The metro tunnel stretches on, further and further into the infinite blackness, with only a handful of dim fluorescent lights to mark the path.
Eviscerated bodies cover the rails, wearing a myriad of different uniforms and outfits. He can make out the tan fatigues of Red Line infantrymen, the dark grey uniforms of Fourth Reich soldiers, and the urban camouflage of Hansa and Polis guards. Some bodies lack identifying marks, instead wearing the varied and generic winter clothing of civilians and traders.
None of them are free from sporting patches of deep, foreboding crimson, slowly seeping onto the cold floor below them.
He tries to walk forwards, stumbling as his feet slip on wet flesh and spent casings. There isn't any destination in mind. All he wishes is to be free from the horrific sights around him, safe from the slowly encroaching steel and concrete of the tunnel walls.
Unfortunately, he finds no respite. More and more bodies lay scattered across his path, each one seemingly more brutalized than the last. The tunnel continues to go forwards, further into the endless void.
As he continues, the tunnel slowly shifts and morphs around him. The concrete begins to crumble away, and the steel pipes and supports rust into nothingness. Chunks of disgusting white chitin begin to appear amongst the corpses, while the weakening walls are gradually covered in flaking grey pustules.
Shrieks sound out behind him, echoing in the damp, constricted passageway. He runs faster, but the inhuman noises slowly begin to creep closer and closer towards him. The sounds of flesh being pulped and bones shattering ring out from behind, and he tries not to think about what is happening to the bodies.
There is no chance to stop or hide. All he can do is keep sprinting forwards, ignoring the burning feeling of his legs tiring, the sounds of the horrific monsters behind him, or the panicked, lifeless faces of the corpses around him.
Time passes by without meaning, with no way to tell how long he has been trapped like this. Minutes? Hours?
The lights, once glowing in a mechanical fluorescent yellow, shift into a menacing dim green. Shadows fill the countless pits and holes in the walls, with only the occasional glimpse of ethereal green to push back the darkness.
And yet, one vivid, pure light remains steady.
He can see the light approaching, far ahead of him, at the very end of the tunnel. Simply looking at it, he knows that it is safe. It can protect him from those monsters, take him away from this horrible place.
If only he could reach it.
The creatures have nearly caught up with him. He can feel their hateful, ravenous gazes upon his back, just as determined to end his life as he is to escape their grasp.
The light grows, widening and intensifying as he throws himself forwards recklessly, heedless of the bodies, the walls, the monsters-
A cold, harsh grip lands on his shoulder. Excruciating pain ripples through his arm as the monster's claw tears into it, ripping apart flesh and muscle. He pulls away wildly, stumbling and collapsing onto the ground.
More hands grip onto his legs, shredding into tendons and bones as they drag him back into the void. He claws at what remains of the rail tracks desperately, hoping to stave off the inevitable as he twists and squirms in panic-
"Please, calm down Artyom! You're safe!"
And Artyom's eyes flew open, wildly taking in the world around him as he gasped in panic.
He was no longer in the dank, decrepit metro tunnel. Instead, he found himself back in the doctor's office in Polis, haphazardly splayed out on the uncomfortable metal cot. His body was drenched in sweat, and he could feel his injured arm and leg twinge in pain.
Just off to his side, Nel floated near his head, twisting and whirring nervously. She seemed to be staring intently at him, although her gaze lessened slightly as he turned to look at her.
"Sorry." Nel said, glancing down at the floor. "It's just that…well, you looked like you were having a nightmare, and after everything that happened today, I thought that-"
"N-no, no, it's fine! I'm fine…thank you." Artyom shakily replied, rubbing his eyes. Blinking, he couldn't help but notice that his hands were still shaking slightly. "That was…it was more vivid than the normal ones."
Nel stilled for a second, seemingly in thought. "…Do you normally have nightmares?"
"…Not constantly, but sometimes." Artyom sighed. "Just…bad memories. Don't…don't worry. I'll be fine. What time is it?"
