For Them and Not – Complete

Originally Posted from May 5th to Dec 30th, 2013

It was hot.  The heat never used to bother him but now it was hard to breath.  He had to stop running, catch his breath.  He never had to do that before.

The number twenty-eight stuck out in his head.  He was the second oldest the program had ever seen.  The younger ones were coming around again; they were going to lap him.

Each one passed, younger than the last, each an improvement on the last.  He stopped at the side of the path and leaned on a tree, letting them go by.  Sweat cascaded off of him, collecting in drops and dampening the dirt.

The second runner in the passing line stopped, looked at where he had stopped in the shade of a tree then back down the track at the other runners already receding in the distance.

“You ok?” Ox asked.

“Yeah, just tired,” Map replied.  “Catching my breath.”

Ox found something interesting on the ground kicked at it then intently checked the chronometer on his wrist.

“It’s alright,” Map said.  “Go ahead, I won’t be far behind.”

“I don’t mind waiting,” the younger man replied.

“Go on, you can still catch up.  They’ll want to know what took you so long.  Napkin won’t be happy.”

“No, I’ll wait.”

“Ox,” Map said more forcefully, “get going.  I’ll be right behind you.”

Ox hesitated, checked his wrist again and reluctantly headed down the path after the others.  Map watched the young man take off at an impressive pace.  He was sure to catch up with the rest.  Map was starting to think he might not be able to even finish the run, but he knew Ox would be waiting for him at the end and Napkin would scold him for the sentimentality.  Map stretched, cracking several joints, and continued his run back to the complex.

Ox was waiting for him, like Map had guessed; the others had gone inside to clean up before lunch.  Map came to a stop at the gate into the complex.  Ox had kept a bottle of water for him and Map accepted it gladly huffing out a thanks between sips.

“Map,” Ox said with a quaver in his voice.

“What is it?”

“They wanted to see you – in the office.  Napkin told them you had to stop.”

“It’s ok kid.  They don’t expect that much from me anymore.”  His comment, meant to be reassuring, didn’t seem to hit its mark.  “You’d better get to lunch.  I’ll go see what they have to say,” Map finished.

As Ox headed off towards the barracks Map checked the display on his arm and sighed at how long it took him to finish the run.  “They can’t expect it,” he said to himself.

Map reset the chronometer and headed in the direction Ox had taken to the barracks.  He though they would forgive the extra time it took to have a shower and get into a clean uniform.

The Administration building was low and long.  The only thing that distinguished it from the other buildings that filled the complex was the entrance and the lobby.  It was designed to receive delegates, politicians and higher ups.  Map stopped at the guard post outside the extravagant entrance.

“Hi Carl, how’s the knee?” he asked the lone guard who was more there for show than protection.

“Not bad, not bad.  Thanks for asking,” the guard replied.  “How was the run today?”

“I didn’t break any records; they managed to lap me this time.”

“Still faster than any of us could have run it.”

“I guess.  You know if they want more tests?”

“Don’t think so, the Administrator called for it.”

“Oh, it’s one of those meetings,” Map said knowing the guard would have as little need for bureaucracy as he did.  “I’d better not keep them waiting.”

“Take care of yourself,” the guard said with a look of pity towards Map.

Everyone knew that Map was twenty-eight and most of them understood what that meant.  It was only a matter of time before Map had to be retired; a pleasant disgrace that meant nothing to look forward to but tests and stagnation.

Map pushed through the doors into the lobby.  A young man sat at a large desk in the middle of the open space.  Map nodded to him and headed past the desk towards the labs.

“They’re expecting you in conference room five.” The man quickly said.

Map stopped and hesitated.  He hadn’t been in a conference room since his last mission debriefing over a year ago.  He disliked the generically opulent rooms more than the sterile labs.

“Oh.” he said nonchalantly to the young man.  He walked back around the desk towards the conference rooms.

The wing where the conference rooms were was lavish and meant to be as much of a show as the guard post and lobby.  Map felt they were out of place in the mostly simple and practical compound.

The floors were polished granite and the walls were darkly stained mahogany panels with elaborate sconces every few feet.  Map didn’t pass anyone in the hall.  The area was usually mostly empty save for the offices of the Administrator and the occasional meetings held in the conference rooms.

Map passed the first four rooms and stopped outside the door to the fifth.  There were six rooms in all, the last one closest to the Administrator’s office.  It was a widely believed rumour that the more important the meeting, the closer it would be to the Administrator’s office.  Map had only been as close as this when he received his original orders to take over for his predecessor.

Steeling himself, Map opened the door.  He wasn’t sure who would be there to greet him on the other side.

—-

Part Two

The room was almost full, office workers, secretaries, military officials and scientists were clustered in small groups talking casually.  Map had the feeling that they had known this was coming for a long time.  As he walked in and surveyed the room he noticed the woman speaking with the Administrator and turned around to face the door.

He knew they saw him, the conversations stopped, but he was still considering making a run for it.  He hadn’t seen the woman since his last mission.  Their goodbye had been casual, neither of them knowing it would be so long before they would see each other again.

Map didn’t know what he would say; he wasn’t sure how he felt.  It was almost easier that they didn’t have a real goodbye.  They weren’t friends but she was the closest anyone had ever been with Map.  He even felt that he missed her though he knew he was meant to feel like that.

Slowly he forced himself to turn around, but he couldn’t manage a smile.

“Map,” the Administrator exclaimed as he headed towards the petrified man and put his arm around him.  “I’m glad you could come,” he added as if Map had any choice.  The rest of the group started clapping which caught Map completely off guard.

“Administrator, what’s going on?” he asked quietly to the man who still had his arm tightly around Map’s shoulder.

“Why it’s your retirement of course,” he replied loudly so that everyone could hear.  “You have been one of our most successful assets.  You have performed above expectations and in the continuing peace, which is in no small part in thanks to your brave actions, you have continued to serve selflessly in training your successors,” he boasted smiling to the rest of the room.

“I don’t think I fully understand sir,” Map said.

“No need to be so formal, not anymore.  You can call me Tom now son.”  Map wasn’t used to the familiarity and he wasn’t sure he liked it.  “It is true that few, in fact almost none of your predecessors managed to survive as long as you have,” the Administrator said solemnly.  “We feel it’s time you step back and that Napkin should take over your responsibilities.  As for continuing training the progeny, you have been invaluable but Napkin is more than capable of handling that task as well.”

Map stood stiffly and felt the floor sink under him even though the grip of the Administrator was fast around him.  The words took their time to sink in.  The Administrator noticed the delay and tried to spell it out in the most gracious way he could.

“We’re rewarding you son.  You can relax now,” he said clapping Map hard on the shoulder and releasing his grip.

