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A short story by

James Waugh

The zerglings got Birch when they overran the terran base on Urona Sigma. Once again, the evacuation dropships were late, the way it always seemed they were.

Birch was once an upper school demolition star from Shiloh, a greasy motor head who knew little else. Demolition was a particularly brutal sport, the kind parents always tried to have banned from the schools but never could succeed in doing. Much like the demolition derby drivers of Old Earth, demolition jockeys built their vehicles and then used them to "knock out" their competitors. It was king of the hill at 190 kilometers an hour with no hill, just unstable, rocky gravel. The car with the most knockouts (that could still function) won. Every year scores of young men and the occasional woman were hospitalized for severe burns, breaks, and bruises; a handful would die. Birch was the best. Hands down. It was all he lived for. His life outside of school had been spent elbow deep in the engine of whatever car he had been building at the time, thinking about getting back into the arena. In upper school he held the record for most knockouts and never once had been hospitalized for injuries. For a time, he had been a local legend.

When he graduated, the depression set in. He no longer had the fame, praise, or weekly adrenaline rush of his upper school days. He had never made the greatest grades, so he went to work doing the only other thing he was good at and became a mechanic. After two years of tinkering away at cars, transports, and vulture bikes, all the cheerleaders who remembered his glory days had moved on to other worlds or other lives. His trips back to practice when school would get out had been met with less and less enthusiasm by the newer crop of motor heads, who all thought Birch's records sounded breakable. Day by day, his small-town fame had become a fading memory.

The underground demolition leagues were run by the mob. Everyone knew that. Everyone knew that working for them meant offering yourself up to thrown matches, loss of financial control, and dishonor. As much as Birch missed the rush, the roar of the engines, the vibration of the uncomfortable seats he'd use because they were cheap, and the spike in his heart rate as the world would fade away and he'd zone out, accelerating right at a rival, he wasn't willing to hand over his record to the betting whims of an underworld mob boss who would ask him for the occasional loss. Birch took pride in what he was good at and couldn't imagine letting that one thing go.

But he did miss the rush. He missed being in the action, uncertain if at any moment all hell would break loose, the only thing stopping that being his pure focus. That sort of concentration in the midst of fury had made him alive. Without it he'd started to feel dead, redundant, like someone else. It was a Dominion Marine Corps holo ad that got him. It was the sound of Emperor Mengsk's inspiring voice over images of neosteel-covered marines firing heavy gauss rifles that made the idea of leaving Shiloh and joining the Corps a viable option. There was a threat in the universe, and maybe he could combat it.

Days later he was in boot camp on Turaxis II. Initially, given his past, he had assumed that he'd be signed up as a vulture or tank pilot, but the Corps already had enough of them. What it needed were front-line marines, grunts, fodder.

Virgil Caine and Birch hit it off instantly. Caine got a loyal partner in crime to help execute his orders, and Birch had a real friend for the first time since his demolition days. They'd talk late into the night over bottles of Scotty Bolger's, sharing things that only the bonds of combat allowed men to. Caine opened up to the younger soldier, telling him that he never thought he would find a woman who would love him, that he was too much a man of the Corps, and women were intuitive and could sense that sort of thing. Birch did his best to discourage the idea, but they both saw an element of truth to it. Birch told Caine that he never thought he'd ever experience the sense of accomplishment he'd had in his upper school days again, and that the idea of it scared the hell out of him.

When the zerglings got Birch, the base was already overrun, and most of the standing structures were consumed in flames, bombarded by mutalisks soaring down from above. Virgil and Birch were running as fast as their CMCs would carry them toward the rendezvous mark. Command had said that dropships were inbound for evac. Command said a lot of things.

"Where the hell is the damned evac?!!" Virgil screamed into his comm as a concussive, splattering blast ripped up the ground next to him.

"No one's answering," Birch said, turning back and firing blindly. "My God," he whispered, startled. There was nothing in the universe that struck deeper terror in a man than the sight of an army of zerglings flooding a compound. There were hundreds, hopping and charging, ripping men down and shredding buildings. They were legion, overwhelming. It was nothing but a biological sea of muted browns and purples, claws, talons, and teeth. A swarm of dead-eyed monsters.

