Page 46

Author: Rachel Bach

I thought Brenton was being optimistic about Rupert lasting at all. That had looked like a finishing blow to me. But then, to my amazement, Rupert pushed himself up to his knees and looked at me.

There were so many emotions on his face right then, I couldn’t place them all. Rage was there, certainly, but also fear and shame, guilt and something warm, an echo of the intensity that was always in his eyes when he looked at me. It lasted only a moment, and then Rupert dropped his head, and blackness bloomed across his body.

Like Brenton’s, Rupert’s change took only three heartbeats. Black scales sprouted from his skin, slicing through the dark suit I’d come to love so much, covering his face, his hair, all of him I could see. The scales rustled softly as they fell into place, glossy and hard under the ship lights as the remaining scraps of clothing slid away. When he stood at last, he wasn’t Rupert at all. He was the black figure from the tribe ship, the one who had saved me.

“Get the merc out!”

Brenton’s shout startled me, and for a moment I didn’t know who he was yelling at. Then I felt a pressure on my chest, and I realized the girl behind me, Evelyn, was trying to yank me off the stool using the invisible pressure. Only it wasn’t working.

“I’m trying!” she cried. “She’s resisting!”

If I was, I didn’t know it, which was a shame. If I’d known what I was doing, I’d have tried to do it harder. I wished she hadn’t drawn my attention to whatever it was, because the moment she told me I was resisting, I apparently stopped, and the pressure slammed down so hard I fell off the stool. The fall dazed me, and Evelyn took her chance, dragging me like a hunting trophy toward the stairs.

Out in the hall, Rupert sprang forward. I was pretty sure he was going for me this time, but, as before, Brenton blocked him. My breath caught. If Brenton had been fast as a human, he was unstoppable now. He was in front of Rupert almost before Rupert was off the ground. But Rupert was fast, too, and the moment the situation changed, he changed with it, turning his lunge into a flying elbow that hit Brenton square in his scaled jaw. The men tumbled to the floor in a black tangle, but that was all I could see before Evelyn hauled me down the stairs.


I don’t like being dragged around, and I like being tied up even less, but the absolute last straw was being made helpless. My body was frozen under Evelyn’s invisible pressure. I couldn’t even kick as she bumped me down the stairs, tugging me behind her like a trussed-up hunting trophy. I could feel Rupert and Brenton’s fight through the metal floor, but I couldn’t do anything, and as I watched the lounge door grow smaller and smaller, something inside me snapped.

I’m no stranger to anger, especially the killing kind, but this? This was rage like I’d never felt. It was like a dam broke in my chest, and raw fury, white hot and sharp as a thermite blade, came thundering down through my body, filling me to bursting.

All at once, I stopped going down the stairs. The pressure holding me frozen was still there, but I could feel it getting thinner. Above me, Evelyn was staring down in horror. She was drenched in sweat and her whole body was shaking, though I couldn’t tell if it was from effort or fear.

“Stop fighting!” she screamed, her voice shrill. “You’ll kill us both!”

Effort and fear, then. Ignoring her warning, I bared my teeth and let my rage carry me. Her shaking grew worse as the pressure on me grew softer and softer until I could move my body again. It was just a little, but it was enough for me to flip myself over onto my stomach and push up to face her.

The moment I turned, I stopped so abruptly that even my rage flickered. With everything that had been happening, I hadn’t noticed the creatures. Now that I was staring directly at Evelyn, I couldn’t not see them. She was covered in glowing bugs. They were crawling through her hair, floating over her face, passing through her wide, terrified eyes like ghosts. Some were so tiny they looked like pinpricks; others were nearly the size of my thumb. Some had wings, but most were little more than bundles of spindly legs.

Their collected glow was bright as moonlight on her skin. It was so beautiful, so strange and terrifying that for several moments I could only lie there and stare. My hesitation almost let her regain control, but then the anger came pounding back, and my fist started moving toward her chest like a punch in extreme slow motion.

We fought for every inch, but whatever I was doing, I was winning. As my hand crept closer and closer to her chest, the bugs began to move away from where it would land, opening up a clear spot just above her stomach. On impulse, I opened my hand, no longer punching, but simply reaching toward her, my fingers straining.

This seemed to panic the glowing creatures. They fled from me, climbing up into Evelyn’s hair and down her legs. As they ran, I had a fleeting moment of regret I wouldn’t get to touch one, but I forgot all of that when I caught sight of my fingers.

Where my hand was closest to Evelyn, my fingertips were black. They looked almost sooty, like I’d brushed them against an exhaust pipe. The black was so out of place, I thought that it must be another hallucination, but Evelyn saw it, too. I knew, because she started to scream.

“No!” she wailed. “Don’t touch me!”

But it was too late. My fingers brushed against her, and the blackness on the tips vanished like it had been rubbed off by her shirt. The pressure holding me lifted in the same instant, and Evelyn tumbled to the ground.

Suddenly free, I collapsed as well, falling down the stairs on top of her. This scattered the last of the bugs, but I could barely see them leaving through the fit Evelyn was throwing. She writhed on the floor, screaming and tearing at her chest like she was trying to rip something out. I scrambled, trying to get off her before her thrashing threw me farther down the stairs. I’d just gotten a knee on the ground when I saw the blackness creeping up the skin of her neck.

