"...tear off into the room with the bittersweet vengeance
cursing through your veins..." Quake2
Guy awoke in a dimly lit room.
He sat up, testing his body to see what worked and what didn't, surprised to find that he didn't feel that bad. Of course, 'bad' was such a relative term - by all rights, his family should be saying their final farewells - but considering the hits Guy could recall taking during the Tank battle, he was amazed that he felt as good as he did.
He was sitting on hard slab, noting for the first time that it really wasn't all that comfortable, especially compared to the well padded bench he had grown accustomed to over recent weeks. The surface of this one was a hard, cold metal, with a crumpled up shirt headrest providing the only softened support.
As his eyes adjusted to the dim light, he began to make out objects in the room. The room itself was well sized, although bizarrely shaped; no two surfaces were at right angles to each other, giving a surreal appearance that left Guy feeling slightly off balanced.
Stacked up at one end of the room were crates of supplies. Guy recognised most of them from the arena environments; drugs, health packs, weapons, and a lot of ammunition. It was an impressive stockpile.
To Guy's right, several meters away, was someone sitting on a crate, facing the other direction. From Guy's viewpoint, he appeared to be cleaning a weapon or something, humming some vaguely recognizable tune.
"Hey-" Guy said, more as a tentative question than a statement of greeting, "Jack-" Guy added, before realizing that it wasn't Jack at all. It was someone he didn't know.
The fellow turned around, sporting a briefly puzzled expression which quickly turned into a grin.
"Nope, not Jack", the big man said, "although ask me later and I'll do a pretty good impersonation if you like". He was smiling, clearly amused at the thought. "Call me Sarge," he said, puffing away on a big cigar which lit up his face with every breath.
Guy recognised the name instantly which Sarge must have been able to read from his reaction.
"Jack mentioned me, huh?"
"Yeah. He..," Guy was trying to remember what Jack had said all those weeks ago, "had a lot of respect for you, I remember."
"Had?" Sarge asked, amused at the past tense. Guy shrugged and smiled.
"How's that leg?" Sarge queried, getting serious for a moment.
Guy looked down and examined his leg which had the suit cut away to expose the wounds. The whole area was blue, with large chunks of flesh missing but healing surprisingly well.
"Doesn't look good," Sarge offered, "but these healing machines they have here do wonders."
Guy nodded and then slowly eased himself up into a standing position, giving weight to the damanged leg steadily but cautiously. There was a bruised senstation, and he didn't feel like going off for an evening jog on it, but still, it did feel better than he expected.
"Healing machines?" Guy asked, looking up at Sarge.
"Your bed," Sarge replied, pointing at the bench Guy had woken up on. Guy turned around and examined the contraption, and sure enough; it was one of the beds from the barracks, except minus the mods that made it a bed. It was basically just a bench with an open control box at one end.
Sarge walked around to the controls and pressed a button labeled with writing that Guy was unable to read. The middle part of the sleeping area began to sink into the center of the unit. Once it had retreated all the way in, a shimmering field - similar to the ones that surrounded the barracks rooms - appeared over the opening.
"The beds are stasis chambers that perform regenerative healing," Sarge said. "It's an incredible piece of engineering. Absolutely cutting edge."
"I'll take two," Guy joked, with a bit of a cough. He still had a sore throat, and other pains were starting to resolve into specific body locations, rather than an 'overall hurt'.
"Usually we'd leave you in for a few days longer, but there's a chance we have to abandon this place so we had to get you ready."
Guy could hear an apologetic tone in Sarge's words.
"I'm feeling surprisingly good." Guy began poking himself, flinching whenever he discovered the more touchy places on his body. There were lots.
"Where is this room," he asked, "and where are the others?"
"The Jack and Athena are monitoring the arenas we have access to, looking for others like yourself. As for this room, it's just an unused corner of an arena, where the architect forgot to trim away overhang... so to speak." He scrunched up his face, knowing that his explanation was a touch left-of-field.
Guy raised his eyebrows.
Sarge just shrugged. "You'll have to drop any preconceived ideas on building construction in this place, it's a whole new way of thinking."
"Very cool, though," he added.
Guy heard a scrapping sound which ended abruptly. A few seconds later, Guy spotted Jack crawling into the room through a small hole behind some crates at the other end of the room.
Jack looked up. "Hey, here he is." He turned around and pushed a cover back over the opening and then turned his attention back to Guy. "Good to see you up and about - Guy, wasn't it?"
"Well well, you've been doing damn well in those matches!" He checked that there were no leaks around the cover. "We've been watching you - and the others - you know."
Jack walked over to Guy and shook his hand. "I still can't believe how far you got for someone who doesn't use their whole range of view!"
"We saw about five matches, how many have you had since I left?" asked Sarge.
"I.. ahh.. lost count some time ago," Guy answered quickly, "but, what do you mean about me not using my entire range of view?"
"Heh, you really don't know do you? Man, I've only ever seen you play an essentially horizontal game - what ever happened to UP AND DOWN?" Jack was laughing as he asked the question, and Sarge had a smile too.
