Blizzard 2010 Edit

I was the first one to see it. Gliding forward over the ridge, its arc blocked out another boiling sun on another useless lump of dirt and stone that we were destined to bleed and die for. An infinite expanse of bone and stretched skin, rowed in every direction with jagged spines all surrounding a gaping, oozing maw where a face would be on any sane creature. This was a sculpted thing, grown and formed to a singular purpose. Fashioned at the genetic level to kill, and barreling down directly on us.

Hovering dead center of the field, guns cocked sideways and shooting indiscriminately into the sea of mindless drones was. . . well honestly I hadn’t learned his name yet. McSomething. First time in live combat, probably his first time seeing Zerg up close, punching through soft targets with his back to the dangerous side of the universe and his jets so hot they could cook the creep beneath his feet.

“Uglies incoming!” The warning made the rest of my squad – a grizzled old dog named Kreigan and his former partner in crime, Moffat – cease fire and look up. “Damage done, guys. Fall back.”

The warning was lost on McSomething, just as he was lost in the haze of battle and the constant spring of discharged ammunition. Thankfully, the rest of my squad wasn’t quite so green. “Stockton’s right, New Guy. Move your ass!” The way Kreigan barked it across the comm, his voice a shower of loose bolts and gravel, made my warning sound like a polite suggestion by comparison. McSomething whipped his head around, barely sparing us a spray of pistol fire.

A swarm of Broodlings hit him square on the back. Some of them burned up in the heat of his jets, but the rest latched onto his arms, dug into his helmet, slammed into his knees. Their inertia brought him down face first, his helmet cracking hollow against stone. I wonder if he hated us, or if he even saw us burning a hard retreat down the ridge. A few months ago, I would have felt bad for him. But the reason I can remember back to a few months ago is that I know when to fight, I know when to run, and I don’t have any illusions of being a hero. My job is to be a good little guerrilla, keep my own ass alive, and break through Weaver’s Wall.

There was no further discussion of McSomething on the way back to the evac point. I still don’t know his name and probably never will. He’s the guy that was too slow, too sloppy, maybe too psycho to survive. When you spend every meaningful, terrifying moment of your life with a rocket strapped to your back, live bombs clamped to your chest, and less than an inch of metal between you and evisceration, you either learn how to survive or you learn how to die.

And in learning how to survive, the first thing you learn is that you’re supposed to die. It’s how we’re built, how we’re trained, and how we’re tasked. Reapers are handed one suicide mission after another, flying into enemy territory with all the stealth and subtlety of a constantly exploding fuel tank and just enough firepower to do something truly, unabashedly stupid. Like McSomething. He did the stupidest thing a Reaper can do.

He followed his orders.

——————————————-

I was barely off my dropship when the klaxon sounded. There was a Medivac coming in hot, which could mean anything from minor battle damage to a roaring swarm of Zerg chewing its exhausts. It didn’t take long to spot the ship, belching charcoal smoke from both its jets and struggling against a strong headwind. As it approached I could see that the rear airfoil was mangled and sheared clean off the starboard side.

The organized chaos of the strip converted almost instantly into a frantic rush of precaution and intent. Craft were wheeled off of the landing area, crews disassembled their tech gear, and damage control teams were prepped along the sidelines – just ahead of the medics. For a few moments the flyer seemed to hang in the air, all at once looking achingly familiar and foreign for its mangled state. The strip achieved near silence; there was no movement, no motion. Every breath was held. Only the sounds of the klaxon blaring and the ugly scream of the incoming ship’s engines were audible.

Then the nose of the ship dug into the concrete. The cry of metal and stone shearing away at each other echoed in my helmet and vibrated up through my teeth. Sparks and debris leaped out from the Medivac’s front side, and it looked like the pilot was going to bring the bird home until the twisted airfoil snared into the ground behind him. Uneven as it was, the resistance began to pull the nose crooked. The entire ship went into a wild spin like a terrible, flaming, forty ton top. And just as the spin started, a very particular piece of debris flew – or should I say launched – from the Medivac’s loading doors.

The debris in question went by the name Kholo, and if there was ever a Reaper that deserved the miniscule life expectancy we’d been prescribed, this was him. He had a bad rep for getting other Reapers killed, for taking unnecessary risks, and for staying in the fight long after his squad should have been hard burning back to base. To his credit, he did all of these arrogant, self-aggrandizing things from the very front of the line. But the end result was that he came back with empty clips while his squaddies didn’t come back at all. And today it looked like he was going to get his pilot killed along with his team.

