The deafening chatter of C-14 fire shook the floor of the observation deck and bounced off the surrounding skyscrapers. A gaping wound exploded in a mutalisk's chest, and it dropped from sight. Another dipped into Caston's stream of fire and pinwheeled away toward the distant ground.
The remaining two shuddered suddenly, and turned their acidic projectiles on each other, hissing and screaming. The remainder of Meatbag Squad focused their fire on the feral mutalisks. The creatures fell apart in a shower of wet flesh.
Caston's rifle clicked empty. The zero on his HUD flashed at him for several seconds before he realized what it meant, and reloaded.
The neosteel floor was a melted ruin of acid scars and dying wurms. Marc had fallen forward, and lay with his head twisted to the side. Nothing was left inside except for red and bone, but in his mind, Caston still felt the weight of that calm, sad gaze.
He holstered his C-14 and went for Kell, fist cocking back.
Without breaking stride, Sergeant Bayton slammed into him, pushing him back against the wall.
"This is not happening, Private!"
"I tried to warn them, and he made jokes. And they're goddamn dead!"
"Yeah, they are," Bayton said, his visor flicking open. Muscles leapt in his neck and jaw. "So look at him. How do you think he feels about that now?"
Caston looked at Kell, standing silently over the bodies of Marc and Berry. He looked away.
"Right, marines. This is what is going to happen. We are going to make our way to Corporal Sawn's dropship. We are going to leave. And we are going to do both with all speed."
"Screw that, Sarge," Hanna said, raising her visor and spitting. "We're going to hunt down that overlord."
"Absolutely," Vallen said.
"Oh, I'm sorry," said Sergeant Bayton. "You must be new. That last thing I said was what we refer to in the Marine Corps as a goddamn order. Now—"
A hundred feet west of the academy, a green blur streaked through the hollow interior of a skeletal skyscraper and exploded. Its foundation obliterated, the skyscraper struck the concrete with a hollow, teeth-rattling boom and fell over, turning a quarter mile of abandoned buildings into a churning furrow of thick gray smoke and jagged debris.
With dry mouths, the marines turned away from the devastation and looked up at the hidden sky.
The second baneling the overlord dropped hit the landing pad. The dropship and the unfortunate pirates' cruiser erupted in a tower of green-tinged fire.
"Pile into the lift right now!" Bayton shouted, and slammed a fist against the panel. With a gentle ping, the doors of the academy's only working lift opened. Sawn went first, almost instinctually. Caston followed, beginning to understand how this unarmored medic had lived long enough to get that thousand-yard stare.
Vallen, Hanna, and Dax followed. Kell still hadn't moved. With a growl, Bayton grabbed hold of the stunned marine, shoved him into the too-crowded lift, and pressed a button on the inside.
"I need you to cut the shit and get everyone down to the lowest level. You copy?"
"Yes, Sarge. How did you know?"
"Please. I've seen a thousand Daxes. I'm a sergeant, Private."
"Are... are you getting in the lift, Sarge?" Hanna said.
Bayton smiled. "Use your eyes, Private Saul. No space."
The door slid shut, and they descended.
By the shuddering of the lift, the next baneling corpse struck the observation deck dead center.
* * *
I descend. Fire and smoke rise to meet me.
I hear the silence of the dead. I hear the thoughts of the living.
His punishment is not finished yet.
From the larvae, I call a digger and a spinebearer. From the larvae, I call the many-ones.
I hold them with my will, and I send them. Agony.
* * *
The lift doors opened on the barracks hallway, A level, which was underground, but not far enough for any of their liking.
"Everyone out," Dax said. "I need space to work."
"What was Sergeant Bayton talking about?" Vallen said as they piled out. Kell moved farther along the hall and hunkered against the wall.
"Well, that resocialization I went through?"
"Didn't actually happen. I got caught hacking into the Ministry of Finance's records. Was trying to fix something for a friend," he said, tearing a panel off the wall. From the recesses of his suit, he pulled a handheld device that didn't look like standard marine-issue hardware, and hooked it up to the wiring within.
"They were going to resoc and enlist me as punishment. They told me that, and then left me alone in the room with the resoc console for ten minutes."
"You mean you—"
"Hacked the console. Thrashed around a lot in the tank to make it look good. "
"Let me get this straight," Hanna said. "I've spent all this time feeling sorry for you, and you weren't brain-panned? How the hell do you expect us to ever trust you again?"
"Whatever," Dax shrugged. "Mind if I save your asses anyway?"
"Please do. Women everywhere will thank you," Vallen said, turning to the medic. "You're not going to say anything, are you?"
"If he can get us to safety, I'll nominate him for emperor," Sawn said dryly.
Caston walked over to Kell. He'd been ready to hit the man for something that wasn't his fault, and he needed to—
"I know," Kell said, raising his head. His eyes were red-rimmed. "I was always joking around when we trained, joking when you were trying to warn us. They're dead because of me. I know."