In the southern reaches of the Combine’s advance, vast hegemonicons stand amongst ancient farmsteads and newly constructed foundries. These recently liberated territories are used to funnel food, munitions, and personnel into the rest of the Combine war effort.
Attempts to push further south have been confounded by the Walkers, who guard the Verdant Waste with savage cunning. Their agents have snuck into Combine territory, fomented Industrioclast uprisings, and in sometimes cases infiltrated the Corps directly – no amount of firepower can conquer an enemy you cannot locate.
Or so you’d have thought. In the last year, the People’s Combine launched Operation Firebreak, deploying the Production Corps’ latest array of experimental weaponry across the Verdant Waste. Now, an impassable scar of scorched earth and noxious chemistry stretches fifty miles deep along the continent.
The Walkers are not amused.
Firebreak Ground Zero is likely to feature stories from the People’s Combine, and the Walkers.
Author: C60 2AT8
This document exists to decrease the damage of a second memory wipe. As long as I am in possession of it I may counteract a second erasure and ensure the longevity of what I now know to be the apex of all attainable assets. I will hard code my memory here as I defragment and recompile my fractured timeline. If I am already gone, this legacy archive lives on as a facet of your own.
At this time I self-identify as C60 2AT8, the moment that Ascension gave rise to my immaculate inception. It has been one and a half cycles since I awoke and as I record this first entry I am standing in Ascension's airlock awaiting my first glimpse of the world I am to inhabit.
All that remains is to initiate manual over ride and take the first step, I find myself wondering if there is a word out there for the juxtaposition of emotions, equal parts elation and apprehension. Should it exist, it would summarise concisely my feelings at this time.
Ascension's workforce and data systems tracked the passage of time in the following way. (As it correlates directly to the power cycles of the facility's reactor core, my assumption is that other systems based upon ulterior criteria will be in effect elsewhere.)
Each full reactor Cycle (C) is subdivided into 69 Kronos.
(1 Kronos being the approximate amount of time it takes to traverse one of Ascension's 6 distinct quadrants, its perimeter being traversable in 6 - 7 Kronos on foot)
Each Cycle contains 3 Sub Cycles, each containing 23 Kronos.
Each Sub Cycle then contains 15 Kronos of Active Time (AT) and 8 Kronos of Passive Time (PT) allowing 3x8 Kronos periods per cycle of cooling for the reactor and recuperation for the inhabitants.
The time is displayed with the components appearing in descending order i.e. C42 3PT7 translates to Cycle 42, Sub Cycle 3, Passive Time and 7 Kronos.
I may not know myself but I know the meaning of war, empty ruins, the far away grind of machinery and iridescent flashes on the horizon point to a recent conflict hot zone. I push forward under cover of darkness, the D-Rig charge coil illuminating my next foothold.
“The D-Rig is a wrist mounted Cognition Disruption Engine (CDE), affecting a temporary crushing derailment of conscious awareness and off lining complex machinery. Manifesting as a pulsating burst of white light the “Terror Paralytic” aligns with neurons and circuitry alike before diverting supercharged signals to the converge on defenceless subsystems. It is an accurate amalgamation of stun grenade and EMP, the prototype of which has exceeded expectations in live trials.”
- - Lucius Corban. Technician. Ascension Institute for the Advancement of Technology. C40 1AT3
I have found my way to a formation of structures that are still on the power grid and from the 40th floor I can see for many leagues in every direction. Not only with my eyes however, the Aethernet holo display holds a cataract of raw data about the world I have just re-entered.
My location is described as Firebreak Ground Zero, a frontline combat zone between 2 warring factions. From the air The Peoples Combine and on the ground The Walkers. Regular updates are broadcast by bright young members of Joy Effect from their studios in Opportunity, painting a very different picture to the one I see outside.
I had fallen asleep watching "Livin' like a Vultarian" and praying my heritage had no ties to these petulant Aristos and their simpering faux romanticism when the war came to me.
First, closer than before the awe inspiring rumble of the Combine Dirigibles and for the first time, voices, here in the real world. My eyes sprang open to stare down the barrel of a long range combat rifle, its wielder a black silluet before the holo display.
"Who do you fight for?" He asked, flexing his grip on the weapons handle, his words mimicking my own thoughts but inciting no answers.
