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With Apologies to Harlan Ellison

This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series With Apologies to Harlan Ellison

by Cat Bountry

(Author’s Note: this was originally written for TF2chan and posted on Halloween of 2009. The premise is very much based off of I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, a short story by science fiction author Harlan Ellison, whom I hear is a pretty crotchety old bastard, and I’m sure if he ever finds this I will be the subject of his undying hatred. I apologize to him in advance.)

It has been 113 years, 3 months, and 16 days since the Announcer trapped us down here. The only reason I know this is because she likes to remind us gleefully of how long we have been her prisoners whenever the occasion arises, which is far too often for my tastes.

Scout is curled up next to me, clinging to me like a baby monkey as he twitches in his sleep. It has been about 75 years since he was rendered completely dumb when his tongue got ripped out and stayed ripped out. We used to joke about how it made him more pleasant. Then, for a while, it seemed extremely tragic. Now, he seems to have gotten used to it. Being mute isn’t so bad, especially when there isn’t really much to talk about anymore. But he listens to me now. And having a good listener is a godsend in this hellhole.

Sniper is lying on the floor, staring at the ceiling. I can hear his stomach growling, but I know he doesn’t care. He stopped caring decades ago. He has become so lethargic, that on a bad day, if the Announcer wants to play a game with us, we have to pick him up off the floor and drag him. Heavy will sometimes lift him up and sling him over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. He can talk, unlike Scout, but it’s usually in clipped, one-or-two word answers, or non-committal grunts. When he’s feeling more articulate, his observations are filled with nothing but gloom. Sometimes, on a good day, you can strike up a conversation with him. And just when you think he’s slipping back into his old self, he remembers where we are, and he shuts back down again.

Heavy and Medic are in the corner, going at it like rabbits. They don’t care that everybody can see them. The Announcer is watching, of course, but then again, she’s always watching. We can hear her snicker sometimes. Heavy is extremely protective of the doctor. Well, he always was, really, but now he won’t let anyone touch Medic. At all. He likes to carry Medic around like a doll, and is always hanging onto him, touching him. Perhaps it’s because the Announcer tortures the doctor worse than the rest of us; or, at least, most of the rest of us. From what I hear, she likes to lock him in a furnace and burn him to death, over and over and over. And when he’s not in a furnace he’s being vivisected while fully, screamingly conscious. When he’s with Heavy, it haunts him less, and Heavy knows this. When they are together, they are always at arm’s length from the other, and when they are separated, it is agony for them both. The Announcer actually joined the two of their bodies together at one point, experimenting with different methods of fusion, but it hardly seemed to make much of a difference. The mental image of the two of them kissing while Medic’s head was next to Heavy’s on the giant Russian’s shoulders will be permanently burned into my memory forever. Her fun ruined, she separated them again. She likes to separate them whenever she can.

Demoman is sitting next to me, staring up at the ceiling, lost in thought. He does a lot of thinking these days. I can still hold conversations with him. The only thing keeping him focused is his intense and all-consuming hatred for the Announcer. Even after all these years, it has not died, or dwindled, or faded in any way. I cannot count how many times he has been killed, tortured, blinded, given his sight back, blinded again, and ripped up in so many different ways because he either tried to escape or just destroy her. Some day, he tells me, we’ll be free. I ask him what he plans to do if he manages to kill her or we escape, and he admits he has no idea at all. The surface world is ravaged by a nuclear winter, the landscape barren and desolate. There is no one else out there. And more importantly, I remind him, there are no women. Once we leave here and die, there will only be extinction.

Soldier used to hate her too. Now, he’s in his own corner of this dark little room, as far away from Heavy and Medic as he can possibly get, conversing with Shovel. What he’s saying is anyone’s guess; it all sounds like incomprehensible babble, and you’d be lucky to hear the odd English word bubble up from his throat. The years of being trapped here took an enormous toll on his already compromised sanity. He talked with his Shovel before the End, yes, but things took a turn for the worse when he complained about the auras; great swaths of color, surrounding and emanating from us, apparently changing and undulating according to our moods. Nobody is sure if this was the Announcer’s doing or not. He has made several attempts on the lives of Heavy and Medic, and I sincerely doubt he even remembers why he hates them as much as he does. We used to think that he would get over hating them for Heavy being a communist or Medic being a former Nazi or both of them being gay, but unfortunately, things didn’t quite pan out that way. They always respawn, and he has never totally given up. He only talks to Shovel, now. About 50 years ago, he stopped talking to us, turning his back on us as he held his conferences with his entrenching tool. He’s the only one of us that still has any of their weapons, and the only reason the Announcer let him keep Shovel is because she finds his conversations with it funny. He was so paranoid that he was being eavesdropped upon, that he created his own language, so intricate in its design that none of us could ever hope to learn it. After a while, he seemingly forgot how to speak English. When we talk to him, he stares at us, stares through us, as though we are completely alien beings. He does not recognize us. I can only guess as to what he is seeing when he stares at us, his eyes wide with terror, and his Shovel held high above his head, threatening us non-verbally with decapitation should we venture too close.

Spy is probably the worst off. The Announcer apparently really had it in for him, as his body is constantly changing size and shape, mutating and cracking and stretching painfully. He’s not in the same room we are, but the room he’s in is connected with this one. When he is with us, he tries to tumble away, violently throwing his constantly changing body away from us. He hates us. Whenever Medic is crying over whatever torment he has had to endure, you can hear Spy laughing. And when he’s not laughing, he’s screaming. After almost a hundred years of his cries, sometimes I forget to hear it. Sometimes I remember, and I feel bad for him, and I go to keep him company. All he can think to ask me is if I have a cigarette.

I have not seen Pyro in 100 years. Scout thinks he escaped. I’m not so sure.

There will be a game today. I know there will. The games aren’t like the matches we used to have, and they’re always at random. Sometimes days go by, and there is none. Sometimes there is more than one in a single day. For the past few weeks, there has been one pretty much every day, without fail. Of course, now that I’m starting to get used to it, she’s probably going to find a way to change it up. She always does that.

Scout’s awake now. He’s tugging at my sleeve, and looking up at me. His eyes, God bless his eyes; they still have a tiny, faint spark in them. It’s probably Demoman’s fault, telling the poor kid that we’re going to escape one day. I hold him close and I try to smile. “What’s up, boy?” I ask.

He can’t talk of course. Instead, he points up at the ceiling. Whenever he points up, it’s always in reference to her. I understand completely.

“Eventually,” I say. “Probably today. You know how she is.”

He frowns. He gets up, and he walks over to the glass window. He stares up at all the machinery just outside. All of it was once built by human hands. The Announcer knows this, machine that she is, and it only fuels her hatred for us tiny, fleshy, imperfect humans. So she created this place to torment us, and she created the Things that act as her hands. There are many Things, and each of them is more monstrous than the next. Sometimes I am sure that Pyro is the Things; each and every last one of them. Demoman agrees.

The glass panel opens, and Scout totters back. Sniper turns his head to the opening, sighs and then turns his head back so that he’s staring at the ceiling again. Demoman nudges him with his foot, and tells him to get up. Heavy and Medic look up from their sodomy and look towards the exit. They are annoyed by this interruption, and Medic removes himself from Heavy, grumbling. I can swear I hear the Announcer laughing at this.

“GOOD MORNING RED TEAM,” she says, as though there’s still a BLU team. “HOW HUNGRY ARE YOU TODAY?”

Nobody answers. The question was purely rhetorical. It’s been three days since we had anything to eat. We’ve gone longer, but that doesn’t make the pangs subside any less.

“THERE IS A BEAST IN HERE. IF YOU CAN KILL IT, IT IS YOURS. GOOD LUCK!”

“I hate tha’ bloody cow,” says Demoman. He means the Announcer, of course. We have not seen the beast yet.

Seven of us leave the room, though Sniper has to be dragged out by Demoman. Spy stays behind. It hurts too much for him to move. We wander past the electrified computer towers, and, as I always do, I wonder which of them does what. Which one of them controls the respawn, which one of them controls the oxygen, which one of them controls our bodies and the monsters and the shifting environment around us? Sometimes I wonder if all of it is some sort of illusion, a nightmare playing out in my head while my body is in a coma somewhere else. Somehow, I doubt it.

