The four dark clad figures made their way down the metallic ladder, descending into the gloom beneath the bustling city. Each wore a suite of what appeared, to the untrained eye, to be bike leathers with additional armoured plates. The black helmets with their tinted visors added to the illusion. In truth, the suits were far more than bike leathers. The complex telemetry circuits built into them allowed any one of the four to monitor the vital signs of any team member and, if they so wished, to display it on the Heads Up Display or HUD hidden in their helmets. The auto medics built in to the armour would respond to injuries instantly, giving its user the greatest possible chance of survival. The life of every one of the four-person team had been saved more than once by their automedic.
The technology was years ahead of anything the indigenous sentients of this planet had but every one of the several hundred Entropy Stalkers currently deployed on Earth were equipped with it.
The huge frame of Regan was the first to reach the bottom. The Heracles gene line were the largest and strongest of the Entropy Stalkers, built primarily for close quarters combat. Stepping off the ladder Regan ordered his helmet to display infra red as well as visual spectrum light. A half dozen heat signatures showed up on his Heads Up Display almost instantly but they were no threat. Each was just a few inches in length.
"Rats." He said over the helmet's com-link as he activated the stun-nux attached to his suit's glove. A faint electric blue haze sprang into life around his fist.
"P.E.M them, just to be sure." Ezurea's voice came back at him. The Cassandra class stalker was still working her way down the ladder. It was due to her advanced psychic abilities, a feature of the Cassandra gene line, that they had tracked their quarry to the tunnels in the first place. Now her precognition seemed uncommonly silent and it was making her a little paranoid.
Still, Regan pulled his Psychic Emanations Meter from his belt and scanned the rodents.
"They are reading an entropy level of three, and I've got a background reading of four as well". The Entropy levels were still within safe parameters, reality didn't tend to buckle noticeably till they hit around 10 or so. Left to its own devices reality would dissipate such a low entropy level and repair itself without a stalker having to repair it. Something must have caused the raised level though, it didn't happen on its own, and as long as that something was still in the area then the level would keep climbing faster than reality could repair itself. That's where the Entropy Stalkers came in. Organised into 'Reality Repair' teams it was their job to keep reality working the way it should do, and to eliminate the cause when it began to break down. That cause was the creature they had been hunting for over a year now and if Ezurea's premonitions were accurate, and they usually were, it was somewhere in these tunnels.
"Well, if it isn't here now, it has been!" Esharn said as he reached the ground and stepped off the ladder. He drew his variable cartridge pistol from its holster and switched on its attached flash-light.
Startled, the rats scurried away from the sudden illumination.
“You getting anything yet Ez?” Regan asked into his com-link.
“No premonitions, but my sixth sense is going crazy!” the Cassandra line entropy stalker answered, “We should proceed with extreme caution!”
“Same here!” Lillith confirmed. As an Orion gene line she was naturally highly perceptive, but in her case that natural perceptiveness was enhanced with a few psychic abilities of her own. She wasn't as powerful a psychic as Ezurea but was the teams second most powerful psychic. Of the four, only Regan was completely lacking in psychic abilities.
“You want to split into two search teams? Have Ez go with Esharn and Lillith come with me?” Regan asked.
“NO!” Lillith and Ezurea answered together and forcefully. At the very suggestion of it they had both felt a spike in their anxiety which they had come to recognise as their sixth sense warning them against a dangerous course of action.
No one questioned it, instead they waited for Ezurea to pick a direction. They had entered an abandoned section of the tunnels, but from their research they knew that there was an extensive subterranean network of steam tunnels, power and water access conduits and forgotten sub basements down here. Drawing her own pistol Ezurea pointed down a narrow, dark tunnel. Pipes of various sizes ran down one wall, connected to it by rusting brackets that had long been neglected. In the distance was the faint glow of a dim electric light, still connected to the power.
Esharn took the lead now, his enhanced reaction times and the incredible agility common to his Hermes gene line made him an ideal point man, although he and Regan often took turns. On this occasion Regan fell in behind him, checking his Psychic Emanation's Meter as they went. The P.E.M was set to passive Entropy, allowing Regan to monitor any increase in the background entropy level, but it had several other settings. Lilith's was set for active Entropy detection, and now and then she would check a shadow or strange looking device mounted to the wall with the pipes to be sure they weren't actively bleeding Entropy in to the world. Occasionally inanimate objects could become so heavily infected with the uncontrolled psychic energy that they would... change. The Entropy stalkers called these infected things 'Entropy Artifacts' and would always seek to dissipate their entropy and return them to normal wherever they found them. Left unchecked these artifacts could become dangerous and could begin to warp the reality around them just like the creature that the team was hunting now.
