Page 29

Author: Rachel Bach

I screamed in pain as the yellow teeth went through my suit and dug deep into the flesh of my shoulder. The bite crunched my collarbone like chalk, and for a moment I swore I could feel its teeth clicking together inside me. It was that feeling, that knowledge that I was completely and utterly screwed, that enabled me to do what I did next.

With a mad thought it took my suit two tries to confirm, I dropped my entire grenade payload from the chamber on my back, arming them automatically as they fell. All my grenades was probably a bit much, but if I was going to die, I was going to take this bastard out with me. The grenades hit the floor behind me with a soft ping, and then they exploded in a flash so bright my cameras went snowy.

The explosion blew us both up, and we crashed into the ceiling with enough force to distract me from the pain as the xith’cal’s teeth ripped free. He might not have felt my kicks, but even xith’cal can’t fight physics. The blast tore us apart. I landed on the floor, he landed on top of a console, crashing through it in a shower of sparks.

It must have been instinct, because the second I hit the ground, I rolled away. The fact that I should have been dead twice over felt like the only real thing in the world, but my suit had always been better at taking blasts than stabbings. Even better, now that the xith’cal’s teeth were out of me, the Lady Gray’s emergency measures were kicking in.

Pressure bloomed along my body as my suit filled with breach foam, an antiseptic white goo that filled the holes in me as well as the holes in my suit, stopping both my bleeding and the air leaks. It was too late, though. My suit was full of the smell of the xith’cal ship. It stank of decay, not the usual carnivore rotting meat smell of the xith’cal, but a necrotic, deathly rot like nothing I’d smelled before. For three seconds the urge to throw up was almost overwhelming, and then I felt the sweet prick of the cocktail needle hitting the back of my neck.

The cocktail is a Paradoxian military standard. When your suit senses you’ve taken a life-threatening amount of damage, it injects you with a powerful mix of painkillers, stabilizers, and adrenaline. My version also had some of the better black market battle drugs mixed in, because if I was going to go down, I was going to go down fighting.

The second the needle hit, the pain in my shoulder began to drain away. I could still smell the xith’cal’s rot, but I didn’t care anymore. There was no pain, no tiredness, no body at all, just me and my suit and the sweet, sweet song of the battle fury thrumming through us both.

I maintained just enough presence of mind to holster Sasha before I ripped Phoebe from her clamps. My suit adjusted immediately to support my useless shoulder, and I stabbed my blade through the xith’cal almost before the thermite could fire. His rotted scales and brittle bones melted under Phoebe’s blazing heat, giving me no trouble at all as I yanked her blade up through his chest to take off his head.

I was moving for the second xith’cal before the first fell. The smaller one, the female I realized in my haze, was still crouched and hissing by the door. She lunged at me when I turned, and I sliced her almost casually, taking off her arm at the shoulder. The force of my blow flung her into the far console, but I didn’t stop to see if she’d get up. Instead, I ran down the stairs so fast I felt like I was flying, Phoebe clutched against my side.

For the five minutes they’re effective, battle drugs give you amazing clarity. Even though I felt like an invincible god as I tore down the dark tunnel, a calm, detached corner of my mind was watching the enormous red timers that had appeared on the edge of my vision. I had sixty-eight seconds before my thermite died, after which I would have to use Mia. It was much harder to shoot on battle drugs than it was to swing a blade, but I had no choice. If I didn’t get medical help in the next four minutes and forty-two seconds, I wouldn’t have to worry about my wounds or the xith’cal. The crash from the drugs would send me into an epileptic fit that would do the deed for them. But I’d pay the price later, if there was a later. For now, I had my five minutes, dearly bought, and I meant to use them.

My thermal scan didn’t pick up any xith’cal in the gallery below, but when I exploded out of the tunnel, there they were, waiting for me like wolves around a rabbit hole. With the drugs pounding through my body, I moved faster than I’ve ever moved in my life. My thermite blade sang as it burned the air, slicing through the first xith’cal like he was made of paper.

These xith’cal looked the same as the ones upstairs, their scales rotted and black with mold, their eyes covered in white film. The females hung back, shambling and slow. The males were fast, strong, and aggressive as ever, but with room to fight, my drug-driven focus, and Phoebe burning like the sun, they never got close.

As I cut the second one down with a slice to the head, the calm, detached part of my brain stopped watching timers just long enough to look around for Cotter, but I couldn’t see him anywhere. I couldn’t see anything but xith’cal.

I don’t know how many I killed. There seemed to be no end. I couldn’t even make out what I was fighting half the time. It was all a dark blur of claws and teeth and rotting flesh. I moved in circles, cutting whatever I could, screaming battle prayers to the king at the top of my lungs as my white blade burned through the enemy like a falling star.

I was halfway through a xith’cal when Phoebe’s light burned out. The timer had warned me it was coming, but the battle-mad part of my brain had been sure I could get at least one more. As usual, that part of me was wrong.

Eleven inches from freedom, Phoebe went dark, and her blade caught in the xith’cal’s ribs. My swing ground to a halt, and I ground with it, stumbling into the lizard I’d been killing half a second earlier. The xith’cal screamed in my ear, the ragged metal sound cutting through the haze of the drugs just long enough to snap me out of my killing frenzy.