——————————————-

The runway hadn’t even been cleared when I was hustled into debriefing. Kreigan and Moffat were already there, seated across from Commander Viss. In every way that I cared about my own survival, Viss was consumed by only one viable statistic. Enemy body count. As a result I barely registered as a blip on his mental radar. I was just fine with that.

“Kreigan already gave me the vital stats, Stockton. Outpost wrecked, probably already being rebuilt – fine. This last batch of runs was harassment and distraction, just trying to split up their resources. And we’ll continue to run them so they can’t build up a solid defense. But we’re not on Telluras just to trade spitballs with the bugs. Hell, this rock isn’t worth the fuel we burned to fly out here. It’s what’s under this rock that we’re after.”

“There’s a military storehouse beneath the planet’s surface, and we want what’s down there.” He held up a hand almost immediately. “And no, I can’t tell you what you’re after, because we don’t know either. It was a research facility back before the Great War. R&D for the Kel-Morian Combine.”

“A few weeks ago one of our patrols came across a Combine derelict that led us here. It was a burned out hull, but the data they could pull talked about a weapons development project called The Long Arm. There was a report, signed by General Mah Sakai, that they’d only have to fire it once to have the Confederacy discussing terms of surrender.”

Viss leaned back in his chair, lips pursed. “Now I don’t give half a damn about old Guild War grudges. What’s left of the Combine couldn’t put a dent in the Dominion even if it wanted to. But if they’ve got something down there they thought could end the Guild Wars, then I want it. I’ll aim it straight at the Swarm and burn every last one of the nasty little buggers straight to hell.”

No concrete intel, no firm mission objectives, and a commanding officer in the throes of bloodlust. Already, this mission had a strong odor of failure wafting off of it, and Moffat certainly noticed. “Reapers? Underground? How the hell are we supposed to move around in enclosed tunnels – are you cracked?” Viss cocked an eyebrow at the kid and left it there for a good three seconds.

Kreigan came to his rescue. “I think what he means is, ‘Are you cracked, Sir?'”

I could swear I saw Viss smirk. I’d rank up there as one of the few times the guy broke into a smile when he wasn’t busy bombarding something squishy. But the moment passed. “We’re using Reapers, Private, because there are long vertical drops and ascensions down in those tunnels, and you are all uniquely outfitted to handle that sort of terrain. Don’t worry,” he continued, throwing a glance my way, “stick behind the coward, you’ll do fine.” So much for staying off of Viss’s radar.

“Sounds like a pretty sensitive mission,” observed Kreigan.

“So good of you to notice, Private,” snapped Viss, growing agitated at having to suffer through any talking besides his own. “And it’s also hush-hush for the time being, so don’t expect backup for now. So if you three are -”

“Not the sort of thing you’d send a coward to handle, then,” continued Kreigan. I passed him as subtle a look as I could, pleading with him to let this whole thing go. I didn’t care what Viss thought of me. In fact, if he thought I was a coward, all the better. Heroes don’t make it to the end of their two years, and I had every intention of doing just that. All Kreigan was doing was bringing heat down on us that we didn’t need. I looked back, expecting the Commander to be furious. But there he was smirking again. Somehow I knew that was actually worse.

——————————————-

We got packed back up and shipped out almost immediately after Viss was done with us, so as usual I did my sleeping in transit. It must have been the the lurch of the shuttle touching down that roused me. My squaddies were sitting across from me, staring straight ahead. Kreigan was chiseled from stone, as always. I swear, if he woke up one morning to find himself in bed with a Hydra he’d probably ask it what it wanted for breakfast – before putting a dozen rounds in its head. Moffat, on the other hand, would be leaping out of the bed screaming, “LEAD SALAD!” The kid had a lot of great qualities but subtlety wasn’t one of them. He glanced over at me in alarm as I rolled my neck, fighting off the cobwebs and stiffness that comes with sleeping in a man-shaped tin can.

It wasn’t until I lit my sensors up that I realized what was wrong. We had a fourth. A replacement for McSomething. Someone had been paid way too much money to run way too many simulations (and, I’d like to at least hope, actual combat figures) in order to determine that a group of at least four Reapers has the highest chance of success. Notice I didn’t say survival. Just success. It was a rare luxury today that those two goals intersected, and that was likely the only reason I was on that Medivac. When you want your boys to come back whole, you send the guy climbing Weaver’s Wall.

A quick check as the hatch pressurized and opened confirmed that my kit was working. Jets ready to burn, ammo fully stocked, sensors showing me, Moffat, Kreigan and – well, and that’s when I finally understood Moffat’s tension. Our fourth was designated clear as day on my scanner. “Kholo”.

