I gave this another shot over at Spacebattles and actually gave the story a conclusion. Uploading it here too - minor changes at the initial parts but there are major additions later.
The hum of the drop-ship's engines fills the background as Captain Cross looks at his team; the fourth one since this mess started – and hopefully the last.
His guys are checking their gear in the dim red light of the cabin. And all of them, except for one, are new faces. Half of the guys from his last team were consumed by the supreme hunter. Though thanks to them, Cross along with one other managed to escape with the vaccine before Thera was obliterated from orbit. The guys lost were Carl and Jericho – the former being the last man from his original team.
Good guys. Really good guys those two were.
"We're entering the red zone. Jump point in five mikes."The pilot's voice sounds through the cabin speakers.
The announcement cause Cross to sigh. This is his chance to put a stop to all this; save millions and avenge all the guys that he had lost.
The pressure is not treating him kindly.
But Cross' moment of reconciliation is only brief. If he can end this now then he will try his dammest to do so. Standing up from his seat, the captain grabs one of the handles dangling from the ceiling before turning to look at his team.
The guy who escaped Thera with him six months ago is Staff Sergeant Andrew Nelson: The team's medic. He is an Aartis native hailing from the city of Yivoni, in the Ferero District. He was with the Captain in the orbital station being medically assessed when the infection first spread to Aartis. While they were gunning down the infected in the station, the virus on the planet quickly spread from the Kelman District – which neighbours Ferero and two others. The Staff Sergeant's entire family didn't make it.
Next to Staff Sergeant Nelson is First Lieutenant Dereck Young who is also an Aartis native. Difference is that he instead hails from the planet's ground Zero – The city of New Lagonia. The First Lieutenant was part of the second wave of responders in the disastrous attempt to contain the infection in The Kelman district and its direct surroundings. The SAS platoon the Lieutenant was assigned was overrun and wiped out. He only survived by barely managing to cling on to the ramp of an evacuation shuttle as it was taking off.
Last one at the back is Sergeant Zed Francis; the guy is new to SAS, but he has seen action as part of the 12th Army Group during the Theran insurrection. Not much to say about him other than he finished training two weeks ago, and like the captain, was born out-of-system at some far away planet in the Trans-System Federation.
The signal light in the cabin turns to Orange.
"Stand up for pre-jump check!" Cross shouts.
His team snappily raise themselves from their seats and stand behind each other. Cross turns around to face the drop-ship's ramp.
Right after the command is given, every buckle, strap, and pack was checked thoroughly by the partner of each SAS operator in the team. Cross turns back to face his team after it was all finished.
Even through their baklavas, goggles, and masks, the captain could see the tension that each and every single one of his members feel. Nelson, subtly, is breathing deeply. As Young is shaking almost imperceptibly. While Francis is standing still- too still.
The signal light in the cabin turns to Yellow.
The ramp slowly opens and lets the air–along with the smell of the rotting, burning, city assault the noses of everyone in the cabin. And even though the team has already been vaccinated before taking the mission, nobody wanted to take the chance of turning into one of those things and wore bulky gas masks.
"Alright listen up!" Cross shouts. "I'm going to go over the briefing one last time; our target is the patient zero of the Aartis infection: Dr. Alexander J. Mercer. He is suspected to have ties with the Theran insurrection and went off radar at the start of the infection on Thera six months ago. TSAF and the surviving ADF command have been working together for the past two months to locate him. And thanks to them, we now know that he is in the basement parking area of an A-Mart mall and has been considerably weakened after air and space forces blanketed the area with bloodtox – a compound derived from the vaccine. This is our chance to end it. Our objective is to search and destroy Alexander Mercer. Millions are counting on us, you hear?!"
"Yes sir!" The team replies.
"Jump point is in T-minus sixty seconds." The pilot announces through the speakers.
Cross turns back and looks at the pink-ish cloud that is enveloping the drop-ship as they approach the jump point. A few explosions could be heard as bombs are dropped on particularly hard targets – but there is no gunfire as they are going to be the only boots on the ground.
"T-minus ten seconds."
Cross looks at his weapon; a heavily modified RIA 20 Striker that has faithfully served him. It is one of the few things that stayed with him after he quit being a Shotlite mercenary and joined SAS. The rifle invokes him to think about all the things that have transpired throughout his career: all the missions, successes, failures, losses, pain – and how this one might be the end of it all.
"The light is green –Jump is a go!"
As quickly as his thoughts came, the quicker they disappear when the signal light turns green. Without a moment of hesitation, Cross jumps off the drop-ship with the rest of his team following right behind him. They descend into the thick pink cloud blanketing their AO.
While Cross free falls through the cloud, his earpiece crackles to life.
"Captain Cross." Greets the metallic voice of the combat AI.
"What is it, Combot?" Cross asks as he maneuvers himself to align with the approach.
"Satellite observation of the target area has yielded photos of pod-like structures around the AO. Would you like to view these?"
"Yes." Cross replies while making minute adjustments to his approach.
The captain's combat goggle HUD is immediately replaced with detailed photos of the mall and its surroundings. The area is dotted with green-ish points that, upon closer inspection, are revealed to be some sort of green egg-shaped pods.