Quick as a thought, I dropped Phoebe’s blade and danced back, grabbing Mia as I went. My plasma shotgun blazed to life, and I pumped a wide spread shot into the mass of xith’cal, blowing a hole I could run through. And run I did. Mia was powerful, but her power was limited. She had four big shots like that left in her if I was lucky, and even in my euphoric, godlike rush, I knew it was time to go.

The detached, rational part of me pulled up the map of the ship my suit had been drawing in the background while we’d been exploring. But when the marker appeared to show my location, I felt a flash of terror strong enough to break through the drugs. The marker was in the wrong place. This whole time, I’d been cutting in the wrong direction. I was actually several dozen feet farther into the ship from the tunnel, and not, as I’d thought, toward the airlock.

If I’d been myself, I probably would have panicked then, but battle drugs make panic impossible. Instead, I turned around and started running in the right direction, which meant going back through the xith’cal I’d just broken free of. I shot again to clear another path, but right as the white wave of plasma left Mia’s barrel, a big warrior jumped on me from behind.

I went down hard, skidding across the blood-slicked metal floor. The xith’cal on my back threw his head down to bite me, but to do it, he’d had to shift his weight, and that gave me my opening. I wrenched my arm back and shoved Mia’s barrel right in his face, firing a tight blast that took his head off.

His weight wobbled, and I pushed myself up, shedding his body as I started forward again. The xith’cal were swarming now. I fired another wide shot and bought myself a few more feet, but when I went to fire again, all I got was a quiet click.

I pulled the trigger three more times before my drug-jacked brain caught up with what that clicking meant. Mia was dry.

It’s a testament to how much I love my guns that I didn’t toss her away. Instead, I swung her over my shoulder one-handed and clicked her back in place while my other hand grabbed Sasha. The second my glove touched my pistol’s grip, her ammo counter popped up on my screen.

Twenty-five shots.

I had spare clips on me, but somehow I didn’t think the xith’cal were going to give me the five seconds it took to reload. Not when they had me surrounded and all I had was a pistol. Twenty-five shots, then. I would make them count.

Still running, I brought up Sasha and pegged the xith’cal in front of me before my targeting system could catch up. Even with the drugs, it was a damn near perfect shot. I kicked its body out of the way and jumped, grabbing onto a tree branch fifteen feet above me.

The dying tree groaned under my weight, but it held long enough for me to swing forward and land on a xith’cal ten feet ahead of where I’d shot the last one, right on the edge of the circle that had formed around me. My suit doesn’t weigh enough that I can kill a xith’cal by landing on it, so I shot the one under my feet as well. It was a hard shot, but my targeting system lined it up perfectly. The bullet landed right between the eyes, and the xith’cal went down without a sound as I landed on its crumpled back and kept running.

One by one, I shot the xith’cal. I didn’t hit the head every time, but I didn’t get caught either. And then, halfway to the airlock, everything went wrong.

I was down to five bullets, but as I barreled over the xith’cal I’d just shot, his death throes caught me on my injured shoulder. The blow hit me with a spike of pain even the drugs couldn’t bury completely, and I stumbled.

It was barely a second, but it was enough. The moment I slowed, another xith’cal hit me from behind, crushing me under his weight. I flung Sasha over my shoulder and shot him using my rear cam, but his efforts to bite my head off knocked the barrel sideways and the shot went crooked, ripping through the scales on the side of his face but missing his brain.

I shot again, hitting him right this time, but the miss had cost me. Even as his grip weakened in death and I tore myself free, another xith’cal grabbed me around the waist. I shot him easily, but his weight slowed me further, and I looked up to see I was surrounded.

I shot the first xith’cal that came at me before my brain caught up with what had happened. I stopped, my lungs thundering, my ammo alarm screaming in my ear. One shot left. One shot.

I looked at Sasha as the xith’cal began to close in. An armor-piercing bullet could rip through my helmet with no effort at all. A quick death, painless and honorable, and with the drugs, I wouldn’t even be afraid.

One shot left.

I raised Sasha to my temple with a silent apology to my beautiful suit for ruining it like this. Strangely enough, my last thought was shame that I’d failed in my promise to Rupert. But then, just as I was overriding the final safety that kept me from firing my gun at myself, I heard something that made me pause. The xith’cal were still packed around me so close that all I could see was their rotting flesh, but they were no longer looking at me. Instead, their heads were turned toward the sound I’d just heard. The sound of combat.

If I’d been myself, I would have taken this opportunity to run. But I was fearless and drugged, so I stood up to see what was happening. What I saw made even my drug-jacked heart skip a beat. There were even more xith’cal in the huge gallery than I’d thought, and wading through them, cutting them down like a thresher through grain, was the black alien from Mycant.

Though I’d only seen it through the grainy video, there was no mistaking that tall black figure. When I’d first seen it looming behind Ren, I’d thought it was strange and frightening. Now, watching it slice through the xith’cal like a hot knife through black snow, the only thing I could think was that it was beautiful.

Looking through proper cameras and not a compressed feed, I could see that its body was indeed armored like a xith’cal’s. A healthy xith’cal with glossy, ink-black scales. Its claws were even longer than I remembered, and they shredded everything it touched. Its tall, armored body sang of speed and power as it sliced through the horde. No movement was wasted, no opening given. The black figure was so glorious, I didn’t realize it was coming for me until it smashed into the line of xith’cal that penned me in.