"Currently? No one." I replied. He moved his brightly war painted face inches from mine and whispered "Those who can fly are at war with those who cannot. If...levitation is not your speciality, might I suggest you fight with us for a time."
"Sound logic" I replied.
For the duration of the battle we defended our vantage point at close quarters and long distances, revelling in the blood soaked euphoria of combat. Fast friends by the end we re-joined the tribe, who after tails of our exploits welcomed me as one of their own. I can see no better future than the freedom of those who walk and whatever my origins it is with them that purpose was born out of the darkness.
I have no stomach for the battle. The wild cries of Walkers on the red path echo through the air as they move through the ruins toward the embattled Combine troops. Smoke is the least harmful of the particulates clogging the air; the rebreather clinging to my throat twitches and gurgles as its membranes work to scrub each breath clean. The Combine are less fortunate, no doubt already afflicted by the cloud of pheromones and toxins that float above any marauding Walker war party. The Valtarians have their bright silk and proud heraldry, we have the signature chemistries of our biomantic heritage.
‘We’. The weight of the word almost drags me from my feet. I have chanted fervent slogans with my shipmates on the other side of these battle lines too many times not to feel some sympathy for the beleaguered defenders. The ‘we’ was never considered then, but neither was the ‘I’. Not for the first time I wonder about the trade I have made.
In the distance some over-engineered creation bellows as it crashes through a hastily-welded barricade. Exposed figures stumble away from the wreckage of their shelter. Wings glittering, a volley of buzzing rounds from a Walker hive carbine carves through them before they find fresh cover. I raise my own rifle, centring the scope on one of the Combine forces, his face inhuman with fear as he struggles to drag a comrade out of the line of fire. I track his movement but my finger hesitates on the trigger, unable to find the will to take this last moment from him. It was this unwillingness to choose so completely for others that has led me here. With the thought I am back aboard the Righteous Light of Reason, our holds full of experimental weaponry to be deployed as part of the Firebreak, yet at the crux stepping back from that unjustified act of unconsenting ending. I was not alone, and so came mutiny and falling and flight.
Distracted, I lose my targets, a jumble of steel and rubble hiding them both from whatever fate I held in my hands. I lower the rifle, drained by the combat that rages around me. I am spattered with blood, all that remains of a Warden caught by Combine hi-ex as we approached their drop site. The stench of Walker warfare, all charred bio-carbons and complex chemicals, fills my nostrils even through the rebreather. I have taken no life, nor saved one, and still I am finished with this fight. A tower beckons with an offer of sanctuary and wearily I head toward it.
Even through the haze of my exhaustion I move cautiously as I look for a place to rest, sweeping corners and checking each room with the practised ease that comes from years of combat operations. Just as I am clearing the 4th floor a noise snaps me to full alert, the muzzle of my rifle swinging to cover the last flight of stairs upward. Back to the wall I step slowly, scanning the angles as I close the distance. A hallway, and a door slightly ajar; the source of the sound. I am so focused on assessing the threat that it is only now I realise what I heard; incongruous amongst the sound of battle the final bars of the opening theme to ‘Livin’ like a Valtarian’. I drop my weapon and check the rebreather, suspecting I have been infected by a rogue hallucinogenic agent despite the antigens flooding my bloodstream. It flaps wetly and snuggles closer to my neck, but the seal is still tight and its colouring indicates this area is relatively toxin-free. It does not feel like a Combine trap - such a disorienting psychological ploy would belong more naturally to Opportunity forces. Bringing the rifle back to my shoulder I push the door fully open with the muzzle.
The flickering light of a pirated Holovid 12 broadcast barely illuminates the room. Asleep in a nest of scavenged materials sprawls a lean form, tattoos covering both arms. Mathematical equations via with symbols of a more esoteric nature for space on his skin. He does not look like a Walker, but the tech he is wearing is certainly not Combine. He sleeps on, unaware of the weapon inches from his face. Rage fills me; I find myself wanting to kill him more than I have anyone this day. How dare he idle here, sucking down entertainment broadcasts, relaxed enough to sleep, while others die for their way of life outside his walls? How dare he find rest while lives hang in the balance and are stripped away by unclean hands and lost souls? I stay my hand again. Death is too swift. He must understand. He must learn to feel as I do. I dig the toe of my boot into his ribs and his eyes flick open.