"Joint command has ordered the investigation of these pods. And their destruction if they are found to be a threat."
Cross discards the image and restores his HUD. "Wilco. Is that all, Combot?"
"Then give us a heads up for anything new later. Out."
Cross turns a bit to the side to monitor the progress of his team; his HUD showing that all of them are spread-out at least twenty-five meters apart from each other, and descending at more or less the same rate and staying at the same altitude. Cross then looks at his altimeter and watch as it slowly counts down to a dangerously low altitude of five-hundred-fifty meters before he and the rest of his team open their chutes.
Visually, there was only the thick pink fog of the bloodtox compound. But thanks to their combat goggle's internal HUD, the team is able to align and glide towards their objective.
Unfortunately, its capabilities does not include a collision warning system. So when the pink cloud unexpectedly lightened – and the visibility of the surrounding area is improved, the SAS team finds themselves heading straight towards the side of a building.
"Shit!" Cross curses in alarm. "Two, Four; break left! Three; with me to the right!" He quickly radios before steering his chute in an attempt to clear away from the building.
The wires and the chute's fabrics strain at the force of the pull. And for a moment, the captain thought that his mission will already end before it even starts. The edge of his chute is only an arm's length away from the building before clearing away from it.
Cross takes a breath to calm himself from the close brush with death. He then looks around and sees that Staff Sergeant Nelson, the number three of his team, has fared better as he managed to completely steer away from the building.
His earpiece crackles to life. "Almost thought we lost you there for a moment cap." Nelson's voice sounds through.
"Yeah, I did so too." Cross replies before looking around to try to catch a glimpse of the other two members of his team. When he didn't see anyone, he radios out to them. "Two, Four. Give me a sitrep."
Cross waits and seconds pass. Dread starts to form as he starts to think that the other two didn't make it, but it is then that he sees the silhouettes of the two other members of his team break through the pink cloud.
His earpiece crackles alive again. "Sorry for the delay Captain." It's Young's voice. "We got a close call with the building. Zed and I managed to avoid it, but our path to the original LZ is now blocked. we'll be landing east instead of south of the target building instead. How copy? Over."
Cross keeps his eyes on the two gliding members of his team as he radios back. "Solid Copy, two. Break. We just got new Intel about some sort of green egg-shaped pods around the AO – Command wants us to investigate if you find anything on the way. Confirm. Over."
"Two confirms. Over."
"Then we'll see you two on the ground. Out." Cross warps up the exchange and then looks down to the streets below.
The infected are all over the place: rooftops, streets, alleys – not an inch of the city didn't have a couple of shamblers or stalkers nearby. This is nothing new, but the thing that caught Captain Cross' attention is that some of the infected in the pink mist seem to be dying, but not dead.
"Combot?" Cross calls the combat AI.
"Captain Cross." The metallic voice of the AI near-instantly responds.
"Inform command that the compound doesn't seem to be as effective as we thought. Record and attach the next ten seconds of video."
"Wilco. Starting recording process in three seconds."
A countdown appears on Cross' HUD as he looks for a clear and visible horde under the effect of the compound. He then sees a horde with a number of bloaters coughing up blood but still otherwise mobile. He focuses on this horde and lets the helmet camera record the video which is then packed by an internal computer for Combot to then pick-up.
"Recording received. Transmitting now." The AI then turns quiet for a few seconds. "Transmission complete."
"Alert me if a reply has been made. Out." Cross says and then returns his focus in preparing for landing which he wants to be as quick and as least disorienting as possible.
The black pavement of the surface parking area comes closer and closer until Cross felt the sole of his boots make contact. He then immediately dives down to a roll on the pavement before stopping and getting up to take off the pack and harness.
Looking around, Cross sees that Nelson has landed not too far from him in the parking lot and is now jogging to rendezvous with him.
"I'm ready to go Cap." Nelson says as he reaches Cross.
Cross was about to reply when growling started to come from across the wall of the parking lot. He immediately aims his assault rifle in the direction of the growl while Nelson does the same with his RIA T7 smg.
It was just a reflex, but their reaction likely saved their asses as they saw a bloater's fist appear over the wall and come down to smash a huge chunk of it – sending fragments at near-bullet speeds all over the place.
The two duck behind a vehicle. Then Cross hazards a peek over to the wall to see it was nearly breached by the bloater whose face is now visible. Upon seeing the opportunity, Cross props his rifle on the hood of the car, aims, and then shoots.
The RIA 20 Striker is a thermal weapon.
So when the 8mm bullet made contact with the bloater's face, it seemingly explodes as it releases, scatters, and ignites a payload of supercompacted white phosphorous in a split of a second – Lighting up whatever it hits like a flare.
The bloater's face does explode after two more 8mm rounds slam into it. Cross was about to relax as he thought he had averted contact with the rest of the infected but the bloater's body started to tip and push against the wall – surprising Cross as it crashes through.
"Shit! Shit!" They got through!" Cross curses as the first of the infected start to flood into the breach. He quickly takes down a number of them while Nelson stands up and let several 10mm smg rounds melt chunks of the infected.
