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In The Ant Lion's Den

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The subject matter of this article contains in-development information that was cut from the final version of an official and/or canonical source and appears in no other canonical source. It may also contain incomplete information since not all cut material is publicly known.

In The Ant Lion's Den is a short story written by series writer Marc Laidlaw early in Half-Life 2's development and later meant to be featured in the book Half-Life 2: Raising the Bar. However, it was cut from the final version, ultimately only being seen in the uncorrected proof.[1] It is part of a collection of writings dubbed Dark Matter Short Stories which Laidlaw shared with the team so they could better understand the feel of the game.[1]

Synopsis[edit]

The vignette describes Gordon's journey from Ravenholm to Eli's camp through Antlion-inhabited Wasteland. Apparently planned to be his first encounter with the insect-like creatures, this segment focuses on their behavior, appearance, and social organization.

After reaching a rocky vantage point, Gordon scans the desolate landscape scattered with huge metal wrecks using his binoculars. Following a trail marked by other Resistance members, he brings his attention to mysterious hissing sounds and the fact that small objects would quickly sink into the sand, reminding him of the traps set up by ant lions. Cautious of the unstable ground and any possible hostile life forms, Gordon continues his journey by utilizing solid surfaces such as rock or metal as stepping stones. However, he eventually alerts the Antlions of his presence, causing them to begin emerging out of the sand one by one.

Armed with a Shotgun, a Submachine Gun, and Grenades, Gordon takes on the swarm of the sizable, albeit individually weak, insectoids while trying to reach higher ground. From atop a rocky ridge, he is able to spot a safe haven in the form of a metal hull of an overturned ship, but entering it would involve crossing another patch of quicksand. Gordon attempts to dash towards the wreck but is stopped in his tracks with the appearance of an Antlion leader. Once the powerful and gargantuan creature caught Gordon's scent, not even a grenade was able to stop its charge. A hidden hatch to the ship's hull proves to be the only escape from this deadly trap.

Story[edit]

The following is a reproduction of the original text of the story.

The dust cloud swirled away, erasing Father Grigori's footprints. The ruinous shadows of Ravenholm swallowed up any further trace of the priest.

Gordon turned from the field of scurry–mines and loped toward a ridge of rocks where some previous traveler had piled a cairn of stones on the ridge and thrust a stake with a fluttering rag in the midst of them as an additional marker.

"A trail", Father Grigori had said. "There is a trail of sorts to Eli's camp. But few survived the journey. Which is why so many chose to remain here with me... despite the promise of greater security that Eli offered. There are things out there. I’ve seen them at the edge of town. They don't come close. For which I thank God."

The view from the ridge was one of stillness and desolation. The landscape was scattered with tangled metal, as if the contents of an enormous junkyard had been strewn here from a great height. There would be cover from air patrols, but the shadows underneath the huge scraps of metal held their own promise of horror.

Far off he heard a strange keening sound he had not heard since Black Mesa, and thought he saw a distant yellow flash.

An isolated houndeye was no great concern.

But if he were to run into a pack.....

He raised his binoculars and scanned the dark valley below. Another small heaped shape marked the next trail marker. Before leaving, he glanced down at the cairn beside him. Closer study showed that one of the rocks was scratched with a faint weathered symbol —— the same lambda sign that had marked secret caches in the sewers of City 17. Seeing a faint glimmer from within the pile, he loosened one of the rocks and uncovered a small medical kit. He didn’t need it yet, since Father Grigori had patched his wounds, but he was thankful to have it.

Gordon scrambled down the slope and leapt from an overhang that brought him down hard on the earth of the sprawling junkyard. Some rocks, unsettled by his descent, continued rolling past him and bounced across the hardpan, banging against scrap metal, stirring up noises he wished had not been stirred. More worrying was the soft hissing that came like an echo, or an answer.

What was it?

As he watched, the last of the tumbling stones rolled across the rusted curve of an old aircraft fuselage and settled on the sand. But it did not stop there. It continued sinking until it vanished. The sandy hissing continued for a moment after that. Then all fell still again.