With his speech over the Administrator left Map and joined the cluster of people he was speaking with when Map entered the room.  The gathered people took the action as a signal that they could continue their previous discussions as well.

Henry, the head of Map’s science team wandered over to take the Administrator’s place next to Map.  “So it’s official,” he said sheepishly.

“I suppose so,” Map managed to reply not looking at the scientist.  He was still stunned from the Administrator’s words.

“I mean, we all knew it was going to happen, but, since it’s been so quiet, I thought,” Henry trailed off.

Map didn’t respond.

“Besides,” Henry continued, “Napkin has been ready for some time.  But thanks to you there hasn’t been any opportunity to test him out.  At least we know it’s official.”

“What’ll happen to you?” Map asked still looking away.

“We’ll be reassigned, the rest of the team and me.  We’ll be shuffled into projects where we can be of some good,” Henry said assuredly felling like the conversation was starting to move.

“Some good,” Map repeated.  “And Alice?” He asked referring to the woman who had been causing him uncertainty.

“You know Liaisons only work with one asset.”

“Yeah, but what will happen to her?”

Henry hesitated unsure of how to answer.  “Her contract will be terminated and I suppose she’ll – leave.”

“I suppose,” was all Map said.

“I’ll see you Map,” Henry said sensing the conversation was over.  “Just because you aren’t in charge of training doesn’t mean you can’t help,” he added before turning to join a group of his peers.

Map considered leaving again.  He wasn’t comfortable with the scientists and office staff even when he wasn’t the centre of attention.  He was feeling vulnerable.  He wasn’t used to it and he didn’t like it.  The conference room was a far cry from his usual surroundings.

Before he could move she started walking towards him.  He was transfixed as he watched her deliberately make her way through the room.  He was as torn as he was with his surprise retirement.  He wanted to talk to her, to hear her familiar ancillary voice, he was supposed to but he hated not trusting his feelings.  He wanted to run, avoid her, avoid the situation, avoid the complication.  He hadn’t figured out what to do be the time she reached him.  He wasn’t good with her face to face; he was used to only hearing her voice.

“Hi,” he choked out.

“Hello, it’s been a while,” she said with ease.

“Yeah.”

“You hate this don’t you?  It’s ok, you don’t have to hide it.  I’m not overly fond of it myself,” she said, not waiting for him to reply.  “I know our situation is – different, but I hope you are able to trust me.  Outside of your assignments I mean.  What I’m trying to get at is I think I know what you’re feeling.  As your Liaison…”

“Arbiter,” he interrupted startling himself almost has much as he did Alice.

“If you like.  It fits; you’ve never had much in the way of choice.”

“You don’t have to coddle me, you’re job’s done,” Map said calmly.

“I’m about as happy to be put out to pasture as you are by the way.  Besides whether I was instructed to or not I did look out for you.  I may represent something you don’t like but that’s not all that I am.”

“I did,” he faltered, “I missed – not saying goodbye.”

“I think we both suspected it was the last time for us,” she said.

“I hate feeling like this.  I hate not knowing if I really feel what I feel or if they made me this way.  I think I should be happy.  My whole life has been spent either training or fighting but,” he trailed off.

“You don’t know anything else,” she finished for him.  “It was your life, it was your job, you did a lot to help people.  You should feel good about that at least.”

“Sure, I do but now I feel useless; everything is a struggle now.  They lapped me today,” he said the last words quietly, confessing in the person he was conditioned to trust.

“It would almost be easier if you didn’t make it so far,” she said too late to catch herself.  He gave her a look that she thought she deserved.  “You know what I mean.  It’s terrible getting old, especially at your age.”  He didn’t respond.  “My story may not be as tragic as yours,” she continued, “but it isn’t any fun for me either.  I’m full of plugs and implants that are going to either break down inside me or have to be surgically removed.  Either way I’m going to slowly be poisoned the rest of my life.”  She could tell she wasn’t making things any easier for Map.  “At least you can still look out for the younger ones.  Henry told me that Ox really looks up to you.”

“He’s a good kid but it’s going to be rough for him.  He cares too much.  It’s going to be a hard lesson to learn in the field.”

“It may not be as much of a detriment as you think.  Things are different now.  You and the others saw to that,” Alice said, happy she was able to engage Map.  “It must be tough not having a mentor of your own.  I don’t think any of them went through this.”  She went to put a hand on Map’s arm but thought better of it.  “Ox is going to be fine, he had a good teacher.”

Map noticed people looking at them.  He wasn’t sure why, it wasn’t unusual for liaisons and operatives to stick together, though things could be different now that he had been dismissed.  Then he realized they knew something he didn’t.

“You’re leaving after this,” he said.

“After this meeting.  They are going to take me off base and that’s that.  Our adventure is over.”

“I don’t suppose they’ll let me leave,”

“Not likely, you’re property to them.  Some of them,” she corrected herself.

“It’s funny.  That doesn’t bother me as much as,” he had trouble finishing the sentence.

“I know, but it’ll be a long time still,” she said trying to reassure him.

The administrator stepped up beside them.  Map was concerned he hadn’t noticed his approach.  He didn’t think it would be as long as Alice hopped.

“Sorry to interrupt,” the Administrator said with a smile, “but I have an important conference call starting in a moment.  I wanted to tell you once again how much we all appreciate your hard work and dedication Map.  The world is a safer place from having you in it.”  He clapped map on the shoulder again and walked briskly out the door, most of the staff following in his wake leaving Map, Alice and a few scientists loitering in the room.  The scientists seemed reluctant to get back to their work and a few of them were reluctant to see an end come to their project.

Map shifted from foot to foot unable to find a comfortable way to stand.  He looked at Alice but she didn’t meet his eyes.  “Good luck,” he managed to say.

“I could say the same to you but I’m not sure how helpful it would be.  I know you’ll do great with what they let you.”  She started to turn but stopped herself and faced him.

Map spoke first.  “Thank you,” he said.

“I won’t forget you,” she said.  She reached out and squeezed his arm gently.  Map was stunned but before he could compose himself she turned and was gone.  He saw two guards, who must have been waiting for her outside the door, turn and follow her.  After a moment he went out himself, leaving the few remaining scientists with no reason to stay.

—-

Part Three

Map made his way out of the administration building and through the courtyard.  Evidently the word had gotten out already; the normally chatty guards just looked at Map pityingly.  Map tried to think about other things and remembered he had missed lunch.  He was hungry but he wasn’t sure he was up for eating.  He passed the mess hall and headed for the barracks.  He tried sneaking though the side door, he didn’t want to see the same look the guards gave him again, but Ox was there.

Ox had been making leaps and bounds in the training sessions lately and Map scolded himself for not staying a step ahead.  He wasn’t sure if Ox was getting that good or he was slipping.

“You heard,” Map said indifferently walking past Ox into the cool dark barracks hallway.