"Up and down?" Guy asked rhetorically, thinking about what Jack had said. On retrospect, it did seem that he made very little use of up and down in his matches. In fact, he could remember several occations where he had been caught off guard by vertical attacks yet had never consciously realized that he wasn't taking those angles into account.
"I.. guess I never thought about it," he offered, still thinking about the puzzle. "In the Hell wars, back at home, it was rarely an issue, and I guess it was lost from my thinking through lack of use..." It seemed like a reasonable explanation.
"Never rocket jumped before either I take it?" asked Jack.
Guy smiled. "That is one crazy concept. I still can't believe it worked."
Jack reached into a big box and pulled out some fruit. "We have access to one of their storage sheds," he said as he tossed Guy and Sarge an apple-like fruit each, not waiting for Guy's imminent question.
"So where the hell are these arenas, anyway? What was all that orange stuff?" Guy finally got around to the bigger questions.
"Remember when I said you had to throw out all preconceptions before?" answered Sarge. "Well, I meant it; this place is totally screwy." Sarge was waving his arms around as he said it.
Jack explained further; "The whole place - arenas, barracks, storage, whatever - seem to be floating in some sort of void-"
"The orange?" Guy interrupted.
"Yeah," replied Jack, "the orange is, technically speaking, nothing. And this entire complex is layed out in a really haphazard fashion throughout this void."
Sarge took over, trying to explain it a bit more; "There's no absolute ground - that we've found at least - the different buildings are just sort of floating in this void. We have access to the sections within RJ distance of each other."
"Sounds risky.." Guy said, thinking about how hard it had been to control the rocket jump earlier.
"It is," replied Jack. "We lost a guy, Skippy, when he mistimed a jump recently." There was a sense of loss in his words.
"How many of you are there?" Guy queried.
"Just three of us, and now you," answered Sarge. "You've met Athena, haven't you?"
"She'll be back soon," Jack said to Sarge who acknowledged with a nod.
"Skippy was around for a couple of weeks, and there was another girl here originally with Athena, but she had an accident with some ammunition supplies before I arrived," Sarge said, looking back at Guy.
"Athena and Lotus were the first two out - they found the leak to the outside on that ledge we RJ'd onto and lived out here for a couple of weeks before they showed Sarge the way out," said Jack, continuing the story. Guy was surprised how talkative Jack was today, it was certainly quite unlike the Jack that Guy remembered from back on day one. It was amazing how sudden freedom could release the bottled up demons..
Sarge was looking through the weapons stockpile, pulling out the occasional weapon and looking it over. Ash was falling to the ground from his cigar, prompting Guy to feel slightly nervous about the close proximity of fire and weaponry.
Jack continued; "They got me out just over a month later.. actually, it was the day you turned up if I remember correctly."
"Since then we've been mapping the place out and keeping an eye on the matches in the arenas we've been able to break into. They're pretty tough to get into, you see - needs a pretty sizable crack there already, or even better, a leak directly out to the void." Jack grabbed another fruit from the box and offered it to Guy, but Guy wasn't hungry. Jack bit into it himself.
"How'd you get me out without giving away your secret? Or do they know you're around but just don't know where you are?" Guy asked, realizing that the second question didn't really make sense.
"Oh, we can track the cameras with a little unit that Lotus and Sarge rigged up," Jack replied, "we know where the mounted cameras are and so can determine the blind spots in each arena, like in the fog, and then it's just a matter of avoiding the roaming cams-"
"Visor, the guy who replaced you," Guy broke in, pointing to Jack, "can see them too.."
"Ahh yes," interrupted Sarge, "he'd be the guy with the metallic plate mounted on his face, I bet. Nice look."
"You probably weren't aware," Jack interrupted, swinging the conversation back to Guy's question, "but your chase-cam got stuck on the edge of a door earlier in your match. It broke away fairly quickly, but spent the rest of the time looking for you. We wanted to help you earlier, but the damn thing was just around the corner for ages and we couldn't risk it. But then right at the last minute, the stupid thing got itself stuck again and we leapt on the chance."
"Appreciated," Guy said with a smile.
"So, who's running the show? What's it all about?" Guy asked straight up, hoping to finally replace the mish-mash of theories he'd been nursing with the absolute, final truth.
"Don't know," replied Sarge with a sigh. "If you're looking for solutions out here, you'll be disappointed. There's less sense outside than there ever was inside. In there, at least, you could come up with some fairly reasonable explanations, but out here..."
The block covering the door slid aside again, prompting Sarge and Jack to take a cautious posture until Athena poked her head through the opening. "Just me guys, take it easy."
"Doesn't make me any easier," joked Sarge. He looked at Guy, "don't let her looks fool you, she could take any of us down in a one-on-one without working up a sweat." He winked at her as she walked across to Guy.
With the introductions over, Athena exchanged some words privately with Sarge and then announced; "come on you guys, got something really cool to show you."
She motioned to Jack. "Bring the Lever."