From the way Nel's 'eye' narrowed, it was clear that she didn't believe him. Artyom couldn't help but grimace. He wasn't truly lying to her. In a few moments, he'd be fully recovered, just like he usually was. However, he wasn't telling the full truth either. He had been through more than enough haunting events over the past year to make nightmares somewhat regular.
I killed off an entire species out of nothing but misplaced fear. How could anyone not be haunted by that?
"…You've been out for about an hour and a half. Umbra told Miller about everything that's relevant to the situation here, and he left the two of you here afterwards." Nel finally responded, somewhat more dourly than before. Regardless, Artyom still felt grateful to her for not pressing the issue.
"Good…at least that went well." Artyom said, sitting up. Nearby, he could see Umbra slumped over in her chair. It was still so strange, looking at the metal contours and edges of what should be a human head.
Even then, the effect wasn't quite the same. For some reason, the lights in her face were no longer glowing, and it didn't seem like any of the complex machinery in her body was activated. As far as he could tell, there was no sign of life left in her.
"Don't worry about Umbra. She's just trying to sleep." Nel said, silently floating closer to Artyom.
"That's how she sleeps? It looks like she's…"
"Dead? Yeah, that's…well, it's what happens to Exos when they lose consciousness. It's perfectly normal. Creepy, but normal."
"It's still hard to believe that she's…that." Artyom muttered, before shaking his head. "Sorry. Even after everything that happened today, it's hard to believe all these strange things about you two."
"Hey, it's perfectly understandable. We really should have told you about this situation sooner, but…there was a lot of information to go through, and there wasn't really a good chance to go over it." Nel said, turning back towards Umbra. "I just hope that she's sleeping alright."
Puzzled, Artyom glanced at Nel. "What do you mean?"
"…You're not the only one that has nightmares, Artyom." Nel murmured softly. "She's been through a lot since I found her, and it hasn't always ended well. I just hope we can avoid the usual 'treatment'."
Silently, Artyom glanced back at Umbra. It was almost surprising to hear that someone like her could be suffering from nightmares, with her strange powers and her mechanical nature. Then again, they were strange enough that he knew he didn't know everything about them. He likely never would.
It seemed like Nel wanted to say more, but she paused suddenly, turning towards the office door. "Oh, they're nearly here! That should help her, at least."
"Wait, who's coming here?"
"The rest of Umbra's fireteam. They were finally let through the security checkpoints, and now they're being led to us. It should only be another moment or two." Nel said, whirring softly.
Artyom nodded, still staring at Umbra's still form. Just over a day ago, and he never would have even considered that something like her could ever exist. Now one was resting right in front of him, having already revealed such impossible feats and abilities, with more quickly approaching.
And yet, for all their power, they were still human enough to have nightmares of their own.
The walk through the station, while somewhat hectic, proved to be more organized than Sly had expected.
Granted, a lot of that was probably just because Nel had let them know what they had seen on the way in, but it was still slightly refreshing.
There were still crowds of refugees milling around the areas, but it seemed that the last hour or two had given the settlement enough time to bring about some degree of order. The civilians had been organized into designated waiting zones, alongside most of their belongings, and several squads of armed guards in grey urban camo were keeping order in the area.
However, just because the situation was slightly better than expected didn't mean that it was good.
Signs of chaos and violence were evident as they made their way towards Umbra. The haunted, pale faces of refugees, occasional bloodstains and shell casings on the floor, and numerous security checkpoints were a constant reminder that, even though this settlement was protected from the Hive, it wasn't necessarily expected to stay that way.
Not that they had much of an opportunity to observe much of the local fortifications, at any rate. Their security 'escort' was keeping them moving at a brisk pace, and the various security checkpoints along the path were quick to wave them through as they passed by. The occasional glimpse of other groups of armed guards in tan or khaki fatigues, along with Nel's intel, gave him a pretty good idea of why they were so desperate to move them along.
