“How the hell should I know?” I snapped.
“Because you were there,” Brenton snapped back.
He stopped and took a deep breath. “They might not look it, but the xith’cal are brilliant bioengineers,” he said, calmly now. “They’ve changed their own race countless times over the centuries, increasing their senses by a factor of ten, making themselves immune to nearly every disease, and specializing the genders so intensely that male and female xith’cal are almost separate species. Controlled evolution, their females call it, but Stoneclaw is a tricky old girl. Her tribe focuses on biological weapons. I think Stoneclaw was building something on that ship. Something that could threaten even a lelgis hive mind.”
“So?” I said. “What do you care if the lizards and the squids fight?”
“I don’t,” Brenton said. “But to kill a lelgis, you’d have to make a weapon that destroys plasmex, not flesh. And that, little mercenary, is something I’m very interested in indeed.”
He bent down again, planting his hands on my legs so that he was leaning completely into my personal space. “This could be the most important event of our lifetime, Deviana,” he said, his dark eyes boring into mine. “I have to know what was on that ship. The proof might be long burned to ash, but anything could be a clue. I need you to tell me exactly what you saw in as much detail as you can remember, and we don’t have time for that here.”
He held out his hand again, his fingers hovering right under my chin. “The choice is very, very simple,” he said quietly. “You can stay here and die, or you can come with us and live. I’ll swear by anything you like that you will be unharmed, and for every answer you give me about that ship, I’ll answer a question of yours in turn. It’ll be tit for tat all the way, and when it’s done, we’ll set you free. I’ll even make it worth your while. We’re not without resources, and Paradoxian mercs still like money, right?” He gave me an earnest smile. “What do you say, fair deal?”
He was so close now I couldn’t have looked away from his eyes if I tried. But I didn’t try. I stared him down, baring my teeth like the animal I was right then.
“Go,” I said slowly, because whatever he thought, I was no snitch. “To.” I’d die as a Paradoxian should, as Cotter had, with my honor intact and my enemy defeated, even if that defeat was nothing but denying him the information he’d killed us to get. “Hell.”
Brenton closed his eyes and sat back. His offered hand dropped to his hip, and I knew this was it. But as I silently said my final prayers, Brenton pulled out not a gun, but a sleek handset.
“I didn’t want to do this,” he said softly, flipping open his handset and mashing a button. “But this is too important to sacrifice on the altar of Paradoxian honor.”
I braced by instinct, ready for a bomb or something equally horrible. Instead, I felt Nic slip away behind me. Half a minute later, I heard soft footsteps on the stairs.
“Your refusal is noted,” Brenton said, holding out his arm as the footsteps came closer. “But your cooperation is no longer required.”
I was about to ask what the hell he meant by that when the girl stepped into view.
She was so emaciated, I almost wasn’t sure she was a girl at first. Her body was little more than bones and sallow skin. Her long hair, dull and gray brown as heat-spoiled chocolate, hung limp and brittle from her scalp. Her head was down and her bony shoulders were shaking, but it wasn’t until Brenton pulled her into his arms that I realized the girl was sobbing, crying in great heaves, though she made no noise at all.
“I’m sorry,” Brenton whispered, hugging the girl close. “I’m so, so sorry. But I need you to do it one more time. Please, Enna, just one more time.”
He stroked the girl’s shoulders until they finally stopped shaking, and the girl pushed away from him enough to look at me. The moment her eyes met mine, I froze. The skeletal girl in Brenton’s arms was Ren.
Even sunken with hunger and screwed up with more emotion than I’d ever seen Ren show, that face was definitely Caldswell’s daughter, except that was impossible. I’d seen Ren leave with Caldswell myself not five hours ago. She’d been fine then, as fine as Ren ever was, anyway. She’d certainly looked nothing like the wasted waif cowering in Brenton’s arms. I was wondering about the odds of Ren having a twin sister when a beeping interrupted our little tableau.
Brenton pulled out his handset. “What?” he barked, holding it in front of him so he wouldn’t have to let go of the girl.
The man on the other end was a merc if I’ve ever heard one. “Sir, we found the records you wanted. You were right. Caldswell sent both hired security into the ship, but only the female was injured.”
Brenton’s eyes found mine. “Injured how?”
“Bite across the shoulder,” the man said. “Nearly took her arm off.”
“Thank you, commander,” Brenton said slowly, closing the handset with a click before looking at me like he was seeing me for the first time. “You were bitten?”
I fixed him with my best not-giving-a-shit glare. “Have you ever fought a xith’cal? Bites are part of the package.”
Brenton ignored me. He stood up, keeping a careful hand on Enna as he got in my face. “What game are you playing?”
I was so over this. “You tell me!” I shouted, kicking at him as much as the invisible wall would allow. “You’re the one who’s the truth crusader!”
Brenton ignored my outburst, straightening back up with a confused frown. “I don’t understand,” he said. “If you survived being bitten, why the hell is Brian letting you run around loose?”
“Because that’s what he pays me for!” I yelled. “I’m his goddamn security!”
Brenton clamped his jaw shut, obviously upset. He studied me for a few more seconds while I did my best to look as surly as possible. But just as Brenton’s staring was getting unbearably obnoxious, his face changed.
