Caston closed his eyes as the lift rose, putting one hand against the humming wall. He'd smiled at all the right times, reacted in all the right ways. None of them had seen.
Screaming in the soundproof box, he punched the wall over and over and over, willing the weakness to leave with each shuddering strike.
* * *
Caston exited the lift, carefully composed and smiling faintly. He needn't have bothered. Private Marc Drumar was staring out the nearest window into the dark of the ruined cityscape, where broken skyscrapers rose like tombstones in the faint moonlight.
"Marc. Sarge says you have to come down for dinner."
"I'm not hungry," Marc said.
"Yeah, well, he says that doesn't matter," Caston said heartily. "You know how he is."
"I don't like it," Marc said quickly.
"He's all right," Caston said, puzzled.
"No," Marc said, turning to face him. "I mean today. The killing. I thought I was ready, but I shot that woman. I saw her fall in pieces."
A cold well opened in Caston's chest. His hands trembled. He needed to say something. To disarm this conversation before it went somewhere dangerous.
"She was scum," he said. Shit.
"What?" Marc said, wrinkling his brow.
"She would have killed you. She tried to kill you, man," Caston said, trying to bring it back to safety.
"Yeah, I know," Marc said, and Caston relaxed.
"But I was looking out at this city..." Marc continued. "And I was thinking. We spend all our time fighting rebels, pirates, zerg, protoss. And our worlds are ruined, and we keep killing each other. And for what?"
Caston exhaled in an explosive rush. "What should we do? Talk to them? They want to exterminate us, idiot."
Marc blinked once. "After what happened to you today, I thought you'd understand."
"I'm not a coward."
"Neither am I," Marc said, meeting Caston's anger calmly, and a little sadly. "I just don't want to do this anymore."
Caston turned from him, and went to the glassless window, balling his fist into a bloodless rock. The wind smelled of rust and decay, and he breathed it in.
He breathed out.
"Our enemies aren't reasonable," he said. "Look at this place, Marc. You want to lay down your gun, but they'll kill you armed or unarmed. They'll b-burn your home down to ash. They don't care if you fight or not."
"Caston," Marc said, after a long moment's silence. "Where are you from?"
"Don't you get it?" Caston said, wheeling around. "It doesn't matter! Pick a planet! Our cities are being destroyed and overrun and obliterated from orbit. You don't get to stand on the goddamn sidelines, Marc. If we don't fight, we're extinct."
Behind Marc, something floated between the dark pillars of two skyscrapers. Two somethings. Huge, dark shapes with dangling appendages. The well of icy water spilled over, crawling up Caston's arms and over his shoulders.
He'd first seen overlords in the final days of Mar Sara, rising over the horizon like tumors. The zerg had been unknown then, and he'd sat on the rooftop of his parents' home, watching them come, eclipsing the daylight.
He remembered only snatches of the day that followed. Dark clouds of mutalisks flooding across the horizon in rippling flocks. Hiding beneath a cellar door while his mother shielded it from outside, screaming as bloody claws cut through her into the wood beneath. His father's rough hands around his waist, shoving him into a last transport as zerglings swarmed up the ramp and the overlords hung overhead, watching...
Caston shrugged the FN92 off his shoulder and pushed past Marc.
Through the scope, the two overlords were perfectly visible, even though it was night. Bulbous pulsing masses of purple-red flesh, pierced by knobs of carapace and jagged bones. Spiderlike legs twitched underneath, just behind hanging, somber heads. Each one had dimly lit clusters of eyes: the bigger overlord's was purple; the other's, green.
They had halted in the gap, and were turning towards each other. If they hadn't been monsters, Caston would have imagined that they were speaking.
He centered the crosshairs on the nearest one's head. The weakness—the trembling fear that had haunted him in the academy's entrance hallway—was gone.
"Caston," Marc said. "I've heard about this. All the zerg have gone wild. No one's controlling them. They're harmless."
"Good," Caston said, and pulled the trigger.
The overlord's head jerked sideways. It sank into the side of a nearby building and tumbled gently to the ground, crumpling like a discarded sack. Purple eyes winked out one by one.
With glacial slowness, the remaining overlord turned to face him through the crosshairs. Emerald eyes flared in the dark, meeting his. Seeing him.
He fired again and missed. The overlord had vented some of the gases keeping it afloat and drifted to the left, behind the nearest building.
"I'm not going to watch this," Marc said. Caston ignored him, aiming above the skyscraper line, and side to side. The lift doors pinged behind him as he waited.
An hour passed, and Green Eyes hadn't reappeared. Grimacing, he slung the rifle back over his shoulder and descended.