their AR2s.
Her fingers gripped the launcher handle digging into her neck. Provided the Combine refrained from ambush, they could fend off the first wave with relative ease, delivered in the form of a loving ordnance; their squad formations had scattered a little too far apart to converge easily back together. Depriving them of the carrier slowed their pace. Mobile units assembled their default flanks, pairs and trios deployed for the express purpose of burying as much lead in rebel bodies as possible. Blowing another hole like the one that downed the Strider would cripple them. But the last rocket had to land. She couldn't afford to waste it.
She wiped a glove over her mouth, hefted the launcher to her breast like a coveted child. Buried under layers of cloth and wool, her heart pounded, clamoring to be released before the pulse fire combing the ridge found its home lodged within.
Three minutes. Was that all she could give?
"Outbreak status is Code Hurricane."
Bullets shaved the bank. Steaming droplets slapped her in the cheek, trickling down ice-raked nerves. She shielded her eyes until the flash and echo of gunfire clouded into afterimage.
That dreamlike sheen burst when another round struck Thomas in the back. He gave a grunt and fell wordlessly. She scrambled for him, then forced apart from his corpse as more bullets pounded the snow. Hot shrapnel ripped through and sliced her calf at an angle, shearing the down in her snow pants, blood and frigid air heralding pain.
But she hadn't caught the worst of it—Jim, poor Jim, lay prone at the end of a spotted crimson trail. At his side, the final rocket. Their last chance.
She moved her lips in wordless prayer as engine rumble waned.
Crushed bones, roasted flesh.
God, please let them make it out.
Crawling through this labyrinth with death clipping at her heels, an odd notion struck her. That being cornered was no different than backing against the wall of her own volition. In the canals, when you met a dead end and soldiers splashed down feet-first, you had to resist succumbing to the instinct to freeze. Inaction had once led to a piece of buckshot embedding itself in her right wrist, excruciating pain bringing everything brilliantly alive.
No, you had to regain control of yourself before control was wrested away. You had to refuse to stand as prey before the barrel. Breathe, Alyx. Just breathe.
She grabbed the last rocket and vaulted into a lean-necked sprint down the ridge. Snow flew from her heels as she sought a prime vantage point. Her calf protested with seething resentment, flaring bright pain up her hamstring, almost sending her stumbling once or twice. But she persisted, head ducked low.
Even though it seemed foolish, she planned to keep drawing fire until everyone safely evacuated. High priority target prancing out in the open? You'd have to be an idiot not to snatch a head that practically begged for mounting. Combine grunts hungry for their Elite chest badge proved the most recklessly vainglorious of the lot. Judging by the sound of their encroaching chatter, her bait dangled too lucrative a temptation for them to resist.
"Hurricane passing inland. Nearby units stabilize."
She heaved herself upright and fired.
"Avian inbound! Ripcord, ripcord!"
They scattered as the rocket screamed toward them in a gas-propelled trajectory.
Less than a few seconds to react. Alyx discarded the launcher and hit the ground with her arms tucked over her head—impact knocked a fresh blow into her abdominal wounds. She burrowed into a numbing patch of snow before detonation tore a blistering rend in the storm.
Snow washed over her in a tidal crest. Relief flooded her as the spray dissolved and the infantry unit she expected to thrust a gun in her face morphed instead into Barney, pulling up on a Yamaha. "Hey, come on!" He spurred the engine with a squeeze of the handles.
"Yeah, all headed for the weather station! Get on 'fore these chumps learn how to aim!"
The launcher stood embedded in the bank. Had to take care of that first. She severed the targeting system from the barrel with her boot, rendering it inoperable—since it had proven so helpful—and stuffed a fistful of half-melted sludge down the barrel for good measure. No need to give the Combine more help than they already had.
After she climbed shotgun and they hurtled off into a directionless white swarm, her relief doubled; Barney had salvaged her supply bag and slung it over his back.
Tearing the canvas, she rummaged for her Magnum. An avaricious wind snatched at the open flap. Her fingers bumped the cold metal of a can of stormproof matches, rattled loose shells together, brushed a thin paper wrinkle crammed at the bottom. The absence of a particular ribbed handle grip grew keenly conspicuous the deeper the probed—
"Use the shotgun," Barney suggested. "It's under the fender."
Not wanting to knock their balance by leaning too far forward, Alyx kicked her heel at the fender to snap open the latch welded to the side mount. She slid one of two SPAS-12s toward herself. Wind lashed at them. She cracked the barrel, saw a pair of empty holes peer at her.
She managed to load one shell when a sharp bump jolted the stock in her arms, making her clutch it tighter. "Barney," she shouted over roaring currents, "did you pick up one of the bad bikes?"
"Sure hope not," he said. "I just grabbed the last— Ah, shit!"
He swerved the bike in a gut-gnarling twist to avoid bullets peppering their path. The second shell tumbled free of her grip, a brief minnow-like shimmer lost to gelid wasteland.
Barney raised his head, called over the wind: "You okay back there?"
Stiff fingers rammed the replacement shell down the empty slot. "Never better." Easy to say. She only prayed this piece of shit bike held, especially since a nasty lurch at these speeds could cast them into a ravine, or worse—
'Worse' crashed into them sooner than she'd have liked. Another spray of fire erupted in a blazing trail beside them, peppering smoke along the back fender. Whiplash wrenched the air from her lungs as the bike capsized, throwing them both into the snow. The bike overturned with a feeble groan; when she snapped her head up, she found its headlight dimming under heavy reams of precipitation.