There were really only two things that stopped me from pulling my pistol and dropping Kholo in his seat. The first was the thought of a painful, messy death, tossed out an airlock as a traitor. The second was the thought of an equally painful, messy death riddled with dep-uranium rounds. I may not have been as stupid as Kholo, or as arrogant, or as wreckless, but I also wasn’t as fast. Not by half. In a straight up fight, I had no delusions. He could out-draw me, out-shoot me, and probably out-fly me as well. I took some solace in remembering that he could also out-jackass me. It was a very small comfort.

It was about then that Kholo got up out of his crash harness and leaned down towards me. “I don’t like it either. But Viss wants us all to come back alive.”

I stood up to face him, thankful that combat suits only come in one size: giant. “Guys you run with sure do have a problem with that, don’t they Kholo?” The hatch locked open. Nobody moved.

“I know all about you, Stockton.” I was a bit surprised that Kholo knew my name. Actually, I was a bit surprised he knew anyone’s name but his own. “Five months, one week and three days. You think you’re climbing Weaver’s Wall.” I nodded, alarmed that he knew so much about my service record. But not that he knew about Weaver.

Rory Weaver was the gold standard in the Reaper Corps. By all accounts he was both a nimble pilot and a skilled marksman, but it was his instincts and sense of self-preservation that made him a legend among the other Reapers. Weaver was killed in action on Mar Sara defending an emergency civilian evacuation. Noble enough. But what he was famous for was his persistence. He lasted five months, three weeks and six days as a Reaper. No one else had made it that long, and most of us wouldn’t even come close.

“Hrmm. Not bad,” he continued, making his way out of the shuttle and down the ramp. “Except Weaver didn’t build that Wall by being a coward.”

Kreigan bristled again, and went for his pistols. I stepped in his path – always a dangerous choice – and cautioned him off. “We don’t have to like him. You know damn well I don’t.” A glance over my shoulder confirmed that Kholo was almost definitely out of earshot. “But we can use him.”

Moffat closed the circle. “Stock’s right, man. Kholo’s got a rep for being stupid. But if you pop him here, in range of the ship? There ain’t no going back.” Some of the immediate tension drained from Kreigan, only to be replaced by the much more subtle distaste for needing Moffat to act as the voice of reason. It was a role reversal the old bugger clearly didn’t take to.

“Fine,” replied Kreigan, lifting his hands off his weapons and moving towards the ramp. “But if that ‘rep’ becomes a problem, I’m leaving it – and him – down in those caves.”

——————————————-

The descent was slow going at first. As predicted, the caves were cramped, dark and would have been difficult to maneuver in even without the packs bolted onto our armor. But ultimately Viss had a point. It took us minutes to traverse gaps, ledges and straight down drops that even an experienced climbing team could have spent the better part of the day conquering. Still, Viss left me with the impression that we wouldn’t be alone down here, and our gear wasn’t exactly stealthy. And the further we progressed into the tunnels, the further we were from open air, open ground, and the room we needed for maneuvers in case we ran into trouble.

Kholo was getting antsy, too. It was behavior I’d seen in Kreigan now and then, though with Kholo everything was turned up a few notches. He was rushing over ledges, taking corners blind, dropping down sheer cliffs and waiting until he damn near bottomed out to fire his jets and decelerate. To be fair, this was probably the longest he’d ever spent off base without shooting at something, and I didn’t like being his only alternative target. I was almost relieved when he stopped dead in his tracks, not six feet in front of me, and held up a hand in warning. Almost.

His voice came in over the comm, full of static and excitement. “I’ve got something. Residual heat, maybe some movement. Pretty big, whatever it is.” In other words, not Zerglings, but damn near anything else. “If they’re up there, they’re trying not to be noticed. You know what that means.”

Kreigan moved up past me, indicating to Moffat to keep an eye on our six. We’d made it pretty far down without incident, and we were almost certain nothing could burrow through solid rock like this without tripping our scanners. But assuming things, especially about an enemy that evolved as rapidly as the Zerg, was how guys like us wound up dead. Underground? Everything and anything could be a trap. Pistols readied, Kreigan nodded ahead around the next corner. “I’ll cover you, tough guy.”

