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A short story by

Kal-El Bogdanove

And that was how Rin found herself on the ridge, watching Shaw mount another sneak attack. He'd dragged the LAV to the ridgetop and butted it up against some sheltering rocks beside a steep arroyo. Rin had gone along because the desert was three days on foot and there wasn't a way to carry enough water in her pack… and what the hell else was she supposed to do?

Champlain had said nothing since the morning attack, and he said nothing now, sitting on the hood and chewing his nails as down in the valley Shaw released his decoy—a cheap little robotic glider with a whopper of a noisemaker attached.

Rin barely had time to think, Decoys. The bastard had decoys, and he let us kite the horde yesterday anyway, and then the whole thing went south.

The horde took off after the decoy and chased it for a moment, but as soon as Shaw started toward the spire, the cloud broke into three clean segments and struck.

It's a pincer attack. They've got him in a goddamn pincer! thought Rin, and she heard Champlain gasp.

Shaw opened up with everything. The chainguns pounded and the burst laser cut dozens of mutas from the sky, but for every one that fell, a dozen more screeched toward him.

"They're gonna kill him!" hollered Champlain. "We have to—we have to do something! My device—"

He dug into his gear, rooting out the awkward beach-ball-sized gadget. "Please, help me—" stammered Champlain as the horde smashed down onto the staggering goliath below faster than Shaw could scrape the mutas off.

Aw, hell, thought Rin, and grabbed the AGR-14.

They ran along the ridge beside the arroyo, Champlain fiddling with his pheromone bomb. To Rin's dismay it began to emit a high whining noise.

Instantly a clutch of three mutalisks leapt into the air and streaked toward them.

Rin began to fire. She tore through the wings of one muta and watched it crater in a gout of spraying acid, but the others were quickly on top of them.

Glave wurms started pelting the ground ahead of Rin. She fired, and they writhed and burst like popcorn in the pan. She felt the acid splatter the last three fingers of her left hand, and then excruciating pain as her flesh began to cook and slough off.

"I almost have—!" shouted Champlain, and then a muta swooped.

Rin felt as if time slowed as Champlain lurched back, tried to avoid the grasping ovipositor. She watched with startling awareness as his foot caught on the protruding rock, watched his center of balance shift, watched him hang impossibly in the air…

… and then he vanished into the arroyo.

Rin screamed and depressed the trigger and felt hot hate well up in her chest for these things, these horrendous things that shouldn't exist!

It felt good to watch the nearer muta explode as spikes riddled its carapace, good to hear the other one squeal as the spray caught it full in the face and it too dropped like a stone.

Rin could hear Shaw cursing on the distant LAV vidscreen as she rushed to the edge of the arroyo.

"Champlain!" she hissed. "Champlain! Brad!" Down below his body lay in an unnatural tumble, motionless. No way to know, thought Rin. No way to know if he's gone.

She sat back against a boulder and bit down on the urge to scream, cry, something. In the valley below, the Flyswatter was bristling, horribly bristling, with those spiked wings. Shaw fought and fought and staggered under the growing weight, the loathsome acidic busting of mutalisk after mutalisk now breaching the helm, breaching the cradle armor and scalding him within.

Rin knew he was finished. The sheer number of mutalisks was too many, too many for any of them. She saw Scar circling in the air above the grinding, desperate, declining goliath with the tragic trapped man inside. When did I name it? she wondered idly. And, dear God, is Champlain's stupid canny big fish mutalisk going to kill us all?

Scar dove. The other mutas spread like ripples in a pond. Rin saw Scar sink its jaws into the disintegrating armor plate and tear it free. She saw Shaw exposed to the nightmare of his life. She saw Scar roar its banshee call in Shaw's face, "Tekeli-li!" and felt the tremor run down her spine as Shaw sat forward in the cradle that would be his grave and roared back at the top of his lungs, a primal scream of rage at his tormentor.

It was courageous, and Rin felt a terrible pang of sympathy and affection swell unbidden within her for this dreadful, mad warrior who'd doomed them all, and it was at that moment of keen kinship that Scar plunged a vicious barb into Shaw's chest. She heard the faint impact, heard Shaw's cry end with a wet, sucking yelp, and knew that the mutas were now frenzying over a cooling corpse and not a man.

She was stuck. My only way out is that goliath. But it's prickling with mutas. Even if I did get them off it, the thing's so badly crippled that they'd be on me before I got ten steps.

The searing hurt in her hand was getting worse. Rin hazarded a glance at it and dry heaved, fought the urge to be sick, bit her lip at the pain.

As she waited for the wave of nausea to pass, Rin stared at the hated spire, at Anvil Rock thrusting up behind it, at the writhing feast that had once been Shaw.

Mutalisk blood becomes highly corrosive when exposed to atmo, echoed in her brain. Gotta take advantage of what they want, said Shaw's voice at the campfire. A mutalisk can smell a single drop of blood on the wind two klicks away.

Rin imagined quitting. She imagined her poor foolish resort town abandoned. She imagined Rita and Jasper alone when the horde ran out of range boars and game bats and turned west…

She had only one option, and it was no option at all, really, but the alternative made it the only one worth considering.

Painfully, Rin staggered back to the LAV and dug in her kit bag for the laser knife she'd borrowed off Doc Beele. She risked another look at her left hand and saw that the pinky, ring, and middle fingers were little more than a bubbling mass of waste. Rin wedged the strap of her kit bag between her teeth and aimed the knife at her ruined fingers.

Fast, she thought, like a bandage. She dug her teeth deeper into the leather of the strap, felt a rivulet of sweat trickle down her neck. One… two…

With a slash and a whiff of carbon, Rin briskly lasered off her own fingers at the base.

The pain lanced through her as if she'd plunged the knife into her gut, and her vision was bathed in maddening dots. I will not pass out, she told herself firmly, and she bit the strap nearly through while the world swam back into focus.

She opened the trunk of the LAV and dug out her dad's old AGG-12 grenade launcher. She thought about the one Punisher grenade nestled inside it, enough to take out five, maybe six, mutas in a tight grouping on a good day. Even winnowed down, the horde's sixty-five if it's one.

The grenade was twenty years old, and she hoped to God the launcher would still fire. Why was buying fresh grenades never a high priority for me? There were at least ten reams of unused QSD letterheads in her office that could so easily have been an additional grenade. Just a different order form, really, she thought.

That's no good. Getting punchy. Gotta focus. Gotta focus and start walking.

Slowly and quietly, Rin began to creep a wide circle around the spire, the fallen goliath, and the Anvil. She felt the sweat evaporate off her neck, felt her unprotected skin begin to sizzle as the sun climbed.

Finally, finally, she reached the backside of the Anvil.

It wasn't until she got to the base of the thing that she realized how goddamn massive it was. Scale that makes you feel tiny. Scale that makes you dizzy when you look up, even if you aren't fresh off a self-administered amputation. The scale reminded Rin sickeningly of the canyon cliffs near town.

I cannot climb this rock, she thought. And then she thought of Jasper and Rita, and wedged her maimed hand into the first crevice.

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