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Title: It's a Lonely World Author:Matthew Simmons

Bob sat in the cold, lonely confines of the ventilation shaft, and shivered. He'd been sitting there for four hours, freezing to death, but too afraid to move for fear of the things finding him. The shafts were wet, and hard, and cold, but the aliens almost never looked there, so it was safer than braving the thing-infested corridors. He'd been crawling around these shafts for at least a few days, but Bob couldn't be sure. The cold and the fear blurred his sense of time, making minutes seem like hours. But he still remembers why he was crawling, why he was hiding.

Bob had been, before they came, a life support technician. It was a boring job, just watching the power percentage flick between 99.5% and 99.9%, and occasionally pressing a button when it went too low, but he had been happy. The pay was decent, and they had been so close to Tau Ceti, where he could spend all his hard-earned cash. But fate had had other plans for Bob and his ship, the USEC Marathon.

One day, when Bob was on duty, watching the numbers flicker, and pondering why the coffee machine only worked every other day, when everything had gone wrong. First, the systems crashed. All of them. The computers flashed and blinked incoherently, printing out strings of nonsense numbers and letters. No matter what they tried to do, the computers wouldn't work. Even the A.I's disappeared, their terminals displaying rubbish.

Then came the explosions and gunfire. At first, the sounds had been far away, echoing though the halls, half-light with broken lights. But the sounds quickly came closer, and closer, until they sounded like they were right next to them. Bob had seen the danger then, and realized how he should flee. But his friends had just stood there, too shocked by the sudden breakup of their perfect world to think, or run. So Bob had left them, burst out the service door, down the stairs, and away. And behind him, Bob could hear the screams of his friends as they were cut down like so much chaff.

Bob had just kept running through the empty corridors then, trying to run away but not knowing where he could run to. Then, after a narrow escape from the hands of a group of implacable, staff-wielding aliens, it had occurred to Bob to hide in the ventilation shafts, and so here he was. Trying to fall asleep to the far-off screams of the dying and the mournful warbling of the things.

Suddenly, a noise started Bob from his icy reverie. The sound of heavy, booted steps. That was odd. Bob hadn't heard that sound in... Well, ever. He was well aquatinted with the soft pitter-patter of the staff bearers, the sharp flitting of the wasp-like things, the heavy clanking and crunching of the armored aliens, and the haunting murmur of the cloaked things, but not this sound. It sounded almost like... Human feet.

Bob hurriedly, but carefully, rolled over to look out the nearest ventilation grill, making sure not to make a noise. The first thing he noticed was the group of four aliens, three staff bearers and something else, standing in the middle of the room, looking around nervously, as if they were expecting something. Bob held his breath in expectation of them turning and moving towards him, but they seemed too preoccupied. In the distance, the sound of feet continued to get louder.

The room Bob was looking out into was an old storage room, long since emptied by the things. The gray walls, lit intermittently by the flickering lights, betrayed spatters of human blood and alien ichor. On he far side of the room, opposite Bob's position, there was an open door leading into darkness. To the right, there was another door, closed. Its surface was pitted with age and use, the USEC logo all but faded.

With a hiss, the door to the right slid opened sluggishly, to reveal another blank, darkened maze of corridors. The aliens spun around quickly, their weapons raised high, but there was nothing there. Even the sound of feet was gone, and an eerie silence prevailed over the room. But nothing came, and there was still silence. The things seemed to almost relax, slowly lowering their weapons.

Then, a single gunshot broke through the vacuous silence, echoing through the room and down the darkened halls. With almost beautiful grace, the corpse of a staff bearer flew into the room, and then crashed down with an undignified splatter, to land at the feet of the unknown alien. This one's head was covered in a strange, bulbous helmet, and it carried an odd, long-barreled gun, which covered half its left arm. Its eyes glowed a baleful red under the semitransparent material. It looked down at the jangled corpse disdainfully for a moment, then waved its gun-covered arm and made a chittering sound. The staff bearers just lolled their heads, then spread out around the room, forming a tight circle facing the door.

Right on cue, a figure stepped out of the shadows behind the door, into the wavering light. Dressed in some sort of gray bodysuit, the figure was unlike anything Bob had seen before. Over it's head, there was a rounded helmet, with a shimmering reflective visor. Bob was momentarily confused, until he saw the figure's dark blue, cracked breastplate. Stenciled on it, in bright, friendly letters, were the letters: UESC. A security officer! Bob had only seen one of those before, at the launch of the Marathon. They weren't really needed most of the time, because the AI s normally settled any disputes. But perhaps the officer could save him here?