Athena lead them to a distant arena, or at least the roof of one, where she promised a worthwhile surprise. The path had been remarkably convoluted, up and over buildings, then following thin paths around perimeters with barely enough overhang to hold a boot. Guy was thankful that they hadn't needed to do any rocket jumps, but he did have to pull off some leaps that he'd have been better of avoiding. He could feel his body asking him to lay down somewhere quiet for a year or two, but he kept up with them regardless.
The trip took the best part of an hour and finished on top of a building that looked pretty much like all the others, with the weird geometric shapes jutting out from the roof at all sorts of angles, giving away subtle hints as to what the layout inside might be like.
Along the way, Sarge had explained to Guy that all told they had mapped out nearly a hundred arenas spread throughout the void, although the limited visibility through the thick orange soup meant that there could have been far more. They were finding more all the time, while older ones are either removed or modified for whatever needs their unseen captors felt were required. Their little group had internal access to just six arenas, a supply building, a couple of nondescript walkways, plus rooftop access to around fifty buildings.
Guy also spent some time explaining his theory to Sarge, that the entire staging was for testing and observational purposes rather than entertainment. Sarge seemed to consider it a good possibility - apparently he'd never been fully supportive of the entertainment theory anyway, and was happy to have a new one to think about.
There didn't appear to be anything of interest to see on the roof that Athena had lead them to, and there was no where else to go unless they were able to get inside the arena. The alternative seemed to be a lot of backtracking.
Guy was beginning to get vaguely used to the overwhelming orangeness of the void, but could only go a few minutes at a time without his helmet on before he got dizzy. He couldn't imagine how they others managed to cope without helmets, but it must simply have been something one got used to with enough exposure.
He could see Sarge kneeling down with his ear to the building, listening for a match that might have been in progress. His blank expression suggested there wasn't one.
"Nice view," joked Jack after he had convinced himself that there really was nothing to see. Athena just smiled and lead them, very carefully, to the edge of the structure.
"OK, Jack," she said, in a sly way that suggested Jack shouldn't have been so smug, "check out what you can see over the side of the building."
She was trying to contain her smile, but everyone knew now that she'd found something really interesting.
Jack was smiling too, wondering what trap he was falling into, but he went along anyway, casually stepping to the buildings edge. Slowly he leaned forward. As his head reached the line of the buildings edge, there was a nasty thud and his head bounced back in reflex. He had hit his head on something invisible!
Sarge stepped up to the edge while Jack rubbed his forehead, and stuck out his hand to feel the object.
After some experimentation, they determined that it was a massive, flat wall which ran along the entire side of the building, up, down, and outward as far as their weapons could fire. It probably wasn't invisible as such, it was just the exact same, unfaltering orange as the rest of the void, leaving them wondering whether the void was simply an enclosed space of bright orange walls. A theory that would have been more plausible if not for the bizarre, unexplainable presence the orange had - it wasn't simply at the extent of their environment, it was their environment. It was all around them; everything was tinted bright orange.
Jack was first to spot an imperfection in the wall - a crack - after almost two hours of searching. A quick sound check on the arena showed no sign of a match in progress, so they broke out the 'Lever' device that Jack had lugged along - a machine created by Lotus to pound out a man-sized hole in a wall. All it needed was a crack as a starting point, and from there it would take about four hours to create a hole big enough for a human to climb through.
They set the device off and then some distance away set up a small camp to get some rest.
The hole wasn't quite what Guy had been expecting, being rather more angular than the rounded hole that his imagination had shown him as a preview. Apparently the device vibrated at an incredible frequency, taking advantage of imperfections in the rock - micro-cracks that radiated out from the larger ones - literally shaking the wall apart.
The material used to construct the building was incredibly tough, Sarge once describing it as the perfect concrete, but this vibrating motion over a long period of time seemed to be it's one weakness.
"How do the cracks factor into the concept of perfection?" Guy once asked Sarge with a cheeky grin.
"We live in a universe where even perfection isn't perfect," was his direct reply. Guy looked around at the buildings floating in the orange void, wondering just what universe he was in.
They all crowded the hole as Jack unfastened the Lever and slid it away from the opening.
"Oh wow!" Jack exclaimed as he shoved his head into the hole, "this is just too weird."
He stepped aside, allowing the others to look in turn. Guy watched each face go in with the look of anticipation, and then return with the expression of utter bewilderment. Guy didn't know what to expect when his turn arrived.
The sight he saw through the opening was surely the strangest thing he had ever seen, and would likely ever see. There were dozens more arenas visible on the other side - all positioned seemingly randomly in the bright orange void. None of which was all that surprising, but what caused the wide-eyed look on everyone's face was that they were all transparent; Guy could literally see into every single arena! There was even one building close to their postilion which had a match in progress, with three or four aliens running around, fighting for their lives.
It was breathtaking, but at the same time frightening. Really frightening. It was as though the laws of nature were being ignored, and a surrealist set of makeshift rules had been substituted in their place. Guy looked away.
Sarge started laughing. He was looking at each of them in turn, and with each new face he'd laugh even more. Then Jack started laughing, followed by Athena and Guy. It was an unusual reaction, but Guy did feel better afterwards. The others clearly did too.
"We need to get Visor up here," Guy said after the laughing had died down.