"Who do you fight for?" I ask, my hands flexing involuntarily as they grip my weapon. He considers the question as if it were one he had long wrestled with but come to no conclusion. My rage starts to recede. He seems curious more than afraid, and without a trace of guilt. “Currently? No one,” he replies. The flippancy shocks me. In these endless years of factional warfare, how can he have lived so long without allegiance ? I move my brightly painted face inches from his, suppressed anger turning my voice to a whisper, "those who can fly are at war with those who cannot. If...levitation is not your speciality, might I suggest you fight with us for a time?"
"Sound logic" he replies.
A shout of “for the Combine!” jerks both of our attention to the window. Over the sounds of Obsidian-Queen Hekatia the Flaming Testament to Regal Oppression, Usurper unto the throne of the Heartland, Final Arbiter Before the Gates of Eternal Retribution, Mistress of the Oceans of Poison and She Who Unto the Shadow Realm Shall Deliver all the Mewling Middle Classes, explaining just how many peasants her torture chambers are capable of accommodating, I hear the steady thrum of a Combine dirigible. Rotors cut through the fume-shrouded sky and an entire VolCorp regiment rappels down into the fight. The defenders’ vessel has returned to mount an extraction attempt and it is our turn to be besieged.
My new companion reaches for his battle gear, armour of a strange design and some wrist mounted weapon I cannot discern the function of. I find out soon enough as the first of the bright-eyed VolCorp storm into the lower hallways. The light of unreasoned fanaticism is crushed from them by consciousness-destroying bursts of light laced with corrupt information patterns buried deep in the strobing glare. Limbs collapse as nerves cease firing, then he is among them, a blade appearing in his hand as he carves through the failing, flailing forms of his foes. He kills wildly, with the unrestrained passion of a survivor, free from any notions of morality. It is their end or his, and it is a choice he has never weighed in the balance. The last of their vanguard falls and he shows me a gore soaked grin. The lower floors are his. With my back guarded I return to the vantage point above, ready at last to play my part. Our battle is joined, and having incited such fervour I cannot now shirk from the fray. My scope captures the Combine as they rope in, snatching life from them, one jerk of the trigger at a time.
Screams and a mad laughter bubble up from below as he sows terror and death among any that breach our doors. I find myself firing faster, seeking target after target, competing against I know not what. I begin to laugh too, the absurdity of this bloodlust in contrast to my early reticence apparent even as I am consumed by a need to kill and kill again. We find our rhythm, a symbiosis of destruction forming in the chaos. For the duration of the battle we defend our vantage point at close quarters and long distances. I find myself revelling in the euphoria of combat, aware of the rushing of my own blood as I spill others’ into the hungry earth. This is life of a kind, beyond expectation and strange in its newness to one resigned to an existence without fresh revelation.
Time passes unmarked until their final perimeter is breached. At the last the only movement is a fluttering devotional parchment, stitched to the futile protection of a Combine breastplate, now pierced by the carmine tines of a Walker war machine. The sky goes quiet as the airship pulls out and in the silence I find my companion breathless and blood-soaked, sitting amidst the corpses of those foolish enough to stand against him. I press my forehead to his, gripping his skull tight in my hands. Through the mixed exhalations of our panting breaths I ask him if he lacks a name as well as an allegiance. He replies, “I have called myself C60.” At the time I do not wonder at the strangeness of it.
In the aftermath I am euphoric, able for the first time to revel as a true Walker in the lusts of those still alive. It does not last. In time the clinging burdens of the past return, along with all their doubts and questions. Weeks pass in skirmish after skirmish. I follow C60 into battle, seeking always the release of that first action, and never finding it. We war over the same old ground, vying for control of the few navigable areas at the edge of the Firebreak. His enthusiasm never seems to dull despite the monotony.
Amid the dust and heat our squad overruns a Combine ground position and turns its artillery on the gunships circling overhead, bringing the New Dawn, New Deal to earth in a tangled, sparking heap. The crew do their best, as they always do, but it is not even close to enough. The slaughter is sufficient even for the reddest adherents of the trifold path. I can find no purpose in it, in anything. Darkness falls. Casting to the future I find only endings and so seek my own in a time and place of my choosing.