Gordon studied his surroundings with a more critical eye. The stone cairn up ahead looked more like an island now, set with great deliberation on solid ground. But around it, between the metal scraps, the earth looked as if it had been freshly turned, or pushed up from below. What exactly could he expect if he set foot on the plentiful sandy patches? It began to remind him uneasily of the fine sand around the edge of an ant lion’s funnel... but without the clear border of the ant lion's trap, that would have made it so easy for him to avoid.

A sand-blasted cola bottle lay half-buried, choked with dried mud, on the ground near his feet. He picked it up and gingerly lobbed it onto a patch of sand just beyond where the rock had vanished. Within seconds, the bottle too was gone, leaving only a puff of dust that quickly settled. Gordon crept across the fuselage fragment as if it were a raft bearing him across a sea of dust. The silt was a fine powder, almost a liquid. Something had converted ordinary soil into this. Some Combine process? Where was the sense in that? Perhaps a creature. Yes. A creature like an earthworm. Swallowing up the earth and transforming it into this silty medium, so much easier to travel through for things that might swim beneath the soil.

Earthworms were harmless, he told himself. And so was this creature, most likely. But the quicksand itself was another matter. He had no idea how deep it might be; and scrambling out of it, once caught, might be impossible. His HEV suit was hardly meant to help him swim through sand.

So....

He must study the terrain, looking for solid earth, looking for stepping stones. Obviously the sheets of metal scrap rested on rock, or they would have sunk beneath by now. But the bare ground might be riddled with this new form of quicksand. And who was to say that the path to the stone cairn, solid a week or a month ago, might not now be completely rotten?

The safest route was not necessarily the most obvious, or the most direct.

Gordon edged to a corner of the metal scrap, and then stepped across a narrow gap to the next large piece. It creaked underfoot, the loudest sound in all that night. He wondered how the houndeyes fared in the quicksand.

There was a rocky outcrop just ahead, but he had a feeling he couldn't make it in one jump. He searched around his feet until he found an unlabeled tin can lodged in a metal crease. He tossed it midway between the rock and his current position. It landed with a clank and didn’t move. Gordon jumped down square onto the solid spot and picked up the can. With a second step, he bridged the gap to the rock.

He was most of the way to the stone cairn now. He skimmed the can across the ground. It hit the cairn and bounced back, settling several feet from the stones. He stepped down and walked cautiously, with slow shuffling steps, until he could retrieve the can. Then he walked the rest of the way to the cairn.

Hissssssssssss....

Gordon looked around wildly, feeling a tremor of the earth underfoot.

Head for the cairn, he thought. That was solid.

Even as he thought it, the cairn itself began to crumble.

Its separate stones scattered and sank into the softening soil.

The last thing he saw was a bit of rag fluttering on the broken stick that had topped the cairn; and then that was gone.

Gordon lobbed the can across the spot where the cairn had stood, and was relieved to hear it hit the ground with a clank and then roll several yards before banging into a span ofsheet metal. He stepped back, measuring his steps for a leap across the soft spot, but in the instant before his leap, the ground exploded into dust and rubble.

Something huge and glossy erupted from the eroded earth and sprang into Gordon’s path. This must be the ant lion —— denizen of this disturbed earth. Despite its size, it touched the ground quite lightly, even delicately, on six wicked legs. It looked like an enormous insect, striped in virulent colors like a wasp, with its glossy elytra flaring up defensively. Its hind wings formed a crystal blur as it leapt with scissoring mandibles at Gordon’s throat.

The shotgun seemed still charmed by the blessings of Father Grigori. One shot and the ant lion tumbled backward like a wad of paper, landing in a clattering chitinous pile.

Gordon judged where it had landed, and leapt to that spot. He heard the silty hissing, felt his foot begin to slide, and took another step. The sighing was louder now. even though the earth felt solid underfoot. He bounded forward and grabbed onto the edge of a rocky shelf, pulling himself clear of the quicksand.

