I cut off as something hit the bridge door with an enormous clang. The bridge and engine room doors had locked automatically when I’d sent the emergency signal, and while the bridge door wasn’t blast rated, it was still a good inch of solid steel. That didn’t seem to matter to whatever was hitting it, though.
The first blow bowed the door out a foot, the next took it off its track altogether, crumpling it to the ground as a wall of smoke billowed into the hall. The explosion I’d felt must have been for the entry shutters on the bridge, I realized belatedly. They’d blown the windows off the ship’s nose, and now there were three armored figures barreling at me through the destroyed bridge door.
I shot the first before he was more than a shadow in the smoke. Sasha stung him clean in the head, and I grinned at the sound of tearing metal as my anti-armor gun did her magic. The suit dropped with a clatter, blown clean open.
“Terran armor!” I shouted to Cotter. “Two up here, entry on the bridge.”
“Four here!” Cotter shouted back. He was almost laughing, and I heard the crunch as his ax came down. “Three now! Terran tin cans, let’s tear ’em up!”
“Copy,” I said, ducking into a crouch as I fired my second shot at the next target.
Sasha may not be much against xith’cal, but when it comes to shredding armor, you have no better friend. Her armor-piercing rounds spin, going through the target like a cannon blast. The enemy had larger suits than mine, larger even than Cotter’s, but the gulf between a custom Paradoxian suit and Terran assembly-line wear is too wide to be crossed by mere mass.
I dropped the next target with an arm shot while he was still trying to get his hulking shoulders through the shattered bridge door. I could have had the head, but I wanted someone alive when it came time to sort out who to blame for this mess. I’d aimed for the joint, but Sasha hit him so hard we took his arm clean off. The soldier went down with a scream I could hear through his helmet, and then the sound cut off as my third target dropped back to grab the injured man’s boots and tug him back into the bridge, out of the breach path.
I paused. In my experience, a pirate would have just stomped over the downed man and kept coming. Pulling him back minimized losses and cleared the attack path. It was what I would have done, a merc maneuver. I glanced at the man I’d killed earlier. His armor was still Terran and terrible, but it wasn’t bad for what you could get in this part of space, and it wasn’t the sort of ragtag suit you saw on criminals.
“Cotter,” I said, catching my partner’s attention. “Don’t get in too deep. We’re dealing with a crash team.”
“A piss-poor one!” Cotter crowed in my ear. I glanced up at his camera just in time to see the flash of his ax as he crunched through the man in front of him. “Two more came in while you were playing up there, but they’re on the floor like the others. Five down now, and the rest are keeping their distance.”
“How many is ‘the rest’?” I asked, keeping Sasha trained on the bridge door.
The only answer I got was Cotter’s laugh as his shield ate a hail of bullets. They stuck like caught flies in the wall of invisible plasma. Mine would have broken after half so many, but the big suits had their advantages, and strong shields was a large one. Even so.
“Get some cover, you skullhead!” I shouted, eying the red warning I could see flashing on his display through our shared camera. “You take another of those and you’ll be sprouting leaks.”
“The day some Republic hack armor team gets a shot on me is the day I die of shame,” Cotter said. “Mind your six, Morris.”
A bullet whizzed above my head, and I hit the deck just in time as three more followed. They were shooting at me from the smoke cover of the blown-out bridge. With a silent apology to Basil and Nova, I grabbed a grenade from my back and tossed it through the bridge door. The soft, too-innocent clink as it bounced down the bridge steps was lost in the hail of gunfire, but the explosion that followed lit up the bridge like the noon sun.
The blast wasn’t enough to take down the shooters, but it flushed them out nicely. I caught the first man through with a clean shot to the throat. The next learned from the mistakes of others and came in low. My first shot whizzed over his head, but my second caught him in the shoulder with enough force to send him flying back into the ruined bridge.
“What the hell?”
Cotter’s surprise cut through my focus, and I risked a glance at his camera feed.
What I saw put everything else out of my mind. Cotter was standing with his back to the wall of cargo. As he’d told me, five dead mercs lay on the ground in front of him, their shoddy armor no match for Cotter’s ax. Five more mercs stood at the base of the blown-out cargo ramp with their heavy rifles trained on Cotter, whose shield was now dangerously low. But Cotter wasn’t even looking at the firing squad. His eyes were on the two smaller figures standing silhouetted against the starport’s floodlights.
Next to the assault team’s hulking armor, they looked almost fragile, but I knew better. Their bodies were covered in overlapping black scales, and their faces were nothing but glittering eyes and terrible, alien features. It was the thing Rupert had been on the tribe ship, the shape he’d used to save me. Symbionts, my mind whispered, making my skin go clammy.
But even though Rupert was the only one of those things I’d ever seen, I never once thought he was one of the two in the cargo bay door. For one, Rupert’s alien form was tall and lithe, just like him. These were both stocky and large, and undoubtedly our enemies. They were standing almost casually, their glossy black eyes looking at Cotter like he was the bug, not them, and I felt an icy stab of fear.
“Cotter,” I whispered. “Cotter, get out of there.”
Cotter didn’t answer, or maybe he didn’t hear me. By the time I’d spoken, he was charging forward, ax raised in a battle cry.
The two black figures didn’t move until he was nearly on top of them, but when they did, it was like death himself had come down to show us how it was done.
