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Page 8 of 10
A short story by

Alex Irvine

I knew that any installation like this one would have compressed vespene tanks for an energy source. And I knew that some of my surviving marines were clever mechanics, no matter their other societal and criminal failings. So what I decided to do was turn those vespene tanks into a bomb, put the bomb at the chokepoint at the base of the rock slope where it curved toward the ravine, and bring the whole goddamn hill down on the ultralisk the next time it tried to chase us up from the clearing.

It took less than two hours to pull the vespene tanks and wire them up with a couple of grenades and a Pig repurposed as a remote detonator. Then we moved out, and a team laid the tanks in a crevice right at the base of the ravine under an overhanging rock with the kaiser-blade glyph carved into its face. If the bomb and the rockfall didn't kill the ultralisk, at least then it would have to come up after us instead of charging across flat ground. Our only problem was van Rijn. He and his "children" fought us the whole way, lying down in front of the ravine and trying to form human chains. We threw them aside without much trouble, but I turned down no less than one million formal requests to shoot them all so we could get on with taking down the ultralisk.

"Great One," they chanted. "Great One, we come to you."

The ultralisk was nowhere in sight. "Where does it go?" Haddawy wondered.

Jouvert snorted. "Who cares?"

That about summed it up.

Not one of my marines had opened his faceplate since we'd heard about the spores. We could see what prolonged exposure had done to the scientists. I asked Vera about it. "Cumulative exposure might or might not be more intense," she said. "I haven't had time to study it."

They wanted her back, too, or at least van Rijn did. He eyeballed her from the center of the group of lab rats after I detailed four marines to push them out of the way and stand guard. In his look you could see lust, disappointment, and curiosity, all at once. No wonder she didn't want to go back.

"It's all in place," Haddawy reported. "Now all we need is an ultralisk."

"That's my cue," I said.

My thinking was that if the ultralisk was used to having someone tied to the pole for whatever ritual van Rijn had concocted, it would know when that was happening. The spores, see? It might even be in tune with their timing and have some kind of Pavlovian anticipation going. So I would go down; the ultralisk would come running; and I'd get the hell out of there back up the ravine. "You don't gotta do that, Sarge," Jouvert said.

"I wouldn't volunteer someone else," I said. "I'll do it."

So I did. I went down the ravine alone, walked straight out into the middle of the clearing littered with the shreds and scraps of my dead marines, and leaned a hand on the pole. And waited. I could hear the colonists shouting and chanting from up above, and I kind of wished we'd smoked the whole bunch. When I looked up at the sky, I could see the two moons, just touching.

It didn't take long. I got a feeling first, a flood of adrenaline and then the psychological rush that comes when you know you've got the upper hand and you're about to deliver the killing blow. My heart rate went through the roof, and I started to sweat. I wanted to open my faceplate but held myself back, just barely.

I heard it roar before I saw it. I felt the impact of its footsteps coming up through the soles of my CMC. But I waited. Partially because I knew I needed to get it chasing me, but also because I was feeling the communion. I heard the chants of van Rijn's nutcases in the back of my head, and I felt the ultralisk's roar like the call of a god.

Then it tore out of the jungle into the clearing, and I woke up real fast.

I also ran real fast. When I passed the vespene bomb, I called out, "Set it off in ten! Repeat, ten!" Then I skidded through sloppy gravel, splashed through the shallows of the stream running out of the ravine, and set some kind of galactic record for climbing at a dead sprint in marine armor.

I'd been well ahead of the ultralisk when I started running. Now it was close enough that if I slowed to look over my shoulder, it'd be the last thing I ever did. I could swear I felt it breathing down my neck, but that might have been an effect of the communion spores. My men started firing down from their positions at the very head of the ravine; I'd kept them back so the explosion didn't drop them down in the middle of a rockslide. The C-14 spike sustains muzzle velocity pretty well up to a few hundred meters, and I heard impacts on the ultralisk's hide.

You want to know what's crazy? I also kind of wanted to stop. I was still hearing "Great One, Great One, Great One..." and I wanted communion.

But the shockwave from the detonation blew that desire away. Then it knocked me flat on my face, hard enough to take chips out of my faceplate. I scrambled to my feet and kept running until rocks and pieces of trees stopped landing around me. Then I spun around just as a rolling cloud of smoke billowed up out of the ravine and obscured everything. "Torch Seven, report," I said. "Who's got visual observations?"

"Now?" Haddawy said. "Nobody. Let me run— Yeah, infrared is showing fading heat signatures down there, but those are probably cooling rocks that were heated up by the explosion."

"The ultralisk, marine! I don't care about rocks," I said.

"I know, Sarge. Okay. The ultralisk... I don't know," he said. "I can't see it, but zerg don't always have good heat signatures anyway."

It had started raining, I noticed belatedly, and the smoke was swirling away in the breeze accompanying the storm front. "Hold," I said to the platoon, and held myself too, looking down the ravine as the smoke cleared.

The explosion had collapsed the whole bottom third of the ravine. If we hadn't had our faceplates down, it would have blown our eardrums even from three hundred meters away. The echoes were still dying away as the last of the smoke dissipated in the rain. I couldn't see the ultralisk, or any motion.

I climbed the rest of the way to where the remains of Torch Seven held a position just above the head of the ravine. From there you couldn't see down to ground zero of the vespene bomb. "Jouvert," I said. "Take a peek."

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