"I was browsing around…mmhmm, my apartment complex and I found this Bistro. That fat little man had fixed it up all nice and pretty, but took out all the booze. Fourjaws must not want his soldiers to get drunk before duty. He missed one, though. I found it under one of the floortiles, secret stash for the owner. A bottle of…ah, Arcadia Merlot. My little secret. I think I'll save it for a special occasion."
Link needed to sit down. Once they had returned to base, Casey and Aven had gone straight to their respective quarters, a weariness in their footsteps. Link couldn't blame them. The fight with that monster had been exhausting. And the fact that he had callously slaughtered hundreds just to get at them…
Arbiter had told him what happened at Bowerstone. The loss of Rtas clearly weighed heavily on the commander's mind, and Link couldn't help but feel the same. He hadn't really known Rtas, but he was an excellent soldier from what he had seen and heard of him, and he seemed friendly enough when Link was brought here.
The loss of the soldiers was…something else. Link had had even less interactions with them than he had with Rtas. But for some reason, the reality that the army of backup they once had was reduced to a small handful seemed to chill Link. He wasn't sure why. He had never spoken to any of them. They were just…there. Maybe the fact that they weren't there anymore was troubling.
Or maybe it was the fact that there were so few of them now. After Dimentio's attack, Link had developed an inescapable sense of dread, like something terrible was about to happen very soon. The jester had referenced Robotnik and a 'collective project'. Something called 'Giygas'. He had never heard of it, whatever it was, but something told him it was dangerous. And now they didn't have the backup and support they had started with.
But then again, they had faced great odds and come out triumphant. Individually and collectively. Arbiter in the war, Snake and Lara in their respective careers. And he himself, having gone up against the king of evil himself, Ganondorf. They were hardly inexperienced fighters. Whatever came, they could handle it. And yet it didn't dispel his feelings of dread.
So he decided to read about his ancestors, who had all gone up against seemingly impossible odds and came out triumphant. Maybe that would help. He wouldn't read them in his room though…he didn't feel comfortable being completely alone right now. He thought about going to the Sinclair Deluxe and meeting with Casey, but decided against it when he remembered how tired she looked when he last saw her.
He found a good place to read just outside Mercury Suites. The Central Square Bistro was originally a small bar where the residents could relax, socialize and have a few drinks. During the conflict that overtook Rapture, it became a hastily cobbled-together sanctuary. Now, Mario had cleaned it up and fixed some of the broken bars and chairs, and it once again looked like a good place to sit down and read.
Better yet, someone was there. Someone who wouldn't intrude on Link's reading but whose presence was enough to avoid total chilling solitude. The scientist Link hadn't seen since his first briefing. The mute one with glasses named Gordon. He was pouring a bottle of merlot into a glass, apparently not noticing Link.
That was enough for the youth. Link calmly sat down on another chair across the room and started to read the documents Lara gave him. He was very quickly engrossed in the tale of the Oracle of Ages when his commlink buzzed to life.
"Attention. I need the location of Dr. Gordon Freeman now. Any operative who knows where he is, report immediately."
Link sighed and answered. "He's here."
"Where?" Arbiter demanded sharply.
"The…Bistro outside Mercury Suites." Gordon glanced up at Link upon hearing that.
"Do you have visual? DO NOT LET HIM OUT OF YOUR SIGHT. I'm coming down there."
Link blinked. "What's going on?"
"Gordon planted an EMP bomb in Rapture Central Control. I need him alive to defuse it. Maintain visual. I'm moving to your position now."
A bomb? Link looked back at the scientist he barely knew.
Gordon simply smiled broadly and sipped his drink in a graceful and nonchalant manner. Crossing his legs and delicately putting his glass down, the mute scientist glanced at his wristwatch. A small giggle escaped his lips.
"Rapture Central Control must be brought online, to be certain, but there is something else that bothers me. Andrew Ryan was able to activate the Core's self-destruct mechanism from his office using his genetic key. When Fontaine took over, he deactivated that particular safety feature, but was thankfully killed before he could make any use of it. However, his actions and the passing of time damaged the programming and security measures. The way things are, a strong enough electric pulse at just the right voltage, frequency and placement could activate the self-destruct mechanism. When I told Arbiter my concerns, he simply increased security around Hephaestus and requested that Gordon see to it when he has the time. I somehow doubt that will be enough, but the way things are standing now, I'll have to accept it."
Mario wasn't looking at a bomb, technically. But it had the potential to be every bit as damaging as any explosive.