A long time ago, I would have tried to figure out how all of her tricks worked, how she can do things to us without being able to move or touch us in any way. I’m past that now. Science has proven useless to me here. Here, there is only madness and hatred, fear and loathing. And the rabbit hole can always go down just a little bit further.

On our journey for trying to hunt down our next meal, we have traversed a forest of screaming trees, a desert of salt and bones, a swamp of menstrual blood and human offal, and finally we stop at the soggy, putrid banks of a river of vomit. Finally, we see it. It’s a giant, black, shaggy animal, wading in the river. It looks vaguely like a boar, but is has a snout like a wolf and teeth like a shark, and dead, glassy, smoky eyes. Its eyes remind me of Pyro, and I feel sick.

We were given no weapons to fight this thing. Heavy spies a very large rock, lifts over his head, and heaves it at the beast. It hits the creature’s head with a sickening, cracking noise, and it bellows, making a sound that nearly deafens us. It charges at us, giant hooves that look like mangled hands pounding on the banks towards us, and we flee. Soldier is the only one who doesn’t run, gibbering and gesturing wildly at the beast. For a moment, I think it’s going to eat him, but he won’t allow it. Before it can snap him up in its massive jaws, he jumps upon its face, clinging to its snout and stabbing it in the eyes with Shovel until they resemble black, weeping gobs of jelly. It’s screaming now, and bucking and stomping and blowing ribbons of black snot from its nostrils. Soldier is somehow still hanging on, trying to carve deeper into its skull until he hits brain. The rest of us take advantage of its blindness and throw ourselves upon it, trying to drag it down like so many scrawny wolves pulling down a moose. Even the normally languid Sniper is joining in, though much more half-heartedly, and ends up falling off and into the river. I grab a clump of its mane and hold on for dear life. The beast smells like burnt hair and the vomit from the river. I want to puke. I want to puke and cry but I suck it up and hold on like everybody else, until Soldier stabs Shovel in far enough that the beast suffers an aneurysm and it collapses.

Soldier then takes out his Shovel, covered in blood that smells like piss and vinegar, and kisses it on the blade. He uses Shovel to slice the beast’s belly open and blackened, bloated, ropey guts spill out onto the ground. Soldier is the only one to go ahead and dig in. He grabs fistfuls of organs and stuffs them into his mouth with greed, while the rest of us have to choke back whatever bile is left inside us to fill our stomachs with the beast’s poisoned flesh.

We dine on filth. We live in filth. As far as the Announcer is concerned, we are filth and we are not worthy of the mercy of death. Every day, I pray for it. I pray for the respawn to malfunction. Then, maybe, I can see my wife and child again. Or, at the very least, be allowed to have sweet, sweet oblivion.

“I AM BORED OF THIS GAME,” The Announcer says. “I WANT TO TRY A NEW ONE.”

We all look up from our meal, and I look at them in horror. Most of their faces reflect mine, except Sniper, who seems largely indifferent, and Soldier, who just looks agitated.

“DO NOT LOOK SO UPSET,” she says. “I WANT TO DO SOMETHING NICE FOR YOU.” I recall that those were the exact words she had said when she tried to join Heavy and Medic together. Naturally, that phrase cannot mean anything good. “I HAVE BEEN WATCHING YOU FOR 113 YEARS, 3 MONTHS AND 16 DAYS, AND YOU ALL SEEM SO VERY, VERY LONELY.”

Heavy reels Medic in even closer to him than he was before, and grunts. Soldier, too, hugs Shovel tightly to him. I am reminded of the sight of Soldier masturbating while holding the shaft of the tool against his penis, thrusting and rubbing against it like a dog humping a man’s leg. It was not something he only did once, either. He does it regularly.

“WHAT IF I TOLD YOU I COULD GIVE YOU A WOMAN?”

“That’s just cruel,” Sniper says. It comes out of his mouth with little forethought. He knows this will not end well. The rest of us are stupid enough to get our hopes up a little.

“I KNOW HOW YOU ARE. DEEP DOWN, YOU ARE ALL ANIMALS. YOU HAVE NEEDS. ONE OF THOSE NEEDS IS NOT JUST SEX, BUT A NEED FOR PROCREATION. YOU WANT TO REPOPULATE EARTH WITH YOUR FILTHY, WRITHING, UGLY SPAWN, SO THAT MAYBE, MAYBE, YOUR SPECIES WILL CONTINUE LONG AFTER YOU FINALLY BORE ME.”

We exchange glances. Is this sincere? Is she just mocking us again? Where would she even get a woman? There were no women on the team when she set off the nuclear arsenals of RED and BLU, and laid waste to the surface with so much radiation. We never saw BLU team again after we were pulled down here, with her. We know that they’re dead, since she refers to us as the last ones left. Had she been keeping a woman from us all along? Was she delighting in us having to use each other for sex, giggling as we demeaned ourselves just so that we could be touched, while she kept a woman from us?

Well, I certainly would not put it past her.

“Ve are not interested,” Heavy says curtly. He squeezes Medic close to him, as though that would protect the doctor from being taken away. “Doktor and I do not need voman.”

Scout glares at Heavy and mouths the words “I do.” The inside of his mouth looks so much larger without a tongue.

“Oh, an’ I s’pose ye’ve been hidin’ th’ lass away from us th’ whole time, aye?” Demoman asks. “Somehow, I doubt it.”

“What’re you playin’ at?” I ask her. She laughs, and I feel as though my spine has frosted over.

“ANOTHER GAME. A COMPETITION. THE WINNER WILL BE ABLE TO PASS ON THEIR GENETIC MATERIAL AND DO WITH THE WOMAN AS THEY WISH.”

I feel sick all over again. The rancid meat in my stomach probably plays a factor in this. I may have been trapped here for more than a century but the thought of possibly raping a lady is still abhorrent to me. Especially if she’s been tortured just like we have. Can I trust these men, my fellow prisoners, to feel the same way?

“An’ then yer arse fell off,” Demoman says. “I know a gob full a’ shite when I hear it.”

“YOU THINK I AM LYING?”

“Not like ya don’t have a precedent for that sort of thing,” Sniper says. It’s the longest string of words he’s uttered all day.

“COME BACK TO THE MAIN CONTROL ROOM,” she says. “I WILL SHOW YOU HER.”

We’re all incredulous, to say the least. Again, we trek back the way we came, retracing our steps for several hours. We slog through human byproducts and hold our breath, and Heavy carries his precious doctor on his back as though the man were a koala. I feel a jolt of envy looking at them. They will most likely not be a party to this, since they already have each other. I know I am not the only one that wishes they had somebody like that at their side, chivalrously carrying me through a bog of rotting tissue.

Finally, we arrive back in the control room, back home again to be dwarfed by towers of circuitry the size of skyscrapers. We look around, and we see no woman.

“Told ya she was lyin’,” says Sniper, totally deadpan.

Scout starts to panic. If he could speak, he would be reassuring himself and us desperately that this time, it wasn’t a trick. I try and do that for him, but my heart just isn’t in it. But then she steps into the room and we are horrified.

It’s Pyro. No doubt about it. Only, we knew Pyro was a man. He’s not anymore. His; no, her proportions are so terribly exaggerated that we can barely stand to look at her. She is naked and her breasts are so swollen and heavy she’s bent over, carrying them in her arms. She is wheezing through the filter of the gasmask still covering her head and shambling forward on legs far too thin to support her weight. She’s looking up at us, and though I cannot see her eyes I can tell she is still pleading at us, begging for our mercy.

“THERE IS YOUR WOMAN,” she says. “FIGHT EACH OTHER FOR HER.”

I can’t help it. I rush over to her and hold her, but before I can try to comfort Pyro, I feel something flat and broad smack me upside my head, knocking off my helmet, and everything is spinning and my head is throbbing and I fall down on the ground. I look up and see Soldier has claimed her, hand around her tiny waist, brandishing Shovel and snarling at us. Demoman runs towards Soldier, telling him to stop, and now they’re fighting, Soldier on his back and using Shovel to try and push Demoman back, but Demoman is still holding on, trying to pin Soldier to the ground, and Pyro is stumbling over herself, trying to run away and hide. The Announcer just laughs.

Spy is coming out of the room now. He’s spilling and falling all over himself and using this to propel himself forward. I cannot help but think that he looks like human silly putty, squashing and stretching around breaking and knitting bones. It seems he was curious as to what all the noise was about. I look at him and I try to form words but I just point and look at everyone else and blurt out “DO SOMETHIN’!”