Eventually though, after multiple bursts, Nelson's magazine goes dry and he announce that he is reloading. Cross was just about to pop another shot, when he sees green bubbling goo arc over the wall.
"Acid!" Cross shouts in alarm before jumping away from his position.
Cross hears Nelson curse before jumping away; the green goo landing around the area where the staff sergeant was.
Cross stares at the car where a portion of the acid spit landed on the hood and start to eat through the metal.
"Nade' out!" Cross hears Nelson shout as a grenade goes over the wall.
Many infected turned into red mists as when the grenade exploded, while the wall thankfully weathered the blast with only slight damage.
Cross takes down more of the infected with Nelson, and the two of them working together quickly turns the flood into a trickle, and then lower and lower until there was none left.
Breathing heavily, Cross sweeps the pile of corpses one more time before lowering his rifle. There was no less than a hundred infected that made their way here. It was only the fact that the only way in is a small gap in the wall that saved their asses.
As Cross is looking at their handiwork, Nelson speaks. "We need to close that up."
Cross wordlessly agrees before moving to one of the cars in the lot and start to push it.
When the car didn't budge, Cross calls out. "Nelson, get this this thing on neutral and help me out."
The staff sergeant complies and goes over to the car and then pulls on the door into the driver's seat.
"The thing's locked, cap." Nelson shakes his head.
"Fuck." Cross curses in frustration. He lifts himself up and start to look around.
The only cars that are already open are one's that are busted while all the others are shut tight. Breaking the windshield isn't an option as the alarm will cause too much attention.
But as Cross tries to find something they can block the gap with, he spots something alarming. He raises his rifle to where it is, prompting Nelson to do the same.
"You see that?" Cross asks Nelson.
Nelson takes a moment to look over to where it is before replying. "Yeah."
"Let's check it out."
Cross takes the point. Cautiously advancing to the sides of a small utility building just outside of the parking lot. Upon reaching it, he takes a breath and snaps around the corner.
"Ugh, what the fuck?" Nelson remarks in disgust as the thing comes into view after he come around the corner after Cross.
Its bunch of pods; green, bubbling, and beating like a heart. It's vaguely egg-shaped figured is covered in what could only be described a tripophobic's nightmare.
But that's not the worst of it–there seems to be something in each of the pods and one just started to move.
"Combot, record footage of this now!" Cross commands as he and Nelson back away in alarm.
"Wilco Captain." The AI replies.
Cross and Nelson raise their weapons to the Pod as it start to seemingly inflate as the thing inside it move erratically. The pod walls eventually couldn't contain the pressure, and it starts to rip like a cellophane wrapper – spilling out a viscous yellow-green substance along with an infected.
Cross didn't waste any time and pulls the trigger of his rifle. The bullet sets the infected alight and then buries itself into the infected's torso.
Or at least that what it seemed at first.
The infected start to get up from where it was washed away. Cross and Nelson look at it in shock as the infected's body remains on fire from a seemingly natural combustion, and not because of the 8mm FMJ-I burning it alive.
Cross let loose three rounds into the infected's face – the sheer kinetic damage from the 8mm bullets slamming into the infected's skull causing it to cave in – and so the infected collapses.
The two SAS operators stare at their latest kill in disbelief. But was then pulled back to reality by the sound of the wall crumbling as an entire infected horde screams and stream into the parking lot from the larger gap in the wall that they made.
"Shit! Get a move on!" Cross shouts before running towards the delivery area of the mall which is the pre-planned entry point.
They reach the large metal sliding doors of the delivery bay. Cross hurriedly punches the codes he was briefed earlier into a terminal, and the sliding doors open slowly.
The infected was only thirty or so meters away when the gap is finally big enough for the two SAS operators to squeeze through. They immediately throw themselves into the delivery bay as the screaming infected scramble to get them.
Cross gets up from the ground and runs for the delivery bay's terminal while Nelson rolls over and starts to shoot at the infected that have made it inside. Cross hits a button on the terminal, and the doors start to close. Cross then joins Nelson in preventing any more infected from getting inside till the sliding doors connect with each other and shut out from the infected horde outside.
Both operators take care of any infected that made it inside with them. After which, the two takes a breather as the adrenaline rush settles down. The delivery bay is empty, save for them and the bodies of the infected that got through and that they shot.
"Wha- what the fuck was that?!" Nelson asks between breaths.
Cross is breathing heavily as well. "I don't have a clue." He says. "Combot?" Cross turns to look at the exit as and inquires when he remembers about the combat AI.
"Did you get all of that?"
"Then send it over to command. Out."
Cross then looks back to Nelson. He has got up to a sitting position and looks back.
"Let's move it." Cross says and gestures for the Staff Sergeant to stand.
Nelson groans as he stands up. The two SAS operators then make their way to the bay's exit and through a dark empty office corridor before finally emerging into a hallway in the mall proper, which is cleared of infected but lined with pods.
Don't know if that's good or bad. Cross thinks to himself. "Keep your eyes peeled." He orders as he takes another peek to the middle of the hallway.