That was Kreigan. He always had to tweak your dials, even when he was being helpful. Anywhere else and Kholo might have taken issue, but if there was an ambush waiting, it was Kreigan he’d want covering him. Not the jittery kid. Certainly not the coward. There was no sense going dark, no point in trying to inch up closer. Most Zerg could see a pinprick of light in a pitch black shadow. They could hear our armor moving, feel the air we displace, even smell the explosives in our ammunition.

Kholo shot around the rock formation, pistols extended, exhausts burning hot and sudden. There was a brief crack of weapons fire, seven, maybe eight rounds, followed by the sickly crunch of rupturing chitin. And then just as suddenly, the gunfire stopped. Had something grabbed him? He hadn’t cried out, and his lamp still showed on my HUD. We spent about a breath staring forward before Kholo’s voice came back over the comm. “You boys are gonna wanna see this.”

The cavern ahead was the largest we’d found so far. It was a few hundred meters long, but split off into a series of connected chambers separated only by columns of thick, worn rock. And it was littered with corpses. Zerg corpses. Roaches, Hydras, ‘Lings – all reduced to indistinguishable lumps of still twitching tendon and bone. Body fragments lay scattered at our feet, smeared against the walls, carved and sliced and burned in a thousand different places from a thousand different directions. “No shattered rock, no bullet casings,” I said as I turned a claw over with the toe of my boot. “So I doubt Viss double booked the job.”

“Perfect place for an ambush, too” observed Kholo. “Little walls, lots of jutting rock to hide behind. Whatever hit them, they probably didn’t even see it coming. This is the aftermath of a well executed-”

Kreigan shushed him over the comm. “Shut it a sec. But keep walking.” The old man was spooked, and that usually meant real trouble.

“What? What? What is it?” Moffat asked, his voice baked in agitation. Not that I could blame him. There were enough Zerg in this room to have sliced us to ribbons, and whatever took them out was likely still down here.”

“Everyone keep quiet on the comms.” Kreigan again. My sensors showed all clear five klicks in every direction. But they weren’t meant to penetrate dense stone, and Kreigan’s instincts were rarely wrong. “We’re all going to stop walking in three. Two. One. Stop.”

Four sets of metal boots, all of them chewing gravel, came to a halt on command. And for a fifth, sickly moment, I heard what Kreigan heard all along. A fifth pair of footfalls, somewhere behind us. It had been masked by the normal sounds of our armor, by the crunch of our feet on the ground and the echo of our movements across the tunnel walls. But in that half a second I heard them, perfectly clear, padding down the corridor behind us. And as quickly as I picked up on them, they fell silent as well.

“What do you figure?” I asked. “Thirty meters?”

“Less than ten,” said Kholo. “Those cuts were clean. Almost surgical. We’ve got a Cloaked Templar down here with us.” The certainty in his voice was absolute. “Probably Left behind to guard their rear after the killing party moved on.”

Moffat balked. “What the hell are the ‘Toss doing down here?”

“The same thing we are, kid.” Kholo’s judgment alone, I didn’t trust. But if Kreigan agreed, that was enough for me.

“Backs together,” I urged. “Watch for visual distortion. That’ll be the only warning we get.” The trouble was the size of the cavern. Our lamps faded out into the darkness rather than reflecting off the walls. Echoes, as they could be heard, came from everywhere and nowhere. Every direction became a potential ambush. Every passage a stalking ground.

“Gaaah!” The scream came from Moffat, spitting bullets in a wild, feckless arc. Normally the kid had better trigger control, but when you can’t see your target you don’t really have a lot of choice. I wanted to turn and add to the spray. But Moffat might have seen an optical illusion, a reflection, even a hallucination. I couldn’t afford to look away, or the Templar could be on me instead. After about twenty seconds, the shooting died down. “Ssss. . . sorry. I thought I saw. I don’t know. Something.”

The Templar was playing with us, making us jump at shadows, fire at whispers. It was only a matter of time before one of us slipped. “If we stay in this room, we’re dead,” muttered Kreigan.

“Make it to the next corridor. Then we spin around and hard burn,” I said, holstering one of my pistols.

“I could be wrong,” Kholo interjected, “but that sounds a lot like running away.”

“There’ll be plenty to run from, Kholo,” I shot back, checking my display for where the passage closed up. “I’m going to D8 the ceiling.”

Deuterium Eight charges, or D8s, were small volatile explosives, a standard tool in the Reaper’s arsenal. We generally used them on raids for punching through armor plating and heavy shields. They delivered a powerful concussive blast, and were probably responsible for as many dead Reapers as any combination of Zerg and Protoss defenses. Using them at anything but maximum distance was suicide, and all four of us knew it.