Turning, he saw the earth behind him seething, churning, as another ant lion surged out, and another, and another.

They paused, regrouping around the ragged body of the first, and then tilted their shiny alien heads in his direction. With a shriek, they spread their wings and flew above him, descending with their sharp legs stabbing. He shot down one, then turned as the other two hit the rocks. Gordon rushed for higher ground, still having had no chance to get a look at the path ahead of him. The ridge loomed up darker than the night sky, offering the advantage of height. But as he neared the peak, a blur of black silhouettes sprang up and settled on the crest. Others had somehow been summoned to cut him off. As they fluttered down, he fired again and again. They clattered dead around him. With no time to reload the shotgun, he pulled out the machine gun and peppered them with bullets.

The things were plentiful, but their exoskeletons were brittle. They crashed down around him, screaming with a sound like rending metal. As he reached the ridge, he half expected to see clouds of the creatures swarming at him, winged legions bent on devouring everything in their path.

Mercifully there was a field of hard black rock below him. Ant lions were scurrying over it, but at least they could not surprise him here by coming up from underfoot. He traversed the ridgeline a short distance, firing shots at the pursuing creatures; then he started down. Below was what looked like the hull of an overturned ship, a long metal shell jutting out over the sand, where he would be safe from things that burrowed through the earth. The ant lions that paced him were met by short bursts of gunfire. As if reconsidering their strategy, a cluster of ant lions stopped and waited just ahead of him, at a narrow strip of earth that separated the black rock from the ship’s hull. Crossing it could be difficult.

He took out one of the grenades Father Grigory had given him, pulled the pin, and tossed it. The grenade hit the shell of an ant lion and bounced off, arcing down to land in the sand. Almost instantly, it was swallowed up, which confirmed what he had feared about the soil down there.

An instant later, a geyser of sand, silt, fire and ant lion parts roared up from the buried grenade. The gathering of ant lions scattered in a chittering cloud of wings and jaws and stabbing legs. Gordon rushed forward through their confusion, sprang across the narrow gap of quicksand, and continued full-speed onto the metal hull that rang hollow underfoot. He could hear them settling behind him, could hear their skittering steps as they followed. He ran without looking back, reloading as he rushed for the far end of the hull.

And there he stopped, gazing down.

Below him was a different creature. If the ant lions had seemed large to him, at half his height, then this thing was gargantuan —— at least twice his height, with a long, powerful body the size of a car. Its head was shielded in chitin that gleamed like steel, and he sensed this one would not shatter or split when he pocked it with bullets. It stood firm in the midst of a roiling crowd of the lesser ant lions, dwarfing them, and they seemed to treat it with fear and respect. When one came too near, it dipped its head and flicked it aside as if it were weightless.

Gordon stepped back from the edge, wondering if it had seen him. The ant lion leader cocked its head as if listening, took a few surprisingly delicate steps forward, and then seemed to sniff the air. He could actually hear it snuffling.

The moment when it caught his scent was unmistakable. Its whole body tensed, its head thrust in his direction, and all the smaller ant lions around it seemed to surge on its signal.

The second of his grenades was already in his hand. It landed at the ant lion guardian’s feet. While the lesser creatures shrank back, as if they had learned their lesson from the deaths of their fellows, the guardian treated the grenade with disdain. It lowered its heavily armored head and nudged the grenade like a horse nosing at a fallen apple. When the grenade went off, flinging the nearest ant lion bodies everywhere, the large one merely took a few steps back and shook its head as if flinging off a mild annoyance.

Gordon fell back, looking around wildly in case he had missed anything —— any opportunity to take a different path. He had nearly forgotten the pursuing ant lions, but these were easily dropped. They tumbled and slid down the sides of the hull, vanishing into the shadows. If he followed after them, he would no doubt find himself claimed by the silt. If he went backward —— well, what was the point of that? And forward... forward was madness.

Then, in the dim light, he saw a faintly luminous symbol shining on one panel: a lambda, its paint fading. The ship's hull had been sawn through on all sides of the symbol, forming a trap door. He was not the first to take this path, after all. He slid his fingers under one edge of the hatch and pried it up with rusted screechings. It was dark underneath, but reassuringly silent. He slipped through and let the hatch bang shut above him as he fell.