“Yeah,” Ox said.  Map wasn’t used to Ox being so pacified.  He usually found his excitement annoying, but he liked this even less.

“It’s okay,” Map said, “Napkin was overdue for the commission.  I doubt I could still handle an attack anyway.”

They moved further down the hallway, twenty-six sparse quarters were crammed into the building and currently six were occupied.  It was an unusually high number, but it had been an unusually quiet year.  They made the way to Map’s bunk in silence, Map could tell that Ox had more to say but wasn’t sure how to say it, or maybe he didn’t want to insult the man he looked up to.  Map was running out of patience and headed into his room.  With a small desk, a bed and a locker there wasn’t much space for Ox to follow so he stood in the doorway.  Map was ready to tell Ox to leave, that he was busy but he couldn’t think of what he had to do now that he had been retired.  It must have showed on his face because Ox finally spoke up.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“I can’t think of what I should do,” Map said, something foreign creeping into his voice.  He stagnated up and relied on his instinct to take over.  “I do know what you should be doing though, and so do you.”

“Studying,” Ox said dejected.  Ox turned and left diligently.  It seemed to Map that he would always be in charge as far as Ox was concerned.  He was worried how that would play with Napkin.

Map took a quick look around his room and decided he had to be somewhere else.  He didn’t have any studying of his own to do anymore.  He went back out into the courtyard and wandered.  Without intending to go anywhere he found himself outside the hanger, the one place he had been conditioned to go in a crisis.

Alarms split the air and triggered as many automated systems in Map’s head as it did around the base.  He sprinted into the hanger before remembering it wasn’t his fight anymore.  It had been a long time since the alarm went off, but the hanger was full of people performing their specific tasks as if no time had passed at all.

Napkin came running in a moment later, the head of his science team coming out to meet him.  His look of excitement changed to malice when he saw Map.

“What are you doing here?” he spat.

“Coincidence,” Map said coolly.

“It doesn’t matter,” the scientist said trying to get Napkin’s attention back.  “This is it,” he added excitedly.  Map thought it was an odd sentiment but he stepped back not wanting to get in Napkin’s way.  Napkin turned from Map and headed after the scientist who had already moved deeper into the hanger.

Map thought back to his first engagement and tried to sympathize.  He knew the feeling and the confusing mix of fear and excitement.  He called out to the other soldier who was almost at his staging platform.

“Hey Napkin,” Map said, “Good luck.”

“Don’t patronize me,” Napkin shot back viciously then turned to face his head scientist and staging crew again.  Map walked back out of the hanger and collected himself.  He knew Napkin was tense, he also knew what Napkin was about to face, probably better than the younger soldier did himself.  For the first time Map was glad that he was no longer the one who would go off to fight.  It would probably be his last time if he were.

Map waited with everyone else.  He hadn’t waited on the sidelines since his predecessor Lasso was the operative.  It was an odd feeling that only two other agents had ever experienced before.  Blender had been found to have a defect and was recalled from duty – he had only lived to 21.  Fence had, like Map, outlived his service, but he was replaced at 24.  The older generations didn’t live as long.

Map was in his small room wondering as much about what he should be doing as how Napkin was doing.  A knock at the door startled him.  He went to the door slowly to see who it was.  His head scientist, former head scientist, was waiting on the other side.

“Map, hello.  May I come in?” he asked not waiting for an answer.

“I suppose,” Map mumbled.  The scientist took a seat on the bed, Map leaned on the desk across from him.

“You are probably wondering why I’m here,” the scientist said.

“Yes,” Map replied.

“To be honest I don’t really have a good reason.  I wanted to see you of course, but more than that I think I am having a hard time letting go, if that makes any sense.”

Map was startled.  “Haven’t you been assigned to another project?” he asked.

“Oh, sure, sure.  I’m systems coordinator with the Quarter project but he hasn’t even been born yet.  In fact, the head of the project is thinking of making it a girl.”

Map felt the sting of the phrase and didn’t hide it.  The scientist realized his mistake.

“I’m sorry Map,” he said.  It’s hard for us to see things objectively, especially when we’re in the moment.  I’m just upset that my time is over.  My time with you and my time as head of the project.  The whole team couldn’t be more proud of you Map.  Out of the previous thirteen, and in my opinion, the next few,  you have not only been the most successful operative, but also the greatest realization of this entire program.  We all have our moments though, don’t we,” he asked to himself.  “I may not know exactly what it is you are going through, but I can’t imagine it’s all that different than the rest of the team.”

Map grunted noncommittally.

“No, I mean it.  We were all fortunate to work with you.  We had our glory days but now we’re considered obsolete.  We’ve been relegated to lower positions on other projects.  I’m Henry by the way.  I’m sure you know that but we were never supposed to get close.  Then again, you were never supposed to survive.”

Map didn’t respond.  Henry felt the tension and continued, “Look, I don’t know if I’m making you feel any better or just insulting you, but I, we all wanted you to know that we respect you.  Working as your team has been the highlight of our careers.  We try to get together every week for drinks and we would like it if you would join us some time.  There aren’t really any rules that apply to you anymore so we figured, to heck with regulations.”

Map wasn’t sure how to take the invitation.  He felt proud without wanting to.  He was considering his response when the sound of the siren broke the silence for the second time of the day.

Henry looked as shocked as Map.  “A lot of firsts today,” he said.

Part Four

The hanger was a frantic scene with people scrambling everywhere getting into each other’s way.  The people form Napkin’s team were running into the remains of Map’s.  The Administrator arrived almost immediately after Map.  His presence meant something terrible had happened.  He rarely made an appearance in the hanger and almost never during a mission.

Map stood to the side trying to keep out of the commotion not knowing what his role was anymore.  The Administrator strolled past him and walked to the center of the large structure.  He made a motion to one of the technicians and in a moment had a microphone in his hand.

“Can I have everyone’s attention,” he said, his voice ringing around the cavernous room stopping people in their tracks.  “We seem to have a situation.  The reports state that the force our new operative had to face was the largest we have seen.  Sixteen creatures have been identified and Napkin was able to eliminate six before he was killed.”

The last word sent Map’s head spinning.  Not only was Napkin dead but he died on his first mission facing the most recorded targets ever.  The most Map had heard of in a single assault had been ten.  He himself had never faced more than six and Napkin had eliminated six of his own on his first mission.  The fact that there were ten more was enough to stun everyone in the hanger.  Map didn’t know what was going on, but he knew it was bad and he would be the one to have to face it.