Attached the computer array in Rapture Central control was a box with a long antennae and multiple fuses. An orb sat on top of the thicker antennae, apparently buzzing with electricity. A small screen displayed a countdown in bright green letters, ticking down from 10 minutes. When the clock reached zero, the machine would let out a powerful pulse of electricity, just perfect for reactivating the core's self-destruct mode and destroying Hephaestus, with the city itself closely following.
Mario had been woken up by Pyramid Head's screeching blade, but when he got up neither Gordon nor the giant were in sight. Just the machine that was counting down menacingly and him being unable to do anything about it.
He tried yanking the wires, but they were fused into the computer system, and Arbiter had told him he could trip the device if he was careless. He tried breaking the antennae, but it was sturdier than it looked. Smashing it with his hammer was vetoed by Sofia, because the machine could go off or activate the self-destruct in it's death sparks. The notion of a mass evacuation was brought up only for Sofia to discover that the escape pods had been locked down, and freeing them would take far too long.
That left the small screen to interface with. When he tapped it, it showed that there was an override available. Unfortunately, it wasn't simply an 'off' switch or button he could press. When he activated the override, a series of symbols he'd never seen before and numbers he didn't understand appeared on the screen. Mathematical equations that would take a genius to solve, and would take longer than 9 minutes to figure out.
Figures that Gordon's override would only be solvable by Gordon himself.
So all Mario could do was sit there, staring at the device and hope that Arbiter would be able to press the answers out of Gordon. He had overheard that Gordon had been spotted by Mercury Suites, but that was too far away to get here in less than 8 minutes. The subpods could only go so fast, and this was far from the station. The only other possibility was to have Gordon tell them the answer over the links.
Mario's head sunk into his hands. They were doomed.
Still no word.
Mario heard a rustling in the shadows, but didn't take his eyes off the bomb.
Arbiter radioed that he was closing in, but Mario could tell it wouldn't be soon enough.
Mario picked up his hammer and stood up. It was the only plan he had.
4 minutes and 30 seconds.
It might not work, but it might, but it might not, but it was better than waiting, it wouldn't be enough time, but maybe it would, but even if Arbiter got to Gordon soon he would …
Mario raised the hammer above the bomb when he suddenly registered someone else beside it. A little girl.
The handyman gasped in surprise and stumbled back at the unexpected sight. She hadn't been there a second ago…how could she have snuck up upon him like that? How did he not notice? When the initial shock had worn off, Mario got a better look at the child.
She wasn't exactly a pretty sight. Her skin was an odd color, her hair was thick and messy, and her eyes glowed a strange shade of yellow. She was wearing what looked like an adult's backless dress, with the front part held up by belts. The girl was jabbing a needle into the clock…
"WHAT ARE YOU DOING!?" Mario suddenly found his voice.
The girl flinched at the sudden shout and spun around. "Uh…helping?" She smiled nervously.
Mario blinked. "How are you…?" Mario then noticed that countdown clock had been frozen at 4:24. The handyman was surprised.
The girl took his confused look as an invitation for explanation, holding up the needle in her hands proudly. It looked like pieces of a remote control and computer had been sewn into a taser. "Mr. Kitty told me to bring this. I made it myself! It helped me borrow some things from Dr. Quiet's lab when he wasn't around…"
Mario's expression became more confused. "What?"
The girl's expression became a little guilty. "I'll put them back! I promise!"
The handyman shook his head clear. This was the burglar? No matter, it didn't matter right now. "Whuh…well, is it stopped?!" he finally asked.
She glanced back at the bomb. "I…don't think so. I think it's just sleepy now. When I used this, the alarms still went off while I was leaving. It'll take longer, but…"
"…It'll still go off." Mario groaned. Well, at least they had more time, and that was better than nothing. "We…we still need Gordon to stop this thing."
"You mean Dr. Quiet?"
"Er…yes. Yes, Dr. Quiet." Mario was shaking his head, trying to make sense of his conversation with this bizarre girl. Why was he telling her this? Was he really that desperate for help, or did she just catch him off guard?
"Where is he now?"
"Mercury Suites Bistro." Mario spilled before stopping himself.
The girl's face brightened. "I can go get him for you! I know how to get there, with the hidey holes –"
Mario sighed. "No. The vents are sealed off in that area."