Apparently, I’d found something that actually spooked Kholo. Death. “Hell you are, Stockton! You’ll bring the whole ceiling down on us! I’ll take my chances with the damn Templar.”

“Suddenly I’m not such a coward, huh Kholo?” I mean, sure. I was probably going to get us all killed. But part of me still enjoyed the irony.

Kholo stopped moving forward and the whole group came to a halt. “No, man. You’re just plain stupid. No one’s burying me today.” He slipped to the side, guns outstretched. “I’ll flush this thing myself.”

Jets belching fire, Kholo took off through the catacombs, racing from segment to segment, winding around the columns of rock that separated the makeshift rooms. “Come on, sneaky man! Come get me! You come dance with the Reaper!”

Kreigan closed the gap in our formation, and a simple, “Let’s go,” conveyed a much deeper message. This was the cave we would leave Kholo to die in. I began arming the D8. The three of us shuffled to the far end of the broken chamber, constantly scanning the area for the telltale shimmer of a Templar attack. None materialized.

About five meters from the tunnel entrance, we stopped again. I could hear Kholo, still raging in the background. But there was a new sound. Moffat. He was breathing hard, a mouth full of words that he couldn’t force out. Kreigan understood first, broke formation and began pelting our escape corridor with bullets. As soon as he opened fire, Moffat unloaded as well. This time I really wanted to turn and fire, desperately had to see what Moffat saw. But it was up to me to bring up our entire rear now, cover 180 degrees with only one drawn pistol. If it came to it, I’d D8 the cavern, too.

I was still sliding my thumb against the arming trigger on the grenade when something clamped down on my wrist. I could feel it, even through the armor, grinding metal into bone. My whole arm was shifting, and I spun to my left just in time to perceive a pair of faintly glowing eyes pouring out from behind the sheen of the Templar’s cloak. I heard the crackle and hum of a warp blade igniting. I wondered if I’d even have time to scream. Time to dodge. Time to bring my pistol around.

There was a single pop, and the Templar’s head exploded in a shower of skin, bone and sickly purple fluid. His cloaking field ceased the moment the bullet penetrated his skull. For a moment, the body remained, a headless stalker in the darkness. The pressure on my wrist faded, and the Templar slid to the floor. Striding out from the darkness, smoke still trailing from the barrel of his gun, I heard Kholo grunt with satisfaction. “You make pretty good bait. For a coward.”

——————————————-

We traveled for several hours in silence. No talking, no reflecting, and no apologies. We’d all done what we always do. I’d taken my best shot at escaping, Moffat got jittery, Kreigan stood by him regardless, and Kholo? Kholo put his squad on the line in order to get the kill. Ultimately, we were no different than the long list of dead Reapers that had gone out on missions with him. Or the Medivac pilot he bailed on once his landing went south. We were just lucky was all. Kholo actually got the job done in time. But if he could have landed a better shot after the Templar had diced us up, he’d have held his fire. There’s not a doubt in my mind.

I was starting to wonder who would eventually break the silence when a thundering crash sounded from up ahead. A collision so strong that I could both hear it with my ears and feel it through the soles of my feet. Seconds later, it was followed by several other, smaller crashes, like some great tower toppling to the ground. We hit our jets and advanced.

The tunnel opened up onto a ledge, and beyond that lay madness. The cavern before us dwarfed the first battlefield, dropping a good fifty meters straight down to a basin and extending easily three hundred meters in every direction. The site of such a hollow, expansive chamber this far underground would have been surprise enough. As it was, I hardly noticed the scale.

The crash we’d heard was a Colossus, its legs shattered and twisted. The walker had been smashed against the unyielding ground. Directly above it stood the Ultralisk that had brought it down, plates still smoking with residual fires. Its tusks swung around, shearing the head off of its fallen enemy. Metal shrieked beneath its feet, drowned out by the Ultra’s own triumphant bellow.

And yet these two titans were barely specs amongst the battle raging around them. Swarms of Zerglings racing towards a Zealot vanguard, breaking like waves dashed against rocks. The Zerg army numbered in the hundreds, writhing and skittering across the stone, hurling every manner of barb and corrosive muck at their adversaries. Fewer by far, the Protoss stood out, each one a beacon of power and carnage amongst the grasping darkness.

But even the spectacle of battle paled against the prize. Behind them and above them rested a war machine unlike any I’d ever witnessed before. It stretched the entire fifty meters of the cavern, floor to ceiling, and was wider by several times that amount. On either side were vast metal racks, storing hundreds of metal spheres. Each sphere measured larger than the four of us combined, and was emblazoned with a tri-wedge symbol familiar to most human soldiers. They were nukes. Rows and rows of nuclear weapons. And not the little silo-spitters, either. These were the sorts of bombs that you used if you wanted the resulting craters to be visible from space.

