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Cione. Again. Marius winced, squeezing his temples with a dirty thumb and forefinger. "Not now, brother," he said softly. "I'm kinda busy."
The stalker's torso had swiveled forward, presumably to calculate the best angle of escape. It turned back to find sixty-plus tons of steel bearing down upon it. Quickly leveling its disruptor cannons, the enemy managed a single ill-placed shot before Marius squeezed the trigger on his 80mm. The twin blasts tore through the robot's remaining shield, blowing it to pieces only a split second before the siege tank drove over its broken frame.
Marius felt the satisfying crunch of metal giving way beneath his treads. A quick glance into the rear HUD revealed shattered fragments of the walker flying in every direction. At least these things died properly. Not like the zealots, who disappeared in a creepy flash whenever you killed them. A shudder ran through him. That had always spooked him out.
"Nice one," the lieutenant colonel's voice crackled over the comm, and not without a shade of sarcasm. "Okay, you've had your fun, Captain. Turn around now."
Her last word came with stern intensity, and for good reason. Marius had already nosed the tank over so it was once again pointed at the colossus.
He keyed his mic. "Be back in a minute," Marius said innocently. The tank was nearly at full speed again, racing across the red landscape, kicking up dust. He allowed himself to relax for a moment. The scream of the engine was almost soothing.
"I'm ordering you to return immediately!" the lieutenant colonel went on. "I know what you're doing and there's no way you'll get that thing. Besides," she said after a short pause, "radiation levels are still unsafe."
Marius glanced to his right, where a dark and ominous cloud hung motionless in the pink sky. This was all that remained of the tactical blast that had ultimately turned the battle for them. Somehow, a ghost had gotten in deep. Perhaps too deep; rumor over the comm was that the poor bastard had probably cashed his chips calling it in.
To be honest, Marius had no idea why. The Kel-Morian settlement they were assigned to defend was officially known as Remote Mining Station Four—another dig hole, like just about everything else on this planet. This one sat in the center of a vast dust sea, surrounded by a whole lot of nothing in every direction. So much, in fact, that the "Four" had long ago been painted over with the word "Forsaken."
As mining colonies went, Forsaken Station was unusually militarized, as if it protected something important. Something the protoss wanted pretty badly, judging by the amount of firepower they'd thrown at it.
Not that Marius cared. None of those details were any of his concern.
All he knew was that from the very beginning, the battle had been savage. The initial onslaught of the protoss ground forces had been backed by three lumbering colossi. Marius had never seen a colossus before, but it didn't take long for him to be impressed. The juggernauts towered hellishly over everything else on the battlefield, tearing the combat zone to fiery shreds with the superheated beams of their thermal lances.
Two of the behemoths were eventually brought down. It was a feat that required a full wing of vikings and more dead pilots than he cared to count, and only after an entire team of goliaths had sacrificed themselves as well. Those soldiers had died especially badly. Marius could still hear their agonizing screams as their machines were turned molten, instantly liquefying around their bodies.
And still he felt nothing.
It was horrible, the worst kind of horrible, but Marius couldn't bring himself to care. These people were nothing to him—all of them strangers, down to the last. They laughed; they played; they joked about everything... and they were young. So damned young. They palled around with each other as if they were old friends, even though they weren't, and that was what pissed off Marius the most.
It was the same everywhere he went. No matter which backwater planetoid he set treads on, people shunned him. In time, some learned to become outright afraid of him. They claimed he took too many risks and cared too little for their own safety. On the battlefield he was reckless, fearless, dangerous. One of his commanders had even called him bloodthirsty. Marius had come perilously close to laying the man out when he said that. But the more he thought about the comment, the more he realized how much it applied.
Of course, every once in a while, a group would try to include him in their camaraderie. He was to play the role of grizzled, battle-scarred veteran, imparting his knowledge and fatherly wisdom to his younger brothers-in-arms. It was sickeningly cliché. Every time it began, he stomped all over it.
In the end they would always shrug and go their own way. They developed kinships, formed bonds, and became brothers in battle. But they were not his friends. Not his brothers-in-arms.
And that was because all of his brothers were dead.
Stoltzfus, Tallman, Marciniak. Cione. All of them were gone. At first Marius had blamed the fight: the protoss and their deadly weapons, the seemingly never-ending swarm of zerg. Hatred for his enemies had taken his friends' place in his heart, filling the void that they left behind. But, as veterans often did, Marius Blackwood eventually realized that his true enemy was not the one he'd been facing on the battlefield over the long years.
The real enemy was time.
Time had taken his friends. It had erased them, eradicated them from the hearts and minds of all who would ever remember them. Of the five of them, Marius was the last. And when he was gone?
It would be as if they had never existed at all.
A flashing red alarm pulled him back to the present. Marius punched another button, signaling his acknowledgment that the Arclite's engine was approaching the redline. He wasn't worried. He'd driven this machine through far more dangerous situations, taxing it to the very edge of its critical-failure limits and sometimes beyond. He knew what it could do better than the engineers who'd designed and built it.
Up ahead, his target was noticeably closer. Marius could see its broken leg more clearly now. A steady stream of dust hung in the air behind it, marking the places where it had dragged. The planet's windless environment created a long, foolproof trail that led straight to the giant walker.