The officer was holding two unwieldy pistols pointed steadily at the two closest staff bearers. There was a tense standoff, as neither the things nor the officer seemed to want to open fire first. So they stood there, facing each other, the aliens shivering in anticipation, and the officer leveling his guns carefully, slowly sweeping his gaze across the foes arrayed before him. Then, with almost poetic timing, the officer's fingers closed down on the trigger, and only a loud, empty 'click' responded.

The things seemed almost shocked by this. They just stood there, their weapons raised to strike, unmoving. The officer, however, was not so stunned. With an imperceptible shrug of his or her shoulders, it twirled its pistols expertly back into their holsters at its side. Then, without a moment's hesitation, the officer flung himself headfirst at the nearest staff bearer. His timing was perfect, for just as the officer through himself towards the staff bearer, the leader alien opened fire with it's odd gun. Bullets sprayed the empty space where the officer had just been, while he hurtled with deadly accuracy towards the staff bearer. With a sickening crunch, the officer crash-tackled the staff bearer to the ground. The officer didn't stop to admire his kill, however, and paused only momentarily scoop up the fallen alien's staff, before spinning onwards towards the closest staff bearer, standing next to the commanding thing.

With almost a graceful pirouette, the officer spun around and struck the alien with the bulbous end of the staff. The crystalline mass on the end shattered with a flash of light, and the staff bearer slid to the ground with a gurgling sigh. Then, his task finished for the moment, the officer dropped the stick, and drew himself to face the remaining three things.

They did not hesitate, unlike their comrades. With a few quick slashes of their weapons, the staff bearers sent a flurry of crackling energy towards the officer. The commanding alien added to their fire with a few shots of his own, high, floating metallic projectiles. Bob winced. The officer had done well, so far, better than any other he'd seen had. But now the officer had no chance. He was going to be mowed down, like all the rest.

The officer just stood there, for what seemed like an age, just studying the swell of death rushing towards him. Then, seemingly having made up his mind, and leaped. He leaped forward, into the path of the incoming tide of energy. Bob struggled not to look away. This was going to end quite ugly. Perhaps the officer had decided that he had no chance, and wanted to kill himself to spare the agony. In any case, there was no way he was going to live. His fate was decided.

Then, with an almost agonizing accuracy, the officer slid beneath the ripple of destruction, and broke into a clean, familiar roll. The wave harmlessly impacted into the wall behind him, sending showers of sparks in every direction. The officer just ignored this, and threw himself upright in front of the outwardly astonished commanding alien. Then, his momentum still carrying him forward, he smashed his fist straight through the thing's ribcage. It's chest exploded in a gout of yellow ichor, but the officer just continued all the way through, pounding his way through the ruined breast of the alien, until his fist was all the way out it's back, dripping alien blood. Then, he let his arm fall down, and the alien just collapsed into a bloody heap on the ground, it's glowing eyes fading away to death.

The two staff bearers did not wait, like their commander, and rushed forwards towards the officer, their staves held high. But the officer was ready for them, and merely stepped out of the way, then brought his hands down together on the thing to his right's fragile neck. His hands sheared through the delicate flesh, killing it instantly. It's companion, unaware of its comrade's fate, slammed face-first into the staff bearer's corpse. Then, without hesitation, the officer smashed his fist into its face, and it dropped like a stone.

Bob let out his breath, almost explosively. Who is the officer? No one he's ever seen has ever stood up to the things, let alone thoroughly routed them like that. Everyone has run, or been cut down. But this...person had taken care of them, with ease. Perhaps this was the savoir Bob has been looking for. Bob was about to kick open the grate, and run to the officer and thank them profusely, when the creature that haunted both his waking and sleeping life stepped into the room.

Towering above the officer, like a monstrous angel of death, the thing was covered from head to toe in nightmarish chitinous body armour, pockmarked with the scars of a million battles. It's clawed hands glittered in the pulsing light, sticky with human blood. Bob had seen these things before, many times. Every time someone tried to stand up to the aliens, these things would come, and there would be no more resistance. The colossal alien regarded the officer with something like disdain, staring down at the pitiful human. The officer seemed to have not noticed it's entrance, and just continued to survey the carnage he had wrought, and wipe the ichor from his arms.