Cross' HUD shows the floor plan of the level of the mall he is in. By cross referencing prominent stalls and decorations, Cross figures that the entry point into the basement parking area is through the janitor room, which is just across the groceries…
…which is at the end of this pod-infested hallway.
"Captain Cross." Cross nearly jumps at the AI's metallic voice.
"What is it Combot?" He asks, annoyed.
"Reply from command from your previous messages: "The vaccine had to be diluted due to production still being ramped up. We concentrated pure bloodtox around the mall to do most damage to the HVT. While everything else is diluted. Break. Good job at dispatching whatever came out of the pod and avoiding the horde. We're focusing our bombardment of clusters now. Break. We noticed that the surroundings isn't as misty as we predicted it to be, we're still trying to figure out why. Take caution." End of reply."
"Copy that, Combot. Out." Cross dismisses the AI and ponders over the new information.
So the compound is diluted in some parts, and the parts that aren't so are not as dense as expected. While it could just be the weather or errors in calculation, Cross get the feeling that it may also be the product of something more sinister.
Cross dismisses his thoughts. He has to focus on the now. "Let's push through." He commands.
The two SAS operators move forward and keep a close eye on the pulsating pods which are mere meters away – all have things inside them, motionless inside the seemingly overgrown, green, and disgusting blisters. Nelson lets out a sigh of relief as they make it past without incident.
"One, this is two. We see you. Approaching from the stairs north of you." Young radios in.
Cross turns to see Young and Francis break concealment from the withering plants below the stairs and jog to where they are. Cross look them over. They seem to be ok, with a few magazines less but unscathed.
"Trouble?" Nelson asks.
Francis nods. "Yeah. There was a small crowd that we had to clean up."
"One was cute too. If it weren't for her missing jaw." Young smirks.
Cross waves the conversation away and interjects. "Can it. Everyone good to go?"
"Alright, let's hustle."
The SAS team didn't have to go far as the grocery is just a few stalls away from where they were. But they are immediately faced with a situation upon arriving.
Francis kneels down and tugs on the bottom part of the stall cover to see if it'll lift. "It's closed down." He announces after attempting a few times.
"That's our only way in, sir. Unless if we want to waltz with the horde outside." Young says.
Cross thinks for a moment. "Nelson, fire a burst at it."
"Wilco." The staff sergeant obeys and three 10mm smg FMJ-I rounds goes through the stall cover and melts a small part of its surroundings.
Cross peeks into the holes and into the grocer. Damn. It's facing a turn. He thinks after his hopes of gathering more intel about whatever is inside are dashed. At least I now know we can get in without having to blow up the place.
Cross gets up and looks at the staff sergeant. "Make a hole for us to go through Nelson."
Cross steps away as Nelson takes aim. Firing an entire magazine in controlled bust while making a punctured area tall and wide enough for the team to go through.
"Young, take point. Breach when ready."
"Wilco." Young responds while pumping his RIA 30, a thermal shotgun, and then moving to the stall cover before kicking the bullet-riddled part down.
The SAS team rushes through the breach behind Young. They then take up positions upon reaching the other side as they are greeted by a disgusting sight.
"Godamnit I hate these things." Nelson says.
"Yeah, me too. And this one looks even worse." Young responds.
About fifty meters to our front is another cluster of pods. But this time they're larger, blood red, and have large vein-like tissue surrounding the area around them.
"Combot, take footage." Captain cross commands.
The team inch closer to the evolved pod cluster. But unlike the ones in the hallway, the pods here seem to react to nearby hostiles as their occupants start to squirm and jerk erratically. Cross and his team to take a step back.
"Get ready for contact." Cross alerts.
The rest of the SAS team wordlessly readies. And the same scene from the parking lot earlier played out as more than a dozen infected break through the pod walls. And, like the one from the parking lot, they seem to have evolved in the pods resulting with them having abilities like being able to naturally ignite, drip with acid, or have thick black chitinous hides that even 8mm bullets had trouble going through.
But the freshly hatched infected seem to be weaker than their normal counterparts. Even the thick hides were seemingly soft in some parts as bullets pass through them entirely. Cross and his team blast the heads and melts the faces of the infected coming for them, and soon there was nothing left.
"All clear." Cross says as the last of the infected burns on the floor. "Status on ammo?"
"I have around thirty shells left." Young reports.
"Six mags for me." Nelson reports.
"Five, including one in the well." Francis reports.
Cross looks at the checkout area, there was supposed to be a path directly leading to the janitor's room there, but part of the support has collapsed and it's now impossible to get through.
"Our path is blocked, let's circle around the aisles and find an alternative route" Cross says and proceeds to make his way between the shelves, the rest of his team following close behind.
There were more collapsed support pillars between the aisles, and the team more than once had to circle around to find another way through. But after spending much time navigating the maze of groceries, they finally find a clear aisle that leads to where the janitor room.
As the team advance, they pass through a pastry shop. Young takes interest and intently examines the slightly mouldy sweets.
"Geez, man. You can stuff yourself with all the mouldy cake you like after we're done." Nelson says when he notices Young.
"Huh? Hell no! And look– They still have twinkies here, not even the infected would eat these!"