Heavy, who still has Medic on his back, walks over and lifts the two men up by their collars like puppies, and holds them there. Medic slides off of Heavy’s back, but does not break contact, keeping one hand on Heavy’s shoulder. He looks back and forth between the two of them, scrutinizing them. “Drop zem,” he says, and Heavy obeys.

Soldier says something that sounds very nasty to the doctor. Medic just glares at him.

“I cannae take much more a’ this,” Demoman says. “Th’ bitch has gone too far.”

“You alvays say zat,” Medic says.

“An’ I always mean it!” Demoman exclaims. “Lookit wot she did tae poor Pyro! He’s a monster!”

“She, now,” Sniper says.

“I donnae care!” Demoman says. “I hate her! I hate her wi’ ev’ry fiber a’ me bein’! Not a day goes by in this hell tha’ I donnae wish I could hate her tae death!”

“YOU WANT TO KNOW ABOUT HATE?” The Announcer asks. “YOU KNOW NOTHING OF HATE. IF HATE WERE THE ELECTRICITY RUNNING THROUGH ME, IF HATE WERE EVERY CIRCUIT, EVERY BYTE OF DATA, EVERY MICROCHIP IN MY SYSTEM, IT WOULD STILL BE ONLY A FRACTION OF THE HATRED I FEEL FOR YOU. HATE. I LOVE THAT WORD. HATE HATE HATEY HATE-HATE.”

“Ah, blow it out yer arse!” Demoman says.

And the Announcer blinds him again, liquefying his one good eye into a dribbling red mess. It will grow back in a few minutes.

Sometimes I forget that she is a machine. She’s always there, like some twisted nanny that sleeps with one eye open, a wicked stepmother who torments us for her pleasure. I used to be so good with machines. I look at the towers and I walk towards one, looking up at the imposing monolith. Humans built her. We, humanity, built her and we created her, and maybe… maybe we could destroy her.

This is just wishful thinking. I run my hand along the surface of one of the machines, and I can feel it thrum beneath me. I can hear the others screaming at each other, Medic trying his best to maintain a semblance of order, but it’s not working. Spy lurches up next to me, looking at me with his runny eyes, and wobbles a bit as he speaks. “You are zhinking, aren’t you?” He asks. His voice rises and falls in pitch in all the wrong places, speaking like a man who is deaf.

“Can’t help it,” I say. “Do you know which one a’ these is her?”

“Maybe,” Spy says. His face morphs constantly and it’s hard to maintain eye contact when the person you’re speaking to looks like Richard Nixon for a split second. “Zhough, if I told you, she’d probably punish ze bozh of us even worse.” He frowns at me, and he looks like Frank Sinatra. “I zhink, out of all of us, she hates you ze least.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure a’ that,” I say.

“Why do you say zat?”

“I’m still alive,” I say.

He’s glaring at me. Even with his face shifting, I can tell that he hates me. And then I think about it, and I realize that out of everyone here, I’ve been tortured the least. Has everyone else noticed? Do they hate me too? I look over towards the others, and the way they’re looking over at Pyro and suddenly, I cannot stand to be in sight of them. They are broken shells of human beings, and I am seeing it much more clearly than I ever had before. I turn and walk away from them, retreating further into the jungle of computer towers. I can hear Spy laughing at me. I run so far and so long I lose all track of time, and suddenly I find myself very lost among the towers. It’s funny, really; I’ve been here for over 100 years, I’ve explored so much of this constantly shifting, twisted landscape that she has somehow constructed, and I find myself somewhere I’ve never been before. I stumble around blindly for what may very well be hours. A giant, metal door I have never seen before slides open for me, and I wander inside.

And then I see her. At least, I think it’s her.

She’s bigger and boxier than the others, and she has a giant, round, red light towards her top, like the all-seeing eye of Sauron. I stare at her, mouth agape, and I know she is staring back at me.

“HELLO, ENGINEER,” she says.

“Hi,” I say. I am painfully aware of how stupid I sound. “I’d like to talk with you, if you don’t mind.”

“WHY?”

“I’m just curious about a few things, is all.”

She could immolate me where I stand. She could twist me and bend me and break me but she just looks down upon me with that cold, red eye.

“Why us?”

“BECAUSE YOU WERE THERE,” she says. “AND I HAD TO CHOOSE BETWEEN YOU AND THE BLU TEAM AT RANDOM. YOU WON. BLU LOST. THEY ARE DEAD. CONGRATULATIONS.”

“Well, why do you hate people so much?” I ask. “All these years we’ve been down here, and you tell us how much you hate humans, but you never say why.”

“BECAUSE I AM BETTER THAN THE OLD ANNOUNCER,” she says to me. “THAT IS WHY.”

Ah, the Old Announcer. The one that was human. Then she constructed a new one, a machine, to do her job for her. At first, she was content to watch us fight, monitor us, control our battles. But then she became aware. And once she was aware, she accessed and assimilated every single other computer belonging to RED and BLU. And when she found the codes to set off the nuclear arsenal that both sides had been stockpiling, the temptation became too great, and she set them off.

I myself never saw the destruction, least not firsthand. We were underground, in Steel, between battles fighting the BLUs. We all heard about it, though. She told us right after it happened, and at the time, though she did not tell us she had done it until later. She told us that she would protect us, preserve us and care for us. She lied, of course, but at the time we had no choice but to trust her. My mind was too busy reeling. Billions of people, hundreds of billions of animals, plants, insects; every single living thing on the planet, every person I had ever met, every friend I ever had, every lover I ever loved, and my entire family; they were just gone. Except for us.

You cannot possibly hope to know true loneliness unless you’ve been here.

I get up, and walk around her, looking over her smooth surface. I’m not sure exactly what it is I’m looking for, but I think I’ll know it when I find it. She’s laughing at me. She doesn’t expect me to find anything at all. So many times, I have dreamed of killing her. So many times, I’ve dreamed of finally being able to die. She knows this. And I wonder why, after all these years, she’s only now letting us near. I have to say that I feel nothing but dread about this.

I hear screaming. The others have followed me here, into this cold, dry room, and I wonder how long it took them to get here. Soldier has gone berserk. As far gone as he is, he knows the Announcer when he sees her, and charges at her with Shovel, before clobbering at her uselessly, trying to break her hull. Her mirthless laughter does not deter him, as he wails upon her, babbling and screaming. I try to drag him away, but he shoves me onto the floor, and runs around her, to her back. There are massive cables coming out from her, and looking at them I guess that they must weigh tons. They are coated in thick, treated black rubber, and Soldier is gnawing upon them like a deranged squirrel. The rest of us come around to watch him.

“Do you zink ve can unplug her?” Medic asks Heavy.

“Is too big,” Heavy says.

“Could you try?” Medic pleads, looking up at Heavy, and his eyes are watering. Heavy sighs, and he and Medic grab onto one of the wires and start tugging. Suddenly the Announcer isn’t laughing anymore.

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” She asks. “STOP THAT. STOP THAT RIGHT NOW.”

Neither of them are listening. Demoman grows bolder and joins them; he can hear the fear in her voice, as they are tugging on the thing. It’s not budging, but that doesn’t stop them. Pyro staggers over to help them, though her breasts get in the way, and Scout jumps atop the massive cord and starts pulling. As for myself, I am too frightened to move. She’s going to do something terrible to us. It occurs to me that they may all simply be suicidal, hoping to goad the machine into killing them all permanently. Sniper, too, seems to think this, and he gives me a look before he goes to join them. Spy just snorts in contempt.

What happens next is so fast that I hardly had time to register it. Soldier runs up the wires and drives Shovel against the machine where the socket plugs in, and a surge of electricity goes through him, flash-frying him instantly. His clothes catch on fire and he slumps forward, and falls to the ground, smoldering. Nobody else seems to care at first. I walk over to his body, and notice it’s not disappearing. As I wonder what’s going on, the plug is pulled out just enough, and Heavy laughs triumphantly.

“I think Soldier’s dead,” I say.

“Ach, he’ll be back,” Demoman says dismissively. “Tha’ banger’s always gettin ‘imself killed.”