“I know this is a shock to everyone but the situation is what it is and we have to take action,” the Administrator continued.  “Since Ox is not yet up to the task we have no choice but to call Map back into service – until Ox can be properly made ready.  I have already sent word to Map’s team and those who are not already here are on their way.  I need Napkin’s team to step down and offer any assistance they can to get the old team back up.”  The room was still and silent as the weight of the situation sunk in.  Map was as staggered as anyone but he knew what he had to do – and what the outcome would be.  Napkin was at the top of his game and couldn’t stop half the invading force.

The Administrator cleared his throat and the audience shot into action.  He headed back to the door but stopped when he was even with Map.  “Likely you realize the gravity of the situation,” he said.  “I’m not going to pretend that I am hopeful you can pull this off but you need to hold out long enough for us to get Ox ready.”

“My liaison?” Map replied.

“I have sent for Alice.  With luck she will be here before you are in place.”

“You had my equipment scrapped.”

“There are plenty of armaments available to you –“

“Plus,” Henry interrupted, “I managed to save this.”  Henry held up the rig and sleeve that was part of Map’s personal equipment.

“We’ll discuss that later,” the Administrator said continuing his way out of the building.

Henry kept his attention on Map and the rig.  “I was hoping to save something.  Maybe one day it would end up in a museum.  But here, get into it and lets run through the warm up,” he said helping Map into the harness and sleeve.

The equipment served as a protective layer and storage for ordinance and included all the communications and tactical devices in the sleeve.  Together with his other armaments it helped to make Map a formidable opponent.

“Great, looks like everything works,” Henry said running through the checks.

“Thanks,” Map said.  “This will help.”

“Ok Map.  Same drill as always,” Henry continued getting more comfortable in the old routine.  “The armaments are on the rack, this is a big one so take your pick.  Alice is on her way so we’ll get you in the air and brief her when she gets here.  You’ll be flying blind until then so watch your back.”

Henry and Map, along with several scientists and technicians, took their positions moving Napkin’s team into auxiliary roles.  Tactical analysis, health monitoring, radar and satellite stations were manned along with several positions dealing with ordinance, analysis of threats, communications with local authorities and first response units and dozens of other stations.  Only the operative liaison positions remained vacant and Map prepped for a hurried departure.  He didn’t waste more than a look at the empty terminal while he loaded himself and his chosen equipment into the drop-point rocket.

The engines whirred to life drowning out the commotion of the hanger.  Map sat in the pod, as he had many times before, ready to be dropped into the fray.

“Ten left,” he said to himself trying to steady his breathing timing the liftoff.

The force pulled him hard into his seat.  He was supposed to be able to handle more physical stress, but that didn’t mean it felt good.  Information flooded the pod’s terminal as the support team took control back at the hanger.

10 targets remain: level 2 – 6

13km radius from drop point

area cleared of civilians

pattern alpha recommended

The information appeared in his periphery and was replaced as quickly as he could scan.  He wasn’t fast enough to read it all anymore but he knew the drill and had read the data before.  The only thing that worried Map was the number.  Ten creatures was unheard of.  He knew his strategy should be to hit and run, confuse the enemy and not give them a target.  He could wear them down and keep them busy long enough for the team to come up with a better plan; but he was worried about how long he could keep that up.  Normally Alice would be in his ear and between his own intuition and her analysis they would figure out a strategy.  He was unsure without that voice.  The information faded and the lights dimmed.  Map could feel the rocket slowing.  He checked his rig and held on.

Map had never been on a roller coaster but he had heard the drop described as the same feeling.  He was skeptical.  For the most part the drop felt like floating.  It wasn’t until the chute opened and the breaks fired that the gravity returned – making up for its absence.

The pod hit hard and shook Map’s bones.  It was the asset’s responsibility for stealth, not the equipment.  He had to move before the closest target discovered the source of the huge crash.  Map opened the hatch, stumbled out and threw up.  He was screaming at himself in his head to get moving but he couldn’t steady himself.  He heard it before he saw it.  He was more sick from letting it get the drop on him than from the decent.  Anger helped him clear his head and steady himself.  Rather than run he turned to face the creature.

Part Five

He was never told what they were or where they came from.  Alice once told him that no one but the elite officers really knew and even the Administrator didn’t know everything.  All Map knew was that forty years ago the creatures started showing up and he was a product of the program developed to stop them.

The one Map was currently staring down was a level two or three.  The more dangerous the creature the higher the level assigned.  It was a little taller than Map and half again as wide.  It was vaguely human with approximations of arms and legs, but the head was wrong.  It was like it didn’t have a neck or a mouth or a nose – just something like eyes.  Map had encountered dozens of different types of creature.

Map closed the distance firing shots from his rifle.  He didn’t do as much damage as he had hoped but he pushed forward switching to a melee weapon that closely resembled an axe.  The creature was halfway up a pile of broken concrete and steel which slowed Map’s charge.  The axe felt awkward in his hands, his personal weapon was scrapped the moment he was replaced.  He moved the thought aside and focused on the situation and the creature facing him.

Map climbed the rubble with a sure footedness that came from his development and constant training.  He found solid footing instinctively and swung upwards delivering a precise and devastating blow.  The axe was driven deep into the midsection of the creature.  It was nearly lifted off the ground from the impact.  Map continued his assault using the momentum of his swing to follow through and topple the unbalanced hulking creature.  He rode the fall prying the axe free and driving it into the mound that was the thing’s head as it hit the ground.

“Well that was stupid,” the voice in his ear said.

“Got the job done.  One down,” Map replied.

“And how do you feel now?” Alice asked.

“Tired,” Map admitted.

“I don’t need to remind you that you aren’t really up for this do I?  You keep up this pace and you’ll be lucky to take down another one.  Let’s do this one like all the others.  What do you see around you?”

“Rubble mostly.”  Map looked around and took in the destruction in every direction. He was at the outskirts of a city that bore the marks of the attack.  Map had been too caught up in the moment and failed to follow procedure.  He regretted the quiet of the previous year.  It made him reckless.  He caught his train of thought and corrected himself.  It wasn’t the lack of battles that made him reckless – he had something to prove.  He scolded himself and continued his survey.

“There isn’t a structure without damage,” Map continued.  “Is the whole area this bad?”

“Just about,” Alice replied.  “It looks like they were out to cause as much damage as possible.”

“What’s the analysis?”

Alice checked her screens which were constantly fed the most up-to-date information from the other stations in the hanger.  “It’s an anomaly but they don’t know what to make of it yet.”

“Trying to get our attention?”

“They did that by taking down Napkin,” Alice said before she could stop herself.  “Don’t worry about it,” she continued, “We’re both in it now, time to do what we do.  Finish your survey and get moving.  You’ve been in one place too long.”

Map scanned the area again.  The damage was substantial.  Ruined buildings were surrounded by rubble and debris.  Large sections of track had collapsed from an elevated transit system, the train was lying on its side across a causeway.  Smaller personal vehicles were abandoned and many were completely destroyed.  Blood and bodies were everywhere.  The level of destruction was massive.  It was the largest attack Map had ever known in his time.  There hadn’t been this great an attack since the early days of the invasions when the operatives worked with platoons of soldiers.

