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A short story by

Matt Burns

Don't go. Ignore it. Wait it out.

It was night. Ivan's transponder was chiming in Vik's wrist.

Don't go.

But he did.

Vik entered the chop shop expecting to see Serj's flayed corpse dangling from chains, but nothing looked out of the ordinary. A few mercs shuffled around rearranging shipment crates in the shop's belly. Jace was watching UNN feeds on a vidscreen. The others were all sitting at a table, playing cards, sucking on cigars, and knocking back shot after shot of Scotty Bolger's Old No. 8.

They all turned and looked at Vik as he walked through the facility. They usually never looked.

Ivan appeared and wordlessly led him to the back room. Only a couple of the overhead lights were on, making it difficult to see. Vik did, however, make out the freezer box, sitting right where he'd left it.

Maybe Serj had shelved his stupid plan. Maybe he'd gotten smart and gone back to the alleys to sleep off whatever suicidal dream had latched its teeth into him. Or maybe he'd crashed and burned.

"These zerg are fetching a high price; you know that?" Ivan asked.

Vik tread carefully, fearing another one of Ivan's games. "I figured as much, boss."

Ivan reached into his pocket and pulled out a fistful of credits. They clanked and jingled as he hefted them in his hand. "The boys will be getting a big cut. Seems you should get a little something too."

Vik was speechless. His hungry gaze locked on the coins, and relief washed over him. Serj... idiot. We lie low. We bide our time and save up credits. Those are the rules.

"Loyalty is always rewarded," Ivan said as he put his other arm around Vik's shoulder and then turned him in the direction of the main pen.

"You see them?" The boss man extended his chin toward the dogs. They'd stopped barking. They always did when Ivan was near. The grub squinted at the shadows shifting in the pen.

"People always ask me why I keep the hounds around. They think I'm some kinda animal lover. It ain't that. It's because they're loyal. That's everything. That's what separates us from beasts like the zerg."

Vik heard the dogs padding around, their paws squishing against something sticky and wet.

"If there's one thing I can't stand, it's disobedience. You know that."

Ivan flung open the cage door and nudged Vik inside. The grub took a few hesitant steps as his eyes adjusted to the darkness. The hounds were shining... No... glistening wet. Everything was.

"Last night the other grub tried to steal the zerg. My product. Didn't get far. He claimed he was working alone, that you didn't know what he was up to."

Blood. It covered the ground. It covered the dogs. One of the hounds gnawed on a giant bone. Human. Vik reared back as his brain processed the horrific scene, but Ivan caught him by the scruff of his neck and hurled him into the ground. The grub's knees slammed into the floor, and his hands slipped forward, the blood lapping between his fingers.

And there, right in front of him, atop a pile of torn fabric and gristle, were his gnawed pilot wings.

"You didn't know, did you?" Ivan continued.

"I'm loyal, boss. I'm loyal!" Vik shouted.

"Maybe. But I can't hand out rewards when I don't know all the facts, can I?" Ivan slipped the credits back into his own pocket. He squatted and whispered in Vik's ear, his breath hot and reeking of smoke and whiskey. "Next time you catch wind of someone making moves against me, you tell me."

Ivan gave him one last shove, sending the grub sprawling face-first into the blood.

"Clean up the pen before you leave. I'll call you when the next shipment is in." The cage door slammed shut behind Vik. The metal clink of his boss's boots slowly receded into the distance.

The grub wrapped his hand around the wings and then closed his eyes to shut everything out, but the blood was waiting for him in the darkness. Big crimson waves crashed around in his mind, afterimages burned into his visual cortex and given new life by fear. Blindly he scrambled to leave the pen, hands and legs sliding on the slick red floor. Warm metallic air clung to his tongue. He vomited and trembled. He banged his head against the fence until his hands found the door and he dove out in frantic lunge. The grub crumpled to the ground, his chest heaving with exhaustion. The terror, though, had disappeared. Every feeling had, as if he'd been detached from the outside world in some feeble attempt to deflect the shock waves of trauma. Vik stared at the ceiling as his body went numb.

Slowly, deep down in a place beyond the reach of consciousness, a fault line ripped through the grub. Vik--the dreamer, the friend, the terran--sank into the blood pools that still haunted his mind. All that remained was the beast he'd struggled to suppress over the years, the watcher behind the eyes, ruled by dark and primal neural pathways where self-awareness had never dared tread. The ritual was forgotten. Passive survival lost its allure. The grub hungered for something more.

Pain burned in his palm. The grub opened his hand and saw the chewed-up pilot wings and a trickle of fresh blood where they'd punctured his skin. He watched the red line work down the creases of his hand, the data of an entire species hard-coded on double helixes within the crimson liquid.

It was the same blood in Ivan and every other badass he'd heard of. They'd just learned how to use it in different ways. The larvae were no different, Vik thought as he gazed over his shoulder at the freezer box. They possessed the capacity for even greater change. All that power locked beneath their thick shells... all that potential. That must've been what broke Serj: an idea of transformation so radical that it had turned his worldview on its head. No more "Born a port grub, die a port grub."

But the larvae didn't have the key to change. They didn't have what Vik had, what Ivan had given him.

The grub sucked at his wound, savoring its sweetness. In the distance he heard the sounds of laughter from the center of the shop, the clink of poker chips in celebration of the payday to come. Vik looked out across the spare parts, rusting vehicles, and shipment crates in the room as if for the first time, seeing them through the eyes of a creature born in a pit of twisted metal. Once, he'd viewed it as a prison, but now it was a playground filled with the tools of his trade. His neosteel jungle.

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