Between this arrangement of carefully organized armageddon stood a machine whose origin and purpose I was much less familiar with. No less than sixty coils, each crackling with violent blue thunder, were arranged on arms and girders in a circular pattern around a large metal dais in the center. A loading mechanism was clearly in place to move the bombs onto that platform, though why you’d want to expose a nuclear weapon to that sort of hazard was beyond me at the time. Suspended above the dais sat some sort of processing unit, and attached directly to that unit was a massive, inverted glass dome.

The dome was filled with a greenish, viscous fluid – and in that fluid pulsed a living organism. Its exact form was difficult to discern, little more than writhing flesh and tissue. Every manner of cable and conduit ran from the processing unit to the dome and back again, as if the thing were physically melded with the technology that was keeping it alive. But it was more than that. It wasn’t just sustaining the creature’s life. It was more like it was part of the creature. A biologically sentient machine. Oddest of all, the make of the device was clearly not Zerg. No Zerg would ever rely on electronics. And it wasn’t Protoss in origin, either. The tech was far too crude. This was built by men. This had to be the Combine’s super weapon. This was The Long Arm.

As usual, it was Moffat who asked the obvious question first. “What the hell is that thing?”

To my surprise, it was Kholo that answered. “I saw something like it, about a month ago. A raid on a Protoss space station. We had to fight our way through, level by level. But partway down, the walkways stopped, and the entire bottom half of the station was the biggest damn warp gate you’d ever seen.” He paused for a moment, aiming a finger at the coils. “That ain’t ‘Toss. But the design is close enough. Theirs only had a few coils, and they were warping in entire fleets with it. Same concept, though.”

“So what the hell are they warping in here?” asked Kreigan. There was no malice or even doubt in his voice. Just dread.

“They’re not,” I replied. “This is the other end of the gate. They’re warping out. You see? The racks of nukes. They load one onto the platform, fire up the portal and bam! Off it goes.”

“Warp don’t work like that,” replied Kholo. “You need something on the other side to warp to. And there ain’t no way you’re warping a nuke. Too unstable. Damn thing would go off in your face just for trying.”

He was right, of course. Even Protoss warp tech, which was far more advanced than the baby steps humanity had taken in that direction, wasn’t that precise.

“It’s psionic, right?” asked Moffat. The kid had been dead quiet since first breaking the silence, but there was something clear and disturbingly rational in his voice now. “Warp gates, I mean. It’s all psionic powered.”

Kholo nodded. “Best we can figure.”

Moffat continued. “Suppose the Combine found something down here. Some sort of alien thing with, like, crazy psionic power. Something they could control.”

I glanced over at the glass dome, and a cold, unfriendly sweat broke out across my skin. “You mean like a great big brain rock thing?” asked Kreigan.

“If it’s got the range and the precision,” I thought aloud, “you could open up your own little hole in the world and drop a nuke on anyone’s doorstep. Turn a planet to ash from the far side of the galaxy.”

Kreigan nodded. “The Long Arm.”

“So they’re both after the weapon?” asked Kholo.

That didn’t quite fit. “No. The Protoss are here for the warp tech, not the nukes. As for the Zerg?” Dawning realization struck. It was one of those thoughts that you don’t want to say aloud, for fear that you’ll make them come true. “The Zerg are after the thing in that glass dome. They want to assimilate its DNA. Grow a thousand more.”

Kreigan shuddered. “I wouldn’t give humanity a week.”

“So. So we stop ’em, right?” Apparently Moffat’s moment of clarity had passed. “I mean, this thing is way too big to bring back, and we can’t let either of them get it. So we gotta’ stop ’em.”

Kreigan leaned in towards Moffat. “Moff, man. There’s four of us down here. Four of us against two whole armies.”

“There’s the nukes,” suggested Kholo.

Yeah, I’d thought of it too. Trigger the nukes, hard burn back out the tunnel, cook or crush everything left behind. It’d wipe out both armies, as well as demolish the warp platform. To say nothing of whatever was living in the glass dome. “They’d have to be armed,” I countered, “and then detonated. Assuming, of course, that they still even work.”

“So what you mean is, you don’t have the brass ones to even try?”

And that was about as much of Kholo as I could take on a given day. “What I mean,” I shot back, “is that I’m going to need some bloody cover getting across the room.”