The girl with the needle looked crestfallen for a nanosecond before immediately perking back up. "I know! There's a faster way!" Before Mario could question or stop her, the girl in the ragged dress had darted to the other side of the room. Something that looked like an old-fashioned mailbox with a curved top and several buttons on the front was standing under a small sign reading 'Pneumo-tube mail; outgoing'.
The little girl tried but found she couldn't fit into the slot, so she set to work removing the round top of the Pneumo. The way it was rusted and old, that turned out to be easier than expected. The girl promptly climbed into the hole, pressed the button marked 'Mercury Suites', waved goodbye to Mario and promptly disappeared.
The handyman stood there for a few seconds, blinking. What just happened? Eventually, he managed to activate his commlink and contact Sofia.
"Er…don't ask me how, but I think we have more time on our hands."
"One of the more adventurous gatherers decided to take a ride in the Pneumo tubes. Now, the tubes are wide enough to transport a large variety of materials, but they weren't designed for children to ride through. Imagine my surprise when the girl arrived at her destination, still alive and intact. Of course, her survival was purely due to her healing abilities as a gatherer. Her bones were damaged in unusual ways, and they had healed at odd angles, positions and lengths…her arm, leg finger bones strangely seemed to have elongated. The rest of her body was twisted and battered, and it took hours to reset the bones to relatively proper position. And she still walks and runs with a limp, and seems to stand at a crooked angle. While this girl's survival is fascinating, I'm discouraging this behaviour with future gatherers."
-Dr. Edward Grimes
Link was still watching Gordon, and he saw his demeanour abruptly change. Up until a minute ago the scientist had been reclining in his seat, his legs crossed and his hand effeminately pouring the Merlot into the glass. He glanced casually at his watch every few seconds with a broad smile on his face. Suddenly his expression changed, and he stared at his wristwatch like it was saying something he couldn't believe. His brow furrowed and he glanced around the room in what seemed to be a confused panic.
Suddenly Arbiter burst into the Bistro, his pistol drawn and an intimidating expression on his face. "GORDON!" he roared.
The scientist jumped in his seat, looking absolutely shocked. His eyes darted back and forth between the Sangheili, his watch, and the window. Something had gone wrong. Gordon stumbled out of his seat and tried to back away from Arbiter.
As the Elite Commander approached, Gordon reached behind his back in desperation and fright.
"We found the bomb, Gordon. It's over." Arbiter snarled.
"NO IT ISN'T!" Gordon yelled back before whipping out his Gravity Gun.
His defiant and desperate retort caught Link and Arbiter by surprise, giving Gordon enough time to throw a chair at Arbiter and knock his pistol away. Link promptly ran for cover while Arbiter shrugged off the blow and moved to get his pistol back. However, Gordon's weapon was able to snatch the plasma gun from the floor and into his hand. "It's not over yet..." he growled, charging the weapon up.
Gordon's voice was a shock for two reasons. First, because no-one had ever heard him speak at all. He was classified as a mute by medical examination – he literally could not speak normally.
And secondly, it was a woman's voice that came out of his mouth.
Arbiter didn't have time to figure out this new development, as he had to get to cover. A fully charged plasma shot could deplete his armor, leaving him vulnerable to further attacks from Gordon's two weapons. He got outside the Bistro just as Gordon fired his shot, with burned a hole in another wall.
Link, on the other hand was able to question this new voice from his position on the other side of the bistro bar. Gordon wasn't paying attention to him, instead focusing on recharging his plasma pistol for another shot. The panicked expression on the doctors face told Link that things hadn't gone according to plan, and he was becoming desperate.
The voice stuck with Link, however. Why would he sound like a woman? It made no sense. And come to think of it, he was acting like a woman in the bar earlier. From what he'd seen of Gordon before, that didn't add up at all. What was going on?
Link glanced at the pamphlets he'd left behind and he came up with an answer.
From outside the Bistro, Arbiter quickly brought out another firearm. He groaned silently. He needed Gordon alive to deactivate the bomb, but the way things were the scientist seemed intent on a last stand. Why? What was the point? And why would he set the bomb in the first place? Arbiter didn't think too much about those questions…he had to prioritize. Bomb first, explanations later…
Arbiter jumped at the sound right next to him. The elite whirled around to see a Pneumo-tube with a slightly dislodged top. A small voice inside whimpered "Owwww…."
The Sangheili tore the broken top off and grabbed the voice's owner in one swift movement. He found himself holding a small, crooked child with glowing eyes and a tattered dress. She smiled and waved "Hiya."
