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"It was my second doctorate, actually. The first was in organic chemistry. But that just flowed naturally into xenobiology. You know how it is—if a scientist is going to make any sort of impact in the Koprulu sector, he'd better get involved with the war effort."
Rin smiled as she listened to Champlain ramble on the vidscreen.
"Doctor, I gotta ask: what in the world did they send you here for? If you're trying to observe mutalisk behavior… half the sector is blowing up right now. On that scale, our problem is an anthill."
"Professor," sniffed Champlain. "I requested the assignment. I believe your spire might be the perfect place for me to find my big fish."
"Hold on; back up," sighed Rin.
"Well, you know zerg are adaptable; their genetic code is more a guideline than a rule, if you follow me…"
"Use tiny words, and I'll see if I can keep up," Rin joked, unable to resist teasing him.
"Oh! Ah… sorry. Well… mutalisks are amongst the most adaptable zerg subspecies. The ability to fly, unaided, in the vacuum of space or use their evolved reproductive tract as an offensive weapon… The mutalisk has evolved fascinating traits we know almost nothing about."
Makes them dangerous, thought Rin. We know that.
Champlain continued, "One adaptation mutalisks can develop is a natural tolerance to their spire mates' corrosive ichor. They live in such close quarters in the spire… Imagine if you were in danger of dissolving every time your little brother got a paper cut. It wouldn't do."
Rin marveled at the waves of enthusiasm pulsing off of Champlain as he discoursed on his field of study. It'd be cute, she thought, if he weren't talking about remorseless flying bugs that birth parasitic grubs and bleed acid.
"Mutalisks develop this tolerance in response to minor exposure," he continued, "but they never get sufficiently inoculated for the body to withstand the corrosive soakage that results from death and dissection. They just don't live long enough to build up the tolerance."
"Why not?" asked Rin.
"Because most mutalisks display little instinct for self-preservation. It's not in their nature to try to extend their own lives; their drive is to preserve the life of the spire. But every so often—and we're talking one mutalisk in millions—a mutalisk is born with that instinct intact. These mutalisks live years longer than average. It's my theory that, given enough time, a long-lived mutalisk would develop enough tolerance to its own fluids for its tissues to withstand a violent death and subsequent dissection. I call it the Theory of the Canny Mutalisk… my big fish."
"And you think our spire is a likely place to find one?" asked Rin.
"Out-of-the-way moon, non-strategic infestation, plenty of food… These mutalisks sought this hidden spire after the Dominion destroyed the only two known hives on Choss, and they managed to escape the notice of three additional sanitation attempts. They're good candidates. The natural geology of the region—your cliffs and mesas and all—makes it easy to avoid detection. This is where a mutalisk could survive—flourish, even—and learn to keep its head down and its nest undetected!"
"You really think they know enough to understand all that?" asked Rin.
"One of the reasons they're so fascinating, Marshal, is that it's hard to say with any accuracy just what they know and what they do not know." Champlain grinned.
"Listen to the pair of you." It had been so long since Shaw had spoken that Rin had almost forgotten he was there. Now as he cut in, she could see his sneer on the vidscreen, the tiny wide-angle camera in the helm ballooning his scars grotesquely. "You think you're on some kind of field trip? You think you'll just bag yourself a mutalisk, maybe mount it in a little box with a pin and a scrap of cotton?" Derision dripped from every word. "A mutalisk is one thing: a killer. It's the most foul, the most murderous beast the Devil ever spat into this or any other sector. Ain't no part of itself it can't use to kill!"
"Which is precisely why it's so important that we study it!" Champlain leapt to the defensive. "The more we understand about these creatures, the better we can guard ourselves against them. If we do this right, the next little town that faces an infestation can prevent loss of life—"
"Quiet! Both of you!" Shaw's attention shifted instantly, his focus suddenly absolute. He cut the drive on his goliath, and Rin took the cue and killed the LAV.