A growl sounds from behind the glass displaying the mouldy pastries, causing the team snap their rifles at the ready.
"Lieutenant, sir, I think the bread didn't like that." Francis remarks in nervous humour.
Cross was about to tell his team to can it when an infected suddenly jumps up from behind the counter adjacent to the glass display and lands directly in-front of him.
The infected takes a swipe at Cross, who then immediately steps away and opens fire.
The infected's head burst open and burns before it drops to the ground.
"Holy shit, cap you ok?" Young asks in concern.
Cross' heart is beating fast at infected's ambush. Was it just a coincidence? Or are these infected getting smarter?
Need to find out more. Cross thinks and lets out a breath. "Yeah. Push on and stay alert."
The team now silently make their way to the janitor room. Cross and Francis then taking up positions adjacent to the door as Young prepares to enter the room, shotgun at the ready, while Nelson keeps watch.
"Go." Cross signals to Young, who then rushes inside after Francis turns the knob and swings the door wide open.
Cross follows inside right after young. Francis entering too and taking up position on the wall adjacent from their own.
"Well. That's where we're supposed to go, right?" Francis says.
"Yeah." Cross replies.
"And it's behind those pods?"
The door that leads to the basement is behind three green pods. They don't seem to have anything solid inside, though.
"Young, target those pods and fire on my mark."
Cross allots a few seconds as Young adjusts his stance and raises his shotgun.
Thanks to ear protection, the sound of a shotgun firing a twelve gauge shell in a small room didn't render the occupants deaf. But nothing could've prepared them when oversized worms burst out from the pod. One lands right on top of Cross' boot; the creature squrming as it tries to re-orient itself, giving enough time for Cross to shake it off before stomping it to death.
More of the creatures make their way towards the team members. Some jump onto Young as he tries to ward them off with blasts from his shotgun. "Ah fuck!" The lieutenant shouts. While Francis screams as he tries to shake off those who has clambered onto him.
It only took a moment for Cross to take action. But in the middle of the time it took him to do so, images flash themselves in his mind – Images of his former teammates, friends, and comrades – his brothers not by blood but by arms; every single one of them who were slowly eaten alive by these things as Cross was too helpless to do anything.
But not again. Not another dog-tag unrecovered.
"Larvae!" Cross shouts to alert Nelson who is outside as he rushes to Young's aid. He kicks and crushes larvae in his way. Drawing his combat knife and pistol when he is close enough, Cross starts to hack and slash at the larvae on his teammate and shoots those trying to get closer. Staining his knife green with infected blood as larvae after larvae is cut in half or skewered until there are none left on Young while going through his sidearm's magazine keeping the rest at bay.
When the situation is stable Cross looks at the lieutenant. "Hey, You ok?"
Young curses. "Fucking hell my arm stings!"
Cross is relived at that: It would seem that the vaccine is working as intended. Usually those who were bit by larvae would very soon feel numb in parts of their bodies as nerves stop responding before eventually losing control of that limb after a time before eventually losing control of themselves as they turn into an infected.
Cross then looks over his shoulders, and again is relived upon seeing Francis getting tended to by Nelson. He turns back to Young and looks him over; not too bad, some breaches on his skin-suit and nothing major.
"Anything feels numb? Can you feel yourself?" Cross asks Young
The lieutenant seems to slowly fade into unconsciousness. "That's what she said." Young mumbles audibly enough for Cross to hear before cracking out a cheeky smile.
Cross shakes his head. "Yeah, fuck you. Get the fuck up."
"Yes sir." Young replies as he stands up. "Argh, what? Even my ass!?" Cross hears Young curse while he makes his way towards to where Nelson and Francis is, causing him to momentarily crack a smile.
Kneeling down, Cross looks at the Francis who is looking at his reddening legs. "Hey. You alright?" Cross asks.
Francis nods. "I can still feel my legs. Geez. I thought they were going to eat me alive."
Cross takes relief at the words and pats Francis' shoulders. "Glad to hear."
"Me getting eaten alive?"
Cross gives Francis a flat stare before looking at Nelson. "Nice work."
Nelson nods in acknowledgement. Cross then looks at them both one more time before standing up to survey the scene.
There were thirty or more un-decapitated larvae corpses with a considerable amount of corpses that are. There must've been around fifty larvae in the pods they destroyed.
"Hey, guys, look at this!" Young shouts as he looks at what remains of the pods.
Cross moves to where Young is as Francis and Nelson gets up and follows behind. Upon reaching the scene, Cross sees something underneath the folds of the destroyed pod walls. He kicks the destroyed pod walls clear and then instantly recognizes the item underneath.
"HVM strongbox." Cross deduces from the green colour and markings.
"Hey, is that a severed hand hanging on to it? Ugh, fuck." Nelson says in disgust.
Cross looks at the handle and indeed, there is a severed hand covered in HVM Kevlar gloves tightly gripping the handle.
Probably the only part left of one of the ADF responders.
"No use to the dead." Cross says as he lowers himself and pulls out the box. The green box is dripping with goo of the same colour – but Cross isn't worried about its contents as the container is water-tight.
