Page 11

Author: Rachel Bach

Cotter answered with a roar of his own and leaped into the fray, his ax biting deep into the front line. This was the sort of fight his huge armor was made for, and it showed. With the full weight of his suit behind him, Cotter’s ax went through the xith’cal like a hatchet through soft meat. The blaster shots bounced off his shield, making him look like a firework as the red bolts arced and faded. With another shout even louder than his first, Cotter swung his ax again, and the xith’cal charge broke in front of him like water hitting a rock.

It was a damn beautiful sight. Cotter’s voice was roaring over my com with the battle cry of the king. I wanted to scream in answer, but I held myself back. My position was too sweet to waste on bravado.

While the xith’cal focused on Cotter, I jumped down the cargo bay stairs to the first landing, starting Mia’s charge as I did. My plasma shotgun whistled to life, going from a deep tone to the almost inaudibly high ready note in less than two seconds. The moment my feet hit the deck, I lowered Mia’s short barrel and pulled the trigger. A white-hot slug shot out, hitting a xith’cal on the back line. The plasma exploded when it hit, flinging my target into the xith’cal beside him and taking both down in a rain of burning, sticky fire.

Cotter must have seen the flash, because his ax turned midstrike to come down on the wounded pair, finishing both in a single blow. But I was already on the next target. I switched Mia to my left hand and reached over my shoulder with my right, grabbing a grenade from my string. I armed and threw it in the same motion, lobbing the small explosive over the xith’cal line and into the boarding ship itself. The soft clink of the grenade’s landing was lost in the sound of battle, but the blast that followed drowned out everything else.

I was using low-power ordnance since even I wasn’t crazy enough to pack real explosives on a spaceship, but they were enough for what I was trying to do. The grenade exploded in a blue-white flash. The blast lit up the boarding ship’s dark interior and blew the second line of xith’cal, the ones who’d been firing all those blaster shots, into Cotter’s reach.

My grenade caught a lot more than I’d expected it to, and I started to wonder just how many xith’cal we were dealing with. The moment the question crossed my mind, the Lady picked it up and counted, displaying the result on my screen.

“Nineteen!” I shouted over the com. “Fifteen active, four down! Cotter stay front, I’ll get the rear!”

I might as well have saved my breath for all Cotter seemed to hear. He was swinging his ax like he was the star of his own gladiator match, scattering the xith’cal as they scrambled to get out of his way. It was a stupid thing to do. If they got behind him, this could get very ugly.

The xith’cal were screeching to one another, a cacophony of calls that sounded more like compacting metal than voices. Then one screech rose over the others, and order began to emerge from the chaos. The xith’cal divided themselves. Ten began trying to circle Cotter, the obvious threat; the other five went for me.

Even after fighting them for so many years, I’m constantly surprised by how fast xith’cal can move. I always expect something that large to be slow, but the first two seemed to fly up the stairs at me, and even the Lady Gray wasn’t fast enough to dodge the clawed hand that grabbed my leg.

Quick as a thought, I swung Mia down, blasting the lizard in the head with a plasma slug. The grip loosened, and I spun, firing my next shot into the stomach of the xith’cal coming in on my left just as its claws hit my neck.

Had my armor been anything less than what it was, that would have been the end right there. But the Lady Gray was everything I’d paid for, and my head stayed on. The blow to my neck did take me down, though, but the xith’cal was in no position to follow through, not with Mia’s shot burning a hole through its stomach. It screamed a last, rattling death call as I kicked it off and let my suit roll me to my feet, scanning for my next target.

I had my pick. Cotter was almost completely surrounded. A lizard jumped up on the cargo above his head as I watched, and I fired before I could think, catching it in the torso. The xith’cal fell with a scream, nearly dropping on Cotter’s shoulders, but he was too busy trying to keep back the others to care.

They were too spread out now for him to get a good blow, so he was just swinging his ax wide, trying to keep them back with sweeping strikes. But even swinging wild, Count’s armor is slow, and a gyro ax is even slower. The xith’cal were dodging easily, watching for their chance to jump.

I didn’t let them have it. Shifting Mia to a wide spread, I leveled her barrel and fired low. White fire exploded out in an arc, catching the four xith’cal that had been coming in on Cotter’s left in the legs. The spread out blast wasn’t enough to kill them, but it hurt like hell and sent them scrambling. It also drained the last of Mia’s charge.

Of the five xith’cal who’d come for me, three were left. They’d kept a respectful distance while Mia was singing, but now that her whistle was dead, they started to advance again. I kept my eyes on them as I returned my now useless shotgun to her holster on my back and flung out my arm. At the command, the clamps under my left arm popped, and my thermite blade swung out in a beautiful arc.

I grabbed the long handle as it flew by, and the second my hands clamped down, I thought the activation word. The name had barely formed on my tongue before the blade’s dull edge flashed blinding white as the thermite lit up. With a cry to rival Cotter’s, I swept the thermite blade over my head and into the neck of the closest xith’cal.

The burning edge sliced clean, cutting scales, flesh, and bone with the same ease. The xith’cal crumpled as the blade slid free, but I didn’t stop to watch it fall. Once you fired them, thermite blades were the most powerful cutting edge in the galaxy, but only for eighty seconds. After that, they burned out, turning black and brittle. Hell of a time limit, but then, if you used them right, eighty seconds was enough.

