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Hanna dragged him back towards the lift with her suit's remaining hand, cursing at him and the world in general. She was saying something about lying low, then hunting the overlord down when reinforcements came. He was pretty sure he responded.
The doors closed. Caston looked at his feet. Blood rippled around them.
The lift descended haphazardly into the depths of the academy, coming to a sudden, shuddering halt every few floors. While Hanna grimly outlined their revenge, Caston watched the floors flicker past like images on a projector, flinching each time the doors hissed open and slammed shut.
Crumpled skeletons in tattered Confederate uniforms, trapped when Tarsonis fell.
At the end of a short corridor, a glass wall covered in red-veined flesh.
A long hallway strung with hot, pale lights. The farthest one failed. Then the next. The next. Then the darkness rushed towards them like a landslide—
The lift freefell for several seconds before juddering to a stop with a stench of burning plastic and metal. The open doors were only around halfway up their waists. The flickering display read, "Z."
"... with a flamethrower and step on them. You hear me, Caston?"
"I hear you," Caston said, reaching down to the open doors on Z level. Together, he and Hanna pulled the elevator down to the last level, lowered their visors, and stepped through.
Silence ruled down here. Intermittent grime-stained lights gave the neosteel a yellow tint. A sign reading "Security Control" pointed down the branching hallway.
"There's gotta be a working console in there," Hanna said. "We'll call for help, then look around for emergency stairs."
Caston let her take the lead, since she had the only rifle with ammo left. She turned a corner. He had a feeling that their search for stairs wasn't going to go well. Those Confederate soldiers wouldn't have starved to death if there'd been any stai—
If there were no stairs, how had the zerglings and the hydralisk attacked them?
A sly scratching in the wall behind them was their only warning.
The zerg roach sprang onto the neosteel and skidded, spraying sparks as its six talons fought for purchase. It hissed triumphantly from within the spiked safety of its thick carapace. Hanna wheeled about, leveling the C-14 awkwardly over her suit's handless forearm.
Caston had no intention of letting her face it alone. He had no intention of surviving this planet, come to that. He lunged at the towering roach, reaching out with both hands to hold it still so that Hanna could take her shot...
With a contemptuous swipe of its bulky body, the roach knocked him against the wall with a bang of steel on steel. Hanna fired, and the gauss rounds skipped and sparked off the roach's armor...
It reeled back, maws gaping. Time slowed. Hanna threw the rifle to Caston...
The roach unleashed a flood of acid.
Hanna stumbled backwards choking, her entire front half covered in the bubbling green fluid. She sat down heavily on the floor, legs splayed, then fell backward.
Talons dancing, the roach turned to Caston. It opened its mouth again, and the bile surged at the back of its throat...
A missile of pure thought plunged from the sky down into the dark hallway beneath the ground. The roach shuddered and stared at him, slavering.
Then it bashed its head against the neosteel into a raw and mangled pulp.
Unspeakably weary, Caston inched his back up the wall behind him. He stumbled past the roach's corpse to Hanna. The acid had eaten through her armor into the ground below. Nothing recognizably human remained.
With Hanna's rifle dangling from his hand, Caston eased his way along the wall to the hole the roach had ambushed them from. It was more than wide enough for him.
His chest illuminators carved through the narrow darkness. The shaft led at an angle away from the academy until neosteel became soil, hardened to a resilient crust by the roach's secretions. The tunnel began spiraling upward, and Caston followed it for half an hour. At some point, the spiral branched horizontally back toward the academy, and Caston knew that if he followed it, he'd find Kell and Vallen's bodies lying where they fell.
He kept climbing until he was back on the surface, outside the academy.
The overlord was waiting for him.
Unblinking, red-rimmed green eyes held him and judged him. Wild hatred billowed from its scarred bulk like heat from a furnace. Behind it, the melted ruins of the academy raked at the sky.
With painstaking effort, and without breaking eye contact, the overlord unfurled an underclaw and scratched a long, wavering line in the soil at Caston's feet.
He stared down at it. Understanding came.
One. The overlord had left him alive on purpose. They were both alone now.
The overlord held his gaze a moment longer. Then its side expanded, and it rose, turning away.
Caston raised his rifle. And faltered.
It had left him alive on purpose. It wanted him to kill it. He had killed the other overlord, and Green Eyes wanted to die because of it. Why would a zerg care...?
He remembered them huddled together as if talking. Against his will, he thought of the unusual intelligence of the creature, and how Berry had said that the overlords' original species were capable of living for hundreds of years. He wondered if it was possible that an infested creature could regain its memories, its sentience, if separated from the Swarm.
And how wonderful it might be to find someone you remembered at the other end of centuries full of horrors...
With a disgusted cry, he flung the rifle away.