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Page 10 of 14
A short story by

Antony Johnston

The floor was littered with the charred bodies of slugs. She assumed they were casualties from Raynolds's experimental stock, freed when their jars and cages burnt.

She realized how wrong she was when she brushed past a vine, and a shower of zantar slugs fell on her from above. She was lucky — none of them touched her head, visor, or oxygen tubing. But several landed on her right arm, and reacted instinctively before she could brush them off. Some landed on vines, setting the sap alight. They shriveled and fell while the fires burnt themselves out quickly, with nowhere left to spread.

The back of her hand burned as hot as the flames. A searing pain crept up her forearm, and she realized they weren't just on her hand. The hand just had more nerve receptors to register the pain.

She ripped off her glove, frantically tore the coolsuit arm away from its shoulder, and stared in horror. Patches of skin on her hand and arm smoked and hissed as the slugs' acid settled into her flesh. On the floor, the fabric of her coolsuit arm and glove melted like ice. The mucous even ate into the sections of neosteel plating that had covered her major muscles.

Illyana cried out. The pain was like nothing she'd ever felt, not even in the war. Worse, it wasn't even an enemy-inflicted wound, but a mishap that was ultimately her own stupid fault. She felt like a rank amateur, and cursed her stubbornness. She should have listened to Dan, stayed in the central base, and helped prep for evac.

But she hadn't. And that same stubbornness kept her moving, drawing her P220 with her left hand. Somehow, the slugs had gotten free in here, lit up the vine sap, and razed the ecosystem in this dome to the ground. But how?

She backed out into the destroyed hub. The slugs and sap fire certainly hadn't caused all the damage in here. So what had? She walked down the second corridor to the slug dome, and found the answer to her first question. The airlock's inner door had been torn from its hinges and lay on the floor, bent and battered.

It was pockmarked with holes, and lying there on the ground, it resembled one of the sinkhole clusters outside. The slugs had attacked it for some reason.

Many possibilities ran through her mind, and she raised her pistol as she stepped through the doorway. Her right arm, what remained of it, no longer hurt. Just a dull ache. Either she was going into shock, or her brain had somehow shut off the receptors to that part of her body. Regardless, it was a bad sign. Even if she made it out of here, her arm would be useless. She wondered if the company would buy her a cyberlimb as compensation.

She heard a hollow, cynical laugh from somewhere, then realized it was her own. She was burning up. The coolsuit's temperature controls had shut down when she'd ripped the arm off, breaking the seal, and now sweat ran down her face, stinging her eyes.

Her mind focused with remarkable speed when she almost tripped over Raynolds's body inside the doorway.

He was unrecognizable, torn and shredded to a pulp. But it was a human body, fallen probably at the spot where he'd spoken his last words, that call to base Illyana had overheard while talking to Dan.

The cracks she'd seen from outside were in this biosphere, but it was the other side that spoke volumes. It was almost completely destroyed. Shards of shattered diffuser screen lay everywhere. The plants of the miniature ecosystem, so carefully arranged to replicate rainforest conditions, were trampled and ruined. Several larger trees had been ripped out by their roots.

She glanced down, checking for more slugs, and realized that whatever had done this, it was no stampede of wild animals. The floor tiles weren't just scored by deep claw marks. They also bore burn marks, serrated spines embedded in the surface, and a halo of trampled debris. It was all familiar enough to tighten a knot in her stomach.

Around a corner, behind a raised section of forest vine, something flashed in the shadows. Illyana approached, treading softly. Unconsciously she flanked around the other side to take a more covered approach, keeping her back to one of the few standing sections of geodesic. The scent of something rotten assaulted her nose. She quietly popped the oxygen tubes out of her nostrils, just enough to be able to smell properly, and immediately pushed them back in. The smell was rank, a concoction of putrefaction and sharp acid.

Her breath caught in her throat as she rounded the corner. A seething, broiling mass of membranous flesh obscured the floor, simultaneously rotting and living. It gave off clouds of noxious vapor that drifted up and out through the wrecked dome.

And in the center, turning to face her, was a creature that might, once, have been a zantar slug. Now it was twice the size, its brown flesh hardening to a carapace punctuated by vivid, pulsing purple membranes.

It didn't move, but Illyana did, slowly backing away. She found what she was looking for in the first biosphere, a container of viscous brown liquid, undamaged by fire. She took it back to the slug dome and rested it on the floor near the rotting flesh-matter, to break the seal with her good hand.

Getting back up, she threw the liquid at the evolving slug in the center, drew her P220, and fired a single blast at the spreading vine sap.

It ignited with a bright flash and spread, emitting choking black fumes that made her back off, stumbling through the vines and uprooted trees. She turned to run, and through the broken dome shell glimpsed a vast, dark shape outside, in a nearby recess of the mountain. She didn't get a good look — too dark, too distant, and she wasn't hanging around — but she recognized the behemoth instantly.

The claw marks, the discarded spines, the mutating zantar slug... they could all have been coincidence. But now there was no doubt.

The zerg had returned. And they had come to Garrxax in force.

* * *

The zerg ripped through the acid-weakened door as if it were wet paper. Brach turned and fired, killing four zerglings before he heard the next door hiss open.

"Brach, move!" Lee shouted, envying him his helmet as her unprotected ears rang from the gunfire. She was already through the next door, her hand poised over the lock pad. Brach ran through, ducking as Lee hit the emergency close button. Two more bulkheads to cross.

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