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A short story by

Danny McAleese

All at once, the explosions stopped.

For a long and eerie moment, silence reigned. Then, slowly, the plumes of white and gray smoke that choked the combat zone rose lazily into the still air. Revealed beneath, like some cruel magician's trick, the full scope of the smoldering battlefield faded into stark, naked view.

The protoss had been brutally thorough in their attack. Shattered combat suits that had once been living, breathing marines lay scattered in various stages of destruction. Some lay scorched by particle disruptors, their armor penetrated by the unrelenting stalker fire. Others had met a more surgical demise, sliced to pieces by the searing energy of a zealot's psionic blades. All of them were lifeless.

Or nearly all.

The apparent stillness of the Kel-Morian encampment was broken by sudden movement. One by one, from the back of the ranks, soldiers began creeping their way forward. They were marauders, lumbering in their mammoth armored suits—firebats, dragging the blackened and glowing barrels of their Perdition flamethrowers. Their once-neat formations were in fragments, like the twisted wreckage of the installation they were tasked to defend. But they had held. They still breathed. And that, to them, was victory.

Captain Marius Blackwood saw none of this. On either side of his racing siege tank, the strange Morian terrain blurred by. As vast, reaching plains of red dust stretched out in all directions, Marius focused upon the small, closed world of his forward viewport. Instead of the shrill blaring of the stronghold's Klaxon horns, he heard only the reassuring thrum of the engine beneath him.

"Enemy forces are in rout," came the voice over his comm. The words were as synthetic as ever: robot-directed instructions piped in from central Command. "All squads report to platoon commanders. Primary objective alpha. Perimeter breach at—"

Marius thumbed the kill switch of his headset, putting a stop to what he knew would be an endless stream of useless electronic chatter. His well-calloused hand closed over the shift lever without even a glance downward. The Arclite shuddered for an instant as it roared into the next gear, treads kicking up great billowing clouds of crimson dust in their wake.

But Marius saw none of that, either. He saw only the colossus.

The thing was absolutely massive—an intimidating monster silhouetted against the grim, blasted landscape. He watched as it retreated on long, spidery legs, its strange, otherworldly head turned backward to cover its escape. It was still way beyond range. Marius knew it would continue to outdistance his siege tank, except for one tiny detail.

It was limping.

The lone robotic walker lacked the speed and grace it'd had when the war machines first attacked the compound. This one had suffered some damage. Rolling the zoom forward on his targeting screen, Marius could make out its badly crippled leg. With each step the walker took, the leg dragged heavily behind it.

He gunned the engine. Far ahead, the empty plain gave way to the darker shapes of distant, jagged mountains. He would need to get the colossus before it reached them. Marius locked the reticle on his target, his eyes drawn to the proximity readout that flashed below. There was only one thing he was sure of: it would be close.

A white light blinked rapidly on the console before him. Marius did his level best to ignore it and almost succeeded; then he sighed as he punched it with his fist. On the cracked, filthy viewscreen, a familiar figure came into view.

"Blackwood!" the lieutenant colonel cried. "Where in the hell do you think you're going?"

"Forward," Marius replied snidely. Already he could tell what kind of conversation this was going to be.

"Forward my ass," the lieutenant colonel reprimanded him. Her blue eyes gleamed brightly even through the dirt and grime of the splintered viewscreen. "Party's over, Captain. Get back here now. We've got—"

Without warning, the siege tank was rocked by a brilliant explosion. Hydraulic actuators in the undercarriage absorbed most of the impact, but they didn't stop Marius's head from its impromptu meeting with the forward console. He struggled to maintain control, fingers going reflexively into his dark tangle of hair. They came back covered in blood.

"I thought the enemy had been routed!" Marius roared into his mic, eyes sweeping the landscape through his viewport. Despite all the missions he'd run in this thing, the veteran driver still didn't fully trust his sensor screens.

"They have been," the lieutenant colonel snapped. "But you're too far forward. You're running into retreating stragglers, Captain. You're way out in front—"

Another blast shook his tank, this time only a glancing blow. Turning to one side, Marius laid eyes on his new enemy. A single stalker had targeted him as it fled, moving in the same general direction that he was. Its legs were an astonishing blur of speed as it scrambled away.

It shouldn't be here, he thought curiously. By now the stalker should've blinked away to join its robotic counterparts. Perhaps it was damaged. Whatever the case, Marius wasn't going to give it the chance to prove him wrong.

He acted. It was always this way, when he drove. Through years of practice, Marius had learned how to become one with his machine. As a result, there was no delay between thought and action as he jerked the control wheel to the left.

The tank responded sharply to his input. Skidding wildly, Marius waited until the stalker was lined up in his sights before jamming his right foot on the opposite stabilization pedal. There was a tremendous roar as the tank shuddered, righted itself, and came out of the skid without missing a beat. It continued forward at a terrifying speed.

Gotta keep up that momentum, a voice echoed inside his head. You lose it, and they'll punch your ticket.

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