He was still looking at me, but his expression was totally different. Wondrous, like he’d just seen a mystery of the universe unfold before his eyes. “My god,” he whispered. “He doesn’t know.”
I threw back my head with a frustrated hiss. Brenton didn’t even notice. “Brian didn’t know what was on that ship!” His shout was almost gleeful. “He just followed the tip. He doesn’t know why the lelgis were there, or what Stoneclaw was actually doing, or you. He doesn’t know what you’ve—”
Brenton cut off at once, but he couldn’t quite get his joy in check. He took a deep, satisfied breath and looked at me the same way I’d look at a shiny new gun. “Well, well,” he said, his voice thick with smug happiness. “If you really were bitten, then there’s a chance everything isn’t lost. Someone up there must like us after all.”
“No one likes you,” I snapped. “And that bite healed a long time ago, sorry to disappoint. Now, would you please stop talking and just shoot me?” Because listening to him babble about shit I didn’t understand was getting really, really tedious.
Brenton shook his head, grinning so wide I could see his back teeth. “No shooting today, darling. Hell, if this works out, I’ll take a bullet for you. After all, you’re the one who’s going to help us save the universe.”
He reached out and clapped me on the shoulder so hard I nearly fell off the stool. As I was recovering my balance, he glanced over my head. “Nic!”
The man behind me stepped forward, and Brenton gently pushed the emaciated girl toward him. “Change of plans. Get Enna out of here, and don’t let her touch the merc.”
Nic nodded and reached out to take the girl, who’d started her silent sobbing again. Just as his hand touched her arm, the unmistakable sound of gunfire rang out outside the ship.
Brenton went for his handset at once. “Report!”
No one answered. Outside, the gunfire cut off abruptly, and then two mercs in full armor came flying through the cargo bay door.
I couldn’t see them land from where I was sitting, but the crash I heard was enough to tell me they’d hit the far side of the cargo bay. I stopped worrying about them a second later, though, because the next thing I saw come through the blown-off door was Rupert.
Funny enough, the very first thought that crossed my mind was how much he must have been holding back during our fight. He was still dressed in his suit, without a speck of sweat despite the heat, and he was holding a third merc in full armor above his head. It took a few moments for me to process that last part, actually. The merc had to weigh close to nine hundred pounds, but Rupert hefted him like he was made of air and plastic, hurling the man across the cargo bay to join his friends before turning toward us.
He spotted me at once, and his face fell into the most deadly snarl I’ve ever seen on a human. But then he saw Brenton, Enna, and Nic, and his expression changed from rage to horror. For a split second, everyone just stood there, and then Brenton shoved Nic and Enna down as Rupert charged.
Even though I knew what he was now, Rupert’s speed still shocked me. He was faster than I was in armor and almost as good a jumper. He cleared the stairs up to the lounge in one leap, landing in the doorway. But his next move wasn’t for me, it wasn’t even for Brenton. When Rupert lunged, he lunged at Enna, his hands going out to snap the skeletal girl’s neck.
He would have made it, too, had Brenton not gotten in the way. He caught Rupert’s wrist when Rupert’s fingers were an inch away from the sobbing girl’s throat, and the two men stopped cold.
“Nic,” Brenton said, his voice calm. “Evelyn, get the daughter and the merc out of here. Nothing else matters.”
Nic nodded and scooped the thin girl into his arms before setting off down the stairs at a dead run. Rupert tried to follow, but Brenton threw him over his shoulder. Rupert hit the far wall of the lounge hard enough to dent the metal, but it barely seemed to faze him. He was up and about to go for the girl again when Brenton, moving with the same impossible speed Rupert had shown earlier, slammed into the wall on top of him, his hand on Rupert’s throat.
“Hello, Charkov,” he said. “Been a while.”
“Not long enough,” Rupert growled.
Brenton flashed Rupert a bloodthirsty grin, and then he began to change.
When I’d read Anthony’s letter, I hadn’t fully comprehended the reality of a symbiont. Even though I’d seen two today, and killed one, I still thought of them as things, alien enemies to be defeated. I had not yet stopped and worked through what it would mean to have an alien presence living inside you that came out. Now, I saw it all too well.
With a whisper like a slicing knife, black scales sprouted from Brenton’s body. They pushed clean through his exposed skin and cut through his clothes like razors, shredding his shirt and pants, even his heavy boots, to tiny scraps. The scales grew like leaves, overlapping across his muscles and down his limbs, sliding over him like black water until every glimpse of flesh was hidden.
The entire process took less than a count of three, and when it was done, the thing holding Rupert was no longer human. It was the Terran weapon that even Devastators didn’t fight alone, the symbiont, a huge, black-scaled alien creature with Brenton’s cocky stance and glittering, alien eyes that made my skin crawl. That was the last impression I got before the symbiont lifted Rupert and threw him through the blast door.
Not into, through. Rupert’s body tore through the three inches of reinforced steel like they were cardboard and crashed into the bulkhead across the hall. He hit with a clang that made me wince and dropped hard, landing facedown.
“You’re not going to last long like that, Charkov,” the black thing called in Brenton’s voice.