He paused. Just a bit, anyway. “I can go first,” he finally replied. “You three can-”

“You’re the better shot,” I cut him off. “Besides. I hear I make pretty good bait.”

——————————————-

We got about a third of the way across the cavern before the Zerg really took notice of us. Not that we were being subtle. Maximum altitude across a battlefield so dense with targets that any blind fool could pass for a marksman isn’t exactly a stealthy maneuver. But we knew we’d be spotted before we reached the nuke racks. So we might as well be hauling ass when it happened.

It was just a few at first, breaking off from one of the swarming waves of Zerglings. I watched them come, tracking them with my left hand pistol but never letting up on the jets. The roar of the engines seemed to drown out the thousand inhuman voices screaming and roaring in triumph and pain. But the vibration was worse still. Our packs aren’t meant for maintaining that much lift. I could feel my fingertips going numb, my teeth grinding together, and my whole arm shaking with a violence and a roughness that made it nearly impossible to keep a steady bead my targets. And they were almost in leaping range.

Twelve shots, three per ‘Ling, and every one of them drilling right into soft grey matter. That was Kholo, without a doubt. He was still a reckless psychopath, but at least down here he was a useful reckless psychopath. More Zerg peeled away from their engagements – I guess now we registered as more than a curiosity, but still less than a threat. By now the Protoss forces had noticed us as well. Whether they were concerned or not was anyone’s guess.

We were about twenty meters from the nuke racks when I heard the scream on my comm. It was Kholo, somewhere between terror, pain and exhilaration. “We’ve got a problem,” Kreigan warned in my ear.

Kholo’s whooping turned into an almost audible shout. “You boys go on ahead, I’ll catch up!” I chanced a look back to see him flailing in the air, propelled outwards by his pack, and swinging around on a grappling cable he’d snared onto the side of an Ultralisk’s head. I’d barely turned around when a shockwave blasted me off course. The pitch and the strength of the blast was unmistakably a D8. My second stolen glance revealed a smoking, headless Ultra collapsing to the ground. If the Zerg hadn’t considered us a threat before, they sure as hell did now.

I was the first to touch down by the nuke racks, though Kreigan and Moffat were only seconds behind. Kholo wasn’t visible, but his lamp was still lit and I doubted even a D8 could bring down that much crazy in one hit. My squaddies set up a basic perimeter around the control console and I went to work. Diagnostics. Repairs. Coil Energizers. Coordinate Plotter. Loading Arm. Seemingly every command I could possibly want except for a way to prime the nukes.

The stacatto of pistol fire was getting louder as Kreigan and Moffat were forced further and further back against the racks. Waves of ‘Lings and Roaches were pouring in towards us, and it was a hopeless endeavor to pick them all off in time. Nuclear Control – finally! But my relief turned to horror as I saw that I’d have to bring each weapon online individually. The system hung accepting an override. I suppose it made sense, considering the nature of the warp gate. But it meant extra time that we just didn’t have.

The Queen was on me all at once. I suppose I might have noticed the shadow loom up behind me or heard the constant thump of small weapons fire growing closer. But my own tunnel vision doomed me, and I hardly realized why I was being wrenched off the ground until I felt my arms buckle against her grasp. My world lurched leftward, and then straight down as she spun me over on my side, aiming my exhaust ports away from her body and exposing my chest. Her other limb reared back to strike, ready to punch right through my armor and turn my rib cage into a giant puncture wound.

It never found its target. A lance of bright orange light sliced down and through her, shredding carapace and skull alike with almost no resistance. The air was thick with brilliant streams of color, some descending from the Colossi above and others spearing out from the ‘Toss walkers across from us. In their desperation to stop me from arming the nukes, the Zerg had turned their back on the Protoss. It was proving a fatal error.

However, my salvation came at a price. The same incandescent wall of thrumming energy that was currently ripping apart the distracted Zerg army had also turned the computer terminal into a white hot stump of smoldering metal. “Rig’s down!” I screamed into my comm, anxious to be heard over the ensuing chaos. “Nukes are still dark. We’re screwed!”

It was Kreigan who saw the situation clearly. “Screw the nukes. Screw the gate. Kill that. . . thing up in the dome and let’s get the hell out of here.” Hit your target and bang out. It was a philosophy I’d drummed into Kreigan and Moffat from the day I’d been assigned to their squad, and it’s why we’d lasted almost a month and a half together. Heroics are for dead men. We’re Reapers.