The heavy iron gate blocked the passageway. Beyond it light could be seen from a row of bare bulbs and the walls were cleaner, lacking in the graffiti that was daubed upon many of the tunnels they had negotiated so far. Regan wondered briefly what it was about the application of paint on walls in colourful combinations that effected humans so. Graffiti in particular puzzled him. On the whole, humans seemed to like the idea of art and colour but when it came to this urbanized almost free form art, they seemed split on the matter. Some saw artistic merit in it, others dismissed it as wanton vandalism. He wasn't sure how it differed from the rest of their art, or what art was really for, come to that.
Regan's musings were interrupted by Esharn who knelt by the gate, producing a small black folded bundle as he did. He laid the bundle on the ground and unravelled it, selecting two of the lock picks from within he got to work. Almost instantly one of the picks snapped in the lock.
Muttering a soft curse he selected a replacement pick. It broke just as quickly.
“What are the chances of that?” Regan asked pointedly. They all knew what strange coincidences could mean.
Determinedly Esharn tried once more, and again the selected pick broke.
“I don't think it's going to let us pick this lock,” he said, drawing his pistol again the levelled it at the gates lock and fired.
Even with it's suppressor active the report from the pistol seemed loud in the tunnels confines. It echoed repeatedly as the sound bounced off first one wall and then another. The lock separated.
With a hefty kick, Regan burst through the damaged gate,
“After you,” he waved Esharn on with a flourish.
“How long would you say we spent getting through that gate?” Lillith asked, a concerned note audible in her tone.
“Couple of minutes at the most, why?” Regan asked.
“Check your chronometer,” she answered back.
He did, it read 20:28 local time.
“I logged the reading when we reached the gate, it read 20:08. We've lost about quarter of an hour!”
Time dilation. Regan checked his P.E.M, the reading was up again from the last time he had checked. He warned the others, and together they moved cautiously down the passageway.
The passage opened into a small chamber, a dim, naked bulb hung from the ceiling, a dead insect of some form adhered to the side of it, a tiny reminder of the universal presence of death.
Pipes ran through the room, some emerging from the same corridor the Entropy Stalkers had followed to get here, while others descended through the chambers ceiling or ascended through its floor to join the tangled knot of conduits.
“Entropy Level is 12 here.” Regan read from his PEM.
As if in answer to his utterance a nearby pipe groaned and then burst, spewing steam across the room. With feline grace, Esharn sprang backwards and out of danger, his heightened reflexes saving him from an impromptu steam-cleaning.
“These coincidences are getting more frequent and more dangerous,” he grumbled.
“You okay?” Ezurea asked. Esharn nodded in answer.
Ducking under the gout of steam the team moved to the far side of the room. A short flight of concrete steps lead to a large metal door, stained now with patches of rust where its dark green paint had begun to peel. In addition to the door there was a tunnel leading off from another wall, it was down the tunnel that the pipes and conduits went. A dim red glow lit the tunnel from the distance.
“Which way?” Esharn asked, “Door or tunnel?”
As if in answer Ezurea removed her helmet so its psychic damper wouldn't interfere with what she was about to do. Her eyes seemed to roll back in her head as her mind reached out into the aether, probing for a vision that might help them choose their direction.
An image began to form in her mind, it was hazy at first but as she bent her will to the task of controlling it the image began to grow more clear. The scene was dark and poorly lit by a ruddy glow. Terror and confusion swam through her consciousness although she didn't so much feel it as understand that it was being shown to her. She had the sensation of tasting blood, coppery and thick. Flashes of light lit the scene as someone discharged their pistol. A dark form, chitinous and alien, slashing with razor sharp claws. There was a body on the ground, an Entropy Stalker. Blood pooling around it, but who it was and whether they were dead or wounded she couldn't say. The vision was a scene of chaos, a frantic melee in which another stalker – Regan she thought, swung a fist crackling with blue energy from the active stun-nux. She pulled her mind back before the flood of images and sensations could overwhelm her. The vision began to fade.
“That way,” she pointed up the passageway with her pistol, “I saw us fighting the Chimera in a dark tunnel, lit red,”
Nodding, Esharn began to lead the way,
“There's more,” Ezurea warned, “One of us was down, I couldn't tell if they were wounded or...” she left the sentence hanging. A shiver ran up every spine, but the four Entropy Stalkers pressed on to meet their fate.
“You guys seeing this?” Esharn asked, shining his flashlight at an expanse of previously empty wall. There, daubed upon it in bright colours were the words,
As they watched, the words began to melt away as if they were made from ice on a hot stove, but even as they dissolved, new words began to form in their place.
