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I still can't decide whether it was eating them or not. Training materials told us that the Swarm had created the ultralisk out of the brontolith, which was a vegetarian. But I've seen the ultralisk swallow bits of my marines. Maybe that was an accident, but I don't think so. I also don't think the so-called Great One was content to digest the cultists one at a time. It wanted a full-on buffet spread, and when it burst from the trees, it nearly got one.
The scientists, or cultists, or whatever, ran like hell. Torch Seven moved like a single organism, striking and moving and also running like hell into the thicker underbrush.
This time the ultralisk came after them, and after us. Its blades scythed through the jungle, mowing down great swaths of trees and undergrowth as it charged after the cultists. It caught one of them and paused, tearing its victim into more pieces than I could count. The air around it was a storm of leaves and blood, and flowers torn loose and catching filtered sunlight through the jungle canopy. We held our fire for fear of taking down too many of the scientists, but if I had it to do over again, I'd mow them right down.
Even with a fresh victim, or meal—or communion?—the ultralisk didn't stop. Lifting its head, it saw, or sensed, the two scientists, our original prisoners, who were fighting over the right to be vivisected and hadn't moved from where we'd left them. It obliged them both, kaiser blades slashing through them in a quick back-and-forth that left bits and strings of them dangling from rough spots on the ultralisk's carapace.
And I'll be goddamned if my head didn't start to get a little fuzzy again, like there were voices in it... and at the same time the ultralisk started to shake its head again. Not like it was attacking something, but like it was trying to clear its head.
The colonists had all stopped in their tracks. Some of them were crying; some had dropped to their knees. Over it all came their guru's voice.
"No, no, no!" van Rijn was screaming. "One at a time!"
"Torch Seven," I said on the open comm, "while the ultra has its snack, we are leaving. Rendezvous at the lab complex, double-quick."
It was hard to form words over the welter of voices in my head, and the strange feeling that I was experiencing things that weren't really happening. I tasted blood even though I hadn't been wounded. There was no time to think about it right then because I was hauling ass through the jungle back to the ravine, but right now it seems... Wait. I'm feeling it again.
* * *
No, no. Don't give him another shot yet. We need to observe this.
He's communing, Commander. That's what the spore does.
Communing with what?
Nothing right now because there's nothing to commune with. He's quarantined. That's why he's raving.
So if there were others infected by the spore...?
Yes. Including, as he says, the ultralisk itself. And by extension, the rest of the zerg. You see why this is important?
* * *
Report. Report. This is Sergeant Norwood Doakes of Torch Seven marines, reporting from the Great One... What?
Right. The lab. We fell back into the lab complex and did a head count when we'd gotten deep down into its underground levels.
Some of the scientists came into the building, spaced and marching in unison as if they were in some kind of formal procession. At their head was van Rijn. None of them looked like they had just barely escaped death at the hands of a zerg monster. They were placid. They moved in unison. They made me think of what Vera had said about communion.
"What the hell did you do to that ultralisk?"
"I, alter the Great One?" van Rijn asked mockingly. "Impossible. It is what it is. We seek to be part of it. When we join it, all of us experience the communion for a moment. Yet we must do it singly. When two or more go to the Great One at once, the impressions get garbled. The experience is not pure." He smiled at me as if I were a child just grasping a lesson. "As you have discovered."
"How do you know?"
Van Rijn tapped the side of his head. "I felt it. Just as you did." Then his demeanor changed, becoming lofty and stern. "Your presence has riled the Great One. It has become wanton in its hungers."