In this chapter, the enemy of my enemy is still my enemy.
Coming up: Treachery, deceit and the Great River.
It wasn’t Unity, but it was still some distant relation.
This one had only four limbs, thick and powerful, with raw muscles barely covered by stretched, tumescent skin. Massive claws and rending talons, easy easily capable of ripping through armour, suggested how it had survived the purge and it glared hatefully at the five figures before it. What had once been cheekbones had grown to monstrous, impossible size, splitting the skin of its face and jagging forward like great tusks bracketing its jutting maw.
Unlike Unity, this praetorian was not a... conglomerate entity, with no sign of the many fused corpses that had created its cousin’s body. Perhaps it had been some beast of burden, or a pet, or even a person now swollen and distended to monstrous size, hunched onto all four legs like some primordial ancestor. At best, the question was academic: the praetorian’s parentage no longer mattered, though. Not since it had Turned. It was now an engine of bone and muscle, given life by some horrific alchemy, tasked to rend and destroy.
Its tusked head swept back and forth as its red eyes surveyed its prey. There was cunning in that grotesque expression, but not Unity’s monstrous intellect. It knew they were dangerous, but it lacked its fellow’s appreciation of that fact. Its mouth opened in a low, rumbling hiss and drool spattered over finger-length teeth.
The enemy soldier turned towards it, weapon raised-
-and the praetorian charged, blindingly fast, despite its bulk. It lowered its head and smashed the soldier to one side like a doll swept away by a child’s tantrum. Its oncoming rush didn’t abate and it threw itself into the tangle of broken metal and toppled trunks that Shannon and Abigail huddled in, screaming in frothing rage as it tried to rip its way to them, powerful tail pounding the deck with sledgehammer blows and hands the side of Shannon’s torso slashed at her and Abigail, the bullets they poured into its thick skull only stoking its rage, ropes of saliva spattering from its jaws as it howled and gnashed, too large to squeeze through the debris after them.
One of its powerful hands wrapped around the stalk of an infested plant and with a heave of inhuman strength, the Turned tore it free. Abigail and Shannon scrambled deeper into the morass, out of the monster’s reach, but this was only delaying the inevitable. Its berserker fury abated for the moment and the praetorian stared at them, watching through its mad red eyes. Strips of skin hung from its face and writhing, worm-like tendrils squirmed out from the bullet holes in its head and torso. It opened its mouth and let loose a heavy breath that smelled like decay and chemical taint, its eyes never leaving the tiny shivering fingers in front of it. Slowly, it reached forward with its other hand, talons hooking into the mesh of the collapsed walkway. And, purposefully, it began to pull it away...
Then, so softly that Shannon would have ignored it completely if not for what followed: there was the brief whine of a cyclic cannon spinning just before it opened fire.
Jane watched as the praetorian writhed under her assault, explosive bullets punching deep into its flesh before bursting out in sprays of corruption. It screamed a challenge at her, even as it sought relief from the storm that cratered its body. She wished it could feel pain. Maybe it did, on some level. Some part of the brain that had once been... what? Human? Animal? Might still remember agony and she hoped – oh, she hoped – that it was remembering it now. It screeched at her, but it had no way of climbing up to her position, not without being further shredded. In the end, it retreated. Leaving a trail of gore and leaking entrails, the massive Turned loped from the room to wait until it was healed, until it had a chance to even the score.
With a thoom, Jane dropped to the floor, eight feet and half a ton of bloodstained armour and weaponry. Her weapon tracked the stunned enemy figure. Unable to stand, it was braced against the wall, was holding its own pistol on her, the barrel glowing as it zeroed in on Jane’s head. “Ghost One reporting,” her voice, rough and wet, crackled over Shannon’s comm. “We need to go. Additional bogeys inbound.”
“Then let’s go,” Shannon ordered, keep one eye on the injured killer. It was trying to pull itself back up to its feet, but the praetorian’s blow had hurt it badly, despite its armour. With its free hand it was trying to reach its carbine, a few inches out of its grasp.
“You’re hurt,” Abigail pointed out.