Swinging my blade back around, I lunged forward, trusting my armor to balance me as I slammed the thermite’s sun-bright tip into the shoulder of the next xith’cal who’d rushed up the steps. It screamed when the hit landed but still managed to get a shot at my chest. My shield, which had kicked on automatically after the xith’cal had hit my neck, absorbed the worst of it, but the xith’cal had shot me with a heavy slug, not a blaster, and the force was still enough to knock me back.

My suit knew what to do better than I did. While I was still reeling, the Lady carried the blow to its end, slicing the xith’cal clean through the shoulder. I snapped back into control just in time to yank my blade free as the xith’cal fell with a screech.

Four of the five that had come at me were now down, but I’d lost the fifth in the chaos. I glanced through my cameras just in time to see the xith’cal jump before it slammed into my back. The last of my shield shattered under the blow, and I staggered forward. The Lady Gray can lift twice her weight, but she’s as susceptible to physics as anything else, and the xith’cal was bigger than I was. It had hit me running from above, and the momentum was more than enough to carry us both over the railing.

We fell in a tangle on top of Mabel’s endless crates of fish. I landed in the worst position possible, facedown on the bottom. The xith’cal squealed and tried to bite me across the back, its claws scrambling over my sides as it looked for a gap in my armor. Its enormous weight pinned me down as it tried to pry my armor apart to get at my flesh, but the Lady Gray was too well made for that. The xith’cal’s claws found no purchase, and its teeth slid harmlessly over the smooth shell of the Lady’s linked plates.

While it was busy trying to find a weakness in my suit, I switched all my power to my arms. With one mighty push, I shoved us both into the air. I landed on my feet, while the xith’cal landed in a crouch just behind me. Using my rear cam, I swung my blade around and stabbed backward, striking the lizard clean through the chest before it could move.

I held the blade steady until the xith’cal stopped struggling and then looked around. Cotter was below me, standing with his back to the wall of cargo crates. His ax was gone, and he was shooting at the remaining three lizards with a shotgun that, while not plasma like mine, was still big enough to be a pain even for xith’cal. His suit was a little worse for wear, and there was a long claw scratch across his faceplate, but he was most definitely still kicking.

He pumped four shots into the xith’cal on his chest before it let go, and then he turned to shoot the one that had jumped up on the cargo above him, only to find I’d gotten there first. My thermite was burning fast and hot now, and I sliced the xith’cal above Cotter clean down the middle without feeling a bit of drag on the blade. The moment it fell, I opened my cameras wide and looked around, letting the Lady count the bodies for me.

“Sixteen,” I panted. There should be nineteen bodies total. “Where are the—”

My question was answered by gunshots, three of them, echoing from upstairs.

The final shot had barely sounded before I leaped off the cargo and hit the stairs running, my nearly spent thermite blade hissing in my hand. I exploded into the lounge and skidded to a stop, blade raised, only to see three dead xith’cal lying on the floor with Rupert standing over them, Sasha in his hand.

For a moment I just stood there, panting and speechless, and then Cotter’s voice crackled in my ear. “That all of them?”

“Yeah,” I answered, looking at Rupert. “That’s the lot.”

Caldswell said something over the com that sounded like “Good job,” but I didn’t hear it. All my attention was focused on Rupert as he stepped over the dead aliens and handed me my pistol as calmly as he would hand me a drink. I took it silently, but as my glove made contact with Sasha’s grip, her ammo counter popped up at the bottom left of my vision. Of her thirty-shot clip, she had twenty-seven left.

Three bullets, three dead xith’cal.

My eyes went back to Rupert. In my armor, when I’m ready and if the lizards are charging me in a line, I can take three xith’cal with three shots from Sasha. Out of my armor, even relaxed and knowing what to expect, her recoil would have ruined my arm after the first one. Rupert had never shot my pistol before, and he certainly wasn’t in armor, yet there he was, standing in the middle of the lounge with two apparently unbroken arms and three dead xith’cal. My brain was spinning so fast trying to make sense of this that I didn’t understand Rupert the first time he spoke.

“What?” I said, raising my visor so I could see him without my display cluttering his face.

He smiled like I’d made a joke. “I said, ‘Does the blade have a name, too?’”

He pointed at the now-dead thermite blade in my hand, its edge spent and black. I stared at it a moment, then looked back at Rupert. “Phoebe,” I said quietly. “Her name is Phoebe.”

Rupert nodded like naming all your weapons was perfectly normal, and then he reached over and pressed the com by the kitchen counter. When Caldswell answered, he calmly asked the captain to raise the blast door. I watched him a moment more, and then I turned and walked back to the cargo bay stairs without a word.

Cotter was crowing over the com, his big voice grating in my ear with the usual macho bullshit, and I fought the urge to turn my connection off. I wanted nothing more than to go somewhere quiet where I could sit down and sort out all the questions that were rapidly filling my head, but Mabel was talking too now. So was Caldswell. Orders were coming in one after the other, and I forced myself to pay attention. The fight might be over, but it was still time to work, so I put a grudging lid on my worries and pulled myself together, stomping across the cargo bay to help Cotter start cleaning up.

The movies they make back home about the nonstop action of merc life never show how much time you spend on cleanup. It took us almost three hours to drag the dead xith’cal back to their ship and get all the blood off the floor. I don’t mind mopping, but I do mind having to do it alone because my partner’s too busy bragging to do his share.