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A short story by

Matt Burns

Vik brought Ivan's transport to a screeching halt at the edge of the dust-blown landing area that passed as the city's starport. He hopped out of the vehicle, dressed in a ratty shirt and pants. He'd taken off his jumpsuit and wrapped it around the larva to avoid the attention of the starport's regulars. The clothing concealed the alien entirely, making Vik look like just another grub lugging around useless junk.

He almost missed the buyer's vessel. The lab rat had been smart. The beat-up, common-looking ship fit right in. What gave it away was a plump man waiting outside, clean-shaven and dressed in a crisp black jumpsuit. Branamoor's rep, Vik remembered Ivan saying before. The man probably would've been hassled if not for the armed guards--mercs, from the look of them--standing nearby.

Vik was trekking toward the ship when a wave of fatigue hit him. Every bruise and scratch he'd earned over the past twenty-four hours flared painfully to life. The larva suddenly weighed a thousand pounds in his rubbery arms. As he shifted his hold on the bundled zerg, the pilot wings slipped out of the jumpsuit's folds. The grub stared at them for a moment, not immediately recognizing what they were.

But something inside of him did. The primal fog shrouding his mind parted. Fragments of his old self, locked away in his subconscious, stirred. He struggled to keep them back, those weak and unnecessary parts that were anathema to survival.

"We're not like them: that's what's important. We're not animals," he heard Serj's voice say.

"Shut up..." Vik growled. He stomped on the wings to silence the unwanted speaker. Inside, his other half clawed up toward the surface of thought, armed with memories, accountability, and guilt.

"When we finally make it off this rock, we'll fit in with people. We'll be real terrans."

Vik stumbled. Images of the past day hit him like a maglev train: Jace's body coming apart, shale dogs tearing out the throats of terrified mercs, and Ivan's remains plastered across the street. He hadn't really seen any of it happen at the time. It hadn't been him; it'd been someone else. Something else.

"Vik..." the grub said as he went to his knees. "I'm Vik."

The buyer's rep stared at him in disgust, oblivious to the treasure cached under his bloodstained jumpsuit. The man's eyes, cold and calculating, reminded Vik of Ivan's. The grub hugged the larva protectively, thinking of emotionless figures in white lab coats poking and prodding the alien with strange devices. Freedom was meters away, and all it would cost was another life, an alien and unthinking one at that. Just one more sacrifice to finish this path built of blood...

"We both forgot..." Vik plucked the wings from the ground and then turned away from Branamoor's rep. "We both screwed it all up. I should've stayed... talked you out of it. We coulda found another way."

He collapsed at the edge of the starport, his body limp with exhaustion. For hours, he sat there and watched the ships come and go. Eventually the lab rat's ship took off empty-handed.

The larva died later that night. Its tiny legs stopped moving, and its body went rigid. Vik dug a hole in the ground and laid the alien inside. He stood over the grave, thinking of all the UNN vids he'd seen about the zerg. Any other terran would've called the larva a monster, but the grub didn't. The little critter hadn't been turned into one. Zerg changed their skins when they became killing machines, but Vik's kind remained the same. They hid their beasts behind masks of carefully manicured normalcy. Maybe that made his species more dangerous than a million bloodthirsty aliens stampeding toward a helpless colony. At least with the zerg, you could see them coming.

As Vik began throwing dirt into the grave, a hard lump formed in his throat. In his fit of terror and emotional detachment, he realized that he hadn't felt anything for Serj's death. But peering down at the half-buried larva dislodged those dormant feelings. It was the first time in his life he'd ever seen a dead thing and felt truly sad... the first time he knew what it was to feel like a real person.

The next morning, Vik traded Ivan's transport to a group of smugglers for a space in their puddle-jumper's cargo hold. He never asked where they were going. Apart from the clothes on his back and Serj's wings in his pocket, he left everything else behind. It was only Vik who ascended the ship's landing ramp. The dreamer. The friend. The terran.

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