“It missed the major blood vessels. I’m fine,” she lied.
Abby ignored her protestations and slung one of Shannon’s arms over her shoulder, helping her ‘little sister’ walk. “This way,” she commed to the Ghost, Godfrey slowly backing away from the garden, keeping her weapon on the downed enemy soldier. Questions would have to wait; as the trooper said, they had incoming.
As they fled, they heard it scream. Defiant and hating, the shrill cry echoing through the corridors.
And, as it faded, the surviving Turned picked up the call.
Thorne was losing it again, screaming and ranting at their ever-dwindling group of survivors, all but frothing at the mouth. None of them met his eyes, unwilling to look like they were challenging him. Sarah stood next to Dyson, trying to reach out and brush her fingertips against his, but he pulled his hand away. She shot him a furtive glance, but he wasn’t looking at her. He was, incredibly, watching Thorne.
Sarah dared a moment’s quick glance at their erstwhile leader. Thorne was not the most physically impressive man in their group, but he had managed to hold their ragtag band together through charisma, sheer willpower – and, increasingly – physical intimidation. He was one of those people that, even if you outmassed them by a hundred pounds of muscle, still seemed more dangerous than you would ever be. And after he’d gotten his hands on the package that Sarah and Dyson had just dealt with, he’d only gotten worse.
That’s what this was about; he’d just found out that his toys were missing. He’d gathered everyone, hurling increasingly obscene and incomprehensible slurs and threats at each of the remaining men and women there. Sarah wanted to say that a madman’s raving didn’t affect her, that Thorne was just venting at any and every target within reach, but he’d promised some very ugly things, not the least of which was that he’d cut off her arms and legs and leave her for the Masks. She didn’t think he was that far gone, but nobody had thought he’d kill one of their own, either. Not until Vasquez.
“And you!” Thorne suddenly rounded on the group’s cyberneticist, Dr. Jason Whitham, spittle flaying from his mouth. “What do you have to say about this?”
It took a moment for Whitham to even acknowledge Thorne, the scientist looking up slowly and unabashedly meeting his leader’s gaze. Like the rest of them, there were dark circles under his eyes from not enough sleep, but there was more than just fatigue and crumbling nerves in his eyes. He hadn’t been the same since Laura. Distant, coiled in on himself like a spring about to snap. That’s how Dyson had described him.
“What do you want me to say?” Whitham asked softly, almost a whisper. He stared back at Thorne and Sarah felt herself drawing back half a step. Thin and almost so lanky as be gangly, she’d never thought much of Whitham’s physical presence until now, but something in his innocuous question, something in his pose made goosebumps run down Sarah’s arm. She reached for Dyson’s hand again and this time, he took it.
She watched the New Ones leave, staring after the heavy trooper as its grey armour disappeared into the blackness of the tunnels, waiting until it faded from her autosenses before she moved, picking herself up slowly, feeling her cracked ribs move on their own. She let out a hiss of breath as healing compounds and nano-melders flooded into her battered torso, assisting her own body’s own regeneration. They could heal from almost anything, but the regeneration stims made the process faster. What took hours, took minutes. What took minutes took seconds instead.
She let out a shivering breath as her bones knit and sheathed her kaitan, putting one arm against her side. The praetorian had retreated, but it would be back as soon as it was fully healed. It was rare, but Ribbons bit retreat from time to time. The clever ones did, or if instinct demanded that they ‘survive’ long enough to alert others, then one of the creatures would buck normalcy and avoid combat.
She looked up; there, on a higher walkway were her lead and the other novitiate, just arrived from their intended ambush point. “You didn’t die,” the lead observed, a note of pride in his voice. He’d watched her battle through the meld their armour systems shared. “You did well; one against two. Thoughts?”
“The second is dangerous for its speed and strength,” she said. “Enhanced strain, but it doesn’t move like the first. Different world of birth, different training. No blood connection, but the way it reacted... it’s bonded to the first, a lover or close friend. A soldier, but the modifications to its armour make it an artificer as well.”