Sarge nodded, understanding the need for a good survey of the new environment before they started poking around in there. Visor, with his extended vision, would be able to help them map out most of the environment from where they stood.
"That could take months!" Athena protested, not hiding the fact that she wanted to explore the new land as soon as possible.
Jack was back at the hole, tossing bullet shells through the opening and watching how they reacted when they hit the arena nearest to them.
"Looks like they really are solid," he said after a while, "it's just that they are clear from the outside looking in."
"Why, though?" asked Athena, "What's the benefit?" She gestured to the random shapes jutting out of the roof all around them, "What's wrong with this approach when they never see it?"
"And why use two different approaches," Guy added.
There were no answers. No theories either; this puzzle was unlikely to have a solution they could resolve themselves.
They were packing up their gear when Sarge beeped; it was the device that detected cameras which had made the sound. Sarge, Jack and Athena to leap to the ground, quickly followed by Guy when he realized they weren't playing around.
Sarge crawled over to the nearest ledge and after a brief look he signaled back to the others that there were three cameras floating around on separate buildings below them.
"This is the first time we've seen them outside," Athena explained to Guy. "We suspected they saw Sarge when he was grabbing some supplies a couple of days after we picked you up, and now we know."
"My mistake," said Sarge, crawling back into their little camp. Guy could feel some minor tension.
"Through the hole?" asked Athena, although Guy suspected she had already decided where she was going.
Jack seemed to agree; "There's solid surface, if you can call it that, only about fifteen meters below the opening, so we should be able to get in without to many problems." He was looking at Guy, probably wondering whether he could take a drop of that height.
"No problem," Guy responded reassuringly. Jack looked relieved.
Sarge was shaking his head. "Looks like I'm outvoted, but I'm not comfortable leaving all our supplies back there, and it's going to be difficult getting back up those fifteen meters to the hole."
Everyone saw his point. There was a period of pause as each of them weighed out the pros and cons to themselves.
"OK, looks like I'm with you guys," Sarge said suddenly, tapping a finger on the camera monitor. There was a sound of urgency in his voice.
They each grabbed the supplies which were laying around and threw them into the hole. Jack took one last look, just to check that the items had indeed found a solid surface, and then heaved himself through - feet first - with one clean move. He dangled on the other side for a few seconds, perhaps still trying to convince himself that there really was a surface there somewhere, before releasing his grip and dropping from sight.
Athena quickly followed him through, then Guy and then finally Sarge. Guy took the drop pretty well - he figured that it must be hard to hurt yourself when you were already really, really hurt - although Athena had sprained her ankle slightly.
She said she'd be OK.
Walking on the transparent buildings was an unnerving experience. With every step, the instinct part of Guy's brain, sensing that the floor didn't exist, would scream out 'wait - no!', but consciously he knew that the floor really was there. Walking took a unending mental effort, each step requiring a serious effort to override the survival instincts left over from evolution, making progress incredibly slow.
Finding the edge of buildings was perhaps the most dangerous, and time consuming task - they had to take clues from what they could see inside the building, and carefully prod the area in front of them with each step - a task made even more difficult by the bright orange void which surrounded them in every direction, encompassing their entire view. Upon finding an edge, they'd place down a couple of bullet shells as a visual aide for the required jumps.
As time passed, and the distance from the hole grew, the constant effort of walking drew their attention away from the events going on around them; deathmatch games between the most unimaginable aliens, bots making repairs to recently used arenas, bots walking around the various corridors with no apparent purpose. It was like watching a cut-away ants nest at an unimaginable scale.
After some hours they had left the arenas behind and began tracing a network of corridors and administrative buildings. They had still not seen any natives, apart from the ever present bots that worked away at their business directly below the groups feet, seemingly unaware that it was now them who was being watched.
They continued on, not really knowing what they were looking for, but secretly they were all after some answers. And maybe even some payback.
As the process of walking became easier, and the path less dangerous, their spirits lifted. They had no idea where they were, where they were going or how they were going to survive if they couldn't get back to their comfy little room in the other map, but there was definitely something about watching the bots going about their daily lives that the they all found amusing.
They had begun to recognise the different types - cleaners, administrators, servants, deathmatch opponents and the many others - and had began giving them names. When they'd find a group of bots working together, they'd give them all funny voices and pretend the group of bots were a family back on Earth.
I'm home! How was your day, dear? Oh, fine, and how about yours? I had a lovely day, thank you for asking.
They all laughed.
A group of four humans, from vastly different time-lines, walking on transparent buildings, making jokes about the robotic inhabitants. Guy was not oblivious to the oddity of the moment. If not for the constant pain he felt, it would have been easy to shrug it all off as a weird dream.
The good humor seeped away quickly as they began to understand the bigger picture. It came in small pieces at first; a strange task being performed or something they saw which didn't sit right, but piece by piece they began to understand more of what was going. They would often travel long distances just to follow a particular bot, to see where it lead or what they could learn.
