"Privates Saul and Wolfe," Bayton said, "would you kindly stop horsing around and fall back south towards me?"
Caston narrowed his eyes, peering through the burnt and rusted metal. The sergeant was a canny son of a bitch. Any tip about where he was had to be a trap...
He groaned. "You've moved behind us, haven't you?"
"Damnation," said Sergeant Bayton, rising above the edge of a roof with his rifle aimed. "The private has seen through my clever ruse. I shall retire in disgrace. Where would you like your kill shots?"
"Incoming zerg," said Dax from the base, as if commenting on the weather.
Static hissed in the squad channel's silence.
"Is this part of the exercise, Sarge?" Berry said.
"Nope," Sergeant Bayton said calmly. "Fall back to the academy on the double, marines. Where, Private Damen?"
"The sensors report a big zerg to the south. I'm trying to..."
The marines helped each other up and hustled. Dax exhaled directly into his helmet mike, and the marines winced in unison.
"Found it. Sorry, Sarge. No threat. It's just an overlord."
* * *
I found a worker and called to it. It did not listen. Madness infects the We. Madness infects me. With individuality comes insanity.
I gathered my will. It struggled. It obeyed. It became a nest for the We.
I am not the Overmind. I am not the Kerrigan. I am not a gathered-mind. My will is limited.
To hold one is pain. To hold more is agony. To hold many is impossible.
To punish the not-We, I must be careful.
From the larvae, I called volatile ones. I told them to sleep, and they slept.
I gathered their bodies into myself.
From the larvae, I called the winged ones. I hold them with my will. Agony.
They will wait.
They must wait.
I will gather the attention of the not-We. I will not listen to the madness, to the—
you are alone you are weak your world is dead you are dead all is dead
I will not listen to the madness!
The winged ones will wait.
They must wait.
* * *
"Damnedest thing," Sergeant Bayton said, resting his armor's gauntlets on the railing with a faint clink. "Try again."
Caston did. Aiming the rifle was harder with everyone watching, but the overlord was big enough to eclipse the skyscrapers behind it. He'd once shot a decipede off a fence during a sandstorm.
He fired at the overlord. And missed.
"Leaping hell," said Kell. "I saw it that time. It dodged the damn bullet. How did it do that?"
"It must know when we're about to fire, and then it—"
"Bullshit," said Hanna. "Overlords aren't that smart."
The spacious observation deck was getting crowded, especially since all of the marines were still in their suits. Corporal Sawn, their medic and pilot, had come up as well. Almost painfully thin, she stood in a distant corner, watching the overlord with grim gray eyes.
"Are they always that big, Sarge?" said Kell.
"Almost. This one's seen a few fights, too. Look at that scarring."
Everyone leaned forward. Night was falling over Tarsonis. Jagged fingers of light slipped out of the city square, filling the observation deck with long shadows.
"None of the studies I've ever read talked about them dodging bullets," Berry said, and the usual cheer was gone from his voice. Caston was the only one who noticed. Berry sounding worried was like Dax sounding anything. It was unnatural.
"This," said Hanna, lighting up another one of Vallen's favorite cigars, "is some top-secret shit. I guarantee it. Some escapee from a Confederate holding cell."
"Yes," Vallen said, casually reaching over, pinched the cigar out of her mouth with mechanical fingers and flicked it out the window. "An ingenious war machine. It approaches the enemy and floats around them."
"Yeah, that is weird," Kell said. "Of all the interesting things to circle on this rock, why us?"
Caston involuntarily glanced at Marc. The marine was already looking at him, asking a silent question. Caston turned away, his jaw aching from the pressure of his gritted teeth. No, he wasn't going to tell the squad. There was nothing to tell. To say that the green-eyed overlord had come here because he had killed the purple-eyed one was to admit that the overlord remembered him. That the mindless beast had a mind.
The overlord descended into relative safety behind the wall of burnt-out hulks. Caston laid the FN92 against a wall and drew his C-14.
Corporal Sawn seemed to reach a decision, and strode up to Bayton's side, speaking in whispered bursts that Caston could barely hear.
"... get out... be more... right now."
Bayton looked down, thinking, then responded, nearly as quietly: "Either the thing isn't a threat, or it's too late to run. We're safer here."
Sawn didn't argue. She shrugged and returned to her corner.
Gripping the C-14 so hard that his fingers ached inside the suit's gauntlets, Caston came to a decision.