The lead nodded, climbing down the wreckage of Ribbon-twisted life and collapsed gantries. “And the first?”
She growled, the noise low and hateful. “Enhanced strain. Faster than its companion. Processes information at an increased rate; it anticipated several of my actions. It doesn’t think like a soldier. It went for disabling/disorienting blows several times when it should have seen lethal options. Armour modifications indicate medic.”
He knelt next to her, touching her armour, checking for persistent damage as he reviewed his young charge’s bio-telemetry. Injured, but nothing life-threatening or permanently impairing and she’d recover soon. Luckier than most who’d run into praetorians. “And?” he asked as he stood, looking into her eyes. The question sounded nonchalant, but there was an edge in it.
She clicked her teeth, mouth working in the sudden need to sink her teeth into soft flesh and rip a mouthful free. “It reacted to our language. It shouldn’t have. Watcher knows us, a few of the feral oracles know a handful of words. New Ones shouldn’t. Not ever.” Her hands flexed. “It knows our language,” she hissed. She looked at her knife, still wet with the enemy’s blood and felt the fires of revulsion and hatred stoking inside her. “It’s an Old One.”
-make it scream-
Drooling blood, the Turned slashed uselessly at the passersby, but for all its effort, it had no chance of actually getting at them – Louis, Armin and Emily were out of its reach. The creature moaned and hissed, scrabbling at the wall and floor, trying to free itself without much luck. When Four had purged this part of the station, this grotesque had gotten stuck when a maintenance hatch had closed on it, trapped by the very thing that had saved its unnatural life. Louis could hear more of the monsters, those lucky enough to have found themselves in sections too damaged to be vented, or somehow able to hold out against the atmospheric purge. The direct route was turning out to be too dangerous and twice they’d had to slip into side passages to avoid agitated Turned. These ones were different, clad in glistening chitin like a madman’s interpretation of EVA gear. Like Unity.
Just thinking of that... thing made his skin crawl and Louis sincerely hoped that the monster – well, both of them – that had come knocking on their door was among the many now enjoying a first-hand view of the Twilight Fields.
Louis suppressed a shudder as he led his two survivors through the pitch-black tunnels. His eyepiece didn’t provide the same level of night-vision as the other mercenaries’ blacklight and the sweep of his party’s torches provided welcome – if incomplete – light up and down the hall. In every shifting shadow and every half-glimpsed silhouette, Louis could still see the man reaching out to him and calling for help. And sometimes – just sometimes – he thought he saw a gleam of silver and the flicker of a flamethrower’s pilot light. “We shouldn’t have come here,” he said to himself under his breath. “But they asked us to. We were supposed to help them. We can’t leave. We can’t, not until we’re finished.”
Emily bit her lip, resisting the urge to scratch at the back of her head – her scalp already felt raw and tender. Ahead, she could hear Hernandez whispering to no one, almost sounding like he was arguing. Beside her, Lutzberg was oblivious to their to chaperone’s conversation with himself, the petty officer licking his lips constantly, his head snapping back and forth as if he expected the shadows to come alive and drag them off. To be fair, that wasn’t as ridiculous a fear as it might have otherwise been. He wouldn’t look at her; he hadn’t ever since Bujold had been killed.
Her breath created steam clouds in the air as the nearby atmospheric processor struggled to replenish what Shannon had blown out into space and Emily stifled a lightheaded giggle. Focus, the woman scolded herself. Keep it together. Keep it together, you can do it.
They were closing on Shannon’s position. Hernandez froze as the comm crackled briefly, proximity overriding the damaged jammers in this area. A voice she didn’t recognize came over the line, unrecognizable and carrying that edge of insanity that was becoming far too familiar. “Contact.”
