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"We should go out there. Hunt it down and kill it."
Everyone looked at him like he'd suggested they go outside naked.
"It's dark out there," Kell said, as if he couldn't see.
"It doesn't matter. Overlords can carry drones. Drones can start hives. We need to kill it before it attacks."
The tension stretched across the wide room like a web, tight and quivering.
"You're right," Kell said gravely. "Let's do a practice run."
He hunched over, dangling his suited arms beneath his body, and made weak pinching motions. Step by lumbering step, he approached Caston.
"Oooooh. Float float. Shoot me before I land on you. Pinch pinch."
Hanna's snicker was louder in Caston's ears than it actually was. He shoved Kell to the floor with a rattling crash and pointed out the window.
"Idiot! Do you see it? That's not a joke! That's the zerg out there!"
"I can't really see anything from the ground."
The rest of the marines laughed, except for Bayton, whose face resembled a thundercloud above a dark mountain, and Corporal Sawn, who didn't appear to have smiled in her entire life.
"The zerg aren't individuals, Caston," Berry said, smiling. "Overlords relay orders; they don't give them. Without a leader, they go crazy. It probably wandered from one of the lesser hives in Ewen Park."
"That's not madness," Caston insisted. "That thing is stalking us!"
Smiles faltered around the room as they realized that Caston might not be joking. Sergeant Bayton dropped his hand on Caston's shoulder.
"Calm down, Private," he muttered. "You're making a damn scene."
Berry didn't notice. He probably thought he was helping. "Overlords don't hunt, actually. Not even their predecessors did. The gargantis proximae were semi-intelligent herbivores before their race was infested by the zerg. Communal, with a language based on psionics, tentacle manipulation, and color. Oh, and a little-known fact," Berry beamed. "They mourned."
"Mourned," Caston said dully, glancing between the zerg threat and the clearly insane private.
"Oh yes," Berry said happily. "They reportedly could live for centuries, but when one of them died, they all turned a 'sky-blue' color. Given a sky with the right amount of oxygen and nitrogen, of course. Anyway! Now that this one's free of the Swarm, it's feral, but harmless."
Caston glanced at the sergeant. There was an order implicit on Bayton's face, and it was "Shut up, Private Gage."
He turned to watch the overlord continue its circuit of the outer academy grounds, and blinked. It was coming towards them, rising over the shards of a hotel tower like a purple moon. The marines chuckled, and a few raised their C-14s for some target practice. The mood gratefully returned to the cycle of gentle mockery that was the status quo within Meatbag Squadron.
Something flashed through the room, something invisible, intangible, and focused. Caston staggered. So did Berry and Vallen, though they recovered separately, shaking their heads. No one else had noticed a thing.
It hadn't been the word now. It had been the essence of now, hurled with all the strength of an order. And it had come from the direction of the overlord.
It raised its head, fixing him with those lambent green eyes. It knew him.
Caston hissed through his teeth. Imagined that he was right. That Green Eyes had dropped a drone somewhere, and that the drone had created a hive. What if the overlord knew that everyone would come up and watch him... it circle around the academy?
And why would it approach now unless it was trying to draw attention to itself...?
Caston spun around just before a screeching cluster of mutalisks swooped down, their insectile bodies bobbing eagerly beneath their leathery wings. Whipping their tails forward, they disgorged a wave of ravenous parasites at precisely the same time.
Shards of neosteel and bundles of glaive wurms ricocheted across the observation deck.
Caston screamed. Razor-sharp fragments of metal sparked off his breastplate, and a chunk of the armor on his shoulder was simply gone. Gasping for air, he staggered back, taking in the carnage around him. Marc had fallen to his knees, clawing at his helmet with metal fingers as red steam poured from the place where his face had been. Berry didn't even have a head anymore. None of them had even put down their—
"Put down your! Goddamn! Faceplate! And shoot! Private!" Sergeant Bayton roared, shaking him by his suit's collar.
Caston seized hold of the orders gratefully. He shut his faceplate and glanced over his shoulder for the overlord. It was gone.
* * *
I no longer hold the winged ones with my will.
I rise into the clouds. I am heavy with the weight of the dead volatile ones.
The curve of the world is below. The cold place is above. I want to float up.
I do not want to do this.
I want to do this.
I am only One. The not-We must know fear. Must know madness. He must know fear and madness.
There must be punishment.