And the more they learnt, the less comfortable they felt. It was eventually apparent that the sprawling complex they were on had the task of determining whether the bot's latest catch - a sentient creature, snatched unaware from their home, friends, and even their reality - was suitable for the deathmatch system or not.
The decision was apparently made in a particular type of small room - of which there were many - housing a machine which the unconscious creature would be attached to. With their 'catch' connected to the machine, the bots monitoring nearby readouts would decide whether the creature was to get door A or door B.
Door A lead to a series of preparation rooms, which then lead into an impossibly massive series of layered buildings far below their current position - clearly the system of barracks, where somewhere on one of the lower levels would be the human complex. Unfortunately the prison complex so far below their position that it was difficult to accurately judge size or scale, but it was clearly a structure of incredible size. Far larger than any they had seen before.
Door B, on the other hand, had them puzzled at first. The subject was taken into a room at the end of a corridor and placed onto a large square table. The table would then lower into the floor, and return some time later without the body.
It had taken them quite some time to find a place where they could see below the room, free of obstructions, and were surprised to discover that there was no adjoining room or building below the table. Just void.
Surprise turned quickly to anger the first time they saw a body drop limply into the void.
It was the waste disposal.
A new subject faced the decision room about every thirty second, a frightening statistic considering they only witnessed two aliens sent through door A over the following days that the group had their main camp there.
"What the hell is this all about?" asked Athena one time as they saw another human - a middle aged man wearing a business suit - taken through door B.
"How long has this been happening?" Guy added.
"It has to have been years, perhaps centuries," Jack wondered out loud.
"It may well be far longer than that," thought Sarge, "just think about the design of this place; it's beyond comprehension. There's no reason this couldn't have been going on for millions of years."
"Billions..." Athena said quietly.
The idea slowly sunk in as they watched yet another alien wheeled into door B.
It took two days of sorties away from their temporary base to become familiar with their immediate surroundings, by which time their supplies were beginning to get low. They could perhaps stay for another two of three days before it would become imperative that they return to the first environment.
However, there was still the nagging problem of reaching the opening again - precision rocket jumping seemed to be the only option which worried Guy somewhat - plus there was a good chance that the camera units they had fled from where still patiently searching. But even if they weren't, the bots would surely have cut off access to the supplies building, leaving the group with the limited rations that were safely tucked away in their well hidden room. Maybe a week of food at most.
Everyone was well aware of the problems, but they seemed happier to simply ignore them than admit to their predicament. No one ever made mention of returning.
With sorties completed, they were left with the choice of finding a way down to the lower levels, or attempting to get up to the city-block sized complex high above them.
The lower buildings were initially more attractive for several reasons; it was easier to go down than up, they knew that the major group of structures were barracks, and the supplies buildings in the other environment had been lower in the void than their current height.
However, while going down was easier, they still had in the back of their mind that they would be needing to eventually retrace their steps, making a big descent less attractive simply for the big ascent required later when they were all tired and hungry.
Examining the prison complex at close range was, however, a particularly attractive idea - almost enough to counter the need to make the difficult return journey - but if there was no way to get lower than the top of that complex then, since the top levels floor obstructed sight into subsequent layers, they'd only be able to examine the top level of the complex. It didn't seem worth the risk, when the main interest there was to find the human quarters which they believed to be located deep into the structure.
It may still have been worth the trip if they thought there would be a chance of finding a supplies building, but the layout of the many buildings floating in the void around them appeared to be just as haphazard as in the other environment, and so there was no guarantee that they would find what they needed.
And so up it was.
It took another half day to find a suitable path up to the higher buildings; a convoluted progression of jumping and climbing along a path that sometimes took them a long way down, just so they could ultimately get a bit higher.
Guy was surprised how well his body was holding up now. The only times it really hurt was when he actually looked at the various wounds, as if seeing them was a reminder to his brain that it had forgotten something. Was it possible to get used to pain?
There was always the chance that they would come to a final dead end - where there was no choice left apart from returning to where they had began - but whenever they come across an impassable gap, a search around the area would always turn up a new path. The process was slow going, and steps were being made very carefully, but there were making progress.
The competition during the trip was to guess the purpose of the major complex which, even though the outer shell was invisible from the outside looking in, still proved to be a more difficult task than it had been for many of the other buildings they had passed. There wasn't much to see from underneath, or from the side for that matter, and the bright orange of the void made it difficult to see things clearly, even right in front of them.
They all hit on the answer at the same time; it was the building they had really been looking for ever since they entered the second environment, even if they hadn't consciously realized it until they saw the complex from above.
There was a large central dome - around one hundred meters in diameter Guy estimated - covered in an intricate lattice-work of girders and nurlies. From the top of the dome was a thick stem which rose up and apparently attached to the ceiling, although from the outside looking in, the roof couldn't be seen.
Emerging radially from the central building were a series of four big, wide walkways which lead directly into the structure which surrounded the central area.
It was immediately apparent that they were looking at the infernal machine which had pulled them out of their lives and into this bizarre world. A theory quickly confirmed when they spotted an unconscious alien being escorted across the walkway nearest to them, with three bots in tow.
They continued to watch from their vantage point for a while, more out of morbid curiosity than anything else, but also because they really didn't know what to do next.
