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A short story by

Antony Johnston

"Pull back from the roaches! Concentrate fire on—"

Before he could finish, a sickening thump filled his headset, and a shockwave threw his banshee off kilter. Brach yanked the stick to correct his balance and pulled up, glancing around to locate the source of the concussion, and saw the disintegrating hull of another banshee as it fell to the ground in fiery pieces. And behind it, flying through the explosion, a squadron of mutalisks.

"Three and high, Captain!"

His wingman's shout pulled Brach out of his thoughts. He turned to face front and saw two mutalisks soaring down from the upper atmosphere, heading straight for him.

* * *

Illyana zipped up her coolsuit and checked its status. All green. The Garrxax atmosphere was breathable, but nitrogen-rich, so she attached nasal oxygen tubes in case she ran short of breath. Next she pulled her boots tight and double-checked the seal against her suit legs. She'd neglected that the first time she'd gone into the rainforest, and had come within seconds of having a zantar slug slide inside her boot. She'd seen the effects of their acidic mucus excretion often enough on the lab monitors to know how easily it could have taken her lower leg, and she had never neglected her boots again.

Weapon. Hopefully she wouldn't need it — most of the indigenous wildlife was docile or scared of terrans — but she never went outside without a sidearm. She picked out her old P220, running a quick manual check. It was almost as old as she was, and she knew most old soldiers had moved on to newer, more powerful rifles. But the P220 never jammed, never misfired. The most powerful gun in the galaxy was no use if the damn thing didn't work.

Finally she slipped a visor over her forehead, ready to shield her eyes from the afternoon sun. Biosphere three was on the north side of a mountain, but if this was a widespread problem, she might need to check the other outposts, and some were in exposed areas for maximum sunlight. Garrxax's extreme axial tilt meant the sun could take hours to finally dip below the horizon at this time of year.

Dannion walked into the prep room. "I got through to Raynolds. Kind of."

"Don't be coy, Dan; it doesn't suit you."

He didn't reply, and Illyana realized the expression she'd initially taken for disappointment was actually fear.

"What I mean is... he's flatlined. Comms to the biosphere are still out, but I picked up a weak trace from his vitals monitor." Dan exhaled.

Illyana ushered him back out of the room. "You said the signal was weak. Maybe it's just not getting through properly. Keep trying, OK?"

"I don't think you should go. We should call for evac right now. It takes four hours for a planet-hopper to reach us out here..."

She ushered him back towards the main comms room. "It'll be fine, Dan. I know how to handle myself."

* * *

The banshee corkscrewed like a drunk offworlder, weaving in all directions as exploding glave wurms filled the air it had occupied a moment before. Twenty mutalisks pursued it through the sky, spitting writhing wurms at the banshee's retreating backside as the ship wheeled and spun towards Krakulv Base. Black smoke billowed from its left side.

In central command, Lee Treicher watched the scanners nervously. Her staff had run projections showing that the banshee could make it back to Krakulv defense perimeter before the mutalisks made physical contact. But the projections were rough, and allowing for a damaged turbofan made them even less reliable.

"Ten seconds to defense range perimeter, Major."

The banshee flipped into a barrel roll, avoiding a cluster of mutalisks concentrating fire on its right flank. A knot of wurms exploded together, cascading down like firework trails.

"Five seconds. Four. Three. Two..."

"Fire all cannons!" Lee shouted.

The marines manning the heavy weapons heard her loud and clear. A quarter klick from the base walls, the sky blackened with anti-air barrage fire, ripping through mutalisk flesh and wing. The banshee ducked low to avoid the tail end of the barrage.

"Holy shit, guys, let me get inside before you light her up!"

Brach's voice crackled through static and the muted whump of nearby explosions, but Lee heard it just fine. She hated herself for smiling, when the other five pilots he'd taken out had fallen to mutalisk fire or the hydralisk backup squad that had appeared moments later. But with every passing minute this looked like their last stand, and favoritism be damned, Lee wanted her husband by her side when the shit came down.

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