That's probably going to be a problem later. Fantastic, Sly thought. Having to deal with the local politics, on top of an unknown number of Hive tearing down the gates, was only going to end poorly. That was one issue he would be very, very happy to leave to someone else.
After only a few minutes, they had already made it to what appeared to be a local hospital, or at least what passed for one. There were a few guards stationed nearby, but not nearly as many as he had been expecting given the chaos outside. There were also far more people moving freely nearby, carrying crates, equipment, and other objects to and from the building.
As they made their way into the structure, Sly took the opportunity to observe the spectacle around him. Dozens of medical gurneys and metal cots were haphazardly placed around, with their occupants obscured by plastic tarps and temporary barriers. The groans and screams of agony present throughout the area still made it painfully clear that most of them were occupied. Doctors and support personnel moved throughout the room, carrying charts and medical supplies with them as they hurried from patient to patient.
Overall, the sight made it abundantly clear that these people were facing a bloody battle. Worse still, unless they were hiding something, there was a good chance they were losing it.
We've got some supplies we can give to them, but…this is bad. There's no way they can sustain these losses.
Their escort continued on, moving them past the open ward and into a cramped corridor, with a handful of doors on either side. One particular door had two armed guards standing around outside of it, with much heavier body armor than the rest of the guards he'd seen had carried. The semiauto shotguns each of them wielded was also concerning given the tight, compact conditions they were stuck in.
Damnit, Umbra, please tell me you didn't spook the locals.
Their guide stopped, turning to face them. "Alright, this is your stop. Your friend should be inside, along with one of ours. You're free to talk to him or the guards, but you're not allowed to step back outside this office for now."
"Wait, what?" Sly asked. "We're being locked up?"
Keira sighed, rubbing her helmet in frustration. "Any particular reason why?"
The guide shrugged, offering a sympathetic look. "Not really sure. Whatever your friend said, though, it really spooked the hell out of Miller. I haven't seen him that shaken up since last year, and that was a whole different story."
"Fantastic." Sly muttered, resisting the urge to follow Keira's example. It just figured that they were getting detained when swarms of Hive were literally at their doorstep. Granted, it wasn't like the two guards they'd posted there could really stop them if they wanted to get out, but it would be nice to not have to fight the people they were trying to save.
"I wouldn't worry about it. We need all the fighters we can get right now, and you guys look like you know what you're doing. You'll be out of here in no time. A few hours, tops." He smiled, patting Sly on the shoulder before walking back down the hallway.
At least they're being polite about it, Sly chuckled. Plus, that guard was right. If things were as bad as they sounded, they'd probably be asked to fight the Hive soon enough.
And, as much as he hated to admit it, they could wait a few minutes. They still had to make sure Umbra was okay.
Opening the door, Sly quickly locked eyes on his missing fireteam member. She was completely out of it, lying back on one of the couches with a light blanket covering her body. An initial glance told him everything he needed to know; she was okay. Exhausted to the point of passing out, sure, but she appeared fine otherwise.
A weight he'd had ever since stepping into this bizarre place evaporated.
There was also another curious sight standing off to Umbra's side. Ones of the locals, a young adult by the looks of it, was stuck glancing between him and Keira, rubbing his arms sheepishly. He looked fairly banged up, with one of his arms bandaged and his leg wrapped in a splint. His clothes were splattered in dirt and dried blood, his eyes had bags under his eyes, and he still had a revolver tucked away in a hip holster.
All in all, he looked like exactly the sort of person Umbra would pick up during a mission.
"So," Sly drawled, moving towards an empty seat, "I'm guessing you're the guy that's been helping out Umbra so far."
The man shrugged, rubbing his neck awkwardly. "More of the other way around, really. You're the rest of Umbra's fireteam, yes? Sly and Keira?"
"Yep." Keira said. "I'm Keira, he's Sly. How about your name?"