Map confirmed his analysis with Alice and started moving.  He headed further out from the city to give his team time to evaluate the worst threats and plan his assault with Alice – and to rest.  His earnestness in attacking the first creature had taken its toll.  Alice was right to reprimand him for it.  He was sore and moving slowly from the encounter but he did his best to ignore the pain and move forward.

“Map,” Alice chimed in.  He had been making his way through the wooded area that separated the city from the suburbs trying to stay hidden while Alice and the rest of his team back at the hanger sized up the enemy.  “Can you feel that,” she continued.

“The heat?” he asked stopping to pinpoint the direction of the rising temperature.

“Yeah, there’s a small fire not far from your location.  It would be a good place to lay low – you’d be harder to find there.”

“How’s the assessment coming?” Map replied.

“Slowly.  A few things aren’t adding up.”

“Such as?”

“Usually there’s the pattern.  The creatures hit and cause a lot of damage until we stop them.”  Map didn’t reply to Alice’s obvious comment.  “There’s no target this time.  Usually they go for a building or a specific block and the creatures are usually very similar.”

“Sure.”

“Not only is this the largest attack we’ve seen, but it’s spread across the whole city and we’ve identified at least five specific type of creature.”

“What’s it mean?”

“Not sure yet.  They’ve called in everyone, this place is a zoo.  For now just head for the heat; southwest of your current location.  Find a place and sit tight, I’ll get back to you when I find out more.  Your landing and outburst caused enough of a stir for the platoons to get the evacuation finished.  Whatever this is all about you have a civilian free city to work in,” she said.

“Good to know, I’m heading towards the fire now – keep me posted.  I don’t want to sit around too long and wind up a target.”

“I hear ya,” Alice said signing off.  She had worked with him long enough to know that he appreciated solitude when she could give it.  She would monitor his line and the progress of the scientists and analysts and relay information as he needed it.  She sat back from her terminal and watched the bedlam occupying the hanger.  She had to wait for them to figure out why the attack was so different from the ones before and what it meant.

She was always proud to be working with “the best” operative but she was worried that he wouldn’t be able to handle – whatever it was this time.

Map headed towards the coordinates Alice sent to his display.  It didn’t take long before he could feel the heat rising and see smoke.  Within half an hour of walking through the woods he found himself in a neighborhood.   The houses were large and the yards were well kept.  The thought that people lived there was foreign to Map.  He didn’t waste much time looking around.  He found the edge of the blaze and picked a house he judged to be far enough away from the fire to be relatively safe for the moment and close enough to hide any signature he may leave.

Map crossed the yard and walked up to the front door.

Part Six

Map turned the handle and pushed but the door didn’t move.  He stopped, stepped back and kicked.  The door swung open taking part of the jam with it.

“I’m in,” Map said.

“Graceful,” Alice replied in his ear.  “Find a place to rest, the boffins are still working on your next move.”

“Can I make a suggestion?”

“You can make it but you know what that’s worth.  Just try to relax; your vitals are a little off.  Map,” Alice’s tone dropped, “stay sharp.  Their signals are doing something.”

“Doing something?”

Alice shushed him.  “Hold on.  This doesn’t look right,” she said engaged in her thoughts.

“What?”

“Hang on.  I’ll be right back,” she said switching off her mic and pushing away from her station.  She looked back over her chair to where Henry and the rest of Map’s team were arguing with the specialists who had arrived to assess the unusual situation.

“Henry,” she yelled.  He looked up not sure who was calling his name.  “Henry,” she repeated, “take a look at this.”

“I’m a little busy,” he said.

“Just take a look, something’s wrong.”

“With Map?” he asked hurrying over to the station.

“No, he’s holding up, but look at the signals,” she said pointing to the display.

“What is it?”  Henry focused on the dots that represented the asset and the creatures.

“The display isn’t picking up all the targets,” she said.  “There are only seven on the screen, still gathered together.”

“We are still working on figuring out why they are behaving so uncharacteristically.  You’ll have to be patient.”

“That’s not what I’m saying.  There were nine, two of them blinked out.  They had been heading to the landing site then they started heading towards the neighborhood where Map is and now they’re gone.”

“Maybe Map –,” Henry started.

“He’s by the fire lying low like he was ordered.  He only took out the one at the landing site.”  Alice pointed to the spot on her screen.

While she and Henry were looking two more dots started to move towards Map’s position and blinked out.  “Map,” Alice said turning on her mic.  “You may have incoming.”

“May?”  Map said.  He had been busy fortifying his location and put down the table he had been moving into place where the front door had been.  “How many?”

“I can’t say for sure but it looks like two groups of two.”

“What’s going on over there?”

“Technical difficulties,” she said as she opened access panels and checked connections.  All I have is four of them moving to your location then not showing up on our screen.  I’m running a diagnostic but everything seems fine on this end.”

“What’s the ETA?”  Map went back to blocking off the front door.
“That’s a great question.  Could be as soon as five but they shouldn’t be able to pinpoint you with that fire so close.”

“I’m taking up a defensive position.”  Map moved to the back of the house to see what he could do to block off the sliding glass door and the windows.  He was moving a couch in front of the door and noticed that the wind had shifted.  The fire that had been content devouring the woods behind the neighborhood was moving towards the houses.

As if reading his mind Alice chimed in his ear.  “Do you see it?’

“Yeah – I’m on the move.”

“Still no sign of your targets; stay sharp,” she said.

Map pushed the couch aside and missed the movement in the back yard.  The glass door smashed as the first creature lunged at Map.  The glass gouged at the exposed parts of Map’s left side.  Then the creature was on top of him trying to do its own damage.  It was a heavy class four.  It walked on four trunk like legs and had a huge bulbous head with an equally huge mouth full of even jagged teeth.  It bit down on Map’s arm but the rig took most of the damage.

Map swung his free arm down in the thing’s head trying to knock it off him.  He shifted and struggled to get out from under it as he battered it but his hits weren’t enough to free his arm from its powerful jaws.  Map reached for the knife he kept at his right thigh.  He twisted violently shifting his weight enough to tug it free.  Map pulled his left arm as hard as he could, moving the creature’s head and exposing its neck.  He jammed his knife in to the hilt and twisted.

The creature reared back releasing its grip on Map’s arm and pulled the knife from his hand.  He rolled away into a crouch and brought up his rifle.  He fired several shots at close range and had better luck than he did with the first creature.  It was badly injured.  Map was reloading when the second creature crashed through the window behind him.  It was another of the four legged things and it took part of the house in with it.

