At 09:00 Ivan and his crew marched into the back room. Vik watched them from the rafters.
"Payday!" Jace bellowed.
"Buyer will be here in thirty, boys," Ivan said as approached the dog cages with the other mercs. "We load up the box and head out in force. We make the drop, then we come back and split the earnings. Business as usual. Let's do this clean, and we'll--"
"Boss!" Jace stopped just outside of the dog pen. The container was inside, its lid hanging open. Nearby, a giant hole gaped in the chain-link fence as if something had torn through it.
"The zerg. They opened the box!" another merc yelled.
"They can't open boxes," Ivan growled. "Jace?"
"I did my rounds like you told me, boss," the big man said. "No one coulda made it out with the zerg."
Vik had seen Jace periodically wandering through the room. The grub had worked all through the night, melting into the shadows whenever the merc came in for his inspection.
Ivan's eyes swept across the room. "Then they're in here. Empty out every one of these crates!"
The workers hurried through the narrow room, held tight in the grip of uncertainty. The shale dogs were howling louder than usual. Saliva foamed across their jaws. They smelled the fear.
"There's one, boss!" Jace thrust a meaty hand up at the top of a stack of containers. The spiky carapace of a larva peeked out over the edge, right where Vik had put it. The big man clambered up the containers and plucked the alien from its perch. The critter was tucked up in a ball, its body glued together with industrial adhesive. The grub was glad he'd found a use for the dead larva.
"Musta crawled up there." Jace turned the alien around in his arms. "It's all curled up."
"Then uncurl it and put it in the box!" Ivan ordered. "Find the others."
"C'mon now, little bugger." Jace grabbed each end of the larva with his enormous hands. "Ain't gonna help where you're goin'."
Vik slid his thermal shades down and set them to dampen heat and light patterns. Showtime.
Jace yanked, unfurling the larva and triggering a cluster of frag grenades the grub had rigged to its belly. The explosion sent the merc's legs rocketing off in opposite directions and reduced the rest of his body to a shower of biomechanical machine bits.
Vik reached for a makeshift control panel he'd wired into the facility's electrical lines, and thumbed a series of switches. The first overloaded the shop's power core, killing the floodlights. Backup generators kicked in, painting the room in crimson emergency strobes.
The second switch wirelessly detonated a dozen grenades he'd scattered in the shipment containers stacked against the far wall. Fireballs blossomed in the room. Thunder shook the walls. Shards of molten shrapnel fanned out in all directions, cutting down a third of Ivan's cronies.
"ZERG!" someone yelled.
The mercs scattered and dove for cover. Pop! Pop! Pop! The whole crew unloaded their weapons--pistols, shotguns, and assault rifles--at shadows with reckless abandon.
Vik triggered the last switch. Thermite charges ignited across the outside of the cage containing the dogs. The structure's fence melted into a pile of molten goop. The terrified animals surged out of the pen, lunging at whoever stood in their path of escape and safety. The chaos was absolute.
The grub slid down a maintenance ladder and stalked into an empty vehicle corral where he'd loaded the two remaining larvae onto a hoverdolly. Pushing the dolly in front of him, he wove through the carnage, his thermal shades affording him preternatural vision.
He raced along one side of the room, positioning the hoverdolly between himself and the frantic mercs and hounds. A hail of stray rounds slammed into the larvae carapaces, ricocheting back into the melee.
Then Vik was out, tossing the thermal shades aside and pushing the dolly into Deadman's Port proper. He made a beeline for the starport. Thinking back on his escape, the grub realized Ivan had disappeared during the fighting. He cursed himself for not noticing earlier. The boss's absence should've been a warning.
A transport engine snarled behind him. Tire treads clawed at the dirt. Vik glanced over his shoulder and saw his boss, gunning the four-wheeled metal beast toward him. The grub slipped into the familiar backstreets of his home. After a few twists and turns he lost sight of the transport, but he heard the growl of its engine echoing through the alleyways. It was impossible to place.
Grubs poked their heads out of their makeshift homes built from abandoned ship scraps to survey the ruckus. Vik ignored them and gritted his teeth as he pushed the dolly into the street ahead. He was racing toward the other side when Ivan's transport careened around a nearby corner.
It all happened so fast that Vik only had the time to step back as the vehicle slammed into the dolly. The impact ripped one of the larvae into pieces and sent the other, along with the grub, flying. Vik tumbled across the ground, bruised and battered, but alive.
The commotion drew more grubs. They bounded and leapt through the webwork streets. They crawled and clambered atop derelict ship hulls and towering nests of jagged neosteel. Dozens of feral eyes set in grime-smudged faces peered into the street. They didn't come to intervene. They came to watch. Fights meant death, and death meant scavenge.
Ivan stepped out of the transport, clutching a needle-gun. He picked up a piece of the dead larva, looked at it for a few seconds, and then hurled it across the street, screaming. It was the most emotion Vik had ever seen his boss display. The grub felt a grim satisfaction that he had shattered the crime lord's mask.
"What part of our talk last night didn't you understand?" Ivan asked. "You're filth, down to your bones. An animal like the rest of these leeches!" he yelled, waving his gun at the watching grubs.
Less than a meter away from Vik, the living larva scratched at the dirt road with its legs. The grub pulled the alien close, using it as a shield, and then struggled to his feet.
Ivan marched forward in long strides and leveled his needler at the grub, but he pulled it back as he neared. "No. I'm going to bash your head in like I did with the other grub. He cried, you know. Whimpered like a dog. Didn't even have the honor to die like a man."
His chuckle turned into a hoarse cough, followed by a stream of blood that dribbled from his mouth. Vik's heart rate quickened at the sight of it. He scanned his enemy and found a barely noticeable patch of crimson on his stomach, partially hidden by his black suit coat. Caught a stray bullet in the melee...
Vik's adrenal glands doped his bloodstream with a fresh wave of epinephrine. His vision became dagger-sharp as he focused on the wounded animal standing in his territory. His blood howled, and all at once he felt a rush of invincibility. He wasn't a grub. He was the purest expression of survival, the bearer of a genetic code honed and sharpened by natural selection over the course of terran existence.
"Let this be a reminder." Ivan grabbed Vik's jumpsuit as he addressed the other grubs. "My product, my--"
Vik sank his teeth into Ivan's hand, tearing away a strip of meat. He sprang forward on the balls of his feet, swinging the larva down. His boss fired a wide shot just as the zerg's spiky carapace tore through his suit, through his flesh, and to his bone.
And then Vik was pinning Ivan to the ground, smashing the larva down on his boss again and again. The carapace crashed down with sharp cracks, shattering bone. His blood howled for more, and he indulged its cravings until the crime lord was nothing more than a smear of road kill. The grub ascendant rose, holding his larva overhead. Blood coated his body like a new hide, a symbol of superiority that spoke more to his kind than threats, titles, or credits ever would.
Most of the watchers kept their distance. A few even cowered low to the ground in some animal approximation of a bow. But one lunged forward, reaching for Ivan's fallen gun, driven by the desire to defeat the new champion and assert his dominance.
An inhuman scream boiled out of Vik as he kicked his boot into the challenger's sternum. The grub cried in pain and rolled through the dirt. He slowly crawled away in defeat, keeping his eyes to the ground. They all were, Vik realized. Not one of the grubs had the courage to meet his gaze. They were scared. They were his.
"Ivan's shop is open for business! First come, first serve!" he bellowed.
The grubs cheered, raising dirty fists skyward, and then scattered off in the direction of the facility. Vik would've joined them, but he had a fortune in his hands. The larva's legs clawed wildly at the air. He wondered if it comprehended its victory, if it realized how far it had come with his command.