"Artyom. Nice to meet you." Artyom replied, glancing down. "Sorry, it's been…a long couple of days. So much has happened…"
"I'll bet." Sly said, chuckling. "From the sounds of things, you guys got hit hard by the Hive."
Artyom frowned. "Before this week, we'd never even heard of those creatures."
Wait, what? "You…you mean you'd never seen them before, right?" Sly asked.
"I'm afraid not." Artyom replied, shaking his head. "Only the usual mutants and tunnel trash for the most part."
…He's got to be talking about those spiders, isn't he? Oh, God, we're going to run into those eventually, aren't we?
"Huh. How about the Fallen?" Keira asked, sounding like she was on the verge of discovering something unpleasant.
Artyom turned to her, looking incredibly confused. "Fallen? What are those?"
That was…also concerning. Who wasn't at least a little familiar with the Fallen? Some days you could barely set foot outside the city without a Skiff flying overhead. Unless the radiation kept them away from this place, then maybe…
"Hold up, hold up, hold up." Nel said, materializing besides Artyom. To his credit, Artyom only flinched a little bit. "Sly, Keira, we've got a theory about this place. You remember the Vex, right?"
Sly frowned. The Vex? What the hell did they have to do with-
Oh. Oh no.
"Please don't tell me it's time travel." Keira said, sounding exhausted. "Please, just…anything but that."
"…The year isn't 2034 for your City, is it?" Artyom asked.
"God damn it, it's fucking time travel." Keira groaned, flopping down onto the cot. If there was enough room for both of them, Sly would have joined her. Time travel meant Vex, and if the Vex were here too, then the situation was far worse than any of them had thought. The Hive conquered worlds. The Vex consumed them.
Sure, it probably wasn't a full-blown invasion force, but that didn't make it any better. All it would take was a single Axis Mind making it to Earth to spell complete disaster. The Cosmodrome was already a Hive-infested nightmare, they didn't need to make another one with time-traveling killer robots and post-apocalyptic Russians on top of that.
Then there was the issue of entire time-traveling ruins, possible paradoxes, and all kinds of other problems that he wasn't smart enough or crazy enough to think up. Time travel was weird, the Vex were weirder, and he'd be fine leaving both for someone else to deal with. If only the Vex were so considerate.
There was also still the question of why the entire city was a radioactive ruin, where mutants were apparently so common an occurrence that they'd seemingly just assumed the Hive were a new breed. It had probably been some pre-Golden Age war, but considering how many gaps existed in their records, all he could rely on was the testimony of the locals.
The locals who, from the rumors flying around, had already broken into factions and were on the verge of war before the Vex had gotten their rusty little claws involved. And would probably try to twist and edit any information to fit their version of events. Fantastic.
They really, really needed to hurry up and get back to the City. Zavala would have a stroke when he heard what was happening, but at least they'd be able to bring in help. Not to mention scan for signs of Vex presence, root out the Hive, and figure out to do with thousands of refugees living here.
But there was still the fact that their Dropships were destroyed, and the communications interference around the ruins, and the Hive presence expanding…what a mess.
"…Alright then." Sly groaned, flopping back onto a nearby chair. "So this situation is even more complicated then we'd thought before. Whoopee. Do you guys also have a theory about, say, getting out of the city?"
Artyom shook his head. "Not as far as I know. All we have are some modified trucks, and the roads aren't good enough to take them very far. Some of the tunnels still have working trains, but they can only go to a few stations."
Wonderful. So their options were to either go out on a war path and deal with legions of undetected Hive and Vex on their own, or try to get to the outskirts themselves. This must've been what that one Guardian felt like going into the Black Garden.
Sly shook his head. There were still some bright spots, even in the middle of a mess like this. Umbra was safe and sound, they'd finally linked back up with each other, and the locals were at least partially willing to work with them despite their temporal differences.
Either way, until this Miller guy came back, they were stuck on their own with a whole new pile of questions. Good thing they had someone around to help answer some of them.