Their inaction was suddenly interrupted when they realized the alien they were watching now being taken across the walkway was not so alien after all; it was a human - a small girl, wearing what looked to be a swimming outfit.
Sarge stood up.
"Let's get in there," he announced. No one argued.
The group resolve to break into the complex was quickly deadened by the need to first find a weakness in the buildings exterior, a task made all the more difficult by the fact that the surface was only opaque looking out - not in - and so they weren't even sure that they would be able to find one.
They could feel the texture of the surface with their bare hands, and so the search for an existing crack on the ceiling of the building was achieved by crawling around on hands and knees, feeling for a defect big enough to give the Lever something to work from.
It took them a day and a half before Sarge finally found a sizable crack in the surface. The discovery had come none too soon; the task had started to take a toll on each member of the team, a problem amplified by the chance that what they were searching for may not even exist. But Sarge had come through, and the team spirits were high once again.
The sight of the girl being dragged through 'the system', as they referred to it, had set off the determination to lay everything down on the line once and for all, but a day and a half was a long time to maintain that hightened adrenaline level, and so by the time the Lever had finished it's task there was a hint of apprehension in their faces.
Guy started laughing.
They all saw the humor, or perhaps something else equally funny, and joined in. The tension faded away as the four soldiers shared a moment of fun.
It was Jack that made the first move, taking off the heavy pack he had been carrying around everywhere and removing everything non-essential. His mind was set on a task now, and that was enough to spark the others into following a similar course of action. They crammed ammo clips into any pocket they could find and readied their various weapons of choice, all with a single task in mind.
Sarge looked like the soldier equivalent of a Swiss-Army knife, with all the weapons he had hanging over his shoulders and in his hands - he looked like the toughest SOB that ever lived. Athena, on the other hand, kept a light load, her primary weapon being the railgun which Jack said she was a crack aim with. Jack and Guy were somewhere between, with a decent collection of weapons each, but not to the extent that Sarge had.
The opening, which would have been easily visible to any bot that looked skyward, was at the outer end of one walkway, close enough to the edge that it was going to make the drop down to the surface a risky one; one slip and you had only the long fall into the void below to look forward to.
"First into the dome wins," said Sarge, making light of the situation. Everyone smiled.
"No regrets," said Athena, serious again.
"No regrets," they all replied.
They stood around the opening, and after a brief exchange of handshakes they were ready to go. The moment the next group disappeared into the building below them they would toss down their surplus supplies - on the odd chance they could get them afterwards - and then file down one after another, never looking back, and never loosing focus from the task before them.
The waiting was tense. They knew it would be ten minutes at most, but it seemed to take forever. Guy was suddenly reminded of the ready-room back during the deathmatch games, and he still didn't like build up of tension. He wanted to pass the time with conversation, but he could tell that the others were using the time to psyche themselves up and so he didn't say anything.
Instead, Guy used the time worrying about how to use the time.
At last, a group of bots and their sleeping captive stepped out from the central building. There was the usual compliment of three bots; two walking alongside and the other one seated at the back of the bed-like vehicle, in much the same manner that they rode the trams, as Guy called them, to each match. Their catch, a Klesk, slept quietly, oblivious to it's new life.
The two bots walking alongside were of a type the group had only ever seen making this trip across the walkways - they had seen them in no other part of the network - and so they hadn't yet been able to identify their purpose. Hopefully they weren't variations of the deathmatch bots or this mission they were about to embark on could be harder than they expected.
"No matter what happens," Jack said, looking up at the others, "at least one of us gets into the dome."
It wasn't hopeful thinking, he was laying down ground rules for the assault. Everyone nodded. Of course, they had no idea what they would find in the central dome, or what security they would come across, but they each carried a bag of grenades for the sole purpose of destroying the machine within - it was good to have a plan, even if they knew it was a long shot.
It took the bots nearly five minutes to cross the walkway before finally disappearing into the building beneath them. Guy could feel beads of perspiration rolling down his face, but it was too late to do anything about them now; Jack was counting down from ten, and he was already at three.
They each dropped down through the small opening, safely avoiding a fall over the ledge which was only a meter away from their landing position.
Guy was hit by the sudden bright glow of light inside the buildings - over the last few days he really had, somehow, become used to the florescent glow of the orange void, and so the sudden change back to natural lighting was almost as distracting as it had been when he had seen the void for the first time.
Everything was so painfully bright.
As they began making their way across the massive walkway, at a brisk pace, Guy could see the others were having trouble adjusting to the new lighting conditions too, probably even more so since Guy was the only one with the benefit of a visor plate.
Guy laughed when he saw that Sarge still had a cigar hanging out of his mouth, a trail of smoke dragging along behind him, giving away his path. Guy didn't know what he had used to make the cigars, and didn't care to ask.
They didn't spot the lone bot exit from the central dome building initially, due to the difficulty in seeing, but it was Guy that eventually pointed it out. They stopped running and spread out across the span of the walkway, laying flat to the ground. Guy kept an eye out behind them; the first sign of trouble from the aft and they'd be off again, but while it was one lone bot they were willing to see what it had in mind.