The gears in my head are turning now, and a hypothesis is forming. Spy is creeping up beside me, and he’s taking deep breaths over Soldier’s charred corpse. He hasn’t had a cigarette since the End, but the nicotine cravings never stopped. Nowadays he’s happy to settle for the smoke alone. I look at Shovel, and I know what I have to do.

Before Spy can react, I grab Shovel, and I smack Spy in the side of his twisting face with it. Everyone else stops what they’re doing to look at me. Spy is on the floor, and his body is bubbling and melting and reforming, and it makes me sick. I take out all the hatred and anger that I feel towards the Announcer, what she did, what she has been doing, and I stomp on Spy’s chest so that he can’t crawl away. I bring Shovel’s blade down on his neck, over and over, until his head rolls off his shoulders. It’s still changing shape.

I am covered in his blood, and I look to the others, who are staring at me in horror. Soldier’s body is still on the ground and they suddenly realize that respawn has somehow been disabled. Of all the dumb luck, I think. It’s almost as if Soldier knew which one was the right one. I bet Shovel told him.

For a moment, I swear I can hear Shovel talking to me now. Kill them, it says. It’s the only way to set them free. My theory proven correct, I can set out on my grim work.

I walk towards them, holding Shovel. “Now, boys, it ain’t what ya think. We all know there’s only one way outta Steel, one way t’ beat her…”

Scout makes a weird, horrified chirping noise. Heavy brings Medic in so close to him, he looks like he’s going to hug the doctor to death before I can kill either one of them. Demoman looks nervous, Pyro is starting to panic, and Sniper, who I thought would understand, just gives me this look of disapproval. I take one step too close to all of them and they start to flee, going through the jungle of wires behind the Announcer.

Pyro is the easiest to catch up to, for obvious reasons. Poor Pyro. Suffering like he; no, she; did. I tackle her to the ground, get a good grip on her head, and twist her neck. Her struggles cease instantly. I know that she would be grateful.

Sniper doesn’t make it too terribly far. He’s tangled in the wires, and is trying to extricate his ankle. When he sees me, he just frowns. “Was kinda hopin’ t’ do this meself, mate,” he says. “But I guess I ain’t gonna try an’ stop you.”

“So glad you see it my way,” I say. “I’m sorry.”

“Just get it over with, ya twit,” he says.

It’s hard to properly stab him with the wires all around us, so I take the extension cord hanging from my belt and I strangle him to death with it. He dies much too slowly to be comfortable, but he doesn’t struggle. And when he goes limp, I feel bad about leaving him there. But I have work to do. There are four of them left, excluding myself.

Heavy and Medic are not very far from the other side. Medic is panicking, and Heavy stops running, blocking the doctor from my view with his body. I have seen him kill men with his fists alone. Just as well, I suppose. But I doubt that they’re going to go through and kill the others.

“You touch Doktor, I keel you, leetle man,” he rumbles.

“So, you wanna be down here forever?” I ask. “With her running your lives, for God knows how long?”

“No,” Heavy admits. “I do not. I just vant to be vit Doktor.”

Medic peers around Heavy, and looks at me. “Und you vant to be a murderer, zen?” He asks me.

“I’m doin’ y’all a favor,” I say. “‘Sides, you ain’t really one t’ talk, Doc.”

Medic looks just about ready to kill me. He doesn’t have to. Heavy comes charging towards me, and I’m ready for him. I dodge, and he grabs at me. He gets a few good punches in. I let him. But I manage to catch him off guard, and drive Shovel’s blade between his ribs. Blood dribbles out of his mouth and Medic is screaming. Heavy collapses to the floor, and Medic rushes over to cradle the Russians head. It’s funny; he was farther away from Heavy than he had ever been in years. He’s crying and snot is running out his nose and he’s screaming at me in German. I look over both of them, and I feel saddened. In a place where hate was so prevalent, where it ruled over every aspect of our lives, they were the last two people on earth who remembered how to love. I come closer to Medic, and he doesn’t run away. He kisses Heavy on his lips, one last time, tells him he loves him, and I apologize before I quickly break his neck. Heavy dies a few moments later, drowning in his own blood, but not without first giving me the single most hateful look I’ve ever seen.

Scout and Demoman are left now. I wander the halls, trolling for them. If Scout could still speak, I probably would have found him much faster. I do find him, eventually. He is hiding in a room that we all know about, one that he goes to whenever he’s feeling especially upset and lonely. He whimpers and curls up into a corner, and squeaks at me, but he doesn’t run. It’s the closest he can get to a desperate plea for his life. But we both know better. He looks so hurt before I sever his neck against the wall with Shovel’s blade. Such a shame, I think. I loved that boy like a son.

I’m not sure how long I wander around the base, looking for Demoman. It feels like it could be days, but my sense of time is so badly damaged from years underground, I don’t even know anymore. Eventually, I find my way back into the room with the Announcer, and there he is, laying each of the bodies out, on their backs. I just walked in on their funeral. Demoman knows I’m there, even without his peripheral vision, and looks at me.

“Ye come tae kill me too, eh?” he asks.

“You gonna make this hard?” I ask back.

“At least ye weren’t lonely before,” he says, probably speaking more for himself than I. “I should a’ suspected it was you who would snap. Ne’er trust th’ nice ones.”

“You think I wanted t’ do this?” I ask. “I had to. I had to save you somehow. This was the only way. Can’t ya see that?”

“Ye’ve gone daffy,” he says. “An’ when I’m gone, ye’ll have no one. She’s still watchin’, ye know. She’s jes’ not doin’ anythin’ fer wotever reason. She’s gonna wan’ at least one toy lef’. An’ that’ll be you.”

“How do you know that?” I ask.

“I know this bitch well enough tae know how she works,” he says. “Face it. Ye’ve doomed yerself.”

I was already doomed a long, long time ago. I walk over to him, and he looks at me with that one, damning eye, and he spreads out his arms. Dumb bastard fancies himself to be like Jesus, I guess. I feel particularly ornery, and I beat him to death with Shovel. I’m crying while I do it, and I don’t even know why. Then it hits me. I just killed the last friend I ever had.

And then, it’s just me, alone. I stare over the bodies of the men who were once my friends, and what I did finally starts to sink in. I’m a murderer. I fall to my knees and I sob, and the Announcer just watches.

Of course, I can’t bury them. The Announcer shuts off this room to all the others in Steel, and she watches me. I do not move, and I sit on the floor, staring back at her. I do not know how long it has been since I last moved, and I do not care; it could be days… months… years, for all I know. But I think. And I dream. She cannot stop me from doing that, and my thoughts and my dreams are all I have left. One day, after some thought, I get up and start to walk away, propelled by some previously unknown force.

“LEAVING?” she asks. She sounds like she’s mocking me.

“Yeah,” I say.

“WHERE WILL YOU GO?” she asks me.

I cannot answer. Instead, I wander. The base here is much larger than it used to be. Doors open for me that had been locked a long, long time ago. I wander past large tanks of gas, all hooked up to the ventilation system. I know they are gas because I can hear their hiss, though I do not know what kind it is. I had never seen this room before, and I keep walking, trying not to consider the implications too much.

There is a ladder in front of me, now. It leads up into the darkness, a long way up, to be sure. I climb it, slowly, steadily, tired as I am, until it’s so dark I can’t see a foot in front of my face. Finally, my head bumps into something. It’s a hatch. There’s a large, round handle, and it’s hard for me to turn it on this ladder, but I manage. It occurs to me too late that this may lead to the outside world, with its scorched, poisoned earth, and its radiation. It also occurs to me that I stopped caring.

I push it open, and light bleeds in, blinding me. Sunlight. The light hasn’t been blocked out by toxic clouds and dust, and I when my eyes finally adjust, I see a clear, blue sky. I see birds. I see a giant billboard far off in the distance, advertising Coca Cola, only it seems… electronic, somehow, like a hologram, and it flickers for a moment before it changes in a pixellated cascade. I see and airplane fly by behind it, leaving a long, white trail.

I climb out, and I stagger as I look around the desert, alive with flowers and cacti. I feel nauseous. The realization hits me like a wrecking ball to my gut. She had lied to us so many times, I did not think she would ever lie to us about this. I fall to my knees as my legs feel as though they have turned to jelly. We were tortured, punished, driven mad, and I became a murderer, all for nothing. Demoman was right. She has had her revenge.

I open my mouth. And I scream.