"Okay then…Artyom, right?" Sly asked, leaning forwards. "Sounds like Umbra told you a little bit about us and our situation already. How about you do the same for us?"
"Hey, step away from the barricade! Only soldiers of the Red Army are allowed past this point!"
Pavel sighed, trying to keep a disarming grin on his face. Times like these were why he hated covert missions. Whenever the border guards were twitchy, the lack of a proper uniform made getting back to base a pain in the ass.
Not that the border guards are ever not twitchy.
It was a shame, too. He had finally managed to separate himself from the others, leaving Anton with the station's doctors and Anton to monitor the refugees, only to be stopped right at the gates of the nearest Red Army camp. The soldier standing guard had rushed over as soon as Pavel had neared, shouting and waving his rifle around.
"Come on, comrade, no need to shout!" Pavel said, reaching for his pocket. "I've got my papers right here-"
The guard immediately raised his rifle, pointing it at Pavel's chest. "Hold it! No sudden moves, asshole!"
"Hey, hey, no need for that! I'm just reaching for my documents." Pavel said, moving his hand much more slowly. "No need to start shooting. I'm not going to reach for a gun."
He wouldn't even need to if things got too heated. The guard had stepped forwards to try and intimidate him, well within range for Pavel to grab the rifle. Risky, but not impossible to take down.
The guard still kept his gun raised, but, thankfully, he made no moves to fire. He simply allowed Pavel to grab his documents, snatching them up as they were handed over.
Pavel could tell the moment the guard saw his rank and unit. The man's face immediately paled, his eyes widening as he glanced between Pavel and the documents. Hands shaking slightly, the guard slowly passed the papers back, which Pavel accepted wordlessly.
"Now then, my friend," Pavel said, stepping forwards. "I need directions to the General's office. If you would be so kind as to show me where to go…"
"Of course, sir! Sorry, sir! Right this way!" The rifleman sputtered, offering a hasty salute before marching into the camp. Given the reputation of Pavel's superior, he couldn't blame the man for his fear. In times like these, with almost the entire Red Line under attack, suspicion and caution were natural.
That didn't stop Pavel from making a mental note of the soldier's face, just in case he continued to cause problems. Caution was admirable in the Red Army. Insubordination was not.
As they made their way further into the camp, Pavel glanced around at the guards and the fortifications. Sandbag walls marked the edge of the Red Line's enclave in Polis, manned by nervous and exhausted riflemen. The men stationed nearby were mostly poorly-armed conscripts, with only a handful of officers and proper soldiers to keep the men disciplined and organized. It reminded him of his early days in the Red Army, holding the front line against scattered Nazi assaults.
If only this wasn't also the current headquarters of the Party, the Red Army, and the remaining Red Line. That dampened the nostalgia somewhat.
Passing by the outer fortifications, they started to move towards the rear of the camp. Soldiers and guards were replaced by officers and assistants, moving from room to room with a sense of near-panic and desperation.
'They must be in the middle of reorganization. How many men are there left to command?'
Eventually, they made it to the rear of the camp. One final door sat at the end of the hallway, guarded by two Red Guard specialists. Upon noticing Pavel, they lowered their arms and saluted. The guide quickly did the same, running off back towards the main camp shortly after. Pavel paid them no notice, simply entering the room.
The office was a cluttered, junk-filled mess, filled with supply crates and filing cabinets. A wooden desk sat in the center, with a simple folding chair available for visitors to sit in. Small oil lanterns were scattered around, filling the area with a dim glow.
Pavel paid little attention to that. Instead, he focused on the only other occupant in the room.
Sitting behind the desk, looking over piles of paperwork with disdain, was the only person Pavel knew who could keep the Red Line functioning in this crisis. Possibly the only person who could fix the Red Line's current circumstances.
"Comrade Morozov, good to see you're still alive. Take a seat." General Korbut said, gesturing to the chair. "And when you're ready, tell me everything."