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A short story by

Alex Irvine

If you've never seen an ultralisk... it's bigger than a goddamn tank, and louder, and faster. Tall as four marines in full armor, and long enough that in the jungle you can be fighting the front end before you can even see the back of it coming out of the bush. It's got two pairs of scythes attached where wings might be on a dragon. They're called kaiser blades; I don't know why, but I've seen what they can do. They sweep through marine battle armor like it's tinfoil. You can unload a C-14 at an ultralisk until the barrel melts, and you'll only make it mad. Correction: madder. They're already mad. Ultralisks get out of bed mad and hungry. When they're done slashing you to bits, they stomp on the pieces of you before you're all the way dead.

This was my first time seeing one. I'd done all the simulations and seen all the files, but none of it does justice to the presence of the thing. Your first thought when you see an ultralisk is, There's no way I can kill this thing.

We hit it with everything we had, and it didn't even slow down. While we fired, I was shouting orders, getting Torch Seven to what cover there was, and trying like hell to figure out how you fought something like that with small arms in open ground. The answer is you don't.

Singh lost his legs and then his head before the ultralisk was all the way out into the clearing. Morrison was next, spiked on the tip of one of the blades and flung into the underbrush with his armor opened up and him spilling out of it. Then I lost track of specifics. Torch Seven took thirty percent casualties before their training asserted itself and they formed up in the only way that made sense: a covering-fire, get-the-hell-out retreat. We backed straight up the ravine until it narrowed enough that the ultralisk could barely squeeze through. It stopped, and we kept firing, starting to do some damage as a spike here and there found a joint or a crack in its carapace.

Then it backed out of the ravine into the clearing, still roaring over the sound of our C-14s, and turned around to rumble back the way it had come. That was when I saw that Twohy, who had gotten us into this mess, was down under a fallen tree trunk the ultralisk had knocked over on its initial charge. The ultralisk didn't even see him, but it crushed his entire upper body flat as it passed by on its way back into the jungle. Part of him shot out from under its foot like ketchup squirting out of a ruptured commissary packet. It splattered across the churned-up ground in a curve of pink and red.

That's when the graffiti suddenly made sense. It was a warning. At least that's what we thought at the time. The curving, crossed lines were kaiser blades.

My comm was full of noise. Everyone was babbling, and behind it all was a strange kind of rumbling sensation, a dumb black rage that could never be satisfied. I've been on plenty of battlefields and killed plenty of things, but never in my life did I want to kill just for the sake of killing until right then. You know what I mean, right, Vera? You were there. I know you said it doesn't affect you, but that can't be true, it's everywhere, you can't escape—

* * *

He's starting to rave again. Is it too soon to give him another shot?

You know more about the spores than we do. You tell us.

I don't know that much more. It probably won't hurt him. He's a marine.

Yeah, but he's not one of the brain-panned ogres we usually deal with.

He's a marine. Give him the shot.

* * *


Now, we thought we were on a rescue mission. We formed up, did what we could for the wounded, and called in evac for the dead.

Recovery call was denied even though Scion was going to be back in-system within hours. Word came down that Scion wasn't outfitted for atmospheric maneuvers, and dropships weren't coming down until the ultralisk was either taken care of or vacationing on the other side of the planet. "An ultra can tear a dropship in two," was the comm officer's pithy summation. "Report again when you've taken it out."

Well, shit. That was my highly trained and tactically astute reaction.

I said it out loud when we were attacked again.

This time it wasn't the ultralisk. Spears started coming out of the trees around us, and that was almost as surprising as the ultralisk. Who the hell would use spears against CMC-armored marines? The worst they could do was hurt your ears when one of them banged off your helmet. We laid down a suppressing fire, and I sent four guys in under it to take care of whatever native life-form was using us for target practice.

They came back with three humans wearing shredded clothes that used to be lab coats. Two men, one woman. All three raving about something they called the Great One, which wasn't too hard to figure out. But the men were also in a panic because they were terrified of the doctor.

And who was the doctor?

"Van Rijn!" one of them screamed. He was full-on crazy, foaming at the mouth, veins in his forehead about to pop. He'd bitten his tongue while the marines brought him in, and I almost wanted to shoot him just so he'd shut up. But that's not the kind of example I want to set for the men. I mean, they may be brain-panned, but they're not animals. At least, not most of the time.

"Who's van Rijn?" I asked.

"The doctor! We have to get back so we can be next!"

"Next what?"

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