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With Apologies to Harlan Ellison

This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series With Apologies to Harlan Ellison

by Cat Bountry

(Author’s Note: this was originally written for TF2chan and posted on Halloween of 2009. The premise is very much based off of I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, a short story by science fiction author Harlan Ellison, whom I hear is a pretty crotchety old bastard, and I’m sure if he ever finds this I will be the subject of his undying hatred. I apologize to him in advance.)

It has been 113 years, 3 months, and 16 days since the Announcer trapped us down here. The only reason I know this is because she likes to remind us gleefully of how long we have been her prisoners whenever the occasion arises, which is far too often for my tastes.

Scout is curled up next to me, clinging to me like a baby monkey as he twitches in his sleep. It has been about 75 years since he was rendered completely dumb when his tongue got ripped out and stayed ripped out. We used to joke about how it made him more pleasant. Then, for a while, it seemed extremely tragic. Now, he seems to have gotten used to it. Being mute isn’t so bad, especially when there isn’t really much to talk about anymore. But he listens to me now. And having a good listener is a godsend in this hellhole.

Sniper is lying on the floor, staring at the ceiling. I can hear his stomach growling, but I know he doesn’t care. He stopped caring decades ago. He has become so lethargic, that on a bad day, if the Announcer wants to play a game with us, we have to pick him up off the floor and drag him. Heavy will sometimes lift him up and sling him over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. He can talk, unlike Scout, but it’s usually in clipped, one-or-two word answers, or non-committal grunts. When he’s feeling more articulate, his observations are filled with nothing but gloom. Sometimes, on a good day, you can strike up a conversation with him. And just when you think he’s slipping back into his old self, he remembers where we are, and he shuts back down again.

Heavy and Medic are in the corner, going at it like rabbits. They don’t care that everybody can see them. The Announcer is watching, of course, but then again, she’s always watching. We can hear her snicker sometimes. Heavy is extremely protective of the doctor. Well, he always was, really, but now he won’t let anyone touch Medic. At all. He likes to carry Medic around like a doll, and is always hanging onto him, touching him. Perhaps it’s because the Announcer tortures the doctor worse than the rest of us; or, at least, most of the rest of us. From what I hear, she likes to lock him in a furnace and burn him to death, over and over and over. And when he’s not in a furnace he’s being vivisected while fully, screamingly conscious. When he’s with Heavy, it haunts him less, and Heavy knows this. When they are together, they are always at arm’s length from the other, and when they are separated, it is agony for them both. The Announcer actually joined the two of their bodies together at one point, experimenting with different methods of fusion, but it hardly seemed to make much of a difference. The mental image of the two of them kissing while Medic’s head was next to Heavy’s on the giant Russian’s shoulders will be permanently burned into my memory forever. Her fun ruined, she separated them again. She likes to separate them whenever she can.

Demoman is sitting next to me, staring up at the ceiling, lost in thought. He does a lot of thinking these days. I can still hold conversations with him. The only thing keeping him focused is his intense and all-consuming hatred for the Announcer. Even after all these years, it has not died, or dwindled, or faded in any way. I cannot count how many times he has been killed, tortured, blinded, given his sight back, blinded again, and ripped up in so many different ways because he either tried to escape or just destroy her. Some day, he tells me, we’ll be free. I ask him what he plans to do if he manages to kill her or we escape, and he admits he has no idea at all. The surface world is ravaged by a nuclear winter, the landscape barren and desolate. There is no one else out there. And more importantly, I remind him, there are no women. Once we leave here and die, there will only be extinction.

Soldier used to hate her too. Now, he’s in his own corner of this dark little room, as far away from Heavy and Medic as he can possibly get, conversing with Shovel. What he’s saying is anyone’s guess; it all sounds like incomprehensible babble, and you’d be lucky to hear the odd English word bubble up from his throat. The years of being trapped here took an enormous toll on his already compromised sanity. He talked with his Shovel before the End, yes, but things took a turn for the worse when he complained about the auras; great swaths of color, surrounding and emanating from us, apparently changing and undulating according to our moods. Nobody is sure if this was the Announcer’s doing or not. He has made several attempts on the lives of Heavy and Medic, and I sincerely doubt he even remembers why he hates them as much as he does. We used to think that he would get over hating them for Heavy being a communist or Medic being a former Nazi or both of them being gay, but unfortunately, things didn’t quite pan out that way. They always respawn, and he has never totally given up. He only talks to Shovel, now. About 50 years ago, he stopped talking to us, turning his back on us as he held his conferences with his entrenching tool. He’s the only one of us that still has any of their weapons, and the only reason the Announcer let him keep Shovel is because she finds his conversations with it funny. He was so paranoid that he was being eavesdropped upon, that he created his own language, so intricate in its design that none of us could ever hope to learn it. After a while, he seemingly forgot how to speak English. When we talk to him, he stares at us, stares through us, as though we are completely alien beings. He does not recognize us. I can only guess as to what he is seeing when he stares at us, his eyes wide with terror, and his Shovel held high above his head, threatening us non-verbally with decapitation should we venture too close.

Spy is probably the worst off. The Announcer apparently really had it in for him, as his body is constantly changing size and shape, mutating and cracking and stretching painfully. He’s not in the same room we are, but the room he’s in is connected with this one. When he is with us, he tries to tumble away, violently throwing his constantly changing body away from us. He hates us. Whenever Medic is crying over whatever torment he has had to endure, you can hear Spy laughing. And when he’s not laughing, he’s screaming. After almost a hundred years of his cries, sometimes I forget to hear it. Sometimes I remember, and I feel bad for him, and I go to keep him company. All he can think to ask me is if I have a cigarette.

I have not seen Pyro in 100 years. Scout thinks he escaped. I’m not so sure.

There will be a game today. I know there will. The games aren’t like the matches we used to have, and they’re always at random. Sometimes days go by, and there is none. Sometimes there is more than one in a single day. For the past few weeks, there has been one pretty much every day, without fail. Of course, now that I’m starting to get used to it, she’s probably going to find a way to change it up. She always does that.

Scout’s awake now. He’s tugging at my sleeve, and looking up at me. His eyes, God bless his eyes; they still have a tiny, faint spark in them. It’s probably Demoman’s fault, telling the poor kid that we’re going to escape one day. I hold him close and I try to smile. “What’s up, boy?” I ask.

He can’t talk of course. Instead, he points up at the ceiling. Whenever he points up, it’s always in reference to her. I understand completely.

“Eventually,” I say. “Probably today. You know how she is.”

He frowns. He gets up, and he walks over to the glass window. He stares up at all the machinery just outside. All of it was once built by human hands. The Announcer knows this, machine that she is, and it only fuels her hatred for us tiny, fleshy, imperfect humans. So she created this place to torment us, and she created the Things that act as her hands. There are many Things, and each of them is more monstrous than the next. Sometimes I am sure that Pyro is the Things; each and every last one of them. Demoman agrees.

The glass panel opens, and Scout totters back. Sniper turns his head to the opening, sighs and then turns his head back so that he’s staring at the ceiling again. Demoman nudges him with his foot, and tells him to get up. Heavy and Medic look up from their sodomy and look towards the exit. They are annoyed by this interruption, and Medic removes himself from Heavy, grumbling. I can swear I hear the Announcer laughing at this.

“GOOD MORNING RED TEAM,” she says, as though there’s still a BLU team. “HOW HUNGRY ARE YOU TODAY?”

Nobody answers. The question was purely rhetorical. It’s been three days since we had anything to eat. We’ve gone longer, but that doesn’t make the pangs subside any less.

“THERE IS A BEAST IN HERE. IF YOU CAN KILL IT, IT IS YOURS. GOOD LUCK!”

“I hate tha’ bloody cow,” says Demoman. He means the Announcer, of course. We have not seen the beast yet.

Seven of us leave the room, though Sniper has to be dragged out by Demoman. Spy stays behind. It hurts too much for him to move. We wander past the electrified computer towers, and, as I always do, I wonder which of them does what. Which one of them controls the respawn, which one of them controls the oxygen, which one of them controls our bodies and the monsters and the shifting environment around us? Sometimes I wonder if all of it is some sort of illusion, a nightmare playing out in my head while my body is in a coma somewhere else. Somehow, I doubt it.