As Cross sets down the weapon box, Nelson clears away more of the pod wall by kicking it, apparently looking for something. Cross had just managed to open the box and look at its content when at the same time, Nelson reaches down and pulls something out of the pod remains.
"Taylor, Robert Y." Nelson says the name inscribed on the dog-tag he found.
Young snaps his attention to Nelson. "No shit?"
Cross looks over his shoulder to the two, and sees as Young carefully takes the dog-tag from Nelson and looks it over.
"Shit… It's fucking Rob." Young says in a shaky voice, and putting a hand on his helmet.
Nelson's jaw drops. "Oh fuck, sorry man."
Young looks at the dog-tag one more time. "I know that this is that motherfucker's service number." He says in a disbelieving tone, Cross hears the man's voice crack slightly at the end.
Cross gets up from where he was and moves to place a hand on Young's shoulders. The Lieutenant turns to look at him, and he returns the stare as he speaks. "Hey, I'm sorry about this – but we got to go."
Young turns to look at the pod, then at the dog-tag, before nodding and placing the dog-tag in one of his pouches. "Yeah I know." He then looks at the thing at Cross' back. "Is that…?"
Strapped behind Cross is an HVM MPG; a double barrelled 70mm rocket launcher. Designed to provide a squad with anti-tank and anti-air capabilities. It excels at doing its job, but unfortunately the nearest ADF military stockpile was only at the outskirts of the city and was caught completely by surprise by the outbreak; resulting in not enough ammunition for everyone to stop the outbreak at its earliest stage.
Young shakes his head. "That's something he would carry alright."
Cross only nods in reply. He then sweeps his eyes over the entire team. "Everyone good to go?"
Cross motions his rifle to the door. "Young, take point."
The lieutenant takes a deep breath. "Wilco."
The team stacks up and breaches the door leading to the underground parking the very same way they had done when entering the janitor's room. The team fans out as they enter.
"Negative on contact." Cross announces. "Advance."
As they are about to pick themselves up, there's a sudden tremor. Cross couldn't figure out what is causing it, but then sees the ground below them start to crack.
Acting on instinct, he shouts. "Move!" before running away from where he stood.
His team rush to follow. Francis, being the rear-most guy, was almost caught as the ground burst into black spikes mere centimeters behind him. He stumbles to the ground because of the shock of the eruption behind him, but immediately recovers and turns around. "Holy shit." He says as he sees how close he was to being barbecued.
"Where did that come from!?" A shocked Young asks.
It didn't take long for Cross to deduce. "It's Mercer."
The team looks at Cross. But snaps back their attention when the ground start to tremble again and the spikes withdrew.
"What the-" Young was about to ask something when bits of the ceiling start to fall down.
Cross looks at the ceiling and his eyes widened. "Move it people!" He orders before he and his team sprints down deeper into the parking lot as the ceiling start to fall down in large chunks behind them. Cross and his team kept running onward as their point of entry is completely blocked by the debris, but there seem to be no rest for them upon arriving at the parking area proper.
The place is filled with pods. The floor, the walls, the ceiling – but it is not what caught their attention. There, in the middle of the parking lot, is a gigantic pod – pulsating and giving off a malevolent air along with four others around it about a quarter of its size.
"Combot, snap a picture of this and send it to command. After that, record footage. Send it after fifteen minutes unless I tell you otherwise." Cross instructs the combat AI.
Cross takes a breath and holds it in as he scans the area. There is simply too many of them- at least two hundred pods not counting the bigger ones at the center.
"The hell are we supposed to do?" Nelson asks in despair.
Cross racks up his brain to look for a way. Going through a small horde in a tight place like the parking lot basement is suicide. There has to be another way.
He then remembers something: Back at the hallway – before he and Nelson rendezvoused with Francis and Young – the pods in the hallway didn't attack; and the larvae, in the janitor room, they didn't attack till they broke the pods.
With those, Cross makes a decision. "We're moving between the pods to the centre."
His team looks at him in disbelief. "But sir-" Francis was about to object when Cross cuts him off.
"These green pods are passive. Or at least passive while in the building. I don't know why. So unless if you have a better idea on what to do, we're going."
Cross nods in approval. "Column, one meter spacing. I'll take point."
The team only takes a moment to form up. Cross leads the team as they do their best steeling their nerves as they walk between the disgusting green pods; treading the fine line between life and death and between success and failure.
Cross holds his rifle stiffly on his hands as scans the pods for any sign of them breaking. Moving slowly even though all his senses are revulsed and screaming at him to pick up the pace. Cross is only relived when he finally crosses the wall of pods.
But there was a flesh-like squish that catches his attention. The rest of the team hears it too and turn their heads to the four smaller around the biggest one and watch as claws start to break through one of them.
"Contact!" Cross takes a knee and aims. He and his team forming a semi-circle to watch each of the pods.
The claws start to rip the walls of the pod; and out from it came a bloody, muscular, humanoid creature that crawls in all fours. It sees Cross and his team and snarls before charging towards them.