Birch continued to fire!

"Cease fire!" Virgil insisted. "Keep moving, soldier. You're only drawing attention to us… This battle is lost. Go! Go! Go!"

"Darn it, Sarge, I want to kill these bastards."

"Just keep moving!"

"For what? Evac's left us here, Virg; ain't no dropships on the horizon. This is our last stand."

"That's an order, Birch… Hell, forget that. Do it for me, for your friend. Not rank!" That was all Virgil had to say. Birch stopped firing and broke back into a run without a second thought.

Moments later, coasting across the skyline came two dropships like a beacon of red hope.

"They're coming… They're coming in."

"Move!"

It didn't take long for a mutalisk to see the aid and tail the terran vessels. The two dropships divided, one trying to break the mutalisk off of the other and lose it in a chase. The muta followed as the other dropship arced to the rally point, where Virgil and Birch stood waving their arms.

The dropship hatch popped open, and a female voice screamed from inside, "Strap yourselves in, boys!"

Just as the two were about to hop aboard, a whistling scream ripped through the sky above. But it wasn't a zerg; it was the sound of the other dropship spiraling out of control, smoking and on fire, heading right toward them. Without a second to react, the dropship that had been waiting for them pulled up, trying not to get caught in the explosion that was sure to follow and leaving Virgil and Birch scurrying for cover.

BOOOOOOM!

When the dropship hit the ground, the earth below rattled. Flames licked the surface and ignited in long snaking strips across the rally point. High above, the remaining dropship began to turn back, searching for the right angle to evac Virgil and Birch.

That was when they heard it, that familiar sound of horrible chittering, amplified by numbers. A hundred or maybe five hundred zerglings charged at them.

"Run, Sarge… Damn it, Virg, run!"

"Birch, follow me! That's an order."

But he didn't. Instead, he turned and faced the throng, mashing down on his trigger as fast and as hard as he could until, like a colossal wave breaking over the shoreline, the horde hit him so hard that he toppled over and was trampled as if he had never been there to begin with. Some stopped to shred his body; others focused on Virgil, who was still running toward the now-waiting dropship.

"Hurry, marine, hurry. Do not look back!" the pilot screamed.

Virgil just ran, though every fiber of his being made him want to look back, to see if he could get one last glimpse of his friend, to see if he was still alive. He knew that thought was ludicrous, but he hoped. Finally, he reached the dropship and leaped inside.

But he wasn't alone! A zergling soared into the air as the ship was pulling away and clamped onto the railing, yanking itself up as the hatch closed down.

"Shoot! That thing is getting in." The pilot was terrified, doing her best to get the ship out of the fire zone, and even more frightened at having a live zerg this close to her. Zerglings looked scary enough from up high, but at this range they were a living nightmare.

Virgil backed against the metal frame of the ship. The zergling had managed to get inside and with uncanny speed flung itself toward him, talon extended up to strike!

At such a close range the sonic spikes from Virgil's rifle turned the zergling's head into hanging, disjointed ground meat, nothing more than a putty of gore and teeth. But it didn't stop. The creature kept coming and drove its talon down into Virgil's chest, cracking apart the CMC armor and ripping the flesh underneath. Virgil screamed as the gun fell from his hand. The zergling was dying but was still conscious enough to pull its talon back for another desperate strike.

That was when he acted, fighting back the darkness that was clawing at his consciousness from the loss of blood. As the talon came in for a second slice, Virgil swung his fist right into what was left of the zergling's face, smashing its teeth to bits and knocking it back. With every ounce of willpower he ever had, Virgil thrust himself forward and punched again with the full automated power of the CMC behind the swing, and again and again and again, until the creature stopped moving and he tumbled over to his side, the world fading to black.

The last thing he remembered seeing before waking up in the hospital was a broken zergling tooth clenched tightly in his gauntlet-covered hand.

Birch was dead. Rho Squad had been obliterated during the base assault. Virgil was all that was left.

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