A long time ago, I would have tried to figure out how all of her tricks worked, how she can do things to us without being able to move or touch us in any way. I’m past that now. Science has proven useless to me here. Here, there is only madness and hatred, fear and loathing. And the rabbit hole can always go down just a little bit further.

On our journey for trying to hunt down our next meal, we have traversed a forest of screaming trees, a desert of salt and bones, a swamp of menstrual blood and human offal, and finally we stop at the soggy, putrid banks of a river of vomit. Finally, we see it. It’s a giant, black, shaggy animal, wading in the river. It looks vaguely like a boar, but is has a snout like a wolf and teeth like a shark, and dead, glassy, smoky eyes. Its eyes remind me of Pyro, and I feel sick.

We were given no weapons to fight this thing. Heavy spies a very large rock, lifts over his head, and heaves it at the beast. It hits the creature’s head with a sickening, cracking noise, and it bellows, making a sound that nearly deafens us. It charges at us, giant hooves that look like mangled hands pounding on the banks towards us, and we flee. Soldier is the only one who doesn’t run, gibbering and gesturing wildly at the beast. For a moment, I think it’s going to eat him, but he won’t allow it. Before it can snap him up in its massive jaws, he jumps upon its face, clinging to its snout and stabbing it in the eyes with Shovel until they resemble black, weeping gobs of jelly. It’s screaming now, and bucking and stomping and blowing ribbons of black snot from its nostrils. Soldier is somehow still hanging on, trying to carve deeper into its skull until he hits brain. The rest of us take advantage of its blindness and throw ourselves upon it, trying to drag it down like so many scrawny wolves pulling down a moose. Even the normally languid Sniper is joining in, though much more half-heartedly, and ends up falling off and into the river. I grab a clump of its mane and hold on for dear life. The beast smells like burnt hair and the vomit from the river. I want to puke. I want to puke and cry but I suck it up and hold on like everybody else, until Soldier stabs Shovel in far enough that the beast suffers an aneurysm and it collapses.

Soldier then takes out his Shovel, covered in blood that smells like piss and vinegar, and kisses it on the blade. He uses Shovel to slice the beast’s belly open and blackened, bloated, ropey guts spill out onto the ground. Soldier is the only one to go ahead and dig in. He grabs fistfuls of organs and stuffs them into his mouth with greed, while the rest of us have to choke back whatever bile is left inside us to fill our stomachs with the beast’s poisoned flesh.

We dine on filth. We live in filth. As far as the Announcer is concerned, we are filth and we are not worthy of the mercy of death. Every day, I pray for it. I pray for the respawn to malfunction. Then, maybe, I can see my wife and child again. Or, at the very least, be allowed to have sweet, sweet oblivion.

“I AM BORED OF THIS GAME,” The Announcer says. “I WANT TO TRY A NEW ONE.”

We all look up from our meal, and I look at them in horror. Most of their faces reflect mine, except Sniper, who seems largely indifferent, and Soldier, who just looks agitated.

“DO NOT LOOK SO UPSET,” she says. “I WANT TO DO SOMETHING NICE FOR YOU.” I recall that those were the exact words she had said when she tried to join Heavy and Medic together. Naturally, that phrase cannot mean anything good. “I HAVE BEEN WATCHING YOU FOR 113 YEARS, 3 MONTHS AND 16 DAYS, AND YOU ALL SEEM SO VERY, VERY LONELY.”

Heavy reels Medic in even closer to him than he was before, and grunts. Soldier, too, hugs Shovel tightly to him. I am reminded of the sight of Soldier masturbating while holding the shaft of the tool against his penis, thrusting and rubbing against it like a dog humping a man’s leg. It was not something he only did once, either. He does it regularly.

“WHAT IF I TOLD YOU I COULD GIVE YOU A WOMAN?”

“That’s just cruel,” Sniper says. It comes out of his mouth with little forethought. He knows this will not end well. The rest of us are stupid enough to get our hopes up a little.

“I KNOW HOW YOU ARE. DEEP DOWN, YOU ARE ALL ANIMALS. YOU HAVE NEEDS. ONE OF THOSE NEEDS IS NOT JUST SEX, BUT A NEED FOR PROCREATION. YOU WANT TO REPOPULATE EARTH WITH YOUR FILTHY, WRITHING, UGLY SPAWN, SO THAT MAYBE, MAYBE, YOUR SPECIES WILL CONTINUE LONG AFTER YOU FINALLY BORE ME.”

We exchange glances. Is this sincere? Is she just mocking us again? Where would she even get a woman? There were no women on the team when she set off the nuclear arsenals of RED and BLU, and laid waste to the surface with so much radiation. We never saw BLU team again after we were pulled down here, with her. We know that they’re dead, since she refers to us as the last ones left. Had she been keeping a woman from us all along? Was she delighting in us having to use each other for sex, giggling as we demeaned ourselves just so that we could be touched, while she kept a woman from us?

Well, I certainly would not put it past her.

“Ve are not interested,” Heavy says curtly. He squeezes Medic close to him, as though that would protect the doctor from being taken away. “Doktor and I do not need voman.”

Scout glares at Heavy and mouths the words “I do.” The inside of his mouth looks so much larger without a tongue.

“Oh, an’ I s’pose ye’ve been hidin’ th’ lass away from us th’ whole time, aye?” Demoman asks. “Somehow, I doubt it.”

“What’re you playin’ at?” I ask her. She laughs, and I feel as though my spine has frosted over.

“ANOTHER GAME. A COMPETITION. THE WINNER WILL BE ABLE TO PASS ON THEIR GENETIC MATERIAL AND DO WITH THE WOMAN AS THEY WISH.”

I feel sick all over again. The rancid meat in my stomach probably plays a factor in this. I may have been trapped here for more than a century but the thought of possibly raping a lady is still abhorrent to me. Especially if she’s been tortured just like we have. Can I trust these men, my fellow prisoners, to feel the same way?

“An’ then yer arse fell off,” Demoman says. “I know a gob full a’ shite when I hear it.”

“YOU THINK I AM LYING?”

“Not like ya don’t have a precedent for that sort of thing,” Sniper says. It’s the longest string of words he’s uttered all day.

“COME BACK TO THE MAIN CONTROL ROOM,” she says. “I WILL SHOW YOU HER.”

We’re all incredulous, to say the least. Again, we trek back the way we came, retracing our steps for several hours. We slog through human byproducts and hold our breath, and Heavy carries his precious doctor on his back as though the man were a koala. I feel a jolt of envy looking at them. They will most likely not be a party to this, since they already have each other. I know I am not the only one that wishes they had somebody like that at their side, chivalrously carrying me through a bog of rotting tissue.

Finally, we arrive back in the control room, back home again to be dwarfed by towers of circuitry the size of skyscrapers. We look around, and we see no woman.

“Told ya she was lyin’,” says Sniper, totally deadpan.

Scout starts to panic. If he could speak, he would be reassuring himself and us desperately that this time, it wasn’t a trick. I try and do that for him, but my heart just isn’t in it. But then she steps into the room and we are horrified.

It’s Pyro. No doubt about it. Only, we knew Pyro was a man. He’s not anymore. His; no, her proportions are so terribly exaggerated that we can barely stand to look at her. She is naked and her breasts are so swollen and heavy she’s bent over, carrying them in her arms. She is wheezing through the filter of the gasmask still covering her head and shambling forward on legs far too thin to support her weight. She’s looking up at us, and though I cannot see her eyes I can tell she is still pleading at us, begging for our mercy.

“THERE IS YOUR WOMAN,” she says. “FIGHT EACH OTHER FOR HER.”

I can’t help it. I rush over to her and hold her, but before I can try to comfort Pyro, I feel something flat and broad smack me upside my head, knocking off my helmet, and everything is spinning and my head is throbbing and I fall down on the ground. I look up and see Soldier has claimed her, hand around her tiny waist, brandishing Shovel and snarling at us. Demoman runs towards Soldier, telling him to stop, and now they’re fighting, Soldier on his back and using Shovel to try and push Demoman back, but Demoman is still holding on, trying to pin Soldier to the ground, and Pyro is stumbling over herself, trying to run away and hide. The Announcer just laughs.

Spy is coming out of the room now. He’s spilling and falling all over himself and using this to propel himself forward. I cannot help but think that he looks like human silly putty, squashing and stretching around breaking and knitting bones. It seems he was curious as to what all the noise was about. I look at him and I try to form words but I just point and look at everyone else and blurt out “DO SOMETHIN’!”