Cotter did a lot better than I thought he would.
The two black figures were just as fast as I remembered Rupert being, their long, curving claws tearing through Cotter’s armor like he’d torn through the Terrans. His straining shield broke the second they hit it, the suspended bullets falling with a clatter. But even shredded and shieldless, Cotter was still nearly a thousand pounds in his armor, and he’d thrown every last ounce of it into the ax strike that caught the smaller of the two symbionts square in the side.
The blow sent the symbiont flying into the bulkhead, and I almost cheered at the crunch it made when it hit. Would have cheered, actually, if three bullets hadn’t just stuck in my shield right in front of my face.
I snapped back into my own fight with a string of expletives that would have made my army sergeant proud. Two mercs had cleared the bridge door while I’d been distracted, and the rear soldier’s arm was already moving in a throw. I spun on instinct, kicking the grenade with my boot even as I heard the whistle of the rising charge reach its final octave. Any other suit would have been too slow, but my Lady isn’t any other suit, and she proved it yet again as my kick launched the grenade right back at my attackers. They didn’t even have time to duck before it exploded in their faces.
Whoever these mercs were, they used a much heavier ordnance than I did. The grenade blast blew me down the hall and them back into the bridge. My suit shifted my shield to take most of the impact, and I was back on my feet in a second. I should have charged then, run in and finished off the two mercs with Sasha while they were still on their backs, but my mind was half on Cotter anyway, so when his scream tore through my com, my attention snapped right back to his camera.
My run-in with the grenade team couldn’t have taken more than ten seconds, but that had been enough for Cotter’s fight to turn. He was down, his garish yellow armor crumpled and ripped like foil around him. His faceguard had been ripped open as well, and his suit was full of blood.
But Cotter was a Paradoxian, a soldier to the end. Even bleeding and on his back, he had his gun in his hand and was firing over and over again into the chest of the black figure standing on top of him. If he’d been firing an anti-armor pistol like Sasha, one shot would have been enough to blow the thing back, but Cotter’s sidearm was standard issue, and he might as well have been shooting pellets for all it seemed to bother the symbiont.
My targeting system beeped in my ear, and I glanced at my own cameras to see one of the men I’d blown into the bridge getting back on his feet, but by this point I didn’t care. I was running full tilt down the hall toward the door to the lounge. I heard the man shoot me, felt the pressure as the last of my shield caught the shot before flickering out, but I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the black figure as it slowly reached down past Cotter’s camera to wrap its hand around my fellow merc’s head. The last thing I heard was Cotter’s scream and the roar of his gun as he fired one final time before his feed went dead.
I’ve been in armored combat for nine years. During that time, I’ve seen more men killed than I care to count. I’d watched men die through their own cameras like I’d just watched Cotter. Some mercs swear it gets easier, that you get used to it in time. I never have, and by this point, I’m pretty sure I never will.
Cotter’s death hit me like a kick in the stomach, and I stumbled, though there was nothing in my way. For one second, I let the death wash over me, and then, as I’d been trained, I boxed it up and set it aside. Never shame your comrades by letting their death get you killed, my drill sergeant used to say. Never dishonor the dead by smearing your blood on their hands.
As though summoned by the memory of my old commander’s voice, the sharp focus of the battle rage settled on me like a mantle as I dove out of the hallway and into the lounge. The second I was in, I whirled around and slammed my fist down on the blast-door switch. The heavy panel dropped like a hammer, walling me off from the men coming from the ship’s shattered nose. This also meant I was now locked away from the rest of the ship, giving them free rein over the bridge and anything else they wanted from the cabins and infirmary, but that was a risk I had to take. I was alone now, and I couldn’t afford attackers at my back.
There were two armored mercs coming up the cargo bay stairs when I’d hit the blast door. I took them both out the second they stepped into the lounge, Sasha ripping through their helmets like the steel plating was paper. I reloaded after that, tossing my half-spent clip into the kitchen just in case I survived this. I’d had twenty shots left, so I didn’t really need to reload, but I’d realized by this point that I was likely going to die, too. With that in mind, conserving ammo, even expensive ammo like Sasha’s, just seemed pointless.
Reloaded, I crouched low and checked my density sensor. I could see the armored mercs clearly. The ones from the bridge were spreading out down the hall I’d abandoned, but they were ignoring the dropped blast door, no doubt realizing, as I had, that I’d be dead soon enough from their companions downstairs. That suited me just fine; one less thing to worry about.
Putting them out of my mind, I shifted my attention to the cargo bay. Down there, the mercs were more gun-shy. They hovered at the edge of the blown-out cargo bay doors, scared off by Cotter’s grand last stand and my own execution of the two mercs who’d gone up to corner me. Other than Cotter’s fading signature, though, I couldn’t see anything in the cargo bay itself. The symbionts weren’t showing up at all.
I switched back to my normal cameras. The outlines of the armored mercs vanished from my screen, but they weren’t the real threat. What I had to watch out for were the monsters my sensors couldn’t see.
I swallowed, remembering Anthony’s warning that even Devastators didn’t take symbionts one-on-one. My equipment was good, but I wasn’t a Devastator yet, and unlike Cotter I didn’t have a thousand pounds or an ax. I didn’t even have my thermite blade. If I was going to have any chance at all, I had to get the first shot.