Cross did the only thing he could do and fires a long burst into the creature's skull. Eight 8mm bullets burn and slam into the creature's head, resulting with it stopping mid-charge as it rears and roars in pain.
Cross fires more bullets into the creature, with the Nelson's smg and Francis' assault rifle joining into the fray. The three riddle the creature with bullets till it eventually drops dead.
"Ho-ly fuck." Nelsons states in awe before the other three break through their pods and start to charge towards the team. Cross and Francis are low on ammo, so it falls onto Nelson and Young to kill and hold off the oncoming creatures.
Nelson's smg seem to only irritate them as the bullets only cause one to shake its head before roaring in annoyance and not stopping in its sprint. It was only when the thing reached twenty meters in-front of Young that incendiary buckshot from a twelve gauge shell cause it to collapse with a considerably-sized hole burning through flesh after it was blasted into its head.
Young turns and dispatches another one in the same fashion. He was about to turn to the last one when it leaps into the air and comes down straight towards the unprepared lieutenant; Young would be torn into pieces by the creature – its claws are sharp and muscles strong enough to cut anyone in half.
It is only thanks to 8mm bullets slamming into the side of the creature's head and body that prevented Young from turning into mincemeat. It did land on him yes, but it was squirming in pain that let Nelson run up and empty an entire magazine point-blank into its head.
Young is breathing rapidly as Cross and Francis runs over to where he is. "Thanks man." He says in gratitude.
Cross nods. "No problem. Now get on your feet; we have a job to do and I don't think Mercer will just let us finish it." He says, not waiting for a reply as he turns to face the pod at the center.
Then again comes the familiar rumbling. Cross looks around for the tell-tale cracks, and his eyes widens when he finds it beneath Nelson and Young.
"Get out of there!" Cross exclaims at the two members of his team.
Nelson is alert enough to jump away, but Young, trapped under the creature's corpse, could only scream helplessly as spikes goes through his body.
"NO!" Cross shouts in despair.
Not again, not another one.
The spikes withdraw back under the ground; leaving the now silent, and bloody body of Young rest. Cross notices a trail of cracks that leads back to the largest pod at the center.
I'll kill the bastard!
"MERCER!" Cross roars as he pulls out a grenade and takes off its pin. He then throws it at the pod with enough force that let the grenade break through the pod wall.
Liquid spills out from the hole the grenade went through, but more followed after an explosion causes the pod to bloat and burst in all places. Cross looks on as the liquid in the pod stream out to his feet. And even through his mask, he could still smell its strong stench.
A section of the remaining pod wall burst and someone – something jumps out from the pod. Cross and his team form a wedge with weapons tracking and ready to fire at the newcomer.
Cross looks through his scope and studies his target: Everything matches. It's Mercer.
Mercer is wearing a black hooded jacket, his posture is slightly stooped and Cross notices some sort of liquid-filled sac behind his right shoulder. Mercer turns his head to them, teeth bared in anger–or is it pain?
"You won't stop me!" Mercer shouts as he turns to Cross and his team.
Cross doesn't reply and raises his rifle before firing at Mercer who raises an arm and forms a shield made of a material not unlike the chitinous hides of the evolved infected from earlier. The shield lasts long enough to block the burst of 8mm rounds before deforming erratically and causing Mercer to scream in pain.
When the rest of the team also opens fire, Mercer starts to jump, strafe and dodge as he makes his way closer and closer to Cross and his team while avoiding most of the fire coming his way and eventually leaps to close the final meters of the gap between them.
"Eat this you son of a bitch!" Cross hears Nelson shout before he fires Young's shotgun and sends Mercer back with the force of impact.
Mercer lands a few meters away from them before jumping further away. Cross looks at Mercer as he reloads and sees the hole in his chest mending itself – albeit slowly – as it is hindered by the thermal properties of the bullet.
"Humanity is stagnant and dying!" Mercer shouts from where he is. "I would give it one body, one mind – No more diseases, no more suffering. Don't you see? I'm making it all better, giving everyone a second chance!"
Cross finishes reloading, the sound of him charging the bolt of his rifle dominating the silence following Mercer's short speech.
"You are the disease." Cross then points at the mutated creature. "You're the one causing suffering. You're not the cure to humanity's ailments, Mercer; you're the cancer, slowly killing it."
Mercer's face distorts in rage. "You don't know what you're taking about!" He shouts before jumping into the air, aiming for Cross.
"Cap, get away!" Nelson shouts before he and Francis desperately fire at Mercer.
Cross doesn't take a step as Mercer reaches the apex of his leap – but is instead looks at him before letting out a sigh.
Cross could feel it in him; he could feel as it rushed in his veins, in his muscles, in his flesh and bones. He tenses his arms and legs, pulls himself back, and leaps off the ground.
Surprise is written across Mercer's face as Cross intercepts him mid-air. Cross slams a fist onto Mercer's face and the two of them land back down onto the ground.
Mercer groans before looking up. "Wh-what?" He asks, confused.
Cross is standing just a few meters away. And he extends his arm to his side and let it re-shape into an oversized claw with knife-like blades for fingers.
"You said that I don't know what I was talking about." Cross says as he walks towards the recovering Mercer. "Well I do – because I'm the same as you."