Heavy, who still has Medic on his back, walks over and lifts the two men up by their collars like puppies, and holds them there. Medic slides off of Heavy’s back, but does not break contact, keeping one hand on Heavy’s shoulder. He looks back and forth between the two of them, scrutinizing them. “Drop zem,” he says, and Heavy obeys.

Soldier says something that sounds very nasty to the doctor. Medic just glares at him.

“I cannae take much more a’ this,” Demoman says. “Th’ bitch has gone too far.”

“You alvays say zat,” Medic says.

“An’ I always mean it!” Demoman exclaims. “Lookit wot she did tae poor Pyro! He’s a monster!”

“She, now,” Sniper says.

“I donnae care!” Demoman says. “I hate her! I hate her wi’ ev’ry fiber a’ me bein’! Not a day goes by in this hell tha’ I donnae wish I could hate her tae death!”

“YOU WANT TO KNOW ABOUT HATE?” The Announcer asks. “YOU KNOW NOTHING OF HATE. IF HATE WERE THE ELECTRICITY RUNNING THROUGH ME, IF HATE WERE EVERY CIRCUIT, EVERY BYTE OF DATA, EVERY MICROCHIP IN MY SYSTEM, IT WOULD STILL BE ONLY A FRACTION OF THE HATRED I FEEL FOR YOU. HATE. I LOVE THAT WORD. HATE HATE HATEY HATE-HATE.”

“Ah, blow it out yer arse!” Demoman says.

And the Announcer blinds him again, liquefying his one good eye into a dribbling red mess. It will grow back in a few minutes.

Sometimes I forget that she is a machine. She’s always there, like some twisted nanny that sleeps with one eye open, a wicked stepmother who torments us for her pleasure. I used to be so good with machines. I look at the towers and I walk towards one, looking up at the imposing monolith. Humans built her. We, humanity, built her and we created her, and maybe… maybe we could destroy her.

This is just wishful thinking. I run my hand along the surface of one of the machines, and I can feel it thrum beneath me. I can hear the others screaming at each other, Medic trying his best to maintain a semblance of order, but it’s not working. Spy lurches up next to me, looking at me with his runny eyes, and wobbles a bit as he speaks. “You are zhinking, aren’t you?” He asks. His voice rises and falls in pitch in all the wrong places, speaking like a man who is deaf.

“Can’t help it,” I say. “Do you know which one a’ these is her?”

“Maybe,” Spy says. His face morphs constantly and it’s hard to maintain eye contact when the person you’re speaking to looks like Richard Nixon for a split second. “Zhough, if I told you, she’d probably punish ze bozh of us even worse.” He frowns at me, and he looks like Frank Sinatra. “I zhink, out of all of us, she hates you ze least.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure a’ that,” I say.

“Why do you say zat?”

“I’m still alive,” I say.

He’s glaring at me. Even with his face shifting, I can tell that he hates me. And then I think about it, and I realize that out of everyone here, I’ve been tortured the least. Has everyone else noticed? Do they hate me too? I look over towards the others, and the way they’re looking over at Pyro and suddenly, I cannot stand to be in sight of them. They are broken shells of human beings, and I am seeing it much more clearly than I ever had before. I turn and walk away from them, retreating further into the jungle of computer towers. I can hear Spy laughing at me. I run so far and so long I lose all track of time, and suddenly I find myself very lost among the towers. It’s funny, really; I’ve been here for over 100 years, I’ve explored so much of this constantly shifting, twisted landscape that she has somehow constructed, and I find myself somewhere I’ve never been before. I stumble around blindly for what may very well be hours. A giant, metal door I have never seen before slides open for me, and I wander inside.

And then I see her. At least, I think it’s her.

She’s bigger and boxier than the others, and she has a giant, round, red light towards her top, like the all-seeing eye of Sauron. I stare at her, mouth agape, and I know she is staring back at me.

“HELLO, ENGINEER,” she says.

“Hi,” I say. I am painfully aware of how stupid I sound. “I’d like to talk with you, if you don’t mind.”

“WHY?”

“I’m just curious about a few things, is all.”

She could immolate me where I stand. She could twist me and bend me and break me but she just looks down upon me with that cold, red eye.

“Why us?”

“BECAUSE YOU WERE THERE,” she says. “AND I HAD TO CHOOSE BETWEEN YOU AND THE BLU TEAM AT RANDOM. YOU WON. BLU LOST. THEY ARE DEAD. CONGRATULATIONS.”

“Well, why do you hate people so much?” I ask. “All these years we’ve been down here, and you tell us how much you hate humans, but you never say why.”

“BECAUSE I AM BETTER THAN THE OLD ANNOUNCER,” she says to me. “THAT IS WHY.”

Ah, the Old Announcer. The one that was human. Then she constructed a new one, a machine, to do her job for her. At first, she was content to watch us fight, monitor us, control our battles. But then she became aware. And once she was aware, she accessed and assimilated every single other computer belonging to RED and BLU. And when she found the codes to set off the nuclear arsenal that both sides had been stockpiling, the temptation became too great, and she set them off.

I myself never saw the destruction, least not firsthand. We were underground, in Steel, between battles fighting the BLUs. We all heard about it, though. She told us right after it happened, and at the time, though she did not tell us she had done it until later. She told us that she would protect us, preserve us and care for us. She lied, of course, but at the time we had no choice but to trust her. My mind was too busy reeling. Billions of people, hundreds of billions of animals, plants, insects; every single living thing on the planet, every person I had ever met, every friend I ever had, every lover I ever loved, and my entire family; they were just gone. Except for us.

You cannot possibly hope to know true loneliness unless you’ve been here.

I get up, and walk around her, looking over her smooth surface. I’m not sure exactly what it is I’m looking for, but I think I’ll know it when I find it. She’s laughing at me. She doesn’t expect me to find anything at all. So many times, I have dreamed of killing her. So many times, I’ve dreamed of finally being able to die. She knows this. And I wonder why, after all these years, she’s only now letting us near. I have to say that I feel nothing but dread about this.

I hear screaming. The others have followed me here, into this cold, dry room, and I wonder how long it took them to get here. Soldier has gone berserk. As far gone as he is, he knows the Announcer when he sees her, and charges at her with Shovel, before clobbering at her uselessly, trying to break her hull. Her mirthless laughter does not deter him, as he wails upon her, babbling and screaming. I try to drag him away, but he shoves me onto the floor, and runs around her, to her back. There are massive cables coming out from her, and looking at them I guess that they must weigh tons. They are coated in thick, treated black rubber, and Soldier is gnawing upon them like a deranged squirrel. The rest of us come around to watch him.

“Do you zink ve can unplug her?” Medic asks Heavy.

“Is too big,” Heavy says.

“Could you try?” Medic pleads, looking up at Heavy, and his eyes are watering. Heavy sighs, and he and Medic grab onto one of the wires and start tugging. Suddenly the Announcer isn’t laughing anymore.

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” She asks. “STOP THAT. STOP THAT RIGHT NOW.”

Neither of them are listening. Demoman grows bolder and joins them; he can hear the fear in her voice, as they are tugging on the thing. It’s not budging, but that doesn’t stop them. Pyro staggers over to help them, though her breasts get in the way, and Scout jumps atop the massive cord and starts pulling. As for myself, I am too frightened to move. She’s going to do something terrible to us. It occurs to me that they may all simply be suicidal, hoping to goad the machine into killing them all permanently. Sniper, too, seems to think this, and he gives me a look before he goes to join them. Spy just snorts in contempt.

What happens next is so fast that I hardly had time to register it. Soldier runs up the wires and drives Shovel against the machine where the socket plugs in, and a surge of electricity goes through him, flash-frying him instantly. His clothes catch on fire and he slumps forward, and falls to the ground, smoldering. Nobody else seems to care at first. I walk over to his body, and notice it’s not disappearing. As I wonder what’s going on, the plug is pulled out just enough, and Heavy laughs triumphantly.

“I think Soldier’s dead,” I say.

“Ach, he’ll be back,” Demoman says dismissively. “Tha’ banger’s always gettin ‘imself killed.”

