"Eat up, boys." Serj emptied two ration packs in front of the zerg. Deep red tentacles slithered out from between the larvae's mandibles. They prodded at the gruel for a few seconds, but didn't eat.
"Waste of good food," Vik grumbled.
"C'mon, it's not that bad." Serj said to the zerg.
Click. Vik flinched at the sound. Jace and two of his fellow mercs stood at the edge of the pen, snapping pictures of the aliens with their fones.
"Now that's sweet. That's real sweet." Jace smiled.
Vik ignored them like he always did. Eventually they'd get bored and leave. They just wanted to remind themselves they weren't the lowest rung on the ladder.
Metal groaned as Jace opened the pen door and stepped inside. He kneeled down and extended an enormous hand toward the zerg. "All that talk on UNN about how badass these things are..."
Serj slapped Jace's arm away. Vik slowly turned, screaming inside. Idiot. What had gotten into him?
"They'd tear you up good if they were in their true forms," the big grub said. "They turn into other zerg."
"We've got a scientist in our outfit," one of the mercs laughed.
Jace wasn't smiling. He rose, looming over Serj. "Did you just fekkin' hit me?"
Rather than back down like he should've, Serj mirrored the threatening posture. "Don't recall Ivan sayin' you had business here."
The two men stared at each other for a long moment, seeing who would stand down first.
"I thought I told you lot that the zerg are off limits until the drop!" Ivan's voice rattled through the room. As Vik's boss marched up to the pen, the mercs cowered away.
"Just wanted to get a look, boss." Jace picked at his scar. "Not every day we see zerg."
"You've seen enough of them already."
The mercs took their leave without argument. When they were gone, Ivan said, "Status."
"Soon," Serj replied.
"Soon, boss," Vik corrected his friend's blunder.
Ivan backhanded the smaller grub. Pain blossomed from the corner of his mouth. His boss, however, never took his eyes off of Serj. He held the grub in his hard gaze. Vik saw his friend's muscles tense, but after a moment his shoulders hunched back down.
"Soon, boss," he finally said.
"'Soon' was yesterday. Twenty-four hours." Ivan was gone before the grubs could reply.
"You alright?" Serj put his hand on Vik's shoulder.
"No thanks to you." He licked the wound on his lip. "What was that?"
"Just... tired of taking their crap."
"So am I. That's why I don't give them a reason to dish it out," Vik said. Neither of them had ever lashed out at one of the mercs. They'd always played it cool; that was survival. Blend in. Hide in plain sight. Obey. Those were the rules.
"I know. But then I see these things..." Serj gestured to the larvae. "They look like nothin', y'know, but with all that DNA inside, they could be anything. It just got me thinkin'... Never mind."
Serj settled back against the fence and resumed watching the console. Vik's temper cooled as he got back to work. After a few more hours of tinkering, he finished patching up the box's bullet holes and stress fractures with scrap neosteel. Things were looking up. But in the port, that was usually when something was waiting just around the corner to knock you back down.
Vik powered up the box, but was met with silence. Cursing, he inspected the container again and found a small puncture in the power cell he'd missed before. Shrapnel from a P220 round had ripped right through its heart. Repairing the cell's core was possible, but it would take at least a week. The grub scrambled through the shop and scavenged three older-generation power supplies, figuring he could rig them into the container. It would be dangerous work. One misstep, and the cells could blow his hands off. But even that was better than missing Ivan's deadline.
"Vik..." Serj muttered later that night. "How much longer you think it'll take?"
"Half a day." Vik pulled a microwelder back from the power cells. He wiped sweat and grime from his forehead. "Plenty of time before the drop."
"Don't think we've got that long." The grub swiveled the remote console toward Vik. Viscous purple terrain appeared on screen. Larvae were crawling all over it like nerrats on carrion.
"For survival, larvae depend on creep, the biomass that fuels zerg hives. If isolated from it, a larva's lifespan is dramatically decreased. Calculated survival time can be anywhere from hours to days."
"Hours," Serj said. "That's why the buyer wanted them in the box."
Vik shivered as images of Ivan's dog slurping blood from the floor and gnawing on Hutchins's flesh filled his head. Without a word, he leaned over the box and touched the microwelder to the power cells. His focus honed in on the task at hand, and the world around him faded away. He continued all through the night, bleary-eyed and fueled by terror. It was the best work he'd done in his life. By noon the next day, he'd finished the box, hands intact, and fired it up. All lights green. Good to go.
"We did it, Serj. Well, I did it," Vik joked. Another job done. Another disaster averted. Another day survived. He pumped his fists in triumph as he turned to the larvae. Serj was hunched over one of them.
"It's dead," his friend stated in a flat tone. "Its little legs just stopped moving."