The bot wasn't taking an offensive posture at all; it was another one of the type which escorted the newly acquired captives, except that this one had it's arms stretched out to it's side, clearly trying to show it held no weapons.
It's gesture still didn't make Guy feel totally at ease, though.
The bot stopped in front of them, it's head swiveling back and forth, either trying to work out who they were, or perhaps trying to decide who to address. After a brief pause, it spoke; "Please stop."
"Hah," Sarge laughed, looking around at the others, "it actually said please!"
"It's got better manners than you," said Athena.
"So, tell us, why should we stop?" Sarge asked, before adding, "we know what you do with them."
The bot seemed to understand what Sarge was referring to; it thought for a few moments and then looked at Sarge. "You don't understand," it said in a pleading tone, "if they are not soldiers we have to return them... we cannot keep them here, there is not enough room."
It was an unusual response, leaving the team wondering exactly what the bot was attempting to imply. Was it trying to say that by dumping the useless bodies into the void, they were somehow being returned to their former lives?
Guy suddenly realized something unusual about the bot's voice; it wasn't synthesized like those he had heard talk before! "It's not a synth voice," he whispered to the others. They each looked at each other, wondering what to make of the bot's story, and of it's voice.
"Regardless-" Sarge said slowly and deliberately as he stood up, "-of whether we believe you or not," he looked around at the rest of the team, subtly warning them to be ready, "it doesn't excuse all this does it?"
"On the contrary," replied the bot, which was now looking a little uneasy, it's head darting back and forth between each member of the team as it answered the question, "it is essential to our survival!"
"Thats all I needed to hear," said Sarge as he raised his rocket launcher and fired at the bot. It rocket hit the bot hard in the chest, sending the unit backward along the walkway for quite some distance before it skidded to rest in a puff of smoke and sparks. Without a pause it was up on it's feet, running back towards the central dome at great speed.
Sarge fired off a couple of followup shots at it, hoping to stop it reaching it's goal; the first one hit it's target in the back, sending it again to the ground, but the second one passed directly over it's head and off into the distance. As it rose to it's feet once again, it was taken down once more by Athena's railgun.
It didn't get up again.
The team were now running as fast as they could towards the dome, thinking they were home free until they suddenly noticed the ground opening up at the far end of the walkway. Around fifty deathmatch bots, all armed to the teeth, sprung up out of the ground and began advancing towards the mortified humans. Guy glanced over his shoulder and saw a similar sight approaching from behind.
Once the weapons started firing, it was the light-show to end all light-shows, with every type of projectile filling the air and every color from the rainbow accounted for. Guy could feel his armor being impacted with uncomfortable regularity, but thankfully nothing had reached flesh or skin yet.
It was only a matter of time, though.
Jack was first to go. Guy had watched it happen; Jack had dived to avoid an incoming rocket, but the splash impact had augmented his leap and sent him tumbling straight off the walkway and into the void. And just like that, he was gone. The others - Sarge and Athena - were so busy with the advancing bots that they didn't even notice.
Guy didn't really know Jack that well, if at all, and yet he practically froze when he saw Jack disappear over the edge. One half of his brain was screaming at him to do something - try to somehow rescue Jack - but the other half realized that he was gone and there was nothing that could be done. The resulting conflict left Guy just standing in the middle of the walkway, with the battle going on around him.
"TRY TO KNOCK THEM OFF!" Sarge screamed out, aided by some rudimentary waving of his arms.
It was enough to bring Guy back into the present. Knock them off? Ahh! It made sense, Guy realized; they didn't have anywhere near enough ammunition left to deal with a hundred, angry deathmatch bots - not even close - but a well placed shot could knock them out of the running instantly... as they had done to Jack.
Guy suddenly went berserk, firing off multiple rocket rounds at the bot's feet, which were practically on top of them now, and then lobbing pineapple volleys into their biggest concentrations. Bots were being blown around like bowling pins - it turned out to be an excellent method of attack on the tightly packed bots, and quickly the odds were beginning to look reasonable.
And then Guy saw Athena laying on the ground, completely motionless in a pool of blood. The body was still being hit by the incoming fire, but there was no voluntary movement. She was dead. Guy saw Sarge was looking at Athena too, and then looking around for Jack.
Guy just shook his head; Sarge understood.
They were virtually face to face with the bot army now, although they were both still using the big weaponry; splash damage was an unfortunate but necessary risk. They had no chance again the bots with just the close range weapons, even though there were only twenty or thirty of them left.
Guy could see streams of blood pouring from Sarge's body at numerous places and, looking down at himself, he looked to be in the same condition. He was numb to the pain though; his mind was busy with other, more immediate, issues, but Sarge was clearly starting to tire.
They were fighting back to back now, Guy facing the group between them and the dome, and Sarge was keeping the ones behind them at bay.
"YOU READY TO RUN FOR IT WHEN I SAY?" yelled Sarge, the words barely audible over the deafening sound of battle.