The flashlight illuminated a wide empty space with a curved, ribbed ceiling like the inner vault of a corroded cathedral. The bilge floor, once its ceiling, tilted down to where another hole had been cut away. He directed the flashlight beam into the room below, saw tumbled furniture, and leapt through. There was an old mattress pulled into one corner of the room, and a few empty cans that had once held food. The wall was scorched by smoke, as if someone had cooked below the hole through which he had just descended, using it as a chimney.

He stepped over the high threshold of the inverted door, coming out into an accessway that ran the length of the ship. Forward, it all ended in closed–off rooms, jumbled debris. Aft, the hallway carried him deeper than he would have thought possible. He had thought he was only running on the hull of a ship —— as the other shell were all that remained. But now he saw that most of the ship was down here, still intact. However it had come here, it had been settling in the silt for some time, and most of it was underground now. At least, being metal, it was impervious to ant lions. Presumably. He reminded himself, as he stepped over metal-sheathed coaxial cables and cage-like light housings, that it was too early to draw conclusions about their behavior.

He wondered about the lambda —— whether it had simply signaled a place to rest, a cache of weapons or supplies, or whether it had been another waypoint on the road to Eli's camp. In which case, he supposed he was now heading in the wrong direction. At worst, he could scavenge for supplies and then retrace his steps. Maybe there was a way forward after all. He would know soon enough.

He came to an inverted stairway. For his purposes, it was simply a drop into darkness, and one from which he wouldn’t be returning. He listened, and again heard nothing to suggest a threat. If anything, it was quieter down here, even his footsteps sounding more muffled, with the ship encased in earth. He took the leap and found himself in a section of corridor that had been ruptured from outside. A faint susurrus of moving air suggested open spaces somewhere near or far. He aimed his light through the rupture and saw stone, smoothed as if polished, gleaming with nodules of what looked like heat-fused silicates. It was a tunnel.

Gordon crept through the opening. The tunnel ran steeply past the rupture. Listening with all his concentration, and moving as quietly as he could, he sidled toward the rear of the ship. After several yards, the passage angled up so sharply that he could advance no farther without simply slipping backward. In the other direction, it curved away from the ship in a gradual descent. If he had any doubt that this was the way to proceed, he soon came upon a chalk lambda. Gordon thought of Jules Verne’s Arne Saknussen leading his followers toward the Earth’s core with similar markings.

Only mildly reassured, he began his own descent.

The passage was oddly regular, giving him the impression it had been machined or at least hewn by some extremely consistent creature. He had to be careful not to let its monotony lull him into lethargy... his tendency, especially given his fatigue level, was to fall into a kind of trance. But the sameness of the journey gave way to an adrenaline jolt, and new worries to go with it, when he came to the first intersection.

It was not the matter of choosing a path that worried him. It was the fact that suddenly he heard the soft, steady skittering of ant lions somewhere near; and he realized that for whatever reason, the tunnel he'd been following was disused, but others were not. Worse, the lambda marking showed up at the mouth of one of the divergent passages, and the insect sounds grew louder as he proceeded in that direction.

He expected at any moment to find himself on a well trafficked ant lion highway. The sound of chitin on stone grew louder and louder; he could hear the creatures’ constant soft chittering.

Finally he came out on a ledge above a wider passage. There was a steady movement of ant lions back and forth, several feet below him. None paid him the least bit of mind. Directly across from him was another tunnel opening. And there, sure enough, just inside the entrance, was another lambda mark.

Gordon sank back to watch the ant lions come and go. They didn't seem to notice his light, so he grew a bit bolder with it.

There were gaps in the procession. Sometimes several seconds went by with no ant lions in sight. But always another string of them would come along. They headed in either direction, sometimes bunching up and touching each other with their antennae and claws, before proceeding. And then there would be another quiet interval. He could hear their wings fluttering as they took short flight in the unseen dark.