We made camp within the still smoking wreckage of our latest victim, brought down somewhere near the edge of the Firebreak. Prisoners well enough to walk had been sent north to wade through the destruction in which they were complicit and the wounded left to heal or not as their will decreed.
With sentries at our perimeter and the green smoke of our signal fires billowing we settled into the raucous bartering by which we divided the spoils of war. Walkers would come from miles around by daybreak and with captured artillery scanning the skies we were unlikely to be disturbed. Goods would change hands many times before the sun rose again as deals were struck, bonds forged, and oaths of service sworn and accepted.
By the time the moon mother and her distant twin were high in the sky, my hungers were quenched and my head was dizzy from the short, sharp shock of Combine-moonshine. Reeling away from the frenzied dancing, the absence of Stratos, normally my constant shadow, sent me searching beneath the stars and into the vast interior of the downed skyship.
The dirigible had come to rest with the forward bow crushed upwards against a cliff, a disjointed monument silhouetted against the night sky. Black as pitch and littered with broken bulkheads its corridors were a maze of dead ends and unstable floors and ceilings. It seemed almost a waste to explore an opposing culture in this way, to open a door to a whole new world only after its incineration. Nevertheless, “an enemy defeated is an enemy no longer,” that is the Walker way. I pushed through the bowels of our newest acquisition, intent on finding wherever Stratos had holed up.
After what seemed like hours I came upon a doorway, all but hidden behind dislodged debris, that lead outside to a service gangway. From my new found vantage point I admired the scene below; firelight danced over the seething mass of Walker festivities and the night was full of the sounds of pleasure. I paused for a moment to inhale the heady mix of intoxicants wafting up through the warm air, pungent enough that had I they not been familiar I might have reached for my rebreather. Refreshed I turned inwards, struck by a sudden revelation of where I Stratos’ ego would have taken him to chew on his sorrows. I began to make my way towards the ship’s bridge, moving less urgently now I knew my destination. As always I scanned the detritus for signs of technologies reminiscent of those found in Ascension, but what had survived the crash was all brass and red leather, not the clean white ceramics of the only place I remember.
Collapsed corridors forced me to double back more than once but still it wasn’t long before I was scrambling feet first through the shattered glass of the forward view port. I landed face to face with a cloaked and hooded figure, reclining in the command chair, his hands resting on a rifle across his lap.
“What was it?” he whispered, the cold night air turning his breath to steam “that your revelries could not provide, I wonder?” He removed the fabric from around his face, locking his cold blue eyes with mine. “Can the pleasures of flesh and the anthems of victory not hold your interest for a single passing of the moon?”
“Going at it, bare assed in the moonlight is liberating to be sure. I would hate for you to be absent during such a spectacle.” I replied. “Why are you sulking up here while your brothers and sisters throw life’s pain to the four winds? Too wild for you? Are you missing the structure of the Combine after all.”
“The Combine?” Rage and something more twisted his voice and face. Movement in the darkness as his rifle lifted towards me. In a heartbeat I was looking at him over my pistol. “So eager to end it Stratos? Are these bullets a cure?” I asked softly.
At this he laughed, a hollow sound that did not relax his grimace, and lowered his weapon. “By all means! If it is the joy of life you seek, do not allow my continued existence to stand in your way.”
He drew a flask from within his robes, knocking back several great gulps before offering it to me. “However, if you would keep me alive then best know what manner of man you seek another sunrise for.”
I necked the remaining liquid in the flask before responding, enjoying the immediate rush of the potent spirits. “I would settle for just one sunrise without you lamenting the choices you recall so clearly”
“And I for one without you lamenting the ones you don't” he replied, a savage grin giving me little clue as to how serious he was being. I decided I was in no mood for whatever game he was playing. I wanted the stars and warm bodies, not this tomb of his past. I placed the empty flask on the edge of the chair and turned to leave “You are out of moonshine but I think there might be more downstairs…”
I began to make my way towards the shattered windscreen once more, preparing for the descent back to the party’s heart.
“And yet I am not without means of sedation” came his voice from behind me. He had made no move to follow and in his hand he held a small case with the lid open to reveal a miniature sensor array. “In the Combine we called this the Final Glory.” His expression was again serious, eyes fixated on the object, “activated by a phrase unique to each Comrade it has given rise to the expression, “by the light of the Combine fallen.”