Then, with deliberate calm, the officer turned slowly around to face the creature. He regarded its immensity with a slow grin, as if there was anything to be amused about. Then, with one swift movement, the punched the thing in the chest. His fist rebounded with a solid 'clang', bouncing off the impenetrable armour. Bob shook his head. He knew it would take more than that to affect these things. He had seen people empty rounds and rounds into the alien beasts and be met with nothing but implacable determination.

The creature glanced with apparent amusement at the officer's effort, then, quicker than Bob could follow, brought its gauntlet-covered fist up and backhanded the officer with terrific force. The officer was lifted clear off the ground, flying back into the wall on the other side of the room. As he flew backwards, Bob caught a faint shimmer of red around the officer's body. He's got personal shielding, Bob thought. How very interesting. With a casual flip, the officer hurled himself upright, and glared at the alien across the room.

The beast, apparently nonplussed by its foe's resilience, slowly began to advance towards the officer. The strange lump on it's shoulder gleamed with a sickly green light for a moment, then spewed out a hail of green death towards the officer. Without so much as a flinch, the officer merely jumped neatly out of the way of the projectiles, letting them smash uselessly into the wall.

The monster, seemingly annoyed by it's opponent's deft footwork, broke into a run towards the officer. The officer just stood there, confidently watching the alien advance towards him, it's claws raised in anticipation. Why doesn't he get out of the way, Bob thought? The thing will tear him to shreds, even with personal shielding. But still, the officer just stood there, watching the beast run inexorably towards him.

The creature took a wide swing at the officer; it's glinting claws whistling through the still air. The officer, with the careless ease of a hundred hours of practice, just grabbed the thing's armoured arm, pulling himself towards the creature. Then, with a precise motion, the officer lashed out his leg into the beast's underbelly. There was a sickening snap, as the foot made contact with the armour, and cracks started to open up along the plate. The alien looked down as grey blood started to leak through the cracks, and flung it's head back in an unearthly howl of pain.

The officer gave no pause, and whipped out his hand in a knife shape into the thing's exposed neck, crunching through the weak plating and cutting into the flesh beneath. The monster sagged to its knees, it's ferocity faded, making gagging noises. With a solid kick, the officer snapped the alien's head back. Then it flopped to the ground with a hollow clank, blood leaking out from underneath its corpse.

Bob didn't waste any time, with a few tired kicks, he dislodged the ventilation grille and clambered excitedly out. This was his savoir indeed! Perhaps now he could stop living in fear, cowering in the ventilation ducts, and take the fight to the aliens. His mind rang with images of him and the officer, side by side, cleaning up the Marathon, driving them back. But, in his ecstatic joy, Bob didn't notice the officer cautiously pulling a large, bulky gun from his back and sliding in a clip. Halfway through his joyful run, Bob's world exploded in agony. His arm sent him into a spiral of pain and suffering, and Bob's vision momentarily clouded with red. Bob screamed a scream of suffering and disbelief. When the pain began to fade, he looked down at his arm and saw that it had been ripped to shreds, a pulpy, red, useless mess. Tears streaming down his cheeks, blurring his vision, he looked in doubt at the officer.

The officer just stood there, it's gun smoking, looking dispassionately at the shredded mess of Bob's arm. The officer seemed more interested in the blood dripping from his arm than Bob's pain. Then, when it decided that whatever cruel purpose it had in mind was achieved, it turned to go, leaving Bob behind clutching his broken, purposeless arm.

Gritting his teeth as washes of pain ravaged his senses, Bob hauled himself in between the doorway and the officer. Staring up through tear-blinded eyes, Bob tried to plead with the officer, begging it to help him, pleading for some mercy. But the officer just stood there, deaf to his cries, watching him with a grimace of impatience. Bob, cried, he screamed. He pleaded. But the officer just kept standing there, tapping it's foot, and waving his bulky gun side to side.

Bob never felt the forty rounds of high-calibre ammunition smash through his thin and parched frame, tearing apart his body. It was just a brief flash of light, and then he was curled on the floor, lying in a deep pool of his own, warm, sticky blood. The agony seemed all the same now, just an eternal wash of unstoppable pain. Bob raised his head up, struggling to take his breath, and said one thing.


"Why?"

The officer looked down on the near-dead Bob, just another in a long string of them, and smiled viciously. "Because you were in the way." And then it stepped over Bob's corpse, just another stumbling block in the quest for justice.

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