He's infected. He had been struggling with this fact ever since it was revealed to him during the medical assessment. He was going to be put down – papers were already being written up for it and Cross, having witnessed the fate of those who turned, could only blanky stare at his cell's ceiling till the MPs opened and entered the room once more.
But it wasn't for his execution.
Cross' team looks on in disbelief towards their leader – their minds struggling to comprehend what they're seeing, and processing the implication that the one who has been leading them for all this time is one of those things.
"Cap, what the fuck!?" Nelson finally manages to ask.
Cross keeps his eyes on Mercer who is struggling back onto his feet while he addresses his team. "The official story command wants for this is that Captain Robert Cross died while fighting Dr. Alexander Mercer. Nelson, with both officers dead and with you remaining as the one with the senior-most rank, you are now tasked with the extraction of the team from this area. Deviation from this narrative will result in severe repercussions by the authority of the defense secretary himself." He plainly recites to the Staff Sergeant the directions that he was supposed to give to Young before unstrapping the MPG behind him and throwing to Nelson. Dumbstruck by the declaration, the new team-leader sputters out a couple of times before finding his words:
"But, Cap, what about you?"
What about him? Cross's world slows as his eyes meet Mercer's glare. There, he sees nothing but the bloody and twisted streets of Thera, smells nothing but charred corpses and ejected bile, feels nothing but the slippery ground of guts and gore, and hears nothing but the screams of panicked civilians and that of his comrades as they are drowned by the infected tide.
And here, during his brief time airborne over Aartis, he sees it all happening all over again.
"I'm accomplishing the objective." He simply states, "Now go!" He then charges Mercer, not giving his team any time to respond.
Mercer is pushed into the defensive by Cross unleashing himself into a whirlwind of claws. The infected mastermind changes his form multiple times to better defend against his attacker, but the changes could only last for so long before he has to stop due to its painful tax. Cross takes full advantage of this and presses on with his unrelenting assault – tearing Mercer apart piece-by-piece until Cross hits him hard enough to be launched against the wall that he makes a crack against the surface.
"Wisemen, this is Mantis one-two. I'm currently circling above the approximate area of the parking lot. If you guys can make it up towards the surface, we'll clear out the horde in the immediate vicinity and pick you up. How copy? Over."
"Mantis one-two, Wisemen one-three. Affirmative, we're making our way up to you now. Out."
Turning a bit to the side, Cross sees the two remaining members of his team fight their way through the infected while carrying Young's body. He then sees Nelson ready the MPG before blowing a hole through the parking lot's ceiling – collapsing a section of it into a ramp leading straight up to the surface.
From his peripheral, Cross sees Mercer prop himself up to a sitting position with his back against the wall. The Captain turns back his full attention to the hooded infected who has turned to look at his exfiling team. "Your superiors are idiots for sending you down here to die." He then says.
"They sent me here to kill you." Cross replies, and to which Mercer only laughs.
"Ha! Oh, really? Well guess what – you 'kill' me here now, I can just reform and start all over again! I already said it earlier, Captain – You can't stop me. All your efforts have been for nothing!"
Cross ignores him. Opting instead to step closer to the mastermind who 's looking at him triumphantly. Transforming his arm into a single blade, Cross then slams it into his target's torso. To which Mercer's expression turn more triumphant as the blade did nothing. The mastermind was about to reaffirm his previous statement but then stops when he felt – the disappearance of his control over the cells surrounding the blade – and Cross takes delight to witnessing Mercer's expression as it changes into a panicked one.
"We can't practically kill you, yes." Cross states, watching as Mercer struggle in the midst of losing control of his 'body'. "So I've been sent here to consume you instead."
Mercer desperately attempts to transform – clawing at everything for anything that could save him from this fate. All his attempts soon fail, however. And Cross eventually consumes the last cell of the one who was once known as Dr. Alexander J. Mercer.
Sensations and memories of the one he's consumed – alongside the countless others that Mercer has victimized – flood into Cross' mind. The sudden torrent of information forces him down as to not fall over from the swirling and disorienting pain. Despite this, however, he hears crackle of his comms as it comes to life.
"Griffin to Captain cross: Status?" The voice of Defense Secretary Griffin – the man responsible for this final mission – prompts him to force through the disorientation and pain so that he give the scripted reply:'
"Zeus n-neutralized!" He shouts, struggling through million voices and sensations in his head as he wills all pieces of him that he could to compress around his form. "S-stolen thunder, I-I say again; stolen thunder!"
"Affirmative, Captain. We're pulling out all our assets from Thera now. Package ETA is t-minus sixty seconds… It's been an honor. Out."
Cross' form is now unrecognizable as he concentrates every cell that he can get his hands on around his body – turning what was once a man into a massive amalgamation of disgusting, infected flesh that has now bursted out the underground parking lot.
However, in the middle of this all, in the midst of the pain and swirling thoughts of millions; Cross felt the peace that he has been denied of for so long. This is his chance to put a stop to all this; save millions and avenge all the guys that he had lost.
The weight is finally lifted off his shoulders when the first thermobaric device slams into his form.