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A short story by

Antony Johnston

"It's not that simple. Too short a timer, we might take out the Victory and everyone on board. Too long, and the zerg could have cleared out with everything before the nukes are even primed."

"Then what do you suggest?"

Lee looked down at the console. With the marines retreating, the zerg were already starting to breach the outer sectors of the main building. And roaches would make short work of the bulkhead blast doors, including the one here in centcomm. She turned to Brach and smiled. "Remember how I argued about bringing the trophy cabinet?"


She stood on tiptoes and kissed him on the cheek. "Well, now you're a genius. Here's the plan..."

* * *

The jungle jeep rattled over rough ground, crashing through the rainforest's undergrowth as fast as Illyana dared drive. Vines and creepers smacked the windshield, breaking and falling away while insects and small primates scattered out of the jeep's path.

The shadow of the mountain turned the afternoon sun into a twilight glow, but she made out the biosphere ahead, a hundred meters higher up the mountainside. From here it looked OK. There might be fine mist rising from one of the domes, but this was a humid environment. She'd seen steam rising from bare rock out here at times, just because of the rainforest's heat.

Illyana turned the jungle jeep back onto the dirt track. She was close enough now that it would make little difference, and trying to drive up the side of a Garrxax mountain in a mohican was just asking for trouble.

She reached the base and parked. Something was definitely amiss. The base was completely dark, no sign of power or life at all. Cracks spidered up the geodesic shell of the nearest dome. The main entrance door had been ripped from its frame, battered and discarded on the forest floor, and inside Illyana saw only devastation.

The central hub looked as if wild animals had rampaged through it, mindlessly destroying equipment, consoles, and furnishings. Tangled power wires fizzed and popped, poking out from wrecked panels. Floor plates were smashed, as if broken by the pounding hooves of a beast herd. Was there some native life on the planet they were unaware of? Some enormous beast that could stampede through a structure like this?

She opened her comm. "Kortter, this is Jorres. I'm at sphere three, and it's bad. Almost total destruction."

Dan's response was filled with static. "Just about read you, Jorres... You all right? Sound... damn thing. Comms are failing... out there?"

"I'm fine," she lied. "Just tell me you called that evac."

"Affirmative... before you even left... ninety minutes... come back."

"It's OK; I read you. Static like hell, but I read you."

"No, dumbass... come back! Four more spheres... happening... get off this rock!"

Four more spheres down. And she'd bet her savings they were still falling in that circular pattern. A pattern that was, slowly but methodically, surrounding the central base.

Illyana reached the airlock to the main sphere. Every sphere had one, to maintain its ecosystem's integrity. The doors were set to lock automatically if a sphere was breached, but she punched in a security override code, holding her breath.

The door unlocked with a heavy metallic sound. At least those systems were still operating. The metal handle was hot, which she figured was down to the environment controls' being screwed until she remembered where she was.

Biosphere three was researching two indigenous life forms. One was a tree whose vines bled a weird sap that stuck to neosteel like glue. They were trying to figure if they could use the stuff as a neosteel-strengthening agent. The problem was, the sap was also seriously flammable. All it took to generate a fire was a single gunshot... or, they had discovered, a chemical incendiary reaction to the second dome's inhabitants.

The zantar slug was just a few inches long, but excreted a highly corrosive mucous when threatened, to deter predators. The mucous could eat through neosteel... and ignite the sap if they touched. In nature, the slugs and vines lived at opposite ends of the continent. But time and chance sometimes brought them together, generating an explosive reaction that made Raynolds, a chemical biologist, very excited. He once joked that Garrxax's tropical storms were all that kept the planet from burning to a crisp. But in the artificial biospheres, they could control and examine the reaction in safety.

The next problem was catching the slugs. They weren't intelligent per se, but they had enough survival instinct to get the hell out of the way when endangered. Evidence of this was found on the planet's rainforest floor, where clusters of tiny sinkholes hinted at groups of zantar slugs that had burrowed underground.

Raynolds and his colleagues were trying to decode the makeup of the mucous that allowed the slugs to carry it without being harmed by its corrosive properties. The mystery seemed to be connected with their strange metabolism, which meant they healed outrageously fast. Hesken had once shown Illyana video of a slug being all but sliced in two, then stitching itself back together and moving on as if nothing had happened. On the video it had taken less than a minute, and she'd asked Hesken what the frame rate was. He had laughed, and said it was real time. No time-lapse recording required.

Now Illyana looked around at the devastation in the sphere, and wondered what could have gone wrong. The vine sap ecosystem was all but razed to the ground. The sprinklers had kicked in and saved some vines, but not before the fire's heat had cracked open the dome above.

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