Map spun around and fired.  The creature dodged and Map only grazed it.  He stood up and tried to assess the situation.

“Alice,” he said.

“I’ve got nothing Map, just you.”

“That’s not comforting.  I’ve got one down and one – mad.”

“You’d better take care of it and get moving.  The other two won’t be far behind,” Alice said checking and rechecking her sensors trying to figure out the cause of the glitch.  “And your vitals are still tacky, try to calm down.”

Map didn’t respond.  He was watching the four legged creature circle around and look for an opening to attack.  With Map ready for the attack and armed it was at a disadvantage.

Map didn’t waste time.  He targeted the thing and fired.  Even though it was at a disadvantage the creature was still quick and the blast did little damage it as it jumped aside destroying a chair in the process.

Map moved to try and pin the creature in the kitchen.  It stomped back still looking for its opening.  Map lined it up again but pulled when he shot trying to anticipate which way it would try to evade.  He judged wrong and the shot was wide.  He didn’t have time to curse himself though as the creature saw its opening and lunged.  Map spun away putting up his sleeved arm to try and block the attack.  Claws cut deep gouges in his arm where it was unprotected and where the armor was damaged but Map had moved quickly enough to avoid anything worse.  He rolled away before the creature could strike again, stood back up and aimed for a fourth shot.  This time he faked his movement and got the creature to commit.  Map landed the shot and lined up another.

The blockade at the front door burst inward as the third and fourth creatures broke their way in.  These two were tall with arms and legs longer than Map was tall and huge hands.  They crouched in the doorway looking like one tangled mass.  Map wasn’t prepared to face them even with the four legged creature injured.  He made for the back door but the fire was now scorching the back yard and licking at the house.  Charging towards the creatures at the front door Map emptied his clip and darted up a set of stairs at the last moment.  Hands and arms scrambled after him.

Part 7

At the top of the stairs Map turned and dropped a grenade.  He only carried two preferring more precise combat, but Map felt there were times when a big bang came in handy – even when it cuts off your only escape route.

Map ducked into a bedroom leaving the grenade to sort itself out.  He reloaded and checked his ammo.  He’d used close to half of what he brought and felt sloppy for it.  The fire had spread to the house and left Map with few options for escape.  Map found himself in a room with a balcony.  He went out onto it to look for a way to lower himself down.  He considered jumping but didn’t want to risk turning and ankle or worse.  He moved to the bed and stripped it intending to tie the sheets together but the sound of hands and feet scrambling up the space where the stairs had been told him he wouldn’t have time.  Instead Map carried the mattress to the balcony and dropped it.  He was gauging the jump when one of the huge hands appeared at the door.

Map threw his second grenade behind him and jumped.  He hit the mattress and rolled off managing to avoid anything worse than getting the wind knocked out of him.  He heard the explosion and moved to get out of the way of any objects that would be blown off the balcony.  While he was watching the ensuing destruction he missed the movement coming out of the front door.

The four legged creature used surprise as an advantage again and caught Map off guard.  Once again Map was thankful to Henry for saving his rig; it took most of the impact but Map was pinned and this time without his knife.  He tried to reach his gun but it had been knocked away in the attack.  Map did his best to keep the thing’s teeth from causing any more injury and his armor kept its claws busy.  He struggled to move the creature but it was too heavy and was too well planted.

Map lashed out battering the creature with his protected arm but it wasn’t enough.  He pushed frantically and felt the wounds he had caused when he shot it.  He pushed harder and felt his hand move inside a gash.  The sound was among the worst things Map had experienced but the smell was at the top of the list.  He dug in deeper and felt the weight of the creature shift.  He twisted and managed to roll free scrambling for his fallen gun.  Map moved quickly and ended the struggle.

Fatigue and pain swelled in him and his arm screamed for attention.

“Alice,” he croaked.

“I’m here.”

“Do you have eyes on the rest of them?”

“Yeah, for now.”

“I’ve got to do something about my arm.  Let me know if there is any change.”

“I always do,” Alice said, relieved to hear his stalwart tone.

Map bandaged his arm and checked his equipment while he watched the house burn.  He relaxed when it finally collapsed in on itself ensuring nothing else would come running out looking to continue the fight.

“Any updates?” he asked testing his bandaged arm.

“Nothing yet,” Alice said.  “The remaining five are still in the same spot.”

“Where?”

“North of your current position and west of your drop point – in the old city center.”

“Any word on what they are doing?”

“No.  Satellites are blind over the spot and any drones sent in have been destroyed.”

“That’s not a concern to anyone?”

“We’ve been trying to fix what we can from here.  You’re the only one who can get a visual.”

“I’ve got my objective then?”

“Your objective never changed.”

“I’m off.”

“Sending coordinates.”

Map headed west leaving the houses to burn down behind him.  He went to find the edge of the fire so he could get around it and head to his next target.

Alice was under her terminal checking connections while Henry read off points from the schematics.  Each station in the hanger was running equipment diagnostics and getting nowhere.

“This is ridiculous.” Alice said.  “Everything checks out.”

“There has to be something,” Henry said.  “All our readings are affected.”

“And what does the Administrator have to say about it?”

“Nothing I know of.  Last I heard he was in a conference with the Board.”

Alice pushed herself out from under the terminal.  “Well the problem’s not here.  Satellites?”

“Work fine everywhere but over the targets.”

“So it’s got to be something they are doing.”

They have never been able to do anything like that before,” Henry said as a sneer crossed his face.

“There have never been sixteen of them before either,” Alice said.  “I’ll clean this up.  Go see what you can find out.”

Map stopped at the edge of the city center.  He had been making good time through the brush and the suburbs that surrounded the city.  He considered that though he was injured in his last encounter he was halfway through and would be able to get the drop on the last of them.  He was starting to feel good about his chances.

“You stopped?” Alice’s voice crackled in his ear.

“Just catching my breath.  How’s the hangar?”

“Still a mess.  I sent Henry to see what he could get out of the Administrator.  He came back empty.”  Alice said, static punctuating the words.

“And the targets?”

“Haven’t moved as far as I can tell.”

“I’m going to scope it out and report before I engage.”

“By the book, sounds good.  Be careful Map.”

The last words stuck in Map’s ear.  Alice had never said them before.  It wasn’t her job to care or his to be careful.  Map cleared his head and focused on his task.  He moved through the streets looking for a vantage point.  The map on his display flickered.  From what he could make out the location was an open space with buildings tightly packed around the perimeter. e found one that looked tall enough to keep him out of site but not put him out of range of his targets.

Map entered the building and quickly headed for the roof.  The building was quiet and Map worked out his strategy as he climbed the stairs.  His pace slowed by the third floor and he struggled up the last two flights.