They ran. There was no other option. Even with Abby’s help, each step jarred her leg and she could feel the blood soaking into her bodyglove, knew she was leaving a trail. Her anterior tibial vein had been nicked and she was bleeding out. The wound wasn’t closing; Halos healed fast and with her system chock-full of combat drugs and stimulants, it should be faster still, nevermind the strain she’d been under for the past... two? more? days. It wasn’t just the movement keeping the wound open, keeping the blood pumping.
something on the blade, anti-coagulants definitely, toxins or hostile microbes likely
She couldn’t slow down, though. Praetorians and soldiers behind them, Turned and the other survivors ahead, the only chance they had now was to find each other and get out before any of the descending hordes reached them. Shannon had ordered Nine to fall back to the tram and hold it, but Emily was the only one responding. Abigail’s motion tracker pinged almost constantly; the purge had gotten rid of most of the Turned, but enough had survived, particularly the vacuum-adapted breeds sequestered in the depressurized sections. They were all coming here, some protective instinct drawing them back to their nest and all the passages she’d opened were just making their journey easier.
Screaming sentry forms bellowed warning cries up and down the halls as they caught sight of the fleeing women and Shannon could see the flickers of movement from parallel hallways and intersections as shambling forms scurried past. None had attacked yet, racing to ambush points ahead and the air vents and maintenance tunnels rang with scuttling movement.
“Don’t think I’ve ever seen them so agitated,” Godfrey chuckled, the sound wet and predatory. “You’ve really pissed off the garden, corporal. Excellent.”
“Thanks,” Shannon panted as she vaulted a spread-covered piece of machinery, ignoring the spike of pain from her leg. She was grateful for Godfrey’s intervention, but had no idea what the Ghost was doing here or how she’d gotten this deep in the station. Especially since the last time she had seen the woman and her team, they’d been killing their way aboard the doomed Kerrigan. Even though they were running for their lives, her curiousity was as fierce as ever. “It’s what I was going for.”
power armour is deep space rated, must have been blown clear, how many others survived, allies or enemies
There was another noise, different from the calls of the Turned, and Godfrey snapped around as fast as her armour allowed. The cannon on her right arm came up, tracking into the darkness. “You’ve pissed off more than that,” the Ghost said, her voice suddenly soft and wavering.
She’s afraid, Shannon realized. “What are they?” she asked, checking her pistol’s clip. “Who are they?”
“There’s worse ways to die,” was Godfrey’s reply. “You can be taken by the ferals. You can be Turned. Used as fodder. Eaten or twisted like the crying girls and wounded boys. One of the Lost can find you. No one dies easy on Acheron, corporal,” she paused. Calvin. “But if they find you... The eyes are always watching. They’re always hungry.”
That wasn’t an answer, but Shannon let it pass for the moment, putting a hand on Godfrey’s pauldron, ignoring the kill markers that the Ghost had daubed there in blood. “We should keep moving, lieutenant.”
The Ghost didn’t seem to realize that she outranked Shannon and the smaller woman’s deference surprised her. “Yes,” she nodded slowly. “Let’s.”
His bullets were wasted on the killer’s armour, sparking and glancing off its smooth silver hide. Under its faceless helm, he thought he heard it laughing as it pointed its flamer at him and he clenched his jaw, waiting for the heat and the pain. Neither came. Instead, there was the shriek of tearing air and the blinding after-image of a hypervelocity round and then, the silver killer fell to its knees, its head utterly destroyed. Gunny Sergeant Wilhelm marched through the burning night, a pair of the 301st at his heels. A wisp of smoke was rising from the barrel of the anti-material rifle in the gunny’s arms.
“Hernandez, right?” Wilhelm stared down at him, his face blistered and dribbling pus from a brush with one of the killers’ flamethrowers. The man didn’t even seem to notice. “It’s been hell trying to round up all you wet-ears after that FUBAR at the drop. You’re on my team now, rookie and it’s time to go. We’re legging it to EZ-Three.”
Louis straightened. “Sir, I’m fit to fight.”
“It ain’t about that, rook. In case you hadn’t noticed, government forces are sweeping this place clean. Ain’t nothing worth saving here and we’re quitting the field.” The sergeant looked back over the dying city, crackles of gunfire and cries echoing through the alleys and streets. “We’re done here.”
