"That's not what I wanted to say. Look, the overlord came because I—"
"Would you two girls shut up for a second?" Hanna said, striding past them down the dim hallway. Lights flickered. The recruits had stayed in the rooms nearest the lift, but the barracks had been built to house hundreds of ghosts and ghost recruits. The halls were long and dark, and full of echoes, and now...
... something was scratching.
"I hear it too," Kell said, pushing off his feet. "What do you think it is?"
"I hope rats," Hanna said.
Around the nearest bend, something screamed.
"But probably not," Hanna said, unlimbering her rifle. "Dax, hurry up!"
"Feel free to jump in anytime you figure out how to disarm an Omega-class facility lockdown."
Two zerglings scrambled around the far corner, nipping and clawing at each other. Seeing the marines, they screamed again, and charged.
Vallen, Caston, Kell, and Hanna opened fire. Gauss rounds tore blood from their backs, ripping at their wings, and still they came, oblivious to the pain. A lucky shot smashed the skull of the nearest, and it skidded to a boneless stop. Caston's rifle clicked dry, and this time he didn't have any more magazines. The remaining zergling leapt between the marines, heading for Dax and the unarmored Sawn...
... who leaned Dax's rifle against the elevator wall, braced her legs against the recoil and fired a single shot.
The zergling burst apart.
The marines stared.
Kell laughed first, and Caston and Hanna joined him when Vallen flinched at the unexpected sound and dropped his rifle. Vallen snickered as he awkwardly bent to retrieve it. Even Sawn snorted her amusement while massaging her aching shoulder.
Glancing over his shoulder in annoyance at the interruption, only Dax saw the other six zerglings round the corner.
Insectoid wings fluttering, they struck Vallen all together, squealing and slashing. Wide ribbons of blood arced up the walls and over the ceiling. Vallen went down without another sound.
With a running start, Kell kicked three of the zerglings off Vallen, and fired, screaming wordlessly. They evaporated in clouds of blood and claw beneath the barrage. Hanna tried to pull Vallen clear, recoiling when a zergling shrieked and took her suit's mechanical hand off at the wrist. She cursed, stomped it flat against the steel beside the spreading pool of Vallen's blood, and fired a burst one-handed into its skull.
Her rifle went dry just as the zergling stopped moving.
Caston stood motionless. He was failing again. One by one, he was failing.
Then he grabbed the nearest zergling by the tail and swung it against the wall again and again until nothing was left but featureless flesh.
Distantly Kell's rifle fired an extended burst and clicked dry. Caston turned to see Kell kick the last zergling off Vallen's chest.
Claw wounds marred Vallen's armor in the dozens. The neosteel floor was visible through his body. Sawn hissed and shook her head.
"Dax," Hanna croaked, staggering back towards the lift.
"I know," Dax said. "Almost done."
"We're not," Kell said, staring back up the hallway.
The hydralisk's crested head nearly reached the ceiling. With a metallic slithering sound, it surged forward, twitching and shuddering as if stung by millions of invisible insects.
"Corporal!" Hanna said, storming back towards the lift. "The rifle!"
"Save the ammo," Kell said, and charged.
Caston should have yelled, should have told him that he didn't need to redeem himself. It wasn't his fault.
But the words froze in his throat, and he couldn't move.
"Caston! Get the hell out of the way!" Hanna roared from behind him, but Kell had already leapt in, grabbing hold of the creature's crest and hauling its head down as the insane hydralisk raked long gashes on his backplate. The hydralisk focused on Caston, tusked jaws slavering with hunger and recognition. It hunched over, exposing the glittering darkness between flesh and carapace, and armor-piercing spines flew at him.
It couldn't miss at this range if it was aiming for him. It wasn't aiming for him. The spines hissed past, nicking his armor, and Corporal Sawn screamed behind him. Meat slithered onto the floor.
The hydralisk leaned backwards, thrashing its serpentine tail, and rammed its claws into Kell's gut clear through his armor, over and over. Reaching up with trembling hands, Kell seized the bottom and top jaws of the hydralisk, and wrenched them apart with a wet crack.
They fell together.
Kell's faceplate irised open. His mouth worked, but only blood came out. He smiled.
"It wasn't your fault," Caston said, dropping beside him. "It was mine. Do you hear me? It was mine."
But Kell's smile was fixed, and his eyes were empty.
Staggering back to his feet, Caston turned, dreading everything that was waiting there for him.
Sawn must have seen the spines coming, and turned instinctively. The spine had struck her from the side, nearly bisecting her. The others had pinned Dax against the lift wall. He lay in a field of red.
"Lift's ready to go," he said, and exhaled once. He didn't inhale.
"Why didn't you move, Caston?" Hanna said, shoving him. "Why didn't you move?"
"It's my fault," Caston said dully.
Hanna stood still, then opened her faceplate. Even with exhaustion and grief warring across her face, her glare was magnificent. "We're the only two left, and you're not going catatonic on me, Gage," she said. "So listen.
"You didn't make the zerg the hungry sons of bitches they are. You didn't even start the war. They did. You have nothing to apologize for."
But he did. She was only partly right: he hadn't fired the first shot. He'd just fired the next one.