The air was calm and cool on the roof.  The sun was sitting above the taller buildings in the distance drawing out their shadows.  Map checked his gear and made sure his rifle was loaded and ready.  He hoped he could end it with five well places shots.  He flattened out and crawled to the edge of the building facing the open area and the remaining creatures.

The space was a small park surrounded by quiet streets.  Map scanned the park and saw four of the targets at the base of a strange metal structure.  What they were doing shocked him.

“Alice,” he whispered.

Her response came in faintly and broken up by interference.  “How’s… look?”

“Not sure.  I’ve got four of them out in the open.  From here they look to be class ones, standing upright, a little taller than me.  But it looks like they are building something.  What can you make of it?”

“…our?  … visuals… gy… but I… ve… five… vacinity.”  Alice’s words were severed by the static.

“What about the object?”  Map said slowly and clearly assuming Alice was dealing with the static on her end too.

“Can’t… re…d… ything.  I… bottom… is.  …ing you… condar… ation.”

Map worked out the broken words.  He had worked with Alice long enough to know what she would do.  She didn’t know any more than he did and she was passing him off to a backup terminal while she went to find out what was going on.

Part 8

Alice strode down the ornate hallway to the Administrator’s office.  She had walked past the security station and ignored the clerk at the desk.  She knew how risky it was to leave Map to a backup station but he needed answers.  Map was injured and up against too many uncertainties.  She reached the outer door to the Administrator’s office and heard the clerk coming down the hall after her.  She ignored him again and hurried into the room.  She pushed past the secretary without a look and barged into the office.  There was a bank of monitors on one wall and the Administrator was talking to the people who Alice could see on the screens.

“What’s going on?” Alice said surprising herself with her own audacity.  The secretary and clerk walked in behind her cautiously.  It was clear to Alice that they were torn between interrupting the Administrator and trying to stop her from causing more of a disturbance than she already had.

The Administrator turned to face her.  He let out an annoyed breath and sent out the terrified secretary and clerk with a wave.

“Alice, as you can see I am in the middle…”

“I don’t give a fuck,” Alice said interrupting him.  “Our systems are still not working and Map has reported that they are building something.  Couple that with the size of the attack and the creatures playing hide and seek with our sensors and something bad is happening.  I think you know more than you’re telling us.  Map is injured and has five more to deal with.  I need to know what you know.”

“That’s insubordination,” the Administrator said calmly cutting the feed to the conference he was leading.

“You going to fire me again?”

“I could have you shot.”

“Fine, do that – after you tell me what I need to know to get my operative home safe.”

“And what makes you think I care if he gets home safe?”

“I doubt that you do, but he is the only tool you currently have and he’s standing between them and us.”

The Administrator stood up and walked around from behind his desk.  It was an imposing piece of solid wood that made the move take time.  Alice figured it was to help make the Administrator seem that much more out of reach.  The action seemed like a practiced move meant to manipulate and Alice had to admit that it was hard to keep her momentum.  He fixed his cuffs and leaned back on the desk.

“I wish I could tell you more, but honestly anything dealing with these things is mostly guesswork.  I can tell you that our intel suggests that the reason the attack is so large is because it’s their final push – a gamble to overwhelm us.”

“And the structure they’re building?”

“No idea,” the Administrator said shrugging his shoulders.  The action was more casual than Alice expected from the man.  “It clearly has something to do with our systems acting up, but that’s an observation of my own.”

“What are we going to do?” Alice asked, her anger eroding into concern.

“My suggestion is to do your job.  If you want him to survive you should man your station.”

Alice ran.  The administrator reminded her of where she could do the most good.  If he didn’t know any more her place was at her station coordinating with Map.  She ran all the way back to the hanger plugged, in and took control back from the secondary.

“Map?”

“Yeah,” Map said his answer barely audible through the static.

“Just checking in,” she said.  “Ready?”  She couldn’t hear his reply but she knew he would be.

Map lined up his first shot.  He knew he had to put his target down and line up the next before they could move out of range.  He counted his heart beats, held his breath and squeezed the trigger.  The first creature was hit and dropping as Map lined up the next shot.  He found the next target and hesitated.  The other three creatures hadn’t moved.  Map aimed again and the next one went down.  He lined up the third and – felt the building he was on shake.

He spun around and saw the biggest creature he had ever seen.  It was easily three times Map’s size.  The thing was a mass of muscle, teeth and claws moving at unbelievable speed.  Map noticed features from dozens of targets he had faced in the past.  The head was little more than a snout filled with uneven tangled fangs.  The long bulky arms ended in claws as long as Map’s own arms and all along its broad back were bone plates overlapping and forcing each other to jut out at odd angles.  It didn’t look like it should fit together and it didn’t seem very happy about that.  It almost hurt Map to even look at the gruesome creature.

It charged at Map tearing away pieces of the tar roof in its path.  Map emptied his clip as quickly as he ever had, reloaded and did it again.  The creature didn’t seem to notice.  Map rolled away as the thing ripped out huge chunks of where Map had been.

Map got to his feet, reloaded and emptied another clip into the creature.  It was injured but kept coming at Map faster than he would have believed something so large could.  Map ran, failing to think of a better plan.  When he got to the edge of the building he launched himself at the next roof, landed roughly with little room to spare and kept running.  He heard the creature chase him and could almost feel how close it was.

Map ran hard.  Sweat poured down his face and collected in his rig.  His legs felt like worn elastic threatening to snap and every step shook his bones and tore at his tendons.  His lungs burned and constricted as he struggled to get oxygen into his body.   With shaking arms he reloaded and emptied clips into the creature as quickly as he could while trying to stay ahead of it.  By the time he had jumped to the fourth roof he was out of ammunition.   Even with several wounds leaking noxious fluids the creature hadn’t slowed down.  Map knew he couldn’t keep his speed up much longer but didn’t like his chances facing the creature with only his axe left.  He ran to the next building and dropped.  He landed hard onto a fire escape hitting the railing and had to grab it to stop himself from going over.  The creature didn’t anticipate Map’s move and overshot.  Map heard it scrambling on the next roof as it turned around to continue the chase.

Using his already damaged arm and what he thought was his remaining strength Map smashed the window facing the fire escape and crawled into the building.  He found himself in an apartment that reminded him of the house he had been in earlier, but not as elaborate.  He quickly found the door and ran down the hallway.  His desperate escape gave him some room, the creature would have a harder time getting into the building, but he still didn’t know how he would stop it.

Part 9

Map found the stairwell and feeling like he had nothing left to lose he ran back up to the roof.  He hoped that if he was fast enough he would have the best chance at the only attack he could come up with.