“There!” the sudden shout distracted Louis and he started, looking over at Emily, then in the direction she was pointing. Up ahead, he could see the bouncing white circles of Three and Four’s flashlights and the mercenary blinked; he hadn’t realized that they were that close. He blinked, trying to push past the fog in his mind. Hadn’t they been told to go somewhere else? He thought he remembered that, looking around. Yes, he remembered this place. They were close to the tram. So they had backtracked after all.
The women were running and with them... he started at the hulking form of one of Primal’s Ghosts, the trooper’s pale grey armour desecrated with blood. Most of it looked like it belonged to the Turned. Some of it didn’t. He clenched his jaw, fingers tightening on Betsy as he and his survivors came to a halt.
“Jesus, Nine,” Abigail spoke first, her voice fritzing through the comm. She was supporting Four; the corporal didn’t look to steady on her feet. “Maybe next time answer your radio once in a while? If it wasn’t for the doc giving us position checks, we might have gone right by you.”
Louis blinked. He hadn’t realized they’d been comming him. “Sorry, I-” he was about to apologize, then shrugged. “Who’s your new friend?”
“Nine...” Abigail drawled angrily, her hands bunching into fists.
“It’s all right,” Shannon intervened. “It is. Private Louis Hernandez, Beta Nine. Lieutenant Jane Godfrey, G-One.”
“Charmed,” the trooper rasped through her helmet’s speakers. Even without the mechanical edge to her voice, her tone was flat and dead.
“Yeah, everyone shake hands, kiss-kiss, friends now,” Abigail interrupted. “Glad everyone’s here and in one piece. Anything chasing you?”
“Not that we’ve noticed,” Emily spoke up. “We’re being stalked, but I don’t think there’s anything outright following-”
“Good,” Shannon cut the doctor off. “Better than us. Everyone: we have bogeys on our six, so we are double-timing it to the tram. Let’s go, people.”
“Wait, what’s after you-”
That same ululating call filtered up through the hallways, a trilling melody that froze each of the survivors as it spiked and slid through their nervous systems. As the cry tapered off, Lutzberg trembled. “It’s them,” he whimpered. “They’re hunting again.”
“Yeah, we made some new friends,” Abigail grabbed the petty officer by the shoulders and gave him a shove, jarring him out of his stupor. “Like Four said, we are leaving.
The tram was up ahead, blissful salvation from the faint light flooding from its open doorway. “There!” Lutzberg cried as he caught sight of their car. “We’re there!”
Shannon frowned. Something wasn’t right. Something had changed, the tram car looked different, the way the light was reflecting off its windows and plastic ad-panels and...
the door is open
something’s been put inside the car
“No!” Shannon shouted after him. “Don’t! It’s a-” But he was too far away and-
-Emily caught Armin by the collar, an instant before he would have jumped up the stairs into the cab, pulling both of them to ground. That saved their lives.
The blast hurled glass and metal in every direction, a rain of molten shards that pattered and pinged off the mercenaries’ armour, but the concussion knocked Shannon and Abigail off their feet, their armour scorched by the blossoming flames. Louis had the good fortune to be behind Godfrey and the trooper wasn’t so much as nudged by the explosion, cooling gobbets of silicate and metal running down her armour like drops of mercury. She waited patiently for the others to pick themselves back up, shouting at one another over the ringing in their ears, wobbling on unsteady legs.
Shannon braced herself against Abigail, her injured leg quivering and threatening to buckle, but it wasn’t just the wound. The tram was a total loss, utterly gutted by the explosion. “Shit,” she groaned, unable to think of anything more to encapsulate this. “Watcher,” she commed their ally. “We’ve got the pendant, but someone blew our tram. Can you re-route a new car to us?”
“There aren’t that many left!” he snapped at her angrily, on the verge of hysteria. “If you’re not blowing them up, then they’re getting infested, or hijacked by the Red Hands – always stealing my things – and it’ll be a bit before I can find one! They’re in the system now, did you know that? No, of course not...”
Shannon tuned out the rest of his diatribe. “The Watcher’s sending us another car,” she told the others. “But it’ll be a while before it gets here. Can we hold?”
Abigail raised her motion tracker. It was flashing urgently. “Uhm,” she was staring down the hallway. “Shannie...”