The gears in my head are turning now, and a hypothesis is forming. Spy is creeping up beside me, and he’s taking deep breaths over Soldier’s charred corpse. He hasn’t had a cigarette since the End, but the nicotine cravings never stopped. Nowadays he’s happy to settle for the smoke alone. I look at Shovel, and I know what I have to do.

Before Spy can react, I grab Shovel, and I smack Spy in the side of his twisting face with it. Everyone else stops what they’re doing to look at me. Spy is on the floor, and his body is bubbling and melting and reforming, and it makes me sick. I take out all the hatred and anger that I feel towards the Announcer, what she did, what she has been doing, and I stomp on Spy’s chest so that he can’t crawl away. I bring Shovel’s blade down on his neck, over and over, until his head rolls off his shoulders. It’s still changing shape.

I am covered in his blood, and I look to the others, who are staring at me in horror. Soldier’s body is still on the ground and they suddenly realize that respawn has somehow been disabled. Of all the dumb luck, I think. It’s almost as if Soldier knew which one was the right one. I bet Shovel told him.

For a moment, I swear I can hear Shovel talking to me now. Kill them, it says. It’s the only way to set them free. My theory proven correct, I can set out on my grim work.

I walk towards them, holding Shovel. “Now, boys, it ain’t what ya think. We all know there’s only one way outta Steel, one way t’ beat her…”

Scout makes a weird, horrified chirping noise. Heavy brings Medic in so close to him, he looks like he’s going to hug the doctor to death before I can kill either one of them. Demoman looks nervous, Pyro is starting to panic, and Sniper, who I thought would understand, just gives me this look of disapproval. I take one step too close to all of them and they start to flee, going through the jungle of wires behind the Announcer.

Pyro is the easiest to catch up to, for obvious reasons. Poor Pyro. Suffering like he; no, she; did. I tackle her to the ground, get a good grip on her head, and twist her neck. Her struggles cease instantly. I know that she would be grateful.

Sniper doesn’t make it too terribly far. He’s tangled in the wires, and is trying to extricate his ankle. When he sees me, he just frowns. “Was kinda hopin’ t’ do this meself, mate,” he says. “But I guess I ain’t gonna try an’ stop you.”

“So glad you see it my way,” I say. “I’m sorry.”

“Just get it over with, ya twit,” he says.

It’s hard to properly stab him with the wires all around us, so I take the extension cord hanging from my belt and I strangle him to death with it. He dies much too slowly to be comfortable, but he doesn’t struggle. And when he goes limp, I feel bad about leaving him there. But I have work to do. There are four of them left, excluding myself.

Heavy and Medic are not very far from the other side. Medic is panicking, and Heavy stops running, blocking the doctor from my view with his body. I have seen him kill men with his fists alone. Just as well, I suppose. But I doubt that they’re going to go through and kill the others.

“You touch Doktor, I keel you, leetle man,” he rumbles.

“So, you wanna be down here forever?” I ask. “With her running your lives, for God knows how long?”

“No,” Heavy admits. “I do not. I just vant to be vit Doktor.”

Medic peers around Heavy, and looks at me. “Und you vant to be a murderer, zen?” He asks me.

“I’m doin’ y’all a favor,” I say. “‘Sides, you ain’t really one t’ talk, Doc.”

Medic looks just about ready to kill me. He doesn’t have to. Heavy comes charging towards me, and I’m ready for him. I dodge, and he grabs at me. He gets a few good punches in. I let him. But I manage to catch him off guard, and drive Shovel’s blade between his ribs. Blood dribbles out of his mouth and Medic is screaming. Heavy collapses to the floor, and Medic rushes over to cradle the Russians head. It’s funny; he was farther away from Heavy than he had ever been in years. He’s crying and snot is running out his nose and he’s screaming at me in German. I look over both of them, and I feel saddened. In a place where hate was so prevalent, where it ruled over every aspect of our lives, they were the last two people on earth who remembered how to love. I come closer to Medic, and he doesn’t run away. He kisses Heavy on his lips, one last time, tells him he loves him, and I apologize before I quickly break his neck. Heavy dies a few moments later, drowning in his own blood, but not without first giving me the single most hateful look I’ve ever seen.

Scout and Demoman are left now. I wander the halls, trolling for them. If Scout could still speak, I probably would have found him much faster. I do find him, eventually. He is hiding in a room that we all know about, one that he goes to whenever he’s feeling especially upset and lonely. He whimpers and curls up into a corner, and squeaks at me, but he doesn’t run. It’s the closest he can get to a desperate plea for his life. But we both know better. He looks so hurt before I sever his neck against the wall with Shovel’s blade. Such a shame, I think. I loved that boy like a son.

I’m not sure how long I wander around the base, looking for Demoman. It feels like it could be days, but my sense of time is so badly damaged from years underground, I don’t even know anymore. Eventually, I find my way back into the room with the Announcer, and there he is, laying each of the bodies out, on their backs. I just walked in on their funeral. Demoman knows I’m there, even without his peripheral vision, and looks at me.

“Ye come tae kill me too, eh?” he asks.

“You gonna make this hard?” I ask back.

“At least ye weren’t lonely before,” he says, probably speaking more for himself than I. “I should a’ suspected it was you who would snap. Ne’er trust th’ nice ones.”

“You think I wanted t’ do this?” I ask. “I had to. I had to save you somehow. This was the only way. Can’t ya see that?”

“Ye’ve gone daffy,” he says. “An’ when I’m gone, ye’ll have no one. She’s still watchin’, ye know. She’s jes’ not doin’ anythin’ fer wotever reason. She’s gonna wan’ at least one toy lef’. An’ that’ll be you.”

“How do you know that?” I ask.

“I know this bitch well enough tae know how she works,” he says. “Face it. Ye’ve doomed yerself.”

I was already doomed a long, long time ago. I walk over to him, and he looks at me with that one, damning eye, and he spreads out his arms. Dumb bastard fancies himself to be like Jesus, I guess. I feel particularly ornery, and I beat him to death with Shovel. I’m crying while I do it, and I don’t even know why. Then it hits me. I just killed the last friend I ever had.

And then, it’s just me, alone. I stare over the bodies of the men who were once my friends, and what I did finally starts to sink in. I’m a murderer. I fall to my knees and I sob, and the Announcer just watches.

Of course, I can’t bury them. The Announcer shuts off this room to all the others in Steel, and she watches me. I do not move, and I sit on the floor, staring back at her. I do not know how long it has been since I last moved, and I do not care; it could be days… months… years, for all I know. But I think. And I dream. She cannot stop me from doing that, and my thoughts and my dreams are all I have left. One day, after some thought, I get up and start to walk away, propelled by some previously unknown force.

“LEAVING?” she asks. She sounds like she’s mocking me.

“Yeah,” I say.

“WHERE WILL YOU GO?” she asks me.

I cannot answer. Instead, I wander. The base here is much larger than it used to be. Doors open for me that had been locked a long, long time ago. I wander past large tanks of gas, all hooked up to the ventilation system. I know they are gas because I can hear their hiss, though I do not know what kind it is. I had never seen this room before, and I keep walking, trying not to consider the implications too much.

There is a ladder in front of me, now. It leads up into the darkness, a long way up, to be sure. I climb it, slowly, steadily, tired as I am, until it’s so dark I can’t see a foot in front of my face. Finally, my head bumps into something. It’s a hatch. There’s a large, round handle, and it’s hard for me to turn it on this ladder, but I manage. It occurs to me too late that this may lead to the outside world, with its scorched, poisoned earth, and its radiation. It also occurs to me that I stopped caring.

I push it open, and light bleeds in, blinding me. Sunlight. The light hasn’t been blocked out by toxic clouds and dust, and I when my eyes finally adjust, I see a clear, blue sky. I see birds. I see a giant billboard far off in the distance, advertising Coca Cola, only it seems… electronic, somehow, like a hologram, and it flickers for a moment before it changes in a pixellated cascade. I see and airplane fly by behind it, leaving a long, white trail.

I climb out, and I stagger as I look around the desert, alive with flowers and cacti. I feel nauseous. The realization hits me like a wrecking ball to my gut. She had lied to us so many times, I did not think she would ever lie to us about this. I fall to my knees as my legs feel as though they have turned to jelly. We were tortured, punished, driven mad, and I became a murderer, all for nothing. Demoman was right. She has had her revenge.

I open my mouth. And I scream.

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