“Ee El is 21 here,” Regan put in, “and I'm getting an active reading of 2 higher off the graffiti,”
“We are getting close then,” Lillith mused, although they didn't need to be told. With the readings as high as they were the beast must be nearby.
The tunnel seemed to be growing warmer as the team pushed on. The dim red lighting cast eerie shadows and set the nerves on edge. Regan had been reading off the entropy level readings from his P.E.M at regular intervals and it had been steadily climbing, one point at a time. Behind him, Lillith had her own psychic emanations meter set to detect active, rather than passive, entropy. It should detect any sudden spikes and help warn them of an impending event.
It spiked. Jumping 3 levels in an instant.
On the wall above them one of the red bulbs began to buzz and flicker inside it's metal wire cage. At the same moment the teams flashlight's all went out at once.
'Switch helmets to night vision,' Ezurea's voice seemed to swim into their consciousness without passing through their ears. She had chosen to send the suggestion Telepathically, allowing her to remain silent. Without a word the team switched their helmet's views over and the dark tunnel seemed to turn green in front of their eyes. Only Regan chose to eschew the night vision option, choosing instead to leave his set to infra-red.
'Anyone got anything?' Ezurea asked telepathically. Of the others, only Lilith was a telepath but so long as Ezurea was mentally linked to the team, she could sense their thoughts, hear their answers in her head.
'Nothing yet,' Esharn thought.
'Fear! Rage! I feel fear and anger, I don't think it's coming from us, at least not all of it,' As an empath, Lilith was susceptible to the emotions of others, but sometimes her power could be a little imprecise.
“Esharn! It's heading right for you!” Regan's warning entered Ezurea's mind seconds before she heard him yell it out loud. Confusion gripped her, the passage was clear.
Esharn seemed no less bemused than Ezurea as he panned his weapon left and right,
“I don't see any...” his protestation was cut short by a pained scream as he was flung backwards into Regan. Pain ripped through him from his side as he collapsed to the ground in a pool of his own blood. Several jagged slashes appeared in his armour from his hip to just under his ribs as his vision began to swim.
AUTOMEDIC ACTIVATION: Laceration detected, right lower torso. Capillary bleeding detected. Epidermis, sub-dermis and subcutaneous tissue damage detected. No vital organ damage. Deploying clotting agents, pain killers...
The message from Esharn's auto-medic flashed up on the team's Heads Up Display, new lines advising of the other measures taken by the device appeared as the upper lines began to disappear off the top of the scrolling readout.
Regan dropped his P.E.M and drew the serrated combat knife from its sheath at his side, with his left hand, with his right hand he lashed out with his fist, the stun-nux lit up with a bright blue flash as the blow connected with something the others couldn't see. Electric blue flashes began to outline something, an inhuman, gnarled arm with wicked claws where the creature had blocked Esharn's attack on its own forearm, triggering the electric jolt of the stun-nux.
“The damn things invisible!” Ezurea warned the others telepathically. As she switched to the infra red setting on her helmets view finder, the shape of the Chimera appeared on her H.U.D.
The creature, unlike it's mythological name sake, was bipedal with a long, dangerously barbed tale. It's spindly limbs ended in wicked claws that showed up only faintly in the infra-red spectrum, but she knew they were there. The bulbous head seemed monstrously misshapen and bore some resemblance to a terrestrial mushroom of immense proportions. Although she couldn't see the features clearly in the infra-red she knew the mouth was filled with wickedly sharp teeth and three eyes peered out of its alien head. Its whole body was covered in articulated chitinous layers that provided the creature with some protection, akin to the entropy stalkers own armour and which reduced the monsters IR signature, but not enough to hide it from the helmets powerful sensors.
The monster slammed a fist into Regan's chest, eliciting a sharp exhalation of breath that Ezurea could hear over her communication's link. A less sturdy man would certainly have been felled by the blow, but between his armour and the increased physical size and muscle of the Heracles gene line, Regan was just winded. The huge man slashed at the beast with his knife, the blade skittered across its thorax, striking sparks off its chitinous coating but doing no harm.
The passageway lit up with the muzzle flash from Lillith's cartridge pistol as she fired twice. One of the bullets went wide of the mark, despite the close range but the other found struck the chimera's shoulder. Ichor sprayed from the wound as the round punched through the chitin and into the flesh beneath, but there was little of it. The round hadn't hit a major blood vessel.
The creature screamed in a mixture and rage, fear and pain as it lashed out with its barbed tail, catching Lillith in the arm and knocking her pistol from her enervated fingers.
Her auto-medic responded instantly.