I jumped back like I’d been burned, catching the railing just before I tumbled head over heels into the cargo bay below. I kept myself from falling by sheer luck, but I couldn’t manage to focus my body to do more than hold on. All my attention was on Evelyn as the blackness spread across her skin.

She thrashed wildly, screaming as black slid up her chin and down over her arms until she looked like she’d been rolling in soot. The more it spread, the wilder her struggles became until, just as it reached her hairline, she jerked to a sudden, unnatural stop. Her cries cut out like someone had sliced the feed to her throat, and she lay still, her face frozen in terror.

It was so horrible, so strange, that I actually stood there gaping like a fish for several moments before my battle sense kicked back in. Gritting my teeth, I crouched down, but I couldn’t make myself touch her. There was just something too wrong about the black body to risk touching.

In the end, I settled for holding my fingers under her nose, but it didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. The girl was dead. Whatever I’d done had killed her.

I snatched my fingers back, staring at them like I’d never seen them before. They looked normal, no sign of black at all, but my skin tingled painfully where the sooty stuff had appeared. On a hunch, I moved my fingers under my own nose, breathing deep to try to catch a snatch of Hyrek’s “odd smell,” but I got nothing. Just the usual slightly sweet silicone smell of my armor lining and—

A crash from the lounge snapped me back into the present. In a flash, I forgot the dead woman, the creatures, and the strange black stuff on my fingers and her skin. I shoved the whole thing out of my mind, spinning on my toes as I ran up the stairs to help Rupert.

I stopped when I reached the lounge’s landing and ducked low. I might have come to help, but I wasn’t about to throw my currently unarmored self into a fight between two Terran super soldiers. Instead, I remembered my training and played it smart, dropping down to the ground with my back safely to the doorjamb before peeking my head around to look inside.

What I saw wasn’t good. Blood was splashed on the floor, and though I couldn’t see whose blood it was, Rupert was the one with his back to the wall while Brenton was on the attack. Rupert had height and reach, but Brenton was larger and, I was willing to bet, more experienced. He would dart in to strike at Rupert and then, when Rupert dodged or countered, dart out before Rupert could reach him.

Rupert was entirely on the defensive, and if he kept fighting like that he would lose. He must have known that as well, because his counters were getting more reckless, wilder. He was trying his best to break out, but Brenton was keeping him penned in like a pro. However, though Brenton currently had the edge, it was by a tiny, tiny margin, and neither man had the spare attention for me.

That was my saving grace. Quiet as I could, I slipped inside the lounge. My armor was piled in the corner, and the temptation to run over and put it on was almost unbearable. But even on my best days, I’d never been able to get into my armor in less than nineteen seconds, and nineteen seconds was eighteen too many with Brenton not ten feet away. So, rather than head for my armor, I snuck along the wall to the kitchen counter where Brenton had laid my gun after he’d taken her from me.

Before I could chicken out, I shot up, grabbing Sasha off the counter as I did. The noise caught Brenton and Rupert’s attention, but even their ungodly speed wasn’t enough to beat years of training. I lugged Sasha up, my arm straining against her weight now that I had no armor to help me, took aim at Brenton’s head, and pulled the trigger.

I’ve fired Sasha outside of armor only once, just to see if I could do it, and nearly broke my arm. This time I wasn’t sure if I’d been so lucky. Sasha’s kick blasted through me like a rocket, slamming my back into the counter so hard I almost blacked out. But even as I hit, my mind was past the pain. All my attention was on Brenton.

The shot was so perfect even I couldn’t believe I’d done it without armor. He’d been turning to look at me when I’d fired, and the bullet had caught him right between the eyes. If he’d been a xith’cal, he would have been dead. Considering I’d shot his goon four times in the head, though, I knew it wasn’t enough to kill, or even really hurt him. Still, Sasha’s punch knocked him flat on his back, and that was all Rupert needed.

He was off the wall and on Brenton before I could breathe. He attacked with all the pent-up fury of a cornered animal that’s just broken free. Brenton defended well, but with Rupert holding him down, he couldn’t get off his back.

Gasping from the intense pain of slamming my back into the kitchen counter and possibly breaking my arm at the same time, I pushed myself up and switched Sasha to my left hand, which was still working. My right felt like it had been run over by a truck. I couldn’t even move my fingers.

Looking back, I should have taken this chance to run over and get my armor on, broken arm or no. Mia would also have been useful, but I couldn’t get myself going, not even to grab my plasma shotgun. I was mesmerized by how amazingly fast Rupert and Brenton were moving.

Anthony had said symbionts gave their hosts increased speed and strength. Watching the real thing in action made his warning sound laughably understated. There was no word I knew in any language to accurately describe the speed and deadly power of the fight in front of me.

The symbionts were moving so fast their scales whistled through the air. Every time Rupert struck and Brenton dodged, the blow dented the floor. I could actually feel the fight echoing through the metal under my feet like a jackhammer, and the longer I watched, the more I realized that I might not be able to land a shot even with my suit’s targeting system. The symbionts were simply too strong and too fast for my Lady. If the power didn’t seem to come at such a high price, I might have been jealous.

I was about to go and get my armor on anyway when I heard something coming up the cargo bay stairs. The footsteps were so fast and heavy, I almost thought it was Cotter before I remembered Cotter was dead. When I turned, though, I realized I’d been half right. There was a dead man running up the stairs, just not the dead man I’d thought.