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All at once the evac ship was down, actuators flexing beneath its weight. Marius slowed, focusing on controlling his deceleration. Teeth clenched, he guided the nose of the tank up the ramp and into the receiving bay of the G-226. He stomped on the brakes, shuddered to a halt, and engaged the magnetic locks on the Arclite's treads. Then he felt his stomach drop like a brick as the pilot tore his ship from the ground and launched it into the strange pink sky.
Outside, the blaring of disruptors could be heard as a dozen or more stalkers tried to shred the ship to pieces. The sounds quickly became fainter and more distant, until finally, they disappeared altogether. Flying from the cliff had put a near instant separation between the transport and the enemy. It was over.
Marius stood and popped the hatch. Cool, sweet air rushed into the tank. He filled his lungs with it greedily, hungrily; to him, nothing had ever tasted so glorious. Climbing out, he sprawled prone across the top of the Arclite. It felt warm beneath him as he allowed the chill air to sweep over his sweat-soaked body.
As he bathed under the bright lights of the evac ship's cargo bay, Marius closed his tired eyes. The silence lasted less than a minute.
"Captain Blackwood, sir," came a booming voice from somewhere above him. "Very glad to have you aboard!"
The ship's pilot. Marius slid down from his tank, legs nearly buckling as his boots touched the corrugated metal floor. He stretched them, wincing mightily. Both of his knees popped in vehement protest.
"Relax and enjoy the ride, Captain," the pilot's voice continued. "It's smooth air from here to base. I'll have you back in no time, so smoke 'em if you got 'em."
Absently Marius reached into the pocket of his vest and produced half of a dog-eared cigar. He began walking around his machine, surveying the damage.
"Tell the lieutenant colonel I'm going to kiss her when I see her!" he shouted into the emptiness of the G-226's cargo bay. His voice echoed loudly off the smooth steel walls. "Court-martial or not!"
He was pretty sure the pilot couldn't hear him, but it didn't matter. Marius patted himself for a light and came up with nothing. He put the cigar in his mouth anyway and chomped down on it.
Passing the back end of the Arclite, he stopped. Most of the tank's rear armor had been completely torn away. Only a few small pieces remained, twisted and distorted by withering stalker fire. The outside edges were still smoldering, glowing white-hot in some places from the intense heat.
Marius carefully leaned forward and lit his cigar against the superheated metal.
Strolling to the opposite side, he breathed a sigh of relief. His kills were still there. Marius ran his hand over them, touching them, feeling how deeply etched they were in the neosteel plate. At the end of the long string of tally marks, he stroked a smooth blank space.
The colossus would go there. Finally.
There was a horrific boom. The dropship dangerously lurched to one side, throwing Marius to his hands and knees. Pain rocketed through his legs as his knees popped again. Gripping the treads of his tank, he struggled to pull himself upright.
Another explosion, this one so loud it was nearly deafening. The ship shook violently, fishtailed, then dropped nose-first with a sickening tilt. Unable to hold on, Marius was tossed clear across the receiving bay, as helpless as a child's doll.
There was a flash of blue and white, followed by an intense blast of heat. Marius could hear the shrill sound of air escaping the ship's pierced hull as he scrambled for any possible handhold. He found nothing.
A moment later, the world inside the dropship exploded with the terrifying scream of steel tearing away from steel. The floor dropped out from under his feet, no longer there, and Marius fell through the sickly pink sky. He was falling, spinning, his arms and legs splayed out in a futile attempt at regaining control before he finally surrendered to the inevitable. The last thing he saw was the hulking form of his siege tank, tumbling wildly beneath him...
There was not an ounce of fear as he fell.
He felt relief. Peace. Freedom.
* * *
Swirling clouds of dust danced beneath the phoenix as it landed.
With a hiss, the canopy opened. The protoss pilot emerged, climbing down to where the mangled pieces of the terran dropship lay smoldering in the stagnant air. To one side, the turret of a siege tank was embedded in the broken clay surface. The war machine's twisted barrels pointed defiantly at the sky.
The pilot bent and retrieved a single piece of white-hot neosteel from the flaming wreckage. Grasping it in his gauntlets, he could make out the crude marks that represented this human's previous victories. The protoss bowed his head once in grim salute. It was a gesture that transcended both race and language; he understood this warrior.