He sprinted across the damaged roof draining his last reservoir of strength and ignored the pain the best he could.  As he approached the edge of the building he heard the crash of the creature trying to get into the apartment he escaped through moments earlier.  Before he reached the end of the roof Map jumped as high as he could, readying his axe.  He swung up at the apex and came down on the creature with as much force as he could.  The axe sunk deep into the thing’s head as the jolt of impact spread through Map.

The swing along with the added momentum from the jump was enough to crack the thick skull of the monstrous creature.  It twisted its head and wrenched the axe out of Map’s hands straining his already sore limbs.  He was perched awkwardly on the creature and had to stretch out to keep his balance.  It had somehow survived the blow and Map didn’t have an escape plan.

He moved to jump, to get away any way he could but the creature reached up and grabbed Map with one of its immense claws digging into him.  Map kicked at it blindly.  His adrenalin and stubbornness was keeping him struggling.  The creature snapped its jaws as Map kicked at it.  It followed Map’s legs like a donkey following a carrot on a string.  Its head turned to aid its chase and the handle of the axe came close enough for Map to grab it.  Map pulled as hard as he could not worried that his arms felt like they could snap at any moment.  He didn’t manage to get the axe free but he did shift the creature’s weight and with a groan and crash the fire escape dropped out from under them.

Map was luckily still on top of the creature as it hit every fire escape landing on the way down tearing them free form the building in a snarl of bent iron.  Map tumbled helplessly behind the turmoil.  He watched as the creature and the tangled mess of metal hit the ground.  A split second later he landed on the remains of the creature and blacked out.

Static hummed in his head.  It came in waves and added to the sensation of swimming. The static cut in and faded out – then again – and again.  It started to hurt and he wished it would stop.  He found it hard to think.  He tried to open his eyes and almost passed out again.  His leg was shattered and his arm was hanging painfully out of its socket with a funny bend in it.  Many of his ribs were broken and a stray bar from the fire escape was sticking out of his side.

“Alice,” he managed to say.  A short burst of static replied in his ear.

“Alice, I don’t know if you can hear me but I am in rough shape.  I think I can move but it hurts.  You have to send a team in to clean up if I can’t finish this.  There are two left and they are still building that thing.” Map coughed.  He was almost relieved to feel the pain from the fall when he stopped.  He tasted copper and spat leaving his teeth and lips stained red.

Map checked the leg that hadn’t been shattered.  It seemed fine outside of some bruising and swelling.  There were small lacerations but he couldn’t feel them.  His protected arm was fine too.  It was beat up but it bent the right way.  His left leg was useless.  He ignored it and focused on the metal bar sticking out of him.  He touched it gingerly and winced.  He tugged at it and had to wiggle it to pull it free.  Fortunately his armor had absorbed most of the impact and it wasn’t too deep.  He judged that no organs were fatally damaged.  He was bleeding but not enough for him to lose consciousness right away.  He used a sharp edge of the destroyed fire escape to cut a strip of cloth from his pants and stuffed it in the wound.  He cut more strips and used them to tie the bar he took out of his side to his shattered leg.

Map rolled onto his side that had fared better in the fall and supported himself on his two less damaged limbs.  He moved slowly and carefully off the dead creature and away from the remains of the fire escape.  He used the wall to pull himself up and slammed his dislocated shoulder into the brick popping it back into place.  The arm was numb and still hung at an odd angle but it was more out of the way.  Map found another metal rod, pulled it free and used it to hobble his way to the center of the park.  He used the scattered tress for support and fell a couple of times but he eventually managed to make his way to the two creatures who were working on the structure.

It was almost as tall as the trees around it and wide at its base tapering up to an abrupt uneven peak.  It seemed to be constructed out of materials the creatures scrapped in the area and electronics Map didn’t recognize.  He didn’t have much to reference but it contrasted against the equipment Map was used to seeing at the base.  The sheets of metal used to cover it were randomly shaped and didn’t line up properly.  There were gaps where some of the panels met and Map could see the moving parts inside.

He didn’t dwell long; he still had two creatures to deal with.  He limped to the first closest one.  It didn’t react to him.  Its focus was the structure.  It was placing components while the other creature covered them with sheets of metal.  They worked slowly but deliberately and seemed to Map to be close to finishing their task.

Map swung the bar at the first creature.  The impact was less impressive than Map had hoped.  The creature ignored the attack and continued working.  It was as obvious to it as it was to Map that he could do little to hurt it in his current condition.  He tried again and tried jabbing at it but he didn’t even manage to slow the creature down.  Map leaned against the structure trying to regain some strength and come up with a plan.  He could feel the hum that echoed through it.  He imagined all the little parts inside moving towards a singular goal. The idea came to Map through the hum.  It resonated in him and filled him with excited energy.  The pain lessened as adrenalin charged though him.

Map straightened and hit the structure as hard as he could   He didn’t cause any damage but the ring from the impact caught the attention of the creatures.  He swung again and again breathing heavily from the effort.  Both creatures turned to face him.  They didn’t look to be designed for fighting but Map recognized the readiness to attack in their posture.  Map yelled and swung again.  They made low rasping sounds and moved closer to him.  From the creatures’ reaction Map knew that crippling the structure was the answer to stopping whatever was going on.  What he didn’t know was how he would cause enough damage to delay the creatures.  Map couldn’t contact Alice but he knew the protocol.   If contact was lost with the asset a Cleaner Squad would be called in to sanitize the area.  Since the introduction of the operatives troops were rarely used in actual combat.  Usually they helped with evacuations and maintained the parameters of invaded areas.  Still they were nominally trained for combat and Map knew they would easily be able to handle these two creatures out in the open.  Map’s goal was to prevent them from finishing construction on the structure before the squad could get there.

The creatures started to turn back to their construction.   Map hit the structure again to keep their attention and the bar hit one of the gaps in the surface.  Map reached out and touched the surface.  He felt the hum again.  Reaching back he thrust the bar as far into the gap as he could.  He could hear the machine struggle with the foreign object and could feel grinding reverberate through the bar and into his hands.

The creatures went mad and charged at Map.  He was defenseless against them.  One of the creatures slammed into him knocking him to the ground while the other wrenched the bar free from the structure.  Map saw smoke and a viscous liquid pour out of the structure as the bar was pulled free.  The hum that the structure made was now an audible grind.  Map could do little but use his uninjured arm to try and defend against the attack.  He was weak and the world spun around him as the creature bludgeoned him.  Each blow spread the pain in through his body.  The creature that pulled the bar free joined the assault.  Map struggled but couldn’t defend himself against both creatures.

His vision narrowed and each impact made it harder to concentrate.  His arm slumped to his side.  There was nothing he could do but hope he had managed to stop whatever the machine was built to do.  His radio crackled to life in his ear.  He could hear Alice but, though the sound was clear he couldn’t make out what she was saying.  He managed to pick out troops and something about Ox.  Map thought the young operative would do a good job.

The End

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