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Page 11 of 14
A short story by

Antony Johnston

They made it through the next before the zerg broke down the door behind them, and Brach breathed a sigh of relief. They were getting some safe distance between them and their pursuers.

"Captain, we're ready to roll. What's your twenty?" the pilot's voice barked in Lee's headset.

"Entering hangar now," she said. "Stand by."

The final door opened, revealing the hangar bay. It was empty but for Brach's wrecked banshee and the final medivac, packed with marines, its boarding ramp open and waiting. Lee and Brach were the last to leave. The medivac's engines roared, the pilot holding the throttle just above idle, itching to fire them and get the hell out.

They ran across the hangar, Lee in front, sprinting for all she was worth. Brach could easily have overtaken her with the powered servos in his CMC, but instead he moved slowly, covering their rear. As they closed on the boarding ramp, Lee heard a dull crunch, barely audible over the engines, from somewhere behind. She looked over her shoulder as two auxiliary entrance doors smashed open, and hydralisks and roaches rushed into the bay.

Brach saw them, raised his rifle, and opened fire. "Keep going," he shouted into his helmet comm. "I'll cover you!"

She fought the impulse to turn around and go back. Brach was right; she wasn't equipped for combat, and in his suit he could make it to the ship in just a few seconds. But she knew him, knew the kind of risks he took. "No," she shouted, still running. "Get to the ramp! We can make it before they reach us!"

Brach seemed to ignore her, and unleashed a volley of rifle fire at the hydralisks, killing two. But then he began walking backwards, firing short bursts. Zerg bodies piled up, blocking the corridor and leaving the zerg behind them struggling to push through. "I'm just making sure," he said. "Now get on board! I'm right behind you!"

She knew that was a lie, but clambered onto the boarding ramp anyway before finally looking back. "I'm in! Get your wrinkled ass over here, soldier!"

Brach started jogging to the ramp, turning occasionally to fire at the zerg. He fired one last volley on the roaches before leaping at the ramp, but he'd wasted too much time. They were closer than he'd estimated. The front roach rose up on its front legs and opened its maw, vomiting a stream of acid as Brach landed on the ramp. It hit him above the right knee, knocking him off-balance. He collapsed on his stomach beside Lee, and she watched in horror as his neosteel armor smoked and dissolved before her eyes.

Brach screamed in pain, but even with his helmet mike, Lee could barely hear him above the engines. He writhed in agony, flailing his arms, and accidentally pinned Lee to the floor of the ramp. She struggled under the weight of his suit to reach around her belt, twisting her shoulder to find a grenade. Something popped inside her shoulder joint, but there was no pain. Her fingers closed around the smooth, cold, hi-ex pebble. She wrenched her arm back out, up, and under, releasing it.

"Go! Go! Close the ramp!" she shouted into her headset. The grenade arced through the air, catching sunlight through the open hangar. It landed in the ragged mouth of the roach that had hit Brach.

Lee watched the zerg explode through the thin slit between ramp and hull as it closed. Two marines wrestled Brach onto his back while another shouted something at the pilot. The engines spun up to full burn. The medivac rose off the ground, turned ninety degrees, and blasted the zerg with its exhausts as it soared away.

Brach, still flat on the floor, turned his head to Lee and raised his visor. He smiled, winced at the pain, then smiled again.

"Always said we were a good match."

* * *

Dannion watched in horror and resignation as the last biosphere went offline. The evac ship was still thirty minutes out. He wondered if the central base would last that long. If they lost power, the ship would have to rely on manual coordinates to find them and land, but the mountainous rainforest terrain would make that tricky. There was one suitable spot nearby: the same place used to land the transports that had brought them, and the lab, to Garrxax. But after six months of disuse the rainforest was reclaiming the area, and identifying it from above would be difficult. Especially with a heavy storm rolling in from the west.

Dannion's last contact with Jorres had been an hour ago, when he urged her to return. Since then he'd been unable to raise her. But there was nothing more he could do for now. He entered the central lounge area, where Callins and the other staff were gathered. Two were missing.

"Hey, where are Hesken and Dirthiss?"

Callins scowled at him. "Still packing in their dorms. It's fine; we have time."

Everyone else sat around the room, drinking and chatting. Most were complaining. Some of them eyed Dannion warily. They'd argued earlier about the blackouts, and Hesken had even accused him and Jorres of overreacting to what was "clearly a comms issue." Dannion had mentioned Jorres's report, that sphere three was completely destroyed, but Hesken had shrugged it off. Maybe a tree had collapsed, or a rock had tumbled down the mountain. Maybe a rogue meteor had just happened to make landfall on the sphere's location.

Not all the scientists were complaining. Some had never done an isolated tour like this before, and were going a little stir-crazy. But the loss of research hit all of them, even Dannion. He was originally a physicist, and had been using his spare time to perform some deep-space radio wave analysis. He'd downloaded as much data as possible, but since the comms system itself had started going haywire, data corruption had been a problem. For all he knew, the data would be useless when they returned to Korhal. One more casualty.

A crashing sound broke his train of thought. "The hell was that?"

Callins waved in the direction of Hesken's dorm. "Hesken probably saw his own shadow and dropped his flight case." A few scientists laughed. Hesken was notoriously nervy, and the evac order had understandably made him even more frantic.

Then, a second crash. Dannion started walking across the room, weaving around luggage and chairs. Before he reached the corridor leading to Hesken's dorm, his personal comm sounded.

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