He crouched and waited. The traffic surged, thinned, then surged again. He watched an ant lion scuttle out of the reach of his light to the left. Then, just as it vanished, another appeared from the same spot. It hurried along below him, limping slightly, taking its time. He wondered if it was a creature he had injured at the surface. It was taking forever, and in the meantime, he could hear the scurrying of others approaching.

The dawdler finally vanished at the edges of his vision. Gordon leapt down and scrambled for the far ledge, finding the surface slicker than expected. He couldn’t get traction. He fell back and tried again, again.

He looked at the ledge he’d abandoned. It was too high to get back up. Well. He looked left. It was silent that way. He ran hurriedly, casting the light ahead of him, until he came to a steep section of tunnel. This must be where he'd heard them taking short flights. Turning, he rushed back the other way with his shotgun ready now, steeling himself for the inevitable confrontation. He hurried past the unreachable tunnel mouths, including the one with the lambda mark. So much for Arne Saknussen.

Miraculously, while he could hear ant lions somewhere up ahead, for the moment they had stopped crawling up this passage. But their sounds were getting louder as he hurried on. Surely at any moment he’d see their hard eyes glittering in his beam.

He came out suddenly in a wide section of tunnel... there was no telling its extent. He could see the gleam of ant lions straight ahead of him, however. Ducking sideways, he found himself in a tumbled pile of broken rock. The sound of the creatures was incredible here, filling the air, as if he were in a crowded arena. He crouched and caught his breath, content to think that for the moment he was hidden and off the main path. As he knelt there, he noticed a small movement on the ground just ahead. A fat little grub lay there... well, it wasn’t exactly little for a grub, unless you considered the size of the ant lion it would presumably grow into. It was roughly the size and shape of a sourdough loaf, and it was coming his way.

Despite a general fondness for insects in all their forms, Gordon suppressed the urge to kick the thing in revulsion. There was no telling how it might react if harmed; and the thought had just occurred to him, given the presence of the larva, that he might be in something similar to a nest. Best to be on good behavior.

The thing wriggled over to him, seeming to sense him, however dimly.

It lifted its stubby head and waved it in his direction, like a caterpillar straining to reach the next leaf.

Gordon scrambled backward, standing up.

He stumbled over a low lip of rock, and fell back into another restricted tunnel passage. His light crossed the familiar lambda chalk mark, just at the tunnel’s mouth. So he had found his way back to the passage after all, and an easy exit from this infernal nest.

He scrambled into the passage, first going on all fours, then running over hunched so as not to bang his head on the low ceiling. He was making progress now —— good progress. The passage seemed to be deserted, like the one he had followed initially. He had to hold back from running, wanting to conserve his strength, because one never knew what hazard lay ahead.

And with that thought, the next hazard dutifully appeared.

The passage ended on a high ledge, crossing a perpendicular tunnel that ran past at a somewhat lower level. He was hit by déjà vu. Ant lions scurried along beneath him, and he heard the frenzied sound of wings as they took flight briefly somewhere to his right. Everything was turned around, but it was all the same.

He looked up and saw the chalk mark on the stones just above his head.

So this was none other than the ledge he had failed to scale the first time. He was back at the verge of the passage that would carry him down to the nest, and no closer to finding his way out than he had been before.

The worst thought was the realization that he would have to return to the nest, and find his way around or through it.

Resigned to this course, he retraced his steps. When he arrived at the entrance to the vast black nest, the little grub was still waiting for him where he had left it several minutes ago.

It raised its blunt blind head and let out a little chirrup, and even began to glow, as if cheerfully welcoming him back.

Gordon couldn’t restrain himself. He'd suffered so many indignities.

To be... mocked... by this blind ugly inhuman thing.

He raised his foot and stepped down on the grub, putting the full weight of his frustration into it.

It squealed as it burst.

In that instant, the entire seething, chittering, chaotic business of the nest roared to a louder pitch of frenzy.

And then... went utterly silent.

Gallery[edit]

References[edit]