Shannon looked in the direction Three was pointing and felt her guts fold in on themselves.
“What?” Emily asked. “What do you see?”
Someone – Shannon thought it was Louis – raised a flashlight and shone a beam of light down the dark hallway, but the light didn’t penetrate far enough into the black. Shannon wondered if that was such a bad thing, under the circumstances. Blacklight incorporated multiple scanning modes; image intensifiers, infrared imaging and active illumination modes, allowing Artemis mercenaries to operate even in the darkest of conditions, find their targets and complete their mission. Thanks to these minor technological marvels, Shannon, Abigail and Jane could see what was coming down the tram tunnel in almost-perfect fidelity.
Red eyes glinted like embers, muscles rippled with movement and chitin gleamed.
Unity had come, and it was not alone.
An army marched alongside the praetorian, the survivors of Shannon’s purge. With a sinking surety, she realized that this was why they’d been unmolested on their escape from the garden. Unity had been gathering its forces for an overwhelming assault rather than see its remaining brothers and sisters frittered away by ones and twos. Monsters shouldn’t be better officers than me, she thought with graveyard humour.
“We have incoming,” Shannon said. “Multiple Turned and Unity.”
Vacuum-adapted Turned hissed steaming breath into the cold air, monstrous claws and scythes flexing. Hunter forms drooled and frothed as smaller scouting breeds – children and animals – scurried about their feet. I t knew they were watching it, but even discovered, Unity didn’t break stride, grinning from its forever-leering mouth, its eyes watching the survivors, studying them. It raised its head, a tooth-rattling call rumbling from its mouth, echoing into the darkness.
A moment passed and the cry was answered; deeper, more resonant. The second praetorian. It was healed and it was coming to join its kin. Unity tilted its head to the left and that half of the swarm dispersed, scurrying for the walls and ceiling. It repeated the gesture on the right and its followers parted, no longer bunched together. The massive Turned cocked its head, its four eyes looking right at Shannon with a cunning far out of proportion to its bestial form.
“I hate you,” Shannon said aloud. “And I’m going to find a way to kill you.”
If it heard her, if it understood, if it even cared, there was no sign. There was only a predator’s surety in its unnatural visage, the flesh of the dead fused – forced – into life. I will have you, it seemed to say. I will have you, I will feed and it will be good. I have killed greater than you. This station has killed better than you. You are nothing. You are alone and I am Unity.
It was nonsense of course; the creature couldn’t speak. But that was what Shannon read in the monster’s face and revulsion, red-tinged and defiant, deep and dark and hating, welled up in her. “I will kill you,” she repeated, answering the unspoken challenge.
“Orders, Four?” Abigail knelt on the floor, her finger resting on her carbine’s trigger guard. “Run or fight?”
The Turned were getting closer, about a hundred meters away now, their movements becoming jerky, wanting to charge but waiting for their master’s command.
pheromonal, i wonder if I can duplicate it
This was an untenable position. Shannon remembered the earlier fight in the tram station. They’d come through the ceiling, through the tunnel and the doors. They’d have come through the deck, too. Here, it was the same. Too much to cover. Too open, too easy to be flanked.
They were being flanked. Again, in the distance, but getting closer: their enemy’s hunting call. Even if they survived the Turned, they’d be facing an opponent with weapons and armour. But there was nowhere, nowhere that they couldn’t be... followed. Shannon brought up the station’s schematic, confirming what her mind’s eye had shown her, casting a quick glance at Jane.
Tight, but she’ll fit.
Thank you, Gemma.
“Fall back!” she ordered, taking a step back herself. “Pull back up the tram tunnel. Leapfrog, covering rotations.”
As her people began to pull away from the Turned and the wave of once-human things surged after them, Shannon caught one last glimpse of Unity. This time, she knew it was smiling.
Sugar, snips, spice and screams: What are little girls made of, made of? What are little boys made of, made of?
"...even posthuman tattooed pigmentless sexy killing machines can be vulnerable and need cuddling." - Shroom Man 777