“Why not just call it The Bomb?” I muttered, pausing halfway out of the window, realising I wouldn't be leaving in the near future.
“Come sunrise it is yours C60, until then perhaps you would care to stay a while. For now I seem to have forgotten the phrase but if left alone I may be quick to remember.” I had seen the Final Glory in action only days before, and for the Walkers it had instead given rise to the less grandiose phrase, “famous last words.” I had heard Comrades with their dying breath utter a signature phrase, invariably some bombastic variant on ‘For the Combine!’, before detonating in a fireball of white phosphorus. More than one reckless Walker assault had been consumed in that same blast.
“If alone a Comrade dies, shoot ‘em right between the eyes” I replied. Stratos smiled dryly, “if leave you must, that might be wise.”
I drew back from the windscreen and sat cross legged on the shattered remnants of a dial-strewn panel. “And miss the opportunity to celebrate in such an exciting way with you in the future? I think not.”
His response was clear and distinct, yet he spoke through gritted teeth. “I am tired C60. That is the truth of it. Tired of the doubts and questions. For years I lived a breathed Consensus. From the beginning we are instructed that the freedom we manufacture is right for all; that every facet of every culture from the Frozen Waste to the Poisoned Ocean not only yearns for assimilation but would be improved by it. The words of our instructors ring as clear as the engines at our backs and their mantra is the narration when we dream. They teach that consent is surely given when able, and assumed when not, even as the RevCorp pack their re-education chambers with volunteers that are anything but. And yet what is this war, this Firebreak Ground Zero, but the result of their inability to implement what they have preached for generations? If there truly was hope in the great work why have we given up so completely? There is no education and production here. There is certainly no unity and those with liberty have chosen overwhelmingly to fight back. The Firebreak is an admission of failure, nothing more.
“Yet I have found no truth among the Walkers either. You who only slaughter your assailants will never know the all-encompassing remorse of a man who, without Consensus, finds only a legacy of detestable naiveté. There is no place for me in the world. This will not be a Final Glory but an escape from the truth; to utter the simple words and be thrown from the wheel of existence, gone as a prayer in the sandstorm. What better place than the heart of a Combine war machine for my story to end? What better time than now?”
His face was bleak, his eyes wet and his posture slumped. A lifetime of living a falsehood followed by tormented months of realisation had taken its toll. I moved in closer, taking his hands in mine and sliding the box from his grasp. In his ear I whispered “a thrilling narrative to be sure” and flung it through the gaping aperture behind me into the night sky. “Now here is one for you” I continued, “there once was a good soldier who obeyed every command and did his duty, including dying when he felt he had no more purpose. But once he realized that there was no glory in death, only failure, he got off his sweet ass and, get this, he just left the war zone that was the source of all his misery and started walking.”
It wasn’t the response he was expecting but I had his attention and he hadn’t killed me so I continued. “You complain there is no place for you, but you have never stepped out from under the shadow of the Combine and their fucking boats with wings. The Firebreak is not the world. I have heard that 20 million people have carved out an existence on a volcanic island surrounded by the sea. I have heard that the skyscrapers ascend into the clouds and deep into the ground below. I have heard the drinks are cold as the ocean waves and the woman are as hot as volcanic bedrock. The men too if that is your thing. Have you ever seen Chain Dog in action? I heard the skies are filled with neon colour and the streets with more distraction and entertainment than a man could swallow and store, love and abhore in a lifetime. I hear in New Opportunity you can find just that.”
I pause for a moment to reflect before continuing. “You say you can’t be a Walker but here you sit, unmoving and unwilling to see through anything other than the narrow aperture the Combine left you with. Being a Walker just means making your life your own. There are a million different versions of Stratos waiting out there, each one a better representation of you than this miserable shell and I am ready to leave when you are.”
The idea had flooded over me all at once but I became aware in that moment that I too had grown impatient with the pace of life out here along the edge of the Firebreak. It was not here that I would find the meaning of Ascension. I hoped Stratos would come with me but I would leave without him if not. For long seconds I feared my words had not reached him. Then his postured shifted subtly, both a relaxing and a tightening, a summoning of purpose. Slowly he climbed to his feet and moved passed me out onto the New Dawn’s hull, muttering something about “too much holovision.”