"What?! What's going on?" asked Champlain.
"Shut it, and open your eyes!" barked Shaw. "Up there on the rise…"
Shaw tapped his console, and a second later a waypoint pinged up on Rin's display. She pulled out a pair of binoculars and sighted on the point he'd indicated.
Three mutas were latched onto a gigantic range boar, greedily sucking the life out of it. Rin heard the squeals now, high and thin and terrified. Rin had brought down plenty of range boars herself—tough, mean bastards the size of a rhino, that'd gore you as soon as look at you—but all of a sudden she felt a pang of sympathy for the beast.
"See?" Champlain whispered. "These mutas must have a profound need for liquid sustenance since the symbiotic nourishment organism, or 'creep,' that they would have enjoyed during the initial infestation has by now shriveled to nearly noth—"
The Flyswatter exploded to life. Rin heard Champlain make a noise like "Urk!" and then Shaw was charging toward the ridge.
The mutalisks shrieked and took wing. It was the first time Rin had ever heard the sound, the legendary chilling screech of the mutalisks, stolen from the mantis screamers the zerg had evolved them from, and Rin found that it cut her to the core.
This is not a noise that should exist, thought Rin. This is a noise meant only for the damned.
The mutas wheeled once, and made a beeline for the Flyswatter, their undulating ovipositors rippling as they prepared to disgorge a pile of writhing glave wurms. For a moment Rin thought Shaw had lost his mind and was running to his ruin—
Then Rin heard Shaw's chainguns spin up. The first mutalisk went down in an aerosolized rain of acidic gore twenty meters out. Rin heard the soil sizzle as the droplets landed.
The other two kept right on after Shaw and the Flyswatter. Shaw put his next burst of fire into the glave wurms that were wriggling obscenely out of the beasts. They popped and hissed in the hail of rounds. Rin's stomach gave an involuntary lurch.
The second mutalisk was close now, its snapping mandibles and seeking barbs nearing Shaw's control cradle. Rin heard Shaw grunt on the vidscreen and saw him swat with the chaingun, a savage backhanded right that sent the mutalisk tumbling into the dirt… directly toward her.
With barbed wings, the mutalisk clawed to a stop and leapt back into the air. It fixed its beady xeno eyes on Rin!
Most of the online footage of mutalisks had been taken from the air, lots of grainy documentary shots and military training vids. You got a sense of the chaos of moving wings and the writhing of lower halves. And, of course, Rin had seen diagrams of mutalisk anatomy. But this was the first mutalisk Rin had seen up close, with its jaws gnashing and its wings rending the air.
Fear and revulsion welled up within Rin in nearly equal measure. Deep in her mind, a tiny primate voice awoke. Run! it shouted. Run, or you will surely die! The feeling coursed through her, and for a moment her hand flickered toward the reverse controls—
And then she heard Shaw's voice rumble out of the vidscreen.
"Ha hah! You sons of bitches! Straight to Hell with you!" On the screen he sputtered and spit.
Shocked from her trance, Rin snatched up her dad's old AGR-14, leaned out, and fired three rounds into the mutalisk ahead of her. It screeched, and Rin saw the sprays of blood ping against the hood of the LAV and burn tiny pinholes in the metal.
Shaw had dispatched the third mutalisk now, and he rounded on Rin, seized the second mutalisk by the tail, and smashed it into a projecting boulder with a crunch.
"I hope you're smart enough to know what's coming," Shaw snarled. Then he put a gun to the face of the mutalisk…
… and blew a wet acidic hole into the stone behind it.
There's a dude who enjoys his work. She watched the spittle collect at the corner of his mouth as he roared in triumph. Maybe too much.
The soil foamed as the muck began to pool. Shaw cackled and put a large round into the one sad glave wurm that had survived the onslaught. On the vidscreen, Rin watched Shaw crane his neck around toward Champlain. "So, Professor, how was that for 'loss of life'?"