AUTOMEDIC ACTIVATION: Fracture detected, right wrist...
Ezurea ignored the rest of the scrolling text as she discharged her own pistol –or tried to. Nothing happened. She released the trigger and squeezed it again. Noting. Cursing under her breath she guessed that in its fear and pain the chimera had emitted another pulse of uncontrolled psychic energy, entropy as they called it, and that it had somehow stopped her weapon from discharging.
She watched helplessly as the creature lunged for Lilith, shouldering Regan out of the way as it went. The large man was slammed against the wall, knocking the breath from his body for a second time. He slashed wildly with his knife but again it found no chink in the chimera's armoured hide. Swinging his right fist he caught it a glancing blow on its hip as it passed him and as he began to slide down the wall. If the blow effected it at all, it didn't show. The blue electrical light crackled about it for a moment but didn't stop it. The charge was usually enough to stun a man or many of the native animals, but a chimera was a far more difficult beast to bring down.
Ezurea's eyes widened in horror as the creature grabbed Lillith's head in both hands and began to twist it violently. Uncertain what else to do the Cassandra class stalker hurled her useless pistol at the monster just as it wrenched at Lillith's head. A dark orb came away in the monster's claws. Ezurea gagged for an instant before realizing that Lilltih was okay; it wasn't her head but her helmet the monster had torn away. In the struggle Lillith had managed to find the foresight to release the helmet and with it the monsters grip upon her.
Someone else fired, a short, three round burst. Ichor splashed across Ezurea from where the monsters thigh was punctured and she was vaguely aware of a pain in her own leg as if she had been hit with something heavy.
AUTOMEDIC ACTIVATION: Gunshot wound detected, compound fracture of right femur detected...
As the rest of the report scrolled past her vision Ezurea vaguely wondered who had been shot before the shocked realisation came to her that the Automedic report was coming from her own device.
From his position on the floor Esharn had discharged his weapon at the chimera but one of the rounds had struck her. Whether he had missed, or it had ricocheted off the creatures chitinous hide, she couldn't tell. Her leg buckled, and she collapsed.
The chimera seemed to look uncertainly at the helmet in its claws for a moment as Lillith kicked out at it with both feet. Despite her best efforts the blow seemed to have no effect beyond gaining the creatures attention. Hurling the helmet aside it snarled at her and in that moment she realised she could see it. Whatever effect had made it invisible before seemed to have failed it now.
At the very moment she realised this Regan launched himself from his seated position and collided heavily with the creature. His fist slammed into the top of its head, There was familiar blue flash of the stun-nux discharging and the creature seemed to sag, staggering slightly. At last the repeated blows seemed to be taking their toll upon the monster.
It lashed out with it's tail, narrowly missing Regan who was now clinging to it's back like some cowboy riding a bronco in the rodeo. He slammed his knife upwards, and this time found a gap in the overlooking plates of the creatures tough exoskeleton. It shrieked as more ichor spilled down over Regan's gloved hand.
Looking around desperately, Ezurea spotted the variable cartridge pistol that Lillith had dropped when the creature broke her wrist. Grabbing it she brought the weapon up, aiming carefully she waited until she was certain she wouldn't hit Regan, then she fired a single round.
The round hit the creature in its abdomen and it fell, crashing into Lilith it knocked her to the ground, pinning her beneath its considerable weight.
Finally, drawing his own firearm, Regan straddled the stricken creature and put two rounds into it. As the creature jerked spasmodically Lillith screamed,
For an instant the world seemed to stand still as both Regan and Ezurea feared that his last two shots must have hit their colleague as well, but the Automedic gave no report. Lillith was unharmed.
As the chimera died Lillith's mind was overwhelmed by a rush of emotions. Her empathic nature opened her to the creatures dying thoughts and as it did, she wept.
From the moment that they had emerged from the clone vats the Entropy Stalkers had been taught that the beasts they would hunt were terrible monsters. Their very presence warped reality and they were savage, merciless hunters. That might have been true, but in it's dying moments the creature's mind touched hers and she felt what it felt.
Not a savagery, not a merciless evil. Fear. Fear and pain and a deep confusion. Why did these things in black hate it so? Why had they hunted it across half a continent? Why? They weren't hunting it for food, some part of it's animal mind seemed to know that but it didn't know why they did hunt it. All it knew was fear. Fear of the creatures in black that had hunted it for most of it's life. Fear of the strange things that happened wherever it went. The very entropy it bled off into the world without knowing it, that warped reality, frightened it more than they had ever realised. All it had ever wanted was to be safe and to live.
Even as the rest of her team began to tend to each others injuries Lillith began to understand that it wasn't the chimera that was the monster.