Arbiter stared at the burglar for a second before putting her down and going into the Bistro. Whatever she was, she could wait.
Gordon seemed to think that yelling at the pistol would make it recharge faster. Every word she spoke just confirmed Link's suspicions, and the youth was more and more confident that he would stop this problem.
He made his way around the back of the bar, keeping himself out of 'Gordon's' sight. He had a good idea of what to do, but he had to be very careful. He didn't want to seriously hurt Gordon, but some things had to be done. It was a good thing he kept his sword with him at all times.
The plasma pistol finally charged to 'Gordon's' satisfaction, and the scientist chuckled nervously before turning to face the door Arbiter had exited out of. The orb of plasma energy warmed his shaky hands as he silently threatened the elite out of his vision.
"You only have one shot, the way you are charging that pistol." Arbiter chastised. "You may as well surrender now."
Gordon let out a sharp laugh in response, but caught himself before he said anything else. Too little, too late. Link was starting to creep up from behind, drawing his sword in preparation.
Arbiter glanced around the doorway, his camoflauge on so Gordon wouldn't see him. He noticed Link sneaking up behind his with his sword drawn. "We need you alive to stop the bomb, Gordon. We can settle this peacefully." He remarked, hoping Link got the message as well.
Gordon abruptly smiled and seemed to relax again. So the bomb was still a threat…all that was needed was more time. He chuckled, that female voice confusing Arbiter even further and driving Link closer and closer. The youth was nearly within striking distance when…
He suddenly stepped on a glass bottle he hadn't noticed. Gordon heard the sound and started to turn around.
Three things happened at once. The little ghoul girl suddenly popped up yelling "HEYYYY!", a surprised Gordon fired his plasma shot at her instead of Link or Arbiter, and Link swung his sword at Gordon's leg. The burst hit the girl in the chest, forcing her to the ground. The sword pierced the scientist's leg just enough to draw blood…
And do something Arbiter was not expecting.
Despite the fact the cut wasn't particularly deep, having been absorbed by the scientists body armor, Gordon let out an inhuman shriek of absolute pain. Before Arbiter's confused eyes, the scientist started to thrash about as an inky black fog appeared around him, being forcibly cast out by the Master Sword. The fog eventually coalesced into…something that was thrust into the bar, and Gordon Freeman fell to the ground, clearly dazed but alive.
Arbiter walked up to the two operatives, more than a little confused about what happened but not questioning it. Gordon gradually shook his head clear before looking up at Link with a quizzical expression on his face.
Arbiter glanced up at the wrecked bar. The shadow had begun to take some sort of physical form, slowly but surely. "What am I looking at?" he asked Link.
"A spirit who was possessing Gordon." Link replied as casually as if he was describing the weather outside. Gordon and Arbiter both glanced at him and each other, but didn't argue.
To compound the surreal nature of what was happening, the girl the possessed Gordon had shot started trundling up to them with a smile on her face. The burn on her chest was disappearing with a golden light, although he had to hold up her singed dress with one of her hands. "Hiya, Mr. Woof!"
This surprised Link. "Masha?"
"You know her?" Arbiter demanded.
"Hi, Mister Sir. Hi, Dr. Quiet." Masha suddenly remembered something. "Oh! Dr. Quiet, there's a bomb you need to kill."
Gordon's eyes went wide. Arbiter quickly cut in. "Er…yes, there is a EMP bomb in Rapture Central Control that's been encrypted by you while…possessed…by that thing." Arbiter pointed to the bar, where the fog had finished reforming itself.
Lying on the wrecked bar was a tall woman with blue skin and a ridiculously elaborate dress. Her shoulders were tall horns and spikes on her elbows held up a rather tattered cape. Her midriff was bare, with a design of an eye on the lower half of her dress. A red eye glowering with rage was almost hidden under a headdress in the shape of a crescent moon. She snarled briefly at the three operatives before getting to her feet.
Arbiter promptly readied his plasma rifle and Link readied his sword. Masha gulped 'Uh oh' while Gordon glanced back and forth between Masha, Link, Arbiter, the woman on the counter, and the bottle he had apparently been drinking earlier.
"GORDON! BOMB! NOW!" Arbiter roared, snapping the scientist out of his confusion. This was not the time for explanations, evidently. Gordon quickly got up to his feet and started to quickly limp towards the subpod deck, Masha following close behind.
"Who are you?" Arbiter demanded of the strange woman.
"Veran." She hissed. "And I'll be the DEATH of you yet!"