And the Combine trailed.
"Contact lost. Squad, motion check all radials."
"Copy." Jackboots crushed the snow. Responding units reported blindness. "Sightline polluted, Hammer Zero; viscon dubious."
The Elite squad leader muttered a rare curse. "Shit."
More footfalls patrolled the area, trailed by short, static-snarl bursts of call-and-answer. Barney motioned for her to get low, and together they crouched in what they believed a relative blind spot until another unit reported: "Endotherms stillborn, ten degrees north, range fifteen meters."
"Confirmed. Hammer Two moving to engage."
Try it, pal. She hoisted the SPAS-12 to her shoulder, aiming at a Cyclopean specter rising over the ridge. He crumpled in a puff of inky black.
Gunfire answered in seething bursts. She and Barney wasted no time cracking buckshot at anything that moved. Sparks skipped like stones across the land's folds and grooves, and it seemed as though soldiers sprouted from the bank and were hacked. Those darting across the bank holed themselves behind the cornices, bellowing in their deep inhuman voices for backup, picked off until the
last death shrill hung in the smoke, its aria left to quiver and die.
Barney swallowed. "I think… " His gloves creaked, and he finally lowered his gun. "That's all of them."
No sooner had he said this, a horrendous shrill pierced the air, curdling their blood; a Hunter sprang from the void and rammed itself into them, sending them tumbling through the ravine.
Momentum cast them down, down. Alyx raised her head in time to see the Hunter pin Barney under its foreleg, its pincers writhing.
Horror surged through her, too lightning-quick to give shape with a scream. She snatched the stock of her gun and cracked the butt across its carapace, releasing him. Amphibian flesh smarted under the blow. Its livid, garbled screech pierced her ears as she hauled him to his feet.
The next thing she knew she'd pulled them both into a blind dash through the snow. She didn't know when his hand broke from her grip, nor when the ground heaved and plunged them under.
Hot throbbing in her head rewarded her for choosing consciousness.
With excruciating languor, Alyx rolled over as a dull pain gripped her torso. Stomach empty and rubber and raw, throat residued with acid. Fallen rocks scattered in a broken ring around her; some coated her sleeves in a layer of grouse.
She startled at a pair of irises scrutinizing her from a Hunter crumpled on its side. Her body locked in hackled instinct, prepared to spring into flight, when a second examination of the evidence revealed that the synth was dead.
Her gaze traced a gash in the crevasse wall. Serrated edges widened as it approached the floor and culminated in the synth shattering at the thorax. Shriveled ropes of grayed flesh clung to twisted metal cartilage.
Prey stared at predator, at a loss to explain its survival. Although she had no way to calculate the crevasse's height without instruments, the plunge had proven sufficiently lethal that the trauma from impact tore the Hunter's body in two and flung the pieces apart.
Alyx felt caught between the need to gloat and the need to retch.
The SPAS-12 lay nearby, its barrel snapped open at a perpendicular angle. Two burnt shells poked through. She grasped for it, discarded the wasted slugs, and locked the stock, using it as a brace to further support herself.
Her ragged breath sprouted clouds in the air. Leaning against the gun with her cheek mashed to frozen metal, she surveyed her surroundings. Towering walls of ice, pale blue-green in color, dominated every angle.
Desolate winds cried from a dark gap high above. At this depth, the snow buffeting the tundra thinned to a flurry. She blinked back the flakes pattering her hood, clinging to its matted fringes.
Alyx readjusted her hold on her makeshift crutch. The sudden and absolute lack of human presence made her feel small. As far as she could tell, the Combine had departed. They nursed no compunctions about leaving a synth carcass to rot in an icy ditch. But did anyone else know where they were? She, and… and Barney.
Her call returned echoes, thieved by wind. The hazy apprehension she felt began to sharpen into dread. Milt, Blake, Thomas and Jim. Crushed. Charred. Shot. Their dead visages flooded her mind, accusatory. Keep calling, Vance, no one will hear you. You abandoned us.
She whipped around.
Her teeth crushed together as she tried to budge and met resistance. Pressure tugged a dull ache on her calf, where she found a drift burying her wounded leg. The cold had killed the pain in her nerves.
Oh, God. How long had she been lying here? Judging by the fact that the snow crumbled in loose chunks, hopefully not too long, but even a few minutes' time spent exposed to the elements plunged one dangerously close to frostbite.
There wasn't any more time to lose. She had to find Barney and reunite with the group. If the Hunter that ambushed them belonged to a larger pack, and reached the weather station first—
She clamped her kneecap and hauled her deadened calf free. Her boot stuck to the drift as her foot slithered out; she recoiled at the sight of her woolen sock, its fibers encrusted brown with congealed blood. So the bullet haddone a little more than just graze flesh. Adrenaline and cold must have kept her from experiencing it full brunt.
She yanked her boot back on, threading the strings tight, and proceeded to tear a makeshift tourniquet from her inner liner. Cotton scratched the gash in her leg; she winced at the sight of bruised tissues invading shores of healthy skin. It probably wasn't the smartest idea to cut off circulation to a damp wound, but it was the best she could do at the moment. The pain would revive once nature's analgesic wore off. For now, she had to make use of the time she was given and find Barney. He couldn't have landed far.
(… is he)
She wouldn't think of that now.
Dragging the stock of her empty gun, she rose to a shaky stand.