“Way ahead of you, old man.” The voice was Kholo’s though he sounded like he was in a bad way. I saw him lifting up towards the bulging glass bubble, straining his damaged pack to get in range of the monstrous, fleshy beast inside. “Kinda banged up here. . . don’t got the thrust.”

It would only take one of us to get in range, and I was both the lightest and the closest. “Kholo!” I shouted, kicking in my throttle again and holstering both pistols. “I thought I told you to cover my cowardly ass!” The hail of bullets to either side of me, shredding the few Zerglings who had survived the Protoss barrage, served as his response.

With all three Reapers cutting a path, getting in range was simple enough. Half a dozen charges, armed and timed, lodged themselves claw-first into the glass tank above me. I didn’t so much slow down as I race by, hoping that every meter I put between myself and the tank would buy me a  greater chance at clearing the blast radius. It wasn’t quite enough.

The D8s burst one after the next, shaking the entire cavern and hurling me flat against the stone wall. My HUD was a cacophany of alarms and warnings. Armor compromised, fuel tanks belching fire, electrical systems overloaded. I managed one last burst from my pack before my system auto-dumped the tanks, but I still came down hard on the far side of the dais, and my body erupted in pain.

“Son of a bitch!” It was Kreigan, and he didn’t sound happy.

“Didn’t even dent it. Not even a scratch.” Moffat. He had to be talking about the glass dome, but I couldn’t roll over to look and my joints were too busy screaming in agony to try. “What the hell is that thing made of?”

“We’re done here. Nothing else to do. Bang out.” I could already hear Kholo firing up his jets for another hard burn back up to the ledge.

“Not without Stock!” shouted Kreigan.

But Kholo wasn’t having any of it. “Check your scanner, Kreigan. Stockton’s dead.”

The old man couldn’t accept it. “I think I see a blip-”

“Kreigan! He’s gone, man. He died like a hero – it would probably piss him right off. But that’s between him and the devil now.” Thanks, Kholo, for that ringing endorsement.

“Kreig, man. . . Kholo’s right.” I wanted to blame Moffat, but I could hear the terror in the kid’s voice. And I knew he wouldn’t bail on me unless he thought I was gone. “If we don’t scram now we’re gonna-”

The sound cut out for a second, the override drowning out his scream. I still couldn’t turn over and see what was going on, but my display told the story. Static. Gurgling. The hollow crack of pistol fire. Kreigan screaming, first in rage and then in terror. And just like that, Kholo was the only lamp still lit on my scanner. The crazy freak was still trying to win.

My legs wouldn’t respond, but my right arm had gone from completely numb to intensely painful. I pushed hard, rolling myself onto my back. Raw agony rushed up through my face, flooding in behind my eyes like a white hot scream. I think it only lasted a few seconds. It’s hard to say. But when I could see again, Kholo’s lamp was dark, too. I was alone.

The cavern grew eerily quiet. Either the Zerg had finally put the Protoss down, or else my ears were too blown out from the explosion to notice. I tested my arm again, and it twitched. Barely. For the moment, all I could do was breathe. Easy in, easy out. I tried not to think about how I was going to die.

An incessant beeping snapped me out of my malaise. At first I thought it was my HUD, but the pitch and the tone were all wrong. Rolling my eyes to the right, I realized I’d been hurled straight past the dais, past the dome, and crashed down on the far side of The Long Arm near the other rack of nukes. Squinting, I saw that the source of the beeping was the control console on this side of the machine. It was flashing me a very polite message to let me know that the mass nuclear arming override had completed successfully. If I could still feel my chest, I might have laughed.

I heard movement to my left, and it occurred to me that if the terminal was loud enough to catch my ear it had probably attracted other attention. The footsteps were slow and methodical, so the battle was over. And there was only one set of feet, which meant the Protoss had won.

And that’s about where we are. Five months, one week and four days. Not a bad run for a Reaper. I guess I’m not going to catch up to Rory Weaver, but I suppose it hardly matters. The first thing you learn is that you’re supposed to die. That used to infuriate me. Funny how it almost seems comforting now. Noble, even.

I guess I look pretty dead, because the Templar walked directly over me as if I were just another corpse and began manipulating the terminal. Probably trying to take the system offline, judging that two hundred square meters of armed nuclear weapons were more of a threat than one crippled Reaper. And that’s where he’s wrong. Because I still have a half working arm. It’s enough to reach down to my belt. Enough to depress the stud on my last D8. And just barely enough to roll it right up against the tower of fully lit nukes.

The first thing you learn is that you’re supposed to die. So make it count.