"YEAH!?" replied Guy, not really sure what Sarge had in mind but happy there was some plan of action being worked out. But there was still a wall of bots in each direction - running for it would result in little more than an embarrassing collision.
"SWAP POSITIONS!" Sarge said.
They switched places, Guy now taking on the group behind, keeping them at a distance with a barrage of grenades, rockets, and the occasional sweep of his plasma gun. They weren't packed tightly enough anymore to so easily tumble them off the ledges, but he was doing enough to keep them at bay.
"WHATEVER YOU DO, DON'T LOOK AROUND!" Sarge yelled back to Guy. "I'VE GOT ONE SHOT, AND WHEN I FIRE, YOU GET AROUND ME AND RUN LIKE YOU'VE NEVER RUN BEFORE!"
"OK" Guy yelled, a touch apprehensive, but keeping positive.
Guy involuntarily snuck a glace over his shoulder to see what Sarge was up to and was surprised to see that Sarge had thrown away all of his weapons but one; the biggest fuckin' gun Guy had ever seen! It looked like Sarge had yanked the engine block out of truck and was waving it at the bots. He looked away quickly.
Suddenly there was a loud hissing sound, as if two bolts of lightning were being rubbed together, followed by a loud ear-bursting SWOOOSH.
"NOT YET!" Sarge yelled, "WAIT!". A second later Guy heard the unmistakable sound of multiple impacts occurring behind him.
Guy turned and ran, in time to see the bodies of each bot glowing from the inside out, and looking none too comfortable. It was a sight he recognised; it was a variation of the UAC issue BFG weapon he had used on many occasion during the Hell wars!
Some of the bots were falling over, others were heavily damaged, but quite a number of them looked to be quickly recovering from the blast; they didn't have much time.
Guy ran for all his life, jumping over the fallen bodies, knocking others out of the way with the butt of his rocket launcher, and firing carelessly at the rest.
Once through the lineup, he kept on running, half expecting to see another squad of bots exit from the building before him, but no reinforcements arrived. They had made it!
Guy looked around to see if they were being chased, but was horrified to see that Sarge hadn't come with him; he was still back there, surrounded by bots, holding them off with only a plasma gun. Guy was about to stop running and lay down cover fire when Sarge's weapon suddenly stopped firing. Within moments he slumped to the ground.
The bots were already charging Guy at a frightening speed when he realized that he was their new center of attention. He was running for all his might, but they were much faster and were catching up with him with ease.
He started pumping grenade's straight into the air, their air time just enough to land at the feet of the advancing horde, exploding with enough force to literally blow them off the ground. Some never got up again, but most did.
It was just enough, however, to allow Guy to reach the central dome, a building that looked a lot larger up close than he originally thought. It really was massive, with intricately detailed patterns etched into the surface - a pattern made from that three-pronged symbol he recalled seeing on the manuals they were given back on day one.
But he had no time to admire the craftsmanship - he ran in through the arched opening and along a corridor which hugged the perimeter of the building, still firing a shower of pineapples over his shoulder. A glance at the grenade's chamber showed he was nearly out, unless he broke into the back he had set aside to use on the machine at the center but he didn't plan to do that.
After a hundred meters or so, the inner wall opened up into another corridor which lead directly into the core. Guy could see the central chamber now as he raced towards it, watching carefully as he came to each intersection, but not slowing down even a whisper.
As he fired off his last available grenade, he looked around to see how many bots he was left to contend with, only now realizing that they had stopped following him. He slowed to a stop, somewhat worried by their actions, and looked back at the group of fifteen badly battered bots, quietly standing around the entrance to the corridor in which he stood.
Guy was breathing heavily, each breath awakening a pain somewhere in his body that he hadn't previously been aware of. He didn't look down, too afraid at what he'd see, knowing that there wasn't going to be a miraculous revival when he next woke up. This would be the end, but he still had a task to perform - and a promise to fulfill - and so he gave no further thought to his physical condition..
Guy turned away from the mechanical audience and returned to his original path, walking purposely now over the last twenty meters. He opened up the bag of grenades he had carried with him for the final part of the journey, and meticulously inserted each one into the empty chambers. With a solid flick of the weapon, the chamber closed and primed, ready for use.
Next he sorted through the other weapons he was carrying, tossing away any that were empty or of little use in his new environment, keeping only the weapons that have a chance of doing some serious damage.
It was only now that Guy realized that he never really expected to get this far; it was always an unrealistically out-of-reach goal - they all knew it - and yet, by some combination of unpredictable events, he was actually here.
He stepped from the corridor into the central chamber, a room generally geometric in design if not for the machine located in the very center. It looked positively out of place in such a stark environment, with it's multitude of pipes, panels, and all manner of seemingly superfluous detailing. It was an incredible sight, almost enough to distract Guy from his mission, but when he spotted two bots walking towards him his mind was quickly pulled back into focus.
They carried no weapons and appeared to be of little threat to the small, but heavily armed human, although Guy was keen to make them keep their distance regardless. There was no telling what damage one of them could do if he stepped within reach of their powerful arms.
"Thats close enough," he said, raising a pair of weapons at them. They stopped.